It’s mid-March. I step off the plane into Logan Airport, and the initial breath of freezing air shocks my system, a precursor to the culture shock of readjustment that would soon follow. Just hours before, I had packed up my study-abroad life in sunny Spain, hurriedly giving the cultural “double kiss” to each member of my host family as they, too, prepared to flee the city in favor of a more remote, safe climate in the country. There was a growing sense of urgency during my final days in Madrid, a slow swell of panic culminating in closures and relocations. The warm spring air was thick with apprehension, a stark contrast to the typically calm, carefree atmosphere.
Although I could hear and see the anxiety poking through in her rushed tone and quickened pace, my host mom remained level-headed and practical on my final day. She walked with me through the city to tie up some logistical loose ends, like going to the bank to cash her final payment for my stay and dropping by the doctor’s office to reschedule her daughter’s upcoming physical. After the to-do list was efficiently completed, she told me in slow Spanish that we had one last stop to make: la panadería. Finally arriving at the little bread store, at least four or five blocks from the location of our last errand, my tired feet and anxious mind were instantly calmed by the savory scent. We were greeted by a smiling woman who happily helped my host mother decide which loaves she wanted. After the selection process, she placed the pan in an elaborate slicer, separating it into perfect pieces. The fresh, ready-to-eat slices were then tossed into brown paper bags faster than I could say, “¡Gracias!”
A few minutes later, we began the lengthy walk back to the family’s apartment, this time bogged down by the weight of six or seven pre-cut baguettes. Although I had a long journey across the Atlantic ahead of me, I remember letting out a genuine laugh in that moment. The world was turned upside-down by the coronavirus, and one of my host mom’s top priorities was to buy bread. This was made even better by the fact that we passed three or four alternate bread stores on the walk home. Although the several panaderías looked identical to me, my host mom was loyal to that particular one. The thick fog of disease had infiltrated her beloved city, but she maintained a sense of normalcy through the lens of her family’s favorite food. To her, bread was essential.
Many of my fondest memories from my time in Spain are of sharing meals with my host family. Although their spacious four-bedroom flat had a formal dining area, 99% of the time the five of us packed into a cozy, dimly lit table tucked away in the kitchen hall. Since dinnertime is much later in Spain than I was used to, most nights I arrived at the table around 9:30 PM, already showered and starving. I’m a bit of a picky eater, which I think my host family saw as a challenge for them to tackle, one meal at a time. They successfully got me to try almost everything, from anchovies on little bread crisps to jamon serrano (ham carved straight from the pig’s leg at the table, hooves and all).
Since we were all out during the day at school or work, and I traveled most weekends, it was during those weeknight dinners that I was able to bond with the family. I would listen as they caught up with each other about the day’s events and chime in when my understanding of Spanish felt sufficient enough to do so. Even in the moments where the conversation flew way over my head, I found comfort in their warm expressions and laughter. Dinnertime in my host family’s house was equally about eating and socializing, a designated opportunity each day to stop, share a meal, and spend time together.
Since my semester in Spain was my first time in Europe, there were many days when I came home to that charming flat in the Chamberí neighborhood feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and even defeated. Submergence in another culture and language is a tough adjustment, and I think all of the BC students in my Madrid program sought solace in one way or another. For me, daily dinners with my host family were a welcome source of both calm and connection. They were a reminder that I was a part of something in Madrid. Not just BC Abroad, or an exchange program at Universidad Comillas, but a Spanish family unit. Just as my host mom found normalcy in buying bread, I found comfort in the daily dinner routine.
Looking back on those late-night family dinners—and especially that final trip to the panadería—in mid-June Massachusetts from my childhood bedroom, I cannot help but smile. Although my last food-related purchase of choice would have been an iced latte and a bagel from my town coffee shop rather than loaves of bread, the cultural barrier disintegrated for me that day. I identified with her instinct to preserve some normalcy, as well as her loyalty to her favorite local food shops. I found her prioritization of particular food as “essential” to be very relatable amidst the impending controversies over which types of businesses would be allowed to remain open during the countrywide quarantine. For my host mom, her favorite panadería was top priority during the pandemic. When I am able to safely visit Madrid again, that little bread shop will be a priority for me, too.