Merry Christmas! Wait…what? It’s February?

Oh boy. February 2nd. Probably should get around to talking about Christmas, right?

I started this entry several times, and then scrapped them, each time, because the entry seemed too nostalgic, or too bitter, or too controversial, or just too plain boring. Isaac and I went to the States for Christmas. It’s one of my favorite times of year but it’s also a hard time. Hard to be away from family, sometimes hard to be with them. Anyway, things happened over Christmas that one day I will tell you all, but for now I decided it’s best not to. Let’s just say it involved a run-in with immigration police. Suddenly the Discovery Channel show “Border Security” hits a little too close to home (not to mention “Locked Up Abroad”).

Anyway, this blog sometimes is like a straw in a thick milkshake. You know, where things are going along smoothly and suddenly everything gets blocked up by my need to write things in chronological order, and even though I have tons of ideas and things I want to talk about, I couldn’t talk about them until I talked about Christmas. And I couldn’t talk about Christmas, and then before you know it it’s February and the last thing I talked about was Thanksgiving. There you have it, folks.

So let’s not talk about Christmas. Let’s talk about how Isaac and I are famous! Yes. I probably didn’t tell you this story when it happened because it was just so ridiculous. Just a week or two after I moved here, we were taking a lovely stroll around town, when we passed this group of college students (actually, they looked more like hippies, but you know what I mean), who were filming something. They stopped us and asked us to help them out with their video. We asked them what we’d have to do, and they said something along the lines of “Oh, you just have to climb in our dark scary van with strangers while we film it…”<shifty looks> So of course we said yes. Now, I preface this by saying that even though everybody’s mother (including mine) taught them not to get into cars with strangers (who by the way, weren’t even offering candy), it just didn’t seem like a bad idea. I mean, they were hippies.

To make a long story short, we got in their van, and they filmed it, and then (mercifully) they let us out again and told us to look up the video in a few weeks’ time. That was about a year ago. We’ve thought about it every once in a while since then, usually fondly recalling “that time we got in that random van with total strangers just because they asked us to”, but we never actually got around to looking up the video. Until about a week ago. I don’t remember what jogged our memories, but sure enough, there it was on YouTube, an ad for sailing in Galicia, with a whopping 410 views.

For your viewing pleasure, Isaac’s and my 0:02 minutes of fame (look for us between 0:42 and 0:50). Don’t blink or you’ll miss it!

 

 

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A Galician Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving wasn’t always my favorite holiday. I never liked any of the traditional foods served on Thanksgiving, like stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes. What does that leave – turkey? And our Thanksgivings always involved an arduous eight-hour journey across the entire state of Illinois (where there was inevitably traffic), the entire state of Iowa (where there was inevitably a snowstorm), until we crossed into Nebraska late at night, exhausted and stiff. Then there was the huge family. I was a shy kid and since we spent Thanksgiving at a place called Boys’ Town, there were always tons of people, some of which were new faces every year. It made for a very lively meal, but it didn’t always feel like the intimate family affair that makes Thanksgiving so special.

Anyways, I’ve come to appreciate it much more in the years since I’ve had to spend Thanksgiving abroad. No matter where you go, you can usually find someone who celebrates Christmas, or the New Year on January 1, and even Halloween is gaining popularity in places where Halloween was never celebrated before. But Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and though most Spaniards know it from movies, no one really understands all that Thanksgiving entails.

It’s one of the hardest holidays for expats to spend abroad, especially given that most of the fixings – like cranberries, pecans, sugar pumpkins, thin green beans, even turkey – are almost impossible to find here. But that doesn’t stop most Americans from celebrating anyway, and it definitely wasn’t going to stop me.

When I hosted my very first Thanksgiving dinner abroad in 2005, I didn’t make a whole turkey, but managed to put together a pretty decent meal on short notice. This year, I planned ahead. I wanted to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for Isaac’s family. I ordered a fresh turkey from the market, stockpiled butternut squashes, sweet potatoes, and apples, and had finally come to terms with the fact that there would be no cranberries when my new friend Amy showed up from a recent trip to the States with a bag of Ocean Spray fresh cranberries, and I almost cried with joy. I may have proposed to her. And her husband. And then I made fresh cranberry pie.

On Thursday morning I got up early to head to the market and pick up my 15-pound turkey, freshly defeathered. I went to the spice stand to get juniper berries and peppercorns, and picked up bushels of apples from my customary fruit stand. The rest came from Isaac’s parents’ garden.

On Friday, I spent the afternoon baking pies. Since I couldn’t decide which flavor to make, I just made them all – pumpkin pie (actually butternut squash and sweet potato pie), apple pie, cranberry tart, and even a chocolate-chestnut cake, since I wanted to use up the rest of the chestnuts Isaac’s sister had brought us from Pablo’s father’s house.

On Saturday morning, we packed everything (and I mean everything) into the car and made the 1.5-hour drive to Isaac’s parents’ farm. Though the original house is old, they’ve recently remodeled the kitchen and had a brand new oven (with temperatures!) waiting to be used, and -more importantly on this occasion- a dishwasher.

All morning I cut, roasted, boiled, peeled, mixed, pureed, sliced, sauteed, and cooked away, until we sat down a few hours later to a beautifully roasted turkey, au gratin potatoes (I hate mashed potatoes and besides, Galicians make potato puree so it isn’t a very novel food), pureéd butternut squash (since Isaac wouldn’t let me make a casserole with marshmallows), wild rice with mushrooms, bacon, and turnip greens, a salad with dried cranberries, walnuts, and apples, cranberry sauce with orange, gravy, and applesauce.

As is Thanksgiving tradition, we stuffed ourselves silly. The turkey was incredibly juicy and tender, and, though dubious at first, the Spaniards loved the combination of cranberry sauce on turkey. The tiny jar of jam I’d used to make the sauce was quickly gone and I regretted not having another on hand for leftovers. Americans definitely have their odd traditions, but there are some things we do right!

When we thought we couldn’t eat any more, we took a short break as we chatted and finished off the rest of the wine. And then we made coffee and I brought out the pies.

I swear I could not have asked for these pies to turn out better than they did. I practically shed tears of joy when I tasted the pumpkin pie, which, actually being a butternut squash/sweet potato pie, I wasn’t sure would truly taste like pumpkin. I promise you, it was like tasting America itself, or childhood, or whatever it is that pumpkin pie makes you think of. It was familiar, and comforting, and most importantly – absolutely delicious.

Surprisingly, the cranberry pie was the most popular. Xandre said it tasted like marzipan, which, though I’m not particularly a fan of marzipan, I assumed was a good thing. I made sure to have at least one slice of each, and even when my pants warned me that one more piece would surely be overload, I gazed longingly at the pumpkin pie that tasted like Christmas morning. Then I wrapped it up and took it home and ate the rest sitting on the couch. Delicious.

Later, I sat in the warmth of the kitchen with the oven still cooling down, feeling happy and sleepy with a full stomach and quite a bit of cava, and generally very pleased with myself. Sure, it wasn’t the most traditional Thanksgiving, and I was thousands of miles away from my family, but I had another family who were willing to be part of this odd American celebration, and let me use their brand-new stove, and (against their better judgment) try the crazy combination of cranberry and turkey, and put up with me talking about how the next step was buying our live Christmas tree and putting up lights and singing Christmas carols. For that, I am thankful.

 

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Note: In case you’re curious, which you’re probably not, here’s what we did with the leftovers: the first day we made delicious sandwiches with turkey, lettuce, swiss cheese, raspberry jam, and Dijon mustard. Then we made Thanksgiving salads with leftover leaf lettuce, shredded turkey, dried cranberries, chopped walnuts, and shredded carrot, but you could add whatever else you’ve got waiting to be used up in the fridge. The third day we made a turkey risotto, and the fourth day I made a turkey stock/soup with the rest of the carcass and meat (and even Cleo got some leftovers), but if I was smarter I would have done it the other way around and used the stock to flavor the risotto instead of chicken broth. Oh well, next time. That is, if they ever let me cook a turkey again!

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.

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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.

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Los Cañones del Sil

Last weekend, we took a boat trip to the Cañones del Sil.

We drove a few hours, wound our way up and down mountains, and finally came upon this little dock on the river where we boarded a catamarán.

The view of the canyons from the river is absolutely beautiful, and since this is one of the few areas of Galicia that has a lot of deciduous trees, you can even see a little bit of fall color creeping in.

Besides the beauty of the canyons themselves, one of the most astounding things we saw were the many viñas (vineyards) scored into the mountains, with what seems like a very steep incline and little room for error.

We were lucky to have chosen a beautiful day for the tour, and since we were far away from home, we decided to make a day of exploring rural Oursense. After the boat tour, we headed into the mountains for lunch, and then visited the old monastery of Santo Estevo (of course, in the middle of nowhere) that is now a Parador, or national historic hotel.

Not a bad view, huh? Although I’m sure getting here on foot years ago was no easy task, the monastery received visitors from all over because its miraculous curing powers was known far and wide. Unfortunately, when the Spanish government began to reclaim some of the extensive landholdings of the Catholic church, this monastery fell victim and the monks were sent elsewhere. Luckily, it is still in use and you can stay here and enjoy the same beautiful views the monks did.

Aside from enjoying the views, we also enjoyed the monks’ chestnut trees. A sign down a winding path pointed us to an old chestnut grove that was literally bursting with ripe chestnuts. Isaac, always a sucker for a good chestnut, couldn’t believe his good luck. But we hadn’t brought a bag or anything to collect them in! So I tied a scarf I had with me into a bag and we greedily filled it with all the chestnuts we could carry. Don’t worry, there were still thousands more left that made us sad to leave.

After pilfering the monks’ chestnuts, we had to hightail it out of there, so we continued our journey along the winding roads past villages and rural houses with magnificent views of the canyons. Along the way we stopped to take some pictures as the sun was setting.

To give you an idea of the size of these mountains, that white blotch in the water is the same boat we took earlier in the day. It holds sixty people but it looks like a tiny canoe down there.

And of course, no trip through Galicia would be complete without seeing evidence of the camino de Santiago everywhere, in the shape of a tall stone cross that can be seen from afar.

It was a beautiful day to enjoy the best of what Galicia has to offer: nature, architecture, and of course, food!