Behind all the “grammable” moments, the gorgeous album of photos uploaded to Facebook, the amazing snaps and instastories blasted out for the world to see, the reality of traveling is a sobering one.
First, let me start by stating that I recognize how lucky I am to have earned opportunities to travel and to live abroad in different countries. I know a lot of people look at that with a mixture of incredulity, awe, and probably a bit of envy. A lot of people want me to share photos and videos so they can live vicariously through me. I get that. I do that. However, it’s a slippery slope when you’re not in the right frame of mind.
Even as I’m here, settling into a bustling, beautiful city in Colombia, I see my friends and my family and people I knew at some point having meals together, going to parks, playing games, getting engaged, married, having babies… all together. I feel envious. I feel sad. And I feel utterly alone.
From an objective standpoint, I know I’m not alone. I also understand that these 2D experiences I’m seeing are teeming with loads of challenging nuances that I cannot detect. And currently, I’m acutely aware that I’m in the first stages of culture shock.
I’ve settled in to a beautiful house with nice people and two cats. I have a space to call my own, a place to store my food, a neighborhood to frequent. I have a launching pad from which I can go discover this city, this country, and this part of the world. It is wonderful relief.
With that relief, the ability to relax, a number of things fade: my survival instincts, the excitement of walking around a new city, re-navigating a language I love, discovering the subtleties of this culture, learning of things to try, places to see, etc. As this “honeymoon” stage melts away, room develops for homesickness, exhaustion, frustration, feelings of isolation and being stuck, even scared, and sadness.
I wouldn’t change this decision if I had to make it 50 more times. But like all things in life, there are ups and downs. Sometimes just going to the store is the hardest thing in the world. Sometimes you just need to curl up in a blanket with some mac and cheese and watch your favorite show. Sometimes things are going to suck, even if you’re in paradise.
So I guess, what I’m trying to communicate is that, while I post pretty photos and share nice stories about my experience, keep in mind that it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. Sure, revel in those moments with me, but please don’t lose sight of the magic of your own experience while you do. I’m going to remind myself of the same thing, especially in tougher moments like these.
You see the picture at the top of this page? My feet resting on a window sill that overlooks a gorgeous patio, lush with tropicalish flowers, blue skies in the background, reeking of tranquility. Well, shortly before taking that, as I ambled my gawky way into the hammock, I fell straight backwards, smashed my head into the bed so hard one of the wooden slats went crashing to the floor, scaring the cat so bad that it flew from its resting spot on my suitcase with her nails out, tearing up the fabric as she dashed away.
When I first arrived to Spain, I wasn’t sure what to eat or how to eat or how to shop for myself. It was if entering into a new society suddenly wiped my mind clear of all the things I had learned after living by myself for five years. I’m already indecisive enough as it is, so add in a warehouse store like Carrefour (a European version of a target market more or less) filled with brands, fruits, cheeses, meat hanging from the ceiling and beer I had never encountered before, I was más perdida que un pedo en un jacuzzi— aka, I was completely lost. (If you understand Spanish or looked that phrase up haha excellent). My roommate accompanied me and was exasperated at the fact that I had no idea what to buy. She kept asking me with increasing insistence, “Pues, ¿Qué comes?” and I kept saying “No sé!” Had I had the capacity to express myself more fully I would have said something like “Tia, dejáme aquí… no me puedes meter prisa que ya estoy agobiada” which basically means, “Dude- leave me here- I’m overwhelmed AF.” But instead she watched me flail in the aisles as I went around and picked up a loaf of bread, a half kilo of turkey and ham without knowing what the heck a kilo equated to, some tortilla chips, ketchup, mayonnaise, two types of mustard, barbecue sauce, a jar of salsa, and a 12 pack of Estrella Damm because it was on sale. Her eyes turned to plates when she saw the number of condiments in my basket– “¿En serio?” she laughed at me, “Eres muy americana.”
My bread molded before I could even use a quarter of it, the turkey and ham went bad because I got sick of eating it and I finished the beers after about two days. Over the next few weeks I observed what my Spanish roommates ate. Being students, they all had mothers back in their pueblos that prepared them a freezer full of tappers which contained pasta with meat sauce, rice with rabbit and veggies, an assortment of different types of soups and stews and seafood paella to name a few. Nearly every meal was accompanied by picos, little tiny pieces of hard bread that we’d probably find in some sort of chex mix. Soon I, too, became a pico feign. For breakfast they’d drink Colacao, which is like Nesquik, or powdered instant coffee with cookies or little muffins. Dinner was always late and light: a salad or some tuna with onions and tomatoes.
I was in a serious phase of adjustment, so adding cooking then dishes and balancing my roommates’ schedules in order to do so was not on the top of my priority list. So, I ate out… A LOT. And that is how I became very well acquainted with some of my favorite Spanish dishes. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was totally spoiled in that I was growing my Spanish palate in arguably one of the best gastronomic strongholds of Spain. In just a few short months, my reliance on condiments and hot sauce completely vanished. Spain’s salty, savory, FRESH, simplistic yet full-bodied cuisine redefined my definition of satisfied.
1. Bacaloa Dorado
Golden Cod in English, this dish is eaten quite often in Extremadura. It’s traditionally a Portuguese dish, and is made of eggs, onion, cod, and fried potatoes (not french fries). For me, it was comfort food. I found out pretty soon that it’s super easy to make, too.
2. Jamón, Lomo, Chorizo
Although I don’t eat much meat here, I can’t get over the Spanish cured meats. Give me a bandeja of any of these and I’m one happy camper. Chorizo is chorizo. It’s less spicy than the Mexican chorizo we’re accustomed to and has a smokier flavor because it’s made with Pimentón or paprika. Pimentón de La Vera isa specialty from the province of Cáceres, located in the north of Extremadura. Lomo is cured tenderloin. SO GOOD. Jamón is cured ham leg and the best ham comes from Extremadura because they’re raised in open fields and feed on the bellotas or acorns from the Holm oak trees strewn across the region. My Spanish mom sent me some lomo and jamón for my birthday and I cried. These are no joke, folks.
3. Huevos Rotos
My mouth became a geyser each time I saw a plate of huevos rotos go by. It literally translates to Broken Eggs– even the name is awesome, right? This is another comfort selection as it consists of a bed of fries, topped with Jamón and two over easy eggs. That’s it. Simply delicious. Another version I often enjoyed swapped Jamón for gulas, which are little sea worms. Before you get totally grossed out, if you’re in Spain– try them! They’re also amazing sauteed in garlic and olive oil (Gulas al ajillo)–YUM.
4. Tortilla de Patata con Salmorejo
Ah yes, the famous Tortilla de Patata or Spanish Omelette. Spain converted me into an egg lover. I love all the eggs in all the different shapes and forms they come in. One of my favorites for sure is the classic Tortilla de Patatas–but for me it has to be on the runnier side and it’s even better when it can be plopped into a cold, shallow bowl of Salmorejo. This is another version of ‘cold tomato soup’ that’s similar to Gazpacho (which I also love). While Gazpacho contains pepino (cucumber), pimientos (peppers), Salmorejo does not. It’s slightly thicker because it uses more bread followed by fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and salt.
I realize “Tapas” is the broadest thing I could list here and it sort of seems like cheating. But for me, it’s the epitome of why I LOVE Spanish food.
Tapas which literally means lid, became a cultural staple after it was mandatory to serve food with alcoholic beverages (why isn’t this a thing everywhere still behooves me). The principle behind Tapas consists of two of my favorite things: snacking and sharing. Here I described how Tapas is a way of life–it’s representative of the family-style, communal approach to eating. It stirs up conversation and it brings you closer together as you truly bond over a shared meal.
This list could go on for days but that would be somewhat masochistic. It’s a good thing I have all of the recipes to my favorite Spanish foods AND I just started working part time at Milwaukee’s only authentic Spanish Tapa restaurant, MOVIDA, so I can satiate my cravings until I move back.
If you behave nice and tell me what your favorite Spanish food is in the comments, maybe in the future I’ll treat you to Part II: My Favorite Spanish Foods. I’ll be sure to include cheeses and even some recipes!
So, dime (tell me)– have you lived in or traveled to Spain? If so, ¿cuál es tu comida favorita? If you haven’t, which one of my favorite Spanish foods sounds most appealing to you? Share in the comments!
Chrismas in Spain, or rather December in Spain, referred to as Las Navidades, is a month full of family, friends and overall debauchery. The people are absolutely giddy over vacation, presents, company Christmas parties, family time, and of course, drinks and wine.
I’ve just finished my second Christmas in Spain and it was nothing short of a seam bursting, family-filled, joyously exhausting buffet for three weeks. Yes, three weeks. Okay, maybe the buffet part is a bit of an exaggeration but with the richness of all the food, drink, and dessert one meal could easily stay with you for two days. And for those who cannot help themselves (me) when trays of shrimp, plates of Iberian ham, blocks of sheep cheese, Extremadura’s very own Torta del Casar, and baskets of bread are laid out in front of them it’s a recipe for some intestinal hardships in the following days.
The Spanish don’t generally celebrate December 25th the way we often do in the U.S. The 25th is Jesus’ birthday, and the 24th is what’s called Nochebuena. Or affectionately (and after experiencing it twice, I must say, accurately) translated by my students, The Good Night. The Good Night, or Christmas Eve, is celebrated most traditionally with getting dressed up, going out to bars with family and friends to get a solid holiday buzz, then attending a big family dinner around nine or ten.
I say big for two reasons: Generally, many Spanish families still retain a massive amount of people due to the population boom in the 50’s and 60’s so it’s quite common that people from my generation have at least five aunts or uncles, all of whom have a spouse and one to three children. Last year, there was 35 of us packed into one 10 by 25 room; And two, because you know what I mentioned above about the trays of shrimp and all that? Yeah, well, those are just the appetizers. After this comes the main course, of course. This year we were treated with roasted red peppers stuffed with cod and drizzled with a tomato and red pepper sauce. We also had pork loin fillets with an apple chutney sauce. So rich. Muy rico.
Dessert consisted of champagne and red fruit slush (a bit on the acidic side, but so tasty), chocolates, the traditional turrón, and of course, unas copas. A classic gin and tonic with herbs and mixed berries (my favorite) or rum and coke is had to ease the digestion. After dinner many people continue the party by going out all night. I couldn’t because of the indigestion I was suffering, unfortunately.
On the 25th, Maria’s family and I celebrated with a few gifts in the morning. I repeated relentlessly that I did not want anything this year. Last year they were far too generous with me. I’m also trying simplifying my life and minimize the amount of things I have… So unable to go without not giving me anything, Maria’s mom gifted me an “Adventure Package” for use in and around Europe that I can do with one other person. She’s truly one of the most giving people I’ve ever met.
Sticking to my theme of gifting experiences, I gave her and her family a paleta de bellota (a cured ham leg that is fed naturally on acorns).
After the gift opening I slept on the couch to rest up for the lunch. Yes, hardly twelve hours later everyone gets back together and eats MORE. Much of what we ate was a composite of leftovers from the night before and ham. Indigestion or not, I cannot say no to the jamón.
After the 25th things settle down for a few days, but soon after there is Nochevieja or New Years Eve. My experience for new years is a party with friends, maybe family, lots of alcohol and appetizers. The Spanish version of New Years Eve is family orientated. There is a big dinner, with much of the same things we see at the Christmas dinner, and the twelve grapes. They celebrate with their family until midnight and as the bells ring in the new year, everyone shoves twelve grapes in their mouth. Why Spaniards eat 12 grapes on New Years still escapes me, but it’s tradition– so why question it, right? I’ve received many different responses to this question ranging from grapes represent good health and fertility so consuming them to start is a good omen to why not start the year off with a little competition?
I was served 12 PEELED seedless grapes. This is a thing that is sold in the market. Peeled grapes. It should have been unsurprising since Spaniards peel everything. I was often viewed with confusion and pity as I crunched into apples with their skin intact.
I digress. The other thing that is surely not forgotten is red undergarments. If you have forgotten, it’s essentially as bad as toasting without touching the table… because as they say “Quien no apoya, no folla”, which roughly translates to, “Who doesn’t touch the table with their glass, doesn’t fuck.” I love Spanish. If you’re not wearing red underwear, well you’re not going to get lucky. It’s as simple as that. I was told the origins of this tradition are rooted in the Toreo aspect of the culture. What attracts un toro? That red cape… same goes for a mate. Or the alternative: What do Spanish people look sexiest in? Red, of course. Alright– that might be a bit of personal opinion, but I think most could agree. Some people believe it also needs to be gifted to you in order for it to count.
The next day is usually filled with nursing the massive resaca (hangover) and avoiding any type of New Years Resolutions until at least the next day.
Los Reyes Magos
After Nochevieja, Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) come to town on the 6th of January. This is traditionally the big gift giving day for Spaniards. Celebrating Santa Clause and exchanging gifts is somewhat of an Americanism that has slowly diffused into the culture over the last decade. Two days of gifts? The kids certainly aren’t complaining. During the evening of the fifth, there’s a large parade in which the Three Kings arrive and chuck hard candies out into the gobs of people lined up to see them. I stopped by before I made my way to soccer practice and little did I know I’d see my life flash before my eyes. An elderly woman dove into the back of my legs in order to retrieve a few caramelos. I fell forward into a woman and was stopped from certain death by a farola (streetlight). I’ve never seen such agility out of a woman over 65 years of age. I’ve never seen such… passion. We’ll call it that, because after she grabbed the candy she turned and gave them to an adorable little girl bouncing in the arms of her mother. I didn’t receive a perdón ni nada but after seeing that niña‘s face light up, she was forgiven.
The following day, the sixth, is (in my experience) reserved for immediate family. Maybe someone else will stop by mid morning, but generally it mirrored much of what my Christmas Day looked like in the United States. Gift giving, playing with said gifts in our pajamas most of the day, a big brunch, naps, a movie– intimate and relaxed. The next day, most people returned to work and school so it made for a nice transition into la vuelta a la rutina (the return to the routine).
While it was difficult to spend Christmas away from my family, I was so so lucky to be included into a wonderful family– my Spanish family. Skyping always eased some of the yearning I felt for my own kin…but they made sure I never felt like I didn’t belong, and that’s something that permeates my overall experience in Spain.
¡Gracias for reading! Have you experienced the holidays in Spain? What was your experience like? What about another culture? How are traditions and routines similar or different? Let me know in the comments below!
*Note: This was written in January of 2016 and was meant to be published then. Here it is, at last... Christmas in July.