Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Estaca Stories - There's An Alien On My Plate!

I was sent to Estaca when I was 19 years old.  Prior to that, I had lived in Texas and had only traveled to  New Mexico, Florida, and a short visit to Juarez, Mexico.  All of those trips occurred before I was a teen.  My point here is I was by no means an experienced global or even regional traveler when I joined the Air Force.

Raised in Texas, I was fed a pretty basic meat and potatoes diet.  I wasn't what I would call a picky eater, but like most kids, there where things I just couldn't stomach.  My mom was a hard working single mother who was raising three children without any external financial help.  Money was tight and with the exception of liver, she had little tolerance for captious appetites.  Dinner was dinner and we ate what was served or we didn't eat. Despite this edict, I still grew up with an aversion to seafood.  With the exception of salmon croquettes and tuna, we weren't served fish often.  At least the salmon had a crust and I could smother it in ketchup to choke it down.  I was lucky to have two older sisters who were good cooks.

Fast forward to 1982 and teleport to the other side of the planet.  Estaca was located in Puerto De Bares on the northwest corner of Spain in a region known as Galicia.  Bares was a fishing village and as such, fish was on the menu of damn near every meal, damn near every day.  It became clear to me that I would have to learn to like fish or eat only the food Vic cooked in the site dining hall.  In Galicia, it seemed like nobody ate supper before 9:00 in the evening and when supper was served, it was an event complete with wine, bread, wine, grilled veggies, wine, soup, and wine.   Oh yeah; and fish. There was one particular restaurant in Bares that the guys from the site frequented.  It was a quaint little hole in the wall with just two tables.  It was actually part of someone's house and I'm pretty sure they just cooked in their home kitchen and served it to us.  They loved the Americans.  We called before we arrived, were always polite, we did our best to speak Spanish to them, and we tipped well.  As such, they always did their best to accommodate us.  Whenever any of us showed up, they would bring out the condimentos Americano (American condiments) consisting of Heinz 57, A1, and ketchup.  It didn't matter if we were only ordering soup and bread, they always brought out the sauces.
Estaca was a remote tour, meaning the military would not fund travel or other expenses for families to live there.  Estaca was also one of the most picturesque and economical military locations in Europe and several site personnel opted to bring their spouses over on their own dime.  I was newly married when I arrived and spent a couple of months there solo before flying my wife over.  While I was on my own, I would tag along whenever anyone went into Bares for dinner.  The extracurricular activities on the site only held my attention for so long and getting away, even if just to someone's tiny kitchen restaurant, was a welcome diversion.  I found also that I could get pork almost as readily as I could get fish.  Suffice to say, I did not starve.  I did, however somehow acquire a taste for calamari.  The lady who cooked it at the Bares restaurant had some secret formula for the most amazing batter.  We were all too afraid to ask what the recipe was.  Nevertheless, they were like super delicious spicy onion rings, only somewhat more chewy.

Time passed and I managed to save enough cash to buy my wife a ticket to fly over to Spain.  I also picked up a disposable car and rented a place for us to live.  She was raised a military brat and and as such, had lived on Air Force bases in the US and in Asia.  Still, none of that could have prepared her for the life road on which we were about to embark.  She braved the long TWA flight to Madrid and then caught a connection to La Coruña.  After those twelve hours came the three hour ride in a pickup truck to Bares and up the mountain to Estaca with myself and our driver Pepe.  As the truck crested the hill and the site came into view, the conversation between she and I went something like this:

"There it is!" I said.
"There what is?"  she replied.
"The site."
"What site? Where?"
 "Down that hill.  Those white buildings."


This wasn't going as well as I expected.  Looking back, I suppose she felt the same way.  She left the modern world of Dallas, her family, and all her friends at eighteen years of age and found herself immersed in a world seemingly devoid of color, wherein we drove past old men walking oxen carts along the side of single lane dirt and tar roads with the ultimate destination being what appeared to her to be an abandoned trailer park.  I remember thinking to myself what's the big deal?  I realize now why it was no big deal to me.  I had been to boot camp and tech school and basically in a state of instability for the previous eight months.  I was accustomed to change.

Nevertheless, she persevered and after she regained the power of speech, we settled in.  I was desperate to impress her and show her things about the area that weren't so ancient.  I figured a nice dinner out with local flavor would be a good start.  She loved seafood, so the regular place in Bares seemed like the perfect spot.  After all, what better way to impress a woman than with an exotic European dinner in a restaurant with two tables in the corner of what appeared to be some stranger's home kitchen.  I quietly hoped that the familiar sights of Heinz ketchup and A1 on the table might help.

There were no menus.  On any given evening, they just told you what they could cook, although sometimes they would write it out on a chalk board.  Spoken or written; it was really irrelevant because my Spanish then was about as fluent as Al Gore's Latin.  The language barrier notwithstanding, I thought I knew what to order because I have been there so many times before.  I glanced at my pocket Spanish/English dictionary, looked up a translation for squid, and in my best Euro stud Rico Suave demeanor spoke "Vino rojo, caldo Gallego, y chipirones para dos, por favor."  I intended to order red wine, a popular local soup, and those delicious spicy onion ring style pieces of squid skirt.  The soup was a great appetizer and red wine is red wine (to me, anyway).  While we waited on the main course, I bragged about how wonderful the chipirones were going to taste.

It was turning out to be a nice evening out on our first "date" in Spain.  Then the server returned to our table with a plate of...something.  I was expecting this:

But what was served looked more like this:

I remember the look on my wife's face. I can only imagine the look on mine.  Up to this point, Long John Silvers was about as sophisticated as my seafood pallet got (calamari notwithstanding).  Both were crispy fried and could be dipped in ketchup.  My wife had lived in Japan as a child and was actually a fan of nasty seafood crap.  Still, even she wasn't going to eat this.  I commented something like "this isn't what I wanted".  Her face sported a "no shit!" look.  We were both reminded of the movie "Alien".  Sure enough, there was an alien on our plate.

Had this occurred in the States, we would have just got up and left it there.  But, the culture in Galicia is different.  Cooking is an art form and serving and seeing it enjoyed is a source of pride for the locals.  I'm not sure how well we hid our emotions, or if we were able to at all.  I'm just glad neither of us barfed.  One thing was clear, there was not enough A1 or ketchup in the entire country of Spain to make either of us eat that tentacle-laden pile of afterbirth that was placed before us.  The problem was this was a common place for the Estaca crew to eat.  We would be back and they would remember us.  To some degree, Americans stuck out in a crowd there.  But in a village that small, a young, big-boobed, petite, hot blonde stood out like like a pecker in a women's locker room.  Realizing this, I knew we couldn't just leave the corpses there in the plate without offending the proprietor.  We sat and thought over it long enough to burn sufficient time to appear to have actually eaten them and then wrapped them into napkins and stuffed them into my wife's purse.  Once safely outside the restaurant, we discreetly dumped the bugs (and probably her purse too) and went back to our apartment.

We did go back to the restaurant regularly, but we went with others from the site who could help us avoid ordering intestines or some other nasty crap.  We told the others at Estaca what had happened and it was as funny to them as it had become to us by then.  I was told that we should have left certain pieces of the squids on the plate because they're not generally eaten by humans.  Lord only knows what they thought when we left.

For what it's worth, I still don't like fish!