June 25, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Traditions

Or maybe, how not to. I’ve been asked by countless people how to “blend” in a bit more here, particularly with my impending wedding and some 40 Americans making the long journey to Spain. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to clarify how to stand out like a sore American thumb and how not to (largely after nearly four years of learning the hard way, I should add). I will preface this with the disclaimer that these are obviously generalizations on my part, so of course not everyone falls into these categories ;)!

How to look like an American:

    1. Wear flips flops anywhere but at the beach or non-beachy locations (I used to wear flip flops like it was my job – I now realize that Spanish women from Madrid would sooner be caught dead than consider such a thing a wardrobe staple).
    2. Wear a sweatshirt, or even better, a hooded sweatshirt…or if you really want to up the ante, wear a hooded sweatshirt sporting your university’s name on it.
    3. Baseball hats. Period.
    4. Gym clothes anywhere but at the gym (or anything resembling pajamas anywhere outside of the house). Seriously, people here don’t even wear their gym clothes to the gym – they change there.
    5. Any sort of summer clothes before it hits 80°F, maybe even 85°F. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worn a dress with no tights in 80°F weather and had Spaniards interrogate me about how cold I must be!
    6. Running shoes anywhere but at the gym and other outdoor excursions (and maybe not even at the gym – Spaniards seem to like to wear street shoes at the gym….and swim trunks).
    7. Ugg boots – I can spot an American college student from a mile away because of these things.
    8. Wear sports paraphernalia, or better yet, wear a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap (oooh, or a visor!!) representing your favorite team! Don’t forget those running shoes either!

In case you’re not super eager to look like an American, why not Spaniard-ize yourself? Here’s how:

    1. Wear anything with “GAP” or “Abercrombie & Fitch/A&F” written on it. (I didn’t know Gap even sold stuff with their name on it anymore. They must apparently do so in order to fulfill the massive European demand for stuff that says “GAP,” because certainly no one in the US is buying it – not since 1995 anyway).
    2. Men: wear really colorful ties and pants. Actually, all parts of your outfit should have colorful potential (salmon is a particular favorite).
    3. Women: wear tights, boots and scarves until it reaches at least 85°F.
    4. Older men: messenger hats = instant Spaniard (a cane and a cardigan will give you added street cred).
    5. Women: every once and awhile just wear LOTS of purple. Make sure everything you wear is some shade of purple – it doesn’t matter what shade, all purples match and you can never ever wear too much of it.
    6. Ladies, during summertime, don’t leave your genie/hammer/parachute pants at home.
    7. Wear Levi’s and only Levi’s – no other jean exists in your world.

I was bound and determined to get photographic evidence of these fine specimens of American-ness and Spanish-ness, but you see, it’s not so easy trying to discreetly play paparazzi. Lord knows I saw my fair share of people looking very American at airports in the last weeks while in the US, and no joke just today after 15 minutes in downtown Madrid I’d already seen three people proudly donning A&F t-shirts. But alas, I have no photos. That said, if you spend just a day walking around Madrid’s center, my point will easily be proven. You just can’t help but chuckle at how distinctly our cultures express themselves even though it may not seem so obvious to the inexperienced eye.

I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up. Now excuse me while I put on my purple hammer pants with a UOP sweatshirt and flip flops.

June 18, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Traditions, Travel, Trips to the US

A few blogs back, I introduced you all to some of the very uniquely fantastic jobs that can be found in Spain. One of them was the mariscadora (best described as an awesome shellfish digger lady) – a job that I’ve had my eye on for awhile now because I believe I am particularly qualified. Why? Well, it just so happens that I’ve perfected my shellfish hunting skills after a lifetime of digging clams on my grandparents’ beach on the island of Vashon in Washingon’s Puget Sound. Yes my friends, I like to hunker down in the rocky island mud with my rake and bucket and hack away at the land to find those happy little shellfish – clams.

It’s an especially gratifying task on so many levels. You aggressively scrape at the pebbles, shells and crabs using your “where’s Waldo” eye to spot the ribbed texture of the clams. There’s something about the rhythmic raking of the land, the peaceful lapping of the tide, and the resulting pride of conquest, that make the experience a soothing one. Never mind the muddy hands, burning hamstrings and aching back – it’s a labor of love! When you see your bucket full of shellfish grinning back at you, you can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment.

I’m reminded of this as I’ve spent the last couple days in the US taking in the expansive view of my grandparents’ harbor. I can hear the beach calling my name – to dig that is. It’s not a tropical beach by any stretch of the imagination – and not just because it’s in Washington where sunny days seem to be far and few between. These beaches are rocky and covered in a blanket of barnacles and muscles. Walking along the shores during low tide, the only sounds you hear are those of the shells and rocks crushing beneath your feet, the peaceful ebb and flow of the water, and the constant chatter of the seagulls. These are the sounds of tranquillity, but not of piña coladas (although I could go for one right about now).

Vashon proudly considers itself weird – no joke. Many cars brandish a bumper sticker declaring “keep Vashon weird.” It’s a flash back in time – virtually nothing has changed in my lifetime of making trips here. And there’s something about this that is so refreshing. Considering you have to take a ferry just to get to the island, you are truly isolated in a land unto itself. All the more reason to focus and hone your clam digging skills, don’t ya think?

So yes, as I sit here stranded on this weird little island, I find myself relishing in the opportunity to build my shellfish-digging resume in hopes that one day I can be a mighty fine mariscadora.

With that, I do believe it’s time to go check on my happy little clammies and change their water.

June 11, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Trips to the US

I’ve been driving in Spain for a few years now and still marvel at the free for all that is the Spanish open road. There are many different rules of the road in this foreign home of mine, but I think the most consistently different one is that the rules very rarely apply.

Red lights, no parking zones, double parking, bumping into people’s cars, and cutting other drivers off are all reasonable methods of driving on a daily basis. Traffic signals in Spain are recommendations rather than rules – people regularly ignore them. Park where you want for the most part, especially on Sunday when the parking ticket people don’t work – that’s a particularly fantastic park-wherever-the-heck-you-want day. If you scrape up against someone’s car, no big deal – all the cars are full of dents and dings, so much so actually that regular car insurance usually covers you to have your car fixed once a year. Do you need to get into another lane? Skip the blinker and just start inching (centimeter-ing???) your way into the other person’s lane – it doesn’t matter how close you come to them, they’ll make room.

It’s actually kind of liberating. When I park my car, I don’t worry about tapping (eh hemm – banging into) the other car (these days, I typically use sound and feel to park rather than vision). Or if I park slightly over a driveway entrance, crosswalk, or otherwise I don’t have to live in fear that the DPT (the parking ticket people in SF) will come after me. If I cut someone off, I don’t feel bad (OK, maybe I do just a little). Or when I’m in the heart of Madrid and need to wait for someone or something, I love that I can just pull over in a massively busy rotunda and sit there in my car for hours while watching police drive by and not even give me a second look.

On the other hand, when you’re driving down a one-lane street and a car decides to just stop, throw on the blinkers and leave for awhile, you then don’t find it so amusing. For the most part though, I think the Spaniards are pretty good drivers. It’s disorganized, but people know more or less what they are doing and can zip around pretty well. Strangely enough, there is one rule that they do follow steadfastly – the rule of stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks. Even the craziest driver will slam on their brakes if a person is waiting to cross. I suppose since us Americans pretty much walk nowhere, we’re not so acquainted with the concept of people using their legs to navigate streets in order to get to places (in our defense though, we don’t have bakeries and cafes on every street corner like they do in Spain!).

I’m reminded especially of these peculiar differences in the ways of the road because I’ve actually just arrived back in the States for two weeks. First of all, I find myself speaking to everyone in Spanish because I’m incapable of flipping my English/Spanish switch. And then, I find it equally as difficult when driving to remember that yes, I can indeed turn right on a red light, and no, I can’t bang into other cars, and yes the speedometer in my car is in MPH not KPH therefore driving 120 is a really bad and very illegal idea.

So, for all our sake, here’s hoping that flipping my driving switch will be easier than flipping my language switch.

June 5, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid

I still remember my first curious discovery at the Spanish grocery store like it was yesterday. Perusing the produce section, my nose was accosted by a waft of sweet yet bitter smelling air, which was shortly followed by me realizing that I was surrounded on one side by a wall of pig legs (and let’s be honest, it was then followed by me promptly bolting in the opposite direction). Often the source of tourist spectacle and curiosity, the jamón (ham) in all its pig leg glory is more than a key part of Spanish culture and one of the many unique things I’ve come across at the markets here.

You’ll find those jamóns hanging in bars, restaurants, and by the hundred at the local supermarket. You’ll even find them proudly displayed on people’s kitchen counters, which I unexpectedly learned during my first Christmas in Spain. As is often custom, Jacobo received a fine leg of jamón from a client as a holiday gift. Sure enough, I came home and there it was, like a trophy, pointing its black foot at me. My first reaction was “hmm, this will surely be a good diet as I will indeed stay out of the kitchen,” followed several short hungry minutes later by “Jacoboooooo, get this thing out of here!!” After three years, things have certainly changed, and I can’t quite decide whether I’m proud or ashamed. See, now when I walk through that same part of the produce section, flanked by jamóns, instead of shrieking, my mouth starts watering. Yes people, the site and smell of pig legs now gets me excited.

Moving on to another lovely item that I’ve come across at the markets here, and consequently ended up trying and loving – gulas, which are basically, drum roll please….faux baby eel. Ahh, these lovely little suckers have an appearance that could put just about anyone off. Apparently the real baby eels, called angulas, are terribly expensive but considered an absolute delicacy, therefore they’ve created the imitation version to pacify people’s passion for the wormy-looking critters. The funny part is that I’m fairly certain I couldn’t stomach consuming the real and highly coveted version, but since they are fake, they seem much more appetizing. Despite their peculiar appearance, I’ve come to love them – saute them with a little garlic and olive oil and you’ve got yourself quite a healthy and tasty meal.

Something I generally couldn’t imagine considering as a bizarre market find would be milk and eggs, but sure enough, Spain has left me with one raised eyebrow. Growing up in the US, you usually rush home with your groceries for one very key reason – because of the milk and eggs (ok, and the ice cream too, but that’s irrelevant to my point). Hurry up and get those things in the fridge! Well not in Spain. First of all, the milk is typically sold in cartons in the regular food aisles – that is, not in coolers. These cartons preserve the milk for up to several months (the cartons to the left are good until August!!), which means you can take your sweet time getting back home. Then there are the eggs. Someone lied to us Americans about the eggs. Not only are the eggs at the Spanish grocery stores not refrigerated, but people here occasionally don’t even store them in the fridge once they get home. Instead, they leave them on their counter-top for up to a couple of weeks before considering them to have gone bad. Now I’m not saying that we should throw our food preserving habits out of our American and non-Spanish windows, but next time you bolt home to get your goods in the fridge, remember that you’ve got more time than you thought. On a similar note, don’t even try and find white eggs here for Easter egg dying (fortunately, though, the brown ones don’t turn out so badly).

These are just a couple of the random items that I’ve come across here at the Spanish markets, and really there are a million more, but somehow I assume I’ve managed to desensitize myself to them. I can only imagine the beyond strange findings at grocery stores and markets in more far off lands. I suppose I don’t need to imagine though as this blog is a part of the Foreign Food Finds Blog Carnival by the Lonely Planet Featured Bloggers – it is being hosted by a fellow Californian blogger in Spain, Orange Polka Dot.

Update: After reading this blog, my grandma has informed me of the following, “the milk in Europe has been irradiated, which is illegal in the US though periodically they try to get the law changed. Europe has done this for years – when I was there in the early 80’s milk was on the counter to my amazement. I didn’t know they irradiated eggs though I think they do meat, too. Anyway don’t try leaving your California eggs on the counter two weeks. You won’t be happy.” Only reading briefly about what irradiation is, I’m super confused as to why it would be something that European countries would be on board with. I’ll have to do some more digging. For now though, keep your milk and eggs in the fridge (says Grandma).

June 3, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Travel, Travels in Europe

Or perhaps it would be more precise to begin with the things I actually did know about Luxembourg. I knew it was a landlocked country in Western Europe that often got lost in the shuffle (in my mind anyway) of the BENELUX acronym. Before leaving on my trip, I was generally met with shrugged shoulders as a response to Luxembourg as my destination. So I departed with no expectations, which, in my opinion, is always the best way to travel.

Upon arriving at its miniature airport, we hopped on a bus and made our way 15 minutes into the city center. With only 500,000 residents in the entire country, “hustle and bustle” would definitely not be a way to characterize the pace of life there. The streets were only sprinkled with cars here and there and the sidewalks empty in comparison to any other major city.

We ventured into the heart of Luxembourg City to visit an old friend of mine whom I actually used to own a flower business with back in the States (who ever would have thought we’d both end up living in Europe!). She and her husband moved to Luxembourg for work and were gracious enough to show us around the 1,000-square-mile country that they now call home.

Luxembourg is pristine and immaculate, period. Its streets are spotless, its flower beds perfectly groomed and its buildings look like they must receive a fresh coat of paint each month. I suppose this isn’t altogether surprising given this country’s high income economy and its ranking as the second largest investment fund center (behind the US). They’ve apparently got euros to spare (I hear Spain could use a hand out 😉 ).

We spent the weekend getting lost in the small city’s windy, hilly and cobbled streets that are lined with homes that recall those of fairy-tales – so perfect that they almost seem like a facade straight out of Disneyland. The city is cut by deep, gaping valleys that are overflowing with lush green trees and speckled with quaint houses and gardens. In one of these valleys you will also find the Grund, a darling neighborhood we visited for dinner that is nestled along the Alzette River (see first picture).

Given that it has changed hands a time or two during the course of history (Spain, France, Austria, The Netherlands, the list goes on…), not to mention its proximity to (rather that it is squished between) so many other European countries, or the fact that 60% of its population are foreigners, it’s no surprise that the cuisine is a conglomerate of cultural influence. From German potatoes and sausages, Belgian chocolate, to French pastries – picking the best from each of your surrounding countries certainly doesn’t make for a bad national cuisine (although my waistline might disagree).

The big question when you enter into any one of its restaurants or shops is which language to speak!? While the most commonly used language in Luxembourg is apparently French, you will just as easily find people speaking German or even Luxembourgish (with all three being considered official languages). Sure, you can get by with some English, but not as much as I’d expected given the English fluency of some of the other multilingual countries in Europe (such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, etc.). We found ourselves in one restaurant gesturing wildly with a waiter who didn’t speak English. After finally placing our orders via sign language and confused facial expressions, we somehow managed to figure out that the fellow was perfectly fluent in Spanish, thus opening the flood gates for communication. I suppose to some extent I’ve gotten used to travel (in Europe, that is) where you can either speak English or get by because you speak Spanish. For example, in Italy, Portugal, or even France, the languages are similar enough that generally people can understand one another. Not knowing which language to even try to speak was boggling to me – I found myself going through a laundry list of thank yous whenever I left a shop – “merci, umm danke, I mean thanks, or gracias??”

I arrived in Luxembourg knowing virtually nothing about the country, but ended up leaving in awe of its charm and livability. Beautiful, clean, safe, centrally located – what more could one ask for? Oh yeah, sun and warm temperatures. Call me crazy, but if it doesn’t regularly reach 85°F, then it’s probably not the place for me. Either way though, I could definitely get behind having a second home there nestled in its green valleys.