A Spanish Death in the Afternoon
Story and photos by Beebe Bahrami



A nice Sunday lunch turns into someone's last meal in Tarragona, Spain.


mussels

I read the poetry, fideuá con mariscos, scribbled on a lunchtime chalkboard in front of the little restaurant in the square. My mouth watered at its sensuous Catalan implication that those of this northeast corner of Spain had found a way to make paella even better: Little noodles simmered in saffron with shellfish that had traveled only a few hundred meters from the sea to this humming local spot.

It was Sunday and my friend Mia and I were in Tarragona, a less-known ancient Roman Mediterranean city just south of Barcelona and north of Valencia. She was joining me for ten days of what would become a total of four months as I backpacked across Spain researching its most sacred sites for a guidebook. Founded as Tarraco in the 3rd century BCE, it supplied the Roman world with hearty wines and had more Roman sites intact than its more famous neighbor, Barcelona. But Tarragona's medieval town center was the most surprising; it felt as if at any moment an Arthurian Grail legend would leap from the ocher-colored stone walls. Capping the beauty was the 12th century cathedral atop the highest hill that was built over a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter.

cathedral

We were famished from a day of climbing over ruins and hiking along the sea. Sunday lunch, the most extravagant of the week in Spain, was all we could think about.

"It looks like dying and going to food heaven," she said over my shoulder. Dying. What a curious expression? But only that, I reminded myself, and was pleased we two agreed; we stepped into the outdoor terrace and took the last table for two. Before we could pull in our chairs, our waiter was at our side, a dark-haired, dark-eyed youth with sculpted Roman features and sigh-inducing smile.

"Para beber." To drink. Not a question, an expectation. I liked his wit, which only enhanced his fetching good looks. I also noticed his Spanish had a very slight Italian accent and asked. It turned out he was originally from Argentina, a land of people with a pinch of Italian in their Spanish. He had fallen so much in love with life in Tarragona that he planned to stay indefinitely.

"Un vino blanco de la region," I said, getting back on topic after establishing origins. Mia nodded and held up two fingers.

"Of course," he smiled and was off and back in a flash with our two glasses of dry white, a macaban varietal from the nearby Montsant region.

"Y para comer." He stated.

"I'll start with your steamed mussels and then have the fideuá con mariscos."

"The same for me," added Mia, holding up her two fingers again and smiling.

"Excellent," he said and leaned conspiratorially toward us, "You both have beautiful eyes and I think you are sisters, no?" He didn't wait for an answer. He was simply pleased with himself for slipping that in with the food order. Olé.

wine

We raised our glasses, smiled, clinked, and sipped. The macaban bathed our palates with a delicate dry wine with sparkles of orange zest and juniper berries. We sipped some more, chatted, and looked around us.

There was a family to my left, an elderly couple with their daughter and her two children. They were well into the paella and visibly enjoying it, and every now and then licking a gob of garlicky mayonnaise that had caught the edge of their mouth on its ride in atop a spoonful of shellfish and noodles. To my right were two tables with couples, and all the other tables were occupied with three, four, and six filling the rest of the terrace. Almost everyone was having the paella. Our waiter arrived and set before us the steamed mussels, commenting once more on our sparkling eyes. Hungry and greedy, we dived in.

Maybe we had only consumed a few mussels, or maybe we had almost finished off the entire dish, I can't remember because the elderly man to my left suddenly toppled from his chair and hit the ground.

Time quickly slowed down, then stopped. It felt like being underwater. In split seconds he turned pink, then green, then white. We all stopped eating and jumped up to pull tables and chairs away from him as our Argentine waiter jumped forward and lay him flat and began CPR while yelling to the other waiter to call an ambulance.

As much as our waiter deftly worked, the old man was fading away like a tide going out. His daughter knelt and placed her mouth to his ear, and pleaded, "Papa, hang on. Papa, stay with us. Papa, I can't afford to loose you right now. No te pasas, por favor." At one point he gained enough composure to look her firmly in the eyes. "I'll always be with you," he said. "This is a good way to die, Sunday lunch, surrounded by my beautiful family. Cariña," he repeated, "we'll always be together." His wife held his hand and stroked his hair, desperately cooing his name over and over as if it would restore his heart, breath, and vitality. Diego. Diego. Diego.




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Also in this issue:



Books from the Author:

The Spiritual Traveler

Buy The Spiritual Traveler—Spain: A Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)



Buy Historic Walking Guides: Madrid at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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