By Melendy Krantz
The market in Alicante, Spain, overflows with color. Red, green, and yellow vegetables piled high in boxes and cartons spill into one another. Bananas, onions, and grapes hang from the tops of the stalls over the heads of customers. The produce creates a curtain through which the buyers and the vendors peer at each other yelling prices, bad-day stories, and sharing about their children. Prices on cardboard stand among the food, punctuating the intense colors with dirty whites and grubby browns.
Photo by Gregory Krantz
The market is constructed in neat rows contrasted by the chaos of people flowing in and around vendor’s stalls. Each “puesta” or stand is separate like a miniature business. The stalls are square, clean and white, filling a brick building that stands tall and proud in the semitropical city of Alicante. The market parades order through its structure. The solid walls and the straight rows of vendor’s stalls make for a tidy appearance. Each type of food is sold in a different section; vegetables, meats and fish are all collected into corners of the market where well over a hundred vendors of each type of food stand waiting for the ever-present shoppers. It is the people who come and fill the market, disrupting the order and creating its unique character.
My first experience entering a Spanish market was during my time as an exchange student in Alicante, Spain, during the fall of 2004. Coming from rural Vermont, I was accustomed to grocery stores that lined highways and the homegrown vegetables that had to be harvested from the garden outside my parent’s home. I equated food with the beeping of checkouts and the slicing of shovels in soil. For this reason my first reaction to the market in Alicante, Spain, was to stare in awe of the number of people flowing through these areas, the freshness of the food lying on ice in the sun and the oddly rhythmic yelling of vendors and shoppers. To my unaccustomed eyes the markets were chaos, loud clumps of people and stands that sold the same things. But, I was soon to learn how Spanish life spoke through these markets and recognize how the diversity in the shopping scene was an insight into Spanish culture.
Markets are central to living in Spain, particularly in the southern city of Alicante and its outlying areas. For hundreds of years people have purchased their food in markets where one can buy fish, meat, and vegetables. They developed as populations increased and farms developed surpluses. Once people were able to specialize their professions and move beyond simple food cultivation, the exchange of food was central as it allowed for the complexity of culture to develop. While this process is not unique to Spain, the culture of this country is one of the few to maintain the centrality of the exchange of food. In Spain, cities have predated industrialization and mass production. Because fresh foods have always been essential to the culture, open markets continue to be integral to the Spanish way of life. Unlike the cold, stale grocery stores of the United States; the markets are a centrally located, usually near at least one plaza, making them an easy extension of social life. In the U.S. we rush to shop, and it becomes a chore. But from my experience in Spain spent shopping with my friend’s families and watching other shoppers, going to the market is an event that can take many hours, it is almost always accompanied by catch-up conversations with vendors and close friends.
While markets are very similar throughout Spain, I have chosen to focus my discussion on the market in Alicante, a city that remains very Spanish and yet has a strong international presence. Mass tourism fills the beaches and hotels every summer while the grandmothers who have never left the region stroll with swaying steps past wrought iron balconies and stone houses. The tourism brings a modern feel to the city complete with high rises and people rushing from one place to the next. The market speaks to these contrasts as people from almost every social group pass through. The customers are next-door neighbors and close friends from years past who leisurely purchase their meat, fish, and vegetables, having a coffee to top off their outing. There are also the chic city folk rushing through not bothering to talk to anyone while toting a bag of oranges that swooshes with the clicking of stilettos.
While revisiting friends in Alicante this 2007, I spent time at the market in Alicante, witnessing an aspect of a culture that had once been so foreign to me but has since become mundane. However, having not been in Spain for the previous two years, the markets came alive with a new freshness. As I watched and focused on the market in a way I had not done since my first awe-struck experience, I noticed how integral the way people moved was to the organization and the socialization of the market.
Photo by Gregory Krantz
In this market, the crowds flow. People are always in motion, stopping only in the aisles and common areas to wait in line to buy food or to speak to a vendor. Those waiting stand in clumps, not lines so they do not prevent the constant flow of the market. The clumping is rather disorganized since it is difficult to tell who is next in line, meaning that the vendors and customers yell back and forth and shoppers must push their way to the vendor if they don’t want to wait all day. In between the stalls and in the aisles of the market the people move continuously or clump, but as these same people slow to a stop regardless of whether or not they buy anything as they approach the area by the stairs which leads to the plaza outside.
While shoppers are the majority of the population at the market, people also go to socialize and to hang out. It is often difficult to distinguish between those who are there purely for entertainment and those who are there solely to buy. The “socialites” are the men walking with their hands behind their back and women carrying canes or purses, looking at the foods, but even more at the people. While they do not need to keep moving throughout the building in order to find what they want to buy, they keep moving like the shoppers. It reflects an importance of flow; being in certain places in the market one has no other option but to keep moving.
At one point I watched a young woman typing a text message and walking very slowly, but walking nonetheless. People were passing her on all sides; she was almost obstructing the flow. But the woman’s continuous movement signified recognition of the space. She illustrated the meaning of the different spaces within the market. She moved in the aisles, but stopped and typed for a while as she approached the area by the stairs. While in the common aisle-area, it was acceptable for her to be somewhat social, but she had to keep moving. But it was as if her text message became “too social” and had to move into the socializing and “pausing” section of the market in order to finish her digital dialogue.
The area by the stairs had a wide balcony on the top floor that provided a place to lean and use as a temporary desk. Men and women make their notes, check off their lists, and pause before the next step. On the floor directly below were the benches where I met people and was one of the few places I was approached by others and invited into conversations. The majority of people I talked with in this area were older, ranging in age from about seventy-to-ninety years old. Many of them sat for a few minutes to rest before walking home or waiting for someone to come meet them. Some of them sat there all day watching the hundreds of people passing by.
Photo by Gregory Krantz
One of the most interesting characteristics of the “Mercado central” in Alicante is the way observation is built into the social structure of the site. The people that come to pass the time either walking or sitting on the benches do so to watch others shop. While markets are so mundane and ordinary to the average Spaniard, they are also a place where people are guaranteed they will not be alone and will have something to see. Like watching a TV show, the market changes everyday but the story stays the same. The observers and the socialites of the market recognize the mundanity, but they also see its importance. The market culture must be kept alive by the shoppers, but also the desire to watch the customers. The appreciation of the scene is what sustains the vibrancy and the intensity. It makes the place much more desirable since there are people to perform for and an appreciation for the interplay of order and chaos. “Culture” is often defined as a means to navigate between order and chaos. It is this navigation that takes place in the market that holds the interest of the observers and socialites who also contribute to the complexity and character of the market.
One morning while trying to be a socialite or an observer, I met a ninety-one year old woman named Esperanza who spoke to me about her heavy groceries and the long walk home. We both watched a woman offer to pay for some vegetables for a male friend of hers after which Esperanza carried on for almost half an hour about the changes of men and women’s roles after. A woman’s place is in the house, raising children so they won’t waste away waste away in one of those horrible day care centers.
“Esto es el problema con las mujeres de hoy, ya no saben como manipular a los hombres y así se aprovechen de ellas” (This is the problem with modern women, they don’t know how to manipulate the men so the get taken advantage of). With women’s “new” independence, they pay for everything and disrupt the social balance. She says this as she places all of her groceries in a bag and plans to walk the several miles alone back to her apartment. The way in which eyes turn in on the market transforms the observers into social commentators. The actions and resulting analysis of the customers becomes a site to critique larger Spanish society. The presentation of the market makes it is a microcosm of the region. People see and comment on what lies before them, reminding them of their own lives. But while the market provides a place to analyze a way of life, it is also a way for people to take the focus off themselves and put it on other. Like Esperanza who struggles to come to the market and buy her food, her commentary on “those” women gives her something to talk about and a way to say she is not like them; she is somehow superior. Individual insecurities come forth in the market as they do anywhere.
Photo by Gregory Krantz
A few moments after Esperanza has kissed me goodbye, a man named José joins me on the bench. He introduces himself and comments on the weather, though we are inside and underground. Like Esperanza, José tells me about the people that pass by.
“Conoce a algunos? (Do you know any of them?)” I ask.
“Conoczo a caras, pero no a las personas, me quedo aquí a mirar (I know faces, not people, I hang out here to watch).”
José is a socialite, making his way through and around the market, punctuating his time with reading the newspaper and sitting on the benches. When he was younger he used to work for some of the fish vendors, but he is now too old to do that. He often spends time with the younger brothers and children of the people he worked with since the market gives him a sense of comfort. “Me siento en casa” (I feel at home), he says. It soothes him to still be part of the atmosphere. The ever present faces remind him that he still belongs and that things have not changed too much as he moved into old age.
Each person in the market has a story, a reason for coming, staying, passing through. The vendors depict tales of continuing their family business, carrying on the trade while others struggled to begin their independent business. The customers come with family and friends, alone, rushing. Foreigners having experiences similar to my early ones at the market weave through it like it’s a museum. But the most fascinating aspect of the market in Alicante is how the roles of every individual overlap. The socialites and observers are watched as they walk through and periodically buy food. The shoppers chat as they wait in line and later share a coffee with full carts parked next to their just chairs outside the market. No one person has any one identity within the market as no person has one identity in the greater cultural context. It is this complexity and role shifting which gives the market its vibrancy, causing it to ebb and flow as it reflects the Spanish culture that it feeds.