For my study abroad class, our professor created our schedule in such a way we have all of our Fridays off – one of the numerous reasons why I adore this professor. He’s from the Imperial Valley Campus of SDSU, which is two hours away from the main campus I attend. I came into this study abroad trip blind, not knowing any of the other students and not knowing the professor. However, he and all of my peers far surpassed any expectation I previously set up for myself.
One of the highlights of this trip, by far, is one simple Friday.
It began rather late for us at 10 a.m., when our program directors picked us up in a coach bus. After two weeks in which walking was our primary mode of transportation, we all welcome the reprieve with limp bodies. Once we settled in to the bus, each commandeering an entire row to ourselves, we learned we were being joined by another program, a group of students from Ohio State University. I chatted with them briefly a few days before when we all agglomerated together to watch the Spain vs. Italy soccer match at a local bar. They were pleasant and exciting, so I was thrilled to know we would have another chance to interact with them.
Now the bus packed full, with some students sitting in the aisles, we set off for first destination of the day, Albufera. After a 25 minute bus ride, we found ourselves on the side of the largest lake in Spain, surrounded by swampy marsh, reminiscent of what one imagines Florida to look like, humidity and all.
The tour guides took us out on two large traditional fishing boats. Here we enjoyed a time of serenity, participating in little conversations, taking pictures and watching out for the views. It was stunning.
Following the boat tour, we took a few minutes to eat some snacks before making our way to the second destination, the one we all anticipated the entire trip: Toni Montoliu’s restaurant. We had a paella cooking class on the agenda!
Initially, I expected the whole activity to last maybe two hours, three tops. I had no idea in actuality what we were in for. My oh my was I delightfully surprised.
To start, Toni Montiliu himself (who is an altogether kind and lovely man) took us around his restaurant. Set in the off skirts of Valencia, it seems like a hassle to arrive here, but after the day I experienced, I’d happily make the drive.
First, he went around to show us his backyard, which doubles as an open kitchen.
His dogs and kittens roamed about as well, which made me both ecstatic and sad, for I am missing my own cat. This filled the void for a bit though as we all chased them about to pet them. In addition to the domestic animals, he also had donkeys, horses, goats (my personal favorite), rabbits and chickens.
Just beyond the livestock were rows and rows of fresh vegetation. Here he told us to go out and each pick fresh tomatoes for our paella dish. I was amazed that not only did he trust us to pick apart his field, but he encouraged us to search and search to find the perfect ones.
He spared no indulgence for us, and this was my first taste of that! After the tomatoes, we also picked out green beans.
Vegetables picked and ingredients prepared, the cooking began! Since there was a large group of us, only so many could remain in the kitchen. Cooking paella takes a great deal of time, so everyone had their adequate share of time. While others were in the kitchen learning all of the tricks and stirring the large skillets, the staff made our stay with them incredibly comfortable.
They provided horse drawn carriages leading around the other buildings of traditional architecture. Fresh drinks, alcohol, nuts and dip were provided to awaken our rumbling stomachs, holding us over until the real meal. Tables were set out with masses of chairs. Everyone had their place and I had some of the best conversations during this time. I took the time to speak with my professor. Since he comes from the Imperial Valley Campus, I wanted to get to know him better – all but four of us on the trip come from the Imperial Valley Campus as well, and have established a relationship with him. We got to chat about writing and literature, my favorite topics. It was splendid.
When the paella neared its full preparation, Toni Montoliu called people up to ask if they wanted to taste test the broth. I’m telling you, he treated us like royalty! As each person slurped their spoon, I saw his eyes watching them, waiting for their response. He’s the kind of man you know just adores his job and really does perform in his passion every day. It’s the kind of person I hope I’m becoming myself.
Ready for this? Dinner was a 10-course meal. Not kidding.
- Loaves of bread
- White bean hummus + more bread
- Valencian salad
- Bravas with All i Oli (deep fried potatoes with a garlic and olive oil sauce, reminded me of mayonnaise)
- Paella (included escargot, rabbit, chicken and vegetables + paella rice)
- Caramelized pumpkin
- Fresh melon
- Coffee and liquors
These weren’t meager portions either. We all stuffed ourselves silly. I wasn’t a fan of everything placed out before us, but I tried it all, and it was overwhelmingly delicious. The paella won the afternoon for me though. Silly me. I came into this trip thinking I detested rice. Oh how wrong I was. I’m now obsessed with it. Coming in second was the Bravas with All i Oli.
Our meal took over two hours to finish, which helped with the considerably generous amount of food given to us. The fun didn’t stop there though.
At some point during the meal, Toni Montoliu came over and asked us, “¿Estás listo para cantar para nosotros?” Now, my Spanish is not the greatest, but I know that cantar means to sing. Our table of girls all laughed him off, thinking he was kidding.
Thankfully, a hilariously gregarious girl from Ohio State got the ball rolling. Soon enough, everyone was singing the classics of our childhood. Our professor even busted out a Red Hot Chili Peppers tune, winning the approval of all the OSU students. Yeah, we’re pretty lucky to have him.
Somehow, the singing turned into dancing. I don’t consider myself a good dancer in the slightest, but the chefs wouldn’t take no for an answer. One of them taught me how to dance in the middle of the restaurant. I was completely out of my comfort zone, but I have to say, it was one of the best moments of my life. I let go of the silly boundaries I set up for myself in how I need to present myself to the world.
I just lived and enjoyed. Something I need to do more often. Not just here in Spain.
Days like this are what I love most about Spain – how quaint and quiet a day can be, yet I shuffle into my upholstered bed at the turn of an all-too-late hour, utterly exhausted, with a warm heart, full belly, and the trace of my lingering smile calming me to sleep.
Julia Grigorian double majoring in English and religious studies with the intent on pursuing a doctorate in early Christianity and Judaism. She is blogging this summer from Valencia, Spain.