Month: January 2011

It Happened in Brussels

It seemed the Universe (capital U universe here) was conspiring against us. First, I left my passport in Zamora, sitting neatly in a forgotten drawer. My brain? I left that in the U.S. It’d be nice to have it back. Then Mario set two—count ‘em, two—alarms and they both failed us. We woke up at 9, just as our bus to the Valladolid airport was leaving. Oops. Luckily for us, it was a holiday and Mario’s parents drove to Salamanca to take us to Valladolid. After that, however, things went more smoothly. I’ve had experience with RyanAir before. I lovingly call it “Contest Air,” but this time I was pleasantly surprised and pleased. We got seats on the emergency exits, affording us with a bit more legroom than usual and this subtle change was enough to lift my mood until we arrived in…BELGIUM!

Belgium is not a country one hears much about. Do not let that diminish its importance in your mind. It is, after all, the home of Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union. Brussels (and Belgium) is a mixed bag of sorts. It is historically Dutch-speaking, but French is common and, in Brussels, English is the most common. It is quite the blessing to have English as one’s native language, as it is the go-to language for all international communication, and often leads to rather funny translations.

All that’s well and good, but let’s focus on the important things. Namely, chocolate. And waffles. A trip to Belgium would be incomplete without both of these confections, sold on every street corner and almost comical in their ubiquity.

Mario enjoying a waffle with chocolate sauce

But we mustn’t forget about their frites either, which are fried not once but two times and often served with garlicky mayonnaise. This scent is drool-inducing. We also sampled local beers, for which Belgium is quite famous. They’re also known for the mussels, moules, which are, you guessed it, served with frites and probably accompanied by a deliciously strong Belgian beer.

But enough about the food. How about some monuments? We visited:

The Grand-Place, the central square of Brussels, which is filled with flowers in the spring/summer.

The omnipresent Cathedral

Manneken Pis, literally meaning “man pee,” a small bronze statue depicting a naked boy peeing into the basin. The statue is dressed in costume several times per week according to a public schedule.

Um yes, more chocolate shops. What??!

We even found wooden shoes. And no, Dad, we didn’t buy any. Sorry ’bout your luck.

Nothing better than exploring a new city with the person you love!

Brussels might have been brutally cold, but it ain’t nothing compared to Chicago last year, as Mario reminded. Yet it was also strikingly beautiful, a city of two languages and cultures, meshed together with a cosmopolitan, European vibe. I liked it, but it was Bruges that captured both our hearts. More on that…next time.

P.S. A very happy birthday to my best friend!

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My Top 10 Myths about Spain

What do you think of when I say “Spain” or, even better, “España”? Do bulls, flamenco dancers, and jarras of sangría spring to mind? Do you imagine yourself in a sunny land of jolly ladies wearing typical dancing outfits singing all the while? Well, I got news for ya, kid. That just ain’t true.

I’ve had ample time and opportunity to get to know Spain on a deeper level. Spain has, like any country, several stereotypes and myths that are perpetuated by the media and/or Big Brother, depending on how you see it. I’d like to address some of these myths and stereotypes.

  1. The relaxed attitude is refreshing. Not true. It might be nice when you’re on vacation, but when you live here, it’s sometimes frustrating. See my post on the siesta for an example.
  2. Sangría is Spain’s national drink. Uhh not really. If anything is Spain’s national drink, it’s red wine. Perhaps cañas (beer) in the summertime. But sangría is mainly for tourists. 
  3. Flamenco music is popular. I’ve never seen anyone dance flamenco. That’s partly to my location (northwest Spain), but also partly because, well, flamenco is a very particular type of music and it’s not an everyday thing.
  4. Spanish food/culture is similar to Mexico. This one really grinds my gears because Spain, um, Spain is in Europe. They are much more similar to the Portuguese or the French (sorry, Mario) than they are to Mexicans. Their food is not spicy, not by a long shot. Any amount of chili peppers in their food would probably upset most Spaniards’ stomachs. So, not everyone who speaks Spanish in the U.S. is Mexcian/South American (hello, my boyfriend).
  5. Bullfighting is very popular. Nope. It used to be a lot more popular, but nowadays many Spaniards have never even been to one. It’s expensive and can be rather hot in the middle of the summer, especially if you choose the cheaper seats (the ones not in the shade). Actually, Catalonia has banned bullfighting, although this doesn’t stop them from participating in other forms of mild bull torture.
  6. Everyone in Spain speaks Spanish. While yes, most people do speak Castilian, there are four official languages of Spain: Castellano (what we know as Spanish), Basque, Catalán, and Galician. In specific regions of Spain, the children must speak either Basque, Catalán or Galician in their schools, even though those languages’ scope is quite limited. Basque itself is somewhat of an anomaly, its origin being unknown.
  7. Tapas are a type of food. Tapas can be anything: ham, olives, omlette, fried squid…anything! It’s a way of eating. Often, groups of friends will pool their money, buy everyone a round of a drink + small bite of food, and then head to the next bar until everyone has paid for a round. It’s quite fun and a cheap way to eat lots of different kinds of typical Spanish foods.
  8. Spain is a very Catholic country. Spain has a long, storied history and much of it involves the Catholic church. This is true. You cannot go more than half a mile in most Spanish cities without seeing at least two churches. The great sites often involves churches and/or cathedrals. (See: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.) However, although 73% of Spaniards self-identify as Catholic, most do not participate in regular worship, according to the Spanish Center for Sociological Investigation. You can expect there to be a lot of religious symbolism and a lot of holidays based on Catholic traditions, though.
  9. Spaniards are very healthy eaters and are typical of the Mediterranean diet. It’s true that Spaniards tend to eat more healthily than Americans. But things are changing in Spain, too. My students, when asked what their favorite Spanish food is, came up with “Pizza!” “Spaghetti!” “Hamburgers!”, not exactly what I’d call health food. Mario’s mother is a very traditional Spanish cook and makes healthy meals, based on fresh produce and meat, but nowadays it is easy to find frozen pizzas, Doritos, and large amounts of ready-made meals in Spain’s grocery stores, too.
  10. Spaniards are super friendly, outgoing people. I think this is another Andalusian thing, much like flamenco. The people in the South of Spain do tend to fulfill this stereotype better, but even then, let’s not go too far. Just because they greet you with dos besos (two kisses) does not mean they like you or would even hug you. The kisses are just like the handshake and, besides, you don’t even really kiss, you just touch cheeks and make kissy noises. (Weird? Perhaps.) The Castilian people tend to be a bit colder, not necessarily rude, but just not outright happy to see you all the time. They’ll take their time getting to know you but once they do, you probably are a friend for life. Mario’s parents have taken me in as their honorary daughter and worry way too much about me. They probably wouldn’t walk up to a stranger on the street to ask him how he was doin’, but they certainly make sure I’m well-fed and happy. (I don’t think there’s been one dish at one meal that Pepita hasn’t asked, “¿Te gusta, Kaley?” (“Do you like it?”)

After this post, I hope you’ve come to understand Spain’s nuances a bit better. It may be small in size (about the size of Texas), but it makes up for it with a wealth of culture (and some great food)!

La Siesta

Spain has imported several words into the English language: fiesta, guerrilla, loco, jade, and many more. But none so important as the siesta. What is the siesta? You may think it’s just a nap. But you, my friend, would be wrong. The siesta is so much more than a mere nap. It’s a national pasttime, and Spaniards are dead serious about it.

The word siesta comes, like most Spanish words from Latin, meaning “la sexta hora” or “the sixth hour.” The siesta should preferably occur when the sun is at its highest point and, thus, it is the hottest part of the day. In this way, one avoids the sun’s potentially damaging ultraviolet rays. Also, this means that you’re not out when it’s boiling hot, as it often can be in the meseta of central Spain.

Spaniards’ schedules are quite different the typical North American’s. They typically eat a small breakfast (e.g., digestive cookies and chocolate milk/coffee) and perhaps have a small snack during the traditional 11 AM coffee break when all the employees go to the nearest café to drink tiny cups of coffee and eat pinchos of tortilla española or jamón serrano. Lunch is typically from 2-4 or even 2-5, with most Spanish families sitting down to eat between 2:30 and 3 PM. This means that the meal is often not over until 3:30 or even 4. After a delicious meal involving copious amounts of carbohydrates in the form of crunchy baguettes, the need for sleep hits you fast. My eyelids are usually drooping even as I am drinking my after-lunch coffee and Mario’s father is encouraging me to eat some dessert. The bed looks soft and it is tempting, and so I succumb to a delicious 45 minute nap. (Mario tells me this is too long and should actually be anywhere from 15-30 minutes but I’m foreign so he lets this pass.)

All of this is well and good. I mean, who doesn’t like carbs and napping? I certainly can’t voice any objection to either one. However, the siesta is a nationally practiced sport and that means nothing is open. Oh sure, if you had a heart attack they might consider opening the hospital for you, but nothing else is open. You’d like to shop on your lunch hour? No can do. Need to buy stamps? Uh uh, girl. Wait until 4:30 at least and probably 5:00 because some of our naps last longer than others. Don’t even think about getting your hair cut! How could you?

After all, the siesta is a sport. One might even have to train for it. Hey, I’m up for that. Do not laugh at the picture that follows: TThis is a chair designed especially for the siesta. Why is this necessary? Well, it’s not. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend approximately $2,500 on it, right? Right?

All this talk about naps has me tired. The bed is looking particularly comfy, so don’t mind me…I’m off to echarme una buena siesta!

My English Skills

Nothing like teaching English to make you doubt your language skills.

Just the other day I was having a coffee with some fellow English teachers in Zamora when one brought up a question to which I did not know the answer. Would you say “I work in an Italian restaurant” or “I work at an Italian restaurant”? The thing is, both sound okay. But if you said “I work at a university” it definitely sounds more natural than “I work in a university.” (P.S. Someone please help me explain to a 13 year-old Spanish child why we say “a university” if “university” begins with a vowel … I get it, but explain it? Nuh uh.)

How does one explain such nuances? I, for one, am at a loss. Nuances are not exactly the first thing you teach a budding English student, yet such nuances come up quite often. Nuances are the key to sounding native, not forced. I am often striving to understand them because I hate sounding so utterly foreign. They are the most elusive of language sounds, skills the elite etain. Thus, I want them. (I’m what you might call a perfectionist. So sue me.)

My boyfriend is constantly reminding me of a certain truth: language learning seems to slow to a crawl once you get to the proficient stage. For instance, when you begin to learn a language, you learn large amounts at time. You learn house, boy, girl, car, mail, short, etc. These are easy words, simple to ascertain. But there comes a point where you know all those easy words and the things you don’t know are much more complicated (nuanced): verbs like depose, idioms, slang, pronunciation, accent … you see what I mean. For me, this is intensely frustrating as I often feel, perhaps mistakenly so, that my own progress in Spanish is, well, nonexistent. Mario assures me this is not so, but I’m so good at convincing myself that what he says often goes in one ear and out the other.

So, I began to lean on my English skills, taking pride in my ability to understand it, as weird as that may sound. English isn’t easy, as proven by my students inability to speak it correctly. Yet I get it, truly understand it in a way few people have the privilege to. Then up came those doubts mentioned by my fellow language assistants and that upset the little balance I had going. Oh well. I suppose I’ll find something else upon which to place my pride.