Proper Spanish Lunch

menu-del-diaThe proper Spanish lunch is no small or fast affair. It can’t be eaten with one hand, nor at your desk, and it isn’t accompanied by a cappuccino. The Proper Spanish Lunch is composed of two main courses, as much bread as you need, a glass of wine, and dessert. If you also need coffee, you can swap your dessert for one or pay the extra, but don’t assume it’ll come with chocolate sprinkles.

The Proper Spanish Lunch is a meal that symbolises an in-between space in my research, and, naturally, in my life. It is eaten with people who have helped me get from one place to another, and with whom I’ve enjoyed the time (moments and years) in between.

You don’t get anywhere without in-between spaces. If you go from a place you know to a place you absolutely don’t understand, you’re lost. But if you have a stepping stone, you can follow the familiar paths into the unknown space. That’s my route for weaving my way from understanding English and Spanish into French. It’s also the route I’ve used to reach Morocco: using what I understand about Spain to help me cross the Euro-African cultural divide. When you start from Spain, that distance is only 8 miles.

Lunch in Spain is quite literally called ‘la comida’ The Food. This is a very accurate description, because if you play the eating times game well, ‘la comida’ will be The Food of your day. Lunch is at about 2pm. For your first course (equal to the second in size) you have something like an enormous salad/lentils/soup, therefore meeting the RDA* for vitamins (hopefully). For your second course you have something of higher protein and prestige accompanied by even more vegetables, and even more bread. An example of this is the magnificent fish my friend effortlessly whipped up for us even just for a hungover Sunday lunch. Follow with dessert: either choose one of many different variations on the theme of ‘custard’, or alternatively a piece of fruit. Finally, coffee, to help you move again after The Food.

After Proper Spanish Lunch you are absolutely free until about 10pm because if you followed the instructions above, you won’t be hungry until then. Hence, if it’s a working day, far from being lazy, you can work until 6, 7 or 8pm, and then go out for a drink afterwards and then get home for 10pm to have dinner. Amazing. This only happens in the UK one day of the year, Christmas Day, when we indulge so much in the accompanying drinks we are good for nothing by the time it gets dark.

So what’s the relation with Morocco? Well this is where Northern Europe meets Northern Africa. Remove the alcohol and Proper Spanish Lunch looks less like Christmas Day in the UK and more like the salad or beans followed by Tagine in Morocco. More importantly, as in Morocco, time is made for eating in Spain. Someone has also made even more time: this is properly cooked food. I have yet to have a Proper Spanish Lunch with boil-in-the-bag rice, a pot noodle or boxed sandwiches.

Finally, the ‘in-between’ role of Spain, not only in my life, but also in my research, came into real relief this past week. It is extremely difficult for a Moroccan to get a UK visa, however, for some, it is not so difficult to get to Spain. Spain is part of the Schengen Area and so the close ties (linguistic, business, educational, family) mean that many Moroccans can get long term visas of several years to travel to countries like France and Spain with whom there have been very long term ties, and therefore the wider Schengen Area.

So although I had said goodbye to Morocco for the time-being following fieldwork, I was able to meet my Moroccan colleagues at a seminar last week in the very fitting, and in-between, Spanish context. So I’ve done a bad job of coming home from Morocco and staying put (the first week of term might have been easier without such opportunities to keep the doors open to research and maybe my sister should have confiscated my passport after all). Yet I can also see that Proper Spanish Lunches, and particularly this time with my Moroccan colleagues, are going to be absolutely key to keeping my research alive, and to keeping me going, perhaps until 10pm.

*Recommended Daily Allowance

Crisps

balsamic-vinegar

My food landscape has drastically changed. I have been back in the UK for 3 weeks and there are still things of the reverse food-culture-shock that grab my attention. OK, ‘shock’ is an over-dramatic word, but re-encountering food in the UK offers plenty to chew on. So the blog will continue into my brave post-fieldwork research world.

Both my mind and body are adjusting to the return from North Africa. I had become used to the feeling of being full from bread, and now even things like a stir-fry and rice seem to be lacking a broken round loaf spread about the table. Drinking water from the tap is still a luxury. I have a slight sense of doing something borderline wrong when drinking alcohol, like getting into a pub when you are still under-age, you’re fine, but secretly hope that a friend of your parents doesn’t walk in and catch you.

The biggest change though is that I’m not researching alone anymore. I am still alone on my PhD project because let’s face it that’s the nature of the beast, but I’m surrounded by others and their counterpart theses. Back in the office theories are being considered, data is being crunched, chapters compiled. It might not have the scents of mint tea and the spices of tagine, but this new research environment is by no means food-free.

We have snacks. At 10.55am there is a rustle of foil. There is the crunch of a crisp. We have lunch. At 1pm there is the twinkling of packets, catching the light in the common room as these little features of lunchtime in the UK formulate the third element of the corporate balance of a ‘meal deal’. We have drinks. At 5pm one is torn open, splayed across the table and shared in the pub. At the weekend I had friends over for dinner. Three of the big special packets arrive with the guests. The ones that you buy for other people, as a treat, to share, to mark your contribution to the feast and which bear the hallmarks of taste.

So I noticed crisps. Are they a reflection of our country on the run, no time for the kitchen, in love with corporate promises? Or are they bought as part of our desire to share ideas? We buy a packet in the pub, tear it open and invite everyone to keep their thoughts going with a few calories and some salt, the salt encouraging the flowing of more drinks and more thoughts. I’m really not sure, so I thought I’d call on the advantages of being back in the office and working in company. Who better to contribute to a post-fieldwork exploration of crisps than someone else just back from fieldwork?

My fellow PhD friend Ed who was nice enough to let me interview him on the abnormal topic of ‘crisps and fieldwork’ admitted to being a crisp fan. His favourite brand: Monster Munch. He’d been back for just four weeks, and so the details of his experience were still fresh. He went to Brazil, he enjoyed it. There was “samba on every street corner and the beer was cold”. What did he eat? I was curious. “Meat, rice and beans. Buffet food sold by weight” he hasn’t found anywhere here yet where food is sold by weight. “Crisps?” I asked? “Did you eat any crisps while you were on fieldwork?” “Yes”, he said. He told me they were in big bags with flavours like “Churrasco”, “Pacanha”, the usual suspect brands, but with adaptions to their flavours to suit the particularities of the Brazilian market. The same was true in Morocco, big bags with local flavours, sold on trains and at service stations. They didn’t make it much into Thursday though. So did Ed find crisps in the same places in Brazil as he does in the UK? “No”. The big bag wasn’t gutted in the pub by many hands all at once. Instead the beer was shared directly, one big bottle and lots of glasses. Crisps reduced to their rightful status, junk food; “comfort food”.

I’d point out here that I quite like crisps, there is something slightly exciting about buying a bag of cut up potato slices. A bag containing a whole potato wouldn’t quite be the same. You could try sprinkling it with some culturally appropriate flavours, but there is something about the work being done for you, the cutting, cooking and packaging, that seems to fit in well in the UK. I wonder how long the excitement will last. I asked Ed if he’d be going back to Brazil. He told me, “Yes, I’m sure I will, but I’m not sure when”. I agree.

Coffee

coffee-to-goCoffee to go. I went. But I didn’t go without passing through the tourist Morocco that allowed me go to get here in the first place. I bought the presents, had the breakfast on the terrace, and in the airport I had a… coffee.

Coffee isn’t really a girl’s drink in Morocco. We’re supposed to drink tea, or perhaps a very milky Nescafe infusion. The modern Moroccans will disagree with me here, and they’re right, of course anyone can have a coffee, what decade are we living in!? Any woman who knows her place however, will also know to use discretion when choosing a coffee shop.

Coffee shops in Morocco are like pubs (were) in the UK. They are the place where men go to smoke, talk, get away from the house, relax after work, watch football and drink… coffee. At the language school last year I had to read a text which started, ‘between coffee shops and coffee shops, there are coffee shops’. A Moroccan joke which sums up the sight of rows of men in plastic chairs smoking and watching the world go by in small and large town centres. So of course we are allowed in coffee shops, but like a rough pub in the UK (a couple of decades ago?), or a dirty little bar somewhere else in Europe, you reflect on your gender before going into this particular ‘public’ space. I’ve been into a few of these coffee shops but being allowed in doesn’t mean you are comfortable. I’d far rather have a tea in someone’s (or somewoman’s) house, thank you.

So the airport coffee isn’t just a caffeine boost before a journey, it’s a place where my gender loses some significance and my mind begins to relax. Even the coffee cup speaks to me in English. It’s also a moment of loss. All that work, all that miming, all those words I’ve struggled to understand and build into comprehension, all that work is about to languish unused, for months and months. The rewards and sense of accomplishment after everyday interactions aren’t there when you return to your default self. But we are entitled to time off for a reason, and I think I need some.

I wasn’t going to write about coffee until I came back to work. It’s something I associate more with work friends and old friends and new friends, and even supervision meetings. Perhaps it’s fitting though that despite travelling between Morocco and the UK, two countries famous for tea, it is coffee is what comes across the globe with me. Not very original, I know. I was going to write about Harrira, a lovely warm soup with tomatoes and chickpeas and herbs. It’s cheap even when everything else is expensive, and would probably keep you alive if that was all you had. But I didn’t have my camera on me for the last bowl of Harrira. And somehow it hasn’t made the shortlist of ‘local products to be made available in the airport’. Not high-class enough, too much work, not admitted to ‘global’.

So coffee, with an imperfect colonial past (tea being no better), and an imperfect addictive future. Culturally though, it’s become a means, a code, a facilitator of better things, some of them really great, even precious. A means to connect, to think, to wake up, and most importantly right now, to have a break.

Out of Office

Thank you for your e-mail. I will be on an extended coffee break until the New Year with friends and family. Thank you for keeping me company with my research in Morocco.

All the very best,

Lydia

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Harcha

ready-to-eat-1

Harcha. It’s made of a harsh kind of flour called smeeda. I’d wondered for a while what that was, but of course, it’s semolina, hence the name smeeda, which isn’t so different. Another type of durum wheat, another variant on the ingredient used for Couscous. So what is so special about harcha? Well, it’s a semi-sweet snack which usually comes with good company. For a slightly special breakfast, or an afternoon tea merienda.

In this case, I made it! I made it with a friend. A research friend, but a friend all the same. With a short time to go, I’m starting to tally up the things that I have and haven’t done, but more to the point, I’m starting to reflect on the connections I’ve made and whether they end here or not. A research friend is still a friend, just like a school friend, or a Uni friend, or a friend with any other descriptive word in front. So it’s nice to be able to say that I have not just done a little research, but I’ve also made a few friends.

There’s something special about these friends. Our worlds are so different that it’s difficult to imagine them in my context, or us in another context. We’ve made friends in this context though, so like a Uni friend might share their washing liquid or their lecture notes, here, we’ve made sense of each other through what we are doing now, and why. We’ve seen how we can help one another or accompany one another through our different daily challenges at different times. I’ve made dinner for friends who worked late and used to live in my house. Others have made me breakfast, or tea and explained how things work here. How the school system works, or the way people find a job, or why they have two phones. The insightful things and the practical things are often the small things.

Research isn’t just about making friends though. It’s also about stepping forward and going out and asking after your research topic. With a research topic that is on people’s minds there have then been more questions back to me and lots of opinions about where I should be. Surely, looking like a tourist, I should be somewhere more set up for tourists? Surely, I should be mixing with the ‘ex-pats’ and the middle classes, not people who buy their ingredients in little scraps of newspaper. Surely, I should be just a little further away from my research topic. An hour might do it.

If there is something that I have learnt from traveling and living abroad it is to be ready to change plans. There is no point in digging your heels in with fixed dates and fixed plans. Especially when those dates were plucked from thin air based on an understanding far more shallow than the one I have now. The first time I properly traveled I spent two months rushing from hostel to hostel, only to realise afterwards that I could quite easily have stayed another month. Money wise, time wise, flights wise. So now that the forces that be are pushing me away from spending much more time with new friends here, I’m learning from these previous experiences and have found out that it only costs £30 to change my flight. I won’t be changing it by much, but there is a limit to how long I fancy changing roles: from researcher to tourist, from friend to client.

Some friends last though. You might lose touch, you might not coincide again, but you don’t un-meet people. I might not remember the recipe. I might never make it. But the next time I see a harcha, I will know more than just how much it costs and how it tastes. I will know how it was made, and how to make it if I fancy sharing in good company.

Sweet things

dsc04472

In the game of charades that is my life, I am grateful for things with simple names. Such is the case with Helwa, literally, sweet-stuff. Helwa could be boiled sweets, biscuits, cakes or tarts. It’s the biscuits that seem to have a particularly important social role. They arrive with the tea, and I don’t think I need to emphasise how important the tea is. Very. They might come with the tea at a wedding, and be covered in plastic wrapping like flowers in the UK, or they might come with tea and coffee at a formal meeting. If they are expensive they’ll be full of almonds, dates and real butter, if they’re more modest, perhaps a drop of chocolate on the top and the odd peanut.

If you know me well you’ll be sensing the problem by now. Butter, almonds, peanuts, it doesn’t sound good, does it? It sounds like an anti-histamine binge would be needed to follow the tea.  So I’ve quite often ended up hungry at formal meetings and events in Morocco. The sweet stuff is designed to keep us stimulated through another few power points. But woe is not me. Using my well-honed research skills I have detected a bakery where the butter is not butter but the cheaper alternative – vegetable oil. Yes, my friends, vegan biscuits just a 15-minute bus ride away!

This time the well-honed research skills followed the following trusty formula: chance encounter + a question or two in response to the questions coming at me + visual confirmation of what I think I’ve understood. In this case the figures in the equation took the form of “must not arrive empty handed so go to bakery + “you don’t perchance have anything without milk?” + the margarine is brought out so I can read the ingredients = biscuits for me too! So it is that I’m learning to do research in Morocco. And here I make my point: visual information counts just as much as what we say and hear.

You might be also getting the sense that now I’m being a bit more proactive in my research, I’m buying more biscuits. Not just for me, but so that I can contribute to the tea and conversation with more than just questions. I don’t want to be asking and asking without a little contribution. Some contributions would change the dynamic drastically, but biscuits don’t seem to. Bringing ones that I’m not allergic to, helps keep conversations on track rather than going via a large history of allergies and potential cures.

Each form of Helwa also seems to me to tell a different story. We have ‘la crème’ for example, not translated, but kept in French. They are the cream cakes. At least some of that explanation must come from the era of the French Protectorate (1912-1956). Then there are the little ones with icing sugar on top made of ‘smeeda’ – explained to me as “made from couscous”. Essentially the same ingredients, just a little more sugar and yeast, I’m led to believe. Clearly leaving out the meat and veg. Finally, there is the one which is without the yeast but with the apricot Jam inside (apricot has a great name – “mish-mesh”). I don’t know where it’s from, or what it’s about but I’m going to call it the mish-mesh Jammy Dodger, excellent with a cup of tea.

At that, I will leave this post as it is. It’s time for me to really get on with the research, I have only about six weeks left to see what I can see.