Monday, April 28, 2014

4 Things America Can Learn From Spain

It’s been almost two years that I’ve been living and working in Spain, and in this time I’ve been lucky to have such a unique opportunity to learn, first-hand, the real, everyday culture that surrounds the Spanish language. I’ve had to come to terms with the culture of Spain and the way Spaniards do things; most things aren’t wrong, they’re just…different.

While I’ve learned a lot about this country since moving here in September 2012, one thing in particular I’ve gained is a new perspective on America; sometimes you need a fresh pair of eyes to see both your homeland’s faults as well as what places, foods, and times of the year are really special.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to take what I’ve learned in my experience living here in Spain and talk about what I think American culture and society could stand to learn from Spain (this post)…and vice versa.

Now, before the haters come out of the woodwork, let me just say that living in Spain has made me love America more than before I came here. It’s hard to fully appreciate what you love most about your country until you’ve spent a stretch of time away and realize what you really miss most of all. But blind patriotism—the idea that the U.S. can do no wrong, the inability to think critically about the place you call home—is not for me. For us Americans out there, let’s have a grown-up discussion about what areas America could grow in, using our neighbor across the ocean as an example.

1) How to eat and drink

bocadillo spain
Institutionalized snacktime in Spain
Although generalizations are rarely helpful when comparing cultures, Spaniards are on the whole generally fitter than Americans are. Why this is so is an extremely controversial and debated topic, but safe to say it’s probably the result of a combination of various factors, including…

…in America we drink sugary soda, and lots of it, from gigantic cups and bottles to endless refills at restaurants. In Spain, you have to pay for each can or bottle you drink, and said bottle is rarely more than 330 mL.

…in America we scarf down our meals as fast as possible (often fast food, in the car), whereas in Spain people take time to sit down and have dinner with friends or family. It also helps that restaurants in Spain aren’t about pushing you to leave in order to flip the table but are about serving food and creating a warm environment.

…in America we are all about our massive, complex, to-go Starbucks orders, which are usually more milk, sugar, and syrup than actual coffee, but in Spain most people drink a simple shot of espresso at a café bar, usually adding some steamed milk and a packet of sugar.

…in American restaurants the portion sizes are out of control: either you eat the entire platter set before you or you take half of it home for leftovers. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve doggy-bagged things here in Spain, though; plates are sized appropriately.

…in America a significant number of people drink alcohol purely to get drunk; drinking “culture” in the States often centers around getting inebriated as fast as possible. In Spain, people have a glass of wine with their hours-long meals, get tapas for free to munch on with their short beers, and even get little bowls of nuts or gummy bears with mixed drinks. A teacher last year told me “los españoles saben beber”: Spaniards know how to hold their drink.

…in America we snack whenever we want on whatever we like, be it donuts or leftovers or chocolate lying around the house. In Spain, people have the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but they also have two approved Snack Times or meriendas: in the mid-morning around 11am people might have some coffee and fruit or a pastry (second breakfast, anyone?), and in the afternoon around 5 or 6pm, a sandwich or toast to hold them over until their famously-late dinners at 9pm (sometimes midnight!).

Saturday, April 26, 2014

How to Get Around Galicia by Train

Last year when I lived down south in Úbeda I mostly took the bus around from village to village or even on long-haul trips to bigger cities. It helped that Úbeda was a sort of regional bus hub, and while the nearby Linares-Baeza train station had decent connections with the rest of the country, it was always a hassle to catch an infrequent bus just to get to the station.

But this year, I’ve taken full advantage of the fact that Santiago de Compostela has a full-fledged, bustling train station, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to take the bus. Because of this, I’ve gotten to know the Galician rail network fairly well.

galicia train
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The region of Galicia in northwestern Spain sometimes seems a world unto its own—a different language, abundant seafood and baked goods, a foggy, mystery-laden landscape—but you can go from one major population center to another via train just as easily as anywhere else in the country. The Spanish national rail company Renfe operates short-distance services that cross the region as well as long-distance journeys that connect Galicia with the rest of Spain. It’s important to keep in mind the major stations and routes in the region if you ever plan on spending time here; I hope this post makes things clear!

The network

galicia train

You can think of the Galician rail network as two parallel lines going north to south that are complemented by intersecting railways from Barcelona and Madrid:

* You’ve got the Eje Atlántico or “Atlantic Axis” that stretches from A Coruña in the north down to Vigo in the south, passing through Santiago de Compostela and Pontevedra on the way.

* From Ferrol (northeast of A Coruña) a train line heads south via Lugo to Monforte de Lemos

* Coming from the east, a line goes through Monforte de Lemos over to Vigo by means of Ourense

* Coming from the southeast, a train line passes through Ourense before ending in Santiago de Compostela

Because of this, the two major hubs of Galicia are Monforte de Lemos (where eastern-bound trains head out toward León, Burgos, Zaragoza, and Barcelona) and Ourense (where southeastern-heading trains exit Galicia for Zamora and Madrid). At these two hubs, major long-distance trains from Barcelona and Madrid often split into two bits destined for A Coruña or Ferrol to the north and Vigo to the south.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sounds I Miss From Texas

Texas flag
At the Texas State Fair
I miss the sounds of…

Crickets as they keep vigil through the night, their whistly sopranos petering out and being replaced by the next in turn

The Doppler effect of the lawnmower as it passes by my bedroom window, and also the calm relief that returns after it shuffles off

Squirrels thumpety-thumpety-thumping across the roof

The bright, bouncy cry of the cardinal

The whooshing of the trees as they all clap their hands to welcome in an imminent thunderstorm, or the lazy flicker of leaves rustling together on a balmy, breezy day

Thunder in all its forms: the uhhh-I-don’t-wanna-get-out-of-bed-Mom grumbles, far off in the distance—the basketball that bumps from one carpeted stair step to another—the large fart denied a way out of the bowels—the kind that shifts between rumble and boom that makes you wonder if it’s gonna be A Big One—the bedroom door slammed by an angsty teenager that makes the bookshelf fall over and spill all the books and knick-knacks onto the floor—and the actual Big One, the sort of thunder that makes molten-hot adrenaline pierce your chest and make your skin feel all tingly, the sort that yanks the plug of your house out of the electrical grid, the sort that slaps you up side the head, the sort that leaves you in a quiet reverence and awareness that yes, the thunderstorm is here

June bugs mindlessly crashing into the window like mini marionettes, their papery vibrating wings tickling the glass

My brother dragging his fingers across the strings on his guitar, creating the at once metallic and organic harmonies that manage to squeeze past the atoms that make up our bedroom walls

The air-conditioner unit’s uvular trill as it turns on, heaving out of its sunburned siesta to get back to work

The low, basso continuo of the TV on a languid Sunday afternoon after my dad has fallen asleep watching a football game or a Nascar race

My parents uncontrollably giggling and heehawing at a funny movie or TV show on a weeknight when they’re tired

When keys crack open the finnicky brass lock on the front door, and when the heavy wooden door swooshes close, leaving a hopeful anticipation over “Who came home?”

The white noise of the dishwasher running

The dryer alarm yelling at you to come back and reset it because your clothes still aren’t actually dry

Someone squeak, squeak, squeak-ing the spigot handle open, releasing the high-pitched rush of water into the sprinkler hose

Mom pulling out of the oven a tray of fragrant cookies that scrapes against the tinny grating all echo-like

The half of the conversation my Mom has on the phone with my Grandma, recounting recent happenings I already know about but which are reassuring to hear all over again

The rush-hour roar of the highway at dawn, two miles away yet audible nevertheless

The stillness of a summer night, with a man walking his dog here, a car drifting by there, the boughs of the tree shivering in the cool air and the birds snuggling up for the night

***

A little over a month from now and I’ll be home for the summer. More on my plans for this season later, but safe to say I’m just a little homesick right now and ready for some of the dry heat of the Great State of Texas.

What sounds do you miss from home if you’ve ever lived abroad for a stretch? Tell me in the comments below!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gathered Thoughts From a Trip to Portugal

It only took me half a year to get there, but last week I finally made my way down south to Galicia’s long-lost cousin, Portugal. For Semana Santa or Holy Week celebrations I got a week off of school so I had the opportunity to do the country justice rather than a brief, whirlwind weekend trip. Early Thursday morning I caught the regional train down to Vigo in southwest Galicia, where I made a transfer to the direct “La Celta” service between Vigo, Spain, and Porto, Portugal. Two nights in Porto led to four nights in Lisbon the capital, where I made daytrips to the monumental neighborhood of Belém and Romantic-era retreat of Sintra.

Gare do Oriente, Lisbon
Gare do Oriente, Lisbon
As per usual, there will be the expected travelogue-style posts about my time in Portugal to come, but for now, I’m sticking with tradition and doing a little write-up on some musing and reflections I had while in Spain’s neighbor to the southwest.

* As odd as it sounds, I spoke the Galician language for the first time while in Portugal. Galician and Portugal were once the same language in the Middle Ages, and are still extremely similar today but have distinct vocabularies and very distinct accents. Still, I had mixed success getting my message across in Galician: some people understood me no problem, others replied in Spanish or English, and others were utterly confused.

Church of Santa Maria de Belém, Lisbon
Church of Santa Maria de Belém, Lisbon
* I’ve been able to understand spoken Galician no problem for months now, but have always fallen back on Castilian Spanish when speaking with teachers at my school, restaurant servers, cashiers, etc. I think being forced to speak some combination of Galician-Portuguese in Portugal was the jump-start I needed to start practicing speaking the language. We’ll see how this goes!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Confession: Why I’m Renewing for Another Year in Galicia

It’s that stressful time of the year again: the Spanish Ministry of Education has now begun assigning native English speakers from North America to work in public elementary and high schools across the country. First-timers anxiously (and impatiently) wait to hear back from the government to see where they will be spending the next eight months of their lives, and veteran language assistants have their fingers crossed, hoping to get placed in their preferred region.

Placements are already rolling out this early in the spring, which inevitably means fellow teachers, expat friends, and family are asking, are you going to renew?

Galician countryside
Instagram link
Even before I first came to Spain two years ago, I knew I wanted to stay here for two years: one in the south and one in the north—mainly to make it easier to travel around each half of the country but also so I could experience both the lively, extroverted Andalusian culture and the cozy, introverted Galician one. Maybe I would make a “victory lap” and spend a third year in the Basque Country or Aragón out east, maybe not. This radically-regional country basically begged me to hop around from corner to corner, getting a different taste of Spain two-thirds of a year at a time.

Last year I was extremely fortunate to get placed in my desired region—southerly Andalucía—and live in the World Heritage-listed town of Úbeda for a year while working in a friendly, accommodating school and traveling every so often. Yes, I did get lonely in my average-sized town; the winter was cold, rainy, and dark; and my allergies and I barely survived the Olive Tree Pollen Release of May 2013. But my first round with Spain was, overall, a positive introduction to the country; it’s hard to go wrong with castles, Renaissance architecture, olive oil, and a laid-back attitude. Still, the north was calling.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How to Recycle in Spain

Like any responsible society should, Spain has a well-developed system of recycling used materials like paper, plastic, or soda cans. You can find recycling bins, receptacles, and containers all over the country, from the biggest metropolises to the tiniest villages. However, these bins usually come in multicolored troops of four, and unless you know the specific vocabulary surrounding, uh, waste, it can be a little confusing the first couple times you have to throw stuff away.

Recycling in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)

Green: trash (residuos)

Recycling in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Okay, I know this isn’t really recycling, but you always find green-colored bins for all your trash alongside the other recycling containers. Throw your trash bags in here. Often they’re labeled with residuos orgánicos (organic waste) but it means the same thing as basura (trash).

Blue: paper (papel)

Recycling in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Throw your loose paper, cardboard (cartón), newspapers, and magazines in here. Although this might seem like the most logical place to throw your cardboard milk boxes into, they’re actually supposed to go in…

Yellow: containers (envases)

Recycling in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The yellow bins take in the broadest selection of recyclables: everything from plastic bottles or containers, to soda cans and tin cans, too. Don’t forget that the envases ligeros category also includes the Tetra-Brik or brik: a thin, cardboard box-construction that is lined with plastic to hold liquids like milk, orange juice, soup broth, or boxed wine.

Round & green: glass (vidrio)

Recycling in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Finally, throw your all your glass containers, broken cups, wine bottles, beer bottles, and empty olive oil jars here. These containers are usually round, igloo-shaped things and shouldn’t be confused with the square trash bins.

Miscellaneous

Recycling in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
They’re not nearly as ubiquitous as the trash, paper, plastic, and glass containers you can find all over Spanish cities, but every so often you’ll come across metal bins for giving away clothes and shoes (recogida de ropa y calzado), used olive oil in closed bottles (reciclado de aceite usado de cocina), and even batteries (pilas).

Clear as mud? Ever accidentally thrown glass in the plastic container like me? Comment below!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Photo Post: The Street Art of Zaragoza, Spain

When I was gallivanting around the region of Aragón in east-central Spain a month ago, my first stop was the huge capital city of Zaragoza. I’ve got a proper “travelogue” post in the works, but today I want to highlight an attractive draw to the city’s old town: the street art. Having been tipped off to Zaragoza’s strong street art “scene” by Lauren Aloise’s blog post, I was on the look out while in town and managed to come across some beautiful and intriguing pieces throughout the historic core and the neighborhood to the west, El Gancho. The next time you’re passing through Zaragoza, keep your eyes out for some surprising graffitied walls!

Street art, Zaragoza, Spain
Singing houses near a music center
Street art, Zaragoza, Spain
Splotches of color
Street art, Zaragoza, Spain
“Undying Love”
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