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.

Spain Snapshots: Garganta la Olla, the gorgeous extremeño pueblo you’ve never, ever heard of

There was only one real reason why we stopped: it was sunny and just about 1pm, which meant it was beer hour. Snaking down the one-lane highway that led from the Monastery of Yuste, where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V retired to die, we decided to stop in the next town for a while.

That town was Garganta la Olla, a blip of a pueblo that has a larger-than-life legend. The woman behind the bar graciously served us a heaping plate of cured meats and cheeses with our beer as she hummed and wiped a few glasses clean. Garganta la Olla is home to just over 1000 inhabitants, making it yet another sleepy hamlet in the Cáceres region of Extremadura.

I tugged the Novio’s hand as I led him down the main road towards town hall. The wood and stone thatched houses looked like they’d been haphazardly constructed – kind of like the way the sticks fall in a game of Pick Up Sticks. Carvings in the doors mark just how old the village is – some of the constructions date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Garganta la Olla was in its heyday, although it’s believed to have been inhabitant for nearly 2000 years. 

The houses reminded me of the sort I might have seen in Haro, La Rioja or even outside of Spain. We walked beneath balconies supported by wooden pillars that housed humble homes. Within 30 minutes, we’d seen the whole of the center leisurely, including the artificial beach of Garganta Mayor, a nice sojourn after Yuste disappointed us (both in price and museum – not worth it!).

As for the legend of La Serrana de la Vera, it’s said that a scorned woman took up residence in the nearby Garganta, or mountain crevice, from which she seduced men and then killed them exacting her revenge against the Archbishop of Plasencia, who broke up their engagement and sentenced her family to a lifetime of dishonor. Miguel de Unamuno, a celebrated Spanish author, penned her legend, which is also accompanied by demon and serpentine figures that make up local lore. Día de la Serrana de la Vera is celebrated each August, and the city retains its medieval feel.

And if you’re into it, there’s also an Inquisición Museum that shows medieval torture tools and a former brothel that now houses a shop with products from the area – cured meats, sweet paprika and sweet breads.

Garganta la Olla is located in the La Vera region of Cáceres, at the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos. It’s about 45 minutes east of Plasencia and two hours north of Badajóz. 

Have you ever spent time in Extremadura? What are your favorite small towns in Spain?

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 is absent: Speaking is one of the most important language skills (and often the hardest to master), 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 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.

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 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

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