15. July 2012 · Comments Off on Evenings (And Mornings and Afternoons) At the Bar Urba · Categories: Domestic, Uncategorized

“Mom? Is it OK if we stop by the bar on the way home from Vacation Bible School?” asked my daughter one morning in the summer of 1989 or so, and I confess that I had lived overseas for so long at that point,  that it took me at least five minutes to realize that to most Americans there would be something seriously out of whack about that sentence. Especially since I replied, “OK, sweetie, just call me when you get home.”

We were living then in a rental duplex home in an urbanization — a suburb, or development, on the outskirts of a pleasantly ordinary city in Spain. San Lamberto had once been the housing area dedicated to USAF families attached to Zaragoza AB. After a really unfortunate mishap involving a misplaced n*****r munition in the Med, the base was closed and the housing area sold off to individual local nationals at fire-sale rates. My present landlords’ father had snapped up several duplex units, one for each of his sons. Since at the time,  the units (four-unit duplexes, two up and two down, with either deck or balcony overlooking their own generous yard) were about the only housing stock in Zaragoza  resembling a garden apartment unit, they were favored by American families assigned to the base, when American operations returned to the area several years later. Most of the units which were not in the pot as rental units to Americans or to Spaniards as summer cottages during the hot summers, were purchased by well-to-do Spaniards who liked them as up-scale garden residences year round, conveniently located just off the main road to Logrono, the main surface road out of town towards the north. A very long apartment block went up, overlooking the road and shielding the duplexes from the traffic noise from the Logrono road, and the turn-off to the municipal airport and the Garapinillas gate which gave onto the Spanish side of the establishment. This intersection, while conveniently located for those Americans who had every-day business on the base, was also advertised in our base safety briefings as one of the most dangerous and unpredictable intersections in municipal Zaragoza, owing to a bizarre arrangement of traffic lights. Personal injury lawyers could have made an excellent living, merely by renting those apartments overlooking this intersection, and at the sound of screeching brakes and a certain metallic crunch, tossing down business cards from their balcony onto to the vehicular mayhem down below.

The other side of the apartment block, facing inwards onto the development, or urbanization, was rather more immediately important, because the ground floor,  opening onto a generous sidewalk and sheltered by the overhang of the apartment block above,  was given over to a variety of commercial establishments. There was a restaurant which opened in the last few months of my residence there, after many years of wrangling with the municipal authorities, a stationary store which retailed school supplies and a wonderful variety of candies, a bakery — only an outlet and drop-off point for a commercial establishment with ovens elsewhere, although they had a delivery service that offered freshly baked loaves of bread and croissants delivered to your house every morning. Oddly enough, there was an antique store with a lovely variety of odd bits of furniture (there was a little Art Nouveau ladies’ writing desk which I shall ever regret not buying, a steal at about 350$). Because of the high-income in the urbanization, it managed to stay in business, although the larger items of inventory stayed there, year in and year out.

But the two most essential businesses in San Lamberto — and the ones of longest duration — were neighborhood small grocery store with everything that we had forgotten to get on base, and where the owners were teaching me all the Spanish I needed to purchase this and that, and the Bar Urba. The Bar Urba was the clubhouse and chosen gathering space in San Lamberto, in the tiny storefront premise and on tables and benches set out on the sidewalk outside. In the summer, they had the concession at the community pool, set up under a canvas awning, with tables set under the trees. Year round, the Bar Urba was open most hours of the day and evening, offering coffee and snacks at all hours, and access to pay phones and video games. Of a summer evening, everyone was there, drinking the house sangria, at 100 pesetas a glass, while the children showed off their skill on skateboards and bicycles — the neighborhood played host to a flock of children, wheeling like seagulls on their bicycles, there in a moment and then off again — but in the evenings, the bicycles were flung in a tangled heap while the children begged a couple of hundred pesetas for a plate of pomme frites. A plate of fried potatoes, with a dollop of mayonnaise and a dash of hot sauce, a most popular tapa, a ‘little dish’.

My daughter and I loved tapas, the bar food of Spain, but as far above the usual American conception of bar food as haute cuisine is above a supermarket frozen entree. Tiny toasted cheese sandwiches, just a couple of bites, perfect for a kid’s finicky appetite; slices of cantaloupe melon wrapped in a paper-thin slice of jamon Serrano, the salty dark pink cured ham of Spain— every bar worth mention maintained a whole jamon with slivers of it carved off as needed, and the supermarket Alcampo sold them in a special section that smelled like moldy gym socks. Whole roasted tiny birds, bubbling in fat, a slice of tortilla— a sturdy frittata of potatoes and eggs, crisp slices of chorizo sausage, or whole anchovies— as different from the leathery strips of salted fish jerky as you can imagine, all served  with a slice of crusty bread, battered and deep-fried shrimps, and my favorite, ensalata de pulpo — a chilled salad of minced tomatoes, green peppers and onions with cooked octopus, marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. So much better than a restaurant, which was expensive, and fussy, and time-consuming; a place with good tapas already had the small plates made up, and under glass on a section of the bar; perfect for that middle-of-the-day, don’t want-to-fill-up, just-a-little-something-to-tide-you-over nibbling. Just a little plate or two, of whatever took your fancy.

A proper neighborhood bar, like Bar Urba wasn’t a nasty x-rated place, either, although there were those, downtown around the old narrow streets in what they called the Tubes. One of the low, vulgar places in the Tubes featured a stripper who had allegedly been plying her trade since before Franco.  A kind of institution by the 1980ies, I always imagined her performances being met with raucous cries of “Put it on, put it on!” Male friends assured me, though, even the bars in the Tubes were fairly couth, and in most other places— there were even bars at highway gas stations! — astonishingly family friendly places. There was even a bar in Zaragoza’s amusement park, with a terrace overlooking one of the popular rides for little children. I couldn’t help thinking that was an eminently sensible way to arrange things; the children could pursue their interests on the little bumper cars and the miniature trains and merry-go-round, while their parents relaxed with something cold and alcohol-based, or coffee, if preferred.

Everyone had their interests catered to, at the same time, and in the same place, and yet they could enjoy that time together. It also had the side benefit of making alcohol rather prosaic, not glamorous and forbidden, although I had to do a lot of explaining on the day we came back to the United States, to the JFK international arrivals hall, and I decided that I wanted to celebrate with a stiff gin and tonic. “Sweetie, you’ll have to wait outside the bar for me.”  “Why?” She said, reasonably enough. “Because children aren’t allowed into bars in this country!”

The look of outrage on her face said two things: What?!!!!! And for two cents, I’d get back on the plane and go back to a place where bars are sensible places.

“Custom of the country, sweetie, ” I said helplessly. “They just do things differently here.”

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