Marisa Guerin, PhD – April 27, 2021
This bright, beautiful Philadelphia Spring day reminded me of Madrid in summer, when the early morning coolness has not yet been baked away by the brilliant Mediterranean sun. The combination of the sunshine and my errand – walking to the bakery on Woodland Avenue to pick up my order of baguettes – sent my memory and imagination to Spain, my mother’s homeland.
I have been to Spain many times, but the first time was quite the life-event. I was eleven, and my parents had scraped and borrowed every available cent to take the whole family to Spain for the summer – that’s nine people, the youngest only nine months old! We were not by the remotest means a wealthy family, so the expedition must have been a huge amount of work, coordination, and stress for my parents, not that I was aware of it then. The seven of us children just thought it was the most interesting thing ever.
First time inside an airport. First time to fly in a plane – for hours. Back then, when a plane landed in Spain, all the girls and women were given a red rose – how retro and sentimental that seems now. Greeted and hugged by tons of aunts, uncles, and cousins we had never met in person, blinking our eyes in the dry sunny air of Castile. Piled into several black taxis, with a small mountain of luggage.
My parents had rented a flat for the summer, three or four stories up, with two little balconies, near the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid. Spain was much less developed then, relatively isolated from its European neighbors. All of a sudden, the American dollar went waaayyy farther, and we were able to afford an “asistenta,” a young woman who came every day to help my mother with shopping, cooking, cleaning, and looking after us. My father, an economics professor, had gotten a research grant to study the prospects for supermarkets in Spain, a form of shopping which was brand new and rare at the time.
And this is how the connection formed in my mind this morning, on my walk. Every day in Spain – not just sixty years ago, but today, still – someone from the household is asked, “Por favor, baja por el pan.” In English, that’s “Please, go down for the bread.” Every block seems to have a bakery or store selling bread, so it was literally “downstairs” for Spaniards, who usually live in condos or apartments. And it’s “the” bread, because in Spain, bread is always baked, purchased, and eaten on the same day. We’re not talking about loaf bread in a plastic bag, but the crunchy-outside, soft-inside barra of bread, the Spanish version of a skinnier French baguette. It’s almost certainly the one food my mother most missed when she moved to America. It tastes amazing, especially with a chunk of chocolate. We kids thought we had died and gone to heaven – this was a country that gave children bread and chocolate every afternoon! As a snack! Would marvels never cease?
Buying daily bread has persisted in Spain to this day, but the other market shopping that was typical in 1963 has changed in the meantime. Back then, the person who cooked (the mom, or the asistenta) would usually go out in the early morning sunshine and make a few stops. She’d buy the meat at the butcher, the vegetables at the produce stand, eggs or dairy at another shop. Nothing more than could be carried or trundled in a little wheeled cart, just enough for the day’s main meal. And the whole thing happened again the next day, and the next. There were no supermarkets nearby, and there were no large refrigerators in the kitchens anyway.
For those three months in 1963, I experienced the daily life of a European family, with a rhythm of buying daily sustenance, cooking, eating, working, studying, or playing. There was not much in the way of labor-saving devices and there were no electronic diversions to speak of. And because it was Madrid, we got used to sunshine just about every day. There was much more to this adventure for me that summer, but for today, the memory that lingers is the ritual of daily bread.
Even though I don’t “go down for bread” every day now, I am grateful that once in a while I can walk in the sun, repeating the daily practice that has fed families for generations. I’ve taken to walking to Four Worlds Bakery in West Philadelphia every week or so because it’s a good-length pandemic walk. I get to appreciate whatever is in bloom in my neighbor’s gardens, and to nod at the really very many people who are walking their dogs, or their children, or themselves. I confess, the baguettes aren’t the only thing in the bag when I get home; the apple turnovers from Four Worlds are wonderfully spiced, not too sweet, full of apples. This, of course, is the other part of my heritage peeking through –a little apple hand-pie is the quintessential American treat.
Sun; bread; apples; the gifts of time, health, and sufficient resources. I wish everyone could have the same. Shall I call this a wonderful day?