An unfamiliar smell woke me up. My eyes opened and looked up at the white ceiling. Rich, yet delicate, the smell was sweet and savory at once. Peering around at my surroundings, I remembered that I was a stranger in an unfamiliar house.
Only hours before, I was crouched on a sunny corner in suburban Madrid, waiting for my host family to pick me up. Tired and queasy from several days of packing and planning, as well as my first overnight flight, I sat on the curb bent over, trying to relieve my sore stomach.
Elisa, all jutting angles and dangling cigarette, came to pick me up. This way to my house, she indicated. I silently nodded, grateful to be going anywhere. We wound through a tight maze of Madrid streets – alleys here, courtyards there. Eventually she buzzed her way into a tiny private street, lined with flowerpots and enclosed patios. At some point I was introduced to a more mature, stockier version of Elisa. Kisses were exchanged all around, and I was shuttled to the upstairs attic and a soft bed. Elisa disappeared, and I drifted off into a sun-filled, warm place.
As I stared at the ceiling, I thought about how difficult the coming weeks were going to be. My classroom Spanish was rudimentary at best, and I wasn’t quite sure why I spent my weekend-job money on a flight to a place so far away. More immediate than that, there was a woman downstairs cooking.
I looked at my watch. 4:30 p.m. Slowly I stood up and took in my surroundings. This room was an office of sorts – a desk, bookcases, some basic furniture, a plastic covered stationary bike – so familiar, yet so not. I walked over to investigate the books. Medical journals and texts in Spanish, I registered with surprised embarrassment. Yes, not everyone speaks English. I walked over to the dormer window in the attic, cranked it open and stuck my head out into the bright Spanish afternoon. Stretched out in front of me was a jumble of orange tiled roofs. The air smelled warm and clean, and dogs barked in the distance.
I was hungry, very hungry. Just how long can a girl pretend she’s asleep anyway? It was time to go downstairs and face Elisa’s mother. I smoothed my clothes and stretched out my limbs, before approaching the staircase downstairs.
Hola? I walked toward the kitchen, following the sounds of utensils clanging against metal pots, sizzling food and soap opera stars arguing fierce and fast. Elisa was gone. In her place, Elisa’s mother looked up at me and smiled. Lo siento, no hablo una palabra del ingles, she said. Please, sit down, she indicated towards the round wooden table. Spanish words were floating in my head, but somehow would not come to my tongue. I sat in silence, while this spirited, solid woman turned back to her hot stove, stirring her pans.
While the heroine on the screen leapt about in fury, cursing the grandchildren of the man who had scorned her, Elisa’s mother set a cool glass of water in front of me. Onto my round white plate she ladled a sticky rice studded with golden raisins, and a few black mounds, slowly leaking their inky sauce. Squid? My world back home was decorated with rows of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup and boxes of Shake ‘N Bake. I formed my lips into a smile and waited for her to serve herself a plate. Together we sat in silence, television yammering in the background. I watched Elisa’s mother pick up her fork and eagerly attack her plate. Please, she said, nodding her heads towards my plate. I looked at the whole squid, blacker than anything I had ever eaten before, and dug in.
The following weeks bled together into a collage of sights and sounds. When I was presented with an unfamiliar food, I closed off my taste buds and quietly consumed. Back home, I prided myself on being the unpicky one – the one, unlike her brother, who would eat anything. Tortilla sandwiches, marinated anchovies sitting in a bed of bitter greens, pungent hard cheeses – I consumed all and tasted nothing.
One night several weeks later, Elisa and I returned home after a long day of cathedrals, museums and monuments. We entered the house, picking up the daily bread delivery sitting in the outside patio, and I followed her into the yellow light of the kitchen.
Elisa’s father greeted us both with a smile and a kiss on each cheek, his beard rough against my cheek. I mimicked her lead and slumped into a chair at the table. While Elisa explained away her adequate biology grade, I studied the kitchen. On the counter, a long, lumpy object sat covered with a checked dishcloth. My eyes traced the lines of the object, landing on the hoof peeking out at one end.
I looked around the table. Elisa was gesturing, imitating her teacher. While her brother buried his head in a comic book, Elisa’s mother pulled dishes down from the cabinets. Does no one else see this? There is a piece of a decapitated animal sitting on the kitchen counter, I thought in alarm, and no one seems to know it’s there.
To my horror, Elisa’s father rose from the table and approached the beast. In between comments about respect for authority, he drew a long knife out from a drawer underneath the counter and pulled back the dishcloth. As Elisa’s mother sliced the bread from outside, Elisa’s father began to rock the knife gently against a huge, exposed leg of pig. Pink ribbons peeled off the edge of his knife, landing into a rippling pool on the plate below. Gently he laid down his knife, and began to pile the ribbons onto the freshly cut bread. From the other end of the counter, he uncovered a gooey piece of cheese and began spooning a bit on top of the bread and meat. On top of all of this he drizzled a bit of olive oil from a pitcher sitting on the kitchen table.
Without a hint of hesistation, Elisa’s father dropped the plate in the middle of the table. The family leaned forward and began feasting. Elisa’s father eased into his chair, and while her mother removed her apron, he uncorked a bottle of opaque, purple wine. Salud, he said, and pushed a fat tumbler towards me. I looked at the hoof on the counter and back at the nearly translucent pieces of meat on the platter in front of me. I took a gulp of burning Spanish wine and reached towards the plate. In my hand was a perfect round of bread, moistened slightly with greenish oil, topped with those pink slices and oozing cheese. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth.
Quite simply, it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten.