The Beauty of the Slow Stroll

When we moved to Valencia more than four years ago, we brought with us all our American sensibilities. Especially our sense of time. It couldn’t be any other way as that was our frame of reference. And nowhere reminded us that we were out of step with the pace of life in Valencia more than visiting our very first grocery store.

The Mercadona near our house was our grocery store of choice, and we approached it that first day with the same precision and level of industrial engineering that we had approached our entire lives in the US because there, it’s ingrained into you since birth.

The grocery store experience in America, at least in the cities where I have lived, requires preparation, coordination, and speed. When you arrive in line, there will be no dilly-dallying. No hesitation. You will approach like a hunter. You have already gathered the food, and now you need to kill the checkout with the speed of a gazelle. If you don’t, you will hear rumblings, groaning, eye-rolls, and whispers about your overall level of intelligence and some questions about whether you were raised in a barn. In other words, you need to get your stuff on that belt rapidly, so you can transition to the bagging process, completing this just as the checker finishes scanning the final item. The checker expects this kind of precision execution, and so does every person in line behind you. And you need to deliver. That’s your only job. Don’t hold up the line.

In Valencia, Jeff and I did our usual dance. I loaded the belt with the heavy stuff first – we had shopped and loaded the cart with this in mind. Jeff manned the trolley and packed it all. When I had placed the last item on the belt, I transitioned to getting my loyalty card out (if required), then my bank card, and prepared myself to pay. It was like clockwork. The other patrons just stopped and stared. Our swiftness and landing the dismount set us apart as foreigners, which was fine. As if we had something to prove.

As time went by, we had to modify our approach. Mainly because we lived in an area of Valencia with no other Americans. So our fellow grocery store shoppers did not ascribe to our methods and practices. And standing in line at the grocery store was initially an exercise in Herculean patience. No one followed the add-to-belt then load-the-trolly methodology. No one bagged their groceries before the final item was scanned and before they had paid. This meant our stuff began to mix with the previous customer’s groceries. I can’t tell you how many times we got home and some of what we bought was not there. I hope the lady in front of us liked Jeff’s favorite cookies or his bags of peanuts, and I knew we needed to take a valium every time we ventured to the store.

Soon, the checkers knew us, and we knew them. They expected us to do our deal. Jeff was convinced they appreciated our efficiency. I was pretty sure they didn’t care either way.

Now that we live in rural Galicia, we have learned to chill out. This tranquila peregrina has slowed down, and she takes life more as it comes. I’m less in a hurry than at any other time in my life. But, Jeff? Maybe not as much.

He just returned from the grocery store to get me some bananas. Smoothies are all the rage on these last days of summer, and the stores were all shuttered on a Sunday after I closed up shop yesterday afternoon. So I had to send him out for crucial supplies. He returned with his jaw hanging open. After all this time, a woman in the local Gadis was able to surprise him.

‘I was behind a lady who put all her stuff on the belt. The checker scanned it all, but she stood at the beginning of the belt, rummaging through her purse as if she had never been to a grocery store before. She finally found her loyalty card, then started taking out all the cards from her wallet, looking for her cash. The line was snaking down the aisle.’

‘After she paid, she got the three thousand coupon receipts that spilled out of the register; instead of bagging her groceries, she took the receipt and checked every item, sitting at the end waiting to be bagged, off on her receipt tape with a pen. I know the checker and I had a bonding moment because she gave me a look of utter disbelief and just shook her head. So finally, after four years of being in Spain, I’m not the only one who sees it.’

We live in an area where the average age has to be well over 60. People for whom this current pace of the world is just too fast. Who grew up without the mega supermarket and whose telephones were shared or party-lines. You didn’t stand in line to get your fruit and meat in one place. You went to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. OK, maybe just the fruterria. But you get the idea.

Sometimes I think it was good we didn’t land in rural Galicia before living in Valencia. Jeff would have had a heart attack. But I think of these people we meet on a daily basis. Many walk down our shady lane under the old oak trees, in front of the food truck in the afternoon with their dogs, and sticks, and worn wool caps. They are not in a hurry and sometimes stop to have a drink and chat with me – the dreaded foreigner.

The other day I had an old man stop to whom I had been waving for two months. He has a cute little white dog, but he had never let me give her a treat. Finally, Modesto stopped and spoke to me. I told him where I was from, in español. And it turns out he is from Melide but worked in Bilbao for more than 40 years before returning to this area. He reassured me that it was OK to be a foreigner and told me I should relax.

‘If you think Spanish is difficult, try Euskara (Basque). No one knows how to learn it, and everyone in Bilbao speaks it. It is very very difficult. In Bilbao, you will never be one of them. I know what it feels like to be an outsider.’ He was reassuring me that it would be OK.

He told me his history and listened to mine. All in Spanish. He was very patient with me and my need to stop and think to get across what I wanted to say. I gave him a glass of wine, and he stayed for a while. Then, it was nap time for him and his dog. And we said our goodbyes.

Today, I was listening to Jeff’s story of the supermarket, and it made me think about how far we have come in these last years. Yes, he was frustrated with this old woman, but he waited patiently as she got her things together. Even helping her to her car with her groceries.

My little old man and Jeff’s little old lady are unconcerned with efficiency or speed. They are in this moment, right now. Where we all should be. And I think that has been the most beautiful lesson from moving here. I’m no longer in the American rat-race to nowhere. All day, every day I am asked ‘Why would you move here?’ And I always laugh and wave my hand around indicating the beauty that surrounds us. No words required. With its slow lines, slow strolls, and lazy afternoons in rural Galicia, I’m right where I need to be.

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