I’m sitting down to an Easter dinner with two people I’ve just met in Barcelona, Spain. María and her husband Carlos are setting their dinner table, fussing with plates, silverware, a pan of paella, and a pitcher of water.
Carlos sits down, motioning for me to take my share of the paella first. The dish is a work of art—bursting with colors, flavors and all kinds of little creatures on a bed of golden rice. I spoon a conservative portion of this medley of mussels, shrimp, sausage, rice, rabbit and vegetables onto my plate. He motions for more. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I’ve never had a taste for mussels, or sausage for that matter, and that my one and only childhood pet that didn’t die within a week was a beautiful white rabbit.
But how can I say no?
We are waiting for María, who is wiping her hands on her lap apron and searching the nearby bookcase. She smiles, grabs something off the shelf and returns.
“Nueva York!” she declares, placing a miniature Statue of Liberty in the center of the table. As a New Yorker, I’m touched by this gesture, though I’m afraid that I will start laughing so hard that my eyes will water, as they sometimes do when
I’m overwhelmed with unexpected kindness or humor, or in this case, both.
In the days leading up to this meal, I had passed many restaurants on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famous tree-lined pedestrian streets that are always filled with crowds making their way through flower vendors, mimes, and musicians. These restaurants advertised paella, but they only served it to parties of two or more. As a solo traveler, I was discouraged.
Sharing, communion with other people, is at the heart of paella. And after days of eating most meals alone in quiet restaurants or busy cafés, I was grateful for this serendipitous opportunity to enjoy a homemade holiday meal.
While Seville is best known for its elaborate religious processions during Semana Santa (Holy Week), Barcelona has its own moving traditions. As a Catholic visiting Spain for the first time during the Easter holiday, I had hoped my faith would be a natural portal into Barcelona’s culture, that it could foster a meaningful connection with the city and its people.
On Good Friday, known as Divendres Sant in Catalan or Viernes Santo in Spanish, I joined the crowds near the Placa de Sant Agustí to watch a traditional procession. It began at the parish church, Església de Sant Agustí, and it felt as though the entire city had converged on the nearby streets, spilling down Las Ramblas as far as the eye could see.
Most of the crowd grew quiet as a steady, somber drumbeat called our attention to the first paso (float). From a distance, I could see the large, lifelike figure of Jesus Christ approaching. He was dressed in a purple robe, wore the crown of thorns and was struggling to carry a large cross, which rested on His shoulder and dragged behind him.
As Christ moved past us, people cried out in Catalan, in Spanish, in Italian, echoing the same note of sorrow. These prayers and expressions in Spanish were familiar to me; they reminded me of learning the Spanish language, Spanish prayers, in my Catholic grammar school. And while my grasp of the other languages was much more tenuous, the emotion and the pained looks on faces around me bridged any remaining gaps in language. I felt the crush of the crowd at my back, as we all pushed closer to the paso. Women cried around me, calling to mind the weeping women of Jerusalem. This moment was the crescendo: we were transported to the original journey, to that first crowd, witnessing Christ’s walk to Calvary.
We were a crowd of believers, doubters, the curious, the confused, those just passing through. Above us, Barcelona residents were perched on their balconies and hanging out of their apartment windows. It was a moving moment of feeling so small, so anonymous, and still part of something much bigger.
The second paso allowed for a final catharsis. This paso was dedicated to the la Virgen de la Esperanza de Macarena de Sevilla, Spain’s beloved Our Lady of Hope of Macarena. It was surrounded by a group of Spanish women dressed in black dresses and wearing traditional mantillas (black lace veils worn over tall hair combs), who echoed Mary’s sorrow. They were mothers, daughters, sisters, women in mourning.
As the last of the Barcelona procession passed me, I knew it would make its way through the city streets for hours before joining with a second, separate procession, and ending at the city’s historic Catedral de Barcelona in the city’s Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter). I thought about all the time and effort it must take to make this procession happen. And how these Barcelonans brought Christ and His story to the streets, to the people, without uttering a single word. How the narrative came alive in costumes and floats and music and the footsteps of each person in the procession. How these efforts reflected their deep sense of tradition and love for their faith and their city.
Following the moving Good Friday procession, I planned to attend a more intimate Easter Sunday Mass a short walk from my hostel, in a sleepy, residential neighborhood of the Horta district. But Easter Sunday began with a frustrating comedy of errors.
On my way out, Ciara, the friendly Roman woman who worked at the front desk, stopped me. Like me, she was in her early twenties and buzzing with wanderlust.
“Good morning! You know the time has changed, yes?”
I stopped. A time change? Ciara had marked the location of a neighborhood church on my map the night before. But now I was an hour behind schedule and still needed to find the church.
The locals were dressed in heavy coats and scarves, but I had packed for mild Mediterranean weather. It had been much warmer during my first few days in Barcelona, but now I looked painfully out of place in a conservative green and yellow floral print skirt, strappy high-heeled sandals and the outer lining of my winter Columbia jacket.
I finally reached what Ciara thought was the church, but it was only a Catholic school. What would I tell my parents? That I travelled to Spain for an authentic Easter experience, but I slept through Mass?
There was no way I could make a noon service downtown. I resigned myself to walking back to the hostel when a balding, elderly man, with some sort of bulky white bandage around two of his fingers started waving his hands at me and yelling. I wasn’t sure if he was speaking in Catalan or Spanish. I don’t speak Catalan, but I had tried—since my arrival three days earlier—to use my Spanish as much as possible.
As he walked closer to me, I could finally make out what he was saying. I smiled when I realized it was Spanish.
“¡Hace frío! ¿Dónde están sus pantalones?” He cried, gesturing to my legs.
I started rambling to him in Spanish that I was an American tourist; that I thought the weather would be warmer, and that relative to New York in March, this weather was still pretty warm. He smiled and laughed. I then explained my dilemma.
We unfolded my map and he gave me directions to a church a few blocks away.
“Dónde están su familia, sus amigos, su novio?”
I told him that my family and friends were back in the States, mostly in New York, that I had no boyfriend. I thanked him for his help and started to walk away. He grabbed my face, gave me a kiss on each cheek, wished me luck and told me to come back to Barcelona. I walked away deeply grateful for his help, for my unlikely guide. I walked briskly in the direction of the second church, hoping I hadn’t missed the last Mass.
The second church was in the promised location. It was a traditional church, with stained glass windows and a center nave separating rows of pews. The signs outside were in Catalan and the parishioners were trickling out. As I stood at the gates, waiting for the crowd to thin, my relief tempered with fear that this might be the last Mass, I seemed to get some disapproving looks for my sandals and red toenails. An usher told me that the last Mass would be at 1 p.m. and it would be in Spanish, not Catalan.
I sat down in a pew, and started to relax after the morning’s chaos. The church was quiet, aside from some humming space heaters and whispers among the ushers. I watched a man light candles on the altar. It felt just like the peaceful lull between Masses at home.
Two women came in and sat in the pew in front of me. One asked me, in Catalan, for the time of the next Mass. I answered in Spanish. She thanked me and then left. The second woman looked like she was well into her seventies. She had short, wild, gray hair and thick glasses. When she stood up, I realized she was very petite, less than five feet tall. She slowly moved into my pew, explaining that her friend had forgotten her keys at home.
We spoke in Spanish for a few moments, whispering so as not to disturb the few other people. She asked where I was from.
“Nueva York!” She had always wanted to visit New York.
She asked if I wanted to wait outside since we had time
We sat on a bench in front of the church. The sun had come out and it felt much warmer all of sudden. She told me her name was María. Of all things, she was enthralled with my sandals. She wanted to know if they were from New York, too. I said yes. The sandals were very simple white shoes. Somehow their New York origin made them special in her eyes, as she kept talking about them. When I realized minutes later that I had in fact bought the shoes in Indiana, a few days before my college graduation, I kept it to myself, thinking that I would disappoint her. She wanted to know everything about me, my state, and my country. I was suddenly, simultaneously the ambassador of the Armstrong family, all of New York and Los Estados Unidos. I could almost hear the groans overseas.
Are my parents divorced? No. Do I have siblings? One brother. What do I think about the Terri Schiavo case? Tricky. Are there many Puerto Ricans in New York? Yes, many. Cubans? Yes, many. Are all of the buildings very tall? The city’s skyscrapers, wait, I forget how to say skyscraper in Spanish, yes, some buildings are. Have I ever been to Paris? No.
What do I do? She was happy to hear that I was an aspiring writer. Her friend is a writer; he wrote a book. She told me that if I change my mind, I could always come back to Barcelona and be her nurse. We also spoke about our mutual interest in travel. Paris was her favorite city; she had always wanted to travel more. But she said she suffered from depression, or something like it. Her doctors asked her not to travel. She stared across the street for a moment. This saddened me. I said Lo siento, I’m sorry or literally, I feel it.
While the language and local customs may differ, the core Mass is exactly the same everywhere around the world on any given day. At my Catholic grammar school, our profesora introduced Spanish versions of the Our Father (Padre Nuestro) and Hail Mary (Santa María). We first said these prayers collectively, as a class; later, we had to go before our profesora one by one and recite the prayers for an oral test.
Over time, my understanding of those words and prayers grew, and I could repeat them with a more confident understanding of what they meant, so that my words were no longer simply echoes of parents and teachers. And yet, while the predictability of prayers repeated at each Mass or during Morning Prayer at school was comforting, it was easy to speak without thought, like saying the Pledge of Allegiance each day, when recitation came easily, without true reflection.
As I moved through a Catholic high school and college, I found that becoming more comfortable with both prayer and a foreign language required moving beyond the elementary foundation of practiced dialogues. Feeling truly present in both prayer and Spanish required a release, a freedom to improvise, to stumble, to personalize. The unrehearsed, unstructured reflections and desires that crossed my mind as prayer, and the spontaneous dialogues with Spanish classmates, where we were encouraged to describe ourselves, our interests, our passions, were more natural. They were flawed, but reflective of the real questions I was trying to answer: Who am I? What is my relationship with the rest of the world? What do I want from the world around me and what can I offer in return?
It was those very questions that in time led me to Easter Mass in Barcelona and prepared me to join the congregation in reciting the Padre Nuestro. It’s humbling to be in foreign country, tripping over idiomatic expressions and reflexive pronouns; but it forces you to realize the power of words and placement. They are suddenly heavy and delicate. During the prayer, I waited to fall into the rhythm of the congregation, the words falling out of my mouth, carried by the people around me.
After Mass, María and I walked in the direction of my hostel. I felt awkward, bending down to hear her, taking deliberate steps because her walk was slow and stiff.
Would I like to join her for café? Sure. I thought she may be lonely. And café and conversation sounded wonderful to me.
María quizzed me on American culture. She asked about Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Elizabeth Taylor.
She loved Elizabeth Taylor.
María asked if I knew Elizabeth Taylor. I said yes. She then asked if people write to her. I said yes, meaning anyone could send fan mail and perhaps get a picture or letter back.
When we walked into her apartment, I was surprised to see a trim, older man wearing a maroon jogging suit standing in her kitchen. He had thick gray hair and deep wrinkles behind his black glasses. María had only mentioned a daughter who was pregnant and lived in Switzerland with her boyfriend. I had assumed she lived alone, that perhaps she was a widow.
Her husband and I were equally surprised by one another.
She excitedly introduced Carlos. She told him how we met and that I was from New York.
He didn’t seem impressed.
“¡Ella es una amiga de Elizabeth Taylor!”
Wait. What? I didn’t say I was friends with Elizabeth Taylor. Maybe this was a local way of speaking about celebrities as friends? She told Carlos that if she wrote a letter to Elizabeth Taylor, that Elizabeth would write back, according to me. Had I misunderstood her use of saber and conocer, two verbs that convey different senses of “knowing.” Saber is used to convey knowing facts, whereas conocer can be used to mean you’ve met someone, or that you are familiar with a person, place or thing.
I tried to clarify. It was no use.
María went to change out of her church clothes and asked Carlos to show me the paella.
Though María and I were able to converse easily in Spanish, resorting to hand gestures for clarification, I could not follow Carlos. He spoke fast and grumbled as he returned to the
huge pan in front of him. This man wasn’t prepared for an unexpected guest.
But then Carlos gave me an amazing culinary lesson on paella, becoming animated, explaining each step in detail. His mood changed; he brightened up. He pulled out spice after spice from their cabinets, saying the name slowly in Spanish, then holding it up for me to see. The labels on the spice bottles were yellowed, stained and peeling from age and use. His brown eyes widened with excitement and he rubbed the back of his hand over his forehead, pushing back his hair as he looked at each spice. I nodded as he lined up the bottles on the counter. Back at the pan of bubbling golden rice, he gently mixed the shellfish
With a spoon, he pointed to each ingredient. Sausage. Mussels. Rice. If I didn’t recognize the name in Spanish, he would find a piece to show me. The meat that looked most appealing was what I took to be chicken.
He moved his spoon over it and said, “Conejo.”
Would I like to try some paella?
I had wanted to try paella in Barcelona and this offer was more than generous, but I didn’t want to intrude upon their holiday meal. I lied and said that I had eaten before Mass, but thank you. Just café.
When María returned, she insisted that I stay.
María wanted me to watch a flamenco performance before dinner. I sat in their simple, but spotless living room. What I thought would be a short show was a dramatic, hour-long Spanish opera. María shared her collection of Catalan paperbacks about Elizabeth Taylor and pictures of Elvis Presley. Her excitement was endearing, and I wondered if they reminded her of a better time, many years ago, when, for whatever reason, an American movie star, and a handsome singer could still excite her today.
I make my way around the paella, eating small spoonfuls of rice, salty from the fish. I watch Carlos and María carefully pulling away the shells off what appears to be a baby crawfish. I follow their lead and find I enjoy the taste created by the symbiotic relationship of the rice and fish. The rice prevents the fish from being too overwhelmingly fishy and the fish gives the rice a nice salty flavor. There’s a little onion, a little red pepper.
There’s pleasure in letting go, in eating with strangers and enjoying the silence—a comfort in the universality of a shared meal, in knowing that while I miss my family at home, that here I am brushing the pulse of Barcelona, its language, its food, its people, its soul.
After enjoying mini Danon yogurts for dessert, María shows me a picture of her daughter, a beautiful young woman with her very handsome, very blond boyfriend. They both have big grins on their faces. She wears trendy green glasses and her bleached blond hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail, exposing streaks of her dark roots. We step into her daughter’s childhood bedroom, which María has preserved like a shrine. There’s a twin bed, a dresser and a beautiful mirror. It’s so tidy, with no signs of daily life, no stray receipt or sock. I assume her daughter has not lived in this room for some time.
On the dresser, there is a picture of María and Carlos with their daughter. She’s probably ten. The picture is dated by the fact that they all have dark brown hair. Her daughter’s hair is straight, neatly parted in the middle and falls well past her shoulders.
Her daughter is well-traveled. She speaks five languages. Her boyfriend is wonderful. María tells me he speaks Spanish the way I do. I don’t know what to make of that.
María’s pride in her daughter is palpable. So is the void she’s left behind.
When I finally leave, it’s early evening. María and her husband thank me for coming and wish me luck. The taste in my mouth is some fusion of communion, Spanish paella and American yogurt, carbohydrates melting into the body.
I walk away, intending to return with flowers the next day or at least before I leave Barcelona, but in the chaos of my last days, never do.
Christine Armstrong holds a BA in English and Spanish from the University of Notre Dame and an MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her nonfiction has appeared in the online edition of Notre Dame Magazine.