Tapas Not Turkey: Thanksgiving Abroad
I spent my 2017 Thanksgiving in Barcelona, Spain. It was a departure, in many ways, from how I typically celebrate this U.S. holiday with family at my New England home. I live one state north of where it’s believed the first American Thanksgiving was shared between pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, on the rocky shores of Massachusetts. Thanksgiving has always felt special to me, living so near the birthplace of this treasured American holiday.
Yet, this year I rang in Thanksgiving 3,600 miles from home—and with tapas, not turkey. The faces joining me at the Thanksgiving table for our sangria toast were not family, but fellow writers. From Israel and Canada, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Houston and Providence. We broke bread together not just on Thanksgiving Day, but over five days, as participants in Pink Pangea’s annual writing retreat in Spain, one of several offered each year in locales around the globe.
In the mornings we wrote together on the second floor of Hotel Cuatro Naciones. The drawing room’s black-and-white tiled floor, soft amber-colored walls, and floor-to-ceiling windows that opened onto balconies and Barcelona’s lively La Rambla pedestrian thoroughfare below was the perfect setting to call forth our inner scribes. I especially loved writing beneath the vintage, recessed, gilded ceiling with plaster scrolls, vines, and a center medallion.
I picked up a smart-looking, leopard-print raincoat along Madrid’s trendy, metro shopping district. I met up with a group of authentic tango dancers after dinner one evening, and got swept up into a street protest going for my morning coffee.
Our daily writing prompts opened our creative arteries and we spilled our stories onto the page, some of us scribbling old-school with pen and loose leaf paper, others tapping on laptops or iPads. We shared. We supported each other. In the afternoons we took in Barcelona’s many famous sites: one day, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Basilica and nearby Park Guell; another day the city’s Gothic Quarter. We lunched at the lively La Boqueria Market, with stalls that spilled over with fresh fish, vegetables, breads, fruits, flowers, and friendly locals.
In the evenings we sampled our fill of endless varieties of tapas. One night several of us ventured into an absinthe bar in the El Raval neighborhood. Bar Marsella, at nearly 200 years old, is said to be the oldest bar in Barcelona, and is a must-see experience. A New York Times article described it best, citing the bar’s nicotine-stained ceiling … ridiculously ornate, yet dim, chandeliers … peeling paint, well, just about everywhere … walls stacked high with dusty brown bottles … and the infamous house drink, absinthe. It’s widely considered the late-night destination in all of Barcelona.
Shira, Andrea, Cassandra, and I huddled into one of the remaining open tables at the back, ordered four “Green Fairy” spirits, perched our sugar cubes onto forks laid diagonally across the glasses, and emptied our water bottle into the absinthe. Feeling very bohemian that night, I swear I felt Hemingway’s spirit—one of the bar’s most famous patrons, along with Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, Joyce, and van Gogh—in the room with us.
How inspiring to come together with eight women who traveled across oceans to write with each other and share what we’ve learned in life thus far.
I started my journey across Spain two weeks prior to meeting my fellow writers. Beginning in the southwest corner, I worked my way across the indescribably lovely Andalucia region. Sevilla charmed me around every corner, and I’m already plotting ways to get back there to wander its winding cobblestone streets and gawk once more at its incredible architecture. Ronda enthralled me, with its city of whitewashed buildings perched precariously on the side of dramatic cliffs. While there, I strode into what is apparently Spain’s oldest bullring in Ronda, the Plaza de Toros.
I visited Malaga, birthplace of Picasso; and Moorish Granada, with its exquisite architecture influenced by Northern Africa. I traveled by high-speed train from Torremolinos to Madrid, where I picked up a smart-looking, leopard-print raincoat along Madrid’s trendy, metro shopping district. I met up with a group of authentic tango dancers after dinner one evening, and got swept up into a street protest going for my morning coffee. While I was expecting to see protests in Barcelona–given the desire of Catalonia to separate from Spain–I wasn’t expecting the same level of picketing in Madrid. As it turned out, the protest was for better police wages; it had nothing to do with Barcelona’s bid for independence.
While in Madrid, I took a day trip to nearby Toledo, the one-time capital of Spain and a beautiful medieval city with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish influences. I’m still sorting through the more than 2,000 photos I took. I was delighted by every corner of this country.
From Madrid, I boarded another high-speed train to make good time to Barcelona. What would have taken maybe seven hours by car took about two-and-a-half by rail. I had two days on my own in Barcelona before meeting the Pink Pangea writers. I indulged in all things Gaudi: the Basilica, where I went into one of the towers for an up-close, top-down look from its lofty heights in the sky, and climbed back down again, circling 350 narrow stone stairs that spiraled tightly like a snail’s shell. I can’t begin to describe the beauty and grandeur that is the Sagrada Familia. It must be experienced to be believed. Gaudi’s vision is stunning.
I also toured one of his Art Nouveau mansions—Casa Batllo—that resembles an underwater experience, with walls that curve and flow, and subtle fish scale effects peeking through the paint. The door and window archways evoke dragon spines; the windows are the shape of turtle shells; iridescent paint and glittering tiles are everywhere.
After three weeks in Spain, five days of which were spent at Pink Pangea’s retreat, I count my overseas Thanksgiving holiday a success. How inspiring to come together with eight women who traveled across oceans to write with each other and share what we’ve learned in life thus far, our aspirations that remain to be realized, and what we’re thankful for in our lives.