I have recently returned from a two-week trip to Spain -- and yes, it was as delightful as it sounds. There were impossibly charming mountain villages:
Roman ruins by the sea:
Sidewalk vending machines selling uncooked hamburger patties:
And best of all, there was laundry:
Now, I adore doing laundry, even at home: it is my small way of creatng order in a chaotic world. (I did a LOT of laundry last week, during the Republican convention.) But beyond my general yen for laundry, one of my favorite things about travel is figuring out trivial daily tasks in unfamiliar territory, and in unfamiliar languages. At this San Sebastian laundromat, the instructions are bilingual: Spanish and Basque.
Really, the Ecolaundry process was not all that hard to figure out. It's an environmentally sensitive, detergent-free event. I estimated the weight of my laundry (a VERY rough estimate; I had no idea, especially in kilograms, how much my laundry weighed), loaded up the machine, inserted the requisite number of Euros, and then frittered away the hour reading "Mujer Hoy"
....where I learned that Frida Kahlo is this year's Fashion It-Girl.
And in the end I came away with a neat, fresh-smelilng pile of clean clothing -- feeling, I must say, pretty pleased with myself. I believe I can declare victory over the cross-cultural laundry event:
Except, alas, for the small matter of having scarred all the light-colored clothing with unfortunate blue spots:
Too bad about that. The revised score:
Next on my list of familiar obsessions: vegetables. I really do not understand vegetables in Spain. Clearly, vegetables exist. There are gardens everywhere (growing the same assortment of veggies: onions, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, in neat rows). There are lovely produce markets. But just try to find a single vegetable on a restaurant menu! This one is typical:
No fewer than seven different ways to eat a slice of pig on white bread.
So I was particularly delighted one evening to find chick peas on the menu of a lovely Santander bistro. I knew it was chick peas because the Spanish word (cecina) is so very similar to the Italian (ceci). Of course chick peas would be on the menu in coastal Spain! Chick peas, I'd just been reading, had gotten Bilbao and San Sebastian through a brutal siege during the Spanish civil war. So I ordered some right up, delighted with the chance to both honor the region's history and to add one to my five-a-day (or is it nine-a-day? I've lost track).
In any event, here was my cecina, my plate of chick peas:
Apparently if you want vegetables, you apparently have to prepare them yourself. I can get with that program! I would scoop some up for a picnic on the beach -- I had plans to hit the supermarket first thing in the am in any case, because I needed to buy sunscreen. I arrived at the supermarket promptly at 8:00, ready to be the first customer in the door.
Except that nothing opens at 8:00 in Spain. The supermarket opens at 9:00. I had to go across the street and have a cup of coffee while I waited -- which was no problem, since I truly am very good at ordering coffee in all sorts of languages.
When I toddled back to the store at 9:00, I was part of a sizable crew looking to get in an errand or two before the work day started (at 10:00, in Spain, more or perhaps less). I plucked a bottle of 50 SPF sunscreen off the shelf, selected a promising-looking tomato and a just-ripe avocado, and joined the growing line, which was moving forward with a fair degree of efficiency.
Until, that is, the cashier got to me. Because I had done something wrong on every one of my three items. The sunscreen had no bar code, because apparently it had been pulled out of a four-item gift pack (who knew? It had been sitting on the shelf all on ts own, I swear). As far as the produce was concerned, what I was supposed to have done was to weigh these bad boys myself, generating barcode labels to be scanned at checkout:
It took the cashier a solid five minutes to address each element of my incompetence to enable me to pay and leave. Meanwhile, a robust line of impatient errand-runners grew behind me, at whom I could only shrug and say, "disculpe."
My abysmal scorecard notwithstanding, foreign travel is still a treat and a privilege. It's humbling to be confronted with one's own incompetence. But you watch, you listen, and you learn from the locals. The Basque separatists in the village of Leitza, lobbying for the return of their political prisoners, told me exactly how to handle those nasty blue stains: