Sweetly Off the Map

When we first arrived in Cádiz there were apparently endless things to do. For our little group of students, most of them seemed to involve beaches. La Caleta, the informal beach of old Cádiz, was by far the most popular. There were warm waves, grandmothers with leathery tanned skin, and vendors ready to hand over Spanish ice creams that would start melting the moment you bought them. But while I adored racing to the beach between classes for a quick swim or sun, as the weeks slowly drew on, I found myself spending more and more time around the city than on a beach towel.

The old town of Cádiz was undeniably biased towards pedestrian travel. Though cars could squeeze through some of the wider streets, as the tiny alleys grew smaller, it was tight enough to only fit a scooter and a few Gaditanos on foot. I wandered around the city sin rumba, taking turns onto streets based on gut instinct and interest in the shops around me, while my map lay folded up, unused, in my purse.

The discoveries I made while exploring were second to none. I popped into a little fruteria and came home with a bag full of fresh Spanish fruits that I had never seen before, trying and savoring each like the singular notes of a foreign symphony. From a long street full of clothing and accessory shops, I emerged victorious with a purple shoulder bag to carry my laptop to class at la Universidad. I found a small silver charm for my charm bracelet. I bought jewelry at open-air markets to take home to my friends. And at each stop, I saw a little more of the city I was living in and met a few more friendly Spaniards who were happy to say hello to a new face.

My favorite find, though, was a little dessert shop that I tracked down under the recommendation of our professor. Confiteria Maype was like a cross between an old-fashioned American candy shop and a high-class bakery. I stepped down into the tiny store, wondering at the multicolored boxes in the store windows, the glass bottles full of candies individually wrapped in bright tinfoil, and the trays of handmade chocolates gleaming sensually.

What I gravitated towards, however, was the large glass case in the center of the shop, which held row upon row of lovingly baked pastries. There were cakes, puffs, twists, tarts, and about a hundred things that I couldn’t name in English, let alone Spanish. I spent a few minutes in reverent silence before the shopkeeper came over and asked me what I would like.  Though I considered myself quite capable of conversing and researching in Spanish, the lexicon that I had developed didn’t include words like ‘nonpareil,’ ‘cream danish,’ or ‘macaron.’ I was forced to resort to describing the ones I wanted and pointing for clarification. My orders were along the lines of, “I would like that purple one,” or “two of the cream things,” and “this one here.”

Fortunately, the shopkeeper was amused and seemed a little flattered that I was so charmed by her pastries that I was willing to act like a fool to get my hands on them.  She smiled and named some of the pastries that I pointed to, placing them delicately onto a little paper tray and wrapping them up neatly for me.  We thanked each other heartily as I paid, and I carried my prize to a bench in Plaza Mina to eat.  Sitting in the shade of a flowering tree, I unwrapped the paper and ate, watching the local children chase each other around flocks of pigeons and elderly relatives.  I’ve long since forgotten the names of the pastries she gave me, but I haven’t forgotten that simple joy of a brief, unhurried connection with a stranger over a blackberry tart.

Jen Root ’11 was a Hispanic Studies major and pre-medical student.  She participated in the study abroad program in Cádiz, Spain in the summer of 2010.  She now works as an Emergency Room Scribe for the Sentara Hospital system, with the intention of continuing on to medical school.

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