August 25, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Asia, Travels in Europe

watermelons in GeorgiaAnd while we’re clarifying – forget about peaches, today it’s all about watermelons. But first, a little background.

One of my dearest friends living in Spain hails from the Republic of Georgia – that small, oblong, post-Soviet country, which nudges up against the Black Sea. The democracy, which regained its independence in 1991, continues to transition from oppression to a nation bursting at the seams to share its pride. So, when my amiga invited me to come get to know her country, I feverishly started planning how to make it happen (maybe a little more like: I begged and convinced Jacobo, and then he booked everything. But let’s not get caught up in the minutiae).

To say that the country blew me away would be an understatement. But rather than bore you with the details of my innermost ponderings (i.e. how do the cows, pigs, sheep and dogs that wander freely on the roads not constantly get hit by cars???), here is a brief run down of the Georgian quirks that surprised me most:

Yep, your basic watermelon is a superstar in the country sandwiched between Europe and Asia. Roadside vendors overflow stands with the seeded fruits like they’re going out of style – which they aren’t. Attend a Georgian dinner, and don’t be surprised to be served a plateful of the watery delicacy for dessert (at which point, I reach into my bag for my emergency stash of chocolate because seriously, fruit isn’t and never will be a dessert in my book). Why so popular? I’m still contemplating this, but the general explanation is that the southeastern province of Georgia grows an abundance of the melons, therefore making them an easy go-to sweet (if that’s what you want to call it).

watermelons in the republic of georgia

The toasts
No Georgian dinner is complete without toasts. Not just A toast, though, but many toasts – many, many toasts, followed by many more. At almost all meals of more than just a couple people, a designated toaster, the tamada, is chosen – typically a man with a talent for eloquence. This tamada is responsible for maintaining a rhythm of toasts throughout the meal, ranging from world peace, to family, and the future. Meanwhile, others at the table should be prepared to add on to the main speech, contributing and building on each individual toast. 

It’s green. Really green.
There’s a legend that Georgians will tell you, and it goes a little something like this: God called a meeting in which he planned to distribute all the lands in the world. Georgia was late (naturally) as result of a party from the night before involving too much drinking (also naturally). When they finally arrived to the meeting, all of the lands had already been handed out. Georgia explained away their tardiness by telling God that it was the result of toasting to him the night before. Impressed, God then gave Georgia the land that he had reserved for himself. Whether the legend is true or not, I can’t argue with the fact that the often-overlooked country claims some of the most hypnotizing landscapes I’ve come across – mountain ranges that cap out at nearly 10,000 feet high, deserts that sprawl into Azerbaijan, and inescapable numbers of rivers and waterfalls.

landscape in the republic of Georgia
grapevines in the republic of georgiaBottled water
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never gone to a restaurant and ordered my water by brand name. Until Georgia, that is. The brand of water you wish to imbibe during your meal will be the question hanging on every waiter’s tongue. This is because with rain, rivers and H2O coming out their ears, they’ve smartly converted their ample water supply into a booming bottled-water business. And not just any bottled water – it’s special bottled water. Have a hangover? There’s a water for you. Tummy problems? Not to worry. Seriously, who knew?

Living in a country like Spain, I thought that a passion for wine could not run any deeper than it does in the blood of Spaniards. WRONG. Grapes are to Georgia like chocolate is to me (and cheese, and maybe bread, and now baklava). So much so that the majority of Georgian homes have their own grapevine (not even close to joking). Don’t be surprised to see grape symbols lingering in the stone carvings of 10th century buildings as a representation of their importance to the culture. And go to a Georgian’s house and you will surely be greeted with a glass of their homemade wine (along with a full spread of food you couldn’t possibly ever consume in one sitting – more on that later).

Have I gotten you all curious about Georgia yet? Stay tuned for my next blog about Georgian cuisine (obviously). No peaches involved.

August 2, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

The Island of Tenerife is covered in bananas – plátanos, to be exact. They’re everywhere you look.

Now I’m not bananas for bananas, but I make a mean banana bread, so when visiting Tenerife recently I was kind of thrilled at the prospect of trying all sorts of fruit-based desserts (and non-fruit-based desserts – all desserts really).

Tene-huh? Located off the western coast of Africa (but technically Spain), Tenerife is an island of contrasts – from the El Teide volcano (Spain’s highest point) to the dry, cactus-covered shorelines. It’s Spain meets Hawaii meets Arizona.

The Canary Islands archipelago also happens to be an old stopping point for ships making journeys to the Americas. I suppose it’s no wonder, then, that language accents and cuisine got all garbled up in the process. Listening to a Canarian speak might sound more like someone from Puerto Rico than Spain (not surprising considering the thousands of Canarians who’ve emigrated Latin America). And some of the cuisine may not remind you of the typical Spanish fare that I never seem to stop babbling about.

With that in mind, I came prepared to do my usual food research (step one: eat, step two: eat, step three: repeat). Scouring the menus, however, I was lost and confused by the lack of banana-related dishes – and by lack, I mean none. This place is the banana capital of the world (according to me) – how can they not have banana everything?

But somewhere between scuba diving with turtles (monumental day for me) and feeding a donkey, I discovered that other amazing non-banana dishes do exist in Las Canarias – specifically, mojo. Not pronounced mo-jo à la Austin Powers, but rather mo-ho. Initial thoughts upon trying this Canarian specialty: what bananas?!?

Typically served as two different sauces (although more than two exist), the zesty red and green mojos transported me to another place. Between the familiar flavor of cilantro in the green, and the spicy kick of the red, the tastes were more reminiscent of the Mexican food I’m used to than that of traditional Spanish cuisine. While the sauces are often eaten with anything, from fish, to chicken, they are most famously served with the Islands’ small potatoes.

They aren’t just your regular tortilla potatoes, though. They’re papas arrugadas, or wrinkly potatoes. The smooth-as-butter textured taters typically soak in salt water before being set out to dry. The resulting “wrinkly” potato has a melt-in-your-mouth consistency and a salty skin that makes it taste like it came straight from the sea. Dipped in some of that mojo and you’ve got yourself an irresistible combination. I’m not going to lie – I’d drink the sauces if no one was looking. Maybe lick the bowl too.

Meanwhile, aboard our whale-watching boat, we were finally served the seemingly unpopular plátanos. No sugar added, no fancy sauce, nothing fried or doused in whip cream, just your basic banana – peel and all. And I couldn’t have been happier. I cradled the forgotten fruit in my hands, took a picture with it, and threw it in my bag, committed to eating it and giving it its much deserved attention later.

The next day, while traversing the Island, we came upon – surprise – more banana plantations, at which point I demanded we stop. With newfound affection, I snuck up to the roped-off plants. Banana in hand, I peeled it open and savored every last bite, contemplating how it might taste with some mojo.

July 28, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain, Traditions

Jacobo’s phone rung off the hook on Monday with people calling to wish him a happy Saint’s Day. His Facebook page filled with messages too. While we walked around Tenerife (more on that later), he chatted on the phone with his family as they passed it around so that each person could send their well wishes. Meanwhile, I waited patiently, part jealous and part perplexed.

Why perplexed? Well, here in the land of Catholicism, many folks have a bible-related name. Apparently each day of the year is dedicated to various saints, so when your name’s saint comes along, everyone and their madre wishes you a happy Saint’s Day. That’s nice.

Now, I’m not Catholic, but all this “feliz día de tu santo” stuff is leaving me feeling a little left out – leaving me thinking: why oh why couldn’t my parents just have named me Cristina or Laura so that I too could have a day of my very own? I appreciate that Jacobo has transformed my Irish name, Erin, into the faux Spanish name, Erinita, but sadly this name is not on the santoral (list of days and their corresponding saints), so no Saint’s Day for me (unless someone can pull some strings at the Vatican).

In fact, if I were born in Spain back in the day (like decades upon decades ago), my parents might have actually named me after the saint assigned to my birthday (in which case, my name would have been Pilar). But that won’t do, because then you don’t get double the fun: a birthday and a Saint’s Day.

As the disappointment subsides, I’ve started scrolling through the list of pretend Spanish names I could take so that I too may claim a day. Then I can begin calling people on their Saint’s Days, posting on Facebook walls, joining in the fun, and simultaneously informing my Spanish amigos of my participation. Brilliant!

Now that I’ve formulated a plan, I just need to decide on a name. As trivial as it seems, I don’t want to just pick one out of a sombrero. María – well, that’s too predictable. Julieta – while that’s my fake-dinner-reservation name, it has no sentimental value. Browsing the santoral list offers no spectacular ideas either….until I come across “San José Cupertino“!!! Ahh, yes – not only the birth place of my beloved iPad, iPhone and computer, but also my home region on two counts – San José AND Cupertino! While it may not be a female saint, I’ll take it!

So with that, I announce my Saint’s Day, San José Cupertino, which falls on September 18th. Let the celebration begin. I’ll be waiting for your phone calls :).

July 14, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Expat, Spain, Travel, Trips to the US

Who would have thought that a three-week trip back to the States would have me dreading my departure from Spain? I suppose sometime in the last year I crossed a threshold – one in which I became less American and more Spanish.

Whatever the reason, I officially can’t handle being away from my adopted home country for more than a few days. So, in order to buffer the reverse culture shock, I like to sprinkle as much Spanish-ness on my American life as possible. Perhaps you’d like to join?

In order to embrace my inner Spaniard, I employ the following easy-to-implement tactics:

    1. Excessive consumption of Spanish food is essential to my survival. Fortunately, fine-foods grocers seem to have gotten the memo: Spanish cuisine rocks. From olives, to almendras fritas (fried almonds), picos (bread sticks), membrillo (a jam-like substance that, when combined with manchego cheese and bread, is perfection!), tortas de aceite (salty-sweet crackers), olive oil, wine (duh), and MORE cheese – you can find a pretty impressive spread of Spanish grub here in the USA.
    2. I take naps as often as possible. OK, so taking a siesta is by and large unheard of among modern urban-dwelling Spaniards. That said, I consider it my duty to perpetuate the concept on this side of the pond.
    3. Occasionally, I like to linger around all five smokers that still exist in California – just long enough to catch a whiff of cigarette smoke, think of Spain, and then return for fresh air. It’s the simple things that keep me feeling at home.
    4. I frequent Spanish restaurants as much as possible because, let’s face it, socializing is always more fun tapas-style. While I’ve yet to find a legit Spanish restaurant in SF – you know, one that doesn’t serve spicy dishes, hawk tacos, or San Francisco-fy their food – just a slice of dry and bland tortilla española will hold me over.
    5. I order espresso, but not just any espresso – I like to throw in a request for a cup of ice as well. Nothing makes me feel more Euro than a café solo con hielo.
    6. I like to guard my purse and belongings with extreme and unwarranted caution – after all, you never know when a sneaky Spanish pickpocket might come along.

While it’s all fine and well to express my now ultra-Spanish self when in the States, I must remember not to go overboard. Here, the list of things that I must constantly fight the urge to do:

    1. Bumping into cars while blindly parallel parking – so easy, so effective, so fun, but also apparently so not acceptable in the US. That, along with cutting people off, not using my blinker, and avoiding basic traffic laws.
    2. I’m constantly tempted to throw trash on the ground at bars and restaurants as a part of my continued commitment to Spanish tradition. I guess that’s frowned upon here, however. Darn.
    3. I do my very best not to pronounce WiFi “”wee-fee” – as the Spaniards do. It just rolls off the tongue better, though, don’t you think? Weeeeee-feeeeeeee.
    5. 20% tipping? That’s outrageous! Particularly when I’m used to giving only my spare change. But because I don’t like being blacklisted by waiters and bartenders, I try to leave my small tipping habits in Europe.
    6. More than once I’ve tried to pay people in euros. If they were smart, they would take the money and run – after all it’s worth more – but so far everyone seems pretty adamant about sticking with dollars.
    7. And the number one thing I need to stop doing: greeting people by kissing them on the cheek. Every time I come home, I accidentally try to kiss at least a few folks, always resulting in me awkwardly justifying why I almost planted one on them.

Inevitably, just when I get used to all of these silly adjustments, it will be time for me to return to Spain and adapt to the reverse, reverse culture shock. For weeks to come, I’ll be paying people in dollars, dodging kisses, and picking up trash on restaurant floors. Ahh, the life of an expat.

June 28, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this sign in the suburbs of Madrid: “Potato-sack races, line dancing, cowboys.” WHAT. No, really – what???!!! I wanted to both laugh and cry. Was there really an audience for this here?

I mulled over the idea of going, first proposing it to a friend of mine who is equally unashamed of embracing her American self (her last gathering involved beer pong and jello shots. Ya). She couldn’t come, so I kind of forgot about the idea – after all, what loser would go to such a thing alone?

I know: ME.

Burning with curiosity, I finally accepted that I craved a good ol’ country-western festival. So in the eleventh hour, and totally unprepared (that is, minus patriotic paraphernalia), I grabbed the car and headed 30 minutes north of Madrid to find my inner American cowgirl.

Not far off the freeway and surrounded by waist-high grass, I discovered the ranch – the “Honky Tonk El Encuentro Territorio Dakota” (a combination of words that surely confuses you as much as it does me). Turning up dust clouds, I mowed over the field of shrubbery to park my car with some fifty others.

Following the sound of music, I moseyed up to the ranch, preparing for them to roll out some sort of red carpet for the Americana. They would clap and oooh and ahhh over my American-ness. Maybe even ask me to lead them in the “Pledge of Allegiance” and then in some classic tunes (such as “America the Beautiful” – a personal favorite, which I’ve sung for Jacobo many a time, followed by his ears bleeding).

Funny thing – no one cared.

Entering the compound, the fiesta came to life with people wearing cowboy boots, Kenny Chesney belting out tunes on the loudspeakers, American flag streamers, Harley Davidson banners, Budweiser beer. And not an American in sight – except for me, chuckling and taking it all in like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.

There was this one fellow who proudly sported a Texas-sized belt buckle, a cowboy hat and a collared white button-up with “Rodeo Champion” and the brand “Wrangler” emblazoned on the back. If anyone was American, this would be my man. I approached him and asked him if he indeed came from the land of the free and the home of the brave (in Spanish and not in those exact words – I think it went something more like “are you American?”). I don’t get it though – just like the sheep in Granada, the guy scurried away like I had some disease. I really wanted to take a picture of this fine specimen of Spanish country-western love, but I think I’d scared him enough already, so I let him be.

Bewildered by the rejection, I wandered the property to check out the kiosks selling cowboy hats and boots, arrowheads (really?) and silver midwestern jewelry. Quite the jackpot they had. Meanwhile, the kiddies were mounting ponies, and hefty Harley riders chatted it up in their leather vests. I even got suckered in to buying a raffle ticket to help a sick horse.

I worked my way into what appeared to be a farmhouse of sorts only to find a virtual shrine to the USA. Pictures of Native Americans covered the walls, a massive star spangled banner draped from the ceiling, and a few Confederate flags clung uncomfortably to the wooden columns (the Spaniards do NOT understand the significance of this flag – I’ve seen it many times here and whenever I try to explain what it represents, I realize that they are not familiar at all with its often negative connotation).

Since no one seemed interested (astonished, amazed, impressed?) by my uber American-ness, I decided to go with one of my tried-and-true “get people to talk to me” tactics (I’m not this pathetic, I swear). Basically it consists of cornering a service worker and/or buying something, therefore forcing some sort of exchange in order to pick their brain with my curiosities (this also works with SGs because they are too slow to quickly escape). The victim, eh hem beer-counter guy, was actually quite friendly, sharing with me that they do line dancing every Friday and Saturday, and no, there are never Americans. We’ll have to change that.

As much as I wanted to stick around and get sloshed on cheap beer (by myself), I decided to head home. I savored each random American detail on the way out – the “Las Vegas strip” sign, the convertible car pulling into the parking lot (overgrown field) while blaring Garth Brooks, and the aforementioned Spaniard in rodeo garb.

30 minutes later I was back in Madrid eating my manchego cheese as though it were all just a dream. But it wasn’t, so don’t you worry, I’m totally dragging all my American friends back there for line dancing (get ready, ladies – this is totally happening!).