After finally meeting my long lost relatives of Gijon for the first time, the following morning at exactly 11:00am I was at Pepin and Carmen’s front door eagerly awaiting my tour of the city with them. Accustomed to my own standard of travel, I assumed we would spend the day walking around the city and, considering their age, I was impressed/perplexed that they were willing to subject themselves to such a rigorous day. Never once did it occur to me they might have a car.
I’ve been traveling for too long already.
The three of us wandered down the street to a garage located in an unassuming little building in a deserted alleyway, picked up the car, and with a little strategic maneuvering, we were off to the races. For the next few hours, Pepin drove Carmen and me around town regaling me of the history of Gijon and the background on all the buildings we passed along the way. Carmen, as was her custom, happily filled in the details Pepin forgot and promptly called him out whenever he was wrong. We drove all over town and visited to places such as the Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura, the Estadio El Molinon, and Playa de San Lorenzo among many others. Sadly, I was so engrossed in the stories I forgot to take pictures.
I you haven't noticed, I've been recycling pictures and sourcing memes from the internet for these two posts.
Not my brightest moment.
After the tour, we went to one of Carmen and Pepin’s favorite local restaurants for an enormous seafood paella lunch. If there was any picture I regretted not taking more on the trip, this was the one. It took quite a bit of time to prepare even through Pepin called ahead to order, but the wait was completely worth it. The paellera we were served was loaded full of every imaginable crustacean found in the region laid out next to large slices of red bell pepper on a bed of incredibly well seasoned rice. By the end of the meal the three of us were struggling to finish it off the enormous platter and the paella almost won.
Fortunately Carmen and Pepin kept shoveling food onto my plate insisting I finished it.
As incredible as the paella was, the most memorable part of the meal was the accompanying Spanish cider, called Sidra, that Pepin recommended. Brewed using apples, it is customarily only found in the Northern regions of Spain such as Asturias, Galicia, and Basque Country. While the drink itself incredibly light and refreshing, the unique manner in which it is served is far more fascinating. Instead of drinking straight out of the bottle, Sidra it must first be “thrown” before it is served. To do this, you must hold the bottle high above your head and attempt to pour the drink into a glass positioned at arms length in the opposite direction. I can only imagine the countless liters of Sidra that are inevitably wasted each year thanks to people missing their target - whether through inexperience or inebriation - but there is actually a method to the madness. The idea behind this technique is that poring the drink from such a high altitude serves to aerate the liquid and thereby reduce its perceived acidity. Either way, it is quite the sight to behold and in my mind this is optimal method to serve any kind of beverage.
Henceforth I’m pouring all my drinks in this fashion - consequences be damned.
In addition to the pouring technique, there are two rules for drinking Sidra. First, once a bottle is opened the whole thing must be consumed in one sitting to prevent it from going flat or oxidizing. Second, you are only poured one serving from the bottle at a time and must drink the entire serving in one gulp - regardless of how generous (read: heavy handed) your host may be. When everything was said and done, Pepin and I ended up each finishing off a bottle of the stuff.
Although thanks to Pepin pouring, I drank closer to a bottle and a half.
Why don’t we have this in the States? This drink has it all!
From lunch we returned to the apartment where Pepin, like any good grandfather, busted out the old family photo albums. While many people I know distain listing to their older relatives prattle on about such archaic family stories, this was without a doubt my favorite part of the entire trip. Since Pepin still lived in Spain, he was in possession of some surprisingly old photographs dating back to the 1920s when my grandmother was just a few years old! From communions, to baptisms, to travels, weddings, birthdays, and more, it was all there right before my eyes!
For over two hours we sat in Pepin’s study paging through each of the nine different photo albums while he regaled me of stories behind each picture. The entire time Pepin was grinning ear to ear and seemed to enjoy telling each saga as much as I enjoyed listening to them. Every page he turned was full of new and exciting treasures I’d never seen before and it was fascinating to learn about my family from this new perspective. It was an excellent way to spend the afternoon, and before I knew it, the two of us crossed almost 100 years of family history together.
Following my impromptu history lesson, I joined Carmen and Pepin for their usual evening paseo down the main streets of Gijon. Similar the afternoon siesta most Americans are familiar with, the Spanish paseo, is a tradition where the locals go out in the evening for a little stroll around town to socialize before dinner. Since I only read about this tradition in books before, I was thrilled to partake in this daily ritual.
We walked for probably an hour or so, but we never made it more than twenty steps without Carmen or Pepin stopping to talk to someone they recognized. In fact, we didn’t even leave their building before they found the first group of friends. While most of the discussions focused on lively banter and local "news," the first conversation in the apartment lobby was of particular interest to me.
As we exited the building, we came across one of Carmen and Pepin’s neighbors who were about to leave for a vacation. There was a small girl, no more than seven years old, sitting next to her mother with her little rolling suitcase in hand as they waited for a taxi to pick them up. Carmen introduced me to the family and when she mentioned I was visiting from the US, the mother looked at the little girl and asked her to say something in English to me. Apparently the girl was learning English in school and her mom wanted to show off how much she knew. The girl’s reaction to this surprise request was beyond amusing to me. She didn’t say a word, but instead shyly smiled and looked down in embarrassment, fearful she would make a mistake.
A torrent of flashbacks immediately flooded my mind and I vividly recalled my brother and I having the exact same reactions as kids whenever we were called out in family gatherings to speak Spanish. For years, we feared these moments in the spotlight, but never once did I consider there was a kid on the other side of the world with the exact same issue - only in English. While it may seem obvious in retrospect, the thought never once crossed my mind until that moment in the lobby. I couldn’t help but smile at the rich irony of the whole situation.
I really wanted to kneel down and tell the girl, “We’re not so different, you and I.”
After talking with every single person in to city of Gijon, we finally made it another local restaurant called El Jamedor for an incredible meal of hand-carved Jamón serrano, lightly fried calamari, and a great bottle of wine. Every Saturday night for the last few years, Carmen and Pepin make it a point to eat dinner at this little restaurant. Not only do they know all of the wait staff and the owners, but they have their own table and a “usual.”
From dinner, we walked back to their apartment where we said our goodbyes since I was leaving the following day. Both Carmen and Pepin were immensely happy I came to visit them in Gijon. They each give me a big hug, asked that I send their best wishes to my entire family back home in the States, and with that we parted ways.
I had an absolutely wonderful time visiting Carmen and Pepin in Gijon and they were incredible hosts. Never in my life did I imagine I would one day get the chance to meet my relatives in Spain. For years I heard stories, but they were always something of an enigma in my mind. While I missed out on some of the sights and the tourist attractions, I’m thrilled to put together a few more pieces of my family history. I might never have the opportunity to see Pepin and Carmen again, but I am forever grateful that I met them at least once in my life.
Farewell Gijon, farewell Carmen and Pepin!
Next stop Valencia!