In the land of fried potatoes

The streets were still and quiet when Mikaela and I climbed out of the metro. Everything came in right angles: orange concrete buildings and playgrounds framed by green hedges. There was no one else to be seen. Echoes from an occasional car would ripple past closed cafeterías and the one open place: Mercadona, the grocery store where one redheaded clerk staffed the cash register but the meat counter with its legs and legs of ham, like the streets, sat empty.

This was Valencia during siesta, the time where everyone disappears for lunch with their entire family and then a quick nap before coming back into the world for what would be a very, very long night. My family friend Mikaela has been living in this part of Spain, known for its oranges and olives, since January. Spending the weeks head-aching her way through Spanish engineering courses, she has managed to spend most of her weekends in other countries, including France, where she trudged up my 113 stairs with me (and counted them. Isn’t it nice to have an engineer friend?).

My engineer friend is also a wondrous writer who can crank out a post faster than I can say “bon voyage; I am going to take a nap.” Our weekend in Paris was the first time we had spent together one-on-one. We discovered that we have a lot of similarities, and I discovered that one of them is not blog timing. So click on this link to her post that I have by now linked to three times. De nada.

This weekend was part two of our exchange program: get Hailey out of cloudy France and into the Valencian sun. Feed her some orange juice and maybe some paella. Get her to a beach and maybe even get her tipsy on a bit of sangria.

We hit a lot of those “program goals” as soon as I dropped my backpack in her room. Mikaela poured me some fresh orange juice she had squeezed at the store into one of her and her flatmates’ three cups. When I think “study abroad,” I usually think “hand-holding.” But Mikaela had to find this apartment herself within one week of moving to a country where English is not normally a thing (unlike in France). She is currently living with roommates from Canada and Italy who share a limited amount of dishware and who hang-dry laundry in a shaft along the side of the building. It’s a Spanish experience she had to find herself. She drinks a lot of juice straight from the bottle, but otherwise seems to be thriving.

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Sangria on the beach. If you drink it out of a plastic Don Simon bottle that cost one euro 30, it still counts, right?

Onto our next program goal: Cutting through Mercadona, we pulled a plastic bottle of sangria off of the shelf. It was the kind that teenagers take to parties when they have one aim only. It was also one euro and 30 cents. “It’s not bad,” Mikaela said. We confirmed that on the beach, which we biked to using Valenbisi, Valencia’s bike sharing system, following red cobblestone paths through dusty neighborhoods where dads sat in plastic chairs right on the street blasting their radios where and children played with foam soccer balls, dribbling straight toward you as you biked by but able to swipe the ball away from your spokes at the last possible second. They knew what they were doing.

We strolled onto the sand, which was now shaded by clouds because it was 7 p.m. A funny thing about Valencia time: as soon as I got there, I felt like it was a few hours earlier than it actually was. Traveling creates time holes, but the Spanish lifestyle also had a lot to do with it. Everything had closed down for lunch between 3 and 5 p.m. Now, old couples were dressing up for their paseos, or early evening strolls. They would not sit down for dinner until at least 9. Mikaela and I spread airplane blankets out by the water (“what else are they good for?” she said), taking sips from the sangria bottle, peeling mandarins and eating cookies that made faces at us when we opened the silver wrappers. We talked about people she has spent time with on her trips, and about our shared encounters that would not have happened had we been at our state schools in Minnesota or Wisconsin, stressing out about finals and getting ready for summer jobs as we normally would be doing.

Wearing the airplane blankets like red capes around our shoulders, we walked in the water, too cold to swim but wanting to spend time in the water. We passed clumps of families where grandmothers played with toddler grandkids and the parents hung out nearby. Here, the immediate family also means the grandparents. When you eat lunch at home, everyone is there, and you do not just eat a few things. The table is filled up like a feast and everyone is a big part of each other’s lives.

Bravas

A bigger part of Valencian food life than I ever would have imagined: not oranges, but potatoes. Mikaela and I biked back though the dim alleyways, cutting across parking lots and working up an appetite. A five-minute walk away from her apartment was La Rosa Negra, where Mikaela ordered us patatas bravas, the dish that defined my weekend.

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Bravo, patatas bravas. That is all I can say.

Valencians know their spuds. You can find this plate of fried potato wedges on almost any menu here. Crisp on the outside but soft and velvety on the inside, these ones came drenched in a strong garlic aioli with pimentón — Spanish paprika — sprinkled on top. We bit into them and I could not help but make noises. It is a simple dish. I don’t know what else to say, other than they were probably the best potatoes I have ever had.

They came with fluffy flatbread and peanuts, a tapa that most restaurants there serve with a plate of olives. All of this probably would have been enough, but we stuffed our way through a seafood salad and some rich brie and tomato pasta. Based on the number of iPhone pictures that I already had snapped, we agreed that my blog on this might as well be a food blog. We gave up on trying to finish our plates, the waiter brought us a blue raspberry-flavored shot de la casa, and we were ready to go out.

And by that I mean out. One other similarity between Mikaela and I is that we are grandmas who go to bed before midnight a lot of the time and feel trapped when we go to busy places at night. But here we were at midnight walking through the dark streets to Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the city’s futuristic cultural center suspended over manmade pools of water, to an open-air club that even Mikaela’s club-goer friends said was the best they have ever been to.

The giant complex was covered in shimmery white mosaic. Opened in 2005, the science museum/aquarium/garden/theater/concert space looked like it belonged in outer space. We walked around it and then filed into the club. Filled with palm trees and pink strobe lights, the outdoor venue was far from sweaty and loud. Mikaela found some of her Austrian and American friends and we danced and talked with them until we could hardly stay awake (disappointingly, not that much later). We said our goodbyes, politely refusing the friends’ offers of energy drinks, and hopped on some bikes to get home. Day One had started at five p.m. and gone on for a good 10 hours. Not a bad first try at Spanish life.

Día dos

Day Two started out hot but not sticky. I slathered sunscreen on my translucent arms as we snuck through a urine-scented fence to a huge street flea market boasting every kind of junk you could imagine. Paintings, drills, phone cables, underwear — “all of it looks nice … together,” Mikaela said. She was looking for a pitcher. Wading through clumps of ceramics on the blue tarp, she picked up a chalky pink, orange and green one and bartered with the man who owned the tarp. We almost bought posters saying “the art of the mind” on vintage sepia-toned paper, but after a closer looked, we realized they were pixilated images on photo paper. We crept back through the pee fence in search of café con leche and our second fried potato dish.

We found it at a café with baby blue chairs where everything was half off on Sundays. We ate calamares and octopus covered in delicious olive oil (“the olive oil!” I kept repeating, floored at another food that was so simple yet so delicious and unable to string four words together). The dish came with a heap of crisp potato chips.

Next, we were off to the old city, where the rectangular concrete blocks gave way to windy streets surrounded by a dried up river bed that is now a park filled with green trees and running paths. Wandering among the rough yellow buildings and orange facades with cool blue window sills, we heard music. Peering down a street that opened into a square, we saw a couple with their arms around each other’s shoulders who seemed to be skipping at the same time. Passing tables covered in paella and wine glasses, we followed the couple and discovered a courtyard filled with swing dancers.

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We would not have stumbled on this street swing dance party if we had had too much of a plan.

People of all ages in the coolest dresses and denim shirts perspired as they spun on the old cobblestones, Converse stepping in time with 1940s American music playing from a sound system outside of a local restaurant. The music would stop and the couples would wipe their faces, breaking off into groups and catching their breath before starting again. Colorful streamers hung from every floor of every building. The two of us stood, unmoving, failing to count how many songs came and went. Again, it was simple: they were dancing. But we were lost for words as we stood and watched and listened. “We would not have found this if we had had too much of a plan, and we would not have enjoyed it if our expectations had been too high,” Mikaela said later that night.

This is a girl who travels without knowing what awaits her in the places she goes. Who spends ten minutes power-researching her destinations when her plane lands, and then just goes. It is a little bit like how I approached coming to Paris, for completely different reasons, but the two of us agreed that it is better to come to a place without too many expectations, and to just experience it.

We climbed to the top of the old cathedral and looked over the city with our arms raised so we could air out our armpits in the breeze. We lay under the ancient church bell and talked about how bad it would be if it fell. We agreed that we were hungry and climbed down the 207 stairs to a local shop that sold freshly made churros, or long sticks of fried dough that we dipped into thick chocolate sauce. Then we searched for sandwiches, ducking into a diner on the edge of the old city where we ate omelets with jamon and shrimp and a clump of shoestring potatoes on the side (fried potato dish number three). People were just starting to resurface from siesta.

Amigas

Fried potato dish number four: the chips at Los 100 Montaditos, a chain that sold small sandwiches for one euro where we ate and drank red wine mixed with cold lemonade and met Mikaela’s Spanish friends. When we stepped back outside, the streets were packed with people our age and grandparents smoking around aluminum tables. We walked through the crowd and checked out the 24-hour vending machines that Mikaela has around her neighborhood, full of sex toys and sandwiches that get heated in a microwave for 30 seconds before being spat out into your drunk vampire hands. But tonight, the vampires had become grandmothers again, and we went home, where we stayed up an extra hour discussing expectations before falling asleep.

When we woke up, we started on our own fried potato dish, and one of Mikaela’s favorites from Spain: tortilla de patatas, a giant circle of onions and potatoes soaked in egg and friend on a griddle. We chopped and dodged the splashing hot oil and then basked in the simplest of simple dishes that can feed a family for four dollars.

Then, my last hope for this not being a food blog vanished as we headed back into the old city to the Mercado Central. The tile and glass-ceilinged building housed stall after stall of every food item imaginable: legs and legs of ham hung from vendor windows. There were juices in little plastic cups, olives in giant jars that cost 5 euro 50, seaweeds in dry and wet form; mushrooms and cheeses and tropical fruits and chopped food meant to go straight into the frying pan. We bought a cup of horchata, a sweet almond milk with a metallic aftertaste (I do not know how else to describe my reaction to it; Mikaela is not the biggest fan either. But we drank it all and chased it with fresh strawberries and cubes of cheese and thick, dry jamon). 

Half of the market is dedicated to fish. There were aisles of bare aluminum that smelled like the sea but were empty because the fishermen do not come on Mondays. My friend said it was a bit disappointing to not be able to see the expansive fish section, but we made up for it by staring at gigantic beef tongues and bloody pig ears. A marshmallow-y white blanket-looking thing lay folded next to the chunks of bloody pig. We did not know what it was but we guessed it was fat. We passed a couple of skinned rabbits stretched out on their tummies under a glass case, and Mikaela explained that rabbit is an ingredient in really traditional paella dishes.

We sat on the sunny steps and finished our snacks, watching a young man who spoke a language we did not know get up and help and old woman down the stairs. Vendors sold bras and pottery at outdoor stalls. Ladies in dresses shared strawberries. We walked through the small streets, ducking into hipster stores selling old and new clothes and gifts. Then we headed to the train station.

Mikaela’s brother, Garrett, just finished his first year of college and is spending the next few weeks in Valencia until Mikaela herself goes home. In that time, they are going to Amsterdam and Prague, and it just so happened that his stay and mine overlapped by two hours. Garrett’s first flight had been delayed and he had almost missed his flight to Madrid and then his train here. But all had worked out, and here was a smiling, slightly loopy brother ready to hear all about the fried potatoes.

We soon had some more. Walking to a café on Mikaela’s quiet street, we shared two plates of paella, which we thought I might not get to try. It was yellow and well-oiled, and full of large chunks of meat we could not quite identify.

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“We’re not related, are we?” — Mikaela as we ate mystery meat paella with her brother, Garrett.

“I think I just ate rabbit,” Mikaela said. Garrett and I poked at our plates, trying to figure out whether we had already eaten some. We then focused on the sizzling heap of potatoes covered in sauce from the meat. “These are so good,” Garrett murmured under sleep-deprived eyes. Being in Valencia two days longer than him, I gave a wise nod. Yes, they are.

The streets were quiet again, the hush of siesta making our harsh American voices carry across the street to the calm Mercadona with its one cashier. I finished my potatoes and a last café con leche, realizing that my sibling travel companions were zombies: Mikaela was feeling the stress of finals and Garrett had spent the last 20 hours on planes and trains. It was time to let them join the rest of the city in a nap.

Mikaela gave me two mandarin oranges, and I left her and her brother and the city of simple things that take words away where I had entered it two days before: in the cool metro with its plastic buckets catching a water drip that has been there for three months, according to Mikaela. If the buckets work, why fix the drip? Here, there are more important things to do.

Like eat some fried potatoes.

Other photos that probably belong in a food blog

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Octopus drenched in olive oil. “The olive oil!” was all I could say — that and a bit of Spanish paprika, or pimentón, made the dish sooo goood.
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Onion rings? Wrong. Calamari, or calamares. It comes in a perfect circle because it is cut from the squid’s head.
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The cathedral in the old part of the city.
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Café con leche.
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Churros, a fried dough to be dipped in chocolate sauce.
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The main plaza in the old part of downtown Valencia.
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Sandwiches from Los 100 Montaditos — “the 100 little sandwiches.” They cost one euro each and came with lots of varieties of ham, cheese and other ingredients.
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And finally, paella. What was in it? Good question. Our guess was an animal that once had long ears and a cotton tail.
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