Saturday, November 30, 2013

On Saying “Bye!” to Say “Hi!” When Passing Friends in Spain

When I first came to Spain in September of last year, culture shock really wasn’t that big of a problem for me, thanks in no small part to the plethora of resources available online—expat and auxiliar blogs, for example—and in print—books like Culture Shock: Spain, and even the back matter of Lonely Planet Spain. Reading about little (and big) cultural differences beforehand prepared me well for my initial few weeks in the country, from giving kisses when meeting women to eating dinner at nine in the evening instead of five- or six-o’-clock.

Úbeda, Spain
Calle Obispo Cobos, Úbeda
Moving to Úbeda, in the northwest corner of the southern Andalucía region, I expected the local accent to be rapid, consonant-dropping, and generally different from textbook or news reporter Spanish. I had studied what made the andaluz accent different from “standard” Castilian, and was ready to interpret what I heard as comotá to mean ¿Cómo estás?—“How are you?”

But already in that first week of getting settled in Úbeda I was hearing taló and taleugo being thrown around in the streets, and it appeared that people were just saying it to random folks as they passed them by. It really threw me for a loop; I wondered, are they really saying “hasta luego,” See You Later, to their friends as they walk past them? It didn’t make any sense for people to say “goodbye” when you’re supposed to say “hi” to someone you pass in the street.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Photo Post: Visiting Alicante, Spain, for the Friends, Not the Museums

Alicante, Spain
Old town Alicante
Some cities you go to for the sights, others for the fun, still others for the friends. When I went to Alicante on the Spanish Mediterranean coast back in March, it was for the friends, and I don’t regret it at all.

Alicante, Spain
Dinner with us international kids
Also called Alacant in the local Valencian Catalan language, Alicante is one of the biggest cities in the country and a big home base for beach bums in the summer. For many years now, it has also been a popular study abroad destination for students at my alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University. So when I learned that a handful of acquaintances and fellow Spanish majors would be in Alicante the same time I was in Spain, I decided to try and have our paths cross at least once! That chance came the first weekend in March when I was visiting Valencia, two hours to the north. On my way back home, I swung by Alicante for two nights and had a great time simply hanging out in town.

Alicante, Spain
Pretty neighborhood in the old town
Visiting college friends in Alicante was a nice change from the usual monument-museum-eating pace I had gotten accustomed to in my travels: we got coffee, hot chocolate, and ice cream together; had Indian food and pizza; strolled the beachside esplanade; and even went to the local Protestant church, an anomaly in nominally-Catholic Spain.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Is It Blasphemy to Dislike Granada, Spain?

(Disclaimer: I’m fully aware I’m about to step on approximately 11,920 toes with this post…)

Granada, Spain
Patio de los Leones, the Alhambra

Granada is:

one of the biggest cities in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía…home to the Alhambra, a beautiful Moorish palatial complex built in the Middle Ages during the last Muslim kingdom in Spain…a center for generously-big free tapas with your drink…the burial place for the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella…a home base for going skiing in the snowy Sierra Nevada…a great place to study abroad in…the last city in Spain to be “re-conquered” from Muslim rule in the 1400s…full of interesting neighborhoods like the winding, hillside Albaicín…a popular place for the springtime Cruces de Mayo festival…and an essential stop for almost any trip to Spain.

Granada is nice and all, but…

Granada, Spain
Tilework in the Alhambra
Don’t get me wrong, the first time I visited Granada back in November of last year I loved it. I had been very anxiously looking forward to wandering around the city’s Alhambra palace for years and it was merely two hours south of my adopted-home-for-eight-months, Úbeda. Going with two new American friends in town, we saw the sights, got soaked in the rain, woke up at an ungodly hour to wait in line for Alhambra tickets, drank Moroccan tea, and strolled down the Gran Vía at night together. (We also discovered the wonder that is the tortilla sandwich, but that’s a story for another post.) It was a really great trip and at the time I looked forward to returning again soon.

And so I went back for a second visit. A short jaunt down to Málaga the first weekend in May left me with a long layover in Granada on my way back home. I took advantage of this opportunity to see the Alhambra again, this time in spring. It was still just as stunning the second time around, and I felt like I was seeing it with new eyes: the seasons had changed, I was now a seasoned traveler across Andalucía and Morocco, and it would be the last major trip I would take in the region before heading back home to America. Flowers were everywhere—purple, perfumed wisteria hung from every post and beam, roses enlivened the Generalife gardens, and the intoxicating aroma of azahar, the orange blossom, drifted from orange trees within and without the palace grounds.

Granada, Spain
Wisteria in the Generalife gardens
Although I relished the chance to experience the Alhambra in the sweet-smelling spring, I think the city soured on me when I went back. Granted, I did happen to visit during the Cruces de Mayo festival in which the various cofradías and hermandades—Catholic brotherhoods known for carrying around religious floats during Holy Week—construct massive crosses of flower planters and set up open-air bar-restaurants. Let me tell you: the city was insane. People (rather loud and slightly-buzzed granadinos, mostly) crammed the streets from just after siesta until who knows when the next morning.

The charming atmosphere I enjoyed when I first visited was gone. Perhaps it was because stupid, slow-walking tourists had packed the Albaicín, because I had experienced what a Muslim/North African country is actually like, or because FREE TAPAS!!! were no longer restricted to just Granada, but were also served in much of the rest of the country. I soon concluded that apart from the Alhambra, Granada as a city just isn’t worth the time of day for me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Culture Shock at a Supermarket in Spain

If you’re going to be spending any amount of time in Spain, chances are you’ll end up at a supermarket, whether for a late-afternoon snack or ingredients for dinner if you’re cooking for yourself. And when you do end up going to one, you’ll inevitably experience culture shock since some customs in Spanish supermarkets are a bit different from those you may be used to. You won’t be falling on the floor in shock over them, but if you’re aware of these small but significant differences in the way you go about doing things, your shopping trip will go much more smoothly.

Supermarkets in Spain
(Source: Nacho Pintos)

1) Putting your bag in a locker before entering

At the entrance to most supermarkets there are always a couple dozen cubbie-hole-sized lockers for you to stow your backpack/heavy belongings/shopping bag from another store in. This is nice because you don’t have to lug your crap around with you all over the store, but the lockers are probably there to prevent shoplifting, so make sure to lock up your large bags before shopping or the cashiers and/or security guards at the front will yell at you.

It’s pretty simple: just find an empty locker, open the door, stuff your bag inside, drop a 50-cent, 1-euro, or 2-euro coin piece inside the slot, close and lock the door, and remove the key.

2) Weighing & pricing produce at the stand, not the checkout

Supermarkets in Spain
Mercadona in Úbeda
In a big change from American stores where the cashier punches in the code and weighs your produce at the checkout, in Spain you bag your fruits and veggies and take them to a central scale where either you or an employee weigh your items and print out a little sticker with a barcode to put on your plastic baggie. Then you take these pre-priced baggies to the checkout lane where the cashier can fly through them like they were any other item with a barcode.

3) Making change for your total easier

Let’s say your groceries cost, say, 15,02€, and you hand your cashier a 20-euro note when it’s time to pay up. I would be willing to bet that 20 euros that they would ask you if you happen to have two cents so they can instead give you ten- and five-euro notes—because otherwise, they’ll have to crack open a roll of pennies and leave you a pile of metal including a 50-cent coin, two 20-cent ones, a 10-, a 5-, and two 2-cent pieces. What a mess. So if you happen to have change with you (and you should, since you’re carrying it around in your pocket-sized coin purse like it’s the manliest thing since the Euro man-purse), everyone involved will have a much better day.

This isn’t restricted to just pennies, though; if your ingredients to make tortilla add up to 6,37€, you can hand over a ten-euro note and a one-euro coin to get a pretty, green five-euro note back with much less spare change.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Photo Post: The Sierra de Segura Mountains in Eastern Andalucía

Tranco Reservoir
There’s a lot to love about the province of Jaén, a cozy corner of eastern Andalucía in southern Spain. You’ve got the lovely villages of Úbeda and Baeza, graced with Renaissance architecture, as well as countless other sleepy towns scattered amongs the endless olive groves. There’s the capital city of Jaén, with its charming, Moorish-style old town and free tapas scene. Although there’s no doubt that people here talk with a thick Andalusian accent, it’s not nearly as difficult to understand as that of Cádiz, for example, on the coast. And who could forget that the best olive oil in the world is made in almazaras (factories) in every village’s industrial park?

Sierra de Segura
But while I’ve expressed my love for the region in many posts on this blog, I haven’t written yet about the sierra, that unmoving wall of mountains that serves as the eastern limit of the province and the region. Countless sunsets seen from Úbeda’s eastern lookout point made me wonder what these hills were like up close and personal, so I made it my goal—as a Mountain Person, rather than a beach bum—to explore the Segura mountain range at least once during my time in the south.

Olive tree, with Segura de la Sierra in the background
I finally got that chance in February when a handful of teachers and I went on a little excursion after work for lunch and touring in two pueblos (villages) in the Sierra de Segura: Hornos de Segura (“Ovens of Segura”) and Segura de la Sierra (“Segura of the Hills”).

Hornos de Segura
In Hornos, we had a long, delicious dinner of various raciones—appetizer platters of cheeses, meats, sandwiches, and other little bites that added up to a full meal. After a quick pick-me-up of coffee, we wandered around the old town, stopping at the lookout point over the Tranco Reservoir to enjoy the beautiful lakeside scenery before seeing the local castle and parish church.

Castle of Segura de la Sierra
To get to Segura de la Sierra, we drove about 15 minutes through olive grove-covered fields up the steep hill that the tiny village is situated on. My bilingual coordinator, Pedro, told me that he used to work at a school here that was built over the old medieval walls. So cool! The sun was setting fast, though, so we all parked and hurried up the hill to the castle, from which we got to take in the surroundings at twilight.

What was your favorite photo from this post? Are you a Mountain Person or do you prefer the beach? Either way, these mountains are only a few hours from the Mediterranean coast!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Segovia, Spain: 3 Facets of a Castilian Gem

Not even two days back in Spain in September, I had already hit the ground running after a summer home in Texas. The central city of Segovia was the only pitstop I made on my journey between Madrid and Galicia, where I’m now working for Year Two as a language assistant. Merely half an hour north of Madrid via the high-speed train that cuts through the Guadarrama mountains, Segovia is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to in the country so far.

Segovia, Spain
The White City of Gondor Segovia skyline
Most people run up on that high-speed train from Madrid and make a daytrip out of the city, but I ended up staying two nights here and really enjoyed taking it all in at a relaxed pace. Although Segovia is well-known for its massive Roman aqueduct, its impressive Gothic cathedral, and fairy-tale castle, I think the city deserves more credit for its Romanesque churches and tasty food.

It’s the only major city I’ve traveled to in the vast north-central region of Castilla y León, but if Segovia is any indicator, I can’t wait to see more of Castilla in the future.

1) Monuments

Segovia, Spain
Roman aqueduct
Even though the Romans essentially stole the basic forms of their architecture from the Greeks, their invention of the arch—and its permutations in vaulted ceilings or domes—combined with their engineering prowess really revolutionized construction in ancient times. They brought “civilization” to cities across the Mediterranean world, partly by the wonder that was the aqueduct, a miles-long series of canals that bore fresh water from sources in mountains down to large settlements. This is something we take for granted in modern times, but it would have been a breakthrough back in the day.

These aqueducts (literally “water channel”) were inclined at precise angles to keep water moving all the way to the cities, so whenever a valley opened up, vast, stacked arches had to be put up to support an elevated span. Few aqueducts remain in Europe, but the ones that do are truly amazing, like southern France’s Pont du Gard and this one in Segovia that cuts straight through a valley on the edge of the old town. During the reign of Ferdinand & Isabella, 36 arches were carefully rebuilt, and the aqueduct continued to bring water into Segovia through the 1800s.

Segovia, Spain
The cathedral
Most every big Spanish city has its own cathedral church to be proud of (and even some small ones, too!), but after a while these Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque churches all kind of mush together in your memory. Segovia’s cathedral, however, really stands out because it’s the youngest cathedral in the world that was designed in the Gothic style. You’d think a cathedral built in the late 1500s—the height of the Renaissance—would look something like what you can find in Jaén province, for example, but for whatever reason the segovianos just couldn’t let go of the Gothic. The result was stunning: the Late Gothic church has typical squared-off, boxy transept arms and lots of floral, pointy spires, very reminiscent of Sevilla’s cathedral. However, the Renaissance was too hard to resist, for the stained glass windows are joined in triplets, like a triumphal arch, and a central dome—unheard of in medieval times—ties everything together.
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