As much fun as the Azores were, we were excited to be on our way to Spain to visit my host family from college. We flew to Lisbon where we had booked two nights in a little apartment situated high up in the steep, hilly streets of the Alfama district below São Jorge castle.
While we were there we climbed up to the castle to check out the amazing city view. Afterward we stopped for lunch at a place called St. Andre. The guy working the grill there really seemed to know his stuff. We ordered sardines along with some house wine. Best sardines we’ve ever had, hands down.
Lisbon was beautiful and we’re both looking forward to spending more time exploring Portugal one of these days. But we had a bus to catch the next morning for Spain. My host family, who I hadn’t seen in 22 years would be picking us up at the station. I was crossing my fingers and hoping I could still speak Spanish…
When we got to the station we were greeted by José, my Spanish dad, and Esther, my little Spanish sister, and it was just like I’d never left. They also welcomed Rich like they’d known him all their lives. We had landed in Cáceres, our Spanish home away from home! Esther, the youngest of the two daughters in the family, was only 15 when I last saw her and now she’s a new mom. Her daughter Nerea is the chillest baby I’ve ever met (that’s her on my lap below). María José, Esther’s older sister, has two super-cute kids too: Carolina and Albertito. One afternoon we had a little English/Spanish class with Rich drawing pictures on their easel with the word in English, while Carolina and Albertito taught him the word in Spanish.
José and María, my Spanish mom, both took Rich under their wing, including him in everything and prattling away to him in Spanish as if he could understand. After a few days of this, he was actually starting to catch on a bit…kinda like me 22 years ago. Rich had a few questions for my family, like, was I the only exchange student they’d had? Actually, no, I was one of five. What?! And here I had been thinking I was so special. I consoled myself with the knowledge that none of the others had come back to visit, and hoped that would give me an edge in the race for favorite exchange student.
When I confessed to María, who is an amazing cook, that Rich does most of the cooking in our house, she pointed at me and said, “Tú señorita.” No, not the Spanish word for a young girl, more like princess. What can I say, she kind of had a point. As she prepared each delicious meal, I took notes and tried to commit to memory what for her seems so effortless. Some of her specialties include Spanish tortillla (of course!), gazpacho, ensaladilla (a kind of potato salad with tuna), and my favorite, cocido. Pictured below is the first part of the cocido (the soup with the noodles) and then in the next photo the morcilla (or blood sausage), chorizo, and jamón that are served with chickpeas for the second part. (That’s their oldest daughter, María José, next to her mom, by the way.) Below that is the ensaladilla. Very light and refreshing on a hot summer day.
I can make a passable tortilla, but I’d love to make a cocido (with some help from Rich). It requires the use of a pressure cooker, but we did just buy one so maybe that will be a good dish to try this winter? One thing I’m definitely going to do is re-create her delicious bizcocho, a sort of sponge cake that is great with coffee.
We ran into Alicia, María and José’s niece, and her boyfriend Jesus in the plaza of the old part of town. She’s pretty close to my age and was a great friend to me when I was there all those years ago. (We bonded over her record collection. I seem to recall there was at least one Depeche Mode album.) She and her boyfriend (pictured below in black T-shirts chatting with me) accompanied us on a little paseo around the parte antigua, which by the way, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was fun to catch up with everyone and to be able to communicate so much better than the first time I was there. We all stopped for drinks and I was introduced to my new favorite beverage, the shandy or clara. It’s basically beer mixed with lemonade or lemon soda. Now, before you scoff, just give it a try. It’s especially good served ice cold on a hot summer night. Even better if you drink it in Spain.
We explored the old part of town a few more times while we were in Cáceres. It’s a pretty amazing place, especially for us Americans who think stuff from 200 years ago is old. There are buildings there that date back to the 12th century. After Columbus “discovered” the New World (I have a newfound respect for those brave crews of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María after our little adventure crossing the Atlantic, by the way) the conquistadors followed, many of them from Cáceres, and when they got back home they built fancy palaces, some of which are still standing.
Because María loves Roman stuff as much as Rich does, she and José took us and Carolina for a day trip to Mérida. Known as Emerita Augusta when ruled by Rome, the city was built in 25 BC by Octavia Augustus. How’s that for old stuff? We visited the Roman theater, amphitheater, circus (think Ben Hur), and an aqueduct. Pretty incredible that these things are still standing after all these years. Even more incredible? We haven’t really improved much on the technological advancements the Romans made back then.
The next night, María José and her husband Alberto hosted us at their house for a barbecue. There were 17 people there and enough food to feed 100, as is the Spanish way. Did I mention that they really know their meat in the Extremadura? See the photographic evidence below.
We all stuffed ourselves while Rich and I swapped cop stories with Pipe, Esther’s husband, who happens to be a police officer himself (so are Esther and Alberto). He was fascinated by some of the NYPD’s methods, which he said simply wouldn’t fly in Spain, though he wished they would. We assured him that they shouldn’t fly in New York either.
For dessert there were several flans, though Esther’s looked a little flat. José made fun of her mercilessly, but hilariously, to the point where even when we weren’t quite sure what he was saying, and even though we felt bad for Esther, Rich and I (and everyone else) were cracking up. Seriously, the guy should have his own comedy show. He is quite a joker, that one. Continuing the torment, in front of everyone, he asked me which one I liked the best. “Esther’s,” I declared. It probably sounded like I was just being loyal, but it was the truth, hers might not have looked as pretty, but it had the best combination of that classic carmelized sugar–vanilla power punch that says flan to me. (Don’t worry, Esther, I got your back!)
And then, all too quickly, it was time for us to head to Valencia to visit my friend Susana. It was very hard to leave (even Rich got a little teary), but as we told María and José, we’ll be back again, and for longer next time. Of course, most people would’ve been sick of us after four days. Not María and José. They gave up their bed for us, fed us way too much delicious food, did our laundry (which has never been so clean before or since), and basically knocked themselves out to make sure we had a great time. And they would’ve been happy if we stayed a few more days. I guess I got pretty lucky in the host family department. We miss you guys!