Remembering Spain

This year, my mother has decided to break the family custom for Christmas and send an actual, delivered by UPS present, in a large carton which arrived on the doorstep Friday morning. We don’t know quite why she decided to do this, since the usual present for the last decade or two has been a check discretely tucked into a Christmas card. Maybe it’s because it will be the first Christmas without Dad. Possibly Dad was the one who thought just a plain unadorned check in a Christmas or birthday card was the most welcomed gift by adult children, and didn’t want to futz about with shopping or mail order catalogues – anyway, Mom sent us an awesomely lavish gift basket from this place, La Tienda – the foods of Spain, and we went through the basket and the catalogue enclosed with happy squeals of recognition.

We came home from Spain twenty years ago last October – after living in the city of Zaragoza, while I was assigned to the European Broadcasting Service detachment at the air base there. Which wasn’t an American air base, as we reminded people with tactful delicacy; it was a Spanish air base, and we merely rented a small, pitiful portion of it, a few discreet brick buildings and a scattering of ancient Quonset huts, going about our simple and purely transparent business, humbly supporting those various American and European fighter squadrons coming down from the clouds and fog of Northern Europe and practicing their gunnery skills at a local military range set up just to accommodate that kind of trade. Really, there was no earthly reason for anyone to hassle us … not like it had been in Greece. Still, we religiously abstained from wearing uniforms off-base. The local terrorists were mostly interested in blowing up the Guadia Civil; which I thought regretfully was hard luck for the Guads, but made things easier than they had been for American military stationed in Greece…

Anyway, I was there for six years, living in a kind of garden suburb development of duplex apartments which had once been a base housing development, out to the north of the city proper, just off the Logrono highway. We shopped at the little grocery store in what was called an urbanization – basically Spanish for development – and at the hypermercado just up the road called Al Campo, the Spanish equivalent of Target. We used to say that if it wasn’t at the BX or the Commissary, and you couldn’t find it at Al Campo, then very likely you didn’t need it anyway. The long and short of it is – there were edible treats that I loved in Spain, and have almost forgotten about, which were the everyday and casual dispensed groceries that we saw while we lived there and haven’t seen since – and Mom’s gift basket gave us a reminder. There is a box of turron, among the delicacies: a slab of candy which used to be everywhere about this time of year: roughly the dimensions of a paperback book. My own favorite turron was made from honey and egg-yolks and ground almonds, a richer and eggier version of marzipan … there is a box of marzipan among the treats, though. I love marzipan, which I have since discovered makes me very much in a minority American in my candy tastes. There are even some dried figs, dipped in dark chocolate; that was a specialty in Aragon – dried fruit in dark chocolate. But there are not any of those delicate, crumbly butter cookies that I used to buy at the local bakery or the little grocery store; topped with a little sweet wash of egg-white and a few pine nuts. I asked our Spanish secretary once if she knew the recipe for them, and she looked at me blankly and answered, “Eggs… butter … sugar … and flour. And the pine nuts on the top.”

There is chorizo – three different kinds, actually; Spanish chorizo, which is more like a cured salami, rather than the Mexican chorizo which we are familiar with in Texas. (Mexican chorizo is more like a highly spiced breakfast sausage.) I never much cared for the cheaper chorizos, which were so darkly and artificially colored that they looked almost magenta, and oozed bright red grease when heated … but my daughter fell upon the chorizo selection with joyful recognition. There wasn’t any jamon Serrano – that we might have to order from the catalogue if we wanted it: that is the Spanish equivalent of Parma ham. It was a whole leg, dried and cured, and served in tissue-paper thin slices and shreds in all kinds of dishes; I remember with particular relish, a dish of baby artichokes cooked with jamon and garlic at a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela – about the tastiest artichokes I have ever eaten. In the section of Al Campo which stocked jamon Serrano there was a huge array of them hanging from a rack. They smelt like a gymnasium of rancid gym socks – but a thin shaving of jamon draped over a wedge of cantaloupe melon was the food of the gods. Every restaurant, bar, or coffee shop, usually had a whole jamon on hand; there were even special racks on the market to facilitate keeping the jamon where a sliver or two could be shaved off, as needed, with a piece of tinfoil put over the cut surface. In a very divey steak and chop-house in old Zaragoza, which once had formerly been the garage of an apartment building, there was a whole herd of jamon legs hanging from the rafters overhead, each with a little cup suspended from the end, for the melting grease to drip into, rather than onto the patrons.

Down in the bottom of the basket there were four of the shallow round terra cotta dishes called cazuelas that were traditionally used in Spanish cooking; they come in a sizes from the single serving dishes to casserole sized: I came home with a good number of them – they were inexpensive, and available everywhere in Spain which sold kitchenware; even the little grocery store in the San Lamberto urbanization sold them. I even brought home a paella pan; a small one, suitable for making four servings. In Zaragoza there was a paella restaurant which did nothing else but paella, and had paella pans big enough to serve twenty. Of course – there is a jug of very fine olive oil, and another of sherry vinegar from Jerez which will be cherished. When we shipped home from Spain, I had packed six two-liter sealed jugs of Spanish olive oil in my household goods, which lasted us nearly a year and a half. (Now we can get perfectly decent olive oil in the grocery store.) I don’t know that we shall ever be able to order anything more from La Tienda – but we will certainly enjoy the taste of things that we had nearly forgotten.

12 thoughts on “Remembering Spain”

  1. Sounds like you were a an unusual base – small enough that you could almost blend in. I was always amazed in Germany – I knew a Sgt or 2 who really did “go native” – married local women and lived over a decade among the locals. I thought the Army would force rotation periodically but apparently not in all cases.

    One of them, Bill Betchener, I wonder what became of him.

    If he is alive he is probably still over there – almost 40 years later. ;-)

    We had the Bader-Meinhoff Gang. One night atop or small radar station overlooking Ramstein, we heard some shots.

    Well it turned out to be some German hunters but it was an interesting hour or so.

  2. Well, good for you. Right now I was wishing I was living in Puerta Viejo which is on the Pacific coast of Mexico far to south of the border areas where the narco-terrorists are active. The best would be to be living on my boat, a Cal 40 that I spent a fortune restoring, but I am open minded and would accept a small condo. I have friends that own a condo in PV but I haven’t talked to them in a while.

    There is a strong temptation to put your head down and avoid controversy and I understand that. We’ll see how the electorate chooses to go.

  3. I knew a whole raft of USAF retirees, who had married Spanish and lived in San Lam – when the US part of the base closed, which it did in the year after I left. I don’t know what happened to them, eventually – they had the best of two worlds for a while. They would have either to have cut themselves adrift from the American post office, the PX and Commissary, and the NCO/O Club – or uprooted their wives and families from their homes… it was a sad choice for them, either way.
    I managed to blend in, in a lot of ways – I was getting along in Spanish (the people at the little grocery store in San Lam were teaching me all the neccessary phrases for ordering groceries), and my daughter had her bicycle and a whole raft of local friends. With her bike, she had the free run of the urbanization, even as far as the local public swimming resort, since one of her friends in San Lam was the granddaugher of the manager. (Another USAF retiree married to a local girl.)
    It was really an adjustment for us to come back to the States – one way and another, we had lived in Europe for ten years; to my daugher, the US was really a foreign country. Except for having gone to the DODDS elementary school, she was essentially a European.

  4. Thanks.

    I had to order the catalog. I have only had Jamon Iberico once, as part of a birthday gift. Now y’all have gone and made me hungry.

    Subotai Bahadur

  5. Sgt – I had a conversation with someone the other day about military families – especially the children.

    On the one hand they are constantly uprooted – moving from place to place, country to country – every 2-3 years like nomads. I imagine it is hard for them to get a sense of belonging.

    On the other had they are having a formative experience unknown to all but a tiny number of people – and I think they are far richer for it. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of them are multi-lingual.

    It was interesting to me by your description that your site was so small that it was without all the usual military support structure – Special Services, PX/Commissary – I imagine you had a military doctor and dentist…

    You really had in my opinion a wonderful experience – so did I for that matter but not as long, and it was because I used all my leave time to get around…. When I got out I got a bill from the Army for $59.23 – for excess leave taken.

    Oh, I did get one trip courtesy of the Army – Adm Leave – going with a Nike Missile battery on a C-130 to Hania Crete – to view a missile launch. Spent the rest of the time wandering around Crete and Greece.

    Most of my contemporaries would sit in their barracks, listen to their stereos and “piss and moan” about their “bad luck” and being stationed so far from “The World” (The USA).

    In my case at the “old age” of 22 (old to the fellow 18-19 year old Pfc’s!) I was one of the few to travel – every time I could. The Army – at the time – had these wonderful hotels they had taken over from the Wehrmacht in Bavaria – frequently they were some of the nicest in town and you paid according to rank. One of them I stayed in, the Gen Walker – was the last surviving building on Hitler’s complex in Bertchtesgaden – I remember taking a tunnel tour seeing where all the Nazi Bigwigs had their “areas”

    My room fee at places like Garmisch-Partenkirchen (site of the 36 winter olympics) was $3/night.

    My parents gave me a 3 month EurailPass and for that time I’d take 2 week sojourns to Italy, Scandinavia, Spain, France – and come back for 2 weeks. My Sgt (Sgt Betchener) pushed it a bit letting me put all that in but said I had to come back for 2 weeks in between leave times.

    Lest you think my duty was one long vacation normally we were 24 hours in the radar bunker and 24 off. It got to be a grind.

    Had a good friend who had been over there 3 years and I wanted him to go with me – I’d pack my AWOL bag (small nylon carry on) – put 30 rolls of film, nylon easily washable underwear – extra shirt or and socks and off I’d go.

    Anyway I could never get Steve to go with me – his plans were to take no leave – getting paid for it ($800-$1000?) and buying a motorcycle when he got back.

    I saw him about 10 years ago – he lives in WA State – and he said “You know, my one regret was not traveling with you when you asked”.

    I asked him if he ever got his motorcycle…

    He sadly shook his head, ‘No”….

  6. Subotai – I live to serve. Look out, though … some of the whole jamons available through La Tienda are … um… in the range of four figures.
    We did have a good experience, Bill – and I thought my daughter was definitly benefitted by it. Zaragoza AB – the American side – did have all the usual appurtanences, though: BX, Commissary, clubs, dependant’s school (although the entire school, from K-to-12 was under one roof) hospital and all – they were very small, relative to those at bases in Germany, or at Torrejon, near Madrid.
    We did our extensive traveling during the summer staying in local campgrounds, and in all those trips, we never met another American doing as we were doing, staying in campgrounds. (Many of which were very pleasant and well-equipped.) I wish now that we had traveled more!

  7. Fascinating stories, in the post and comments as well.
    Your daughter, C, is one lucky girl, she must be feeling right at home in the wide world. Of course, having US Army behind your back when abroad is a bit different than living in a new country as an immigrant. Still, having experienced all those various countries as resident vs. tourist must have given her a wider perspective.

    Your mom’s gift basket must be bottomless, with all those endless goodies packed in!

  8. I was in Spain circa 2000; drove all over the place and really enjoyed it.

    We got very lost on a country road, and stopped at a restaurant for lunch. Turned out it was the local Fascist hangout; there were pictures of Franco and his minions on all the walls. This restaurant was clearly not after the tourist trade; they were polite but just barely.

  9. Have you seen the 90s film Barcelona about 80s anti Americanism and anti-NATO sentiment in Spain? One of my favorites, Sgt. Mom.

  10. They sure must have downsized ZAB after I left Spain. I had four of the best years of my life at Torrejon flying the F-4. Got to Zaragoza several times for various activities and loved it as well. Both TJ and ZAB were fairly typical of USAFE structures and offered almost all of the expected amenities. Lots of development in places we’re still operating like Ramstein and Aviano and lots of drawdown at sites we are leaving.

    We lose an incredible amount of cultural cross-talk and understanding when we withdraw within our borders.

    I’ll probably have to scout up that La Tienda site and re-acquaint with many wonderful Spanish goodies.

  11. @Bill Brandt: There’s an excellent documentary about Military (and Foreign Service) Brats: Brats: Our Journey Home that covers the issue of displacement well.

    I was a Foreign Service brat; my son is a second generation brat. My wife is herself second generation Military/Foreign Service brat. And there are thousands of us out there.

    I graduated high school from GC Marshall, the DOD HS in Ankara, Turkey. Until e-mail and the Internet, it was catch-as-catch-can as far as getting together with former classmates went. Maybe you bumped into somebody, somewhere, but it was rare. Since the Internet, alumni of the school have organized multi-year reunions, gathering roughly a decade’s worth of students in a convenient location. Once the attendance figures started passing 2K, they evolved into more regional, mini-reunions. There’s also a collection of e-mail listserves that now keep us in touch. It was a good 28 years before the first reunion of my graduating class. Now, it seems there’s one every couple of months.

    For my son’s generation, there’s not the ‘cut off from the world’ phenomenon to cope with. While he’s now four years out of university, he’s still in touch with kids from his first grade class and every school in between. He never developed the kinds of friendships and connections that come from living in one place your entire life, but he has other experiences and connections to offset those.

  12. @John Burgess – I think for what you missed in childhood – a sense of belonging in the community – you gained so much more – just think what you – and your children – take for granted in living overseas – and Americans for the most part are oblivious – you have lived it.

    It was sort of the feeling I got when in Germany – all of 2 years – I was a 30 minute train ride from the Rhine or Moselle – I was on a Rhine steamer – the Koln-Dusseldorfer line – really a Rhine Taxi (don’t know if it still is there?) – but one day I am thinking – that people scrimp and save and come here for maybe a week or 2 – and get a lifetime memory riding this ship (the best stretch – the one where you see all the famous castles – is between Mainz and Koblenz) – anyway – I am thinking that the things I had grown accustomed to many come over for a few days and a lifetime experience….

    If you – as a child – were exposed to as much travel and culture as your parents could give – you had quite a formative childhood!

    Your comment on communication gave me a chuckle – I am afraid 40 years ago the military relied on the MARS system – for personal talk – a network of volunteer amateur radio operators who would relay your message.

    You would call them in Germany (or Vietnam), you would then get into a queue of at least an hour, they would finally call you when your turn was coming up.

    You had 5-10 minutes to talk then had to go. You were instructed to use proper radio procedure, saying “Over” at the end of your transmission.

    Never will forget a friend, newly married but wife back home, saying to her “I love you, over!”

    Now with the internet and AT & T calling cards there is no real distant place.

    It is a much smaller world these days…

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