Friends: I have returned from one of the most restorative viajes I’ve taken in a long, long time: two weeks in Spain and Portugal (well, Lisbon anyway). The impetus was the 8th International Conference on Chicano Literature in Toledo, where my good friend Santiago landed us a slot on a panel, and an invitation to speak at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. But really, who needs a reason to roam around Southern Europe? You pack your Don Quijote and Pessoa and you go-a.
I arrived to Madrid on a 7:30 a.m. flight and, without having slept in 22 hours, raced off to see my friend/former student Tomas, who lives in a fabulous apartment owned by Penelope Cruz’s agent in the Malasana district. Much rejoicing ensued as we hit the cobblestone streets. Two prized finds: Ojala, a most excellent boutique where every item is designed and hand-stitched by Paloma del Pozo (and where sleep-deprivation almost induced me to buy a 285 Euro flaming red raincoat that would have required the investment of a whole new wardrobe, as nothing I own would have looked smart enough beneath it) and, on El Madera 37, Casa Julio, a century-old wine and croquette bar favored by none other than my beloved Irishmen, U2 (whose photos decked the walls).
Then I caught the train to Toledo, a city I knew nothing about (though “Holy Toledo!” came to mind), so was dazzled to behold its high stone walls, castellated towers, and immense Gothic cathedral. With all its curio shops selling swords and gleaming suits of armor, it would almost feel medieval—if it weren’t bursting with Nikon-toting tourists. The next two days were spent at the conference, meeting amazing people devoted to the study of Mexican-American letters. Norma Cantu spoke on Gloria Anzaldua; Maria Herrera-Sobek on Luis Alberto Urrea; Nathalie Bleser on Rudolfo Anaya; Nicolas Kanellos on censorship in Hispanic literature; William Calvo on chupacabras; Catherine Ramirez on Chicano Studies in the wake of HB 2281; Tino Villanueva on ekphrastic tropes; y mucho mas. I joined Santiago Vaquera-Vasquez and Charli Valdez for a panel on Chicano/a Writers in the 21st Century, where we all read from our work, and then had the honor/terror/delight of hearing a scholarly presentation called: “Tourism from the ‘Third Space’: Mexico and the Search for Ethnic Difference in Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s Mexican Enough” by Professor Maria Antonia Oliver Rotger. I don’t know who was more nervous beforehand—Maria or me—but it turned into a lovefest: we positively adored one another’s work.
Next came one of the highlights of the trip: a pack of us crammed into a private room on the second floor of a spectacular restaurant Santiago and I had discovered the night before: Txoko, a Basque bistro tucked away on Plaza de Roperia 1. Within minutes, red wine was flowing and tapas were piling on our table: smoked salmon over manchego cheese, eels on baguettes, smoked sardines, jamon Iberico, heaping platters of ribs. And then came the stories… and the toasts… and the call for more wine. We didn’t roll out of there until 1:30 in the morning, and the streets were still jammed with families and tourists strolling in the moonlight.
The next day, Santiago and his nephew Jasper and I jetted off to Lisboa, Portugal. After a somewhat rocky start (including getting swindled by both our taxi driver and the wait staff of our first restaurant) we found our way to Pasteis de Belem, a renowned pastry shop founded in 1837 with a secret recipe from the neighboring Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (or Heironymite Monastery). I’m usually not a fan of sweets, but Pasteis de Belem proved a serious exception. Their famed pasteis de nata is a creamy egg custard baked into a crunchy pastry cup and served warm with a dousing of cinnamon and powdered sugar. Happiness-on-a-plate. I ate one every day, even bringing a box back to Spain.
Serious tourism ensued, including visits to the Monument to the Discoveries and Tower of Belem in Belem, lunch on the waterfront Baixa, a bus ride out to the uber-alien architecture of the Oceanario and Torre Vasco da Gama, and long strolls through the Chiado and Bairro Alto neighborhoods, both covered in political graffiti that I spent hours reading and recording. Indeed, Lisboa is one of the most photogenic cities I’ve met, where 200-year-old grande dames festooned in tiles and russet roofs loom above cafes, plazas, bookstores, and the occasional post-modern whopper—often within sweeping, panoramic view of the Rio Tejo. Alleyways are narrow and cobbled; walls are high and draped with potted plants and bougainvillea; paint is peeling just so.
Something I found deeply endearing about Portugal is its tradition of fado, a soulful folk-blues style of singing that is both a national heritage and favored pastime. Three times in three days, I came upon a group of people who suddenly burst into song—on a bus, at a café, and walking down the street. I caught a fado concert at the Cine Theatro Gymansio on Rua da Misericordia 14 and then bought a CD of Amalia Rodrigues, aka the “Queen of Fado,” to bring the sad-but-sweet sound home with me.
Tribute must also be paid to the unforgettable meal Santiago, Jasper, and I shared at Tasca Urso on Rua Monte Olivete, 32-A. The setting was homey, and the English menu hysterical:
Lupines with Salt Flower
Breaded Cod Tongues
Fantastic Piglet Pies
Cheese Brick Rolls with Bittersweet Sauce
Birds Livers with Dry Fruits
Thousand Sheets Cod with Balsam Sauce
Chop-house Fruits with Cockles Rice
Jasper voted for the chicken diapers, and it wound up being the greatest fried chicken I have ever tasted (and having traveled extensively throughout the Deep South, we’re talking a lot of fried pollo, people), perfectly prepared and smothered with sweet onions. As I told my travel-mates, if I knew diapers were this good, I would have had children long ago. And that wasn’t all: we also downed stuffed mushrooms, codfish cakes, beef and chicken curry, and a pitcher of wine. Sweet bloated bliss.
From Lisboa, I flew back to Madrid, where I was greeted by my dear friend Amaya, an astro-physicist I met at Princeton. She whisked me away to her family home in Guadalajara, where we shared breakfast, lunch, and midnight dinner in her backyard garden. I learned how to make gazpacho (two handfuls of fresh tomatoes, a fistful of crushed sundried tomatoes, a clove of garlic, a dash of salt and turmeric, and an obscene amount of extra virgin olive oil tossed in a blender with a few ice cubes) and yogurt (a cup of store-bought yogurt and carton of milk stirred in a pot that is then placed in a larger pot of hot water, tightly covered, and set aside for the night) as well as the most Spanish of feasts: paella! Making it is an all-day affair that entails the slow cooking of garlic, squid, conger fish, clams, and saffron substitute (turmeric, paprika, and sundried tomato) over a massive paellera heated by an intimidating contraption that spits blue flames. Once the first round of ingredients is ready, you pour in the water left over from murdering the mussels, add the rice, resist the temptation to stir, and finally, once the rice has drunk up all the water, you lay on the mussels and shrimp. Sabrosa!
More daytrips to Madrid ensued, where I swooned over Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Reina Sofia; El Bosco’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath,” Juan Bautista Maino’s “Adoration of the Magi,” and Hans Baldung Grien’s “Three Ages of Man and Death” at the Prado; and the Crystal Palace at the Parque de Buen Retiro. We also visited the medieval city of Avila, home to St. Teresa de Jesus, a 16th century mystic prone to levitating, self-flagellation, and other acts of celestial ecstasy, and the tiny village of Majael Rayo, constructed entirely of black slate and shale. Then I hopped an Ave (that is, a crazy-fast train) to Barcelona to give my talk. It’s cruel to visit such a stellar city for less than a week, but I had only a few hours to spare, so spent them wandering down La Rambla, munching fresh papaya and coconut in La Boqueria, getting lost in Barri Gotic, and downing my last round of tapas and wine at a café by Parc de la Ciutadella, the owner of which is planning to close shop come November and relocate to Mexico, due to the economic crisis. Granted, Mexico will forever be my favorite place on the planet, but it was still a shock to hear a Spaniard (that is, a former colonizer) move there in hopes of economic prosperity—especially during this narco-war. He went on to say that friends of his had already left Spain for countries like Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador. That was the moment that truly brought home Europe’s crisis for me: people looking to South America for salvation. Talk about full circle….
The final day of my viaje was my 38th birthday. Amaya and I spent it in Madrid, licking gelato in the Plaza Mayor, shopping in the Centro, and meeting friends for tea in the park. Then we hurried back to Guadalajara for my late-night birthday dinner of roasted luvina fish, grilled asparagus, salad, Manchego cheese, and a chilled bottle of Spumante accompanied by five different Spanish birthday songs (why do we only have one?), all by Amaya’s wonderful parents.
And that, my friends, was that. A true vacation: one in which I completely forgot my own life and immersed in another. Here’s wishing you all the same. Happy summer, everyone!
Amaya and I on the outskirts of Avila, pounding our sandals to rid them of dust, in tribute to St. Teresa de Jesus, who famously did the same upon leaving her hometown 500 years ago in a huff, after telling off a bishop.