Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Meal and A Memory: for Urdin

It's a rainy Sunday morning as our flight from Barcelona is landing in San Sebastian in Basque Country, the north of Spain.   We've been to San Sebastian many times and, in some ways, it is our favorite place to be.  We love it water-front city, its food, and its people. We have come to San Sebastian only for the day.  We are going to the house of friends for a meal in the country.

We met our friends, Carmen and Josep, the year before when we did a house swap with them.  We've done many house swaps mainly all over Europe (it is how we travel), but we really hit it off with them.  As Josep said many times, "es un suerte."  It is good fortune that we met one another.  They offered us their flat in Barcelona where we stayed this past May and also invited us to come and spend a night or two with them.  Their oldest son, Urdin, who is "a good cook" would make us lunch.  We would fly home the next day.

Really we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into.  We just assumed that lunch was a meal in the middle of the day. But for the Basque, and Spanish, people for whom food and family are everything lunch is something else.  Carmen had informed me that Urdin, her oldest son, had been planning our meals for weeks, but still it did not prepare me for the feast we were about to enjoy.

Urdin and his wife's house is set out in the countryside.  It is on land that belonged to his wife's family and was parceled out among brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles.  Urdin and his family live in a house that is attached to the house of their in-laws.  Everyone comes and goes.  There seems to be a free flow of people as well as animals, dogs, cats, cows.  We hadn't been there long when buckets of steamed mussels appeared and bottles of my favorite Basque wine, Txacoli.  We made our way through the mussels, then the lobster salad, the baked cod on potato slices, the cooked to perfection chocolate souffle.

It was Urdin's chocolate souffle that brought another memory to mind.  Many years ago Larry and I were eating lunch at a restaurant in Paris that was well-beyond our means.  A friend had recommended and told me the price which I assumed was for two (it was for one and didn't include wine).  When our menus arrived Larry whispered to me, "Order the skate; just the skate."  As in the olden days only his menu had the prices and the skate was all that we could afford.

At any rate we were there, having our meal which was delicious, but not particularly memorable, and, as I took a bite from my chocolate souffle dessert, I dropped my fork because it was so good.  In fact the only thing I really remember about that meal was Larry whispering to order the skate and me dropping my fork.

But after that whenever we had a good meal, Larry and I began to ask each other if it was a "drop your fork" meal.  In truth there haven't been that many in our lives.  There was a great lunch we had in Tarragona near some Roman ruins.  Grandma's lasagna that we ate under some fig trees near Lago de Garda.  A chicken tangine in Tangier that reminded me of my grandmother's cooking.  A night by the Tiber River with our friends, Gloria and Giovanni.  And a few more I can't recall but they all happen while we are on the road, traveling, often with family and friends.  What we came to decide about "drop your fork" is that it's not just about the meal because we've all had good meals.  But it was the memory and the experience of the meal that mattered the most.

We had no idea when we embarked upon it that this lunch would turn into a day, the day into night.  Or that at some point someone would place a blanket over me as I napped under a tree.  And then wake to my husband and our Basque friends dancing to Greek music.  We had no idea that the day would entail many wonderful courses, flowing wine, great laughs.  Or that Carmen and Josef's other son, Iker, would bring with all the watercolors he'd painted in the past year and offer for me to choose one.  It is at the framer's as we speak. We had no idea that hours later, as the sun was setting, we'd be walking in the farmland before we staggered home.

As we walked in the hills, Urdin spoke to me about this blog.  I had no idea he read it but he told me that he enjoyed these short essays about journeys and the images that accompanied them.  He asked me why I had been silent for so long.  I told him that I'd been busy, traveling and living my life.  But I promised him, and
here I hope I am fulfilling that promise, that when next I wrote, it would be about him. 

As we were heading back towards San Sebastian Carmen asked us what we'd like to do for dinner. "Dinner?"  Larry and I were in shock.  We'd just finished lunch.  But not our Basque friends.  As soon as we were home, we headed out across the street to their local tapas bar where we ate more food and drank more wine and stumbled into bed, slept four hours, and managed somehow for some reason that still eludes me to make our flight home.

A few weeks before in a tapas bar in Barcelona we met a young couple.  Actually they shared their ham croquets and then we started sharing beer and stories.  I don't remember her name, but she said as we were leaving that in Spain everything happens around a table.

And a meal that is a "drop your fork" isn't only about the food.  A meal like that is an experience and that experience without a doubt becomes a memory - in this case one we will never forget.

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