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WORLDVIEW: Rare meetings in Madrid

Jessica Gokhberg ’13 gets a taste of Spanish culture while abroad

By Jessica Gokhberg
On December 12, 2011

Of course, there was that moment when I stepped off of the plane in Madrid and realized that I was not in Kansas anymore. Of course, there was that moment when I took my first taxi and couldn't summon up my seven years of Spanish in order to say numero noventa y uno, my host's house number. And who knew that coming to Spain as someone who is lactose intolerant, I would have to know two different words for "cream" so that when I tell a waiter I'm allergic to crema, they won't still give me nata?

There are thousands of international students studying in Madrid, each trying to find their own niche in this loud, wine-filled city.

For some it's in the squatter neighborhood of Lavapiés, full of ethnic food and fruit stands. Others prefer the center of the city and its seven-story club Kapital, or maybe Gran Vía, the Broadway of Madrid.

Whatever your cup of tea, I've discovered that Madrid will have it—and will present it to you with a side of fresh olives and chorizo.

My niche: el barrio Salamanca, living with Laura Rodriguez. Salamanca is what Madrileños would call pijo, or posh. But on the scale of pijo-ness, the block I live on is pretty low.

My host's family has been living in this three-bedroom apartment since the 1930's, sometimes with eight children all at once. Right now, it is inhabited by 64-year-old Laura and her students.

Across the street and down the block is Pedro, who sells all the meat and bread to the residents of the neighborhood—and has for 20 years. He probably eats as much meat as he sells, and his belly is almost as large as the store itself. Next to him are the Cubans who sell the fruit, then the older Spanish woman who sells the desserts and so on.

Although the metro system in Madrid is one of the best in the world, I always choose to walk the three kilometers to class, simply to say hello to these shopkeepers. Each morning, I pass them sweeping the leaves off the sidewalk in front of their stores.

I walk home for lunch and see the businessmen and women drinking a beer together, eating some tapas before heading home. I walk back in the afternoon at the same time that the parents pick up their children in uniforms and give them little jamón sandwiches to fight off hunger until the regular 10 p.m. dinner.

In the evening, I see the same shopkeepers greeting every known passerby with the exuberance only a Spaniard could give to a conversation.

My walk is like clockwork: the same women wearing the same fur coats, buying the same newspapers from the same convenience stand every day.

Señora Laura Rodriguez, however, knows how to spice up any pijo lifestyle.

She claims to be the ex-stepmother and occasional drinking partner of Nicholas Cage. She was also the wise voice who guided Antonio Banderas into his acting career two decades ago in a little pueblo outside Madrid. There's also the detail that she is the ex-wife of the grandson of José Ortega y Gasset, the great Spanish liberal philosopher.

When I first met Laura, she regaled me with magnificent stories of Maltan prime ministers and Arabian lovers while simultaneously inhaling an entire pack of cigarettes.

The first day with my host was a struggle. I'm lactose intolerant and was vegetarian at that point, so there was, well, nothing she could think of to prepare for me to eat when we first met. Our first big lunch together and all we could agree on was red wine.

In a stroke of genius Laura runs into my room and yells "tortilla de patatas!" Tortilla de patatas is a classic Spanish dish, a type of potato-and-egg omelet. Little does she know that tortilla de patatas is the reason I chose to study in Spain over any other Spanish-speaking country. What's more is that she asked me to help her cook it so I can prepare it at home for myself.

However, my program has a rule that the students are not allowed to use their hosts' kitchens. All of our meals are prepared for us, and that's that. Of course, Laura broke the rule my first night.

I cut two potatoes just the way Laura told me to, mixed in the three eggs and poured almost a liter of olive oil into the skillet. Laura slowly emptied the mixture into the sizzling oil and turned the heat down to the temperature she knows is perfect from her years of experience.

Flipping the tortilla is the art of the dish, though; you can't let one side cook longer than the other, and since once side is still uncooked, you have to be careful not to spill any of the yolk.

Laura just so happens to have an olive-skinned, green-eyed, tall Spanish nephew named Nacho who loves to cook, so we mixed all of the ingredients and let señor flip our tortilla.

I have been living in Madrid for almost four months now. I have had countless unique experiences and found the quirks of Spanish culture.

Why do Spaniards not consider jamón to be meat? How can Madrileños be that cold that they need a knee-length winter coat in the middle of October when it's still 50 degrees Fahrenheit out?

The experiences that count, however, are the ones I have with the individuals I meet here. I'll always remember the toothless Romanian man who plays the violin three blocks away. And the old saxophonist who masterfully plays all the Disney animated movie songs in the Alonso Martínez metro stop.

I'm sad that when I return to Brandeis I won't be stopped by every friend and acquaintance I meet and asked with extravagant gestures the details of my morning that passersby have to dodge.

But this Madrileña will return in a month with tortilla de patatas in hand and dos besitos to give, making my way to class, Spanish-style. 

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