One rainy evening in the summer of 1994, sitting cross-legged and looking over the mouth of the Kenai river in Alaska as a rusty fishing boat swung on its mooring, I ate cold uncooked Ramen noodles with my fingers. After sprinkling on the Oriental Flavor powdered spice pack, I poured over it a can of cold tomato sauce and began to crunch away and pondered where it all went wrong.
It was always raining there, a place locally known as Tent City in Kenai, a collection of cannery workers where old growth evergreens waved their branches over the ash-colored bluffs at beginning of the Pacific Ocean and the end of the southernmost end of the Kenai Peninsula. I had $4.oo in my pocket and I lived under a tarp tied to my Volkswagen Beetle. I had so little money, that the $5.50 to refill the propane stove tank to properly cook that packet of noodles was out of the question.
But there was good conversation. I had been working alongside my cousin, at a fish processing factory called Salamatof Seafoods, and we had plenty to talk about. The guy who got $5,000 from the company for getting his pinky sucked up in the fish hold while he was feeding salmon through the suction tube at the dock. How locals caught giant chinook salmon by going to where the river met the ocean and posting two sticks in the sand with a net between them and waiting for the outgoing tide to rush out and press the helpless fish against the net until they were lying on the bare sand. About the only marginally attractive girl in the town of Kenai, a (hopefully) 18-year-old blonde named Sadie, who would wear tight acid-washed jeans and conspicuously mingle around the campfires of horny fishermen and drink tall cans of Miller Lite and participate in conversations about the down side of crabbing and the accuracy of the Farmer’s Almanac. And how we would, as a special treat for ourselves, smuggle King Salmon out of the cannery in the legs of our rain slicks and bring them up to the campfire, wrap them in foil and pour salt and beer over them and pull chunks out of the fish with our hands like Vikings.
But I remember that cold, bland meal of Ramen, and not because it was simply a cold, inedible cup of desperate food, but because at that time, under the rain tapping on the blue tarp above my head, next to the cold, grey Pacific, and among the mossy trees, I had someone to talk to, someone to laugh with and complain about the silliness of life.
My cousin and I had driven 2633 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico to the docks of Seward, Alaska in search of adventure and a job by the sea. We had shared the discomforts and euphoria of independent, long-distance travel. And when we sat down to reflect and evaluate, there were the stories and endless anecdotes to fill an evening and add to the memory bank of life.
I tend to think that an indicator of a well-lived life is the amount of good days that one has accumulated at the end of it all. At the risk of being too scientific about it, such a well-lived life may be a function of the collected minutes of simple happiness one has proactively facilitated. Sometimes you have to make it happen. Sometimes it happens to you. Sometimes the opportunity is lost forever. For me, the antithesis of these collected happy minutes with other people are usually filled with too much caffeine, alcohol, and boredom. But I have found that the Spanish make it easy to avoid these solitary tendencies.
I have said before that one safe generalization about Spanish culture is the propensity to enjoy the simple moment. Madrid is a city full of busy people walking around doing busy things. But on a warm Saturday afternoon (and well into the night) one finds terraces and parks full of people talking and sharing with nothing but a simple tapa presented almost as an after-thought, along with a beer, or wine, or Fanta, and their own stories about the week. I have found this cafe culture elsewhere around the Mediterranean, and each time I rediscover it, I feel like I am remembering some faded, happy memory from a past life.
Yes, it is a simple observation that may not even deserve mention. People eat and drink all the time.
But add a wonderful companion to the already excellent cuisine in this country, and it is possible to discover that a simple lunch can be dangerously close to a life-long memory. I used to make fun of people who take pictures of food and post them on the Facebook. But now I can’t even count how many times I’ve gotten out my iPhone and snapped a shot of a dish of cocido madrileño or fabada. I took a picture of a vodka tonic the other day, for God’s sake.
So it seems to me that sometimes life is clarified when placed in the context of these contrasts of experience. I have hand-washed myself in a cold lake with sand, and brushed my teeth with my finger because I didn’t have a toothbrush or toothpaste. But I have also eaten both beluga and osetra caviar while stuffing myself with king crab legs, New Zealand green-lipped mussels, red-wine braised duck and a 1990 Perrier Jouet. I prefer the duck, but all these experiences are tied together and given meaning when there are other people to share it with. And sometimes the company even makes the food and drink irrelevant.
I have had a bottle of wine alone. I have had a bottle of wine with friends. It wouldn’t take Anthony Bourdain to guess which one tasted better. And it is refreshing to realize that these experiences can be found in a living room in Amarillo, Texas, on a Tobago beach, on a dusty stretch of the Alaska-Canada Highway, on a sunny terrace in Madrid, in a dark, sub-arctic tavern with peanut shells covering the floor, floating on a 39-foot catamaran somewhere in the Atlantic between St. Helena and Brazil, or at warm restaurant table next to the sea in Palma de Mallorca.