(Alternately, The Paella Paradox or The State of the Sangria.)
So here’s the thing about Spain.
It’s not really fun to be on vacation by yourself in Spain.
I mean, yes, okay, it’s been fun. Yesterday I went to the beach in my new Eres bathing suit and paid 4.20 for the privilege of sitting in the shade. On a side note, I also added Spanish sunscreen to my arsenal of European toiletries, because I am “muy blanca!”
But I digress. When you’re alone, there’s only so long you can stay at the beach, unless you’ve got a really good book or work to do. I went into the water twice, but it didn’t take more than a few minutes of happily splashing around, jumping over gentle waves and luxuriating in the cool caress of the Mediterranean before I was wondering if maybe I shouldn’t have left my belongings unattended, if maybe while I was playing Little Mermaid somebody was rifling through my 3-euro beach bag to steal my wallet. And after a few minutes in the sea without somebody to talk to or throw a Frisbee or a beach ball with, what’s the point?
So I took myself back to the same restaurant where I had sangria and tortilla on Sunday evening, and I had sangria and calamari for lunch. I had the half-portion of calamari, because the whole portion is for sharing.
To me, this is the essence of Spanish food culture: sharing. Throughout my stay here I have found it difficult to eat a meal at a proper sit-down restaurant because I felt silly ordering tapas for one when the point of tapas is to get a bunch of things and pass them around. At the restaurant where I ate on Monday night, the waiter suggested the paella to me, but on the menu, there was a note next to the paella section that said “minimo 2 personas.” But the waiter assured me that it was okay, the portion could be split in half. Paella for one, how depressing–and to add insult to injury, I paid full price instead of half price. At that same restaurant, I had to ask for an off-the-menu glass of sangria–the menu only listed a pitcher. To share.
I think I just have an anti-tourism complex. I hate not being able to speak the language when I visit a country; I hate making things difficult for people because I’m not used to doing things the way they do them. Last night, for example, I walked downtown to get some dinner around 6, figuring I would order tapas or something else small. But nobody was eating. Lots of people were sitting around having ice cream or beer with chips or olives, but I didn’t see one person actually having dinner. Eventually I got so hungry that I bought a horchata–which, by the way, is the most heavenly beverage I think I have ever tasted, and I am going back to get another one before I have to go to the airport this afternoon. It didn’t really help with the hunger, though, so I made my way to a restaurant whose menu advertised dinner-sized salads and ordered. I was the only person eating real food, at nearly 8 PM. I felt like an inconvenience. [ETA: I think this stems directly from the last ten months living in Paris as an expat and having an absolute horror of being taken for a tourist. I find it hard to shed that attitude when I actually am a tourist.]
A funny story about this, actually. I met a Canadian soprano named Katie at the audition on Monday, and we hit it off the second we realized we were both Anglophones. She sang at the end of the first group of auditions and I sang at the end of the second; when I was done singing, I wandered around the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in an exhausted stupor in the hope of running into her so we could talk about singers we both knew in Toronto. But I didn’t see her. And then last night, after I ate my inconvenient salad, I was making my very sweaty way back across town to my hotel. I was surveying the people sitting outside to see if anybody was eating yet. Nada. (At 8:30!) But at one restaurant, a table caught my eye because the two women were actually eating dinner, a single plate for each person. I looked closer, and what do you know, it was Katie and her mom, eating their last meal in Valencia before going back to Toronto today. This is all by way of showing that a. some friendships are just meant to be and b. if you want to pick out the tourists in Spain, look for the people who are eating real food before 9 PM.
Another interesting thing about Spain is that being here feels simultaneously foreign and familiar. Part of it is that my friend Cristina’s mom is from Léon. I remember going to visit her over spring break my sophomore year of college and eating tortilla española for dinner, and when I tasted my first horchata yesterday, all I could think of was having a Tres Reyes party in Cristina’s dorm that winter and eating turrones (Spanish sweets) that she had brought back from a winter break visit to family in Spain. It tasted like my favorite turrón, melted and chilled. Glorious. (Enough about the horchata, we get it!)
And this is the other trouble with tapas–it’s not just Spanish anymore. In Evanston, there’s a wonderful tapas restaurant called Tapas Barcelona. I’ve been there several times. My friends Rachel and Laura and I went out for tapas together in Dublin; I have no doubt that there’s tapas in Paris. When I came to Spain, I thought, oh, but this will be authentic tapas! The absolute truth is–and maybe I’m just not discerning enough–that it doesn’t taste any different in Spain than it does in Chicago, than it did in Dublin. At the same time, having lost all of my Spanish question words and food vocabulary, ordering tapas here is seriously stressful, especially because I feel like everybody is wondering why I’m all alone ordering food meant for more than one person.
They’re not, of course. I’m just stressed out because I can’t understand a word people say to me. (Okay, not true, but it feels that way. I am great at Spanish numbers, though–tell me how much something costs and I will give you exact change. Superstar.)
Have a Valencia orange. It smells like what oranges were originally supposed to smell like. Valencia oranges for one.
Despite having enjoyed my time in Valencia, sometimes it does feel like every resident is having a party with his or her friends and I’m this guy:
Adios, España. It’s been a real slice. (Of orange.)