Alive in Spain

A travel diary

Archive for the tag “Food”

Madrid: An Interlude

I had expected the temperature would get warmer as I travelled south. But late fall or winter has overtaken Spain, north and south. Cold fills the streets and seeps through windows and doorways, like a phantom. No place is safe from the chill.

My Somió Neighborhood

My Somió Neighborhood

I reluctantly left the pastoral neighborhood of Somió in Gijón after having spent an entire month there. I had fallen in love with it — the trees and mountain trails, the ocean, the magpies, snails, mules, livestock, sidrerías and bakeries, fresh produce and seafood at the local markets, and of course, the kindness of the people.

Downtown Somió

Downtown Somió

But once a city girl, always a city girl. Confronting crowds and noise as I stepped outside the Atocha train station in Madrid was second nature. It was like ending one great novel and starting another. Although I didn’t want the first book to end, the next book captured me from the first page. I found myself fully immersed in that other world.

Perhaps I didn’t pick the best weekend to spend in Madrid. I arrived to a cold and rainy city on the eleventh day of a garbage strike. Mountains of garbage overflowed beyond trash cans. Fall leaves and refuse intermingled in sidewalks. Dog waste seeped from plastic bags accidentally mashed by pedestrians or bicycles. My landlady apologized and promised Madrid is a clean city. As strange as it may sound, the garbage didn’t faze me. Madrid was Madrid and better than I’d heard. Having grown up in New York City, being in a metropolis seemed natural, and the multiethnic neighborhoods of Lavapies and La Latina, its people, stores, and restaurants of many different colors, flavors, and nationalities energized me.

The first thing I did the evening I arrived was look for a place to eat. It made no sense to buy groceries, as I’d done in Gijón, since I was just there for a weekend. There were tapas bars, Arab restaurants, Chinese takeout, and Sushi. So many restaurants from which to choose. Tired and excited, I settled on Indian takeaway, a good book, and a warm bath.

Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke, outside Reina Sofía

Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke, outside Reina Sofía

The next day I set out to the Reina Sofía. Everyone had told me “You have to go to El Prado.” But having limited time, I opted for the museum that had the painting I most wanted to see: Picasso’s Guernica. I was not disappointed. No picture could have ever prepared me for the experience of seeing it live. Breathtaking! I was also fascinated seeing the various studies Picasso painted in preparation for the main work and the photos of the painting process. I liked seeing how at times he changed his mind about one particular image or another. The rest of the museum, of course, was also great fun. I saw paintings by Chagall, Dalí, Miró, and many others. I love modern art, and there was plenty of it. To think I had considered skipping Madrid.

Making New Friends at the Museum

Making New Friends at the Museum

To satisfy the foodie in me, my landlady suggested Mercado de San Miguel. Once a food market, it’s now an upscale food court with stalls selling all sorts of Spanish food and drink. The difficulty was choosing what to eat. I wanted one of everything! I started with a sea urchin that proved somewhat disappointing, especially given the price. It had some sort of sauce that covered the taste of the actual urchin. I did, however, enjoy seeing just how much the shell reminded me of chestnuts. After seeing chestnut-lined streets almost every day in Gijón, it brought welcomed memories. I moved to another stall with better food and friendlier service. I had fried calamari tentacles (my favorite part) and a grilled whole sardine. This time, the food was delicious and the attendant was friendly. He asked whether I wanted him to remove the sardine’s head and innards. I wanted it whole. “Are you sure? There are people who don’t like it that way.” “Segura” (I’m sure). The fish took a long while to cook, and since the crowds hadn’t formed yet, we talked for a while. Once the fish was done, he handed it to me saying “if it’s not fully cooked, let me know and I’ll put it back on the grill.” I found a table by a window away from the draft wafting through the the doors. I ate the sardine (cooked to perfection) as I watched people on the streets fight with their umbrellas then quickly fill the Mercado.

Sea Urchin Shell

Sea Urchin Shell

Friend Calamari Tentacles

Fried Calamari Tentacles

Monday morning, the garbage strike had ended and the streets were considerably cleaner. As I walked to Atocha to catch a train to Granada, I mentally planned what I would do when I return to Madrid before heading back to the U.S. I’ll only have one day.

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Language, Blonds, and Beans

A view of Gijón from its outskirts.

A view of Gijón from its outskirts.

In my current neighborhood, there are Spanish-style houses, mountains, and moss. Snails travel fences and steep wooded trails. At the bottom, the beach. It’s as if Ibagué, Colombia (my birthplace), and Connecticut (my former home) had coalesced. It’s akin to the way we commingle people and facts in our dreams. In my dreams, my mother (four years gone this month) is alive and dead, and we’re all in our house in New York. Aunts whom I’ve never met and my grandmother, who died 30 years prior to my birth, are also there. And I’m present, invisible, and omnipresent. That’s the strangeness I feel in Gijón.

One of many trails in the area.

One of many trails in the area.

Growing up in the U.S., I’ve been conditioned to expect that people with fair skin, blond or red-hair, and European features speak English. Here, most everyone matches that description, yet it’s Spanish they speak. But the Spanish is different to my ear.

When I was little, my maternal aunts would chide me: “Hable Catellano!” Speak Castilian! But the language I speak is not quite the Castilian of Asturias. In Colombia, the soft c’s and z’s are pronounced as s’s. Here, they’re pronounced like “th’s.” On my fourth week in Spain, saying gracias as “grathias” has become second nature. Other words do not come as easily. If I paused to think about the spelling of the words, I could pronounce them like a continental, but who pauses to analyze spelling in mid conversation? So, I confuse my c’s, z’s, and s’s.

There are other things that peg me as an alien. Last week, for instance, I decided to purchase white beans at the local market. In Colombia, beans are fríjoles. In the Dominican Republic, they’re called habichuelas. The Spaniards don’t use either name. I was clueless. I pointed to the lower shelf behind the counter. “Los blancos,” the white ones, I told the shopkeeper. She pointed to a jar of garbanzos. “No, not garbanzos, the white things,” I said.

Galicia!

My retired aunt and uncle live in a small town in Galicia in the same house where my uncle was born. This is a house his grandfather built nearly 100 years ago and the place I was fortunate enough to call home for seven days. Galicia is a coastal province in northwestern Spain, and my aunt and uncle wanted to take me everywhere! “It’s too bad you’re not staying with us for a month or two,” they would tell me. “There’s so much more to see.”

I travelled to a town with narrow streets that pirates would use to escape from the English navy. It reminded me of the Disney World ride “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It’s believed the waters in the area are loaded with stolen treasures.

I saw cities and churches. I saw ancient grist mills that my uncle said were still in use in his youth.

One of the old grist mills

One of the old grist mills

I went to a place where mollusks are weighed and inspected before they can be sold. I visited a 16th century monastery, picked chestnuts in a park near the house (before last week, I had no idea what the fruit looked like), made friends with my aunt’s cat (despite my allergies), and picked grapes from a neighbor’s vineyard. It seems almost all the neighbors have private vineyards and make their own wine. As we passed the houses, sometimes we could even smell from the street the wine being made.

Chestnuts

Chestnuts

This being the harvest season, grapes were plentiful. In addition to the few we picked, neighbors knocked at the door bringing gifts of their prized fruit.

On Sunday we visited Santiago de Compostela, where St. James’s remains are said to rest.

The cathedral that holds St. James's remains.

The cathedral that holds St. James’s remains.

Earlier in the week, we traveled to the place were Columbus landed after his most famous voyage and went to a mountain that holds the ruins of a bronze-age village.

A few homes from the Bronze Age village

A few homes from the Bronze Age village

I did so much, yet my most vivid memories are of people and food. On walks with my uncle, every few steps we would stop to greet people he’s known for over 70 years. Each greeting me with a kiss on each cheek and an “encantado” or “encantada,” a few adding that I look like my aunt. Then they would continue their conversation in Gallego. This is a dialect somewhat similar to Portuguese, and to their delight, with my knowledge of Colombian/Castilian Spanish (Castellano) and college Italian, I could follow most of their conversations and even understand the signs in the area. They’re all in Gallego.

In Spain, young and old alike gather in cafés, restaurants, and bars between meals or at night to nurse a coffee (strong and delicious), a beer, or a glass of wine, always served with a small snack of some kind (sausage slices, fresh bread and cheese, olives, etc.). One can sit there for hours without being rushed.

A Night in Pontevedra

A Night in Pontevedra

The main meal of the day is a late lunch. I don’t know about others, but for us, it often lasted from 2-5pm and consisted of multiple courses accompanied by wine, always ending with dessert, espresso, and a chupito (a shot of some sort of sweet liqueur).

In Galicia, the house wine truly is the house wine, pressed and aged in a back room of the restaurant and sometimes sold without labels or even wine bottles.

Wine Fermenting at a Restaurant in Pontevedra.

Wine Fermenting at a Restaurant in Pontevedra.

The sweet liqueurs are also homemade.

In every restaurant where I went with my uncle and aunt, the food was fresh. Sausages, cheeses, and bread were made on the premises. Fish and shellfish were freshly caught. Meat was free range and recently butchered. My aunt and uncle know many restaurant and café owners, and each treated me as if I were an old friend.

Late at night, my aunt would invariably ask me if I wanted a sandwich or something else to eat. I declined each night multiple times, my stomach still full from the afternoon feast. Then my aunt would say, “I’m worried you’ll think I’m not feeding you enough.”

Galician Octopus

Galician Octopus

My last day in Galicia, I attended a large family meal at a restaurant owned by my uncle’s cousin. We had lots of Galician octopus, clams with a delightful caramelized onion sauce, lamb and more lamb, asparagus, potatoes (Gallegos love their potatoes) and peas, bread, dessert, red and white wine, a selection of homemade liquor, and coffee, and more coffee. With all the people, food, and conversation, the lunch lasted longer than usual, and at night my aunt accepted that I truly was full. She and I spent the evening in her sewing room talking. The following morning I had to get up early to catch the 8 a.m. bus from Pontevedra to Gijón. My aunt got up early to make breakfast and something for me to eat on my eight hour trip. They drove me to the station and put me on the bus with a hug and a kiss, and a huge sandwich, some grapefruits, a bag full of chestnuts we’d picked the day before, and three bottles of wine.

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