Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Guest Post: Dodging Turnips for the "Spain Scoop"

Things have been so crazy around here that I forgot to tell everyone that I had a guest piece up a few weeks ago at the "Spain Scoop," which is one of my favorite English-language blogs here in Spain. (This is my second piece for them; long-time readers will remember that I wrote about a trip to Jaen last year, as well.) I'll post the beginning here; to see the rest, head over to their website!

True Manhood by Dodging Turnips--Move Over Viagra
Just when one thinks they have heard of every wild festival in Spain, another bizarre event is tossed to the forefront.  About two and one half hours, southwest of Madrid, is the mountain village of Piornal.  In snow laden streets, men are chased by turnip throwing demons.  Those who survive reasonably intact, are newly virile. Move over Viagra. Our guest expert, Alissa Greenberg, tells the truth on turnip tossing. - See more at:

True Manhood By Dodging Turnips – Move Over Viagra

- See more at:
By Alissa Greenberg

The morning of Jarramplas dawned clear and cold. It had snowed in the Sierra Gredos overnight, and a wintry paradise of delicately-frosted trees and families building snowmen greeted us as we approached Piornal, the highest village in Extremadura. Despite its population of just 1500, every year on January 19 and 20 Piornal hosts a festival that rivals the adrenaline of Pamplona's running of the bulls and the happy chaos of Tomatina in Valencia. We had come to investigate.

In the village, a festive atmosphere permeated, with every bar overflowing and swarms of teenagers in matching T-shirts running and shouting through the narrow alleyways. All along the main street, houses were covered in protective boards or netting. Turnips were piled in drifts along the sidewalk. Yes: turnips.

The short-version explanation is that each year five or six Piornalego men are tapped to act as “Jarramplas.” One by one, each dons an elaborate, multi-colored patchwork suit and horned helmet, then walks the streets of the village as the entire community pursues him, throwing turnips. (To prevent serious injuries, the suit and mask are reinforced with fiberglass.) The longer version is not that much longer: no one knows exactly where the tradition comes from, although prevailing wisdom suggests it started centuries ago when a cattle thief plaguing the village was punished with a bombardment of vegetables. These days, playing Jarramplas is considered a great honor and test of manhood. A waiting list stretches until 2030. 

We arrived in Piornal's main square just before 4 PM; people were streaming into the small, snowy plaza from all directions. The church bells began to sound, and there was a shout--“He’s coming! He’s coming!” A drumbeat sounded in the distance, and then: complete chaos.

To read more, click over to the Spain Scoop

Just when one thinks they have heard of every wild festival in Spain, another bizarre event is tossed to the forefront.  About two and one half hours, southwest of Madrid, is the mountain village of Piornal.  In snow laden streets, men are chased by turnip throwing demons.  Those who survive reasonably intact, are newly virile. Move over Viagra. Our guest expert, Alissa Greenberg, tells the truth on turnip tossing. - See more at:
Just when one thinks they have heard of every wild festival in Spain, another bizarre event is tossed to the forefront.  About two and one half hours, southwest of Madrid, is the mountain village of Piornal.  In snow laden streets, men are chased by turnip throwing demons.  Those who survive reasonably intact, are newly virile. Move over Viagra. Our guest expert, Alissa Greenberg, tells the truth on turnip tossing. - See more at:

True Manhood By Dodging Turnips – Move Over Viagra

Just when one thinks they have heard of every wild festival in Spain, another bizarre event is tossed to the forefront.  About two and one half hours, southwest of Madrid, is the mountain village of Piornal.  In snow laden streets, men are chased by turnip throwing demons.  Those who survive reasonably intact, are newly virile. Move over Viagra. Our guest expert, Alissa Greenberg, tells the truth on turnip tossing.
By Alissa Greenberg
The morning of Jarramplas dawned clear and cold. It had snowed in the Sierra Gredos overnight, and a wintry paradise of delicately-frosted trees and families building snowmen greeted us as we approached Piornal, the highest village in Extremadura.
Despite its population of just 1,500, every year on January 19 and 20, Piornal hosts a festival that rivals the adrenaline of Pamplona’s running of the bulls and the happy chaos of Tomatina in Valencia. We had come to investigate.
- See more at:

True Manhood By Dodging Turnips – Move Over Viagra

Just when one thinks they have heard of every wild festival in Spain, another bizarre event is tossed to the forefront.  About two and one half hours, southwest of Madrid, is the mountain village of Piornal.  In snow laden streets, men are chased by turnip throwing demons.  Those who survive reasonably intact, are newly virile. Move over Viagra. Our guest expert, Alissa Greenberg, tells the truth on turnip tossing.
By Alissa Greenberg
The morning of Jarramplas dawned clear and cold. It had snowed in the Sierra Gredos overnight, and a wintry paradise of delicately-frosted trees and families building snowmen greeted us as we approached Piornal, the highest village in Extremadura.
Despite its population of just 1,500, every year on January 19 and 20, Piornal hosts a festival that rivals the adrenaline of Pamplona’s running of the bulls and the happy chaos of Tomatina in Valencia. We had come to investigate.
- See more at:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Vuelva Usted Mañana, Or: Adventures in the System

Monsieur Sans-Delai made a proposal to install improvements in a certain government department which I shall not name, since it is highly regarded. In four days we returned to learn whether our plan had been approved. “Come back tomorrow,” the doorman said. “The Chief Clerk did not come in today.”
“Something very important must have detained him,” I said to myself.
We went out for a walk in Retiro Park, and we met – what a coincidence! – the Chief Clerk, very busy taking a stroll with his wife beneath the bright sun of Madrid’s clear winter skies.
The next day was Tuesday, and the doorman said to us: “Come back tomorrow, because the Honorable Chief Clerk isn’t seeing anyone today.”
“Some very important business must have come up,” I said.
And since I’m an impish devil, I sought an opportunity to look through the keyhole. His Honor was tossing a cigar butt into the fire, and had in his hand a puzzle from the Daily Mail which he must have been having some difficulty in solving. “It is impossible to see him today,” I said to my companion. “His Honor is indeed very busy.”

That passage is from"Vuelva Usted Mañana" -- in English "Come Back Tomorrow, Sir." Written by Mariano Jose de Larra in 1833, it is a Kafka-esque satire of the unique culture of bureaucracy that mired Spain at the time, depicting the narrator's attempts to help a foreigner (the cleverly named Monsieur Sans-Delai) navigate the complexities of Spanish working culture.

Despite the exaggerated nature of satire, the personal demons de Larra was battling (he committed suicide three years later at the age of 28), and the passage of time, there is still quite the kernel of truth to be found in "Vuelva Usted Mañana" almost 200 years later. In general, my experience with bureaucracy in Spain has been just as thorny, surreal, and infuriating as that which de Larra describes, like the worst DMV--for non-Americans, Department of Motor Vehicles--you can imagine. (I should pause here to say that I have heard similarly nightmarish scenarios about foreign people living in the US. I know our government can be just as bad.) Here, the worst offender is definitely the Extranjeria, or Foreigners' Office.

Foreign non-EU nationals living in Spain need a residency card called a NIE, and the process to obtain one is hilariously complex. After filling out all the correct forms in triplicate and obtaining the right-sized photos (white background, no hats, no smiling) and documents, one must pay tasas, government fees that, for reasons that I'd guess are connected to anti-corruption, can only be paid at certain banks and not at the office itself. One goes to the bank, pays the clerk in cash, and receives a receipt that one then returns to the office as proof of payment. Sounds simple, right?

Well, first of all, when I renewed my NIE this year in Toledo the process had been designed so that you needed to pay two tasas, presumably to different entities. So far okay, just pay them both at the same time at the bank next door, easy peasy.

Except that the bank next store was open for exactly an hour each day for people without accounts who wanted to pay tasas; except the NIE process was such that one needed to pay the first tasa and come back to the office to get the documents needed for the second... then rinse, lather, repeat; the whole process had to start again, for no reason I can imagine.

I waited my turn in that taupe-walled purgatory full of crying babies and sullen faces, then gave my documents to a woman who hardly made eye contact as she read through them and asked questions so clipped she seemed to be swallowing the last three words. She gave me the first tasa and instructed me to come straight back to see her when I had finished.

The line was out the door when I paid the first fee, but I was lucky enough to make it in during the allotted hour next door. By the time I got back to the office, it was 1:00. I was starting to worry: the office would close in under and hour, and if I did not complete my paperwork it would mean disaster, as I was leaving to return to the US for the summer in five days. This would be my only chance.

The door was frosted glass, but I did the equivalent of the narrator in de Larra's story peeking through the keyhole: I peered in through clear, non-frosted edge of the door and saw that the desk was empty. 
"Do you know when the woman in that office will be back?" I asked the security guard.
"She went out," he said.
"Out? Out where?" I asked
"Sometimes she goes out. To smoke, or you know. She's just out."
"When will she be back? She told me to come see her, and I know the office is going to close soon."
He shrugged and turned to the next person in line.

I waited 20 minutes, cursing the empty chair. Finally, the woman appeared again. I got the second tasa, then sprinted around the neighborhood trying to find a bank that hadn't already closed (many banks close at 1:30 PM for lunch) and that would accept my non-account-holder money. The first two were closed, the third was members-only. At the fourth I hit pay dirt, paid my tasa, and sprinted back with 10 minutes to spare. 

"Sometimes I think they make the process so complicated to weed out people who can't handle it," another would-be immigrant said to me as we waited to drop off our paperwork.

“Permit me, Monsieur Sans-Delai,” I said to him half in jest and half in earnest, “permit me to invite you to dine with me on the day you have spent fifteen months in Madrid.”
“What do you mean?”
“You will still be here in Madrid fifteen months from now.”
“Are you joking?”
“Certainly not!”
“I shall not be able to leave here when I please? The idea strikes me as very funny indeed!”
“You should realize that you are not in your bustling, businesslike country.”
“Ah, you Spaniards who have traveled abroad have acquired the habit of speaking ill of your country so that you can feel superior to your compatriots.”
“I assure you that during the two weeks you are planning to devote to these matters, you will not even be able to speak to a single one of the people whose cooperation you need.”
“What exaggeration! My energy will rub off on all of them.”
“Their inertia will rub off on you!”

The narrator's blase attitude to the lack of "bustling, businesslike" behavior is entirely true to life. Much like Americans are resigned to the unpleasantness of the DMV, most Spaniards I've met have been annoyed by but resigned to the pace at which things get done in this country and the attitude many people take towards work schedules-- the same attitude that allowed the woman at the Foreign Office to take unscheduled breaks without telling anyone where she was going or when she would be back.

Take my roommate, Judith: at the beginning of this year, she needed to send some important documents via a private firm similar to Mailboxes Etc. I was present during at least a half a dozen attempts Judith made to catch the proprietor of the store while she was working, all during what were supposedly business hours. Each time we would arrive at the store to find the door locked but the lights on, the "open" sign mocking us. A couple days Judith even called beforehand to make sure the store was open. She was assured that someone would be there to attend her, but by but by the time we arrived the worker had stepped out. Where? It was anyone's guess. Judith was annoyed, of course, by all this-- as any human would be. But she was not surprised.  It's just how things work here, she said.

I even found myself repeating the same mantra during the aforementioned adventures within the public healthcare system. As the schedules changed with no warning, required document lists seemed to alter overnight, and I was told over and over "come back tomorrow with [x] and see [y], instead," I felt first frustration, then a heavy resignation. "It's just how things are" is a dangerous attitude in some ways, but it can be a comfort.

Very early the next day we went out together to look for a genealogist, which could be done only by asking one friend or acquaintance after another. Finally we found one, and the good man, stunned by our haste, declared frankly that he needed some time for this; we pressed him, and he finally told us as a great favor that we should come around in a few days. I smiled, and we left. Three days passed, and we returned. “Come back tomorrow,” the maid told us. “The master is not up yet.”
“Come back tomorrow,” she told us the next day. “The master has just gone out.”
“Come back tomorrow,” she said on the following day. “The master is taking his siesta.
“Come back tomorrow,” she answered the next Monday. “Today he has gone to the bullfight.” At what time can one see a Spaniard?
Finally we saw him.
“Come back tomorrow,” he told us, “because I have forgotten the document.”
“Come back tomorrow, because the final copy needs touching up.”

After all that trouble, I was supposed to wait for a document in the mail assigning me a date for a second appointment at the Foreigners' Office. Since I didn't have an apartment in Talavera yet, I put down the address of my school. However, throughout the summer, the document did not arrive to the school. It didn't arrive in September or October, either. This was a problem because not completing the process and receiving my residency card meant no health insurance  (the application for which was a separate long, boring adventure in Spanish bureaucracy in itself) and no ability to travel abroad. I called the office in Toledo every day for 10 days, and it either rang indefinitely or was busy for hours on end.

I could have ended up like Monsieur Sans-Delai, stuck in an endless parade of "tomorrow-itis", waiting for a resolution that would never come. I thought perhaps I would never get my card at all. Perhaps I would be stuck forever fruitlessly fighting the women working in the Health Center to assure them that I deserved insurance despite my difficulties. Maybe I would simply never be able to use my credit cards or travel outside Spain this year. I was even convincing myself that maybe that might be okay. Who needs a doctor or to spend Christmas with loved ones? 

Luckily, I discovered that there is one cure for "mañana-itis" Perhaps you'll have guessed it; I certainly should have. The key is Knowing Someone.

I had reached my wits end, getting busy signals and non-answers and "call back tomorrows" until... it came to light that the parent of one of the students at school knew someone in the Talavera branch of the Foreigner's Office. One day I was trying desperately to get anyone to answer the phone in Toledo; the next day I had all my documents stamped and was missing only the physical card, which would arrive the next week.

That day went by in a blur. At 9 am I arrived at school; I was informed at 9:30 that they had managed to get me an appointment in Toledo the next week, despite the missing document; at 10 that I needed to provide my passport information to the school administrator immediately; and at 10:30 that we would leave at 11:15 to meet the friend-of-the-student's-parent during her coffee break at the Talavera foreign office. At breakneck speed, the principal of the school whisked me around town to pick up my passport, take the requisite passport photos at a novelty photo machine, pay the tasa (only one this time), and then... somehow by 12:30 I was sitting in the Foreigners' Office, all problems resolved, never having had to return to Toledo, uncertain what was happening, but assured I could come and pick up my new card before traveling abroad to Luxembourg the next week.

A deep breath and a mental shrug are the only viable reactions to such things. With that level of confusion comes a kind of zen peace. Accepting the sheer opacity of Spanish bureaucracy means understanding that these things are out of your control, and sometimes you just need to let yourself get swept along in the tide and hope someone who knows better is working in your favor.

I shall confess to you that I do nothing today that can be put off until tomorrow; I shall tell you that I get up at eleven in the morning, and take a siesta in the afternoon; and that I spend seven and eight hours at a stretch loafing at a table in a cafe, talking – or snoring – like a good Spaniard. I shall add that when the cafe is closed I drag myself slowly to my daily appointment (because out of laziness I make only one), and that I can be found glued to a chair smoking one cigarette after another and yawning continually until twelve or one o’clock in the morning; that many evenings I do not dine because I am too lazy, and that I am even too lazy to go to bed!

In the last paragraphs of de Larra's story, he offers this list of some of the nicer aspects of Spanish life. Perhaps it's not how he meant them, but for me the passage serves as a reminder that it's not all bad here; in fact, far from it. It highlights for me some of the lovelier luxuries of the Spanish lifestyle and the motives and values that help make them reality. The pleasure of a siesta after school, a two-hour coffee outside under the trees in a cafe terrace, a long lunch on Sunday with friends, a leisurely walk down the Calle Mayor, a late-night beer in a tapas bar-- they all come from that same impulse to relax, to keep a less-hurried pace. If the price of all that is "Vuelva usted mañana," well... I suppose it's a price I'm willing to pay.


*The passages in this piece are excerpted from the website To read the full story, click here

Monday, March 24, 2014

Deep thoughts at the frutería

One of my favorite things about living in Europe is the commonness of butchers, greengrocers (known in Spain as fruterías), and small markets. I always prefer to spend my money at small businesses, and living in Spain makes that easy. One of my favorite things about my apartment this year in Talavera is that I live in a plaza that includes a mom-and-pop butcher shop, a frutería with an extremely chatty owner, several South American bodega-style shops that sell a little bit of everything, and a supermarket for whatever is leftover.

Today, while stocking up on produce, I overheard the following conversation (which, I may say, would never happen in a supermarket.) I assure you that it sounded even more lyrical in Spanish.

Customer: How are the clementines today?
Greengrocer: Sweet like love
Customer 2: But how sweet is love, really?
Greengrocer: Love is the sweetest thing! It's us who add the salt.

And that, friends, is your deep thought for the day.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Photo Post: Open House at the Bullring

Let me preface these photos by saying that in my three years in Spain, I have attended one bullfight. I had deeply mixed feelings about it-- a combination of, on one hand, fascination and respect for centuries of tradition and an aesthetically beautiful sport and, on the other hand, disgust, discomfort, and sadness at the celebration of the death of a living thing. I have talked with interest to people on all sides of the issue and have found something to agree with in all of their perspectives.

But this post is not about bullfighting. 

You will not see any photos of bulls at all. The photos below were taken during an open house held at the bullring in Talavera de la Reina, outside of the bullfighting schedule (in any case, a second string ring like this one only hosts a few fights a year.) The guided tour I went on was an opportunity to peek behind the curtain to see parts of the ring that the audience at a bullfight cannot, and the images presented here seek to share this glimpse with you. They do not put forward any opinion except that every controversy is worth investigating and that things that make us uncomfortable can still provide beauty.

"La Caprichiosa" bullring, reinaugurated in 1890 after some years of disuse, as viewed from outside in the gardens of Nuestra Senora del Prado. The ancient basilica, whose roots date from the year 602, can be seen in the background.

Perhaps my favorite shot of the day. The open house included a workshop in "toreo de salon" or "bullfighting for the living room," which attracted a number of adorable wannabe bullfighters. I caught this little boy living out his dreams with a traditional bullfighters cape, undoubtedly with the roar of an absent crowd in his ears.

The empty bullring encouraged exploration. Here, just by the divider before the ring itself, is where officials and ringworkers (including the all-important veterinarians) sit

The empty arena, with the Basilica rising behind it


Toreo de Salon from above, this time adding a practice bull made from an augmented wheelbarrow. I'm told all bullfighters start training with the wheelbarrow. These boys had stars in their eyes, just practicing in the ring.

This fence separates the "shadow" and "sun" sections of the bullring, which represents a significant difference in ticket price. Such concerns are paramount on summer afternoons with temperatures reaching above 100 F/40 C


At this point, our tour left the public portion of the bullring. We went first into an area from which we could see into the paddocks where the bulls are kept the day before a fight. (League rules require that bulls arrive at least 24 hours before a fight.) Bullring workeres use a series of catwalks above the paddocks to be able to check on the bulls' wellbeing from above, without startling the bulls or risking their own safety.
Here: a view through a chestnut tree growing in the paddock, looking up at the Basilica.

A small detail: door number 4 in the "chiqueros," the stalls where the bulls are kept directly before a fight


A more complete view of the chiqueros. They are closely guarded to assure that no one tampers with the bulls before a fight. In the cutthroat world of bullfighting, it has happened before.


A view of the "toreo de salon" action through the small door by which the bullfighter historically enters to greet the crowd


The sign says "All outsiders are prohibited entrance." I was pleased to get a shot from behind the door.

A terrifying look behind the scenes: the infirmary, in case of Worst Case Scenarios. (There is also a chapel on sight for similar purposes.)


The caretaker lives permanently inside the bullring, making sure everything is okay 24/7. He has quite a view out his back window... out his front window, too, now that I think about it.


Another blooming torero practices

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What I Learned From Getting Robbed in Madrid

The stunning cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
It had to happen sometime...
I've long held that theft during travel is a combination of luck and smarts. I've been traveling on and off for the last 7 years, and I've been generally careful and definitely lucky. In the few small incidents that befell me, the fault was squarely mine: I misplaced valuables that were then swiped by opportunists. But I was never outright robbed until two weeks ago, in a bar called La Morena Cantina in Madrid.

I love La Morena Cantina: it's funky and colorful, like all my favorite spots. Although it's a bit expensive, it has delicious more-or-less authentic tacos and Mexican beer that's hard to find elsewhere. Most importantly, every Thursday it hosts bilingual bar trivia, drawing a mix of Erasmus (exchange) students, English teachers, and Madrileños.

On this particular night I went with a group of a friends to trivia. Tom, Lucia, Elena, and Gianfranco are very nice people I'd met a few times but didn't know particularly well. We had met by chance at the Talavera feria (town-wide festival) in September when I overheard a group of people sitting near me speaking English -- not a common experience. They turned out to be Erasmus students from Italy and the US studying in Madrid. Bilingual trivia was right up their alley.

I had purposely chosen to make a stop in Madrid at the beginning of a long-weekend trip up to Galicia, the Celtic-tinged ultra-green region on Spain's wild northwest coast, to see my friends and squeeze in a little bit of trivia. The Cantina was still empty when I arrived, so I had the pick of seating, an unusual luxury. I was so early that I even had time to ask the waitstaff to stash my backpack (complete with computer) and suitcase in the kitchen. It was a good choice, given what happened later.

As always, I kept my over-the-chest PacSafe shoulder bag with me. It's something I always have on my person. I love it because it's a great size for day trips, allows you to keep your hands free if you are an absent-minded person prone to putting things down without thinking about it (like myself), and has all sorts of safety features. Since it's always with me, my general packing philosophy is that anything I don't want to lose should go into that bag, which meant on this particular night that virtually my entire life was inside. Prepared for my trip the next morning, I had my wallet, camera, mp3 player, prescription medicines, prescription sunglasses, house keys, favorite jewelry, a new book I was excited to read, and on and on and on. Of course, it doesn't matter how many safety features your bag has if you don't use them, and packing so many important things together was about to come back to bite me somewhere unpleasant. 

The trivia started, and we were doing pretty well. The food was delicious, the company was great, and I was so comfortable that I decided to break one of my cardinal rules. I put my bag on the ground, reasoning that it was safe nestled between the back wall, my body/chair, and my friend's body/chair. Mistake.

Then, during a lull in the game, I went to the bathroom. Mistake.

About 15 minutes later, I realized my bag, along with nearly $1000 in valuables and cash (all except my phone, which by some wonderful coincidence had been stuck in my pocket) was just gone. Disappeared. Made off with. Whatever you'd like to call it.

The scene of the crime (except totally full of people)
In the ensuing days, after my panic had subsided a little, I learned some important lessons. I thought I might share them with you:

1) Yes, it's about being smart AND lucky. And that means it's not all your fault.
As I said, I always suspected this; if you had asked me, it's the opinion I would have given. But I don't think I really knew it until now. 

My travels have included both stupendous luck and carefully-maintained levels of security with my belongings. Once on a train in Cornwall I forgot my netbook in an entirely separate train car for 45 minutes, and when I came back it was still there. In Japan I accidentally left a friend's borrowed cell phone at an ATM in a tiny village station when changing trains: when I returned no one had touched it. But I've also taken careful heed of friends' horror stories of thieves on the Madrid metro, keeping my passport carefully tucked away in an under-clothes pouch; after three visits to pickpocket-plagued Barcelona I maintained a 100% success rate by remaining constantly alert, with my bag close to my body.

What this night taught me firsthand is that luck and smarts don't operate separately. Sometimes it doesn't matter how well you care for your belongings: the thieves are just too good at their jobs. All it takes is that one unfortunate intersection, your lapse in judgement and the thief's eagle-eyed hunt. On another night, or even in another few minutes, perhaps my bag might have remained on the ground where I left it. No one else in the bar had an item stolen: I just made an easy mistake in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Over the course of that night and the nights that followed, I had to accept that. What I did wasn't smart, but what happened next wasn't my fault. I can't control my luck; I didn't ask the thief to come looking for me.

2) Sometimes you need to let people be kind to you
As I mentioned, when my bag was stolen I was with a group of very nice people I didn't know very well. We had only spent two nights together previously, a total of perhaps seven or eight hours. Nevertheless, they offered hugs and words of comfort, walked with me to the police station, helped me report my theft, let me use their phones to contact my parents, paid for my food and metro tickets, and were generally indispensable in a situation that would have utterly destroyed me had I been alone. Lucia even spent the majority of the next day helping me go to the health center to navigate the red tape of public medicine without local healthcare, as I was taking antibiotics and needed to replace them immediately.

Throughout the evening and the next day, I felt a constant, low-grade guilt. What were these people doing giving up their hard-won free time and resources for an almost-stranger? Part of me wanted to absolve them of their responsibility, assure them that I could manage on my own, and free them from this annoying and upsetting ordeal. But the truth is that, between the bureaucracy, trauma, and lack of resources (no money, no identification) I couldn't have managed on my own. I needed them around. I needed to let them be generous with me.

A victory lunch with Lucia in Plaza Olavide, Madrid, after successfully recovering my prescriptions and bank information

3) Humor is key, no matter what
While we waited at the police station for me to report the theft (a key part of the recovery process in Spain is showing proof that you have reported the items stolen), Gianfranco went to get something to drink. He came back holding a can of Aquarius, a popular drink that tastes like a mix of Gatorade and piss. "Well," he announced solemnly, looking down into his can with disdain, "As I always suspected, police station Aquarius is just as disgusting as regular Aquarius." 
I couldn't help it-- although I had been holding back tears, I burst into giggles. We all did. It felt really good.

4) I'm stronger and feistier than I think
In the moment after the robbery, I considered with some despondence all the items I needed to replace immediately (antibiotics, asthma medication important to my recovery from bronchitis, bank cards, etc) and later on (ID, various technologies) and the complications those lost items would create. It seemed like I had no choice but to go back to Talavera, tail between my legs, and spend my would-be Galicia vacation putting my life back together. However, as we waited at the police station for them to take my statement, a new and unexpected emotion overtook me: defiance.

I had been a little teary previously, but now my eyes were dry. "You know what?" I said to my friends, "Screw this. I'm still going to Galicia. I'm going to figure out a way. These people already stole my bag; they're not going to steal my vacation. I'll track down the most urgent items and go tomorrow evening, a few hours late."

Elena looked at me appraisingly. "I definitely didn't expect that from you. You have cojones, lady," she said. You have balls. It's true: I do!

Looks like a painting: the stunning Galicia coast

 5) Never let your guard down when it comes to valuables in a public place. Seriously, never.
This might seem like the most obvious advice, but it's easy to underestimate the power of familiarity. I think my main fault here is that I allowed myself to become complacent. I've been in Spain almost three years; I've been to Madrid at least 15 or 20 times. When I'm in a new place with any number of unknown factors and strange surprises, I am always alert. Ironically, the moment a place starts to feel familiar is when I'm most vulnerable. However, in a city like Madrid, which is so plagued with street crime, you can never let your guard down. You can never assume that familiarity equals security, no matter how many friends are around.

6) Some things are out of your control; that goes for the bigger picture, too.
I've said that part of the lesson I learned from all this is that some things are out of my control: making mistakes is inevitable, and if your small error happens to coincide with bad timing, there's not much that can be done. Letting go of that control (and self-blame) was not easy.

Similarly, I had to work hard to keep myself from running endlessly through all the different ways the situation could have played out. I am a believer in the butterfly theory (that small things can change the direction of a course of events dramatically), and as I tried to make sense of that evening it was very hard not to lose myself to wondering. For example, that day it had previously looked like I could take a BlaBlaCar (a wildly popular car-sharing system here) directly from Talavera to Lucia's house in Madrid, but at the last moment it fell through. That's how I ended up taking the bus and going straight to the Cantina with all of my stuff. If that BlaBlaCar had worked out, perhaps I would have decided to leave at least a few of my valuables at Lucia's place. What then? Or what if I had just thought to use one of the safety features on my bag, which allows the owner to clip the shoulder strap around a table leg, making it harder to snatch? What if I had chosen another table to sit at? What if I had waited to use the bathroom? What if, what if, what if?  Who knows what those small choices might have changed?
No matter what, thinking about all that now is not helpful. Instead, I have to remember the useful lessons-- making that bag clip a habit, for instance--and then take a breath and continue my day.

7) Life goes on
I'll admit that the first twenty minutes after my bag disappeared felt catastrophic. Of course it wasn't (much, much worse things happen to people every day; I am well aware of that), but it still felt huge and overwhelming and violating and sad. And yet the next day with Lucia's help I ran around the city getting prescriptions, figuring out special bank transfers to get some cash, cancelling my credit cards, borrowing a temporary purse, finding a new way to Santiago. With all that finished, my weekend in Galicia was still completely wonderful, with highlights including a sweaty, raucous Galician music party called a foliada; a relaxing dip in the hotsprings by the river in Ourense; a delicious lunch of fresh-caught octopus by the river in Noia; and a spur-of-the-moment heart-stoppingly beautiful trip out to the Castro de Baroña, a 2000-year-old Celtic ruin in a spectacular setting on a small peninsula on the wild coast. Yes, I had pangs of regret, sadness, and anger about my loss. But I still enjoyed the weekend thoroughly. Life goes on, if you let it.

At the foliada in Santiago
8) In the end, people are good
I've written on this topic before, but it's worth repeating. Before I left for my trip around the world, I did not have any particular opinion on human nature. If my year-long adventure in 2009 taught me anything, it was to have faith in people. In each place I visited, it was plain to me that, with a few exceptions, people just want to understand each other, to connect with each other, and to help each other. Remarkably, this incident did not change that conviction-- in fact, just the opposite. Nearly every single individual I encountered (besides the thief him or herself) throughout this ordeal was generous or kind or patient with me, from the medical administrator who snuck me into the system so I could see a doctor to the banker who joked gently with me while he set up my money transfer to (of course, and more than anything) the group of friends who supported me through a difficult night. Who knows what motivation the thief had in taking my things? Who knows what he or she needed? These are difficult times here in Spain, and although of course it might have been about drugs or gangs or shady business, the thief might just as well have used his/her ill-gotten gains to feed a family.

I'll never know-- but I do know that, along with a little extra care with my belongings, being robbed has taught me that my faith in humanity is harder to shake than I thought.

The majesty of the Castro de Baroña

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Guest post! Food diary for Yummyfoto

Have you ever wondered just exactly what I'm eating over here? My lovely friend Linda blogs about food over at Yummyfoto, and she asked me awhile back whether I would be willing to write a five-day food diary for her in the style popularized by New York magazine's Grub Street blog.

Well, I finally found time to keep the diary and write it up this past month-- it was fun to do! I timed the whole shebang to coincide with an American friend's visit. We ate well, as you will see... very, very well.

Click here to enjoy five days of deliciousness!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Catalan Christmas in February (Part 2): Scatalogical Humor Edition

My Catalan family and me, posing Christmas 2010 with Caga Tio

The world-famous city of Barcelona is many things: cosmopolitan, rich in history and cuisine, full of pick-pockets, and completely fascinating, to name of a few. It's famous for its storied soccer team and nightlife and for the long-standing independence movement that would separate it and the larger region of Catalunya from the rest of Spain. But that is not what I am here to tell you about.

No, I am here to tell you poop jokes.

I've already taken pains to describe some of the things that make Spanish Christmas unique, but there are a few important -- and, in my opinion, quirkily hilarious-- Catalan traditions that I specifically left to discuss separately. Catalans (people who live in Barcelona and the state of Catalunya) speak a separate romance language; have many separate festivals and holidays; and, if you buy into the prevailing wisdom, are generally more serious and buttoned up than other Iberian people.

... or maybe not so buttoned up. There are two Catalan Christmas traditions that are unique when compared to any others I've heard of anywhere in the world. Celebrating two Christmases in a row (2009 and 2010) in Barcelona gave me a healthy appreciation of both. Warning: if you don't appreciate scatalogical humor, read no further. But if you want to know what poop and the manger in Bethlehem have in common, read on. First up:

1) The Caganer

Vulgar? Yes. Hilarious? Yes.

The first thing you need to know is that cagar in Spanish (and, one assumes, Catalan) means "to take a crap," or possibly something more vulgar than that, a word I'll try to use minimally on this, a family publication. Next, recall that the creche, or nativity scene, is an important part of Spanish Christmas, playing the part that Christmas trees do in the United States. Okay: now that you have been armed with that information, I can explain to you that the Caganer is an important and unique figure in the Catalan creche. Traditionally, he is dressed in traditional peasant clothes, wears a floppy hat, smokes a pipe... and is crouching down to take a bowel movement. Yes, right there in the manger, usually in the corner. Sometimes the porcelain even includes some tasteful tendrils of steam rising up from the fresh specimen.

No one knows exactly where this tradition comes from, only that it goes back hundreds of years (the first recorded Caganer dates from the 18th century.) Some historians say it's a fertility thing; most throw up their hands in confusion. What's for sure is that the Caganer remains as essential a part of the Catalan creche as the angels or the wise men. In fact, in recent years manufacturars of creche components have started to vary available Caganer options-- they make pooping wise men, pooping angels, pooping politicians and athletes. In googling around for images to post in this entry I saw Obama caganers, Angela Merkel caganers, Leo Messi caganers, and more. Basically, chances are that if there is a person in the public eye somewhere in the world, he or she has been immortalized in porcelain mid-poop and sits festively in a Catalan businessman's nativity scene on the Costa Brava.

2) Caga Tió

Mr. Poop, himself, ready for action
Time for a pop quiz. Do you still remember what cagar means, from part 1? If so, you probably can guess the direction we're headed here. To get the full effect, you also need to know that tió is old Catalan for "log." Put the two together and you get the Pooping Log (or something a bit more vulgar if you prefer), and it is exactly as absurd as it sounds.  Caga Tió is a jaunty Christmas visitor made out of a log (of varying size) painted with a face, wearing a red floppy hat, and smoking a pipe. He is the Santa Claus of Catalunya.

Now, say it's the first week in December-- time to decorate your Barcelona apartment! You put up some tinsel; arrange your creche, complete with pooping angel; and head to the Christmas market to find the perfect Pooping Log. The first step in selecting a proper Caga Tió is to decide on size, shape, and temperament. Is he smiling? Is he smoking? Is he tiny or enormous? Which one do you prefer?

Caga Tiós of all sizes at the Barcelona Christmas market
Now, you place the lucky log in a place of honor in the living room, and twelve days before Christmas, the fun starts. Every night little Catalan children leave snacks for Caga Tió, much as American kids leave cookies for Santa or carrots for his reindeer. The idea is to fatten Caga Tió up before Christmas Eve. In the morning the food is gone, having been dispatched by parental late-night munchies. Take care not to put on weight during this week-and-a-half of illicit snacking!

Finally, on Christmas Eve, all is prepared. As in other parts of Spain, multiple generations of your family gather together to eat a late, multi-course dinner, which usually includes sopa de galets (soup with pasta shells) and carn d'olla (stewed meet with vegetables.) Then, at midnight everyone sits down together in the living room. Trying not to let the children see, you cover the door with a blanket,  place all the presents under a chair behind the blanket, and put Caga Tió in front so all but Mr. Poop himself is hidden from view. (Another common set-up is a stack of gifts covered with a blanket and with Caga Tió as king of the mountain.)

Then the fun starts! The children of the family hit poor Caga Tió, all bloated with 12 days of food, with a stick (we used a wooden spoon) and sing a traditional song. I won't hide how hilarious I find the lyrics, especially in context as sung by angelic-faced children to a lovely tuneful melody.

Caga tió,
caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
caga tió!"
 Shit, log!
 shit nougat,
 hazelnuts and cheese.
 If you don't shit well,
 I'll hit you with a stick.
 Shit, log! 

"Caga tió,                        Shit, log,
tió de Nadal,                    log of Christmas!
no caguis arengades,       Don't shit herrings,
que són massa salades    which are too salty.
caga torrons                    Shit nougats,
que són més bons!           which are much better!

When the log can take no more, one of the adults waiting behind the curtain pushes the presents out from their hiding place behind the blanket, making it appear that Caga Tió is pooping presents.  (As one might guess from the lyrics, older traditions had Caga Tió bringing only torrons, or nougat, instead of today's gift haul.) The song is repeated until all the gifts have been opened. The rest of the evening is taken up sitting around the living room singing Christmas songs, drinking coffee or wine, and slowly drifting off to bed. Merry Christmas, indeed!

(If this reminds you of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo from "South Park," you aren't the only one. Although I've never ready anything definitive, it seems impossible that the beloved/hated character would have absolutely no connection here.)

*Due to a translation error, this post has been updated throughout

Merry Christmas in February from Wide Eyes Wider World!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Spanish Christmas in January (part 1)

Plaza San Francisco, Linares, all decked out
I've lived in Spain for almost three years, but my experience with Spanish Christmas goes back further than that. Long-time readers of this blog may remember that Spain was my last stop on my trip around the world in 2009, when I spent 10 days over Christmas with my dear friend Toni and his family in Barcelona. The next year I returned for a week in Andalucia (stopping in Sevilla, Malaga, and Cadiz) and a second round of Catalan Christmas with Toni. In 2011, when I moved to Spain, Spanish Christmas already felt like an old friend.

... which is why I was surprised to realize I have never written anything in depth about these traditions, especially when there are so many interesting ones. Since I am anticipating that this year will mark my last Christmas in Spain for awhile, now seems an excellent time to correct this egregious error:

The Christmas season starts more or less officially in Spain during the first week of December, specifically at Candelaria on December 8. Around that time, Christmas lights and other decorations go up throughout the country, from the most elaborate in Madrid to the most simple in tiny Huelva villages. In my five Spanish Christmases, I have concluded that Christmas lights in Spain are of a very specific style. Unlike in the US, where strings of white or multicolored lights and tacky neon reindeer rule, Spanish lights are hung from cables that crisscross streets and boulevards, creating bold, blocky patterns or loop-de-loops that are very distinct from the American-style.

Typical Christmas lights hang on a street in Cadiz
The hanging of lights is often accompanied by installation of a Christmas market in the town square or one of the city plazas. Although Christmas trees are becoming more popular as American and British traditions trickle into Spain, most families still have a carefully-constructed nativity scene in their living rooms to mark the season-- in Andalucia in particular, these can grow to enormous sizes. People devote huge amounts of time and effort to constructing entire tiny Bethlehems, many of which include water features, electric lights, and timed sunrises and sunsets. In Linares, the government sponsored an enormous nativity scene that took up an entire empty store on the shopping street. Given the centrality of the nativity scene, the Christmas markets usually boast a section devoted entirely to selling tiny ceramic wise men, camels, or angels; they also offer decent amount of schlock and, if you're lucky, some respectable arts and crafts. Last year I bought a gorgeous handmade stool crafted from a whole olive-tree stump for 10 euros.

The nativity scene at my school in Talavera de la Reina
Traditional Christmastime food differs according to region, but one particular favorite of mine can be found throughout the country: mantecados and polvorónes. Stay with me for a moment here: much like the famous square-rectangle conundrum, polvorónes are mantecados, but not all mantecados are  polvorónes (the difference has to do with the specific recipe.) The nonetheless similar sweets are a sort of crumbly shortbread originally introduced by the Moors (ironic, yes?) Interesting fact: later on, the key ingredient was switched to pork fat, and the Inquisition forced detainees to eat the sweets in order to ferret out secret Muslims and Jews (manteca is pork lard in Spanish.) These days, mantecados and polvorónes are most popular in Andalucia but can be found almost literally everywhere during December. They are extremely delicious and terrible for you.

Christmas sweets. The paper-wrapped sweet on the lower right is a mantecado; the foil wrappers are polvorónes and the others are marzipan and candied fruit from Aragon, two other traditional Christmas treats
Christmas anticipation runs up to December 24, also known as nochebuena (the "good night"). Spanish families all over the country gather to eat Christmas dinner starting around 10:30 or 11 and finishing, in leisurely fashion, after midnight. Except in Catalonia (more on that in the next entry), no gifts are exchanged, but the meal is generally of many courses and includes extended family that has come from all over to eat together. After the last of the flan is finished off, everyone goes out for the night-- nochebuena is known as one of the most raucous "nights out" in the entire year. The bars are filled with people of all ages well into the next morning, when many people like to partake in chocolate con churros. This past year, when I spent Christmas in the white towns of Cadiz, we started our night out at 1 AM. I took a nap around 3:30 and my friend Maria woke me at 4:45, when we left to continue the party at a friend's country house. There, festivities (including Christmas carol singing, listening to Spanish metal, and drinking red wine with Coca-cola) continued until 8:30 AM. Needless to say, I didn't last that long.

The next morning, when the entire village/city has dragged itself out of bed to drink an espresso and attempt to recover... still Christmas is not over. In Spanish, people refer to "navidades" in plural, and my personal theory is that this is because it is refers more to a "Christmas season" than a single day. Besides Christmas Eve and Day the term also refers to New Year's Eve (nochevieja or "old night"-- no one has ever explained to me why it's called that)  and 3 Kings Day.  New Year's Eve is celebrated much the same as its Christmas counterpart, with a multi-course all-family meal that lasts until the wee hours. The major difference is a pause at midnight: as the clock strikes 12, families all over Spain endeavor to eat one grape in tandem with each strike of the cathedral clock-- a challenging task, as the grapes here generally have seeds. I'll let my roommate, Judith, explain to you what an impossible task that is: "Every year I try, and every year I end up like a hamster with my cheeks full of grapes, wishing everyone 'Happy New Year'-- and my parents say, 'Judith, don't talk with your mouth full,'" she explained to me cheerfully earlier this month, as we caught up on our Christmas vacations.

Christmas in the white villages of Cadiz; hot chocolate in the town square of Prado del Rey
And yet, even with the grape ordeal in the past, Navidades is not yet complete-- not until January 6 and the arrival of the Reyes Magos (the figures that Americans know as the three Wise Men but whose names are frequently translated here as the "Magic Kings.") Although Santa Claus has made an appearance in Spanish pop culture in recent years, he is not the beloved bringer of presents that he is elsewhere. Spanish children must wait until the morning of January 6 to see what the three Kings of biblical lore (you know, they followed the star to Bethlehem, or something? Don't ask me, I'm a Jew) brought them. The "Dia de Los Reyes Magos,"  full of presents and -- you guessed it-- another multi-generational multi-course meal, is preceded on the evening of January 5 by the "cabalgata de reyes magos," an elaborate procession-cum-parade through the streets announcing the arrival of the Kings. Virtually every community in the country, from the smallest town to the largest metropolis, hosts its own cabalgata, usually featuring Disney characters with oversized heads, some of whom arrive on horseback. The cabalgata in Madrid is largely agreed to be the most impressive, including a great many floats; public opinion generally has it that the quality of other cabalgatas has waned dramatically throughout the country with the onset of the economic crisis. Still, crisis or no, the cabalgata is a must for every under-15 child in town, seeing as every parade includes some frankly intense levels of candy throwing. I know of children who bring umbrellas to turn upside down in order to catch a maximum quantity of sweets. 

From there, I guess you can imagine the rest. Keyed up children, zooming around the house powered by candy overdose; comatose post-sugar crash kids heading sleepily to bed; those same tykes waking at an ungodly hour to see what the Kings have brought (this year they brought me my very own marker/crayon/colored pencil set, complete with pencil case-- there is so much coloring in my future!). And then, once the presents have been opened, the three-course lunch consumed, the last drop of coffee drunk... only then is navidades finished...

... until the next day, when rebajas (enormous city-wide after-Christmas sales) begin, of course.

Christmas lights by the ancient wall in Talavera. I am unsure what special effect I accidentally engaged to make them twinkle like that, but I don't mind. I kind of like it.