Three Things I’ll Miss From the USA, and Two I Won’t

The plane took off on the first clear Chicago day in a week, passing over I-294 and seeming to hang just for a few moments in the air. I could faintly make out the skyline a few miles away, and as the thin clouds enveloped the plane. 

They say parting is such sweet sorrow, and my eyes certainly pricked with tears as I pulled the curtain and the plane rose higher, bound for Boston, then Santiago de Compostela and finally Madrid.

And I’m sitting in a Starbucks right now – what does that tell you about wanting to leave America?

For 40 glorious days, I walked my dog, I took advantage of having a dryer and I zoned out in front of Bravo for hours on end. Well, that, as well as planning a wedding, entertaining the Novio on his trip out here, and making sure to not gain too much weight. Forty days, by any measure, is not a long time, but it was heavenly (once I got over the reverse culture shock, that is): The pulse of the big city, the warm hugs of friends, the brilliance of a home cooked meal.

Even with the stress of the new house and a huge, bilingual party to plan, it was so comforting to be home with my family for the first time in two years. As someone who will be perpetually straddling the Atlantic – and thus two languages, two cultures and two continents – having two months off to visit is something I appreciate about teaching. I will never have it all, and I’ll always miss things about one home when I’m in the other. Call it my personal expat dilemma.

Usually, I’m ready to board a plane and head back to the land of 1€ beers and the social acceptance of a midday nap, but this time was different. I was sad to leave, finally feeling settled and comfortable. Apparently a few friends echoed that sentiment:

There are several things my heart will ache for once back in the Madre Patria, like

Craft Beer

I am in love with the idea that beer doesn’t have to taste like the beer of my college days, but can be full of hops or taste like a handful of blueberries. Trips to the basement for a bottle for me and my dad with dinner often resulted in me brining up four or six varieties so that we didn’t settle into a routine. I drank my fair share of microbrews, visited three local breweries and smuggled New Glarus – the darling and a new favorite – across the Wisco-Illinois border for the sake of my younger sister.

My father swears he drank more in those 40 days than he had since last summer. The Novio, despite a new love of wheat beers, was disappointed when his beer didn’t really taste like beer.

And I feel that way about coffee, for that matter. When I walked into a gorgeous little coffee shop to meet my wedding photographer, I stared blankly at the menu for maybe 90 seconds before the guy behind the counter offered to help. His bone dry cappuccino was exactly what I needed.

America, you have endless choices, but this little guiri was overwhelmed. But, really, I will be excited to just order a beer and not have anyone ask me what brand, what size and what the hell they’re thinking for charging so much. Cruzcampo, I am waiting for you.

Wi-fi everywhere

I had forgotten what it was like to be able to connect to wi-fi anywhere in the USA. Seville’s half-assed attempt to put in hot spots has reduced it to, well, Starbucks. For someone whose mobile battery lasts about an hour, this saved me during endless errands for the wedding and friends who thought I’d adopted the Spanish habit of being late to everything.

My friends. My wonderful, hilarious friends.

I don’t really miss American much when I’m in Spain, but I do really, really miss my friends. Cheers to every single one of you for making the time to see me, even for a quick drink at happy hour or a ten-minute chat on the phone.  It was especially telling when I announced that the Novio wouldn’t be at the engagement party my parents threw us, and we ran out of the keg her in 90 minutes because my friends still came.

Being home is like an endless carousel of meals out and money spent, but every penny of it was worth it. I love being able to fall easily into a conversation, even after so many months away. Suffice to say, I am already looking forward to being back home next year and throwing a huge party with all of my nearest and dearest.

And then there are a few American annoyances that I won’t miss:

Driving

Ugh, if I didn’t drive again for forty days, it would be too many. On the multiple trips to see friends, to interview vendors and venues for the wedding and to visit family (plus the road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa City twice each, as well as Indiana), I must have spent a whole week trapped in the confines of my mom’s 2004 Plymouth van.

I love the convenience of having a car in Spain, but I’m already looking forward to breaking out my bike and walking to meet friends or go to work. Traffic and gas prices are just a pain.

The Food

Now, I won’t miss all-beef hot dogs or sweet corn on the grill, but I am ready to eat food that isn’t laden with artificial colors and flavors. Those strawberries my dad bought me the first weekend? They’ve only begun to sprout mold. And the yoghurt I got for breakfast at the hotel? I took one bite and pushed it away, convinced it was just a combination of chemicals.

Since adding preservatives to food or livestock is illegal in the EU, I feel heavier and unhealthier after six weeks back home in Chicago. One thing I love about Spain is the cuisine, and knowing that a banana from Canarias is, in fact, a banana from Canarias makes me feel better about my average daily intake of food.

When my plane rolled into Barajas a few hours ago, the depression of going back to work and having to start paying for my groceries seemed to evaporate. Even with a serious lack of craft beer, I’ll be happy to have a plain old café con leche and stay off my phone when catching up with Spain friends.

How do you deal with being an expat when it comes to missing things? What do you miss about your home country when you’re gone, and vice versa?

Tapa Thursday: Meson Sabika in Naperville, Illinois

 Growing up, I didn’t even know Spanish food existed. My mother is not an adventurous eater, and even our tacos were devoid of spice, onions and garlic powder.

When I began studying Spanish at age 13, I was exposed to an entirely different culinary world – Spanish cuisine. Tapas were discussed extensively in my textbook, but it seemed like a foreign concept that I’d never get to try. That is, until Señor Selleck took us to Mesón Sabika – one of the few Spanish restaurants in the Chicagoland area at the time – senior year for a field trip.

Recently, Kaley of Kaley Y Mucho Más published a post on why she thought American tapas restaurants get it all wrong. She’s definitely got a point – tapas portions at raciones prices and a more crowd-pleasing “take” on Spanish cuisine is not for me – but since I had to be at Meson Sabika for a lunchtime meeting, I figured I could have a beer and a few dishes.

Arriving at a Spanish meal time of nearly 2pm, the frazzled but friendly waitress led us immediately to the bar, where we figured we’d get away from the lull of chatter of the other patrons. Built in 1847 as a family home, the mansion that houses Meson Sabika has various dining rooms named after Spanish cities, landmarks and foods with accented ceramic bowls and bullfighting posters. Not as sleek as Café Ba-ba-reeba or Mercat a la Planxa, but definitely more intimate than Café Ibérico.

The Spanish wine list is extensive, with even lesser-known DOs like Jumilla and Toro represented. Margaret chose a fruity Rueda, but I stuck with a beer and ordered a 1906 (Spanish restaurants may not know Spanish food, but Meson Sabika had my two favorite Spanish beer brands, Estrella Galicia and Alhambra!).

While safe, the menu plays up Spanish favorites by making them a bit more American-palate friendly. Many of the meat dishes had cheese or roasted vegetables with them, bocaditos came with garden salads and not one dish contained a weird animal part. We settled on papas bravas to share, which came covered with shredded manchego cheese and chopped parsley. Not the most Spanish dish, but definitely tasty.

We each decided on an individual entrée – skirt steak with roasted potatoes and cabrales cheese for my sister, eggplant and roasted red peppers sliders for me. After so many brats and beers and processed food, it tasted like home.

While Spanish restaurants stateside might not embrace the eat-as-many-small-plates-as-you-like and we’re-family-let’s-share mentality that I love about Spanish food traditions, the menu does have a lot of different choices for even the most wary about Spanish food (let’s put it this way – my mother thinks it’s an appropriate for a big party venue) and makes it pretty easy to share a few things and still get your own plate. 

But, ouch, the bill! A meal like this back in Spain might have run us 20€ without a tip, but I ponied up $50 after tax and tip for the two of us. And no free olives?!

Have you been to any tapas bars or Spanish restaurants in your home country? What it your opinion on their food, prices and portions?

In case you go: Mesón Sabika is located on Aurora Avenue in downtown Naperville. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Saturdays, dinner only. Their menu is available on their website.

Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock (or, why my country confuses me)

When my phone buzzed with a friend inquiring where I was, I had an excuse for being late: I was overwhelmed with being back in the US and had gone to get a coffee. Then I got overwhelmed again with how to order that and settled on whatever it was that the woman gave me.

“Yeah, sorry. America confused me, so I consoled myself with a gallon of coffee.” I then proceeded to be perplexed by the El’s new card system and nearly walked onto a southbound train rather than heading up to Lakeview.

Two weeks into my American foray, I’m still feeling like Cady Heron in ‘Mean Girls,’ and even my friends who have known me for years are puzzled by my being puzzled by America. I have become the adorable foreign girl who squeals over brunch, IPAs and oversized supermarkets and who answers the same questions day after day:

“You mean there’s internet in Spain?” Duh, how would I maintain this blog?!

“Let’s go for tacos! Wait, you’re probably sick of them.” I WISH I had that problem.

As I’m focusing on party planning and COMO launching, I find myself making rookie mistakes when it comes to American life. 

As my sister puts it: America, 364. Cat, 0. For the first time ever, I can honestly say that my American way of life is all but a thing of the past. Apparently 22 years count for next to nothing but my native tongue, and even that seems to be getting lost in a flurry of British expressions and colorful Spanish interjections.

Cash is all but a foreign concept

In Spain, I always carry cash on me and try not to use bills over 50€. In America, you can pay with your debit card, your cell phone and probably the promise of your first-born. As a matter of fact, I’ve only taken out money once in two weeks!

Condiments puzzle you

In a country where mayonnaise is king, this just made me nervous:

Ranch dressing on a Wisconsin brat? I just can’t.

You try to pay in any other currency but American dollars

Going along with the money issue, I’ve accidentally accounted out European coins or forked over my remaining 20€ bill for a gyro. The woman behind the counter gave me a confused look and then launched into an interrogation about how I got the money, how much a gyro platter would cost in Spain and do they even eat gyros over there? My food was practically cold when she was finished.

You ask silly questions like, “Can I use debit here?” or “How will we get groceries if it’s Sunday?”

My Spanish timetable is now a well-oiled machine, so getting a new cell phone on a Sunday and running to the grocery store at midnight is blowing my mind and upping my productivity.

People judge you for having a beer with lunch or wanting to sleep immediately after

In the US, I am usually the one who skips drinking with meals and only need a day or two to adjust to chow times and a conservative grandma, but not this time around. Naps and cervecitas still figure in to a part of my day.

Driving an automatic car is a challenge (and it’s twice the size of Monty)

I keep reaching for a gear shift and trying to push down the clutch. In fact, my sister told me I’d been demoted from driving after I got lost in O’Hare airport (which is one big loop) and was late picking her up. I should also say I’m driving a minivan, so that in of and itself merits a lunchtime beer and nap.

You walk away from a counter without tipping (and after freaking out over a) how big the beers are and b) how much they cost) 

You see, there’s a reason why I usually skip a midday beer – they’re costly! And then, once you factor in tip, it’s not even worth it.

America, pay your wage workers something decent so I don’t feel like a terrible person when I walk away when I forget to tip.

People say hi to you everywhere you go, and you give them your best sevillana stink face

I was the type of person to say hello any time I went into a store and I normally chat up strangers. You can imagine the surprise when people were allowing me to cross the street with my dogs or just waving hello. My confused face is strangely like my sevillana stink face.

It’s freezing

Afternoon showers and 75° weather? Wearing a jacket in late July? Lake effect? Chicago is cold, and I’m not adjusting to the air-con being on all the time.

The joy that is texting for free, and abusing that freedom

Americans have not embraced whatsapp – I’ll send my mom on my favorite free texting system, and she’ll respond with a text message rather than directly replying. I asked why, and she reminded me that texting plans are really generous. Oh, right.

Just as I’m starting to get settled in and remembering cultural cues, I realize that the Novio is coming to visit on Friday for two weeks, which means I’ll practically undo everything I’ve assimilated in these past few weeks. But it also means more siestas!

How are you adjusting to life in your home country after time abroad? Any good stories to share?

Postcards from Chicago

For years, I’ve been searching for a Chicago flag patch for Kike. The white bar in the middle, flanked by two celestial bars and four crimson stars, flies everywhere in the Windy City (so, literally). Every souvenir shop, Etsy boutiques – nowhere – has this token that he collects from the far-flung African countries he works in or the other soldiers he encounters.

So, when he asked me to find one for the fourth summer running, I tried again, hopeful that I’d get lucky. My bags are packed and his birthday gift wrapped up – it’s just not the patch he asked for. Still, Chicago’s most prominent colors are always the Cubbie Blue up in Wrigleyville, the white caps on Lake Michgan and the red of traffic lights lit up all over downtown. Here’s my attempt to get Chicago framed using those colors.

The Way to Really Fly.

The L

[Read more…]

My Chicago Soundtrack

I am a Chicago girl, born and bred. I love my all-beef Kosher hot dogs, had a Chicago Bulls three-peat T-shirt, sport a Jewel-Osco card in my wallet. Leaving the Windy City was a choice that almost never came to be, with a job offer on the table and plenty of young friends convincing me that my life was not in Spain.

But I chose to board the plane and to take my Chicago roots with me to Spain, preaching the Cubbie way of life and claiming that there are lakes the look like oceans in the middle of the Midwest. As Spain became more and more like home, I became increasingly proud of where my parents, grandparents and I come from.

Now that I’m back in Chicago for the month of August, every trip to the City of Broad Shoulders has my heart pumping out the songs that bring me back to the countless summers, bitter cold winter afternoons and rides along the rails of the L. Songs that remind me of seeing punk rock shows at the Metro, of childhood shopping trips on State, of what makes this city so damn great. Wikipedia lists over 400 songs about Chicago, and while “My Kind of Town” and “Sweet Home Chicago” would be obvious choices, mine are a little unexpected (and seriously throwback to my love of punk rock days. Lucky Boys Confusion, Fall Out Boy and The Dog and Everything CDs are still in my car!)

Kanye West – Homecoming

While I can’t say Kanye, like R. Kelly, is a favorite Chicago musician, this song echoes through my brain every time I fly in over Lake Michigan and the skyline, which stretches further than my window can hold.

Allister – Somewhere Down on Fullerton

Why I’ve never taken a madcap dash around Chicago like Allister does, this song was the first I ever crowdsurfed to at a show at House of Blues with my friend Amanda. It was her first visit to Chicago, just after our freshman year of college, and I remember the rush of feeling like I was going to get dropped while getting groped. I still have the shirt I bought that  night to commemorate a Chicago band playing to a Chicago crowd as only a great Chicago venue can allow.

Arranmore – Southside Irish

My family first came to America during the mass wave of immigration that gives America its heritage as the Land of the Free. Settling in Chicago, my Irish great-grandfather, who had owned a still-operational woolen mill in Foxford, County Mayo, worked as a tailor. I feel most proud of my Irish heritage, even though I’ve got Scottish, Welsh and German roots. As a kid, I participated in Irish parades around Chicagoland, so this Saint Paddy’s Day anthem reminds me of those mornings, the wind biting my pink cheeks, as we marched through the streets in the name of the Emerald Isle.

Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah – Lake Shore Drive

There have been countless times where I’ve speed down one of Chicago’s grandest avenues, Lake Shore Drive, as twilight was falling. Window open, wind on my face and the lights of the Loop in the rear-view mirror, those are the nights where summer is at its peak and I remember how fun being young is. This song, from the time when my parents were young, brings back summer memories of the Oak Street beach, drinks at Castaways and belting out whatever’s one the radio with girlfriends.

Alkaline Trio – I’m Dying Tomorrow 

I can’t say I remember who introduced me to the local band Alkaline Trio, but I love him for it. Among my favorites is “I’m Dying Tomorrow,” which ask the age-old question: Do I have any regrets?

The Loving Spoonful – Hot Town, Summer in the City

Now that I’ve made living in Spain a reality, I usually only get summers in Chicago. Fine by me, as the city is replete with festivals, concerts and events that play to its patchwork heritage – and one of the things I love best about it. What I love about this song is that it talks about the balance between night and day in Chicago, no unlike a summer in Seville: the days are long and scorching, while the nighttime relief is when everyone comes out to play. This city feels young.

Fall Out Boy – Chicago is So Two Years Ago

The first time I ever heard this song, I was packing up my dorm room freshman year to go home for the summer. “There’s a Light on in Chicago, and I know I should be home,” still rings true whenever I arrive home after a Spanish sojourn. Being able to come back to the place where I grew up helps keep me grounded when I’m away, knowing that there’s always a Portillo’s around the corner and that the Cubbies have still not won the World Series. Ahhh, home.

Hey, Chicago, whaddya say (Go, Cubs, Go was not in my list; too obvious)! What would be on your Chicago soundtrack? Leave me a message in the comments, or leave me a birthday note since I turn 27 today!

Seville Snapshots: Red line, Jackson station

My heart still thunders every time the L thunders past me. The whoosh throws me off-kilter as it heads south towards the Dan Ryan. People filter in and out, not even aware that we’re all clustered in this rank-smelling station on Jackson together.

The tiles are interesting to me, the worn steps as familiar to me as they were twenty years ago. We’d hop on the Blue Line at Cumberland and get off right in the Marshall Field’s basement to the minty smell of Frango samples, often on our way to shop on Michigan Avenue. I actually got lost one wintery afternoon while walking down the stairs of the Red Line on State, befriending a homeless woman named Magnolia as I waited for my mother to find me.

While Madrid’s metro is far superior, the L was the first public mass transit that I ever learned to use and the one I feel a kinship to. Tipsy rides up the Red to Wrigley, ringing around the Loop like Spiderman between the skyscrapers, disappearing into the underground stations and watching the light of a bright summer day get swallowed up as I descend.

Ok, so this isn’t a shot of Seville, but my life in consumed by a perfect summer in Chicago. It’s honestly my favorite city in this wide, wide world and a place I’m lucky enough to have my roots in. While I stuff my face full of Italian beef and free pop refills, I couldn’t resist testing out Camarón during my long afternoons catching up with friends. Maybe next week I’ll sneak a picture of Seville in, but If you’d like to contribute your photos from Spain and Seville, please send me an email at sunshineandsiestas @ gmail.com with your name, short description of the photo, and any bio or links directing you back to your own blog, Facebook page or twitter. There’s plenty more pictures of gorgeous Seville on Sunshine and Siesta’s new Facebook page!

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