The Mediterranean diet is not just a clever book title here. It’s a lifestyle where people still talk over long lunch breaks, then linger over coffee. Wine is not prohibited by company manuals; the waiter will not rush you out the door with a little plastic tray and printed receipt, inconveniently placed at the pitch, the climax, the punchline.
Then again, Spain is finding it increasingly difficult to compete on a global level. The Japanese, always on the verge of divorce and suicide, work through lunch and sleep beneath their desks. The Chinese worker is happy to get a cigarette break. Compete or complain; adapt or let the machine roll you around. Hate it or love it, we live in the century of hyper efficiency.
If anything good has come from Spain’s economic woes, it was the above meal, prepared with love and an aire of hospitality by my friend Carmina, an unemployed engineer with nothing better to do midday Thursday than carefully cut chorizo and season fresh shrimp on the stovetop for her house guest.
Thirteen years ago Rafa, on the right, picked me up at Barcelona International Airport then drove us to his downtown apartment while speaking continuously in a nervous, fatherly tone. A country called Spain scrolled across my passenger window, and my mind was clicking trying to make sense of its subtle differences. It was my first time alone overseas. The only words I remember from that ride were spoken as Rafa maneuvered his Peugeot around a claustrophobic subterranean car park, below the building in which I’d live with he and his family for an entire summer: “Today is the only day I’ll speak English with you.”
It was a lie—Rafa spoke English when my eyes would go dull from rapid Spanish overload, or when I’d eat his leftover paella for breakfast—but I did manage to gain an intermediate understanding of the language, and more importantly the lifestyle, before my return flight to middle America. Since then, chance and technology (and now my stash of frequent flyer miles) have allowed us to share a meal together in Barcelona about every five years. This blog, my travels, my Spanish-related career path, my hybrid Anglo-Latin attitude toward life can all be traced back to my time with this wonderful family.
There are many Barcelona coming of age stories I could share, but Rafa mentioned one during our most recent five-hour dinner that I had completely forgotten. On my first day in the city, Rafa—with his then four-year-old daughter Bea on his shoulders—took me to stroll the famous pedestrian avenue, La Rambla. Apparently, scared and confused and walking unusually close to Rafa’s side, I asked with the serious concern of a rural kid in big urban city, “Is there a riot going on?” It was a normal weekday in downtown Barcelona.
Forefront: sheep heads and brains. Background: tongue and testicles.
Everyone has that special someone, that first love, that has irreversibly shaped who they are today. Mariana is that person for me. Over the past decade of ups and downs—living as expats in Costa Rica and Mexico, growing and maturing far from our families, traveling ten countries together—we’ve been each other’s crux, in one way or another. In Barcelona, where she now lives, we met for lunch and were easily upsold tapas by the chatty waitress at La Pepita, then lazed away the afternoon in the Gothic Quarter confessing all the dirty details from the past few years. We concluded that life is not so bad, after all.
A vandalized sign for a Catalan political party. Politics no longer interest me. I’ve found that absorbing the constant stream of lies and half-truths adds nothing to my quality of life, so I shut it out unless I can directly influence or manipulate the outcome in my favor, say, when tax time rears its ugly head. Admittedly though, I’m fascinated by autonomous regions’ struggle for independence. The underdog stories, the fierce yearning for individual freedom—it pulls me in every time. If I’d have lived in Orwell’s era I too may have romantically run off to get shot in the throat by a sniper. With Franco now a fading memory, Catalonia continues to be the world’s most hopeful, peaceful, and active movement for independence. And I for one, am rooting for the Catalans (and Barça).
Pintxos are traditionally from the Basque Country of northern Spain, but their popularity and similarity to the more generic Spanish tapas has made their acceptance throughout the country seamlessly easy. At this bar, you open the countertop’s glass case, grab, eat, then pay according the toothpick length. The longer, the more expensive, but also the more delicious. The above pintxos were US$1.65, US$1.91, and US$2.64, respectively.
Years ago, I nearly crumpled when I heard reggaeton was becoming popular in Spain. This time, when Mariana pointed out that colored camo jumpsuits were the latest craze, I just laughed, happy to be disconnected from these silly fashionista head games. Too bad I couldn’t snap a photo of a real live b-boy rocking the sweats. Next time.
A self-portrait goodbye at the Barcelona airport. Carmina and I met several years ago at the bottom of the world, in the Chilean Patagonia. Through Facebook and occasional e-mails our friendship grew much realer than the virtual correspondence it was based on. Naturally, when I confirmed my flight to Spain I got in touch and she showed me the side of Catalonia I had never experienced, the suburban middle-class existence and rock bars on the outskirts of Barcelona. I even met her mom (who incredibly is less than six degrees separated from Rafa). Experiences like these, in places I’d never access alone, with people who open their doors for the sake of hospitality, is why I decided not to scrap Facebook completely but instead disable the distracting and harness its powerful connectivity.