Monday, February 21, 2011

your greatest american hero

Food is my least favorite part of traveling. From the pages dedicated to eating-- what, where, how much--  in guidebooks, I'm guessing this is abnormal. There are too many vagaries: do I just sit, or is it self-service? Is the menu in a language I understand? Do I tip? How do I signal for the bill? Then there's the added trouble of vegetarianism (or more precisely, picky pescatarianism). I prefer to buy and cook at the hostel, or cobble together al fresco sandwiches. I'd rather eat like a bum on a park bench then sit awkwardly alone at a restaurant with a menu I can't translate. And as my Papa used to say, "Eat to live, don´t live to eat."

But today is my 25th birthday, and I've just arrived in Granada. I decided that merits a proper meal in a restaurant. As an appetizer I sat in the sun on the Plaza Nueva and had a mammoth glass of sangria. Giddy and empty-bellied, I started walking and was soon happy for anything. A little empty restaurant near the Gran Via allured; menu in English in the window. Inside two ancient Spanish men sat smoking and watching a dubbed 80s TV show (Greatest American Hero) in the shabby decor (Coke cans and cheap wine in the deli case, tacky souvenirs on the counter, old pictures of Granada on the walls). I thought of Atlas back in Flint-- that coney island near Bryan's place on Augusta with the terrible formica and the angry old Greek owners. Perfect.

The menu was a useless lure, as neither spoke the language. When I ordered water-- agua--my waiter stared at me as if astounded and repeated, "Agua?!" Si, senor. I pointed to the daily special: fried fish. My waiter relayed this to the cook and settled back with his ashtray to watch TV while I scratched in my journal and listened to my birthday dinner pop and crack in the grease.

What arrived was not fish. It was a heaping mix of shrimp, octopus and something else, fried all to hell. A plateful of eyes, fried black and wishing me happy birthday indeed. Were I at home, I would have insisted, "This is not fish," and sent it back. But an American alone in Granada, eccentric enough, apparently, to order water, no Spanish save a few phrases and what a lifetime of Taco Bell commercials have taught me, I felt I'd made my order and we had to get along, these little eyes and I. I tried not to look any of it too closely, thought of the Omega 3s and ate. I managed about a quarter of the plate before giving up. Heavy with grease, still a touch tipsy, I went up to the counter. The cook gave me the loveliest, proudest smile and said something I'll never know, but can only imagine: wasn't that wonderful? Don't you love Spanish cuisine, American girl? Aren't you delighted you spent your 25th birthday with a plate full of dead shrimp eyes? The waiter had moved on to an old Western, more Spanish voices thrown over ruddy American faces. I smiled and paid. I walked toward the hostel chanting "Don't throw up, don't throw up."

Back to the hostel kitchen tomorrow, I think.

Dead urchins aside, it's been a pretty good birthday. To Atocha Estacion this morning, drinking coffee and waiting for the train to Granada. I have a great affection for train stations, but Atocha is quite something. The main hall is swallowed up by an atrium, all palm trees and towering fronds, a pond to sit and watch the turtles slowly carry on with their day (with my bulging backpack and lingering limp, I felt great kinship with the tortugas this morning). Then all the Japanese tourists and I climbed on for the 4 hour journey to Granada. Out of Madrid, the red clay earth undulating in hills dotted with low shrubs. Then in the last two hours, Andalucia and the kind of landscape I have never seen. Sweeping landscapes: the orchards, the Sierras, the verdant grass. The Japanese girls behind me started making these wonderful yipping noises in excitement as they took photos through the train window; a kind of shrill oomoomooyeye that made me giggle into my hand. And Granada itself, beyond my still slightly nauseous powers of description this evening. The tightly winding streets like I remember from Morocco opening into European boulevards. The Arabic tiles and the Catholic churches. The sun and the ruins, the Alhambra on the hill and the mountains in the distance. The fruit trees already dropping oranges on the cobblestones.

Spain was a kind of impulse when I planned my trip. I wanted to see Tomcat in Poland, but there was no inexpensive way to move between Poland and Morocco-- I need to go via Spain or circle back to England and fly from there. I checked out a few guidebooks from the library, skimmed them and decided Spain sounded okay. The whole of the trip was hard to plan. When Bryan died, I was told to take things one day at a time, and I accepted that advice and clung to it as my means of daily survival. Shaking myself out of that mindset and trying to imagine myself alone in Europe, in Africa, was nearly impossible. I made the most basic itinerary, booked the necessary flights and left. So I arrived in Spain with just a few ideas-- the Prado, the Alhambra, Barcelona-- and no real preparation. I have never traveled this way before: without expectations, without a schedule. Truly discovering things as they come and making of them what I will.

And never have I fallen in love with a place so instantaneously, so blindly as I have Spain. The easy-going, easy-humored nature of so many of the Spanish. The thrill of the journey into Andalucia and Granada-- a city I couldn't have dreamt up. These clashes of culture-- finding traces of my beloved Morocco when I woke to the disconcerting news protests have started in Casablanca and Rabat. Drinking sangria in the sun.

... but still some underlying sadness. A birthday alone. Just an urn to greet me when I climb the stairs to my hotel room. The memory of my last birthday-- margaritas with Bryan, a bottle of perfume (my first and last grown-up birthday present from a boyfriend). No cake and ice cream, just a plate of blackened shrimp eyes (I'm sure I'll dream of them).

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