Supermarkets: Buenos Aires

I had two great supermarket experiences yesterday:

I brought some nice lentil soup to work and then thought to run to the supermarket to buy some bread rolls. So it’s lunchtime and there’s tons of people at the bread counter. You grab a number. Unfortunately I was holding mine (98) upside down and I thought it was 86. So the helper lady calls out the next number (me) 98 and it takes me a second to recover. Only a second but in that time someone has already said “I’m number 99!” and been helped. She commiserates with me “Oh. You shouldn’t hold your ticket upside down” she says. Yeah. I know. So in theory I should be the next person. The lady behind the counter knows this but she still calls out “Ok. 100” WHILE LOOKING AT ME. So I say “Oh, I’m 98.” All I want is two pieces of bread. But then this guy (Number 100) says “Hey, all I want is…” and then he lists off a few things but he does it like he’s ordering it. He’s way sly, like he just completely cut in front of me, KNOWING that he’s screwing me over for the second time. I say “Ok. Well I’m first and all I want are two pieces of bread.” So he and I have both said what we want and as far as I’m concerned it’s up to her to decide who to serve first. The lady behind the counter looks at me, waits, almost as if to say “Do you really want to go first?” I get the distinct idea that I’m breaking some cultural rule by taking my rightful place in line. The guy chimes in in this pleading voice: “I have these raviolis and they’re getting cold. Please let me get out of here without my raviolis getting cold.” The counter lady slowly goes towards the bread and, still with this look on her face as if I am forcing her, takes out the bread, puts it in a bag, weighs it, and gives it to me. The guy says “Oh. you only wanted to get bread. I thought you wanted to get facturas and sandwiches and… Oh, you’re just like me. You just wanted to get something small.” He is still talking as I walk away.

It’s so crazy because when I first got here I would have just bowed out and let the guy go first. After all, I’m a guest in his country. I think becoming a legal resident has given me this kind of backbone I didn’t have before. It’s hard to respond quickly when you don’t speak the language (which is what started the whole episode) and when I return to the States I vow to respect people who don’t speak English as their first language a bit more.

I was returning from work and I went to this large supermarket near my house. It’s an upscale neighborhood and I always see things in the supermarket that seem interesting and new. So this time near the cheese section I see this dried fish for really cheap. So I buy 5 pesos of it and am going to take it home to see what it is and what it tastes like. I feel adventurous, putting it in my basket.

What I really came to the store for was some onions and while I’m getting them the guy who weighs the vegetables asks me how to prepare my dried fish. “I know you can’t just take it home and eat it” he says. “Right” I say, faking like I know what I’m talking about. “So how do you prepare it?” he asks. “I don’t know exactly” I say. In reality I don’t even know what it is and if it didn’t say it was fish on the label, I wouldn’t have been able to tell him. “Right. But you have no idea at all?” “No. I really have no idea at all.” He looks at me like I’m crazy. I don’t know what to do so I just say “I’m buying it for a friend.” That seems to satisfy him. He finishes weighing my vegetables and, as I walk away adds, “I would buy some if I knew how to prepare it but I don’t have any idea. All I know is that you can’t eat it like it is now. You really have NO IDEA?” I smile bravely as I walk away, but as soon as he’s turned to help another customer I sneak the dried fish back to it’s place on the shelf, where it belongs.

7 replies
  1. Nick
    Nick says:

    hahaaa… this was totally at Jumbo, right? I’ve seen that salty fish a hundred times. I’ve even seen Argentinos pick it up, look it over and put it back. And what’s with that brown/white cheese thing next to it?

  2. nathan
    nathan says:

    thanks for the comment. that’s so funny. i wonder who buys that stuff. i’m glad that guy asked me though i felt so defeated. however, i did console myself by buying some Royal chocolate pudding, which is delicious and i DO know how to prepare.

  3. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:


    First, this was a really funny post. Your down-to-earth writing style is witty and entertaining to read.

    Just curious, and you may not want to answer this, but why did you decide to fake like you knew about how to prepare the fish? What’s wrong with just saying, “I don’t know?” Is that so terrible – to not know? You can’t know everything. I often ask my husband why people do this and he is beginning to explain this phenomenon to me. 😉

    Anyway, you seem really funny and that’s a great quality.

  4. nathan
    nathan says:

    Hey Jennifer,

    Thanks! Actually the fish incident kind of shocked me. I originally felt like a total idiot but then I thought I should write about it and get over it. I’m glad I did.

    What happened was a slippery slope. I didn’t mean to lie at all. I just wanted him to stop looking at me like I was crazy. I think it’s cause I already speak Spanish with this super strong accent. I’m just paranoid about appearing like I know even less than I do.

    I’m not this way in the States at all. I guess being an expat makes me kinda… funny.

  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I think I understand what you are saying. My husband and I don’t speak enough Spanish yet to pick up when people are talking about us. I think sometimes ignorance is bliss.

    I’m not sure about this, but I notice here that people stare a little bit more than they do in the US. Sometimes I think it is just because we look “foreign”, but then again, I am often asked for directions when I am walking on the street (making me think I don’t look so out of place).

    From your picture, you look like one of the locals. I wonder if the guy who asked you about the fish was just bored, so he decided to mess with you. I wouldn’t be surprised. You don’t look like an idiot; you seem like you know what is going on, especially if you had enough where-with-all to stand up for yourself in the bakery section.

    Looking forward to more funny posts!


  6. El Padre Tiempo
    El Padre Tiempo says:

    Jennifer: Here we REALLY stare at everyone, not only the foreigner!
    We’re just like living-cameras: we registrate the clothes you wear, the way you comb your hair, the shoes brand you buy, et al.
    Who knows? Maybe our magpie behaviour bring us the unusual tip, the interesting detail to incorporate to our chamaleonic personality.
    Don’t forget it: we don’t have a REAL, national identity. We merely copy and adopt everything we see.

    Nathan: I celebrate your blog: it’s a very good one.


  7. Chief Joseph
    Chief Joseph says:

    “A ‘fishmonger’ is someone who will sell you rotten fish.” — Ian M. sophmore year

    Hey Nate, this is a great post. I think that acting like you know something is like acting like you understand a joke that you don’t actually understand; it’s complicated. I used to think it was simple — based on pride or insecurity; now, I think there are many reasons for it (convenience, fatigue, disinterest or simply not wanting to interupt a group conversation so that everyone has to listen to an explanation about something you don’t get). Still, I think we all wish that we did this less often and it must never be done when it comes to important matters. Regardless, acting like you understand is a social tool and sometimes I feel forced to use it. I learned about it in school, maybe during Ian’s presentation in Speakman’s class.

    talk to you soon,

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