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Essays

Bitter and Sweet

Finally, the ceasing of motion. The car rolls to a stop in the driveway, and my dad unloads the luggage from the trunk. A cloudy sky and a sprinkle of rain are there to enhance my homecoming. I slowly make my way into the house, fatigued from two plane rides and a hike around the Logan Airport central parking lot, which entailed a winding maze of concrete before we found the car tucked away in an obscure corner. 

I step on the welcome mat for the first time in five months, and I’m home. I brace myself. Will my living room feel unfamiliar, the kitchen a foreign space? Will my bedroom feel like someone else’s? Both feet are on the threshold now. The door eases open, and… it almost feels like I never left. A whole semester spent abroad in Granada, Spain, and now I’m back to reality. 

“Are you getting hungry for dinner?” my dad asks. I eye the clock, which reads 5 p.m. I laugh a little. “That’s so early to eat! It’s practically the middle of the day!” At least one hint of reverse culture shock comes through: the Spanish eating schedule. 

It was tough to adjust to the first few days in Granada. I ate breakfast at a normal time, but would need a midday snack to hold me over. The biggest meal of the day, lunch, was not until 1:30 or 2:30 in the afternoon. Another afternoon snack served as the bridge, crossing over the large gap between lunch and dinner at 9 p.m. The combination of late mealtimes and an especially late sunset in the spring months made the days stretch out, elongating the afternoon by several hours until 5 p.m indeed felt like the middle of the day. Although the most substantial meals came at later hours, I always looked forward to breakfast.

Back in the U.S., I always gravitated toward dinner. But one food item in particular persuaded me to switch sides: the tostada con tomate. Or, simply put, toast with tomato. Good quality fresh bread, with a layer of mashed tomato spread on top. Typically served with a bottle of olive oil for the consumer to drizzle on at liberty, and a generous dash of salt. The mighty little carb and veggie combo, with the occasional addition of manchego cheese, convinced me that breakfast was the most important and delicious meal of the day. It contained the foundation of Spanish cuisine: bread and olive oil. One of the first facts that our program directors proudly boasted upon our arrival was that Spain was one of the top two producers of olive oil in the world, alongside Italy. When I first tasted it, I flinched at the bitterness. As it turned out, it was this strength of flavor that I lacked in my previous olive oil usage. And so, the olive oil flowed. It was present at every meal at the residence at which I lived, bottled up in little containers at the cafés, right there for the taking. 

Photo courtesy of Spanish Sabores

It was at these cafés that I enjoyed the tostada the most. One café stands out as my favorite, called Café Cuatro Gatos. I only went once, but it was incredible. It was the last week of my study abroad, and we were done with finals. A couple of friends and I walked up the cobblestone streets and found a table in the sunshine. The Alhambra palace, or the old Moorish fortress, loomed in the distance, glowing a rusty gold in the light. 

My friend Amanda recommended the café’s specialty: the tomato and manchego tostada with orange juice and coffee. We ordered identically, and the plates arrived minutes later. I gazed at the thick slices of soft, somewhat dense wheat bread, topped with a thin layer of mashed tomato and delicate triangles of manchego. We passed around the olive oil, each dousing the tostada with the bitter substance and a healthy sprinkle of salt. The sweetness of the tomato and the richness of the cheese melded with the salt and pungent oil for the perfect bite. 

Each memory of tostada connects to a different moment. All the time spent at cafés between classes, talking and laughing with my friends, or sitting alone, absorbed in a book, each leading to a different conversation, a different state of mind, a different day gone by that I’ll never be able to replicate. There’s something unique about each day that I went to a café in Granada and ordered a tostada, but they’re all tied together by the fact that they were times spent immersed in a new culture and environment that I knew I would have to hold onto and look back on fondly. Standing in my home kitchen, staring at the clock, I smile when I think of that last tostada at Café Cuatro Gatos. The combination of flavors, the hearty talk with friends. I’ll remember all five of those months overseas with each attempt to recreate my favorite dish—although the olive oil will never taste the same.

Cover photo courtesy of freepik

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