Sunday, February 12, 2017

Adventures in Shopping

When you move to another continent and only ship a few basics from home, it is inevitable that shopping plays a major role in the first months of your new life.

After divesting of the bulk of our belongings in the States we determined that never again would we have so much stuff that required so many decisions. We sought a simple life with possessions that were for using, not for show. I wanted a table where anyone could sit, whether the neighboring shepherd, or a family with young children, and there would be no worries of scratches or other damage. I pictured a couch that would invite relaxation without worrying about the leather, and I wanted dishes, rugs, and decorations that we would enjoy, but be able to walk away from if that was needed.

Thank goodness for IKEA. I blogged months ago about our big trip to IKEA and the delivery of the bulk of our furnishings.  Since then we have returned several times for additional items, some large, but mostly smaller things like pillows, blankets, lamps, etc. 

IKEA overwhelms the sensitive shopper. We arrive with a strategy and once through the doors it is a bit like trying to win one of those survival shows. The urgency to get what we need, (without discovering items we have never considered, but find tempting once we know they exist) results in increased heart rates and frequent hot flashes and occasional moments of snapping at each other; and that's before we put anything into the cart!

Finally everything on the list is located, with only a few extra items thrown in (who wouldn't want ultra-cool storage containers or collapsable bins for recycling?) Then it is time for the check out.  I don't understand why the belt where you place your items is so tiny at IKEA, but we manage.  Sam unloads while I hurry to the receiving end with my pre-purchased IKEA blue bags and madly load the products as they are tossed towards me by the cashier. 

Pushing the cart out the doors always causes us to release a long breath with the relief of having survived the experience, our relationship still intact.  Loading the car is the next challenge, but Sam is gifted when it comes to packing so I stand aside until he gets it all arranged in a way that prevents jostling, and then we are done!  Each trip to IKEA we imagine taking time to visit old-town Malaga, or have lunch at a beachside restaurant, but once we get it all in the car we only want to get back home and we end up in a focused drive barely noticing the beautiful miles of Mediterranean coast just to our right.

Hardware stores have also played a significant role in our new life. Soon after arriving we found ourselves needing everything from power tools to paint, and from door handles to spigots. Consequently we are now familiar with several local hardware stores of varying sizes. The CAMI in Órgiva is a small-town store staffed by women and it seems to carry everything imaginable. The front of the store is stocked with supplies for vegetable gardens and pets and then there are the nuts, bolts and screws followed by wood stoves and irrigation supplies and on and on. Maria, the younger woman is always ready to help us, and with her extensive knowledge she finds exactly what we need. 

Leroy Merlin, a large store much like Home Depot in the States, is in Granada and we made many trips there early on, but now avoid driving that distance if at all possible. We first discovered Leroy Merlin when we were here on vacation a year ago and I honestly think it contributed to Sam's belief that he could live in Spain. He came to life as we wandered through the aisles of light fixtures and plumbing parts. Everything is just a bit different than what is offered in the States and it all seemed very cool. I think it was a relief to know that there was a place to find the items that he would need for home maintenance and improvement projects.

Aki is our latest discovery in hardware stores.  On the coast near the town of Motril, Aki is a rougher version of Leroy Merlin. Not quite as shiny and new, but with many of the same items. We have had several trips there recently for boards and buckets and brackets.  Aki shares a parking lot with Al Campo and that brings me to grocery shopping...

In the many years that I imagined living in Europe I pictured myself purchasing products from the local butcher, baker and cheese maker. And that is possible, but not always practical. Parking in these small towns is challenging as the few small lots are not near any of the shops, so whatever you buy needs to be carried a distance to the car. I have yet to buy one of those wheeled carts with the canvas bag attached that everyone seems to have, but now I understand the need and hope to have my own before long. But for now I have only shopped in local towns for a few supplies that can be carried easily to the car. We have gone to weekly markets for fruit and veggies and occasionally stop at a bakery for bread, but haven't really gotten a well established routine that results in consistently purchasing what we need from small specialty shops.

We do the bulk of our grocery shopping at one of three larger stores.  These stores have parking lots and shopping carts and with our goal of only shopping every couple weeks, it is just simpler than the quaint experience I had imagined.  Carrefour has the largest selection, but it is also in Granada and making that drive has lost its charm. Mercadona is closer, but the selection, while still generous, is limited primarily to Spanish products and occasionally I find a need for something exotic, like Greek olives or imported wine (and by imported I mean, from the North of Spain!) Al Campo has a varied selection and it is convenient because we can park once and do both the regularly needed hardware stop at Aki and also get groceries. 

We traveled to Europe 8 times before I finally asked how to access the shopping carts. I'd look longingly at the nice rows of carts, but they were all chained together and I couldn't figure out how to release one cart from another. Unlike in the States, there are never rogue carts blocking parking spaces, or abandoned with the front wheels on the curb - here they are all nicely hooked together in their allotted location. 

On the first 7 trips to Europe, we used the available plastic baskets and filled them awkwardly to the brim, wondering each time if there was a membership card or such that allowed access to the carts. It turns out to be quite simple. There is a slot on each cart where you insert a coin (50 cents, 1 or 2 euro) and that releases the chain that holds your cart to the one in front of it.  When you are through shopping you plug your cart back into another cart, and out pops your coin.  It is brilliant really as no one leaves stray carts in the lot and employees don't need to spend time gathering up carts. Something so simple, but it works very well.

Still on the topic of shopping carts - the wheels are not the same as in the States.  I am used to a cart that has front wheels that spin completely around, but the back wheels are stationary so that when you turn a corner, the front turns and then the back follows.  The carts here have all four wheels set so that they can turn in any direction which causes a drifting phenomenon and once there is any amount of weight in the cart, it is nearly impossible to turn sharply, but the effort is good for the abdominal muscles.  Shopping is a 2-person effort for us, beginning with the challenge of pushing an unpredictable cart. Once I have any amount of stuff loaded in the cart, Sam takes over the pushing and by the end, one person pushes while the other guides the front end keeping it from taking out other customers or end-of-aisle displays.

For the most part picking out what we need is fairly straight forward. Occasionally we look up a word to be sure that what is in the can or jar is actually what we want, but usually the photo, or our limited Spanish is sufficient. Each store devotes an entire aisle to jamón. There are huge pig legs hanging in the jamón aisle and I don't know how one decides which leg they want to purchase. The other day we saw some in velvet sacks that were priced at 499 euros for a leg!  

In the fruit and vegetable aisle we pick out what we want and then weigh it and a sticker pops out with the price, which we attach to the bag.  If you show up at the checkout without having weighed and priced your produce, you don't go home with it. In Carrefour an employee does the weighing and stickering, but in Mercadona and Al Campo we do it ourselves. 

The fish counter is impressive with everything from whole octopuses to swordfish, and each store has a nice selection of cheeses. Eggs and milk are not kept cold.  You can find fresh milk in small quantities, but most milk is ultra-pasteurized and sold in 6-packs that have a shelf life of many months. We use very little milk, but we like to have a good supply on hand, so this works fine for us as we always have a 6-pack in the storage room and it won't go bad. Eggs are also sold off the shelf and no matter how modern the store, the eggs have not been washed.  They are stored at room temperature and frequently have chicken poo and a feather or two stuck on them. But the yolks are a deep-yellow shade that I have never found in the States (except from back yard chickens).

Checking out is the final challenge. After a quick "hola," the cashier will ask if we need a bag and how many. Each bag needs to be purchased, but we have carried our own for years, so that part is simple. Sam unloads the cart after carefully plotting the order that will make bagging it all easier, but once the cashier gets ahold of the food I feel like the duck in a shooting arcade. Boxes and jars, cans and bottles come flying at me as I try to distribute the weight in the shopping bags. Each time I am determined to keep cold items together and to spread out the bottles and cans, but within a minute I am just stuffing things any place I can.  One friend said she just puts it all back into the cart and then does her bagging out at the car where there is no frantic pressure.  I think that is a good plan that we will adopt.

Once at the car we get it all unloaded and I sort through the bags for anything that needs to be kept cold and those go into the cooler for the long trip home. We have learned to keep plastic bags in the cooler after a leaky bag of shrimp coated everything on one of our drives home.  Our freezer still smells like shrimp, and not in a pleasant way.

And finally, about citrus fruit - it is the season!  Nearly every trip to town we stop at one of the roadside vendors for a sack of fresh oranges and a bag of lemons. By sack I mean 15-20 pounds of oranges, for 4 euros! There is a woman outside Órgiva who sells oranges and lemons and those have become our favorites for juice.  A man further up the road sells avocados and kiwis and they have been a special treat.  Further up the road there is a man who sells oranges that we like, and he charges 2 euros for a sack, but he is only there on Sunday and we rarely go out on the weekend. 

We are slowly establishing routines.  We know which store carries the best muesli, or where to find ricotta cheese, and that Al Campo has the toothpaste we prefer.  We no longer look for cough drops or bandages at the grocery store as we understand that those types of items are purchased at the Farmacia. A friend recently brought my favorite cold and flu medicine back from the U.K., and when our kids come to visit in two weeks they will bring a number of small items that we have not yet found a suitable substitute for. But after nearly 7 months I think we have the shopping adventure pretty well sorted.

And now a couple photos for my parents and others not on Facebook...

Fresh snow on the hill above us

A recent sunrise on an early morning departure for IKEA


  1. As usual you are bringing back memories and experiences, the similarity of things with Italy (coin operated shopping carts, sticker pricing, etc.) urges me to try to make another trip, but only time will tell..Grazie Laura, you madew my day!!

    1. And you made my day with your kind comment. Thank you Carlo. ❤️

  2. Haha you describe the shopping experience perfectly, brilliant.
    Kiersten :)

  3. Loved this "shopping" story, Laura! Once the simple act of shopping now becomes learning lessons of new procedures and new thinking processes - ha ha! Great topic! Hugs.