Archive | June, 2010
June 27, 2010

Spain is Tapas in my Book

After a short flight from Stockholm, we landed in beautiful Barcelona.  We were met with palm trees, sun, and the happy absence of cold, rainy weather and Lakrisol.

We’ve been in Spain for over a week now, spending five days in Barcelona, three in Valencia, and now five in Madrid.  It’s fair to say that I really like Spain.  I’ll try not to say “love”.   I won’t be hasty.  It’s a little early in our trip (we’re only about 7% finished) for that word.  There may be many more places that I am much more fond of.  Using “love” now would set the bar too high.  I will say though, that, this is my favorite country so far.

This is not to say that I didn’t like the places we’ve seen already, of course I did.  They all had their own charm and feel.  Spain is just different. There is something about the laid back culture, the friendly people, wonderful food, and of course, the beautiful weather that draws me in.

The People

The people of Spain are generally not in a hurry.  There are countless cafés, bars, and restaurants lining the streets.  They are never empty, but it also isn’t hard to find a cozy spot under an umbrella on a cobblestone street.  It is quite tempting to pass all of your time sitting at a café, enjoying a tapa, te frio, or cerveza, and watching the people go by.  Shops and stores close for a couple of hours around 2:00 so that everyone can enjoy a bit of food and drink and socialize.  Muy bueno!

The Language

Maybe my fondness stems from my familiarity with the Spanish language.  I’ve grown accustomed to hearing Spanish spoken around me.  Living in Chicago and teaching in a mostly Hispanic school it’s impossible not to.  I felt out of my element in Sweden with a totally alien language.  Maybe I like Spain because it is familiar, like home.

As we’ve mentioned in our previous blogs, our Spanish expertise is quite limited.  The same goes for much of the Spanish population and their knowledge of English.  It adds to the charm.  In our interactions, neither party is speaking the other’s language well.  It has been fun trying to decipher meaning from body language, tone of voice, and limited vocabulary.

The Food

Tapas, Paella, Bocadillas, Tortilla de patatas, Sangria, cerveza, vino, aceitunas, tomates, y mas!  We’ve greatly enjoyed the food in Spain.

The Catalan pre-dinner tradition is tostada (toasted bread) with fresh tomato rubbed on each piece and olive oil drizzled over the entire thing.  This paired with a bowl of olives is very tasty and refreshing.  I may have to substitute this for the usual toast and butter when I make meals at home!  Another Catalan favorite is cured meat.  Clark enjoyed the jamón ibérico more than me, but the other cured meats are quite good.

Tapas are very accessible and much cheaper than at the trendy bars in Chicago.  Each little dish we’ve tried has been quite tasty.  We’ve had pretty good luck just walking into a place where the prices look good and ordering a few things, not knowing what they were.  So far, we haven’t been disappointed.  I’ve even enjoyed fresh sardines, which was quite a surprise!

Paella is also a great tradition of Spain.  This dish is similar to a rice casserole that is cooked on the stove top in a special pan.  The basic ingredients are rice, onion, garlic, saffron, peas, and meat.  It is a very hearty dish that can taste quite good on a cool afternoon.

Many restaurants featuring Tapas and Paella cater heavily to tourists.  As in many major cities, it is best to avoid restaurants with huge photos of the dishes.  We also try to avoid menus that have both Spanish and English.  If you learn the basic words for certain foods and aren’t too fussy you won’t be disappointed.  These places will also be much more cost effective than the cute cafe with umbrellas in the middle of the square with the waiter wearing a bow-tie.

Bocadillas are little sandwiches that can be found in shops and convenience stores everywhere in Spain.  They are usually inexpensive and pretty good.  You can get burned, however, at a cheaper place by the quality of meat or freshness of the pan (bread).  Bocadillas that we’ve enjoyed the most are chorizo, jamón y queso, and calamari.

We had the pleasure of enjoying a fresh, homemade Spanish Omelet (Tortilla de patatas) on our first evening in Barcelona.  It consists of egg, onion, and fried potatoes.  There are also other variations.  We’ve also had it as Tapas and in a Bocadilla.  They are all quite good, but the freshly made one from Eduard was my favorite.

The Art & Architecture

Spain is a beautiful place! In each city center nearly every building is something wonderful to behold.  Madrid is a beautiful blend of old and new.  The art here focuses on Goya and Greco.   The Royal Palace is quite a sight.  It is an immense building set on a square of even grander proportion.

We took a day trip to Toledo and saw some very old buildings, city walls, Cathedrals, Mosques, and Synagogues all in one place.  Well, we would have seen this if not for the extreme heat, steep inclines, confusing roads, and hoards of tourists.  We did manage to take in a few sites as we fought through the crowd of day-trippers.  The Cathedral was quite amazing.  We had enough to see and read about for hours.

Barcelona, of course, is the home of Gaudi.  Every one of his creations stands out among the architecture from the time period.  His houses, churches, and parks are breathtaking and forward thinking.  I will note, however, that all of the Gaudi creations are quite overrun with tourist.  Park Güell was packed as full as Disney on a Summer Day.  We didn’t even wait in the line to get into La Sagrada Familia or La Pedrera.  However, the audio tour through Casa Batlló should not be missed!  We did see all of these places from the street, which offers quite a good view.

And then there is the coastal city of Valencia.  The old city center offers the same charming buildings, cathedrals, and cafés.  Outside of the center is a totally modern science museum.  Then, of course, there are the beaches with kilometers and kilometers of sand and beautiful dark blue water.  Ahh…

The Weather

We’ve been very lucky so far weather-wise in Spain.  It has been beautiful, with the exception of the occasional quick thunderstorm and a little bit of heat in Madrid.  We’ve enjoyed the warm sun, cool breezes, and the warm waters of the Mediterranean.  We spent a heavenly day on the beach in Valencia on the eve of Dia de San Juan.  This is the celebration of the summer solstice.  We lounged on the sand all afternoon watching the kids play in the water and marveling at the brashness of topless sunbathers.

As the afternoon wore into evening, we noticed it slowly getting more and more crowded.  Each little group of beach-goers began digging a hole in the sand with their hands and feet, piling the sand high on the edges, creating a pit.  Some of the little groups were families.  Some were teenagers ready to party, beer and cigarettes in tow.  When the sun finally set, we began to see the glow of bonfires in each pit.  More and more and more people kept arriving until there were little groupings every few feet around each fire, eating, chatting, singing, and celebrating summer.  The party lasts until the wee hours of the morning.

We’re now spending some time in Madrid.  This is a much more metropolitan area.  The streets are bustling with shoppers, peddlers, tourists, and locals.  The main shopping street reminded me a lot of Michigan Ave.  Even though it is more “city-like” there is still a certain charm from the cafés and small business that seem to thrive.  It is always nice to wake up to the chimes of ancient church bells in the morning.

We still have about two more weeks in Spain.  Our plan is to visit Granada and Seville before heading to Portugal.  I’m sure we will experience the same charm and laidback atmosphere from many of our destinations in the next 9 months.  I’m quite excited at the prospect.  I hope it only gets better from here!

June 20, 2010

People of the Week: Mirjam, Jakop, Eduard & Lourdes

People of the Week: Mirjam, Jakop, Eduard & Lourdes

We planned on having a “Person of the Week” but have already fallen a little behind.  We just left our third host, and no posts have been made to date.  You would think we would have plenty of time as professional hobos, but that is not the case.  If it’s not touring a medieval cathedral, it’s doing laundry or searching for accommodations or relaxing in the sun.  It is challenging work.

But tonight, we’ve decided to stay in to catch up on our overdue entries.

Mirjam – Tallinn, Estonia

Mirjam was kind enough to be our very first CouchSurfing host.  We have had Germans, Brazilians, Taiwanese, and Britons stay with us in Chicago, but this was our first time as Surfers ourselves.  Mirjiam is from Viljandi, a small town in southern Estonia, and is a genetics student at Tallinn University of Technology.  She acted as our escort and translator as we toured Tallinn’s old town.  For those unfamiliar with Estonian, there is no faking this language.  There is no way you will pronounce“kus asub tualettruum” correctly.  Sorry, you are not finding that bathroom, pal.

She shared a few stories with us from the Soviet occupation, although she was quite young at the time.  Her grandmother spent some time in a Siberian gulag, and Mirjam recalls the empty shelves and ration coupons.  Estonia has come a long way.  We almost mistook Tallinn for Schaumburg while shopping for groceries one afternoon.

Our time with Mirjam was short.  She and her roommate Ingmar were headed to Tartu for a traditional dance festival.  We’ll be sure to see them again on our next trip to Estonia.

Jakop – Stockholm, Sweden

Now, I have met a lot of anime fans over the years, but Jakop takes his manga seriously.  Aaron, you could learn a thing or two from our Swedish friend.  We thank him for introducing us to Lissie (from Rockford, believe it or not), Mademoiselle K, and Dr. Horrible but he also forever damaged my taste buds with two scourges of mankind.

I am referring, of course, to Lakrisal and filmjölk.  I will attempt to describe the horror of these concoctions.

In the case of Lakrisal, someone had the bright idea of combining ammonium chloride and liquorice.  Take a swig of Drano and toss back a few black Jelly Belly’s, and you’ll get the general idea.

Believe it or not, the Swedes can’t get enough of this stuff.  Jakop pops these babies like M&M’s and forces it upon his guests to watch the train wreck.  I was definitely not a fan, but Kim spit it out after about three one second.

However, I would gladly eat a barrel of Lakrisol than another spoonful of filmjölk (fil for short).

I have had night terrors since trying the mouth-WMD known as fil.  It is essentially buttermilk crossed with yogurt and sour cream.  Jakop poured two large, lumpy bowls of fil and corn flakes for himself and Kim.  He offered me the same, and I had the good judgment to have a taste first before committing.

Think spoiled milk flavored Yoplait.  Jakop, I still can’t get that taste out of my mouth.

Neither experience soured our time with Jakop, and he promised to come visit after we resettle somewhere in the US.  We ended up joining Jakop and his friend Nicoli (pictured above) for their usual Tuesday jazz night in Södermalm.

Eduard & Lourdes – Barcelona, Spain

After a few cold days in Stockholm, we were off to Spain to spend three nights with our new friends Eduard and Lourdes.  Eduard was hit by a car while riding his bicycle, so he was confined to the apartment with a bandaged arm and fractured tibia for the duration of our stay.  This didn’t stop him from cooking dinner for us though.  He made a Spanish omelet on our arrival and delicious Paella for our last night together.

When Eduard isn’t limping around his apartment or feeding hungry Americans, he is a hospital administrator and amateur DJ.  He has an impressive mixing studio in the upper level of his apartment and an even more impressive terrace overlooking the Sants neighborhood of Barcelona.

After ten days in Northern Europe where we were completely reliant on English, we were ready to dust off our Spanish. ¡Me gusta!

Language barrier es muy dificil.  Eduard is a self-proclaimed novice English speaker, and his girlfriend Lourdes spoke a bit less.  Unfortunately, our Spanish was considerably worse.  Our vocabulary consists mostly of useless phrases such as “Gato negro está en la biblioteca”. Rarely relevant.  Even still, we all spoke enough of each language to have three fun evenings together.  We drank vino y cerveza and discussed the finale of PERDIDOS. ¡No me digas lo que no puede hacer!

They were terrific hosts, and we were sad to leave.  I think our Spanish has improved a little already.  Muchos gracias, Eduard y Lourdes!

We are staying in a hostel in northern Bacelona for a few nights before heading to Valencia.  Hopefully we can arrange another host in Madrid for more fun en España.

June 9, 2010

Foiled at the Gate

We made it! Our flight to Riga via Copenhagen was uneventful except for a little pre-flight scheming.

We made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare and plopped down by a herd of elderly Southerners bound for Oslo.  We had a few minutes, so we booted the ol’ Macbook and checked our seat location on SeatGuru.

Scandinavian Air stuck us in the last row right by the lavatories.  Reduced legroom.  Reduced pitch.  Reduced sleep.  Great.

As we imagined a night of slamming doors and urine-scented dreams, I remembered a little trick Kim’s friend recently discovered.  I optimistically sauntered over to the gate agent.

“Hello, I noticed our seats are in the middle of the last row.  My wife is pregnant, you see, and we really could use seats by the window and aisle that recline fully.  She will be getting up frequently to use the bathroom, and we really don’t want to bother anyone.  Is anything more comfortable available?”, I asked with a concerned, desperate look.

Go ahead and judge me, but I’ll be the one sleeping peacefully in business class.

“Oh, I see.  Let me see what I can do, sir.” Is it possible this might actually work?

Typing.  Typing.  Typing.  Frowny face.  Typing.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have a single seat available. In fact, we will be looking for volunteers shortly.”

Damn.  Okay, the pregnant thing didn’t work.  Hold on— did she say volunteers?  As usual, our flight was overbooked, and they were asking for volunteers for tomorrow’s flight.

“We are looking for volunteers for tomorrow’s flight to Copenhagen.  You will receive 700 Euro and hotel accommodations.”

Seven hundred euros?  Each?!  That would pay for our flight plus an extra $900! Hell yeah!

No dice.  They were taking one volunteer only, and we really couldn’t separate now that Kim was spontaneously expecting.  Father’s day is coming up, after all.

I retreated to find Kim shaking her head at my attempted fraud.  Our geriatric friends laughed to themselves as they overheard our conversation.

In the end, we made it Copenhagen just fine.  We both got a few hours of sleep despite the cramped conditions, and I finally got to see Dear John.  I call that a successful trip.

Just finished up in Riga.  Today, it’s Tallinn, Estonia for Kim’s birthday.

June 5, 2010

Uz redzēšanos, Chicago!

Well, we moved!  Our homeless lifestyle began last week, and we are officially vagabonds.

We packed up our stuff in a 10’ U-Haul and hit the road for Marion, IL.  It is now safely in storage with Clark’s parents, and we are living out of our backpacks.  I stayed with a co-worker for my last week of school, and Clark stayed with our friend Beth.

How long did it take?  Oh, only about 3 minutes.

It was very surreal to go back to business as usual at school after just saying goodbye to our families.  The week went quickly with lots of barbecues, Blackhawks games, pool parties, and drinks.   All of our “business” goodbyes have now been said.

But first, we wanted to say goodbye to Chicago with one last party.

Maifest 2010

We spent our last evening in Chicago in Lincoln Square at the German Maifest.  We always enjoyed the many summer festivals in Chicago so this was the perfect send off.  We ate some kraut and pretzels, drank some beer, and danced to the music of the Polkaholics.  I couldn’t think of a better way to say goodbye to a city that I love.  This morning we had brunch with some couch surfers, Alisha and Jeff, who were passing through Chicago on their way to Kenya.  So, in some ways, the  “people” part of our trip has already begun.

As we make last minute preparations and peruse Pediatric Swallowing and Feeding Assessment and Management at Beth’s apartment, I feel a little sad about leaving the city behind.  It has been our home for the past five years and truly feels “ours” now.

But, it is time to move on and I am not sad about our choice.  We have heard so many encouraging words and advice from all of our friends and family these past few weeks.  I think this trip is going to be one of the best decisions we’ve made, barring any accidental death and dismemberment.

We are leaving for the airport in one hour.

It feels like we have been planning this trip forever.  But, the day has finally come.  No more saving, planning, rethinking our underwear choices, or writing pre-trip blogs.  We’re moving on to meet new people and see new places.  It’s go time.

Uz redzēšanos, USA.  See you next time.

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