Life in Cádiz MAG

By Mary J., St. Charles, IL

     When I stepped off the plane and onto the scorched pavement of the Jerez airport, my body involuntarily responded. My skin tingled and my fingertips hummed. My pores were sucking up fresh, honey-colored sunshine, and I thought of the black bikini I’d packed. Within seconds, I was in full vacation mode.

I’d never been anywhere exotic. My family never took vacations, and the closest I’d come to a palm tree was a deformed willow tree in my backyard. Thus, when the officials of my Welsh boarding school announced a 10-day stretch they called “Project Week,” I was elated.

That afternoon, my friend and I booked bargain flights to Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. We justified our trip by enrolling in a fledgling language school for five mornings of semi-intensive Spanish and then began gathering towels, sunglasses, flip-flops, tanning oil, etc. We imagined ourselves perpetually stretched out on a seashore in a distant Somewhere, flipping through magazines (en espaOol, if we were feeling especially ambitious) and scanning the horizon for cute surfers.

After the flight, we took a short bus ride to the village of our youth hostel, C.diz. It took two hours to realize that lying on the beach in Spain is about as fulfilling as eating soup with a spatula. You can’t surround yourself in a culture that rich and expect to be content with doing stereotypical “tourist” things. So, we didn’t. We folded our beach towels and tucked them in the closet for “sensible” use (two afternoons of our visit, we did pull them back out), covered our bikini tops with T-shirts and walked out into the city center to explore.

They say C.diz is the oldest city in Spain, perhaps even in all of Europe. It was settled by the Moors coming from Africa (Morocco is just across the water if you look south) and continues to retain vestiges of that long-ago colonization. For example, despite its reputation for being a thoroughly Catholic country, many residents are Muslim. Their food reflects a Mediterranean diet - oils, grains, fish, and olives - more than European cuisine. The people even retain a bronze cast on medium complexions. Thus, Spain, particularly its southern region, feels a bit like Africa.

The first few days, we followed the brochures with advice from the information office. We trekked to the cathedrals and towers, the free museums, and the dock with its bustling activity. We

inhaled C.diz like foreigners, but felt far less guilty about it than we had when tanning on the beach.

By the third day, we had met some locals. One, Antonio, offered to take us for tapas with his brother, sister and friends. We starved until ten in the evening (the typical dinner time) in anticipation of what Antonio promised would be a feast. He ordered and I found myself quite content snacking on picos (little sticks of bread). I was, in fact, nearing saturation when the waiter approached with a stack of plates. He set one before each diner, then retreated to the kitchen. When he returned, he brought an entourage with him.

The tapas seemingly sprouted from the tablecloth and in all crevices - between my elbow and my neighbor’s, stacked on top of the near-empty bread bowl. There were anchovies soaked in vinegar, ham slices drizzled with salsa and mayonnaise, fried tuna fillets, potato cubes stirred in a thick, rust-colored sauce, and moistened red pepper slivers stretched out. At home, we would have lifted one plate at a time and passed them around clockwise in this formal environment. Instead, Antonio initiated the meal by plunging his fork into the closest platter and dragging an anchovy sloppily onto his dish. He left a trail of vinegar across the tablecloth. The rhythm established, I moved my fork from one platter to the next, my plate never occupied with more than two bites worth of food. When the tapas were gone, I could feel their solid mass in my stomach and leaned back. Who could do this every night?

The last night, we ate a smaller dinner in the new town, the strip of C.diz where the tourist concentration thins noticeably and the nightclubs thicken. Fewer signs were in English. We ventured into several places before we found one where we felt comfortable. It seemed vaguely British, which I suppose shouldn’t have seemed that remarkable. There was a horseshoe-shaped counter in front and a line of pool tables in the back. We witnessed the game of a self-pronounced “pool champion.”

Perhaps the scene of a bar, two teenage girls, and pool tables completely deconstructs the exoticism of Spain, but I found it quite the opposite. Listening to people speak Spanish in their normal evening environment was exhilarating. I wondered about my Spanish equivalent, the me I could have been if I had grown up on the southern coast of Spain rather than in Chicago.

When I left Spain, looking back over my shoulder at the Jerez airport before my flight back to London, I felt vaguely accomplished. I was tanned and broke, like every good tourist, but I also was taking home the intimate knowledge of how life in C.diz is actually lived.

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