June 16, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Expat, Madrid, Spain

I made the big move to Madrid over three years ago, and boy was I a mess. I missed family, I missed my dog, I missed sushi and frozen yogurt. I flew home (to SF!) at least once every three months only to return to Spain and miss home some more. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spain and always have (so much so that I never want to leave), but adapting to daily challenges overwhelmed me in the beginning. A big part of this had to do with finding my own identity here – leaving behind my job and friends made me feel like I left ME behind too.

Fitting in and finding my way didn’t prove so easy that first year. The Spaniards have always been incredibly welcoming, although sometimes we run out of common ground beyond a shared passion for jamón and Spanish wine (certainly enough to form the basis for a solid friendship, however). I’ve also made other amazing foreign buddies – Italian, Georgian (the country, although the state is rather foreign to me too), Argentinian, Columbian. We’re all expats and we all get each other.

But at the end of the day, you sometimes kind of just need an American girlfriend. Right, chicas?

After a year of living here, I found her – one of my best friends. Both hailing from California, we discovered we shared a love for cheese and festive socks (seriously), and from then on we were inseparable. Last summer she was in my wedding, and a year from now I will be in hers. LOVE her.

But then she moved to Valencia to be with her hombre. Tear!

Fortunately, over the years I’ve met other irreplaceable American friends here (like the awesome wedding and mullet photographer), but that didn’t happen overnight. I’m reminded of this as one American expat in Madrid after another contacts me via my blog, new to the city and eager to make familiar connections. One by one I’ve met many of these girls in person and discovered that they’re all pretty spectacular people (apparently my readers are awesome – but you already knew that!).

So, at this point, what would any proper American do? Arrange a Cinco de Mayo get-together of course! And then a Flag Day one too! Yep, now a group of us ladies meets monthly to get all patriotic by celebrating quasi-American holidays. We love our Spanish lifestyles, but every once and awhile some good ol’ USA fun is just what the doctor ordered.

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

June 7, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain

I think I´ve been in perpetual mullet-watching mode since the day I first set foot in Spain. Maybe I’m just captivated by their entertaining and perplexing aerodynamic-ness, or perhaps I’m still trying to come to terms with my childhood. Yes, that’s me to the left looking all happy and clueless at Disneyland for my seventh birthday. I was a kid, and it was the 80s, so excuses can be made (but Mom, Dad – what the!?!!!!???).

Before I start analyzing the heinous haircuts of others, however, I want to emphasize that I have every right to do so since I too had one of them. I believe this is a part of the healing process.  

A few months ago I decided to take my mullet spectating to the next level – I wanted photographic evidence of the hairdo in the wild. But you see, this is a very difficult task for two reasons: 1) you must get profile shots in order to encompass both the business in the front and the party in the back, and 2) in doing so, you don’t want people to actually realize that you are not only taking a picture of them, but potentially laughing at them too. This is complicated.

Well, apparently not that complicated because my friend Holly recently went to the ongoing protests in Puerta del Sol and hit the mullet jackpot (similar to the lottery in terms of excitement, but not quite). She also happens to be a pretty talented and sly photographer. Come to think of it, given her crafty mullet-capturing skills, she’s probably cut out for snapping those elusive nature shots of some undiscovered species in the depths of the Amazon.

As you can see, this rebellious haircut comes in many different forms. First there’s the classic mullet (exhibit C) – probably an American favorite, and obviously preferred by me at the age of seven. Then you have the mohawk mullet (exhibit D) – a little more punk rock, and somehow closer to acceptable. And then, my personal favorite, the dreadlock mullet (exhibit H) – an especially popular choice here on the Iberian Peninsula.

If a mullet could talk, what would it say? Aside from “I have bad taste,” it also may communicate, “I’m anti-establishment,” “I’m not a big fan of grooming,” “I’m indecisive” or “don’t break my achy breaky heart.”

So what’s your favorite kind of mullet? Does anyone else out there want to make me feel better and admit that they too once had one of these lovely hairstyles? And please, if you had a bowl cut, don’t even try to compete. Bowl cuts are way more acceptable than mullets.

Happy mullet watching!

*Jacobo wants me to clarify that not ALL Spaniards have mullets (duh), just a disturbingly large percentage of them seem to when compared to other countries (and most of them can apparently be found in Puerta del Sol, or in Basque Country – or so I’ve been told).

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Exhibit C

Exhibit D

Exhibit E

Exhibit F

Exhibit G

Exhibit H

Exhibit I

Exhibit J

Exhibit K

Exhibit L

Exhibit M

Exhibit N

May 20, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Travel

This week, Puerta del Sol, Spain’s kilometer 0, transforms into Plaza Solución as citizens express their dissatisfaction with the Spanish government. From causes such as changing the voting process, to complete separation of church and state, to closing nuclear plants – thousands have come from far and wide to demand a total system overhaul.

I went to Sol to see the crowds and to understand their cause, which ultimately I learned were many. What I found most intriguing, though, was the peacefulness. Listening to one of the speakers, the colossal crowd cheered silently by raising their hands and shaking their palms. Among the protesters’ most important rules during the campaign: no violence, no alcohol and respect the press.

Walking through the impromptu tent city, I all but forgot that I was in Madrid, much less its “Time Square.” There were sofas, beds, recycling stations, and stands with food and beverages. Young protesters swept up the littered ground while Spanish grandpas, tourists and photographers meandered aimlessly through the organized chaos.

I’m not going to lie – I need to educate myself more about this cause to form my own proper opinion. What I can tell you so far, however, is that the manner in which this mass of people expresses their opinion is both humbling and inspiring. For that, they already have my respect.

Now I will let the pictures do the talking (be sure to view the live broadcast at the end of the post!). To see more photos, visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.

The sign above states: “It is recognized the right to organize peacefully and without weapons” and “to exercise this right does not require prior authorization.”

Free video streaming by Ustream

May 19, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

When I think of Chinchón, I think of the first time I met my husband’s sisters. Over four years ago, and on my second trip to visit Jacobo in Spain, we headed out to the pueblo with my future sisters-in-law for a lunch party. I was sporting an empire-waist dress I had gotten from Zara, thinking that my Spanish ensemble would help me to fit in. But then, as I sipped (chugged) my wine, some old doctor lady came up to me to say that I shouldn’t be drinking while pregnant. Say what?!? I may like my chocolate and tortilla española, but pregnant? Come on – not even close! Needless to say, I’ve never bought empire-waist anything since.

So perhaps that’s not what you wanted to know about Chinchón, but it’s virtually all that comes to mind when I think of the place (followed by laughter, and then perhaps forced reassurance from Jacobo that I in fact don’t look pregnant). Indeed there’s more to the pueblo than just this. Spanish-ness oozes from every crevice of the teeny town – from its picturesque plaza, to its crumbling castle, and the church that overlooks the village and its olive orchards. Only about 40 minutes southeast of Madrid, it’s the perfect place to have lunch, then go for a stroll (and pick up local pastries – obviously). And so last weekend, that’s just what we did.

Here are a few pictures from our mini-viaje:

“Donkey taxis,” which I desperately wanted to ride. Too bad I was wearing a dress (again) and didn’t want to scare the little kiddies.

The Plaza Mayor, which dates back to the 15th century, has been used for a variety of purposes over the course of time, some of which include: royal events, executions, a movie set, and a bull ring (which they still do to this day).

My husband and my apparently pregnant-looking self.

I also wanted to ride this bull, but again, the dress.

In conclusion, there’s something about dresses and Chinchón that really don’t go well together – am I right?

To see a few more pictures from the excursion, please visit the La Tortuga Viajera Facebook page.

April 26, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Exhibit A

Spanish fans, stinky cheeses, fanny packs (see exhibit A), fresh fruit, wine by the glass and of course antiques. Madrid’s markets have something for everyone – and a market for everyone. Not all markets here are created equally, however, so here’s a run down of the different kinds that you will find in the Spanish capital. Grab your wallets (but watch them closely, people – this is Spain!) – let’s go shopping!

The Rastro
Madrid’s most famous market, and supposedly the largest in Europe, takes place every Sunday in the rowdy La Latina barrio. Starting around 9am, people and up to 3500 stalls fill the narrow, winding streets of Madrid’s oldest neighborhood. Think big flea market, not farmers market.

El Rastro is the place to find clothes, antiques, trinkets – you know, all that junk you might want to take home to your family as a souvenir. My personal favorite: the scarves. For 2-3 euros you can find light-weight scarves (called fulares) that are great to use year round. And since it’s located in La Latina – a hot spot for Sunday tapas hopping – it’s a great place to grab a caña (small glass of beer) afterward.

Madrid farmers(ish) markets
Not in the market for useless stuff (hehe, no pun intended!) – eh hem – finely crafted artisanal goods? No problem – there’s another market for you. In many of Spain’s larger cities, one massive indoor market serves as the city’s go-to place for fresh foods. In Madrid, however, several smaller (and some not so small) markets lie scattered throughout the center. These mercados are essentially a hybrid between grocery stores and farmers markets (a “permanent farmers market,” as my friend Heather calls them).

Separate stalls fill the closed space, each specializing in a variety of different goods from produce, to meat and fish, and even the occasional tapas bar for the hungry shopper. While tourists might not find much to buy (perhaps some cheese? or maybe olive oil?), passing through will certainly entertain. The gaping mouths and piercing eyes of fish stare back at you from atop blankets of ice. And brightly-colored produce is arranged artfully, putting that Whole Foods display that you’re used to to shame. One pass through a Madrid market will tell you volumes about Spanish cuisine. And also potentially make or break your appetite.

El Mercado de San Miguel
Hidden behind Plaza Mayor, El Mercado de San Miguel sits inside a small glass-encased building, appearing to be a mini version of some of Spain’s larger and more famous indoor markets (like those found in Valencia or Barcelona). As mentioned above, many big cities have a primary central market, typically housed in an antiquated, picturesque building that spans several blocks. Since Madrid is full of markets spread throughout the city, no single one serves as its primary (much less pretty) market. It does, however, have El Mercado de San Miguel.

The structure was originally built in 1916, and was renovated and reopened in 2009. Today’s mercado gives the tourist a taste of the other less fancy, but more functional markets described above. You will still get to see a stall or two overflowing with vibrantly-colored produce, and other stalls with fish you never knew even existed. But let’s be honest, that’s not why you came to Spain – a few stalls later you can have a glass of wine, enjoy a plate of cheese, and even take your pick from a vast selection of croqueta flavors. There’s a little something for everyone (and by everyone, I mean a lot of tourists).

I may miss my Whole Foods (painfully), and the outdoor farmers markets (what does a girl have to do to get a cantaloupe?), but in the end, I think I’ve got more than enough market action to keep me happy. Now if only I could say the same about things like sushi and guacamole.

*This post is a part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa carnival, hosted by Indian Bazaars, featuring marketplaces around the world. You can also read the blog carnival that I hosted on unique customs.