5 April: A lot of friends and family members are coming over tonight to say hello and get drunk and whatnot. So my mother, Lola and I go to the supermarket (after another big breakfast! – this time it was Southern biscuits and gravy). At the supermarket I get another unexpected shock. We don´t have much variety in Plasencia´s supermarkets. If we want to make something “special” - like Mexican or Japanese food - there is quite a bit of preparation that goes into finding what we need. (There is also a lot of substitution that goes on when we realize it´s impossible to find the ingredients we need.)
Upon entering Landis´ Supermarket I realize that the supermarket I used to go to as a child with my mother no longer exists. The variety, the choices, the massive amount of products… this is absolutely crazy! It isn´t just the boring aisles of cereal and toilet paper like when I was a kid. There is now a food court and a deli counter, catering services, organic vegetables, fresh floral arrangements “for every occasion”, a pharmacy, film developing services, an in-store bakery and on-line grocery shopping! This country´s gone insane, I think to myself.
But then I really get into it, roaming the aisles, looking at all the crazy things for sale. My mother is hunting for TUMS (for “fast heartburn relief”) and Lola calls out, “Kathy, I found the Tucks!” And my mother scurries over quickly and says, “No, no. I need TUMS. Tucks is something completely different.” I take the box of Tucks out of Lola´s hand and read the label: “Tucks ´Take Alongs´ Hemorrhoidal Pads with Witch Hazel”. That is definitely something completely different. But if you´re a regular TUMS user it probably won´t be that much longer until you become a regular Tucks user as well.
And when we do find the TUMS we hit the motherload. There is practically half an aisle devoted to TUMS heartburn relief products. TUMS Regular Strength, TUMS Ultra 1000, TUMS Smoothies, TUMS E-X 750, TUMS Sugar Free, TUMS “To Go” and TUMS Kids. This country´s definitely gone insane. If you´re buying heart burn relief pills for your children, you need to change their fecking diet!
As we´re waiting in the check-out lane (and I´m debating whether or not I should go back to the football stadium-sized deli area and grab a pack of Kosher hot dogs and/or beef jerky -also Kosher! - for my own personal taste-test purposes) we witness a truly, morbidly obese woman in sweatpants and a t-shirt reach the check-out lane next to ours. She´s leaning heavily on the shopping cart for support. There is skin and rolls of fat hanging everywhere. The woman´s cart is loaded with nothing but crap: soft drinks, frozen pizzas, ice cream, snack foods, etc. It´s the most depressing thing ever. Lola can´t believe what she´s seeing.
“That poor woman.”
“That poor woman? Nonsense. How can you do that to yourself? A little personal responsibility goes a long way.”
We get back home and Lola starts making gazpacho for the festivities. She makes her original recipe with lots of garlic and vinegar, as well as an experimental gazpacho with strawberries. I start peeling potatoes for the tortilla de patata. My mother and Lola are talking about cultural differences between Spain and the USA. Lola is still laughing about the fact that last night we brought our own bottle of wine with us to a restaurant.
“B.Y.O.B. – Bring Your Own Bottle. You´ve never heard of that?”
“I´ve never heard of a restaurant in Spain that doesn´t sell alcohol.”
“In the U.S. a liquor license can cost thousands of dollars depending on the location of the restaurant. And many towns have a limited number of liquor licenses, so a new restaurant might not be able to get one if they are all being used already in that area.”
“That´s crazy. In Spain last year the government tried to pass a new law to fight underage drinking and the regional government of Extremadura opposed it saying that it would be damaging to the local wine industry. The minimum age requirement to buy alcohol used to be 16. It was raised to 18 recently. But it doesn´t make much difference since you can buy beer from vending machines.”
Then the doorbell rings and when I open the front door I´m greeted by a shifty-looking deliveryman. Behind him is parked a cold-storage van with “U.S. Beef” written on the side of it.
“Hi! Um, I was just finishing up my weekly round of deliveries and I have a bunch of steaks left over…” He nervously looks around as a car passes by our house. “I´ll give you a really good price on them…”
“No, I don´t think so. Thanks anyway.”
“OK then. Well, uh, have a nice day!” And he literally sprints to the van and disappears down the road before I have enough time to blink twice. My parents, having been informed of this strange incident, are a little unnerved by the whole thing.
“That´s never happened before!”
“Don´t you ever get scared living out here in the countryside?” Lola asks my parents. “We Spanish all crowd ourselves into towns. Some people have summer houses in the countryside, but they build them so close together that it´s just like living in town except you have a few more trees around. And maybe a swimming pool.”
“Scared? Not really. This is a safe area. Nothing´s happened around here for the last 15 years or so.”
“What happened 15 years ago?”
“There was an entire family murdered by a neighborhood kid about two or three miles from here.”
“¡Dios Mio! And another thing about Spain – people with houses in the country always put fences around them. You don´t have anything around your house. How do you know where your property ends and the neighbors´ property begins?”
“By the way we cut the grass.”
“By the way you cut the grass?!?” Lola gets this intense look on her face.
“You see, Ken, who lives next door, has a riding mower that leaves wide tire marks. Bob, who lives on the other side of us, mows kind of length-wise, sort of east to west. And I mow in more of a north to south direction, so you can see where one property ends and another starts by the way we cut the grass.”
“That´s too crazy. I think I need some more Ginger Ale…”
In the early afternoon guests start trickling in. My grandmother stops by early. Lola is amazed that my grandmother, at 88 years of age, lives alone in a three-story house and still drives a car. She tells us the things that grandmothers love to tell you.
“Well, I had half a cup of coffee this morning with a piece of toast with just a little bit of butter and two slices of tomato. I bought four tomatoes over at Landis´ just the other day… It was Wednesday afternoon… no, it must have been Tuesday because Wednesday Joe came over to do some work on the yard and I didn´t use the car Wednesday. Yes, it was Tuesday. I sliced up and ate two of them on… Thursday I guess it was… with just a little salt. And boy were they good! But this morning the other two were really soft. And I just bought them on Tuesday!”
This sort of monologue might be a little tedious for the other members of the family who see my grandmother on a regular basis, but I love every minute of it. I haven´t heard her voice in 3 years and who knows how many more opportunities I´m going to have to sit down and have a chat with her. She´s lived in Pennsylvania for over 60 years now, but she still has this great Southern accent from her youth which was spent on a farm in Tennessee. I love to get her talking about her childhood on the farm.
“People were talking about the Depression and how the country was in a bad way economically, but we lived on a farm. We didn´t have anything. And we certainly didn´t have any money. If you don´t have anything you certainly can´t lose anything. We grew our own fruits and vegetables. We raised our own animals. What we couldn´t grow or raise on our own we got by trading with other farmers who needed something we had that they didn´t have.”
And she likes to talk about one of the simple pleasures of her early childhood.
“Well, I used to walk around the pastures barefoot and, heh heh… I know this embarrasses your mother… but anyway, I used to go around barefoot and look for cow pies and when I found a fresh one I would step in it. I´d stomp right in the middle of it.”
“It´s amazing you didn´t get worms or something,” my mother says.
“Well, maybe I did! Who knows? People were tougher back then. Your grandfather,” she continues, addressing my mother, “woke up every morning at 5 am and got the fire going so your grandmother could cook the breakfast. He would have eggs, bacon and scalded ho-cakes, as we used to call them, which were made out of corn meal and buttermilk and were fried in butter, every morning before going out to do the farm chores. And he lived to be 97 years old.”
By 6 pm the house is so full of guests you can barely move. There are cousins handing me babies I have never seen before and there are aunts and uncles hinting at the fact that my parents are hoping they won´t have to wait too much longer for some grandchildren of their own. (Don´t hold your breath!) The phone keeps ringing as people who can´t make the party call to talk to me for a few minutes. They all seem to ask the same questions: “When are you two going to move to the states?” (Fat chance!) And, “You two have been married almost 5 years now… I suppose you´ll be having children soon?” (I repeat: Fat chance!)
By 8 pm I´m completely stuffed and fairly drunk. Lola is enjoying her first encounter with my mother´s broccoli salad which, besides broccoli, includes red onion, bacon, raisins, vinegar, mayonnaise and sugar.
“Everything is much sweeter over here.” Lola tells one of my aunts. “The breakfast cereal, the milk, the bread, the sauces… even the soft drinks are sweeter. There is so much sugar in American food.”
My aunt gets a little defensive. “Well, if you don´t like it, you don´t have to eat it. Nobody´s forcing you.”
“No, no. I love the food here. Everything tastes sooo good. It´s incredible.”
“So what´s the problem then?”
This is one of those funny things I experience quite a lot in Spain. I´ll be chatting away to somebody in a café or on the street and as soon as they realize I´m American they start in with some criticism regarding my birth country. Even if I agree with what the person is saying, I go on the defensive. Who are you to criticize my country? Have you even been to my country? Oh really? You went to Las Vegas for 5 days on your honeymoon?! And now you´re an expert on American foreign policy?!? I think not.
It´s irrational, I know. But that´s just me.