The Tomatoes Incident

Valencia is probably one of the most cosmopolite cities in the world, and definitely the most cosmopolite I ever lived in. Since I moved here, 4 months ago, there wasn’t a single day passed without hearing at least 4-5 different languages on the street, in coffee shops or supermarkets. On top of Spanish, which is obviously the most popular, you can hear Valencian (which is rapidly gaining traction here), Catalan, English, French, Dutch and yes, quite often Romanian. I started to get used to this diversity.

Although I’m not (yet) fluent in Spanish, I have a decent level of understanding. I spoke Spanish at my latest official meeting with local authorities and everybody seemed to have understand what I meant. But in the coffee shops, or at the co-working meetings, English is the most common language.

But something really strange happened the other day. Mind you, it didn’t happen to me, but happened in front of me, to somebody else, but in a very strange way.

Let me tell you a very short story.

We were out to do some grocery shopping at one of the supermarkets around here, called Mercadona. We bought some fruits and vegetables and then sat in line at the least crowded cash register. In front of us there was a couple of middle-age people, looking moderately cosmopolite (I kinda started to “see” who’s a local here and who’s not) and not talking too much.

When they had their turn, the cashier took a bag of tomatoes and showed that to them. The couple nodded and I could immediately understand they didn’t understand what the cashier was asking them. Which was simply if they want that bag of tomatoes weighted. That’s how it works in Mercadona (as opposed to other supermarkets, where you have to weigh the vegetables yourself, before getting to the cashier). So, as our couple nodded, the cashier asked them in English: “so, I also speak English, do you want this weighted?”. The couple nodded again, but this time in a slightly negative way, and I could see they were believing they made a mistake: they didn’t weigh their tomatoes before coming to the cashier. “Oh, that’s ok, said the cashier, deepening the confusion, you don’t have to take them down where you took them, I’ll just leave the bag here and somebody else will pick it out”. The couple nodded again, and I could easily see they were trying to make peace with the fact they won’t have tomatoes for the dinner. Because they didn’t weigh the fucking tomatoes before. Or so they believed the cashier was telling them.

At this point, Raluca, my girlfriend, decided to intervene, so she asked the guy from the couple: “Do you really need the tomatoes?”. “Yes”, he answered, visibly relieved and then he mumbled something else. Seconds after, we realized he was speaking in French, and he was apologizing for the fact the he didn’t know he had to weigh those tomatoes before getting there. Luckily, both Raluca and I know French, so we said, almost at the some time: “On pese pas dans le rayon, tout se pese ici”, which basically means “you don’t weigh stuff in the aisle, everything is weighted here”.

The cashier looked slightly confused at this point so we decided to let him know that the tomatoes bag must return. “Ellos queren la bolsa”, we told him, trying to get over his baffled expression. And while the cashier was bringing the bag back on the counter, and the couple was visibly happy because their dinner just got tomatoes again, I understood something so simple, yet so frighteningly ubiquitous.

The confusion.

The basic conviction that we are helping someone, where in fact we’re actually harming them.

As we were heading back home, after the couple got their bag of tomatoes and the cashier understood the confusion, we talked for a while about it.

How many times are we convinced we’re doing the right thing, without even knowing that we’re basing our conviction on the wrong basis? How many times we feel so right about our choices, without even knowing what the choice was about? How many times we’re doing the wrong thing, maybe hurting others, without even realizing that we’re hurting them?

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