on October 23, 2014
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been teaching a writing course for adults in the Boston area, so I was inspired to look back at some of the assignments I completed as a journalism student at Syracuse University. The article below comes from Prof. Melissa Chessher’s Travel Writing class, without a doubt one of my favorite college courses. It recalls a group dinner during the first week of my semester abroad in Spain, and several years later, this story continues to bring a smile to my face. I’m so glad I wrote it down while the memory was fresh in my mind. Reading over the words, I’m transported to Girona and can see Ramón, with his wispy white hair and glass of red wine raised, nodding his head as he imparted his wisdom to us.
As it turns out, this experience was just the start of a semester that changed my life. Sure, it may sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but had my first adult experience abroad not been so positive, never in a million years would I have returned to Spain after graduation or moved to Ireland a few years later. So, thank you to Prof. Chessher for inspiring me to capture this moment and muchsímas gracias to everyone at SU Madrid for that unforgettable semester. It’s been seven whole years, but sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday.
I stared down at my plate. Two tiny, solid-black eyes stared back at me. I cringed at the whole shrimp that sat on top of the green-colored paella, and I noticed similar horrified looks on my peers’ faces. Still, we ate.
We knew that requests for other food would offend both our professors and the lone cook, who had prepared the meal for 35 people in the open kitchen at the back of the room. We had tided ourselves over with red wine, bread and olive oil as we watched the heavy, gray-haired Catalan woman slave over a giant, flat pan.
It was our first night in Girona, a small city where the Jewish community flourished prior to the 15th century Inquisition. We had spent the previous four days — our first in Spain — in Tarragona, the country’s first ancient Roman settlement, where ruins overlook the light blue water and sandy beaches. There we ate dinner as a group, our four-star hotel providing an American-tourist-friendly meal of chicken cutlets with French fries, or pasta with meatballs. In Tarragona, our professors gave us afternoons free, so for lunch we ate inexpensive bocadillos, sandwiches made with baguettes, at small cafés in the city’s outdoor plazas.
Our hotel in Girona, however, didn’t serve dinner. On that first night, at 9 p.m., the normal Spanish dinnertime, our professors led us down the street to a building that looked more like a house than a restaurant. Though the downstairs dining room had few guests — Spaniards vacation for the month of August and all of Girona apparently had fled to the beach or mountains — we walked straight up the wooden staircase to the upstairs dining room, where we had our first real experience with Spanish cuisine.
I sat at a table with three other students. We barely knew each other then, but we found plenty to talk about, like all of the sangria and beer we had downed with our professors at Tarragona’s Fiesta del Agua the night before. Our enthusiasm turned into hesitation, though, when the one waiter tending to our entire group began serving the shrimp-adorned paella. The four of us and the other students picked around the animals, enjoying the thick, saffron-flavored rice and the other parts of the dish without eyes — peppers, chorizo and chicken.
But Ramón, our seminar leader, noticed. About 65 with wispy gray hair, Ramón drank two bottles of red wine at lunch each day and constantly told us about the best party spots, where we would usually find him at night. Always one to share the good things in life with his students, Ramón showed us how to eat the shrimp. He stood up holding one, cracked the animal in half and sucked out the meat, telling us not to discard the head. And then he gave us our first of the semester’s lessons about eating like a Spaniard: ignore the eyes, because the brain is the most delicious part.