Posts tagged featured
Black In Spain
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So, what’s it like there? I heard that Spain isn’t a good place for black people. I heard that Spanish guys loooove black women! I heard that Spain is one of the most racist countries in Europe.

The questions come from many places. Family back home. Friends of friends who are considering travelling here. Acquaintances on social media. And every time I get the questions, I always wish I could answer simply. No. Spain isn’t a good place for black people. Yes. Spanish men love black women. Yes. Spain is one of the most racist countries in Europe. But, I can’t. There’s too much nuance, too many instances and experiences that I’ve had that both confirm and negate those statements. So, instead of a definitive answer, I reply with the equivalent of ‘It depends’, or ‘Yes, but,’ then expound on that neither-here-nor-there answer as best I can for the audience that I’m speaking to.

As with any country, the topic of race in Spain is a complex one that has many facets and requires a more-than-surface-level exploration to even begin to formulate any definitive conclusions.

“Being black in Spain is hard sometimes,” I say with a sigh.

“How so?” My friend Annie replies.

We’re sitting on a bench in a park in central Malaga, sharing a bottle of cava. I take a sip from my little plastic cup before responding.

“Welll…” I begin, “First, there are the stares. Which honestly, aren’t always that bad, but it can take some getting used to.”

In the brief space of time before I continue, my mind flits to several incidents, tiny little moments, and curious occurrences that I’ve experienced in my now almost 10 months living on the Iberian peninsula. How do I summarize all of these things to Annie in a casual conversation? How do I recount those myriad moments that have either curdled my blood or left me shaking my head in bemusement? I decide not to go into it all right now. It’s a gloriously sunny day, I’m beginning to feel the effects of the cava, and I don’t want to ruin either my sunshine- or champagne- buzz with heavy talk. I quickly sum up my previous statement about the stares with some observations on times when I felt I was stared at rudely, and others when I felt it was out of admiration or curiosity. I get the feeling that Annie gets my feeling of not wanting to go much deeper into the subject, and, soon, we switch to more situation-appropriate topics.

Over the next few days, however, my exchange with Annie comes back to mind often. How would I sum up the experience of being a black American in this country? I realize it’s an important part of my cultural immersion and exchange to make note of such sociological differences, and to analyze them both critically (as a student of culture) and personally (as a black woman with my own story to tell). So, I decided to start not only being more aware of these moments, but also to start taking notes on the experiences that I’ve had so far.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing first-hand observations and experiences with the concepts of race, color, and culture that I’ve gathered during my time in Spain. In doing so, I hope to shed some more light on a subject that – in my opinion – warrants a more in-depth examination, especially in light of recent incidents regarding race and police brutality against black people back in the United States.

One of the many cries of frustration that I’ve heard from my brown-skinned kin from back home in the aftermath of these racially-charged incidents has been ‘maybe it’s time to leave the US behind’, or similar statements that paint the non-US experience as a more suitable one for black people. I hope that my experience as an African-American living in Spain reveals that issues of color and race aren’t exclusively American, and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the pond.

Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the "black experience" in Spain and the US.

Read the other posts in the series now:

How I Lost over 15 Pounds While Living in Spain (and Eating Everything!)
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Wow! You look great!Hey skinny lady!

Who’s that in the picture?

It almost never fails. Every time I post a pic of myself on Facebook or some other social media outlet, these are the comments I get from friends and family back home. Since first moving to Spain for a 6-month stint in 2014, and after living here for almost another 8 months, I’ve lost quite a bit of weight. I’ve never been one to track my weight (scales, schmales), so I’m not exactly sure how much I’ve lost (that 15lbs in the title was really just a guesstimate); but I do know that not only have I dropped a couple of dress sizes, I also feel a lot better about my body – the way it looks, feels, and how it serves me as I go about my daily business. And get this: I’ve never once been to the gym.

living-in-spain-weight-loss-before-after
living-in-spain-weight-loss-before-after

Before I have you thinking that I’ve slimmed down to the point of having no body issues at all, let me tell you: I’ve still got quite a little pooch going on, I still have minor anxiety sporting a two-piece on a beach full of super-fit Europeans, and, at over 35 years old, I’ve got bits that are jiggling and swaying way more than they ever did (or should). Still, more often than not, I like what I see looking back at me when I look in the mirror, and I know for certain that it has a lot to do with abandoning my American eating and living habits and adopting a more Spanish or European lifestyle. Namely:

 

Smaller restaurant portions

Though I eat all the things I try to avoid when eating out at home – like taters, bread, and pasta – and I drink like there’s no tomorrow, I’ve still managed to shed pounds. Part of this is because the amount of these things that I consume in a sitting is much less than what I’d consume in the States. The US is notorious for its ridiculous portion sizes. If you order a meal for one in a typical US dining establishment, you’re usually presented with enough food for 2 people. Ditto for drinks – especially sodas and beers. Here in Spain, the tradition of tapas – or small plates of food that are meant to be eaten in a few bites – makes it easy to have a filling meal with lots of variety, yet not overeat. One of my favorite Spanish portion control options is the caña – which is basically a half-sized serving of beer. Even when I go out and have multiple rounds of beers, I’m still only drinking half as much as I would if I did the same in the States.

 

Several small meals a day

My typical daily eating pattern in Spain goes something like this…

For breakfast (before 11am): Coffee and/or water.

Post-breakfast / Pre-lunch (between 11am and 2pm): A piece of fruit or, occasionally, a small pastry or slice of Spanish tortilla.

For lunch (between 2 and 3pm): A quick, home-cooked meal like a pasta dish, a big salad, or a meat-and-veggie dish.

Post-lunch: A piece of fruit or two for an after-lunch dessert or snack.

For dinner (between 8 and 10pm): A couple of rounds of drinks and accompanying free tapas or another quick, home-cooked meal.

I’ve adopted this pattern of eating after observing and eventually falling in line with the way I’ve seen the folks around me eat. The concept of eating several small meals a day isn’t unique to Spain. In fact, most nutritionists and weight loss experts in the US recommend this method of eating. Still, it isn’t the norm for the average American. We’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that you should eat ‘3 square meals’ a day – a hearty breakfast, a hearty lunch, and an especially hearty dinner – and that’s pretty much how I used to eat back home (with the exception of the hearty breakfast). Here, lunch – not dinner – is often the biggest meal of the day, which leaves plenty of time to burn off the calories before settling in for the evening.

A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.
A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.

Lunch at home

You’ve probably heard of the Spanish siesta – that 2-3 hour lull in the middle of the day where everything shuts down and people go home to take a nap. While not everyone actually takes a nap during that time, almost everyone I know goes home for a home-cooked lunch. Having that large block of time to go home, prepare a healthy meal, eat it like a normal human (versus inhaling it like a vacuum cleaner), and let it digest a bit before heading back to work, is a luxury that I wish I had in the US. At home, I would barely have time to stuff some chicken fingers and fries (or a similarly unhealthy option) from the downstairs food court into my gullet before heading off to a meeting or rushing to meet an end-of-day deadline. Even on the days when I did go for a healthier lunch option, it was often more expensive to do so, and I’d end up resorting to the cheaper, less healthy lunch the very next day.

 

Coffee done right

Coffee is a known metabolism booster, and can help you burn extra calories IF you drink it the right way. What’s the right way? Well, ditching all the milk and sugar (I’m lookin’ at you, Starbucks), and drinking a small amount of black coffee or coffee with very little milk and sugar (like my beloved cortado) is a start. Also, it’s typical in Spain to have a coffee directly after or between meals, which is just when your body benefits from an extra boost of metabolism to help burn off the food you recently consumed.

The cortado - a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.
The cortado - a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.

Shared meals

In Spain, especially in smaller cities like the one I live in, eating is not a solo sport. Meals are meant to be shared – with friends, family members, coworkers, roommates. When you go out to eat with a group, it’s typical for everyone to share from common plates or to share bites of their individually ordered dish with everyone else at the table. At first, I turned my nose up at this practice. But… I want all my food for myself! But, I’m still hungry! But over time, I’ve adjusted. I’ve even noticed that the slower pace of eating in a group setting, helps me feel more full with less food.  I’ve also noticed that Spaniards tend to share snack foods with folks around them. Whenever one of my colleagues has what we Americans would consider a single serving bag of chips or a similar snack, they always end up offering away at least a third of it to others, or eating about half and saving the rest for another time.

Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.
Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.

Walking

When I lived in the States, my work kept me sitting at a desk for multiple hours a day. After work, I’d walk 2 minutes to get in my car and drive home, where I’d often do more work sitting at a computer, before cooking dinner and watching TV or reading for a couple of hours before bed. Even if I ran errands in the neighborhood – like going to the grocery store that’s literally at the end of my street – it meant getting into my car and driving there. In the US, walking is often seen as a hardship or something that the less fortunate (i.e., those who can’t afford cars) do. The combination of a car-centric culture, and sprawling cities and neighborhoods, make walking for anything other than intentional exercise either unfashionable or implausible.

To put things in perspective, the entire country of Spain is smaller than the state of Texas (in square miles). The lack of sprawl makes walking a lot more feasible. Neighborhoods are designed so that you have almost everything you need within walking distance of your home – grocery stores, banks, schools, retail shops, personal services. And you’re not seen as odd or less fortunate if you walk everywhere, because almost everyone else – from infant to elderly – is walking too.

 

Water, water, everywhere

Because of all the walking I do, and because of a personal commitment to myself to consume more water, I almost always have a bottle of water on hand. I keep a 5L bottle of water in my room by my bedside, so I can not only track roughly how much water I drink a day, but also so I never have to go far to get it.

 

Biking

This is probably the single most influential factor in my weight loss. At the beginning of this school year, one of the professors at my high school was kind enough to loan me a bike to use during my time here. It just so happens that this bike is the oldest specimen of 2-wheeled locomotion ever known to man. It’s also a fixed gear, and it can leave my legs feeling like jelly even when riding on relatively flat terrain. Still, it’s a more efficient mode of transportation than walking, and I ride my rusty steed everywhere – to school, to the grocery store, to the park, to the library. I usually spend around 30-40 minutes biking each day, which isn’t a lot, but it’s definitely made a lot of difference.

My rusty steed - who I've affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote's mule of a horse.
My rusty steed - who I've affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote's mule of a horse.

Easy access to healthy, cheap ingredients

Within a 3-5 minute walk in any direction from my apartment, I have a least 4 independently owned fresh fruit/veggie stands, and 2-3 chain grocery stores. The selection of produce in either of those outlets is generally less varied than what I’d find in the US, but the price and the quality is significantly better. And the fact that they’re so close and right in front of my face, makes it easier for me to grab a healthy snack versus the fast food that I’d normally go for back home.

My favorite neighborhood fruteria - cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone's throw away from my place
My favorite neighborhood fruteria - cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone's throw away from my place

Fast food as an occasional treat

In the US, fast food is convenience food. Don’t have time to cook? Forgot to pack a healthy lunch? No problem. Just stop by one of the dozen fast food restaurants you’re sure to pass on your way to and from home and pick up an extremely high-calorie, extremely low cost meal. Fast food is so widely available and frequently consumed in the US, it could almost be considered its own food group. While I wasn’t a frequent consumer of fast food at home, I certainly ate my fair share of quick-serve lunches at work, and my go-to snack when on the run was an order of french fries from the nearest Chik-Fil-A or McDonald’s. Here, a trip to a fast food outlet is seen as a treat – something you do every once in a while as a special outing for the kids or yourself. And the prices reflect that. Going to Mickey D’s, KFC or Burger King is often an expensive proposition – a combo meal can run from 5 to 7 euros, and there’s rarely, if ever, a dollar menu. There are also fewer fast food locations to choose from. You almost have to go out of your way to get to one, and you’ll have to pass several cheaper, considerably healthier options to do so.

Now, are any of the above behaviors impossible to duplicate in the US? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that there are no overweight or obese Spaniards? Nope. In either country, individual health and body weight are often a reflection of the daily lifestyle choices we make. But due to cultural norms, I think it’s more difficult to make these choices and stick to them on a regular basis back home in the US of A. As my time in Spain comes to an end, I often worry if I’ll be able to hold on to these healthy habits that I’ve picked up in my host country. I like to think that it’ll be easy, but I’m not 100% sure. For my own sake, and for the sake of my Facebook photo admirers, I certainly hope so. :)

Have you noticed any positive body changes during your travels or time living abroad? What do you think was behind it? Have you been able to stick to your healthy habits after returning to your home country?

Share your feedback in the comments!

7 reasons you shouldn’t couchsurf if you haven’t already
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Ok. So you’ve heard about Couchsurfing (CS) from a friend of a friend or an article in a travel magazine or around a campfire that one time when you ran into a band of wandering hippies. You may even be thinking of trying it out for yourself. I’m a big fan of both the concept and the reality of Couchsurfing – I’ve used it at least 4 times in 4 different countries (all while travelling solo), and each of my experiences has been amazing. I’d even go so far as to say that my Couchsurfing experiences have renewed my faith in the kindness and hospitality of my fellow upright bi-pedders.

But I also realize that Couchsurfing is not for everyone. It’s not intended to be. And that’s ok. So, if you’re on the fence about Couchsurfing, here are 7 reasons that may (or may not) convince you to book a hotel instead.

#1: Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t personally know someone who has surfed or hosted.

Couchsurfing sounds strange and scary, especially for us Americans. What if this person kills me? Robs me? Rapes me? Makes me listen to Enya all night long? Having a friend or associate who has Couchsurfed before will give you the chance to ask all the questions you want and have your suspicions and fears put at ease before you ever go looking for a host or guest.  If this person knows you well, they’ll be better equipped to help you figure out if Couchsurfing is something that fits your personal needs and tastes. Plus, an experienced Couchsurfer will be able to school you on all of the unwritten rules and customs that are common among CS’ers.

#2: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking for a free room.

Yes. If you find a Couchsurfing host, you will be able to stay at his/her place without paying a red cent. But this isn’t just about what you get out of the situation, it’s also about what you’re willing to give – namely, some of your time, personality, and life experiences. Couchsurfers are all about meeting and getting to know people from all over the world. Many of them have learned second languages, discovered new music, tried new foods, or planned their next vacation to previously unheard of destinations just from the interactions they’ve had with fellow surfers. The goal is to build relationships, not just freeload at someone’s house. It’s even common to bring a little gift or token of appreciation for your host – a bottle of wine, a fridge magnet from your home country or state, or any little thing that says, ‘thanks for letting this stranger sleep in your house’.

#3: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re not prepared to do some upfront work.

Nothing in life is truly free. This applies even to Couchsurfing. In order to have a quality Couchsurfing experience, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time thoroughly filling out your CS profile. The more thorough, honest, and detailed your profile is, the more likely you’ll be able to find someone with similar interests or a compatible outlook on life. Once you’re ready to look for a host, you’ll also need to put in quite a lot of time perusing potential hosts’ profiles, going over all of the feedback that previous guests have given, sending couch requests, waiting for replies, etc. I liken the whole CS reservation request experience to looking for a match on a dating or friend site. It takes time to get quality results. You should also be prepared to leave detailed and useful feedback about your host after your stay – it’s this contribution that helps the next person decide if they should follow in your footsteps.

#4 - Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t have a Plan B.

At the end of the day, you’re dealing with someone you don’t know. Even if you’ve done all of your pre-work and feel comfy with your host, shit happens. Maybe your host will need to cancel at the last minute. Maybe you won’t like the vibe you get when you get there. Whatever the reason, always have a backup plan – another nearby hotel or hostel you can head to if need be, and enough money to pay for a more traditional living arrangement should the need arise.

#5 - Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t like sharing or if you have an inherent mistrust of strangers or the internet.

By its very nature, CS is more suitable for open-minded, gregarious people who don’t mind sharing a little bit about themselves on the internet (i.e., your CS profile) or with people they’ve never met before. If you already know that’s not your style, don’t stress yourself or other CS’ers out.

#6 - Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking to hook up or get laid.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your stance on the issue), some folks out there think that CS is the perfect way to get easy sex with strangers. To each his or her own, I say. But, if that’s all you’re looking for, there are plenty of other sites out there that are more suited for that purpose. If you somehow feel like you MUST use CS to achieve your sex-with-strangers fantasy, at least be upfront about your intent with potential guests / hosts, and be prepared for the other person not being on the same page. Full disclosure: I’ve messaged potential hosts who responded with messages that made it clear that their intent or interest would be to engage in some physical recreation with me. While it creeped me out a bit, I was mostly relieved that they were upfront about their intent. I politely declined their offer, and kept searching for a more suitable host. No harm, no foul.

#7 - Don’t Couchsurf if the little voice tells you not to.

As a frequent solo traveler, I’ve learned that one of the best tools in my nomad toolkit is my intuition, aka, the little voice. If you have even the slightest hint of uneasiness or a feeling that something might not be right with a potential Couchsurfing situation, don’t go into it. At the end of the day, you’re travelling to have a good experience, you are under no obligation to suffer discomfort or weirdness even if you’re staying with someone for free.

Have you Couchsurfed before? What have your experiences been like? Still not sure if Couchsurfing is for you? What are some of your concerns or worries?
Share your feedback in the comments!
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my travel style, aka, how I travel on the cheap in spain
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Since I’m in the habit of giving advice and tips about the places I’ve traveled to on this blog, I thought it was worthwhile to share some more information on exactly the type of traveler I am. Travel advice is really only relevant if the receiver has similar travel interests and preferences as the person giving the advice. For instance, some people would never stay in a hostel or couchsurf, while others – like myself – usually steer clear of chain hotels and all-inclusives. So, with that, here’s some insight into my personal travel style, so you can decide for yourself whether my travel advice is suitable for you.

 

I live cheaply when not travelling – I live in a pretty small town in the interior of Spain, so most things here are cheaper than they are elsewhere in the country. My major expense – rent – runs me about 150 euros a month, and that includes all of my utilities. I share an apartment with 3 other ladies – a fairly common arrangement in Spain, even for working professionals – so that helps to keep costs low. Even when I lived on my own, rent and utilities averaged 275 euros a month – extremely cheap by American standards. I eat out, but not too often. When I do, it’s usually at a place where I buy a beer or a glass of wine and get a free tapa. At the grocery store, I buy very few packaged goods – which are typically more expensive than whole foods – choosing veggies, fresh fruits, fish, and meats instead of heat-and-serve meals. I also don’t waste leftovers. I remix them until they’re all gone.
Blablacar – I describe Blablacar as a safer way to hitchhike. I tend to use it for short to mid-distance trips to nearby cities or provinces (roughly, 4 hours or less). Using the site or app, you can search for drivers who are leaving from your area and heading to a destination you want to go to. The drivers offer available seats in their car for a much, much lower price than a train or even a bus. An added benefit is that you get the chance to chat with a local about any number of things, including their recommendations on what you should see and do when you reach your destination.

SpainPass – Like much of Europe, Spain’s long distance train system is quite good. The trains are reliable and fast, and depending on how early you buy your ticket, they can also be quite affordable. I tend to use trains for exploratory, long-distance trips. Renfe – Spain’s national train service – offers a very attractive multi-trip pass for non-Spanish travelers. It’s called SpainPass, and it allows you to travel multiple legs on the train for about 40 euros per leg. The only catch is that all trips must be paid for upfront, and they must all be used in 30 days. Because of the time limit, I try to use this option strategically. For instance, in December, there was both a long holiday at the beginning of the month and the Christmas holidays at the end of the month. Using SpainPass, I was able to travel to Valencia, Malaga, and Barcelona that month for much less than plane tickets or regular-price train tickets. Whenever I use SpainPass, I typically search for a destination that would cost me a lot of money to get to and go there.

 

Skyscanner – Simply the best app or flight search site I’ve found for showing the lowest prices to my chosen destination. There’s enough flexibility in Skyscanner’s search function for me to select a departure location and leave the destination open, which allows me to see where I can fly to for the least amount of money.
Pack light – when I don’t travel via train or Blablacar, I’m usually on one of what I call ‘ghettoeurope’ airlines – Ryanair or Easyjet. These super low-cost airlines are able to keep their prices low because they offer a no-frills service. This is especially true when it comes to baggage restrictions. Both of these airlines only allow you to travel with a small carry-on bag for free. While the luggage size isn’t restrictively small, it may take some smart packing to keep from having a too-large bag that costs you more money.
Hostels – Unfortunately, this is one way I could probably travel even more cheaply. But, since I’m over 35 and my dorm room days are decades behind me, I find it hard to stomach the idea of a communal bathroom, and I simply can’t wrap my head around the idea of sleeping in a room with strangers. I mean, what if I need to poot, scratch, rub one out? Now, I have stayed in hostels, but I always opt for the private room option when I do – it’s more expensive than the traditional hostel experience, but still much cheaper than a standard hotel.

Home stays – I do, however, love Couchsurfingand Airbnb – two options for staying in a home or apartment while travelling. Usually there’s a kitchen I can use to cook a quick meal or even just have some fruit, bread, and cheese for breakfast or a snack.

one of my most unique and enjoyable homestays - a hammock on a houseboat in amsterdam

 

Eat out only for the main meal – I’m a foodie, so I definitely like to eat out when I’m travelling – but I try to eat out for my main meal of the day – typically late lunch or dinner – and just eat fruit or snacks purchased at a local supermarket for the other meals. I also try to save dining out experiences for iconic dishes or local specialties, not just because I’m hungry and need a bite.
Public transportation– Most cities in Spain are very walkable, but when my feet get tired, I opt for public transportation, not taxis or car hires. Not only is public transport cheaper, it’s also a good way to quickly get a feel of the layout of the city and what the people are like.
No tours – I just don’t believe in paying for them. And since I’m not one who feels like I need to see EVERYthing when I visit a place – I typically pick out 2 or 3 must-sees, and let the rest happen as it may – tours aren’t really worth my money. Also, since I stay with locals, there’s no need for a tour. A quick conversation with my host about what I’m looking for and how to get there, and it’s like I’ve received a customized itinerary. However, there are occasionally exceptions to this rule.
Skip paid attractions– Again, there are some rare occasions when I’ll make an exception to this rule. But for the most part, I skip any site that I have to pay to enter. This includes museums and theme parks.  I prefer parks, neighborhoods, plazas, local markets, and other outdoor activities as they give me more of a feel for what the city and its people are like.
What are some of your tips for keeping costs low while travelling in Spain, Europe, or elsewhere in the world? Share them in the comments!
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how to do barcelona
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I’ll admit it. I’m kind of addicted to this town. Maybe it’s because it was the first Spanish city I visited on my own. Maybe it’s because my first visit was the very definition of serendipity. Or maybe it’s because Barcelona is the one city in Spain that I know I can go to to satisfy all my cravings of home. In my opinion, Barna (not Barça - that abbreviation is specifically reserved for the football club) is the most metropolitan city in Spain, even more so than the capital of Madrid, and that’s because Barcelona has something that I think Madrid lacks – soul. Since that first visit just a little over a year ago, I’ve been back to the Catalonian capital 4 times, and it’s only a matter of time before I go again.

After those 5 visits, here are some of my favorite ways to ‘do’ Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Take a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

Yes, yes, I know. What sort of insider’s guide starts with, ‘book a tour’? I’m usually not a fan of tours, since I think it’s useless trying to pack in too much sightseeing in a single trip, and I prefer finding (and sometimes losing) my own way. But, there are some cities – such as London and Barcelona – that have so many different sites of interest spread out over such a large area, that I think it’s not only worth paying the price for a tour, it’s also worth saving yourself from aching feet and the frustration of trying to locate even your very top must-see sites using public transportation. My personal advice when booking a HOHO tour in Barna is this: Start early, then stay on the bus for a full loop (yes, it will be hard to resist getting off for photo opps, but do it) before you disembark anywhere. This will allow you get the tourist version of a sampler platter – a little taste of all that the city has to offer – before deciding which places you’d like to hop off at and delve deeper into. Barcelona’s most popular HOHO bus tour is the

Barcelona Bus Turistic

, and it’s the one I recommend. Some of my favorite places to hop off for a more up-close look include:

Park Güell

– You simply can’t visit Barcelona without seeing this impressive outdoor space designed by Antonio Gaudí. While you have to pay for up-close access to some areas of the park, I didn’t, and I felt plenty fulfilled enjoying the park’s free areas.

 A sunny day at Park Guell

La Sagrada Familia

– Perpetually under-construction, this magnificent example of Gaudí’s architectural style is always jam-packed with crowds, inside and out. I recommend viewing it from a quiet spot in the park Plaça de Gaudí located just behind the church.

La Sagrada Familia as seen from Placa de Gaudi

Casa Battló

– Yet another jaw-dropping example of Gaudi’s signature style. I also like this stop because you can take a leisurely southbound stroll from here down either the Passeig de Gracia or the Rambla de Catalunya. Walking down either of these streets, you’ll eventually encounter Plaça Catalunya, the Cathedral and Barrio Gótic, passing tons of shops, street performers and other sensory satisfaction along the way.

Casa Battlo at night

The 'Coquettish Giraffe' statue on La Rambla Catalunya

Barcelona's Cathedral

Batucada street performers in Barri Gotic

Arc de Triomf

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Parc de la Ciutadella

– The Arc de Triomf is a breathtaking structure that makes for a nice photo opp. At the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella, you’ll find an equally impressive fountain and waterfall feature – La Cascada. On weekend afternoons, there’s usually a group of African drummers doing their thing near the center of the park. It’s an ideal place to cop a squat and soak up the sounds and sun.

The impressive Arc de Triomf

Parc Ciutadella's magnificent fountain and waterfall

Weekend African drumming in Parc Ciutadella

Some places I think are better seen from the bus:

Dona I Ocell as seen from the tourist bus

Plaça Espanya – the nearby Magic Fountain is a prime draw, but since the fountains are better seen at night after the tour bus stops running, you’re better off catching the metro to this location at a later time.

Parc de Joan Miró

– you can snap pretty decent pics of the iconic

Dona I Ocell

statue from the open-air top section of the bus.

Olympic Ring

– home to the telecommunications tower or, Torre Telefónica– a quirky architectural structure that’s a nice visual treat.

MNAC

– unless you plan on going inside of the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, get your oohs and aahs on as you whizz by.

Camp Nou

– I’m not a big football (or, soccer) fan anyway, so an up-close look wouldn’t really do anything for me.

How to Do Barcelona: Buy a Metro Pass

Barcelona’s metro system

is pretty easy to navigate, and there are several options available for

multi-trip Barcelona metro passes

. While which pass you buy will totally depend on how long you’ll be staying in the city and what areas you plan on visiting using the metro, I’ve only ever bought the 10-ride pass, aka the

T10

. A single one-way ticket on the metro runs €2.15, and the 10-trip pass will set you back €9.95, so it’s a great value; you can even share it with others travelling with you. I don’t mind walking between a lot of the places that I visit, and only use the metro if I have to go from one area of town to another, so the 10-ride pass has been sufficient for my multiple 3-4 day trips to Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Stroll the Beach

Barcelona's most accessible beach, Barceloneta, isn't exactly the most picturesque, but it's definitely a nice place to have a Sunday stroll during cooler months, or work on your tan during warmer ones. At night, the area along the beach is filled with nightcrawlers visiting the many posh Miami-style nightclubs in the area.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Eat

There are no shortage of amazing places to eat in Barcelona, and I know for sure that I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to fabulous dining options, but the following Barcelona restaurants have met or exceeded my standards for price, quality and uniqueness.

Teranga

– Senegalese restaurant located en El Born district of Barcelona. The lamb dishes are my favorites.

Restaurante Bar Roble

– Located on the edge of Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. A good option for lunch or dinner, this very old school restaurant often gets busy, and the service is typical Spanish / Catalan – occasionally brusque, but always efficient. And if you go when they have the lunch menu special (or menu del día), and you order wine as your included beverage, they plop the bottle on your table, and you drink as much as you want. Doesn’t get much better than that.

All-you-can-drink wine at Restaurante Bar Roble

Fideos de marisco con ali-oli on Restaurante Bar Roble lunch menu del dia

Milk

– Bar and restaurant located not far from Las Ramblas. An excellent choice for first meal, as they offer a daily ‘Recovery Brunch’ from 9am to 4:30pm. Perfect for coming back to life after a night out partying in Barna. If you go on weekends, get there early – Spanish early, like 10 – to beat the rush.

Huevos rancheros at Milk. I dream of this brunch dish often.

A Tu Bola

– Funky little eatery in the eclectic Raval neighborhood. Billing itself as a gourmet street food restaurant, the menu features a variety of different meat or veggie balls. Slightly pricier than I would normally go for, but the food and service are both very high quality.

Savory Mediterranean ball at A Tu Bola

Sweet chocolate truffle ball at A Tu Bola

Wok 2 Walk

– A quick serve chain restaurant with 3 Barcelona locations. Is it life-changing food? No. But I really miss Asian noodles, so it does it for me. Plus, the food is fresh and fast.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Enjoy the Nightlife

Grácia

– Probably my favorite neighborhood in Barcelona. Full of funky shops, bars, and people – a perfect place to just stroll around and get lost in, day or night.

Plaça del Sol

is a good launching point for exploring the neighborhood.

El Born

– A little sexier and more polished than Gracia, with higher-end shops and restaurants, El Born is a great Barcelona ‘hood to see and be seen.

Antique jewely shopping in El Born

Afro Bar Bella Bestia

– Offering a variety of soulful entertainment, from ska to soul to soulful rock, this low-key bar is a good place to get your groove on.

Harlem Jazz Club

– Live music that might include funk, flamenco, Cuban jazz, and everything in between. More tourists than locals, but the music makes it worth your while.

Plaça Reial

– Just off La Rambla, this well-known plaza is a good place to go for late night hanging, after you’ve finished dinner and clubbing elsewhere and you want to watch (or act like) a drunken Spaniard or Catalan.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Stay

L’Eixample

– The L’Eixample neighborhood is fairly centrally located and you can find some good bargains on vacation rentals or homestays in this part of town. However, it’s also a pretty big area, so where you choose to stay in L’Eixample can make a big difference as far as walkability to points of interest is concerned.

Where I’ve Stayed in L’Eixample:

Airbnb room near Passeig de Gracia

and

Hostalet Barcelona

Las Ramblas

On my first few visits to Barcelona, I avoided staying here because I didn’t want to be smack dab in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle that is Las Ramblas. But the one time I did stay here, it was quite nice to be able to quickly get back to the flat after a typical late night out without having to worry about catching the last train or possibly walking a really long way after the metro had shut down for the night.

Where I’ve Stayed in Las Ramblas:

Airbnb Room with Private Lounge

Near Park Güell

– If you’d prefer to be able to retire from the noise and crowds in central Barcelona at the end of the day, staying near Park Güell is a good idea. But – and I stress this caveat – be

absolutely

sure that you’re willing to tackle the very steep, very long incline that leads up to this area, especially if you plan on staying out late – I (and my hamstrings) learned this the hard way.  Depending on your fitness level, it can be a beast going and coming.

Note: Unfortunately, the very affordable

housetrip.com

room I stayed in is no longer available.

How to Do Barcelona: Beware of Pickpockets

Before my first trip to Barcelona, I’d heard so many

stories

about how bad and rampant pickpocketing was, that I was definitely on high alert. I actually even saw a foiled pickpocketing attempt occur right in front of me on the metro during my first visit. But, honestly, a little common sense and street smarts will go a long way and keep you from becoming a victim. Walk confidently with your head up (not staring at a tourist guide or map), make eye contact with too-close strangers, and always keep a hand on your personal belongings (tip: go for a crossover-style bag versus a backpack), and you’ll be fine. Especially if you’re used to travelling in large metropolitan cities like New York or Chicago.

Other Barcelona blogs and resources:

Resident Advisor

- I'm a big fan of soulful house music and there's usually some place to get my fix in Barna. RA keeps an up-to-date listing of weekly  and special events for house heads.

Interactive Map of Barcelona City Center

Planning a visit to Barcelona or other Spanish cities? Check out:

7 Things You Must See in Every Spanish City

 for a quick and dirty guide on sightseeing in Spain.

What are your favorite ways to do Barcelona? Any tips on places to see or avoid? Leave 'em in the comments! 

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tapa of the week: bar california, ciudad real
tapa-bar-california-pig-ears.jpg

"Kisha, a few friends are going out to celebrate a birthday on Friday. Would you like to join us?" The invitation came from Pablo - the dad in my adoptive family here. I gladly accepted, eager for the opportunity to meet some new people.

When the day arrived, I was a little bit apprehensive about the fact that I might not be able to understand the rapid-fire Spanish conversations that were sure to ensue. But after sufficiently lubricating ourselves at Bar Acuario, I found my ears were up for the challenge.

After finishing our first round, the birthday girl suggested we head to Bar California for more substantial tapas. We entered, copped a table for 5, and I listened as they ordered, not exactly sure what was going to show up on the table.

What arrived a few minutes later was this:

Gambas in garlic sauce. Basically a well-prepared version of shrimp scampi. Served still sizzling in a mini casserole dish. The shrimp were fresh and perfectly cooked. The sauce - perfect for mopping up with pieces of crusty bread.

Lomo con queso. Tender slices of pork loin cooked with herbs and caramelized onion, and topped with little piees of what I think was goat cheese. In my head, pork and cheese shouldn't go together. But in my mouth? Magic.

 

 

"Oh. What's this?" I ask. Pablo responds, "Orejas de cerdo." Wait. Did he just say 'pig ears'? Like the ones my grandma and her grandma used to make? Like the ones I never eat 'cause I think it's gross? Hm. Well, I suppose I should try just a little bit, so as not to be rude.

The small bite I take is fatty, a little chewy, with just enough meatiness on it to make it worth eating, The pieces of meat have been chopped small and cooked so that the fat has rendered out a bit and left some nice charred bits on the edges. I try at least one more bite before deciding that this dish is best left to my dining companions.

Chuckling at the similarity of this dish to the Southern one I'm used to, I share with Pablo that we have a saying back home that we eat everything on the pig 'from the rooter to the tooter'. Pablo laughs and shares that Manchegos have a similar phrase.

So much for not being able to understand.

Bar California

Calle Palma, 12, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price per Tapa: Prices vary according to menu. Since I was treated to the meal, I can't say for sure :}

My Rating: High-quality tapas. A good place to go for sharing a few plates with friends. 

 

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useful auxiliar tip: how to conduct your first private english conversation lesson
IMAG8464.jpg
A blank slate can be rather intimidating.
Signing up a new student or group for private English conversation classes is thrilling! You start thinking of all sorts of ideas for teaching the class, you dream of all the money you'll be earning, and you imagine how awesome your new student or students are going to think you are.
But then you realize that before any of that can happen, you've got to make it through your very first lesson. What do you do with a brand new student? Where do you start if you don't know where to start?
I had the same fears when teaching my first lesson, but after finding this guide for conducting your first private English lesson with a new student, I no longer feel any trace of fear or worry.
Essentially, this guide provides you a framework for treating the initial lesson as more of a getting-to-know-you session, which is what it should be. You need to figure out what level of English your student has, what his or her interests and goals are, and you need to share a bit of your experience and teaching methods. By removing the pressure to perform in the blind on your very first meeting, you'll lay the foundation for a much more productive interaction between you and your student going forward.
I usually charge a reduced rate or even give this introductory 'lesson' for free to new students, and often the first lesson is much shorter - say 40 minutes versus an hour - than a regular lesson. How you modify the guide's suggested steps is up to you.
What other suggestions do you have for successfully conducting a private lesson with a new student?
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estoy harta (i'm fed up)
tired-just-tired-estoy-harta.jpg
Living in a small Spanish town is hard. Harder than I thought. I can’t believe it’s been 4 months, and I still struggle with being here. Still. I mean, I’m usually a pretty adaptable person, so I’m kind of shocked that I haven’t successfully done so here. I feel like almost every moment is a struggle. Nothing comes easily. Nothing is without a little bit of pain, inconvenience, or the unexpected element of surprise. I feel like I’ve been being (or trying to be) mentally and physically tough the entire time I’ve been here. And I don’t think I want to keep it up anymore. Or at least… I need to take a break from this sh*t.
***
Today, I left the bike behind at the house and walked to school instead. I got to school about 30 minutes late for my first class. I had no excuse other than, I couldn’t make it. That’s it. For my evening class, I showed up about 5 minutes late, and I flat out told the teacher – I’m totally unprepared today. She told me to go home. I did. This is what I call radical self-care tinged with a little bit of, ‘Yo. Eff this sh*t’.
***
Living alone was probably not the best decision after all, so I’ve started looking for a new apartment – with roommates. I spent time at the instituto this morning contacting the few shared apartments I found online last night. This evening, they both called back. I’ll be going to take a look at them tomorrow. Hopefully, at least one of them will feel like a better situation than I’m in right now. God, I hope so. I really need an improvement – just for my state of mind. I’m starting to feel so mentally worn down and raw-edged. Like, anything could make me cry these days. What kinda thug cries at the drop of a hat?
***
I watched two movies this weekend about folks locked down in solitary confinement. One was a movie with Kevin Bacon (who did his thing in the role, I might add) as a petty criminal who’d been in solitary in Alcatraz for 3 years in the 1930s. The other was the biopic about Ruben Hurricane Carter starring Denzel. Both felt like my life right now. Mumbling to myself, laughing to myself, entertaining myself with my own vivid daydreams and imaginings. Plus, something that Denzel-as-Ruben said in the movie really stuck with me. I just gotta focus on doing the time. Not on when I’ll get out, not on what my life used to be like in some other place. Just doing the time.
So far, I’ve done 4 months. I’d been thinking that I had 5 more months to go, and that there was no way in hell or on God’s green earth that I could possibly do another 5 months like this. But, then, all of a sudden I realized that the end of May is only a little more than 3 months away (I did start the program late, after all). 90 days doesn’t seem nearly as bad as 5 months. Maybe I can make it. Maybe.
***
I’m tired of fighting the cold
I’m tired of fighting the bike
I’m tired of fighting my schedule
I’m tired of fighting my shower
I’m tired of fighting my coffee maker
I’m tired of fighting my bed
I’m tired of the internet being so damned slow. Slow? No. slow would be an improvement
I’m tired of not having a DVD player
I’m tired of watching the same damned TV shows every damned day
I’m tired of the same crappy movies on Paramount channel
I’m tired of the cold
I’m tired of being sick
I’m sick of waiting a week for my clothes to dry
I’m sick of not having any clothes to wear
I’m sick of going shopping for clothes only to realize that I’m not made like a Spanish woman. (Yes, this dress is very nice. But where do my boobs go?)
I’m sick of going to the library
I’m sick of going to my evening class
I’m sick of this town
No. I’m over this town
I’m over these people who live here and the way they walk (Seriously? Can you f*ckin’ move, please?)
I’m over my students acting like slack-jawed yokels some days (What’s up with that? Think, dammit!)
I’m over this cold
I’m over this sh*tty ass food. Like, really, can I get one decent restaurant that either doesn’t have the same tired ass tapas that EVERY other restaurant has, OR isn’t ridiculously overpriced!? The f*ck?
I’m over positive self-talk. I’m over trying to convince myself that I can do this, that I got this, that I can make it if I just try. No. Enough of that. Today, it’s just me, my screwface, and hip-hop blaring through my headphones as I stomp-walk through the streets of Ciudad Real.
I can try again… tomorrow.

****** UPDATE; Since I first penned these thoughts almost a month ago, things have changed considerably. That apartment and those roommates I was hunting for? Found 'em. I now live with 3 other ladies of varying ages. It feels nice to no longer have only myself to talk to, and to have other living, breathing humans to share the details of my day with. I've even made some connections with other Americans living in town, and we meet fairly regularly to share tapas, drinks, laughter, and stories of expat life.

That cold that I was so very sick of? The new apartment has much better heating, and the seemingly neverending winter in my little Spanish town has magically transformed into spring - almost overnight. This means that I've been able to reunite with my rusty old bike that one of my coworkers loaned me. Now that I no longer have to abrigarme every day, I can actually enjoy the sometimes-challenging ride through town on my way to school or to run errands. I even catch myself humming or singing little tunes as I pedal through the streets - a much better use of my vocal chords than the under-my-breath curses that I used to emit.

That terrible Internet connection that forced me to go to use the wifi at the public library, where I was often prey for creepy library stalkers... it is no more. The wifi in my new place is about as strong as it gets. So, not only can I get more writing work done in the comfort of my own room, I can also watch a variety of TV programs and movies that just weren't available to me before. And sometimes, when I am just sitting in my room, enjoying the relative softness of my new bed, or watching the sunlight stream in through the window, I hear the lilting sounds of my neighbor practicing the flute (thankfully, he or she is pretty damned good!) or the bells from the nearby cathedral chiming the hour... and I smile, and say a little prayer of thanks.

Through all of this, I've realized (or been reminded) that making a mid-course correction isn't the same as failing; that suffering isn't necessary, that when going through something that you know is making you stronger and more resilient, you still have the right and the power to say when you've reached your limit.

And that sometimes, 'eff this sh*t', is exactly the right answer.

A little reminder I wrote to myself and kept on my bedside table when I decided to stop struggling.
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useful auxiliar tip: the 15-minute back pocket exercise
Keep a back-pocket full of 15-minute activities, exercises or simple games that you can whip out at a moment’s notice. It should be something that is suitable or easily adaptable for all levels, and doesn’t need any special materials or equipment. Invariably, you will find yourself in a situation where the teacher has deserted you or you have extra time on your hands at the end of a previous activity. I call them 'gaping hole' moments. You don’t want gaping hole moments. A few of my favorite 15-minute activities: Celebrity, Jeopardy!, conversation cards, and a little game I like to call 'Say It, Spell It, Count It'. With this game, I write different words, numbers, or simple math problems on slips of paper. Each student takes turn pulling a slip of paper from the bag. They have to either say the word in English (it's written in Spanish on the paper), Spell the word in English (also written in Spanish on the paper), or count something (i.e., say a number or give the answer to a simple problem).
What sort of 'gaping hole' activities do you use with your classes and private lessons?
spanish word of the day: caber

Caber (verb) - to fit, to have room for.

As is my usual habit on Thursdays, I go have a coffee and a churrito in the cafeteria at school after my first and only class of the day. Today, the churritos weren't yet ready when I arrived and ordered my coffee. The guy who runs the cafeteria set out a mini muffin for me to eat while the churritos finished cooking.

"Oh, no..." I protested, "Yo puedo esperar por el churrito." (I can wait for the churrito.)

"Tu eres grande," he replied. "Te cabe!" (You're big. You have room for it!)

Sir!!

how to do valencia
IMAG7935.jpg
What better thing to do on a long holiday weekend than visit and explore a new city? Desperate to escape the chilly early December weather of Spain's interior, I settled on Valencia. I'd already had a brief, enjoyable visit to the Costa Blanca, and I'd heard good things about the bigger city to the north. Without much of an itinerary at all, I set off on a Thursday for a 4-day excursion to Valencia.

How to Do Valencia: Stay With a Great AirBnB Host

No guide book or self-researched travel itinerary beats the hands-on help of a capable and compatible host. Luckily, I found both in Guillermo, my AirBnB host in Valencia. Not only did he meet me at the train station on arrival, he was kind enough to share his lunch with me after showing me the way to his flat.

Home-cooked lunch at Guillermo's
As we chatted over lunch, I learned that Guillermo was a native of El Salvador, and was studying urban planning and development. He'd lived off and on in Valencia for 16 years, so I knew he was well qualified to give me some good advice on what to see and do around town.
Guillermo's surprised face when he's not expecting to be photographed.

Before I headed out to do some exploring on my own, Guillermo provided me a selection of maps to use during my stay, and quickly gave me the lay of the land.

Where I Stayed: AirBnB Private Room in Ruzafa, Valencia

How to Do Valencia: See the Sights in Ciutat Vella (Old Town)

After resting up a bit, I decided to head out and walk around the historic area of Valencia, otherwise known as Ciutat Vella. Despite Guillermo's map and explaining, I managed to get a little turned around during my stroll, but still found my way to the following points of interest.

Porta de la Mar - at the eastern end of Ciutat Vella
Christmas lights and shopping on Carrer del Pau
The Valencia Cathedral, or, the Metrpolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia
Torres de Serranos at the northern end of Ciutat Vella, El Carmen
Torres de Serranos - front view
Christmas lights at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Valencia
Plaza de Toros, Valencia

Sights to See in Ciutat Vella, Valencia (Spanish)

How to Do Valencia: Wander Around the Ruzafa Market

Saturday morning on a holiday weekend. I wake up early-ish, and the only thing on my mind is, "Gawd, I hope the market is open." As I mentioned in an earlier post, visiting the local market is one of my favorite ways to get a sense of the culture and flavor of a Spanish city. The Ruzafa market was a treat, and I spent at least an hour strolling through, peering at the fresh items on offer at each of the stalls, and trying to stay out of the way of the old folks who were out early getting their shopping done before the official start of the holiday. I was even able to try a few free samples - 1 was of some amazing roasted pumpkins (I bought a half to take home for a snack later), and the other was of a really nice cava on sale at a wine shop in the market. Guillermo joined me at the market later and showed me to a coffee shop in the market that serves coffee for free (tips accepted) - since they make their money on bulk sales of beans. A great way to start the day!
Free samples of cava? Why yes, thank you.
roasted pumpkins - you get to try before you buy

Ruzafa Market Hours & Info

How to Do Valencia: Taste Authentic Argentinian Italian Pizza

I had no idea that there was a significant Italian community in Argentina, but I found out when I visited La Nonna - an Argentinian Italian restaurant in Valencia. The owners hail from Argentina, and the restaurant's menu boasts a mouth-watering selection of brick-oven Italian pizzas along with some Argentinian steak and meat dishes.
The pizzas are top notch - crispy but tender crust, fresh topping, and the gooiest of cheeses. La Nonna features a daily menu that allows you to select a salad or small plate as a first course, your choice of pizza, along with drink and a dessert for about 12euro.
Carpaccio de pulpo - La Nonna
Veggie pizza at La Nonna

La Nonna Calle Puerto Rico, 16 Valencia, Spain

How to Do Valencia: Hang with the Hipster Set at Calypso

We enter the smallish bar and order a couple of beers. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I wonder not only where I am, but when. The music is a non-stop selection of 60s surfer and ska tunes .The DJ, who for some unexplicable reason is wearing a Mexcan luchador mask, seems thrilled to be providing the ambience for the evening. He bobs his head and does a little funky two step to the music. I scan the rest of the room, taking in the scene. The decor is best described as retro tiki chic. Overhead, a tiny tv is showing original versions of the Super Friends cartoon. I am the only one paying it any attention, however. The rest of the steadily swelling crowd at Calypso presents varying shades of hipster as they chat and sip their drinks. Skinny jeans, wallet chains, lumberjack shirts, carefully ungroomed beards, blunt-cut bangs, cat eye glasses, red-as-red-can-be lipstick... all the expected accoutrements are there. Well, all except one. There's a total lack of irony among the patrons, instead there's an easy, genuine feeling of 'hey, we're just here to have a good time, not to pose and look cute.' As I approach the bar for my second round, the bartender holds up a vintage camera and captures me with a flash. The luchador-DJ points and nods his approval.

Calypso Russafa Carlos Cervera, 9 Valencia, Spain

How to Do Valencia: Have Sunday Paella with a Valencian Nationalist

Guillermo invites me out to have beers with him and his friend, Vicént. “He’s very nationalist,” Guillermo warns. I’m not sure I like the sound of that. “What exactly,” I cautiously begin, “do you mean by ‘nationalist’?” “Well, he only speaks Valenciano. When a Spanish team is playing a football match, he roots for the other team. When he tells people where he’s from, he doesn’t say I’m Spanish, he says, I’m Valencian. If he could, he’d prefer that his passport said that, but since he can’t change it, he’s stuck with it saying he’s from Spain. But don’t worry, he likes to practice his English.” Well, I think. This should be… fun. As it turns out, Guillermo was exaggerating a bit. Or, maybe Vicént was on his best behavior. Throughout the night we shift as easily between English, Castellano, and Valenciano (them, not me) as we do from 1 bar to the next. At the second bar, after Vicént explains to me over the loud music that he lives in a neighborhood not far from the beach, I jokingly quip, “Oh, so you’re going to make a paella for us tomorrow?” As Guillermo had hipped me earlier, paella is typically eaten by Valencians for Sunday lunch, often just before or after a relaxing stroll along the Mediterranean. To my surprise, Vicént replies with barely a pause, “Yes! You should both come over around 3!” Wait. What? Guillermo had already offered to show me to a restaurant serving authentic paella that would be much better and cheaper than the touristy options along the beach. But, this? This was more than I could have expected. I turned to share the change in plans to Guillermo. His face instantly registered his shock. “Wow. That was fast!” he says
Vicent prepares what he says is not truly paella, but octopus rice. Guillermo supervises, beer at the ready.
Shared salad to accompany the main course
Vicent's 'octopus rice'
"This right here? Is how you do pumpkin," says Vicent.
All smiles! An after-lunch coffee at the cafe on the corner

How to Do Valencia: Take a Stroll Through El Cabanyal

After lunch, Vicént offers to show us around El Cabanyal – the neighborhood he grew up in and the same neighborhood his family lived in for several generations. “It used to feel like a little village,” he says. Originally a working class neighborhood of fisherman and port workers, it’s now plagued by urban blight. Kids play in the street right across from the older boys hanging out in front of the corner store. The older ones don’t go inside to buy anything. They stay outside all day to sell.

Vicént stops at regular intervals to point out one crumbling, dilapidated building after another. “My grandmother was born there. We used to go pick up huge chunks of ice over there. My uncle’s house was here. My first job was washing cars in that place over there.” I can feel the mix of wistfulness and pride in his voice. 

Guillermo and Vicént share that the state of the neighborhood is an intentional move on the part of the local government. They want to expand a nearby avenue so that it connects with the beach further to the south – El Cabanyal is right in the path of this proposed throughway.

We leave El Cabanyal and stroll along the beach, catch a batucada group practicing their moves, watch the sun set over the waves. After our walk, Guillermo and I bid Vicént thanks and goodbye, and catch the metro back home.

How to Do Valencia: Have a Farewell Dinner for a New Friend

My first night in Valencia, while Guillermo and I were grabbing some eats in a nearby Cuban restaurant, I met Tanya. Tanya  was a native of Brooklyn, and was currently living and teaching English in Madrid. We all chatted cordially, and I invited Tanya to join Guillermo and I for bar-hopping after dinner. Tanya shared that she’d only just decided to come to Valencia for the holiday weekend last night. She was an experienced solo traveler, and could easily enjoy exploring a city on her own or with newly made friends wherever she happened to find them. Of course, we hit it off instantly. We exchanged contact info at the end of the night and hung out again for several hours the next day.
 
On Tanya’s last night in Valencia, we met up for a Moroccan dinner at Restaurant Zakaria. I'd read online about one of their more popular dishes, Cordero con ciruelas (Lamb with prunes), and decided to order it. Tanya ordered a couscous dish and we shared. While both dishes were delicious, the lamb dish was certainly more memorable. Sweet, smoky caramelized onions, well-spiced lamb, and tender prunes made for a warm, comforting blend of flavors - perfect for the slightly chilly evening weather. Portions and prices were quite good at Restaurant Zakaria. A must-visit if you like North African cuisine.
Cordero con ciruelas at Restaurant Zakaria
Chicken and vegetable couscous at Restaurant Zakaria

Our after-dinner plan to find a bar or club with some cool tunes was mostly a bust and ended up with Tanya and me going on a Google search-inspired wild goose chase around the city center that lasted ‘til the wee hours of the morning. But, in the end, it was all good. We had just as much fun getting lost, people watching, laughing like giddy teenagers, and even singing the hooks of old funk and soul tunes on the streets of Valencia. Sometimes it’s not so much about where you’re going, but who you’re travelling with.

Tanya and I outside of Havana, the Cuban restaurant where we met in Valencia
Carrer de Puerto Rico, 26, Valencia, Spain

How to Do Valencia: Head Down the River to the City of Arts & Sciences

On my last day in Valencia, I head out to explore the ‘river’, which is what the locals call the continuous band of recreational green space that snakes through most of the city. Many decades ago, it was an actual river, but after repeated floods, it was drained and turned into a park. The weather is as perfect as it can be, and there are tons of people enjoying the day – running, strolling, biking, or just soaking up the sun.

At the south end of the river, I encounter the City of Arts and Sciences, a complex of museum buildings, each one dedicated to a specific area of scientific discovery and exploration. For the sake of time, I opt not to go inside of the museums. The buildings themselves are breathtaking works of art. The combination of futuristic architecture, glittering water features, and the shifting light of the sun makes for a unique visual feast. I take far too many pictures as I walk.

How to Do Valencia: Watch a Revolutionary Screening at Recordshop

When I return to Guillermo's, he asks if I’d be up for seeing a free documentary screening at a nearby bar this evening. “Sure. Which documentary?” I query. He shows me the flyer on his computer. I nearly squeal with excitement. Turns out it’s Wattstax. I’ve been wanting to see it for years, but have never gotten around to it. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity now. We head out a little while later to Recordshop, which is part bar, part ‘cultural association’ with lots of vinyl on display. The owner regularly screens films in the space that is about as big as a large living room.  Before the movie, the owner plays Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ album (on an actual record player), while Guillermo and I sip beers. Soon, the movie begins. I settle into a worn couch and immerse myself in the sounds of a soulful revolution.

Recordshop Cultural Association Calle Sevilla, 31 Valencia, Spain

How to Do Valencia: Savor Handcrafted Burgers at Slaughterhouse

For my last meal in Valencia, Guillermo and I head to Slaughterhouse, a popular burger restaurant that actually was a slaughterhouse in a previous incarnation. We’d walked past the place on my first night in town, and the smell wafting out onto the street had instantly grabbed my stomach by the nose. Online reviews and Guillermo's own personal recommendation confirmed that this place made some really tasty burgers, so I was glad to have a chance to sample one before heading home.  Each of the burgers on the menu at Slaughterhouse gets its name from a fillm or book that is also listed as a recommendation on the menu. All the ingredients on the burgers are fresh and/or homemade, all the way down to the ketchup. I don't always eat burgers back in the States, but when I do, I want it to be a damned good burger. Here in Spain, I've tried burgers a few times, but they've always been 'off' somehow, falling short of my expectations for a well-prepared, proper tasting burger. Thankfully, I found redemption at Slaughterhouse. The Movska burger that I ordered was everything I'd been missing from home.  By this time, I wasn't even surprised. After all, in just a few days in Valencia, I had already found so much that made feel right at home. 

Slaughterhouse menu
The Movska burger at Slaughterhouse
A disco ball and a meathook - part of the eclectic decor at Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse Carrer de Dénia, 22 Valencia, Spain

How I Got There: AVE High Speed Train (Spain Pass)

I'm a heavy user of Spain's discount railway pass for non-Spanish travelers. It's called Spain Pass, and I've used it several times to visit cities that are far enough away for me to want to avoid a bus ride (my bus limit is about 3 hours). The trip to Valencia from Ciudad Real took a little over 2 hours on the high-speed train. The same trip would by bus would take about 6 hours, and cost about the same.

 

Have you had a chance to visit Valencia yet? Share your favorite finds in the comments!

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how do you say 'mercury retrograde' in spanish?
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Maybe it was ‘cause Mercury was in retrograde. But yesterday was rough. Much harder than it needed to be. It started out well enough. My 2 classes at the high school where I teach English went well. The students were engaged – which is all I can really ask for most days.
But then I realized that I’d booked 2 private lessons back-to-back that day and hadn’t allowed myself enough time to get between the 2 locations. No worries, I thought. I’ll just ask the first student if we can shorten the lesson to 30 minutes. Since it’s our first class, we’ll just use it as a ‘getting to know you / setting expectations’ meeting and I won’t charge for it. That’ll leave me enough time to bike to the nearby bus stop, tie up Roci, and catch the 5:15 bus to the next town for my 2nd lesson. I got this.
Except, I didn’t had this. Not at all.
My first class ended up being a little further than I’d originally expected, but I still made it to the lesson on time, and had a good chat with both the parents and the teenaged son I was to tutor. Although I did feel the son was a little undercover flirty with me. Who suggests that we can “sometimes meet in your bedroom” because you have a computer in there?
Anyhow, I ended the chat right on time, and as I was preparing to leave, the mom offered to give me a ride to my next place. I was just about to accept when I realized that I’d need Roci when I got back if I was gonna make it to my 7:00 class at the Escuela de Idiomas on time. If I left her at their house, she’d be too far from where the bus would drop me. “Nah, I’ll be ok,” I told her, and set off to catch my bus.

My First Big Mistake

There was some after-school traffic that delayed me a little bit, so I wasn’t exactly sure how I was doing on time when I pulled up to the bus stop and saw a bus there, getting ready to close its doors and pull off. “Is that my bus? No, that can’t be my bus. Is it?” I signaled to the driver to open the door. Slightly out of breath, I managed to ask him if this was the bus I should take if I needed to be in Miguelturra by 5:30. He seemed to indicate that this was probably the best one. But when I asked if he would wait a minute – since I still needed to tie up Roci – he told me he was leaving right away. The next bus would be along at 5:15, he said. Oh! I thought. That’s the bus I wanted anyway. I’m good!
Except, I weren’t good. Not at all.
I quickly tied up Roci, and settled in on the bench to wait, eyeballing the 2 Ferrero Rochers that my 1st student had given me. I imagined enjoying them later as a delicious reward for successfully completing all my running around for the day, and even earning some extra cash in the process. I silently patted myself on the back. Look at me, getting things done, making things happen. That’s alright! Go me!
A few minutes later, the bus pulls up, I pay my fare, have a seat and we take off. After a few stops, I notice that it’s about 5:26, and we’re nowhere near my stop yet. Why is this driver taking so long? C’mon. Let’s move it! After a few more stops, I prepare myself to exit. I’d sent a quick message to my student’s mom letting her know that the bus was running a little behind, but I was on my way. After yet a few more stops, I realized I no longer had any idea where I was. I had never seen these buildings or streets on my route before. I’d been paying attention the whole time, surely I hadn’t missed my stop? Then it dawned on me.
Joder. I’ve taken the wrong bus.
There are 2 busses that go to Miguelturra, but only 1 of them stops near my student’s house. I, obviously, was not on that bus today. I got up, walked to the bus driver, and asked him if I could get off somewhere and get back to my stop. He suggested I get off at the next stop, but was pretty vague about how exactly I could walk from there to my intended destination (I just love it when Spanish people say, take this street, walk to the end, and then ask somebody else. HUH? Dem ain’t directions!). I got off, and headed in the direction he suggested. I asked the first people I passed – two older ladies – how I could get to Parque del Sol, right across the street from where I was going. Their response clued me in to just how off-the-mark I was. Heads thrown back in mock tribulation, hands gesturing and waving that I would need to walk, and walk, and then walk some more, perhaps to the end of the earth, perhaps until the end of time until I got to my destination. I thanked them kindly for the specificity of their response, and trudged on. After a few paces, I realized that I needed to abort this mission. If I had to walk as far as the ladies had said, I’d pretty much have to turn right back around to catch the next bus by the time I got there. There would be no time for a lesson. Which also meant, there would be no extra cash in my pocket today.
Joder.

My Second Big Mistake

I made an about face then set off to look for a bus stop where I could catch the bus headed in the opposite direction. I found the stop, checked the schedule, seeing that I’d probably just missed the bus (unless it was running late) going back to Ciudad Real, and had almost 30 minutes before the next one. I waited for a few minutes to see if the bus was, in fact, running late. At 10 minutes past its scheduled time, I gave up waiting and battling the cold and wind, and sought refuge in a bar a few blocks away. I needed something to warm my bones quickly. I ordered a shot of rum. After finishing, I reached into my wallet and discovered my second major mistake of the day. I’d been expecting to get cash from my lesson, but since that hadn’t happened, I now only had enough money to pay for the shot I’d ordered with a few spare coins left over. I had no way to pay for the bus. No problem. I thought. There’s still plenty of time before the bus comes, I’m sure I can find a cajero nearby.
As my sitcom-life would have it, however, there was no cajero nearby. I ended up walking almost 15 cold, frustrating, muttering-angrily-to-myself minutes to the town center until I found one and extracted money. Luckily, there was a bus stop right across the street, and a few minutes later a bus came along, and I headed back to Ciudad Real. With nothing to show for it, I might add. Actually, with less to show for it, given the money spent on 2 bus trips and 1 rum.
Well, at least I’d make it to my 7:00 class on time. I got back to town, reclaimed Roci and headed to the Escuela de Idiomas, pulling up a full 5 minutes before my class was to start. When I arrived at the classroom, the door was closed. An unusual sight, since my students are usually coming back from a break when I arrive, and the door is always open. I peeked in the little porthole-shaped window. The class looked fully engaged in some activity. I lightly tapped on the door and peeked my head in, getting the attention of the lead teacher. “Oh, hi, Kisha!” she smiled and hurried over to me. “Do you need me today?” I asked. “Welll… not really,” she replied. Of course. I should have seen that coming.
Feeling more than a little defeated at my overwhelming lack of accomplishment for the day, I collected Roci one last time, and headed home to sulk it off. I reached my piso, de-bundled myself, and tossed my bag on the couch. Reaching in to extract my laptop, my finger brushed across something unfamiliar. It was the Ferrero Rocher from earlier.
“Well…” I sighed to myself, “…at least the day wasn’t a total loss.”
7 things you must see in every spanish city
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Since moving to Spain last year, I feel like I’ve gotten around quite a bit. I try to take advantage of my light work schedule and frequent holidays to travel either within the country or to another place in Europe. In the 9 months that I’ve lived here, I’ve visited roughly a dozen Spanish cities (It would likely be more if I could stop myself from making repeat trips to Barcelona!), and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of exploring the distinct flavors that the various regions in Spain have to offer.
I rarely have a thoroughly planned itinerary when I set foot in a new Spanish town, but I’ve found that even if I have absolutely no clue what to see or do, I know that I can safely say that I ‘did’ insert-Spanish-city-here, if I hit the following sights.

1. Its cathedral

Why: The design and history of its cathedral are a core part of the history and culture of any Spanish town. To me, the cathedral and how it looks is a reflection of the city’s personality. A Spanish city’s cathedral is always located in the center of town, so if you find your way there, you’re guaranteed to stumble on some other sights and shops worth visiting – though they’re probably going to be a little more touristy (read: pricey).
spain travel - toledo cathedral
The Cathedral in Toledo
Christopher Columbus' remains - inside Sevilla Cathedral
In Cordoba - the Cathedral is located inside of a mosque

2. If it’s on a coast, its beach. If not, its Plaza Mayor

Why: Even in winter, I feel it’s an absolute requirement to at least see the beach if I’m visiting a coastal Spanish city. There’s also usually some pretty good (though not always budget-priced) seafood to be had from beachside restaurants and bars. For cities away from the coast, I’ve always found that a visit to Plaza Mayor makes a decent substitute for a beach visit. Here, you’re sure to find big groups of locals and visitors gathered in cafes and bars, and, during seasonal periods (e.g., Semana Santa, Christmas, etc.), there are often impressive decorations or displays of pageantry to be seen.
Waiting on fresh catch at a chiringuito at Malagueta beach
Plaza Mayor in Ciudad Real at Christmas
Picture-perfect view of Marbella's beach and Paseo Maritimo in winter

3. Its most popular tapas bar or cervecería

Why: While it’s not always easy to find, you can generally tell which bar in a particular neighborhood is the best by the large number of people packed inside and often spilling out into the street from around 1-3pm, or from about 9-10pm. If you’re lucky enough to find it, you’ll also find really cheap beer and wine and tasty, equally cheap tapas. Usually because the place is packed to the gills with regulars and serviced by overworked staff, it can be a little intimidating figuring out exactly how and what to order. But, just be patient, and watch what everyone else is doing. If all else fails, just point to what looks good and hope for the best.
Complimentary chupitos in Granada
Ciudad Real's El Alcazar - always crowded, always good.
At Malaga's Antigua Casa de Guardia, the waiters chalk up your tab on the bar.

4. Its ethnic neighborhood

Why: The ethnic communities in Spain offer a whole ‘nother experience when visiting a Spanish city. Visit one of these diverse havens, and you’ll be treated to a mélange of different languages, colors, sounds, and smells that you won’t find anywhere else in the city. And if you’re craving something other than tapas, this is the place to find anything from Indian curries to Cuban sandwiches.
At Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant in the Lavapies neighborhood of Madrid
In Valencia's vibrant Ruzafa 'hood, new restaurants seem to pop up every day.
At A Tu Bola, in Barcelona's Raval district, fusion albondigas are on the menu.

5. Its municipal market

Why: Because you learn a lot about a people by learning about their food. The municipal market is a hub of activity – it’s the perfect place to see what the locals eat, what products are native to the area, grab a quick bite made with fresh ingredients, overhear some good conversations, and even get some good recommendations on other places in town to go and get your culinary fix.
Atarazanas Market, Malaga
The central market in Cadiz is a bustling bar scene at night.

6. Its Casco Antiguo

Why: Because photo opps, that’s why. The casco antiguo (or, old town) of any Spanish city is generally its most picturesque area with old, architecturally-inspiring buildings, fountains and bridges, narrow, winding streets and quaint little cafes and shops to duck into.
The most breathtaking views in Ronda are found in its old town
Even in modern Marbella, there's a charming casco antiguo to get lost in.

7. Its lesser known park

Why: Most Spanish cities have a large park somewhere close to the city center. But if you ask around a bit you can usually find a park that’s less well-known, but is also more off-the-beaten path, less crowded with tourists, more uniquely designed / intimate, and an ideal place to rest yourself after a long day of sightseeing.
Ciudad Real's Parque del Pilar
Though Park Guell gets top billing, Barcelona’s Ciutadella Park is definitely worth a visit.
Jardin el Capricho - Madrid's other park
What are some of your must-see tips when travelling throughout Spain or other locales?
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espere tu turno, gracias.
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I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories from other auxiliares in other parts of Spain about the process of applying for and obtaining a NIE, or numero de identificacion para extranjeros. Basically, it’s like a social security number for foreigners. My own appointment for my NIE was scheduled for a Thursday in my 2nd full week in Ciudad Real. A woman who works with the auxiliars in my province sent me an email asking if I’d like to join a group of other auxiliars whom she’d be helping with the process on that day. All I had to do in advance was fill out my application form (which was in Spanish). She suggested that I have one of the teachers at my school help me with it.
So it was that I found myself in the teachers’ lounge a couple of days before my appointment, looking for someone to help me with the application. I had just been introduced to Emilio, a retired profe in the school’s English department, who happened to be onsite that day. Apparently Emilio stops by every once in a while to visit and chat with the other English profes, even though he no longer works there. With his British mannerisms and his Mr. Rogers countenance, I figured he was just the right person to ask to help me with the task. I was right. He gladly accepted my request, and slowly walked me through each field on the form, making sure I understood exactly what I needed to enter in order to complete it correctly. After we’d finished, he asked me where my Thursday appointment was. I gave him the name of the location that I thought I had to go to, but I wasn’t sure I was remembering it exactly correctly. Emilio was sure I was mistaken. I thought harder. No, I was sure that was the place. I went to the computer and printed out the email I’d received, and showed him the address and building name. Emilio remained unconvinced. He seemed certain that the lady coordinating the meeting didn’t know what she was talking about. I was certain that I had only asked Emilio to help me with the application, so I wasn’t exactly keen on him ‘helping’ me figure out where I already knew I needed to go two days later. But this gray-haired gentleman had already accepted his charge, and would not be swayed. Before I knew it, he had gallantly snatched up my completed application, and was signaling me to follow him. I tried resisting – politely, but firmly. ‘No, I think I’ll just wait to go with the others on Thursday. Maybe that will be best.’ Emilio scoffed. This shit was going down, and it was going down now. 
Dismayed, but hopeful, I quickly asked my knight in cable knit cardigan what I should bring with me. He advised me to bring all the documentation and identification I had. Before I could quickly gather my folder that contained everything, Emilio was already heading out of the lounge. I followed, clutching my folder to my chest, still not sure how his helping me with my application had turned into this impromptu, unsolicited expedition.
Despite his advanced years, Emilio moved swiftly. I had worn the wrong shoes today, and found it a little difficult to keep up with his long, loping strides. We made our way out of the school, down the block and across the street to a different foreign registration office. Emilio strode in, stopping briefly to ask the security guard which doorway we needed to pass through. The guard motioned to the left, but also seemed to indicate that the waiting area – where other people with appointments were seated – was on the right. I was pretty sure that our expedition would be a bust since we had no appointment whatsoever. Emilio glanced towards the closed office doors, but ended up heading toward the waiting area. We copped a couple of chairs, and waited – me, nervously wondering if Emilio was being just a little too cavalier; Emilio, tapping his foot somewhat impatiently. We waited for a couple of minutes, and when someone from the office on the other side of the hall stuck their head into the waiting area, Emilio pounced. He sprang up from his chair, and crossed the large room in two quick strides, his index finger held up in an authoritative attention-getting gesture. I sat quietly, my eyes slightly bugged, waiting for what would come next. In a few moments, Emilio peeked his head back into the waiting room. He motioned for me to join him. I tried to ignore the stares of the other extranjeros who were patiently waiting their turn. I’m sure they were thinking, “Who the hell are these two? Why do they get to jump the line?” Ok, maybe they weren’t thinking that, but I knew that’s what I would be thinking if I were them.
On the other side of the hallway, Emilio motioned for me to have a seat at a desk where a middle-aged official-looking woman was seated. She started asking me for my paperwork, and entering my details into a computer. Emilio sat next to me calmly watching the process, chiming in to help me out if there was something the woman asked that I didn’t quite understand. Once the lady had finished her questions and tip-tapping into the computer, she ripped off one of the pages of the triplicate form, and then told Emilio that I needed to go to a nearby bank to pay the application fee, then come back to finalize the process. Emilio seemed slightly exasperated at the inefficiency of that procedure, but he rose and exited, and again, I found myself scurrying to catch up to him.
Outside, Emilio paused for a moment to explain the bank-paying step to me in English. He said I should go there now and get it out of the way. I explained that I had only brought my folder, not my wallet, and would have to go back over to the school first before heading to the bank. He glanced at his watch, seemed to calculate that that would take too much time, then waved away the idea altogether. “That’s ok,” he said. “We can go now,” Then he set off again. I cursed myself for at least the third time in the last 30 minutes for picking these shoes today. I did a halfway decent job of keeping pace with Emilio as we made our way to the bank. We entered, then waited for the clerk to finish with one other customer. Then Emilio approached and stated our business. The clerk seemed annoyed. Apparently, they only handled this type of transaction during certain hours. We were well outside of that timeframe. Emilio didn’t bat an eyelash. The clerk started processing the transaction. Emilio casually tossed down the 10 euro payment on the desk like he was throwing down his gauntlet. I was glad the clerk had chosen not to deny him.
Emilio. Waits for no one. 
Once the transaction was finished, we walked back to the foreign registration office and showed the office-lady the receipt. She loudly applied an official stamp, and de repente, I had my NIE. It had taken less than an hour. I thanked the office-lady, and we left. When we were outside of the building once again, Emilio made me repeat to him what I needed to do next. I repeated the instructions the office-lady had given me. I needed to call the police office and request a cita previa to apply for my tarjeta de residencia. On the day of my appointment, I needed to bring specific paperwork and forms of ID, etc., etc.

Emilio seemed satisfied with my answer. He mentioned that since it was a little past lunchtime, he needed to head home now. I thanked him profusely for his help that day, explaining that I couldn’t believe how quick and easy the process had been. I headed back to school, still a little bit bewildered by the whole incident, while my hero turned in the other direction and strode off into the sunset. Well, not really, it was still only afternoon. 
toto, we’re not in marbella anymore

Adjusting to a new place can be hard. And, though the process has only just begun for me, I think that adjusting to Ciudad Real will definitely present some challenges, mainly because I can’t help but compare it to my stint in Marbella. So far, there have been a few things that have stood out as being distinctly different than my previous experience living in Spain. Not all of them are bad differences, but they’re certainly noticeable. Here are a few:

  • They don’t speak Spanish here. I found out this little fact when one of the teachers at my school complimented me on my speaking. To my surprise, she didn’t say, “Hablas español muy bien,” instead I got, “Hablas castellano muy bien.” In my head, I gave her the ‘whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout Willis?’ face, but on the outside, I kindly thanked her and went on with our conversation. Of course, castellano and español are exactly the same thing, but since we’re in Castilla La-Mancha, I guess that’s what they prefer to call it here. Also there are some words they use here that I never heard in Andalucía. For instance, instead of saying ‘mira’or ‘mira eso’ (look at this / check this out), they say ‘fijate’. The first time I had someone say it to me, I thought I was being asked to fix something. They also use ‘metalico’ instead of (or, in addition to) ‘efectivo’ to mean cash. I’m not sure if that one is specific to this region, but I’m pretty sure I’ve only heard it Ciudad Real.
  • It’s flat – One of the first things I noticed when I was doing my initial explorations around Ciudad Real was how flat the landscape was. In Marbella / Málaga, I was situated between the sea and the mountains, so there were lots of hills and steep inclines. The good thing about this is that the flatness makes getting around on foot a lot easier and less tiring. However, it might not be best for keeping my buns and thighs tight – a nice side effect of my daily walking commute in Marbella.
  • It’s super dry – Technically, Ciudad Real is in the middle of the desert. Unlike Eliza Doolittle’s song would suggest, there is very little rain in the plain in Spain. The reverse was true in Marbella. Proximity to the sea meant high humidity, and also a short lifetime for clothes to dry. But being a long-time resident of Atlanta, humidity is something I’m very accustomed to. Here, I’ve already seen the effect the dry climate can have on my hair, skin, and mucous membranes. That family-sized jar of shea butter I brought along probably won’t last me ‘til spring. And I frequently tote a little bottle of saline spray to keep my nasal passages from drying out and leaving me with achy sinuses.
You got it wrong, boo.

Update: Though the atmosphere is generally dry, since I originally penned  this post, I've seen lots more rain. In fact, it's probably rained as many times here in the last month and a half, than it did my entire 6 months in Marbella. Sorry, 'Liza. I take it all back.

  • The local vegetable is pork – Seriously, these people luuuuuv some pig meat! I’ve already had a few restaurant meals where pork was served for each course. In fact, on a recent tapas excursion with Pablo (Juana’s husband) and some of his friends, a plate of pig ears showed up on the table. I shared with the group that people in the South have an expression that we eat everything on the pig from ‘the rooter to the tooter’. It seems Pablo was already familiar with the concept, as the manchegos have a similar expression. I can say, however, that the quality of the pork here is amazing – I’ve had some cuts (particularly presa iberica) that were extremely tender, juicy, and flavorful without being overly porky (that’s a scientific term, ya know).
  • Nobody takes the bus. Well, not nobody. But when I think back to Marbella, I recall how the bus was almost full every day with locals, seasonal residents, and tourists of all ages. I’ve only taken the bus twice in Ciudad Real, and the only other people on there were either very elderly or riding along with a small child. Plus, the buses seem to take these long, circuitous routes that makes them the least efficient mode of transportation for getting around town.
  •  It’s small. Like, really small – If I have my ‘marching on Selma’ strut on, I can pretty much get from one side of town to the other on foot in about 30-35 minutes. This would explain why hardly anyone takes the bus.
  • It’s cold. Like, really cold – My first couple of weeks here were actually unseasonably warm. In late October, temperatures reached highs of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, with lows in the 60s. However, since Halloween, all that has changed. Unlike Marbella where winter spelled more rain than true cold and lasted for all of about 45 days, I can already tell that, here, there will be winter. Cold as a witch’s tit winter. It’s already been down in the upper 30s a couple of nights. And I’ve already realized that my assortment of blazers which served me well in the south, won’t stand much of a chance against these temps.
  •  There is a famine of beauty. Remember when I shared that the abundance of natural beauty was one of the most amazing things about Spain during my previous stint? Umm… yeah. Not quite the case here in Ciudad Real. Strangely enough, this is one of the few Spanish towns that I’ve been to that doesn’t have a casco antiguo – or historic quarter – with beautiful old buildings and charming cobblestone streets. Nope, Ciudad Real is surprisingly regular. Architecturally speaking, there isn’t much to look at. And since, as I mentioned, it’s in the middle of the desert, the surrounding landscape doesn’t immediately grab the eye. I don’t doubt that are some breathtaking views and scenes to see here, but for now, it looks like I’m gonna have to work a bit harder to find them.

From Wikipedia entry on Don Quixote, “La Mancha is a region of Spain, but mancha (Spanish word) means spot, mark, stain. Translators such as John Ormsby have declared La Mancha to be one of the most desertlike, unremarkable regions of Spain, the least romantic and fanciful place that one would imagine as the home of a courageous knight.

  • The stares. Dear god, the stares! Now, I’m used to being one of a relative few brown faces in a Spanish town. As such, I’m also used to getting the occasional stare from passersby on the street – it happened on several occasions in both Marbella and Málaga. Spanish people from other parts of the country are also known for openly staring at almost anyone – I’ve just chalked it up as a cultural difference. However, while staring was noticeable in Marbella and Málaga, I never felt it was excessive. It’s a totally different story here in Ciudad Real. During the roughly 20-minute walk from my flat to my school, I’m sure to receive no less than 10 blatant (like, stop in your tracks, squinch up your face, forget to chew your gum) stares from people I pass on the street, or even people passing by in cars. At first, I took it with the same bemused attitude that I did when I lived in Andalucía. But as the days have passed, the stares have kept coming. It’s a bit unnerving at times. Nothing makes you feel more like a stranger – or even like an unwelcome guest – than people looking at you strangely all day long. And I know it’s not just my own self-consciousness, as I’ve had some of my new friends comment on – and even apologize for – the excessive staring that they notice when they’re walking along with me. While I think it’s noble and sweet of my new friends to take some responsibility for what I perceive as the rudeness of their fellow countrymen, I know it’s not something that’s going to change anytime soon. Because Ciudad Real is such a small, largely homogenous town, I’m probably going to keep getting stared at, and I’m going to have to keep not taking it personally. I’ve taken to walking around with my headphones on to help insulate myself from that feeling of ‘otherness'. I realize that some of the stares are simply curiosity, some are even complimentary, but most are because many of the people here have never ever left their home town or region, so they’re not used to seeing different people, and some of those may not even like seeing different people. I was talking to a friend of Pablo’s recently – an over 30-year-old woman who is una manchega, born and raised in the area. We were talking about how much we both loved Barcelona. She ultimately revealed that her first time visiting the city (which is only about 3 or so hours away by train) was this past summer. I was completely shocked! How do you live in a country this small for all your life and never visit what is arguably its most popular city? Of course, I know similar people in my hometown of Macon and even people from Atlanta who’ve never travelled further than a neighboring state. But I think it surprises me even more here in Spain, given how easy and relatively affordable it is to travel from one region to another. Still, I knew well enough not to stare at her for it.
I Can’t Get Excited About Uber, Because, You Know… blablacar.
Aw, man! You gotta try Uber!
Within 1 week of my being back in Atlanta after coming back from Spain, at least 3 of my friends said something similar to me.
Seeing the excitement on their faces got me all excited about it. What is this Uber I keep hearing about? Does Atlanta – with its clogged highways, its pothole-plagued streets, its mockery of a metro transit system – finally have something good going in the realm of transportation?
But, then my friend would explain it to me, and all I could think was, “Oh. So it’s a gypsy cab service.”
Atlanta is not a taxi town like New York or Chicago or even DC, where taking cabs is way more commonplace – where people take cabs to work, to the club, to buy eggs at the grocery store (ok, maybe not the eggs, but you understand what I mean). In those cities, cabs are plentiful, highly visible, and readily available. You can just stick your hand up in the air, and one will magically appear in front of you. I can’t even imagine trying to hail a cab in Atlanta. I’m not even sure an Atlanta cab driver would know how to respond if hailed. Probably peg you for an anti-semite or something. But anyway, my point is that in a town where hardly anyone takes cabs, why is everyone all of a sudden excited about… taking cabs? Because of an umlaut? Oh, wait. There’s no umlaut in Uber? Yeaah. Absolutely no reason to be excited, then.
But, I do admit, I am completely and utterly biased. You see, I’ve experienced the phenomenon that is blablacar. I’d never even heard of blablacar before going to Europe. Some of the other folks in my English teaching program mentioned it to me, and later, my roommate, who’d lived in Germany where blablacar has become popular, convinced me to give it a try.
In a nutshell, this is how blablacar works:
  • Drivers, who are already going to a certain destination, visit blablacar.com and post the number of seats they have available in their cars, what date and time they’re leaving, and how much they’re asking from riders who want a seat.
  • Riders who are looking to go to a certain destination search for drivers who are going there when they want to go. Riders contact drivers through the blablacar.com site, and the rider and driver arrange the remaining details (pickup location, etc.) from there.
  • Rider and driver show up at the agreed upon time and location, and the rider pays the driver in cash (usually at the end of the ride).

Not too much different from how Uber works, from what I understand. So, what makes blablacar so much more impressive than Uber?
Let’s do a little comparison.
Today, a former co-worker of mine tweeted all in a tizzy that he had just paid “$10 to go from work to the Falcons game!” I decided to see exactly how far that was. A quick check on Google showed me that the distance from the building we worked in to the Georgia Dome where the Falcons play is right around 3.5 miles.
For my first blablacar trip, I went from my home base of Marbella to Cádiz – almost 180 kilometers away – for 10€. In American English, that translates to about 13 dollars for a trip of about 110 miles.

Can you see why I fail to be impressed?
One of the reasons blablacar is so much cheaper is because it’s a true rideshare. Drivers aren’t looking to make a profit off of providing a ride, they’re just looking to share the cost of the trip. You may be in the car with only one other person, or, as is more often the case, you might be packed in with 2 or 3 other strangers like brand-new siblings on a road trip. Except, I never had anyone threaten to turn the car around and take us ungrateful kids back home. In fact, everybody I shared a ride with was really a pleasure to talk to, engaging, even polite. During my almost 6-month stay in Spain, I ended up using blablacar at least 6 more times. I was absolutely sold on the service. But, I wondered why I felt like something like this could never work back home in the States?
Last night, I heard an NPR segment on Lyft, which is supposed to be more of a rideshare model than the just-like-a-taxi-but-cheaper model that Uber uses. But, when I did a little digging, the prices were pretty comparable between the two services. The only thing that really seemed to be different was that, with Lyft, you get to ride shotgun, and, your driver might give you a fist bump. There’s also something about the car wearing a pink mustache.
Really?
I should pay a premium for this?
Ok, to be fair, there are other benefits that Uber and Lyft offer that blablacar doesn’t. Like the fact that you don’t have to be bothered with cash, and that you can track where your driver is and when he’ll arrive with a handy mobile app. But, at the end of the day, I don’t care about those things that much – they’re added features, not core requirements. There is the matter of safety, though (or at least perceived safety). Uber and Lyft both offer the security of an insurance policy and both perform background checks on their drivers. As far as I could tell from perusing their site, blablacar operates totally on the honor system.
According to a recent New York Times article, blablacar is growing throughout Europe, but it won’t be coming to the US anytime soon. So for now, I guess it’s better to have some alternative to regular taxi service than none at all. I guess I can see why my friends would be excited about that.
But for me, no vale la pena.
highlights (and lowlights) of granada

For my first weekend excursion from Marbella, I chose to head to Granada. It's less than 3 hours away by bus, and there were a couple of other girls from my CIEE orientation heading there for the weekend as well, so I figured it was a good time to check out what the city had to offer.

When I arrived, I had the good fortune of bumping into my friends as soon as I got on the bus to head to my room for the weekend. We made plans to meet up for tapas and drinks later that night, and they headed off to their hostel nearby, while I went to go check in with my AirBnB host.

Lodging / Accomodations

Highlights: My room was right in the center of Granada, located almost directly behind the Cathedral, and with easy access to all the city buses. Lots of shops, restaurants, and bars were right out the front door, and since it was in the historic area, the architecture of both the room and the surrounding buildings was a beautiful sight to see while moving about. My host also had maps, and information on popular sights and attractions in Granada already in my room. And the nicest touch of all? She had a hot water bottle available for my use - a lucky stroke since I'd decided to leave mine at home. Did I mention how cold most Spanish homes are in the winter months?

Lowlights: All that historic architectural charm - close-together buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, high ceilings - also meant that noise from the street below could be heard as clear as a bell in my room. There was more than 1 time that I thought someone was in the apartment with me, but it was actually sound coming from the street below.

Sights, Tastes, and Sounds

After checking in to my room, I met up with my two colleagues I'd seen on the bus - Allison and Nicole. We headed straight for nearby Calle Elvira, a main artery running through a network of alley-like streets filled with tapas bars, teterias, kebab shops and vendor stalls tightly packed together, giving the whole area the look of an old Moorish marketplace in the middle of modern-day Spain.

We made our first stop at La Antigualla for our inauguration into the free tapas phenomenon we had all heard about but had yet to experience. Another auxiliar, Laura, who lives/teaches in Granada met up with us later. The four of us spent the rest of the evening bar-hopping and getting our fill of copas and tapas while catching up on our experiences-to-date as new auxiliars.

The Alhambra

The next morning I was up early (well early-ish) to head to the Alhambra. After a quick walk to catch the bus, I arrived at the Alhambra gates, purchased my 15€ ticket, grabbed a quick croissant and coffee in the snack bar, and headed in to get started on my self-guided tour.

The Alhambra is an ancient palace and fort built for Moorish royalty in the 9th century and subsequently added on to by different Muslim and Spanish rulers up to the 14th century. There are four major structures to see within the Alhambra:

  • The Palace of Charles V,
  • The Alcazaba,
  • The Palacios Nazaries,
  • and the Generalife.

Over the next 4+ hours, I strolled throughout the massive complex, taking in the ancient beauty of the place. The original theme for the Alhambra was 'paradise on Earth', and it certainly feels like that when you're there.

Unfortunately my phone (and hence, my camera) died just as I reached the Generalife, so I have no pictures of it to share.

After leaving the Alhambra, I caught the bus back to my room for a quick rest and a phone charge, then headed out to meet Allison and Nicole, and a different CIEE auxiliar also living and teaching in Granada, Brit.

I linked up with the 3 ladies in Plaza Nueva, and over a quick bite to eat, we decided to head to the Albayzín. Since Brit had been before, she would serve as our unofficial tour guide.

The Albayzín (Albaicín) 

The Albayzín is a maze-like neighborhood in Granada. It's yet another slice of Spain's ancient Moorish past that still exists today. The neighborhood is built in the style of a North African medina, with winding streets so narrow that, in certain places, cars can't even pass through. The neighborhood extends up into the hills overlooking the city of Granada. My AirBnB host had told me that gypsies lived up in the hills in a sort of shantytown, and that on some evenings, if you went walking through at the right time, you could see them performing flamenco in the caves up there. I wasn't all that sure about how I felt being caught with some dancing gypsies in a cave after dark, but I was game for a pre-sunset excursion.

After we'd walked for a while, I noticed the sun was getting lower and lower, and we weren't showing any signs of turning back. The cobblestone streets had ended, as had any signs of a real neighborhood. We were entering shantytown territory and Brit was steadily leading the charge. I put up a futile protest as we started a short, but steep climb up a gravelly path that would take us deeper into shantytown. Not only was I already pretty tired from my all-morning tour of the Alhambra, but I also kept thinking to myself, "It's getting dark. And there are gypsies." Yet, we pushed on.

In the end, I was glad I didn't let my tiredness or wariness get the best of me. The views from the top were amazing. We arrived just as the sun was beginning to set. With the snow-capped mountains in the distance, the impressive Alhambra in the foreground, and the beautiful city of Granada below, it was a view so stunning that my poor little camera could never do it justice.

After lingering about for tons of pictures and a quick rest to watch the sun go down, we started our descent back through the Albayzín to the center of Granada. On the way, I saw some nice works of graffiti.

Botellón and Bars

I returned to my room for a disco nap, then met up with 3 of the ladies for a quick taps before heading over to Laura's apartment where we would join her and her roommates for a night out. It all unfolded something like this:

Before: Gracias por tu visita. After: Gracias, puta! 
A quick copa before heading to Laura's. A free tapa too, cuz... why not?
Pre-gaming, botellon style. Try it at home! Banjo optional.

My loose interpretation for botellon, is 'bring a bottle and some of those cups...'. Though they usually occur outside of the house in a plaza or park, I think it's far to call anything a botellon that involves more than 1 person bringing more than 1 bottle to share with the intent of drinking as much as possible before the night is over.

First, to Chantarela for a few rounds of tapas and copas... what else?

Our next stop was a crowded, energetic bar where this guy ogled me in the bathroom. I didn't mind.

After a several hours of making the rounds, we night creatures all headed back to our coffins. By the time I made it back to my room and collapsed, it was a little after 4am.

La Morena Comes to Visit

"Oh crap, what time is it?" was my first thought upon waking the next morning. I was supposed to be meeting up with Dominique (aka, La Morena de Andalucia), who I had pestered until she agreed to come into Granada so we could hang out for the day. We strolled around Granada catching up on everything until it was time for me to head off to my appointment at the nearby hammam.

afer-coffee stroll through the market in a nearby plaza
kids playing at plaza nueva

2 for tea - Dominque and me at a teteria on Elvira

spice vendor near granada cathedral

Hammam Al Andalus

After all the walking at the Alhambra and the Albayzin the previous day, followed by a long night of 'botellon and bars', my poor body needed some rejuvenation. The Hamma al Andalus was right on time.

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No pictures allowed inside. But I managed to sneak this one of me with my shoe shower caps.

Inside the hammam are 3-4 'baths' or large soaking pools - each has a different temperature (from ice cold to warm-but-not-hot). There's also a steam room and a massage area. My entry fee of 25€ included admission to the baths for 2 hours and a 15-minute massage. The massage was pretty good, and I felt the price was fair, especially because I needed it so badly.

After the hammam, I met up with Dominique, Nicole, and Allison (aka, the out-of-towners) for tapas at Bella y la Bestia.

I'm giddy from an excess of carbs and a lack of sleep.

Soon, it was time for Dominque to head back to Huelma. We hung out a bit more around Elvira, and then I saw her off to the bus station.

Shisha and Bars

Saturday night. Last night in Granada. So I start it off by meeting up with Brit for shisha and a nice cup of tea. We're both a little hungover from the night before, and before we leave the teteria, Brit throws in the towel and heads home for the night. Fare thee well o Hiawatha. Fare thee well, O mighty warrior.

I went on to meet up with the rest of the girls for a couple of bar stops:

First, at Chantarela (Yes, again. Cuz it was that good.)...

Then, at Poe, where Allison had her first taste of absinthe...

And finally, at one of these interesting Spanish drinking establishments I call 'shot houses' - a bar that's really popular because they serve a dizzying array of shots for about 1euro each.

All in all, it was a nice way to wrap up the weekend.

And it was a good thing I booked my return bus for the afternoon. I definitely needed to sleep in.

my culinary adventures in spain - eating out

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been surprisingly underwhelmed by the food here in Spain. Before coming here, I imagined that I'd be in absolute gastronmic glee over all of the delicious food available. Not exactly the case. But still, I've had some delicious and some very inspiring experiences with food that are definitely worth sharing.

EATING OUT

Tapas
The Spanish are best known for tapas. They invented the whole concept of small plates eaten / shared with friends over rounds of drinks. They've even made a verb to express the act of having tapas - tapear. Almost every Spanish restaurant offers a selection of tapas along with larger portions called raciones. However, there are two things that have left me feeling lackluster about the whole tapas experience: 1) every restaurant generally has the exact same selection of tapas (oh, look, they have croquetas!), and 2) none of them are prepared exceptionally well. They're not bad, mind you, but compared to my hyped-up expectations, they're not that great. Yet, thankfully, there have been exceptions:

In Sevilla, La Morena de Andalucia (aka, Dominique) showed me her favorite tapas restaurant, Duo. Located on the Alameda de Hercules, this little bar serves up some more creative twists on traditional Spanish tapas. The higher quality of the ingredients is noticeable as well. So far, this ranks as my #1 restaurant meal in Spain.

@ Duo Tapas in Sevilla. foreground: pulpo a la gallega; background: carillada

In Cádiz, the tapas were tastier than the usual, and seemed even better because they were cheap and plentiful.

@ La Isleta Bar in Cádiz. left: carillada; right: pescado en salsa roma

In Granada, the tradition of buy a drink, get a free tapa is alive and well. Unfortunately, the free tapas are mostly carb-heavy, not-that-great snacks. But Chantarela is a tapas bar that does justice to free tapas.

Standard free tapas in Granada. Carb-tastic!

Free tapas at Chantarela in Granada.

Beer
One of the very first things I learned when I arrived in Sevilla was how to order a caña. A caña is basically a half-pint of beer, and usually costs about 1€. It's common to have a caña before/with/after lunch, after work, or basically any time you need to take a quick break with a refreshing beverage. I've even started to use the caña as a standard for pricing other things. For example, "Wow. That bus ticket costs 2 cañas!" Spain has several local / regional beers that are only slightly better than Budweiser, Coors, or PBR. When you order a caña, you'll usually be served either Cruzcampo, Mahou, Alhambra, or San Miguel depending on what city you're in. All of them are your standard lager - refreshing, effervescent, uncomplicated and, honestly, quite perfect after a long day of walking around in the heat. But not too exciting in the way of flavor or body.

More recently, I've lucked up and found a few craft beer dispensaries. The phenomenon of craft and artisan beers is still fairly new here, so you often have to look a little harder to find a place with craft beers. Also, many of the shops or bars only have bottles, not taps. Still, there are some really good brews to be had, and the prices are on par with if not a little better than what you might find in the States. Right now, my favorite Spanish craft brewery is Naparbier - I've tried 2 of their Saisons and 2 IPAs, and loved them all. Plus, they have some really cool bottle art. One thing I've noticed in my tastings is that Spanish IPAs are not as over-the-top hoppy as others I've tried. They still have the prominent grassy or floral notes of an IPA but not the huge, hoppy 'bite' that I dislike about American IPAs.

Gulden Draak at La Tienda de Cervezas (The Beer Store) in Madrid.

Just a sliver of the bottled selection at La Tienda de Cervezas, Madrid

Freidurías
Ok. So there are these places here, right? They serve nothing but various fried things. It's like a Southerner's dream come true. Well, at least this Southerner's. You can find freidurias anywhere - in municipal markets, as standalone restaurants, or takeout-style counters. The menu selection in a freiduria consists of a variety of frituras, which I lovingly call, 'frieds'. You can choose from a selection of fish and seafood (anchovies, calamari, squid, etc.) or vegetables (eggplant, mushrooms, peppers, etc.). The best freidurias use a very light and crisp coating or batter for the fish, and I think most all of them use olive oil for frying. The result is a crispy, light-tasting exterior that doesn't mask the flavor or freshness of the fish. With a wedge of lemon to squeeze all over crispy, bite-sized pieces of fish hot out of the fryer, I am in heaven.

'Frieds' at a stall in the municipal market in Algeciras

Fritura from a take-away restaurant in Cádiz

Chiringuitos
A chiringuito is a beachside shack or restaurant that specializes in whole fish cooked over an open flame. Talk about some serious food porn. My first chiringuito experience was at Malagueta, Malaga's most popular beach. After placing my order, I watched as an older gent delicately salted and skewered a whole fish, pitched it almost vertically next to a carefully tended wood flame, and lovingly basted it in olive oil until it was perfectly cooked and charred just-so on the outside. I have dreams about that day sometimes. Though a little pricey on my budget (at least here in Málaga), it's definitely worth the occasional splurge.

Yes - he is expertly cooking whole fish over a mound of burning wood piled into half of a boat. Yep.
yep.

Libations
My stateside mantra is, 'retail drinking is for suckas', and that hasn't changed much since moving to Spain. But when I do go for a cocktail at a bar, it's usually one of these:

Tinto de verano - A simpler alternative to sangria, tinto de verano is a blend of vino tinto (red wine) and a fizzy lemon drink found in Spain called casera. It's decent, but the casera sometimes has a strange aftertaste to me, so I plan to try making an at-home version with real lemons, sugar, and sparkling water or tonic.

Vermut - a fortified red wine that's sweet but strong and has lots of herbal undertones since it's usually infused with some botanicals. Served over ice with a slice of lemon or orange. I've only had it in Madrid and Cadiz, however.

Vermut and tostas in Madrid

Chupito - The Spanish term for a shot.

Occasionally though, I head to Mañana, my favorite bar in Málaga. They make really good versions of classic cocktails like mojitos and manhattans, plus a few beer cocktails like the James Brown.

Tomax preps for a 'make-do mojito' (they were out of limes)

Xamot carefully crafts the James Brown - a beer cocktail


Fast Food
The most commonly sighted fast food restaurants here are McDonald's and Burger King. Many of the menu items are the same as in the States, with some differences to suit local tastes. For instance, McDonald's serves gazpacho in the summer. They also serve a habit-forming alternative to the already addicting McDonald's fries, called 'patatas deluxe'. They're little seasoned potato wedges that pair perfectly with a McBeer.

My favorite after-school snack: patatas deluxe and a beer

One other notable difference is the prices at fast food chains (at least the 2 burger chains). If memory serves, they are more expensive than at home. A regular-priced combo meal at McDonalds can cost 7€ or a little more; and the 'daily special' is still pretty expensive at 5.50€.

It's the little differences.

a week in the life of an english language auxiliar in spain

Monday

7:45am - Head out the door and down the hill to meet my ride at 7:50. On Monday mornings, I ride to school with Pepe, a biology teacher at IES Vega de Mar in San Pedro de Alcantara. On the 10-minute drive from Marbella, we talk about our weekends and other pleasantries. It's good practice for both of us. Pepe tries to speak in English, I try to speak in Spanish. Hilarity often ensues.

8:00am - We arrive at school and enter the Sala de Profes (aka, the teacher's lounge, aka 'club profe'). After a round of 'holas' and 'buenos', Pepe and I head straight for our mugs to prep our morning coffee. We take turns treating each other. (Coffee isn't free for profes. It costs .50€). I sit enjoying my coffee (and if lucky, my take-along breakfast) and listening to the rapid-fire convos between the other profes.

arriving at school

8:15am - The bell rings for first period. By now, I am used to the sound of it. Though when I first arrived, I almost had multiple heart attacks, since the bell sounds something like a cross between a fire alarm and an air raid siren. Everyone heads off to their classes. Since I don't have class this hour, I sit in the lounge and prepare for the day ahead.

9:15am - Time for my first class. History and geography with the 2nd level bilingual students. When I walk into class, several students greet me with a very rehearsed, 'Hello, Kisha. How are you?" The rest of them are chatting loudly, running around the classroom, or horseplaying with their friends. I have to shout 'Ready?' at least 2 or 3 times to get them to settle down. Before getting into today's lesson, I start off by asking if anybody did anything fun or interesting over the weekend. Many of the students are as eager to share as I am to listen, plus it gives them a chance to practice speaking English in an unstructured way. After everyone has shared, we move on to the lesson. Today, we are reading about daily life in the Middle Ages. I ask for volunteers to read the English handout the profe has selected. Each volunteer first reads a few sentences from the lesson in English, then translates the same into Spanish. We go over unfamiliar vocabulary words as a group, and I answer any questions they may have. The profe, Enrique (aka, Quique), helps out with any Spanish-English translations that I don't know. Throughout the lesson, I have to stop several times to quiet the class back down or call out a student who is obviously not paying attention.By the end of class, Quique has worked up a sweat and the kids have worked my nerves.

such adorable little scamps.

10:15 - First class is over. I head back to the lounge to hang and prep for my next class, which isn't until 11:35.

11:35 - My second history class. This time with the first-year students. They are quickly becoming my favorite group of the 3 that I work with. They aren't as boisterous as the 2nd years, but they have way more energy and interest in learning than the 3rd years. However, their level of English is much lower, so it can be a challenge communicating or coming up with in-class activities that they will easily grasp. After the 'how was your weekend' chat, we delve into today's lesson: the government of ancient Rome. Usually we read and translate, but today, I divide the class into several groups. Each must come up with a solution to a problem that the Roman citizenry is facing. They must decide which members of the government they need to work with, and propose their own solution to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, one student asks if they have to give their explanation in Spanish or English. I shake my head, smile, and say, "When I'm here. It's always English. Vale?" Surprisingly, the students really take to the assignment and they come up with some creative, if not entirely practical solutions.It´s a rare moment of success. I relish in my unquestionable auxiliar awesomeness.

12:35pm - Technically, I'm done for the day. But I have an hour of 'coordination', which any of the teachers can use to chat with me about lessons for the coming week or any special projects or activities they want me to prepare for the class. It's rare that anyone does, but I stick around anyway, just in case.

1:45 - 4:00pm - Workday is officially over! Since it's Monday, I'm headed to do some grocery shopping. I catch the #4 urbano (aka, local / intracity bus) which stops right outside of the school, to Puerto Banus. From there, I catch the #1 urbano to La Cañada, Marbella's huge shopping mall. By now, I'm starving, so I stop at McDonald's in the mall for an after-school snack of patatas deluxe and a beer. Total cost: 2.35€. Inside the mall there is also Alcampo, where I prefer to do my shopping. It's equivalent to a Super Wal-Mart, so I can get groceries and personal / household items all in one stop. I've finally gotten into the habit of bringing along my backpack and a large, reusable shopping tote. Plastic shopping bags are usually not free in any store in Spain - checkout clerks almost always ask: "Bolsa quiere?" ("Want a bag?") instead of just giving you one - so it literally pays to have your own. Also, the backpack helps me transport heavier items on the bus ride and walk home. I try to stick to my 20-25€ weekly grocery budget, but sometimes I go a bit over if I have to buy things like deodorant or lotion.

la canada - where i do most of my grocery shopping

4:00pm - I catch the bus from La Canada back to the main bus station in Marbella, a 7-10 minute walk from my house.

4:30 - Home! Time to put up the groceries and rest a bit before making dinner.

7:30 - Time to unwind for the evening. Maybe I'll stream a movie online, straighten up my room a bit, hang out in front of the TV with my roommates, or just surf the Internet for a few hours before going to bed. Most likely, I'm still recovering from a long, eventful weekend and I could use the rest.

relaxing after school with purp, the house kitty.

Tuesday

8:00am - The sunlight streaming in my window wakes me up. It's my late day, and I don't have class until 12:45. I pull the covers over my head and half-sleep for an hour or so more.

10:00 - 11:30am - Even though I tell myself I'm going to accomplish a ton of stuff before heading to school, I manage to fritter away time until it's almost time to catch the noon bus that will just barely get me to school in time for my 12:45 class.

11:45am - 12:45pm - I make the 7-10 minute walk from my house to the main bus station. I catch the noon bus from Marbella to San Pedro. The bus ride takes about 40 minutes and costs 1.23€.

12:45 - 2:45pm - I have PE class with the 2nd year students. I spend the first half of class explaining 2 different playground games that are commonly played in the US. The students take notes and ask questions before trying the games for themselves. The second half of class I spend in the teacher's lounge correcting an English presentation about basketball that the teacher has prepared for a different class. Next, it's off to music class with the first year students. I often get the feeling that the music profe doesn't exactly know what to do with me in class. Today, is no exception. The students take turns reading from the English textbook (today, it's about the Baroque period), and I ask them questions about what they just read.

preparing to teach the kids about four square (the analog one)

in music class
2:45 - 2:55pm -  If Pepe or one of the other teachers who live near me don't have a meeting or other after-work plans, I catch a ride home with one of them. Which is nice, because not only does it save me money, it shaves about 45 minutes off of my commute.
after-school commute / carpool from san pedro to marbella

Wednesday

7:45am - Off to meet Pepe!

8:15am - 9:15am - On Wednesdays, I alternate between music and PE classes. Today, it's PE class with the 3rd year students. I read the presentation on basketball in English, and the profe translates as needed into Spanish. The students make notes about the rules, players, and key vocabulary related to the sport. Apparently they will be tested on this later.

9:15am - 10:15am - English class with my favorite teacher in the school - Mila, the bilingual coordinator. The students' behavior is markedly different in her class. They are quiet, respectful, and attentive, even though I have to work a little to get their energy level up. Today, we discuss adjectives. I write various adjectives on the board and call on students to guess what they mean. Afterwards, I ask the students to write down 3 adjectives that describe themselves, and we go around sharing all the answers. There are some creative and some downright hilarious responses. This is one of the few classes where I truly get to engage with the students, and I think they enjoy the interaction as much as I do.

10:15 - 11:35am - No class until later, so I lounge in the sala de profes, chatting with some of the teachers, or prepping for tomorrow's classes.

The bilingual teachers have a meeting in club Profe. From L to R: Enrique (Quique), Luis, Paco Serrano, Meritxell, Mila.

11:35am - 12:35pm - PE with the first years. A listening exercise for today. I read a text about juggling, which explains the history of the sport and some different methods, using simple English terms. After I finish the reading I ask the students prepared questions based on the text to assess their level of listening comprehension.

12:35 - 1:35pm - Done for the day! I make the 15-20 minute walk down the street, across a ravine, up a hill, across an overpass, and along the side of the highway to catch my bus. On the ride home, I study my Spanish dictionary, read, or make notes about today's class.

after-school commute - crossing the ravine

after-school commute - on the overpass

Thursday

11:30am - It's Friday! Well, at least for me. It's my last day of classes for the week. I arrive at the school just in time for my first of 2 math classes.

11:35am - 1:45pm - Back-to-back math classes with the 1st and 2nd year students. I already hate math. So having to 'teach' it in English to non-English speakers is not exactly my favorite activity. The profe usually has me work with the students using a prepared handout of exercises. I explain the instructions in English and help the students use English to read the equations and explain their solutions. Most of the time, it goes well, but there are some differences in the way math is done/taught in Spain (commas instead of decimals, methods for division, etc.) that leave me scratching my head. The math profe usually reverts to speaking completely in Spanish (an absolute no-no in my other classes) before the end of the class, so am I often left smiling and pointing like a mute game show host while secretly counting the seconds until class is over. Did I mention that I hate math?

but when it's one of the students' birthday, they do this - which makes math less awful.

1:45 - 2:45pm - History and geography with the 3rd year students. A cool class since the students are older, and we often get into some pretty deep conversations. Today's topic: globalization. I lead the students in a brief discussion on how we have all been impacted by globalization. I ask them for examples of music, food, clothing, and TV programs that they like but are not from Spain. Then we do some reading and translation, and finally finish with a video that I found on the topic. The students give a huge round of applause after the video, and I spend the last few minutes of class having them share their opinions on why they think globalization is good or bad. When the bell rings, I get the feeling that all of us are sad that class is over.

Well, maybe not too sad.

surprising / annoying / amazing things about spain
granada-spain-airbnb-lodging-hostel.jpg

surprising things about spain

how NOT amazing the food is.

The food in Spain is definitely not bad. But it isn't nearly as amazing as I'd expected it to be. Part of that could be because I live in Marbella, which isn't exactly hailed for its cusine. The other part could be that, given my teaching assistant's salary, I try not to eat out too much. When I do eat out, I go for the best value. Maybe if I could afford to splurge on some higher-end places, I'd have a different experience. But for now, I remain surprisingly underwhelmed.

pan con aceite y tomate. a typical spanish breakfast. when it's good, it's good. but usually it's just soggy bread.

it's kind of country.

I live in Andalusia - the south of Spain. Among Spaniards, it has a pretty similar reputation to the South in the United States. Spanish people who live elsewhere seem to think Andalusians are 'slower' and have a funny-sounding accent. Even though I live in a fairly large city, it's quite common to see touches of rural life on a daily basis - like the horse-riding vaquero that grazes sheep, cows, and steers in a big field near my school. Also, I was surprised that much of Spain seems to be uninhabited. When I've flown or taken a long-distance train, I've seen large expanses of land that have no cities or towns to speak of - only the occasional pueblo / village or often just a small house or farm in the middle of nowhere.

cattle grazing near my school (and adjacent to a major highway)

how cold the houses are in winter.

Before coming here, I knew that many Spanish houses lacked central heating, since most are built to be naturally cool during the sweltering summer months. But nothing could have prepared me for how cold it would be inside the average Spanish home from January to early March. Even when the temperature outside was Fall-like, the temperature inside was much chillier. With electricity being very expensive, space heaters are generally out of the question. And even if they weren't financially impractical, the lack of insulation, and the heavy use of marble, tile, and stucco for interiors would render them almost useless anyway. My #1 saving grace was a hot water bottle that my roommate wisely suggested I purchase, and was my nightly companion for my first two months here. There were many nights that I went to sleep muttering profanities under my breath about the cold, and many mornings where I could see my breath in front of me while getting ready for school. Thankfully, all that seems like a dim memory now that Spring is here.

i actually bought a space heater, but it ended up collecting dust once i found out how expensive and ineffective it was.
my 'hot water bottle boo' in granada

annoying things about spain

dog poo. everywhere.

Spanish people love their dogs. It seems like almost every family here has at least one. And every one of them is cuter than the last. Yet I have no idea why these people feel it's ok to let their cute little dogs leave unsightly poo all over public areas. If you're walking down the sidewalk, there's no such thing as absentmindedly taking in the sights around you. You'd better keep your eyes focused on the sidewalk or else you will definitely end up stepping in one of the many mini monuments of poo peppered all along your path.

poo
poo
and more poo

spanish people can't walk. or stand. or generally congregate in large groups.

There are some cities where it's almost a pleasure to walk in. In crowded, pedestrian-heavy cities like New York, London, or even Amsterdam, most people have figured out how to navigate the streets on foot so well, that you can tell a tourist from a local by the way they walk. The folks in Spain have acquired no such talent. Spaniards don't walk so much as they meander. On a given day, while walking the streets of almost any city in Spain, at least one of the following pedestrian 'violations' are bound to occur:

  • Stopping short for no apparent reason.
  • Walking 3 or 4 abreast on a narrow sidewalk at a snail's pace.
  • Darting out of a doorway into oncoming foot traffic.
  • Tripping or hip-checking another pedestrian with a stroller or rolling bag.
  • Having an involved conversation while blocking an entrance/exit.
  • Doing 1 or more of the above without awareness or apology.

shhh... it's a secret.

There's a certain clandestine nature about vital information in Spain. Info that you would assume should be readily available or clearly communicated, often isn't, and if you don't ask specifically, you might only get a piece of the full picture. This secret but valuable info could be anything from a bus schedule or ticket price, to exact directions to a location you're looking for, or even what day you will get paid on.

amazing things about spain

there is no famine of beauty.

Geographically speaking, Spain pretty much has it all. Glittering beaches, impressive mountains, rolling countryside. And since there are those large expanses of unpopulated space, it makes for some really lovely, truly breathtaking vistas. I can't count how many times I've involuntarily whispered to myself, 'That's beautiful!' There are so many lovely natural and architectural sights in this country that sometimes I  think to myself, 'Ok, Spain. Enough already! I get it. You're beautiful'.

the lifestyle.

In general, Spanish people are more relaxed than Americans about... everything. Sometimes, this can be irritating (as is the case with customer service), but for the most part, it's a huge plus. If there's one thing the Spanish are good at, it's enjoying life at their own pace. This is not to imply that the Spanish don't have worries or issues that they struggle with on a daily basis, but rather to highlight that there's not also a constant undercurrent of external stress from hectic schedules, long work hours, few vacations, and infrequent naps that they have to contend with. Besides that, most Spaniards seem to make the most of what they have, even if they only have a little. The often used Spanish phrase, 'no pasa nada', is the Iberian equivalent of 'no problem, mon' or 'no worries, mate', and it adequately sums up how many people here approach life.

the transportation.

Even without a car, it's incredibly easy to get around within a particular city, and especially between cities. The buses and trains within Spain are extremely reliable and comfortable. Way better than Amtrak and Greyhound in the States. High-speed trains can be a bit pricey if you're on a tight budget, but offer huge time savings. Buses are usually very affordable when travelling between cities, although they may not be the most convenient where timing is concerned. Yet both are clean, comfortable, and well-serviced. It sets the perfect stage for easy, affordable weekend excursions.

how amazing the food is.

While restaurant food underwhelms me, the quality and price of grocery store goods makes me very happy indeed. Mind you, I can't find everything that I'd normally cook with at home, but the produce and meat available here is of much better quality than in the US. And the prices for most non-packaged goods are comparable, if not much better. Especially the fish and seafood. Seriously, there are days when I just go to the seafood counter at the local grocery store and just drool. There's stuff there that I have absolutely NO idea how to cook, but I geek out just looking at it.