Monday, February 28, 2011

Life is beautiful

Even after being in Spain for six months, I still have those oh-my-god-this-is-my-life moments. Sometimes I need to stop and remind myself that I really do live here and this really is my life. With only three months left to work I'm definitely sensing my time here dwindling down, and am gladder than ever that I reapplied for a second year. I can't imagine my time in Spain ending so soon. I'm not done yet, nor do I know when I will be.

A few of those moments that make want to pinch myself to make sure it's real:
View from the top of Torrecilla in the Sierra Nieves, just south of Ronda. It's hazy, but that's Africa out there. My legs are still sore from the hike, but this made it worth it.

Fresh paella over an open fire. There's no better way to end a hike.

Part of the group hiking up to Torrecilla.

Skiing for the first time in Sierra Nevada.

One of Andalucía's many gorgeous beaches in Almuñécar.

Breathtaking Canillas de Aceituno where my former flatmate lives.

Did I mention that I'm leaving tomorrow to go spend the week sunbathing in the Canary Islands? Hallelujah for cheap Ryan Air flights and Málaga's plethora of school holidays.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The BEST cookies in the world

The Spanish do a lot of things really well, such as napping, relaxing, eating jamón, and drinking Cruzcampo. But one thing they're not very good at is desserts. This is surprising considering what a pleasure seeking society it is. I think they would enjoy sitting around on Sundays eating cupcakes. Take the following example as evidence:

The staff Christmas dinner at my school featured shrimp and arugula salad, salmon rolls, and pork covered in a sweet onion sauce. It was every bit as mouth watering is it sounds. But then for dessert: a Mercadona-bought frozen concoction I can't even call a cake. It was something with generic, bland chocolate and cream, which was taken out of the box right there on the beautiful table. Quite classy.

Therefore, for Valentine's Day, I thought I would share some traditional American baking. I present to you, the best cookies in the world. No, I didn't stutter. I don't ordinarily make claims like that, but I have yet, in my almost 24 years, to find a better cookie. I have grown up making these cookies with my mom every year for Christmas and other holidays. Allow me to share the beautiful process with you:

Start with a cup and a half of powdered sugar (You may, of course, multiply the entire recipe by your integer of choice. Usually my mom and I do four). If you're in Spain, where they don't bake, it only comes in canisters used for decorating, and is exorbitantly expensive. But because you don't want to spend ten minutes sprinkling that much out of the opening, you will have to do this to the canister:
Try not to stab yourself while you do this
The secret ingredients, especially the almond

Then cream the sugar with a cup of softened butter. Since you don't have an electric mixer here in Spain, this needs to be done by hand and will require some elbow grease. Roll up your sleeves and get working.

Add one egg. Then go to the airport, get on the next plane to anywhere in the United States, and go to any grocery store where you will purchase the secret ingredient which, to my knowledge, does not exist in Spain: almond extract. Add a teaspoon of this liquid gold and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, which does exist here, but feel free to bring that from America too where it's cheaper.

But you probably don't want to taste it quite yet

Mix that all together. It will smell like heaven, and should look something like this.

Now, half a cup at a time, mix in two and a half cups of flour. Again this would be absurdly easy with a mixer, but you're putting some muscles to work. The delicious product, which I challenge you to only have one finger-full of, will look like this ------------>

Chill the dough overnight. Threaten with death all others living with you if they eat all the dough before you get back to it. If no such precautions are taken, there will be just an empty bowl in the fridge in the morning. Once that is taken care of, the fun part begins.

Flour a cutting board and roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. If you have no rolling pin a wine bottle will do. Use cookie cutters (or a knife if you have none) to cut out your desired shapes. Place on baking sheets, and bake at 375°F/190°C for about 10 minutes until the edges just barely begin to turn brown. Enjoy the finished product straight out of the oven, and decide who in your life is important enough to share these with.
Is your mouth watering yet?
I brought these to school on Valentine's Day and put them out on the table in the staff lounge at break. To say they were enjoyed would be the understatement of the year. Some, if not most, had never had homemade baked goods before. Most Spanish kitchens don't even have ovens. I got comment after comment about how rica and buenísima they were. You made these? Yes. In an oven? Yes. What are they made of? Flour, sugar, eggs...

Sharing these cookies with my colleagues was like literally bringing a piece of my home. They all now know precisely the smell and taste that will always bring me back to my mom's kitchen. I think for the day, I definitely fulfilled the "sharing my culture" part of my job description.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Getting from A to B

I once won a race in high school by being clever rather than fast. Being fast definitely helped, but it was quick thinking that ultimately did the trick. I was the anchor leg of the 4x400m relay, which is always the last and most exciting race of the meet because often the winner of the whole meet comes down to the points won in the last race. I had a lead going into my leg of the race, but my opponent was phenomenally fast (went on to state championships), and I knew she would gain on me. Sure enough, she caught up to me with 100 meters to go. She moved into the second lane to pass me. Now at a dead sprint, I moved over in front of her. She cut back to the inside lane to pass me; I cut her off again. She again tried going around my right side, but I got there first. This went on with the two of us weaving back and forth the rest of the race. She never made it past me, and I won the race, winning the whole meet. People watching said it was one of the most exciting and amusing races they had seen.

Living in Spain, I now understand what the experience must have been like for my opponent. How can one person possibly block so much of the path? Little old women with shopping bags and men with canes somehow manage to take up an entire sidewalk. Because this is Spain, they walk at approximately the pace of a tortoise, and if I try to pass them on either side, they magically swerve (or stumble) that way just before I get there. If I try to squeeze through the microscopic space they leave between themselves and the street, I instantly feel like a jerk pushing someone's grandma aside.
This sidewalk gets very crowded very easily
But my daily commute still gets more interesting. In most countries I have visited, there seems to be an unwritten law of society that says that on pedestrian routes in which traffic flows in both directions, you generally stay to the right (or left if you're in the UK, Australia, or Japan). But such a law does not appear to apply on the streets of Spain. You know those awkward moments when you and another person are walking straight towards each other and one or both of you is going to have to move to the side so you can pass each other? I experience those everyday, and naturally, I always move to the right. But quite often that person decides that's where they want to walk, suddenly deciding that they must cut right in front of me to look in a store window. Great, so I move to the left. They change their mind. That part of the sidewalk looked really nice. This can get even more complicated when there is dog poop being avoided, and I'm also usually trying not to inhale their second hand smoke as I pass them.

Spaniards seem to have very little concern for anyone else on the street and don't even think about when what they do might inconvenience others. Obviously this is a generalization and there are polite people and situations in which most people are more considerate, but in my experience they just don't give a damn.

But don't be mistaken; walking everywhere is still one of my favorite parts of living here. I absolutely do not miss driving, sitting in Southern California traffic, filling the gas tank, getting oil changes, or anything of the sort. I have never ascribed to American car culture, never felt any particular bond with a car, didn't name mine or personalize it with bumper stickers, and wasn't even really sad upon finding out that my brother had totaled my former car (Car ruined, brother fine).

Walking to work has other benefits. How else would I get to hear those two really cute guitarists on Calle Nueva? Where would I get my free newspaper each morning? Where would I get my occasional boost in self esteem that comes when someone stops me to ask for directions, and not only do I know how to get there, but can explain how to do so in Spanish? When else would I get to (try to) make friends with the local stray cats?
People force these into my hands everyday as if to say "Here! Keep up with what's going on in the world AND practice reading Spanish." It's a win-win
Another intriguing sight of my daily commute
Despite the occasional frustrations of walking the streets of Spain, I wouldn't think of trading it. My feet and an occasional bus ticket (such as today when it's raining) are all the transportation I need.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What Spain is doing to me

Living in a foreign country is a life-changing experience. Some people fall in love, get married, start a whole new life.

That's all fine and dandy, but the changes I've experienced thus far are of a slightly different nature. A few things that living in Spain has done to me:
Still only the green ones though
  • I like love olives. I used to hate them, but I have to say they have grown on me to the point that I enjoy and seek them out, rather than just tolerate them. I learned in a psychology class in college that repeated exposure to a stimulus increases the likelihood that the stimulus will be perceived positively. Spain did just that. If you give me olives every time I order a beer, it's only a matter of time before I like them.
  • My itunes now includes songs such as this, this, and this:
  •  I sometimes find myself lisping z's. In English. It's a side effect of spending my days bouncing back and forth between English and Spanish. In Spanish Spanish (as opposed to Mexican Spanish, South American Spanish, etc.) the letter z is pronounced as a lisped th sound. (c's are also lisped if followed by an e or an i). For example, the word cerveza, one of the most important words in the Spanish vocabulary, is pronounced thervetha. I've mastered these pronunciations to the point that they are invading my English. Keep that in mind next time you talk to me and I sound like I have a speech impediment.
  • I'm a regular tea drinker. I used to have it every once in a while, more so when I'm sick, but now I have it just about everyday. My work day would not be complete without té y galletas in the staff lounge. Just like the olives, I tend to stick to the green kind.
  • I like being American a hell of a lot more than I used to. I've never been one to wear stars and stripes, and let's face it, throughout the Bush administration it was pretty easy to focus on our flaws. But my time here has made me proud to be representing my country. Part of my job is to be a cultural ambassador and facilitate learning and understanding between Spain and the United States. To my students and coworkers, I represent the entire United States and all 300,000,000 Americans. I get to teach them about our culture and traditions and demystify the stereotypes they know from the media. Somewhere between explaining that nearly everyone has a driver's license out of necessity and that no, we don't have pancakes for breakfast everyday, I found myself growing quite fond of the good ole U.S. of A.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Poco a poco

A work in progress
Signs that my Spanish is coming along nicely:
  • Looking for a new flatmate this past week has involved more speaking Spanish on the phone than I've probably done in all my time in Spain, and I have to say I'm quite proud of myself. For the most part I understand and can be understood. Try conversing in a foreign language without using gestures, body language, or facial expressions. It's harder than it sounds.
  • I had to go talk to the director of my bank, and he remembered me from when I opened the account in October. After I explained what I needed he said with a smile on his face, "¡Tú hablas mejor!"
Sign that I still have light years to go:
  • When telling the bank director my phone number I said otro instead of ocho. I learned numbers in Spanish about ten years ago and could recite them in my sleep (probably did) not long after, but caught up in conversation that's what came spilling out of my mouth. This was, of course, after he commented on my improvement.
You win some, you lose some. All the more reason for me to come back to Spain a second year.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Myth busted

His facial expression looked something like this, only on a cute 8 year-old
Today when I walked into one of my third grade classes I was attacked by a hug even more exuberant than normal from a boy named Carlos. "¡Seño Amy!" he exclaimed, "He escuchado que en los Estados Unidos hay tormentas muy malas." He had heard about all of the crazy storms in the States and was genuinely worried. He said he was so glad to see me because he didn't think I would be able to make it to work today. Surely my flight would have been canceled in such horrible weather. I stifled a giggle and said "Carlos, cariño, soy de los Estados Unidos, pero ahora vivo aquí en Málaga."

His eyebrows lowered in confusion. He was clearly baffled. I hope he doesn't tell too many others my secret, now that I know I have one. I wonder what else I can get them to believe...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I promise Amazon isn't paying me

Up until about a month ago, I had one very big problem with Spain (and living abroad in general): English language books, or lack thereof to be more precise. The problem is manifold.

First, books in English are somewhat difficult to come by in Spain. They do exist in the back corners of some bookstores, and Málaga is a big enough city to have some of these gems. However, once the problem of mere existence is remedied, there is a new problem: selection. The English language section of a bookstore, if there even is one, is small, and is likely to not have much more than the Twilight series and some other international best-sellers. Even after one finds a desirable book, price becomes the next hurdle. Is that really worth 8€? You had to settle for something other than what you were looking for, so do you really want to fork out the money for it, or would it be better spent on bus tickets or beer? Let's say you decide to buy it anyway. You read it. It takes maybe a few weeks, less time if you work 12 hours a week like I do. You set it aside. Now you have this physical object added to your possessions. If you're like me you like to keep your books, especially good ones, because one day you want a huge Beauty and the Beast library.
So you keep the book. But a few months from now, when your time in Spain is done and you're packing, that book and all the others you've collected weigh down your luggage, making it a hassle to drag around, and putting you that much closer to the airline's weight limit. Big problem.

My first four months in Spain I borrowed books from my boss' small English library, but it was nothing I was terribly excited to read. I gave audio books a try, but I was still hesitant about missing really reading. So I downloaded all of Harry Potter, which I've read several times. I'm glad I didn't try anything new. It passed the time and the narration was fantastic, but for me it didn't replace the experience of reading a book.

Luckily, I have a very simple solution to all of my book problems: KINDLE. This amazing device solves the problems of availability, selection, price (in most cases), and weight.
Last summer before I came to Spain I researched all the e-readers and decided that the Kindle seemed like the best choice for me (internationally supported 3G service!). My mom decided it would be a going away present (Thank you!), but unfortunately they were back ordered until after I would be in Spain. Instead of paying the extra taxes and shipping to send one to me in Spain we waited until I came home for the holidays, and it became a Christmas present. I don't think a day has gone by since then that I haven't read from it.

By far my favorite thing about having a Kindle is that nearly two million out-of-copyright, pre-1923 books are free. Yes, FREE! You know that section of Barnes and Noble with all the classics (which I drool over every time I'm there)? I can get all of those books for free. Millions of other books are dirt cheap.

As far as the slightly different reading experience goes, it really didn't take me long to get used to pressing a button to turn the page. In fact, when I was reading out of a book today I caught myself wanting to press a button and use some of the Kindle's other features while reading. One handy feature is the built in dictionary. If I come across a word I don't know, I simply scroll to that word on the page and the definition appears. The screen is nothing like a back-lit computer screen that causes a glare or gives you a headache if you stare at it for too long. It really is just like reading paper. I've tested it at the beach, and can happily report that there were no problems in the sun.

For all the differences there are between reading a screen and holding a book, the pros far outweigh the cons. I now have access to all the English language books I want, they are cheap and sometimes free, and they take up virtually no space in my suitcase.

I still think that someday when I'm permanently settled somewhere I will start collecting books again in pursuit of my dream of a fantastic personal library. But with my current globetrotting tendencies, my Kindle is my best friend.

Books completed in January:
  • All Over the Map by Laura Fraser
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
Currently reading:
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen