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While studying abroad I have discovered that not only does milk come in unrefrigerated boxes, it has fish in it.

I Will Likely Die While Grocery Shopping in Spain

Grocery Shopping in Spain: Fails, Mainly in My Brain

While studying abroad I have discovered that not only does milk come in unrefrigerated boxes, it has fish in it.

By Sofia Rivera, Simmons University


Unless you’re the kind of autodidactic genius that Matt Damon plays in Good Will Hunting, learning is kind of exhausting.

After a full day of class, no matter how interesting, I always feel ready to let some mindless Netflix eat away at my brain or take a walk outside and get some fresh air—a scarce commodity in the confines of university hallways.

So when I decided to study abroad in Madrid for the year I thought: “Finally, a break!” Study abroad classes are notoriously easier than American college-level classes, plus I was envisioning Spain as some magical, perpetually sunny land laden with sangria and tapas. Which, to be fair, it basically is.

But probably predictably, it’s also filled with a lot of Spanish. Shocker, right? The people speak it, the signs are written in it, the music spilling from open car windows is sung in it, and if the countless dogs spoke human I’m sure they would speak it (which would be so adorable, after the initial shock of course).

I, however, do not speak it.

Or at least not natively. I can hold a conversation pretty well and I can keep up with my classes, which are all taught in Spanish. But my American accent is a dead giveaway because try as I might, I can’t make it sound like I’m coughing up a hairball whenever I say the letter ‘j,’ which is imperative to being understood.

Unfortunately my apartment’s street name has a ‘j’ smack in the middle, so telling Taxi drivers where to take me has been a pretty traumatizing experience.

But the most harrowing Spanish experience thus far has been a daily occurrence: grocery shopping. I honestly love shopping, for clothes or shoes or groceries, I don’t discriminate— I always wonder if it sounds too vapid to claim as a hobby whenever someone asks, but for me it really is.

Once when I was auditioning for a PBS Kids show, a girl I was waiting with said her hobby was dog sledding, and even as an eleven-year-old I remember thinking, “How the hell am I supposed to compete with that?” Definitely not with shopping. Anyway, I digress.

So without further ado, a compilation of shopping shocks I’ve encountered in my time abroad—advice from the trenches so you don’t have to suffer through the same upsets as I have.

Its Not a Country for Vegetarians

Which is fine, because I’m not one. But still, the Museos de Jamón (Ham Museums) and displays at the markets of every possible part of an animal (think tongue and stomach) are enough to make even America’s hotdog-eating champion turn to Tofurky.

Although if you eat meatless you’ll still find delicious dishes to satiate your hunger: garlicky garbanzos and spinach, tortilla de patatas and all the bread you can consume.

Comfort Foods Are Hard to Come By

What I’m really talking about here is peanut butter. Dear god, where is the peanut butter?? After some serious searching I found and bought a jar at a super crunchy granola natural food store, but it’s the healthy kind with only one ingredient: peanuts.

I miss my beloved Peter Pan, which has been recalled for salmonella multiple times and contains ingredients like corn syrup and red dye #2—I’m guessing, I’ve never taken the time to check.

Everything Is in Spanish

In Spain, Everything is in Spanish is one of the working titles for my memoir in which I only list obvious facts of life that somehow still confound me.

The first time I went grocery shopping I wandered around with an empty basket for a half hour, trying to match foreign words with familiar products. I threw in some produce, grabbed some yogurt, detoured to the chocolate aisle to add some balance to my diet and finally went to find the milk.

The milk, which is disturbingly sold in boxes on unrefrigerated shelves, took up an entire aisle. Overwhelmed, I gravitated toward a box that advertized Omega-3. To be honest, I didn’t know what Omega-3 was or what its benefits were, but I’m kind of a hypochondriac and figured I probably had some ailment it pertained to.

Flash forward a few months: my roommate asks me why I don’t just buy the store brand of milk, and I say because this kind tastes so good, plus it has Omega-3. She asks what that is and I scoff and mumble something before picking up the box and looking at the ingredients—a task that apparently had seemed too mentally strenuous when I first purchased the milk.

Among the long list a couple of ingredients were especially troubling: nuts and fish oil.

In slow realization I turned to the front of the carton where the words “Omega-3” were written across a picture of some walnuts, which I had originally shrugged off as some weird Spanish serving suggestion.

Thinking of those nasty, squishy fish oil pills my parents take I gagged a little bit. I’m upset not only because I’m repulsed, but because I’ve unwittingly schemed myself into taking vitamins. Adulthood comes for you no matter how hard to try to fend it off, kids.

Food Spoils Right Away

Just two days after this grocery trip, I was genuinely confused when I smelled the pungent scent of banana upon entering the kitchen. Like a well-trained dog, I followed my nose to a corner where I found a mostly brown bunch of bananas.

It must be their lack of GMO’s and the fact that you don’t have to sink your teeth through a half inch of that dusty covering when biting into an apple, but honestly I was content living in blissful pesticide ignorance. Anyway, lesson learned—now I just buy fresh produce each day.

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