Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Smaller. Stronger. Better.

A city with a sense of humor
A few years ago New York was peppered with billboards that proclaimed, in bold orange and pink letters superimposed over cups of coffee and arrays of doughnuts, "Faster.  Cheaper.  Better."  The prosecutor, so to speak, was obviously Dunkin Donuts, but the defendant was unnamed.  Everyone was left to assume that the unspecified proprietor of expensive, slow, bad coffee was that great green-aproned monster, Starbucks.  This struck me as a brilliant ad campaign, lampooning not only the usual flaws in Starbucks (complicated menu, burnt taste, high prices) but its more specific problems in the City That Never Sleeps, where even normally cheap things cost an arm and a leg, and there's no tolerance for waste or sluggishness or pretension.  New York is nothing if not no-nonsense, and while DD may not make gourmet coffee, it delivers the basic goods quickly and simply.

Artificially shaded street
On a two week trip to Seville now, I'd like to borrow Dunkin Donuts' slogan to describe most things in Spain.  It's as if everything Americans are used to has been concentrated, boiled down, magnified, and distilled into a smaller, stronger version of itself.  Coffee, which is always espresso-based, comes in tiny white cups, or, if you ask for café con leche, a small glass.  I've tried and failed to replicate this at any number of American cafés: less than a latte and more than a cappuccino, it tastes more deeply coffee-ish than either.  The worst coffee in Spain is equal to some of the best in the US, and the best is otherworldly.  Yet the barmen who make it are so casual, stabbing open great golden bags of beans to run quickly through their sleek, steam-spewing machines as if making great coffee were as simple as pouring a Coke.  (Apologies to my patritotic countrymen, but Coke also tastes better in Spain--and most foreign countries--because it's made with sugar instead of corn syrup and comes in a heavy glass bottle.)

Most drinks other than coffee are served in the same simple 8-ounce glasses known as tubos.  (Coke gets its own curvy green glass.)  This seems a laughably small amount of beer, but there's a hidden advantage in that you can finish it before it gets warm, and it balances the tapa that accompanies it.  Orange juice is almost always fresh-squeezed, an elaborate machine that feeds actual oranges through a mechanical splitter and juicer crowding the corner of most bars.

A hanging forest of hams
American ham is such a caricature of Spanish that it gets its own word: york.  Jamón serrano, blood red and intensely aromatic, is so strong that it is sliced paper-thin and arrayed like jewels on a platter.  It comes in a head-spinning number of grades, including ordinary jamón serrano, from ordinary grain-fed pigs; jamón iberico de pata negra, from black pigs interbred with wild boars; jamón iberico de bellota, from pigs fed on acorns; and jamón iberico enamorado, from pigs that were in love.  (Okay, I made that last one up.)  It's easy to poke fun at the near-religious fervor with which Spaniards approach ham, but even vegetarians have been known to weaken at the taste.
About $10 worth of pork raised to the highest power

The labyrinthine streets of the historic center of Seville are in many cases too narrow for cars, with the happy result that pedestrians rule--though Vespas and other motorbikes do pose an occasional menace, their inadequate mufflers creating a racket that reverberates among the closely spaced buildings.  Even VW Golfs and smaller are diesels.

Despite the prevalence of well-marbled ham, fried squid and eggplant, crusty white bread, potato salad drowning in mayonnaise and grilled vegetables (and everything) swimming in olive oil, to say nothing of ice cream shops and pastry stores on every corner, the people are smaller too.  Spaniards can be dwarfishly short or outlandishly tall, but they're almost uniformly slender--though there does seem to be a sudden tipping point around 45 when huge bellies emerge on men and thick hips and arms on women.  Evidently marriage is bad for the constitution.  The typical strong features--white skin, black hair, heavy eyebrows and chins surrounding fine noses--soften at this point too.

Even the Dumpsters are tiny
The compactness of everything occasionally becomes comical, like the bathroom door of my hotel room that only opens 45 degrees before hitting the toilet, or barstools that can scarcely be moved without banging into the adjacent table, itself too small to comfortably hold enough drinks and tapas for the number of chairs surrounding it.  Where parking is allowed, every car is boxed in so tightly that it seems only a crane could extricate it.

Even the sun is extra-intense; mornings are pleasant, and nights tolerable, but afternoons drive the world under umbrellas and awnings--equipped with cold water misters--for lunch, and then inside for a long nap.  Visitors learn quickly to do almost anything to avoid standing in the sun, or walking on the unshaded side of the street.  Between the long days and overcharged sun, 6 or 7 in the evening feels like early afternoon.

Cocktails on the train
The heat makes drinking and eating a major component of Spanish life.  Though Coke, orange juice, and other cold beverages are widely available, there's no distinction between "hard" and "soft" drinks, and only children and foreigners drink nonalcoholic ones.  This would be a terrible place for recovering alcoholics, when wine and soda merge into that seductive refresher known as tinto de verano, draft beer flows like water, and cocktails from the classic gin and tonic (Spain pioneered gin) to the modern caipiriña are ubiquitous.  Far from a teetotaler, even I am a bit dumbstruck at the clanking, banging volume of kegs and bottles nightly churned through at a typical bar, when every other business is a bar, sometimes half a dozen clustered so closely together you have to squint to see which you're entering.

The night belongs to Spain.  My previous visit to Seville was a day trip, and its charms eluded me: a giant cathedral, orange trees out of bloom, horse-drawn carriages and their attendant shit--what was the big deal?  But the liveliness of a Seville night, when every sidewalk becomes an obstacle course of rowdy tables, and lines of standing drinkers snake half a block away from popular bars, is unrivaled.  The much-ballyhooed Temple Bar area of Dublin matches Seville in noise and volume of alcohol consumption, but lacks both the gastronomic splendor of tapas and the elegance of people drinking for refreshment rather than oblivion.

Typical old-fashioned bar, too early (9 pm) for typical crowds
The USA has its charms, of course, but we really missed something when it comes to café culture.  Even in the punishing afternoon heat, bleary with jet-lag, my first stroll through the old town of Seville made me smile: everyone goes out here, from toddlers to tottering old ladies, and in a city built for strolling, there's nothing more natural than sitting down for a drink and a snack.  Somebody has to work for all this indulgence, no doubt--I pity the poor masons and plumbers I've seen laboring in this merciless sun--but it seems that most are working to live rather than living to work.


  1. How did I miss that awesome Dunkin' Donuts ad campaign? Could not agree more! My day trip to Seville was one of my favorite things in Spain, because the orange trees WERE in bloom! (Also I LOVED that garden.) Were you referring to your previous trip there?

  2. Spain is the closest I've come to heaven. Food and life is very authentic. I love how the food centers around the ingredient and has done so for centuries.

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  4. Seville is a city where I am able to slow down and enjoy some of the pleasures of life.