For the Love of the Dove: El Rocío

I’ve never been one for Bucket Lists, but often set travel goals for myself. When I was 20, I decided to do a 25 before 25, making a list of my top-five destinations when I moved to Spain two years later. Twenty-twelve meant no resolutions, just a few ideas for travel goals during 2012: one new country, one off-beat travel activity and one nationally recognized festival, in Spain or not.

It’s the end of May and I’ve just completed my goals. I think I shall hashtag this as #travellover. Last weekend, my sevillana half orange, La Dolan, and I went to visit Spain’s lushiest Virgin Mother, La Virgen del Rocío.

The festival of El Rocío is one-part religious pilgirimage, one-part full-blown fair and two parts party: those devoted to the Virgen, known as the Lady Of the Marshes or the White Dove (Nuestra Señora de Las Marismas, for the hermitage’s proximity to the protected swampland of Doñana National Park, or the Blanca Paloma), make a pilgrimage from their towns to the immaculate white church outside the village of Almonte. This can be done on foot, on horseback, or by riding in oxen-driven carrozas, a type of temporary covered wagon. Arriving on or before the Saturday of Pentecost, often sleeping and eating outdoors, the rocieros then gather in El Rocío for a series of masses, parades and the famed salta a la reja.

We arrived just before noon on Pentecost Sunday. I wore my celestial blue traje de gitana, coral flower on my head, while Cait opted for a breezy skirt. It was over 90º out, but the rocieros were in their typical costumes: the women in trajes de gitana or faldas rocieras, a skirt with ruffles suited for walking, and high leather boots. The male counterpart is a traje corto, with tight cropped pants made for horseback riding. I made a face at Cait, suddenly very hot with the sleeves of my dress and restricted in movement.

The whole village of El Rocío is like a town straight out of a Wild West film set - hitching posts set in front of modest houses, horses clopping gallantly around the sandy streets. It was difficult to walk with my espadrilles while dodging carriages, and sand soon filled my shoes.

As we neared the stark white church, a beacon against the bright blue Andalusian sky, we decided to visit the village’s most famous resident before going any further. As we neared, the tamboril drums and simple flutes that characterize the sevillanas rocieras grew to a furor, and the crowd standing under the scalloped entrance of the hermitage suddenly parted. The Pentecost mass had just ended, and a parade of the simpecaos, the banners carried by the different religious groups, had begun.

The knots of people ebbed and moved as the 110 hermandades, yes the same kind from Holy Week, from around Spain presented their faithful before the church and moved around the village’s dusty streets. From simple to elegant, each carry a symbol of the Virgen del Rocío. The pilgrimage dates back to the 17th Century, with the hermandad from Almonte, el Matriz, being the oldest. Following the banner come women in two straight lines on either side of the simpecao, carrying long silver staffs topped with images of their brotherhood’s virgen. Their necks were emblazoned with the same silhouette in the form of heavy pendants on the end of multi-colored rope cords.

The festival at the Aldea is characterized by religious devotion, of course, but there’s much more to it. As Cait and I reflected over our first action-packed hour, we listened to other bar-goers recount their tales. Once the hermandades arrive to El Rocío through the various routes from the East, West and South, they settle into houses that look like a giant corral or hotel around a central patio, with room for the carrozas and horses behind. Gines, Olivares, Villamanrique and Triana have enormous patios, and we peeked in to see the merriment between beers. People sing, dance and pray for up to one week during the pilgrimage and the celebration.

Feeling refreshed, we decided on visiting the Virgin herself. The temple is simple, white-washed, save the golden retablao and a few frescoes in the corners of the nave. Cola de batas, the boundy ruffles of the traje rociero, showed under confessional booths, and the romeros prayed to the Virgen Mother, who was kept safely behind a cast iron gate, called a reja. After praying the rosary that night at midnight, she would “jump over” the reja and be paraded around the village on the shoulders of revelers, called the salta a la reja. This is the culmination of the week’s events, and it signals the abandonment of the recinto and the camino back home.

Outside, we bought candles in the gift shop to take to the adjacent prayer chapel. There’s a life-sized statue of the Rocío that people press their candles to before lighting them and finding a place to prop them up. The whole chapel was cool, smoky and silent – a far cry from the music emanating from the casas outside.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the streets, popping into bars for a beer (and relief from the hot midday sun), visiting my students from Olivares and trying to keep the sand out of our shoes. We got on the bus six hours after we’d arrived, absolutely exhausted and still bigger feriantas than rocieras.

Have you been to El Rocío or done the peregrinación? What was your experience like, especially on the road towards the Aldea? For more pictures, be sure to check out my Facebook page and become a fan for up-to-date photos and posts about Spain and Seville.

Hoo-ra Hoo-ra: Tough Mudder UK South-East Midlands

The Crazy Mudder Fudders at the Starting Line

Alright, chaps, raise your hand if you’re still wondering what the hell you’ve gotten yeselves into!

I raised both, for good measure. As I pulled up my hot pink leg warmers and jumped up a few times to get warm, Audrey squeezed my hand and I jokingly gritted my teeth.

When I say HOO, you say RA! the megafone announced. Hoo!

I screeched RA as if it were going to suddenly make my pecs grow and my lungs last 10 miles As the gun sounded and orange smoke bombs signaled the start of the race, I repeated my personal mantra back to myself outloud: Finish the race, and don’t get hurt.

Our team of eight patted one another on the backs as we set off, letting all the hardcores pass up up. The Boughton House was a lovely backdrop for what proved to be a grueling morning at the first-ever Tough Mudder UK Event.

When I signed up in February, I figured I had enough time to work up to training level. What’s more, I had the added stress of fitting into my flamenco dress, so cardio workouts became a focus long before the Tough Mudder was even on my mind (call me sevillana, but I didn’t want to bulk up my arms too much so that they would look like stuffed sausages in my traje!). In prowling through their website, I realized this would be no ordinary race, but rather a race that would test my mental grit just as much as my physical strength.

I kinda panicked. Not full-blown, but enough to make my stomach jittery long before I boarded a London-bound plane. There would be a course of 10-12 miles littered with up to 25 military-style obstacles. I could expect to crawl under barbed wire, carry heavy objects, swim and even run through fire. My intentions were to train, honest. Life (and Feria, Turkey and job hunting) just got in the way.

I met Lauren, Audrey and Annie, one half of Crazy Mudder Fudders, in Londontown on Saturday morning. We grabbed a rental car and spent a leisurely day in lovely Oxford before tripping to Northampton, where we’d splurged on a Hilton hotel room to rest up for Sunday’s start time. We spoke about the TM like it were He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (seriously wish we could have gone to the Harry Potter tour), instead deciding to take our fill of local pints and enjoy a rare weekend of sunshine.

Our nerves became apparent when we got to Northampton. Two hours of driving up and down every single highway in and out of town before finding our hotel (no thanks to British English directions: Take the two-lane carriageway to the north, but not The North, till you see a lay-by. Sorry? You know, where lorries sleep).  Our nerves were frayed and we were hungry and exhausted. As we prepared pink legwarmers and headbands, cut the fingertips off of gloves and readied the facepaint, I was silently thankful we were all tuckered out long before our 10pm bedtime.

Just before 6am, I opened my eyes. It was an hour later in Spain, and my nervous pee had already come. I pulled on my gear, signed my death liability waiver and ate a few pieces of fruit. I imagined puking my guts out after such a long race, so the food intake was kept to a minimum.

Despite our disasterous take on British motorways, we arrived to the race site, prepared all of our documents and slathered our bodies with sunscreen. The day was clear and sunny, with few clouds in the sky.  A mountain of sneakers met us close to the starting line, ripped up and covered with mud.

The starting line was full of people who passed under a registration gate while five-digit numbers were painted on their upper arms and foreheads. My line was, naturally, the longest, so I had more time to let the jitters set in. I handed over my registration, showed a photo ID and the wild-haired girl at the booth wrote my number – 49705 – with a cold, black crayon. We added face paint to look tough, but our muscles wouldn’t uncramp and our tummies rumbled – Annie even got a plate of fries to help her relax!

At 9:10, a half an hour before our start time, we were led to a stage where we began a light cardio warm-up. My arms were shaking, and I worried about my upper body strength. Corralled into a line, our first obstacle was before the starting line – we had to scale a wall that fenced about 150 of us in – and my arms were already aching. I was in for a long race.

Twenty minutes later, at the sound of the gun, our legs broke into a jog. I clenched my fists and stretched out my hands, knowing that the gloves would do little against the cold, the ropes and the dreaded monkey bars. Not 100 meters down hill, we were expected to cross a mini obstacle: a small creek that was as deep as my waist, freezing and full of 150 other mudders. Noted: this is going to be a doozy.

We laughed, helping pull one another out of the muddy river. This race is about mud and this race is about teamwork, we agreed. after making a round up the hill and back down again, it was back into the river and up another muddy hill on our bellies under barbed wire: the first official obstacle of 25 was Kiss of Mud. My the end of it, I was officially covered in mud, my elbow already ripped up, white headband caught in the barbed wire and mud under my fingernails so eeep, they had to eventually be cut. I stood up, smiling ear to ear as other Mudders high-fived me. Hoo-ra!

The next few miles passed like a blur: I felt out of body as I saw myself gritting my teeth as I plunged into a tank of ice water, having to swim under the surface to reach the end, crawling over bales of hay and under thick logs, and carrying tree trunks around a circular course. The day remained bright, and I thanked no one aloud for the lack of UK weather.

Our group was ragged: the boys had been training and so had Lauren, but Audrey and I blamed life for not being in top shape. Though my body felt fine, I was cautious on the mud, not wanting to twist an ankle, or, worse still, drop out of the race. Audrey and I pulled one another up hills, taking the time to be the caboose of the pack. Anytime one of us stopped to walk or strecth out a cramped muscle, we donned our best British accents (except for the boys on our team, all Londoners) and shouted our victory cry: CHICKEN AND RICE! More obstacles awaited, and some of my most memorable of the race: the Mud Mile – 1600m of alternating mud mountains and murky pools where I nearly left a shoe behind, Boa Constrictor – following PJ, I pushed his mud-cake tennies while elbowing my way through a drainage pipe half submerged in water, Fire Walker – bales of hay ablaze with fire, causing my lungs to burn after over six miles of non-stop adrenaline.

As we pushed through Tired Yet?, a football players tire nightmar, I could see us starting to slow down. Someone fell face first, ankles crushed under weight and we dragged ourself to the Turd’s Nest. Having been gymnasts for years, Lauren and I completed the climb easily and took our turns holding down the net for other Mudders. Dust, straw and rope flew in my eye, and the nearby water and banana station became my first aid stop, flushing out my eyes with H2O.

We guessed we were reaching mile 8. My legs started to feel rubbery, my arms tingling. I told myself it was ok to walk, and we stuck to our promise to wait for the whole team before each obstacle. Good thing, too – the next obstacle was the second round of Berlin Walls, and we needed everyone to help one another over the 12-footers and safely to the ground. I decided to opt out, fully knowing that my arms and short stature put me at an extreme risk of getting hurt, instead using my energy to bark orders and pat my teammates on the back. Shortly afterwards, we were met with one of the race newbies – Electric Eel. Crawling under barbed wire with voltages, I was, horrified, as people were sprayed down with hoses, noticing that the trademark cloud cover had started to roll in.

I stopped, not wanting to risk the consequences of shock just to call myself a Tough Mudder. In a Mudder moment of truth, I stepped over the boundaries and instead cheered on my teammates, pulling them safely out of the danger zone and handing them glasses of water. Down the hill was Ball Shrinker, where we had to traverse a freezing cold stretch of the river, using only our upper bodies. Almost done now, I called, as we made our way up a hill. The Boughton House was in sight, but the finish line taunted us through opur last six obstacles – Greased Lightning, Twinkle Toes, Funky Monkey, Walk the Plank, a halfpipe and the last electroshock treatment. The first four included that god damned creek, too.

We went head-first down the slope towards a lukewarm pool at the bottom. Thanks to our late start time, any water would have been warmed by the mid-morning sun, and the mud has long been washed away. I made a mental note to throw EVERYTHING i was wearing out as we jogged to the balance beam event. I watched Lauren practically high-kick her way through it, thus saving herself from a plunge into the cold creek. I got about three-fourths of the way done, when my legs gave out, causing me to get a jolt of cold water up my nose as I sawm to the other side. Next were the Monkey bars, now long-greased up. Splash! I could barely feel my feet as I jogged to the plank, three meters up.

And I chickened out. How could it be that I had survived fire, freezing water, jumps from 10 feet, but I couldn’t plunge into a pool? The monitor did it for me while my teammates coaxed me – I got a push, and thankfully didn’t land on any heads. Heat blankets were waiitng on the other side of the bank, and we watched as Marshall made it onto the Facebook page for his fearless climb up the half-ppe. My body said N-O, so I waited next to the last obstacle, the electroshock therapy a mere 100 feet from the finish line. Once all of us girls were together, we shouted one last CHICKEN AND RIIIIIICE and covered our faces. Lauren fell, I felt nothing, Audrey squealed.

All together, hand-in-hand, we crossed the finish line. My head wobbled like a bobblehead as I was crowned not with laurels, but with a firstcone orange Tough Mudder headband, handed a local beer and hugged by my Crazy Mudder Fudders. We peeled off layers of wet, muddy clothing, huddling together for warmth. Most of the after-race party had broken up by then, so we lay in the grass, reflecting and deciding where the next Mudder would be. Audrey’s Texas? Annie’s Colorado? All the way out to Australia to Lauren? It seemed immenent that we’d do another, even if it was all just smoke out of our (very cold and sore) asses.

As I cracked open a second beer, won from a keg toss (WHO HAS THE ARM STRENGTH FOR THAT?!), I showed off my bruises. My right knee was swollen and all kinds of shades of blue, but I smiled drunkingly. I hadn’t even felt it during the race. My determination, the helping hands from people crazy enougvh to torture their bodies and the feeling I was starting to regain in my toes seemed to vanish as I remembered what I’d promised myself: to finish. Not to beat any time, not to be the first, but to prove to myself that I still had the heart of a warrior my father touted when I was a kid.

My bib is stashed, the bruises long faded, but I can call myself a Tough (ass) Mudder.

Author’s Note: This post has been written after the bruises have finally healed and my body is asking for another push. While Tough Mudder is by no means a life-or-death race, it will push you to the limit of your mental and psychical strength. Don’t be an idiot like me an NOT train, but do consider doing it. I didn’t care that it took me and my female teammates nearly four hours to complete it, or that I got on a plane looking worse than ever and having to explain all the muddy clothes in my bag at customs in London. While n ot in the same competitve spirit as whgen I was a kid, this race was a turning point for me, my body image and my limits. Totes worth it on many levels. Events are held across the US, UK and Australia, and I owe Nate Rawley, Arely Garcia, Mark Pickart and my Crazy Mudder Fudders Annie, Audrey, Lauren, PJ, Marshall, Perry and the other guy (my mind was clearly in the game and not on memorizing monikers) for their support thoughout. CHICKEN AND RICE!

Death in the Afternoon

Like it or not, bullfighting is intrinsic in sevillano culture. Hemingway’s favorite pastime is both hemmed and hawed and considered a great art form, but this piece of southern folklore is alive and well in Seville’s Maestranza bullring, which hosts some of the most revered festejos and brings in the biggest names in bullfighting.

Aside from the gory part of bullfighting, I personally love the image of a bullfighter. Slight body, slicked, jet-black hair, traje de luces glimmering in the afternoon sun. What’s more, the plaza de toros in Seville is de leyenda – the mustard yellow and white colonnades offset the bluest of skies and the yellow albero dirt that lines the elliptical plaza. The pomp and circumstance of the whole thing is as breathtaking as a Virgin passing silently over the Guadalquivir River during Holy Week, alit with candles. And, really, I just wanted to bring Camarón along to get closer.

We enter the gates of the Maestranza by way of a narrow, uphill alley, the same the bullfighters take past snapping camera flashes. The toreros are celebrities in their own right – rich, often handsome and ready to face death by way of a 500-kilo animals with two piercing horns and plenty of mala ostia. Our seats are in the sol – sunny – section, but the cloud cover in the late afternoon means we’re pleasantly comfortable and have paid 20€ less for the event. People surround us on all sides – old men in caps with their grandchildren next to them munching on sunflower seeds, wealthy sevillanos with sideburns and fancy seat covers, guiris like us with cameras poised.

The clip clop of horses sounds in the inner bowels of the arena below me. Pages with long plumes enter the ring as the band plays from high in the sombra section. They present their hats and the bullfighters enter gallantly, a cluster of photographers crouching as the toreros gaze at the crowd before them.

We’ve come to a novillada, where young bullfighters gain experience on smaller bulls and often in bullrings of a lesser division. But here, in the Maestranza of Seville, the bulls are agile, strong and weigh in at almost 500 kilos. We’ll see each – Conchi Ríos, Emilio Huertas and Álvaro Sanlúcar – fight two bulls. One of the opponents will die, and the other survive.

At 7pm sharp, the Puerta Gayola opens and the sounding of two cornets pierce the silent arena. Out comes Medialuna, and his statistics are announced on a placard over the door. Despite his size, he seems a bit flojillo as Conchi measures him up. Bullfighting is traditionally a male sport, but Conchi is treated equally, her cuadrilla or band of picadores, banderilleros and mozo de espada as grand as any. Using a heavy pink and yellow cape, called a capote, they measure the bull’s strength though a series of passes known as a verónica during the first third of the act. Conchi has a matador’s body and only the lavender colored ribbon in her hair gives away her gender.

The clip-clopping commences and the picaderos enter the ring through a gate adjacent to our seats. Fully armored, the horses are blindfolded and I cringe as the whole weight of the animal nearly knocks over the horse. A long rod with a hook on the end is driven between Medialuna’s shoulder blades. Conchi’s banderilleros, the three men designated to put the small flags into the bull’s mighty back take wing. The second act of the tragedy comes at a price – the bull is weakened due to the loss of blood, and it seems certain that he will meet his end. The small banderillas are fashioned after the Spanish, Andalusian and Murcian flags, paying homage to Conchi and her cuadrilla (from the region of Murcia) and the plaza.

Once the banderillas have been fixed, making the bull look as if it had won ribbons at a state fair, Conchi takes off her montera hat, saluting to the crowd. Now comes the final faena of the fight, where she manuevers the muleta, a small red cape, around the bull, using short grunts and movement to make the animal barge towards her. Though the animal passes far away from her, I’m intrigued by her foray into the sport.

Her first attempt to drive the sword between the shoulder blades, thus severing the main artery and killing the bull as cleanly as possible, is unsuccessful. Before the day is out, we’ll see five more bulls from the novilleros all hoping to present themselves as full matadors in the coming years. Álvaro Sanlúcar has a baby face and seems unsure of himself at times, while Emilio Huertas is so convincing in his second faena of the day, the band finally starts playing a paso doble as he puffs out his chest and taunts the creature.

“Oh, he’s going places,” says Cait, our resident toro aficionado. His faena is flawless (well, to me) and his efforts earn a standing ovation from the crowd. I take a kleenex out of my purse and wave it in the air, a petition to the judges to award him a special prize – an ear for his bravery and artistry. The ear is cut, and Emilio humbly takes it. Patting backs and hugging commences as he holds it triumphantly in the air and walks slowly around the ring. Fans throw flowers, hats and even painted fans at the young torero.

Placing his montera back on his head, he catapults himself out of the ring and leaves the last bull of the evening to Álvaro. He’s a fierce one who charges as soon as he catches movement. By this point, I’m already thinking about dinner (and I love bull tail, for the record). The trio walk slowly back out of the gate designated for them when it’s all over, symbolizing their triumph over death.

Not to add fuel to the fire, but have you been to a bullfight? What are your impressions of it? If you’re not into the gory stuff, please vote for me on Kaplan’s How to Teach English blog competion. My entry appeared on this blog last week, and your vote here with my name and blog URL could mean a free iPod for you, too!

How Oxford Changed my Mind About England

I dislike England. Phew, feels good to admit it.

I’ve now been to the British Isles four times – three to England, and once to Scotland (which, for the record, I loved). But England I just do not like. Too impersonal, too similar to my home country, too expensive and sub-par food. Add that to airport hassles each time, and it takes an awful lot of convincing to get me to England.

Audrey convinced me. A Facebook invite to an event called Tough Mudder, coupled with a cheap Ryan Air flight meant I’d be spending a weekend is cheery old London, and a little race on Sunday.

I grumpily boarded the plane on Friday evening, knowing full well I’d be missing the Feria de Jérez and the Romería of San Nicolás, my adopted pueblo. I wanted to spend the weekend in Spain. Two hours, turbulence and a long customs line meant I’d missed my bus into the city center, and in the end I arrived at my hostel near the British Museum around 3am. I hate England.

Upon seeing my friends the following morning, we were faced with a decision: where to go to get the hell out of London. Audrey got in on the wrong side of the car as we narrowed it down to two destinations: either Oxford or Cambridge. Any guesses as to how the four of us earn money??

Sunglasses on (yes, we got a sunny weekend!), map route to Oxford highlighted and Audrey finally on the right side of the road, we drove the 60 miles northwest to England’s poshest university town, admiring the vast yellow fields of rapeseed and low-hanging clouds.

Oxford was full of two things: bicycles and people wearing commencement robes. We happened to be there on the weekend that young hopefuls were packing up their rooms and heading into the Real World, while three of the four of us are on our fifth years in Spain. I’ll drink (a delicious local beer) to that.

While having pints at White Horse, a small underground pub near the heart of the village, we squeezed into a table with six older men and women. They’d come down for the weekend from the Northern end of the country, taking advantage of the postcard-perfect weather. The happily handed over a map and encouraged us to see any one of the university’s 80+ colleges.

After living in America and Spain all my life, I assumed the colleges were the different university buildings for the different areas of study. Instead, the colleges at British universities are residence halls with vast, grassy lawns and towering turrets. It was like jumping right into Hogwarts as we peered into the doors and saw graduates in their long, black robes playing cricket on the lawns.

A glimpse into the 80+ colleges that surround the Oxford campus. No beer pong here, just cricket!

Nearly all of the colleges were closed that day due to the commencement activities, so we troved the bustling center, full of shops and quaint pubs. I was immediately transported back to my trip to Ireland with my parens in 2010 and the number of roadside joints we popped into for a quick pint or some grubby pub food. A trip to the Sainsbury’s meant we were well stocked with gourmet crackers, humus and some veggies, and we did as the locals – found a soft, emerald lawn to stretch our legs and fill our bellies.

Around us, graduates snapped up pictures in front of their well-loved grounds and I likened Oxford to Galway – walkable, a bit quirky (if posh can be that at all) and inviting. The warm weather did well to lift our spirits as we talked about our own graduations: Lauren is heading to China to teach, Audrey back to Texas to start field work for a business she’s creating, and Annie to school in Colorado. That leaves me, not yet ready to walk down the commencement road and leave Spain behind for a different future.

Our time meter was not quite up on the rental car, so we ducked into a pub as the evening weather was turning cool. Tomorrow we’d be up at the crack of dawn to run the Tough Mudder, but who could really think of tomorrow when we’re all just living for today?

Have you ever been to Oxford? What were your impressions? Is there a city in a country you’re not fond of that you’ve come to enjoy?

Snail Tale, Part 2

Spring in Sevilla is like a four-act play: incense and nazarenos followed by sherry and sevillanas. Next comes the heat and absence of people in the streets and, finally, signs proclaiming HAY CARACOLES. Snails here.

While the squishy little animal is enough to make any American squirm, caracoles are anticipated the same way that we wait for sweetcorn on the 4th. As soon as the temperature cools off about 8 p.m., people flock to the streets to slurp up caracoles.

And when I say slurp, I mean slurp. The snails are cooked in a spicy brown sauce and served in either a tapa or a plate. Though toothpicks are given, most people prefer to just suck out the little brown thing and the juice. If they don´t come out, well, you make a little hole with your tooth in the shell and he slides right out!
Below are my favorite places for snails, taking into account price, ambience and slurpiness.
CASA DIEGO
This tiny little locale on C/Esperanza de Triana is only open during snail season. The critters are cooked in a huge vat while the proprietor pours beer and throws montaditos on the grill. Diego is legendary, from the piping hot, spicy sauce the snails are cooked in to the plates balancing on the empty kegs of Cruzcampo outside. Calle Esperanza de Triana (Triana)
LA TIZA
La Tiza is typical cevercería: old men in pressed white shirts serving you your cervecita, tabbing it up on the wall or on the bar in front of you with chalk. Pictures of Toro Lidia adorn the walls and kids run around your feet. La Tiza has more elbow room for those pesky ones that won´t slide out, and they´re cheap, too – 2,50€ for a tapa is all you need to say for me to be there! Paseo de Europa, (Los Bermejales)
EL CANO
Named for the first sailor to complete a round-the.world trip by boat, El Cano is an old locale located in the old fisherman´s barrio between Heliópolis and Los Bermejales. The tile-lined bar is surrounded by a tall brick wall, perfect for resting your plate on during a warm night. These buggers are a bit more expensive, but slide right out and come extra spicy. This neighborhood has a lot of ambience, too – the fisherman’s chapel is right next door, and if you don’t like snails, the bar has everything from coagulated blood with onions to tripe. (Barriada El Cano)

LOS PAJARITOS / CASA RUPERTO

While this bar’s claim to fame is the roast and peppered birds (hence the name), the Novio swears that the creepies are exquisitos at Casa Ruperto. The bar is nestled into a small, dusty patio between two residential buildings, so it feels like a small block party of friends.  Calle Santa Cecelia (Triana)

EL KIKI

My old student Julián and I used to roam Sevilla while having conversation class, alternating neighborhoods by the month and stopping for beers often. As the caracol season snuck up on us, between the azahar and volantes, he touted Seville’s king of snails at Bar El Kiki. Tall wooden tables crowded the sidewalk under a wide awning, and the snails from Morocco are rumored to be the best in the city. I, sadly, have yet to try. off of José Laguillo (Santa Justa)

As I’m slurping up snails and celebrating Luna’s second birthday (for real! Where does the time go!?), head over to Interway, where I’ve been featured, along with Sarah of Love and Paella and fellow Seville blogger Fiona of Scribbler in Seville, for great expat blogs in Spain!

How to Learn English

9:15 am and my students are as listless as ever. Javi grumbles under his breath as he surrenders his iPod to me. I fiddle with the thing, feeling much, much older than my 24 years and trying to hide my utter terror as the screen flashed. David Guetta’s heart-pumping rhythms get some of their ears perked up, a few smiles spreading peeking out in the corners of their mouths. Silvia taps her pencil nervously to the beat, head no doubt tangled up in a tricky conjugation.

Their daily writing assignment was on the board. While my 15 students scribble in their construction-paper notebooks, I review my grammar assignment for the morning, sighing: reported speech. Between the time clauses and the backshift, our first attempt the day before had been a disaster. One of those throw-your-arms-up. pull-you-hair-out, where’s-my-end-of-the-day-beer kind of days. I close my eyes and remember it’s just summer camp, and that the kids were really there for the activities and their parents had actually paid for the native speakers.

One by one, the students close their notebooks and trudge to the front of the classroom to give it to me. As I am about to plunge in with a hastily prepared board game for reviewing, Javi jumps across his table as if it were a vaulting horse and runs to his iPod. Puzzled, I gave him my never-fail “sit down nooooow” eyes before he starts thumping his foot and head to the beat.

“Cat, I can have this very, very, VERY loud, yes?” he inquires, matching my stare with a big grin. Lara snickers, and I can’t resist.

“Sure, Javi, crank it up.”

I immediately know which song it is, and so do my students. Before the first chorus even starts, I’m scribbling down ideas for how to use it in my lessons. With two years of teaching high schoolers, I’ve learned that music is a surefire way to get students engaged and talking, and U2 and Pearl Jam and even Weird Al Yankovich have made their way onto my lesson plans. Billie Jean is going to help me teach reported speech this morning.

I text my boss, asking her to copy the lyrics as soon as possible and make a few copies. My students have fun decoding the reported speech back into direct and their sudden enthusiasm makes me think outside the four-skills box for the rest of the week’s lessons. As a class, we take Billie Jean’s claims to the tabloids and the case to court, write newspaper articles on the pending paternity test with other teachers and monitors as witnesses. They begin to use reported speech correctly in their journal entries, in their worksheets and exams, and more importantly, in their speech.

a tabloid report on the court case

When it comes time to do a creative project, the students set up a mock trial with audience members of the jury. Javi has no match as Michael Jackson and his howling “But the kiiiiiid is not my son!”

Silvia as Bille Jean and Javi as Michael Jackson in the talent show

Attention, fellow English teachers: Have you ever had a lesson be wildly successful? I wanna hear about it! Tell me the lesson,the age group and any materials you needed to make it happen. Or, tell me how you motivate your students to learn English? What interests them the most? 

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