In college I spent a semester in Madrid. There, I lived with a Spanish family one block down Avenida Ciudad de Barcelona from the Atocha train station. Right in front of Atocha was a small white stand—no bigger than your typical hot dog stand—that sold churros y chocolate: fried pastry dough sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon served alongside liquid chocolate for dipping.
I would walk past this churros stand several times a day and smell…how do I describe the smell? I can’t remember its specifics well enough to do it any real justice. How about this? It smelled really, really, really really, good. Like, not quite right good. Like there must be some kind of dark magic at work good.
But I never bought any. Not once. The rent I paid my host family included three meals a day, a responsibility that my host mother, a chain-smoking Galician called Carmen, took very seriously. The morning began with Carmen frying three long slabs of French bread in an inch of olive oil, plastering them in butter and jam, and serving them to me alongside a 1:1 mixture of coffee and heavy cream.
With me to class each morning came a “snack” of two sandwiches: grilled cheese or a tortilla—a rich potato omelet—wedged between two butter-drenched slices of toast.
In the afternoons I’d return home from lunch: salad, followed by a slab of steak, or a mountain of paella or—have mercy—an oily Galician stew of cabbage and chickpeas and chicken legs, juicy purple-brown meat sliding from the bone. There’d be several slices of French bread as well as a hunk of apple tart, a chocolate-dipped elephant ear, or a comically phallic cream-filled éclair. Around nine at night I’d take a break from Don Quijote to partake of the famous “light” dinner preferred by the Spanish: a personal pizza or maybe a serving-sized plate of macaroni studded with bits of ham; sliced fruit or a salad; and a prepackaged flan for dessert. Lunch and dinner were served to each member of the family on our own cafeteria-style tray, which we would ferry between kitchen and TV room.
Carmen was part of that generation of Spaniards who grew up under the fascist Franco regime—her husband, my host father, was three years old when government soldiers strolled into his living room and shot his father point blank in front of him. Carmen grew up hungry, terrorized by nuns (she always made sure to spit whenever she walked by a cathedral), and hopeless.
This generation of Spanish people is famous for doting on their children, offering them everything they never had—Nikes, cable television, a plastic container of flan after every meal. I may have been a latchkey kid from Pennsylvania who wore sweatpants in public and couldn’t roll my r’s, but to Carmen I was just another young person to fuss over. She did my laundry daily, leaving neat piles of tank tops and socks on my bed. No one had done my laundry since the sixth grade but here I was, returning home each day to ironed jeans and impossible amounts of food. It was wonderful, and it was way, way too much. I guiltily longed to pad into a kitchen without her tiny shadow appearing in the doorway. To choose, just once, what I would eat for breakfast, and in what quantity. But so long as I lived in Carmen’s house, this was not to be.
So I’d walk. I’d stroll up to the Prado or the Reina Sofia, gawk at Goyas and Miros and wonder who my boyfriend was hooking up with back home. I’d go to Zara and dare myself to buy the sexy wraparound sweaters and tight pants that Spanish ladies wore—clothes I could neither afford nor pull off. And on my way home I’d pass the churros stand and imagine what it would be like to live in Madrid with kids my own age. One of the artsy, delicate-wristed girls I’d see smoking hash in the Rastro flea market on Sunday Mornings, say, or a member of those spiffy tribes of gorgeous gay men who sauntered past the lines at the Plaza del Sol clubs, double-kissing the bouncers on their way through the black curtains. Living with these Madrilenos, I imagined, I could bring home Styrofoam boxes of churros and chocolate for dinner; we’d eat them crosslegged on the floor, swigging from bottles of pulpy red wine. There’d be no mumbled comments when I couldn’t finish an entire pizza, no cheesy game shows, no ironed jeans. I loved Carmen, but more than anything I wanted friends my own age. Spanish friends. Madrilenos.
But I never did try churros in Spain. Eight months after I’d first walked through her door, Carmen served me my last heaping plate of paella, overflowing even more than usual with chunks of squid and chicken and pork. The next morning I dragged my suitcase into Atocha for the last time, and flew home.
Last weekend, eleven years later, I had my first churro. It was taking a class on tequila at Barrio in Bellevue and the servers brought a plate of the fried pastries to pair with a cocktail of reposado, Italian amaro, and sweet vermouth. Churros turned out to be lighter than I imagined, less sugary too, and elevated to heavenly when dipped in dark, inky Mexican chocolate. It was while chomping away at them that my mind traveled back to the churros stand at Atocha. And in that same moment my chest tightened a little. I missed Carmen.