By Pat Teti —
Two weeks living and working with a middle-aged couple in a small town in northeastern Spain sounded like a great way to sample a distinctive culture outside the normal tourism envelope.”
“Pat, could you sing Happy Birthday to my mother”? Pep asked from the other end of the large dinner table.
It was two hours into a long afternoon meal with an extended family near Barcelona. I was in a soporific state after several courses of alcohol, delicious food, and listening to incomprehensible Catalán. The sudden query in English was so unexpected, all I could do at first was gasp, “Excuse me”?
How did I get into this?
Two months earlier, I had responded to a posting on workaway.info that a Spanish household would like to host a volunteer worker in return for room and board. Pep (a nickname for “Guiseppe”) said that Catalán and Spanish were their first two languages with English a distant fourth. Two weeks living and working with a middle-aged couple in a small town in northeastern Spain sounded like a great way to sample a distinctive culture outside the normal tourism envelope.
My first day with hosts Pep and Dolors was typical. After a late and light breakfast, the only Spanish eating habit to which I didn’t easily adjust, the day was full of activity until bedtime. First, we drove to the beautiful old farm belonging to Dolors’ parents where my job was helping prune olive trees. It was a lovely spring day and the almond trees were in full bloom while winter dragged on in the Cariboo. No olive trees were damaged by my lack of knowledge because all I did was carry and pile branches.
We were called inside to the main meal of the day (la comida) and gathered around a large table in the old stone farmhouse. From the point of view of my two hosts, we had two sets of parents, a son, a daughter, a sister, a son-in-law, a couple friends, and the Canadian volunteer helper. The meal consisted of wine, beer, processed snack food, vegetables, sausage, bread, olive oil, sweets, and fruit. Yes, the snack food seemed out of place to me, too.
I was lucky to be seated next to Maria, Pep’s loud and cheerful mother who made me feel like part of the family even though she was unilingual in Catalán. The socializing among the extended family was continuous, energetic, and entertaining even with the language barrier, but I received occasional translations with the help of Pep and Dolors’ two kids.
We were back at Pep’s house in late afternoon where he gave me some tools and lumber and turned me loose on an outdoor repair project. A tour of the countryside and a monastery followed, finishing at sunset. After a light dinner around 10 p.m, my last project was to start two batches of dough—one for pizza and one for bread. I was delighted but a little anxious to start baking projects in unfamiliar kitchens while being linguistically challenged. The excitement and tension increased when I learned that the pizza was to be served at another family gathering at the farm the next day and that I would have a chance to use their outdoor wood-fired oven.
Volunteer travel is a wonderful way to experience another culture for an extended period of time at minimal cost. However, you might wonder why I was turned loose on carpentry and baking projects on my first day of volunteering. The main reason is that my hosts were very trusting people but I had told them in advance that I could do those things. It all worked out but should be a reminder to the would-be volunteer to not overstate one’s capabilities.
One of the most interesting food experiences with my hosts was a simple dish of fire-roasted spring onions, or calçots (pronounced CAL-sots), which includes the exuberant ritual in this part of Spain known as la calçotada (pronounced la cal-so-TA-da).
My first clue something unusual was happening for this meal was the old newspapers spread all over the dining table. The cooking was being done over an open fire but I couldn’t tell what would emerge from the fireplace until the first course of appetizers and drinking was over and the main course was presented. Out came fire-blackened onions, like our green onions, brought from the hearth on more newspapers.
I was challenged to figure out how to eat them before finally being shown. It’s a two-handed operation which, if done properly, leaves charred onion skins on the newspaper and the inner, edible portion hanging from a closed fist. The trick is to hold an onion by its top with one hand and slip off the outer burnt skin with the other. The white core is eaten after dipping it in a delicious red sauce (salsa romesco) made with roasted peppers, tomatoes, ground nuts, and other ingredients. Also served at our calçotada were fire roasted sausages and artichokes. What a sight: three generations of a family laughing and eating messy, delicious, and healthy food with their bare hands. I was so fortunate to be able to experience this traditional and fun meal with a boistrous Catalán family.
I’ll never forget how loving and welcoming my hosts were. My pizza and bread turned out quite well, there were no injuries, and I only trashed one pair of pants. My only regret was not having taken a Spanish course before I went. Compared with the daily anxiety of the communication barrier, singing “Happy Birthday, Maria” was easy!
Pat Teti was a research scientist with the BC government for 18 years and has always enjoyed making things.