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!).

June 22, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions, Video

You might remember that awhile back I introduced you to a few of my favorite Spanish professions. Well, with 20% of Spain’s population unemployed, I thought I’d be a little helper and share some of the other often-overlooked Spanish job opportunities out there. Seriously, though, I would happily take on any of these tasks…probably…OK, maybe not the first one.

El Chatarrero

Recently, I’ve heard someone hollering in the streets from my living room. At first I thought it was some vagrant (hey, I’m from San Francisco – totally normal), but after hearing him a few times, I came to realize he was advertising some kind of service. Already familiar with the afilador (the knife-sharpener who plays an ice-cream-man-like tune from his motorcycle), I was befuddled as to who this new seller-of-services could be.

To ease my confusion, I replicated the yell for Jacobo, and he knew exactly who it was – the chatarrero! Get this – the chatarrero is the “junk collector man” (or, if we are being politically correct – the recycler?)! He goes around screaming “Chatarrero! El Chataaaaaarrero!” so that people will come out and give him their junk and scrap (called chatarra). You’d think this would be such an unattractive job, but I’m absolutely in love with the idea and have spent the last weeks with my ear nearly pressed against our living room wall. I eagerly await for him to return so that I can run downstairs with the first piece of crap (err – scrap) I come across in our house.

What’s particularly funny is that just days after my junk-man discovery, Jacobo and I were in a bar, when low and behold a music video popped on TV called “El Chatarrero.” I clapped and jumped up and down. I couldn’t hear the music, but the video alone was enough to get me all excited about junk and stuff. And fortunately, I found a version of it on YouTube, so here you have it – el chatarrero and a whole lot of chatarra:

El Butanero

Mr. Butanero makes regular deliveries of butane tanks to those older homes that don’t have gas and, like the milkman, he is famed for being the potential father of unexpected little ones. Why the butanero and not, say, the panadero (the bread deliverer)? Well, because the butanero, with all of his muscly goodness from lifting tanks of butane, is a far more likely suspect than that weakling who delivers delicate baguettes.

Just as with the chatarrero, I’ve spent unhealthy amounts of time trying to find this fool. I’ve seen his truck filled with orange tanks many a time in past years, but of course these last weeks since discovering it’s a proper job (you know, with a fun name), he nor his tanks are anywhere to be found. Save your disappointment, however, because while trying to hunt down photos I found this spectacular music video that is pretty much too hilarious to avoid posting. It features a couple of transvestites and a questionably hot butanero – it’s totally PG and totally worth watching.

El Sereno

Yet another profession that’s kept me busy searching Madrid – el sereno. As I was doing my research for this blog (and by research I’m referring to listening for the chatarrero and chasing around random guys in the street who push wheel-barrows full of scrap metal), I heard about this other antiquated career. The job of el sereno went extinct some 34 years ago, but as a part of a recent coffee campaign by La Estrella, they’ve decided to bring him back to Chamberí (my neighborhood) for two whole weeks. So naturally I’ve been wondering my barrio trying to track the guy down.

Back in his heyday, the sereno would keep nightly vigil over the local streets. This fellow would have the keys to your house, help you with groceries, tell you the time, call the appropriate authorities during any emergencies, and was basically just awesome – clearly.

Needless to say, el sereno hasn’t turned up either. He must be hanging out with the butanero somewhere. And surprise – I found another video! The following video features an original sereno (a bona fide SG, if you ask me) and a new one. Sorry it’s all in Spanish, but Gramps is so cute that you don’t care, right?

La Peixiera

Now this is my kind of job. While regaling a Galician friend of mine with my proud discovery of el chatarrero (his eyes glazed over a tad – I can’t for the life of me figure out why), he shared with me an awesome job specific to the inland pueblos of Galicia (and Portugal) – la peixera. Oh goody goody – it sounds like a girly job! This chica apparently arrives to said pueblos every afternoon with her van full of fresh seafood. She pulls in, opens the back and starts selling away. A girl after my own heart! Originally, she’d actually carry her goods on her head in a basket, and in many cases it was seafood caught by her family and/or fisherman husband. Good thing that peixeras don’t exist here in Madrid – for the sake of what little remaining productivity I have. And no, I couldn’t find any fun fish-delivery videos. Sorry about that.

On a related note, just earlier this week I heard the familiar sound of the afilador. I quite literally sprinted out my door, following the tune of his harmonica down my block. When I finally found him, I discovered he was totally not the cute SG-like afilador I was hoping for, but rather a couple of creepy guys with a kidnapper-style knife-sharpening van – the worst combo possible. Without even saying a word to them, they asked me to get in the car. I promptly turned around and decided I wouldn’t be chasing after the afilador anymore, dull knives or not.

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.”

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