Monday, March 30, 2009

Paella Plague

I spent the summer of 1996 living with a family in Barbate, Andalucía- one of the southernmost cities in Spain. It was an unforgettable summer- a summer that changed me.

There are a limited number of specifics I remember about the experience. Due to all the years that have passed between then and now- I maintain this hazy comprehensive memory that encompasses the experience.

I remember the narrow cement streets smelling of musky sea air. I remember that on clear nights, we could see Morocco from the shore. I remember watching my first bullfight and the absolute mortification I felt after the disturbing incident, I remember the fear of being an ocean away from my mom. I remember going to my first topless beach and the feeling of freedom that accompanied this so-called liberation of modesty- I also remember my first nude beach and then quickly walking over the hill back to the topless section. I remember learning how to dance the Sevillana, I remember having a crush on a local who took me for ice cream and cerveza. I remember long nights around bonfires, drinking Mangaroca and listening to my friends play Spanish guitar. I remember how the tears welled in my eyes the morning I woke up to leave- before the sun had risen- and all I felt was emptiness because I knew a part of me would be left in this tiny town on the tip of Spain. All these memories- both distant yet vivid- are part of the reason I am back here today. 
But of course, there is no pleasure without pain. There’s no free lunch. And it was exactly that important meal- Lunch- that almost killed it for me.

It’s easy to glorify our memories- to wipe out the parts that made us hurt. That’s the good thing about remembering- is that our minds have this fantastic way of making everything pleasant...No dark. My Spanish exchange experience however, as incredible as it was, still bears its thorns in my mind. I.e. Lunchtime. 

Whether I was rolling in from a day at the beach with my friends, or coming home from class or a weekend excursion, my stomach would plunge and my heart would start thrashing around in my chest as I entered the house and smelled lunch.

I’ve been a vegetarian since I was three, therefore explaining that “no, I cannot eat that” has never presented itself as a problem. Explaining in Spanish that, “no, no puedo comer esto” was a little more difficult- but attempting to explain why I couldn't eat ANYTHING that the homestay family had spent days fishing for and preparing for me was altogether another story- It was a never-ending story. 
Each meal was a battle. Each day was a little crusade:

I would slip my key into the door, enter into the fragrant household, greet the children who had been helping their mother all morning in the kitchen, slowly put my things down in my room and dress at a deliberately unhurried pace in order to delay the battle laid out in front of me.
When I knew I could delay no longer, I would walk into the dining area and inevitably find before me an extravagant feast of fish, sea creatures, snails, navahas, paella, unidentifiable objects that had surely come from the depths of the ocean; you name it, they caught it and cooked it.

The mother would be standing at the entrance bearing a platter of god-knows-what, and right behind her, the man of the house would strut in, smiling from ear to ear- proud of what he had spent the last week hunting and gathering from dawn until dusk on his little rusty dingy. 

And each day, I would sit down, scan the table, and resign myself to the fact that no, no puedo comer anything on the table- save the bread bowl.
The eldest of the children would then take my plate and with the serving spoons, gesture to each dish with a question mark on her face asking me “Morgana, puedes comer esto?” “No, lo siento.” “Pero, seguramente puedes comer esto!” “No, lo siento.”
And then the rest of the children would chime in, and if I were lucky- aunts and uncles and friends would be present too. 

The room would burst into noise with questions and explanations of how a certain fish has no endocrine system or definitions of vegetarianism. In the end, after making sure to offend just about everyone involved, I would skulk back to my room for my afternoon siesta- hungry and disheartened.
Lunch proceeded similarly every afternoon that summer without fail. By the end, I was served an abundance of tortilla española, always accompanied with a remark about the minimal difference between the moral aspects of consuming eggs and fish. 

The day I left to catch the flight back home, not only was my stomach empty, but my heart was too. However, the family I lived with never called me again. We lost touch. More likely, they “lost” touch. I don't even now, after all this time, want to imagine how offensive and impolite it must have been to them that I refused to eat even the miniature fried sardines that would show up next to my napkin staring up at me, eyes intact- in a little bowl all to themselves.

I bring this up because as with all traumatizing experiences, the “Barbate lunch” memory resurfaced again this weekend.

A few friends and I took advantage of our three-day weekend and drove down the white coast of Spain. We ended up at my friend’s friend’s parents charming seaside house in Alicante. All was going well- dinner at a local cerveseria complete with home-grown (vegetarian) delicacies, Spanish beer and good wine. We went home that evening full, happy and tired from the long drive and four hours of animated dinner conversation.

I woke up on Sunday morning to the sound of the sea outside my window and an amazing (yet eerily familiar) smell wafting down from the kitchen.

I walked upstairs to greet the family and meet the guests they had invited for lunch. Low and behold, there was a massive paella simmering away- an event in and of itself- with the guests crowded around the pan as if it were a living breathing endangered species. 

My heart started racing just as it did during those minutes before lunch was served back in Barbate. I pulled the chef aside and in my best Español, explained that it looked wonderful but I cannot eat it. “Porque no?” was the response I got, as she smiled and walked away to tend to the work of art I was expected to consume. 
As lunchtime got closer and closer, I desperately searched the kitchen for some sign of a salad- bread- vegetables- anything I could eat so as not to offend our hosts. I happened to notice, out of the corner of my eye, a colorful plate of sautéed chickpeas, peppers and onions. As the sigh of relief escaped my lips, someone walked over to the platter, grabbed my beloved veggies, and before I knew it- dumped everything into the crackling and steaming paella. No, not again, I thought. 
My mind was racing for excuses. I couldn't simply explain that I am a vegetarian. I did that at dinner. It doesn't work here in Spain. There is no such thing.

So what did I do??? I drank about a bottle of wine for my breakfast, sat down at lunch, and ate the damn paella.

I was drunk. Lunch was amazing. And that was the end of that.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Un Violinista en Tu Tejado

John Lennon famously stated, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” I unquestionably agree. However, I had a thought today- an extension of Mr. Lennon's contemplation…that being that our best memories are made when we’re too busy living them. I know this is no novel idea. I’ve had the thought hundreds of times, and I know plenty of other people who probably have as well. But last weekend, also known as the weekend before finals, the weekend where no one saw the light of day, or more appropriately; “the weekend of hell,” something struck me reminding me to appreciate even the infernal undertaking of exams. This something made me take a step back and stop mulling over what I miss about my past. 
It made me stop thinking about what my current life should be as opposed to what it is. It all started with a song:

As part of our final evaluations and grades, we had marketing presentations. For the past two terms, we have been working towards a marketing project in which we took a generic product and each week, developed it- working from market research and segmentation, to distribution channels, branding and finally a comprehensive marketing plan. As part of the culmination of the past six months, we presented our full projects to the class and our professors. Each member of each group was individually working day and night on this project. 
My roommate’s boyfriend happened to be at my apartment working on his. 
For the soundtrack of his presentation, he chose a song by a Spanish artist I had never heard of. 
For three days straight, whether I was cooking, studying or showering, I heard this song echoing through the halls of my home. I liked the song, it was one of those songs that strikes you and you’re not sure what it makes you feel or how it reminds you of something particular - but it has the distinct effect on you only music has a way of doing. Unfortunately, I was sick of the song by day two, as the repetition only added to my frustration of incessant studying and lack of sunlight exposure. And honestly, I wanted to wring his neck. 

Now however, a few days later, left with only a few mental scars and dissonant worry, I can’t stop listening to the song. I’m pleased to have found something that makes me feel lucky to be in Spain- some part of this foreign culture that I connect with.

Yet the best part is, I know that I will hear the song again two years from now and remember the study weekend where we were ALL suffering, buried deep in corporate finance and marketing strategy. 

And then five years from now- I will hear the song and the details of the weekend will have all but dissolved, but I’ll remember my roommate and her boyfriend, in my apartment, and the little family we formed in and out of school. 

And ten years from now, I’ll hear the song and it will remind me of the MBA. It will remind me of Barcelona. It will be the memory that was made while I was on the verge of tears at the hands of calculators and notes that made no sense. 

But it's a good memory. It's something rare that I’m living now, that I’ve never lived before and I will never live again. These are the memories- the incredible memories I am making as I’m busy living them. 
That's what I mean by that. So much for short explanations…

So beyond this song that I am now unquestionably attached to- the song that will forever be known to me as Antonio’s aggravating marketing presentation song- and the weekends of hell that we underwent while cramming for finals, I know that I’ll find this song one day in my future to serve the purpose of reminding me of my past. 

As for the present- I am pleased to say that exams are over, term-two has ended and term-three has officially begun. (So much for a break). I can’t say I aced everything, but I believe that I did enough to pass. I took an hour out of International Tax Law studying to read and re-read the rules and regulations of the MBA program. Actually, I didn't just read them- I dissected them and reevaluated them and did about 1000 different interpretations just to make sure that I’m safe. The time spent calculating the odds of being booted from the MBA probably would have been better utilized had I read just one more chapter of one more book- but by day six, we all go a little crazy…and I’m pleased to announce that failing an exam does not necessarily result in expulsion. So the fates of corporate finance can stop breathing down my neck because as Gwen Stefani sang, “I know we're cool.” 

Finally, speaking of cool, this came out last week:
Needless to say, the article was due the morning of my corporate finance exam. I spent the night oscillating between net present values and language, fighting this enormous internal battle regarding my priorities. Oh, the irony.

Please enjoy the article. More importantly, enjoy the song. I know I will…for years and years.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Números y Palabras

Final exams kick off on Wednesday morning with a bang- Corporate Finance at 9 a.m. They didn't just creep up quickly this time, they jumped at me out of nowhere and left me unwittingly stunned with their proximity, rendering me speechless and moreover, sleepless.
This time, as I open my books and scan my notes while tapping away on my overused calculator- I’m praying that I know enough to get me through, pleading with my lucky stars, and searching for the best (and most altruistic) candidates to help me prepare. This is one of the key discoveries I’ve made during the MBA- that no great feats are accomplished alone. Furthermore, one of the most valuable lessons (a lesson I learned the hard way) is that who you study with is just as important as what you are studying, why, and when. 

It’s about 4 a.m. on Monday morning and I’m only now considering sleep, while deliberating between attending morning classes, staying home to study, or sneaking in the few hours of sleep I know will make a world of difference come Wednesday.
I could work out a few more problems- but Net Present Values and Internal Rates of Return are all sounding like same thing to me right now, and the formula for growing annuity may as well be Chinese. 
So what am I doing? I’m writing. 
It may be the last thing that will help me pass my exams- but it brings me peace. It keeps me connected to the life I once had- where I followed what I thought I should be doing- where my heart took me. Furthermore, it keeps me sane. 
With scraps of paper filled with foreign equations strewn about my room and books I would much rather use as door stops highlighted (nay- massacred with neon shades of green and pink and yellow)…with dog-eared pages spread strategically over tables and chairs throughout my apartment…with about 200 windows open on my computer from wikipedia definitions of perpetuity to practice problems and the answers that don't seem to match no matter how many times I do them, I’m taking a moment to be me. Because this whole quantitative analysis thing- as much as I’m trying to be THAT person- is not coming as naturally as I had once hoped. (Although I have to admit that on the rare occasions I come to the end of a 2-hour problem with the right answer- the satisfaction is pretty intense).

So here I am, sitting up in bed, listening to my long-lived “writing playlist,” while the rest of Western Europe is sleeping, letting the words of the world in my head spin themselves into semi-coherent sentences and spill onto a page. And finally, after far too much time and admittedly, a few tears and an abundance of anxiety- I feel like me. 
I just wish I could stay here a little longer. 

But exams and numbers call…and once again, I must put aside those things that calm me and make me feel whole- so that I can attempt (and hope) to make it through another grueling term-only to begin another- and eventually, graduate with an MBA and figure out a way to turn these numbers into art- or turn these words of mine into numbers- and share something significant with the world…because isn’t that what we are all here to do? Maybe I’m just going about it a bit differently.

With that- I’m going to take a select few of these thoughts and share them- and hopefully have the chance to remind my fellow classmates- to take a little time for yourselves. And do something you loved doing before you got to school…and I promise, when you wake up tomorrow morning- or on the morning of the exam you fear the most- everything you are working towards will make a little more sense. Goodnight.