WNLP editor’s note: Here’s another chapter from the memoirs of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall. Arlene, who now lives in Del Mar, Calif., grew up in La Porte. She graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities; she also studied in various European countries. This is about her first trip to Spain. To read the first chapter, click on this WNLP link:
The next evening, instead of eating dinner at 7:30 in bright sunshine, we took to the streets. It was tapas (appetizer) time! And also time for a paseo (stroll). The entire neighborhood resembled ants fleeing a disturbed anthill. People poured out of hot apartments into narrow streets and onto crowded avenues. Young couples meandered, entwined; older men with determined expressions made purposeful strides with hands clasped behind their backs and with wives hanging onto one arm. Groups sat at sidewalk cafes or stood at bars, enjoying wine and tapas. Mothers pushed carriages and corralled boisterous children. The paseo was for all age groups.
It became our evening ritual as we familiarized ourselves with nearby businesses and cross streets, stopping at one or more of the many bars for a small glass of local wine and a tapa. We told our boys that deep-fried squid portions were Spanish french fries with a fish flavor. Ensalada Rusa was a popular dish of boiled potatoes, carrots and peas in garlic mayonnaise. Other tasty small portions filled pastry or fish shells. My favorite, baby octopus in a tomato-olive oil sauce, was hard to find. It was not unusual to have a choice of twenty tapas or more. Almonds. Olives. Cheese. Sausage. Boiled eggs. Some were free with a glass of wine.
At times we’d run into and join a few of my classmates who also lived in the neighborhood. The dinner I planned always to serve at 7:30 – what was that? Around 9 or 9:30 or even 10 we would be back in our apartment for a light meal. And it was still light outside!
Apartment buildings with contiguous walls and up to five stories high occupied the perimeter of a city block. The street level of each housed a business. Beneath us was a bakery. Beginning around 4:30 a.m. the fragrance of baking bread wafted up to awaken my husband, Dick, and his salivary glands. He quickly dressed and went out for his morning exercise while it was still cool. Later he returned munching a warm croissant and crawled back into bed. Then I would dress, put on the espresso pot and go downstairs to buy my own pastry. I wouldn’t consider buying extras to deprive my husband and sons the chance to fetch for themselves the very freshest rolls from the ovens.
With only a small refrigerator, daily shopping was a must. I went off to classes while the others slept. After breakfast they loved shopping at a large open market and planning the 2 p.m. dinner. Dick became so friendly with a fishmonger that after we’d been away for two years, on our return he was greeted as an old friend: “Where have you been, amigo?”
The “men” in the family had usually prepared the substantial main meal of the day that was ready when I got home. I never knew what would be waiting; sautéed fish, veal stew, or often a new savory dish made with Knorr soup mixes. I studied all afternoon while the cooks took siestas.
Returning from a paseo one evening, we passed a liquor store and couldn’t resist buying a bottle of wine for only one dollar. We chuckled the rest of the way home at having found such a bargain and didn’t expect the label to be familiar. A few days later in class, before plunging into the history of Spain and especially of Catalonia, a professor gave us tips for easy living in the city.
I learned I could take an empty liter bottle to a small bar and have it filled from barrels of local Penedés wine, either white or red. This regional wine was superb. Of course, on that very day, right after class and on my way home, I stopped at Bar Vendrel, which was around the corner from our apartment. Puffed out like a peacock I was, so excited to think I’d be buying a primo wine as a surprise. I charged into the bar. It was packed with workmen eating a hot meal. All men. Stunning silence greeted my arrival as all focused on me. A lone woman at the back was cooking near immense wooden barrels. I explained to her I wanted vino tinto but had no bottle. She found a used one to fill for me, and in great embarrassment I slunk out. Lesson learned: Women do not go into bars alone. The cost of my liter totaled nearly 19¢. Coca-Cola cost us 25¢.
Incredulous, Dick later went back to get our bottle refilled. Also, he and the boys would stop there on their way home from shopping. Soon going to Bar Vendrel became a favorite errand for the boys, as I as a child used to run to the store for a bottle of milk. Women did not go into bars alone. Children, YES! We were fitting into the neighborhood. But were we raising our boys to become alcoholics or juvenile delinquents when we got back home?
Old friends were going to be in Barcelona for a few days and wanted to get together. Our sons, 10 and 11, were eager to help prepare a meal and insisted that we parents spend our time with the guests. The boys emulated waiters in the local restaurants. Not only did they appear with towels draped over one arm, but they manipulated with ease in one hand the large fork and spoon with which they deftly placed merluza (fish) with pine nuts on each plate. Their zucchini and coleslaw were perfect, and a very European American dessert ended the meal. Of course, we started the meal with the ubiquitous bread and a choice of red or white wine. During the meal we ran out of wine. The boys excused themselves to visit Bar Vendrel.