International Book Day and Seven MORE Books on Spain

Back when I was a floundering, wannabe guiri, I made two trips a week to my local library back home, checking out every book and DVD about Spain. Reading up on my future home made it easier to transition into the idiosyncrasies of daily life in Iberia – and it honestly helped me get on a plane when I had serious doubts about a year in Spain.

Nearly seven years on, my Kindle is stocked with travel memoirs and books on Spanish history.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare, considered to be true purveyors of their languages, died on April 23rd, 1616. On the day when two literary greats perished, the UNESCO has declared this day, April 23rd, as International Book Day, giving me all the more reason to stock up on titles related to Spain.

April 23rd also commemorates the Feast of Saint Jordi, patron saint of Cataluña, whose legend has made him an early Don Juan: Saint George slayed a dragon to save a princess, from whose spilled blood grew a rosebush. Nowadays, women receive flowers, and they give their loved one a book. Screw the flowers – take note – and get me a book, too!

Today, I present you with seven more books I’ve read about Spain since last year’s list, or had previously left off the list: 

Errant in Iberia, Ben Curtis

This is a book I really should have read before coming to Spain. Much like me, Curtis took a leap of faith and moved to Spain without much of a clue as to what he was doing (or speaking…or hearing). After finding a job and a Spanish girlfriend, the expat adventure begins.

This really sounds familiar.

Ben and his partner, Marina, explore the ins and outs of bicultural relationships, and are now the broadcasters behind Notes from Spain, which is a great way to practice your listening skills and learn a bit about Spain in the process.

Get it: Errant in Iberia paperback

Inside the Tortilla: A Journey in Search of Authenticity, Paul Read

I had the pleasure of meeting Paul, who goes by the alias of the Teapot Monk, during a bloggers meet-up in Málaga. As he talked about self-publishing several books and his want to break into the American market, I gleefully held up my Kindle and said, “JUST BOUGHT IT!”

In Inside the Tortilla, Read explores the deterioration of Spain’s moral conduct and the search for authentic Andalusia through the ingredients, preparation, layers and consumption of its most universal dish, the tortilla de patatas. Read is a seasoned expat who has lived all around Southern Spain, and his memoir is peppered with anecdotes of life in small-town Spain, long walks with his dog around the countryside and the frequent long meal that provokes questions like, What is tourism really doing to Spain’s cultural front?

I literally ate it up.

Get it: Inside the Tortilla paperback | Inside the Tortilla kindle version

Journey to a Dream, Craig Briggs

What immediately attracted me to this newcomer book was that it is set in Galicia, one my favorite regions in Spain. While most British expats choose to settle near the coast, Craig and his wife Melanie fall in love with the misty northwest corner (along with the wine). Joining lackadaisical real estate agent, the Briggs soon find that their dream house may actually ruin them.

The book is a delightful mix of expat pitfalls, cultural insight and laughable episodes as the family set to make a life in tierras gallegas.

Get it: Journey to a Dream paperback | Journey to a Dream kindle version

El Tiempo Entre Costuras, María Dueñas

I started this book nearly two years ago and have been savoring it ever since. This is the story of Sira, a young seamstress who flees Madrid on the brink of the Spanish Civil War with a man who soon abandons her in Tangiers. Unable to return home and in debt to those who helped her, Sira begins to sew garments for the cities well-to-do. The novel is heartbreaking, but paints a beautiful picture of Morocco, as well as Spain in one of its most tumultuous and fascinating times.

El Tiempo Entre Costuras has received a slew of critical acclaim, and it’s worth the hype – I can’t remember a book more beautifully written, and the Spanish prose rivals some of the greats. The book was also turned into a miniseries earlier this year.

Get it: El Tiempo Entre Costuras in Spanish | El Tiempo Entre Costuras in English

More Ketchup than Salsa, Joe Cawley

Joe Cawley’s book on setting up – or rather, saving – a restaurant and bar in the Canary Islands is a hoot, especially when you understand the bureaucratic mess that is Spain, the existence of Spanish mafia and those oh-so-reliable handymen who never seem to get the message. The read is light and humorous, it’s really a labor of love between a man, a bar, and a dream he refuses to let go of.

Cawley has published several other books in the series, as well.

Get it: More Ketchup than Salsa paperback | More Ketchup than Salsa kindle version

Chicken, Mules and Two Old Fools, Victoria Twead

The first in a line of successful books on expat life in Spain, Victoria and her husband Joe leave Southern England to settle in a ruined farmhouse in Southern Spain. 

Like Journey to a Dream, the Tweads’s transition into building permits and Spanish culture isn’t an easy one, but the book is laugh-out-loud funny, and if you’ve lived in Andalusia, you’ll likely be nodding right along with the plot and the mishaps that seem to plague them!

Get it: Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools paperback | Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools kindle version

City of Sorrows, Susan Nadathur

This fictional look at the plight and marginalization of the gypsy population in Seville was based on author Nadathur’s own experience living in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, a gypsy enclave near my house. In her debut novel, Nadathur weaves together the lives of gitanos, sevillanos and foreigners who seek an understanding in the wake of an accidental death.

I interviewed Nadathur about her experience in Las 3000, the process of writing and how her upbringing led her to a career as an author early on SandS.

Get it: City of Sorrows paperback | City of Sorrows kindle version

I’ve got several books in my Kindle queue, mostly on expats in India, but I’m looking forward to living my Camino moments with I’m Off, Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago.

What are you favorite books about Spain or set in Spain? Interested in last year’s list? You can find it here.

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 ear. 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

Tapa Thursdays: Apple Strudel at Buda Castle

While Spanish food is one of my biggest loves, I am not one to turn down local fare in any of the places I visit. This meant wild boar tortellini in Florence, leubuckhen in Passau and even grasshoppers in China. A happy tummy means a happy Cat.

When I was on a shoestring budget traveling around Europe, I typically ate street food and made sandwiches in hostels and splurged on one meal. Now that I have a big kid job, I find that a far larger part of my budget on eating and visiting local markets.

Then my parents came to Europe and they offered to pick up the tab.

As part of our package on our Viking Cruise down the Danube, we were offered the option of taking walking tours with local guides. As someone who has traveled independently for six years, I tend to stick to a map and my own intuition, but I found Viking’s guides to be knowledgeable and quite humorous.

My most frequent question: Where do the locals go to eat?

Our guide in Budapest, Julia, showed us around the Buda Castle area and directed us to the Ruszwurm, a nearly 200-year old coffeehouse that had retained its recipes ever since. Famous for strudel – apple, sour cherry and even nut – it’s one of the most frequented and most beloved of the Hungarian capital.

When we walked into the cramped café, one of the other families on the cruise was leaving, so we snagged their seats and ordered an espresso for me, a cappucino for my sister, and an apple strudel and tiramisu to share. One thing you have to understand about my family is that we’ve all got a severe sweet tooth, so a certain amount of self-restraint was required to not get an individual pastry and fend off wandering forks.

The strudel was heavenly, flaky on top and tart in the middle. Our bill for two coffees and two cakes came out to 9€ (most places in Budapest accept euros). Warm apple strudel? These are a few of my favorite things.

Marek told us that we should wait until Vienna for apple strudel. Or, you could just wait until Ruszwurm. 

If you go: Ruszwurm is located at Szentháromság utca 7, just steps from the St. Stephen’s Cathedral on the Buda side of the Danube, and is open daily from 10a.m. until 7p.m.

Rebajas 101: How to Survive Spain’s Shopping Madness

To any Christmas-hating consumerist like myself, the most wonderful time of the year is what follows right after the holidays – SALES. I got a teaser when in Central Europe for 10 days, as the stores were already slashing prices and shoppers were laden with sale bags (yet somehow, we had days of closed shops, much to my mother’s disappointment).

Spaniards wait until after the Reyes Magos come to town, and the government officially mandates that the winter sales period begin on January 7th and last until the end of February, called rebajas.

While I don’t anticipate rebajas like I would the last day of school, I definitely start making a list and checking it twice before heading out, and I normally make a plan. Rebajas is my marathon, a time to stock up on essentials and buy myself something capricious simply because it’s on sale (I may drive the Novio out of his closet in the near future). I’ve snagged my flamenco dress for cheap, blazers for half price, an Adolfo Domingo bag for less than 50€. I dig until I find what I’m looking for, carry cash on me for faster transactions and even prefer to shop alone (gasp!).

But it is not for the faint of heart – shopping in Spain during the rebajas is a test of faith, halfway

between a sidewalk sale and a full-blown Black Friday at Best Buy. Here are five tips I’ve compiled to get you through a day of shopping till you drop (or need another café con leche).

Wear the right clothing.

Since the dressing room lines are long, I tend to wear clothes that are easy to get on and off: a pair of comfy pull-on boots, jeggings, a light sweater with no buttons or zips and always a cami underneath. That way, I don’t have to waste so much time pulling things on and off, and having wardrobe staples means I get a better idea of how a billowy shirt fits me when I wear it with my standard jeans (usually, in case you’re wondering, the proportion rule doesn’t work too well on me).

If you’re busy buttoning up a shirt in the dressing room when there’s a line as long as the San Bernardo cofradía of people waiting to do the same, I will likely judge you.

Eat a good breakfast.

If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, it’s even more so when you’re power shopping. Hours on your feet, overheated locales and having to deal with other shoppers means you’ll need your morning tostada and coffee more than ever. I often eat a full breakfast before I go and throw a mandarin orange or two into my bag. Trust me, when the hunger pangs kick in and you’re only two people away from the check out, it helps.

In fact, shop during your lunch hour.

I know the urge to chow down on the delicious smelling adobo at Cerrillo Blanco is about as hard to resist as a half-price dress at Zara, but chances are the stores are a bit more cleared out if you go between 2 and 4pm. I use this rule at weekends, too.

Have someone else do the shopping for you.

When I worked at the Colegio From Hell we were once given an institute day on the 7th while the kids got to stay home and play. While I did curriculum planning, all of my coworkers shopped online or sent friends out to buy for them. It sounded like the Tickle Me Elmo frenzy all over again – I NEED THE WHITE SHEETS FROM ZARA HOME BEFORE THEY RUN OUT! PLEASE PLEASE WAIT IN LINE FOR ME!

Idiots.

DO NOT, under any circumstance, GO ON A WEEKEND

Going to Calle Sierpes on a weekend with the intention of actually shopping during rebajas season is like trying to fanagle your way into the fanciest caseta at the Feria. Not gonna happen, so there’s no use trying. The other option, of course, is to just not go. Remember that there’s a formula: the longer you wait, the cheaper the prices. Yes, you read that right. This, of course, means you run the risk of the sizes S-M-L being nonexistent, so it makes a great time to buy accessories and or even shoes.

 Besides, one less body in line is great.

Do you shop at rebajas? Have any tips on surviving the shopping crush, or anything you want to buy? I realize this is extremely tongue-in-cheek, especially as someone who has an extreme impulse buy habit.

Seville Snapshots: The Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos in Triana

If you’ve ever dreamed of candy rain (circa the Candy Coated Raindrops song from the 90s), you have a date with destiny today: The Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos. The Three Kings Epiphany parade has got to be one of the goofiest but beloved traditions for the expat community in Spain, where enormous floats laden with kids pelt candy and small, plastic toys at bystanders. 

There is hardly a trace of Santa Claus in Spain, as children believe that they receive their toys from the Three Kings who brought the Baby Jesus his gold, frankincense and mirth. Coming from the Orient by camel, Gaspar, Melchor and Balthasar parade through the city on the eve of the Epiphany. After binging on Christmas sweets, families then gather to eat Roscón de Reyes, a flaky fruitcake laced with whipped cream.

I usually stick with a gin and tonic and ride out the candy storm, venturing out with an overturned umbrella to catch a few sweets for me and the Novio.

If you’re interested, the Cabalgata through Triana begins at 5p.m. this evening, a day later than normal. You can find the schedule here.

Want more? I wrote about Triana’s cabalgata last year, when my friends convinced me, on a candy binge, that it was a good idea to stay out until 6am. Jerks.

Tapa Thursday: A Field Guide to Spanish Christmas Treats

Two weeks ago, I couldn’t find the aisle that is home to eggs and milk in my local supermarket. I walked in circles, desperate to locate what was needed for the Novio to make me croquetas.

The aisle where they normally resided, next to the sliced meat and dry pasta, was empty. Gutted (as was I).

The following day, the milk aisle was replaced by my worst nightmare: the Christmas goodies aisle.

If Spanish sweets disappointed me, Spanish Christmas treats take it to the next level.

As a child, we’d spend hours baking cookies and cakes to leave for Santa or hide under the tree for my dad. My Christmas memories are flavored like peppermint and fudge. Spain’s sweets leave me with much to be desired, sadly, and any time I bring them for my family to sample, they go uneaten.

Turrón 

Far and away the most common treat you’ll find, turrón is a nougat bar made from sugar, egg whites and honey, and are most traditionally made with nuts. The most celebrated types are hard (Alicante sort) and soft (Jijona type), though you can find them made of chocolate, infused with liquor, containing candied fruit or puffed rice or even with candy brands inside.

Marzipan

A traditional shortbread in Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha, this almond paste-based confection is often shaped into bite-sized morsels and have sugar or egg yolk filling.

Yemas

So, I hate eggs, and they’re about the only food I can’t stomach. What say you, then, about a traditional Christmas sweet that’s called Yolks?!

Mantecados and Polverones

Made of pig lard (sorry I just ruined them for you, but the clue is in the name people!) and olive oil, mantecados are quite popular in Andalucía and mass-produced here. These crumbly cookies are often sold like we sell Girl Scout cookies, and come in a dozen varieties, like cinnamon, lemon, chocolate and anisette. Polverones take their name from dust, as these small cakes often break apart as soon as they’re out of their wax wrapper.

If you’re in Seville and love them, consider taking a day trip to Estepa, where you can visit the factories and sample until your heart’s content. About 95% of the workforce in their traditional despensas are women, and the city has earned the moniker of ‘Ciudad del Mantecado.’

Las 12 Uvas de Nochevieja

As per tradition, Spaniards leave room in their bellies for 12 grapes, which are to be eaten on New Year’s Eve at the 12 strokes of midnight for good luck in the coming year. During my first Nochevieja in Seville, my family and I didn’t know about this, so the Novio grabbed 48 grapes and a small bottle of champagne for us from his own family’s stash.

New Year’s is a holiday that’s most often spent with family, but my parents, sister, cousin and I braved the rain last year in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where the official ball drop happens. Most of my grapes ended up on the ground, but I’d say 2013 has been pretty awesome.

Roscón de Reyes

source

Among one of the strangest traditions in Spain is the Three Kings parade on the evening of an epiphany. The three kings and their pages ride through the streets on elaborate floats, throwing candy and small toys to bystanders. The following day, families eat a flaky pastry cake with candied fruit, called the roscón. Two figurines are hidden within the cake – a toy or Christ figure, to be given to the king (who also gets the crown), and a bean. He who finds the bean must pay for the following year’s cake. 

Other popular dulces are nuts and mandarin oranges, and it seems that there’s always a box of the mythical Caja Roja chocolates. Thankfully, I tend not to overeat when it comes to sweets at Christmas. I save my calories for the G&Ts after dinner.

Do you like Spanish Christmas treats, or do you tend to stick to your home country’s traditional sweets?

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