European sizes don't fit all

An American traveler gets sent to the 'extra large' pants corner in a Spanish clothing store – to his humiliation.

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I didn't plan to shop for clothes in Spain, but I didn't have much choice after my wife and I landed in Barcelona and our luggage didn't. No doubt miffed at being overpacked, our giant duffel bag vengefully decided to visit various airports around the world.

The people at the nameless German airline were certain the pouting luggage would turn up, although they couldn't promise it would be in our lifetime. So there we were. Two weeks in Europe and not a change of underwear in sight. What to do?

Well, my wife, whose British ancestors marched across Asia dressed in white and without spot remover, explained that with heated towel racks in hotel rooms we could wash and dry our clothes each night. After all, the only people seeing us in the same outfits would be desk clerks, who wear the same ensembles themselves each day. But, as usual, I failed to listen to reason.

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"We need new clothes," I insisted.

Finally, my wife agreed to let me take on a Spanish department store. I brushed aside the memory of what happened a few years ago when I landed, sans baggage, in Aix-en-Provence. Picturing myself in some chic French outfit, I headed to a local store. I strode up to the salesman who, though much shorter, was able to look down his nose at me. "I'd like to see some shirts," I said with what I felt was Gallic insouciance.

Eyebrows rising above his hairline, he looked at me with a barely concealed sneer. "Monseiur, I am sorry but we do not have..." the sneer grew, "... elephant sizes."

While I am not as thin as the proverbial rail, in places like Disney World I am considered "average." But not in France.

Still, this was Spain. Surely, Franco instilled some politeness in the country's salespeople. Or is laughing at American body types a reflex common to all Romance-language countries?

I was encouraged by the racks of nice slacks. Grabbing a pair, I approached a saleslady.

"Hola," I began, using up half my Spanish vocabulary. "Do you speak English?"

She nodded.

"Could you please tell me if this is my size?"

Quicker than you can say "paella," the woman pointed at a distant corner. "To the wall," she said firmly. "To the wall and to the right."

"But," I sputtered, gesturing to the slacks she tore from my pudgy hands, "won't these fit?"

I didn't get to finish. "To the wall," she said, even louder. "To the right."

Reluctantly I made my way across the floor. Was it my imagination or did people look at me as if I were an escapee from the Land of the Giants? Was it my Size 13 shoes?

And then I saw them. Men just like me. In their very own corner of the store. Men who dared to wear clothes labeled "extra large" huddling together for protection from sneering Spanish eyes. Normal-looking people in places like Sheboygan and Fresno who in Barcelona were treated as if they were offspring of the Incredible Hulk. I watched as they hesitantly put shirts up to their chests, pants to their waist, then quickly returned the garments to the racks before anyone noticed.

I didn't join them.

Quickly I exited the store, but not before I noticed that your average Spaniard was the same height and weight I was when I entered kindergarten. Is it any wonder that the vaunted Spanish Armada was blown away by a breeze? And not a stiff one, either.

• Chuck Cohen writes from Mill Valley, Calif.

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