November 22, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Expat, Spain, Traditions

Will Peach is one of the site editors over at Gap Daemon, the gap year travel community website for backpackers and gap year travellers.

Little over two months ago I packed my bags in London and prepared myself for one crazy ride abroad in Spain. It was to be quite the transition.

Winding up in the arid, wild lands of Extremadura, and ending up in the small-sleepy city of Cáceres, I quickly had to learn to leave all thoughts of the Big Smoke, Big Ben and all the bring-your-own-beer Vietnamese restaurants of East London behind. Adjusting to small city living? Quite the challenge!

But I survived. And you can too! Allow me to help you prepare and cast off the shackles of those big city lights forever. Start embracing small city living in Spain now!

Embrace the Fame in Spain
When was the last time someone said “hi” to you on those big lonely streets of New York, Toronto or even Madrid? Can’t remember? Hardly surprising.

Get yourself in shape for small-town Spain then. Stardom and all the trappings of a fame-filled lifestyle are just around the corner.

Here you’ll need to get used to being accosted in the street, screamed at by young kids and have panties thrown at you from apartment windows above (those flimsy washing lines are purely coincidental).

Ok maybe that’s an exaggeration. Being the new face about town probably won’t cause Beiber-like fever, but you’ll at the very least be a curiosity. Better do away with those cold city manners now.

Show some warmth right back at those neighbourhood greetings and you’ll slip right into community life without a moment’s trouble.

It’s no surprise “Buenas” is the most commonly used Spanish word after all! Let it be the first to slip off your tongue.

Embrace the Siesta Shutdown
Cast off of any expectation you have for those round-the-clock shopping sprees you had going on in that big city you used to call home. Here in Spain the siesta rules supreme.

In fact you’ll have to adjust your body clock too. Popping out onto the streets between the hours of 2-5pm is likely to lead you into believing you’ve walked on to the set of a zombie apocalypse film. It’s that quiet.

Start sleeping in the day and fit it around your work schedule. Living is for the evening in this part of the world.

And don’t expect to be able to buy anything on a Sunday either. We’re talking traditional Catholic towns here!

Embrace the Bus
Got into the habit of treating your tube or metro ride in the big city as a moment of peace and a podcast? You better think again with your move to small-town Spain.

Riding public transport is exactly, as its name suggests, a very “public” affair. Expect rowdy, noisy, laughter-filled carriages that no background-noise filtering headphones known to man could ever hope to block out. Not that you’d even want to try. People actually talk to each other on public transport systems in Spain!

Shirk off your cold city sensibilities, do away with your suspicion of strangers and get chatting right alongside locals as you hop around your new hometown. Fun!

Embrace the Poster
Gumtree, Craigslist and all those hyperlocal news sites may do the trick for snagging an apartment, selling old electronics or even finding a job in the metropolis you call home, but in Spain community networking works quite differently.

Long live the poster, the wall, the adhesive and small-town telephone boxes, public noticeboards and boarded-up shops. Here in Spain these are the true foundations of breaking neighbourhood news and the go-to information source of choice.

Get used to using them and putting your laptop down or your mobile away. The quickest and easiest way you’ll find out about what’s happening in and around town.

Embrace the (Lack of) Variety
Chances are if you’ve come from a city of over 500,000 people you’re pretty used to being spoiled for choice when it comes to kicking back in your leisure time. You better scale down those expectations for life in small town Spain!

You’ll be lucky to find a cinema in some places, let alone a bowling alley. What does that mean for you? You’ll have to find new hobbies and new ways of entertaining yourself of course. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Make the most of this great country and engage with the culture. Learn how to cook Spanish style, work on your language skills, even choose a Spanish football team to support and show up in a bar wearing the colours.

Keeping busy isn’t the challenge you’d expect, there’s plenty to explore in even the smallest of cities.

In fact making the transition from big city to small town living in Spain needn’t be tough at all. Approach it with an open mind and you’ll slip straight in.

There’s no going back to London for me.

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.

October 7, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Expat, Food and wine, Spain

News flash: I’m obsessed with Spanish food.

And you know what? Nothing chaps my culo like faux Spanish cuisine (yes, I’m talking to you, San Francisco “Spanish” restaurants – if I see another taco on your menu I’m going to refry your beans).

Oh but you can imagine my excitement when I found out about a traditional Spanish cuisine cookbook – in English. The American author, Elizabeth Parrish, has lived in Spain for 22 years, so she knows a thing or dos about Spanish cuisine, and also how it translates to the American table.

Now, I’m not going to lie (would I ever lie to you? No, never), I can cook, however I pretty much don’t like to. But I’m a big eater and studier of foods, so my first line of business was to examine her book, reading every last word about the ingredients and methods.

So far so good.

Next up – convince Jacobo to cook a few of the recipes with me so that we could give it a try. He was game.

Fresh off of my obsession with The Canary Islands’ papas arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes) and mojo, I thought that would be just the dish to try. Super easy to make, it was just right for someone like me who wants less cooking and more grubbing. The contrasting sauces – one of red chili pepper and the other of green bell pepper and cilantro – are like the peanut butter of Spanish sauces (that is – they go with anything!). Most typically served with the famous salted and wrinkly papas arrugadas, they can easily top off chicken or fish (or you can just slurp it straight from the bowl – whatever).

The recipe from La Buena Mesa was mojo-and-papas perfection. My only suggestion: opt for a food processor rather than a ghetto Ikea mortar and pestle. Achieving a pasty consistency was virtually impossible, and plus all the elbow grease totally went against that whole “less work, more eat” philosophy that I was talking about.

After whipping up that mean batch of garlicky goodness, a girl needs some sweets (this one anyway), so that can only mean one thing: turning to the back of the book to find a dessert. The winner – one of my Spanish faves – natillas. I’m also kind of an expert on them (says me). Unfortunately, the natillas and I kind of got in a bit of a fight as my two batches turned out more like eggnog than custard. But I suppose they still had some yum potential if you like to drink your desserts. I’m still not really sure what went wrong…

THE VERDICT: Spanish cooking isn’t about precise measurements, and true to that spirit, Elizabeth has admittedly kept many of the formulas loose. I can easily promise that this cookbook captures the essence of regional Spanish cuisine – but be sure to bring some chef savvy to your pretend Spanish kitchen or else you’ll end up with watery natillas.

Now, for a little Q&A with the author:

LTV: Do you have any favorite recipes?
EP: I guess my favorites are the ones I make time and time again. In summer, hardly a week goes by that I don’t make a batch of gazpacho. In winter, it’s chicken consommé and, of course, I add a bit of fino to it. I’m also fond of the “classics,” like Spanish omelet, flan or chicken in garlic sauce. And I like Spanish comfort food along the lines of lentils with chorizo or fried eggs and potatoes (in olive oil, of course). If I’ve got a little more time, almond and pine nut soup is a favorite. I almost always make it for Christmas. I also like fish a lot and if you’ve got access to good seafood, you can’t go wrong with Catalan fish stew.

LTV: Which recipe was the most difficult to master?

EP: I would say that the most difficult was probably the Galician rye bread. I think that anything involving yeast is open to a lot of variables. There’s the flour, which differs from place to place, the type of oven used – especially where bread is concerned. As you know, people here don’t make their own bread; they buy it at the local bakery. That means professional ovens or artisan stone ovens – something a home cook doesn’t have access to. And then there’s the climate, which also affects the final outcome. I just think that bread is tricky.

LTV: What was your most memorable experience when learning how to make these recipes? And/or is there a dish that is particularly sentimental?

EP: When I first lived in Spain (nearly 25 years ago!), I shared an apartment with two other girls, one of whom was from Salamanca. I wanted to be able to make a Spanish omelet like the ones I ate in local bars. I made it time and time again. After each try, Marga (one of the roommates) would tell me something along the lines of “you need to cook the potatoes more slowly” or “you need to use thinner slices.” So every time I made it, I would fine tune that omelet according to whatever advice Marga had given me until one day she finally pronounced it as being right. Spanish omelet is also one of the few Spanish dishes that my mother made when I was growing up. Whenever I visited home, my father always requested that I make the omelet. My mother was too worried about his cholesterol and skimped on the eggs. I threw cholesterol to the wind and went for taste and texture.

LTV: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Spanish cuisine?

EP: I think that the biggest misconception is that it’s like the food from other Spanish-speaking countries or that it’s spicy when, in fact, I find that Spaniards are pretty adverse to hot peppers and spices. It’s a Mediterranean cuisine that has grown out of the collective experience of the people who inhabit this particular area, influenced by climate, terrain, and availability of ingredients. Spain isn’t even on the same continent as the rest of the Spanish-speaking world!

LTV: What is your favorite regional cuisine? (Mine is Galician – hands down!)?

EP: Galician food is excellent. I love hake, Galician-style; however, I think that a big part of what makes the food there so great is the exceptional seafood that comes from those waters. The Atlantic there is cold with lots of undercurrents and white water and that makes for spectacular seafood. And you simply can’t find that kind of quality in seafood everywhere, which makes some of the dishes hard to duplicate outside of Galicia. So I guess I’m going to have to bat for the home team and go with Catalonia. The cooking can be both amazingly simple and straightforward (bread with tomato and olive oil) or downright baroque, but it’s always ingenious. I mean, they’ll season meat with cinnamon or thicken and flavor a sauce with ground almonds and hazelnuts. If you want to try a Catalan recipe that you can incorporate into your everyday meal repertoire, try Chicken with Vegetable Medley (pg. 140). It’s easy, healthy, thoroughly Mediterranean, and, of course, tastes good; otherwise, what’s the point of eating it?

LTV: How is life in Spain as an American expat? Do you plan to stay here indefinitely?

EP: I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s certainly a learning experience and I think I’ve grown from it. Some people figure out early on what they want to do and follow a charted course and that’s perfectly valid. Others of us are given somewhat more uncharted maps. I try to be open, to explore what I’m interested in, and not panic! I don’t really know if I will stay here indefinitely or not. I’m divorced with a 10-year-old son and right now my number one priority is taking care of him and making sure that he is stable, happy, and doing well. (He is.)

LTV: Outside of the cuisine, what do you love most about Spain?

EP: I like the villages here. I like being able to disappear into a rural setting with its close contact with nature, the quiet, the architecture, and the slower pace.

Finally, the important part: to win yourself a cookbook, leave a comment below telling me your favorite Spanish dish by Monday, October 10th and I’ll do an extra-scientific hat drawing to pick the winner. Buena suerte!

And you know the drill – if you buy the book via my site, I will get a microscopic commission (we’re talking pennies people).

September 30, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Expat, Food and wine, Spain

I’ve got a soft spot in my pretend Spanish heart for American chicas who’ve randomly happened upon their
maridos while here in Spain. This latest guest post comes from one of those chicas: Melanie, a Michigan native, who met her Spanish husband, Alvaro, on a bus while traveling from Madrid to Cáceres in 2006. Now living in Dallas, Texas, she knows a thing or two about embracing her inner Spaniard and getting her tapas fix while a continent away.

Upon returning to the USA after having lived in Spain, my Spanish husband and I thought that our evening tapas routine (tapas for dinner – our favorite!) would have to come to an end. Suddenly we could not find our Spanish cured meats or cheeses anywhere. While jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) is still something we greatly miss, over time we have been able to find some pretty appetizing alternatives – or sometimes, even the real thing – in the gourmet grocery stores around Dallas, TX. For those of you with Spanish palates who have relocated to the USA, here are some of our favorite tapas:

Mild crackers or bread

A tasty tapa is best accompanied by a mild cracker, toasted piece of bread, or “picos” (small, crunchy Spanish breadsticks).


We have found and enjoy chorizo (Spanish sausage) from the Palacios brand. This chorizo is on the spicier side, but it is very flavorful. Cut into thin, round pieces, and enjoy with picos.

Manchego Cheese

Manchego cheese, depending on the cut and age, can be mild to strong. We prefer strong Manchego cheeses, cured about 6-12 months. Cut off the rind, slice thinly, and enjoy with picos.

Italian salami

This cured meat choice is not Spanish, but it tastes much like Salchichón (“spiced sausage”), and that is why we like it. We usually pick the Fratelli Beretta Gemelli salami. Cut into thin, round pieces, and enjoy with picos.

Serrano ham
We prefer the “Revilla” brand sliced thinly for taste and versatility. Because the Revilla brand is quite flavorful, thin slices are enough to provide a rich flavor. A thinly sliced piece of Serrano ham goes very well rolled around a pico or rolled up on top of a cracker. Or simply – eaten alone!

Sidra (“cider”)

And last but not least, to drink we recommend a cider, or a beer that tastes close to it. We have been able to find here the Spanish sidra made by Mayador. The seasonal variations of the cider from Woodchuck are also decent replacements for sweeter brew lovers.

While living in the USA is no Spain when it comes to tapas, we have been able to recreate and continue to enjoy our fabulous ham and cheese plates for dinners. It has taken two years or so of exploring various local supermarkets, but these selections are some of the best and closest-to-the-real-thing that we have tried. If you are looking for similar alternatives to Spanish tapas in the USA, give these a try and enjoy!

Has anyone else found legit Spanish tapas while in the States? Share the details, please!

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.