Sarah in Sevilla: Confusion in El Corte Inglés

    My roommate and me in front of "El Corte Inglés Spanish department stores are even better than their English counterparts! Photo by Sarah Crocker / North by Northwestern.

    Sarah’s abroad in Sevilla until May 12.

    Every guidebook and helpful Spaniard will tell you that if you’ve forgotten something, the one place to find it all is El Corte Inglés, Spain’s biggest and most popular chain of department stores. My host mother proudly informed me that our apartment is only two blocks from the neighborhood Corte Inglés, so I would be set for the whole trip for toiletries, clothes, food and anything else I could possibly imagine.

    My roommate Christine and I decided to check it a week after we get to Sevilla. I only brought travel sized shampoo and conditioner, and my hair is starting to get a little greasy from the miniscule portions I’ve been allowing myself each morning. When we get there we’re greeted by the familiar department store smell of a mixture of cloying perfumes and new leather. We see all of the familiar makeup counters–Clinique, Estee Lauder, even Sephora–and pause to examine an array of Coach bags.

    “This is just like stores back home!” I exclaim, already trying to get my bearings as if I were in the Chicago Macy’s. Little did I know, rules in Spanish department stores are quite different.

    We wander through the booths of well-known makeup and bags and find an escalator. We hop on, winding our way up to the fifth floor, the first floor not devoted to perfume, men’s, women’s or children’s clothing. We figure since El Corte Inglés is known to have everything, this must be the floor for it all.

    We pass lamps, shopping carts (for sale!), bug spray, until the hair appliances aisles lure us in. We both decide that our poufy hair, thanks to the Mediterranean humidity, should be tamed with a Spanish hair straightener. I start picking up boxes of promising (read: cheap) straighteners, but after examining them in their entirety, I can’t find prices on any of them. Christine discovers that the prices are actually on the display straighteners, so we examine them and narrow our choice down to three; we both are leaning towards the fuchsia Hannah Montana straightener, but find a Revlon for the same price. I was secretly afraid of my host brother Alejandro judging me more than he does already for my stuffed animals and mispronounced Spanish, so we choose Revlon.

    After we finally say goodbye to Hannah Montana, we find shampoo a few rows over. Unfortunately it’s dog shampoo. We decide that we probably can do better than “Antiolor Celo Hembra: Champú por Perros,” but after finding extension cords, china dishes and a bakery, but no shampoo, we decide to look on a lower floor. We go down the escalator amongst many judging stares, but I’ve become used to the disdain of polished Spaniards for my Ugg moccasins and frequent lapses into English. So I ignore the beautiful Spanish women and we descend to the basement where we find a grocery store.

    I know we can find toiletries inside, so we speed through the entrance, only to set off a hidden beeper. A security guard laughs at our befuddled looks of horror and informs us that we must pay for our purchases before coming into the grocery store. OK, fine. I thought that since I hadn’t left the building, we could our carry unpurchased items around with us.

    So we ride the escalator to the menswear department, where we wait patiently for five minutes while a very well dressed male cashier opines about the virtues of paisley versus the merits of polka dots on ties to an older woman. Finally he rings her up and turns to us. He scans our straightener and looks at me in alarm. He asks if we found it on his floor, and thrusts it back in my hand, telling us that we must purchase items on the floor on which we found them.

    We return to the fifth floor, amid more aghast looks at our unbagged item traveling up and down the building. We plow our way past pots and strollers until we find a checkout station. I proudly hand over the straightener, glad to finally be in the right place. I almost feel like a real Spaniard until she looks at my Visa and asks me if I want to pay in Euros or Dollars. “Ummm.. No me importa” I mutter as I look wildly at Christine. Isn’t it all the same amount of money? Apparently I was also wrong about this.

    I also was wrong about the price of our Revlon straightener. As the cashier gives me the receipt to sign, I again look wildly around the station at Christine. 40 Euros instead of 20?? I want to tell her the model straightener definitely said 20, but I don’t know how to say this and she’s already tapping her pen and pointing at the place where I should sign. There’s not a line for my signature so that potentially could have been confusing, too. My hair better look perfect every day for the price of my inability to make purchases in a Spanish department store.

    We return to the grocery store with our exorbitantly priced hair tool and attempt to walk through the entrance again. But we get stopped again. The security guard guides us to a bagging station where we have to “bag” our Corte Inglés bag in a clear plastic one, and then seal it with an intense sealing machine that looks like a giant paper cutter. Now we’re allowed in the grocery store. If I were to shoplift, not that I ever would, I would much rather take something from one of the five levels of the department store than anything from the grocery store. Maybe that’s just me. But my potential thieving of oranges or tuna is thwarted by my sealed bag in a bag.

    For once I don’t screw up anything in the grocery store. I do end up with not just shampoo and conditioner, but also a box of Ritz and a pound bag of M&Ms. I guess my taste buds miss America a little bit.

    I had thought that I was the queen of shopping, but the myriad differences between Spanish and American department stores made this excursion a difficult one. Now I understand the rules of Spanish department stores, and I won’t make a fool of myself again–at least until I go to a department store in Portugal, or France, or England.

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