Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Spring English Class Reflection May 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:56 am

An English project I thought I’d share…

Ham: Family Visit

My father loves ham. Every day he lunches on a ham and cheese sandwich, and if my mother isn’t home to make it for him, he buys one. Ham is the most prevalent food in Spain, so on the eve of my parents’ arrival, the least of my worries was finding food for my visiting father.

“That’s the least of my worries”, however, is a catastrophic phrase in Bennett family lore. My father infamously pronounced those same words regarding auto theft on the night our truck proceeded to get stolen. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by my father’s reaction to Spanish ham. “Do you like ‘jamón’?” I asked, only to receive a negative shake of the head.

My plans for the next few days crumbled like a thin-cut slice of Serrano. My host mother had bought a humungous, dubiously-customs-safe hunk of jamón for my parents. I’d figured that when all else failed at mealtimes, my father could always get a good tapa of jamón and queso.

As a vegetarian, I’ve admittedly never tried jamón. It’s the one thing Spanish people can’t seem to get over. “Can’t you make an exception?” they plead as I nibble a slice of cheese while they chow down on fresh-from-the-leg Ibérico. But I have never heard of anyone who didn’t like jamón. Except my father.

I was slightly ashamed. My ham-loving father only likes processed American ham and rejects real ham? He prefers the American factory-farm pigs to the hazelnut-fed, outdoor-living, happy Spanish ones? Could a self-professed foodie such as myself really come from such lowly beginnings?

But then I remembered my first days in Spain. I remember taking one bite of the typical white rice with sweetish tomato sauce and putting down my spoon; today I found myself hoping that Montessori would serve it for lunch. Vegetable paella at first tasted horribly similar to the smell of my abuela’s apartment, but now I get excited when my host mother pulls out the rice and vegetables.

Perhaps my father just needed what I did: time to forget the food from home and come to love and embrace Spain.

Heaven: Arabic Architecture and Tea

The breathtaking mosque in Córdoba is technically a cathedral. After the Christians reconquered the city, they built a Baroque cathedral smack dab in the middle of the Arabic site. When we studied the building in art class, I became angry with the Catholics: how could they ruin such a precious and singular building with just another run-of-the-mill church? I decided that I would dislike the disruptive cathedral…until I saw it during our class trip to Andalucía.

Against my will, I found the Catedral de Córdoba to be the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen. And although I would have loved to see the mosque in its full and uninterrupted splendor – as a vast forest of red and white arches, rather than the hypnotic rows being more like a lawn for the Christian centerpiece – I really did enjoy the church. Carlos V (king and emperor) must have known that in order to destroy the mosque – a polemic decision even in his time – he would have to build a cathedral worthy of such a horrible honor.

The mezquita, however, is still the more stunning of the two pieces. After walking through the orange grove patio inside the tower-flanked gates, the entrance leads into the original section of the mosque, built when Córdoba was the capital of the emirate of Al-Andalus (the Arabic name for their territory in the Iberian peninsula, where the modern word for southern Spain, Andalucía, comes from). The columns were “recycled” – taken from old Roman and Visigoth buildings – and hence a bit mismatched. But all were topped by parallel rows of stone and brick arches, creating the effect of a red-and-white striped forest of columns.

The city soon grew, and another addition was added on, continuing the rows further. Then Al-Andalus split from the rest of the Arabic empire and became its own caliphate, meaning that its leader now had top political and religious power. This is the period in which Córdoba reached its utmost splendor, and when the richest addition to the cathedral was made.

The columns were again continued onward, but this time they were specially made for the purpose, and alternated pink and black. The arches are beautiful as always, but the true gem of the second addition is the quibla – the wall that points towards Mecca. Well, technically the wall points more south than southeast; the reason for the incorrectness is unknown but oft-speculated. The arches become lobed and intertwining, and more richly decorated with the same themes as before: geometric, calligraphic, and organic patterns. The wooden crossbeam ceilings are more opulently decorated, and before the wall they open up into stunning cupolas. The wall itself, especially the mihrab, a special part which in Spanish-Arabic art has a recessed apse and also indicates Mecca, is especially gorgeous, with its golden paint and bright colors, intricate detail, and horseshoe arch.

Our tour of the mosque/cathedral was followed by a quick run-through of the old Jewish neighborhood, la Judería. Unfortunately, the walk was cut short by rain, and we took shelter in a cushioned tea lounge, of course. Seeing as the rain did not let up, we decided to take advantage of Córdoba’s Arab roots and hop to another tetería, where we relaxed on the low couches with the Middle-Eastern background music for a couple hours.

Teterías do not exist, to my knowledge, in the United States. They are modern incarnations of the mezquita: hypnotizing, the smell of sweet hookah and tea lingering in the air and dancing with the twangs and twines of the oud.  Arabic writing decorates the walls, evoking the mihrab, and the menu inevitably contains typos. It also contains more types of tea than imaginable: red, black, white, green, gray; floral, spiced, herbed, straight; Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Israeli, and our favorite, Pakistani. Entrusted with their orders, I ordered Pakistani for the table. What came was beyond imagination. The tea arrived in three large worked-metal teapots, with gold-embroidered red handle covers. The cups were narrow, straight, and glass, decorated with twisting geometric green and blue lines. And the tea. The tea was milk-based, spiced with cardamom and cinnamon and sweetened with cane sugar. It was delicious. Although we didn’t smoke hookah, one would have thought we had as we lounged on the couch in ecstasy. It was the best tea we had drank in our lives, and we found only one way to describe it: it was the richness of the mihrab, the splendor of the quibla, the calmness of the trickling fountains, the enchantment of the repeating red and white arches, the intricate hypnosis of the intertwined lobed arcs, the glorious history of Arabic Spain…in a cup.

Churros: Social Eating in Spain

The Filmoteca, a tiny old movie theatre showing two-euro original version films, was one of my best discoveries in Zaragoza, and especially appreciated during their Woody Allen cycle. A great opportunity to see a movie in English and feel cultured at that, one Friday night I invited a friend to go see “Deconstructing Harry” at 10 o’clock. It was one of the best of the many Allen movies I saw that month, and made even better by the fact that this time I had accompaniment.

Neither of us had eaten a real dinner, so after the projection we went for tapas – and yes, you can eat dinner at 11:30 at night here in Spain. We found a lovely little place chock full of ambiance, with posters of old Spanish advertisements with the stereotypical dark and mysterious Andalusian flamenco-dancing beauty and even a torero costume adorning the walls. Sitting at a high round wooden table, we enjoyed spinach-, pine nut-, and raisin- stuffed almond pastry, and then moved to another little gem of a place with similarly Spanish décor. My next delight was a mini-portion of seta (a type of mushroom) risotto, which is one of my new favorite foods in its creamy, tangy goodness. I had to pick out a couple of bits of jamón – I would have guessed that mushroom risotto would be vegetarian, but one never knows in Spain!  Regardless, that didn’t diminish the deliciousness of the tapa.

The next night I wasn’t about to stay home alone, so I called a few friends to try to set up a nighttime coffee soiree – with success. We agreed to meet after dinner.

Our coffee meeting ended up turning into a chocolate-and-churros meeting, but lots of fun all the same. We chatted about everything from the SAT to Atlas Shrugged, which inevitably involves economics, love, and how we imagine Hank and Dagny and John Galt; our host families, mostly complaining that they wouldn’t let us have more than one or two friends over at a time when they are home, despite the fact that we know it isn’t what Spaniards do: when they want to spend time together, they don’t get together and cook or watch a movie while sitting on the couch, they go out to a café or the cinema; the quality of the churros (not overly impressive); and my new purple and green plaid shirt true to my only-used-as-a-joke-nickname which comes from the plum-tree man in Candy Land, Plumpy.

It was just another average weekend in Zaragoza. Just another average weekend I’m really going to miss.

Chocolate Chips: My Wonderful Host Mother

Every Sunday that I’m not travelling, my host mother plans an activity, usually involving exercise to preemptively burn off the migas my abuela will have prepared for lunch. After I arrive home late from tapas, I sleep well to prepare for the weekly host mother outing the next day: bicis.

We descend the elevator to the dark underground parking, where my host mother performs obscene maneuvers to get around the two pillars, the motorcycle, and the van that surround her parking spot. We drive out to my host aunt and uncle’s apartment, where the bicycles are stored, and inevitably take an invariable route the 2008 Expo. One specific day we arrived back up to the apartment in time to prepare not only lunch but a loaf of zucchini bread – we were having guests for coffee, and I wanted to prepare something unique for them.

After my host mother recovered from the fact that I was using a vegetable – a vegetable! – in a sweet quick bread, she had another shock when I measured out the chocolate chips. “They come already cut up?!!” she exclaimed.

That’s right. Carmen had never seen or used chocolate chips before. I’m sure she has eaten things containing with them, but I suppose she hadn’t seen a bag like those that are a staple in my house in the states (we keep at least two bags of Trader Joes’ Semi- or Bittersweet Chips on hand, always). Occasionally her oven decides to throw me curve balls, and on this specific day the bottom heat coil decided not to work. The result was that after 45 minutes, though the top was cooked, I discovered when the bread collapsed that the bottom was not. I quickly put the pans back into the oven to try to redeem what I could, and after another half hour of baking at a higher temperature, the bottoms were no longer raw and we could serve the cake to our guests, two former medical students who had interned under Carmen.

Chocolate chips were also new to them. “How did you get the chocolate all throughout the cake like this?!” one exclaimed. Not quite sure what she was asking, I explained that I mixed in the chocolate chips before baking the batter…but Carmen intervened and explained that the chocolate came already in small pieces. Coming to the rescue, just like the wonderful host mother that she is.

Spain: Land of the Concupiscent

Alas, I have no terrible romantic calamity to inspire me.

The Spanish flag blowing in the Spanish wind

The Spanish trees budding Spanish buds and sprouting from Spanish cement

The Spanish student who I have awkwardly stared at in a very Spanish manner –

Despite such surroundings, I lack the true Spain,

the Fedra, opera, Carmen Spain

the awesome heartbreak by a dark-haired beauty

in a sensual language I don’t understand

(I do. It isn’t.)

To come to Spain

and leave

before a Spanish-guitar-narrated seduction,

a Woody Allen movie artist found beneath a Picasso

or even a one-night true-love fueled by Rioja –



But I have found – or more forced myself to –

love Spanish food.

Ajoblanco, with its gritty garlic taste

offset by sweet sliced grapes;

Goat cheese oozing from an onion-walnut crust

and melting into the quince jam by its side;

a banana croquette, taking my tapa virginity,

with a tangy drizzle of rum reduction;

bite-sized tomato pepper stuffed with sweet cream cheese;

Pakistani tea amongst passionate red cushions

and the heady smell of hookah;

a plate of nada from the dry-humored waiter at a café in Seville;

hot cheese croquettes bursting from their deep-fried shell at the tentative touch of a knife;

the irresistible, illogical deliciousness of golden stir-fried bread,

covered with paprika and eaten while sitting on grass;

refreshing straw-sips of the mysterious sweet horchata that tastes of its Arabic roots;

a dark bar of chocolate

laced with vanilla-roasted pumpkin seeds;

earth-flavoured lentils with fall-apart red pepper,

brought up from my abuela’s kitchen;

smiling mushrooms turned face-up

in a bath of olive oil and lemon –

I continue to believe that poetry is inspired by the pleasures of the body.


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