Traveling to Europe is an expensive endeavor. However, once there, it is fairly cheap to go from country to country.
Plane tickets from Valencia to Porto, Portugal, for instance, can be around 30 euros. Many people we met in Spain go easily from country to country, especially since being in the European Union makes it so easy to travel. Lots of high school students we met were planning to go to college in Germany, the Netherlands and England, and it was nothing for their parents to bop over to see them regularly.
We, however, were confined to Spain. After being robbed for a second time, my Foreigner’s Identity Card was stolen. I received a paper replacement, but was told I could not come back into the country if I left, or it wouldn’t be valid. This was not really such a bad thing because it allowed us to really get to know Spain without diluting our time there. We hit almost every region and really learned the Spanish landscape and regional differences.
But, when the lease on our house and our Visa expired, we decided to take advantage of our proximity to other countries and visit as many other places in Europe as we could before returning to the United States.
I don’t mind bragging that I have gotten good at travel planning. I have discovered all the resources for authentic experiences and making the most of short stays. So, I put my hobby to use and planned a two-week, six-country tour through Western Europe. The list consisted of: Porto, Portugal; Prague, Czech Republic; Cologne and Triberg, Germany; Salzburg, Austria; Bruges, Belgium; and Amsterdam, Netherlands.
All our friends from Spain thought we were crazy to pack so much in, but it was actually perfect, if you didn’t mind skipping the relaxation part of a vacation and going straight for the action. We used planes and trains, hit the main sites and a few out of the way places, stayed in little local inns and occasionally went on a tour (the highlights were Fraulein Maria’s bike tour in Salzburg and the Dam Boat Guys Canal tour in Bruges). The key was to avoid the touristy offerings and focus on local guides.
When people talk about going to Europe on vacation, they often don’t think that it is actually a very small place. It’s as if everyone in the world decided to travel to a few main cities in a few states in America. In other words, in July, it is packed! It made me miss our lazy pace in Valencia, which doesn’t make it into most guidebooks.
Even though we were still in Europe, this trip made me realize how different Spain is from other European countries. Partly because Spain was kept separate so long because of Franco’s regime, it has not adopted as many things from the United States. The main difference was the food schedule. It felt strange to be back on a mid-day lunch hour and an earlier (by Spain standards) dinner. Secondly, we had became accustomed to the way Spanish people look and dress. On a metro, almost everyone had black hair, a very specific haircut for boys, tight clothes, small physiques and a particular care with personal grooming. Women tended to be very well dressed if younger than 50, and in house dresses if older than 50. As soon as we got to Prague, we were hit with people who looked very different. People were taller, lots of blond hair, many more people were speaking English and lots more people were getting drunk in public. I always was interested that as much as Spanish people drink, it was considered very bad form to be drunk in public.
We had many memorable adventures on this whirlwind trip, from getting stuck in the homeless party car on a five-hour train ride to hiking about 2 miles uphill with our luggage to an inn off the beaten path. We happened upon a town festival in Triberg, a rock festival in Bruges and watched Portugal lose in the World Cup outside in the main square in Porto.
It was a funny, educational and emotional end to our year in Spain. Hopefully, our kids will never forget it. And, it created a little buffer for our re-entry into the U.S.
Where does a year go?
It is true that as one gets older, time moves faster. I know that for our kids, our year in Spain feels like an eternity. Our youngest is trying to remind herself what her room in Durango looks like. My son made lifelong friends that he is already missing. He is trying to convince me to let him go back to visit them for Fallas, Valencia’s annual weeklong festival. For me, Spain already seems like a dream I have to keep reminding myself was real.
I adjusted my expectations with learning Spanish. I quickly realized that I would not be fluent in a year, but at least I have a start that is stronger than most. I have to remind myself what it was like when we were first in Puzol and unable to communicate. When I left, I never worried that I couldn’t get by in what our Spanish teacher called “caveman talk.” Our kids, however, are close to fluent, which is what we wanted for both of them.
The main thing that lets me know we have changed through our time in Spain is simple. Things that seemed exotic now seem familiar. I don’t bat an eye that every store that sells food smells like fish, that teenagers stay out until at least 2 a.m., that the choices of soda are only Coke and Fanta, that water has to be ordered and that there aren’t any refills, that my fitness class teacher has a cigarette after class, that graffiti is part of the landscape, that feral cats roam the streets, that the main meal of the day is at 2 p.m., that everything closes from 2 to 4:30 p.m., that smells vacillate between flowers and sewage, that people wear lots of leather and soccer jerseys. I could fill a pages with the things that I have gotten used to.
I will miss the kindness of Spanish people, hearing Spanish all around me, the ability to be anonymous and the coffee. I will miss the sea, the history, the chapels, the birds, the pastries, the lack of to-go cups, local stores, the lack of sprawl and bocadillas. Mostly, I will miss my friends and my new routines.
Now that Spain feels more familiar, I have to work not to glorify it and recognize the good and the bad, as well as the good and the bad in the United States. But, there are some things that I want to bring home with me. One is the importance of slowing down and two is the importance of family. Spanish people spend weekends with their families. Kids stay with their grandparents in the summers, and multiple generations are together for parties and festivals.
I know that some things are nontransferable, like teenage boys kissing their moms after sports matches. But, it is true that Spanish kids really don’t go through typical teenage rebellion. We’ll see. I do value this aspect of Spanish life, as well as the amount of time I was able to spend with my family this year.
Valencia is a city to fall in love with.
It’s not love at first site, granted, but a growing love that makes you feel connected. It’s not like Barcelona or Sevilla, filled with antigua that draws people from everywhere to visit in awe.
Valencia is a place you can live. You can find a regular doctor, go to yoga in the park, walk the Turia River with everyone else who lives here, find a favorite cafe and get behind the local futbol team.
I am starting to feel nostalgic already. This feeling was intensified when I spontaneously bought tickets to the last Valencia home game that we could attend. Valencia has done well this year, staying in the top four of La Liga for the first time in a while, led by their new charismatic coach from Asturias.
It was “family night” at the game, which meant a big crowd and lots of kids in Valencia shirts. Since most Spanish kids stay up late, it didn’t matter that they wouldn’t get home until after 10 p.m. on a school night. We got off the metro along with the other throngs of people who made their way in a long, packed line to the stadium.
Watching the crowd, I felt a surge of affection for this place. Going to a game has its own style, different from a Major League Baseball game or a college football game in the U.S. Looking around at the crowd, most people are dark haired and wearing black. There isn’t any tailgating or drinking, but there is a lot of cigarette smoke on the streets and in the stadium.
Futbol games are all about the futbol. There aren’t stands selling paraphernalia or food, nor are there people walking the stands selling food and beer. In fact, families bring in picnics (usually bocadillas).
The stadium seating goes straight up, and the inside is concrete and metal as people climb to their seats. We accidentally sat in the wrong section until a man came and told us that the section was reserved for a group of friends that come every time. He laughingly said we wouldn’t want to sit there. We realized the truth in his words as we saw some of his group dragging a large drum up the stairs. It turns out they were a fan group that sang songs and waved flags the whole game.
When we finally found our seats, I realized that I had inadvertently gotten the very last seats at the top of the stadium. This turned out to be amazing, as our backs were up against the wall and we could watch the game and look out over all of Valencia. We could look down on the television camera over the field, as well as the swifts flying below us.
We yelled and screamed like everyone else. The night was warm with a slight cool breeze blowing. As I looked behind me out over Valencia, it solidified my attachment to this place. We were just fellow Valencia fans on a beautiful night cheering for our team. The ache of Valencia’s 2 to 1 loss, was nothing compared to the ache of knowing that we wouldn’t see them play next year.
In unspoken agreement, our family stayed until after the crowds left to just savor the moment and look out over the city, before returning home on the crowded metro after 10 p.m. with our own young child in tow.
Sally Shuffield is a Durango resident living in Spain for a year with her family. Visit her blog at www.sallyshuffield.net/spain-blog.
At 11:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, a sword held by the bride and groom cut through a massive wedding cake during our friend Hector’s wedding.
Our family was lucky enough to be invited because it was a true cultural experience, as well as one of the best times we have had in Spain. Even though the wedding began at 6:30 p.m., at midnight people were asking us if we were going to stay for the “party.” We realized early on that weddings, like most parties in Spain, require commitment and stamina. We are glad that we embraced the experience as best we could, returning home at 3 a.m. with the party still continuing in the distance until around 5:30 a.m.
It was a chance encounter that brought Hector into our lives. My husband, Mike, was hiking on the mountain behind our house at the beginning of our stay in Spain. As he crested an outcrop, Hector was cresting it from the other side. After merely saying “hola,” Hector could tell by his accent that Mike was from America. He told Mike that he needed to improve his English for his job as an engineer for a container factory outside Puzol. So, they agreed to hike together to practice. What started as an occasional language get-together has become a family friendship.
Hector, who is only about 34 years old, has hiked with Mike almost every Saturday of our stay, as well as running with Carson, our son. This tradition has grown to include the typical Saturday “almuerza” of a bocadilla and beer at one of the bar/cafeterias in town afterward. We have learned how to cook paella from Hector and eaten meals at each others’ houses. He loaned Carson winter coats for Carson’s Model UN trip to the Netherlands, and Hector and his girlfriend, Julia, had a birthday party for our daughter, Celia. Through this fortuitous relationship, we have learned details about how most Spaniards live. His wedding was another wonderful part of our education.
He and Julia held a non-religious wedding. In Spain, if a wedding is not held in a Catholic church, there are many “event centers” where most people hold weddings and communions. The wedding was held at one such venue called Jardin de Azahares in the town of Catarroja outside of Valencia. There were two other weddings and a communion going on at the same time, but each was not affected by the other. An outside trellis was beautifully decorated with flowers as the guests arrived.
Men wore suits and women wore very dressy outfits of either long taffeta or very short and sleeveless sequined fabric. Both outfits required very high heels. My son noticed that other than me, most women older than 50 had their hair cut very short, while most women younger than 50 had their hair in an up-do of some kind. So, I stood out a bit, but I got the heels right since I now realize that very high heels are the norm for women in Spain. We settled back in our bench with the approximately 150 attendees to watch the nuptials, which were like nothing we have ever seen.
The wedding was joyous and raucous. Everyone stood and clapped as the groom came down the aisle and kept standing and clapping for the bride. When the bride reached the altar, she had to take about five minutes to kiss at least 20 people on the cheeks before she could join Hector. Then, fireworks were set off (one of at least three launches of the night).
The wedding was part ceremony and part roast of the couple with lots of stories being told as the couple stood at the altar. They had a band and a PA system, so there were lots of songs and continuous clapping and laughing. They were serenaded by friends, and they symbolically mixed colored sand together. After the ceremony, the guests threw rice and birdseed as they made their way down the aisle. Then we were ushered to the next area for the dinner and reception.
After about an hour of bebidos on the lawn, we were starving. We were finally allowed into the dining room for a four-course Spanish meal at 9:30 p.m. This is where the fun really started. It was hard to talk because of the noise. On one side of the room was a table with Hector’s wedding party and the other with Julia’s. Their jobs were to each try to outdo the other on noise, drinking, performances and dancing. So, throughout the dinner each group would take turns counting to 10 to make Hector and Julia kiss, counting to 10 while someone chugged a bottle of alcohol, performing choreographed dances in front of the bride and groom and their parents and waving their napkins in the air. This was all done with the full participation of elderly guests and 4-year-old children alike.
After gifts for all of the guests, shots of Jagermeister were brought to each table. Hector changed into a spandex running outfit to participate in Olympic games that constituted the next activity. This consisted of race stations where baudy drinking games between the men and women were set up. Mike got pulled into one where he had to put a balloon on his lap, which someone bounced on until it popped.
The dancing began in earnest after that, with old people with canes dancing with each other amid children and friends. Celia was the life of the party as most of Hector’s friends were lined up to dance with her and blew her kisses all night. Friends of Hector hugged and put their arms around Carson’s shoulders. Booths were set up for crazy hat pictures, and at about 2 a.m., fruit and a chocolate fountain were brought out with, of course, more fireworks.
Hector had rented a bus for people from Julia’s village and a bus for people from his village to take people home after the party, so their was no need to hold back. We, however, had to drive home. As we left the party, many of our new best friends walked us out, demonstrating again the openness and inclusiveness of most Spanish people we have met. We drove home drenched in both happiness and nostalgia as Celia promptly fell asleep in the back seat. Needless to say, although we woke the next day still glowing from the memory, we all indulged in a long Spanish siesta.
Spring break here in Valencia is the first week in April, so our family decided to take the opportunity to visit northern Spain.
We based ourselves in the little town of Villaviciosa to explore the Spanish region of Asturius. The nearby Playa de Rodiles on the Atlantic Ocean is one on the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, mostly because of its scenery and lack of development. The crashing waves are nestled between stone cliffs with trees and a small village.
Next comes the spotlessly clean soft sand with grasslands all around. The next layer is a forest of sweet smelling birch trees with picnic tables nestled under their canopy. Finally, there is a trail and a narrow road bordering white cliffs. Along the road, under the cliffs, are a few scattered cafes and Pablo’s surf shop, where our kids took a private lesson for only 30 euros.
At the end of the road are marshy wetlands with numerous waterfowl species, and a rock wall on which about eight fisherman stand with their sea rods in the water. Most are older men with a bag of food, rubber boots, pipes and caps. The crowds don’t really arrive in Asturias until late May. I think the off season is the best time to be there, not only for the lack of crowds, but the time you can spend talking to the locals and enjoying a personal visit to the gorgeous vistas, beaches, museums and restaurants.
We found out about Pablo from Ivan, the proprietor of the Hotel Costa de Rodiles, the place we called home for a week. I cannot begin to do justice to his place and his kindness. We were the only ones staying there, so we had his undivided attention, and a spread of food in the morning, made by his mother, that could feed an army, made of homemade local specialties.
Ivan speaks a tad of English, but Carson is becoming fluent, so we haven’t needed much. But, Ivan has perfected the ability to explain things in any language. The first day, he gave us a general overview of Asturias. Every day after, he gave us an itinerary, complete with hand-drawn maps, restaurant recommendations, friends to ask for and trails to walk.
At first, we weren’t sure how much we wanted to be guided, but after the first day, we knew he was helping us maximize our time. Every place he told us about was amazing and off the beaten path.
The first day we rode bikes up the Oso Trail, a beautiful rural 16-kilometer trail along the Trubia River. Then, we stopped off in the small town of Proazo to eat la comida in a stone building popular with the locals. It couldn’t be seen from the road, but the food was amazing, serving the northern fare of deer meat and goat cheese on cornbread, bean and sausage stew, and wild boar.
Despite how different it was from anything we are used to in either the United States or Valencia, it was amazing. Asturias is also known for its local cider (or sidra). Like Valencia, which has rows of orange groves, Asturias has apple orchards covering the fields and hillsides. Homemade alcoholic sidra is made in each parish. It is served out of barrels and poured above the head to increase the air in it.
All in all, I liked Asturias the best of all that we have seen in Spain. Rather than going to monuments or the old part of town to see history, the whole place seems to go back in time. Small villages made of stone or painted brightly are scattered among the hills. People fish or grow apples for a living and cook the hearty dishes of their ancestors. It is incredibly green, going from the oceans to the large peaks of the Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa. As Pablo tells us, this is the only place that you can snowboard in the morning and surf in the afternoon.
Most of all, every person we have met has been open and generous, even trying to joke with us in Spanish. They seem to be very talkative and continue to speak Spanish despite our stumbling, waiting patiently for us to get things out. And, Carson thinks the northern dialect is easier to understand, slower and without the “th” sound that Valencians use. Regardless, it is a place to soak in beauty, move slowly, eat well, appreciate the people and savor the ambiance of village life.
Sally Shuffield is a Durango resident living in Spain for a year with her family. Visit her blog at www.sallyshuffield.net/spain-blog.
It is 2 p.m. March 11 in Valencia and loud booming can be heard throughout the city and into the countryside.
A massive plume of blueish smoke rises above the old town and spreads across the city. For anyone who does not know what is going on, awful ideas could fill your head: a bomb, a city fire, an air strike. But, looking around, most people seem unfazed. This is because the booming marks the beginning of the annual Valencian celebration of Las Fallas.
Las Fallas is one of the top festivals in Spain, held only in Valencia in honor of San Jose, the patron saint of carpenters. It coincides with the day honoring San Jose after when the Catholic religion incorporated older traditions taking place at this time. The roots of this festival come from the older pagan tradition of burning excess and starting fresh in a new year.
Carpenters would burn old wood, farmers would burn grain and rotting food and merchants would burn old merchandise. Gradually, people started throwing in symbols of what they wanted to let go of from the previous year, which often included humorous symbols of government and things that were happening in the world. These traditions have evolved into modern day Las Fallas (both the name of the festival and the name of the things to be burned), which has been proclaimed a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Living in Valencia during this festival may be the highlight of our stay here. We have lived here long enough now to have friends who let us know what it means to really experience Las Fallas. Some are die-hard supporters, and some get out of town because of the almost 1 million people who descend on Valencia during this time.
The actual Fallas themselves are amazing to behold. They are satirical monuments displayed all around Valencia of things that have happened during the year. Many of them tower above the buildings. Fallas are organized and built by members (known as Falleros) of the over 350 Comisiónes Falleras (Fallas commissions). Most of these comisiónes represent organizations or neighborhoods, and they raise money all year to build their Fallas.
In Puzol, I have been asked at least 30 times by children and adults for donations toward the Puzol Fallas when I am in a restaurant or walking around. Fallas usually cost between 80,000 to 200,000 euros to make, but one year, the winning Fallas cost about 900,000 euros.
The Ayuntamiento de Valencia (Valencia Local Council) also builds the largest Fallas in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which is funded by taxpayers. The last night of Las Fallas (La Crema), these expensive and beautiful works of art are set ablaze, turning the city into a giant inferno. It is very emotional, and many people cry, as they watch their hard work, money and the year behind them all come to a blazing end.
Each Fallas must be erected in the streets of Valencia by what is called “Planta,” which always takes place March 15. You realize just how other-worldly this experience will be as you witness trucks bringing in pieces of a Fallas in to be erected. Sometimes, it takes more than four trucks to bring in one Fallas.
Beside each Fallas, its Commission Fallera sets up a private party with libations and paella for their Falleros, family and friends. These parties rage all week and into the early morning hours. Some local Valencians laugh that if a Fallas is not as good as others, you know that the commission has spent all the money collected on the party, rather than the Fallas.
Valencians take their festivals seriously, so they are a yearlong project. After Las Fallas is over, and everyone sleeps and recovers on March 20, the Falleros immediately start planning for the next year’s Las Fallas.
I am writing several Las Fallas blog posts on all that we experience as observers and participants in this amazing festival and display of Valencian culture and history
Before coming to Spain, our family primarily followed football and baseball. We enjoyed soccer, mostly because our daughter plays it. And of course, we were aware of famous names such as David Beckham, Mia Hamm and Pele.
However, nothing quite prepared us for the obsession the Spanish have with soccer (or futbol in Spain). Sure, Spanish people play other sports. In fact, basketball is popular and a lot of kids play tennis. But, futbol trumps everything, and all the country’s resources go toward supporting it. For Spanish boys, futbol skills are cultivated early. They can rise through the ranks of the club teams to maybe one day reach the Spanish pinnacle: La Liga.
To say that people here are dedicated to their soccer teams is an understatement. If you are a Barcelona fan, you will absolutely despise Real Madrid. Christiano Reynaldo, Madrid’s showboat star player, got suspended early in the season for taking off his shirt to flex his muscles for the crowd. While Lionel Messi, the star of Barcelona’s team, is known for his work ethic and teamwork. The two represent different sides of the game: skill and acting. You haven’t seen a performance until you’ve seen a La Liga player writhing around in “pain” to get a penalty called. As a spectator, this takes a while to get used to.
Futbol is the common language that breaks down the barriers between being an expat and being a Spaniard. Supporting the same team always brings an immediate camaraderie. We can talk to neighbors, repair men, taxi drivers, waiters and friends about the upcoming games. Even though American sports can be intense, they all take place within an individual season. Soccer is year-round, with a two-month break. So, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from August through May, La Liga games are part of the national language.
Valencia, where we live, has had an excellent season this year, so Valencian fans are very excited. Each town has a major stadium with stadium tours and team museums. The stadiums don’t sell much food or extras. People are there to see the game. Big crowds of fans have special cheers, and there is a lot of smoking and singing in the stands. Game times aren’t announced until two weeks before each game, so people rush to buy tickets as soon as the times are released.
You may ask why a relatively clueless soccer enjoyer has become a stats quoting, futbol-watching super-fan? There are two main reasons. When our family arrived in Spain, we decided to try to jump into the culture by participating in La Liga fantasy soccer, sponsored by La Liga. We did research and learned about players until we could tell you who the best players were on each team. It was also something we could do together as a family to try to understand our new country. Now that our Spanish is better, we pick up futbol commentary all the time on the radio and in conversation. It has become a gateway to language and friendships.
The second reason is Lionel Messi. Spain has Messi fever, and it’s hard not to jump on board. He is truly one of the best players to play the game, and it seems that every kid wears his jersey. His life size or bigger picture is everywhere. When Barcelona was trying to separate from Spain, one of the main concerns for many people was that Messi wouldn’t be in La Liga any more. Perhaps this caused many separatists to think twice.
For Christmas this year, we got our son a present that he will remember forever. We bought him tickets to see Messi play in Barcelona. It felt historic – seeing one of the greatest players of all time play in Barcelona while it is still a part of Spain. And, Messi did not disappoint. He scored two goals – par for the course for him. Watching futbol and our time in Spain will always go hand-in-hand for me. In fact, I may have become a La Liga fan for life. Even though our time here will end, this is one thing that will keep us connected, with Spain and as a family.
Part of getting to know people who live in another country is learning the basic interactions that friends and acquaintances use.
In this column and on my blog, I am trying to focus on the differences between visiting a country and really getting to know what people and culture are like beyond the presentation. One of the things that has been a joy to learn, is how emotional and affectionate most Spaniards tend to be to those they know.
Of course, I had the expected mishaps of accidentally kissing people or knocking heads when they came in to give me a kiss on both cheeks. Now, I have gotten used to it, and it is natural to greet everyone with a left then right kiss (you have to get the order down so you aren’t going for the same side). It is an automatic greeting between women, even those you just meet.
But, it is also a greeting between men and women who are either being introduced or who you have met before. As an American woman, it feels very charming and romantic to be formally kissed as a matter of good manners. However, it did throw me off guard at first when Carson’s 16-year-old friends also greeted me this way. You have to push through your preconceived notions of propriety and look at it like shaking hands in the United States. In Spain, mothers would be very proud to know that their sons had kissed me upon being introduced.
My kids, in third and 10th grades, have learned to expect different physical contact as well. When asking my kids how Spanish kids appear to them at school, they both always answer, “Well, they have a lot of energy.” That’s a generous way to put it. Being a school that tries to bring an international focus to mostly Spanish kids, the American School of Valencia has tried many things to settle people down.
They have brought in consultants, tried a “no speaking outside of class” policy, as well as an “ASV buck” incentive policy. You name it, but nothing seems to work. The reason being that the Spanish culture includes lots of physical contact and it’s just impossible to be a Spanish kid without it.
Spanish kids hang on each other a lot. When walking in the hall, it is expected to hug or kiss people that you are friends with (or wrestle, jump on, mess up their hair). Carson, my 10th-grader, says every time he tries to give a kid a high-five or a handshake, they pull him in for a hug. The third-graders are like puppies, always in clumps hugging and climbing on each other. They play a game called “catch.” It’s different from tag in that the goal isn’t to touch someone, but to physically catch them, hug them and bring them to the ground. I asked Carson if he got hugged or kissed a lot. He said, “Put it this way, I’ve been hugged or kissed more in the past four months than in the rest of my school years combined.”
As a mother of a teenage boy, I jokingly said that there is one tradition I want Carson to bring back with him. He is playing on the only American Football team in Valencia (the Valencia Firebats). All of these boys love American football and try to imitate what they think American football players act like. So, they are very emotional on the field. I have seen wailing, helmet throwing, banging the ground with fists and, of course, lots of hugs and kisses.
But, after a game they won 64 to 48 (they still haven’t gotten defense down), the first thing these 16- to 18-year-old boys did was line up along the fence so their mothers could come down and kiss them. I joyously joined in, telling Carson that this will be our new tradition when he gets back to the U.S. He gamely let me do it, but then responded with, “Enjoy it while you can.”
Like others in Spain, our family headed to Madrid over the Feast of the Immaculate Conception holiday.
I learned quickly that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is a big deal in Spain. It is the day the Roman Catholics (meaning almost all Spaniards) celebrate the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary.
In non-religious terms, it is also the day that kicks off the Christmas season, so people are ready to get out and look at lights, go out to dinner and clubs and start their shopping. I became aware of how popular this holiday is when I tried to extend our Madrid stay and every single hotel in Madrid was booked. That’s a lot of hotel rooms.
Even though I have traveled to many cities in my life, I have never seen so many people in one place. I don’t know if I would be able to exist permanently with this much claustrophobia. The energy hubs for Madrid are the central squares, Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. The squares are full of street performers, people dressed as American cartoon characters, Christmas stalls selling food and crafts, people selling lottery tickets and protesters. There was a large protest going on the first day, and when we asked about it at our hotel, they just shrugged and said that there was some protest going on every day and, “That’s just the way it is in Madrid.”
The old town is a vibrant and bustling place, so historic buildings are not necessarily preserved in their original capacity just for tourists but used for something new as well, so a walking tour was helpful to learn some of the hidden history of the city. The tour guides offered one tour in English and three in Spanish. In other towns we have visited, there were also tours in German, French, Italian and more. The guides told us that for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception holiday, they didn’t do many tours in any language but Spanish because Madrid is filled mostly with Spanish tourists. It’s the primary destination for people from Spain to see Christmas lights.
The tour allowed us to see some of Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts, learn how to spot businesses that have been open since the 1800s as well as grab a calamari bocadilla from a small shop that is a local favorite for Madridians. This was obvious because of the line that wrapped around Plaza Mayor. We also learned some interesting tidbits, such as the sign of a good bar being that people throw lots of napkins on the floor. Tourists think these bars are dirty, but locals look for floor detritus.
The Grand Via, Calle Mayor and Calle del Arenal are the main walking drags, the latter two being blocked to traffic. Walking them requires a snail’s pace, as you are shoulder to shoulder with your neighbor. Everyone moves as one organism, and younger children are literally buried by the crowds. I ended our walk at night earlier than my husband and son because our 8 year old was uncomfortable not being able to see beyond the people.
Other than the experience of doing it, you may ask why anyone would even try to join with the throngs. Other than the chance to say you’ve done it, I would say it’s because of the lights. The spectacle of towering metallic lighted trees in the squares, giant moving polar bear panoramas, different light themes hanging from every block and lighted images shining on all of the buildings really is magical, especially when you are gazing at palaces and ancient architecture in the background. So much so that it’s hard not to just stand with your mouth open looking up.
Now that I think about it, you don’t even need to walk, but just stand still for a while in awe of the sheer energy and lights that make Madrid such a destination for tourists and Spaniards alike.
Paella is the main dish of Valencia. Even though it is served elsewhere in Spain, it originated here.
The rice produced in Valencia is a wonderful short-grain rice that is flavorful and creamy. When making paella, the key is to have the rice become crusty on the bottom and soft on top. Although cooking in Spain is squarely in the woman’s domain, paella is a manly dish. It could be considered a contact sport for cooking. Men are very competitive about their paella. It is somewhat akin to barbecuing in the United States.
To be true paella, it must be cooked over a fire. And I have heard women talking about rice dishes that look exactly like paella, but they say are not paella because the cook added pepper. Traditional paella includes chicken, rabbit, snails, flat beans and large butter beans.
Mike, my husband, hikes on Saturdays with a Spanish man he met named Hector. Hector is working on his English and has also taken it upon himself to become our adviser in all things Spanish. After hiking with Mike and getting a bocadilla and beer for the traditional “almuerza,” Hector goes home to make paella for his girlfriend on Saturdays.
He has been coaching Mike on the art of paella and was appalled that Mike had been cooking it in the oven in a non-paella pan. So Mike bought a paella pan and proudly had Hector over to see it. Hector grimaced and said, “Oh, Mike, I sorry to tell you that you no buy good pan. This not true paella pan.” Needless to say, this has been the source of endless joking by our teenage son.
As part of its annual fundraiser, the American School of Valencia holds a paella contest. It is set up in an open field with fire pits spread around. Groups of men sweat and tend the fires, nervously eyeing each others’ progress. There is a great rivalry that borders on true anger between a group of Spanish men and an Irishman who has lived in Spain for many years. The contest winner is chosen through a blind taste test and the Irishman has won for the past two years. There is much grumbling that an Irishman should never beat a Spaniard when it comes to making paella.
This year, there was also a group of college-aged boys that entered. It was their first year, and they received much ribbing from the older men, especially because they didn’t finish boiling down their rice by the time the contest ended. As a result, they were forced to enter a soupy concoction.
Paella is so popular that there is also the fast-food version served everywhere (looked down on by true paella connoisseurs). It is strange to stop in gas stations and see a big pan of paella, go to an amusement park and see paella stands or drive by “paella to go” fast-food restaurants.
Here’s the truth, though. I am absolutely sick of paella. I can hardly look at it now. It is another example of something that seemed exotic when we moved here and now has become common. I feel that after living in Spain for four months, I can actually criticize it without guilt. When you go to the “carneria” and order a chicken or rabbit for paella, they cut it a certain way. They pull out the meat and cut it up with a cleaver right in front of you.
However, they don’t cut it as we are used to into white and dark meat. They basically just chop the whole chicken into pieces of a certain size. So you may pull out a piece of chicken that only consists of a rib or a spine with no meat on it at all. This grosses my son out so much that Mike has started buying separate chicken breasts, even though we have accepted that it means we are not eating pure paella.
The other thing that is interesting to me is how many Spaniards order paella at restaurants. Paella is actually very bland and after the first few tries. It seems more like eating your mom’s pot roast every Sunday or meatloaf on Saturdays – comfort food you have once a week at home but would never order in a restaurant.
Yet, people here can’t get enough of it. Mike continued to order it at restaurants long after the rest of us had moved on until, two weeks ago, he pulled a rabbit skull, complete with teeth, out of his paella dish. This was too much even for him. So our paella sampling is on hold for a little while, except as a weekly Sunday lunch cooked by Mike with unauthentic chicken cuts in our sub-par pan.