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!