Thank goodness for the dog. My couchsurfing host in Vitoria, in the Spanish Basque country, was taking a class on medieval iconography whose final field trip was the next day, and she wanted to bring her dog. Would I mind watching him while they were in the church? She warned me it might be a bit boring, since they’d be in class for three or four hours, but then I could join them for lunch. A backpacker will do almost anything for free food, but I would have jumped at the chance just to hang out with her grinning border collie.
The air of the late morning in early May was warm among the pine trees, which obligingly dropped endless sticks for fetching. The remoteness of this church meant it was just the birds in the trees, a soft wind moving sighs of pollen around, and the crunch of pine needles under foot and paw. I was already in my own heaven, no iconography needed.
My search for a teaching job had been unsuccessful so far, Spain’s raging unemployment leaving no room for foreign instructors with dubious legal status, but in among the trees everything was so good, I had to be on the right path. The bells started ringing to announce the end of class, so pup and I met them as they blinked in the noonday sun.
“Tienes hambre, tio?” I love the way Spaniards call everyone their aunt or uncle. Accustomed to the anonymity and abbreviated connections of backpack travel, the warmth of these Romance language cultures (Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and Romania) was food for my lonely spirit. And yes, I was definitely hungry.
Long trestle tables were empty when we arrived, but soon platters of savory jamon iberico, sharp queso manchego, and tangy olives began to arrive. Luckily my manners made me nibble sparingly as baskets of fresh baked bread began appearing between the plates.
Patatas bravas, fried golden and served with nicely spicy paprika aioli. Croquetas filled with creamy mashed potato, more manchego, more jamon, and sometimes bacalao, fresh cod. This showed up in other forms as well, especially “bacalao a la vizcaina” or basque-style, stewed with red peppers and capers in a white wine sauce. It had been a magnificent meal.
Then the heavier dishes started appearing. Oh dear. Oxtail soup, arroz negra stained black with squid ink, and a rabbit stew that made me want to move there for good. Plates of pimientos de padron went around, and I knew the saying “some bite, some don’t” because you never know which of the green peppers would be spicy or not. Slices of octopus a la gallega, which is my guilty pleasure. And of course, paella by the kilo, savory with saffron, rosemary, and a mix of meats. But my surprise favorite was the morcilla, blood sausage that was so exquisite I had to restrain myself from hoarding the whole dish (especially in a rich fabada asturiana, that one really made an impression on me).
Of course this lineup came with wine by the bottle, and the tinto de verano by the jug, which just kept coming as the first hour stretched into two. I don’t know how long we ate before the servers stopped bringing new dishes, and took seats among us, but the next part of the afternoon was well underway. The singing.
Full of good food and lubricated by good drink, songs would start at one end of a table and spread throughout the group, interspersed with laughing stories that I could mostly follow in my saturated state. I felt like I was completing a life goal when I joined in with Silvio Rodriguez’s Ojala, which a long-ago Spanish teacher had used to teach us the subjunctive tense, but was now an invitation to include my own rusty pipes in the choir.
Coffee came, the stories and songs went on, and the day moved into dusk. This was the sobremesa, the legendary Spanish habit of hanging out at the table after a feast, enjoying the company as much as you had enjoyed the food. It went on long enough that before we left, a couple more plates of light snacks came out, since you wouldn’t want anyone getting peckish on the way home. I felt as much incredulity as appetite when I lifted a few montaditos onto my plate.
That afternoon is one of many memories of notable feasts that include Chinese wedding tradition, Tuscan cenas on tour, and the Thanksgiving tables where families and friends gathered. Those meals were incredible in their gastronomic splendor, but what made them truly beautiful was the company, whether it was a few people or dozens. The long challenges of this moment have been heavy, a weight carried through months stretching into years, and I think we have all felt our reserves being depleted. So I hope you are all able to take time during this season for nourishment, physical and more, whether it be in the peace of solitude, the company of loved ones, or rows of singing Spaniards.
Happy Thanksgiving, my friends!