A quick look through Google showed the nearest Mercadona 1.3 km. away. People kept telling me that was the place to go for cheap groceries here in Madrid, and I was eager to take advantage of my newly acquired pedestrian freedom and hike there. Walking through Lopez de Hoyos, I keep looking at all of the stores, tiny mom and pop shops, with their displays full of shoes, bags, candy, appliances. It reminded me of Chacao.

As I walk, I think through my shopping list. I tried to keep it basic: Rice, produce, cheese, eggs, meat and poultry.

The shock of the clean hits me as soon as I get there. It’s completely immaculate, compared to the abastos back home. Near the door, all this gorgeous produce: shiny apples, giant red tomatoes, everything looked perfect. I take a left thinking to grab the produce last, and walk past the meat section. I can’t avoid a feeling of guilt from looking at all the food, readily available, while people in Venezuela are scavenging for food. The craziest thing was, that prices were somewhat similar to Venezuela, but people in Venezuela don’t have European salaries.

All this stuff: packaged and organized, no plastic bags with prices scribbled in sharpie.

I grab four of them and put them in my cart, then I realize that I’m not in Venezuela, so I put two of them back. Realistically, I only need one.

I keep walking and suddenly, baffled in amazement over the many things I hadn’t seen in Venezuela for years. And then, all of a sudden: a yellow beam of light calling me from afar; it’s Venezuela’s Food Flag: Harina PAN!!

I grab four of them and put them in my cart, then I realize that I’m not in Venezuela, so I put two of them back. Realistically, I only need one.

But I think the place where I truly lose my shit is the milk aisle: skim, 1%, 2%, lactose free, something-something, I don’t even understand why they have so many kinds.

Then I remember, of course: competition, and then I giggle in my mind out of my naiveté.

Same thing happens with cheese, I completely forgot about the flavor of Havarti cheese or Swiss cheese, – at home all I had was queso blanco and once in a new moon some queso Los Frailes -. I buy them both and, shocker:  Havarti and Swiss – it’s pretty much the same thing. Who’d remembered?

But I had to try them, I mean you don’t find that in Venezuela! – I call my girlfriend super excited about the Cheese and she was excited for me too! She hasn’t had any of those in the longest time either.

As time went by I kept my grocery shopping routine, what I didn’t realize is that, subconsciously, I was buying more than I needed for the week. Rice, flour, sugar, toilet paper and toothpaste — these things kept accumulating in my apartment. It wasn’t until a friend asked me for a glass of water, opened my only cabinet and gaped amazed at all the stuff in there, that it hit me.

I hadn’t realized I was hoarding. But I was.

I had to sit back and actually think what was happening.

I remembered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and how socialist governments often exploit it for social control. It’s easier to subdue people whose only thought is survival.  There’s empirical evidence that authoritarian regimes often attack our basic needs to control the population from rioting and to distract the common foe from complaining about the government.

In Venezuela, I mused about this, but never thought it affected me.  I mean I was consciously seeing the deterioration of the nation and kept thinking, this is not normal, this is not normal. But once I went  to “normality”, that panicky need to be prepared stayed with me.

Cuba and the Soviet Union saw this strategy at work, too, to force the common citizen into lines so they’d be thankful when the government “provides” the citizens with a week’s worth of food, once a month. People coming out of war-zones report something similary: without a hoard of food supplies, they can’t feel safe.

Five months have gone by and I still can’t shake the vague sense that the food might run.

This hoarding mentality is what is left from a broken system, is like that one unwanted email from the ex you don’t want to deal with, or, the remembrance that you come from a country that is falling apart and you chose to leave. In many ways, un hombre preparado vale por dos, but that rule needs some constraints, to avoid the abuse and costs of over-preparedness.

Five months have gone by and I still can’t shake the vague sense that the food might run out and I better be safe than sorry.  

I better have that extra kilo of rice, just in case hell breaks lose. I better have enough toilet paper, in case, well… you know. I know it’s irrational but still, I feel safer knowing, that I have food than to rely on the “system”.

I remembered not having any meat at all in April 2016, feeling helpless over something so trivial. It stays with you, that feeling.

One day, last year, we ran out of Harina Pan. I hadn’t had arepas or canillas for a month, a friend at the office offered to barter Harina PAN for a deodorant. I was so excited to have the harina pan that I forgot how ludicrous the situation was. I mean, Bartering in the XXI century, what is that?

I’ve tried my hardest to leave my Venezuelan habits behind, but still, when it comes to basic foods, I just gotta be stocked up.

I’m working on buying less rice. On buying the one-liter of yogurt instead of two liter. I try to go to the supermarket only if I run out of something. But it’s not easy; the essentials are always the hardest things to let go of, eggs, chicken or harina pan are always a must, even if I already have them at home, I just feel more comfortable if I buy a little more.

Last Wednesday, I went to the store telling myself I was going to buy only carrots. I kept telling myself that on the walk to the store. When I got to there, I still noticed the bags of Harina Pan all shiny and new, and yeah, part of me did still think it couldn’t hurt to have another couple of kilos of Harina in the house.

I resisted…but I’ve come to accept this struggle as a new part of my life. The fear of not having what you really need can be overwhelming.  Which is why I still thank God and my family every time I come back from the grocery store with bags of groceries, and no problems.

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  1. I was working once in a war zone, where it got beaten into my head that when I was in non-secured areas, I should never leave the pavement because there could be buried mines. A year later, I was back in a safe and normal country and I was driving in the countryside when I saw a couple of young people climbing a hill next to the highway. For a brief moment, I had a fear that they would be blown up by a mine. Silly, yes… but there is a reason why survival skills and lessons stick with us.

  2. Some years ago my sister in law made friends with a Cuban lady whose doctor husband had been sent from Cuba to get a medical treatment which was available in Venezuela but not in Cuba , She told my sister in law that the first time she went to a regular Caracas supermarket back then she was overwhelmed by the variety and abundance of things on offer , things she knew existed because she had seen pictures of them but not because she had ever had a chance of buying them in Cuba , so overwhelmed in fact that she broke in tears in front of a puzzled group of customers !!

    More recently I met a lady outside Venezuela waiting in a queue before a counter so very thin that without meaning to a relative next to me made a face of surprise , to try and hide the embarrasment my relative complimented the lady on the effectiveness of her diet ..the lady said using a cuban accent , this is no diet lady , what you are seeing is the face of hunger , Ive just come from Cuba where there is always hunger , fortunately my son was able to pull me out ……!!

    Now what we found odd in Cubans just leaving the island , is becoming normal behaviour for regular Venezuelans ……not strange at all , our govts follow the same failed ideological recipe for ruling our respective countries ……..!!

  3. Other than family or the fear of having to start all over again and give up possessions, I’m curious to know why anyone with the financial means would remain in Venezuela? Anyone in this position care to comment?

    • its a very difficult decision even with everything thats going on, you leave everything you have what you know, family and friends for another place where you might be alone, a different tongue, to the unexpected, logic says its obviously the right thing but its still a hard thing to do. For some people with the means to leave id say the top 5% or 10% they dont feel the crisis, they get by buying stuff at 5, 10, 15 times the prices no problem (or they just get them from the US), they are sorrounded by other people who also dont live the crisis, for them its just a story that only affects them when they want to go out at night, not a really big deal for them. My group of friends is like this, for different reasons in life i was sorrounded by the top 10% of society while i didnt necesarrily belong to this group, i got along with them, they are very nice people, but for them the everday strugle is no where close to that of what the author wrote above, they always have food in their fridges and more than enough money to go partying in someones house with good rum.

      So what i would say is that the people that want to leave the most are those who were once middle class but now have really felt the hit of the crisis, the contrast beetwen the two lifes, they could get out by selling their things and burning savings but it gets harder everyday (specially when you consider getting visas). For those that dont really feel the crisis, the case of my friends and some others they will leave when they are done partying, studying and then they cant find a decent paying job in Venezuela. That has been my personal experience but maybe its reduced to a very liltle percentage of the population of those with the means to leave the country.

  4. “Which is why I still thank God and my family every time I come back from the grocery store with bags of groceries, and no problems.”

    I’ve been doing the same lately. Reading what’s been happening in Venezuela made me appreciate the “small things” in life. It’s crazy how we take everything for granted, even voting irresponsibly for socialists believing that nothing can change for worse, and then, suddenly, we wake up and realize that our lives are ruined and it’s too late.

    My grandparents were in Europe during WW2 and they were never the same again. My grandmother still today refuses to throw away out of date food. “It’s still eatable”, she says. We kind of laugh with that, but every now and then she gets sick due to eating rotten food.

    Whenever we leave food on the plate she gets really annoyed, and will remember us of that the next time we eat with her, warning with a “It’s not to leave on the plate this time, only serve what you can eat.” And it’s not some sort of elderly folks dementia, she’s been like that since ever, my mother says.

    But we have given up on trying to solve WW2 trauma with arguments, we know she will be like that until her last days. Hopefully, you will recover faster than that. Chavismo’s trauma is bad, but not as bad, I believe, or better yet: I want to believe!

  5. I really miss Madrid. And Toledo. Madrid has my one true vice. Iberian ham… thinly sliced and put over a delicious Mediterranean thick slice of bread topped with a local version of parmesan cheese. The topas not far from Plaza Mayor had these ready for the hungry tourists… A glass of sangria (or two… or three…. and more!) and my Spanish was getting better by the sip.

    But “hoarding” is not something you readily forget. My neighbors who came from former soviet republics had this affliction for years and realized that their stocks were expired and beyond edible or they would get too fat in America. They would comment, “Why do you need 20 varieties of toothpaste?” … “Because we can… and we want it.”

    Want and Need are two very different words. They get used interchangeably all the time, but, they have very different meanings. Needs are what you run low on in countries without capitalism. Wants are something you learn to live without.

    But do not despair. Having 2 bags of Pan is nothing to feel bad about coming home from the store with. We always have 1 tucked away, but, in a sealed plastic box. Rotate through your stocks and you’ll be fine.

    I still miss the ham. Silly gringo laws prevent us Americano’s from brining it back to the USA.

  6. You can always spot the Venezuelan visitors in a Miami supermarket-they are the ones taking pictures of the merchandise!!!!

  7. Here is south Florida I meet new Vzs arrivals everyday.

    It is as if I live in Galt’s Gulch and new people going Galt show up everyday.

    Vzs. loss has been South Florida’s gain. When and if the government become sensible again, I fear Vz will not have the people it needs to grow and prosper again.

    Is Ayn Rand read in Vz?

  8. We solved the hoarding problem –
    There’s a pack of orange, yellow and even white
    in the pantry,
    date of purchase sharpied on.
    Yearly, we replace the packs.
    They are always available at SuperStore, Burnaby

    Forever and ever, Harina Pan’ll stay in my heart,
    just not in our tummies.


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