June 30, 2008 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Europe

Wow – what a week. I don’t know where to start….you might want to get comfortable. So, a couple of highlights before we headed off to Amsterdam. The long weekend started with Spain winning the Euro Cup semifinal!! You can imagine the excitement around here. Then on Friday, we went to a huge concert just outside of Madrid to see Jack Johnson (among others)! Jack on a massive stage with thousands of screaming Spaniards seemed a little bit out of place, but as usual, he was fantastic in concert.

Early Saturday morning we hopped on a plane to Amsterdam (isn’t that fantastic – I can actually “hop” on planes to visit places in Europe! I still can’t get over it). The plan was to stay at Jacob’s friend Troy’s place (Troy is originally from Chicago), see Amsterdam (it was my first time) and go to a pub crawl that Troy had planned for Saturday night. When we got to Amsterdam we discovered that Troy’s apartment was your typical darling Amsterdam home on a very central charming street. I fell in love with the city right away – with its small tree-lined streets, beautiful buildings with window boxes full of flowers, canals, and of course all of the bikes! All of the streets have a special path (and we’re not talking about a bike-lane here) just for the bikes – it’s crazy!

Right after arriving and getting settled in, we decided to venture out into the city. We had planned on renting bikes, but the weather seemed unpredictable, so we opted to walk instead. It’s a relatively small city, so we were able to take in a good portion of the city in just a couple of hours. We ended our walk in Rembrandt Plaat where we actually met up with my friend Marianne, an old colleague from VeriSign, who was coincidentally visiting Amsterdam at the exact same time. It was so refreshing to see a familiar face!

That night we headed out for Troy’s pub crawl. It involved getting dressed up in silly costumes and then going to four different pubs and finally ending in a disco. It was a super friendly international crowd – people from England, the States, Russia, Spain, France and The Netherlands of course. It was a great time!

The next morning, after a small breakfast just outside of the city center, we headed out on Troy’s boat for a tour of the canals. It was absolutely amazing to ride through the canals and see the city from such a unique and special perspective. Nothing like boating slowly through the red light district! We were so lucky to have such a privileged opportunity, not to mention such a great host.

The takeaways from the trip? First and foremost were the flowers, specifically the peonies. I have never seen such beautiful flowers in my life – I could live there for the flowers alone. I am pretty sure I was close to tears (of joy of course!) when we walked through the flower market. Also very fascinating to me was how well the Dutch people spoke English. It’s incredibly bizarre – they speak English with a near perfect American accent, and EVERYONE speaks English!!! Jacob made a good point – most of the bigger countries here (France, Spain, Italy, Germany, etc) all watch US television shows and films with a localized voiceover, however smaller countries (such The Netherlands and Portugal) must watch in English and therefore have much, much better English and American accents. Anyway, it was quite strange, almost unsettling. What was funny though is that everyone there actually mistook me for being Dutch (finally, I don’t stand out like a sore thumb!!!) and would initially speak to me in Dutch. After nearly three months in Spain, I felt quite flattered to be treated as a native :). Too bad I can’t speak a word of Dutch (and don’t plan to any time soon – what a language!!). Oh and yes, the most striking takeaway – the Dutch are friggin blond giants!! At 6’4”, Jacob was average in height at best, and I was sadly shorter than average. Who knew!?!

Last night was the Euro Cup final between Spain and Germany, and much to our disappointment the game was to be played during the exact time of our flight. We arrived in Madrid with just five minutes left in the game. Jacob’s mom put the phone by the TV so that he could listen in, and I instant messaged with Ben…before we knew it though everyone in baggage claim erupted in cheers – people singing “Viva España” and “Campeones!!”. Spain won 1-0! It was a long night of fireworks and horn honking. A very proud day for Spain to be sure.

So folks, I will be returning to the US this Wednesday for a month and a half. I can’t wait to get back and recharge a little bit. The food, the weather, the people, the English language, organization and efficiency(!!!) – I’ve missed it all so much! I’ve missed everyone and hope that we all get a chance to visit before I head back to Spain. See you soon!

June 23, 2008 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Traditions

Who doesn’t love paella? And a good homemade one at that! But let me keep your mouth watering for a little bit and start earlier in the week.

The week began with more cold and rain but it seems to have finally turned into a Spanish summer – the last few days have been hot, hot, hot. The week brought more English classes and exciting developments in the progress of my residency here. On Thursday I headed to another cata de vinos, but this time with Jacob’s sister Paloma as Jacob was in Paris on business. Afterward we headed out with a friend of hers and had dinner outside on a terraza and enjoyed the perfect Madrid evening weather. Nothing beats having dinner outside on a terraza during these warm summer nights. On Friday I traveled into Madrid to meet up with Jacob’s aunt Ana Maria to take a walk around Retiro Park and go for lunch. It was a hot day, but Retiro was beautiful – all of the trees were so full and lush from the ridiculous amount of rain we’ve had (since the minute I arrived here!!!). Saturday Jacob I headed to Plaza Mayor in central Madrid to again enjoy the amazing evening weather and dinner outside in the busy Plaza.

So, the paella! Yesterday Jacob and I headed to his parents house for lunch. Lucky for me, his mother cooked my favorite – tortilla! Her Spanish tortilla is the best, hands down. If you haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying Spanish tortilla, you are missing out. Just to clarify here, Spanish tortilla in no way resembles a Mexican tortilla, they aren’t even closely related – Spanish tortillas are more like omelets consisting of egg, potato and onion. As if the tortilla weren’t enough, Jacob’s mother cooked an amazing seafood paella as well! I am pretty sure it doesn’t get much better than authentic homemade tortilla and paella!

The weekend ended with the quarter final Euro Cup soccer game between Spain and Italy. Soccer is obviously a big deal here, but the quarter final of the Euro Cup is pure pandemonium (especially when it’s against the Italian world champions). Jacob and I opted to stay in and watch the game rather than going out. After a full game and overtime with no scoring they finally had to make penalty kicks, resulting in Spain’s win!!! At the end of the game you could hear the entire neighborhood and city yelling and cheering. There was so much excitement that Jacob and I headed into downtown Madrid to see the festivities. It was nuts! If you were in Madrid last night and in your car, then you were incessantly honking your horn – literally the whole city was consumed by horn honking (even hours after the game). The streets were covered with people proudly displaying the Spanish flag in one way or another – cars, motorcycles, you name it, everyone was waving their flag proudly and screaming. I knew this country was proud before, but last night that became brutally clear. You truly haven’t seen fans, or country pride, until you’ve seen Spain after an important soccer game. Thursday will be the semifinal game against Russia….I can’t even begin to imagine what will happen if Spain wins that one.

We are off to Amsterdam this weekend and then I will be returning home to the States after that for a month and a half. The adventure continues!

June 17, 2008 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Spain

I’d been north, east and south of Madrid, but had never traveled west, so this last weekend we headed to the province of Extremadura. The first highlight of the trip was the amazing weather – almost too warm at times. It was so warm that we were even able to lay out at the pool for awhile!

Our trip started in the small historic town of Trujillo. It was there that we stayed both Friday and Saturday night in the Parador of Trujillo. The Paradores in Spain are a chain of hotels that usually occupy old historic buildings. Trujillo’s Parador is in an old monastery with tranquil courtyards, fountains and even a chapel turned into a restaurant. Trujillo is a typical Spanish town with small narrow streets that are rocky and cobbled. The city is sprinkled with many small churches and then a castle at the top of the hill that looks out upon the valleys all around it. Both nights we had dinner on terrazas (patios) in Plaza Mayor, the main square. The weather each evening was so perfect and the Plaza so vibrant that we couldn’t have asked for anything more.

On Saturday, after walking through Trujillo and visiting the castle, we made the small drive to the town of Mérida. While Mérida the main city isn’t anything to write home about, it’s Roman ruins are. The city’s Roman ruins reminded me very much of my recent trip to Rome, but of course on a my smaller scale. Mérida’s ruins include a coliseum, an amphitheatre, an aqueduct, bridges, and more. It’s amazing to see the far reaching influence of the Romans all over Spain and Europe thousands of years later.

Sunday brought the most impressive part of the trip – Cáceres. Cáceres is another city in the province with an absolutely charming historic town. Jacob had not yet been in the historic town so he and I were both blown away. The city’s small winding streets are constructed out of an almost radiant color of orange rock, and the buildings seemed to be made of a variety of colorful types of rocks. It gave the city a certain glow that I haven’t seen in the other ancient Spanish towns. That coupled with the blooming bougainvillea and ivy crawling on many of the street walls was enough to make me fall in love with the little town! Definitely a “must see” place here in Spain.

As if we hadn’t packed enough into our small weekend, we decided to drive through a national wildlife preserve on our way home. The park is known for a certain area where you are able to watch the many vultures hovering over the valley. We drove there and discovered that we could hike up to the top of a mountain where there was a small 11th century castle/tower (of Arabic origin). Once reaching the top we were actually able to climb inside the castle and stand on top of it, at which point we had a 360 degree view of the entire landscape around us, including the Tajo River as well as the many gliding vultures. It was quite a sight.

Now I am back in Madrid, with the clouds teasing me with rain again. The forecast indeed says that it may rain today. I guess I can’t complain after such a fantastic weekend though! By the way, has anyone heard about the crazy gas strikes by the truck drivers here? If so, the footage they’ve been showing on TV in the States has been of the freeway right here where I live! I even saw the building of my English school company in the background on the Today Show (which I download daily)! Such a small world!

June 8, 2008 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine

Another week without a big adventure, and yet, as usual, so full of adventures! The first important news is that it FINALLY stopped raining!!! The bad news, however, is that it is cloudy again today and may rain for the next three days….one step forward, two steps back I guess. The other good news? The light at the end of the tunnel? They finally got my name right at Starbucks!!! A big “muchas gracias” to the creators of the movie “Erin Brokovich” who must have really pushed hard with the publicity here in Spain. I’ve learned that if I say “como Erin Brokovich” then everyone knows my name! Small victories people!!! Although, I am still trying to decide if I should be concerned that I am being associated with a women who dressed like a prostitute….

So what could have been the disaster of my week pretty much turned out to be the highlight. Cooking/baking here has continually been a challenge for me, so I thought cinnamon rolls seemed like an easy enough item to bake in a foreign country, right? I’ve nearly given up on exotic Asian foods, but everyone has butter, flower, sugar and so on, don’t they??!!! It never seems to quite sink in for me that it is actually impossible to make anything here without a massive struggle to find ingredients (much less cooking equipment like rolling pins!). The smallest things can pose the biggest challenges – like the butter (there are no marks on the outside to measure the quantity! It’s just a big brick!), vanilla (no extract!!! only powder!!!), or powdered sugar (it comes in a container that is the equivalent of a spice jar – yes, I have to either crack the thing open or sprinkle it into a bowl for several hours until it measures two cups). But, all’s well that ends well – last night, after being completely certain that my cinnamon rolls would turn out to be a disaster (I actually had Jacob go to the store and buy ice cream because I was just that convinced!), I ended up making the most insanely delicious rolls on the planet – frosting and all!!! It was no small feat, but in the end it was worth it!

Poco a poco, little by little, it’s feeling more like home here. I really look forward to seeing everyone when I visit my other home, in CA, this summer though!

June 2, 2008 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travels in Spain

Well, first of all, it’s still raining here!!! I am very optimistic that this week the weather will take a turn for the better though….it has to! My week was filled with many more adventures involving me getting lost in the rain trying to get to my English classes. Now that I am at home and dry I can laugh about it :).

This week’s main excursion included a small Sunday trip to Patones de Arriba. It is a very tiny town about 45 minutes north of Madrid. The village is nestled in a valley in the mountainside and all of the small buildings and streets are composed completely out of slate. What is so fascinating is that it appears about 75% of the town exists as ruins on the hillside – you can see the walls of what seem to be many, many ancient homes, all made out of slate. We were able to hike up onto the hillside and walk among the many old homes – it was quite the historical playground. There were also beautiful views of the valley below. With all of the rain lately everything was so green and lush (it reminded me of home a bit, tear!).

As is tradition, we opted to have a meal in Patones. The small towns here in Spain are known for their amazing cuisine because they usually have speciality dishes that they have made for centuries. As a result, we love to try the food in each of the places we visit as it is very much a part of each city’s history and culture. I realize my salad probably wasn’t a cultural favorite of the locals hundreds of years ago :), but I definitely enjoyed bites of Jacob’s dish!

After our visit to Patones de Arriba we took a short drive up to the Presa de Atazar (the Dam of Atazar). I don’t think I have ever seen a lake in Spain, so this was quite a beautiful site. I posted a small album from the entire trip to Patones de Arriba in the “albums” section of this site if you are interested!

More to come next week!