Vaya Campamento, Parte Dos

When in Coruña, I met two other Forenex vets, Lais and Bryan. Both had met the summer before at the grandaddy of all FNX camps: Uclés, a real summer camp. The kind with friendship bracelets and roughing it. Not like Coruña camps, with their sailing classes and shopping trips. I decided I wanted to give Uclés a try in order to pay homage to my camp days as a kid.

I got that experience and much more.

Some may think me crazy for moving into a supposedly haunted monastery for two weeks, one where a priest hung himself in the third floor bedroom, one which served as a torture facttory for Republicanos during the Spanish Civil War. I didn’t even teach – I was made the Jefa de Estudios, the Director of Studies, in charge of the well-being of 173 students from elementary school up to university and 15 very tired teachers.
What transpired was ten hectic academic days where I was also to check in on classes, coordinate with the kitchen staff and camp director, coordinate competitions and a talent show and plan social events. It’s kind of amazing how these things whip you into shape. I don’t think I have ever been more organized or diligent in my life, and it showed when my teachers could sincerely thank me for following up with them.
Going along with that, working with people in such close quarters will really make you branch out. Even being the boss, I met and forged friendships with a lot of people and was amazed at how fast we could come together as a team, teachers and monitors alike. Yes, I had a ton to do, but my teachers really needed little supervision and could fend for themselves.

Among the craziest things that happened was trying to find a lost student in an enormous monastery (he snuck back to bed), punishing bullies and snotty teenagers, invading the only bar in the entire town and a gigantic botellón known as the fiesta municipal. Then there was making a few kids cry just by being the boss, a teacher missing the train back from Madrid and me scrambling to figure out how to cover her classes, asthma attacks, bedbugs and the occasional creepy occurrence and bat infestation.

This summer has certainly been a bit crazy, but nothing like my two weeks in Uclés!


Camp ended and I had two choices: go to Sevilla and be bored and hot, or travel a bit through Northern Spain. I chose the latter, obviously, and based my trip around two events: an overnight camping trip to Las Islas Ciés and a trip to Santander. I really just did it for Santander, since I´ve always loved Northern Spain, and the rest of the surprises and experiences were thrown in. I wanted to relax on the Sardinero and eat seafood and see why the region´s tourism board calls it, “Cantabria Infinita.”
Should have called it Santandisappointed.
There was so much build-up to my trip, so many brilliant things I´d read about the home of one of the world´s most foremost bank groups, with its Primera División football team and no shortage of velvety sand beaches. I was just….expecting much, much more.
First snag: I had nowhere to stay. The Islas put me in that famous “mañana, mañana” mode, so that by the time I bothered checking to see if anyone had responded to my couchsurfing requests or if I could find a bed at a hostel, everything was booked. Oh, yeah. It´s August and ALL of Spain goes on vacation. A single bed was going at 50€ a night and I was just about to cross the city off of my list when Juan from Zamora responded: You have a bed here. But we have cats.
Nevermind my cat allergy (famous last words), I was going to stay for free!
I ended up staying the night in León, but the 20€ was worth it to have a comfortable bed to sleep in and a nice, hot shower. The following morning, I took a bus through Oviedo to Santander, a town that echoes of San Sebastián in terms of its stately harbor, luxurious buildings and plush “green lungs.” I stored my luggage and set off looking for seafood. What I found was just beer and a bocadillo.
Juan had agreed to meet at 3pm, but, like a true Spaniard, came at 4:25. More or less on time, I´d say. I expressed my interest in seeing the city that day so I could do some tourism around the region. We drank beers instead, then ate dinner at his piso while the two cats stalked around me and made me waste an entire roll of toilet paper just to blow my nose. We finally left at 1am to go out, and I have to say, the disco we went to, the only place with people in it!, was the night´s saving grace.
The following morning, unable to make the first bus, I went to Comillas, a modernist playground. Gaudí constructed what´s known as “El Capricho” (the Whim), but an outdoor look at the grounds ran 5€. Paso. Then, there was the Chapel and Palace of Sobrellano. Closed. As was the university. As a last-ditch result, I hiked to the top of the city to the cemetary. Gosh, was it worth it: see views, city views, built-in a gutted church and crowned with a creepy angel. I. Am. A. Freak.
Apart from that, the food was expensive, and what could have been a quaint old village was overridden with the weekly market. There was nowhere to move or breathe, so I grabbed two apples from a stand and sat with my book in the park below the Sobrellano Palace until the bus came.

As a matter of fact, the best part of the entire trip to Cantabria was the landscape. Teeny towns were scattered amongst rolling green hills. The Cantabrian Sea kept peeking out between them, and the hills were home to sheep and cows being tended to by ruddy-faced cantábricos.

Back in the capital, I spent the rest of the afternoon on the Península de la Magdalena and the famous Sardinero beaches. After a seafood dinner alone (which threw the maitre´d off a bit), I took the 700m tunnel to the central part of town to watch fireworks before going back to kittylandia, excited for the following day with my Spanish family in Valladolid.

Sunset over the port of Santander

Choque de Cultura

“We´re going to baptize her with a bottle of Cruzcampo beer!” Alfonso said, mimicking the action over his three-month old baby, Luna. I tried to keep quiet, letting out on of those awkward, “I feel reaaaaallly uncomfortable and the language barrier is ever-present” giggles.
Alfonso has not married his girlfriend, Susana. Both are good friends of Kike, and that’s why he’s been asked to be the padrino, or godfather.

In Spain, religion is taking seriously. Ceramic virgins grace every mantle, kids are given Catholic names and every bar is named Saint This or Saint That. Religion brings pilgrims to Sevilla to see the field where the Divine Pastor appeared to Saint Isidore, religion relegates that shops be closed Sundays (one of my biggest complaints about Spain) and this Catholic religion fills the streets of penitent worshippers during Holy Week, garnering money and providing scenes such as this one:

When I first started dating Kike, everyone at his base was abuzz with the sheer fact that I was NOT Spanish. The priest of the base’s chapel even asked, “Is she at least Catholic?” And recently, I had an interview with an Opus Dei kindergarten where the only question that followed, “Did you find the school alright?,  was “Are you a practicing Catholic?” Religion unites Spaniards in the same way that language and love of paella does.
I am Catholic, so seeing the crying virgins and bloody Christs is normal. Religious I am not – I haven´t been to mass in well over two years, mostly because I was overwhelmed and felt stupid for not knowing the prayers and hymns in Spanish, but I would dare not say I didn´t believe.

That’s why Alfonso´s comment rubbed me the wrong way. You don’t want to get married? It’s your life. You don’t want to formally baptize your daughter? Who am I to say anything?

I put the question to Kike, he with the opinion about everything. Turns out, Susana and Alfonso wanted to baptize Luna in a beautiful chapel in the Triana neighborhood, Santa Ana. The priest asked if they were married. They said no. He then asked if the godparents, Kike and Susana´s cousin, Ana, were confirmed. They responded that the godfather was, and the godmother not. Exit new parents.

On the contrary, religion is sometimes laughed at. It´s common to say, “Me cago en Díos,” which literally means, “I shit on God.” Tell me how something so sacred to 45 million people (ok, I´m generalizing), can be relinquished to such a vulgar way to say, oh, shit. It´s laughable, really.

Tradition is deep-rooted in Spain, and as a foreigner, I feel like I´ve had to navigate these subtle differences with a lot of grace and precaution. I have the luck of being of the same denomination, but imagine the darling Turkish girl who worked with me last year. She flat-out refused to try ham on her toast, garnering lots of heckles from our coworkers. But it´s her religion that doesn´t allow it! If Sevilla were to build a mosque within the city limits, Sevillanos would have a field day picketing, swearing and doing everything in their power to prevent the groundbreaking. It would be an abomination, they´d say.

And since Alfonso and Susana can’t baptize their baby as they wish, well, they´re just going to have lunch at the pool.

And it’s not just those big, heavy issues – it’s everyday little things that I feel are off-limits. Eating lentejas or cereal for dinner – no can do. Leaving the air on at night? Don’t tell me your Spanish abuelita never told you that doing so will give you a cold. And leave it to my friend Stacy to point out all the intricacy of having a baby as an American woman in Spain.

The Spanish culture, with all of its caveats and contrasts, amazes and amuses me. But don’t let me tell you I never thought it was weird.

Tapeo por León: Eating in León, Spain

In life, we all find ourselves at crossroads. I’ll be honest: mine wasn’t life-changing or even that important, but it had to be made: Spend a day in the cheese and blood sausage capital of Spain, or one in a town with a big cathedral. Those of you who know me know I would have probably chosen the first, but bus communication really decided my route.

I said goodbye to Julie and José and boarded a bus to León. The valleys of Galicia flattened out to the stark plains of Castilla y León, the ancient old kingdom of the Spanish Empire. It was here that The Catholic Kings married and began their reconquest of the peninsula, here that Saint Teresa the mystic had her illusions and here that I fell in love with the country I now call home.

León was a city I never visited in that summer abroad. I had just hours in the city, but it was enough to make me swoon for Castilla all over again.
There’s a famous cathedral, the last upon the Camino de Santiago before reaching the end itself, with gorgeous naves and stained glass. There’s a Gaudí-designed house that remains the only Modernist monument in all of Old Castille. Then there’s the Barrio Húmedo, literally the Wet Neighborhood, for its abundance of bars and cafes.
I saved up my appetite until dinnertime, when the sun struck Santa María Cathedral into dripping golden hues. I never even think about eating before 11pm, but a friend’s suggestions were looming in my brain. The email was something to the effect of: “You can see the cathedral, walk, blah, blah, blah…and here are a bunch of suggestions for eating. So I followed my belly towards the bar.
What surprised me the most was that most tapas came for free with a drink. I ate like a king for less than I’d pay for a normal meal in Sevilla.

Bar Bambara, C/Matasiete
Consumed: One Mahou bottelín, one tapa of patatas al cabrales (fries with pungent cheese from Asturias)
Total Cost: 1,60

This place was completely unassuming, and I came because I had seen the poster advertising free tapas earlier in the day. I wouldn’t say the bar was anything special, but who can argue with free food?
TOTAL: 1,60
Bar Rebote

Consumed: Two large beers, three croquetas (morcilla, pizza and cheese)

Total Cost: 4,40
I am a croqueta aficionado. If it’s on the menu, I almost always order it, because fried potato and cheese delicacies are nothing short of typical Spanish and really delicious. But the croquetas at Rebote, a small tavern on Plaza San Martín that serves nothing else, are really special. Even at 9pm, the place was packed and the service speedy and friendly. And the croquetas. I tried cheese, pizza and morcilla, a blood sausage typical in Northern Castilla, and coul have easily stayed all night.
TOTAL: 6,00

Bar In Situ. C/Matasiete
Consumed: Two cortos con limón, sopa de ajo (garlic soup), bollo preñao (literally, impregnated bun, but really just chorizo in a bun).
Total Cost: 2,00
I don’t know what I was expecting from this crowded locale. The crowd was young and lively, especially for a Wednesday, and the food was great. While the lemon soda in my drink didn’t mix well with the sopa de ajo, a typical broth served with chunks of bread, I left feeling fuller than usual at dinner and needed a walk around the vivacious neighborhood before going to bed early.

TOTAL: 8,00
Castilla isn’t known for its cuisine necessarily, aside from roast suckling pig and morcilla, in the same way that other regions are. But, madre mía, I’m happy as long as my belly is full of good food!
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