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.

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 :).

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.

May 26, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Spain

I’m sure you’ve all been waiting on pins and needles for the Easter processions video that I promised ;). Finally, it’s here (phew!), however you might not rest any easier after seeing it. How does this peculiar tradition make you feel: Awkward? Spiritual? Humbled? Uncomfortable?

If you are having trouble viewing this video, please click here.
To see my blog post about the processions, click here.