El albergue

El albergue

Sunday, December 25, 2011

More Christmas!

Here are a few more highlights from the days before Christmas:

My little 3rd graders did such a good job singing!
Highlight number seven:  On Tuesday, the entire school convened for their annual festival of Christmas carols, in which each grade performed two carols, one in Spanish and one in English.  It was so much fun getting to participate with my 2nd and 3rd graders by trying to help them remember the little bits of choreography (although they remembered some parts better than me) and watching the creativity of rest of the school come to light – never before would I have thought Mama Mia could be made into a Christmas carol.  But apparently it can.

Very Spanish shepherds, I must say.
Number eight:  Wednesday morning, we got to see a couple of the different grades perform their little Christmas plays – my little students were so proud to be able to wave to me from the stage before they had to get down to the serious business of their acting.

Number nine:  Loads of great food!  Seriously.  On Thursday we started the day with churros con chocolate in class, then after the kids went home early, the teachers went on to eat this lovely feast provided by the company who runs the cafeteria.  My favorite from that?  Sorbete de mandarina.  Think creamy slushy with the wonderfully bright flavor of mandarin oranges mixed with champagne.  So good.  Then Christmas Eve was a smorgasboard of potluck deliciousness with a group of people from church.  Besides our twice-baked potatoes, there were also roast lamb, Russian dumplings, seven-layer dip, besides various other scrumptious things. 

The fabled sorbete de mandarina.......yum

Christmas Eve deliciousness

Monday, December 19, 2011

A couple Christmas highlights so far

 Ok, so as the Christmas season gets farther and farther along (oh my gosh! There’s less than a week left before Christmas!!!), and more and more Christmas activities come up, I feel like there’s so much stuff I want to tell you about.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to adequately relate everything, nor do you have enough to read about it all.  So, I’ll give you just a few highlights here and there, letting you get a little glimpse of what this Christmas is like for me.

Heck yes!  An advent calendar!
First highlight: My roommates and I made our own advent calendar, with a little activity or verse or saying for each day.  Danielle and I had loads of fun being crafty and creating each individual day, and it’s exciting to know that each morning there is a new card waiting to be read.  Some good ones so far include Manicure Monday, watch a Christmas movie, give someone a hug, backrub train (heck yes!), and a silly Santa joke (What do you call someone who’s afraid of Santa Claus? …Claustrophobic!)

Second highlight:  getting to walk around at night and see all the Christmas lights, which are everything from creative to silly to simply beautiful.

Third:  watching all the Christmas decorations go up around the school and getting to see all the little kids gleefully spread glitter everywhere as they make stars and trees to put in the hallway.

The halls look so festive :D
Good food and good fun :)
Fourth:  Last Friday, a large number of the teachers from my school went out for a Christmas dinner.  So.  Good.  I’m not going to describe the food beyond saying that it was scrumptious, departing a little I know from my typical obsession with what I eat, because I would rather focus on the fact that I really enjoyed getting to hang out with some of these women outside the work arena and get to know them a little better.  We even went out to a bar afterward to get a drink and hang out some more – it was the director’s birthday, so we all toasted her and sang Happy Birthday.  Then she started asking me about guys and threatening to set me up with her nephew hahaha.

Fifth:  Yesterday was our church’s (Amistad Cristiana) Christmas program, in which I participated as a member of the angel choir that appeared to the shepherds.  (I know know all three verses of Joy to the World in Spanish)  I got to watch most of it, only missing out on the comical Wise Men when we had to leave our balcony staging area and go backstage.  I really enjoyed how the program as a whole involved a lot of different people from the church – teenagers, adults of all ages and talents, and the most adorable children – and how it was stylistically different from any I had ever seen before (Mary was a flamenco dancer, and there was some awesome lyrical dancing too, as well as some astounding jazzy numbers). 

Sixth: the most amazing light show and fireworks display I have ever seen.  Danielle and I managed to squeeze through the crowd for a decent spot in Plaza de Cibeles across from the giant government building they were projecting it on, which was nice, and during the entire thing I was grinning like a little child completely happy and overawed by the wonder of it all.

These aurora-esque lights were stunning

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A bit of Valencian gastronomy

This past weekend was a longer than usual weekend due to some lovely Spanish holidays, so my roommates and I took advantage of our extra time off to head over to the eastern coast of Spain.  Destination, Valencia.  I went there last year with a friend before our study abroad program started in September, but I really enjoyed my experience, so I had no problem going back.  In fact, it felt kind of like I was going back and revisiting an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

Even the simple brie with tomato marmalade
looked breathtaking.
Overall, it was a very nice weekend, with a chance to see the city during a different season and with slightly different experiences, but the best part by far was the food we ate.  The first on the list of heavenly delights was pinchos.  What are pinchos you ask?  It’s a traditional Basque food that basically puts almost anything on top of nice slices of baguette-type bread.  But as general and unimaginative as that might sound, believe you me, there is nothing unimaginative about the pinchos over here, especially the pinchos we had our first night in town.  It took us forever to decide which ones we wanted as we drooled over the glass case displaying a bazillion tantalizing options.  When we finally bit into our different selections, our eyes fairly rolled back into our heads with the shear joy of eating.  My choice was a little mountain of sautéed mushrooms and eggplant seasoned to perfection and topped with the tiniest fried egg - I think it might have been from a dove or some such small bird.  And Kelsey’s…I got to taste hers, and oh wow was it ever amazing.  On top of a carefully arranged stack of caramelized onions, typical jamón ibérico, and brie cheese, a delicate blueberry marmalade brought the whole thing together in a way never dreamed of.  Kels felt like she was going out on a limb to order it, but she was more than amply rewarded for her adventurous spirit by that little bit of heaven.

The second most exciting food we got to try while in Valencia was the horchata.  That may not sound so extremely special to everyone from California, since we all know Mexican horchata.  But according to the Valencians, horchata is only horchata if it comes from their town.  In fact, the drink apparently originated there.  Also, this original horchata isn’t made from rice like the one we all know and love.  Rather, it is made using a little root thing kind of like a crisp peanut called a chufa.  We got to eat a bit of toasted chufa, and it was rather an interesting experience feeling the little nodule crunch between our teeth in a manner somewhat reminiscent of styrofoam and jicama.  But I wander from the real point, the horchata….

Horchata - sure to bring a smile to your face.
As you slowly sip it through your straw, cold and creamy waves slide over your tongue, exposing a delicious melody of feel and flavor to be explored.  First, there is the chllly freshness that both soothes and piques you.  Nest, you note the texture, something more similar to almond milk than regular milk in its silky creaminess free from the heavily rich feel of fat.  You feel a delicate sensation of flour-iness that stays behind as the horchata makes its way to your throat, akin to that you experience when licking the pancake batter bowl.  In fact, the flavor tastes somewhat like a good pancake batter, with additional hints of coconut and a bit of the deepness of a good nut.  You also taste the strong sweetness of a lot of sugar and the dreamy shadow of cinnamon hovering in the background.  And as you swallow, the first thing you think of is that you want another drink.

Smiles are also a surety when there's Agua de
Valencia around.
Also amazingly delicious was the Agua de Valencia, a well-loved local drink made from champagne, orange juice, and an orange liqueur.  Why is this particular combination representative of the area?  Well, Valencia is famous for its oranges – in fact, valencias are some of the most-grown oranges in California – so it only makes sense for a local drink to have them as its starring flavor.  And starring flavor it is.  The drink as a whole combined the crispness of the champagne with a slight creaminess and undertones of vanilla to truly display the bright freshness of the orange to its full advantage.  Again, this was another drink that left you wanting more.  So much more.

There were other things we ate too, of course, including buttery muffins with a dry crumb called magdalenas, paella, crema de chufa (horchata in ice cream form) and the world’s best dried melon, but those three things were the best – pinchos, horchata, and Agua de Valencia.  They are the things I would most strongly recommend to anyone who might perchance want to visit Valencia, as well as the things I am most definitely planning on tasting again some time in the future.  Oh yes, they are going on the keeper list.

We had a nice lunch of magdalenas and apple
on our hostel terrace.
Nothing like some paella when visiting Valencia
Crema de chufa, baby!
Heck, even the street art is appetizing in Valencia!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


grubby |ˈgrəbē|            (adjective)
- dirty; grimy : the grubby face of a young boy.
- figurative disreputable; sordid : grubby little moneylenders

And that is exactly what the word means.  After all, who could argue with the dictionary?  However, definitions found in books are usually such abstract things, giving you only a vague mental picture of what that word could mean.  Indeed, words like grubby are themselves often shadowy entities, little murky clouds your mind lightly skirts without much deep thought when they pop up in a sentence, hazy fog that barely hints at the shape of its underlying physical reality. 

Real definitions of such words are not to be found in dictionaries, those arbiters of linguistic truth.  No, they are to be found in the real, physical world, in the tangibility of our daily experiences.  Thus, I propose a different definition of the word “grubby,” a definition that that I have compiled quite unconsciously.  A definition that the other day I finally realized had developed when I was thinking back over my day working at the school.  So, here I give to you the real life definition of grubby, as found in the life of Laura.

-It’s the feel of a little hand in yours all sticky with God knows what after lunch.
-It’s those little fingers that I see diggin’ away at the gold they know they’re bound to find way at the back – no, at the very root – of the nose.
-It’s little eager faces smudged with dirt after playing on the playground.
-It’s shaggy bangs on shaggy little heads that have been plastered to one side by the deluge of sweat pouring from energetic foreheads during a rousing, dusty game of soccer.
-It’s trouser knees covered with dusty gravel after kneeling in the sand over a round of marbles, knees that shed pebbles and particles as their owner jumps up and down in the classroom.
-It’s little hands begrimed with the moist playground sand they were painstakingly gathering into little mountains after it fell off onto the floor during assembly.
-It’s little fingers powdered with chalk after haphazardly erasing a word on the board.
-It’s the food, sweat, dirt, boogers, sand, dust, and chalk you can feel being transferred to you whenever your students reach out to get your attention or affectionately hold your hand.
-It’s my students, precious little grubby things that they are.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in Madrid

My first Thanksgiving abroad being a little on the disappointing side (going to a restaurant with the 100+ students in my study abroad program just wasn’t quite perfect), I was determined that this year it would be everything a Thanksgiving should be.  My roommates were heartily in agreement, so we made a pact with another friend to hold a lovely meal together.  So by last Sunday, we were ready to get ready.  And, oh, did we enjoy spreading out the Thanksgiving joy over as many days as possible. 

We wanted to take cookies to our schools to share with the teachers, cookies being easier to transport than other more traditional turkey day treats, so Sunday evening I whipped up a great big double batch of pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, an essential fall goody a college roommate introduced me to.  I wanted the cookies to be as fresh as possible on Tuesday, when we were planning on taking the cookies, so I waited to bake the dough until Monday evening.  13 dozen cookies take a long time to bake though, so I had a rather full night of it.  It was all worth it though to pull out the marvelously moist and seductively steaming pillows of pumpkin and chocolate (oh alliteration) from the oven, popping one into my mouth every other sheet.  SO good.  And then during coffee break at school on Tuesday, I asked the lunch ladies to pop them into the oven for a few minutes to get them all warm and perfect before serving them…they looked a little worse for wear after bumping around in my purse during my morning commute, but they still tasted good!!!  And I like to think that they imparted a little bit of Thanksgiving joy to the teachers I work with.

Deep-dish apple pie, oh yeah
On Wednesdays, I get off of work before lunch (translation = 1 o’clock), so the past Wednesday I hurried home as soon as I could to make the pies for our Thanksgiving feast.  After a quick lunch, I moved on to heroically blending an enormous amount of all-butter pie crust dough with a fork.  That required muscle baby.  As the dough chilled, I mixed up the batter for the pumpkin pie, kind of playing around with the ingredients since the normally-used sweetened condensed milk would have cost an arm and a leg, not to mention a trip across town to the American food store.  Then, after rolling out a crust with my very classy wine bottle rolling pin (you do what you gotta do) and placing it in our 9x9 baking dish (why buy a pie pan when there’s something functional at hand?), I poured in the batter and placed the whole in the oven, hoping to God that in the strange mix of uncertain pie ingredients and proportions and a completely unmarked oven temperature dial (350 must be around here somewhere) a heavenly work of art would somehow be created to grace our holiday board.  Next, it was time for the apple pie.  What did I have available to bake it in?  Nothing less than a three-inch tall spring form pan.  That’s right, we had a deep dish apple pie, baby.  And to prepare us for the feasting of the next day, I made a quiche in our 13x9 with the leftover pie crust (yes, there was a lot of pie crust).  It was at the moment of biting into that quiche that I received the revelation that is a butter pie crust.  Oh wow.  So flaky and, and, well…glorious.
Stuffing step one: tear apart the bread

Thanksgiving day, we had to work in the morning, but my school graciously let me go before lunch, so I was able to meet up with the other two (who always have short days on Thursdays) at home to buckle down and enter the final stretch of preparations.  On our list: stuffing, gravy, and green bean casserole.  I was pretty uncertain about the first two, since I’d never made them before (one of my roommates was in charge of the green beans, so I didn’t have to worry about those at all), but Kels and I dove right in, chopping, sautéing, boiling, adding, mixing, and generally just getting our hands dirty.  It was so much fun.  And when we actually tasted our creations, we had to high-five each other, we were that impressed with ourselves. 

As it got closer and closer to 8, the hour when we were supposed to be at our friend’s house, things got more and more hectic in the apartment, especially when we had to figure out how to transport all the ridiculous amounts of food we had.  Finally though, we were all dressed and ready, each with at least one fragrant bag loading us down.  We set out, forming a rather odd parade with our various burdens as we wended our way to the metro – we were strongly aware of more than one stare directed our way while in the metro cars as people vaguely pondered what in the world four people were doing with all those lumpy-looking bags. 

We arrived safely, with all our dishes intact, and added them to two roast chickens (turkeys are a little hard to find), sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, and a second kind of stuffing all crammed between 10 zebra-esque plates and Valentine flamingo napkins (ok, so there wasn’t much of any Thanksgiving décor going on).  We all sat down together to this fabulous meal, five Americans, one Frenchman, one English girl, one German, and two Italians, said grace, and dug in.

What could be better than good food with great people?
Man oh man, was it amazing.  The second stuffing had a rich rosemary flavor, ours was slightly sweet and went really well with the gravy, which was full of deliciously browned chicken and onions and gently sweet white wine.  The mashed potatoes were also an excellent creamy addition to the mix (I’m a fan of mixing…), and the sweet potatoes were basically like sweet potato pie without the crust, with candied walnuts on top to die for.  The green bean casserole was a general hit with its soupy cheesy wonder, and the chickens got kind of shoved into corners and forgotten in the general rush for the other food.  Silence reigned intermittently as we all savored every morsel on our plates, conversations flaring up first on one side then in the other corner of the table, dying down quickly enough as another mouthful was loaded onto the fork.  We had to slow down the eating though, as we had to wait for a little space to open back up in our happy stomachs, so conversations started to actually take on life and survive.  Soon, we were all sitting back in our chairs under the low-hanging light fixture with all the signs of a well-fought culinary battle lying before us on the table.  We talked for an hour or so, sharing life and good times.  After a while, some dishes were washed, and some space was cleared in the war-torn kitchen to make mulled wine.

It was a very crowded kitchen indeed
Mulled wine!!!
Soon enough, we were breaking out the pies to go with the last little bit of the mulled wine, taking great pleasure in how creamy the pumpkin one came out and how extremely apply the apple (it was deep-dish, after all).   Around 1 am, officially replete with festive food and fellowship, our apartment gathered up our remnants and headed back home by metro, our return trip very much less full of energy and excitement and very much more like a happily tired trudge. 

Of course, Thanksgiving doesn’t end with midnight on Thursday.  No.  There are all those lovely leftovers to eat now!  Thus, Friday morning, we breakfasted on apple pie (hey, it’s a fruit!) and pumpkin pie (vegetable!).  And for dinner, we feasted on the beautiful tortilla española and roasted green bell peppers our neighbor made for us out of her amazing generosity and kindness to go with our Thanksgiving dinner but for which there was absolutely no room to eat the night before.  And there are still more leftovers!!!  Wow, I’m looking forward to eating stuffing tomorrow…

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Very Spanish Weekend

The past two weekends, I have had the particular joy of behaving in a very Madrileñan fashion.  What does this mean?  What does it include?  Well, in a nutshell, let me say that it is very fun, although not feasible for every day of the week.  What in the world might that mean?!  Well, read on….

Thursday evening - Ah, relaxation.  That’s what this night is for.  I watch a movie with my roommates, and we enjoy a late dinner around 9 or 10.  And we go to bed.

Friday – Oh the joys of sleeping in until 10 or so.  So lovely.  After a lazy morning of odd chores around the apartment, we go out to run errands or go shopping.   This past Friday the article sought for was a good pair of tall boots.  Unfortunately, they proved to be rather the proverbial needle in the haystack.  Sigh.  I did however come out at the end of the afternoon with a long knit scarf of bright orange.  Perfect for my red coat.  And it was only 2.50 euros!  Score.  In the evening, we putz around the apartment, watching TV or a movie online, or chatting with friends on skype.  What a wonderful thing skype is.  Really.  It is quite wonderful.  Around 8, we start dinner.  Last Friday, it was biscuits and gravy.  Oh heavens how homey and delightful it was.  We continue to putz for a few more hours, eventually dressing to go out dancing around 12 or 12:30.  Finally, around 1 am, we are heading out the door.

Friday night/Saturday morning – As we catch the metro to head out to the salsa club of the week, we comment between ourselves at the craziness of all the people that are still up and wandering around the city.  Oh wait, we’re up too.  Ah well, that is Madrid I guess.  We meet up with a friend or two on our way, and by 2, we are dancing salsa, bachata, and merengue with anyone who will ask us for the next dance.  Well, almost anyone.  I have had to avoid one or two obviously desperate old men here and there.  (No thank you, I most definitely do NOT want to get a drink with you.)  When we’re tired, we get a free drink at the bar.  It actually comes with the price of entrance, so I guess it isn’t really free, but it’s nice anyways.  I recently discovered rum and coke, so I’ve been ordering that at the bar the past couple of weeks, sipping on my cold glass and delighting in the combination of the rich, slightly buttery flavor of the rum and the sweetly invigorating taste of the coke as I watch the really good dancers do their thing.  I wish that just by watching I could become as good as them…..  Sometime between 5 and 6 am, we head on home.  If we leave more towards 6, we can catch the metro, which opens back up at that hour.  If not, we just might have to walk home, like last week, when we arrived at the bus station right after the last night bus pulled out.

Saturday – We fall into bed about 7 in the morning, ready to sleep forever.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to sleep as long as our bodies might like, due to neighborly noises.  Sigh.  Sometimes you just kind of wish you were the only person on earth so you could sleep!  Admittedly, it is pretty ridiculous to expect a large building full of apartments to work around your own personal sleep schedule.  So we get up around 2 pm.  And we make delicious breakfast.  Mmmmm.  Last week, my roommate and her friend made us all crepes.  And this week, I made us banana pancakes.  Once I figured out how much flour I needed and how high the flame on the burner needed to be, they turned out as some of the fluffiest, tastiest pancakes I have ever had.  Another lazy “morning,” then it’s either out to the park for an hour or so before the sun sets or out on some other errand like shopping (still no boots…bummer).  In the evening, we share a meal made out of whatever the heck happens to be in the cupboard, skype with different friends, and go to bed early.  We’re tired.

Sunday – After sleeping in as long as possibly, we jump out of bed and dash about the apartment getting ready for church, which starts at 11:30.  I really like our church.  The people are all really friendly, the music is great, and the pastor is quite an excellent speaker.  I am challenged.  I have to think and reconsider different things.  The ambience is also quite unique.  Main services are in a local bar.  Kind of strange, huh?  Well, they have their own building, but it doesn’t have nearly enough space for a large group meeting, so they have to rent out a bar/club a block away from their center.  We go to that center after church to socialize, chatting with different friends we don’t get to see very much during the week.  Around 1:30, someone usually starts trying to organize something for lunch, and around 2 most of the people have splintered off in little groups to eat somewhere.  Last week, I ended up wandering around with one of my roommates and a friend for a couple of hours, finally deciding on a restaurant around 4.  It was Senegalese (from the small West-African country of Senegal).  It was packed out.  We decided it had to be really good to be so packed.  We were right.  We didn’t get a table until about 4:30.  By the time we got around to ordering, there were only a few options left from the menu because they had run out of everything else.  So we didn’t get our first choice, but man was it delicious.  DELICIOUS.  I got to savor the amazingness of roasted vegetables with Senegalese rice.  It wasn’t spicy, but it had just enough heat to where I could feel it in my belly like a tender warmth that spread out to the rest of my body in a calming ebb and flow.  Heavenly.  I literally didn’t eat dessert after because I didn’t want to chase away residual flavors.  It was that good.  We’re definitely going back.  Preferably at an earlier hour so that our orders can be guided more by personal choice than a scarcity of options. 

Sunday evening – Finally, we finish off with another relaxing night at home.  We skype family, have a light dinner, make cookies (oh the delightfulness of pumpkin chocolate chip cookies!!!), and/or attend to various small things that must be taken care of before the new week starts.  If there is time, we might watch a movie or show together.  But really, we should go to bed early, because it is the end of our very Spanish weekend, and we must go to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Surfing in Santander

Friday, around 4:30 –
            Kels and I are running about the apartment trying to pack everything we need for a weekend surfing trip in Santander that a friend invited us to not too long ago.  We’re kind of nervous for the trip for a couple of different reasons, the first being that the weather is going to be a little inclement, and the second being that neither of us knows how to surf.  Seems like kind of a big problem, no?  Well, I’m sure we’ll figure it out somehow…

Friday, after dark –
            After milling around for a little while under a light drizzle with the large group we are going with, we finally get in the cars and head north to the region of Santander, which lays on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.  The mantle of night soon drapes its sable folds over the landscape so that all we can see is the occasional outline of a tree-covered hill sliding by or the quiet shine of some light gleaming out from little hamlets or solitary homes nestled in the bottom of gentle valleys along the way, making up for the lack of light that would otherwise be provided by stars hiding behind a mask of dark cloud.  And so we pass the 5 hours of darkness sharing riddles and mind games.

Saturday, 10ish in the morning –
            I poke my head out of the room Kels and I are sharing in the 7-person apartment that forms a third of our party’s lodging to see what the plan is for breakfast.  It’s a flurry of getting dressed, and then we’re off getting tea and coffee at a bar before the supermarket opens at 11.  Yes, that’s right, none of the markets in this little town open before 11 in the morning.  How Spanish. 

Slightly later, BREAKFAST! –
            Among the smorgasbord of food our apartment bought to share is something called Sobao.  A typical dessert here in Cantabria, which is the region that the state of Santander is in, it’s a barely dry cake that tastes somewhat like shortbread and comes in large single-serve squares.  Yummy!

Saturday, 12:30-2 –
            After outfitting ourselves at the surf shop with some rental boards and wetsuits, we are ready to hit the waves.  Or, as we find out when we get to the beach, we are ready for the wind and waves to hit us.  Seriously, the airborne and watery blasts are pretty strong.  However, we experience something like exhilaration from the bracing effects of the weather.  We may be getting tumbled about and dragged through the waves, but it feels like a sort of dance with the power of nature – almost as though we were tiny crickets being pawed about by a giant friendly lion.  Of course, the currents are a little too strong to really try to learn how to surf on your own, so we end up swimming and body surfing for the most part, which is really fun!

Our walk took us along this wind-swept path
Saturday, 7ish –
            We’ve finished eating lunch/dinner with our apartment mates, so Kels and I head out into the gale while there’s still a little bit of light and it’s not raining to see if we can find a walk along the beach.  The wind whips stray hairs loose from our ponytails, combining their flailing tips with tiny grains of biting sand to make us turn out backs to the ferocious blast and hide our eyes behind gloved fingers.  At a couple of points along our way, the wind is so strong that we can lean backwards into it, and with arms outstretched we give ourselves over to the fierce beauty of the weather.  There is a wild energy and raucous joy in the tumultuous atmosphere that fills my heart with wonder.  It is a beautiful night, full of that savage beauty that raw displays of nature’s power usually reveal.
The beach right outside our aparment

Sunday, 10ish in the morning –
            People are sort of not really up yet, so I decide to head out for a walk on the beach.  The wind is even stronger than yesterday, but I tuck my chin into my scarf and trek along the sand in my boots (not really beach-worthy footwear, but it’s too cold for sandals!).  An undulating line of washed-up jellyfish marks the edge of the surf, and mixed in among them are several lovely seashells.  I start to pick out a shell here and there that catches my eye, however, it is as though the wind doesn’t want me to steal them from its clutches, which I don’t really understand since I’m sure that the few I’m picking up comprise only the tiniest fraction of the sea’s overall wealth of shells.

Sunday, noonish –
            Confusion!  Mayhem!  What are we doing?!  Where are we going?!  Those are the feelings of the hour, as the group tries to get itself into motion to pack up and head out to more favorable waves in a different location.  Finally though, the caravan is underway.

Group shot!
Immediately after –
            Our first stop is a beautiful lookout on a cliff above the loveliest little cove, where we all huddle together with our backs somewhat to the wind to take an endless number of group photos.  We head out after a couple of minutes though for another place, where we may or may not stay to actually surf.

Sunday, around 1 –
            We’ve been driving for a little while, on our way to the rendezvous point, but we’ve sort of lost our way because we took a detour to find a bathroom and because we don’t really know exactly where everyone is supposed to meet up.  There’s a bit of tension in the car, a compound of tiredness, irritability, and clashing viewpoints.  Eventually though, we make it to the others.

Sunday, around 3 –
            There is a little tension in the air as people try to talk over each other to figure out who is staying to surf and who is going back to Madrid, and the multiple repetitions that invariably come with big group planning don’t do anything to keep everyone happy.  And then, for a little while, there’s some music playing in the restaurant we’re in that has some ridiculously neurotic beat, that kind that makes it impossible to calm down or feel otherwise than nervous.  However, things get figured out in the end, and Kels and I head back to Madrid with one of the earlier cars.

Sunday, 4ish –
            We’ve left Santander and are now driving through the meandering roads of Cantabria, gazing out over charming little clusters of terra cotta roofs and glassed-in balconies framed by the background of a countryside lush to the point of being positively shaggy in its verdure.  A typical sight in the area, I take it.

Sunday, 6ish –
A scene delightful in its inclemency
            We just passed a sign pointing to some prehistoric caves in the cliffs nearby, so we turn around and go back, determined to have a little adventure.  We trundle out into the rain and heavy wind, and as the rain pours off the edge of my umbrella, we look out over a scene delightful in its inclemency – the wind plays a symphony with the numerous tree branches and shrubs that is accented now and again by the simple clank of a bell hung round the neck of one of the sheep in the small pasture below, and the peaks of the hills overhead demurely hide behind the filmy gauze of the lowest flying clouds.

Isn't it beautiful?
Sunday, 7ish –
            We’re out on a sort of plateau, so we can see spread out before us the beautifully brilliant orange glow on the horizon that astonishes with its intensity and colors the low clouds a flaming pink.  What a glorious sunset.

Sunday, just after sunset –
The Gothic cathedral in Burgos
            We decide to make a touristic stop in the city of Burgos, one of the most important of the district, to visit the historic cathedral and look around a little.  The cathedral, with its classic Gothic architecture set against the lowering background of dark clouds and strangely illuminated by the lights of the square, appears to be the perfect setting for one of the Bronte sisters’ novels.  One of the chapels inside is filled with the lingering scent of incense, a scent that reminds me of Christmas with its pleasantly strong overtones of cloves.  Before we head back to the car, we have to try some morcilla, the blood sausage for which the city is famous.  So we head to El Morrito, a snug little bar that is actually a lot bigger than it feels and that serves some amazing morcilla, morcilla so amazing that for a couple of hours afterward I even refrain from eating the chocolate I have stashed in my purse because I want to relish the flavor for as long as possible.

Sunday, the end of the day –
            By the time we leave Burgos, the sun has completely set, leaving the world draped in darkness once again and encapsulating the five of us in the tiny world of our car.  It is a pleasant enough journey though, and we soon arrive in Madrid, at the end of our weekend of surfing in Santander.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Day in the Park

Today, the first and second graders took a field trip to El Retiro, a giant park in the center of Madrid that is one of my favorite places of all time.  It was definitely a fun day – the kids got to run around and make leaf rubbings, and I got to interact with them on a slightly different level than the normal classroom setting.  However, it did rather feel a lot like herding cats for most of the day – “Carlos, stay off the grass,” “Maria, where’s your partner?,” “Nacho, get back in line,” “Move along guys and leave the poor mushroom alone.”  Besides the small frustrations though (it’s amazing how difficult it was for some of them to understand the premise of a leaf rubbing), there were many moments that were fun or even precious.  For instance, I got to spend a little time with some of the teachers outside the school and participate in their conversations…more like listen in a central position, but that’s beside the point.  Then there was one little guy who expressed his true huggy nature by squeezing my middle (and at least once leaving a little snot on my shirt) every time he ran past me during a giant game of amoeba tag, of whose boundaries I formed a part.  Another little guy, who could fall into the special needs category, got really affectionate with me too at lunch time, coming to sit by my side on the grass, leaning heavily on my arm, and even falling sideways over my lap as he giggled over the gobbledy-gook words we were conversing with (he might actually have been speaking Spanish, but I was definitely speaking pig latin).  What made this last little guy’s actions even more precious was the surprise it engendered in the teachers, who told me that he never acts that way with pretty much anyone else.  …I think my heart just grew one size bigger.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Oh neighbors…

Finally, now that I’ve been up for an hour, I can go back to sleep.  Sigh.  I don’t have to go to work today, and all I wanted to do this morning was sleep in.

Here’s the problem.  One thing about living in a giant apartment type building is that you are easily disturbed by noisy neighbors.  For the most part, we’ve got pretty great neighbors – no raucous parties in the middle of the night or upstairs neighbors who like river dancing.  However, there is someone around the central patio area outside my window who decided that this morning was a great time to take up their frequent hobby of banging away at heaven knows what.  It’s a monotonous sound – bang bang bang bang bang…pause…bang bang bang.  While rather annoying, it’s common enough that I believe I might have been able to sleep through it if not for the neighbor on the other side of the building who for some reason though that 9:30 in the morning was the absolutely perfect time to drill a hole through their wall.  Or actually, probably every single one of his walls, for how long that awful, sleep-depriving drone whined on.  Who knows, maybe it was someone trying to drill a tunnel under the building to rob the bank.  Whatever their intention might have been, the dull roar has finally stopped now, so that means I can go back to sleep….oh wait, now my roommate’s up and cleaning her room with her music on…bummer.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Autumn in Aranjuez

 As we were wandering through the immense Jardín del Príncipe in Aranjuez yesterday, the three of us girls sort of settled into this state of stupor.  It was that sort of drugged state that you experience when traveling – you are looking every which way, taking in every little detail until your mind and body are replete with the scenery, replete to the point that the very essence of what you are meandering through and gazing upon seems to be oozing out of your very pores.  That was how I, at least, felt yesterday as we gazed upon the endless beauty of fall evident in a vast forest-like country retreat, or what used to be part of the country retreat of the Spanish kings.  Every other minute almost, phrases such as “It’s so beautiful,” “Oh how pretty,” and the like fell from my lips almost unconsciously as my eyes drank in every fresh sight we came upon.

First sight of the day was a long road over which arched stately old trees – we entered it soon upon leaving the train station.  Second sight of the day was the most impressive palace.  Built in the style of Spanish Classicism, it’s pompously imposing lines were fronted by a large elliptical plaza and surrounded on all sides by trees, with the sound of a small nearby waterworks gently filling the background.
Just a simple summer house....

I loved the trees surrounding the plaza in front
of the chapel.

Third sight of the day was a giant square off the back of the palace girdled on all sides by delicate trees just entering the turning point of autumn, their leaves barely hanging on to the translucent green of the end of summer.  On the side farthest from the palace was a giant chapel built in beautiful rose-colored bricks and white stone to match the extensive buildings of the palace and adjacent structures.  The open middle ground revealed an exquisitely blue sky with traces of snowy clouds.

Fourth sight of the day was everything that the Jardín del Príncipe could be.  In short, it was amazing.  Soon after entering, we took advantage of a well-placed bench to pull out our lunch of tuna sandwiches and pears and watch other explorers like us stroll on by.  Then it was beautiful sight after beautiful sight, filling our hearts with the joy of the day, the joy of life, and the joy of autumn.  We meandered about in a semi daze for a number of hours, filling our cameras with pictures and our minds the wonder of nature.

El Río Tajo

Fifth experience of the day was El Rana Verde, a restaurant on the side of the Río Tajo whose sign prominently displayed the green frog after which it was named.  There, we ordered white wine and croquetas – the wine was delightfully sweet, cool, crisp, and refreshing; and the croquetas were, as they almost always are, simply divine.  We spent a good while sitting on the terrazza of the restaurant, enjoying our little treat as we slowly emerged from our site-seeing daze, and savoring the last bit of our autumn day in Aranjuez.

It's Autumn in Aranjuez!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tour Tidbits

The other day, Kels really wanted to go on a tour of Madrid that we had seen a poster for in our hostel that first week we were here, so I decided to go along with her.  And, even though I had a tour from my history teacher while I was studying here last year, there were a lot of fun little bits of information that I didn’t learn for the first time or only vaguely remembered hearing come from my professor’s mouth.  So I thought I’d share a few of those little pearls with you…

1.     1)    In the 1600s, the king of Spain decided to construct the Plaza Mayor that we have today, and in his honor, the people of the time erected a giant statue of him seated on a horse in the middle of the square.  Soon after construction was finished, a horrible smell started to permeate the entire Plaza.  No one could figure out what it was or where it came from.  They cleaned the entire plaza numerous times, hoping that the 11th round would take care of what the 10 before hadn’t (numbers taken completely out of thin air, by the way).  For centuries, the smell persisted.  Finally, in the early 1900s, an anarchist threw a bomb at the statue (or it just happened to hit it in a larger brawl, I’m not sure) that blew open the bellow of the horse.  And out poured innumerable bird corpses.  Crazy!  Apparently, the sculptor had originally left the mouth of the horse open with just enough space that birds could crawl in, but not enough space that they could fly out.  So the silly things kept crawling in on top of their dead and dying brethren, only to find that they themselves were simply adding to the pile of decaying bodies.  Silly things!

2.     2)    One of the last kings before the Spanish Civil War started was really into fútbol – really into it.  So much so that he founded the team Real Madrid as his personal team.  Which is why the team has the name it has, Real meaning Royal

3.     3)    The Catedral de la Almudena, which stands right in front of the Palacio Real was completely finished in the early 1990s, even though plans to build it were originally put into motion in the 1700s.  And talks about building it started in the 1600s!  Talk about procrastination…

4.    4)     A few years ago, there was a poll all across Spain asking the average citizen who they thought was the most important person in all of Spanish history.  In first place came the current king, Juan Carlos I, who played an incredibly vital roll in bringing the country out of the fascist regime once Franco died in 1975.  In second came Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I guess authors can be national heroes too J

5.    5)     There is a restaurant right outside the Plaza Mayor called El Botín that claims to be the oldest still-functioning restaurant in the world.  It was opened sometime in the 1700s and has maintained a thriving business through the centuries, so I guess that gives it a legitimate claim to the title. 

6.     6)    The Palacio Real is the largest palace in Western Europe (I believe), with five stories and a whopping 2,000 rooms, of which the public can only see a tiny portion – 50 rooms.

7.     7)    The Puerta del Sol, which is an extremely important plaza in the life of the city, is the geographical center of the country.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Raisins are such delicious little things.  They’re like tiny shots of amazing flavor and sweetness.  Especially the ones my dad sent along with me when I left home.  Oh man, are they good.  The Princess grapes they’re made from were vine ripened to the point of almost Muscat sweetness, their skins mellowed to a beautiful translucent yellow.  The personal attention during the drying process at home was careful and selective.  End product: soft, juicy raisins the size of an almond whose flavor is unequaled in the world of raisindom.

Apparently, I am not the only one to hold a high opinion of raisins either.  We ran into our portera the other day coming into the building, and she held nothing in her hand but a bag of raisins that she had just bought at the supermarket.  So what was the topic of our friendly small talk?  Raisins of course!  We bonded over our mutual love of those tasty little things, praising their health benefits and downright delightfulness.  She shared a few of her muscatel beauties with us, telling us exactly where we could purchase them, and once I got into our apartment, I ran and grabbed my bag of homemade wonders to share some with her.  She remarked on their admirable size and flavor, declaring that they were indeed delicious (although I hardly needed any confirmation on that point). 

I realized though when I was sharing with our portera that my bag of Princess lovelies is running rather low.  They’re amazingly delicious, so I don’t want to stop eating them, but the end will be coming soon…so I want to ration them to prolong the treat…but they’re delicious, so I don’t want to stop eating them…I guess I’ll be visiting our portera’s raisin spot before long.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oh the fads

One thing that always sets a foreign country apart from our own is the difference in fads and fashions.  In America, it is generally thought that Western European countries tend to be on the forefront of the changes in style, whether for clothes, hair, or whatever else.  I, of course, am in no way going to try to naysay this common belief.  Indeed, when I was here in Madrid last fall, I saw many fashions that were completely new to me, but which came out more and more often in California after I had gone back home.  But however the situation may be with apparel and the like, I am not interested in such at the moment.  But I am talking of fads, no?  So what in the world could I be talking about? 

Do you remember your childhood?  Do you remember being in elementary school and wishing so desperately that you had whatever it was that the cool kids had?  And what did they have?  In Little Women, as my roommate so recently reminded me, the object of universal covetousness at the school was limes.  During my elementary days, it was Gigapets, those annoying little digital pets on keychain-like toys who seemed to always need attention or else they died.  I’ve seen other young children trying to amass the coolest-looking pencils or marbles. 

These all seem like silly obsessions, but I recently witnessed perhaps the most interesting one of all at the school I’m working at.  What is it?  “Homemade colored pencils.”  Basically, the kids find toothpicks, take them out to the playground at recess, and color them with bright markers so that they resemble miniature colored pencils.  There seems to be some sort of status level connected with how many one can collect, children with many proudly displaying their rainbow-colored horde, and those with none quietly sighing in the background.  And when those more blessed children chance to give one or two of the colored sticks to someone without any, they do so with a sort of condescension and the sincere belief that they are being extremely generous.  The other day, one of my little students even presented me with a lovely pink one, a sort of innocent love gift, if you will.

For upward of a week, I was completely baffled by the little toothpicks the children were excitedly showing me, but once the strange craze was explained to me by one of the teachers, I was able to appreciate the full import of the precious little stashes in pencil cases or tightly gripped fists.  I’ve asked my roommates if this fad has shown up in their schools, but it seems to have caught on only in mine…who knows, maybe that just means that our school is at the forefront of juvenile fashion, and little brightly-colored “pencils” will be popping up in other classrooms around Madrid before anyone sees them coming.