I landed in Madrid a week before Scrubs was due to arrive.
My grandfather – my Yayo – was excited to meet him, but hid it (badly) beneath his usual gruff stoicism. He made sure the bedsheets were ironed and the pillows were plumped and the blankets were in the press (“por si acaso” he said, as if anybody in Madrid during the summer has ever been in need of a blanket). He dotted his long thoughtful silences with the punctuation of seemingly random questions about this new man in my life.
The first time I broached The Subject, he was sitting in his armchair by the window, his chin in his hand, looking out over the motorway.
“Scrubs is a vegetarian,” I said, tentatively.
Yayo turned to look at me.
“A vegetarian?” He repeated, in a tone of voice that suggested I’d told him something scandalous. He raised his thick eyebrows at me and looked at me as if I’d told him Scrubs had five nipples or enjoyed dressing in women’s underwear in his spare time*.
“Yes, a vegetarian,” I nodded solemnly.
“What does that mean?” Yayo’s brow furrowed and he leaned forward, as if close attention would be enough to bridge this truly enormous gap in understanding.
“He doesn’t eat meat.” I said.
“He doesn’t eat meat?”
“He doesn’t eat meat.” I repeated.
“He never eats meat?”
“What does he eat then?”
“Pizza, pasta, rice… In Ireland there’s fake meat-“
“Fake meat??” Yayo reared back as if he’d been shot. “Fake meat?!”
“Yes Yayo. Fake meat.”
He shook his head sorrowfully.
“He eats fish though?”
“No. Vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish.”
He continued to shake his head slowly. I could practically see the cogs in his head turning as he reassessed every scrap of information he had gleaned about Scrubs. Eventually he lifted his head, looked at me, and sighed deeply.
“I will have to buy him some food. What does he like?”
“Cheese, tortilla de patata, pizza, pasta… Don’t worry about it Yayo, I’ll pick some stuff up for him tomorrow.”
Yayo nodded and turned back towards the window, deep in thought. I beamed, thinking the conversation hadn’t been as tricky as I had anticipated. Vegetarianism is basically unheard of in Madrid, so I had been expecting a bit of an uphill battle.
A few days later when Scrubs finally arrived, he was greeted warmly by Yayo and settled in quickly despite the language barrier. My extended family were delighted to meet him and peppered him with questions as he ate his fill of cheese and tortilla de patata. The second night, after I had taken him on a tour of the city, we arrived home to Yayo looking extremely pleased with himself.
“I bought pizzas. I bought pizzas today! They are in the freezer.” His chest was puffed out with pride. For my grandfather, buying food that belonged in the freezer was a strange and uncomfortably modern activity. “You could make one now,” he said, trying to disguise his excitement at the thought of frozen pizzas being cooked for dinner.
I thanked him and grabbed a pizza from the freezer. I stared at it. I blinked.
In my hand I held a ham and cheese pizza.
I turned to Yayo with the pizza held aloft.
“Yayo…” I paused, trying to decide how to phrase the following sentence without coming across as ungrateful. “Yayo… this pizza…” I faltered.
I tried again.
“Well, see… Scrubs is a vegetarian…” I trailed off. Yayo’s face was absent of even the faintest glimmer of understanding.
“I know,” he nodded, smiling at Scrubs as if to reassure him that he was accepted despite this glaring character flaw.
“… So, he doesn’t eat meat…”
My eyes narrowed and I squinted at the ceiling as I circled the point, trying not to offend.
“…So, this pizza has ham…”
The confused silence was deafening to my ears. I could take it no longer.
“Scrubs doesn’t eat ham.”
Yayo turned, baffled, to look at Scrubs, who was by now shuffling uncomfortably by the door.
“He doesn’t eat meat, you said.” He looked back at me.
“Yes. I mean, no. He doesn’t eat meat.”
“Okay, but… this pizza has ham…”
“So… vegetarians don’t eat ham,” I said again lamely, unsure how else to explain myself.
“Ham is not meat!” Yayo declared, looking mildly affronted.
Now it was my turn to stare.
“He doesn’t eat anything with eyes, Yayo. He doesn’t eat ham or jamon serrano or chorizo or steak or fish or prawns or crab or anything like that.”
Yayo turned back to Scrubs, this time with only pity in his eyes.
“Pobre,” He said, which translates to ‘poor guy.’
I assured him that I would eat the ham and cheese pizza, and Scrubs would eat the plain one, and we thanked him for buying them, and that was the end of it. Yayo seemed to understand from then on, even if he didn’t agree. He would periodically ask me to ask Scrubs if he was sure he didn’t want to try some jamon. When Scrubs laughed and politely refused, he would use some of his limited English to earnestly tell him, “It’s good!”
My extended family to this day struggle to understand vegetarianism. At family lunches or weddings they shake their heads as the hors d’oeuvres go by, their faces pictures of distress as they watch Scrubs turn down the non-vegetarian options. They discuss food around him the same way people might discuss their future holiday plans around the terminally ill. They pity him, this man who will never taste the simple pleasures of spaghettis con chorizo or croquetas de jamon or paella de marisco. They pity his poor, languishing taste buds.
Such is the fate of vegetarians in Madrid. They are the untouchables of the Spanish capital’s culinary scene. They are neither understood nor catered for.
Maybe one day there will be Quorn chorizo and substitute Serrano, but for now there is only pity.
*Just to be clear, he has the standard-issue number of nipples and absolutely no spare time**.
**I should probably clarify further and say that Scrubs’ sartorial interests extend only to purchasing (male) clothing that fits him without having to try it on, and getting in and out of shops in record time.