I have taken my practice of religion though, limited as it is, with me during my travels. Back on the trip that inspired this blog, in 2006, I upheld the fast on Yom Kippur while living in Moscow. This involved eating dinner with my host family as they celebrated Vera Nikolavena’s (the mother) name day, and then refusing the dessert that came with it, as it occurred after sunset (or at least the time I had designated as sunset, roughly 7:00 p.m.). I didn’t explain myself, which further confused them, since they thought I was a junk food junkie. The next morning I purposely woke up late to skip breakfast, then managed to get through wrestling practice without eating or drinking (fairly normal, actually), and then keep myself occupied the rest of the day. At sunset I sat in the upper balcony of a theater with the host family, as we attended the staging of a British play whose name I can’t remember. The play was a slapstick affair, but more importantly, I had snuck in a chocolate covered marshmallow, and during intermission I broke the fast in gourmet fashion.
Last year, I kicked off Passover in a location naturally hostile to my people, and wholly ill fitting our storied ways: South Carolina. My friend Tara took me to her family/community Seder in Greenville. Of course, everything was quite fine, and it was probably the most proper and pleasant Passover I’ve spent. But, in all fairness, we were more or less in the shadow of Bob Jones University. That has to count for something, right?
Anyway, this time I’m in Spain for the holiday. Passover features the other tradition I try to uphold each year – no eating of leavened products for eight days (it would appear that most of the rituals I follow have to do with self-denial through eating methods. I wonder where I got that from). Again, my knowledge of the situation is flawed; I didn’t realize, for example, that rice is a no go until I went on a date with a Jewish girl during Passover. So sushi is an unlawful escape. But my diet in Spain is pretty basic as it is, so I thought I could manage pretty well. There was only one thing missing: Matzah.
“Well, I don’t think prison will ever be a problem for you,” Ben told me as we sat on a bench near the Sevilla Cathedral and ate lunch.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“All they give you is bread and water, and you seem ok with that.”
It’s true. I was displaying my patented survival guide for how to travel and sustain yourself on the cheap: a 1-L carton of apple juice, a loaf of bread, and some form of chocolate is all you need. I followed this in Russia, perfected it when I swung through Helsinki, and have continued to preach its viability here on the Iberian Peninsula.
You would be right to presume, then, that not being able to eat bread for eight days would be difficult for me. My daily consumption before Passover has roughly been as follows: cereal (usually involving chocolate, as they’re big on chocolate cereal here) and maybe tea for breakfast; fried chicken or hamburgers with sautéed onions, a cup of apple juice, and a piece or two of bread for lunch; and whichever of chicken and hamburgers I didn’t have for lunch along with the same additions, or alternatively two pieces of bread with Nutella. So bread and leavened products (hello, cereal!) is a big part of my day-to-day Spain.
On all past Passovers, I’ve managed to cover up for the problem with bread’s thin, low-taste substitute specially designed for the holiday, namely matzah. You see, my penchant for eating a lot of bread is probably a legacy of my love for peanut butter. The gooey ochre cream is my favorite food, if that’s possible, and when I have it around, I eat a peanut butter sandwich once a day, on average.
Two things prevent me from falling back on that strategy in Spain, though one is easily ameliorated. That would be the first reason, which is that there is no peanut butter in Spain, excepting an exceptionally high exported from the U.S. import of Jif, which comes in a tiny container for nearly 4 turkeys (they call euros “turkeys” in Spanish, sort of like how we say “bucks”, except cooler and much more valuable). Not worth it. And not that big a deal, because the aforementioned hazelnut/chocolate cream known as Nutella steps in as a solid replacement off the bench. Which would be all well and good, except I have nothing to spread that Nutella onto this week. No bread, right? So I need matzah. And where does one go to find matzah in Madrid?
The answer, of course, is the same place one goes to find anything else in Madrid or anywhere in the world: the internets. It wasn’t a straightforward effort, but after beginning with “Madrid Matzah” and then turning to “Sephardic cardboard bread”, I hit upon “Synagogues Madrid” as my appropriate search term. A few hoops after that I was at www.comjuderia.org, a website for the Jewish community in Madrid.
The community is based around one synagogue, Synagogue Beth Yaacov, an orthodox community about 20 minutes away from me by foot (interestingly enough, it is closest to the Iglesia metro stop, Spanish for church). While I spent a good Shabbat at an orthodox synagogue in Vilnius back in ’06 (see “Lithuania Always Comes Near the End” in the archives), I don’t think my loose form of Judaism is the best match for their, umm, orthodoxy. Not that they wouldn’t welcome me, but it would be awkward. Also, they probably speak Spanish, which, well, you know…
So I decided against attempting to find a Seder to attend here and settled on just finding matzah. The website above listed four potential sources for the big, flat crackers. Three were close to the synagogue, and one was a little bit farther to the Northeast, up the paseos a bit. That last one was El Corte Ingles, the Costco cum uber department store that is endemic in Spain. I thought I’d try there first.
Passover started Saturday at sunset, so I went to El Corte Ingles on Friday afternoon. It was a rushed visit – I went right after a literature club gathering, and right before my final lesson for the week. The trip involved a few stops on the metro, and then a little orienting to make sure I was going the right way. Still, ECI is a pretty big establishment, so there’s no missing it
I entered on the ground floor, which held the supermarket. I didn’t have a clear idea of where matzah would be, but I thought checking near bread or bakeries might be a start. In ECI, there’s a supermarket and then a bunch of little “shops” – bakery, deli, etc. I went to the outer bakery and the outer foreign goods store, but nothing came of it. Time was running short, because I had to take those few metro stops back to get to class by 5. I raced through the supermarket itself, but from bread to fish, sodas to wine, I couldn’t find anything that would do the trick. I snagged a sandwich for a quick dinner bite, seeing as I could still eat bread for another 27 hours or so, and then rolled out.
So there was still Saturday to go looking around. I took a walk over to the Iglesia area. The weather was lousy, as it had been for most of the two weeks preceding Passover. La Boutique Del Pan was well lit and reasonably full of people and sundry sorts of bread, but in my tiptoe stance, I couldn’t spot any matzah on the shelves. Uninterested in asking in poor Spanish, I gave up and went to the butchers.
Of course, Saturday is Shabbat, so Carniceria Shalom would be closed. Carniceria Elias too, as it turned out. And since everything in Spain closes on Sunday, more or less, I didn’t have much hope for hooking up the matzah issues before the end of the weekend.
I survived just fine for the opening days of Passover, but the matzah was still missing. When it comes down to it, the matzah isn’t absolutely essential to Passover. Yes, it’s our only substitute for bread, but if you’re willing to Atkins it up, there’s not much to miss taste-wise. But for me it didn’t feel right to go without matzah. Instead of wandering the deserts, lost after crossing the Red Sea, I felt adrift in the now sunny streets of Madrid, without my raft of unleavened carbs to carry me to shore.
So on Tuesday when I had a two and a half hour break in my schedule, I resolved to resolve the problem as best as I could. Iglesia is also about 20 minutes from where I work, so I walked there after class. The timing was such that I arrived just before 5:00, so when I saw both butcheries closed, there was one saving grace: perhaps it was still siesta. Siesta in Madrid isn’t as big a deal as I thought last time: stores close from 2-5 and the pace might relax a bit, but for the most part life goes on. The biggest adjustment to Spanish scheduling is the “dinner past 10 pm” standard, and that’s not so bad either since everybody stays out later.
In this case, I hoped that the reason Carniceria Elias showed no signs of its existence beyond its name on the awning, with metal doors rolled down over the windows like on a garage, was the siesta. Carniceria Shalom was in a similar state, but the garage windows didn’t go all the way to the ground, which gave me hope that they were preparing to open at 5.
A few loops around the neighborhood and a purchase of a small bag of chips later, I returned to the places in question. Though it was indeed after 5, Elias showed no further hints of life, and Shalom’s garage windows did not creep up an inch. That doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t open at 5:14, right after I left; Madrid is not considered to be the most punctual place.
But leave I did, because I didn’t want to wait around forever, and because I had a new hint for my search at ol’ El Corte Ingles. Apparently, right next to that very fish section I had passed with pinched nostrils and nary a glance three days before, there was the kosher section. Well, if anywhere in Madrid would have matzah, presumably it’d be the one El Corte Ingles that had a kosher section.
There was no walking from where I was to El Corte Ingles, but I did it anyway. A few minutes to the paseo, and then a 20-minute stroll along the paseo until I got to the familiar green pennant signs. I had a familiarity with the layout and with the supermarket, so I entered with a plan. Past the produce, ignore the sweets, and blammo! There was the fish counter, and indeed right next to it was an island of kosher goods.
On top of that island were packs of matzah. Big packs. In fact, double packs of matzah. They weren’t selling single boxes – you had to buy two, for about 8 turkeys, as they were imported too. Usually, slightly more than one box is enough for me for the week. Here we were almost halfway through the week, and I was in a final dilemma. Get the double box and surely have a surplus of matzah, or buy a small box of matzah crackers or bite-sized matzah pieces that would likely run out before the end of Passover but cost half as much? Well, at the risk of perpetuating ill-fitting stereotypes, I went with the small box. After all, I made it the first two days of Passover without matzah. I could probably make the last two, and then not have to worry about extras.
Back in high school, my friend Pete, a big Texan, and I had a tradition where every Passover he would ceremoniously take a piece of matzah from the cafeteria and break it over my face. Actually, he’d do that more than once during the week. It was all in great fun, and there was plenty of matzah to go around for such foolishness.
Now, I realize that the substance can at times be quite a luxury. I walked to the metro from El Corte Ingles with my bag of matzah and chocolate (I was running low), and a big smile on my face, knowing I wouldn’t have the chance to waste this matzah similarly, but that at least I found some. And I knew that thin salty unleavened bread would never taste so good as this time.
And so, all came to a happy end. Matzah and nutella is a great mix, I found a bridge to carry through Passover and uphold tradition, and things got messy in only the best of ways. For your viewing amusement: