Language and Further Adventures in American Cooking in a Spanish Kitchen


Last night I think that I made a linguistic breakthrough with Dani (Pepi’s grandson; he’s four). He has been aware for some time (like, since the first day that I met him) that I don’t understand him very well. The fact that I often have to ask him three times what he just said – and still don’t have a clue the fourth time – has made this fairly obvious. But last night, in between flying around from piece of furniture to piece of furniture (I had an insight last night into what it might be like to live with Pippi Longstocking. Only I have more respect/appreciation/emotional connection/something for her), his father convinced him to settle down for a little bit because we were eating, and he babbled something incomprehensible at me. And I asked for clarification, and it was still incomprehensible, and I, fed up with never understanding him, said as clearly and distinctly as I possibly could, “Dani, para mi es muy dificil entenderte. Tienes que enunciar más, porque hablas muy rápido y enuncias muy poco, y no entiendo casi nada de lo que dices.” (I have a great deal of difficulty understanding you. You need to enunciate more; you speak very quickly and don’t enunciate very much, and I just about don’t understand a single thing you say.) And one of the parental units chipped in and said that he needed to slow down because I spoke English. And at that moment I could see the light coming on in Dani’s head. He knew that I spoke English (we did the whole “Hwun, to, fri, fuhr, fif, seben, ait, . . .” “¿Qué pasa con six? Olvidaste seis, etc.” thing months ago) – but only then made the connection that the fact that I spoke English meant that I didn’t speak Spanish as well, and that when I didn’t understand, it wasn’t because I was stupid or not paying attention, but because I honestly find it difficult to understand him, and that there is something he can do (something other than getting louder and higher-pitched) so that I understand him better. We’ll see how this epiphany holds up, but it only needs to last a few more days.

On the subject of not understanding Spanish well, I’ve decided that going to a foreign country is like temporarily being transformed into a very young child or a small and fuzzy animal; people really dumb down what they’re saying to you sometimes (which is occasionally useful but mostly just annoying) or are so very proud to show off what little English they have, which results in very low-level conversations anyway. One of the things that drives me (most to all of us, actually, I think) crazy about the arqueología prof (theory) is that he constantly underestimates our level of Spanish. Not only does he provide translations for just about everything (which is occasionally something like “waterwheel,” which we would have no chance of knowing, but usually something very obvious), and his English really isn’t very good; it makes me want to just pat him on the head and say, “No really, it’s okay, we’ll understand what you’re saying if you talk in Spanish. In fact, our Spanish is so much better than your English that we’ll understand considerably better in Spanish if we don’t have to try to translate your “English” into actual English.” Only in Spanish, of course. Today, for example, we had our final exam. I was rather dubious about this whole affair; I wasn’t even sure that the Facultad was open on Saturdays, and really dubious that the PRESHCO office (which we need to walk though to get to the room where the test was to be) would be open, even if the Facultad was. And I arrived, and the new door (the convenient one) was locked, so I went over to the old door, which wasn’t, and through the deserted Facultad, up two flights of stairs, over the library (in the dark-ish), down two flights of stairs, to the tables where a proper subset of the class was hanging out. I should perhaps mention that these tables front onto a patio, and it was COLD! Sure enough, the gate – to the stairs that led down to the patio that lead up the stairs to the PRESHCO office to get to the two flights of stairs to go up to the room where the test is – was locked. Some more of our classmates showed up and shivered with us, and then the prof arrived and discovered that the gate was locked. And then he wandered off for a while and announced that we would be finding another classroom, because “aqui no hay calefacción. Frio.” (There is no heat here. Cold.) Which really made me wonder if he honestly believed that we had been living in Spain for three months, many of us with Spanish families, without figuring out the word for heat. Interestingly enough, I’m not annoyed by the translation when the cine prof does it (probably because he only translates the names of complicated camera movements and movie titles) or when the Roman Andalusia prof does. But both of them only do it for things that we probably wouldn’t know – “y aparece en esta moneda el arado romano; no recuerdo como se dice en inglés: ¿plo?” (and here on this coin appears the roman plow – I don’t remember how it’s said in english: plo?) or when we’re talking about latin roots and romance languages, and half the time in those situations he’s asking us what the english word that shares this root is, rather than telling us something we already know.

Last night the family descended upon the house (both sons, the girlfriend and the wife, plus the aforementioned four-year-old), and at some point someone asked me what an American sandwich is like. Now, for the few of you who are unaware, we Philadelphians are very proud of our two particular sandwich-like-items: the hoagie and the cheesesteak. So (after debunking the myth that American sandwiches involve eggs (although it now occurs to me that breakfast sandwiches do, but that’s a different beastie, I think)) I explained to them the concept of an italian hoagie, as best I could (for you poor people who don’t know what one is, imagine a subway sandwich – it’s not the same, but it’s the closest you’ll come up with). And I managed to actually describe it. It occurred to me later that I couldn’t have done that when I came to Spain. I wasn’t sure about all the words, but they were all the right words. And I think that I was so excited about it (I like hoagies), and got one of the sons interested, so Pepi proposed that we make some. And I knew that the bread wasn’t the same, but thought we might be able to manage, and agreed. It turns out that the only bread we had was pan bimbo (wonderbread. Bimbo is the brand name. Just to warn you, I’m probably going to continue to refer to wonderbread as pan bimbo or bimbo bread after I get home; it seems to me a very apt term). And there is absolutely no way to make a hoagie with pan bimbo. So I ventured out into the streets to get some pan-pan, and more lettuce because there wasn’t very much. And you know, for a place with such a night life, the stores close really early. It wasn’t yet nine, and the grocery store was in that stage of closing where there are still costumers, but they won’t let more people in, and the bakery had all the chairs piled inside and I only just managed to get some bread. It was closer to a baguette than a hoagie roll, but I figured that it was close enough. So I dumped some oil on and started in with the layering of ingredients (it occurs to me now that I could have added some oregano. Ah well). Since there wasn’t quite enough lettuce, I sautéd some onions and peppers (and hey, the onions could have been raw, but Pepi says that pepper and onion is “muy fuerte para la noche” (very strong/heavy for nighttime). They won’t eat rice at night, either, or lentils, or garbonzos . . . I find it very odd. The only food-taboo of that sort that I can think of is that desert is not breakfast (but I’ve broken that one) and breakfast is not lunch (but Smith serves it for lunch twice a week at brunch, so I break that one on a regular basis). Can anyone else come up with something of the sort?
But anyway. The sautéing was interesting; Pepi was helping, and dumped oil into the pan before I noticed. We did manage to pour most of it back into the bottle so that the pan was merely oiled, though. Spaniards are perpetually amazed that I can cook things without floating them in oil (whereas I suppose that I am perpetually amazed that they cook everything, just about, by floating it in oil (Dani had fish sticks last night, and his mom deep-fried them. If I did put fish sticks in a pan rather than baking them, it would be with little-to-no oil). And the hoagie turned out pretty well. The baguette-ish bread cracked a little far, and if I were doing it again I would slice of the very ends because they were hard to eat, but it kind of looked like a hoagie. And wow, was the Family surprised. It was like they’d never seen lettuce on a sandwich before (Pepi suggested that we might stick it in the over for a bit; luckily I managed to forestall this by pointing out that the lettuce would go all gross). Ivan, the Córdoba son, who, I now recall, doesn’t like vegetables and especially not onions, pulled all of his off rather in the way Isaac might’ve (only I don’t think I’ve ever seen Isaac de-lettuce a hoagie). I don’t think I’d ever seen a grownup-grownup pulling vegetables off of his/her food in quite that manner before (possibly just because grownup-grownups have the ability to avoid foods they don’t like). Jose Marie, though, the father of the four-year-old, really liked it. He was so impressed with the “vegetable bocadillo.” Goodness knows what they would do if ever confronted with a garden sandwich. They dumped mayonnaise all over it, of course. (On the subject of things they dump on bread, it’s a good thing that I never gave Pepi the impression that I liked butter on my bread, because they slather it on like it’s cream cheese or something. In fact, I think I use less cream cheese than that. Watching them butter bread is like watching their arteries clog up before your eyes. I really don’t understand how the life expectancy in Spain is higher than it is in the US.) I also made them “something like a Philadelphia meat-and-cheese bocadillo.” For those of you curious as to the verisimilitude, this creation didn’t actually feature any beef whatsoever. It was more a case of catering to the Spanish desire for hot sandwiches that don’t have any green stuff on them (besides, we were out of lettuce). Mostly I just layered turkey ham and jamón york (what we would call ham and classify as lunchmeat) and sandwichón (a distant cousin of both chorizo and pepperoni), covered it with American cheese, and then discovered the shredded mozzarella left over from a culinary miscommunication between Pepi and I some while ago, dumped that on too, and stuck the whole thing in the oven for a while. It certainly wasn’t a cheese steak, but it was a good sandwich (though I liked the almost-hoagie better).

And since this entry suffered an eight-hour lapse in which I got distracted and it’s now getting on towards bedtime, I should post it and go to sleep.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Language and Further Adventures in American Cooking in a Spanish Kitchen

  1. Bimbo bread!
    I love it! Wait, wait, I despise the bread, but love the NAME! It perfectly describes the food substitute known as Wonderbread. I’ll call it Bimbo bread from now on.

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