Travel can reveal some painful paradoxes. While I visit other countries to experience different cultures and see how other people live and eat, I have less curiosity about my own country. I often feel estranged from Americans who are proud to be locals and have inherited or developed a pride of place. I never derived my identity from my birthplace and often felt alienated by New England culture and sensibilities. As a non-drinker and introvert who prefers quiet environments, I typically don’t go to bars, the places where locals often gather, shoulder to shoulder, to end the day or begin a night on the town. When I was much younger, bars often came with cigarette smoke and the prospect of having to fend off boozy men, making these watering holes even more unappealing. For a long time, part of my sense of self had formed around “not going into bars”, to the point that it almost became a rule.
When I arrived to Barcelona, I expected to be staying with an AirBnB host, her daughter and two pets. They had moved out, so I was by myself in a large, mostly empty apartment that had even been stripped of its refrigerator. Although I usually revel in solitude, a bone-deep loneliness descended faster than I had expected. To my surprise, one afternoon, after I had already eaten a light lunch, I found myself squeezing onto a stool at Bar Joan in the San Caterina Market. It wasn’t the most beautiful spot, but the milling, chatting crowds looked happy and that was good enough for me. The kind staff patiently answered my questions. I ordered fried anchovies (delicious) and some olives (ok) and washed them down with some mineral water. I returned three more times for the solid, homestyle food and reliably warm vibe that is often missing at trendier places.
Later I moved to another AirBnB, whose owners (a young couple) I believed would be there, too, which is one reason I wanted to stay there. When I checked in on a Sunday afternoon, the husband told me that his wife was in China and that he would be leaving early the next morning to visit his parents for several days, possibly the entirety of my stay. That evening, looking for hot food, I wandered into Bar Siboney, a traditional joint that seemed frozen in time, with decor from the 1970s. It’s not an eatery I would have picked had there been more choices, except many restaurants are closed Sundays. Rather than wear myself out trying to find a place that would appease my foodie self, who doesn’t want to “waste” the chance for a unique meal while traveling, I listened to my hungry, tired body. It did not want to be dragged around in search of culinary nirvana. The attentive staff made me feel welcome, even though I must have had the word “tourist” flashing in neon above my head. The server presented my basic dinner – grilled chicken breast with a side salad and fries – with care and a flourish. In that moment, I needed solid food and friendliness more than a unique or photogenic meal. As I ate, I felt ashamed for all the times I had pooh-poohed places like this for not being “interesting” enough. “Interesting” doesn’t always satisfy the need for rest and connection.
Towards the end of my Barcelona stay I made my way to La Cova Fumada, celebrated for being a “summa cum local” tapas joint. When I arrived on a Friday in the middle of lunch hour, people milled outside the tiny, nondescript restaurant, beers in hand, as they waited for a table. I nearly became discouraged by the crowds except I had traveled 40 minutes, by subway and on foot, even stopping to get cash along the way, and I didn’t want my pilgrimage to be in vain. At one point the owner emerged to seat a couple and asked me if I wanted to put my name on the list. I said yes. When I told him it was for one person, he said in a somewhat exasperated tone that I should just eat at the bar. Like a deer in headlights, I stared at the people standing shoulder to shoulder by the counter and, despite the prospect of good eats, couldn’t budge. I simply never developed the habit of sidling through crowded bars or elbowing my way in. When I walked El Camino de Santiago, another Spanish tavern owner tried to school me on how to behave in a bar, but I had not practiced his advice.
The owner, sensing my paralysis, softened and told me to follow him. He escorted me to the bar and maneuvered me, like a chess piece, into position at the far side, next to a strip of counter space adjacent to a large sink full of dirty espresso glasses. I didn’t care — at least I wouldn’t have to wait to eat! He told me to put my backpack on a high shelf and to stand in a very precise spot so the busy servers could get around me. From my perch, I could view other patrons and have easy access to the counter guy who took and delivered orders, settled tabs, and chatted with everyone, seamlessly doing a million things at once as if it were as easy as breathing. The counter guy cheerfully and playfully answered all my questions as I devoured plates of fried sardines, some octopus with onions, and baked artichokes. I wiped my greasy fingers on slippery napkins that weren’t up to the task. I chatted with a customer to my left who helped me decipher the menu. When I finished eating, the counter guy whipped out a pencil and tallied up my total directly on the white counter. I left with a full belly and a huge grin on my face. As I exited onto the sidewalk, I saw the owner trying to assuage the growing, hungry crowds who wanted to sit at a table. I made a point of tapping him on the shoulder so I could thank him and say goodbye. I finally understood the pleasures of being a local.
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