FluentU – Learning Spanish Through Video

The best day in high school Spanish class was “La Catrina” day. Profe would stockpile those episodes freshman year until she had absolutely no willpower against nearly 30 teenagers with made-up Spanish names (and the popular girls fighting over who got to be Margarita this year). Videos and songs brought Hispanic culture and language to life for me (and MI BISABUELA was our comeback for all of high school).

As a language teacher myself, I’ve found that my students tend to engage whenever technology is involved – no overhead projectors in Spanish classrooms! Anything related to videos and listening has their ears perked up, and I’m always impressed when my FCE students tell me they’ve watched a program in English or translated songs and picked up a few new words.

Before coming to Spain, I checked out loads of books in Spanish, as well as films, to up my español game. Now that online learning has become so big, there are loads of cool ways to brush up while sitting at your computer. I recently tried a new Beta version of FluentU, a wildly successful company whose video training in Mandarin Chinese is now tackling the world’s second most spoken language.

Using authentic videos, audio scripts and flashcards, FluentU tracks your progress and suits all levels of language learning.

Lo que me gustó (What I liked)

From novato to native: Right off the bat, FluentU asks you what level you are, giving a sound description of what your language abilities are at each level. I chose Native since I’ve already got a C1 DELE degree, and the software recommended word lists and videos suited for advanced learners.

Videos for every taste: FluentU has videos about everything and anything – from politics to culture to human interest stories and songs. When I checked out some of the videos at lower levels, it was clear which grammar and tense concepts they were drilling – I loved that there was even a Jarabe de Palo song to teach the usage of the adjective ‘bonito’!

Manageable chunks according to level: The videos were an appropriate length for level, and you can hover over the subtitles under the video to see the definition and pronunciation for each word. The video stops, so you won’t miss anything.

Tracking progress: Language learning builds upon prior knowledge, so the FluentU software tells you how much of a video you should be able to understand, based on videos and word lists you’ve already done. There are also quizzes and you can create your own study lists, making it easy to see how far you’ve come.

Lo que se puede mejorar (What can be improved)

Native level: Not to fanfarronear or anything, but apparently my Spanish is considered native level already. I didn’t run across any unknown words, but chalk that up to the focus being for newbies. There was also a lack of the Castellano accent in upper levels: Most of the videos in the upper levels are reserved for a South American accent, and I didn’t hear any from Spain. There were a few at lower levels, however.

Speaking and Writing is absent: Speaking and writing are two of the most important language skills, and this sort of learning doesn’t lend well to strengthening them. Your vocabulary and listening skills will probably grow, but you’ll need to practice oral and written expression another way.

Want to try it for yourself? FluentU is offering 30 SandS readers the chance to test drive their new Spanish version for free! If you’ll be coming to Spain for the language assistants program, this is an awesome way to brush up on your listening skills and learn a few phrases before jetting to Spain. You just need to provide your email address! You’ll have until April 25th to sign up, using the rafflecopter widget below, and leaving a blog post comment. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

How did you learn Spanish? Would you like online learning?

FluentU allowed me to use their software for free for two weeks, but todas las opiniones son mine.

India: The Dream I Didn’t Know I Had

Have you ever dreamed about a place you didn’t even know you wanted to visit?

When Hayley mentioned the idea of going to Asia for Holy Week, I figured it was a pipe dream, given prices and our limited travel time. But what happens when it’s almost as cheap to jet to India as it is to fly round-trip to Berlin? On a whim, we chose to book Lufthansa flights from Madrid to Mumbai and figured we’d let the rest of the chips fall. No one could talk us out of 450€ roundtrip.

Many friends of mine have gone to India and can’t seem to shut up about how it lives up to its touristic nickname, “Incredible India,” but it was never a place I yearned to see. That’s a special place on my mental bucket list reserved for Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and Seattle. But I bought a Lonely Planet off of Amazon UK and soon realized that India must have been buried deep in my conscious as a place I’m dying to see.

 

There’s been hold-ups with visas and how to get to and from Madrid with limited options, the immense task of whittling down dozens of worthy destinations to fit our short, nine-day itinerary, plus the the push-pull of two seasoned travelers with different ideas of what to see and how.

At the moment you’re reading this, I could be laying eyes on the Taj Mahal. Or pinching my nose in a marketplace in Delhi. Or picking out a sari for myself in Jaipur’s garment district. I have a feeling that my journey to India will be diving into the deepest dreams I’ve always had for my life – of travel, of discovery, of self-realization, of having that freshman feeling over and over again.

I think that’s what India will be to me – seeing life unfold before me, the contrasts that so seem to characterize the country. Mariellen Wallace of the excellent India page, Breathe Dream Go, refers to a traveler’s first trip to India as “Beginner’s Mind.” Experiencing India as if you were seeing the world for the first time and reminding my senses to wake up and associate new sights, sounds and tastes.

I’m reading Shantaram, a Novel, a book I can’t put down that explains life in the underbelly of Mumbai. Not three pages in, he summarizes the majesty and the poverty of the world’s second most populous country through its myriad of smells:

“I immediately recognize it. I know now that it’s the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; it’s the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It’s the small of gods, demons, empires and civilizations in resurrection and decay. It’s the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are on Island City, and he blood-metal smell of machines. It smells of stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and raw. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. IT smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense and freshly cut flowers…But whenever I return, it’s my first sense of the city – that smell, above all things.”

I expect India to be nothing short of overwhelming, exhilarating, eye-opening and heart-breaking. I expect to battle my stomach and the urges to talk to strangers. I expect to feel defeated and uplifted in the span of a day.

And at the same time, I don’t have too many expectations. I just want to experience India with an open mind and heart.

If you’re interested in our itinerary:

We arrived to Mumbai early morning on the 12th and took the first flight out to Delhi.

Today, we’ll take the famed Shabati Express to Agra, where we should be now. We’ve heard Agra isn’t too exciting, so we’ll be there to see the Red Fort and the Taj and sunset and sunrise before jumping on an early train.

Jaipur is next on the list, and I’m psyched to shop and see the Amber Fort, which is supposed to be mind-blowing. 

We have a flight from Jaipur to Mumbai, where we’ll experience the city’s chaos and imperialism in Colbata.

You can follow me on twitter and instagram, where I’ll be uploading photos as wi-fi allows. If you’re interested in an India trip yourself, I’d recommend the monster Lonely Planet, with up-to-date information, fail-proof advice and loads of pretty pictures:

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Tapa Thursdays: Eating at a Guachinche on Tenerife

Julie’s plan had only three itinerary stops on my only full-day on Tenerife: Rental car. Teide. Guachinche :)

Eager not to ruin my own surprise, I refused to give into sneaking a peek at what this oh-so-tenerifeño dining experience was. I actually didn’t know it had anything to do with food until after we’d climbed to the peak of Teide on empty stomachs and was promised a mountain of raciones.

Zigzagging down the face of the active volcano through rollercoast roads, I actually think I heard my tripa gurgle. But the excitement in which Julie told me about these temporary, family-run restuarants blew my expectations (sorry, done on the volcano expressions and puns).

“Si esto se llama La Salú para mi madre, que descanse en paz!” 

The small restaurant’s owner, David, was showing us around the various dining rooms, all set around a humble kitchen where family members were peeling Canarian wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugás) and preparing meat at a grill. His mother, a sevillana by birth, married a Venezuelan before moving to the island. When she passed away, her family, who had always loved wine, planted a small vineyard and the guanchinche was born. The name, La Salud, is a homenage to the family matriarch.

We chose seats on the covered patio, watching the clouds roll in over Puerto Cruz. 

Guachinches began to spring up on Tenerife as humble restaurants from which small producers could sell their product. The island’s volcanic landscape lends well to producing young, fruity reds, so we ordered a half liter to begin with. The restaurants operate so long as there is wine to sell – it’s common to find guachinches closed late in the season. 

There were just five dishes on the menu, guaranteeing that everything we tried was fresh – eggs, sobresada and fries (huevos estampidos); garbanzos with a spicy tomato sofrito; chistorra sausage with fries, steak and cheese produced on the island. We ordered all but the steak and an extra half litre of the family’s fruity, fresh wine.

What I loved about the experience (aside from the price – 25€ for everything!), was the personal service we received. Everything was served hot and tasty, and we left satisfied.

Guachinches have started to pop up on nearby Gran Canaria, but the real thing is as tenerifeño as Teide itself.

If you go: La Salud is located in the town of La Orotava on the western side of the island, just east of tourist town Puerto Cruz. The address is Camino de Los Gomez, S/N. They’re typically open from 1pm until 11pm, though may be closed if the wine is depleted. You’ll need a rental car to reach many of them, or a reliable taxi service, as the guachinches tend to be set away from major cities in the north.

Have you ever been to a guachinche, or something similar? Would you eat with locals?

Seville Snapshots: Costaleros Practicing for Holy Week

The capataz knocks once. As if mechanically, the 40-off men beneath the wooden structure heave together, resting on their heels, hands gripping the wooden beams above their heads.

A second knock, and they launch into the air together.

On the third, the simulation float has rested on their shoulders, and they begin a coordinated dance down the street, walking in sync as they practice for their glorious penitence – Holy Week.

You all know that I paso de pasos (and the crowds, and the brass bands and even the torrijas), but the grueling pilgrimage from one’s church to the Cathedral and back fascinates me. No one bears the brunt more than the costaleros, who must pay for this prestigious position within their brotherhoods and seek penitence through their labor, carrying over 100 pounds for an average of eight hours.

In the weeks leading up to Viernes de Dolores, no less than 60 brotherhoods will crisscross the city to practice, placing cinderblocks on top of the metal float to simulate the large statue, each depicting the final moments of Jesus Christ’s life or of the weeping Virgin Mary. For ten days, Seville is full of religious fervor as the ornate pasos descend on the city center.

For an official route plan with approximate times, check here. You can use this to either catch the processions, or totally avoid them!

What are your Holy Week plans? Have you ever seen Semana Santa in Seville?

I Bought a Flamenco Dress, Now What?!: a Guide to Buying Complementos

My phone buzzes just as I’m hopping on my bike, telling me I’ve got a photo in my whatsapp. M has sent me a photo of two different earrings, set side-by-side with a series of questions marks. 

I know where she’s coming from. 

Buying a flamenco dress every two years and figuring out how to deck it out has become my adult version of dress-up (who needs Halloween when you can wear ruffles? And big flowers on your head! And side-eye anyone wearing an outdated dress design!). I’m probably just as excited to shop for complements than I am for the actual flamenco dress.

I confess that my first Feria was rife with mistakes: I wore jeans and a ratty tee to the alumbrado, bought baby-sized accessories and – gasp! – wore my mantoncillo around my hips because I didn’t know you had to buy a brooch for it. Hey, no one helped me, and the lady in the Don Regalón probably laughed when I chose demure earrings that only an infant should have been wearing.

Shame is having a six-month-old show you up on Calle La Bombita while she’s napping in her stroller, trust me.

Oh, and did I mention I also wore a purse and a WINDRBREAKER?! Guiri, no.

I sent M the cardinal rule of flamenco accessories – BE BOLD. When else can you wear ridiculously oversized jewelry? When else is risk-taking so handsomely rewarded? Her dress is black, so the obvious, traditional choice is red. When I suggested gold, fuschia or even neons, I think I confused her even more. Having options makes sticking to a color palate really, really tough.

Let it be known that I am quitting my job for the next month to become a flamenco accessory consultant. 

First, you have to know the basics. Two months before the Greatest Week Ever begins, flamenco dress and accessories stores begin to pop up in the center of town, and you’ll hear the word traje spoken with a word density that makes your head spin (that, and azahar, playa, pasos and vacaciones, four sacred words in the sevillano lexicon when spring arrives).

Look for the stores near Calle Francos, Calle Cuna and Calle Asunción for both dresses and accessories. Your shoes can be bought on Calle Córdoba or any Pasarela store around town. If you’re looking for a deal on a dress, trajes are sold at warehouse prices in the towns outside of Seville, as well as older models at El Jueves flea market. A dizzying variety of complementos can be found at El Corte Inglés, Don Regalón and a number of specialty shops. Chinos also sell bargain items in plastic and sometimes beads.

Rule of thumb when it comes to your accessories: the bigger, the better. I mean it. No color, shape or size is off-limits. My new traje de gitana (you only get a preview below, sorry!) is a greenish turquoise color with cream-colored lunares, complimented by cream-colored encaje under the bust, where the sleeves open at the elbow, and at the ruffles. Since I didn’t pay for the dress, I was willing to splurge on complementos this year.

My advice is to browse before you buy. Because there are endless combinations of colors and styles, it’s easy to lose your head. When you have a dress made for you, ask for a swatch of fabric to take to the accessories stores for matching colors. I beelined straight for Isabel Mediavilla, a local designer who is friendly and helpful when it comes to suggesting possibilities. When she and I had come up with a color palate – dusty purple and gold – it was time to get to work.

Here’s your basic kit:

El Mantoncillo: The Shawl

I always buy the shawl as soon as I’ve got the dress nailed down. These shawls can cost up to 100€ or even more, given that some are hand-painted, hand-embroidered, a mix of patterns and textures. Buying the shawl will help you have an idea of what accessories will pair best. 

Some women choose a gargantilla (a choker with flecos, or the fringe that hangs down) or simple flecos that are sewn to the neckline of the traje de gitana.

Mine: Bought from Raquel Terán (Calle Francos, 4), 75€

La Flor: The Flower

The flower is a gitana’s hallmark, meant to look like a rose or carnation and worn either on top of the head or tucked behind the year. The flowers are made of cloth and have a flexible “stem” with which to secure it to your head with bobby pins. Flowers can be big or small, but you should probably just go ahead and get a big one if you’ve got “la altura” according to the snotty lady at the Corte Inglés.

I went back to Isabel Mediavilla, as she has literally a wall full of flowers of every imaginable color and style. I’m going big this year – BIG.

Mine: Bought from Isabel Mediavilla (Calle Francos, 34), 20€

Los Pendientes: The Earrings

In one of my less memorable Feria moments, I let a cheap pair of earrings I’d bought at Don Regalón get the better of me – I pouted when one slipped out of my ears while dancing (hey, the 13€ they cost meant an entire hour’s private lesson!). I love the bold, intricate earrings that women wear during the fair and am constantly looking for ones that aren’t too heavy. 

I bought these ceramic beauties, but they’re a bit heavy, and my earlobes may not be able to handle them!

Mine: Bought from El Corte Inglés (Nervión), 23€

El Broche: The Brooch 

Many times, you’ll find brooches that match with your earrings, particularly at the Corte Inglés. A broche is mega important if you’re wearing a mantoncillo, as this will attach the  shawl to your dress and making dancing, eating and drinking hands-free.

Just, please, don’t tie the ends of the shawl together. Spend a few bucks on a brooch and you’ll not regret it!

Mine: Bought from El Corte Inglés, 9€

La Peineta: The Comb

Even in the age of bobby pins and hairspray, many women choose to add plastic or metal combs to their hair. They often don’t serve any sort of purpose, but many women wear them just behind the flower or to capture the whips of hair that aren’t shellacked to their skull.

When matching your combs, try and be consistent with your other accessories. If you’ve got plastic earrings, stick with a plastic peineta. Same goes for metal and for colors.

Mine: Bought two years in a chino, 12€

Los Tacones: The Shoes

Although I’d argue that shoes are the least of your aesthetic worries during the fair (hell, they’re covered by your ruffles!), it’s important that you wear something comfortable for all of those hours on your feet. Women opt for espadrille wedges or even cloth flamenco shoes that have a thick heel for support. Calle Córdoba, near Plaza del Salvador, is a narrow alleyway full of zapaterías, so make that your first stop.

Let me just say this – if you’re wearing stilettos, you’ll be doing very little dancing and probably a lot of pouting!

Mine: Bought from Pasarela two years ago, 15€

Lo demás: Everything else

You’ll also need to buy hairspray and bobby pins to secure the flower’s stem and the combs without a doubt. I’ve also got a donut for making a big, thick bun, as well as a fan because this year’s fair goes well into May.

Some women opt for necklaces, bangles, mantoncillo or no – what it all comes down to is feeling comfortable and wearing your accessories confidently. Remember that the flamenco dress itself is heavy and it can get hot under there! 

As for M? I sincrerely hope she went with hot pink. Lo dicho: go big or stay at home!

Want to read more on the Feria de Sevilla?

On my first time buying accessories successfully // The Dos and Don’ts of the Feria de Sevilla // The Music of the Feria de Sevilla

Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions: Aragón

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ve probably not heard of March’s comunidad, Aragón. But I’m pretty positive you’ve heard of Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, whose marriage in the mid 15th Century would ultimately lead to Spain’s Golden Age.

Name: Aragón

Population: 1.35 million

Provinces: Aragón is divided into three provinces – Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel – and really only has two large cities – Zaragoza and Huesca. The region is comprised of a number of small towns and is best-known for its role in forming modern Spain as the Kingdom of Aragón.

When: 15th of 17 regions, March 2012

About Aragón: The region is rich in the historical, architectural and natural senses. Its mudéjar buildings and plush river valleys take a lot of credit, but given how important it has been historically is worth exploring, too. Aragón became a self-proclaimed kingdom over a millennia ago, eventually claiming parts of Italy and Greece, as well as Corsica and a large part of the eastern coast of Iberia. The kingdom grew when Ferdinand of Aragón married Isabel of Castille, becoming one of the powerhouse couples of Spanish history and reconquering Spain from the Moors.

What remains is a region that seems just as seeped in lore as Andalucia, from the traditional costumes and festivals to the devotion for the local virgin, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, whose feast day coincides with Spain’s national festival.

Must-sees: Zaragoza has a number of sites in its old town, from the Basilicia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar and it’s beautifully tiled roof to the modern Expo site across the Ebro. The region’s capital (and the fifth-largest city in Spain) is also home to the Seo church and the Moorish Palacio de Aljafería, which now houses the provincial court system. It’s a city you can experience in a day, to be honest.

 If you’re into castles, history and architecture, check out the castle of Loarre in the Huesca province, the city of Teruel (sí, existe) and the village that has been ranked as one of Spain’s most beautiful, Albecerrín. Jaca is also full of religious museums and temples.

Outdoor lovers, rejoice! Because of the low population density in the autonomía, there is plenty to explore. Huesca is one of Spain’s snowiest zones, and the Pyrenees are home to a number of ski resorts with outdoor activities of every type. Check out the Ordesa and Parque de la Piedra national parks.

My take: The Novio and I went to visit a friend of his from the Air Force Academy who flies a fighter jet at the nearby base. A ceutí by birth and an andaluz at heart, Gon did his duty to show us around Zaragoza during Holy Week. Unfortunately, crap weather and a flu bug had us all indoors, watching TV and ordering takeout for four straight days.

Gonzalo claims that the draw of the province comes from the Pyrenees mountains, the rich gastronomy and the outdoor activities. We didn’t have a car to use that weekend, meaning we were stuck in the capital (and on the couch, ugh). Thanks to its connection on the AVE, it’s a city I’d be interested in seeing again, and I’m eager to see more of the comunidad.

Each month for the next 15, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month!

In case you missed it, I featured Andalucía, the region I live in, in February.

What do you love (or not) about Aragón?

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