Happy New Year

1 Jan

“Feliz Navidad… and I hope you eat all grapes on new year!” one of my students told me on my last day of school as we left for Christmas vacation. (sidenote: look at how good their English is getting!)

In Spain, as well as many latin american countries, it would be unthinkable to ring in the new year without a mouthful of grapes. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 20th century, when creative Spanish harvesters came up with a clever way to get rid of their grape surplus. The tradition says that the best and luckiest way to end the year is by eating 12 grapes – one for each chime of the clock, which signifies each month of the past year.

Not wanting to tempt their fates, the tradition quickly caught on. Who doesn’t want a little luck on their side, anyway? So every New Year’s Eve, which in Spanish is called nochevieja (the old night), crowds gather in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to watch the ball drop. (Think Time’s Square with older buildings and a lot less lights!) And all across the rest of the country people gather around their televisions to watch the very same event.

But first their attention is directed to the bell tower, where the clock shows the official hour for the country. As the year ends, the bell begins to ring and people begin to stuff – taking care to eat exactly 12 grapes because eating 10 or 13 would have the reverse effect.

While this task may seem daunting for a novice, the clock chimes are actually slowed down a bit to ensure that everyone can end the year with a lucky stroke and then wash it down with a nice glass of champagne after.

Sadly, following the traditions of the Cincinnati bar scene, I’ll have to tell my student that I ate not one grape this year. Things are not looking so good for me on the luck front, I guess. But I have 365 days to practice my grape eating for next year!

Feliz Año Nuevo a todos!

Today’s Word: la uva (n.): grape; as in: ” Be careful not to choke on one of your uvas this New Year’s Eve!”


Seafood and Canis and Beaches, Oh my!

6 Nov

The elusive puente, (for those of you who have never gotten the pleasure of experiencing it for yourself) occurs when the Spanish working citizens decide to “bridge” the gap that occurs between a random holiday and the weekend.

Take for example All Saints Day (November 1st) which fell this year on a Tuesday. Now what fun would it be to go to work on Monday just to have the next day off? Why not take off Monday as well? Personally, I could just go for all week, but that would be more like the Golden Gate Bridge then I suppose.

So this most recent puente was stretched for two days, making a total of a four-day long weekend. (Five if you’re a lucky auxiliar who doesn’t have to work on Fridays).

So for this puente I found myself along the southern beaches of Spain, where several key lessons were learned:

1. When they call you a d***, they really mean friend. No, seriously – they do! Slang is all relative, I suppose. Where I’m living it’s “tio” (uncle) if your chatting with a friend. In Mexico its “wey” (man). And in the southern region of Cadiz, it’s a not-appropriate-for-this-blog word referring to something only men have. And we’re not talking about mustaches, if you get what I’m saying. Although it may be a little shocking at first when overhearing passing conversations, it’s really not meant to be offensive.

2. Always get gas before the light comes on. Especially if your driving along curvy 2-lane roads at midnight and all the gas stations are closed. Such situations may require you to stop and ask directions and then spend the next nerve-wreking 15-20 minutes heading back in the direction you came from hoping to find the one gas station that “may be open.” (it was!)

3. Jersey extends farther than the shore. And all the way to Spain. But here the word “guido” can be substituted with the spanish word “cani” and “blow-out” for “feaux-hawk”. Although we did have a lovely time drinking down on the docks of Barbate while the Cani’s kindly supplied their rave-like beats from the back of their suped-up rides. Yes, I can assure that the experience was even weirder than it sounds.

4. When by the sea, go for the seafood. There’s enough variety to please even the most finicky palate. From deep fried shrimp tortillas and calamari to roasted tuna and swordfish, you really can’t go wrong with seafood near the coast.

Today’s Word: puente (n.): bridge/extended-weekend; as in “No matter how you look at it, puentes were meant for traveling.”

A fería like no other

26 Oct

In a land not so very far away, there was a magical place where Cruz Campo flowed just as freely as the olive oil and the tapas were almost certainly free. It was a place where olives outnumbered the people, most of whom walked fearlessly through the streets, unafraid of the ghosts of bygone Lizard or Tranvia. Yes there, at the base of the Santa Catalina Castle, in the looming shadow of the cathedral, lay the city of Jaén. And every October people flocked from near and from far – from Madrid and Malaga; Ohio and New Jersey – just to observe what the locals fondly referred to as “la fería.” Yes, my friends, it truly is the most wonderful 10 days of the year.

At the fall of night on the very first day, the fair citizens of Jaén (and those from farther away too) descend upon the fairgrounds. The path marked with bright lights leads these citizens safely to the fairgrounds, much like the lit path of the airport runway guides planes onto the ground. And these fairgoers are about to have the layover of their lifetime.

Passing though the ‘big white castle’ of an entrance, the fair’s sights, sounds and smells assault the senses. You want a purse? a scarf? maybe some candied almonds for the trip down? how about a nice pair of shutter-shades with the Spanish flag?

– Why yes! I’ll take three, thank you!

And turning the corner, with the smell of sweet churros wafting from the nearby tent, the fair unfolds like a scene from a movie. Down the hill you go. Past the botellón spot on the left, where money-consious youth bring their own previously-purchased bottles (the country is in crisis, after all!). Down. Past the circus tent on the right. Down. Past the numerous carnival games. Down. Past the stands selling baked potatoes. Down. Pausing only for a mojito from the gypsy man. Down. Until you have arrived.

And you will know for certain when you have arrived because you will no longer hear the person standing next to you over the noise of the nearby tents. But alas, against the better judgement of your ears (which will be ringing for days), you follow that music into the nearest tent. And there it begins. From tent to tent you hop, pausing for food, for an occasional trip to the bumper cars or on the giant viking ship. You don’t stop until you can take it no longer and then it’s back up into the real world you emerge. Although, may it be advised that this trip is best made during the light of day as the sun slowly creeps up over the mountains.

And there it is. Much like the instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle (wash. rinse. repeat.) Rather this time it’s more like: sleep. dance. eat. repeat. And repeat as many times as you can before the final Sunday. Afterall, the fair only comes once a year!

Word of the Day: basura (n.): garbage, as in “The fair is still a lovely place despite the fact that it often is covered in and smells like basura.

Happy Spain Day!

12 Oct

October 12th.

Not only should this date resonate with Spaniards as the Fiesta Nacional de España – the National Day of Spain – but also with all our amigos over on the Western Hemisphere because todays date marks the day that Christopher Columbus landed in the New World. With so many things to celebrate, it’s no wonder we needed the day off of work!

As with many Spanish holidays, this one too comes with a religious background. Today is the day of Nuestra Señora de Pillar – Our Lady of the Pillar – who also happens to be the Virgin Mary. Are you confused yet? It’s a good thing I didn’t put in any hours at work so I had more time to sift through all this!

To keep it brief, Mary appeared to James on the banks of the river Ebro, offering to give him help and guidance along with something a little more solid – a pillar with which James was to build a church. The pillar today is located in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza, Spain.


As you can probably imagine, todays holiday is a much bigger deal in Zaragoza at the site of the basilica. But Our Lady of the Pillar became the national patroness of Spain and of the Spanish Civil Guard thus creating the need to celebrate everywhere.

In Zaragoza there is a festival, in Madrid a big parade. And in Lucena, a celebration that seems only appropriate for the size and lifestyle of the town – an hour long concert in the main square. Who says living in a small town doesn’t have it’s charm?

So in ending, I wish you all a very happy October 12th – no matter what or where you are choosing to celebrate.

Today’s Word: perezoso (adj.): lazy; as in “I had the day off and I’ve been nothing but perezoso”


La Romería

10 Oct

Maybe you’ve heard that religion isn’t as strong as it used to be in Spain. And ok, maybe Saturday at the club is more crowded than Sunday morning mass. But one thing is for certain when it comes to religion: these Spaniards take it very, very seriously. Example numero uno: La Romería

A romería is basically a religious pilgrimage that consists of a trip to a certain sanctuary or hermitage. These pilgrimages come in all shapes and sizes (as do their pilgrims) and usually last about a day. Some romerías are more famous than others – such as Nuestra Señora del Rocio and Virgen de la Cabeza, which are both in Andalucía.

However, this past Sunday took us to a little place called Cabra. (For you Spanish-speakers: yes, the city is named “Goat.”) Located only 8 kilometers from Lucena, the charming white-washed town is surrounded by – you guessed it – olive trees and mountains. And right atop the tallest peak around lies the Santuario de la Virgen de la Sierra — The Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Mountain. The sanctuary is supposedly on the spot where the Virgin Mary herself appeared in the cave some hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

The statue of the Virgin lives up on the altar of the sanctuary’s church for nearly the entire year with the exception of September when she makes her big appearance in town for the fair.

And how, you might ask, does a Virgin get from the top of a mountain to the center of town? Well, let me just tell you that she does not have a drivers license nor would she fit behind the wheel of a car, for that matter. She, of course, is carried down from the top of the mountain on the shoulders of her faithful citizens in Cabra.

For nearly a month she enjoys her place in the city and makes an appearance at the fair being held in her honor before it is time yet again for her to return to her place overlooking the city. That’s where the romería comes into play. They same faithful (and strong, I might add) citizens carry the Virgin back up the mountain to her rightful home.

Not wanting to miss a good opportunity for a little fiesta (we’re talking about Spain, after all) people from all over come to bring the Virgin back to the top of the mountain. Some walk on foot, some ride horses and others still take the winding road by car.

Wanting to get the full effect we found ourselves hiking – rather, struggling – up the side of the mountain for what may have been 2.5 of the roughest hours of my life. And I wasn’t even carrying a Virgin! But atop the hill we were rewarded with stunning views of the province of Córdoba, a visit to the Virgin Mary and a heaping plate of paella prepared by the good people of Cabra. All in all, a good Sunday.

Today’s Wordmontaña (n.): mountain; as in “I’m exhausted after hiking straight up the montaña to see the Virgin Mary.”

When Two Worlds Collide

27 Sep

As I sit in one of the only two hostels of Lucena (my new home for the year), it’s hard to imagine that just 24 hours ago I was fighting through the crowds of people in Manhattan’s Penn Station. Talk about culture shock! Try going from the high-rises and propetual motion of New York City – population 8,000,000 – to the quiet streets and tranquil plazas of Lucena, Spain – population 40,000. Not to mention changing languages and time zones.

My tour guide and I in Times Square

But first the beginning: the big apple. After making it to 16 countries in 23 years, I figured now was as good a time as any to jump into the craziness that is New York City. Was I prepared for what I was about to see? Probably not. But thanks to the 25 cent guide book courtesy of Grandpa Bob, I arrived to the city sounding like I knew what I was talking about. But truly it was my awesome tour guide, Michelle, that got me from Subway A to Subway B and taught me the correct pronunciation of “Houston”. After only a short weekend in the city we managed to cram in Times Square, the Eiffel Tower, Central Park, NYU, Chinatown, Brooklyn, Little Italy, Rockefeller Center, The New York Public Library and so much more.

The question of the trip: Could I ever see myself living in NYC? Truth is, I was more concerned with whether I could live in Lucena, Spain!

Lucky for me, a mere taxi ride, 2 flights, 2 trains, 2 buses, 6 time zones and 24 hours later, I was able to get a better handle on that question as I arrived in Lucena. Luckily, I was greeted at the bus stop by another auxiliar, Anna, and headed to the hostel. The quiet of the small streets was almost eerie compared to the chaos of the ones I had come from. But sometimes contrast is good. After a stroll around the town and a Coca-Cola Light in the lively main square, I think the answer is yes… to both.

I would love to live one day in a big city like New York, but for now I’m pretty content on settling into small town España. Apartment searching and school visits to come in the morning!

Today’s Word: el piso (n.): apartment; as in: “If I don’t find a piso quickly, I’m going to be sleeping in the park.”

The 50lb. Weight Game

26 Sep

We’ve all been there. Eyes closed, nervously praying to the gods of lost weight and shrinking size as we heave our suitcases onto the front desk scale of the airport. Maybe if I wish hard enough my suitcase will have magically lost 4lbs between the scales at home and the airport gates. Or maybe I can just pull a fast “look over there” so the attendant doesn’t realize I slipped in those two new dresses at the last second? Or maybe I could start crying? “P-P-PLEASE don’t make me take out that extra pair of shoes lady or I might just…”

Wait. You haven’t been there? You’re saying you actually make sure your suitcases are right before you leave home? That’s ridiculous!

As someone who has spent my fair share of times packing for a long trip, I’m usually pretty proud of being able to fit my things all into one bag. (I’m gone til June, after all!) but that weight limit bologna gets me every time! Should I really be punished for being such a skilled packer?

Alas, this trip to New York proved to be no different nor the scales of the Dayton airport any kinder. As I found myself – suitcase open – trying to lose four pounds by throwing out replaceable things (Who needs socks anyways?) and shoving the rest of the stuff into my carry-on bags. Apparently it doesn’t matter if your bag weighs a thousand pounds as long as you’re the one lugging it around! (and of course it doesn’t contain sharp objects, large bottles of liquids, plants from foreign countries, live animals or plots to take over the world!)

In the end my bag came in at a solid 50lbs and was free to travel another day. You almost won this time AirTran heavy baggage fee, but not on my watch! Perhaps I would save money on the chiropractor had I only paid the overage fee.

Today’s word: la espalda (n.): back; as in “my espalda is killing me after lugging all that extra weight in my carry-on!”