It seems like Tuesdays are my days for setbacks recently. Once again, I stubbed my cultural toe yesterday, and this time much more painfully, ending in tears on a street corner after spending twenty minutes with what felt like an entire store full of people all glaring at me and scoffing at THAT American.

Yes, last night I was that tourist in line that everyone hates — the one who doesn’t know what they’re doing, who is insensitive and dumb, doesn’t speak the language, etc. And I spend so much of my time and effort trying NOT to be that person. Alas.

The day was for the most part normal — work, writing, gym, and a great Portuguese lesson where we discussed the life of the Portuguese national poet, Fernando Pessoa, and the history of the dictatorship here. Even though I was too fascinated to bother with speaking Portuguese for most of the time, I still learned a great deal. At this point I have more or less given up on actually learning the language, and instead am seeing my lessons instead as an exercise in cultural and social research. Far more entertaining and productive that way.

So it was with a smile and a jaunty step that I headed out into the relatively mild evening, Rachel Maddow on my iPod, sunset on the horizon. I was planning to head to the grocery store and then meet Gabe somewhere along the way so that he could help carry the bags.

I did my usual round of the store near my tutor’s house — fruit, limited veggies, cereal, lots of dairy, eggs, etc. I greeted the checker, got ignored as usual, and bagged all my stuff as she rang it through. She finished and told me the total price, which came to roughly 19 euros. I pulled out my wallet, opened it, and found two five euro notes. Ten euros. Nothing more.

Shit, I said. Shit shit shit.

Now, a brief explanation here: since I’m not on our Portuguese bank account, Gabe has our only bank card. To avoid the brutal conversion rate, he just pulls enough cash for both of us out of our Portuguese bank account. (Yes, I am a kept woman. And I like it.) Usually I’m good about noticing when I need more cash, but this time I hadn’t realized that I was getting low. And more importantly, I learned very early on that no one takes credit cards here. We are lucky if they take our Portuguese bank card, and many places don’t even do that.

In other words, I was stuck. There was a line of people already building up, all my groceries were already in my bags, and the woman was waiting impatiently for me to hand over the money so she could get on with the job she so clearly hates.

In other words, once again: shit.

I told the girl I didn’t have enough money, which caused her to sigh hugely in exasperation. No, I only have ten euros. No, I don’t have a multibanco card. (Note: she specifically asked me if I had a bank card, NOT a credit card.) I tried to explain that my husband was coming shortly with more money, so she could just cancel the whole transaction and then I would wait for him to arrive.

Everything?” she asked in disbelief. “You want me to cancel everything?”

Quickly I backpedaled and said, “No, just up to ten euros is fine.” So she said, OK fine, and angrily started running my items back through the register, one by one.

Of course to do this she had to ring a loud buzzer to call the manager up to the front, which only called more attention to my predicament. “We have a stupid American without enough cash on aisle one! Stupid American, aisle one!” The line was all the way back into the aisle by now, and they were all staring at me in curiosity, although it hadn’t yet turned to resentment.

That soon changed as the checker had to laboriously hunt back through the receipt to find the code for every single item she’d rung through. I again tried to explain in stilted Portuguese that my husband would be arriving soon, and she replied (in even more stilted English), “Stop. I just need you to… stop.” OK! Jeeeeez!!!

By now she had closed off her line and called one of the other checkers up to open the other register, but the bottleneck I’d created was still lined up back into the aisles. To make things worse, I knew that the other checker was way nicer than this one, and also understood English. If only he’d been working the register when I came through! If only!

So we stood there, me in agonized silence, her in total frustration, with the line of people at the other register still either glaring at me or peering over in curiosity. Either way, I was the spectacle of their evening — especially when she again had to buzz the manager up to the front, who proceeded to help her ring all my items through, the register beeping and whining multiple times for each one.

It was like every noise and movement they made was a neon sign pointing to my head saying, “This is THAT American! This is THAT tourist, who you pity and at the same time hate for holding up your evening!” Ahhhh! I really wanted to crawl under a rock and die. But I also really wanted my yogurt and fruit and eggs, and I wanted to be able to shop at this store in the future, so I couldn’t just walk away and forget the whole thing.

So I stood there, and wished with all my heart and soul that I was somewhere else, or that the nice English speaking boy had been the one to ring me up, or that I had waited for Gabe, or that I had asked him for more cash, or done ANYTHING differently to have avoided this hideously embarrassing situation. But I hadn’t, so there I stood, looking like a total idiot.

Finally, after all the items had been rung back through and piled up on the conveyer belt, she looked at me and once again asked if I didn’t have a multibanco card. I said no, my husband has it, all I have is a Visa. At this she rolled her eyes and said incredulously, “We take Visa!”, gesturing imperiously at the sign all the way on the other register saying that yes, you stupid idiot, they did take Visa. Fan-bloody-tastic. They take Visa. Great. Of course they do!

Just at that moment, my savior Gabe walks in, with his money and his Portuguese. Suddenly the checker is much nicer and far more forgiving, and proceeds to ring everything back through yet again, waving off his far more fluent apology as if it were no big deal. Nice, lady, real nice.

As she was doing so, I happened to notice that there was an item left in my second bag that I hadn’t seen before, so she hadn’t returned it. At this point I really didn’t want to know what she’d do if I asked her to go back and return one more item, and I really just wanted the entire experience to be over with, so I just shut the hell up and didn’t say a thing.

So in the end, after we’d paid and finally FINALLY left the site of my twenty-minute long humiliation, after all that… I ended up getting a free four pack of yogurt (which only cost about a euro anyway.) Normally I would’ve felt terrible, and I still kind of do. But under the circumstances, I couldn’t help but feel that it was some kind of poetic justice. I will eat every one of those yogurts with gusto, knowing that I earned their illicit goodness with every minute of that excruciatingly embarrassing ordeal.

I know that in the grand scheme of things this was a minor blip on the radar, and even an hour later, I could laugh about it on the phone with my mom. But in a world where small triumphs are the only ones you have — successfully negotiating the gym, the grocery store, or the post office, for instance, or even ordering a meal — minor setbacks can also take on disproportionately large importance. As Gabe said, it was a cultural stub of the toe: it stung far more than it should have.

But I survived to tell the tale, and as I’m learning, that is really all that matters. At least it makes for good blogging material, right?

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