This week I had the opportunity to go to Madrid for a few days. A friend had to attend a meeting there and invited me to join him knowing I might be able to take advantage of the libraries in town since I do study the Spanish, albeit who live in Rome.
I like Spain. Its like a team of Germans came into Italy and cleaned up all the graffiti and made everyone start following rules. So the cars and motorinos (I believe Americans call them scooters) stop at red lights, the buses come on time and the bus stops all have protective awnings with route maps, people clean up after their dogs, and every merchant has change.
However, I am not a fan of Spanish food. Even Tapas. Whenever I make that statement to an American I get lots of “but, what about . . . tapas, paeya, etc.” First, Tapas is VERY different here than in the U.S., it’s a lot of fried foods, small, fillets of fish in vinegar (think fresh anchovies), and ham (about a 100 different kinds), cheese (it seems like only one kind, manchego) and not so great bread. As for paella it is a regional dish (from Valencia) and if you eat it outside that region, its made in a touristy place and its tastes like a hamburger ordered at a Chinese restaurant. The Spanish as far as I can tell, have virtually no relationship with vegetables. If you order a salad here, you get a bit of iceberg lettuce, a few slices of tomatoes, olives, sliced, hard-boiled egg, and often a big hunk of canned tuna on top. As I am currently residing in the land of vegetables after a few days here, I go into withdrawal.
That being said, the typical Spanish grocery store has many items that are hard to find in Italy. The Spanish grocery stores have an entire aisle devoted to salty snacks, especially nuts. Much like we do in the U.S. A group of us were discussing this over dinner and we decided that the availability of a variety of nuts must be the Arab influence in Spain. The Italians don’t eat a lot of nuts so they are difficult to find and when you find them, they are about $3 for a bag that would cost $1 in the U.S. For salty snacks, the Italians (at least the Romans) eat something called “Pizza Bianca”. This is not cheese pizza without red sauce. Its thick foccacia like dough with olive oil and salt. Its fabulous, but hardly as healthy as nuts. You will see lots of Romans walking around during the day munching on a piece of pizza bianca.
Anyway, I am a huge nut eater so the Spanish grocery stores were like a salvation for me after my two-month nut deprivation. I stocked up on both nuts and change running around to all the stores and paying for things with large bills.
But, to return to Spain being a Mediterranean country that seems to be run by Germans. I think I was most surprised by the fact that the traffic stops at red lights. In Rome, a red light seems to mean, ‘stop if you have time’ and it doesn’t seem to pertain to the scooter operators who keep driving through the red lights. Every time I cross the street I fear for my life. Seriously. So, I was surprised to hear from a local that last year Spain had the highest number of pedestrian-motor vehicle confrontations. I was in shock. In response to this statistic, the Spanish government initiated a campaign to put an end to this. They put advertisements around town telling drivers and pedestrians to be more cautious and repainted crosswalks so they are more visible and for those drivers who don’t know that a crosswalk is represented by the large white stripes, they changed the image to painted silhouettes of people walking. Then, to remind pedestrians to be on alert as the cross the sidewalk, they painted a sign that reads “1 in 3 die in traffic accidents” (please feel free to improve on my Spanish translation here).
It seems like such an organized way to solve a problem. See what I mean about a team of Germans? Anyway, I’m now back in the land of vegetables and enjoying a huge salad with several kinds of lettuce (sans tuna and boiled egg), sautéed greens with garlic, locally grown apples and of course, pizza Bianca.