Food and wine, unlike much else I know, bring people together. A single meal can weave itself between diners – a thread sewing together patches of a quilt.
We met in our first Catalan class back in October. That class boasted twelve different nationalities: Bolivian, Cuban, Dominican, French, Italian, Ivorian, Moroccan, Paraguayan, Romanian, Senegalese, Uruguayan, and “American*.” And as any student in any class, we made quick judgements about the others whom we might befriend in due time. Now, the three of us are the only students from the first class to have continued to the second of a three-class series. Naturally, we gravitated toward familiar faces. However, a couple weeks passed before we broke our superficial classmate interactions and began developing a relationship more characteristic of a friendship. We shared nothing those first few days, we knew little about each other; Spanish, the time we spent in class, and our current life in Catalonia stitched three very different quilt patches together. With time a friendship blossomed and we each depended on our weekly coffee dates to satiate our limited social lives.
Every Tuesday and Thursday the three of us – Lidia, the Italian; Crengu, the Romanian; and I, the “American”— meet for merienda (Spanish) or berenar (Catalan), an early evening snack. Lidia, a fiery, sixty-nine-year-old Italian woman, moved to Granollers two years ago in order to be closer to her son and two grandchildren. Crengu, a very timid, soft-spoken, thirty-two-year-old, moved to the area with her two children for her husband’s job. And I, from upstate New York, moved here to teach English in a local high school. At first sight we are an eclectic bunch, and Lidia always explains why and how the three of us know each other, as if others really care. “Bueno, yo soy de Italia, ella es de Rumania, y ella es de Nueva York. Y bueno estamos en la misma clase de Catalán… – Well, I’m from Italy, she’s from Romania, and she’s from New York, and we’re in the same Catalan class…” the conversation goes. Crengu and I exchange “is it really necessary to explain why we are together?” looks. It resembles the look on teens’ faces when their parents say something embarrassing. Is it really that bizarre to see three different people of different complexions and ages sharing conversation and drinks?
La Olla, home to our coffee dates, moves with the relaxed Spanish lifestyle; the customers elongate their dates with friends, putting everything but the people, the meal, and the moment on hold. The servers match the pace of the customers. Behind me a university student taps his foot to keep the beat while he plays his accordion. Music and chatter fill the brisk evening air. Others munch on sandwiches and sip their drinks, and the café door squeaks as it swings open and closed.
Yesterday we exchanged coffee for food: pizza, wine, and Spanish wove in and out between Lidia, Crengu, and me. The little Italian restaurant warmed our cold bodies as we entered and the walls reverberated the chitter chatter of the other customers. We sat down and immediately Lidia pulled out her map of Europe, eager to learn where exactly in Romania Crengu lived. Crengu pointed to Cluj-Napoca in northern Romania, “soy de aquí – I’m from here.” She turned to me, “es una ciudad con mucha gente de universidad – it’s a city with a lot of university students”, she said smiling. I returned a big grin remembering fondly my own college days. Lidia piped in, “¿Y cómo es Rumania? ¿Debe ser bastante feo, no? – And what’s Romania like? It probably isn’t too nice, right?” The question surprised me, how could anyone say that about someone else’s country? Lidia speaks her mind and worries little about how others react to her blunt comments. She and I have different approaches in the way we express ourselves, which I attribute to our different cultures.
“Sí. Sí lo es – Yes. Yes, it is,” Crengu responded. I looked at her perplexed, what did she mean her country wasn’t nice? “Hay mucha pobreza y la gente es muy mala. Roban y van a otros países para robar también. Me da vergüenza. Pero también generalmente son gitanos. – There’s so much poverty and people are malicious. They rob people and they go to other countries to rob people too. It embarrasses me. But they’re mostly gypsies.” We listened to her explanation. She continued, “Pero también es un país muy lindo. Hay paisajes muy lindos y montañas también. – But it’s also a beautiful country. There are beautiful landscapes and mountains too.” Listening to people talk about their countries fascinates me; they are the best source to learn about the world.
“Y ¿si quieres ir a la playa…vas al Mar Negro? – And if you want to go to the beach…you go to the Black Sea?”
“Sí. – Yes.”
“¿Y realmente es negro? – And is it really black?” Lidia replied. I smiled hard to suppress the laughs inside.
“Bueno, negro, negro no. Pero sí está muy sucio y la arena no es blanca. – Well, black, black, no. But it’s very dirty and the sand isn’t white.” We each took turns talking about our countries, learning about each other’s, and comparing the three. And when the country topic finished, Lidia a swift conversationalist, brought up another. From where we lived, to the food we ate, to the people in our class, to our families, the words flowed effortlessly out of our mouths for hours.
The conversation continued in front of me, but my eyes glazed over as my thoughts took me back to Paris where my best friend and I sat in a restaurant people watching and listening to the surrounding snippets of conversation. “When I see people together,” she said,” “I always wonder if they’re communicating in their native language or in a second language. It just amazes me!” Her comment played on repeat in the back of my mind, distracting me from the conversation in front of me, but simultaneously awing me. It is amazing, isn’t it, that people who know nothing about each other can develop a friendship, sewn together by a second language.
Photos by Author
*“American” is in quotes because I believe that every culture from the northern border of North America to the southern border of South America is American. The Spanish word, “estadounidense,” (meaning pertaining to the US or a US citizen) should be used when describing anything about or anyone from the United States. I often question why US citizens use “American” to describe themselves when every person living in the Americas is also American. It comes off both as ignorant and ethnocentric of US citizens, especially when used in the presence of Canadians or Latin Americans. In fact, I have witnessed the resentment toward US citizens from friends in Chile when my sister used “American” to describe Columbus Day (a holiday Latin Americans also celebrate). The discussion that ensued made me realize and question the ethnocentricity of US culture. Please note that this comment is in no way anti-United States, but rather provides a different perspective for US citizens to consider.
Kalindi Naslund is a multi-local Spanish teacher, traveler, home chef, reader, and freelance writer. She currently lives in Catalonia, Spain where she teaches students English and takes Catalan classes. While she’s not busy in the classroom teaching or learning, she explores the Catalonian region, makes frequent visits to Barcelona, and travels around Europe.