Thursday, July 2, 2015

Gringabroad: Colombia Edition

The tale of two guiris in South America for the first time. Opinions, observations and noteworthy experiences.

Part I

The trip started before we even left New York when Avianca called Jennie, my non-Spanish speaking sister, to let her know, in Spanish, there had been a change in our flight itinerary. Bold move, Avianca, leaving a message in rapid fire Spanish for two gringas who booked tickets on your US website. Good thing it wasn’t too much of a modification. After replaying the message about 100 times we (I) figured out that they had delayed our connecting flight an hour, no big deal. What was supposed to be only a 1.5 hour layover in Cartagena turned into a 2.5 hour layover, forcing us to eat lunch in the airport.

And thus, our cultural immersion began. We surveyed our options in the domestic terminal and observed that almost every Colombian was dining at the fried chicken establishment, so we did too. The food was decent; the price was incredible (at 9,900 COP, our meal cost us a mere $3.88). The most fascinating part was that every one was eating with plastic gloves. Genius. When you finish eating your fried chicken, your hands are clean; not smelling like fritanga for days.

Medellin: We spent only two nights in Medellin (meðeˈʝin not mede-ian), a decision based on the misconception that it was a small city that could be visited thoroughly in two days. While we did get a nice sense of the city and learn quite a bit about its history, I left with the desire to see and do more. There is no MUST SEE attraction in Medellin; the city has no Eiffel Tower, no Statue of Liberty, no Sydney Opera House; yet at the same time, there is so much to do.

After surviving our roller coaster taxi ride (the airport is one hour outside the city, and the drive is a series of curvy roads that line the mountain side down into the city), we arrived at our lovely little hostel in the Laureles neighborhood, which is not a very touristy part of the town. The atmosphere was friendly, the beer was cheap, food was good, no complaints here.

I think among foreigners, myself including, Medellin (Colombia in general) has a reputation for being a dangerous, violence ridden city, full of Pablo Escobars. The truth is, it is now one of the safest places in Colombia. Of course, there is still crime and poverty; its violent past is not ancient history, but many efforts have been made to improve the city over the last 10-15 years.

One of the most noticeable additions is the public transportation system. It is a very simple system of aboveground trains, buses and cable cars which still managed to confuse me (ashamed as I am to admit that coming from a city with one of the most intricate public transportation systems). The difference here is that the price of the ticket varies based on how many zones you travel. The interesting part is that you don’t insert a ticket when you exit the metro so it is not clear how the system knows you exit where you said you would. I suppose the people of Medellin are just very honest about where they are traveling!

What I consider the “coolest” part of the public transportation system are the cable cars that carry 8-10 passengers up the steep mountainside villages of Medellin. These gondolas, which now also double as a tourist attraction, were initially constructed in an effort to connect the traditionally poor, marginalized citizens of the northern favelas to the well connected, better off southern barrios. The idea was to decrease inequality among the Medellinenses by facilitating access to poorer areas of the city.

About half way up the hill, all the locals get off; there are no more homes after this stop. At the top of the mountain is Arví National Park. Before getting lost in the endless, winding, unmarked trails, there is a little market where vendors sell arepas and tamales, local fruits and wines to stock up on before your adventure in the wilderness, and, of course, jewelry and other trinkets for the tourists. We were lucky enough to ride the cable car up with a local who wanted to ‘take a walk in nature’ before heading to work later in the afternoon. Our new friend, Jaime, became our tour guide for the rest of the day.

He had us try new fruit, Uchuva (I don’t know the translation in English); a typical pastry from the region, solterita, and wine made from a berry that looks like a blueberry but isn’t. We picked up some treats for lunch and went on a stroll through the woods. It was great that he was there because the trails were completely unmarked; we might still be lost in the woods today if it weren’t for Jaime. Despite the maze like woods, I do recommend a visit to Arvi Park. The views are spectacular, the meandering trails are serene albeit disorienting and there are great locals to meet (people) and food to try along the way.

After our adventure in the park, Jaime took us to a bar with a local Colombian brew: Bogota Brewing Company, BBC, not to be confused with the British Broadcasting Corporation. It turns out Colombia was playing a friendly against Costa Rica in preparation for the Copa America, so the place was packed! It was almost as great as being at a bar in Spain watching la selección española play.

Even when there isn’t a match, I’m sure BBC is a great place to hang. It is located in the Poblado neighborhood, the touristy part of town, which seems to have been built right into a forest. The bar feels like a tree house.

Because we wanted to say we did more than eat and drink in Medellín, we decided to visit Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum dedicated to the victims of Colombia's recent violent past, and reminiscent of Yad Vashem. It is a small but comprehensive museum that shares the history of both Colombia and Medellin through a series of interactive exhibits. The Casa is unique because many of the stories are told by victims themselves, or relatives of the victims. As painful as it is to recall these personal experiences, a group of over 400 people agreed to share the pain they endured and the lessons learned as a result.

The museum aims to share the truth of a previously concealed past, commemorate the desaparecidos and other victims, unite the city and its citizens, and, most importantly, ensure that history is never repeated.

Now for the fun stuff: nightlife. Medellin comes to life at night. While there is a lot of hustle and bustle during the day, the city seems to transform into one big party once the sun goes down, at least on Saturdays. One street we walked down during the day seemed sketchy and desolate. When we walked down that same street at night, there were bars and restaurants and clubs, people dancing and chatting and singing on the streets.

We met up with my friend, Maria, and her friend, Juan Pablo, for an authentic Colombian night out. Ironically, we ended up going to a salsa club called Son Havana, a great venue with a live Cuban band and locals dancing salsa until the sun comes up (we did not last that long). So, although the music and style of dance did not originate in Colombia, the experience was very cultural.

After two jam packed days, we packed up and headed to Cartagena. With so much left to see and do in Medellin, I hope to get back one day.

Stay tuned for Part II of this story.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

Yes, even for Jews (at least those in suburban NY). Although we do not actually celebrate the birth of Jesus, we do celebrate family. We do take time from our otherwise busy schedules to enjoy one another’s company without thinking about work or school or anything else that is stressful in our lives (at least for a few hours.)  

This year I will be celebrating the typical Jewish Christmas, the one that involves going to a movie and eating Chinese food. I will celebrate the fact that I live in a country in which everything (except movie theaters and Chinese restaurants) is closed and there is nothing to do except relax.

But this holiday season is about more than just relaxing to me. It is about new beginnings. While technically the New Year is always a new beginning, I am hoping that this one brings change to my life. And I’m not talking about the typical (I’ll go the gym more; I’ll find a job a like and work hard at it). Everyone makes those types of New Year’s resolutions, and good for those of you can keep them for more than the month of January.

What I am talking about is this….

Since retuning from Spain, I have been thinking lot about what is important to me. Is it family? Is it friends? Is it new cultural experiences? Is it learning? Is it a great job? If it is all of the above, then how do I prioritize them?

Yesterday I received a Christmas card from the primary school I taught at in Spain two years ago. The amount of joy that I felt upon opening that card, knowing that someone in the school remembered to include my name on the mailing list, was immeasurable. And all because of a little piece of paper. 

On Friday, my sister surprised me with tickets to see the Broadway show Annie, a strong reminiscence of our childhood. The fact that she spent money on the tickets was great. But the gift was so meaningful to me not because of the monetary value, but rather the thought that went into it. The memories the show evoked and the happiness I felt while singing along to each and every song cannot be quantified.

It’s the little moments in life that are truly priceless (sometimes clichés are just spot on). If I spend too much time focusing on one goal, or prioritizing my life, or searching for that perfect something, then I miss out on the small things. I don’t appreciate that coffee date with a friend I haven’t seen in over a month or buying chocolates for my mom to cheer her up after surgery.

This New Year, I am going to try harder to recognize and appreciate all the little things in life.  Here are my new mottos:

"Life is made up of little moments...$0"

"keep smiling"

It is just too stressful to live any other way. 

Happy Holidays!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Live to work or work to live?

For me this cliché represents the difference between my life in America and my life in Spain. There is a fundamental lifestyle difference between these two of my favorite countries. I cannot say which is better or worse, although I do have my theories. What it comes down to are priorities. The USA is a country founded on “The American Dream,” the idea that anyone through hard work can be successful. And what does it mean to be successful? Well that is not an easy question to answer.

Ask a Spaniard what it means to be successful and sure, some might answer that making money is important to them. But is it their main purpose in life? It is safe to say, no. Spaniards, from my experience, are very family oriented and social people. They enjoy spending time together over tapas and a cerveza or a two-hour lunch.  Ever met a NY banker with a two-hour lunch break? I think not.

So here I am, a New Yorker with a Spanish state of mind. (I was brainwashed during my two years there.) Is this a sustainable way to live? Why can Spaniards get away with a 25-hour workweek? How can banks be open only 5 days a week and close at 2pm daily? Sure you are thinking the results of this way of life are 25% unemployment and an all time worst economic crisis.

But change the definition of success from being rich to being happy and there you have a fundamental difference between the way a Spaniard and an American (New Yorker at least) thinks. The key to a successful life is not necessarily a high-powered job as a lawyer or a banker; the secret is to do what makes you happy. Ok so maybe one of these jobs makes you happy, now what? Ever heard the expression, “married to a job”.  We talk about people being married to their job when a person spends most of their waking hours at work, or working. I am not here to judge someone who finds happiness in this way of life.  Just to elaborate on the personal crisis I am currently going through in my post Spain transition.

The USA is one of the richest countries in the world, but is it one of the happiest?
We’ve all heard money can’t buy happiness, right? So why is wealth such a focus in this country? I recently read an article, maybe it was in the Huffington Post, but it was nonetheless accurate, titled “16 Ways Europeans Are Just Better At Life.” Some of the ways were meant to lighten the mood. For example, the comparison between European cheeses such as Gruyere and Parmesan and “the yellow, nondescript foodstuff” we call American cheese. Another lighthearted difference was the “sexy accent” Penelope Cruz has when she speaks English compared to the horrendous accent Mayor Bloomberg has when speaking Spanish.

Others were a little more serious. For example: health care. According to a Bloomberg study, the US ranked number 46 out of 48 countries surveyed for efficient health care systems. So we are the richest, therefore happiest country in the world and there are 45 nations that have better health care than we do? Ok, since I don’t want to make this blog political (I don’t really know enough to be shelling out my opinion publicly), I will move on to the life expectancy comparison (which may be slightly related to the health care issue). But that aside, a 2011 World Health Organization Study showed that 24 European nations have a higher life expectancy than America, which ranked number 33, “just one spot ahead of Cuba.” So if this is the most successful country in the world (or at least one of them), the land of the free and the home of the brave, why can’t we up our life expectancy?

Ok, still slightly political, but let’s talk about vacation time. Other than teachers, who gets a full month off for summer vacation? Oh, that’s right, Europeans. “By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation.” (USA Today) And what is the law for Americans. Oh yeah, there isn’t “a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday.” Now that’s just not fair, is it?

If you want to read the article, you can see it here. My point in all this is to consider, that different isn’t always bad. Success doesn’t always mean rich. And there is no better or worse when it comes to a way of life. I do however believe that many people are so caught up in their own way of life that they don’t even stop to consider doing something different, out of the ordinary, stepping out of their comfort zones.

I have been fortunate enough to have an experience in my life that brought me way out of my comfort zone and introduced me to an entirely new way of thinking. Unfortunately, that experience has now become somewhat of a curse. I cannot handle the 9-5 lifestyle: waking up at 5 am to go to the gym before work, eating lunch at my desk or breakfast on my walk to work. I have only been working for about two months now so sure it takes some getting used to. But I feel like my life right now is just work (and commuting to work). There isn’t much time in the day to do other things I enjoy. Is this just the definition of adulthood?

Tell me what you think…do you have any advice or opinions for me? Criticisms also welcome.

Friday, August 23, 2013


**In order to read this post, you must put yourself in a time machine and travel back to June of this year. Once you have done so, please enjoy! 

Two years later and I still don’t feel ready to leave this beautiful city behind. I think back to the timid, fearful, recently graduated girl I was when I first got off the plane in Sevilla, and I cannot fathom that she and I are the same person. I embarked on this incredible adventure not knowing anyone else who would be joining me in Spain, knowing very little (next to nothing) about teaching English, or teaching in general, and with very little confidence in my Spanish skills. Despite having studied abroad in Spain, I was relatively unprepared for moving and living independently in a foreign country. I have learned and grown so much over the past two years.  Day to day, it is hard to notice a change of any sort. But when I sit down and reflect on who I am versus who I was, it is shocking how much has changed.

At the end of last school year, I left Sevilla thinking that my time here was over. I packed up all my stuff, donated my towels and bedding to good will, I left nothing behind. Then after the initial excitement of being back with my friends and family in New York died down, I found myself quite depressed that I wouldn’t be returning to Sevilla in the fall. I was “looking for a job” in New York, but for every hour I spent looking at opportunities in New York, I spent three hours trying to figure out ways I could get back to Spain. Luckily, I was able to find a way to get back here. Still teaching English of course, but in a different setting than the previous year.

Now I sit here at the end of year 2, three weeks away from the end of my contract. I cannot believe that it is already time to pack up and think about plans for the future. I had a rough start this year. I was teaching as the primary teacher, as opposed to a teacher’s assistant. I was in a new town (still in Sevilla), with new co-workers and students with a completely different schedule from the year before. There was so much for me to get used to. And even though I knew this year wouldn’t be the same as the year before, I hardly expected it to be as different as it was.

I have never been really good at transitions, so it took me a while to adjust to my new life in Sevilla. I had to overcome many obstacles the first few months I was here. I told myself that I would get through the year because I don’t like to give up when things get tough but that it would be my last year. Having the opposite schedule to all of your friends is not an easy thing to deal with. While all my friends were done with work by 2pm, I was just getting ready to leave for work at that time. So with the opposing schedules I could only get together with friends on the weekends. Not the end of the world, but took some getting used to. Last year too much free time, this year not enough. Hard to get it right!

So, yes, I thought this was definitely to be my last year in Sevilla. And still that might be true. But as I am finding myself nearer to the time to say goodbye, I feel sad and unsure about leaving. Natural I know. And I try to think if the benefits of me staying here outweigh the benefits of moving onto a new experience in my life. My rational side says move on. My emotionally vulnerable side tells me to stay and see what another year has to offer. I feel fortunate that I am able to make such a wonderful decision, but at the same time completely overwhelmed by what lies ahead.

I have my entire life ahead of me. I am young. They tell me these things and I know its true. But decisions a person makes when they are young are extremely indicative of the future. I am writing my own history right here and now. It’s only 10 months, but in 10 months so many things can change. No decision is the wrong decision, so why is it so hard to choose something?

Back to how I started this post. I have changed so much over the past two years. I was scared to death when I first started my job last year, teaching English in a small town near Sevilla. I knew nothing about the education system in Spain, I knew nothing about teaching in general. I didn’t know my co-workers or what they expected of me. And I was not confident in my ability to communicate with anyone.

Well most of you know the end to this story. I ended up having the most wonderful experience, with kind and compassionate coworkers who helped make not only my job but also my life in Spain easier. By the end of the year I was comfortable standing in front of a classroom of 25 students and explaining something about my language or culture. I felt comfortable inserting myself into a conversation among my Spanish coworkers at recess. I had built relationships with my students. I wanted so badly to repeat my experience but as bureaucracy here (in Spain) doesn’t function as you would expect, the Spanish government decided to give my position to a complete stranger to the school, instead of to me.

For that reason I left thinking I wasn’t coming back. Then, an opportunity was given to me to try something a little different, teaching at an academy. It is a different experience because, although the classes are smaller, there is no one else in charge of the students but me. I make lesson plans. I decorate the room. I lay out the rules of the class and therefore I am in charge of disciplining those who do not follow my rules. Not an easy task for someone who has a background in education, not an easy task for someone who has the same native language as their students, definitely not an easy task for me.



I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that word. Change. It is a phenomenon that almost anyone anywhere in the world can relate to. Some people fear it while others embrace it. Sometimes change is positive, sometimes change is negative. Sometimes it creates new opportunities and sometimes it means losing something we had grown accustomed to having.

On my second to last night in Spain, after two years of teaching (and learning), living and exploring, I am facing a huge change in my life. I cannot qualify this change as either good or bad, its just not that simple. Although there are a lot of things I am looking forward to in my near future, I am extremely sad to leave behind all the relationships I have formed and experiences I have had in the past two years. I feel now as though I know better how to live in southern Spain than in my own country.

Living abroad requires a much more conscience effort to understand a people and their culture. I grew up in New York. Life is the way it is there and I never thought twice about it because I never knew any different. Not the case in Spain. I spent my first 6 months here comparing everything to how things are done in New York. Now, daily life here seems nothing but normal. These are topics that I have discussed numerous times before in my blog, so I will not extrapolate here. But I am talking about things like siesta, beer being cheaper than water, stores being closed on Sundays, dinner at 10pm, wearing pants until June because even if it is 90 degrees its still not summer yet! I have made a list that I will post at a later date of ways an American can tell they have been in Spain for a long time.

So, change. What does this mean to me? An opportunity to start a new and exciting chapter in my life? While, yes, it does mean that, I have always been a person to fear change, fear the unknown. And let’s be honest, everyone does a little. I have never been particularly good at making transitions, I take a while to adjust to a new situation but once I do I am usually able to enjoy it to the max. Which is what makes it so hard for me to leave. Everyone keeps telling me “Sevilla isn’t going anywhere, it will still be on the map,” and while that is a fair point, what is hard for some of my friends and co-workers to fathom is that this experience will never be here again. Even the difference between this year and last year has been quite unbelievable. Same city, same job, two completely different years.

I know change is good. I know. I personally would rather be able to say that I put myself out there and took risks and sometimes failed, than say that I lived a comfortable life where I never challenged myself to try something new.

So, as my wise mother once said to me, “There is a lot of beauty in the world and you must keep discovering it and carry your experiences with you in your heart.”

All I can do is cherish the wonderful experiences and memories I have made here in Spain. As of right now, it looks like this short chapter in my life is ending. (but hey, you never know) And as sad as I am about it, I am keeping in mind this cliché, but very true quote:

“No llores porque ya se terminó, sonrié porque sucedio.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Dr. Suess

(There seems to be some dispute over who the actual author of this quote is. I give both men credit)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

when in...morocco

How to explain my weekend in Morocco…Filled with you had to be there kind of moments, yet I want nothing more than to share my experience with my readers. It is not an easy task I have set for myself, but I will give it my best shot.

So, as most of my travel posts begin, I took advantage of a day off from work. This time I actually had to take an extra day off because the holiday fell on a Wednesday, and I also work on Thursdays. But given that the holiday was Día del Trabajador AKA Labor Day, I found it appropriate to give myself an extra day to celebrate myself (or to have a long weekend in Morocco).

The fun began as soon as I stepped off the airplane in Casablanca. After the nightmare that was going through customs and security, I was greeted by my first-ever welcome sign. I’ve always been jealous of those passengers who have drivers holding up signs for them when they arrive (although the jumping up and down and screaming family members have been a decent substitution). This time I got the sign AND the jumping up and down mother. While I was enjoying my first hug with mom since January, I saw a Moroccan man in a suit walk over towards us. I could only assume he worked for the airport and was about to tell us to get out of the way and continue the reunion outside of the arrivals terminal. Little did I know, he would become our best friend over the next five days.

Abdou, aforementioned man in suit, was our personal driver and tour guide. My mom and step-dad had found him when they first arrived in Casablanca from Marrakesh. He was the only driver (apparently) who gave them a decent price for a ride from the train station to the hotel (in Morocco taxis don’t believe in using their meters). So, since he seemed to be a trustworthy man, he was hired to pick me up from the airport as well.

An important fact about Abdou is that he is Moroccan, and only speaks French and Moroccan Arabic. Well, we know approximately THREE words in Arabic so that wasn’t a viable option for communication. Luckily, Barry (step-dad) knows a bit of French, so we were able to get by. But when I say a bit of French I mean he studied it in high school and maybe college, not sure, and hasn’t gotten to practice it much since then. So, you had to be there moment number one: listening to Barry and Abdou trying to communicate.
best buddies

When we finally left the airport I was so caught up in talking to mom and Barry that I didn’t realize we were walking in circles around the parking lot. I suppose Abdou was excited to see me too? So excited that he forgot where he parked the car. Next thing I know, Abdou turns around and hands me his cell phone, saying something to me in French, which I assumed was related to the person on the other end of the phone. I was right. It was his daughter. Meryam (his daughter) is also an English teacher, same age as me, and teaches in a high school in Marrakech. Since we are the same age and have the same profession, Abdou decided that we should…no, we WILL, be friends. But I’ll get to back to that later on.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, after spending 35 minutes in the taxi praying for our lives (did I mention Abdou likes to talk with his hands, so more often than not he has no hands on the wheel), I was exhausted. The first night was relaxing; we ate in the Moroccan restaurant in the hotel. The first of many meals at which I would stuff myself silly. But when you are normally eating food cooked by me, meaning its gross, it makes sense that you want to take advantage of food that actually tastes good. I ate the most amazing tagine with chicken and noodles and lots of really yummy spices. I thought it was the best meal I ever had, until I ate again the next day.

this isn't something I was lucky enough to eat myself but for some reason it's the only food picture i have from the entire trip. tagine

On Thursday, we visited the third largest mosque in the world, supposedly. Some sources call it the largest, others the seventh largest, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it was really, really big. What was unique about this mosque compared to other ones I have visited is how modern it is. Built only twenty something years ago, it has a retractable roof, heated floors, escalators, which I thought was pretty cool. It also has a lot of other amenities like a hammam and a lounge that apparently to this day no one has ever used.

big mosque
hard to tell from these pictures how ginormous it really is

After our visit, our trusty friend Abdou picked us up in his bigger taxi since we were going to take a longer ride to a city south of Casablanca, El Jadida. Not a super touristy place in Morocco, so it was really neat to be able to see how Moroccans really live without trying to impress tourists. On the way there we rode along the coast, which was beautiful (what I saw of it before I fell asleep). Before we arrived in El Jadida, Abdou asked us if we wanted to take a tour around a neighboring town. Despite saying no, we saw the town anyway. Abdou pretty much does what he wants.

Which leads me to my next had to be there moment. After a long stretch of highway, before entering El Jadida, there is a roundabout. There was a police officer directing traffic at the roundabout. He had his hand up in the universal stop position facing towards our car. Well, Abdou saw no reason to stop (no cars threatening our lives) so he continued through the rotunda even though he was told to stop. The police officer blew his whistle after us, suggesting that we had to pull over. We were sure the policeman was going to give us a ticket for disobeying his orders.

Abdou went out to talk to him, came back a few seconds later to grab his ID. Normal. Policeman needed to take down his information. Just as we were chatting away about how we expected this to happen sooner or later, we turn around to see Abdou high-fiving the policeman. Not a normal reaction after getting a ticket. He gets in the car and says OK, OK, one of the few things he knows how to say in English. And then he repeats “secretary general de petite taxi”. It was then that we found out that Abdou is highly ranked in the taxi world. In fact, he is so important that he has many friends in the police department (I don’t really see the connection either). He took out a notebook and showed us the names and phone numbers of all his friends in the police department; there were about 3 pages of it. Then he added one more.

We spent two lovely days in this small beachfront Moroccan town. The city of El Jadida was controlled by the Portuguese for around 250 years so it doesn’t have a particularly “Arab” appearance, although the market place and all the conservatively dressed Muslims give it more of a Moroccan than western European feel.

me and mamacita on the ramparts

In the city we visited a really big old cistern and the old city ramparts. We walked around the market and bought spices and typical Moroccan sandals and…converse sneakers. We bought jewelry and scarves and leather purses and candles. I love the shopping in Morocco. It’s fun and the shop assistants are usually so friendly. They invite you to sit down and join them for a cup of tea, and some offer your mother 150,000 camels to have your hand in marriage. Maybe another you had to be there moment. Or the man in the shop dresses you up as a Berber (indigenous group of north Africa) and then you show the picture to another man and he says that you are not dressed as a Berber but in fact as a Tuareg. But I think there is a relationship between the two groups so that could be the source of the confusion.
me as a berber, or maybe a tuareg

man who offered camels to marry me

Besides shopping and meeting my future husbands (if only they knew I was Jewish), we did a lot of walking around and eating in Morocco. Both in Casablanca and El Jadida we had waiters who kindly listened to us when we ordered the food we wanted but still decided for us what it was we would eat.

I also got a really cool henna tattoo (matching with mommy) that was probably the most you had to be there moment of them all (followed closely by me using the Turkish toilet). Barry (our French expert) decided he didn’t want to wait for us while we had the hennas done. So he took us to the spot on the side of the road where the ladies were painting henna and left us to communicate on our own. We sat down on buckets that look like the one where we store our dogs’ food and they gave us a book to look through with all the possible designs and places they could do the henna.

Mother and I sat for approximately 10 minutes deciding which design we liked best and which would be the most appropriate for two extremely white, clearly not Moroccan women. We finally decided (decision making is NOT my forte) and tried to explain to the women what we wanted. The head lady seemed to understand because she shook her head saying ‘oui’ . She seemed to be copying from the book for the first two minutes, while the other woman sitting next to her seemed to be free styling the henna. The head lady caught on a few seconds later and decided to go with her own design too. So instead of getting matching hennas that we spent, no joke, ten minutes trying to pick out, mom and I got two similar but slightly different beautiful without stencil done hennas. Take a look…

after it dried

Since none of us could communicate we sat awkwardly for a while waiting for the henna to dry (can’t put a sandal on until it dries in the sun a little bit). We were miming to each other trying to find out more about one another, but after a while we just started giggling together. Finally, the little side of the road henna business got crowded and the ladies needed their stools back. Let me try to explain to you the conversation of how we determined the cost of the henna, since Mom and I do not know our French numbers. After we had the whole town trying to tell us the number (saying it louder when we don’t speak French isn’t helpful).  Someone tried to write it in the air and I guessed, but was wrong. Finally, a smart young gentleman typed the number into his phone so we could look at it. We thought he worked with the henna ladies but turns out he was just a passerby. After that whole magillah (saga), the ladies put plastic baggies on our feet so the henna wouldn’t rub off against our shoes and smudge. For some reason, that caused me to waddle down the streets in this small Moroccan city, with people pointing and laughing as they saw me. Glad I was able to provide a little entertainment…

Later on, our loyal driver came to pick us up in El Jadida and take us back to Casablanca where I had to fly out from the following day, back to Spain. We were ready to go to the hotel and relax in the luxuries of a modern city (sort of) but Abdou had other plans for us. He wanted to take us to his home to meet his family since his daughter was in from Marrakech and he wanted us to be friends. It turned out to be a great experience, despite the language barrier (his poor daughter had to translate the whole time). We sat in a beautifully decorated living room while sipping Moroccan tea and eating pastries; I can’t complain. It was great to be able to sit for a while and talk to a family that comes from such a different background and different culture than we do and I’ve come to the conclusion that we really aren’t all that different after all!
our new moroccan friends :)
So I will leave you with that concluding food for thought. I could go on and on with more you had to be theres, like when the six of us squeezed in the 5-person taxi or putting our suitcases on the top of the petite taxi without bungees and driving around the city, but I won’t. My work here is done.

little taxi with bags on top
I hope you have enjoyed hearing about my trip as much as I enjoyed experiencing it! 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

FERIA round two

Last year around this time, I wrote a post about the Feria of Sevilla. My last sentence was “Hope I can be back here for next year’s!” Well, what do you know my wish came true.

Another feria come and gone. Rebujitos, casetas, trajes de flamenca and Sevillanas. Dashing men (and women) riding on horseback. Go with old friends, leave with new ones. A temporary tent city with streets named after famous bullfighters, carnival rides and fried dough, dancing until the sun comes up.

mapa del real de la feria or the fair grounds

Each year in April, two weeks after Easter Sunday, the people of Sevilla celebrate the arrival of spring (this year is felt more like summer) with this huge fair. Many towns and cities around Spain have similar celebrations throughout the year, but Sevilla has come to be one of the biggest and most well-known of them all.

I’ve gathered some information over my two years as to how and why the feria tradition began. Not sure if this is accurate but here’s what I’ve learned.

The idea was proposed by a Catalan and a Basque who suggested to the city council in the mid 1800s that three days in April be dedicated to the selling and trading of livestock and crops. At first, the feria was held in a small park with something like 20 casetas (tents). Over the years it gained fame and success (now there are over 1000 casetas), and the feria had to move to a bigger space. In the 1920s, the feria started to change into what it is now: a small city within the boarders of Sevilla that springs up for a week in April and becomes a temporary home for Sevillanos to dance and sing and eat and drink. Still not clear on why/when feria became an event dedicated to partying rather than to commerce and trade.

The feria begins on a Monday night with a dinner called “el pescaíto”, andaluz for “fried fish”. The dinner does involved lots of fried fish, but also your typical Spanish noshes: jamón, queso, olives etc. This dinner is only for members of the casetas (all other days of feria members can invite guests into their little tent homes). At midnight on the first night, there is a ceremonial turning on of all the lights known as “el alumbrao”, andaluz for “the lighting or the illumination”. Right at midnight, all the lights around the feria are turned on, including the lights of the portada, the entranceway into the fair. There are over 350,000 light bulbs used to light the place up at night.

Every year the portada is inspired by an important event, monument or building in the city. Last year it was based on the facade of El Salvador Church in Sevilla.

the real church
 Portada 2012

This year it was loosely inspired by Plaza de España, although the dimensions aren’t accurate (the two towers are not actually joined by a bridge). 

the real Plaza España

Portada 2013

This feria I decided to get into the spirit a little bit more than I did last year by buying my very own traje de flamenca. Many women in Sevilla acquire a new dress for every feria, for those who can’t afford it, every couple of years. It is not so difficult to find someone who has so many to spare that they are willing to lend one out for a feria season. The problem is that these dresses are very tailored to one’s body, so unless you find someone who is your exact body twin, it is hard to borrow a dress. Plus, I think of it as a great souvenir for the future. In an ideal world I would have liked to design a dress for myself, which many Spanish women do, but since I cannot afford to spend €400+ on a single article of clothing, I bought a “predesigned” dress from a store. Of course when you buy from a regular store you run the risk of being seen in the same traje as someone else! HORROR! And I did actually see a couple of people wearing the same one as me, but given that I am a guiri (foreigner), I didn’t mind. Here is a photo of me in my dress.

me and my ladies before feria day 3, i believe

For me an important part of the feria is the attraction park called “Calle del Infierno”, or Hell Street. I think my childhood must have been lacking in town fairs because of the excitement I feel when I am there, or maybe I just love going on rides. This time around I only went on two rides because I was just having so much fun at the “adult feria”. Also, it is really hard to sit down in a flamenco dress so I had to dress differently on the day I wanted to visit the rides. I went on one incredible ride called the Inverter that does just what it says, inverts. It is a two minute adrenaline pumping experience in which you are turned upside down, backward and sideways so many times that by the end of the ride its hard to tell which way is up. It was awesome. I also rode the Ferris wheel, which is not usually my first choice when it comes to rides but my friends outvoted me. It was actually a pretty fast moving Ferris wheel so it wasn’t as boring as Ferris wheels usually are. And from the top there was an amazing view of the entire fair ground. Since I went at night all you can see are the lanterns that line the streets of the feria and mark the location of each caseta. It was quite impressionante.

view from the top of the Ferris Wheel

So, feria round two, mission accomplished. Although I am sad because this is probably the last time I will be at Feria de Abril for a long time, I think I went out with a bang. I attended every night of the Feria, including the alumbrado the first night. I danced Sevillanas (or my awkward at dancing version of it), wore a typical traje de flamenca, drank rebujitos, went on a few rides, got churros and chocolate for breakfast one morning at 7am before going to sleep for “the night”, and even got invited to a “disco-caseta” by a member of one the bands.

I also learned that I have a hidden musical talent. The “instrument” is called cañas and it is basically two bamboo sticks that have to be hit together at a certain beat. It is typical in the feria to see people tapping on cañas to the rhythm of sevillanas.


So, thank you feria for being such an amazing experience, again. For now, I’m trying to look forward to other events in the near future to get out of my post feria depression. All good things must come to an end, right??


Friday, April 19, 2013

El Derbi

I think I have now been to more “subway series” in Sevilla than I have in New York.

Side note:
For those of you non-New Yorkers/non-Americans reading this blog (if there are any of you), the subway series is when the best team in baseball (The New York Yankees, obviously) plays against the other team accessible by the New York City subway, the New York Mets. Upon writing this post, I learned that the original use of this term was for a world series between the two New York teams, but since then has been applied to interleague play.

Last Friday night there was a showdown between the two football teams in Sevilla, Real Betis Balompié and Sevilla Fútbol Club, said by some to be the most violent rivalry in Spanish football, maybe even the whole world. In my retirement from USC Lacrosse, I don’t find myself playing sports much these days, but I still enjoy watching athletic competitions. So I spent the euritos necessary to experience this incredible face-off (more so between the fans than the players) known as the derbi sevillano. I went with a bunch of other Americans who had never been to the derbi before, and we all got into it as though we had been born and raised beticos.

me and Gabi pre-game
Although there are similarities between the derbi and the subway series (two teams from the same city competing in an athletic event) it is really quite a different experience.

For starters, walking through the streets of Seville during a ‘derbi’ is somewhat eerie, like walking through a deserted ghost town. There is virtually no one on the street. Everyone is crowded into bars, or around televisions or computers in their homes. This match is more than just a game between the two teams in Seville. The winner gains bragging rights until the next derbi, and this is very important when it comes to soccer. The Spanish people are very obsessed with soccer, much like Americans are with football or baseball. When people want to find out which team you support, they don’t simply ask, “which team are you a fan of?” but rather eres betico/a or sevillista (roughly translates to are you Betis or are you Seville?). You do not simply support your futbol team; it is a part of your identity.

In New York, almost anyone you ask (who is originally from New York) will say they support either the Mets or the Yankees. There is no middle ground. Although there are many diehard fans, I think it is safe to say the outcome of the subway series is not as significant as the outcome of the derbi here. (Of course, that is because no matter which team wins, the Yankees will always be a better team).

Here in Sevilla, the choice is Sevilla or Betis. No in between.

The last derbi I went to was at the Sevilla stadium, so I had to go in disguise. Unless you sit in the visiting team section, it may actually be life threatening to wear the wrong color in the wrong section. For example, a Betis fan has to wear a red shirt at Sevilla’s stadium to stay alive. The rivalry is so strong that the fans are not even allowed to enter the stadium through the same section. Before the game, when one team sees the other, the taunting begins. And it doesn’t stop.

in disguise at the first derbi

As an American, growing up with different cultural concepts of what children should be exposed to at what age, I would say this is not a good place to bring a young child. But the Sevillanos seem to take the opposite approach. The sooner they learn the importance of supporting their team, and fighting for what they believe in, the better. There are curses thrown around, middle fingers put up (saw a boy of about 8 do that), I even saw one Betis fan pull his pants down and moon the Sevilla fans after Betis scored a goal. People show their support in all different ways: some by doing the sign of the cross, others by throwing chairs when the opposing team scores a goal, others sing lullabies while rocking their newborns to sleep (again the sooner the better when raising a fan). Not a place a child of mine will be until at least his teenage years. But here, for some, football=life.