Ramon reminded me instantly of Ernest Hemingway. He wore a white beard and loose linen pants. His voice was low and smooth. He spoke simple Spanish with us, and he smiled and made political jokes, gently testing the mettle of his son’s American friends.
His apartment was much smaller than Quim and Cristina’s, and when we collapsed into it after our journey from France it smelled of pipe smoke and sizzling fish. Books filled dark grained shelves from floor to ceiling, and we shed our shoes to step onto the honey gold wood parquet. Ramon has been a professor of Mediterranean history and culture at the University of Barcelona for 40 years, and his apartment was tasteful – original paintings and nude sketches hung on every unshelved wall, sometimes as many as five or six on a single surface if it was large – and very masculine.
“Don’t eat too much,” Quim told me when we stopped at a rest stop in the Pyrenees around 6:30 pm. “My dad will have a feast prepared when we arrive.” We snacked on baguettes with cheese and jamon (salted ham) at a picnic table while Quim and Cristina’s daughter played on the playground. I thought he was kidding – we wouldn’t get to Barcelona til well after 9 pm, much too late for a dinner feast. Besides, I was pregnant, and I had a baguette. I did not heed his warning.
We met Quim in Maryland when my husband was working on his masters degree. Quim had been a visiting scientist, and he made a mean paella. His skin and hair were dark, as you might expect from a Spaniard, and his thinning hair stood up on top, as if it were always affected by static. He had the happiest smile and the llightest heart of anyone I’ve met, and when he laughed, I laughed. When he returned to Maryland on a subsequent trip, we invited him to stay with us for the few weeks he was in the States.
Now, he and his family hosted us on our first trip to Europe. When we told him we were thinking about visiting France and Spain, his face broke into his full toothed Joaquim grin. He insisted that we stay with him in Marseille. He and his girlfriend and daughter were our guides during our ten day trip, and that Friday, the Friday we ate cheese and ham at a rest stop in the Pyrenes, they cut their workday short to take us to the city of their hearts, Barcelona. They jittered with excitement to go back home, where they would take their daughter to visit her grandparents, and where Quim’s father had graciously invited us all to stay in his apartment while we visited his city.
After our rest stop snack, we climbed back into tiny cars, and we followed our friends onto the highway. When we crossed the border into Spain, Quim grinned and waved from the passenger seat in front of us. We were in the mountains, and the land was green – a green unbroken by buildings, power lines, or human evidence of any kind. Not Ireland green, but green with the stumpy trees of the Mediterranean, and green with the cleanliness of a recent summer rain. My husband and I thrilled to see road signs we could decipher after the foreignness of France. Even though the signs were in Catalan instead of Spanish, we could at least puzzle them out after four years of high school Spanish.
We arrived in Barcelona at dusk. The July sun set late, and after the leisure of driving on a deserted highway, following our friends on the hectic streets of a foreign city in the low light between mountains was harrying. The highway spit us onto a roundabout, and we cut across multiple lanes of traffic to make quick turns, hugging Cristina’s bumper so that nobody would elbow between us. Cris had driven slow on the highway, but now we whipped through town, zipped between cars, darted here and there with no idea where we were going or how we’d get out. My husband sweated and we hoped we didn’t lose them.
As Quim promised, Ramon had a feast prepared for us when we arrived near 10 o’clock at night.
We ate on his terrace on the top floor of his apartment building – the atico. Basil and sage plants, jasmine and lantana, and hibiscus lined Ramon’s balcony. Piano music drifted up from below. “She is a concert pianist,” Ramon told us of his downstairs neighbor. We relaxed into our seats and soaked it all in.
For the first course, Ramon served a zucchini casserole. When my husband and I recognized the zucchini and called it by that name, Ramon turned to his son, bewildered. In Spanish he said, “Zucchini?! That’s Italian. They must have a different word for it!” I love this culture, who when they value a thing, they give it a name. Who call zucchini calabacín, and who have a word for the time spent in conversation after sharing a meal: sobremesa. Over table.
The next course Ramon served us was a cold tomato soup-type dish from the south of Spain. The dish was cool and refreshing on a hot summer night. It was thick and almost creamy, though I don’t think it had any cream in it, and sprinkled on top were hard boiled eggs and jamón serrano, a dry-cured ham that is everywhere in Spain. Then came sardines. Not finger-long sardines in a can, but ear-of-corn sized sardines that Ramon had bought fresh at the fish market on La Rambla and cooked whole, heads and all, in his apartment in a huge paella pan.
I studied how Cristina dissected one for her daughter so I could follow her lead, but I missed what she did with the head. Mine shuddered each time I tried to scrape meat off the tiny bones of the body, and Ramon guided me in chopping the head off. I struggled with picking the small fish clean with my fork, and Quim told me “Just eat it with your hands. It’s a lot easier that way.” He grinned and wiggled his olive oil fingers, then used his thumb and pointer to slide meat off the tiny skeleton.
As everyone else ate sardine after sardine (I had to quit after one because I ate too much ham in the Pyrenees), I melted into my patio chair and listened to voices on the street below, forks and wine glasses clinking on terraces, and concert piano music floating up from an open window. I smelled fresh herbs, and the warm night air of Spain, and I was lulled by the deep man voices at our table. It was midnight by now, and I was pregnant, tired, and absolutely contented.
We slept that night with the terrace doors open, trying to stay cool on top of the sheets of the pull-out sofa bed, listening to summer sounds of Barcelona under the stars – laughter on the way to tapas bars at 1 am, glassware clinking on balconies.
Quim had a big day of sightseeing planned for the next day. “But we have to be back by 2 o’clock. My dad will prepare a big meal,” he told us. Despite Spain moving toward the half hour lunch, Ramon refused to adopt such a rush rush life. Even on weekdays he took a 3 hour break to prepare a large midday meal and nap afterwards.
I flopped my big belly over as Quim told us good night and flipped off the light. “Okay Quim,” I smiled into my pillow. “We can do that.”
I drifted on the murmur of Spaniards in the street below, and the front door clicked quietly shut as Ramon slipped away to his girlfriend’s.