Saturday, May 31, 2014

4 Things Spain Can Learn From America

A month ago on this blog I talked about what I thought my country could learn from Spain, having lived here for nearly two years now and gotten a chance to experience the good and the bad of Spanish culture. It sparked a lively discussion on the differences between the U.S. and Spain as well as the areas where America could stand to grow. I intended to write a follow-up talking about what I think Spain could learn from America, so here is that post, as promised.

1) Less bureaucracy and paperwork

red tape spain
(Source: Randy von Liski)
When I say Spain invented red tape, I literally mean Spain invented red tape; you can read an enlightening history on the use of red ribbon for official forms and documents as well as Spain’s long tradition of bureaucracy here. This uneasy relationship the country has with el papeleo (paperwork) bears itself out in the countless trámites (processes) foreigners have to go through to apply for residency.

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the United States is far from innocent when it comes to giving foreigners the run-around on visas and residency applications; however, the experience I and countless other language assistants have had in Spain dealing with extranjería (the foreigners office) has shown the Spanish bureaucratic state to be a convoluted nightmare, from inconsistent requirements that change from one functionary to another, to fee-payment schemes that are often impossible to complete during normal business hours, and to the complete lack of coordination between the Education and the Interior ministries when it comes to the language assistant program.

The endless paperwork and bureaucracy is definitely part of the culture. As an example, to renew for another year at my school, one of the steps was to simply send a form via snail mail to the regional government in Santiago, but my school insisted I have teacher’s sister who worked there deliver it, so they went through this byzantine procedure of making copies, officially stamping and signing everything, entering things into a leather-bound register, and so on. I stood there in shock and wondered why putting a stamp on an envelope was so hard.

Finally, the heavy paperwork really puts a burden on entrepreneurs and small-business startups, because it’s simply so expensive and difficult to incorporate here! I can’t for the life of me find the original article, but I was reading something by a Malaysian tech company talking about their experiences incorporating in the Netherlands and in Spain. The process in the Netherlands was painless, required maybe one form and a fee of 20 euros or so. Spain took upwards of a year to complete, hundreds of copies and forms—all of which had to be officially translated—and a final cost of 10,000€.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Photo Post: Celtic Ruins & Atlantic Views in A Guarda, Spain

A Guarda, Spain
Castro ruins
If you chase the western coast of Galicia all the way south to the Portuguese border, you’ll end up at the mouths of the Miño River and the compact fishing village of A Guarda, too. I took a daytrip to this remote corner of northwest Spain while exploring Vigo back in January and really enjoyed this quiet—and historical—taste of coastal Galicia.

A Guarda, Spain
Castro ruins
After a glorious seaside lunch of croquetas and steamed mussels, I left the city center and began hiking up Monte Santa Trega. The footpath passed through eucalyptus and pine woods, and even a terrifying brief rainshower. But after a brief, 45-minute climb I had emerged at the summit, the site of some pre-Roman ruins. Called a castro, these walled, Celtic-era settlements consisted of circular stone huts capped with thatched roofs, and they endured throughout the Roman period. The castro de Santa Trega is one of the most famous in all Galicia simply because the archaeological work done over the centuries revealed such a gigantic inhabited area. If you make the hike (or simply drive up), you get to stroll through ancient avenues and cross over long-abandoned thresholds, and also imagine dinner cooking over primal fire or services being bartered for goods.

A Guarda, Spain
Portugal in the distance
But these prehistoric ruins were only half the reason for huffing and puffing up the hill. From the mountaintop, you can see clear out all the way to Portugal (okay, it’s not that far) on the other side of the Miño River, and you can contemplate the endlessness of the Atlantic from a chilled, windswept location.

A Guarda, Spain
The Atlantic Ocean
How to get there: From Vigo, take the ATSA bus, or from Caminha (Portugal), hop a ride on the ferry.

A Guarda, Spain
The village of A Guarda
What was your favorite photo from this post? Have you ever been to a castro ruin before? Comment in the thread below!

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

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What’s Big in Vigo, Spain?

The region of Galicia in northwest Spain is known not only for being green, rainy, and full of good food but also as a rather rural part of the country. Countless hamlets, villages, and small towns cover the countryside from the western coasts to the mountains in the east. But you might be surprised to know that the 14th biggest city in Spain is found right here in Galicia: Vigo. An important port city on the southwestern coast, Vigo is one of the two major metropolises in the region (the other being A Coruña to the north); nearly one out of every ten Galicians live in Vigo. So what’s the big deal about Vigo? Read on to find out!

Seafood from the ría

Vigo, Spain
(Source: juantiagues)
North of the city flows the Ría de Vigo, a narrow estuary or inlet of the sea of the same name. Galicia is famous across Spain for its fresh, high-quality seafood, and Vigo is no exception. Like most of the western coast, mussel farming is a big deal here, but Vigo is especially famous for oysters that you can buy fresh at the market in the old town. A whole plate of raw, shucked ostras will run you around 12 euros. The taste of these bivalves aren’t for everyone (myself included), but if oysters are your thing, don’t miss ‘em!

The port

Vigo, Spain
Flickr link
The main reason Vigo is so, uh, Big, is its historical importance as a major Atlantic port—not only for fishing and as a port of call, but also for international trade and industry. In the warmer months you’ll see cruise ships docked at the estación marítima and all along the coasts container ships wait silently, factories spew steam, docks busily unload cargo, and fish canneries tin away.

Speaking Spanish not Galician

Although the vast majority of people who live in Galicia can speak and understand the regional Galician language, in the biggest cities like A Coruña and Vigo, you’re much more likely to hear Castilian Spanish than Galician in the streets. For centuries galego was stigmatized as a lower, rural dialect; speakers were stereotyped as being country bumpkins and “civilized” urbanites stuck to standard castellano. During Franco’s dictatorship, it was even forbidden to speak Galician in public. Nevertheless, the Big City dwellers like Vigo-ites still cling to Spanish, an anomaly in this minority-language region.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Culture Shock in a Spanish Home

Back in November, I wrote a little blog post about some significant differences between American and Spanish supermarkets—culture shock at the supermercado is a frequent occurrence for foreigners living in Spain. But there’s an even more important place you might experience culture shock after setting foot in the country: the home.


Spanish doors
(Source: Javier Corbo)
Let’s start outside. One major difference that can be a little disorienting is the fact that the handle on the main door to an apartment or house is often centered; i.e., it’s in the middle rather than on the right-hand side where the keyholes are. This is because most locks in Spain completely open the door rather than leaving another lock in the handle for you to turn: when you unlock the door, the door swings open, so the handle is there for you to push or pull, not turn.

Even though intercoms might seem like a fancy feature for American residences, they’re standard on virtually all Spanish ones, from homes to apartments. To one side of the door there’s a little speaker with a button to the side of it that you can push to talk with whoever lives in 4º Dcha. or 1º B. On the other side of the intercom, when you pick up the little phone you can push a button to unlock the door and buzz your friend or mechanic in—all without having to go down the stairs and physically open the door for them. How convenient.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

20 More Fun Facts About the Galician Language

Last year I wrote up a little blog post called 22 Fun Facts About the Galician Language in which I talked about what I’ve observed of Galician after a few months of contact with the language. Half a year later I’m still learning galego (mainly from my preschool English students who exclusively talk to me in the language!) and picking up on the language’s subtleties. So here are 20 more fun facts I’ve collected over the past several months:

* One of the most distinctive parts about the Galician accent on the western coast (i.e., where I work) is the gheada phenomenon, where the G sound ends up being a throaty KH or H sound. For example, whenever my preschool students finish with a worksheet, a lot of them will ask me, “¿qué fago?” which means, “What do I do next?” but the way they pronounce it makes it sound like “kay FAH-khoe” [ke ˈfa.ħo]. Galician comic artist Luis Davila often depicts characters speaking with a gheada accent, and uses the Spanish letter J to represent the sound (think the sound in jamón or jalapeño). In the comic below, delgada (“skinny”) and agraria (“agrarian”) are changed to deljada and ajraria to reflect how people in western Galicia would talk. Elsewhere people use the GH instead of the J the same way.

(Source: O Bichero)
* Another unique part about the western Galician accent is seseo, something that also happens in some Andalusian accents and all of Latin American Spanish. Whereas in the standard Castilian accent (and Galician, too!) you pronounce zapatos (“shoes”) as “thah-PAH-toes” [θaˈpa.tos], if you sesear, you say “sah-PAH-toes” [saˈpa.tos] instead. My preschool kids will ask for ceras (“crayons”) and say “SAY-rahs” [ˈse.ɾas] and talk about their zumo (“juice”) and say “SOO-moe” [ˈ]. Instead of distinguishing between the S and C/Z sounds, people pronounce them all the same.

* Despite being a tiny region half the size of the U.S. state of West Virginia, there’s a lot of dialect differences when it comes to vocabulary. For example, the word for “hand” is man in the west and mao in the east (cf. Portuguese mão), “mother” is nai in some parts and mai in others, and every so often you’ll hear patacas instead of the standard patatas for “potatoes.” The real fun happens when you have totally unrelated words that mean the same thing, like hórreo, cabazo, and canastro which all refer to the same typical granite-and-wood-roof corncrib you see all over the region.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Photo Post: Antequera, Deep in the Heart of Southern Spain

Antequera, Spain
Peña de los Enamorados
Antequera—an hour north of the Mediterranean metropolis of Málaga—is a mid-sized town smack dab in the middle of Andalucía. I came here for a daytrip around this time last year en route from being a beach bum in Málaga to taking in the beauty of the Alhambra in springtime. Since I had to catch the seven-o’-clock bus from Málaga, I had to dash from my hostel to the bus station without sitting down for breakfast. That ended up not being a problem, however, because I got to try a typical local treat to start off the day: molletes de Antequera. I first learned about these large, round, spongy bread rolls thanks to an article by Lauren of Spanish Sabores she wrote before I left. Slathering these toasted molletes with grated tomato, salt, and olive oil, I chowed down and slowly woke up, sipping a café con leche in between bites.

Antequera, Spain
Ceiling of the Church of Santa María
The city of Antequera has pretty, whitewashed streets, a handful of centuries-old churches, and a warm, inviting atmosphere just like you would expect from any village in Andalucía—I even walked by some grandpas informally singing flamenco on a streetside café terrace later in the day. But due to its heritage dating back to Roman times (when it was called Antikaria), Antequera has two major monuments to the south of town. The huge Collegiate Church of Santa María la Mayor is the main church in town, and is one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture in all of Spain. The wooden ceiling inside is a stellar Mudéjar wonder that will leave you dazzled.

The Alcazaba is, as its Arabic-derived name would suggest, a Moorish fortress that was built when Antequera was still part of the late-medieval Kingdom of Granada. Atop the huge keep tower you can get amazing views of the city as it fans out from the historic core north to the train station.

Antequera, Spain
Thistles and skyline
But Antequera is perhaps most well-known for its impressive collection of prehistoric megaliths called dolmens. Around 6,500 years ago the neolithic people living in the area made tombs by setting up walls and roofs hewn from stone and covering the simple construction in earth to make a smooth mound. Now, Spain is no stranger to prehistoric heritage (e.g., Cave of Altamira or Atapuerca), but the Menga and Viera dolmens on the outskirts of town give you an amazing opportunity to see and touch some of the oldest human creations anywhere. It was a really eerie experience that brought the very distant past to the 21st century.

Antequera, Spain
Menga Dolmen
Before catching the train east to Granada, I stopped for lunch and tried porra antequerana—a blended cold soup similar to Córdoba’s tomato, bread, garlic, and olive oil emulsion called salmorejo but with a red or green pepper added to the mix. This refreshing first course made for a relaxing, cool lunch…but it also helped that I was indoors away from the already-hot Andalusian sun!

Antequera, Spain
Streets of Antequera
Do you prefer bustling big cities, quiet villages, or mid-sized cities like Antequera? What was your favorite photo from this post? Comment below!

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

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

My #NerdAlert Pilgrimage to the Roman Ruins of Pompeii, Italy

In case you haven’t picked it up from reading this blog yet, I’m a big supporter of Doing What You Want when traveling, of seeing and doing things that you like rather than feeling obligated to mark things off your guidebook’s Top 10 Must-See list. I’ve got a couple of separate blog posts along these lines in the works, but suffice it to say that I think you end up enjoying your travels the most when you focus on the things that interest you—even if that means skipping an “unmissable” sight somewhere else.

Pompeii, Italy
Roman road
I say all this to say…I went to the ruined Roman city of Pompeii in December because I am the biggest nerd ever. Granted, Pompeii is hardly an obscure or unique place to visit when compared with others that Italy has to offer, but when I made my “Grand Tour” of Italy over Christmas Break, I passed over Venice (which is typically considered an essential stop, and which I had zero desire to visit) in favor of Pompeii, a place I’ve dreamed for years of seeing one day in person.

Studying Latin and learning about Pompeii

Pompeii, Italy
Wave mosaics
I’ve had this urge to go on a pilgrimage of sorts to this well-preserved Roman town ever since middle school, when I began studying the “dead” language of Latin. All the way through high school I took Latin for my foreign language credit, translating countless sentences, chanting declension endings, and holding on for dear life when we got to the pluperfect subjunctive (you don’t even wanna know).

My school used the Cambridge Latin Course curriculum, which didn’t focus entirely on the grammatical meat-and-potatoes like many books do, but also shared cultural and historical tidbits about the Roman Empire, from how the military was organized to the importance of garum fish paste in ancient cooking. What’s more, the readings in each chapter weren’t random, context-less passages but narratives that followed a handful of characters as they went about their daily lives.

Pompeii, Italy
Ruined homes with Mt. Vesuvius in the distance
My beginners Latin book introduced me to Pompeii resident Caecilius (pronounced “kai-KEE-lee-oos”), a banker who existed in real life, and his fictional son Quintus. The series begins with the sentence, Caecilius est in horto (“Caecilius is in the garden”) and from there we get to know his family, the servants, and about ancient Roman life. The book ends rather morbidly with the volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupting in 79 CE, which (spoiler alert) kills Caecilius and forces his son Quintus to flee to the island of Britannia.

Throughout this first book, the cultural sections explained how roads were paved and graded, how floors in the public baths were heated, and how Pompeii was discovered—complete with scary pictures of skeletons and plaster casts frozen in time. I always found it super interesting how much was left of the city, as if it were a time capsule with a “Don’t Open For 15 Centuries” tag on it.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Los Patios de Córdoba: The Courtyard Decorating Competition of Córdoba, Spain

You can find one of my favorite cities in all of Spain down in central Andalucía: 2,000-year-old Córdoba. The otherworldly Mosque-Cathedral with its endless rows of striped horseshoe arches…the medieval web of whitewashed, flowery streets…the savory emulsion of tomatoes and olive oil that is salmorejo…the endless season of spring festivals…the feeling of history you get while watching the Guadalquivir River flow by beneath the Roman bridge…the lost convivencia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims visible in the old Jewish quarter…all of this combines to create an amazing atmosphere that I keep going back to.

Patios de Córdoba, Spain
Flickr link
But when I first visited Córdoba in December 2012, I left the city feeling a little let down, almost disappointed. Perhaps it was because I had built up too many expectations having studied the history of Islamic Spain in college, perhaps it was the cold weather, perhaps I stuck to the touristy side of town too much. Before coming to teach in Spain I had originally wanted to be placed in town here, but instead got next-door Jaén province. When I went back to Úbeda I was secretly glad I didn’t get placed there after all.

Patios de Córdoba, Spain
Flickr link
Fast-forward six months to May 2013, and I was waking up one morning just a hop, skip, and a jump from the monumental Mosque-Cathedral. Why had I come back? To experience the beautiful Patios de Córdoba festival that has been going on since the 1920s, that’s why! Homeowners in the historic center of town compete against each other to see who can decorate their courtyards the best, and in Andalucía where traditional homes are centered around a cool inner patio, this is serious business. After all, you can win prizes to the tune of thousands of euros.
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