November 1, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Expat, Traditions

Carving pumpkins in Spain couldn’t make me feel more American. There’s just something about the way people look at me when I go to the grocery store and my eyes light up at the sight of a pumpkin – a pumpkin that is sadly small, has black stickers for eyes and a mouth, and includes attached directions on how to carve it. The look of joy on my face says only this: AMERICAN. And also perhaps: I miss pumpkin patches.

Good thing I’ve got my American amigas. Remember them? We’re holding down the Halloween fort here in Madrid. Our get-together last week was pure festive nerdiness (mostly thanks to Michella – teacher, decorator and chef extraordinaire). Somehow our patriotism (mostly related to awesome holidays) manifests itself in carved pumpkins, decorations, pumpkin-flavored cupcakes, pumpkin-shaped rice krispy treats, and multi-seasoned roasted pumpkin seeds. America is good, so so good.

I hope you all had a marvelous Halloween! I celebrated mine by further confusing Spaniards about my nationality (apart from when I’m perusing pumpkins at the local market) and dressed up as a beer wench (a classy one).

Here’s a little taste of America for you all, fresh from Spain.

*If you are an Americana living in Madrid, join our Facebook group here.

September 13, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain

I am perhaps overly excited to share with you all the US release of the book Or the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster – an author with whom I had the fortune of meeting some months ago. He’s a Brit by blood, but based in Valencia, and married to a stunning Spanish flamenco dancer. Considering I’m fascinated by all things Spain, when I learned of his book last spring, I quickly snatched it up from Amazon UK.

And I couldn’t put it down. I seriously gobbled up every last word. Not just a murder mystery, the tale takes you on trip right to the heart of Spanish culture – from bull fighting, to cuisine, traditions and the pink press. I knew the storyline would be based in Valencia, but I never expected to so vividly experience and contemplate Iberian culture – something I think I know a thing or two about.

If you like reading, or like a good mystery novel, or just want to get under the skin of Spain, then I promise you will be as obsessed with this story as I am (seriously, if you aren’t, I’ll treat you to a caña). I feel honored to have had the opportunity to pick Jason’s brain a bit about the creation of the story, and more important, to find out when to expect the next book in the series (yes, series!).

LTV: I understand that you didn’t know much about bullfighting prior to writing the book – so what made you decide to write about it?
JW: Bullfighting is one of those iconic Spanish things that – whether you’re attracted to it or disgusted by it – any student of Spain has to look at and grapple with at some point if they want to further their understanding of the country. I’d written books on Flamenco, the Moors and the Spanish Civil War, and I wanted to find out more about bullfighting, so writing this book was one way of doing that. Bullfighting throws up all kinds of moral questions – it becomes less and less of a black-and-white issue the more you delve into it. What are its origins? Why do people find it so fascinating? How is it ever justified? What does it say about the Spanish, and about us as humans? These were all questions I wanted to look into when I started my research.

LTV: What was your opinion on bullfighting before the book? Did researching arguments on both sides sway your opinion one way or the other?
JW: I deliberately took a neutral position, suspending judgement as much as possible. Any other approach would only end up clouding my vision. And the result is that I’m still very much on the fence on this. Not that I don’t want to come down on one side or the other, but the more you understand about a subject the more difficult it is to think of it in simplistic terms. And bullfighting is very complex. So my main character – Chief Inspector Max Cámara of the Spanish National Police – approaches bullfighting as someone who hates it, essentially, but has to find out more about it in order to investigate the murder of Spain’s top matador. In so doing he learns things about himself, and his own violent urges (and those of others).

LTV: When researching the story, was there anything you learned that especially surprised you – whether it be politics, the police department, bullfighting, etc?
JW: The biggest surprise came when I met the head of the Valencia murder squad – the ‘real Max Cámara’. It turns out that ‘he’ is actually a ‘she’. Spain is still quite a macho society, and it’s no mean feat for a woman to reach such a high position in the Police.

LTV: What was the hardest part about writing the book?
JW: I had to pick up the basics of the crime genre, which meant quite a steep learning curve. There are certain rules and norms which more-or-less have to be obeyed before you can even begin to write the book. Essentially you have to work out very thoroughly two different but linked narratives – that of the murder and that of the investigation. The reader only sees the second, but the writer has to have both very clear in his/her head.

LTV: Where did you find inspiration for your characters – from specific people? How was the idea for Max Cámara born?
JW: The main characters – my detective Max Cámara; Alicia, a journalist; Torres, Cámara’s police side-kick; and Hilario, Cámara’s anarchist dope-growing grandfather – all appeared in front of me almost fully formed. I didn’t want to intellectualize the process too much, so allowed my instincts to take over as far as characterization was concerned. I’m going to be living with these people for some years (I’m just finishing the third novel now), so they need to be as real and as organic as possible.

LTV: I understand that there will be more Max Cámara books in the future, can you tell me a little bit about them and/or give any clues about future storylines? When will the next book be available?
JW: The second book in the series is called SOME OTHER BODY and is also set in Valencia, involving the murder of a paella chef, the abduction of an abortionist and a visit to the city by the Pope. It’s published in the UK next February and will be coming out in the US in September 2012. The third in the series is provisionally titled THE ANARCHIST DETECTIVE and takes place in Cámara’s home town, Albacete.

LTV: Will this book or future books be available as e-books?
JW: Yes, all of the books will be available in electronic format.

LTV: Do you plan to release the book in Spanish?
JW: We’re negotiating with Spanish publishers at the moment on this, so watch this space!

To get a copy of the book please click here – and yes, clicking exactly HERE will give me a minuscule cut of the sale so that maybe, just maybe, I can afford to peel myself away from the computer to get some jamón and cheese or something. Happy reading!

*To find out more about the book, and particularly Valencia, check out the video below. (Thanks, Erik from American in Spain, for sharing this!)

September 7, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe, Video

Just admit it – you barely knew the country of Georgia existed before I started flooding your inbox and RSS feeds with blog posts that make you so hungry you think you’re going to burst. But now, you’re extra curious about this peculiar Eurasian nation. So, since I’ve reeled ya in, here’s a little video giving you yet another taste of the country. (Be sure to watch it until the end – I think it’s hilarious, but I’m also easily amused.)

If you are having trouble viewing the video, please click here.
To see pictures from my trip to Georgia, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page or Flickr page.

August 31, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe

Georgian foodsIt’s true. I’ve been cheating on my dear Spanish food not only with Turkish desserts, but also with Georgian cuisine. What can I say – I’m a tad unfaithful and culinarily promiscuous. But when it comes to food, I’m just not a one-cuisine kind of gal! Let me introduce to you to my latest food love affair.

Bread is king in Georgia. These people eat bread like it’s the last day of their life – multiple kinds of bread at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And I get why – because it’s off-the-charts good. The most famous of the breads is the lavashi. Often made in a signature oblong shape, the soft, squishy bread is perfect for eating by itself, with a Georgian cheese, or just soaking and scooping up whatever you have on your plate. My other bread favorite was mchadi – a cornmeal based patty typically served hot and which Georgians love to slice in half, stuff with cheese and eat like a sandwich (genius!!).

mchadi georgia
Hello, Georgian pizza, can you please come back to Spain with me? This little delight mixes the scrumptiousness of the aforementioned bread, with, you guessed it – cheese! Across the country you’ll find different variations from cheese on top, to cheese inside. Batumi, the beachside town that Eastern Europeans flock to, even boasts its own special version – a boat-shaped bread that cradles a mixture of melted cheese, a semi-fried egg and a slice of butter, all which you must mush up with your fork and then eat until you explode or have a heart attack (whichever comes first).

khachapuri, Georgia
I spent my first several days in Georgia thinking that the only sweets that those folks ate included watermelon (I’m still not amused – sorry, Georgia). But after nagging a little, my Georgian amiga, Sophia, revealed her country’s sweet tooth – a sweet tooth fulfilled by some finger-licking-good pastries. My favorite, kada, is basically just a fat roll of what I would consider to be crumbly pie crust. I know, why didn’t anyone think of this sooner, right?? Then there’s a sumptuous cream-filled pastry, called shu, that I may as well just bag and hook up to an IV drip. Why they don’t eat this stuff with the same reckless abandon as they do bread and watermelon is just plain beyond me.

pastries, georgia, kada
coffee float, georgiaCoffee float
On hot summer days, it’s not uncommon to see locals slurping their Georgian-style coffee floats through colorful straws. And it should be mentioned that Georgians do love their ice cream – a fluffy, almost whipped frozen treat that often comes prepackaged in soggy cones. Kind of sounds unappetizing, but I’m not going to lie – it hit the spot (apparently I have a lot of spots).

Herby, spiced, crack-filled (OK, maybe not crack) sauces
For a good portion of our trip, Sophia hesitated introducing us to the more flavorful (read: spiced and spicy) Georgian cuisine for fear that we wouldn’t like it. Apparently past guests (many of which were Spaniards who are averse to spicy cuisine) didn’t care for the dishes. One taste, though, and we were s.m.i.t.t.e.n. Served with meats or veggies, the chashushuli sauce is typically mixed with fresh herbs like cilantro and dill, and spices such as hot pepper and flavored salt. The result is an irresistible concoction that I would eat everyday of my life on and with just about anything that I can get my hands on. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can’t be friends with someone who for some reason doesn’t love it. If you like Indian or Southeast Asian cuisine, then I promise you will be obsessed with this dish too.

veggie dish

Honorable mention
Georgia serves up several other universally loved dishes that I too enjoyed, but not with the same embarrassing passion as those mentioned above. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention khinkali, which basically looks like giant dim sum (and kind of tastes like it too). To eat it Georgian style, pick it up with your hands and take a bite of the base, slurping up its broth while you eat.

Then there are also the kebaps, which come as crepe-wrapped ground-beef. The meat is blended with the same mixture of fresh herbs and spices as the crack-sauce mentioned above. Dipped in a little Georgian ketchup (not really ketchup, the tkhemali is a sweet-meets-sour sauce made of a fruit similar to plums) and you’ve got yourself a winning combination.

Still curious about Georgia? Don’t forget to read more about my impressions on what makes Georgia unique.

August 29, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions, Video

Every year, I’m drawn back to good old San Sebastián de los Reyes for another round of watching drunken teenagers narrowly escape angry bulls. Somehow, as I hide my face behind my hands, I can’t resist the urge to peek through my fingers and watch the train wreck of an event that is the second largest running of the bulls in Spain. But rather than tell you about it, here is some footage from yesterday’s run along with a few pictures.

plaza de toros, san sebastian de los reyes, running of the bulls, encierros
charging bull, encierros, san sebastian de los reyes, plaza de toros
bull fighting, dodging bull, san sebastian de los reyes
bull fighting, encierros, plaza de toros, san sebastian de los reyes