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Notes from abroad: Baking in Barcelona

For the past month home has been Barcelona, Spain — the capital city of Catalunya. I wake up wrapped in an orange blanket, in a room made of cork walls; I put on hotel slippers that are too big for my feet and their slide and flop takes me to the kitchen for 9:30 am breakfast. This is the rhythm that begins each day, a quiet ritual that tastes of coffee with milk and jam on toast. I would wake at five or six in the morning for the first few days, once at three. It took one day short of a week to finally adjust to the nine hour distance between California and Spain, Estados Unidos and España.

The most frequent question from friends back at home: “How is Spain?” Each time it’s a different answer that’s on the edge of being accurate, but somehow, still inches short of the bulls-eye. However, the image that traces the shapes and sounds my life here came to me when I was writing a letter to someone back home: Spain is the last drink of a cup of tea with milk. I’ll explain.

I order tea with steamed milk (te amb llet, in Catalan) in different places around my neighborhood and the city. I stir in a packet of sugar, but gently and only for a few seconds so that it doesn’t completely dissolve. The sugar that stays on the bottom makes the last drink the sweetest — it all leads up to this one final, simple note of happiness. Spain is about simplicity for me. The details make the quick movements of Barcelona calm. Time seems quieter when you notice the subtleties of Mondays in January.

Simplicity follows me to class, to the market, up to the summits of Montserrat, through the crypts of la Sagrada Familia, and to the stone steps of Besalú. Spain is the smell of dinner when I get home and the person that smiles on the metro. No effort or word is ever too small. I’m a poor college student in Barcelona, but words are free and walking, watching, and writing are luxuries I can afford in Spain and when I return to the states.

Going to a university in Spain is like working in a bakery again. I’m not making scones or teacakes these days, but studying in another country has been like baking in a new, unfamiliar kitchen. Learning and speaking in another language is starting from scratch, learning to how to use new ingredients, and having to wait patiently as the dough bakes. Patience is an essential ingredient to all of this — it’s in the oven that the batter adopts new forms and extracts distinct flavors. This new language is the ingredient that I’m slowly, steadily learning how to use each day. Sometimes ideas don’t translate and the process is hardly easy. Eventually though, something extraordinary comes out of the oven.