Paradise Has Ice Cream and Elephants

Prompt number 9 in BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What is the best experience you’ve ever had while traveling?

What a question. How do you choose? All the amazing, wonderful, joyful things that happen when you travel, and I can pick only one?

Okay, fine then. I pick: Eating ice cream in Spain while a man carved an elephant and threw it into the sea.

I should explain.

In the town of Las Galletas, on the island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, there is a little heladeria by the sea. And in the town of New Braunfels, in the state of Texas, there is a house that contains my dearest friend Maria–except in the summers, when she goes home to her family in Tenerife, and then she is contained by her mother’s house in Las Galletas. Every few summers I join her there. (Because Keep Austin Weird and all that, but would you rather visit your best friend in Texas or in Tenerife? Yep, I thought so.)

The first time I went to the Canaries, about ten years ago, Maria and I set out on a warm afternoon’s mission: to walk into town and sample her favorite ice cream. We headed down the pedestrian-only shopping streets in the general direction of the sea, and ended up at the promenade beside the narrow black sand beach. “Here it is,” Maria said, pointing to the heladeria. Its sliding glass doors were wide open to let in the ocean air–and the ocean was only about fifty feet away. Tables topped with yellow umbrellas lined the promenade out front. A nice selection of helados tempted us from the glass case. This looked promising. I chose the berry-bright frutas del bosque; I don’t remember what flavor Maria chose, but we took our paper cups and our little plastic spoons and we claimed a table in front of the open sliders.

Helado. Splendid.

Helado. Splendid.

 

As we savored our ice cream (so delicious; Maria was right), we indulged in people watching: mothers herding small children along the promenade; young couples sitting on the sea wall, their arms and legs entwined; grandmothers siting in the shade of the umbrellas, trading gossip in rapid Spanish; British tourists, their pale shoulders and noses turned lobster red by the sun. And a sculptor, carving an elephant.

At some point while we were licking helado off our spoons, a middle-aged man dressed in a black tee shirt and black pants had set up an impromptu studio on the sea wall. He held carving tools, and he was using them to flick slivers of stone off a block about the size of a breadbox. What on earth? I said. We angled our chairs so that we could see better. It took us a while to determine that the emerging figure was an elephant. Animal? we guessed at first. Horse? Dog? we considered as the artist progressed. People stopped to chat with him; some bought him beers. Children stopped to guess; he teased them, told them it was a bird, a giraffe…But as his tools bit further and further into the stone, we finally saw it. Elephant!

Elephant. Also splendid.

Elephant. Also splendid.

I was delighted. I love elephants. I love Spain. I love ice cream. And I love my friend. And this moment contained all of them! Plus the black volcanic sand, the shush of the ocean, the lisping s-sounds of Castilian Spanish in my ears…and then the sculptor hopped over the sea wall onto the beach and directed a couple of his admirers to hand the stone beast down to him. He gripped it tightly, the muscles in his arms straining as he hauled it to the edge of the water–and threw it in.

Oh, no, we laughed, what’s he doing now? Was this some sort of indigenous Guanche ritual, some sort of sacrifice to an obscure pachyderm goddess of the sea?

Not at all. He was letting the waves rinse it off. That block of stone was going nowhere until he hoisted it out of the water and carried it back up to his cohorts. Once he was up on the promenade again, a young woman who had been at the center of his admirers for a long time opened her wallet and handed him a small wad of bills. She smiled once more at the elephant, wrapped her arms around it, lifted it, and staggered off under its weight.

Maria and I grinned. It had been a perfect afternoon. And here’s the very nice postscript: every time I go back to Tenerife, one of the first things Maria and I do is walk to that heladeria, choose our flavors, stake out a table, and talk about the time the man in black carved the elephant right in front of us.

Images: Helado: By Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España (Montañas de helado Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Elephant: Teresa (Terry) Jackson [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Way to a Nation’s Heart is Through Its Stomach

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta. Culinary Diplomacy in action.

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta: Culinary Diplomacy in action.

When people from one nation gather around a dinner table with people from another nation, they create goodwill along with good eating. If you travel internationally, you know how true (and delicious) this is. Is there anything that disposes us more favorably toward a culture and a country than sharing its food with its natives? When English friends offer buttery homemade shortbread that dissolves on your tongue or you slurp along with Japanese colleagues on the rich, comforting broth of nabeyaki udon, it’s easy to feel at home in a faraway place.

Recently, The Splendid Table–one of Glorious Curious’ favorite public radio shows–interviewed Sam Chapple-Sokol, who writes about how food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” (Read the interview here.) The name for this practice is Culinary Diplomacy. Chapple-Sokol notes that while we all understand the importance of food in carrying off a successful state dinner between world leaders, we may not know that this brand of diplomacy is also employed by governments to proactively create a positive impression of their country in other nations. He explains that about ten years ago, Thailand created a program called “Thai Kitchen to the World,” through which they sent Thai chefs around the globe to start Thai restaurants and raise awareness of–and appreciation for–Thai cuisine. South Korea did the same sort of thing with its so-called “kimchi diplomacy.” These governments understand that food, with all its good associations, is an effective way of making your culture familiar to and sought out by people in other countries. Food has the tasty power to break down barriers and provide a welcome to the world.

Food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” -Sam Chapple-Sokol

I’ve enjoyed many meals in other countries, but one of the most memorable was provided by friends of friends one summer night in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The islands, about 200 miles off the coast of the Western Sahara, are volcanic and gorgeous and owned by Spain. The cuisine is heavily informed by Spanish cooking but is replete with the seafood and goat cheeses and tiny potatoes (used to make the salty and addictive papas arrugadas–“wrinkled potatoes”) that are indigenous to their geographic location.

That particular night, we all met up at a tiny, dingy bar/restaurant in seaside Bajamar, on a minor road overlooking the Atlantic. (Though to be fair, on small, mountainous Tenerife, most places overlook the Atlantic. That’s part of its beauty.) As darkness fell, about a dozen of us sat at long wooden tables pushed together under a covering made of bamboo in a dirt lot outside the bar’s front entrance. The new friends–a doctor, two sculptors, and some musicians among them–had ordered island specialties to impress–and just maybe to alarm–the American visitors. Plate after plate came out the door of this somewhat questionable-looking establishment and was deposited in a row down the center of the tables, ready to be washed down with local tinto–red wine. There was pulpo (octopus), grilled and waiting to be dipped in olive oil or mojo verdegofio, a wholemeal flour mixture combined with fish stock and mojo; breads, for dipping in the green and red mojos; fried local fish; the aforementioned papas arrugadas; and the most “exotic’ dish of the evening, morena–fried moray eels, with their jawbones and tiny ferocious teeth still intact. The Spaniards seemed particularly gleeful at serving us the pulpo, imagining perhaps that its bright pink sucker-studded tentacles might send us Americans running for a hamburger. I’m half Sicilian, though, and what we call purpu is my favorite Christmas Eve treat–it’s hard to find in restaurants here in the States, but when I travel to countries that love their seafood, I enjoy it wherever I can get it.

And that night was no different–I made short work of my plate of tentacles, I dipped my bread, I drank my wine, and I picked tiny bones out of the morena. I spoke my limited Spanish, they spoke their limited English, and my bilingual best friend Maria-Jesus filled in our gaps with her expert translation. For a while, I spoke French with one of the party who had lived in France for a number of years (my French is far better than my Spanish). My artist daughter was at the other end of the table with Maria-Jesus’s daughter, creating tiny watercolor images of the food and the people. There was a great deal of laughter and conversation and goodwill between nations.

After we had stuffed ourselves with all those local delicacies, we picked up and moved to a nearby nautical club that claimed our new friends as members. More wine was presented and we staked out a large table on the deserted pool deck. Out came a guitar, and a cajón–a flamenco box-drum–and then the music started. The musicians played, the ocean roared, and our little party sat at that table and sang and drank and laughed and danced until three in the morning. The Spaniards sang old Spanish songs that they all knew. Then they sang old American rock-and-roll so we could sing along. As the night wore on, we all became drummers, beating time by banging crushed soda cans on the table as our wineglasses shuddered and danced precariously close to the edges.

At several points during the night, I was close to tears, so moved was I by the beauty and camaraderie of the celebration of which these lovely people had so graciously made me a part. The hospitality, the music, and the food reached across borders, took my hands, and drew me into the culture of Spain and the Canaries. On a real and personal level, Culinary Diplomacy was in action, doing its very effective and tasty job.