My friend Susana and I have been doing a language exchange for about a year now over Skype. We’ve become pretty good friends in that time, but since she lives in Spain, we never had the chance to meet in person. That is, until our whirlwind trip to the Iberian Peninsula, post–Atlantic Crossing. When she met us at the train station, we just picked up right where we’d left off in our last WhatsApp chat. Susana was kind enough to invite us to stay with her while we were in town so we got to see firsthand what it’s like to live in a tiny village near the Valencian coast. She and her daughter, Victoria, live in a house that has been in the family for generations and is very typically Spanish with its tiled roof, wooden ceiling beams, and thick stucco walls for keeping out the heat.
We wanted to see old stuff so Susana took us to Valencia’s cathedral, which dates back to the 13th century. It was a twisty, somewhat death-defying 207 steps to the Miguelete, or bell tower, at the top, but the views were totally worth it, or as they say in Spanish: vale la pena.
We spent a few fun hours in Valencia’s amazing market shopping for vegetables for the paella that María José, Susana’s mom, was cooking for us. We picked up a few other odds and ends while we were there, including eel (or anguila). Rich really wanted to try it so we bought some from the eel guy, who cuts them up in front of you while they’re still alive. We also grabbed some percebes, or goose barnacles, to try. Okay, and maybe a little jamón ibérico. We can’t get enough of that stuff!
The image most Americans have in their heads when they think of paella is a rice dish, but in Valencia (the birthplace of paella) they also make it with noodles, or fideuá. We’d never tried that before so Susana’s mom made us a seafood fideuá. It was pretty tasty! And so was the dish she made with the eel. I felt a little squeamish after watching the eel guy dispatch them right before our eyes. But after my first bite of María José’s dish, I forgot all about the carnage. The eel was really good, but the sauce was even better and I was mopping up as much of it as I could with my bread. Spanish food is typically not spicy, but this dish has some bite to it, courtesy of a couple of tiny little cayenne peppers. (Susana’s mom gave us the recipe so we can try it at home, but where do we find fresh eel around here?)
Rich and I had both been dying to see la Ciudad de les Artes y las Ciencias. The handiwork of architect Santiago Calatrava, it’s an impressive place. Lately there have been a few problems, like the tiles that keep falling off the roof of the opera house. This has not made the locals (who are still paying for everything) very happy, especially since Spain is still recovering from the Crisis. But it was a magical place. Susana’s cousin Juan and his wife Pilar were kind enough to take us. The water all around was a light-blue color that reminded me of the Mediterranean. Add in all the glass and tiles of the buildings, and that amazing Valencia light, and you’ve got a shimmery, gorgeous ode to Spain. And it was interactive. Kids were kayaking around in see-through boats and rolling around on top of the water like hamsters in giant clear plastic balls, and another group waded in and was splashing around in the water. (This last part we weren’t so sure was sanctioned by the authorities, but no one seemed to mind, so why not?)
After 17 days out on the water crossing the Atlantic, it was so nice to finally get to go for a swim! The beaches near Susan’s house reminded us a lot of the ones in California. Well, California, but better. Beautiful beaches, warmer water, but with a similarly laid-back vibe and less traffic. The water was really warm and inviting and we spent quite a while just paddling around out there like little kids. In Xilxes Susana said she thought we were the only Americans on the beach. It did seem like a pretty local hangout, one we definitely never would have discovered on our own, and the people were so nice. In fact, when Susana asked a woman on the beach if there was a public restroom, she said there wasn’t one, but that we could use the one in her house. How nice was that? (Even Susana was impressed.)
Susana’s mom had promised to show Rich how to make paella on a wood-burning fire. She had the fire going when we got there, in the 90-degree summer heat, no less. I tried to translate while she and Rich got busy making our lunch: a paella de carne (in this case with rabbit and chicken). In Valencia you either have a meat paella or a seafood (mariscos) paella, but never a mix of the two. I have no idea how she managed to get the temperature just right with a fire, but María José knew what she was doing, and the results were delicious. Man, was it good!
And then all too soon it was time for us to go. We had such a great time with Susana and her family. Rich and Susana really hit it off. When we arrived they were practically strangers, and now we both count Susana as a dear friend.