As an important introductory note, El Corte Inglés is the mother of all Spanish department stores and central to the Spanish existence. Wherever El Corte Inglés can be found in a city, all monuments and plazas aside, that area is known as the city center. Generally, the goods (which range from high-end clothing to toothpaste, groceries to cars and vacations) are spread among a number of nearby buildings, all massive, ensuring that whatever you might need will not be in the building where you happen to be. Therefore, when you ask a salesperson for something, they will inevitably give you their trademark withing look (but only once they stop chatting with other employees) and send you not to another floor of the behemoth, but possibly down the street to another floor of another behemoth, with as little actual direction or assistance as possible.
Why do I hate El Corte Inglés, do you ask? Oh, where to begin?
For starters, because they have most anything you could need, they charge you up the wazoo for this type of convenience (although one could argue that making your way through the aisles this time of year, elbows out, dodging women in 4 inch heels and more baby strollers than seems physically possible for a country this size, is far from convenient). Nearly everything costs more than it would anywhere else. But whereas El Corte Inglés is in the city center, and generally easy to reach, its big box competitors require a drive, or in my case, a long bus ride which will drop me nowhere near the actual store itself. I’m convinced the transportation networks and El Corte Inglés are in cahoots. Smaller stores are also an option, but apparently almost perpetually closed. The drugstore-ish place across the street from my house has been open maybe six times in the three months I’ve lived here.
But actually shopping in El Corte Inglés is not convenient at all. Say you want to buy a new notebook, a pair of socks, a loaf of bread, and a t-shirt. Well, that’s four distinct areas, sucker, so you have to wait in line at the cash register to pay not once, but four times, even if you happen to get lucky and they are all in the same building. You get to deal with the jerks who work there not once, but four times! What should take you 15 minutes, tops, will be an hour. More if you go before siesta or immediately after or on a Saturday or before they close. I don’t even need to mention the time before Christmas until after Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day). Actually, after Reyes Magos, when all stores have their annual sales until the end of January, isn’t recommended either.
Then there are the aforementioned people who work at El Corte Inglés. I’m sure they are perfectly nice and civil in general society, but get them in those polyester uniforms, and the worst of Spanish society comes out. They aren’t available, and when they are, they are rarely helpful. Should they be both available and mildly helpful, as a woman was to me a few weeks ago when shopping for tights, there’s a catch. You see, at least half of the items do not have price tags, requiring you to ask how much every second thing costs. And when you ask, they tell you the price and then immediately say, “Should I ring it up for you?” Should you answer, as I did, that you are browsing, not ready to buy yet, or any variation of these responses, you will be given a dirty look, as I was, and then abandoned for a more willing buyer. Or, more than likely, for the employee’s cell phone, which certainly hasn’t been checked for at least three minutes.
To enter El Corte Inglés, one must fight through the dreaded perfume/makeup section. It’s kind of like those football drills where you have to run the gauntlet, but without any padding and with more plastic-y fembots than should be allowed in the whole of the world. The women stand in the aisles with samples of perfume or pieces of tissue paper/Kleenex formed into flowers and spritzed with perfume. But if you look like me (ie no 4 inch heels, clearly foreign, and apparently not pija enough), then there’s no Kleenex flowers for you! They make no secret of giving me the full body scan, checking me out head to toe, generally followed by a little scowl. “Wha? No makeup? No heels? No horrendous skinny leg jeans? Wha? Who is this creature?” I’ve even tried making eye contact, smiling, not smiling, trying to shame the damn Kleenex flower out of them, but only one woman, bless her heart, relented. However, should I walk through with Pat, or with his parents, people more respectable than me, all the sudden I’m showered with affection and more samples than I could use over the course of the year. They can keep their damn Kleenex.
But let’s say, in a moment of weakness or insanity or a mixture of the two, you decide to actually buy something at El Corte Inglés. You might as well just find the register and wait, even if there’s no one there or even nearby. You can’t pay for whatever it is you foolishly want in any other section. Should you ask an employee about the vacant cash register, I guarantee they’ll say it’s not their area and will give you a heartless shrug of the shoulders. So you wait. When someone finally arrives, expect a brusque hola, money to be exchanged without another word, and that the bag will then be placed on the counter or on top of the register but never in your hands, and I owe you money if the employee actually deigns to look at you at any point during this entire interlude.
So what exactly DOES El Corte Inglés have going for it, other than a central location and an air of snobbery that people inexplicably seem to buy into? Well, some foreign food which is impossible to find elsewhere, such as peanut butter. (I am proud to say I have yet to buy into that scam, as I packed my own 16 oz. jar of Jif, thank you very much). The same withholding cannot be said for black beans, which I am ashamed to report cost me a whopping 2.50€ a can. Buying is bad for my self respect, but good for my occasional Mexican fix.
Damn you, El Corte Inglés.