Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Letter From Spain

Through a unpredictable combination of friendship, luck, scheduling, good fortune, flexible bosses, and luck, I'm in Spain for a month. A month! I can't get over it. It's practically balmy here, between 40 and 50 degrees, but all the Spaniards can't get over how cold it is. They've been lamenting "el frio polar" and we've been laughing at them. We're staying in our friend's place, and he's here too, when he's not at his girlfriend's. So we have a fully-equipped kitchen, a wee Spanish washing machine, and a guy to answer our questions about, "how do you say..." and "where's a good..." and "what the heck is...." In return, we feed him when he's here and make him laugh with our Colorful Foreign Ways. We stay up late and drink wine and eat cheese and listen to obscure American soul records (records!), and then the guys get up in the morning and stagger to work at the ungodly hour of 9:30. I'm left to crack the whip over myself and get some projects done. My eyes are generally open by 10. Almost always.

I have some work to do while we're here, but I'm also in charge of feeding us, and doing food-procurement. I speak just enough Spanish to confuse people, which complicates my mission a bit. The first few days I was kind of intimidated about going out and speaking Spanish, but I realized that in order to get good food, there was just no way around it. There are fast-food type places and supermarkets here where you just have to pick and pay, but to get the good stuff in the market, I have to speak at least a little Spanish.

handy phrases:
me gustaria
por favor
es todo
poco mas
lo siento

I can't think of a better way to force myself out of my comfort zone than to reward myself with sausage and cheese.

So I go to the neighborhood market almost every morning, and try to not buy more than three people can eat in a day.

The neighborhood market is a covered space that takes up a whole city block. There must be at least 250 stalls of various sizes, each with their own specialty. There are vegetable and fruit sellers, cheese and ham booths, stalls that only sell salt cod, or olives, or eggs, grocery stalls where you can buy dry goods, "cooked legume" stalls, seafood sellers, meat sellers, chicken sellers, and the whole center of the market is filled with seafood sellers.

Each fish stall has display counters heaped with crushed ice, and there are burbling open gutters in the cement floor that carry away the melting water. Most of the fish are whole, laid out on the ice with their eyes and teeth and gills and everything. I haven't been brave enough to ask for a whole fish yet, but I think they'll filet them for you if asked. At the end of the day, when the fish is all sold and the ice is all melted, you can see them hosing down the whole area, and then scrubbing every surface with bleach, and then hosing it all down again. The market smells more like lettuce than it does like fish.

The egg sellers have clear plastic bins of eggs for sale, of various sizes, different colors, different prices, and all seemingly tossed into the appropriate bin as though they were apples or walnuts or some other un-fragile bulk commodity. When you ask for some, then they'll whip out the egg-shaped box and pack them up, but not until then. I suppose it saves checking every egg for cracks and holes. Any flaw would be immediately obvious in those piles of eggs. The egg stalls are aggressively clean-looking—the eggs are the the least-white thing visible, with the white-aproned women wearing white hats, the white tile, and the bright lights. Compared to the other stalls, they look like surgical suites. I suppose the vegetable stalls don't have to make up for their products coming out of an animal's hind end.

The vegetable seller I go to is one of the smallest vegetable stalls (most are at least twice the size), but every vegetable is treated like and looks like jewelry. Large, usually green, edible jewelry. The zuchinni looks like it must have been picked by dreamy, reverent farmers who bite their nails to the quick. The romaine lettuce is so clean and translucent it looks like it's lit from within. And the spinach, usually Dirtiest Of All The Leafy Vegetables, looks like it was washed in clear running water at least 40 times, but without actually ever being touched. The people that work in the stall clearly take their work very seriously, with never a wasted breath or a wasted movement. I found them intimidating at first, but by my fourth or fifth daily visit, they couldn't pretend not to remember my broken Spanish and my makeshift vocabulary of eyebrow- and hand-gestures, and they asked where I was from, and even smiled a bit, and gave me free parsley. And now I love them, and also their vegetables.

The first week, our friend took us around the market, showing us where he and his mother like to shop (he grew up in this neighborhood, and his father has a shop selling sewing notions in the non-food part of the market). I dutifully wrote down the names of the best stalls, but it took me three or four trips back before I could find them all again. Every day I think, "I should make a map of the market" and then I get there and it's all I can do to navigate around the old ladies and dogs and strollers and crates and find something for dinner that I know both how to say in Spanish and how to cook.

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