Operation Hibernation 2011

It seems that, for us, there was a very distinct moment when summer ended and fall began. That moment was when we returned from the heat of Chicago in August and flew back to Spain. When I landed in Santiago, I could feel that the air was cooler and fresher, and it’s stayed that way ever since.

We feel like we’re preparing for hibernation. Right now the weather is gorgeous. Sometimes it’s cloudy, but it usually brightens up in the afternoons and the skies are clear and blue. The temperature is perfect – not too hot, not too cold, perfect for boots and a light sweater, and there is the smell of burning leaves in the air.

But it’s noticeably darker in the mornings, and pretty soon it will be dark almost all the time. Soon it will be cold, windy, and rainy all at the same time, and nothing will dry on the clotheslines and I will have to glue myself to the radiator to stay warm. It will rain down and up and sideways and diagonally and walking in it will feel so much colder than being in snow in Chicago. So we are preparing.

Isaac’s parents’ farm is overflowing with apples and pumpkins and there are still some straggling peppers and zucchinis that haven’t gotten the hint yet, so we’ve been scrambling to save as much of fall’s bounty as possible.

In past weeks, we’ve picked apples, chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, and pumpkins. I’ve made homemade apple sauce, apple butter, pumpkin puree, pumpkin cupcakes,  and apple cinnamon air fresheners, and stuck everything in the freezer so we’ll have it all winter. I actually made a list of my favorite fall recipes, and am slowly making my way through beer breads, lentils, soups, chili, spice cakes, cider, and anything that’s warm, comforting, and involves cinnamon.

We’ve also been making lists of movies to watch and we both have a large stack of books waiting to be read. I’ve been eyeing a beautiful pair of boots that come with a thick knit sock in them (I am NOT a shoe lover at all, but for some reason I cannot resist boots), and I brought back several thick sweaters from the States that I can’t wait to wear (when the time is right).

We’re also taking advantage of this too-short season to take some trips we’ve had planned for a while. We want to visit the Cañones de Sil and are planning a road trip through Asturias and Cantabria (northern Spain). I’ll definitely post photos when we do!

In my fantasy, we would live in an old stone house and we’d have a huge hearth where we could build cozy fall fires and boil big cauldrons (not just pots!) of soup for the colder weather ahead. I guess I’ll have to settle with curling up on the couch with the cat and a blanket and a book and a cup of homemade apple cider. Maybe winter won’t be so bad after all.

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Sunday, the Galician way

Sunday was a very Galician day.

We ventured into rural -and I mean really rural- Ourense to visit Pablo’s father’s house. It’s only an hour away from Santiago by car, but it feels like another world. The village his parents live in, if you could even call it such, has exactly three houses – numbers 1, 2, and 3. The road is used more often by cows and pigs than by cars. It’s quiet in a way that few places today can be. This is the house Pablo’s father was born in, and the house he grew up in. Until fairly recently, it had a wood-burning stove (not like a cute little stove that warms a room – no, the actual cooking stove was heated with wood) and still has no other heat source. Of course, when Pablo’s father was young, the house was heated by the animals that lived in the stables on the ground floor. There is still a little trapdoor where his mother threw scraps down to the cows and pigs. The rooms are small and bare and the floor creaks and bends with each step. I loved it.

The house seemed like a step back in time, like the kind of place you visit on a historical tour or that you see pictures of in books, but that no one actually lives in anymore. And here was this house, full of life, sheltering new generations the way it had sheltered those who are long gone, without having changed too much in the process.

Places like this are dying; this tiny village of three houses will probably become abandoned ruins as older children grow up, move away, make their lives in the big cities where they have easy access to shops and schools and cell phone towers. When the older owners who have lived here forever eventually pass on, who will be left to take care of the land?

But it was exactly what I’ve dreamed of – old, made of wood and stone, peaceful, quiet, with a huge garden, and more importantly, a history. I would love to have a house like that.

After a huge family lunch of churrasco (pork ribs), criollo (sausage), empanada, and langostinos (prawns), plus coffee, dessert, and plenty of liquor, we took a walk in the misty, foggy afternoon, and visited Xandre’s father’s house just down the road. His house was very similar and had the same old stove, which was placed traditionally in the middle of the kitchen with a long bench on one side. It’s where people would sit to eat and especially to warm themselves in the cold bitter winters. How convenient to have your stove and table in one? We went out into the garden to collect walnuts, hazelnuts, and apples, and I made plans for batches of autumn applesauce.

Before heading home, we stopped in Cea, a town whose motto is Onde o pan e arte (where bread is art). The town is famous for its bread, which aside from being delicious, is said to (naturally) last forever without getting stale. We realized that all the fornos (ovens/bakeries) in this town are actually people’s houses, and the people live right next to their huge wood-burning bread ovens. We stopped at a tiny bakery but it was closed, and we were turning around when an older gentleman opened the door and asked us what we needed. We told him we wanted to buy some bread and he invited us into his living room (next to his giant commercial mixer and enormous bread paddle) and brought out the last loaf of the day. We could still feel the warmth from the ovens.

We headed back out into the gray rainy evening, feeling the warmth of the loaf under our arms, and the satisfaction of a simple day spent the old-fashioned way.

Sweet Home Chicago

I haven’t written here in a while because we just got back from spending two weeks in the States. I wouldn’t exactly call it a vacation because we did a lot of running around, but we managed to visit everybody and still have time to do some exploring of our own. Among other things, we saw animals at Brookfield Zoo, walked around Lake Geneva, ate funnel cakes and saw livestock shows at the Walworth County Fair, had a picnic in the park, stood on the Ledge of the Sears Tower, rode the Navy Pier ferris wheel, ate lunch at Ed Debevic’s, saw a jazz concert in Millennium Park, roamed around giant bookstores (where we did our best not to spend all of our money), and even attended an American wedding (Isaac’s first!).

And then there was the eating. When Isaac is visiting I try to strike a balance between big-city and small-town Midwest, between eating good things and getting Isaac to try the foods America is famous for. This time, the American food won out. Isaac tried his first funnel cake, corn dog, and Cherry Coke, and we ate our share of hamburgers and ice cream. We also had corn on the cob and I ate as many berries as I could possibly stuff in my face at one time.

It’s funny how it’s always the food I miss the most. I mean, yeah of course I miss my family, friends, yada yada yada, but really – I miss the berries.

Spaniards don’t have berries. Well, they have strawberries. And that’s where the berries end. There are no blueberries. No raspberries. No blackberries (as a matter of fact, there ARE blackberries -tons of them- but for some reason the Spaniards view them more as a plague than the most delicious thing they will ever eat. I just don’t get it). No cranberries. In fact, they even use the same word for blueberries and cranberries (arándanos) – two berries that couldn’t be more different. And there’s nothing more painful than seeing berry pies and compotes and cobblers crop up in magazines and online in early summer and knowing you just can’t have any.

And the corn on the cob. Oh, here we have corn, but it’s just not the kind fit for humans I guess, because they never sell it. Sure, you can buy Green Giant corn in cans, but really – corn in cans? No thank you. Fresh corn on the cob slightly grilled and covered in butter and salt? Yes please! It’s just one of those things I expect to eat when July and August roll around, and find it disheartening not to see giant bins of green leafy cobs overflowing in the supermarkets all through summer.

And cheddar cheese. Yellow cheddar cheese. We have Irish white cheddar, which -don’t get me wrong- is fantastic. But when I want a juicy 4th-of-July burger (with my grilled corn on the cob and berry pie, of course), it’s just got to be sharp cheddar. Yellow sharp cheddar. Oh if only there were a way to ship massive amounts of perishable items overseas….

None of these things was my favorite food, and I never gave them much thought until I realized I couldn’t get them. Now I lament their absence and wait impatiently for my next visit home – um, to visit my family and friends, of course.