The joy and splendor of travel lost on one man

Buying Basil in Barcelona

One Sunday afternoon at about four o’clock, Pam decided to make lasagna. She dug through our kitchen cabinets to inventory what ingredients we had on hand. The only thing missing was fresh basil.

“Can you run out and grab some?” she asked.

“No problem. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

I lied to my wife, twice. Doing anything in Barcelona is always a problem, and doing anything here in a few minutes is impossible.

The biggest reason why it’s difficult to get anything done here is the language barrier. This is obviously no fault of the fine citizens of Barcelona. I’d taken Spanish classes for about seven months at this point, and while I’d improved greatly I was still nowhere near fluent. I could limp my way through most mundane situations, but any conversation more complex than buying the correct size lightbulb at the local hardware store often ended up being an excruciating experience. I’d go to the local town hall to register my car and somehow end up walking out with a commercial fishing license. Try to open a checking account, end up with a mortgage. And forget taking Rae to the doctor. A yearly physical could land her in the emergency room if I didn’t mind my “n”s and “ñ”s.

Then there’s the matter of getting things done quickly. Unemployment in Spain hovers just above 20%. Most businesses are woefully understaffed versus their U.S. counterparts. You wonder why those unemployed folks don’t drop off a resume at any of the thousand businesses that could use some help, but I guess it’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation. With the economy in the toilet, maybe those businesses don’t have enough money to hire more people.

Even better is the fact that the people who have jobs don’t seem that excited about actually doing them. They’re never rude or offensive, but that might only be because most of them never bother speaking to you in the first place. If you need help in a store, your best bet is to bring some friends with you. Enter the store, lock arms with your friends and form a long, straight line. Then proceed slowly through the store like a search party marching through a forest in search of a missing child until you locate the one employee working that day. Once you find the guy, tackle him before he can get away then demand that he tell you which aisle the vacuum cleaner bags are on.

The final kicker on this particular day was that it was Sunday. The entire city of Barcelona crawls inside its own shell on Sundays. Probably two-thirds of all businesses are closed, and in the afternoon that percentage climbs even higher. There are two types of people who get things done on Sundays in Barcelona: The real go-getters who do it on Saturday and the lazy bums who do it on Monday.

But buying basil, even on a Sunday, seemed like a somewhat ascertainable goal. I stuffed a few Play-Doh colored euros in my pocket and headed out the door.

We have several organic produce stores near us. The first one I visited was closed. The one next door was closed, too. I headed down through the middle of my little neighborhood to try my next option, a brand new “madre-y-padre” shop. I was about 20 feet away when the owner shuffled to the front of the store and flipped over the “closed” sign hanging on the door. I looked at him through the glass window. He stared back blankly at me then started sweeping the floor.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised that I’d just missed this last store. There’s a very simple way to remember when stores open and close in Barcelona: They close 15 seconds before you get there. They open 15 seconds after you slink away in bitter disgust because no one in this goddamn city ever opens their goddamn store when you goddamn need something.

It started to look like Pam was going to be out of luck. As I headed home, I detoured a bit so I could walk through my favorite part of the neighborhood, Plaça de Sant Vicenç. It’s a beautiful little square, no more than 100 feet by 100 feet, with charming apartments overlooking it. There’s a statue of St. Whats-His-Face in the center. There are only a few trees, and the square itself is stone. But on most evenings, the place comes alive. Packs of little girls furiously cover the ground with spastic, little-kid, chalk drawings. Excited young boys scream as they race remote control cars around the statue. Tiny old Catalan men wearing sweaters even though it’s 77 degrees outside gather around park benches and share their stories and laugh with each other. And of course there’s always a soccer ball flying around. I give them credit: The locals took what is essentially a mildly quaint parking lot and turned it into a beautiful neighborhood oasis.

But on this night there were no chalk drawings, race cars, or soccer balls. Instead, right there in front of me, filling up the entire square, was the most beautiful farmers market I’ve ever seen. The whole square bustled with vendors setting up their stalls, which was strange since it was fairly late on a Sunday afternoon. Three sides of the square were lined with tables practically collapsing under mountains of hearty, fresh looking vegetables. Lush, leafy greens spilled over onto cartoonishly orange carrots that overlapped with peppers and onions the size of softballs. A few beefy guys were unloading even more tables and produce along the fourth side of the square.

I’d walked through this square dozens of times before and never once come across this market. So after seven months of trying to get into the rhythm of Barcelona, I’d finally caught a break.

I approached a rather portly, older woman unloading magnificent looking vegetables at one table and asked her in my finest Spanish, “Excuse me. Do you have basil?”

The woman looked up from what she was doing, barked at me in rapid-fire Catalan, then turned her back on me so she could finish unpacking her lettuce.

Perhaps my accent threw her.

I repeated my request to her, this time a bit more slowly.

The woman looked up again and angrily spit out more Catalan gibberish. This time she didn’t go back to unloading her grotesquely large asparagus. This time she just glared at me.

My initial excitement over finding this hidden market faded. I knew I was close–real close–to bagging the elusive basil. And now this lady was going to snatch it right away from me?  No way.

I wanted to tell her, “Look, you old bat. I know my Spanish sucks. I know my Catalan is nonexistent. And I know I don’t come from ten generations of relatives who grew up in this shit hole. But here’s what I DO know: If you don’t cough up some albahaca in the next ten seconds, I’m coming over this table and taking it from you the hard way.”

But instead, what I said to her was, “Excuse me. Do you have basil?”

The woman didn’t even bother yelling at me this time. She didn’t need to. Two barrel-chested meatheads who were shopping next to me took her place. The first guy was a few inches shorter than me but probably weighed 40 pounds more. Neither of them had necks. The first guy got six inches from my face and barked at me in Spanish, which is at least the language I prefer to have screamed at me. But even though he spoke Spanish, I still had no idea what he said. Judging from his scowl and the way his buddy kept pointing his finger at me, I definitely got the sense they weren’t offering to share their basil.

By now I was equal parts exasperated and pissed off. I understood that to them I was another jerk-off foreigner invading their country, but at least I was speaking the language correctly. I was being polite. There was no way the woman didn’t understand what I was asking. It was a simple yes-or-no question. For crying out loud, all I wanted was some basil. But now here I was now squaring off with two Spanish troglodytes who looked like hired muscle for some New York City mob boss.

The pissed-off part of me started winning out. I was about to tell these two dickheads to take their rolls of black gaffers tape and shove them straight up their asses when it dawned on me that they were both, in fact, carrying rolls of black gaffers tape.

I suddenly got a sickening feeling in my stomach. Surly, union-looking guys carrying rolls of black gaffers tape don’t typically shop at farmers markets.

I looked down to the other end of the square where I’d seen the last of the merchants unloading their tables. In addition to unloading tables, they were now unloading 100-foot-long extension cords, Klieg lights, and television monitors.

It seemed I had decided to do my Sunday afternoon grocery shopping smack dab in the middle of a movie set.

I turned back to the two crew members who had been treating me, rightfully, like a jerk-off foreigner. I apologized repeatedly. They ignored me now and went back to taping extension cords along the ground.

I worked my way through the crowds of locals who had gathered to watch the shoot. I had seen them when I first arrived but failed to notice that none of them were actually buying anything. Oh well. If the movie ended up sucking, maybe I’d at least given them a good show to remember.

In a way, this whole saga typifies why living abroad is so interesting. When you can almost get beaten up simply for trying to buy fresh herbs, every day is an adventure.

6 Responses to “Buying Basil in Barcelona”

  1. Nick

    Heather, thank you so much.

    Kathryn, I’ll try writing since my career as a Barcelona personal shopper seems doomed.

    Sue, yes–about two weeks later.

  2. Hillhouse Susan

    Always get a chuckle cause I can picture you in the situation. Did you get the basil??

  3. Kathryn

    Nice to see you back “online” again. You’re a writer…always have been.


Leave a Reply