Monday, March 7, 2011

A Tale of Two Ancient Cities

Our next travel destination led us to two of the oldest cities in Europe, Rome and Athens.  When you first arrive to these places, you are awed by these enormous structures that have been standing for thousands of years.  The ruins from past empires are interspersed with modernity.  Both Rome and Athens are constructed around these ancient sites.  Although we may have a tendency to group these cities together, they are wholly different.
The Colosseum
Our first stop was Rome.  Rome is one of those cities where (on your first visit) there is so much to see, you are left with little time to explore on your own.  We of course were no different and wanted to see all the tourist attractions.  The first day was devoted to the Colosseum.  We must have taken at least 500 pictures on just that day; from the inside, from the outside, from a distance, and from every angle and camera setting.  After playing models for a few hours, our stomachs were talking.  We decided on the obvious, pizza and gelato.  I know Naples is famous for pizza and Florence for gelato, but its Italy, I doubt that food could be bad anywhere in the country.  Jon and I enjoyed a 4 cheese pizza and artichoke bruschetta. 
Artichoke Bruschetta
We located a small gelato shop that had 20 flavors.  There was a long line which is usually a good sign; I mean it wasn’t a particularly warm day.  Jon treated himself to chocolate, tiramisu and crème caramel and I enjoyed coconut, nutella, and crème caramel.  We both were thoroughly satisfied with our choices.  When choosing gelato, it is always a gamble because not all flavors are created equal so taste, taste, taste.  I learned this lesson with a not so good strawberry gelato. 
For dinner, we ate pasta, that versatile ingredient that seems to define Italy.  Jon chose pasta carbonara and I ate the house special which was homemade egg noodles with sausage and mushrooms.  We found the flavor to be decent but not spectacular.  The thing is with Roman food, there did not seem to be much variety in the menu from restaurant to restaurant.  I guess this can be said for most places in the world but for some reason I was not expecting this and found this fact disappointing. 
House Special Pasta
The next three days were spent at the Palatino, Roman Forum and Vatican city.  Rome offers a lot of sites that you can visit for free like the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish steps which we did not hesitate to take advantage of.  These iconic Roman places were beautiful but jam-packed with tourists.  We visited on the off season so I can only imagine how it is during the summer.  The most notable foodie adventure was a trip to Pizzeria La Montecarlo which has been voted best pizza in Rome and has been recommended in Le Guide de Routard almost every year since 1996.  It is located on a small side street, nearly impossible to find unless you are paying attention to the indistinct street signs.  This was another case which we were about to give up, but then found our destination.  Besides being delicious, Pizzeria La Montecarlo is affordable, speedy with good service.  We of course ordered pizza and fried mozzarella balls.  The mozzarella balls were crusty on the outside and oozing cheesy goodness on the inside.  The pizzas had super thin crusts, crisped in a wood fired over causing a charred flavor to be added.  I chose the Montecarlo special which came with olives, peppers, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and an egg.  Jon ordered the 4 cheeses, he was devoted to finding the best one in Rome.  I would have to agree with Le Guide de Routard, it was not only the best pizza we had in Rome but also the most enjoyable meal we ate during our stay.
Mozarella Balls
Me and my Pizza
We didn’t have time to miss Rome as we were whisked away to Athens for the weekend.  We were greeted with sunshine and a pure blue sky.  We felt like we were in paradise.  We were tired of the rain and gloom, and the warmth was a welcomed treat.
Temple of Zeus
I found the people in Athens to be genuine and overall good folks to hang out with.  This attitude created a comfortable atmosphere for us outsiders.  Our first order of business was lunch.  We went to the first place we saw and did not regret it.  Our character of a waiter recommended pork gyros and tabbouleh salad (I still think my Dad’s is better!).  The waiter believed that the gyro symbolized Greece and I would have to agree.  Wherever you go, you can always depend on a delicious cheap gyro, which we got to know well over the course of our time there.
Pork Gyros
He taught us how to say thank you in Greek, efharistó.  Overall a pleasant and insightful lunch.  Next, we walked to the ruins of Hadrian’s library which was guarded by stray dogs.  By the end of the trip, I regarded them as the Guardians of the Temple.  After, we tried to go to the Acropolis but it was closed.  Temple of Zeus, closed. Finally a tourist office, also closed!  For some reason Athens shuts down after 3pm on a Saturday.  For dinner, we were lured into a restaurant by the owner promising free drinks and dessert.  Who can turn that down?  Again, we were not disappointed by the food or service.  Drinking our Alfa Beer we shared moussaka and lamb with a lemon sauce smothered in cheese and ham. 
Lamb Dish
Both were simple and tasty dishes.  Sunday brought with it the excitement of another day of ruin tourism.  Even though Athens closed down the day before, it made up by having all attractions free on Sunday.  We were able to go to the Ancient Agora, Hephaestus Temple, Zeus Temple, Dionysus Theater and of course the Acropolis (otherwise known as the Parthenon).  We had another beautiful day hiking through the Athenian hills.  I mean we had a real climb to the Acropolis but the clear views of the city were stunning.  The Parthenon itself was a magnificent site.
The Parthenon
We were lucky enough to spend Valentine’s Day in Athens. We started the day by visiting the meat market.  That sounds romantic, doesn’t it?  I assure you, it is not for those faint of heart or squeamish characters.  The market smelled of raw meat mingled with the scent of oregano and mint.  It was like nothing I had ever seen with men in white butcher coats shouting as you walked past to come visit their stall.  Different cuts and animals hanging from big metal hooks, it was raw in every sense of the word.
Meat Market
There were shops of dried fruit and nuts, olives, spice stores and of course feta cheese.  I had to have a taste and the nice salesman gave me a nice chunk to eat. 
Feta Cheese
We treated ourselves to some sweet and savory Greek pies at Apiston.  We had spanakopita (spinach and feta), pumpkin with honey, and sweet cheese with cinnamon.  They were decadent.  One will definitely fill you up.
Sweet Cheese Pie
We spent the day wondering the city, exploring the lesser known sites like the national gardens and the Olympic stadium.  There was a strike so all public transportation was not running and Greek guards were standing on every corner to ensure violence didn’t break out (nothing happened).  Since we were low on cash at this point, we opted for a luxurious chocolate cake called love cake instead of dinner.  This cake was so rich and moist.  It tasted like it had been sitting and soaking up chocolate sauce all day.  It was a perfect end to our time in Greece.
Love Cake
Re-reading my account, it would seem that our trips are fine and dandy without the slightest hiccup.  Although we are having the time of our lives, it doesn’t mean we haven’t had to experience growing pains.  You can have the best parents in the world who try and prepare you for the real world, but you don’t understand how difficult it is until you have to make the decisions yourself.  I consider myself lucky to have parents who have given me tools to cope with the world around me; I hate to think where I would be without their guidance.  I understand more than ever the stress money and a budget can put on a relationship.  I am discovering how to balance living life and enjoying the present while being conscious of the future.  When I came to Europe, I felt that a big change in my life would occur.  Imagining an amazing career opportunity or dreaming of an epiphany that would guide me to my right path.  Instead I am learning how to deal with life as it comes, jumping over hurdles, dodging wrenches, and adapting to each opportunity presented to me, good or bad.  It’s not a fun process but a necessary one.  All in all, Jon and I are supporting each other through these life lessons while enjoying the scenery along the way.

Monday, January 31, 2011

My Magic Year in Paris

When I was a little girl and first set eyes on the magnificent structure that is the Eiffel Tower, I knew at once that I would have to visit Paris at some point in my lifetime. It was only natural that as I fell more and more in love with food that my attraction to Paris and France would grow. I would read about Julia Child’s life on Rue De L’Université and her culinary adventures at Le Cordon Cooking School. Or about how Judith Jones only ate one meal a day so that she could enjoy a delicious Parisian dinner. My moment came this year when I was fortunate enough to spend my 24th birthday in this beautiful city. I also had the great pleasure of having my fiancé, Jon, accompany me on this trip.
Love at the Eiffel Tower
When we arrived on Wednesday night, the first thing we wanted to do was eat. I saw a bistro down the street that looked particularly intriguing with its dark interior and red florescent lights on the outside. We walked in and in broken French explained that we wanted to have dinner. The waiter responded quickly that “this was impossible” and shooed us out the door. The only other restaurants nearby that were still open were a Chinese takeout and pizza place. The Chinese food on display did not look particularly appetizing so we settled on pizza. When you walked in, you would see a man making pizza to order and shuffling the pies into a hot brick oven that faced his back. There was no place to sit, only a narrow hallway with a counter. We ordered pizza Margarita because it was the only thing on the menu we recognized. As I watched the pizza chef, I knew that we had made a mistake as I saw the generous sprinkling of different toppings like goat cheese and lardons. I saw him make a pizza by piling on 4 different cheeses and an egg in the middle. I piped up and asked if we could have a pizza like the one he was making. He obliged and soon we were walking back to our tiny hotel room with a coke and our pizza box. Since we didn’t have any utensils, we ripped pieces off and savored each bite. At the end we popped the egg and dipped the last bites in all its yolky goodness. Now, for all those critics don’t knock it until you try it, that’s even if you appreciate a good runny egg. That moment marked a great taste memory and was probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.
Jon and Our Pizza
Before we would venture into the city, we stopped at the same bakery every morning and select one sweet and one savory pastry to share. This tactic served us well because it was an inexpensive breakfast and we were able to try an array of French pastries. One morning there was a small outdoor market in the square next to the hotel. I was immediately consumed by the bounty surrounding me. There were butcher’s displaying their house made patés, cheese makers with over 50 kinds of cheese, a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a beautiful display of seafood (scallops still in their shell!). This was the moment I truly fell in love with Paris. To me, when you hear people say how much they love French food- what they are really saying is that they love the care and quality of each ingredient. When you start off with high quality ingredients, it takes little effort on the cook’s part to produce a delicious dish. These producers were experts on their products and could tell you what was especially delicious this week whether it be a cut of lamb, a camembert cheese, or the sweet carrots that were just dug up that morning. This intimate knowledge is attained only when a person has been through the entire process, from seedling to fruit. I envy this connection to food and strive to one day soon be able to enjoy the fruits of my own labor instead of buying the glossy but tasteless foods that are so often found in our supermarkets. My only regret in Paris is that I did not have a kitchen to conjure some of my own Parisian creations. On my next trip, that will be a must.
Mounds of Cheese
Fresh Scallops and Other Seafood Goodies
Being an EU student has its advantages and disadvantages. In Paris, most museums and cultural attractions will let you in for free. On the other hand, you don’t have that much money to begin with. Keeping our budget in mind, I was allowed to splurge on two things (it was my birthday after all): French macarons and one nice meal. My goal was to seek out the famous French macarons from master pastry chef Pierre Hermé. We had trekked in the cold rainy weather searching for one of his bakeries on Rue Bonapart with no luck. Giving up, we walked to our next destination Le Cordon Bleu. We didn’t realize how far that was, practically on the other side of the city. I wanted to give up several times but Jon (bless his heart) kept pushing me saying "we’ve gone this far already, let's just finish."  And what do you know…there was a Pierre Hermé patisserie!!!! I was smiling from ear to ear. It’s funny how such a small success can lift your spirits and push you to move forward (of course with 20 Euros worth of macarons in hand). 5 minutes later I was standing in front of the famous culinary arts school. It was closed, which was probably a good thing as we didn’t have extra money to shop in the school store. I settled for a picture, which has more meaning than anything I could have bought.
French Macarons
Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School
Ready for a nice dinner I chose Micouleau, a small place that specialized in duck and foie gras (duck or goose fattened liver). We started our meal with the restaurant’s award winning foie gras. I ordered duck confit, a duck leg cooked in its own fat until it is so tender that it melts in your mouth. As if that wasn’t decadent enough it was served with fried potato coins tossed in garlic oil and a small green salad. Jon chose cassoulet, a stew of beans, duck, and sausage. The food was heavenly. We lingered over every bit so that we could thoroughly taste all the flavors hitting different parts of our tongues. It was so French and so wonderful.
Foie Gras
Duck Confit and Potatoes
This trip taught me about how to be a grown-up. Every day we had to make choices and sacrifices based on what was “most important.” Clearly I wasn’t able to stay in a nice hotel or eat at Michelin stared restaurants. That doesn’t mean I never will, just not on this trip. This trip was special in its own ways. I was able to see some of the world’s most famous monuments and museums with my husband-to-be. We learned how to balance each other, when one of us felt overwhelmed or stressed the other knew how to take over the situation. This skill will be most valuable on the adventures to come. When you travel, you learn that you can’t have everything but that what you do get is enough, and we should be reminded to be grateful for those moments.
The Glass Pyramid at the Louvre

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Marseille?  Where is that? I've never heard of that place.  For those of you who don't know, it is a small port town on the Mediterranean coast in France.  What drew you to that place? In all honesty, it was Julia Child.  In her book, My Life in France, she describes the food of Marseille in such detail, that it made my list of places to go when I was in Europe (a 20 euro round trip flight doesn't hurt either).  The last few trips I have been on, I have traveled alone.  This time I was accompanied by my new friend Charleen (or Char Char as she is know to her close friends).  I am all up for exploring and going on adventures solo, but I thoroughly enjoyed having someone to eat with, travel with, and most importantly, someone to have interesting conversations with.
Our first order of business after finding our hostel was to find somewhere to eat. We asked the women at the fron desk for recommendations and she suggested Dos Hermanos.  Wary of the name, I ask "this is not a Spanish restaurant right?"  She assures me that the restaurant serves typical French dishes.  We set out to find this elusive Spanish named French food restaurant.  Unfortunately, we went in the wrong direction for 20 minutes and then once we adjusted our course had to walk up hill and up a set of stairs.  Needless to say, it took us about an hour to find the place, the entire time I was thinking "this better be worth it."  Oh the irony, the restaurant was in fact a tapas bar.  I like Spanish food well enough but I am in France, I want some French food dammit.  Luckily, there was one platter of the day that was French.  The benefit to being in a tapas bar is that the staff spoke Spanish which was a blessing as our French were extremely below par.  The meal was thoroughly enjoyable, I mean who can resist a gratin of potatoes, cream, cheese, and lardons with white sangria??  Not me!
For dinner, we enjoyed a savory and a sweet galette (similar to a crepe). The savory galette was filled with Provencal ratatouille and cheese and the sweet galette was with chocolate, bananas, and whipped cream. Our palettes were spoiled that first night. Our "French" was so terrible that by the end of the night I was saying grazie (I don't speak Italian) and Charleen was mumbling words reminiscent of Spanish (no alcohol was involved).

That night a storm erupted like I have never heard, thunder, lighting, the whole bit. We experienced intermediate spurts of varying degrees of rain and even hail at one point for the rest of the trip. However, Charleen and I were not going to let the discomfort of wet shoes stop us from exploring the city. We even braved the beach on Sunday. On Saturday morning, we went to the fish market. I have never seen fresher fish on display and of such variety, a lot of them were still alive in the containers. The fishermen and women cleaned the fish right there and then for you. It was pretty amazing.
To commemorate our adventure to the fish market, we ate Marseille's national dish, bouillabaisse, a rich fish stew served with rouille (a thick sauce made with garlic and saffron) and croutons. This was the reason I came to Marseille, just to try this stew. Is that crazy? Absolutely but definitely essential for my gourmet growth. The broth was a rich fish stock with 4 different kinds of local fish. You could taste the freshness of the fish which I was not expecting. The traditional way to eat the soup is to put the rouille on the crouton and let it soak up all that borthy goodness. Eat a piece of the crouton with a piece of fish and by ready for an explosion of flavor in your mouth. No wonder its so famous, everyone was eating the same thing in the restaurant. That's when you know it's good.
And how can I forget the lovely pastries. On every corner instead of a liquor store you find a patisserie. All I can say is that it was a good thing I was walking so much because I was eating way too many sweets. If Marseille was bad, I can't imagine how Paris will be when I go in January. Every pastry was so beautiful, a small piece of edible art.  Eating for research is the best job in the world.
Whenever I arrive home from my trips, I am always reflective of my experience. This time I felt that I was born in the wrong time period. That maybe I should have been a child of the 50's so that I could have been a key player in the American food revolution of the 70's. Maybe it is my own fault because I have been reading books from the "Greats" in the food industry telling tales of when being a foodie or a gourmand was a budding concept; envying the ease with which connections and lifetime friendships were made. France was still the culinary mecca of the world at this time and we (Americans) had yet to discover the spicy pleasures of Chinese and Thai food or the majesty of hand made pasta. The culinary community was small and interconnected (compared to now). How is it possible that Julia Child and James Beard became the best of friends until the end of their days? That Craig Claiborne and Gael Greene shared so many intimate dinners together? Or how did Ruth Reichl have not one but three coveted positions in the food world, LA times food critic, NY times food critic, and Gourmet editor in chief? I mean, it seems that they have earned their jobs without a hiccup, is it coincidence, hardwork, sheer luck, a combination of all three? I want to read about the hardships, about the difficulties you experienced getting to the top of the food pyramid. It shows you are human and gives me hope that I too will make it, even if the industry is flooded. I can only hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, that I can make an impact and be remembered.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Portugal: The land of my ancestors, bacalhau, and pastéis de Belém

    If you have been reading my posts, you may have noticed that I have been quite the busy bee.  Traveling all over Europe, taking full advantage of being on a continent that is half the size of the U.S. with plane tickets for even less then that (5 Euros!).  This puente took me to Portugal, more specifically to Porto and Lisboa.  I feel that this country is highly underrated, it is just stunning.  I almost didn't want to go back to Madrid.  I must confess though, that being Brasilian with Portuguese ancestors, does play a role.  My great-grandfather was Portuguese with blue eyes (although that's the extent of my family's knowledge of him).  Needless to say, I felt connected by family, history and language.  It felt exhilarating to speak Portuguese, I didn't realize how much I missed it.  I already am making plans to go back!

     My first 2 days were spent in Porto and yes as the name indicates this city is famous for Port wine.  There are several Porto caves that give tours and tastings.  Luckly (didn't have to spend money) and unluckly (didn't get to bring anything back) for me I couldn't buy any of Portugal's amazing wines or liquors.  Portuguese airlines don't understand the need for foodie travelers to bring back these sort of culinary treasures in their small carry on bag.  I learned that 3 types of Ports exist, a white, a tawny, and a ruby.  I enjoyed all of them but I think the white wins.  It is sweet and citrusy, very refreshing as a dessert cocktail.

The food, unfortunately, was less memorable. It was too heavy for my own taste. I had the strangest meal of my life there. It was steak with melted cheese on top, thinly cut french fries on top of that and topped with cooked cabbage. It wasn't that it tasted bad, I just wasn't sure what to make of it. I had to order a salad to counter the greasiness of the fries. My waiter, Ricardo, mislead me with his recommendation.

In Lisboa, the food improved considerably. They really love their pastries and bacalhau (salted cod). Portugal is the highest consumer of bacalhau in the world- that's how you know they really love it.  However, the fish I most enjoyed was whole grilled sardines.  I can't begin to explain the amazingness that happened in my mouth with the first bite.  This was the kind of food I had been waiting to taste.  To me, it symbolized Portugal more than bacalhau because it was fresh from the sea and cooked simply on the grill with olive oil and salt.  It was one of those rare times in my life where tradition and culture ran through the entire dish.  So delicious, so satisfying, I need to eat more.

I of course cannot forget to mention the famous pastéis de Belém.  People just come to Portugal to eat these cream filled pastries.  The line is straight out the door and once inside you have to wait like a vulture to get a table.  All your morals go out the window, basically you don't let the 80 year lady go ahead of you.  In my mind, I thought "well she has had them before, probably for the last 80 years."  These pastries have a thin crust, similar to phyllo but not quite as delicate with a custard filling.  The best part is they come out fresh, piping hot.  Most enjoyable with a cup of coffee.

As with everything, my trip was coming to end but there was one more thing I had to try- The Francesinha. I had been avoiding this dish since the beginning of my trip for reasons none other than it looked like a heart attack on a plate.  But how could I call myself a foodie or a food researcher if I didn't try this iconic Northern Portuguese dish.  I only had one night left and dedicated it to finding the best damn Francesinha which happened to be at Capa Negra.  Basically this sandwich can be classified as a heavyweight grilled cheese.  There was steak, hot dog, ham, mortadella, another meat I couldn't identify and cheese, all topped with gravy.  Now this might seem extravagant but I didn't come close.  Try it with fries and an egg on top.  Eating it was pretty anticlimactic, I don't think it will be something I'll crave in the future or eat again.  Mission complete.

Leaving Portugal was more difficult then I had anticipated. While I was there, I felt connected to my family which later led to a wave of homesickness when I returned to Madrid. Don't get me wrong, I feel EXTREMELY grateful for this opportunity abroad, but there are those days when you just want to be back home with all the people you love and care about. Also, these emotions had to do with the uncertainty of my living situation and feeling like I had lost control of my life. My parents (love those guys) reminded me to "remember where my feet are" and to "keep on doing the footwork" (a lot of feet references). Essentially, enjoy the time I have right now and keep doing things I need to do and don't worry about the rest. This lesson keeps recurring in my life and is a difficult one for me to accept. As always, they were right and everything worked out in its own time.  Portugal taught me to let go.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Salone del Gusto 2010

I spent this weekend in Turin, Italy, attending the Salone del Gusto.  This is an event put on by Slow Food International which invites food producers from all over Italy and other parts of the world to share their "good,clean, and fair" products.  These artisans range from cheesemakers, butchers, olive oil producers etc...In other words, it was a food convention on steroids.  You are immediately overwhelmed by all the booths and the infinitesimal amount of free samples.  But before I divulge more details, I should mention that this was the first time I have truly traveled by myself.  In the past, two key things have been in place: 1. I spoke the language and 2. I would be meeting others at my destination.  This time I was going all on my own with no knowledge of Italian extending beyond chao (which is used for hello and goodbye), pasta, and pizza.  When I arrived to the airport, I was quite nervous.  The pit in my stomach persisted until I was safely on a bus in Italy heading towards the convention. Needless to say, I arrived safe and sound without a hitch.
The view of the Alps from my window

Next to the Lingotto convention center, is Slow Food's grocery store, EATALY.  As if the convention wasn't overwhelming enough, this store has any Italian product you could possibly want.  Dare I say that it is better than Whole Foods.  All the foods were fresh and of the utmost quality.  I mean what other grocery store sells swordfish with its sword still attached.  I've never seen it.
Every department has its own eatery.  For example, in the pasta section you could buy about 100 different kinds of pasta and eat it too.  I splurged and got linguine with white truffle and butter.  Utterly indulgent and delicious.  Hey, you cannot visit the Piedmont region during truffle season and not try it.  A lot of the items offered in the store were also available at the Salone del Gusto.
This is just one section, there are another 4 rows just like it

White truffle 220.00 Euros per 100 Kilos

My most memorable meal
After the shock of the amazingness of this store and the Salone del Gusto wore off, Mrs. Commonsense came to visit and first told me not to buy anything because I had no way to bring it back to Madrid.  Second, she made me think of the relationship between this store, Slow Food, and the public.  I mean is Slow Food only about promoting sustainability of foodstuffs or is it also about the accessibility of the products as well.  This is the controversy we see in the U.S. regarding Whole Foods.  Is it enough to offer quality products at a relatively high price or should we (slow fooders) be working towards food justice, availability, and affordability as well?  Because even though the sauces, cheeses, and prosciutto were excellent, would the average person "cough up the dough" and buy it on a regular basis?  I don't know and local Italians seemed to resent the enterprise because of this conflict.  It was a discourse I definitely pondered and discussed with others throughout my trip.  I haven't come to a completely satisfying conclusion however I will say that Slow Food does have good intentions and maybe as it becomes larger, it will be able to offer better pricing.  A major highlight of my trip was meeting Alice Waters again.  I was only able to speak to her for a minute but it was nice to find that needle in the haystack of people.  It is funny because I don't recognize celebrities on Hollywood Blvd. but I can spot her in a crowd. I loved every minute of my visit, and enjoyed being surrounded by people who cared about food as much as I do.  Whether it was food culture preservation, continuing a family tradition or starting one, or just being proud of your local product, it was very inspiring.  I found this quote which I think sums up my experience in Italy:  "No one who cooks, cooks alone.  Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, and the wisdom of cookbook writers" (Laurie Colwin).  I think the Salone del Gusto showed me that food's history is never ending, it has a complicated past and continues to expand into the present and is a subject of interest for the future.

Me and the Slow Food snail

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

El Camino de Santiago: Camp for Grown-Ups

I realize that this blog is dedicated to my love of food but I feel compelled to share my experience on the Camino de Santiago.  For those of you who don't know, this is a pilgrimage that has traditionally started  from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.  The route is approximately 820km and takes a little over 30 days if you are walking.  However, now there are routes all over Europe that take you to Santiago de Compostela.  Now keep in mind that you can do this on a bike or horseback.  I was not that ambitious nor did I have the time so I did 115km from Sarria, Spain.  To receive the Compostela (certificate of completion), you must walk at least 100km, so it is a popular starting point for most Spaniards.  There is a very long history of this pilgrimage but I won't go into here, you can research it yourself on wikipedia.  Doing the Camino was a big deal for me because it was a physically as well as a mentally taxing.  For those of you who know me personally, I don't think you would classify me as "active" or "outdoorsy" and would view this endeavor as outside my character.  Then again, you would also know that I appreciate a challenge. Maybe I wouldn't of done it but because I met a fellow Fulbrighter Emily who wanted to go, plans were set.  We arrived in Sarria on October 8th at about 7:30 in the morning, after being on a bus for the past 8 hours.  It was dark and we had no idea where we were going.  After having a cup of coffee, we see a sign leading us in the direction of the Camino.

You will sometimes see a clear sign showing you the path but more commonly, you will see yellow arrows pointing the way. Instead of the following the yellow brick road, you follow the yellow arrows. They are the most handy guide you are going to have.
Know what you are getting yourself into.  Or maybe in my case, better that I didn't.  Yes, its just walking but you are not walking on a nicely paved flat road, you are walking through forests, up and down mountain sides and through small farm towns.  A paved road is considered a blessing after 20 km of rocky hillsides.  You are mostly by yourself during the Camino.   I went with Emily but we spent a lot of time walking in silence as you will see many other pilgrims doing.  You spend time listening to the sound of the ground crunching beneath your feet, the roosters crowing in the morning, the wind rustling the trees and the rhythmic sound of your walking stick as you take each new step.  The Camino is very much an individual experience.  Everyone has their own Camino, there own reasons for doing it, religious or otherwise.  You will have plenty of time to think.  Think about yourself, your family and friends, your problems, your beliefs, your future or sometimes of nothing.  There were many times where I just chanted 1,2,3,4 to myself  just so I could get through the steep hill I was currently climbing.  I found that my emotions were ever changing.  Some mornings I woke up with enthusiasm and was ready to walk, and other days I cursed myself for taking on the Camino.  As my friend Janel says "if there is something going on within you, it will come out on the Camino if you let it."  You will be sore and your body will definitely hurt all over.  Places hurt that I didn't even know existed.  Where the pain started in the beginning of the day, would inevitably move to a different part of my body by the end.   However, I got up every morning and continued on despite the discomfort, and for that I am proud.
I know you haven't asked this question but it's bound to come at some point, "what was my favorite part about the Camino?"  I would have to respond by saying, the scenery.  Galicia is absolutely stunning.  Every town was picture perfect in its own way.  Sometimes I would have to remind myself to stop looking at my feet and take in the views around me.  I love the city but I have to admit that it was wonderful to get away from the craziness that is Madrid and live a simple life.  All I did was walk, eat, drink, and sleep for 5 days.  My life was reduced to a backpack and basic life sustaining activities, it was great!

On October 11th, Emily and I walked 40km in one day to be able to arrive in Santiago that night.  If I am completely honest, Santiago de Compostela was my least favorite part of the Camino.  After experiencing the peaceful Camino, it is hard to be thrown back into the bustling city. I felt accomplished when I first stepped within the city limits but it quickly evaporated when I had to fight my way through crowds to reach the cathedral.  We received the Compostela but, to me its not about the certificate but rather the journey to get there, that to me is what the Camino is all about.  It's amazing what happens when you put yourself outside your comfort zone; soon enough you begin to change before your very eyes.  I was told that people saw the "Camino growing on me."   I won't say that the Camino de Santiago changed my life forever but I will say that I came home with a new set of lenses, camino lenses, for which to view Madrid and my experience here.  And that is good enough for now.  Perhaps in the future I will consider doing the whole thing.
On the Camino, people signed their names and made dedications on signs, under bridges, on rocks, really just about any surface that they could write on.  I did not come equipped with a sharpie or spray paint so I was not able to add to the graffiti.  I will make my dedication here.  I dedicate my Camino first and foremost to myself.  I set a goal and accomplished it, no matter the circumstances.  I dedicate my Camino to my family for helping to shape me into the person I am today.  I am not sure I could have taken on the Camino without the sturdy foundation that you have provided me.  I dedicate my Camino to my fiance, for never doubting me and always knowing that I can do anything, even when I don't.  Finally, I dedicate my Camino to all the pilgrims who have done the Camino de Santiago, we are one hell of a bunch.  We are of all ages, of all nationalities and of all walks of life who take on this task despite the difficulties we face along the way.  To all of you who plan to do the Camino in the future, I say  Buen Camino!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Beer, Chips and Chorizo: A simple meal with complex conversation

      "What would your magnum opus be and how would it inspire people?" asks Janel.  Now this is a heavy question, how would my life's work be a window for people to change and experience life differently?   Honestly I am not sure at this point what my magnum opus will be, I am so young with so many dreams.  I guess you won't know what it is until the end of your days but even then I presume you will still be building on it.  Needless to say I decided to root my answer in what is important to me now and will continue to be in the future.  I said I would like for people to always remember how important family relationships are.  So many times I hear "I haven't talked to my brother for 30 years" or "my mom and I hate eachother, we just don't get along" and it just kills me that people have reached that point, that realization that it's just not worth it.  I know what I am proposing is not easy and at times feels like a hopeless endeavor, but there is usually light at the end of the tunnel.  Sometimes that light takes longer to grow and shine but it does exist.  I know from experience.
        This conversation resonated with me and prompted me to ponder other intimate facets of myself.  To think about this blog and the way I portray myself to my audience.  I realized that it's pretty dry and without much real emotion.  I write about the food but in such a general way that I don't even leave hungry for what I have just spent 2 hours explaining.  Sitting in the bar, I understood that in academia or as an academic writer, you are trained to take ourselves out of whatever we are writing about.  As such, the writing becomes about the subject of study.  Now all of the sudden I am expected to put myself forth and let my personality shine through.  Granted I have purposely put myself in this position but I made this blog to expand myself and share my passion with others.  I need to include those things that are deep within me, my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions, my opinions, and through that expression, I believe that the great passion within me will explode onto the page.  I am grateful to have friends here that ask probing questions that put me outside of my comfort zone and make me take a hard look at who I am in this space.  I am a women in Spain, I am a Brazilian-American in Spain, I am a Fulbright Grantee in Spain, I am an anthropologist in Spain, I am a foodie in Spain.  All of these parts of myself are cogs in a large bodily clock constantly working together to shape my experience in Spain and in turn how I translate those experiences onto the page.  This is an honest post about an honest realization.