My neighbour across the hall, the Lady from Leon, rushes over to inspect my purchases from the Simago supermarket as I step out of the lift. My arms are yanked almost out of their sockets with heavy loads of potatoes, onions, apples, tomatoes, garlic, bottles of gaseosa, and even a rotisserie chicken.
Her head disappeared into my net bags as she poked and squeezed, examined everything carefully for freshness. With huge grunts and groans she then glanced up at me and announced, “Why pay high prices at Simago for vegetables that aren’t even fresh?! Next week, you and I will go together to the market. I’ll show you how to really shop.”
I guessed she was right. The merchandise at the weekly market was indeed probably fresher, so I decided that I might as well agree to go with her.
The following week arrived and The Lady from Leon rang my doorbell. Before we could even say an 'Hola' the lift unexpectedly arrived. Many times you had to wait for ages on one, so I rushed over and held the door open for her.
“Are you ready? Now, you have to be alert.” She sounded as if she were scolding me.
We made our way downstairs and outside onto the busy streets. A woman was holding a little girl who was urinating at the curb. I was always surprised to see things like that, but the Lady from Leon didn't comment, so maybe it was quite normal. There were gypsies wandering around with their hands outstretched. I never knew whether to give them money or not. I had heard that if you din't give them a few pesetas that they would put a curse on you, but the Lady from Leon ignored them. So, I did too. I really never did like how one of the gypsies would look at me. She would always be standing at the entrance to the apartment complex, always seeing me leave, and she'd be there whenever I returned.
“You need your wits about you at the market. Don’t let them diddle you.” The Lady from Leon warned me.
“I won’t. I mean, I will… try to be alert.” I felt el as if I were going on a field trip. Maybe I should have been taking notes?
The Lady from Leon was well-prepared for shopping with the tools of the trade. A huge basket dangled from one arm and inside the basket were net bags. All would be be filled by the time we got back to the apartment, of that I was sure. Shopping at the market was serious business and I had seen her come back laden with kilos of fruits and vegetable.
“You don’t have a bag with you?!” The Lady from Leon looks appalled. “Here, take one of my net bags. How else are you going to carry your things back?!” She handed me one of her bags.
“I wasn’t planning on buying much.” I guessed I needed to acquire more wits about me if I’m going to succeed in this excursion.
The Lady from Leon marches down the road as if she were on a mission. We were soldiers, protectors of the non-diddling group who would never, ever be diddled, and we walked in step towards the market. She waved at acquaintances with the flick of her wrist and a loud “Buenos dias!”
“Want to know how to get free food?” Her eyes were twinkling at me mischievously.
I nodded, even although I didn't really want any, especially food that had been lying outside under the sun with dozens of people coughing or blowing their nose over it, never mind all the flies buzzing about.
“You ask to sample whatever it is that they’re selling. After going round different stalls, your belly will be full!” The Lady from Leon laughed heartily.
People are pushing and shoving, and the vendors are calling out, trying to get everyone’s attention. The pungent smell of strong cheese fills the air. The chirping of budgies and other small birds add to the noise. Children chase one another and squeal loudly. There’s a strong stench of body odour emanating all around me. Flies squat on the bread and pastries and gaze up at us defiantly. People are sipping on coffee, some are slapping back Anis or brandy, others are spitting seeds onto the ground, or picking their teeth with toothpicks. I feel as if I’m entering a play being performed on stage. Everyone seems to know his or her role, including the stray dogs prowling around looking for scraps to eat. I think I'm the sole member of the audience, but that's still a role, isn't it?
I spy a vegetable vendor. His tomatoes are enormous and covered in dirt. The Lady from Leon picks some up and squeezes them. She shoves them to her nostrils and sniffs loudly, then places them down and starts the process all over again with other tomatoes.
“There. These are good ones. Very fresh. Fresher than the ones at Simago! Clean them with vinegar. They’ll be fine.” The Lady from Leon assures me.
“I think I’ll get myself a kilo.”
“Watch the scale. The people here could diddle you. ”
“I will. Don’t worry.”
“I’m going to look at the table covers. The women in the small villages make them. Meet me over there when you’re done.” The Lady from Leon weaves her way through the crowd towards the stall selling table covers and napkins.
I hand the vendor the pile of tomatoes that the Lady from Leon has chosen for me.
He places them on the scale. Guess what else he does?
He places his elbow on the scale, too!!
I need to do some quick thinking to prevent an escalation of this potential tomato battle.
I calculate that he’s possibly only diddling me out of one tomato, but who’s counting?
I quickly pay him, place the tomatoes in the net bag, and rush over to meet the Lady from Leon.
“Em. Well, no. Not too much.”
The Lady from Leon chides me with the look she gives the milkman any time he tries to diddle her out of a few pesetas. She has very expressive eyes, without a doubt.
“You’ll learn. Don’t worry. Just look at the lovely table covers! Hand embroidered. I think I’ll buy one to take to my sister in Leon.”
I’m relieved that her attention is now taken up with the hand embroidered linens. She is right, however. I do need to have my wits about me. I should have insisted that the vendor remove his hand from the scale. Oh well. On top of it all, I have to lug around two pounds of tomatoes all through the market. I always get mixed up thinking that a kilo is a pound. It never fails.