by Jill Robinson with Greenheart Travel
During my travels abroad, there are few things I enjoy more than exploring the local markets. London’s Camden markets, El Rastro in Madrid, and El Mercat de la Boquería in Barcelona are just a few of my favorite shopping experiences. Not only do they offer wonderful opportunities for people-watching, but it is an ideal place to learn the native language and interact with the locals. Spain holds a special place in my heart, however, when on my first solo trip abroad I found myself in a crash course in communication.
The constant drum of rain outside the Rambles Center Hostel in Barcelona, kept many of the travelers from venturing out that morning. The dark clouds were thick and didn’t show any sign of giving in to the sun that was sparkling over the ocean the day before.
Most of the backpackers lounging inside were smoking their rolled cigarettes and exchanging stories in different accents. I listened from the corner, slightly amused that a Chuck Norris movie was playing with Spanish voice overs. The smoke was starting to fill the commons area in an uncomfortable haze and my coffee was cold; it was time to explore even if the weather conditions weren’t in my favor. It would also give me an excuse to practice my Spanish while buying an umbrella next door.
After an awkward exchange with a weathered woman selling her paraguas, and 3 euros later, I was ready to set out on my adventure. Armed against the elements I walked half a block south to the expanse of the Mercat de la Boqueria. The market was intense and bustling with people shaking out wet jackets and shouting produce requests. I can’t think of a better place to learn a language. Each stall was a new set of colors, smells and conversation, and because everything was labeled, I could look up words and imitate the more experienced shoppers in their sentence structure.
Enjoying my tourist excitement I began eavesdropping on Catalonian exchanges and inappropriately staring at the pigs’ heads in the glass case. Carrying my dictionary, looking up such words as ternillo, curious how gristle was incorporated in the Spanish diet.
In only a matter of feet, the cold, sweet smell of meat would morph into the earthy aroma of cebollas and lechuga, and then from the onions and lettuce to the sea-salt smell of fish. I was ecstatic to find a spice stall, and couldn’t get enough of the cumin and chili draping their smell over my shoulders. The color palate was inspiring.
When I got control of my sense of smell, I began to take in the many shades of pink and red from the hanging legs of ham and suckling pigs still staring with vacant, glassy eyes. The rainbow of produce and flowers, the metallic shimmer of fish scales peeking through the ice, my eyes darted from one object to the next in a greedy search for another treasure.
I wanted to hold this produce in my hands, to possess something that suddenly seemed much more exciting once it had a Spanish label. To do this I had to get involved in the madness of shouting orders and budging in line. I decided to start simple. Buying my bread, apple and cheese in my novice Spanish, the vendors barely noticed, they were too busy shouting “Que quiere!” to the next eager customer.
Maybe it was the newness of the area that made everything glow, every syllable I tried to translate a seduction, but I was enamored with this experience. Giddy with happiness and new-found courage I stepped out of the cramped quarters of Mercat de la Boqueria and into the rain.