This evening me and C. make our little trek up Luis Maria Campos to buy a few delights to eat. One of us treads this path every day, but today we go together. As we walk we talk about two things: what we are going to buy and where we are going to buy it.
He wants oranges like the ones he found on Thursday: huge, springing with juice and sweet, sweet, sweet. Those we will find again in the more distant ‘minimercado chino’ (which for brevity I will call MMc2), where there is a convenient greengrocer in the entrance: we will walk two blocks further than the first available ‘minimercado chino’ (MMc1) where there is also a convenient greengrocer in the entrance. We will also visit the deli at the back (of MMc2) because it sells something that I can truly recognise as being ‘bacon’, and I have converted C. to bacon and eggs for breakfast. Once we arrive we see that strawberries are only $6.99 a kilo and look amazing. We buy them too.
He wants tomatoes, but I know they are riper this week in MMc1 so we will stop on the way back. We’ll buy our Pepsi there because I tell Carlos that 1.5L is only $3.60, rather than $5.50 in the ‘panadería’ where we will buy our baguettes. We choose that ‘panadería’ over the one exactly opposite because the bread is tastier. We miss out the greengrocer nearest to the apartment completely because the strawberries are $8.50 a kilo: maybe everything costs more there today.
As we walk home with our bags of goodies we talk about three things: my newly discovered stunning encyclopedic knowledge of the prices of everything, our delight at scoring four huge oranges, half a kilo of strawberries and two perfect pears for $8.20 (these days we are surprised if any combination of three fruits comes to less than$10pesos), and how brilliantly we managed to lie our way to getting our hands on several pesos worth of ‘monedas’.
Carlos says, ‘Look at you!’ in that gorgeous warm way the Argentines do, ‘Mira vos!’ which means all sorts of things, but in this case it means, ‘Wow. Look how you’ve changed. You never used to know any of that stuff!’
And as usual he is right, and probably more right than he realises. In my past life I would drive down to an aircraft hanger sized Tesco once a week, debit card in hand and buy everything under one roof. I would stroll around every aisle grabbing anything I fancied. I never looked at the prices. I never paid with cash. I did notice that most of the fruit and veg I bought was travelling from the other side of the world, and didn’t taste that great, so I started buying ‘organic’ (although most of that came from the other side of the world too) and spending even more money. Life for lots of reasons was different then. For a start I didn’t have to worry about exchange rates turning against me, or inflation you can see on a daily basis. I never had to walk home carrying shopping. I had a freezer. And a purse full of coins was a total nuisance most of the time.
To live in cash is the biggest financial reality check ever. I see everything I spend (including all my apartment expenses and utility bills) pass through my wallet, for the first time in my life since I stopped getting pocket money. When I am trying to make this week’s ATM withdrawal last, I learn to be canny about what I buy where. The joy of that process is that I also discover who sells the juiciest, the rosiest, the sweetest. Everything I choose tastes better than anything in hypermarket-land, and as Carlos tells me with pride, ‘It mostly all comes from Argentina you know.’
And now, I long for a purse full of coins. If me and C. don’t have ‘monedas’ then we can’t take the bus or do our laundry in the apartment block machines. Every morning we check to make sure he has the coins to get to work, and home again. We decide how we will each travel that day, how many buses we will need to catch, whether we can use the drier as well as the washing machine this week. We make plans to try and get more coins for the next day. We compete to see who can get the most.
I am sure that this sounds ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t tried to live in Buenos Aires… ‘What do you mean you can’t get coins?‘ Friends who visit temporarily, seem to enjoy the challenge. And I am happy that they do: the best gift they can give me is a pocketful of change when they leave. But when you have to play the ‘monedas’ game every single day it gets a bit stressful. It ain’t funny when you’re trying to get home from work in the dark or in the rain and the only way to take a bus is to first find a kiosk where you can buy some sweet (that you don’t want) with a $2 note and get a peso change… you are likely to be turned down repeatedly.
And so I am forced to perfect my convincing, ‘No, no tengo monedas,’ along with every other shopper I know.
Sometimes I will own up to having 20 centavos if I might land a peso coin in return, but that is as far as my ‘honesty’ goes. I will plan my purchases so that the total means change that clinks. I will even work out what I must to buy to be able to actually use the washing machine: 50 centavo pieces will not do. And after some months of this, I am getting rather spiffy at mental arithmetic, and dare I say it, at lying.
So what with the ‘monedas’ mission, our search for the best prices, plus the quest to discover ‘the most delicious in the barrio’, our little shopping trips are our daily mind gym workout.
We calculate. And I become more calculating.
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