Thursday, November 29, 2012

10 Tips on How to Stay Warm in Your Apartment in Andalucía in the Winter

We’re already almost finished with November, which means winter is here to stay in Andalucía, the region in the far south of Spain. You’d think its latitude on the globe would protect it from the bite of cold but, nevertheless, it does get cold here; I’ve heard many language assistant bloggers mention that the “coldest winter of my life” was experienced right here. Now, I think much of that is simply exaggeration (just compare Andalucía’s monthly temperature and precipitation averages with those of, say, Chicago or Fargo, N.D.) but a lot of it has to do with facing the weather head-on. In the U.S., many of us are blessed to have central heating in our homes and cars to drive anywhere we need, so we’re fairly insulated (pun intended) from the worst of the winter.

Here in Spain, however, most apartments or homes don’t have heating (calefacción), and people use their feet instead of their wheels to pick up the milk, meet up with friends, and go to work. Naturally, winter feels much more bitter than it might back home. This month I’ve been doing a few things that have helped me stay warm in my chilly apartment.

Spanish brasero
El brasero (de picón, por supuesto) by A. Antolín Hernández on Flickr

1) Use a brasero

A brasero is a circular table, usually in the living or dining room, with a long, heavy tablecloth that covers a little furnace that sits on the floor beneath the tabletop (recursion overload, sorry). People sit around these modified tables with the tablecloth draped over their legs (and sometimes arms), basking in the warmth from the electric heater. A long time ago, they used to have little bowls that they laid coals in, but now you just plug an appliance into the wall.

2) Use a space heater

You can either get one of those tall, rectangular ones that shoot warmth throughout an entire room, or you can get a little Nintendo 64-sized one that my flatmate has, which directs heat at a specific location (kind of like an oscillating fan, but a different idea).

3) Stay in bed with lots of blankets

Sometimes this is all you can really do.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012, Expat Edition

This year I celebrated my first Thanksgiving away from home, but more importantly, away from Mom’s cooking. However, I did not have a complete breakdown and resort to binge eating of Spanish tortilla, jamón serrano, and cold gazpacho soup for supper. Instead, two American girls, a girl from England, and I—all fellow language assistants in Spain—got together Thursday afternoon and prepared something close enough to a traditional American Thanksgiving feast.

expat Thanksgiving in Spain
Expat Thanksgiving in Spain 2012

What was on the menu? If you’re not hungry yet, you will be after reading this list: roast whole chicken with onions, herbs, and olive oil…homemade gravy made from chicken drippings…buttery mashed potatoes…green beans cooked with bacon…pumpkin (butternut squash) pie made completely from scratch…sweet potato casserole with brown sugar & pecan topping…cranberry sauce (substitute) made from pomegranate seeds.

How did we do it? With an oven, stovetop, and a few pots, pans, and dishes, you, too, can enjoy an expat Thanksgiving next year! Below are links to the recipes I used as well as my mom’s sweet potato casserole recipe and some directions on how to make pomegranate “cranberry” sauce.

expat Thanksgiving dinner in Spain
Thanksgiving feast, expat edition


Since we failed to order a turkey from our local butcher’s shop (carnicería) a week or two in advance, we had to settle for a whole chicken from the grocery store. But it was a worthy substitute. None of us had ever roasted a whole chicken before, but we followed this recipe from the website Beyond Kimchee and pulled out a beautiful, savory bird from the oven after one hour.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

5 Things to Be Thankful for When Living Abroad in Spain

We language assistants here in Spain can be a whiny bunch. From worrying about not getting paid on the first day of the month (despite being warned that our first paycheck would be delayed by a month or so), to being bored in a small town, we tend to voice any and all concerns in the program’s forum and its numerous Facebook groups.

But even though we do have a few legitimate reasons to complain (not getting paid is perhaps the most likely candidate), we language assistants still have a handful of things to be thankful for during our time in Spain. In light of our recently-celebrated American holiday of Thanksgiving, I thought I’d list five things I’m most grateful for while living abroad.

pumpkin pie
Source: Instagram

1) We get to live in Europe

I know that living abroad either during or after college has been a longtime dream for many of us, and Europe pretty much takes the gold for Most Glamorous Place to Live. When week-long winter rains are keeping us indoors or disrespectful kiddos are discouraging our meager teaching abilities, remember that we are immensely privileged to be living abroad in Europe—in western Europe, at that.

2) We have a job

Around a quarter of American college grads can’t find work, and half of all Spanish young people don’t have jobs. We are incredibly fortunate to have employment at this stage in our lives, fleeting though that employment may be. And because living expenses are so low in Spain (depending on how much you travel or go out at night), this job allows us to live decently for the better part of one year.

3) We work 12 hours a week at that job

While most of our friends (who have jobs) are grinding away at the 40-hour work week, we’re required to show up at our schools for 12 hours a week. Granted, most of us find more cash via private classes or language academies to fund adventures or nicer lifestyles, but still—we’re pretty lucky to have this gig.

4) We get to speak Spanish every day

Many of us majored in Spanish in college, or at least studied it at some point in our educational careers. Apart from studying abroad, it was pretty difficult to practice speaking the language frequently enough to become (mostly) fluent. But, for these 8 months in Spain, we have an immersion experience like no other—having to speak Spanish to survive (negotiating apartments, buying groceries, and having friends) and often needing to explain things while teaching (depending on the English level of our schools).

5) We’re just a hop, skip, and a jump from Europe, Africa, and Asia

To the west of Spain is Portugal; to the north, France; to the east, Italy, and to the south, Morocco—all world-class travel destinations within hours by plane or a day by train from our home in Spain. Sky-high (pun intended) airline tickets often prevent many Americans from taking the plunge to “see the world,” but we already overcame that barrier when we left home to work here. I know of lots of people who have taken, say, a month-long, epic, see-as-much-as-possible Grand Tour of Europe after graduation because they know they may not ever have such freedom to travel until maybe even retirement. We are so blessed to be so close to so many locations.

If you’re a language assistant in Spain right now, what else should we be thankful for? Comment below!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

7 Helpful North American Language and Culture Assistant Blogs

It’s about that time again—application period for Spain’s North American Language and Culture Assistant program!

downtown Granada, Spain
Calle Reyes Católicos y Plaza Nueva, Granada
This year I’m working as a language assistant in a bilingual elementary school in southern Spain. To be honest, there’s no way I could have made it to where I am today without the help of many informative, helpful, and quite funny bloggers who have chronicled their journeys from America, to Spain, and back (or not, if their romantic status changed over here). Below, I’m going to talk about the blogs that really helped prepare me for the program and life abroad as an American expat. I hope they help you as much as they did me!

Young Adventuress (Liz Carlson)
From 2010 to 2011, Liz worked in a pueblo just outside of Córdoba in Andalucía (southern Spain), and repeated the program for 2011-2012 up north in Logroño, the capital of La Rioja. Before going through the language assistant program, she spent a year in Salamanca and a summer in Madrid, so she definitely knows her stuff when it comes to Spain. Also very well-traveled (across most of Europe!), she has decided to enter the field of travel blogging and writing, so you should keep following Liz’s interesting blog even though she’s no longer a language assistant!

Liz en España (Liz Pitt)
Like Liz Carlson, Liz Pitt also studied abroad in Spain in college before coming to the country as a language assistant in 2010. She and her boyfriend, Matt, taught in the city of Bilbao, in the Basque Country (northern coast of Spain), from 2010 through 2012. She posted quite consistently during her stay in Bilbao, writing about daily life, teaching, and travels across Europe.

Y Mucho Más (Kaley Hendrickson)
Like Liz and Liz above, Kaley also studied abroad in Spain in college, but she worked as a language assistant in Zamora, Castilla y León (north central Spain) for the 2010-2011 school year. While there, she ended up meeting her future husband, Mario, and has since been blogging about her wedding, honeymoon, and new life in Madrid.

Graham in Spain (Graham Cruise)
Here’s one of the few guy bloggers I’ve come across while traversing the blogosphere (nothing against these very fine blogs written by women; Graham’s is just the only one written by a fellow man I’ve seen). Graham spent two years working in Madrid, the capital, first as a language assistant in 2010 and then as a full-time history teacher in 2011. Currently he’s attending graduate school in Barcelona. His long, expressive posts recount the great international experience he had working and living abroad.

Love & Paella (Sarah Gonski)
Sarah and her husband left the U.S. in 2010 for Málaga (southern coast of Spain), where they worked as language assistants for two years before returning stateside to attend law school. Perhaps the most outstanding part of her blog is her photography; the pictures she posted of paella, tortilla, and travel are simply top-notch.

Spanish Sabores (Lauren Aloise)
From 2009 to 2011, Lauren worked at a school in Sevilla, Andalucía, but partway through her stay there, she met her future husband, Alejandro, and got married. Now based in Madrid, she manages a clutch of Spain-related blogs, including Teach & Travel Spain and Recetas Americanas, and runs a business she started, the Madrid Food Tour.

Sunshine and Siestas (Cat Gaa)
While in college, Cat studied abroad in Valladolid (north-central Spain) in 2005, and came back to the country in 2007 to be a language assistant in Sevilla for three straight years. She found her current boyfriend, steady teaching work, and a new life in the Andalusian capital, where she resides today. I actually met her in April 2013, and she’s a great gal! Her blog is especially helpful for all things Sevilla, since she’s been living there for five years now.

For current (and veteran) language assistants, which blogs would you add to this list? Link to them below in the comments!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Albacete: or There and Back Again from Arabic to Spanish

Tuesday afternoon I had to catch the bus from Villanueva del Arzobispo (where I work) back to Úbeda (where I live) because the teachers I carpool with had to stay late for parent-teacher conferences. Anyway, once I got to the bus station, I ran into a guy from Morocco who wanted to know where he could buy tickets to what I heard as “ahl-bah-SEE-tee” [al.baˈsi.ti]. Albasiti…where in the world? I thought. It didn’t help my confusion that we were two levels deep in foreign languages: I, a native English speaker using Spanish to talk to him, a native Moroccan Arabic speaker. At first, I struggled to figure out where exactly he was trying to go.

Bus station, Úbeda, Spain
Estación de autobuses, Úbeda
But then I remembered from the tiny bit of Arabic I studied in a course on Islam I took in college that Arabic only has 3 vowels, “ee ah oo” /i a u/, and it dawned on me that he wanted to go to the Spanish city of Albacete; he had raised the /e/ vowels in the city to the nearest one he could make, given his accent: /i/.

He ended up getting tickets for a departure later that afternoon, and we went our separate ways. But as I was riding home on the bus, I wondered if the way he pronounced that city’s name was, in fact, close to its historical form. After all, most place-names in Spain or words in Spanish that begin with an al- are usually of Arabic origin; that prefix means “the” in Arabic. Because Muslims from North Africa ruled over much of the Iberian peninsula for centuries in the Middle Ages, countless cities and towns draw their names from Arabic words or titles, often the Arabic form of a previous Roman name. I wondered if an “al-Basiti” happened to be the ancient form of Albacete.

Back at my apartment, I hit up Wikipedia and, sure enough, the city’s current name came from the Arabic al-basit, which means “the plain.”


al-Basit in Arabic script
Source: Wikipedia
Interestingly, the Arabic Wikipedia’s article for the same city lists al-basit and al-basiti as equivalent names (I can’t read Arabic script; I just use Google Translate’s speaker option).

Now we’ve come full circle.

For those of you not familiar with Spanish history, during the Middle Ages the “Christian” (i.e., European) kings in the north of the Iberian peninsula waged war against the “Muslim” (i.e., North African) kings to the south in what was called the Reconquista (“Reconquest”) of Spain. During this period, as regions were (re-)conquered, castles were handed over, mosques were converted to churches (or razed and rebuilt), and city names were approximated into Spanish from Arabic. al-Basit became Albacete and that was that.

But now, as more and more people from Morocco immigrate to Spain, perhaps in the future we will be hearing “ahl-bah-SEE-tee” as much as the Spanish “ahl-bah-THAY-tay” [al.baˈθe.te]. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Different Sets of Words for Olives and Olive Trees Across Andalucía

The other day I was in one of my 3rd grade science classes and we were talking about reproduction in plants and animals. The teacher I help as a language assistant used olive trees as an example of asexual reproduction in plants, and as an aside, told me that there are two different words for the tree and the fruit in different parts of Andalucía, the southern region in Spain.

He told me that here in Jaén province and the east (the green highlighted region below) they use one set of words, but closer to Córdoba and Sevilla in the west of Andalucía (the gray part to the left of the green shape), they use another. I thought that was really interesting so I decided to do some brief research and summarize the findings here. Enjoy!

Region of East Andalucía, Spain
Source: Wikipedia

Olive trees

Olive tree in a field
Olive tree field by Hervé Blondeau on Flickr
East Andalucía
Here in the eastern half of Andalucía—where the province of Jaén alone accounts for approximately a tenth of global olive oil production—the word la oliva means “olive tree.” This word comes from the Latin OLĪVA, “olive.”

West Andalucía
To the western half, el olivo is used for the same plant. It comes from the Latin OLĪVUM, “oil.”


Unripe olives
East Andalucía
Perhaps owing to a longer history under Arabic-speaking Muslims from North Africa, folks in Jaén and Granada use la aceituna for the fruit of the olive tree, the olive. This word comes from Hispanic Arabic azzaytúna, from Classical Arabic al-zaytūnah.

West Andalucía
Here they retain the Latin-based word, la oliva, for the olive fruit.

If you’ve lived in western Andalucía, does this post accurately reflect the words you use for olive trees and olives? For those of you outside the region, what words do Spanish-speakers in Madrid, Barcelona, or hey, even Mexico use for these things? Discuss it below!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What the Catalan Language is NOT

Catalan flag, the Senyera
25 April by Marc Sardon on Flickr
Sometimes when I hear people talking about the beautiful language that they speak in three regions of Spain—Cataluña, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands—they often describe it in a way that, to me, is like nails on a chalkboard. Let me explain:

* Catalan isn’t Spanish.

* It isn’t French.

* It isn’t a fusion/mixture/combination of French and Spanish.

* It isn’t a dialect of Spanish.

* It does look a lot like French, and Spanish, too; but it’s neither one of them.

* It is Catalan.

The Catalan language arose from the Latin spoken by the common people in the northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula, centuries after the Roman Empire had dissolved into the Mediterranean Sea, in just the same way as French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese similarly developed. Although, like all Romance languages, it’s related to French and Spanish, it’s nevertheless individual and unique.

For example, here’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as spoken in Catalan:
Tots els éssers humans neixen lliures i iguals en dignitat i en drets. Són dotats de raó i de consciència, i han de comportar-se fraternalment els uns amb els altres.
And for comparison, the same text in French:
Tous les êtres humains naissent libres et égaux en dignité et en droits. Ils sont doués de raison et de conscience et doivent agir les uns envers les autres dans un esprit de fraternité.
And also in Spanish:
Todos los seres humanos nacen libres e iguales en dignidad y derechos y, dotados como están de razón y conciencia, deben comportarse fraternalmente los unos con los otros.
If you check out this great video below you can really start to get a feel for how un-Spanish and un-French the Catalan language really is:

Just as English isn’t a mix of Dutch or German or French, neither is Catalan a mix of French and Spanish. It is a Spanish language (una lengua española)—a language spoken in the Kingdom of Spain—but it’s no dialect, that’s for sure.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

How to Dress Like a Spanish Grandpa

Over the next couple of months or so, I’m going to try and provide a few tips for my fellow men on how to dress more like a native Spaniard. (Not that you have to if you visit here, by any means! This is just if you’re curious about how they dress.)

Here in Úbeda where I live, the ratio of older to younger people is pretty lopsided in favor of the former, so I get many chances each day to observe retired Spaniard fashion. So today, I want to give you some pointers on how to dress like a Spanish grandpa.

Spanish grandpa pants and shoes
Interruption by Fernando Rodríguez
on Flickr

By “grandpa” I mean simply the older generation of men that, for lack of a better distinction, came of age well before the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. In parts two and three of this little “Spanish menswear” series, I’m going to talk about adult Spaniards and teenagers. But for now, abuelos it is.

Whenever you see them walking around town (something I admire very much about the elderly here—even the slow, hunched-over, cane-using man will have his daily walk despite his age!), they will invariably be dressed in a simple, stylish, and classy manner.

While there are always exceptions depending on the person, the weather, etc., five elements define a Spanish grandpa’s uniform:

1) Flat cap or newsboy hat

Spanish grandpa hats
~~ Abuelo II ~~ by Oscar Brene
on Flickr
Even the simple wearing of hats hearkens back to the times when most men wore hats whenever they went outside—as they once did in America, too. Of course, while there have been attempts to restart the hat-wearing custom among younger men in the States, here in Spain it’s still a mark of older guys. Usually the newsboy hat is the most popular choice.

2) Button-up shirt (tie optional)

Spanish grandpas tend to wear button-up shirts almost exclusively; I’ve never seen them wearing casual t-shirts. Often they’ll sport a tie as well depending on the occasion.

3) Cardigan and/or blazer

In the U.S., cardigan-style sweaters have been making a comeback as a fashionable article of clothing for men to wear, especially for us younger types, despite years of association with grandfatherly types like Mister Rogers. Here in Spain, this (ironic) fad hasn’t quite caught on with the youth, so you will most often see them worn by the senior crowd. A blazer can also replace/be paired with a cardigan, especially once it starts to get cold outside.

4) Slacks

Spanish grandpa on a bench
100 Strangers #012
(Grumpy Old Spanish Man)
by Sebastian Raskop
on Flickr
At first I was going to put “khakis” or just “pants” (trousers in the UK!) but I feel like the English word “slacks” connotes just the type of more formal pants they wear here. The colors dark brown, navy, gray, black, or khaki are most popular.

5) Leather shoes

American tourists often get a bad rap for wearing chunky, white training/running shoes regardless of the weather or social situation. Not so with older Spanish men—they rock the classic, traditional leather shoes like they never went out of style. From loafers, to captoes, to wingtips and everything in between, grandpas here shod themselves very fashionably.

How does this compare with how our grandfathers dress in the U.S. or in other parts of the world? Do you think this is a fashionable way to dress or simply outdated? Do Spanish grandpas dress differently in other parts of Spain? Talk about it in the comments!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

October Monthly Update: Getting Settled Edition

So, I’ve decided to change up the format for my “update” posts from publishing them once every week to once per month for two reasons: First, there just isn’t enough material to justify a post every week only about my life; now that I have a routine it’s mainly working…cooking…reading…speaking Spanish…writing…sleeping. And when there is some variety—like traveling—I’ll be writing a separate post for a city trip. Second, publishing a weekly post every week for my entire stay in Spain would result in about 39 posts, which is simply too much. Therefore, I’m going to be publishing a monthly update either on the last day of the month or a few days later.

Clouds over olive groves in Jaén province, Spain
Jaén province: an interior paradise

Getting settled

I arrived in Spain on September 24th and spent the next two weeks settling in to the country. Some big things that I did to prepare for the next nine months abroad were: I got a pay-as-you-go cellphone, was approved for residency—my NIE (foreigner’s identification number), opened a bank account, received my health insurance card, moved in to a shared apartment, bought groceries, washed and line-dried my clothes, and began to cook for myself. That last one leads nicely into the next section…

Learning how to cook

One of my personal goals for this summer was to teach myself how to cook. Safe to say, it didn’t really happen, although I did become more comfortable in the kitchen and even prepared a chicken tortilla soup that my parents liked. Still, my first time living on my own without a university meal plan was not a complete disaster. After a week of salads and stir-frys, I discovered the cooking blog The Stone Soup and was blown away at the tastiness and ease of Jules Clancy’s five-ingredient recipes. Seriously—my flatmate thinks I’m a “chef” now but I just follow the directions and out pops dinner! Hands-down my favorite recipe I’ve made so far has been her “magic sausage supper” of roasted squash, red onions, and sausage.

Becoming a teacher

Apart from informally tutoring a good friend from Mongolia in college, I don’t have any teaching experience, so it has been an interesting month adjusting not only to the classroom but also to the Spanish classroom. For my language assistant gig here in Spain I’m basically a teacher’s assistant in the classes that are supposed to be taught in English. I help out by pronouncing vocabulary, asking simple questions or giving simple directions, and explaining American culture—mostly in English. The kids’ level of knowledge is pretty low, so if I break off from pronouncing vocab or if I give a presentation on Halloween, I have to fall back on Spanish a lot just to get the point across. And although the kids are crazy (out of their seats, never quiet), they’re so stinkin’ cute that it all evens out. I’m working with five-year-olds through fourth-graders in classes from science to music to English (but mainly science).

I started giving private English classes last week with a third-grade boy whose parents are from Castilla-La Mancha (to the north of here) but he already speaks the local accent. Haha! Twice a week for an hour every afternoon I go over to the house and help him with English homework, pronunciation, or American culture. Hopefully I can find a few more classes to give in the next few months for a little extra €€€.

Getting sick (and better!)

Capilla del Salvador, Úbeda, Spain
Holy Chapel of El Salvador, Úbeda
I knew it would happen eventually this season and…it did. I got my first sinus infection or sinusitis in Spain halfway through October. Thankfully, the program provides us with health insurance, so after first going to the doctor’s office, I was sent to an ENT doctor who prescribed antibiotics and Nasonex spray. I was pretty impressed with myself for being able to explain my symptoms, what I thought I had, and my medical history—all in Spanish.


As this month I’ve been trying just to get routines established and getting my feel for the town, I haven’t done much traveling. However, I have visited a few towns here and there:

* Úbeda (duh—I live here, but I did take touristy pictures of the town)

* Villanueva del Arzobispo (also duh—I work here but I had to stay in a hotel there over a weekend)

* Iznatoraf (super tiny city on a hill that I walked to from Villanueva del Arzobispo)

* Jaén (provincial capital where I applied for residency and attended the program’s orientation)

* Baeza (sister city to Úbeda with lots of Renaissance architecture)


I’ve probably enjoyed Halloween more this year—in Spain!—than I have ever since “growing up” and being “too old” to go trick-or-treating. I was floored when Carrefour (the local supermarket in town, the French equivalent of Walmart) started stocking big, orange, Halloween pumpkins. Evidently this is something new that has happened just within the past two years or so. Anyway, I thought it would be cool to try and cook one—bad idea. The flesh in carving pumpkins is flavorless and stringy, but it was a cool experience chopping it all up and seasoning it. One of my Spanish friends LOVED it, so I guess it didn’t turn out so bad.

This past Sunday, I invited three fellow language assistants over to the apartment for dinner and I cooked the aforementioned sausage supper with butternut squash and it was a delicious harvest-season meal that made everything feel like home for a little bit. Then I carved a pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern and my Spanish flatmate was very impressed.
Teaching Halloween to ESL kids

At school, I toted around my jack-o’-lantern and gave a PowerPoint presentation on the holiday to most of my classes. On Wednesday, I dressed up as a student from Hogwarts (from the Harry Potter series), complete with wizard hat and red-and-gold tie. In my kindergarten class, the teacher happened to have a lighter on him, so we closed all the shutters and turned off the lights and lit up the jack-o’-lantern. It was magical, indeed! Many of the kids at school asked me “is the pumpkin real?!” and I was like, “yes, it is!”

Tomorrow I’m taking a weekend trip to Granada, the city of the Alhambra palace complex. Expect a brief post on the city and the next monthly update to come sometime in November.
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