23 January 2006

To indulge is divine

After suffering through and barely surviving my first week of Spanish classes, I View of Sevilla from La Giraldadecided that it didn't really matter how much Spanish I learned or what level of fluency I achieved before returning to the US. Even without trying, I was guaranteed to learn more in a few weeks in Spain than I could have learned in a few months in the US. The most important thing was to enjoy Spain...

Rather than trying to memorize everything, I would create crib sheets to use in my La GiraldaSpanish class. Instead of missing out on great food because I couldn't read the menu, I would ask for the English version. And whenever I needed a break from Spanish, I would curl up on my sofa with a warm blanket and some microwave popcorn, and watch an American movie on my laptop computer.

View from La GiraldaAt lunchtime, while other students were filling up on boring little sandwiches and cheap tapas, I was enjoying the Menu del Día at the finest restaurants I could find. Ah...the menu del día. Spanish restaurants typically offer a set 3-course afternoon meal, including drink and bread for 8-15 Euros. In fact, I think they are required by law to offer these sorts of lunch specials, even if the price is too low to make a profit. View from La Giralda
They say that dining alone is the #1 fear of solo travelers. However, during the many years I traveled alone for business, my love of great food always won out over any awkwardness I might have felt eating alone...especially when my company was paying the bill. Over the years, I've learned not only to tolerate it, but to truly enjoy the experience. When I dine alone, I can savor the unique flavor and texture of the food, uninterrupted as I drift away into my own thoughts.

Corina from Switzerland & Fabian from Germany After a leisurely lunch, I always made time for an afternoon stroll or a little shopping...or maybe a siesta (afternoon nap). Of course, I also managed to fit in Alice from Italy, Laura from Brazil & Michael from the US homework and a little studying before meeting my amigos for a drink or an evening show. Since nightlife in Spain doesn't get started until at least 10pm, there was always plenty of time for everything.

Here are a few of my favorite eateries in Seville:
Taberna del Alabardero, C/Zaragoza 20 (near Plaza Nueva). Excellent menu del día for lunch, with fresh soups and salads, delicious meat and fish courses, and heavenly desserts. For dinner, highly recommend the chef's tasting menu with wine pairings. Our waiter, JuanJo, was very friendly and explained each course in English, always happy to consult his gastronomic dictionary when he needed to find the right words to describe such things as "parsely-infused risotto". A bit pricey compared to other restaurants in Seville, but well worth it and still cheaper than fine restaurants in the US. One note of caution: the wines paired with the 6-course tasting menu were mostly local jerez (sherry); absolutely delicious and expertly paired, but with about twice the alcohol content as typical white wine.

Cafe Duplex. Great food & service, bilingual staff. Located in Barrio Santa Cruz. From Calle Alemanes, make a right on Placetines and curve left through the Plaza behind the Cathedral. If you take the most direct route to Calle Aire, you are sure to pass it on the corner (I think it's on Abades). Popular with locals; minimal tourists. This was the one place, close to my apartment, where I could always find good Spanish food served at all hours of the night with a place to sit and eat. Highly recommend the the stewed bull's tail and spicy goulash tapas, although everything I ate there was delicious.

Caracoles Bar Caracoles, near Plaza de la Alfalfa. As you approach the building with the Plaza de la Alfalfa street sign on it, turn right and you will run right into the restaurant. On C/El Rincon. Great outdoor eating area. This is a great little restaurant, and very cheap. Don't expect to find any English-speaking staff or English menus, but consistently great local cuisine and seafood. The menu del día always has one really great dish and one deep-fried course, which is not so good. So my recommendation is to order the main course of the menu del día, along with a plate of your favorite shellfish for the perfect 2-course lunch.

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18 January 2006

Flamenco with an attitude

La Carbonería The night after I returned from Jerez, I met some friends from the language school at a flamenco bar in Santa Cruz called La Carbonería. The entrance to the bar was an unmarked glossy red door on a narrow backstreet, that opened into a small room with a fireplace...

Further in was a larger room full of long picnic tables, with a small stage across the front. That's where I ran into Tom, from Ireland. Like me, he was in Spain because he had recently become redundant. He had decided to spend some of his severance pay on a trip somewhere warmer than Ireland, where he could live cheaply for a few weeks. He was in a much more advanced Spanish class than me, but was kind La Carbonería enough to talk to me in English. La Carbonería is also where I met Alice (pronounced Ah-lee-chay), from Italy, for the first time. She was the first person I met in Spain whose Spanish I was able to understand. Even though I didn't know how to respond in Spanish, I was really excited just to be able to understand most of what she was saying.

Shortly after we got a drink and sat down, the show started. It was sort of like open mic night, where aspiring flamenco artists got a chance to perform. There were La Carbonería three performers: a singer, guitarist, and dancer. They were actually pretty good, but the dancer wasn't happy with the level of attention they were being paid by the audience. She spent most of the night shushing everyone, trying to get them to listen.

Sure, the audience should have been more respectful of the performers, but it was a bar after all, full of young locals and tourists. As the night went on, people drank more and got even louder. And the louder they got, the more shushing she did. Finally, after performing off & on for several hours, and getting progressively less respect from the audience, she finally stormed off the stage.

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12 January 2006

Daytrip to Jerez

Train station in Jerez Since there were no classes on the Immaculate Conception holiday, it seemed like a great day to venture out on my own. I had been wanting to see the dancing horses show in Jerez, which was just an hour away, and I had also found some information about some sort of festival that might be going on in a small town nearby called San Lúcar de Barrameda...

The information I had found on the internet was a bit sketchy and potentially out-of-date, but it sounded like it might be the final day of an equestrian week festival in San Lúcar, with horse racing and jumping contests on the Calzada beach, alongside a gastronomic competition featuring local dishes made with garlic.

Train station in Jerez So I set off on the 9am train from Sevilla to Jerez. The train station in Jerez was clean and new and was in a beautiful building in the same plaza as the bus station. I looked around for information about possible bus service to San Lúcar, and asked a few people if they knew anything about the festivities. But I didn't find anything, and no one knew anything.

On the main road by the equestrian school, there was one souvenir shop and a little cafe selling coffee and jerez (sherry). But they both looked like major tourist traps, with little tourist kids running around screaming, and tourist parents buying them whatever they wanted. So I wandered around until I found a small bar, away from the main road, where I enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee and watched a few minutes of a Rodney Dangerfield movie, dubbed in Spanish.

Equestrian Art Museum With still plenty of time before the horse show started, I decided to check out the grounds of the equestrian school. However, once I got in, I realized they kept the tourists confined to a small area, and you had to buy a separate ticket to get into the Equestrian Art Museum. So I just walked around in a circle on the only foot path that wasn't blocked off, and took a few pictures.

As it got closer to showtime, the crowds started pouring in. Being surrounded by tourists is never a great thing, but these tourists seemed worse than average, without even a hint of class or good taste. They were all exuberantly taking pictures of each other with their digital cameras and camera phones, in front of every tree and building, and buying all of the souvenir trinkets and trash they could find. On the way to the bathroom, I passed an American man, upset about something and yelling in English at the poor lady taking tickets. There was a long line for the women's bathroom, and by the time I got in, most of the toilet paper was gone, and the bathroom was trashed.
Horse show
About 30 minutes before the show, they let us in to our seats. The people around me didn't seem very interesting, so I used the time to have a number of lively Spanish conversations in my head, telling myself stories about what I had been doing during my time in Spain. It was a great opportunity to practice some of the new verb tenses I had just learned.

The show started off with mounted horses prancing around the ring, in several beautiful gaits that I had never seen before. They criss-crossed to and fro, "dancing" to music that sounded like it might have been recorded by a military band or high school orchestra. I remembered seeing the music on sale in the gift shop. It was probably a big seller with this crowd.

After a few minutes, it struck me how unnatural and forced all of it seemed. Sure, any trained animal is doing something unnatural. But there was something about this show that seemed extreme. I've always loved the spirit of the horse, so powerful and majestic, each with its own unique character and personality. But in this show, the horses seemed more like marionettes, broken in spirit, responding only to the tight reins and sharp whips of their riders who were controlling their every movement. Whenever they were being worked from the ground, there were two handlers per horse, each with long reins and whips. And throughout most of the show, there was a steady stream of white foam frothing from the horses' mouths.
Horse show
To be fair, I should mention that I am biased toward the Western style of riding and handling a horse, which anyone in this part of the world would probably view as sloppy and unrefined. The crowd seemed really pleased with the show throughout, and I talked to someone later in the week who knew one of the riders and said that the horses were treated well at the school.

After the show, I decided to spend some time exploring Jerez before I headed out of town. I thought about going to the part of town with all of the sherry bodegas, which Jerez is famous for, but the swarm of obnoxious tourists headed that way compelled me to walk in the opposite direction, back toward the train station. In the 30-40 minutes it took to get to the train station, strolling through major thoroughfares and neighborhood streets, I didn't find a single interesting restaurant to stop in for lunch. I did pass the tourist office, however, where I stopped in to ask about the horse races in San Lúcar. They hadn't heard of any races in December, only in August. At that point I decided that if the tourist office of a town less than 15 miles away hadn’t heard of the festivities, either they weren’t happening or they would be very lame. So I scrapped the idea of going to San Lúcar and bought a ticket for the next train back to Seville.

Although Jerez didn't turn out to be my favorite town in southern Spain, I really enjoyed the day. It was nice to walk around in the beautiful weather, and I had lots of opportunities to practice my Spanish.

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11 January 2006

Catching the early train

Around 2:30am on the morning my husband was to return to the US, we finally made it back to the apartment after a night of flamenco and dining. Chris packed his things, and I set the alarm for 6am. I was planning to climb out of bed in the morning, just long enough to get him to a taxi and to give the driver instructions to take him to the train station...

My husband, ChrisAt 6:30am, there were still a number of cheerful people out partying from the night before. On a normal day, there would be taxis everywhere, but this was the morning of a major bank holiday. There were no taxis at our usual taxi stand, and some helpful people nearby informed us that there would be none coming around anytime soon. Not to worry, I had the number to the Seville taxi service...I would just call for one.

After about the 23rd time calling the taxi service and not being able to get through, we started getting nervous that Chris might miss his 7:30am train. It was the only train that would get him to Madrid in time to catch his flight back to the US. I didn't know exactly how to get to the train station from there, and it was the only time during my entire trip that I had left the apartment without my map, but we were running out of time. So we started walking. At one point, I spotted a taxi and ran down the street after it, but I couldn't catch it before it sped away.

We happened to walk by a small hotel, where we noticed a couple of hotel staffers standing at the front desk. We banged on the front door until finally one man came to unlock it. I explained our situation and begged him to help us get a taxi. I must have looked pretty desperate in my pajamas and coat, looking like I had just rolled out of bed, and out of breath because I had been chasing taxis. With a smile, he went inside to make a phone call, and then waited outside with us until a taxi showed up, about 5 minutes later. I had never been so grateful, but he wouldn't accept a tip.

With a big sigh of relief, I kissed Chris goodbye and headed back to the apartment. I passed three available taxis on my way home.

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07 January 2006

Roman ruins and real flamenco

On the last day before Chris returned to the US, we went on a CLIC-organized excursion to Itálica, to explore the ruins of the oldest Roman settlement on the Iberian peninsula.
Itálica
It was fascinating to be in the midst of something so old, and to walk right through the bedroom of someone who lived thousands of years ago. The level of access was great, especially in the old coliseum where there were a number of passageways and tunnels and places you could climb around...

After the excursion, Chris and I were both pretty tired. But Chris had not yet experienced any sort of flamenco, and I was determined to get him to the most authentic show I could find before he left Spain.
Itálica
In an obscure Seville magazine, I had found a calendar of events that listed a peña flamenca show in the Macarena area that night. It required a bit of detective work because no details for the venue were listed, other than the name. When we got to the street, it was dark and appeared to dead-end without any sign of a club or restaurant. However, just before we gave up and turned back, we found the Peña Torres Macarena. We walked into a room full of folding chairs, surrounding a small stage. The chairs were placed very close together, without even enough room to squeeze in between rows.

Just beyond the main room was a small bar area. Not too many people had arrived by this point, so it was easy to order a couple of cervezas, for 1 Euro each! It was the best service I had received anywhere in Spain. I was served right away, and with a smile to boot. Normally, to get a drink at a bar I would have to bully my way through the crowd, only to be openly ignored at the bar until all Spaniards in the vicinity had been served first.
Itálica
We marked our seats with coats & scarves, as other people were starting to do, and then returned to the bar area to sip our drinks and observe the scene. It was very different from the typical tourist venue in Seville. As soon as people started lighting up cigarettes, it instantly reminded me of a VFW hall in America…badly lit and smokey, full of middle-aged men and women, with almost no one under 30. Most were somewhat dressed up, with women in dresses and scarves and men in blazers.

The show was scheduled to start at 10pm, but didn’t get going until at least 10:30. Before anyone came out to perform, the emcee spoke for a few minutes about how great peñas were for learning about flamenco and then gave a lesson on what we would be experiencing that night, but he was speaking much too fast for me to understand any of the lesson.

The guitarist came out first to play by himself, and then he was joined about 5 minutes later by the main singer. After a few more minutes the two ‘backup singers’ came out, and the first set ended with the first backup singer doing a song & dance number that was a real crowd pleaser. Apparently some of his friends were in the audience (obviously all aspiring flamenco artists themselves) a few rows behind us and were quite vocal. They disappeared after the first intermission. I don’t know if they were asked to leave because they were being disruptive, or if they left on their own.
Itálica
After what seemed like a really short first set...less than 20 minutes, it was time for intermission. About 10 or 15 minutes into the intermission, they rounded everyone up as if the show was about to start. But then there was another delay because the guitarist hadn't finished eating backstage. The emcee apologized for the delay, and the crowd was very understanding. Soon the guitarist came out, licking his chops and drinking from the one glass they had all been sharing onstage during the first set. They played another 15-20 minute set and then left the stage, returning a few minutes later for a 10 minute encore.

There had been no flashy costumes or colored lights, but the performers were clearly very talented musicians who were thoroughly enjoying their little ‘jam session’. During each set, the main singer was the only one with the foresight to bring a fresh drink with him onstage, but within a few minutes it was being passed around to quench the thirst of all four performers. During intermissions, the performers would all smoke like crazy, just before getting up on stage to do some of the most vocally demanding songs.
Itálica
I couldn't help feeling like I was crashing a party at someone's house. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and there were almost no foreigners in the room. As the night went on, everyone got drunker and more jovial. It was the most friendly and cheerful gathering of Spaniards I encountered during my entire trip to Spain, which is saying a lot because Spaniards are very friendly and cheerful. I'm sure if I had come to this place alone, with at least one more week of Spanish classes under my belt, I would have been welcomed right into their conversations.

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06 January 2006

Holiday for my brain

MeIt was such a relief to wake up on the Friday morning of my first week in Spain, knowing I was about to get a 3-day break from all things Spanish. I wasn't ready to leave Spain for good, mind you. But my first week had been so intense I thought my head might explode...

One of the greatest things about being in this part of the world is that there are so many different countries you can visit, just for a weekend getaway. My non-stop round-trip flight from Seville to London was barely over USD $100 and took less than two and a half hours to get there.

LondonLondon has some of the greatest shopping in the world, especially for men. In the US, particularly in St. Louis, there is very little supply or demand for stylish designer men's clothing. So my husband, Chris, was thrilled to visit Selfridges for the first time and find a men's department that contained about 5 city blocks worth of clothes from his favorite designers. In the end, he found the perfect velvet blazer at the Zegna store, and I found all sorts of things at TopShop, Selfridges, and Zara. We both decided that it would be worth a trip to London at least once every year or two...just for the shopping. But maybe next time we would try to avoid the chaos of Christmas shopping season.
London
As is typical whenever Chris and I travel together, the only priority other than shopping was eating. London is known for its Chinese and Indian food, so that was a given. And of course we couldn't leave England without tasting some genuine sticky toffee pudding. At first, Chris had in his head that he needed to find fish & chips, wrapped in yesterday’s news...like in the Elvis Costello song. But later he realized that eating an old newspaper full of deep fried food didn't actually sound all that great.

On Friday--Indian food night--we were planning to go to this great little place called Chowki, where I had been a couple of times and knew would be great. But in my still exhausted state, I convinced Chris to go to an Indian restaurant just down the street from the hotel. It was decent, but nothing too memorable.
London Underground
Saturday we slept in and then headed to the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square. We managed to get great seats for a delightful one-man show called 'I am my own wife'. In addition to the rare treat of seeing a great show in an amazing old theatre, I was able to share with Chris my very favorite thing about London theatre--Londonice cream treats during intermission! There is something about seeing a bunch of respectable adults, in their suits and ties and eveningwear, munching on sundae cones and ice cream cups in the middle of an elegant, centuries-old old theatre that makes me all warm and cheery inside.

After the show, we decided to find some Italian food for dinner, and stumbled across a cute little place with fresh seafood and pasta…but no sticky toffee pudding. We had assumed this is what English folk had for dessert every day and were astonished that we still hadn’t found any. So after dinner, we set off in search of this elusive dessert.

We scanned menu after menu, posted outside restaurant after Southwark Cathedralrestaurant. Many had some sort of toffee or pudding…but no sticky toffee pudding. Finally, as most restaurants were closing for the night, we found one that was still open and had exactly what we were looking for. We sat for more than an hour, at a small table by the window, near a warm fire, sipping Armagnac and savoring the sweet, gooey taste of victory.
Southwark Cathedral
Sunday morning, after we checked out of the hotel, we decided we should probably do some sightseeing before we left town, especially since Chris had never been to London before. We knew that anyone who might ask us about the trip would be asking us what we saw, so off we went to see some stuff. We walked across the London Bridge, to the Southwark Cathedral. It was a beautiful little church, and we got there in time to hear the choir practicing for the mid-morning service. We walked around the city a while, and eventually made our way back across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral. London really is a beautiful city, especially the view from the south bank, looking out across the River Thames.

It was almost noon, so we headed to Leicester Square to meet some friends for lunch Me on the Millineum Bridgein London’s Chinatown. The food was delicious, especially the crispy duck. In America, Chinese food is probably the cheapest food you can buy; in London, it was about 4 times as expensive. They don’t call London the most expensive city in the world for nothing. But as with most things in life…you get what you pay for.

An amazing thing began to happen during my completely English weekend. I started My friends, Chris & Fiona, and me in Londonthinking in Spanish! By Sunday, at least half of the silent conversations in my head were in Spanish. I was spontaneously narrating to myself the things we were doing, what we were seeing, and how I was feeling. My Spanish wasn’t perfect by any means, and I had to look up quite a few words in my Spanish dictionary. But I couldn’t wait to tell my stories out loud, to someone who actually spoke Spanish. It was going to be much harder to tell the stories the next day in class, since by then everything would have become past tense. But I was determined to do my best.

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05 January 2006

In over my head

Although I left St. Louis with about a month remaining in my beginner Spanish class, I was determined not to be placed into the absolute beginner course at the CLIC language school. In spite of my severely limited vocabulary and even more limited knowledge of verb conjugations, I knew that it would be wasting precious time if I had to learn the Spanish alphabet all over again. Anyway, it wouldn't be the first time I had ever skipped a prerequisite...

TamiThe first day of class, I had to take a placement test. I admitted to the evaluator that I hadn't studied any past tense (which was a requirement), but I begged her to put me into the pre-intermediate course anyway.

I should have been more careful what I wished for.

The morning went by easily enough, with walking tours around school & around town. Then I went to my first conversation class. It was a disaster. There were two women who were on their third week of language holiday...one of whom was a German and French teacher from Switzerland who spoke 5 languages. There were also two British women new to the class this week, but they had each been living in Spain for more than a year.

Lost and intimidated doesn't even begin to describe how I was feeling for the next two hours. I understood about 20-30% of the conversation, even when people spoke slowly and repeated themselves often. It seemed like everyone else in the room understood at least three times more than me. It was at that point I significantly lowered my expectations for the language holiday. I went from hoping to become conversational by the time I left Spain, to hoping to survive without any permanent damage to my psyche.

Plaza Nueva near CLIC After class, I was completely exhausted, but my cupboards were bare and I needed to go to the supermarket. I made the mistake of buying too many things in glass jars and bottles, and though most of it fit into my backpack, my back & shoulders were still aching from the 4600 mile (7500 km) journey the day before. To make matters worse, a few wrong turns in my neighborhood turned a 15 minute walk into about 45, but finally I made it home. I barely managed to put away groceries and eat a jamon sandwich before collapsing onto the sofa for a much-needed siesta.

By the time my husband, Chris, arrived in Sevilla on Wednesday of the first week, I had struggled through 6 hours of conversation class, 4 hours of grammar (conducted entirely in Spanish), and countless headaches. But it didn't feel like I was making any progress. I was really looking forward to skipping classes on Friday and heading to London for a weekend holiday away from my holiday.

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04 January 2006

The apartment in Seville

Nearly 12 hours after I left Saint Louis, I arrived in Madrid. I had about two hours to pick up my luggage and get to the Atocha train station to catch the AVE train to Seville. Another two and a half hours after that, I would be "home".
The neighborhood
I started to get a little nervous when I couldn't get my Spanish cell phone to work. I needed to call my landlady to get the keys to my new apartment. I was able to call her from a payphone, and I managed to muddle through my first Spanish conversation. I didn't understand what she was saying, but all I really needed to tell her was that I had arrived in Sevilla and would be there soon...

The same agent who had booked my Spanish classes had also found me this apartment. When she emailed me pictures a few weeks before the trip and asked me if I would like to take the apartment, I mistakenly thought she was giving me a choice. But when I asked her if there were any other options, she made it very clear that the choice was to take this apartment, or find one on my own. So I took it. It turned out to be a really great apartment, especially when I compared notes with other students at CLIC.

The neighborhood
The taxi dropped me off at the beginning of my street, and I walked up and down a couple of times searching for building #9. Finally, I heard a woman calling out from a second floor terrace, asking if I was looking for #9. It turned out to be my landlady, María. She let me in & gave me a tour of the apartment, and told me what I'm sure were many useful tips and instructions in Spanish. The only thing I understood for sure was that electricity was very expensive and I should always turn the lights off when I leave a room. She must have felt very strongly about this, since she repeated it (and demonstrated it) at least 5 times during the short tour.
The neighborhood
The apartment was stocked with nearly all of the essentials...with the exception of toilet paper. There was only one roll, and it was nearly empty when I arrived. It didn't seem like a major problem until I realized that all of the stores were closed on Sunday, and there was no place to buy any. So I had no choice but to steal some from a public restroom nearby.

The shower in the apartment had great water pressure, and about 6-8 minutes of hot water. My first shower after the long journey ended quickly and frigidly, but after a few days I figured out how to stretch the hot water supply enough to survive. I would turn the water on & off repeatedly during the shower, and would give up some water pressure to stretch it even further. It seemed like a hassle, and it got a bit cold when the water was off. However, later I learned that everyone in Europe knows this trick, and it's only us wasteful Americans who would ever dream of standing under a hot shower at full blast while we're soaping up or putting shampoo in our hair.

The neighborhood The only other small problem I had with the apartment was the morning I got trapped inside the building. My husband, Chris, had come to visit for a week and I only had one set of keys. There were 3 keys--one to get into the building, one to get past the entry hall, and a third to get into the apartment. So I left him the keys and headed for school, assuming I could buzz myself out through all of the locks. However, after I made it into the entry hall and shut the gate behind me, I realized that the front door was locked in some way that the buzzer wouldn't unlock it. So I couldn't get out, and I couldn't get back to the apartment. The intercom was outside the front door, so I couldn't call up to the apartment. After about a minute of trying to figure out what to do, I started yelling up to Chris, hoping he would hear me from the apartment, where he was still in bed. After about 5-8 minutes of yelling, progressively louder and more desperate, he finally heard me and came down to release me from my cell.

It was the second time I had been trapped inside a building in Spain, counting the time I got trapped in the public restroom at the train station (see Why Spain?). I guess in spite of all the economic development in Spain over the past few years, they haven't gotten around to enforcing fire codes.

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