Saturday, November 21, 2009
Barcelona Part II - Mara, Gaudí, and Salty Tea
When I'd emailed Mara asking if there was anything she wanted from the states, she'd requested a decent can opener. I brought the OXO Good Grips can opener from my own household. I took it out of my bag when I passed through security at the Brussels airport, where it was appraised by an x-ray examiner and handed to a supervisor before being returned to me. Throughout the process no words were exchanged, just points and nods indicating that the tool belonged to me, and that I had been cleared to continue my travels with it. I fished it out of my backpack and proudly handed it to Mara, and her eyes widened. "Let me show you what passes for a can opener in this country," she said, and opened a kitchen drawer full of tools. She sifted through the drawer's contents and produced a metal key-like object that reminded me of something a cartoon hobo might use to pry open a hole in a discarded can of beans. I was happy to present her with a hostess gift that was so simple, and that was once part of my own kitchen.
Mara served me a huge bowl of seafood and rice, and we caught up with each other in her living room. We've known each other since high school; we met at a youth program in upstate New York at a Quaker retreat center called Powell House, it drew from a wide base of schools from New York City and the tri-state area, but we've only seen each other a couple times since then. We didn't live far from each other in Brooklyn, and outside of the monthly youth conferences we attended, we spent time together on weekends. It was easy for me to lose touch with people back then; there was no Internet, cell phones, email or facebook, and once people went to college - unless their family stayed in the same place, it was easy to lose people to the sands of time. I was one of the worst offenders; my family moved from New York to Boston, I transferred from a college near Boston to one in Chicago, and if that weren't enough to throw the scent off everyone's trail I took my husband's name. The magic that is facebook reconnected me to Mara a couple years ago, and we'd emailed each other and chatted on IM, finally seeing each other in person last May for a couple hours in New York. Aside from being heavily pregnant, Mara looks exactly as she did years ago, and has the same unsurprised expression and mannerisms that had seemed so precocious on her as a teenager.
I managed to clear my plate during the brief moments that I wasn't talking or breathing, and we left the apartment to Mara's husband and sleeping two year-old daughter, walking a couple blocks to a local bar where I couldn't help noticing that patrons were smoking indoors. It was past 10 on a weeknight, but the neighborhood showed no signs of slowing down or getting ready for bed. We discussed the health care debate in the US, and the fact that the current situation seriously precludes Mara from considering a long-term home-leave; throughout both of her Barcelona-based pregnancies she has never seen a doctor bill. She told me that recently doctors have started showing patients a record of services rendered and their associated costs so that people will begin to understand what a deal they're getting, but there's basically no such thing as having to pay for the doctor unless you opt out of the public health system and pay for a private doctor. I let my mind wander for a minute to consider what life would be like in the US under such a system. While I was still daydreaming about affordable health care for all, Mara told me that American movies and TV shows that feature a storyline about parents starting a college fund as soon as their child is born come across as unrealistic to Spaniards because nobody has to take out school loans to get an education in Spain. I began to wonder why we all don't live there.
When we got home I was surprised to see that it was past 1am. Mara's husband, born and raised in Barcelona, had insisted that a space heater be rolled into the guest room. I appreciated the gesture, but 17 years of Chicago winters have pretty much made me immune to November temperatures in northern Spain. "Don't be too proud to use it," he said to me with a completely serious expression on his face. I slept until after 10, which would have made me feel slovenly, but Mara said it would prepare me for the Spanish eating schedule.
Mara's is a tea drinking household, I fixed myself a cup and brought the warm mug to my lips. For a nanosecond I wasn't sure what had gone wrong with the briny brew that was hitting the roof of my mouth, and quickly realized that I'd poured a heaping teaspoon of salt from what looked like a sugar bowl into my Earl Grey. I ran to the kitchen sink and spat, if nothing else I was certainly awake. I started over, using honey this time.
Mara had work to do, so I got some hints on places of interest to check out on my own. Paranoid or not, Mara told me to be careful of pickpockets. "They love Burt's Bees," she teased as I applied a layer of lip balm.
The next four days were a blur of sensation: I was entranced by the Mercat de la Boquería and its endless stalls of vendors selling everything from jamón ibérico, bacallà and mushrooms to whole rabbits hanging upside down, still covered in fur; overwhelmed by Gaudí's Sagrada Família, still under construction, and the Casa Batlló and Pedrera apartment buildings, with their undulating geometric forms inspired by nature; enchanted by Joan Miró and his journey from canvas to sculpture; and I couldn't stop ordering fresh squeezed orange juice and café con leche whenever I could. I ran my dirty clothes through Mara's whisper-quiet front loading washer, and clipped them to lines outside her windows on multi-colored clothespins, where they blended in with the rest of the neighborhood's laundry. I stared at the Spanish keyboard of Mara's laptop trying to figure out how to type the @ symbol, and felt like I'd accomplished something when I succeeded. When she was able to, Mara joined me on my expeditions, showing me parts of the Gothic Quarter I would never have found on my own. We went to the zoo with her daughter, where the big star was the Catalan donkey that was photographed with children and adults alike, and a display of sewer rats had the words "unwanted but necessary" above their habitat by way of explanation. I began to understand the lexicon of Mara's young daughter, who likes to eat master potatoes and ham trees for dinner (mashed potatoes, ham and broccoli) and has a fascination with elephants. I learned a tiny bit about the history of Catalunya, and wondered what it might be like to have officially recognized minority languages in my own country; Spain has several: Catalan, Basque, Galician and Aranese. Traveling in the US I've often felt as if there were more than one nation contained within its vast borders, I'd be interested to know how many languages are spoken by the 300 million people who call it home.