Mother of God.

I have a lot of “Ooooh Guiri” moments. You know, when I do something SO American, I wonder how I’ve survived four years living outside of the Grand Old Republic. Something along the lines of saying swear words when there are other unknown English speakers around, like drinking in churches at a small town fair (wait, that wasn’t me), like telling a bouncer we didn’t want to go to his bar because it smelled like onions (wait, that wasn’t me either).

En fin, my “Oooh Guiri” moments are like dumb blonde moments.

Today was no exception. Faced with no grading to do, a clean house and a good night’s sleep behind me (grandma!), I chose to  being all Christmas-y. My first stop was to Plaza Nueva and the city’s Nativity Scene.

Housed in the salmon-pink palace that dominates the square, the city’s official belén tells the story of the annunciation, birth of Christ and the adoration of the Magi. Using fancy lighting, adobe-looking villages, figurines and constructing the entire town of Bethlehem, the most important moments of young Christ’s life are immortalized. With the diorama comes the line that wraps around the building up towards Plaza del Salvador.

Christa and I had little to do, so we marched towards the camel-ridden zoco in Encarnación before continuing onto an artisan market in a tucked-away plaza in Macarena. I badly needed cash, so my next stop had to be the Ronda Histórica, a busy road that rings the center of the city. The stream of people in front of the home of Sevilla’s most important virgin (oh, and this song) made me scratch my head, so I took out my money, got in line and stood on tip toe to see how much longer I’d have to wait to see baby Jesus again.

Within ten minutes, I had entered the iron gates in the small patio directly in front of the basilica. As one of Seville’s oldest depictions of the Virgin Mother, she’s the patroness of bullfighters and highly revered in Seville. Her procession on Maudy Thursday draws revelers during the wee hours of the morning as she is paraded from her temple along the Ronda to the Cathedral and back. I stated in my bucketlist that I’d like to see her in her basilica, but I happened to choose her feast day to do it. #Ooohguiri

On the right side of the wide, wooden doors, we queued in a perfectly straight line, while others from the hermandad, the term used to describe the religious brotherhoods, passed through the left side. Nuns filled the courtyard, passing cans of Lemon Fanta to several small children in line. I noticed the Virgin was not above the altar in an exalted place as she usually is in other churches. Brothers shouted, “Senores, colaboren con nosotros en la Loteria de Navidad! Decimos a 25 euros!” The Virgen’s distraught face graced the flimsy strips of paper I’d liken to a 50-50 lottery.

I entered the basilica, shivering as I stepped out of the sun, and made the sign of the cross as my Catholic grandmother taught me. As my confirmation saint is Lucia, I spotted her easily and made a mental recollection to find a donation box as I normally do. Girls with piercings and boys in track suits passed by, tears in their eyes. As I passed the small chapels and got closer to the front, I realized the Virgin was on the ground and people were passing in front of her. I had inadvertently come on December 18th, the Feast Day of Su Santísima Virgen de la Esperanza de la Macarena, and was in line to perform the Besamanos, or hand kissing, of the Virgin.

Moral dilemma: Do I kiss the hand of a wooden and cloth statue who I am sworn to dislike because I much prefer the Virgen de la Esperanza de Triana? Or do I look like an asshole and get out of line?

I chose to stay in, already preparing a speech to give Cait over the phone (I’m pretty sure she has an estampilla of La Macarena in her wallet). As we crept closer, her crown of stars and five red roses, a gift from the bullfighter Joey the Little Chicken Joselito el Gallo, came into view and people began weeping. Green gown flowing behind her up the steps to the altar, she stood just a bit taller than I do, but without real legs, I doubt that was her real height.

When it was my turn, toes touching the plush red carpet, I took my place between two altar boys with hair gelled to perfection. The señora in front of me’s lip quivered as she knelt down, kissed one of the only actual parts of the Virgen (most venerated images only have the face, neck, arms and hands, while the rest if a cloth dummy), finishing by making a sign of the cross and having her husband snap a picture.

I looked her dead in the face. She somehow seemed to have a softer expression than the one I’d seen emblazoned on reliefs, azulejos, keychains and tattoos. Her hand was outstretched, and I could see where people had been kissing her for the last 80 years – the plaster had worn right through to the wood. After the señora took her photo, the altarboy wiped down the hand with a damp cloth, and it was my turn.

I left quickly, nearly calling Cait before I’d even crossed the threshold. I didn’t know how to make sense of the whole thing, especially because I consider this whole Semana Santa thing to be a violation of that commandment that says you shouldn’t worship idols, but I couldn’t stop laughing at my Guiri Moment.

Her response to my giggles? “Oh, Jesus Christ. I mean Mother of Jesus Christ.”

Three Ways to Beat Holiday Blues Abroad

Author’s Note: I was overwhelmed at the personal responses I got from my last post, from friends and other bloggers alike. I am by no means giving up on Spain or planning a move home, but I merely wanted to make people aware that leaving one’s home country and striking out elsewhere has its downfalls, too. Even moving to a different city in your state can bring on feelings of isolation and homesickness, so it’s only natural that doing it all in a different country does, too. I woke up with a better attitude after having spilled my guts, but your words of encouragement certainly helped. As they say, a mal tiempo, buena cara.

Ho, ho, ho, I’m a huge Scrooge. Despite my usually cheery personality (please excuse my last post), I am not listening for sleigh bells or roasting chestnuts over an open fire (though I do love snacking on them). In fact, I chose to come to Seville because there was no snow, no Santa Claus and no Black Friday.

But what to do when everyone thinks the days are merry and bright, and you’re hoping for lumps of coal in your stocking to match your mood? Beating the holiday blues, especially when abroad and missing your family (and maybe even a few corny Christmas specials), can be as easy as finding your American friends and clinging onto what American traditions you can. So, amigos, without further ado, your holiday sneer cheer.

Bake until your mini primer burns out!

Although I’ve loathed Christmas for as long as I can remember, I remember all of the afternoons spent baking with my mother and sister in our kitchen growing up. Sugar cookies, chocolate chip for my dad, anise-laced wafers, fudge fingers, Mexican wedding balls – Nancy laid down a schedule and we stuck to it, often hastily stuffing my father’s christmas cookies into a tin and not even bothering to wrap them on Christmas Eve before Mass.

Using Lauren’s recipe for sugar cookies, I gleefully pulled out my new purchase from IKEA (a flour sifter), the vanilla Lisa brought me from home and the last lone egg Kike left me for baking purposes. I made a mess, as usual, and might have broken my mini primer (Santa Baby, hurry down my non-chimney tonight with a hand mixer, please!), but the elation of uncovering the hardened dough and using cookie cutters bought at a hardware store hidden in Bellavista brought me all kinds of elation. And since I’m home alone till Christmas, they’re all mine!

Thankfully, my group of guiritas and I will be having our second-annual cookie exchange this afternoon, so I can expect mulled wine, Love Actually and plenty more cookies to bring more holiday cheer.  If not, there are always pig-lard delicacies to enjoy!

Watch American Football and not feel bad about it

I get homesick a lot in the Fall with important holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving making us scrambling to find turkeys and a Halloween costume not resembling anything dead. And, duh, it’s football season. I love me a good conference rivalry and the taste of Natty Lite on my lips before the sun’s even up, so being away from the Hawkeye State during September, October and November is torturous.

But, when my holiday esteem has sunk so low, it seems impossible to fix, I repeat my affirmation: There’s no place like Monday Night Football. There’s no place like Monday Night Football… Given Spain’s six- to nine-hour time difference, I can’t always watch the Packers (first Super Bowl win in my lifetime I had the stomach flu, the second time I had to go to bed to get up for school). But even watching the Saints with my NOLA pal this weekend, drinking a Budwesier was enough to make me enjoy the Christmas Lights when we left halfway into the second quarter of the Packers game.

For American and British sports coverage in Spain, look no further than the Irish pubs: Tex Mex on C/ Placentines, O’Neill’s across from the San Bernardo train station and Merchant’s Malthouse on C/ Canalejas. Since they’re catered to study abroad students and tourists alike, many have game day specials or Anglo-friendly activities (Sunday brunch!? Sí!!)

See the Christmas Lights

I grew up in Rockford, Illinois, a mid-sized city near the Wisconsin border. Margaret and I looked forward to driving through the annual Festival of Lights, noses pressed to the windows. It was nothing special, but it was loads better than the lady down the street whose lawn barfed out Christmas lights and plastic Santas. And, really, Rudolph’s nose is much more delightful when it’s lit up.

In Spain, the holiday season officially begins with the alumbrado of the Christmas lights on the Inmaculate Concpetion Day, December 8 (Yes, in case you’re wondering, I was off school. ¡Viva la Virgen María!) All along main shopping streets and city avenues, brightly-colored lights are strung, causing the city to cough up half a million euracos and people to stop mid-tracks in front of the oncoming light rail.

But, really, they’re lovely. Spots to hit in Seville include Avenida de la Constitución, Calle San Fernando, Calle San Eloy and Plaza Nueva. I have to settle with the pathetic display on the Alcampo supermarket nextdoor, but it’ll do, especially since the building next to mine blocks the light.

Now that our bellies are full of cookies and beer and our retinas burned from all those bulbs, who wants to scrooge it up with me?

An Open Letter to the State of Iowa

There was a night that will go down in infamy dubbed the Valencia Bar Crawl night.

I was in Valencia, Spain with three girls I’d met on my study abroad program – Megan, Ashley and Anne – and we’d decided to nurse our Ibiza hangover with a few beers on a quiet night that involved more than a few beers, moto rides on slick city pavements and even a male stripper.

But I digress.

The night started by ducking into a brightly lit old man bar – the kind where the bartenders wear crisp white shirts and black pants, and the beer is always cheaper. In our half drunk state, we wrote love notes in Spanish to the bartender’s son, Miguel, and he asked, “¿De dónde venis?”

Ioooooooowaaaaa, said Meg, and I realized I was in the company of all Iowans. All of the sudden, that cartoon bombilla went off over the man’s head.

“Ah, yes, the Iowa of Walt Whitman! I love his poetry. Iowa must be beautiful.”

Sure, if you consider acre of acre after cornfields beautiful, then Iowa is your Garden of Eden (though I really, really do love corn on the cob). I only had the pleasure of calling Iowa home from August – May each year while in college, but I adore that state.  I got a degree from their flagship university. I was taught by engaging professors who had succumbed to the charm of Iowa City. I bled black and gold (and still do). I met my closest friends there. I studied abroad thanks to a grant made possible through the state, which may have arguably led me to end up in Spain. Yes, Iowa is more than just the Hawkeye State to me.

During my sophomore year of college, I was finally able to vote in a presidential election. After having sat through hours of civics classes, I wanted to exercise my freedom to. Iowa’s important role in our nation’s changing – or not – of leaders made for the first few months of that school year to be interesting and dotted with celebrity sighting (rumor is I let Tom Arnold stumble past me while under the influence).

Let me remind you that I went to the Iowa J-School. I never had Stephen Bloom as a professor, despite seeing him in the hallways of the Adler Building and smiling, as Iowans do. When his name kept cropping up on my Facebook feed this week, I figured he was some kind of political analyst before I thought, Hey, he shares a name with a professor I almost  took a course from.

Sure enough, when I looked for the Atlantic Weekly article where he lambasted the geographic center of America, the face with the straight nose and shiny, dark curls was smirking right back at me. I read the article. I furled my eyebrows as to why anyone would find a problem with people relating pigs with money (um, HOLA, I live in Spain). I hated on Bloom in Spanish. If I had the actual article in my hands, it would have gotten ripped up and thrown in the recycling.

In it, Bloom states that, to be Iowan – not a transplant like he and I – one must hunt, fish and love Hawkeye Football. I only fall into one of those categories, same as good old Steve, as I was born in Detroit and have called Illinois my home since I was four. But it stung to have someone throwing all of what I love about Iowa back in my face.

Iowa never seemed foreign to me, just an extension of the things I learned to love living in a bustling suburb. Iowa exemplifies rural America, sure, but Bloom glosses over its thriving arts scene, its sustainability achievements and the world-class universities, one of which employs him.

I may never be able to claim Iowa roots, but the Hawkeye State is more than cornfield, swines and kids named Bud. Field of Dreams, which takes place in Eastern Iowa, claims that “If you build it, they will come.” I think Iowa is trying to reinvent itself, offering incentives to teachers who stay in the state, pioneering sustainable agriculture ideas and playing up its arts scene. Iowa may not be a utopia, but I love hundreds of things about it.

Iowa City: University town and UNESCO World City of Literature

I come from the concrete jungle of Chicago, so choosing not to go to journalism school at Northwestern shocked my parents – I didn’t want to stay in the city. I wanted somewhere wide open, an extension of my high school years (I actually enjoyed mine). Besides, I’ve never been too artsy fartsy – I much prefer a cold beer and sports (see below).

Iowa City has been haunted by plenty in the past (Ashton Kutcher, duh!), but it’s especially known for its Writer’s Workshop, a world-renowned center for literature. Even Kurt Vonnegut was a director of the program, which has garnered Iowa City the title of a UNESCO World City of Literature – the only in the States. Sidewalks are paved with verse and independent bookstores thrive. The hours I spent running my hands over bindings in Prairie Lights are only rivaled to those spent at Brother’s during FAC, but as someone who loves words, Iowa City was just it for me. And, funny story, I spent time calling the Hancher Performing Arts Center pool without having ever seen a show there!

People say Iowa is all bacon and beer, but even the artsy fartsy can get their kicks.

Where else can drinking be acceptable before sunrise?

I am a self-proclaimed beer lover, so I clearly enjoy being able to have a beer for lunch and go back to work.

Iowans like beer, too. Not just for lunch, but many like it for breakfast, too.

But this isn’t what I love about Iowa. In a professional sports team-less state, everybody becomes a Hawkeye Football fan (you did pick up on that, Stephen). There’s little else to say, expect for that people came across the heartland to watch the Hawks run onto the field, followed by Herky on his little trolley waving the Iowa flag wildly. I came from a high school with a strong football program, so buying into the Hawkeye fever was an easy decision.

I have so many wonderful memories of other black and gold embraces in Kinnick, of other fans sharing their chili and space heaters in the back of their trucks, kids decked out in Hawkeye gear. I’ve never felt the spirit of how a sports team can bring people together until I went to my first Hawkeye game freshman year. I still follow the games from Spain, feeling the crush of defeat when we lose and yelling IIIIII as if I were in the student section. I love football, I love the taste of the second Natty Lite on Melrose, and I love sharing Gameday Iowa with Iowans.

The Fabric of Our Lives

Ok, so clearly cotton isn’t the main export from Iowa, but Iowans are about as down-home, country-loving as they come. And I love that about them.

Passing the I-80 Truckstop, deemed the largest in the world, the radio stations suddenly switched to country. All of them. My dad searched for anything else before cursing and turning off the radio to give me a pre-college visit pep-talk.

“Don’t rush into it. you’ll know when it’s right.” Ah, Don. You so smart.

We pulled off the exit towards Iowa City, a welcome break from the miles of endless highways that crisscross the Midwest. Rolling down Dubuque Street, I gawked at frat houses as my dad recounted his own years as president of his chapter. We parked near the Iowa Memorial Union and began our tour. After scaling what is seemingly the only hill in the city, upon which sits the Pentacrest, we toured the new business building, exiting in front of a crumbling brick church. An old man tottered by and tapped me, saying I wouldn’t regret being a Hawkeye.

I asked my dad to buy me a hoodie, convinced I would be calling Iowa City home for a few years’ time. Even after visits to Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana, I knew I had my mind made up.

When he asked why, it was simple – the openness of the people who smiled on the street, the simplicity of the Iowans. I was never once disappointed with the people of Iowa who take their family traditions seriously, who open their homes and hearts to anyone who asks. When a tornado ripped through downtown Iowa City in 2006 just hours before a busy Thursday night in the area popular for nightlife, I was overwhelmed by the support I saw from friends of the University, lifetime Iowans and the president.

Iowans are, for lack of better words, great people. With hearts the size of their state. I’ve met some of my dearest friends there, as they were always the ones to turn to when I needed someone to talk to, the ones who send me cards here in Spain, the ones who invited me to Easter brunch at their houses. Those religious freaks over in Iowa know where they come from, and are proud of it.

Come January, people will be watching Iowa. For better or for worse, a seemingly homogenous state will help determine the political course for one person. Maybe Bloom’s words really have taken roots. Here’s hoping they haven’t…

Disappointment.

One of the words in Spanish for hope is ilusión. Simply adding the prefix des-, similar to the American dis-, makes it negative. Desilusión means disappointment.

In either language, it’s a word that conveys a let-down, the crestfallen feeling one gets when something doesn’t work out in the best possible way. My wise friend LA PAINE (famosa por tó Sevilla) once said that living abroad is like being on one of two sides of the spectrum of happiness – either you’re extremely elated, or you’re devastatingly disappointed.

I’m lucky that I tend to hover on on the positive side. I have daily belly laughs (um, hello, my kids discovered the entry in the dictionary on the human body, complete with pictures the same day I had a kid ask me if my boyfriend was Justin Bieber), breathe in an incredible and vibrant city on the daily and have more contacts than my phone can hold. I’ve done what I intended to do – build a life in a different country in a different language.

Now, I’m not one to put all my eggs in the proverbial basket or count them before they’ve hatched, but for the first time in a long, long time, I was genuinely looking forward to something. To a change, to a step in the right direction. And being the cautious one who looks both ways before crossing the street and taking the plunge and even getting out of bed, I was mum about it. I only told my parents after an offer came, spoke about it to Kike’s mother as strictly business.

If luck is all about being in the right place at the right time, I try and get there a few minutes early, simply because I’m prompt. But this Spanish suerte always arrives at the wrong time – in the middle of the school year, just before a big deal falls through, just a pelín off my ticking clock. It’s like I’m constantly running after the trabajo train, resumé in hand, only to be left at the platform.

Desilusión has taken on a new meaning as I’m in the holiday slump, the clouds hanging low over La Hispalense. The clouds in my head have been raining non-stop since Monday night when those flash-flood tears didn’t want to stop. I feel like I’m trapped in a small margin of what I’m capable of – rather than publish or die, it’s CLIL or die these days.

It’s Christmas time in the city, but I’m just wanting to wake up in Arizona on the 22nd already. Seville may boast sunny days atope, but the storm clouds in my head seem to be here for a while.

DELE if you do, DELE if you don’t.

A la bim! A la bahm! A la bim bohm bahm!

I expected a rousing Thursday! from my six year olds, but instead got “El día del examen de Miss Cat!”

Call it what you want – D-day, DELE-day, Run-and-hide-under-the-Cronómetro-book day, but November 17th was finally upon me. My pencils all sharpened, I hightailed out of work an hour early and took the train to Cádiz.

After nearly a year of toying with the idea, buying the prep books and finally buckling down to study, I got around to taking that stupid thing.

Psst! The format changed. Like, really, really drastically throw-your-stupid-refranes-book-in-the-hogueras changed. But, when I walked into the International House in Cádiz, I kind of didn’t know this, despite Lauren’s warnings and even the Instituto Cervantes announcing it. Alas, there were no books available for the C1 or C2 formats, so I gleefully skipped over the grammar sections and watched an insane amount of news in Spanish. Because, duh, the DELE don’t like no tontos.

[Read more…]

Y nace en Santa Cruz.

Saturday, 9:53 am. Bike is parked next to Alfonso XIII, heavy with a layer of dust. No one is out, save the old men, hands clasped behind their backs in a slow, statuary salute.

Early Saturday mornings mean the city is entirely for me: no camera-toting tourists to dodge, no street performers belting out their tired anthems. The sting of smoke from the chestnut vendors blinds me from the soft, golden color of the sun, long before it drowsily roars with its midday strength.

La Esquina de Arfe becomes my fueling stop, just a brisk walk away from the nondescript churros stand. The woman twisting the long coils hands a doughy stick to a young boy, snatching it away at the last moment. Niño! she scolds, ¡Que te vas a quemar! I take my coffee templado and my toast a bit burnt with tomatoes.

Saturday mornings mean solitude – in the streets, in the Hospital de la Caridad, in my own head. I wander the streets of El Arenal watching vendors receive their fresh goods, feeling the sunlight on my face. After ducking into Plaza del Cabildo for a quick look at the antique shops, I burst out onto Avenida de la Constitución. In the City That Never Socializes Indoors,  the streets have filled with strollers and shoppers.

María Praderes Dolores once sang that Sevilla has a special color. I imagine that it’s the color of the sun that sets in Triana and is born in Santa Cruz, illuminating the Giralda spire on early Saturday mornings.

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