Julia Terruso: Madrid

Terruso enjoys interesting table talk over Spanish dinners with her host family.

Last night, after finishing off a mixed salad and empanadas de carne in the small kitchen I’ve come to call home, I went to slice open the orange in front of me. We were all talking about the dismal state of Greece’s economy, and the beautiful state of Greek men when my knife slipped off the orange and propelled it and the plate to crash down on the black slate floor. Everyone went silent. The plate broke into a hundred pathetic little pieces. I felt my face turn red.

“Lo siento Mercedes! Lo siento.”

“No te preocupes, chica.”

I’ve been living in Madrid for almost a month now, living and eating every cena with my “family.” Last night’s incident struck me because of how smoothly things carried along. Had it been the first night, the first week, or even the first two weeks that little plate-crashing fiasco would have been a horrifying experience for me. It’s much more comfortable now.

Syracuse University Madrid students are housed with families. My little family consists of Mercedes, a 55-year-old divorcee and her daughter Marta, 26. There are also five other girls living in the house. One from Murcia, Spain (also named Marta), one girl from Paris, France, a third from Brazil, my roommate Blaine, from Connecticut, and me.

The tiny seventh floor apartment has a sort of international boarding house feel. We all tend to do our own thing, but every night we get together around the small round table in the kitchen and share with each other silly snippets from our day and stories from our lives. The dinner conversation is known in Spain as the sobremesa and it’s an important part of the culture here. Ours has evolved considerably in this short month.

My first night in Madrid was Jan. 27—my 21st birthday.  Blaine and I sat down at the dinner table unsure of what to expect, or how to communicate with these five other women huddled close together. We answered questions in broken Spanish about what we were studying, how long the trip had taken us and what our family at home was like. Mercedes, my host mother, served us chicken and potatoes while contributing comments in rapid-fire Spanish, only half of which I understood. When dinner was over she set down a birthday cake and pulled on my right earlobe 21 times—a tradition in Spain.

Since that first night, the sobremesa conversations have become much more interesting as Spanish fluency and comfort increase. It was one recent night over Tortilla Espanola that one of our “sisters” confessed to having gotten a tattoo she didn’t remember in Amsterdam the weekend before. On paella night, Mercedes told us about the time she met Michael Jackson—back when he was still guapo and another time when she saw Bill Clinton surrounded by young Spanish girls in downtown Madrid. With chorizo y patatas came a rather serious conversation about the economy and the plight of so many unemployed people here. Marta, who’s still living at home, talked about how many interviews she’d had that week and how her hope was faltering. Our sobremesa has become a confessional, a gossip circle and group therapy.

There is a lot to love about the actual city of Madrid, much to talk about, and fun stories to be shared. But the most intimate and interesting taste I’ve gotten of life here has been at my dinner table. And Mercedes’ dinner table is the ideal place for an aspiring journalist, an eager student of Spanish and a plate-breaking klutz. 

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