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Stories About Spain

Sharing My Love for the People of Spain

Written by: Don Harris

Don Harris receiving the Cross of Civil MeritLast month I received one of the most meaningful recognitions of my life. My family and I were at the Spanish Embassy in Washington, DC where the Ambassador presented me with the Cross of Civil Merit, awarded by the King of Spain for "extraordinary services promoting the people, culture and foods of Spain here in the United States."

What made it especially satisfying was that it confirms and recognizes the special love I have long held for the Spanish people and their way of life. Because my life has been made so much richer by doing so, I have encouraged my friends in America to get to meet the people of Spain, if not in person, then at least through the foods they enjoy.

My October reflection, Letters from Valencia, explained how, as a child, I began to perceive something of the Spanish culture through the emotional and mystical paintings of El Greco, and the many faces of Spaniards he portrayed. Fifteen years later, in Toledo, when I mingled with the people of El Greco’s “hometown,” my perception was confirmed. For me, to experience the warmth and acceptance of another person is what trumps all other factors, and this I found among the Spanish people.

It all started back in March 1965 when my ship, the USS Damato (DD871) was tied up along the pier so that the ship’s company might enjoy the festivities surrounding Las Fallas – an amazing extravaganza of food, bonfires and firecrackers.

I was a new young chaplain on board my first Navy ship, and at the end of the day’s work, I would walk the streets along the waterfront of Valencia, hoping to meet some of the local people. I recently retrieved some old letters written to my wife Ruth 45 years ago which described my first encounters with young Spaniards. I would like to share parts of them with you. I wrote to Ruth:

I met some really great teenage kids at the game room/jukebox-type place. We got to be really good friends in the few days we were together, and I got to learn a lot about the people. Juan is 19; he works in construction during the day, goes to art school at night. He took me to his school and introduced me to his teachers. The subjects included sculpture, woodcarving, charcoal, oil painting, stained-glass window making, commercial art and metalwork.

A little 12-year-old took me to a store that concentrates on handmade religious art and I got a really swinging {sic} abstract crucifix made by a Catalan. The other boy is 18, works as a chauffeur during the day, and studies mechanical drawing and architecture at night. He also is a fine kid...
Don Harris receiving the Cross of Civil Merit
These encounters made a lasting impression on me. First, I felt so hopeful seeing the resilience of the Spanish youth. 1965 was still hard times for many people in Spain, both emotionally and economically, as their families were trying to put their lives back together after a hateful civil war. There were many older women dressed in black, mourning losses in their families. Yet these young people were industrious and optimistic. An 18-year-old boy working as a chauffeur found time to study architecture at night; the 19-year-old followed up a hard day’s work in the construction industry by enrolling in art school to do what he loved.

More than that, the Spanish young people were genuinely warm and welcoming toward me, a perfect stranger. I especially liked the little boy who took me to a beautiful store full of handmade sculptures, undoubtedly made locally. I still display a cross from that store on my wall at home. (I do not know in my more dignified years that I would call it "a swinging cross," but it is dramatic in its simple line.) I truly enjoyed my interactions with this group of young people.

Later in the evening, each night I moved on to a fine little hideaway called Casa Angel, which is a small place like Giovanni’s by the North Gate in Berkeley. There were a lot of young people from their early to late 20s there: an engineer who had lived in New York for a year, a French girl who was sort of tired of France who came down to learn the language, another French girl with about the same motivation, many Spanish girls who work in the various shops around town, a couple of art students.

(There were) many Spanish men from various schools and jobs including a man named Francisco who was an artisan during the day and loved to play the guitar all night long – he played Spanish, Mexican, flamenco, Andalucían, American and French songs with equal facility. {They} sat around singing songs and clapping strangely complicated Spanish rhythms. I understand that they are so complicated because they are Moorish rather than African-based rhythms.

After meeting these young Valencians, I returned to my ship and spread the word that there were young Spaniards (including señoritas) about the same age as the crew whom they would enjoy meeting at the tapas bar. It was a much better alternative than hanging out in some sailor bar. Members of the crew came with me – a few more each night – and got a true and lasting flavor of Valencia and her people. It was the first step in a lifetime of, as the award says, "Promoting the people, culture and foods of Spain."

Each evening in Valencia, I would take a half a dozen sailors with me down to this rock and roll place where they would end up meeting the Spanish teenagers and playing games with them. It was a lot of fun and educated both the groups. I then would take the sailors over to Casa Angel, where they certainly enjoyed the good music and conversation.
the Cross of Civil Merit
As the evening wore on, sometimes there would be gypsies stopping by, inevitably breaking into mournful song. Casa Angel was a friendly neighborhood bar. You might be amused by my first description of tapas:

During the evening before dinner they munch on hors d’ oeuvres or antipasto. The dishes are shrimp (small), snails, lobster, a dry salt fish, olives stuffed with anchovies, pimentos, almonds etc., squid cooked in their own ink, sausages, potato salad, oysters, tiny clams, American peanuts which we call in America Spanish peanuts, toasted almonds, etc.

By the way, an interesting tasty dish I ate as a hors d'oeuvres is called an angelito (gambas al ajillo). Maybe we can try it in Norfolk with variation.

They bake it in a small cast-iron dish about the size of the exterior measurements of the wooden ashtray at home; a mixture of small shrimp garnished with a piece of onion (sliver) a couple of pieces of sausage (pepperoni type), ample garlic and olive oil (could use butter, but they do not because it costs so much).

It is served sizzling hot with a hard roll. One tears off pieces of hard roll and sops up the liquid. By the time the juices are absorbed the bread has run out and the shrimp is cool enough to eat. I forgot a most important ingredient: cayenne pepper – this is one of their few peppery dishes.

So there you have it - an art book, an awesome city and introducing American sailors to Spanish youth at a tapas bar. From those experiences my appreciation of Spain was born. As the years passed, I have met many fine people throughout Spain. I have concluded that the treasure of Spain is the family and the way they cherish their children, surrounding them with love. Nearly as important is the way family members and friends meet around the table to enjoy good food and their relationships with one another.

I am grateful that my family and I are able to work with these good people, to honor their artisan traditions through La Tienda, and to spread the word far and wide about the beauty of Spain and her culture. ¡Que viva la familia Española!

My best wishes to your family and those whom you love.


P.S. Some of you may enjoy reading my book The Heart of Spain: Families and Food. It is filled with pictures of people and places I have met and seen through the years.

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"Enhorabuena por el merecido reconocimiento a su gran labor de promover la cultura, gastronomía y belleza de España a través de "la Tienda" y sus productos, sus libros y apoyo a muchos pequeños artesanos. Sr. Harris le deseo muchos años de felicidad para que pueda seguir esta gran labor.Atentamente, una de sus clientes de hace años .Clara de Barcelona"
November 2012

"Dear Clara, Thank you for your kind comments and for the many years we have been in contact as together we enjoy the ambiente of Expaña. I hope to be writing for many years to come, God willing."

"I think that this is wonderful. Congratulations. My father was from Spain. Asturias - and I feel my heritage down to the cellular level as you can imagine. I love your products and have turned many people here in the United States onto your authentic Spanish products. I especially love that your lines have grown with more natural and organic products. Thank you for your commitment to quality and also thank you for promoting Spain in all her glory!"
November 2012

"Dear Cynthia, As you can imagine, it is with joy and great satisfaction that I write about España. Thank you for taking the time to write about your experience. You are just the person I am pleased to reach."

"What a great rememberance and it triggered some memories of my own. During 2009 and 2010 we lived in Oviedo, Asturias while I was working on a nearby project. There is a bar there, Casa Pachu's, on Calle Alphonoe XIII, el Magno, very similar to the one you experienced in Valencia. It had the most eclectic group of patrons I have ever experienced in one place. There were doctors, lawyers, architects, shop owners, taxi drivers, construction workers, some students, retirees, and on and on. My wife and I spent many a pleasent evening there talking with the patrons and drinking wine. It was also one of the few bars in Asturias that did not serve cidere (cider) which is the provincial drink of Asturias (and I never developed a taste for it - one of the few things Spanish that I didn't enjoy.)"
November 2012

"Hi Pat, Thank you for your reflection on life in Oviedo. I think you captured the ambiance of a local tapas bar! Such a variety and a feeling of equality - a neighborliness which is not affected by artificial social distinctions. (Almost the same feeling one gets at Fenway Park!! - but that would be stretching it, wouldn't it?)"

"I love reading accounts of real life events that affect a person's life. I am sure the Spaniards that met you took home similar warm feelings. It is always good to treat everyone with kindness and interest -- one reaps so much from it! God bless."
November 2012

"Dear Marilyn, you are absolutely on target. When you treat others with kindness and respect, it is returned. This stance, which is second nature to the Spaniards I know, surely elicits a positive response and makes life a much warmer experience."

"Congratulations on a life of labor and love!!"
November 2012

"Thank you kindly, Melissa."

"Congratulations Padre, from another Spain-loving former US Sailor."
November 2012

"Hi Steve, How nice to hear from a fellow sailor - our sharing a love for Spain with the unique experience of life at sea makes our bond particularly strong. Were you ever stationed in Rota, or was it only as a Port of Call? I would love to hear from you."

"I was delighted when I read the email letting us in your "very extended family" know of this honor, Don. La Tienda is a wonderful way for me to share my adopted country with family and friends in the U.S., and your charitable work on both sides of the Atlantic are an example to us. Warmest congratulations! ¡Enhorabuena!"
November 2012

"Hola Robin, How great to hear from member of my extended family(!!) I am particularly delighted that we enable to you share Spain with your friends in the USA. How long have you lived in Spain? Maybe our paths can cross. Where do you live now? Along the extended family line of thought, tomorrow at our home in Williamsburg I will host my first cousin whom I have not seen in 60 years!! She was a pre-school girl when I last saw her!"

Your comments and observations echo my sentiments so wonderfully! I was stationed in Rota, Spain in the early 1980's and traveled extensively throughout Spain, meeting these lovely people and enjoying the tastes of unusual food and delectable wine. I met my husband Michael while there and we both feel the same way about Spain and its people, food, climate and way of life. We settled in New Mexico, which like Espana, has many of the same traditions and culture. Thank you for bringing so many wonderful memories through La Tienda!
Joan M. Pate"
November 2012

"Dear Joan, Thank you so much for your words of encouragement. Of course when I write it is to all people - but how nice to be able to connect with another's attachment to Spain and her people. Do you and your husband Michael get to return to his family now and then? "

"Dear Don,
Warm wishes and congratulations for this wonderful honor bestowed on you by the people of Spain. We have enjoyed shopping at La Tienda and love your stories and recipes. Your love of the Spanish people & culture is evident in every way. Thank you for sharing this special event with us!"
November 2012

"Dear Gary and Judy, Thank you for your note. The award was a complete surprise - which makes it even better. Special recognition aside, we love visiting Spain and her people. It warms my heart."

"Don, Amparo and I agree with you about beautiful Spain. I spent 11 of my 24 years of Naval service in Rota. As the base Dog Handler in the mid to late 70's, I loved the Spanish people, My fatehr-in law was a la Guardia Civil for 55 years and we have many, many friends there including my wife's family in Sevilla. Congrats on this well deserved honor. We love your store and appreciate your willingness to share Spain with us here in the states. God bless you and your family."
November 2012

"Dear Dan & Amparo, All those wonderful years in Rota -- we might have overlapped - my family and I left in December 1976. To have an extended family in Sevilla is an extra bonus too! I am delighted that you have found in La Tienda so many remembrances of Spain. I have a nephew who was a dog handler in Iraq looking for IED's - he was awarded a bronze star. I have great respect for all of you who have handled dogs."

"Enhorabuena!! Congratulations on your recognition and thank you for the wonderful article. I went to Spain as a youth, as well, as an 18 yr old just out of high school. I went to visit a friend that I had made who had been an exchange student in my small town, and was welcomed with open arms by all of her family and friends! The experience was amazing and laid the foundation for a lifetime of friendships and a second family. Just the trip to a new culture affected me so much, we felt it was important to have our daughter (who has now just graduated from high school) to also participate in an overseas trip, though she opted to visit Finland, to visit the family of an exchange student who stayed in my home when I was a very young girl. No matter the country, the young people find a way to communicate and enjoy each other. I wish we could all find more comfort and commonalities with each other as the youth of our world do! Blessings, Jenny"
November 2012

"Dear Jenny, Finland is a little far from Andalucía!! But I agree - youth are more flexible - and gain a lot just by forming warm relationships. We have just hosted two young college students, Alejandro and Marta from Córdoba for Thanksgiving Week. (They are now at Loyola of Chicago for a year.) The way they blended in with us, our children and grandchildren was such a joy. "

"I live in NY but have a home in Spain, in Asturias. We go every summer where I am blessed to be surrounded by family and friends and a rich cultural heritage. My roots are Spanish and Cuban - my great grandfather was from Galicia - and the other side of my tree has Rioja/Asturian roots. To this day I enjoy all the traditions as passed on by my family and my children are growing up with them too. I would love for you to visit us in Asturias and experience some fabulous home cooked cuisine! I have family in Burgos, Oviedo, Madrid and Logrono. Pick a city and we would love to have you and La Tienda visit us! Congratulations on your award and for spotlighting such a magical place that is Spain for others to enjoy.

Gloria "
November 2012

"Ruth and I would love to take you up on your invitation. We have visited two friends who live in Cangas de Onis during the winter and spring. He is a retired professor from U of Chicago. Next March we will be experiencing Semana Santa in little medieval villages in Castilla and the week before wandering around Galicia or Asturias. Probably you don't get to get over to Spain until the summer. Thank you for your hospitality. Maybe something will work out."

"It would have been appropriate to give the name of the Spanish ambassador in the article rather than just addressing him as the Spanish Ambassador."
November 2012

"Hi Barbara,t he ambassador's name is Ramón Gil-Casares. He has recently arrived at his post in Washington and was a warm and gracious host. You can see him in the background of our award video on Tienda's YouTube page: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCpUFzJSakA"

"Heartfelt congratulations, Don! I've been following your website and watching it grow since the very early days (1998?) when a Spanish friend of mine, who now lives in New York, directed me to your website. I've sent many friends to you in the years since then, and even made a point to visit the store when I was in Virginia. You provide such a wonderful service to all of us in the US who miss the sights, smells and flavors or Spain!"
November 2012

"Thank you so much, Amanda, for your kind words. Next time you visit Williamsburg, do let me know. I would love to have a manzanilla or café con leche with you."

"Congratulations, Don, on your wonderful honor! It's also great reading of your experiences in Spain. They bring to mind many of my own. What a special place, special people, indeed! Thank you!"
November 2012

"Hola Danielle, thanks for your message. The honor was very affirming, of course, being immersed in Spain all these years is a reward in and of itself. I think you know what I mean as you reference your own fond memories. You really need to return for a couple of weeks. Off season the airfare is somewhat manageable -- and the weather is often better. We are allergic to the herded tourists and normally travel March-May and mid September on. You will never regret it -- even if it means you have to eat peanut butter sandwiches to make up for the plane ticket!"

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Compartiendo mi Cariño por los Españoles

Don Harris receiving the Cross of Civil MeritEl mes pasado recibí uno de los reconocimientos más significativos de mi vida. Mi familia y yo estuvimos presentes en la embajada española en Washington DC, donde el embajador me galardonó con la Cruz al Mérito Civil, una condecoración que concede el Rey de España en reconocimiento a "los servicios extraordinarios de promoción del la cultura, las gentes y la gastronomía de España aquí en los Estados Unidos."

Lo que hizo que esta ocasión fuese especialmente gratificante para mi es que confirma y reconoce ese cariño tan especial que llevo sintiendo desde hace mucho tiempo por los españoles y su forma de vida. Mi existencia se ha enriquecido gracias a ello. He animado a mis amigos americanos a acercarse a conocer a los españoles, si no en persona, al menos por medio de su gastronomía.

En mis reflexiones de octubre (Cartas desde Valencia) explicaba como ya desde niño había tenido mi primera toma de contacto con la cultura española a través de las obras místicas de El Greco y a través de los muchos rostros de españoles que éste reflejaba en sus obras. Quince años después, en Toledo, cuando me mezclé con la gente de la ciudad en la que había vivido El Greco, mi percepción se confirmó. Para mi, experimentar el calor y la aceptación de otra persona sobrepasa cualquier otra cosa, y eso es lo que he encontrado entre los españoles.

Todo empezó en marzo de 1965 cuando mi barco , el USS Damato (DD871) estaba anclado en el puerto para que la tripulación pudiese disfrutar de las fiestas organizadas con motivo de las Fallas, un impresionante despliegue de comida, hogueras y petardos.

Era yo entonces un joven y nuevo capellán a bordo de mi primer barco de la marina. Al final de un día de trabajo, me puse a caminar por las calles aledañas al puerto de Valencia, con la esperanza de toparme con gente de la zona. Hace poco recuperé algunas antiguas cartas de hace 45 años destinadas a mi esposa. Estas cartas describen mis primeros encuentros con jóvenes españoles. Me gustaría compartir parte de ellas con vosotros. Le escribía a Ruth:

He conocido a unos adolescentes realmente agradables en una especie de local de juegos y música. Nos hemos hecho muy amigos en los pocos días que hemos pasado juntos y he podido conocer un montón de cosas sobre la gente del lugar. Juan tiene 19 años. Trabaja en la construcción durante el día y va a la escuela de artes y oficios por la noche. Me ha llevado a su escuela y me ha presentado a sus profesores. Sus asignaturas incluyen escultura, ebanistería, carboncillo, pintura al oleo, fabricación de vidrieras, arte comercial, artesanía en metal…

Un chavalín de doce años me ha llevado a una tienda que se dedica al arte religioso artesano y me he hecho con un crucifijo oscilante abstracto fabricado por una catalán. El otro chico tiene 18 años y trabaja de conductor durante el día y estudia dibujo técnico y arquitectura por la noche. También es un chico muy majo...
Don Harris receiving the Cross of Civil Merit
Estos encuentros causaron una impresión que perduró en mi. Al principio, me sentí esperanzado al ver la capacidad de superación de la juventud española. 1964 seguía siendo una época muy dura para mucha gente en España, tanto emocional como económicamente, ya que muchas familias intentaban reconstruir sus vidas después de una terrible guerra civil. Había muchas señoras mayores vestidas de negro guardando luto por alguna perdida en la familia. Sin embargo la gente joven era trabajadora y optimista. Un chico de 18 años que trabajaba como conductor encontraba tiempo para estudiar arquitectura por las noches. Otro joven de 19 años continuaba su dura jornada laboral en la construcción yendo a la escuela de artes y oficios para hacer lo que le gustaba.

Y lo que es más, los jóvenes españoles eran genuinamente afectuosos y acogedores conmigo, un perfecto extraño. Me causó especial sensación aquel niño pequeño que me llevó a una bonita tienda llena de esculturas hechas a mano y sin lugar a dudas elaboradas en la misma ciudad. Aún sigo teniendo una cruz de esa tienda puesta en la pared de mi casa. (No se me ocurre ahora en esta etapa más serena de mi vida como lo puede describir como “crucifijo oscilante” pero es cierto que sus simples líneas destilan dramatismo.) Realmente disfruté del contacto con este grupo de jóvenes.

Cada noche a última hora me pasaba por un local llamado Casa Ángel, que es un sitio pequeño como el Giovanni’s de la North Gate de Berkeley. Había muchos jóvenes veinteañeros en aquel lugar: un ingeniero que había vivido un año en Nueva York, una chica francesa que estaba cansada de estar en Francia y había venido a aprender el idioma, otra chica francesa con más o menos la misma motivación, muchas chicas españolas que trabajaban en las diferentes tiendas de la ciudad, un par de estudiantes de arte.

Había muchos chicos españoles de diferentes escuelas y con diferentes trabajos, entre ellos un hombre llamado Francisco, que era artesano durante el día y se pasaba las noches enteras tocando la guitarra. Tocaba canción españolas, mexicanas, flamencas, americanas y francesas con igual soltura. Todos se sentaban en coro cantando canciones y dando palmas con un ritmo español muy complicado. Tengo entendido que son tan complicados por que son ritmos moros y no africanos.

Después de conocer a estos jóvenes valencianos, volví a mi barco y corrí la voz de que había jóvenes españoles, incluidas algunas señoritas, de aproximadamente la misma edad que los miembros de nuestra tripulación, y a los que seguro disfrutarían conociendo en el bar de tapas. Era una alternativa mucho mejor que pasar el rato en un bar de marineros. Algunos miembros de la tripulación vinieron conmigo, cada noche se unían unos cuantos más, y se llevaron un auténtico y duradero sabor de Valencia y de su gente. Fue el primer paso de una vida dedicada a, como dice el premio que he recibido, “promover la gente, la cultura y la gastronomía de España.“

Cada noche en Valencia, me llevaba a media docena de marineros a los locales de rock and roll y allí acababan conociendo a adolescentes españoles y compartían juegos con ellos. Era muy divertido y enriquecía a ambos grupos. Luego me los llevaba a Casa Ángel, donde disfrutaban de la buena música y de la conversación.
the Cross of Civil Merit
A medida que pasaba la noche, a veces algunos gitanos se pasaba por ahí interpretando inevitablemente su canciones lastimeras. Casa Ángel era un bar de barrio muy agradable. Puede que os divierta mi primera descripción de las tapas:

Por la tarde, antes de cenar, picotean entremeses o antipastos. Sus platos consisten en gambas pequeñas, caracoles, langosta, un pescado seco salado, aceitunas rellenas de anchoas, pimientos, almendras, etc, pulpo hecho en su propia tinta, longaniza, ensaladilla, ostras, chopitos, cacahuetes americanos que ellos llaman cacahuetes españoles de América, almendras tostadas, etc.

Por cierto, un plato interesante y sabroso que tomé como entrante se llama gambas al ajillo. Lo mismo lo podemos intentar hacer en Norfolk adaptándolo un poco. Las hacen en un pequeño plato de hierro, más o menos del tamaño del cenicero de madera que tenemos en casa; una mezcla de gambas pequeñas aderezadas con un trozo de cebolla, unos trozos de longaniza, mucho ajo y aceite de oliva (se puede usar mantequilla pero no lo hacen porque cuesta muchísimo).

Se sirve muy caliente con un bollo de pan. Uno parte el pan en trozos y lo moja en la salsa. Cuando se acaba la salsa, ya te has quedado sin pan y las gambas están a una temperatura ideal para comérselas. Se me olvida un ingrediente: la guindilla. Este es uno de los pocos platos picantes que tienen.

Pues aquí lo tenéis. Un libro de arte, una ciudad excepcional e iniciar a jóvenes marineros americanos en el mundo de los bares de tapas. De estas experiencias nació mi cariño por España. A medida que iban pasando los años, iba conociendo a mucha gente buena en España. He llegado a la conclusión de que el tesoro de España es la familia, y la forma que tienen de valorar a sus hijos y rodearles con amor. Casi tan importante como la forma que tienen las familias y los amigos de sentarse a la mesa a disfrutar de una buena comida y de sus relaciones.

Estoy muy agradecido de que me familia y yo podamos trabajar con estas buenas gentes y honrar sus tradiciones artesanales a través de La Tienda. Y de ir corriendo la voz a lo largo y ancho de este mucho de lo bonita que es España y su cultura. ¡Que viva la familia española!

Mis mejores deseos para vuestras familias y seres queridos.

P.D. Puede que a alguno de vosotros os guste el libro The Heart of Spain: Families and Food (El corazón de España: familias y gastronomía). Esta plagado de fotos de gente y lugares que he conocido y visitado a lo largo de los años.

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