The Abuelos: A tale of a food culture misunderstanding
Why in retrospect my host parents in Valencia weren’t so bad, and on reconciling that maybe I was the villain all along
Way back in 20071 I spent a semester studying abroad in Valencia. For someone who had previously only been on a plane once, this was to be a pivotal life event. In fact, I had been planning this whole study abroad scheme since my first year of college, as soon as I found out that spending a semester in Spain was possible.
My first exposure to Spanish had been in fifth grade, through half-hour video lessons broadcast on a TV wheeled into our classroom on Friday afternoons. As I’m writing this I can still hear the intro song in my head (sometimes I sing it to my cat, but he still hasn’t learned Spanish yet, go figure). I took my first Spanish course as an elective in junior high. Perfectionist at heart, I cried all night before my first vocabulary quiz, roping my mom into endlessly drilling the words with me until my tears were reduced to a trickle (I got a 94% and still wasn’t satisfied, which is in line with my current mindset when someone comments that I speak the language well). I continued classes through high school, and eventually selected Spanish as one of my two majors in undergrad. Traveling to Spain was the realization of a dream years in the making.
There are a million things I could say about my time in Valencia; I sent regular email play-by-plays to my friends back home so, for better or for worse, my escapades are recorded in excruciating (and embarrassing) detail. Maybe I’ll mine them for content in the future. But this particular newsletter is about our host family—who my roommate and I semi-affectionately called The Abuelos—and my culinary experiences and misjudgments while living with them as a student from the US.
As you may have guessed, The Abuelos (The Grandparents in English) were an older couple. Likely in their late 60s at the time, they lived in the Ciutat Vella area of Valencia along with their daughter, who was in her late 20s and spent most of her time out of the house.2 Our university advisors informed us that the couple había acogido3 many erasmus students over the years, so they were experienced in being a host family and the responsibilities that came with it.
Our first day with The Abuelos (at that time still referred to by their first names) was quite tense: the initial ride to their house went fine, but the problems started once they tried to teach us how to use their house key. For those of you who have never been to Spain, the locks on home doors here are no joke. To lock the door (from the outside, as if you were leaving), you have to insert the key into the slot and twist it toward the door frame at least two if not three times, depending on the model of the lock. To unlock, you do the opposite. Simple, right?
Wrong. The issue was a combination of differing visual-spatial perspectives, unfamiliarity with the locking mechanism, and the language barrier. The Abuelos first wanted to teach us how to unlock the door, so we stood outside to practice while they instructed us from inside. “Derecha, derecha!4,” they shouted at us from the other side of the door. “We ARE turning derecha!,” we yelled back. (I put this in English because I can’t imagine that in a moment of stress we would have achieved stringing together an actual sentence in Spanish.) The mix-up was in that from their perspective inside their piso5, you did have to turn the key to the right (away from the door frame) to unlock. But from the outside, turning to the right actually locked the door. Added to the fact that we had to turn the key multiple times, the whole thing was un lío6. I think it took us at least 20 minutes just to unlock the door, including a call to the adorable elderly doorman Enrique to enlist his help. Not the best way to start your several-month stay in a new country.
Our biggest gripe with The Abuelos, though, and why I’m writing about them here, was the food. As potential students abroad, the culinary dissimilarity we had learned about the most was the difference in mealtimes. Spanish meals are much later than in the US: lunch is typically eaten around 2:00-2:30pm, and dinner anywhere from 9:00-10:00pm. This may seem strange to someone from the US, but once you’re here it’s a fairly easy schedule to adopt, especially in the summer when sunset is close to 10:00pm and it seems strange to eat dinner with three more hours of daylight ahead of you. So late meals, we knew about. But I don’t think our professors had fully prepared us for just how differently Spanish people approach eating in their homes compared to families in the US.
In Valencia, breakfast went more-or-less as we had expected. Every morning our host mom would prepare us small glasses of Nescafé dissolved in milk, accompanied by a mini magdalena7 for each of us. We “knew” that European breakfasts were all about coffee and pastries, so there weren’t many surprises there.8
Lunches were a different story. While our host family’s home was in the old city, our university building was on the other side of el Jardín del Turia, about a 35 minute walk away. This meant that instead of going home for lunch like some students were able to do, we brought a bagged lunch and ate in the school lounge. The Abuela had a more-or-less set list of bocadillos that she cycled through: chorizo, mushroom omelette, the much-dreaded tuna in olive oil. I’m sure there were others, but those are the ones that I remember most clearly. Our morning routine consisted of checking the bocadillo contents and tossing our least favorites in the garbage can on the walk to school.9 Looking back, I’m wondering why we didn’t just tell our host mom that we didn’t like tuna, or that omelettes with champiñones10 kind of grossed us out but we would love a plain omelette or one with cheese. I think it was mostly because we were scared of her—we had repeatedly tried to explain that leaving our laptops plugged in to charge wasn’t going to run up the electricity bill, but she still yelled at us every time she saw the computer cords in the enchufes.11 Would telling her our sandwich filling preferences make a difference? Maybe not, but we definitely should have tried.
Lunches were hit-or-miss, but we could solve a less-than-desirable bocadillo situation with a pit stop at 100 Montaditos or our nearest döner kebab shop. Dinners were, in our opinion, the worst. Chicken soup with stars (but no actual chicken—broth and star pasta only), breaded ham and cheese filets, and soupy mashed potatoes were all regular entrees at la Casa de los Abuelos.12 Occasionally we would have a soup with chorizo and wilted greens (probably a version of caldo gallego) or spaghetti noodles with a thick, creamy bacon-studded sauce (one of my personal favorites at the time), but dinner was usually met with disappointment on our part. Our friends were bragging about paella, and in our eyes all we were eating was mush.
In retrospect, I’m a little horrified at how ungracious and flippant we were. If we would have just talked to our host parents, a lot of our complaints and confusion probably would have been resolved. We may not have been completely fluent in Spanish, but we certainly had enough of a grasp on the language to clear up a few minor misunderstandings. Four months in a country seems like a long enough time to get a good handle on the culture, but if you don’t interact and ask questions, you’re likely to have a skewed (and erroneous) perspective.
Now having lived in Spain for several years and being an active participant in the food culture (and asking questions!), I realize that our meals at The Abuelos’ were not so weird after all. Below, some notes that would have been helpful to know the first time around:
Lunches are often the main meal of the day in Spain, which means they’re usually the most filling. If we had been home for lunch, we probably would have eaten more elaborate meals. Also, since The Abuelos were retired, they had time to prepare those bigger lunches, which means they were likely used to eating lighter fare in the evening.
All of those dinners that we complained about? Very typical dishes here in Spain. I frequently eat chicken soup (usually with fideos instead of stars, though), those breaded ham and cheese sandwiches (called San Jacobos) are a common dinner for young people, and the soupy mashed potatoes were likely made with the ever-popular Maggi potato flakes.13
Paella is more of a weekend meal, and we spent most weekends either traveling or hanging out with our friends in the city. If we would have spent more time at home, presumably we would have eaten more paella.
Bocadillos are the most common food to eat on the go. It makes complete sense that our host mom would pack one for us every day.
Writing this has made me think about our interactions with people from other cultures. Often our ignorance—and unwillingness to do something about it—results in misconceptions and can even turn into resentment. I don’t think my roommate’s and my disdain for our food in Valencia was out of animosity, and I think our reluctance to question things was more due to a combination of being young and feeling insecure in our Spanish skills. But now that I look back, I’m a little disappointed in myself, and regretful that I didn’t take advantage of such a great learning experience.14
I guess that’s why I’m trying to make up for it now. I write this sitting at my desk in Spain, but I imagine that the bulk of you are reading from my home country. Back in the US, there’s a surface-level understanding of the food culture of Spain: it’s all tortilla de patata, jamón, late-night dinners, and sangria. This isn’t wrong; those things are popular and they’re the hallmark foods for a reason. But Spanish cuisine is much more. It’s the intricate preparation of a Sunday paella, but it’s also the leftover tomato purée that you spread on your toast the next morning. It’s little quirks and traditions, like trying to remove a mandarin peel in one piece or using your bread to sop up all of the last bits of egg yolk on your plate from huevos rotos. It’s the care that goes into something that seems simple, like that chicken broth we had for dinner in Valencia that starts with buying a whole chicken at the butcher, continues with picking up the vegetables at the local market, and culminates in spending all morning watching over the simmering pot of ingredients as they slowly reduce into the stock that’s later strained and ladled into your bowl at the dinner table. It’s going to three different places to buy fruit, because one place has the best melón15, one has incredible paraguayas16, and you can’t miss the fresas17 at the third locale. It’s eating gazpacho in the summer and cocido in the winter, cazón in the South and fabada in the North. It’s centuries of tradition packed into a land area smaller than the size of Texas.
I’m not sure if The Abuelos are still around; I visited Valencia in 2014 and even went by their building but was too shy to ring the bell. If I could, I would apologize to them: for assuming the worst, for my misunderstandings, and frankly, for being a bit of a brat. Who knows, maybe The Abuelos had some misconceptions of their own. Americans usually aren’t pictured very favorably in international media, so they possibly had low expectations for how willing we were to try new things. Or perhaps their past student tenants had requested tuna bocadillos every day for lunch. All I can do at this point is learn more, appreciate more, and share my findings so that no one repeats my mistakes.
A final postscript: after letting David read my draft he remarked that I was being too hard on myself. “You were young,” he said. While he’s right—twenty-year-olds aren’t known for being pillars of maturity—I do still think it’s important to acknowledge my misjudgments. If I hadn’t moved to Spain later in life, I would probably still be telling the story of how we got the short end of the stick with our host family assignment in Valencia. Most people are only able to visit a specific foreign country once—if at all—and they carry that first impression with them for the rest of their lives. By not making an effort to understand differing cultures and traditions in our travels, we risk misinterpreting and later misrepresenting those customs. It goes without saying that this applies beyond food culture. Twenty-year-olds grow into adults, and if we don’t address and correct our biases, do we really grow at all?
As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Signing off from Spain,
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On studying abroad in 2007: In an earlier newsletter I weirdly lost my sense of time and math skills and wrote that I studied in Spain when I was 17 years old. I was actually 20, although maybe still with the maturity of a 17-year-old.
On the daughter: At the time, I thought it was sort of rude that she never invited us to go out and do anything with her and her friends. Looking back, I can see why she didn’t since we were probably sort of obnoxious (and almost a decade younger than her).
Había acogido: Had hosted
Derecha: Right, or clockwise in this case
Un lío: A mess
Magdalena: A traditional muffin frequently eaten for breakfast or as a snack
On coffee and pastries for breakfast: Gross generalization on our part, of course, and likely due to the media’s romanticization of Europe. In fact, many Spanish people don’t even eat breakfast. It is definitely not considered “the most important meal of the day” like we’re taught in the US.
On throwing away the bocadillos: While it’s kind of funny, I’m also ashamed at how wasteful we were.
Enchufes: Power outlets
La Casa de los Abuelos: The House of The Abuelos, or The Grandparents’ House
I still think there’s something odd about the fact that Spanish people make fries from scratch but buy instant mashed potatoes. But I will admit that the Maggi brand is highly addictive and now the only time I make “real” mashed potatoes is for Thanksgiving.
On not taking advantage of studying abroad: This same comment applies to using Spanish while in Valencia. We spoke in Spanish with our host parents and there was a rule that only Spanish could be spoken in our class building, but my core friend group was made up of Americans and we spent 90% of our time chatting in English.
Paraguayas: Donut peaches