Cold Sweats for Cold Cuts

An expat goes grocery shopping in Portugal during the Pandemic

My brand of angst is not for everyone. So, if you don’t feel like rabbit holes, steer clear. I do feel that I have to write about today. It was memorable and perhaps transformative. But maybe just a day in a series of days that will look a lot like one another.

I live in Portugal now. I forget why, but there were reasons and here we are. A few days ago, two, it was two, a State of Emergency was declared. The Portuguese, a fractious, dictatorship phobic bunch signed away most of their civil liberties to avoid annihilating the 20% of the population that are officially old and all of everyone with some kind of condition. Italy is in the eye of the COVID 19 storm, and the death rate is unbelievable. Spain is in deep. France is finally turning the corner from denial to full lockdown. And now the United States is waking up to the realization that weak central government means weak! federal! oversight! I will not discuss the UK because I think History will do a good job of kicking their asses for partying so hardy on their little island this past week.

And so today, Friday. The theoretical end of the week. We realized that it was time after many days of being completely confined to our block (residential, sleepy, streets deserted) to cruise around our area in our car with its conspicuous foreign license plates to figure out the food situation. This point seemed to matter in a time of foreign-bred illness and EasyJet transmissions. We wanted to see what was open, how long the lines were, what was available, do we really need to start eating lentils from the cellar? Will there be more lentils when we get through those we have? We washed hands, put on outside shoes, disinfected car door, disinfected key, masks (check!). Shit, I touched my face again. Damn my nose was itchy. More sanitizer.

The first stop was the Japanese market. We figured, absolutely correctly, that it would be empty. But I did not anticipate the fear. The sixty something year old couple that runs it were terrified. The shop was empty. They allowed one of us (me) in and they wavered, attempting to help me while also sanitizing everything I glanced at. I held in tears as the sweet lady whispered to her husband to turn on some muzak to calm the atmosphere. They were scared of me and desperately in need of my very, very, solitary business. We all quivered, frightened and satisfied, as the shop owner rang everything up, we had held it together and all were satisfied that our interaction was sterile. I ceremoniously whipped out my Swiss hand sanitizer and polished my finger before punching in the PIN code on my card (she had warned me in broken, apologetic English that I would have to touch the machine despite the contact free feature.) Just as I punched in the code, triumphant and exhilarated, the terminal died, and all hell broke silently loose. There was bowing, exchanged looks of dread and apology, then another round of sanitizing and code entry. The machine balked and for a tense 40 seconds the possibility arose that I might just have to pull out cash. Change would have to be made; received; carried home; and disinfected. Finally, the purchase went through. Dismayed, and to honor the real effort they had made to respect the Pandemic, I took out a pack of tissues and scooped my debit card up and carefully laid it to rest in my favorite purse. My mind immediately turned to burning the bag as I emerged and took a deep breath of air.

On we went to the next stop. A dead end in a residential area where Google Maps promised veggies. No luck. But I did spot an obviously abandoned house with an untended and wildly fruit-filled citrus garden should I need to poach at some point. I do not steal fruit. But I don’t want scurvy. I hope for a vaccine before winter.

And then onward to a little organic grocery store in a nice, affluent residential area. There was a sign on the door to WhatsApp a number for instructions as they were not letting customers in. We did. We stared into the shop and saw fresh fruit and vegetables and a whole host of organic things. We longed for them. We stood around and waited alone on the deserted street. About ten minutes later we got our instructions. It was a full page long, but the gist was “step away from our door” and send us your order, then pick it up tomorrow.

Next, we hit up the butcher a little way away. I have an okay relationship with these guys, their English is good, and no one should be miming poultry right now. All goes well, same drill. Text a day before, pick up, back away. This works for us. We do not want to be in any lines. The supermarkets are open, but they let a drizzle of people in at a time and therefore you are out on the street in questionably close company while five people amble through 1000 sqm of real estate after a week cooped up in their apartment.

Now we get closer to home to our local vegetable guy. He has a really great shop. A fantastic assortment of really fairly priced and diverse produce. Every kind of bean, pulse, berry, herb, leaf or root. The man even has toilet paper. And then it sinks in that Portugal will be ravaged by this disease and soon. The genteel customers in their 60s, 70s, 80s were quietly feeling the vegetables (ever vegetable it seemed) to find the good ones. They were not one or even two meters from one another. They were human and living. In my construction mask and coated in hand sanitizer I felt naked and ridiculous as the owner (who speaks excellent English and French) grabbed each and every item with his bare hands and plonked them into the shopping bags.

Back in the car, there were sighs of relief and despair. As we drove through town, we saw two or three other thronged establishments. No panic shopping, or hoarding, just regular living. At home, our haul was laid out in the kitchen and I stared despondently at the plastic bags from the vegetable place for a long while as my WhatsApp purred on with ever more end-of-days mirth. Do I toss the bags? Would that be wasteful and crass in a plastic toxic world? Do I use my dwindling stocks of disinfectant products to redeem the contaminated beasts? As the water in Venice is now translucent, perhaps the Universe can handle a couple of extra Corona-bags in landfill? Should I ever leave the house again? Do I need to call the health department and close that excellent greengrocer down before he wipes out the neighborhood and cripples the local hospital? Shit, I touched my face again.

My mother lives in Northern Italy. My father and brother live in Paris. My sister lives in Madrid. My little sister lives in Switzerland, along with my two brothers. One is a doctor. I have three more siblings in and around New York. The markets and hospitals are devastated. I feel stretched out; locked in; connected and removed. The glow of screens is replacing reality. I know we need to react to this period of crisis and confinement on a human level. In that grocery store I was physically disgusted and frightened by a man touching a cucumber and breathing close to me. Do we seriously believe that somehow Humanity can survive without breathing or agriculture? Sure, I can distance myself from the chain of production. Go upmarket, upstream, upchain, shit… uphill. But no matter what I try, somewhere down the line someone is touching my food. It would be very reassuring if they had toilet paper, clean water and soap. Dare I suggest hand sanitizer, gloves and masks?

Today, open public spaces are the domain of the Heroes, the Essential and the Desperate . Those of us with cars, freezer space and WiFi need to move past the adrenaline rush of quarantine and keep society afloat.

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Katharine Faizova

Katharine Faizova

Emigrée, gardener, mother and writer in quarantine