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Solo Shopping in Madrid

June 12, 2005

Living in Madrid, I spent a great deal of time alone. I didn’t know the language, had only just met the lady I was living with, and had yet to make any friends. Being such a Spanish city, Madrid originally intimidated and frustrated me. I eventually learned to love and appreciate this quality about the city, as I grew more comfortable with the Spanish people, their language, and their way of life. Until this happened, though, all of these factors combined to make some very depressed days, and being a true American woman I did what American women do when they’re depressed – I went shopping.

The first time I ever went into H&M I was so intimidated. H&M is Europe’s version of Target probably. Very cute clothes but still very affordable. Because of the Spanish siesta the shops were all but empty until about 5pm. Since I worked until 4 I usually got to the shops just as every other Madrileño did. Back home I despise shopping in crowds. I hate waiting in lines and pushing through tons of people. Shopping is stressful enough without adding several thousand people getting in my way. In Madrid, though, I learned to appreciate the cover that all the people provided. European shopkeepers are more inclined than their American counterparts to leave the customer to browse in peace, but there was always the chance that if I was caught alone in a store someone might ask me something and this terrified me. They would probably only ask how I was or if I was finding everything I needed, but since I didn’t know what they were saying I avoided these exchanges like the plague. Crowds of shoppers allowed me to inspect all the crazy European styles at my own pace, try to figure out if I wore a 28, 36, or 44 (not waist), and hopefully be ignored. This worked until I got in H&M’s dressing room line. By the time I had picked out what I wanted to try the line was halfway down the aisle so I got to stand in line and listen to the conversations around me. To stand in line, or walk down a crowded street in a country where I don’t know the language, I experienced a feeling I’d never had before. It was the feeling of being surrounded by life and people and to still be so very alone. I saw mothers and daughters, couples, and young girls all laughing and talking, as well as other people that were alone but deep in conversation on their mobiles. I felt so separate from all of these people because I was standing there with them, doing the same thing they were doing, but had no idea what was going on around me. It made me realize how much companionship is derived from our eavesdropped conversations and casual greetings with strangers. Until you have experienced this you will take for granted how many times you exchanged knowing smiles with a stranger over a conversation you both overheard. It makes you conscious of how much one smile could mean to a stranger.

As I finally made it to the front of the line at the dressing room I noticed that the girl would ask how many items you were bringing in. I counted mine over and over and made sure I had the right number, praying the whole time she didn’t decide to ask me anything different. I made it through this, probably mispronouncing siete, and feeling like I had AMERICAN stamped all over me. On the way out of the dressing room she stopped me and asked me something. I had no idea what it was but finally after a bit of sign language I figured out she was asking if she could take any of my stuff. Next I spent at least twenty minutes at the checkout counter while the salesgirl tried to explain to me that I needed to show ID to make a purchase with my credit card. I didn’t have it with me since I hadn’t been asked for it anywhere else but wasn’t about to leave the store, after going through all that, without buying anything. Each of these incidences continued to fluster and intimidate me. I felt bad for being in these people’s country and not understanding what they were saying. I do enjoy the fact that English is such a widely spoken language but I don’t expect or assume that everyone will speak or understand it. I usually found someone to help me out but always felt bad for causing a scene or making others wait while we did sign language.

One of my most unforgettable shopping experiences was on a hot June day. I had been in Madrid for about a month and a half and was growing accustomed to Spanish life. I was less intimidated by the salespeople and more familiar with the stores. I found an adorable strapless shirt. It was light blue with tiny white polka dots all over it. After spending nearly every day in the Spanish sun I had a tan that I was proud of and was learning to love their style of dress. Spanish people dress beautifully and slowly but surely I was hoping to learn their ways. They wear colors, combinations of colors, and accessories that you would never see in a GAP/Abercrombie & Fitch/American Eagle USA. I took the shirt and went into the dressing room. It was made of stiff fabric with a zipper on the side that went from the waist up to about an inch from the top of the shirt under your arm. I took my shirt and bra off and pulled the shirt over my head and shoulders and around my chest. It was a bit of a struggle but being a small-breasted woman I have learned that in order to wear strapless shirts they have to be pretty small so they don’t fall down. I guess I underestimated the size of my ribcage this time though. I could barely breath with the shirt on and went to pull it back over my head. For the next few minutes I tried different breathing methods, trying to relax my ribs and shoulders enough to get the shirt back over my head. The strength that pulling the shirt off required made my shoulders flex just enough to keep my shirt stuck on me.

Nothing I tried was working. I started to panic. I didn’t know what to do. I could hear the girls on either side of me laughing in their dressing rooms with their friends. Girls came in, tried on their clothes, and left many times all around me while I struggled with my shirt. I would’ve given everything I had right then to have one of my friends in there to help me. I thought about going for help but the dressing rooms in this particular store were actually curtained-in cubicles along the wall out on the sales floor. This ruled out the option of discreetly calling to the dressing room attending (assuming she understood English). I could just see the crazy, half naked American girl running around the store with only her shirt stuck under her armpits, crying, in English, for someone to help her. Being topless may be acceptable in Spain but there wasn’t a beach or pool within miles, and I hadn’t accepted all of their ways yet. I suppose if it had come to that anyone would’ve been able to tell what the problem was regardless of what language I spoke. My options were dwindling so I decided that the 18 euros I’d have to pay for the shirt would be worth ripping it off my body as long as I could be free. Evidently their clothes are very well made cause I couldn’t even manage to loosen the seams. After what seemed like hours I managed to stop breathing, collapse my ribs, and contort my shoulders while pulling this shirt straight up over my head. Never has a shirt been the object of such anger and hostility as that one as I threw it on the floor. I told it that I didn’t care if it was the best shirt in the world and they paid me to wear it, I never wanted to see it again. I have to confess that I didn’t hang it neatly back on the hanger like a polite shopper. At this point feelings of depression had never been further from my mind (see, shopping really is good therapy.) I put my own, lovely, well fitting, bra and shirt back on and left the store as fast as I could. It was a long time before I went back into that store. When I did return I avoided all their strapless shirts. If avoidance was impossible I would give them all of my best dirty looks. I think I can say without a doubt that no other inanimate object has caused me as much grief and pain as that lovely, stupid, horrid, light blue polka dotted strapless shirt. I’m sure it looked beautiful on some thin-shouldered Spanish girl.

Thankfully not all my shopping experiences were as traumatic as that one. I learned that salespeople don’t bite, and that there were thousands of other English speakers in Madrid who were much more obnoxious and stupid than I was. As in any country, the Madrileños appreciate an effort at their language and are more than happy to meet you halfway language-wise as long as you are trying. Re-living my shirt emergency has worn me out again. I haven’t even touched on food shopping, which is a whole other circus, but I’ll leave you for now with Grace’s Important Travel Tip #7: When shopping alone, be sure to err on the large side because if it’s a struggle to get on, it will be many more times as difficult trying to get it off. OR, carry large scissors at all times.

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