The Unlikely Thing That Finally Made Me Feel at Home in a Foreign Country

Wandering the aisles of a food market in 
a strange city, Ilana Manaster found her community… and new 
eyes for the displaced souls all around her.

barcelona-market
Photo by holgs/Getty Images

"It worries me to hear that you aren’t cooking,” a friend wrote in a text after I moved to Barcelona with my husband and toddler. Admittedly, there was cause for concern—not because I wasn’t cooking but because of what I was doing instead: sitting at a desk in a small room in the furnished apartment we’d rented, writing and thinking longingly of the place we’d left, New York.

We came to Barcelona for an adventure, before our son got old enough to make that impossible. It’s a beautiful, warm, culturally alive city—a food city. I’m fluent in Spanish, and I’d expected to find excitement and inspiration in the charming streets of my new surroundings. Instead, I found myself in a muck of downheartedness verging on despair. Leaving behind the city I’d moved to in my ­starry-eyed youth, and all the relationships I’d built over 12 years there, turned out to be much harder than I had expected. I felt nothing so much as unseen, as if, when I left the people I knew and loved, I’d actually vanished. Lonelier than being alone is being completely surrounded by strangers who have plans for the weekend that don’t include you.

“What’s the point of putting on an outfit?” I thought, staring into my closet. “I don’t know anybody here.”

Homesick, friendless, I had to adjust to a completely new way of doing absolutely everything. New York has its own processes, which I knew as well as I knew the streets of Manhattan. Barcelona seemed to have an even stricter set of rules and rituals, but I didn’t know what they were and had nobody I could ask to help me make sense of them. This was especially true when it came to eating and cooking.

Just about every Barcelona neighborhood has its own municipal market. Ours, Mercat de l’Estrella, was steps away, at the end of our block. Small compared with other markets in the city, it was chaotic and intimidating nonetheless, with endless rows of stalls snaking across two floors. Lines of elderly women with overflowing grocery carts extended in every direction. Vendors sipped espresso beneath dangling cured pork thighs and fire-red chorizos. Fish pulled from the Mediterranean mere hours earlier lay on ice. There were stalls of seasonal vegetables and bins of nuts and dried fruit. All of it looked delicious, but how was I supposed to buy it? How to ask for it, measure it, purchase it here, in this community that functioned as it always had, while I was an outsider?

Upstairs I discovered a cansaladeria, or delicatessen, where a vast array of remarkable things could be purchased fully cooked. Rejoice! Only I still wasn’t clear on how to proceed. I hesitated in front of the case, unsure of what to get or how, but the women behind the counter kindly offered to help. They explained the things that I had never eaten before, regional classics that were as standard for them as they were new to me: salty artichokes with fava beans, sepia stuffed with ground meat, spinach with raisins and pine nuts, country sausage and white beans, roasted rabbit. There was no expectation, as there would be in New York, that I hurry. Slowly, with guidance, I chose what I wanted. That night, on our balcony, while looking out at the hills on one side and the sea in the distance, we feasted.

And so began a daily ritual. After I dropped off my son at his wonderful neighborhood preschool, I went to the market to pick up dinner. In no time, I was a regular. The ladies behind the counter greeted me warmly, asked how we were adapting to our new surroundings. I felt less like a ghost, haunting the streets of my neighborhood, and more like a citizen, contributing to its vitality through participation. Conversation mattered here, I discovered. To stay, to choose carefully, to discuss and gossip was how things were done in Barcelona, and I began to enjoy myself.

Over time, emboldened by my growing familiarity with the place and its customs, I branched out to other stalls. The gruff, bearded fishmonger turned out to be warm and helpful. Parboil some potatoes and slice them thin to roast under the fish, a little cava in there, too, don’t forget, he said as he used an enormous cleaver to slit a dorado so I could tuck in lemon slices. Parsley was free with purchase. He wore gloves to prepare the fish but didn’t take them off when we exchanged money, so euros came to me speckled with fish blood. This was how it was done, and I did it, too, hauling everything home in my rolling cart to cook like a real Catalan lady.

The staff at the vegetable stand I liked always kept cookies behind the counter for my son when he was with me. “Hola, guapo!” they said (“Hi, handsome”). We liked the spinach tortilla from the nut stall and the tortilla de patatas from the chicken stall downstairs. I learned that one of the chicken ladies had a son a year older than mine who attended the same preschool. We asked after each other’s children as she wrapped my tortilla or, if it was Friday, scooped paella into a carton.

When my pregnancy became obvious, the women at the cansaladeria inquired about my health and comfort, adding a ladleful more rice or sauce after they’d metered out the price. My daughter was born a year into our time in Barcelona, and we stayed six months more before the distance became too much and we moved again, to Chicago, where our families lived.

On my last day at the market, the women at the cansaladeria fawned over the baby girl I wore wrapped tightly to my body and wished us luck. For family, of course, you must return, they said. They referred to Chicago as our tierra, our land, a funny notion for America, where we believe that earth can be bought and sold but does not belong to anyone. I thanked them and, somewhat wistfully, said goodbye.

In Chicago we started over yet again. Again we found an apartment, a pediatrician, childcare. We figured out where to shop, to eat. As I had in Barcelona, I engaged with the fish guy at my favorite supermarket, the butcher at the German meat store. But these everyday interactions are fundamentally different for me in Chicago, not only because it is a different kind of place but also because I don’t hunger for them in the same way. I grew up here. Many of my oldest friends live in the area, as do my entire family and most of my husband’s. But because of my experience in Barcelona, I have become attuned to people who do not have the connections to this place that I have. I hear their yearning when they describe the home they left and the bewilderment they’re experiencing in their new town. When I encounter these disoriented newcomers, I try to make myself available to them, to let them know that despite all they left behind, they are not alone.

To a neighbor who was eight months pregnant with her second child, I offered our house as a safe place for her 2-year-old son during labor and delivery. Neither she nor her husband knew many people in Chicago, and I remembered the intricate childcare plans I had made for my son when I gave birth far from home.

Friends in New York connected me to a writer with three kids who had just moved here. “Who will be my emergency contact?” she asked the third time we hung out.

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“Me,” I said, because of course.

At the playground, I struck up a conversation with a woman from France who has not been able to work here since her partner was transferred. I made sure to ask how she felt, having given up her career.

“It’s been hard,” she said.

I nodded. I know how it is to be far away and out of touch with the person you were.

Displaced souls roam every city in every country. Having been one, I see them clearly, and I can provide for them what I received from the vendors of Mercat de l’Estrella—a bit of warm contact in an unfamiliar place. This is my tierra, after all, and I want those who come to love it as I do to be welcomed and feel seen.

About the Author: Ilana Manaster is the author of the young-adult novel Doreen. Her nonfiction has appeared 
 in Cosmopolitan and Blunderbuss. She lives 
 in Chicago.

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