Feels Like Home When Merchants Know Your Name

Okay. The local merchants don’t really know my name, but they know ME and that’s what counts. How can a foreigner feel any more “at home” than when the merchants, at which the weekly purchases are made, know your face, sometimes predict your orders on habit, and/or stop you on the street when they see you? This is what happens to me here.

In my working-class neighborhood of Madrid we have practically anything you’d want; 3 markets, one independent pollería (chicken-shop), one independent charcutería/carnicería (butcher/beef-shop), umteen bars, several newsstands, and countless barber shops and many of them know me, know what I want, and know what I’m going to order. Doesn’t that make you feel good? It’s like being Norm from the old TV series “Cheers” who walks in, everyone shouts-out his name, and the bartender serves up a beer without waiting for his order. This is what happens to me here and I love it.

For lunch I go to the same bar about twice a month for lunch and an excellent “menú del día” (“menu of the day”) for 8.50€. Javi (“Javier“), at his self-named bar, greets me with a handshake, sits me down, addresses me affectionately as “Chaval” (“youngster) and “Campeón” (“champion”) and puts the “vino con casera” (“wine with semi-sweetened carbonated water”) on the table before I have to order it. And while I often change-up my lunch order, I nearly always have the same dessert, the “natillas” (whipped custard) and he confirms that this is what I’d like. He’s even confided in me as to some personal problems he’s been having lately. I’ve seen Javi on the street and he always stops to chat. A nice guy, about my age, I’d say.

My barber, whose name I still don’t know after 6-years of having my hair cut at his “peluquería“, calls me “Joven” (“young one”) and I still call him “Maestro” – as if he was a conductor of the symphony which is my hair, awaiting his stylish expertise. HA! AS IF one could screw up my SHORT haircut! He talks some politics, some social norms, and some family topics while throwing in some “¿Y cómo lo hacen en tu país?” (“And how do they do it in your country?”) questions. I’m CERTAIN I’m the ONLY “yanqui” (yankee) patronizing his barber shop and I like it that way. He’s knows I’m always good for a different perspective and a good tip. He has seen me awaiting my turn at the ATM and has startled me from behind to shock me, obviously glad for the encounter. He’s a good guy, self-employed, used to wear a pony-tail, and still smokes in his shop although he knows the law prohibits it. Hey, it’s HIS barber-shop!

The Chicken Lady” – as I call her because I don’t know her name – of the “pollería” is so nice, also about my age or a little older, is unusually redheaded, and also predicts my order – although I try to change things up so as to not bore those Spaniards eating my weekend spreads. She’s so nice, so patient with everyone, chats with all the old women which come in – not to shop but to sit on the bench and talk about the world, waves at me as I pass by the window of her shop and shouts-out an “¡Hasta luego!” Once a month I return to her the cardboard, half-dozen egg cartons which come with the egg purchases at her shop and I can only imagine she’s grateful. Surely, I’m the only one who does this.

Blanca, the neighborhood’s gruff magazine/newspaper-shop owner has been in business for at least 20-years and I only know her by name because it’s HER name which adorns the awnings of the establishment. The place isn’t particularly dust-free, the often-sleeping dog is there on his padded chair keeping her company, the canary-in-its-cage is tweeting a lovely song, and there’s always someone sharing political views with her whenever I go in. She knows what I want and I always have the exact change at the ready. Not the friendliest person I’ve known but she’s hard-working and trustworthy.

Susana, the once-teller-now-manager at the local LaCaixa bank, always has a smile for me, knows me by name, and sometimes calls or emails me with banking opportunities and the like. That’s her job, afterall, but it’s nice to be remembered by name. Again, surely I’m her only American client in this neighborhood so how could she NOT remember me?!? She sometimes calls me back to her desk to discuss things, “How are things going?”, etcetera. Sometimes I think she’s interested in me but she’s probably like that with all her clients, male or female. She’s very nice and I can see she’s very comfortable with me, someone (a little) older than her, somewhat professional-yet-independent, and on and on…

Luís and son, the guys which run the neighborhood’s only independent meat shop (“charcutería/carnicería”) outside of the markets, are probably the most charismatic of the merchants. They really know how to work the crowd, ask about family, remember details about the clients’ lives, and always have a joke or a laugh or a positive disposition. The son, about 29 years old, always asks about the goings-on in the USA, the weather, the politics, the current news about the USA (and there’s a lot of it, as you all know!). The shop was previously owned/operated by Luis’ father in the same location so they’re now going on 3-generations and seemingly doing well.

Fortunately – and unusually, we have THREE markets in my neighborhood. One is recently re-opened which I never visit, one is considered the “Mercado de los Ricos” (“the rich-person’s market”) and the other is considered the “Mercado de los Pobres” (“the poor person’s market”) – simply because of their level in service and product quality. I visit the last 2 markets which, are virtually facing each other across the same street. In the “Mercado de los Pobres” I go to the same “pescadería” and order the SAME thing, the “langostinos” (big shrimp!), usually on Fridays, and they simply ask me – while leaning over the “langostinos“, “How much?” They know what I’m there for. Across the way from the “pescadería” I go for the same thing, the “salami con hierbas finas” – the salami laced with “fine herbs and spices”. Yum. Man, that stuff is GOOOOOD!!!! They guy, and older gentleman, knows me well and then always mentions that they have creamy Galician “Tetilla” cheese onhand. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I don’t – but it’s always good.

As mentioned, practically across the street from the “Mercado de los Ricos” (“the rich-person’s market”) is the “Mercado de los Pobres” (“the poor person’s market”). HERE is where I buy my high-quality fish and high-quality “embutidos” (“sausages”).  “My guy”, they guy in the back corner, knows me by face, often “gifts” me a bottle of wine, olive oil, or other gifty, presumably because I’m such a good customer. The fact is, what he sells is on the expensive side – more expensive than at other shops, but it’s also a much higher quality, too. It’s here where I buy my “jamón de bellota” (highest quality acorn-fed hams, sliced paper-thin) or “jamón de jabugo“. I rarely buy more than 300 kilograms which can run 25-30 Euros, but this stuff practically melts in your mouth. This is a typical Friday night dinner, along with some good “queso Manchego” – cured cheese, and an even better bottle of Spanish red wine.

All of the above are SPANISH proprietors. Throughout Spain and Madrid you’re seeing more and more foreigners working these stands and businesses. But in the neighborhood shops, like in mine, they largely remain owned and operated by the same Spanish owners. I’m not sure why I’m happy about this. Afterall, the world IS a melting-pot, but I also consider myself a bit of a purist when it comes to Spanish-owned-and-operated businesses.

El Frutero“, the fruit shop next door, is owned and operated by Artur, a Peruvian guy about 35-years old, super nice and knows my Spanish family by name – although he hasn’t grasped my own name – and it’s me who does all the shopping. He’s from Lima, Peru and has his young son toddling around the shop when he’s not in daycare. Artur is like the neighborhood’s go-to-guy. He knows everyone and, since he’s often seen standing on the stoop of his shop, talks with everyone, too. When you have a problem or have locked yourself out of your building, go see Artur. He not only sells fruit but also Latin American/Peruvian goods like Inka-Cola, beans from his country, and other food-stuffs. His daughter, whom sometimes tends the fruit-shop, lives in my building and could be a super-model. ¡Guapísima!

El Chino“, or in this case, “La China“, which operates the convenience store across the street, couldn’t be nicer – even though she can only speak 5 or 6 words of Spanish. Their shop is practically open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they have everything that a convenience store should have. I’m pretty certain they don’t have a license to sell alcohol, but they do. I’m pretty certain they don’t have a license to sell single tobacco cigarettes, but they do. But the woman – whom we’ve “saved” several times from ne’er-do-wells, is forever appreciative, giving us free chocolate, free bread, and even tried to give me free milk the other day, but I insisted on paying. The common conceptions of “Los Chinos” is that they charge double for everything and never give anything away. Okay, yes, they do charge double because you have to pay for convenience, and they’ve given me freebies countless times. She always waves at me from her door while I’m waiting for the bus, shouting, “¡Hola, amigo! ¡Muy bueno!”, while giving me the “thumbs-up” sign and a big, nearly-toothless grin. What a sweety. I feel sorry for her for working such long hours, essentially living to work – instead of the Spanish mantra, “Work to live”.

Apart from the local merchants you have your own neighbors. And I’m not talking just about the people whom live in the same building as you, but also those which live in the adjacent buildings, in the same neighborhood. Pilar and Felipe come to mind. They’re an elderly couple in their early 80’s living on the ground floor of a flat they’d probably bought 60 years ago just down the street from me. I often run into them taking their afternoon/evening walk. She’s blind in one eye and goes to a daycare for the elderly. He drivers her there everyday, does the shopping, and I often see him at the local bar at lunchtime. The two of them insist on handshakes (him) and two-kisses (her) upon seeing them on the street. Such a beautiful couple. It’s sad to consider the inevitable.

Life-in-Madrid essentially consists of the relationships you have with your Spanish family (if applicable), your Spanish (and non-Spanish) friends, your Spanish (and non-Spanish) neighbors, and the merchants of your neighborhood – with whom you interact nearly daily. Nurture that and you can’t be anything but happy living in Spain. I know I am!

 
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18 Responses to Feels Like Home When Merchants Know Your Name

  1. teachertraveler8 says:

    What a wonderful blog! There is so much detail about your day to day life in Spain and descriptions of the people in your neighborhood. How awesome it must be to have a community like that! I would love to hear more about your heroic actions with Los Chinos.

    • MadridMan says:

      Thanks, teachertraveler8! It really gives me a “warm feeling” living here. I’d rather not go into public detail with regards to anyone’s “heroic actions” with Los Chinos, but they oftentimes have surly, unruly, or otherwise mean people trying to take advantage of them or tease them because of their culture or their lack of fluency with the local language. I don’t know anyone who works longer hours.

  2. Tumbit says:

    Just one of the many reasons we choose to live in Spain, I suppose…

  3. jazz says:

    Very good MM, a history of a normal day in some neighborhood here in Madrid . I like it!

    • MadridMan says:

      Thanks, jazz! You know as well as I do – and BETTER, in fact – that this is pretty typical in Spain. For a foreigner like me it’s absolutely wonderful. Many of us come from places in the world where it’s odd and uncomfortable to relate to anyone outside of our workplace or family, odd to make actual human, physical contact, be it the two-kisses, the brush-by on the bus/metro, or the slap on the back from a stranger at the bar.

  4. Wendy aka Puna says:

    Best blog yet. Simply wonderful and so very true of all that we love about Spain.

    • MadridMan says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Wendy/Puna! Funny, sometimes I write these things – like this one – and get so nostalgic for the things I experience nearly every day! I hope that shines through my words. Looking back, I could’ve included so much more!

  5. Rosemarie Kibitlewski says:

    Wow, I enjoyed reading about your life in Spain and your Spanish friends and by virtue of their relationship with you, your extended family. I have lived in this same house in the US for 35 years and I don’t know a single store where I shop where anyone remembers me.

    I definitely like your blog and will continue to read with gusto. Thank you.

    • MadridMan says:

      Glad you liked it, Rosemarie. Spanish life and American life are like night-and-day, to say the least. I must admit it took me awhile before I felt comfortable with all the human interaction and it is more fulfilling personally, too. The lack thereof is something which is just-the-way-it-is in the USA, but I think it’s healthier here.

  6. Lina says:

    Loved it…. so true. We spaniards are very social… this is what I miss about my country…. Sorry, I live in Las Vegas, and people here are so COLD. I can tell you I been living here for the past 13 years and my neighbors never wave or acknowledge our presence. When I go to Spain I feel the warmth and affection from people I’ve never seen before…

  7. Randall says:

    I haven’t looked at your website in ages. I’m glad to see that you’re still living your dream in Madrid. I can’t imagine what it’s like over there after being gone from Spain for 37 years. Keep living the dream!

    Randall W.

  8. Daryl says:

    Wow! What a great blog entry. I really enjoyed reading it because it brings back so many memories of spending many summers of my youth with my Spanish mother’s side of the family in Alicante. This is going back to the mid 80s and mid 90s when most people would first assume I was French only because the only Americans they saw were only on TV.

    Anyway, after four long, agonizing summers (I do live in Phoenix after all), I just bought plane tickets to go back to Spain this summer. My Spanish wife and our 3 kids will be there for 3 months, and I will be there for a little less time.

    I would really like meeting you in person Madridman after many years of reading and thoroughly enjoying your blog and website. I will be landing at 10:05am on May 23rd and want to see about meeting up before I take the train down to Alicante that night or the next day. What do you think?

    Living vicariously for now,
    Daryl

    • MadridMan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Daryl! Glad to “take you back” in time. And how great that you’re returning to Spain this summer! I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time. THREE MONTHS! (but less for you, unfortunately) WOW!! Now THAT’S a vacation!! If you’d like to get together while you’re in Madrid, please do contact me via email before your arrival (or even just after you arrive, in case your plans change after landing) and we’ll set it up. I’m always up for some tapas and wine, don’tchaknow!

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