Right now, I am a bit confused, by basically everything. The language is new. The public transportation is new. My grocery store, which I finally found, is new.
To be fair, I am living in a major city in Europe in 2017, so as far as culture shock goes, I have it pretty easy. In fact, I think I am experiencing more city-shock than culture shock. I have never lived in a big city before, and let me tell you, there are many differences between the city and the suburbs, or even between a big city, and a mid-sized city, like Madison.
One of the biggest challenges for me in this new place was finding my grocery store. Food is very important to me. I am used to having a car, driving to the store, filling up the cart, and then loading up my car and driving home. Here, in the city, I no longer have a car. I walk almost everywhere, and, when I go grocery shopping, I can only take what I can carry.
Two weeks ago, I found my grocery store. This was no small feat for me. Out of the dozens of markets, fruit stands, and meat shops everywhere, I needed one place I could call grocery-store home. One place I could go if going to a million different little shops wasn’t going to fit the bill that day. One place that was within close-walking distance, was well-priced, and had good hours. And I finally found it: Condis Life.
At my new grocery store, I couldn’t wait to buy fresh fish. At the back of Condis Life there is a whole fish counter. No, not a counter, a display. A gigantic table filled with ice, and fresh whole fish, and shrimp, and piles of other seafood. I couldn’t wait to buy fresh salmon in Spain and cook myself a meal.
However, I had a couple of problems. The first was, I had no idea how to identify salmon in full form. My cooking skills are to the level of being able to identify a salmon filet by sight. But with the scales still on? Forget it. And beyond that, I had no idea how to buy it. Do I buy the whole fish? What do I do with the head? Do I have to cut it open and de-bone it myself?
When I don’t know what to do, my general game plan is to observe and study. To watch the people and systems before me and gain an understanding of how things work.
What this amounted to when attempting to buy fish in the grocery store was me my pulling my basket back and forth in front of the fish counter, pretending to look at all of the different seafood options, while really eavesdropping on business transactions.* Once I overstayed my welcome at the counter area, because I wasn’t buying anything, I discreetly moved to a nearby shelf and pretended to peruse the lovely canned options available, all while staying in earshot of the counter.
I implemented this method for about twenty minutes, and still had no idea how to buy salmon. What I had deduced was the large fish to the left of the counter was indeed salmon. To my relief, I had witnessed it was possible to purchase a piece of salmon, rather than the entire fish. It even seemed that the person behind the counter would de-bone the fish for you. Win.
However, the same man who had ordered a piece of salmon fifteen minutes earlier was still standing there as the lady cleaned his fish. And it looked like he was getting an entire fish. It seemed this salmon-ordering operation would take a long time, and I decided for today, it was currently too taxing for my growing hunger and still-emerging Spanish.
I picked out a piece of frozen salmon (I had studied these extensively while observing the fish counter, so I had no trouble deciding which one to grab), and decided to settle for frozen fish and fresh vegetables for dinner. I could be content with the fact that I had at least gained some valuable information.
A few days later, I relayed this story to some American friends of mine, who have lived in Barcelona for several years. They told me I was being ridiculous, and the people at the fish counter were there to help me. All I had to do was ask or motion, and we’d be able to figure it out.
I decided my friends were correct. It was time for me to woman-up and buy some fresh salmon.
I marched into Condis Life, grocery list in hand. I picked up my fruits and vegetables for the week, and then headed to the fish counter. Phone out, Spanish Dictionary App at the ready, I pulled up the word ¨piece¨ in Spanish. I was prepared to order my piece of fish.
¨Quiero un pedazo de salmon, por favor,¨I enunciated to the man working behind the counter.
¨Do you know how the pricing works?¨ he replied in English.
My face fell. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or disappointed. I had geared up for a mumbly and confusing conversation in Spanish, in which I was hoping I would learn something, and now, he was speaking to me in English? I quickly decided what was important was figuring out how to order fish. I could figure out the Spanish another time.
¨No, I don’t know how it works,¨ I said in English. ¨Could you help me?¨
Later that night, I sat down to a meal of fresh Moroccan green beans, rice with onion and garlic, and salmon pan-fried with olive oil and lemon wedges. I poured myself a glass of wine, and took a celebratory sip. I had done it. I had bought fresh fish and cooked it myself. I had made a delicious meal in Barcelona.
As I took my first bite, I discovered there was one more thing I should’ve done before cooking the fish.
¨You didn’t take the bones out?¨ my roommate, Enrico, asked.
¨I thought the piece the man gave me was without bones!¨
¨They take out the major bones,¨ Enrico said, ¨But you still have to do some of it yourself.¨
Okay, so I still have a ways to go.
And this, I realized, is what my life is currently going to be like for a while. This is the beauty of transitions. I am going to be confused almost all of the time. I will study and observe, and then woman-up, and take action. I will feel proud of myself for this, and then I’ll realize, I still have a lot to learn.
But for now, I’ll take it. Even with the bones, the salmon is pretty good.
And with time, and patience, eventually, I’ll figure it out.
*Side note: This whole pulling a basket-thing is new for me. Rather than grocery carts, here, we use baskets. Like the ones I used to carry in the States, except bigger, more durable, and with wheels. Similar to the ones I used in the States, these have one handle to hold with your arm if you are only getting a few things, but, they also have an additional large handle you can extend if you want to put the basket down on the ground and pull it behind you. It’s sort of like luggage. Or a tiny grocery cart.