Lucia’s car thermometer read 2º celcius by the time we arrived to Olivares. I said out loud to no one, “Shit, if it’s this cold, I want to see snow!” This, of course, was not really true. One of the best thing about Spain is it´s LACK of snow. The last time it snowed in Sevilla, Kike wasn´t yet born (he´s a ripe 29) and the majority of my kids haven´t seen it.
That´s the theme this Christmas – tons of cold gusts and sales on winter coats. I finally gave in to my repulsion of ugg boots and had my parents send me a pair. They saved my life the day my school turned off the heat to conserve costs. And María del Mar and Irene, two of my 12-year-olds, think they´re chulas. It´s often warmer in my house than on the street and our electricity bills are through the roof because we´ve all had our space heaters on. I even bought a rug in an attempt to conserve some heat in my teeny little cuarto.
I´m reveling in christmas time here. Walking down Avenida de la Costitución, the main tourist strip, people are selling chestnuts and the trees glitter with tiny blue lights. There´s a huge Christmas tree right next to the town hall and the escapartes at the shops on Sierpes and Velazquez are full of Christmas promotions and holiday-themed set-ups. The shops open on Sunday for a few hours and the streets are always full. Yesterday, in walking around Triana running errands, I saw little kids dressed as angels and shepherds after acting out the story of Jesus´s birth.
One of my favorite holiday traditions in Spain is the belén, or the nativity set. Every barrio has a nativity depicting Christ´s birth in a stable, complete with an ox and a mule. Many also have living nativities, acted by kids and with real animals. After the huge nativity in Plaza del Duque next to El Corte Inglés, there is a man representing Balthazar, one of the wise men, and the kids sit on his lap and ask for presents like they would from Santa Claus.
Every family sets up a nativity set in their home. I´m Catholic, so my family sets up a little wooden stable with plastic figurines every year under the tree. But Spanish families get elaborate. They start with “El Misterio” or the Holy Family and gradually add the shepherds, the three wise men (yikes, got flashbacks of freshman year and those nasty shots!) and the animals. They even add the caganer, a Catalonian export that depicts a man mid-squat who resides in the corner of the stable. But it doesn´t stop there – people add the entire town of Bethlehem. The nativity at my school, for example, is full of camels, shops, people. Many huge belenes that I´ve seen have rivers, thieves and things I would have never expected. It´s kind of like those winter villages we put up in the living room and put lights on.
I´m the first to admit I really don´t like Chritsmas, but in Spain it´s really different and more about family and remembering why we celebrate. That said, Christmas is simply Christ´s birth and nothing more. Families have a huge dinner on the 24th and go to mass on the 25th. Kids don’t receive presents until January 6th, El día de los Reyes Magos. Santa Claus exists in TV ads, but the kids ask the wise men to bring them gifts and go to a parade on the 6th. This is called a Cabalgata, and floats in the shape of everything from the president to animals pelt candy at the kids. It´s been really fun seeing my eight-year-old student Manuel get all excited and eat lots of polverones during class. He told me all the crazy stuff he wanted for Reyes and I told him they were going to bring him carbon because he was naughty and looked at my cards during “go fish” One interesting similarity is that kids receieve coal if their naughty!
It’s also tradition every year to have a Comida de Navidad with coworkers or social groups. Last year, Kike invited me to a comida with his Arabic class at a Moroccan restaurant. Everyone gathers once before the holidays to eat and drink and usually get drunk. My school has one, and I didn´t go last year. This year I went to school on thursday all dresses up to get my check and wish my coworkers happy holidays. We let the kids go an hour early and sat around in the teacher´s lounge drinking anise and bottles of Cruzcampo . I hitched a ride with some of the younger teachers to Valencina de la Concepción, a town halfway between Olivares and Sevilla, to a restaurant. As we sat down in our own private room, the 35 of us were treated to a spread of meats and shrimp and cheese. The wine was never-ending and neither was the food. It was hilarious to see my coworkers getting hammered and expressing their surprise that I was still with Kike. Many of them are so professional at work that it was completely unexpected! Towards the end of the meal, the one overworked waiter brought out a dozen bottles of champagne and the headmistress and various teachers made toasts. One of them stood up and said, “Que la guira diga algo!” and I thought for a minute, my head swimming a bit, and stood up and raised my glass. They told me to say it in English to test how well all of the English students could understand. I said, “This Christmas, I´m going to set fire to the school and I think Ignacio looks like a horse.” The response was, “CHIN CHIN! gulp, gulp, gulp” and very few people understood until I translated into Spanish. Everyone laughed except for the headmistress, the scariest lady on earth.
We continued on to a bar de copas where we not only took over the bar but the laptop full of music. As everyone got drunker and María José hung onto me for support, we busted out songs from Mama Mia! and a techno version of “I did it my way” in Spanish. Serafín thought it would be funny to grab a broomstick from the utility closet and start a limbo contest. I had to sit down before I split my tights and Nieves was crying so hard (I love her laugh because her whole body shakes and then she starts crying). I am seriously kicking myself for having a broken camera and a disposable without a flash.
I’ve since recovered my cell phone and bought a nice new camera for only 129€. Tomorrow Kike is taking me and his mama to the base to see their airplanes and his brothers come home on Monday. I’ve got lots of sightseeing in Seville and writing planned, along with studying French and getting some ideas together for the summer. Camino de Santiago? Perú? Backpacking over here? I love having possibilities!
San Nicholas is the birthplace of Saint Diego, a well-known saint. It’s also in the foothills leading to the province of Badajoz, which is why it can be called a port (a small river runs through the town). I’d been a few times with Kike to visit old friends and attend a local festival, but this time we went en plan emboracharnos. Read: We went to get drunk and little else. Since the town is small, there isn’t much else to do.
Upon arriving, we went to the bar owned by his friends Ede and Kike’s parents. The bar is a bit shabby, but it’s always full of people because the food is the best you’d find anywhere. There’s little on the menu besides pig meat and potatoes, but the utilize every part of the cochino – intestines, flank, ears. I chose secreto iberico this time, passing up my beloved carrillada (cheek) in tomato sauce. Spain’s famous jamon iberico comes from this part of Spain, where the black-footed pigs feast on acorns and live quite comfortably. You’ll also find sheep, toros bravos and Andalusian horses grazing the gentle hills when you drive in, fenced in their fincas. After washing it all down with a few Cruzcampos, a few miuras (a cherry-flavored liquor from nearby Cazalla de la Sierra) and a coffee, we headed to the finca that Kike’s dad owns, Finca Roche.
When Kike calls himself the Lord of San Nicolas, he says it in all seriousness. His dad owns something like 75% of the land that constitutes the town and has become a famous farmer. He took us to the farm through the back way, high above the highway that cuts and curves through the sierra. Passing through a hole in the fence, we passed an abandoned lightbulb factory (which seriously looked like something out of a horror film) and crossed over a stream by a fallen plank. Crawling down through boulders and brush, we came upon the rest of the stream and a gorgeous waterfall. We stopped and rested on the boulders until it was too dark to see anything and used our cell phones to guide us back to the car.
We had dinner a bit later outside of town at a campsite. Kike grew up with the head chef, who has been studying in Bilbao in the Basque Country, which is famous for its cuisine. We ate well – plates of enormous croquetas, ratitouille, flank steak, country mushroom omelette, potatoes. Dogs ran around outside, coming into the restaurant to beg for food and warm up next to the stove in the corner of the bar.
After dumping our things at Kike’s dad’s house on the main street, we drove to a urbanizacion called Cierro del Hierro, a famous iron mine. There’s a few houses (AND CELL PHONE RECEPTION!) just right off the highway and a few kilometers south of San Nicolas, and one of Kike’s buddies was having a party to raise money for the local children’s group.
The party took place in an abandoned building that had just the shell remaining – exposed bricks, some scary-looking and crumbling columns. Teenagers had built bonfires and sat on top of their cars drinking straight out of the bottle. Inside the building, completely absent of bathrooms or chairs, a three-member band was playing old Spanish pop and Sevillanas, a type of light flamenco that’s accompanied by a four-part dance. I felt like I was in a frat party-turned-quinceñera. Everyone held plastic cups full of alcohol and danced to the band. Kids played tagged, running through the crowd of about 100 people of all ages. At three euro a piece, we drank enough to give us the courage to request songs from the band, to which they happily played. Kike requested one early in the morning for his “novia la guiri” that I didn’t know, but the chorus rang, “Que contento mi corazon” – my heart is happy.
The cavorting continued until we had exhausted all of the bottles and our feet. We got back to San Nicolas and slept until 2 or 3 p.m.
I love being in the country, but I really am a city girl.
I haven’t been spectacularly busy, but life is continuing as normal here. I really haven’t got news. No traveling, no more hit-and-runs (unless you count me falling off my bike last week), no detentions given at school. My life is wonderful – full of beers with friends, trying new food, discovering more about Sevilla and teaching – but it’s the same as always.
My dear, dear friend Cat’s best friend, Laila, came to visit Sevilla. I fell in love with her from the first moment I met her, and I feel like her two weeks in Spain was more like two months. It was really fun picnicking and gossiping and teaching her phrases in Spanish.
All of the sudden, I realized I’d been back in Spain for two and a half months. I knew I had forgotten I lived in a foreign country when I realized I didn’t know any of the popular Spanish songs. Most of them I hear just by riding around in Kike’s car, which sat in AFB Moron de la Frontera for two whole months. The last eleven days have reverted me back to my Spanish self – lazy, always cold and a connoisseur of the strangest foods imaginable.
On Sunday morning, I waited for a call from David to ask Kike to come and get him from a country club because his car wouldn’t start. Kike believed we were going to his mom’s to eat a typical dish called puchero, so as we could keep the BBQ a surprise. We arrived to Dona Carmen’s and Kike began looking for the garbanzo beans and the meat. Carmen kind of laughed and asked why we were there, and I finally had to tell him there was no puchero, but we had ribs and pork loins and all kinds of meat waiting for him at the country club. He was really disappointed he wasn’t going to eat puchero, causing me to cry out of frustration and exhaustion. The party was a success. Kike had no clue we had planned something for him, and about 20 people in total showed up. Plus all of us got fed for about 8 euros a person.
Kike’s mom taught us how to make puchero the following week. Back when Spain was poor, people used to eat the most filling food they could think of, and often dumped anything and everything and made a big stew. Puchero is made by making a brother from garbanzo beans, several pig parts, a chicken thigh, sausages, tocino (hell, I don’t even know what that is!) and a salty ham bone. The greasy, grey fat is taken out and the broth set aside for curing hangovers (I couldn’t make this stuff up!), then Carmen dumped some vegetables in the pot and let it all stew. The consistency was were, but it was delicious. Kike tells me I’ll be a house wife in no time.
Our other events have included going to a horse show, planning a trip to Austria from Jan 1-6 (including SKIING!), cooking a lot in his oven, and introducing him to turkey and Thanksgiving. This is such a uniquely American holiday that I had to be with other Americans (and Spaniards, Germans, Argentinians, Belgians and an Austrian) to celebrate it. We all gathered at Jenna’s house for the turkey, corn, potatoes, yams, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese and wine. Kike and I took care of bringing a kilo (2.2 lbs.) worth of shrimp, which greatly grossed the vegetarian host out because she proclaimed they were staring at her. Spanish shrimp is shipped directly from the Huelva province, not even peeled! It’s easy to blog about blessings around Thanksgiving time, and I’ve got plenty. While my kids listed fast food and their playstations, I’m finding even my choices are more grown up – health, job security, being surrounded by a wonderful city and wonderful friends. You too, family members!
Another thing I’m really thankful for is my passport. In my classes, we’re beginning a year-long dialogue program. The project was run last year by my coworker, Martin, and I’ve been given the reins to start it again. We have a language village at the end of the year, complete with sets and props, in which the students must demonstrate their fluidity and the ability to use survival English. We began this week with “Customs”. To start with, I had to explain what customs is, as only a fraction of my students have passports, and far less have actually used them.
me: “What is ‘customs’”
Student 1: “Where you get your suitcase!”
Student 2: “A money exchange!”
me: “You show your passport at the currency exchange?”
Student 3: “No! La aduana!”
me: “Excellent. Now, what kind of information do we have in our passports?”
Students 4, 5, 6, 7….30 all at the same time: “ruylwebfv 248yti42kujbweivw.b !!!!!” at least this is what 30-some Spanish teenagers all shouting at once sounds like.
This type of dialogue usually implodes and becomes a Q&A session. “Cat, is it true that you can go to America if you say you’re going to kill George Bush?” “Uhhh, what?” “Someone in Tercero told me that. He’s been there.” “Um, no. You would go to jail.”
The kids are funny, though. They had to choose a destination and a reason for travel. One kid said he was from France and came to drink Spanish wine. Another said, “Welcome to Spain. Where are you coming from?” And the traveler replied, “My nationality is Spanish.” They continued with the dialogue until I pointed out that you didn’t need a passport to travel in Spain if you were Spanish. The traveler said to the customs agent, “Killo! If this is Spain, talk to me in Spanish!”
They’ve all been fascinated with my travels. Me too, really. 20 countries in 23 years isn’t bad, and I’ve only got more to see and do. My passport has been quite inactive this year compared with last, but for now, I’m enjoying my Spanish life: my recovered siesta hour, making the kiddos laugh with my awful drawings, ripeeeee oranges, my daily caffeine jolt and snuggling at bed time in a warm bed (hooray for central heat!). Life isn’t so fast-paced or exciting anymore. But it’s wonderful.