‘Second Chances’ – Short Story

By Nora Vasconcelos

It had been 10 years since I had been here the last time.

The city looked cleaner and bigger. Somehow, more modern, even when all the colonial buildings that mixed the best of the old Spanish and Mexican architecture were still standing around the small central park.

Certainly the main buildings had been cleaned up, and I should say, they looked majestic. New plant stands had been set along the City Hall and some floor to ceiling windows had been added to the office destined to greet tourists.

In the park, things remained the same as I remembered them. A big fountain in the middle of the square, splashing water to all people who walked close by. The tall trees seemed to play with the soft breeze, their branches moving from one side to the other, causing ghostly shadows to reflect on the pavement, giving the whole place an interesting contrast that made dark and sunny areas mix in a unique combination.

My walk across the park took less than ten minutes until I reached one of the galleries that were formed between the space left by the inside buildings and the arches that ran all along the main square, those that people in Puebla called Los Arcos.

Fearing the place wouldn’t be there any more, I walked faster the last steps before reaching it. Lucky for me, it was still open for business.

La cazuela –the cooking pot– was one of the many little restaurants that served locals and tourists some of the best typical dishes for which Puebla was well known around Mexico and in several countries around the world.

The feature dish mole poblano, was often known by foreigners as chicken in chocolate sauce, which I always found a bit funny because, being a Mexican to me chocolate sauce sounded more like a liquid preparation you add to your dessert and not something you have for your main course. And that was the funniest thing, the dish in fact had chicken, or turkey, in it, but the sauce was a thick mixture of several dry chilies and spices with just a small portion of chocolate to make the hot preparation a mild one, quite tasty and not that hot after the concoction was finished.

Anyways, I wasn’t here for the famous mole, nor for the also famous chiles en nogada, the same recipe for poblano chilies stuffed with minced beef and fruits covered with walnut sauce that centuries ago was made for the first time by a group of nouns, a little after Mexico had gained its independence from Spain.

No, my purpose was not the food, although I asked for a table and checked on the menu before ordering today’s meal: arroz con pollo. Some fried rice with tomato sauce and chicken would be all what my stomach could take. My nerves were making me feel uneasy as time passed by inside the place.

Nothing had changed there. The same walls with the old paintings showing some of the passages of the history of Puebla still decorated the restaurant.

Crowded tables with colorful tablecloths in red, white and green were surrounded by hungry people who looked happy to dip their fingers along with their corn tortillas inside the thick mole preparation.

As I waited for my food, my heart started beating faster …Is he still here? I wondered. A decade had passed by since we had seen each other for the last time, and I still remembered him, the same as if it had been yesterday.

At that time, both of us were working at this same restaurant, I was a waitress, he a bartender, and as it often happens when people spend many hours together, we went from polite coworkers to best friends to couple of the year.

But us being engaged lasted less than a week. At that time, I was offered a job in California, working for a fancy food chain, and I took the chance. I knew the timing was terrible for us, but the money I’d earn would help my little brothers and sisters finish school and it’d give my folks a well-deserved rest. They had kept working for several years after their retirement age because their saving weren’t enough to feed five kids and pay for their education.

Besides, Dad’s raw materials store had to close down after a big supermarket had opened on the same street. Then all their dreams of a comfortable life at their old age disappeared. No more dreams for them to see with their own eyes the Mediterranean Sea, and no more dreams of me becoming a college girl soon to be married to a loving man.

California was the answer to all our problems. Or almost all, because secretly, I had been wishing for another gorgeous thing to happen. I knew I was ambitious, but I wished with all my heart that I could keep my new job and my beloved man. He hadn’t been offer a position, although he had applied for it at the same time I had done it.

He promised he’d found a solution but things happened too fast. One day he had looked at me as if I were the most beautiful girl in the world, the only girl in the world he wanted to marry, and the next week he was staring at me silently, with his mouth half open as if words were stuck in his throat, unable to move, unable to say good bye.

We simply stood there, right in front of each other. I had stopped by the restaurant to see him for the last time, wishing deep inside he’d change his mind, wishing he said he’d found a way to go with me, wishing he’d say he’d wait for me. But he didn’t say any of those things.

When I entered the place, carrying my suitcase, he looked at me with his deep hazel eyes and smiled at me as if the sunrise had just appeared on the horizon.

‘I’m leaving,’ I said softly, with all the strength I was able to gather.

We looked at each other for a long second that in our hearts was equal to the eternity. We didn’t speak a word and yet we said I love you to each other with our eyes, speaking in silence, all in that long lingering painful second…

‘Well, I’m leaving,’ I said, wanting so badly he reached for me. But that didn’t happened. He didn’t even say good-bye to me. He just stayed there, looking at me, intensely, as if the world were closing its curtain for the last time …and yet, he said nothing.

I walked away and as I got close to the bus stop I turned my face to see him, at least one more time. And there he was standing in the same position. He hadn’t move, he hadn’t even turned his head away, he was still there looking at me as I was leaving. And then, I left.

Ten years had passed since that day, and here I was again. Back at the same restaurant. Hoping he’d still be here.

The smells coming from the kitchen made me hungry. It was hard to resist all those aromas mixed in amusing combinations. My eyes then toured the place, looking for his familiar face. I knew I hadn’t seen him in so long but his features remained fresh on my mind, exactly the same as the last time we had seen each other.

I looked at the bar, and sighed disappointed when a bartender I didn’t recognized was serving drinks to a group of businessmen.

Probably he isn’t here any more, why should he? I though. My mood was turning as grey as the sky that was getting ready for an early rainfall.

What if he is still here and he doesn’t want to see me? May be he has a family now and he has forgotten all about me… Doubts and more doubts were all over my head. What is the point of me being here…? I wondered.

My arroz con pollo finally arrived, along with some warm tortillas, fresh guacamole made with local avocado and a sampler of different hot sauces.

I thanked the waiter, looked at my food and turned my face to the window.

The city looked truly magnificent. How much I had missed it. All those buildings made with stone blocks, the towers and domes that dominated the architecture of the place, the colours that brought to life old constructions that had been renovated. Everything reminded me of the good old times.

Are there any chances for us? I closed my eyes and sighed again. Deeper this time.

I took my fork and got it into my rice. Then I looked around one more time.

One of the small murals presented an old configuration of the city and a legend placed at the top of it that said: Puebla de los Angeles. Then I thought, if this city has always been so magical as to deserved being called in the old legends as the city that the angels built, would it be enough to make my dreams come true..?

(To be continued next Wednesday on Obinna Udenwe’s Blog: )

croosover artwork OK
* This story is part of The Crossover Mexico-Nigeria Project

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Weekly Photo: Habit

Photo by Nora Vasconcelos

Impossible to resist!
Impossible to resist!

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The Baltimore that Tom Clancy might have seen

Text and Photos by Nora Vasconcelos

Baltimore Inner Harbor by NVS
Yesterday I got deeply moved when I learned about the death of the American writer Tom Clancy, whose books, like The Hunt for the Red October and The Sum of all Fears have accompanied my reading collection for a long while.

Then, while reading on the papers the stories about his life and how much he enjoyed being a Baltimorean writer, one thought came to my mind: How many places of this beautiful American eastern city might Clancy have visited often? and I even pictured him walking around, at a slow pace, looking at the horizon with the Chesapeake bay as a background and the flickering Inner Harbor lights around him, or even jumping out of happiness while celebrating a home run at the Oriole Park.

Baltimore downtown by NVS

According to The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Clancy liked to eat at Aldo’s restaurant, in the Italian neighborhood, owned a house in Inner Harbor and enjoyed going to the Orioles baseball games.

I also imagined him observing with interest the changes that his hometown went through throughout the years, like the addition to the Baltimore National Aquarium that made it even more beautiful; the restaurants and shops that went out of business due the world financial crises, the ships that came and went during the regattas, and the variations of the Baltimorean landscape during the different seasons that make this city either strongly bright during spring time, or all white during winter time.

Old Baltimore by NVS

All this thinking about Tom Clancy going around the streets of his loved city have also made me wonder, how much of this Baltimorean images influenced him on his work? How the sometimes foggy climate served him to create the images of the misty scenes of his novels? Was he ever touched by the Edgar Allan Poe’s mysterious spirit?

I think it might be difficult for me to find answers to all this questions now, but one thing is for sure, I’ll see his work in a new light from now on.

Baltimorean Sunset by NVS

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The wonders of Mexican fast food

Text and Photos by Nora Vasconcelos

Cod Fish Torta.
Cod Fish Torta.
Not so long ago I wrote a post about an exceptional book on typical Mexican food origined during the 17th and 18th centuries right in the heart of the Colonial Convents placed in different parts of Mexico.

The book, called Delights of yesteryear. History and Recipes of the Mexican Convents refers to tradicional recipes that are still prepared in this country, dishes that usually take a long time to be made with amazingly delicious results.

Mole by NVS

So after some time enjoying this book, I started to think how the ingenuity of the Mexican people has managed to transform these very elaborated dishes into a some sort of Mexican Fast Food.

Of course tradicional chains of Fast Food are popular in the country, selling pizzas and hamburguers, but, for many people in this country, tacos and tortas are a good way to bring fast, some food to their stomach, while really hungry, or when time is short.

Tacos and Tortas, are also a good way to take advantage of the left overs and keep enjoying all sort of elaborated dishes such as Tamalli, Mole and Chiles rellenos (stuffed chilli). The only thing to do to transform this food into fast food is stuffing a tortilla o some bread (kind of baguette style but Mexican) with the left overs and that’s it, intant fast food ready to good!

Even more, if there are no left overs at home, or if there’s no time at all to prepare a torta or a taco, there are always many places to buy them, either street stand to (literally) eat the on the go, or small locals specialized in preparing this kind of food. And when times allows it, it’s also possible to eat them, quite relaxed, in a restaurant.

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Weekly Photo: Sign

Photo by Nora Vasconcelos

Look up!
Look up!
I love the sense of humor that some people have to make fun of a challenging situation, like the owners of this restaurant that was cover by the scaffoldings.

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An unconventional book on Mexican Food

Text and Photos by Nora Vasconcelos

Mexican restaurant by NVS
Mexican food is well known around the world for its tasty food. And, although its many times spicy – hot flavor, sometimes hard for delicate stomachs, dishes such as ‘Mole’ (chicken with chocolate sauce), ‘chilaquiles & enchiladas’ (fried tortillas with tomato or green tomato hot sauce) and its huge variety of ‘quesadillas’ (stuffed tortillas with cheese) and ‘tacos’ (stuffed tortillas with all sort of dishes) appear very often in the international menus of all sort of restaurants around the world.

So, it’s often easy to find Mexican restaurants in different countries, some of them as far away from Mexico as Madagascar or the Czech Republic. Even more, in 2010 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) include the Mexican food in the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, considering that “Traditional Mexican cuisine is central to the cultural identity of the communities that practice and transmit it from generation to generation.”

What’s curious to know it that many of this food that it’s so common to find everywhere nowadays, is that it had its origins in the Colonial Convents that became very famous in their time (mainly 18th and 19th Centuries) for their well elaborated food, made with all sort of ingredients which complete preparation could even take hours and hours.

Mole by NVS
To remember those times, the book Delicias de Antaño. Historia y Recetas de los Conventos Mexicanos (Delights of yesteryear. History and Recipes of the Mexican Convents), not only collects a long list of recipes, but also, shares many stories of the practices, customs and anecdotes that occurred on those majestic convents (many of them, originally built in the 16th century).

So, this book, by Teresa Castillo Yturbe and Maria Josefa Martinez del Rio de Redo, give the reader the opportunity to learn how traditional Mexican deserts such as ‘arroz con leche’ (rice with milk), ‘buñuelos’ (sweet fritter) and ‘dulces de leche’ were made during those years by the nouns.

It also shares the recipes of the ‘Chiles en nogada’ (stuffed Poblano chiles with walnut sauce) are to be made following the conventual method, as well as other dishes such as ‘Mole Ranchero’ and ‘Chilaquiles’.

All in all, going through this book is a complete delight, even if one is willing to take the challenge of preparing any of these recipes, or if one is only interested in history or wants to spend a relaxing time.

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Ups and downs of a Dream

Recipes for life.
One year after the Great Depression in the United States (1929), Mildred Pierce, a mother of two and recently divorced, faces the question: How would she be able to support her family?

After looking for a long time, she finally takes a job as a waitress in a dinner. It’s in this place where she finds out that her ability to bake wonderful and delicious desserts can give her the opportunity to start her own business.

With the help of a friend, and a business partner to be, Mildred opens her first restaurant offering only one dish: Chicken. The catch for the customers is that they won’t be able to resist the temptation of taking one of the delicious fresh made pays made by the same pierce.

As time passes by, her fame as a cook grows, that much that she opens two more restaurants, with a great success and becomes a very wealthy woman.

But things won’t remain so “sweet” for this character created in 1941 by James Cain (the same author of The Postman always ring twice).

So, as the novel under the name Mildred Pierce goes, this successful woman who has been strong enough to conquer the top of the business world with her restaurants, has also to deal with the drawbacks of her personal life.

It so that a series of reckless decisions related to her lovers and her older daughter, make Mildred lose her money and her whole restaurant empire.

At the end, Mildred, reconciles with herself after taking some time to understand who something that was so good went so wrong, and gets the strength that she hadn’t found before to cut all the strings with the people that she loved but that were the cause of her ruin.

It’s then when she feels free and happy again. Ready to start a new life.

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Getting hungry? A book on Pizza

Fancy a slice?
Fancy a slice?
Pizza is one of those things that are so close to our lives that it’s really easy take it for granted. Although, it’s hard no to enjoy it every single time we oreder one.

It’s so common nowadays, that it’s difficult to think about when and how the story of this delicious dish started. Lucky for me, I came acroos this book: The little guide to Pizzas, published by Fog City Press.

At the begining I thought it would be only a book with many recipes, what was great, but I got even more surprised when I started going through its pages and I found how many historical details the book had.

Then I learned that the ancient Greek prepared a seasoned raising bread that resemble in some way the pizza bread. However the highlight in the evolution of pizza was the arrival of tomato from Latin America to Europa in the XVI century. It was then when the Italians started to mix the round bread base with some tomato sauce and any kind of vegetables and meat.

From then, the expansion of the business specialized in preparing pizza hasn’t stopped. Pizza makers have been able to adjust to major changes such as immigration and financial crisis, offering at all times a delicious and achievable alternative for those who want to eat something tasty.

Along with the historical information, the guide has many recipes that go from the preparation of several kinds of pizza bread, to different sauces and tappings.

The reading is really enjoyable and it’s really hard no to get hungry after seeing all the pictures and learning all those hidden details that this dish holds.

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