I realized recently that I haven't really written about Spanish food here on this blog. Weird, considering how important food is to Spanish culture, and how much I like to eat. There is far too much material to cover in just one entry, so I'll start with some basics.
Most importantly: contrary to what I have been asked by many Americans, Spanish food is not spicy. In fact, most Spanish people I know are babies when it comes to spicy food. Put a little black pepper in there and shouts of Me pica!! will resound. Nor does Spanish food include things like burritos, tacos, or fajitas. That is Mexican food. Just because they speak the same language (sort of) doesn't mean their food is even remotely similar. Please think of American food being compared with British food the next time you feel tempted to ask a Spaniard if they prefer chicken or beef tamales with their frijoles.
With that out of the way, here is the rundown on Spanish meals:
First comes breakfast, which is a small, fast meal, often eaten at a bar on the way to work. Most adults have coffee and a few cookies. Yes, cookies. Kids have Colacao, which is a brand of chocolate milk drunk either hot or cold. In the morning kids drink it hot, and cannot imagine having anything else. When we went to London with students my first year here, a kid asked me if they had Colacao in London. I said probably not, but they might have another brand of chocolate milk. He was horrified. "No Colacao?? What do they drink?! I'll have to bring my own!!" Kids will have cookies too, normally, or a piece of toast or cereal.
Mid-morning people usually have a light snack. Kids bring a bocadillo or grinder/sandwich to school to have during their break, which normally consists of bread and some type of cured meat -- details on those later, the cured pork products in this country warrant their own entry -- or nutella. Adults have another coffee, and maybe a pintxo/pincho/tapa -- again, more on these in another entry -- at a nearby bar.
Sometimes, especially on weekends, there is another intermediate meal before lunch. I believe it's normally when you've stayed out late and slept through breakfast time, so people often meet friends at a bar around noon or 1pm for el vermút, literally "the vermouth". Some people drink vermouth, but mostly it's another chance to meet friends and have a little pintxo and a beer before the big lunchtime meal.
The main meal is lunch, which is around 2 or 3pm. In fact, the "morning" lasts until after everyone has eaten. That took a little bit of adjusting to when I first arrived -- to remember that 1pm is still the morning here. Anyway, lunch is always at least two courses, plus dessert and coffee afterwards. If you go out to eat, a common option is a menú del día, or "menu of the day" which is a set menu that most restaurants offer at a fixed price. Every day is different, but you choose from three or four first courses and three or four second courses, with dessert, coffee, bread, and wine or water included. You can spend up to 20euro, but a normal price is between 9 and 15. I'll try to post typical menus I see so you can get an idea of what types of food they offer, but typically the first course is salad/vegetables, soup, or beans/chickpeas/lentils. Most places will have fish, chicken, and red meat options for the second course. Dessert can be cake, flan (custard), etc., but I normally ask for fruit. Which is always available but not too common to order in restaurants, so I am often served an entire orange on a plate, with a knife and fork. Then coffee -- espresso -- which I drink black. Believe me, when you have to go back to work for another four hoursafter such a big meal you need that caffeine boost to get you through the afternoon.
Other (faster) lunch options at restaurants include sandwiches (pronounced SAN-weech-ess), which are always multi-layered and fried on the grill, and can include ham, cheese, a fried egg, white asparagus, lettuce, tomato, tuna, and lots of mayonnaise. Or you can get a plato combinado, combination plate, which will have several options in the style of Chinese lunch specials in the States -- the serving style, not the food style -- like croquettes, salad, hot dogs and french fries, or a grilled chicken breast, salad, mini empanadas and french fries, etc.
At home, most lunches are like the menu of the day, with a few courses. For example, Sunday I had lunch at my choir director's house. We had chicken noodle soup to start, followed by green beans with mushrooms, ham, tomato and garlic. Then as a main course we had oven-roasted chicken thighs with garlic and potatoes. Dessert was fresh strawberries with whipped cream, then coffee, and I think the other adults had a chupito or shot of orujo, a typical Cantabrian liquor that can be flavored with honey, cream, mint, etc. This was a weekend meal, though, so I imagine it was slightly fancier and more time-intensive than a mid-week meal.
Alcohol is typical at the lunchtime meal, but by no means required. It is perfectly normal to order wine or beer with your meal, and wine is included in the menú del día. But be careful -- the wine included in the menú is an entire bottle, so if you're by yourself you will go back to work drunk.
And bread. Bread is a huge part of every lunchtime meal. Most people cannot imagine a meal without bread, even if they're also having rice, pasta, or potatoes. And it's perfectly acceptable -- even expected -- for you to put your bread right on the tablecloth above your knife and spoon, not on a separate bread plate. I used to give class to a five-year-old boy, and the way the schedules worked out I would wait for him to have lunch before we had class. His grandmother was adamant about teaching him table manners, which for her -- and most Spanish people -- included holding a piece of bread in your left hand and using it to scoop food onto your fork, held in your right hand. My grandpa Twig is rolling over in his grave as I write this -- bread on the table at a meal, directly on the table, and being used to mop up food?!
Merienda, or snack time, is around 6 or 7pm, and is something small to hold you over until the very late dinner hour. Merienda can be another bocadillo like the kids bring to school for snack, or some fruit and cookies, or for adults, coffee and a piece of pound cake. It's quite common to meet family or friends on weekends for a merienda, and if the weather's nice people sit outside and snack while the kids run around and play. This meal can often involve alcohol as well.
Dinner is a lighter meal, eaten at 10 or 11pm, just before going to bed. It can include soup, salad, a sandwich, or even the delicious tortilla española, which is often translated as "Spanish omelette," but it's so much more than an omelette. It's a thick, potato-and-onion-filled egg dish, kind of like the Italian fritatta. It's eaten with a big hunk of bread on the side, and can be plain or topped with anything from tomato to tuna salad to ham and cheese.
In general Spanish cooking is very respectful of the ingredients: the meat, fish and vegetables are usually quite fresh and of very good quality, and cooks don't use a lot of fancy spices. It's a running joke among my friends that the only Spanish spices are salt, pepper, garlic, parsley, and paprika. Which is pretty accurate. And pretty delicious.
*Regarding the title of this post. Qué rico! Means "How delicious!" My lovely friend Francesca used to say, in her imitation of the absolute worst American-speaking-Spanish accent, "Que f*ckin rico." And it's all soooo f*kin rico.
start off this series with a doozy. Perhaps the most offensive Spanish
curse is "Me cago en Dios," which means, literally, "I shit on God." To
soften this rather fuerte (shocking) imagery, there are lots of
substitutions for "God". Think that middle-school replacement of saying
"sugar" when you want to say "shit." (Here they say miércoles [Wednesday] when they want to say mierda [shit].) When you want to shit on something other than God, the options include:
Me cago en... I shit in/on...
...la leche ...the milk
...la mar ...the sea
...diez (sounds like Dios, god)...ten
And should you want to make "I shit on God" even more offensive -- didn't think that was possible, didja? -- you can say Me cago en tu puta madre, which means "I shit on your whore mother."
The Spanish love to curse. Here, children as young as four, five, six are saying words that, in English, would make anyone blush and would warrant a rebuke, if not a spanking. Ass, shit, fuck, and even the C-word are ubiquitous, and nowhere near as offensive as in English. Grannies on the street say the C-word when they drop their shopping bags. My eight-year-old students say shit when they make a spelling mistake. Even the most boring, quiet class snaps to attention when the conversation turns to how to curse in English. It's actually pretty interesting to think about how swears have evolved in each language, and how different words are used to convey the same meaning. For example, to call someone a bitch, they don't use the word for female dog as much as they use the word for female fox (zorra). To say "son of a bitch" they say "son of a whore".
Pronunciation is also key here: one of the hardest distinctions for Spanish speakers to make is between dark and light vowels in English. Spanish has the same five vowels as English, but each one has only one sound that it always makes. None of this wind/wind or live/live confusion. I can't count the number of people who have confided to me that they're afraid to talk about going to the beach because they're afraid they're going to say bitch instead. My sophomores last year giggled uncontrollably when I handed out "worksheets" -- that small but oh-so-important difference in vowel sounds made it sound to them like I was saying "workshits". Ha ha, "shit" is soooo funny when you are fifteen.
Spanish curses can be quite creative, and when translated they're pretty funny. And so begins a new series: Spanish Swear of the Day. (Although let's be honest, daily here is a very high expectation for me and it will more likely be bi-weekly or even weekly or even monthly if we are very, very honest.)
Some of you may remember that last year my choir sang "The Messiah" with other choirs from the region and an English conductor/professional choir/orchestra. During the rehearsals we got to know -- at least by sight -- the members of the other choirs. A certain blonde soprano from another choir (el Orfeon) who sat behind us drove me and my choir's sopranos absolutely nuts...for all my singer-readers, she was one of those sopranos. Screaming at the top of her shrieky voice to be heard over everyone else, not supporting at all, overshooting every.single.note so that not only was she yelling, she was extremely sharp. On top of that she was a huge brown-noser (how's that for good English vocabulary...imagine explaining that to a group of students. I've done it.), agreeing out loud when the conductor made comments, raising her hand every.time.he asked a rhetorical question, laughing loudly at his sort-of-funny jokes. Ugh. It pisses me off to remember it. Anyway, she had a nice-looking, brown-haired friend who sat silently by and seemed pretty steamrolled by blondie. They were the only sopranos in that choir under the age of, say, 50, much like me, Maria, and Cristina in my choir.
One day I was waiting for the bus to go to rehearsal, getting more and more anxious about being late. I saw nice-looking-brown-haired girl waiting at the same bus stop. She got on a bus I wasn't sure would take us to the rehearsal space, but since I was already late and I figured she knew better than I did, I followed her on. As the bus took a hard right through the tunnel over to the other side of the city, I saw a look of panic cross her face, mirroring my own. Nodding to the score in her hand I asked her if she was going to the rehearsal, and she said yes, but that we weren't going the right way, and she didn't know what to do. We got off at the next stop and ran as fast as we could back through the tunnel to the bus stop we'd started at, laughing the whole way, stopping in the middle to catch our breath. I was thrilled to have a new sort-of-friend. When we finally got on the right bus, we sat together and chatted. I found out she was from Santander, had a husband, and a few other general facts. She was very sweet and friendly, and she complimented my Spanish, which of course made me like her even more. We got to rehearsal, late, and snuck in to our respective seats. From then on we smiled at each other but never got another chance to talk. Partly because she was always with her obnoxious friend.
Fast forward to my new job at the energy consulting company. When I started in November I made a point of taking up my workmates on their invitations to go "tomar un cafe" at noon every day. I felt shy but knew that it would be the best way to meet people and feel included in the office. Little by little I got to know the guys (there was one other girl but she left soon after I started and never came out for coffee), and they got to know me. One day I mentioned to Eduardo, the very blonde non-Spanish looking head engineer (yeah, they're all super smart and technical-like, and I ask such questions as "What do you mean the electricity goes in a circuit?" Ok, maybe not that bad, but almost.) that I sang in a choir. He said his wife did too, and said she sang soprano in el Orfeon. I was horrified, thinking annoying blondie was his wife. As disappointment set in -- bummer, and I thought I liked this guy. If I find out he is married to her, well, there goes that -- I casually asked if his wife was blonde. He said no, that she was brunette. "I know her!" I said excitedly, trying to hide my relief. I told him about how I'd seen her score and followed her on the bus, and how nice she was. "Ohhh!" he said. "You're the American girl she met when she took the wrong bus that day! Yes, she is very nice, but never follow her directions anywhere!"
I found myself getting roped into a (what turned into a very peaceful) protest march Thursday morning...
My day began with this. See that lovely mint green building in the background? Yeah, that's where I live.
The smoke I smelled upon waking up in the morning turned out to be from a plastic dumpster -- previously filled with paper -- that had been set on fire. There were lots of (young, cute) policemen hanging around looking important, but also a bit nervous. This was strike day, everyone knew it, and apparently things were beginning like the peaceful-turned-not-so-peaceful protests in Valencia and Barcelona from earlier in the year.
Later that morning my friend Sheila texted me saying she was coming to the protest, and asked if I wanted to meet up for a visit before she went to the gathering at the ministry building. I hadn't seen her in a while, so I went, thinking we would just chat for a bit. Until she told me that, should I ever want to stay in her cute new apartment when I visit, I should go to the march. So I thought about it, and decided to go.
First thing in the morning, picketers were posted outside various ministry buildings and factories. At mid-day there was the march "in defense of public education", and later in the evening there was a more labor-oriented protest, that ended up gathering about 80,000 people, making it the biggest protest march in Santander's history. There were some scuffles between picketers and ministry workers, and some more violence during the major afternoon protest. But the march for education was totally peaceful: teachers, parents, and students, walking through the city. There was some yelling and some noise cannons, but mostly there was lots of camaraderie, and everyone seemed to know everyone else there. I think I ran in to about 85% of the people I've met here in the last four years. The afternoon protest, though, did get more violent (it even made the BBC!) . I stayed in my little attic home for that one, and listened to the noise cannons from far away. "Violent" meaning there was lots of pushing and yelling. In Torrelavega, where I work, a lady got slashed with a big ol' knife -- wielded by a hotel owner with a history of assault. It was not as violent as it could have been, by any means; but neither was it as peaceful as it could have been.
At first I felt funny about going to a protest in a country that's not my own; hell, I probably wouldn't even go to one in the US. But then I got to thinking about what happened to me back in October. Turns out, I am directly affected by all these education reforms. At the moment I have no visa and no health insurance because of the new government. But that's not the only reason I went. I love this place, this city, the people I've become close to here. Most of my friends are teachers; I adore my students in private classes, the academy, and the school where I used to work. These reforms will affect them every day for the rest of their academic lives. The reforms will affect my teacher friends for the rest of their working lives. The Spanish use the word solidarity a lot more than we do; I think it's something that should be incorporated more fully into the American vocabulary. So that's why I went: for my own rights, but also, and I think, more importantly, for the rights of the people I love here who I think are being treated unfairly.
Last Thursday (March 29) was a "huelga general" here in Spain, meaning the various unions called for a nationwide strike -- and protest march -- across all sectors. Now, if you're anything like me, you haven't been following the political reforms in Spain very closely, which is fine for you, but not so great for me considering I live here. I haven't done any detailed research, but have talked to lots of friends about it, and generally the attitude is "La cosa está muy mal. Muy, muy mal." ("Things are bad. Very, very bad.")
There have been a number of budget cuts in education, and since the majority of my friends here are either teachers or graduate students, I hear anecdotal news quite frequently. I also watch the news every morning and sort of pay attention to what's on in between weather reports. AND I read the newspaper at the cafe with the little awkward waiter when I have coffee there a few times a week. So I guess I do keep up on the news...kind of...anyway, the problems in education. For example: this winter in Valencia students went on strike when the heat was shut off in their classrooms because the school hadn't received funds during the entire school year. They protested in front of the school, and things escalated quickly to violence between riot police and protesters. The general feeling was that a small group of radicals took advantage of the situation and started setting things on fire, while the students had been calling for (and enacting) a peaceful protest all along. More on that in a minute.
All over the country, faculty jobs are being reduced while teachers' working hours are being increased, as are class sizes. That means fewer teachers who are more overworked -- and who are mostly burnt out, since the young teachers without fixed positions will be the first to get the axe -- with more students, all of whom are there for more hours. In what world does that sound like a good idea?
The new (conservative) government, who won the elections earlier this year, have also made big changes in the labor laws. Women may now be fired if they become pregnant, which some people say is effectively encouraging (if not requiring) them to abort. In these times of 25% unemployment (a figure that rises to 48% if you are under 25 years old), some people seem to think that terminating a pregnancy would be better than losing your job. Companies/bosses now have what seems like ultimate power to fire anyone they want to, for any reason they want to. I have heard (totally anecdotal, I don't know how reliable these stories are) that people have lost their jobs for taking justified leave -- that is, my daughter's in the hospital, I have a doctor's note because I have been having chemotherapy, I broke my leg and had to miss a week of work.
There was lots of hype surrounding this general strike, and most people I talked to said they were going to participate. I think that's just great -- the strike was planned in advance, employers had notice, and people could make their own decisions as to whether or not to go to work. But the more people I talked to, the more perspectives I got. The mom of two kids I teach in a private class works in an until-recently-family-owned manufacturing company. She said none of the workers wanted to strike, because they wanted to be paid for that day. But because they were bodily afraid of picketers -- most of whom came from other provinces so that they wouldn't know or be recognized by anyone they were antagonizing -- they opted to take a vacation day and close the factory.
Now, I take that report with a grain of salt -- because what worker is always completely 100% honest with their bosses about wanting to strike? But that they were afraid for their physical safety if they chose to go to work...doesn't that defeat the purpose of striking to begin with? Isn't the whole idea that people be allowed to exercise their right to strike -- or not? It's unfair and hypocritical that people would travel to other provinces to intimidate people into not going to work, when they are exercising their rights just as much as the picketers. That's the cool thing about a democracy -- at least about the theory of a democracy -- I get to express and act upon my opinions, and so do you. As long as they're not hurting anyone else, it's OK. Now leave me alone about it.
I never meant for this to be a political blog, and I think I can safely say that it has not become so, based on the fact that my last three posts were about music, bugs, and a long-and-involved personal story that I'm not sure anyone even read. Nor have I ever considered myself particularly politically-inclined, especially when it comes to protesting and marches and other scary things that involve big crowds of people and riot police. But after hearing all these stories about the political situation in Spain, I ultimately decided to participate in one. Details to follow.
Sierra Leone's Refugee AllStars, "Dununya (The World)"
A few summers ago there was a great song (as there always is) on my favorite local radio station (93.9 The River) that played all the time. It was "Living Stone" by Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, which I found out via the station's very helpful playlist website, where they publish every song they play and the exact time they play it. I've used this feature a lot when I want to find out what a song is -- just take note of the time you hear the song, and find it on their playlist. Anyway, I found "Living Stone" and decided to buy their whole album. "Dununya (The World)" quickly became my favorite track. Now that the weather here is spectacular and summery, there's nothing like putting this song on and swaying around my apartment with all the windows open, summer air and sunshine streaming in. I love the reggae-like rhythm and the sweet chord progression. I find myself humming along to all the different harmonies, and I can't help but smile when that trailing guitar riff comes in during the last few verses. Happy Friday!
Except for the fact that leaving the bars at 4am is considered early, Spain is a very civilized country. I haven't been living the last four years in a jungle or on the beach (well, actually...), or in a lonely desert. The most threatening wild animal I've seen near my house are mangy stray cats, who actually do quite well for themselves. There aren't even any stray dogs. And I am not one to be squeamish about bugs and the like (except spiders, but they are not bugs, because bugs are insects and spiders are arachnids). But, you guys. The flies in this country. Are. HUGE. They're not the biting type, like the horse flies or deer flies at home. They're just your run-of-the-mill, average, regular housefly -- except that they're GIGANTIC. Now that the weather has turned nice (no, spectacular), it is a common occurrence for a small torpedo, the size of a large green grape, to fly in through one of the open windows and wreak havoc on my house. No, ok, there is no havoc being wreaked. But hot damn that's a big fly.
A few years ago, my uncle Tim met a woman on a flight from Great Falls, Montana, to Hartford, Connecticut, where he was traveling to for my mom's first art show opening. Being from the West, and oh-so-friendly, he struck up a conversation with Marjorie, his seatmate, and found that she was living in Great Falls, but that she was originally from Hartford. Tim explained his reasons for traveling east; Marjorie mentioned she was also a painter. He invited her to the opening, and she, oh-so-friendly and living in the West, eagerly accepted. Sure enough, she drove from Hartford to Brattleboro, Vermont for the opening, and met my mom. So began a very close friendship, full of bridge playing and painting and cooking and wine and cross-country phone calls as Marjorie moved from state to state with her cardiologist husband.
Fast forward a few years. I go to Spain for a year right after college to "improve my Spanish", "live abroad", "gain life experience", "drink wine before 2pm" etc, etc. That year turned into two (which turned into three, and now four...), and that second year, an American friend of mine lived with a Spanish girl named Marina. Although she was shy at first, especially when it came to speaking English with all of us, we soon became fast friends. Marina is from a city called Logroño, which is about three hours by car from Santander in the province of La Rioja (yes, where the wine comes from). She's working on her PhD in Geotechnical Engineering right now; as you have probably guessed she is really quite slow, mentally. She's been one of my closest Spanish friends for the last few years, and even came to the US with her lovely sister Elisa last summer to visit me and some other american friends. Marina has a cousin named Jaime, who she is very close with; they're more like brother and sister, from what I can gather. Jaime is getting married to a lovely girl named Bea this May. This information may seem like a non sequitur, but it will be important later. Bear with me.
While I was getting to know Marina in Spain, my mom's friend Marjorie moved a few times, and finally ended up in Roseburg, Oregon, where she and her husband built a house and are working on opening a vineyard. I guess Howard, the cardiologist, is in to wine. My mom has flown out to visit them a few times, coming back every time positively raving about Oregon. The last time she was there, Marjorie and Howard were hosting a young Spanish man who was doing a world tour, learning about wine in places like New Zealand and France and Roseburg, Oregon, researching to revive his family's vineyard in Spain. I have no idea how they got matched up with Jose, why of all the wineries on the West Coast he should have found theirs, which is barely even in full operation yet.
It just so happens that Marina and Elisa were visiting me on the East Coast while Jose, the young Spanish gentleman, was staying with Marjorie and Howard. It also just so happens that my mom was visiting them at the same time. Upon meeting Jose, my mother promptly fell madly in love with him and decided that he and I had to meet, fall in love, and get married immediately. Ha, mom. She also found out that he is from La Rioja. Not too strange, considering La Rioja is the most important Spanish province for wine production. It follows that he should be from Logroño, it being the province's capital and largest city. What a coincidence! We said. How funny! My mom, picking poor Jose's brain mercilessly and emailing me excitedly with all her findings, found out that he was a few years older than Marina, that he'd studied engineering at the University of La Rioja, and that he knew several of Marina's older cousins from high school and university. Oh ha ha! What a coincidence! My mom's friend knows a guy from Spain who knows my friend from Spain's cousins! It gets better. Remember Bea, the lovely girl who Marina's cousin Jaime is marrying in May? Yeah. She's Jose's cousin.
Well, the song that I've been listening to over and over this week isn't one of my favorite songs (shh, don't tell), but it certainly has been stuck in my head, and I have certainly been listening to it almost nonstop. I can't tell you what it is, because it's a surprise.
A few weeks ago I ran into some satellite friends (you know, those people who you've met a few times and are friendly with. You're excited to see them when you bump into each other but you'll never call them on a Sunday afternoon when you're bored and want to take a walk. That type of friends) in the (fantastic) bar that occupies the ground floor of my building. After chatting for a few minutes, one of them, who I actually hadn't remembered meeting, said he had a "proposal" for me. I assumed it was about private English classes. It turns out he's an amateur composer who writes soundtrack-like music in his free time. My sneaky friend Raquel, who insisted for a long time that I send her recordings of myself singing, sent them to this guy without my knowledge. Evidently he likes the way I sing, and wanted to know if I would work with him on a project or two. Obviously I said yes. Flattery will get you everywhere, my new composer friend.
Last weekend I met with him to look over the piece and do some test recordings. I sounded awful, I will freely admit that: I'd been at a barbecue on a mountainside all day, yelling REF camp songs at the top of my lungs while scampering through the woods, breathing in wood smoke from the fire where our pork ribs crackled away, drinking beer cooled in an icy stream, and doing other not-voice-or-singing-friendly activities. I was not supporting properly, was coming down with a cold, was nervous, and didn't know the song. Soooo it was pretty shaky and awful. But he loved it (poor thing is either lying through his teeth or has never actually heard nice singing), and is very excited to keep working together. So he sent me the mp3 of the song and I've been trying to learn it by ear. I've also been transcribing it as an ear training exercise, and so I have a score to look at while I'm recording. So apologies for the lack of an actual song in this edition of FSF, but I promise that when the final product is finished I'll post it on here for you all to enjoy. Or laugh at.
I always go to the same cafe for a coffee when I have a break between jobs. It's right downstairs from the English academy where I work, and it has a terrace in front of the ancient town hall, and the people are nice, and the coffee is cheap(ish). (Side note: here, "Tomar un café," or "Have a coffee" is often a euphemism for going to a bar to drink/eat something and chat. I regularly enjoy this Spanish ritual and don't know how I will cope once I have to move back to the espresso-less United States).
Last Friday I went at kind of a weird time: it was too late for the after-lunch coffee, and too early for the evening-snack-coffee, so there was no one outside on the patio where I chose to sit. It was a little chilly, but I had to take advantage of the late-afternoon sunshine as much as possible before returning to work. It took a while to get waited on, which is slightly unusual at this place. Maybe since I was the only one outside they didn't realize I was there. In any case, I'd put my headphones in to listen to my audiobook before they brought me a newspaper to read, so I was startled when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Thinking all manner of bag-snatching, loogy-hawking, kleenex-selling street people were watching me, I turned around. There, in his fuschia sweater-vest, was the bald, cross-eyed, snaggle-toothed waiter who is always so very nice to me, an espresso in a doll-sized cup balanced in his hands like an offering.
Me: (laughing in surprise) "Is that for me??!"
Awkward cute waiter man: (with a small, slightly embarrassed smile) "Yes, of course, if you want it."
Of course I accepted; I always order the same thing there, and they know me. This only served to hammer that home. It felt so nice to be included, known, and paid attention to. A part of a mini community in a bustling city. But every time something like this happens it breaks my heart a little bit. Because I am reminded how painful it will be when, someday, I have to leave it all behind.
Amos Lee is one of the artists I've been avoiding posting about here. Not because I don't love him, because I do. But because, like Patty Griffin (my favorite singer-songwriter ever ever in the whole wide universe), he just has too many songs that I love and that mean a lot to me. How was I ever to chose?! But the answer came to me in the form of me not being able to get enough of this song all week. This song came on while I was listening to all the Amos Lee albums I own while cleaning (read: futzing around) my apartment. It caught my attention, and I haven't stopped listening since.
There is a real lack of good ol' harmony singing in much of the (popular) music being produced these days, so I love listening to this song's classic three-part vocals. I'm pretty sure they're all Amos, but whatever. I sing a few of his songs (namely "Colors" and "Southern Girl"), and have toyed with the idea of putting this one together, with some conveniently harmony-friendly friends. But it's a really hard song to sing! Packing all those lyrics in, keeping an even tempo, enunciating, harmonies...He makes it sound so easy. Sigh. Oh Amos.
The Spanish equivalent of "It's such a small world" is "El mundo es un pañuelo," which means "The world is a handkerchief." Isn't that such a great image? All of us living on a tiny white handkerchief, knowing each other, however distantly, constantly finding and marveling at serendipitous connections. During my time in Spain I've had some pretty serious "El mundo es un pañuelo" moments. I'll share them as often as I can get them written. The first one is on its way, and it's a whopper...
A few weekends ago I went to Asturias, the next province to the west of Cantabria, with some friends on a little day trip. We went to see a cave called el Pindal, which full of paleolithic paintings. These included depictions of a fish and a mammoth, which are very rare in cave paintings in this area, if you were wondering. But I suppose I should talk about this day chronologically, so you will have to wait a minute til I get to the cave part (or scroll down, if you are that excited about paleolithic cave art. That's you, mom.)
First we stopped for lunch in Cerrazo, a tiny, typical Cantabrian village near Torrelavega, the city where I work. The restaurant is really popular because it's a) cheap, and b) has great food, and they don't take reservations, so we got there a little early...so early, in fact, that the kitchen wasn't open. That's ok, we'll just go for a nice stroll through the village. Now I should mention that EVERY. TIME we leave the city I make a huge annoying point of going to find ponies, because there are inevitably some pastured nearby. My friends are very good about humoring this particular quirk of mine. I even have a "pony kit" ready to go, which I have never once remembered to bring along. It includes two brushes, one hard, one soft (I bought them at the supermarket and I'm pretty sure they were meant for shoe cleaning), a sugar cube stealthily stolen from a bar, and a carrot. Well, actually, the carrot is in there on kind of a rotating basis, because they were getting all shriveled up and smelly between pony excursions.
So we walked down the hill from the restaurant, and sure enough! We found two horsies in a beautiful field. The seemed pretty uninterested in us, though, and my friends were ready to continue along the country lane. "Oh pish posh," I said. "Let me show you a little pony trick I know." I pulled out a packet of kleenex from my bag and wrinkled the plastic wrapper. This method is not very honest, because it makes the pony think he is going to get a peppermint or other similarly cellophane-wrapped treat. But it is a tried-and-true way of luring ponies closer to fences to be petted. And this proves its effectiveness is international. Sure enough, this nice, dirty, stocky grey pony lumbered over, ears perked up and looking for a candy. I apologized for tricking him but soon learned he felt pretty OK about it, and was happy to be scratched and patted. My friends were very shocked at this: what can I say, my horse powers are finely tuned. They even called me the horse whisperer! We spent a little while with this nice fellow, and my friends found it hilarious that he was pretty lippy, meaning he let me play with his nose and he made funny faces and yawned big great yawns, and let me kiss the soft, velvet spot between his nostrils. My friends eventually got a little bored (I would happily have stayed there all afternoon), so we continued up the road. This is our parting glimpse of my pony friend:
As we walked along we passed a few farms, and one had a big, muddy pen in the back yard. We found some sheep huddled in a shed, looking stranded in a sea of muck. And in another such refuge:
He/she is destined, I'm sure, to be chorizo, jamón, lomo, or salchichón one day. Such is the life cycle of a Spanish pig.
We went back up the hill and had a lovely lunch -- I'll do an entry on food later on, so you can get familiar with all the jargon -- including raciones of morcilla (blood sausage, don't you turn your nose up, it is delicious), piping hot clams with olive oil, garlic, parsley, and hot peppers, and a cheese plate. For our main course we split a whole white fish cooked in the oven with potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and peppers, and a steak with french fries and roasted red peppers. I didn't eat much steak, not being a big red meat person, and especially not being a very, very rare red meat person. But I can appreciate the quality and preparation of the meat here, especially this steak. It was cooked on a super hot grill with nothing but salt and maybe a little oil. Everything was spectacular. Spanish food really is great. To drink I had a glass of red wine, one friend had a beer, and we all had water and mosto, a very sweet grape juice made as a bi-product of (? or maybe just in the same facility as) wine.
Then we drove just over the border into Asturias, where we drove up a hill to a tiny resort village at the top of a ridge overlooking the sea. Since we had time to kill before our cave appointment, we went to a lookout and took a brief walk down a very steep hill leading down to cliffs, and eventually to the ocean. The sun was coming out from behind the clouds, and even though the water here is far from tropical, it always has that turquoise tinge to it that I associate with much warmer climes. I snapped a few pictures of my friend Leah venturing down in front of us, and got this one of the sun shining full on her. I love the way her little red hat makes her stand out in the vast landscape she's a part of. I am no photographer, and my camera is a piece of crap, but sometimes by sheer luck a nice picture gets produced.
The cave was down the hill towards the sea. We walked through a forest of stunted trees with gnarled roots coming up out of the ground, and down a narrow staircase carved into the cliff on the other side.
It opens up to a view of the ocean, a very Pirates-of-the-Caribbean scene with a huge rock that looks like it grew right up out of the ocean.
The cave tour was just the four of us with the guide, and we walked deep into the cave, along wet, dripping paths that wound between thick stalagmites. It was mostly dark and muddy in the cave, but the guide turned on low lights and carried a flashlight so we could see the drawings and carvings he pointed out on the walls. I've been to a number of caves in this part of Spain, some with drawings, some with incredible rock and crystal formations. I never get tired of seeing the drawings on the walls, and imagining the people who made them. Twelve thousand years ago. Twelve thousand. You know Christ? How he lived two thousand years ago? Yeah, go back another ten thousand from then. These people lived in caves, but not this one, because it opens directly onto the ocean and is very cold and wet. But they went deep into el Pindal to paint on the walls with an iron oxide compound they mixed with animal fat; that made the lines absorb into the porous rock, so that they haven't faded over time and are just as vibrant (the experts think) as they were back then. The people -- probably the shaman or holy men, but no one knows for sure -- painted bison and horses and, as I mentioned above, a fish and a mammoth. They used the rock itself as part of the drawings, so that the heads of some of the drawn bison protrude like the real animal, or the curve of a horse's haunch is clear in a crack in the stone.
There are also abstract marks that can be found in caves all over the north of Spain and into the south of France; scientists think they could have been some kind of mutually understood communication system between the many tribes that used the network of caves along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, or that the tribes shared a religion and the marks represent some spiritual meaning. It's incredible that modern man can know so much about these ancient people, but there is still so much we'll never know, and it's so thrilling for me to imagine what it could have been like. What the people were like, what they wore, what they looked like, how it felt to live so very long ago. That's one of the things about Spain that make it so mysterious and awe-inspiring -- the ancient, ancient history that surrounds us every day here, that can be seen just about anywhere, and the influence it's had on the way we live now.
As we left the cave not too much happened: one friend and I went into the woods in lieu of a bathroom; I almost lost one of the beautiful green mittens my Granny gave me years ago; and a woman with a siamese cat on a leash came to ask for information about the cave:
The cat was really unhappy about being on a leash and didn't really seem to understand that he was supposed to walk along with the woman -- so mostly she alternated between holding him like a limp ragdoll or heaving on the leash while he dug in his claws and wailed.
We stopped for a drink in Llanes, a pretty little beach town just before the border of Cantabria, and took a walk along the sea wall as the sun set behind the mountains opposite the ocean.
We wanted to get a snack in Llanes, but nothing was open, so we moved along from town to town looking for a bar whose kitchen was preparing food. All we found was a rest stop off the highway, where we ate potato chips. Then we drove home. Just a normal end to a normal weekend day trip. You can see more pictures here.
Before I came to Spain, I had never lived in a city, in an apartment before. Sure, my senior year of college I lived on the third floor of a giant house that had been made into apartments, but it just felt like a house. And in Argentina, and Spain the first time, I stayed in apartments with other people in big buildings with elevators and doormen and views of Buenos Aires or Salamanca. But living here now, in the same apartment for just about three years, I've really begun to see what life is like when lived in close quarters.
It's strange to live with these people, but not really know them -- I suppose it's just a new relationship for me. Growing up in a house with a big yard in a tiny town, I knew most of the neighbors, at least by sight if not by name. But I really knew nothing about them. They didn't know where I went to school, how old I was, what my family ate for dinner. Everyone was separate. Here in the city, though, because everyone is all stacked on top of one another, you can't help but find out things about the people living around you. Like the couple downstairs who fight on Saturday mornings and slam doors and yell, and who once burned a piece of toast so badly that my whole apartment filled up with smoke and I thought the building was on fire. And the guy from choir who lives on the third floor but works in Bilbao and wouldn't share his internet password with me. And the people who just moved in on the second floor who have a little girl, who I think is the only kid in the building. Most prominent is the woman whose apartment shares the fifth floor with mine, up under the eaves, and her awful, awful boyfriend. But the escapades with them are another story for another entry. (Yes, there is that much to tell.)
At first I was really embarrassed about everything I did in my apartment, embarrassed about making noise and worried about bothering people with my singing or my music or the TV. I tiptoed to my dresser early in the mornings so as not to wake anyone up -- you can hear everything between my bedroom and my neighbor's, hence all the problems -- and when I had guests I begged them to tread softly and keep their voices down. But now I've gotten more used to it. I can't limit my life because of other people, especially when they most certainly are not thinking of how much noise they're making and how it affects me.
But everything is just so close! I see people on the stairs and we say hello, no more, and in my head I'm screaming I know you fight and throw things on Saturday mornings! I know you eat dinner at midnight! I can hear when you pull the blinds of your bedroom up first thing in the morning! It's so strange. To know some of the most intimate things about people and not even know their names. When I'm out walking around the city, I still find myself looking up at the apartment buildings and picturing it like a Richard Scarey drawing, with one wall of the building taken off and a view into everyone's separate, but very proximate lives. In this apartment they're having a snack in the kitchen; in the one next door they're watching TV; downstairs someone is in the shower; in the attic a little old man is talking to his cat. (Oh man I wish I had a cat.) If the walls weren't there they could reach out and touch each other; yet everyone is going about their own business like they're miles away from everyone else.
I'm not sure if this kind of living is for me, in the long run. I love living in the city for now: my friends are nearby, there are bars to go to and concerts to see and if I run out of eggs there's a little store directly across the street. It actually takes me longer to walk down the stairs from my apartment than it does to get from my front door to the store. There's shopping two blocks away and cafes with terraces and my favorite Turkish bartender who gives me free drinks just downtown. But I think it's all too close. Too weird. Unnatural. Give me a front door that opens onto grass, and space for a garden, and room for dogs to run. Somewhere I don't have to listen to my awful neighbor yelling at 7am about what color sweater he should wear. No one cares, champ. No one at all.
An iPod on shuffle can be a wonderful thing. Sometimes it's like that little machine is reading my mind and my heart, or that it knows even better than I do what I want to hear, what I need to hear. I was tucked up in my bed, doing some late-night writing earlier this week when this song came on. It had been a long time since I'd heard it, but after that lovely surprise playing it's been on repeat for most of this week.
On principle I don't much like John Mayer - he seems to be the typical case of a "sensitive", talented singer-songwriter letting fame and money go to his head. Now he just seems like a dick. But I can't deny that I love that smoky, husky voice of his, and his songwriting really is quite good. His melodies are interesting but catchy, and always very pretty. His lyrics are touching, and they're different and creative enough to save them from being overly cheesy.
I think I like this song because it's simple, but has a beautiful melody, a soothing guitar rhythm. All of that reminds me a little of growing up at folk festivals, being obliged (not too unwillingly) to sing at family jam sessions. There something about a pretty tune sung in a pleasing voice accompanied by little more than acoustic guitar that just gets right down into my soul. And even though the electric guitar in this song takes away from that a little bit, that feeling is still there.
This song first came to me on a mix CD from a now-long-lost friend while we were in college. Hearing it again reminded me so much of her and the friendship we had -- we went through quite a bit in our respective lives while we were close and supported each other unquestioningly throughout. It makes me sad, though, to think that the friendship is lost.
The lyrics speak to me on a lot of levels -- I've been through the ringer over the last few months -- no, not just the ringer. The washing machine, the ringer, the dryer, the iron, the press, the dry-cleaning-chemical-process...how many other violent laundry metaphors are there? Anyway, the words mean a lot to me at the moment. First came the crises, one after another, beating my heart to a pulp; then came the grief, the absolute misery, and helplessness. And while things are not back to normal by any means, I'm making plans for the future and finding things to look forward to. I'm enjoying the small things in my life that make me happy. February is always the toughest month, you've got to be resourceful.
And this song has reminded me of a person who was very dear to me at one point. I've hesitated about getting back in touch for a long time -- grudges and hard feelings don't die easily -- and especially because "Hi, remember me? My life is absolute shit because of x,y, and z, want to be friends again?" doesn't make the nicest first contact. But as a mutual friend said recently, if anyone would appreciate an email like that it would be her. So maybe in light of recent losses in my life, it's time to start gaining again. And if I've learned anything from living abroad and going through the hell of the last few months, it's that true "kindred spirits" (to quote Anne of Green Gables) are few and far between in this life -- so hold on to them when they come into your life, and fight your hardest to get them back if they slip away. "The Heart of Life" has to be good, after all, doesn't it?
While I was home this summer I went to a coffeehouse-type gig with my mom, where she plays some Sundays with a group of friends of hers. She wasn't playing that day, so we ate bagels and sat in the cafe to listen. A friend of hers was there, and he proved quite obnoxious, talking through the songs and bragging about his musical ability and knowledge. My mom mentioned that I sang jazz (sometimes), and he looked down his nose at me: "Oh really? Well, what old standards do you sing?" I don't keep a set list ready in my mind to sell my singer-self to people on the spot, so I said something like "Off the top of my head...I don't know...I do most of the old standards, and the ones I don't have prepared I can fake pretty OK..." After more pressing I mentioned "Moonlight Becomes You," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," and "The Nearness of You." At the last he scoffed, triumphant in his arrogance: "Well nowadays all the young people do that since Norah Whats-Her-Name [Jones] did it." Um no, sorry sir. I have been singing that song since I was about 12 and could figure out the chord progressions in my jazz fakebook.
Anyway, this little rant serves as a very long introduction to today's song, which is not a very well-known old jazz tune but has all the feeling of a favorite. This is probably because it was written by Bob Haymes, who also wrote "That's All," which has been done by the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, and more recently, Michael Buble.
This past fall I was listening to "Now at Last" pretty much nonstop, and was itching to get my fingers on a piano keyboard to accompany myself once I got home for Christmas. Sure enough, I spent many hours playing piano and singing while I was home for the holidays, and this has quickly become one of my all-time favorite "old standards." The song is so very simple and traditional, but so beautiful and unexpected at the same time. I love the way Feist sings it -- I think she does it wonderful justice, no frills, no belting, just the gorgeous melody with a healthy dose of the melancholy with which the lyrics and tune are infused. She is one of my very favorite artists these days -- so creative, original, talented, and fun -- and became even more of a preferred and respected artist once I found this little gem on her 2004 album "Let it Die."
From one of my very all-time favorite albums ("The Harder They Come" Soundtrack), I give you Desmond Dekker singing "Shanty Town." This is in reference to a recent facebook status update of mine, referring to Santander, where I live, as "Santy Town." Despite the fact that, a) Santander is extremely posh and about the furthest thing possible from a shanty town, and b) this post serves mostly as a reference to an inside joke with myself, it's a great song from an all-around great album. I am only slightly disappointed that I can't, in good blog-faith, include more songs from this album in the near future, so just check out the whole thing after listening to this song. Signing off from a momentarily-sunny Santy town...
I am just starting to get comfortable, socially, at my new job. I've been there since November, but the first few months are always awkward as the new person in an office where everyone knows each other and gets along well. It doesn't help that, since it's the only time I have easy access to the internet, I read sympathetic emails from friends and end up crying at my desk...no one wants to be friends with the weird new girl who cries. But, moving on....
Most of the people in the office are a few years older than I am, with a few exceptions. A group of us always goes for coffee around noon to break up the long morning, where we work from 9am to 2pm, when we have a two-hour break for lunch. Between feeling shy around new people and speaking a foreign language with those new people, and the fact that we only ever get a chance to socialize for fifteen minutes a day at a bar, I am only just now getting into the social swing of things.
Last Wednesday was a particularly good day -- the morning coffee break went well, I successfully told a relevant, funny story in (what I think was) perfect Spanish, and everyone laughed. It's just like middle school all over again. They like me! Maybe they will be my new friends! Look at them laughing! They LIKE me!! So when we all came back from lunch I was feeling extra buoyant, relaxed, like I'd proven myself somehow.
When I returned to my desk I had an email from a friend, forwarded from some other friend, about a litter of 11 Husky puppies that needed homes. I don't know how recent or reliable this email was, but I knew my friend had sent it to me because of my weakness for animals, so I forwarded it along, and began asking people as they came back to the office if they wanted a dog. "¿Quieres un perro?" I said to everyone as they settled back into their desks. It was random, and funny. I swear. I was being sociable and a little bit sassy. My "true self" was coming out. And they still liked me! Look at me go!
The people who'd already arrived were egging me on to ask each person as they walked in. "Hey, aren't you going to ask him about the dogs?" And I, of course, would oblige, and the joke continued. Then Raúl, the quiet, softspoken, shy computer-something-engineer-software-whatever (see how much I understand about the company?) walked in and I said, just as with all the rest, "¿Oye, quieres un perro?" He flinched, but didn't so much as look at me. Just continued past to hang up his coat, returning to his desk next to mine without a word. I looked confusedly around at my coworkers-turned-accomplices for help. "Hey, what, Raúl, you don't like animals?" Ask Pablo, one of the more outgoing of my coworkers. "Ohh," said Raúl with barely any emotion. "I thought you said 'Que eres un perro.'" Everyone burst in to uproarious laughter. I blushed like the pink grapefruits that just came into season. He didn't hear me ask if he wanted a dog; he heard me say "You're such a dog."
I apologized profusely, stumbling over my Spanish as I tend to do when flustered. He said it was fine. Everyone else couldn't stop laughing.
It's one thing to tell funny stories, but once my coworkers can't walk back into the office without the weird foreign girl calling them names...it's time to tone back the sass.
"Meter la pata" in Spanish means "To put your foot in it." According to the Mac dictionary on my computer, this means the same thing in English, with the variation "Put one's foot in one's mouth." (I had to look it up because my English has become tainted after so many years of existing in two languages simultaneously and constantly flip-flopping between them). This new tag is for incidences in which I embarrass myself in one way or another -- "meter la pata" -- and it's a little bit sad that a whole tag can exist for this...but I do it often enough, or embarrassing situations arise often enough, that it deserves its own category. Hey, if you can't laugh at yourself...life is really not funny? I don't know how that saying is supposed to end. Living abroad has made me take myself much less seriously, so I will continue to add embarrassing anecdotes so my readers will also take me less seriously. Ha.
There was a time last year when I would sneak upstairs to the English Department at the high school where I worked to use the computer. I say "sneak" not because I wasn't supposed to use it, but because I always hoped there was no one else working there so I could put this song on.
I watch the recent documentary about Woodstock with my dad whenever it's on TV (the one from 2009 for the 40th anniversary of the festival) and can't help wishing I'd been born forty years earlier...but that's another story for another day. Here is one of my absolute favorite performances of Woodstock and hands down my favorite version of this song. Joe Cocker has so much soul (see a trend in these first FSF song?) in his voice, and unlike other people, I think his crazy spasms are kind of charming -- they just show how much he feels the music (and sure, he probably had some "chemical help" to enjoy it so very much, but come on, it was the '60s and he was a rock star).
One of my biggest complaints with the music that's popular these days is the absolutely horrendous live performances the artists give. The particular of singing and playing music live has gotten lost in the spectacle of rock and pop shows; the masses don't care if the performer is singing off key or gets the words right or connects emotionally to their music -- it's all about the lights and the sex appeal and the noise. To be fair I've felt buoyed by emerging artists that have managed to maintain some musical integrity and become internationally renowned and respected, like Adele, Amy Winehouse (RIP) and many of the "indie" artists that are out there (although I have another bone to pick with them, ie. too experimental is too weird, and just because you don't wash your hair doesn't mean you are "cool" and "alternative" and "anti-establishment.")
But to go back to this video, I love how subtle and nuanced his inflections are, and I'm always amazed at how right-on his pitch is, throughout -- and this is without those awful earbuds that allow you to distinguish your own voice (supposedly) from the womping amplifiers behind you. True talent is hard to see in the face of all the glitz these days, and I find it so refreshing to listen to Joe growl away so beautifully. Happy Friday!
We went to see a livestock fair, and on our way home found pretty coffee
with pretty treats at a pretty tea house full of pretty things. I'm
going to say pretty one more time since I haven't said it enough: PRETTY
If you read this blog, you know me at least a little bit. And if you know me at least a little bit, you know how I feel about music. I can't put it into words. It is a part of me, a passion, a love, a comfort, an inspiration... It has been and always, always will be one of the most important things in my life. Living abroad has introduced me to a lot of new music, so I'll include some Spanish songs on here sometimes (although it's mostly pop that doesn't do much for me). While I've been Spain, music has provided company in my loneliest moments, inspiration in the dullest of times, and just plain happiness with the beauty and stimulation it always seems to bring me.
So, in order to get me writing with some regularity, and to share some of my favorite songs with you, I present "Favorite Song Fridays." I've seen series posts on other blogs and I think it's a cute (albeit somewhat kitschy) idea. So without further ado, the very first Favorite Song Friday:
Otis Redding, "These Arms of Mine"
I once bought an Otis Redding song on iTunes because of one note. I should have known then and there that if one note could make me fall in love, I would adore the rest of this artist's work. But I didn't, until I rediscovered THAT VOICE singing "Merry Christmas Baby" on "Jingle Bell Rock," the 1987 Time-Life compilation (on vinyl) of '50s and '60s Christmas music (and in my opinion, the best Christmas album out there, and a Branch-Spencer tree-decorating staple). helloooo run-on sentence.
But I digress. Upon purchasing "The Very Best of Otis Redding," I fell in love with this, one of his first singles, and have been listening to (and singing) it obsessively for days:
I don't like trying to describe music in words. I love the feeling of this song. I love what he does with it, his voice, the little touches he adds, how he makes it his own. See? No matter how I try to describe it, only cliches come out. So just listen to the song. It will make you feel melancholy and warm and dreamy.
(wondering what the song with that ONE NOTE? Ok ok, I first heard it in an episode of Sex and the City [blegh], the song is "Try a Little Tenderness," and the one note is that high one in the third line of each verse. The best one is in the second verse. MELT.)
ps. I hope these songs are the right versions. I may or may not be at work (shhh) and can't listen to verify.
pps. Why do all the good ones die young? (no Billy Joel reference intended...more of a Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix reference...ever heard of The 27 Club? cue Twilight Zone theme song.....)