Why I love IKEA

IKEA is my friend. IKEA and I have been together for several years now. IKEA helped me redecorate my room at my mom’s house. IKEA helped me redecorate my apartment with Isaac. IKEA is cheap, and everywhere. I think we cried tears of joy the day the catalog showed up here on our doorstep advertising the grand opening of a new store a mere hour away. I think IKEA does a great job of creating basic furniture that’s insanely easy to personalize to your desires. No, it’s probably not the furniture I’d have in the house of my dreams. No, it’s not antique, and no, it might not last forever, but it’s the only place I can find a decently priced white countertop measuring exactly 60x120cm with two skinny adjustable legs that will fit in the tiny space between our tiny stove and tiny fridge, where before there was a gaping hole. But the reasons I love IKEA go way beyond furniture:

I think IKEA really knows how to do the big-box store thing. They know it’s going to be a giant pain in the butt no matter what, and I think they try to make it as easy as possible. They put all the information for you right at the front, with little pencils and catalogs and bags and tape measures, because they know you’re an idiot who left all that important stuff at home sitting on the kitchen counter.

And they feed you. Obviously, this is very important to me. I hate shopping in general and, like a parking meter, have about a two-hour time limit before I run out. I need to be recharged with cookies and coffee, or in this case, ice cream and hot dogs. I don’t think Isaac and I have made it through a single IKEA trip without a snack. The last time we went, we had planned on eating dinner somewhere in the large mall where the store was located, until we realized that we hadn’t brought any money, just credit cards (all the cash was probably on the kitchen counter with the pencils and the tape measure). We roamed around for a while until we realized that IKEA was the only place where two of us could eat something with the collective 4€ we had in our pockets. Seriously, for 4€, we each had a hot dog, beverage, and ice cream, which leads me to the other thing I love about IKEA:

The crunchy onions on the hot dogs. Seriously. I tried them for the first timeat a hot dog stand in Berlin and it’s been my favorite hot dog topping ever since. It must be a Scandinavian thing, because unfortunately, I never see it anywhere else. Luckily, I imagine they’re pretty simple to make – just like onion rings, but with the onion finely diced instead.

But I’m not writing this as a promotion for IKEA or anything. Actually, it’s so I can complain about my least favorite store – Hipercor. The last time we went to this place we had such a bad time that we actually coined a new term for the effect of shopping there – hipercrisis.

Hipercor is a regular department store like any other, part of the great Spanish department store chain El Corte Inglés, but while IKEA and Hipercor are similar in size, the shopping experiences are polar opposites.

When you walk into Hipercor, you are immediately bombarded by two things: insanely loud music and very high heat. Any and every appliance that makes noise is turned on and every single one is tuned to a different channel. Plus there’s the overhead system of music, which I believe changes every two aisles, so there’s this general cacophony in the background that you might not actually even notice until you wonder what’s caused your raging headache. It’s called noise pollution.

And the temperature is always set very high, so you start to feel weighed down and listless and uncomfortable the longer you spend in the store. This is especially true in winter when you enter with a coat or heavy sweater on.

And while Hipercor sells a variety of electronics and appliances, there is NOBODY in the store who knows anything about them. Don’t bother asking. They have no idea. Actually, good luck even finding somebody to ask in the first place. There is nothing more frustrating to me than a store full of products its salespeople know nothing about. This makes looking for any kind of specialty item practically impossible, especially because stores in Spain are not nearly as forgiving as American ones when it comes to returns and exchanges when you realize you’ve bought the wrong thing. (IKEA, on the other hand, will give you 120 days to return most products! 120 days! Which is as long as it’ll take you to figure out the instructions, but I like knowing I don’t have to rush back next week because the curtain rod I bought was 120 cm instead of 110.)

But the worst thing about Hipercor is the fact that they sell the exact same product at two different prices. They basically have the Corte Inglés floor (which is like shopping at Marshall Field’s), and then right above it, the Hipercor floor (which is like shopping at Target). And they sell the exact same products at drastically different prices. The hand mixer I bought cost 88€ on Floor 1, and 65€ on Floor 2. The exact same mixer. Our water purifying pitcher cost 36€ on Floor 1, an 25€ on Floor 2. Shouldn’t this somehow be illegal?

So why even shop there, you ask? Well, because I’m American, and because Hipercor is so big, it has the largest variety, and unfortunately it’s the only place in Santiago that I can get yellow cheddar cheese!, and bagels!, and cranberries!, oh my! It’s a hassle, but it’s worth it for really delicious macaroni and cheese. I have priorities, people.

Anyway, the point is, there are too many stores (unfortunately, Hipercor is not alone in their crimes) that make shopping a complete nightmare and could learn a few things from IKEA. Thank you IKEA, oh and by the way, we just love our new curtains!

The Truth Nobody Tells You About Intercultural Relationships

There are so many conflicts that can arise between two people of different cultures, especially when they’re in a romatic relationship. Religion, politics, the importance of family, children…the list goes on and on. You expect that kind of thing, at least to some degree, when you enter into a relationship with someone from a different country or background.

But the biggest disagreement Isaac and I have had yet concerns a very serious and potentially dealbreaking topic: how to order pizza.

Our neighborhood pizzeria offers this deal where you can get two pizzas for the price of one. Which is great, right? Except we don’t need two pizzas. We are only two people, and when we order pizza, which is inevitably at 10pm on a weeknight, we aren’t really in the mood to eat that much. Lunchtime is the main affair in Spain and that’s when we cook our big meals. Dinner is meant to be simple, and more a way of staving off starvation until morning rather than filling one’s belly.

Anyway, the point is, whenever we order two pizzas, we either end up with leftovers, which nobody ever eats (I am just not a second-day pizza person), or we stuff ourselves silly in an effort to clean out our pizza boxes and can’t move for the rest of the night.

So the last time we felt like ordering pizza, I told Isaac I thought we should just order one. “But it’s free,” he said. “Yeah, I know,” I said, “but just because we can order two pizzas doesn’t mean we should.”

 

“But…it’s free“, he said.

 

And this became such a deep discussion that we ended up talking about it with our friends the next day (whose opinions were also divided), because it’s really about a difference in perspective (by the way, I don’t really think it’s a cultural thing – I know a lot of Americans who would hate to “give up” something that was offered to them for free), and how, strangely, when something is offered free of charge, we feel perhaps more obligated to take it than we would if we were paying for it, even if we know it’s not something we want or need. Which is a little bit backwards, isn’t it?

It reminds me of a book I read a while back and have recommended to others on various occasions, called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. Basically he says that we have a problem when we view not choosing something as losing something. In other words, when Isaac and I order pizza, we are already planning on paying for one pizza. But refusing a second, free pizza, which I see as simply “not adding more quantity to our order”, Isaac sees as “missing out or losing something we had”.

Anyway, the book is fascinating, although not nearly as fascinating as the twenty-minute conversation Isaac and I have every time we want to order pizza, which was only exacerbated by the fact that the last time we called them to order and told them we didn’t want the free extra pizza, the pizza guy’s incredulity was palpable even over the phone, and he asked Isaac several more times if he was absolutely sure he didn’t want another one, as if there must have been some sort of error.

We ate just the one pizza, and later I asked Isaac if he was still hungry, and though he bedgrudingly admitted that two pizzas would have been a lot, he still had a wistful look in his eyes, imagining his faraway second pizza, waiting for him there the next time we order. Because trying it my way once was okay, but not ordering a second pizza every time? Well that would just be crazy.

Picos de Europa, Part 2 (Covadonga)

There was so much to say about this trip that I decided to split it into two parts. The first post covers our visit to Santander and our hike on the Ruta de Cares, which were both astoundingly beautiful, and I really thought I’d seen it all. But then we went to Covadonga.

We woke up sore and tired in Arenas de Cabrales, but the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and we still had a day of vacation left to spend. We had breakfast in a sun-filled café in our little town, and then we left in search of -literally- greener pastures.

On the road we stopped to take pictures of the views that caught our eye (including the famous Naranjo de Bulnes, so named for its orange hue, which you cannot see in the second picture):

We were on our way to Covadonga Lakes, a place I’d heard about from Jill and various other friends, and even her faded photo, taken years ago, was so beautiful that I decided then and there that we should visit Covadonga as soon as possible. And it just happened to be on our way – if by “on our way” you mean 11 kilometers out of our way, up steep hills, past clouds, winding along treacherous mountainsides for the better part of an hour. But it was so worth it.

Continue reading

Picos de Europa, Part 1 (Santander and the Ruta de Cares)

So, I left you guys for a couple weeks with those photos of the beautiful Cañones del Sil, which you probably think are one of the most beautiful places in Spain – and you’d be right.

But then I went to the Picos de Europa. You see, we had a good stretch there in October that was just perfect fall weather – not too hot, not too cold, clear blue skies, just a light breeze, and a warm sun, and people, these kinds of days do not happen all that often here in rainy ol’ Galicia. So we had to take advantage of it….oh, and there was also a five-day holiday. That about sealed the deal.

So we packed up the car and drove the six hours to Santander, where we spent the night with our lovely friends Nico and Anabel, who made us a ridiculous breakfast and then forced us to work it off with a lengthy bike tour of Santander’s beaches and hills (oh, woe is me!).

Of course, Santander was gorgeous and the drive was beautiful (northern Spain, unlike central Spain, is just breathtakingly beautiful and lots of fun to drive through), but the best was yet to come. Though we’d already passed through green, mountainous Asturias on our way to Cantabria (similar to Galicia and famous for its happy cows and excellent fabada), we left Santander and headed back west into the mountains, passing though deep valleys as the mountains began to rise ever higher around us. Rolling, undulating waves of dark green pine and eucalyptus hills gave way to steep rocky cliffs and dark valleys. The walls of stone began to close in around us, and soon it was clear that the tiny road we were driving along was actually carved out of the rock, and should we careen off the road, we would surely plummet to an unfortunate fate at the bottom of a deep ravine. We went further into the hills, away from the main highway, away from the towns and fields that dotted the land up until now, until it was just us and the rock, and the trees, and the road.

Then, suddenly, the towns appeared again, little clusters of houses and bars and cheese shops nestled secretly into the hollows of the mountains. We followed the path past all of them until we came to the end, to a place called Arenas de Cabrales. This tiny tourist town appeared out of nowhere, carved perfectly out of a valley, with a picturesque mountain backdrop rising behind it.

Continue reading