Monday, September 15, 2014

A Taste of Spain in Dallas, Texas

Since the auxiliares de conversación program only lets English-speakers like me stay in Spain between October and May, I have inevitably come back home to Texas in the summers to work and save money and to spend time with my family.

Café Madrid, Dallas, Texas
Plato Ibérico from Café Madrid
But to hold me over from my last menú del día meal in Madrid and to satisfy my love of Spanish painters, Dallas thankfully has a lot of Spanish-themed offerings, all within the same general area.

Meadows Museum

Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas
The Wave by Santiago Calatrava
On the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas’ elite Park Cities enclaves, the Meadows Museum is probably the premier collection of Spanish art outside of Spain. It opened in 1965 as a result of countless donations from the private collection of oilman Algur H. Meadows. As head of the Dallas-based General American Oil Company, he frequented the Spanish capital of Madrid in the 1950s since his company was searching for oil reserves there at the time. While in Madrid, Meadows got to spend hours browsing the world-class Prado Museum and gained a lifelong appreciation for Spanish art.

Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas
The museum moved into its current location in 2001, a building that blends in with the neoclassical brick-and-stone structures on SMU’s campus but also recalls the stateliness of the Villanueva Building that houses the Prado itself.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal

When I went to Portugal for Easter break this spring, my first stop was the country’s second-biggest city, Porto. While the northern city’s glorious church architecture, hand-painted tiles, and Harry Potter pilgrimage sites drew me here in the first place, Porto’s rich and tasty cuisine kept me firmly in one place (the table, that is). Read on to learn what dishes to hunt down when you visit this beautiful, crumbling city on the Douro River.

Porto, Portugal
Porto’s old quarter seen from the Torre dos Clérigos

Francesinha (sandwich)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
Heart attack on a plate
If there’s anything that every tourist and their mom eats when they come to Porto, it’s the francesinha sandwich. Pronounced “fran-say-ZEE-nyah” [fɾɐ̃.seˈzi.ɲɐ], this sandwich-you-eat-with-a-fork puts ham, various sausages, and steak between two slices of bread, melts cheese on top of everything, and then goes swimming in a peppery broth made of beer and tomato sauce. Often cooks will throw a fried egg on top, and if your heart didn’t hate you already, they garnish the sides of the bowl with a bunch of french fries. People either love it or hate it; I thought it didn’t taste too bad at all but it’s definitely not something you should be eating every day!

The name for this sandwich literally means “little French one,” referring to the croque-monsieur, the ham-and-cheese sandwich that inspired the Portuguese creation.

Bacalhau (cod)

What to Eat in Porto, Portugal
(Source: kathy)
As Portugal was historically a seafaring nation, it should come as no surprise that fish makes up a big part of the country’s cuisine, with cod being the most beloved. Most bacalhau you will find is salt cod, or fresh codfish that has been preserved in salt, a centuries-old tradition that dates back well before refrigeration, and one that allowed both inland residents and mariners to enjoy this simple, healthy fish at any time. After soaking for a day or two in a bucket of water to remove the salt, the de-salted salt cod is ready for cooking, be it crispy cod fritters or the bacalhau à Gomes de Sá casserole.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Photo Post: Remembering the Space Race in Houston, Texas

Saturn V rocket, Houston, Texas
Saturn V rocket
A month ago I was down in Houston, Texas, for the weekend applying for a student visa at the Spanish consulate, which I need to go back to work in Spain as a language assistant for one more year. Because the Megabus schedules didn’t allow for me to leave Dallas early in the morning and return from Houston later in the day, I decided to make a city trip out of the whole ordeal and spend two nights in the local Hostelling International hostel.

Saturn V rocket, Houston, Texas
Third stage of the rocket
I was first in line to apply for a visa at the consulate so I ended up having more free time than I thought I would; thankfully I had brought my library's copy of Alas Babylon with me, so I spent several hours in Starbucks over the course of the trip engrossed in this highly-realistic account of what might have happened had the U.S. and the USSR engaged in nuclear war. Written by Pat Frank, the book trailblazed the post-apocalyptic genre and was published at the height of the Cold War in 1959.

With this book fresh on my mind, I hopped on a commuter bus downtown and rode all the way to the end of line: Johnson Space Center. Both a fully-functioning “home base” for the U.S. government’s NASA agency and an interactive space museum, the JSC also houses a never-launched Saturn V rocket inside a gargantuan shed. Initially left to rot in the humid, polluted Houston air, this rocket has since been restored and moved indoors for preservation.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding Harry Potter in Porto, Portugal

Confession: I never read the Harry Potter series growing up—even though I came of age as J. K. Rowling was poppin’ one book out after another. Part of it was because my parents didn’t let me read the books (yet The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was fine? hmm…) but another part was my inner hipster mindset that wouldn’t let me deign to read mass-produced fiction. I soon came to my senses and ultimately read the entire series during my first school year working as a language assistant in Spain, and I even signed up for and got placed in Gryffindor house, thankyouverymuch.

Porto, Portugal
Porto’s old quarter seen from the Miradouro da Vitória
Now a fan of the Harry Potter books and movies, I was convinced to visit Portugal’s second-biggest city, Porto, over Easter break not only because everyone I talked to raved about the city but also because of its intimate connection with Rowling herself. Pronounced “POR-too” [ˈpoɾ.tu] (NOT “poor toe,” ahem), this city was home to the author between 1991 and 1993. Writing Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Philosopher’s Stone in the morning and teaching English in the afternoon and evenings, Rowling spent countless hours in local cafés hammering out what would become one of the biggest bestsellers of all time.

One of those cafés she spent time in was Café Majestic, a fancy Art Nouveau establishment along the grand Rua de Santa Catarina. While tourists keep the outside terrace perpetually full, the interior is a grand, classy hall with white and pastel walls, huge mirrors, and warm wood highlights. Today you can order an afternoon pick-me-up and feel transported back to the 1920s when the thinkers of the day would come here to debate ideas and discuss their works.

Harry Potter in Porto, Portugal
Fancy-shmancy interior seating

Friday, August 29, 2014

Culture Shock in a Spanish Elementary School

Continuing my series about culture shock in Spain (I’ve talked about supermarkets and Spanish homes so far), today I’d like to talk about things that have surprised me or that are quite different from American elementary schools. I’ve worked at a big school down south and a tiny rural one up north now, so I hope that my observations are more than just one place’s idiosyncrasies.

Regarding teachers

Culture shock at Spanish school
View from the school’s window
* When I first started working as a language assistant in Andalucía, I was shocked when the teachers would show up five minutes before school started and then leave as soon as the last class of the day was over. My mom teaches kindergarten and she always arrives an hour early in the morning and leaves an hour after the day is over to lesson plan, make copies, grade papers, attend meetings, etc., and she still has schoolwork to do at home! However, teachers at my schools do stay late for several hours one day of the week for meetings and whatnot and they somehow manage to do all their planning and grading during off hours, too.

* Unless somebody has to take an extended leave of absence (recovery from surgery, honeymoon, new baby, etc.), there aren’t any substitute teachers. Instead, other teachers fill in for their colleagues as needed during their off-periods. The jefe de estudios is continually scribbling in substitute duties on a dry-erase board in the teachers’ lounge: a sixth-grade teacher might substitute for a preschool one, the secretary might cover a third-grade class, and so on.

* Teachers wear literally whatever because there’s no set dress code. While tracksuits are usually restricted to P.E. teachers, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for people to show up in jeans and a t-shirt. Nevertheless, most teachers—being classy Spaniards and all—come to work professional, be it sharp button-down shirts and dark, slim jeans or leggings, a skirt, and a nice blouse.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Las Médulas, the Most Unique Roman Ruins in Spain

Usually when you think of Roman ruins—in Spain or elswhere—usually things like crumbling arches, faded mosaics, and fallen-in house walls come to mind. Sometimes there’s a grand aqueduct, and maybe even an amphitheater, but all the sculptures, gravestones, and artifacts are on display in a nearby museum. In any case, you’ll most often see memorials to important dead guys or monumental ruins.

Las Médulas, Spain
Las Médulas
That’s why I was so surprised when I visited Las Médulas: all that is left of the largest gold mine in the Roman Empire. Although the modern Spanish word médula can mean “bone marrow” or “spinal cord,” the name for these mining ruins probably comes from the Latin metula, the diminutive form of the word meta, which meant “cone” or “pyramid”—which makes sense given the other-worldly rock formations that make up the ruins.

Las Médulas, Spain
Close-up shot
Hidden away in the rugged Bierzo region in northwesterly León province, the open-pit mine has sliced through whole mountainsides, leaving the stark orange clay faces we see today. From the mirador (lookout point), you can almost trace the former swoops and curves of the original hills and mounts as they were before full-scale mining was introduced in antiquity. Once Augustus had incorporated northwestern Hispania into the empire (read: waged wars of conquest), the Romans used Las Médulas as their main source of gold for the next 250 years. Approximately five million Roman pounds were extracted from the area during that time, or 1.6 million kg of raw gold ore.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Photo Post: Pinchos & Castles in Ponferrada, Spain

Knights Templar Castle, Ponferrada, Spain
Tucked away in a mountainous corner of northwestern Spain lies the tiny sub-region of El Bierzo. Pronounced “bee-AIR-thoe” [ˈbjer.θo], this cultural area takes up the western third of the province of León and is a kind of “mini-Galicia” amidst the dominant northern Castilian region. Unique meats like cecina (cured beef) and botillo (chunky sausage) are popular here, the French Way of the Camino de Santiago passes through here, many folks speak the Galician language, and everything is generally greener (and rainier, too).

Knights Templar Castle, Ponferrada, Spain
The Sil River
Ponferrada is El Bierzo’s main city, a bustling metropolis 70,000-strong in a sea of sleepy mountain villages. On my way back from León in March, I came here to visit my friend Laura who I met while working down south two years ago; she was one of the many auxiliares that the bigger city of Linares was home to, and we coincidentally both got placed in the northwestern part of the country this past school year.