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.


Anonymous said...

You are absolutely hysterical!!! Love it.

S said...

I am leaving for andalucia tomorrow!!
whooooooo hoooooooooooooo