My Biggest Travel Fiasco (or, the time I spent New Year’s Eve alone in Romania)

Budapest, Hungary

The clock reads 7:32 a.m. The man in the front seat is antsy, nervously playing with the manual lock system on the minivan. 

“Where are these people? Don’t they know we could be late for our flights?”

I assure Fidgety Floridian that the Budapest airport is quite small and easy to get through, but his wife isn’t convinced. She rolls her eyes and says, “We have the worst luck with planes. We nearly didn’t make it on the cruise.”

My flight to Tirgu Mures, Romania doesn’t leave for four hours, so I’m cool. I settle into the jump seat at the back of the van, wedged between luggage.

Three hours later, I’ve sailed through security and pursue the food options. I decide to wait until I land in Tirgu Mures, as I will need something to do for three hours before leaving for Madrid. My foot taps impatiently against the floor as we begin to embark. Wedged into an airport bus, I choose to stand next to someone who hasn’t showered.

For thirty minutes.

After which we are unloaded back  into the terminal and delayed another thirty minutes. I settle into my third book of my holiday break and return to tapping my foot again while doing the mental math: I have a one hour flight, a one hour delay and a one hour forward time change. I have just enough time to grab my bag, check in again and head to my gate once we touch down in Tirgu Mures. 

My foot taps faster.

In the air, I relax a little, as I’ve been assured that it will be taxi, takeoff, ascent, quick passage of the metal cart for snacks, descent, landing, taxi. Plus, I’ve snagged a seat on the aisle in the third row (thank you, Amazing Race, for teaching me how to get on and off planes quickly). Flipping through the inflight magazine for the third time, the captain announces something in Hungarian. Then, in English: Due to zero visibility in Tirgu Mures, we’ve been rerouted to Cluj, to which we have begun our descent. There will be buses on hand to take you to Tirgu, unless you’d prefer to stay in Cluj. We apologize for any inconvenience.

My heart skips a beat and I call the flight attendant, slightly panicked. How long until the buses arrive? Is it a far drive to Tirgu Mures? Will I have to go through customs here? I continue to fire, but she comes back with two responses: first, I don’t know anything about Romania and second, we are a point to point airline, sorry.

No shit. 

Cluj-Napoca Airport, Romania

Once on the ground, I call the Novio, fighting tears. Our New Year’s plans were to spend the night with his extended family which had come from London, Peru, Murcia and Madrid. He assures me they’ll come and pick me up from Madrid when I get in, whenever that may be. I hastily get through customs, and my checked bag comes barreling down the belt first.

My first stop is the tourist information counter. Unfortunately, the woman speaks limited English. There is no bus to Tirgu Mures out front, and I check my watch: with the time change, my flight closes in 90 minutes. I return to the desk and slow down: How long in taxi to Tirgu Mures? 

“One hour thirty, maybe two.” Remembering my Romania road trip, I think of the poor state of most highways in Romania and bite my lip.

Other travelers are taking pity on me, asking if there’s anything they can do to help me or if I’d like a lift to the center of Cluj. I rack my brain – I’ve been here before. It’s a large university city where we made a quick stop, and the food was cheap. A large, domed church with a fountain in front gets shaken from my head as I try to think straight.

The Cluj airport flies to many more destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, I tell myself. If I fly out of anywhere, it will be here.

I have to say, I have never been a nervous flier. I always arrive to the airport early, pack my bag without liquids and know how planes work and why they just don’t fall out of the sky. Yes, I even pray to the Virgin of Loreto, patron saint of pilots (and I can’t believe I just admitted that). But now I’m antsy, channeling Kevin McCallister’s mother as I half-run to the Wizz Air ticketing office in the departures terminal.

The woman is quite nice and speaks English, and looks up flights to anywhere in Spain – Valencia, Alicante, Palma. Nothing more will fly out today to Spain, just to Budapest at 8pm, more than six hours in the future. She assures me there are flights from Budapest to Madrid the following day for a mere 145€, and the woman in the other information booth looks up overnight buses and prices for me.

Just then, a young Lufthansa worker touches me on the shoulder. Nothing is flying out of Targu this afternoon – there’s no ground visibility and they’ve already sent word that we’ll be getting flights bound for other destinations here, he tells me.

Feeling a stroke of good luck, I buy myself a cold sandwich and a warm Orsus beer and pace the empty departures hall.

For the next five hours, I jockey between the Wizz Air office, the check-in counters for news and the information desk. Passengers from other flights to Lutton and Beauvais pass through, looking at me as if I am in the movie Terminal. Time ticks by slowly, but I don’t pick up a magazine until several hours into the ordeal. Food doesn’t appeal to me, and even the nice Romanian girl who offers me tea gets a no, thank you.

The Lufthansa worker is nowhere to be found, so I ask another for help. Thankfully, he speaks English perfectly and makes a call. 

“We’ll know in thirty minutes, but I think you’re in luck. Just stay within sight.” Doing as I’m told, I finally start to try to occupy myself, returning to my e-book. Still distracted, another hour flies by and the Novio calls back. He tells me, pity in his voice, that no one could help him in Barajas, then, angrily, “And the call costs 1,15 a minute, joder!”

Just then, nice Lufthansa man steps out from around the heck-in desk with a long face. “Yeah, so, your flight will leave in 15 minutes. From Targu Mures. I’m sorry, the weather has cleared up.”

Well, crap.

Nice Lufthansa man turns into an angel when he gets on the phone with Wizz Air and scores me a new ticket, free of charge, for the misinformation he alleges I’ve received. An email in my inbox confirms this. I could hug him, but instead I give him the bottle of wine I was carrying home for the Novio’s family. One good deed deserves another, and he gladly accepts it, saying that he was made to work an extra eight hours with the influx of re-routed flights.

I grab my things and find a taxi after seven hours in the terminal. There is general confusion, as the taxi driver asks me which bus station I want to go to. I dart back into the terminal to find it completely deserted. I leave it to blind faith and nod when he asks the name of the company and just takes off, racing towards the city.

Cluj-Napoca City Center

We pull up to what appears to be an abandoned junk yard with a few plastic huts. “Bus!” the driver calls out and dumps my bag on the cold, wet ground. Never mind the vintage stein I’m bringing back…or the other bottle of wine.

Everything is dark. I can’t read anything. My watch read 8:22, or one hour, forty-eight minutes until the bus apparently passes. Music is playing at the hotel around the corner, so I go in and plead my way into sitting in the still-cold lobby, tired enough to want to cry, or just curl up and say to hell with an overnight bus.

Welp, turns out there was no overnight bus, or any bus or train on New Year’s Day, so I turn on my Internet data (happy Christmas bonus, Vodafona) and look up hotels, figuring it would be money well spent. There’s a Hilton.

There’s a Hilton.

The closest I can get to home is a Hilton, and they would definitely have wi-fi and breakfast. I realize, rubbing my eyes, I’ve barely eaten or even drank since 6:30 in the morning, adding to my drowsiness and overall pity party.

The Hilton glows green on the empty street, just a few yards from the city center. I practically collapse as the receptionist charges my credit card and writes down my information to the tune of 58€. Giving him the cliff notes of my sob story, he promises to call me a taxi.

Upstairs in my room, I’ve just taken off my bag when the phone buzzes. “Um, yes, my friend can take you to Budapest Airport tomorrow. It is five, maybe six hours. It will cost 250€. Yes?” Without even thinking, I say yes. Besides, I already did the mental math. If I waited another day, I’d have to spend another 58€ for the hotel room, over 300€ for the flight from Cluj on the 2nd, and then another train ticket from Madrid. 

I kick off my shoes and run the shower. I stare at the water and steam for about a minute before I decide I’m too tired to even stand under the jet of water. The clock says 11:23 p.m., a full 15 hours since I left the dock in Budapest. I should have arrived to Spain three hours ago.

My night is sleepless, punctuated by fireworks, whatsapps from well-wishing friends and a very nervous mother. My in-laws send pictures of themselves eating my 12 lucky grapes, and all I can think is, vaya suerte. 

Rural Romania

The driver nods his head at me as I slip in the back seat of his car. He punches something nervously into his GPS and I wish him a happy new year, surprisingly sunny, given the circumstances and the money I am about to fork over to him. It doesn’t seem that he speaks English, which both relieves and disappoints me.

One thing I can say since my road trip through Transylvania and Mures: the roads have definitely gotten better. We speed out of Cluj along the E-61 towards Hungary, and I am flooded with memories of my trip. The intricately carved wooden crosses on the side of the road, the haystacks behind homes and the women in black fly by as we take the twisting roads west.

There’s definitely a common theme amongst Romanians – they’re all so damn nice, and it’s amazing what a terrible night of sleep did to me – I feel 100 times better and pray to the travel gods that I will be back in Spain on the first day of 2014.

Romanian-Hungarian border

The driver is nervous. He backs his car up, pulls it back in, changes positions, smokes his smokeless cigarette pipe thing. I’m sipping down water in small amounts, not sure if he speaks enough English to know I need a pit stop. After seven long minutes (for him, not me), the guard approaches the car and hands me back me passport and Spanish residency card.

On the first day of 2014, I’ve already got two freshly stamped entries in my passport. Every cloud…

Budapest, Hungary

Once we’re into Hungary, the roads become straight and the hills disappear. While I can understand some words in Romania because of its Romantic language roots, Hungary has me completely stumped. All I can make out is the ever-dwindling number of kilometers between our car and the airport.

The driver drops me off right in front of the terminal. I’ve given him a tip of close to 30€ (after all, he charged me in Romanian leu and that conversion is not easy on a sleep-deprived brain) for his trouble on New Year’s Day, and he shakes my hand firmly after helping me put my heavy bag on my back. I thank him on the only word in Romanian I know, multumesc. Thank you very much.

My phone picks up the wi-fi immediately in the airport, and I re-book a train ticket for 9:30 p.m. I have three hours before my flight, which will give me time to finally have a beer, get checked in and get through security…and maybe eat fast food and not feel ashamed about it. Spanish permeates my consciousness and I relax.

Once on the plane, the sky is a dreamy pink with streaks of red until night falls.

Madrid, Spain

As soon as the plane touches down, the first thing that comes to mind is Manolo Escobar’s famous Spain anthem, Que Viva España. My phone is turned on before we reach the gate, and I send whatsapps to everyone I know. I feel like I’ve returned to a place where everything makes sense and where language is no longer an issue. I get Spain. 

Time seems to pass by in three seconds as I grab my bag, transfer to terminal 4, hop on the cercanías line and make it to my train – the last of the day – with 20 minutes to spare. Being a holiday, my car was only half full, so I could curl up across both seats and sleep for two hours. Stepping onto the platform and seeing ‘SEVILLA – SANTA JUSTA’ as I take a deep breath reminds me that I am, at long last, home.

Sevilla, Spain

I arrive home five minutes to midnight on January 1st. The travel gods heard my plea, it seems. I’ve traveled, by my estimate, over 3900 miles in 40 hours. The Novio hasn’t changed the sheets in two weeks, but I hardly notice as I sleep, finally, in my own bed for 10 hours.

I’ve since recounted the short version of the ordeal to my friends. While some are shocked and glad it didn’t happen to them, I can say this: I am relieved that I am a seasoned traveler and that I’ve watched my parents navigate standby and weather delays like champs. My nerves and even my tear ducts were put to the test, but I got home, unscathed (just poorer). Had I been new to international travel or unaware of European flight compensations, I may have made rookie mistakes.

One thing I have realized? I am not cut out for round-the-world travel. While it seems challenging and fun, I’m too accustomed to my comforts and hate wearing dirty clothes (there, I admitted it). I can handle when things don’t go as planned, but I don’t like it because I am not spontaneous. I like feeling grounded. I like the feeling of familiarity. I like having wi-fi and no roaming data (my bill came yesterday…ouch).

That’s not to say that I won’t travel for extended periods of time – I most certainly will travel as far as my body and my salary will take me, and have big dreams when it comes to doing it. But I think I’ve finally mató el gusano. The idea of round-trip travel is no longer a little tickle that flares up once in a while.

The idea of becoming an expat in another city or another country? THAT is the new gusanillo.

Have you had any travel disasters recently? I’d love to hear them, and if they’re Spain-related, feel free to send me the story for publishing!

What happens at the Weis’n: Oktoberfest, a Beer-Lover’s Dream

A three a.m. wake up call two days in a row – first to drive to Málaga and catch a flight to Frankfurt, and then to pull on a dirndl, braid my hair and brush my teeth.

Ja, I was on my way to Oktoberfest, echoing my college days when I would get up at dawn to tailgate and slam a beer on Melrose Avenue as the sun came up.

The Weis’n was like a full-blown, Bavarian style Feria de Sevilla – tents that were difficult to get into, carnival rides operating around the clock, vendors selling all kinds of local fare that filled the air with scents of smoked sausages and fries.

Have I died and gone to beer-lovers heaven? Ja.

Christyn and I arrived to the enormous complex shortly before 11am. Knowing the weekend would mean an influx of tourists and reservations at beer tents, we beelined directly to where the line seemed the shortest, the Löwenbräu tent. An enormous plastic lion with a mechanical arm was drinking more beer than we were – we learned that once the reserved tables were full, we would have to wait with the other tourists, as the bouncer with a scary-looking neck tattoo who looked like he’d never eaten anything but bratwurst and sauerkraut would only let patrons in when others came out.

Even in Spain, an orderly line would form, so what’s with the Germans letting the entrance be a free-for-all wherein the scary doorman chooses how desperate or thirsty or Bavarian you are?

After 40 minutes, we were led to a long wooden table outdoors. Being late September, it was chilly, but the heat lamps and constant toasts and chants kept us moving about and a bit warm. I borrowed a friend’s dirndl, carried a cardigan and wore two pairs of tights, and thanks to the large amount of beer I drank, had few problems keeping warm.

Once inside and seated, the busty server slammed a litre beer down for each of us at a cost of 10€. The heavy glasses were empty before we could even order a snack (an enormous pretzel, exactly what was missing in my guiri life). Only five types of Munich-based beers are allowed to be served, and of the several we tried during the course of the day, Lion’s Brew was my favorite.

After two enormous beers and getting creeped on by some Italians at the table over, Christyn and I needed to go to the bathroom. I was relieved to see that the German efficiency at the door (as in, lack thereof) was back when it came to the women’s toilets, but mainly because the entire beer hall was rocking – a lederhosen-clad band was playing German folk songs and Sweet Caroline from a raised stage in the center.

I knew we wouldn’t get beer unless we were seated somewhere, but Christyn had already taken care of that problem. A few locals scooped us up and squeezed us into their table. They were already standing on the wooden benches, rocking out, and invited us to some food and topped off our steins.

The interior of the tent was like a raucous mess hall of school cafeteria. I felt right at home. Case in point:

In need of some fresh air around 2pm, we walked towards the carnival rides, past booths with the traditional tirolerheut hats and lavishly painted steins. I somehow convinced a local to ride on the rollercoaster with me when my cousin refused to lose her pretzel and the gingerbread cookies we’d snacked on. I got a glimpse of the entire Teresenweise – the place was enormous. Then, it was over the hill and plunging back towards the ground.

The rest of the day passed in a haze – the beer sold a Oktoberfest is stronger than the beer served in local bars – but we were befriended at another tent where we (thankfully) could not get another beer. After currywurst and a sudden downpour, we were tuckered out and found a little Indian restaurant for a bowl of warm soup and a litre of water – my first of the day.

I’ll be back in Munich for two days in December. Apart from the beer and Christmas markets, what else should I see? What should I eat? Where should I stay?

Practical Advice for Attending Spain’s Messiest Festival, la Tomatina

If I could live on one food for the rest of my days, I would choose the tomato (or maybe ice cream…just not tomato ice cream). Like Bubba Gump can eat shrimp in every which way, I’m a huge lover of the perfect fruit/vegetable/I don’t even care and easily eat them daily.

Then, say you, what happens when my friend convinces me to hop a flight to Valencia to attend the Tomatina, a tomato chucking festival and one of Spain’s most well-known fêtes?

You say tomato, I say HELL YEAH!

A Brief History of La Tomatina

Buñol, a small village just a half hour’s drive from Valencia, has been practically half-asleep for its history. In the mid 1940s, however, a group of youngsters wanting to demonstrate during the town’s festivals grabbed a bunch of tomatoes from a local frutería and began throwing them. The following year, they did the same. Since the early 1950s, the town hall has allowed revelers to chuck tomatoes (grown in Extremadura and unsuitable for eating) on the last Wednesday of August.

The Tomatina is now considered a Festival of Touristic Interest – so much so that the town decided to limit the entrances this year, allowing just 20,000 tickets to be sold to help pay for operating costs, including clean-up and security. About 5,000 of these were reserved for the residents of Buñol.

Getting to Buñol

The town of Buñol is located about 40km inland from the region’s capital of Valencia, cozied up to a mountain. Served by the regional RENFE commuter trains on the C-3 line, you can arrive to Buñol’s train station (if you can call it that) in 45 minutes. The station is located at what locals call ‘Buñol de Arriba,’ or the part of the pueblo on the hill, and there are plenty of places to buy souvenirs, leave your bag at a local’s house in exchange for a few bucks, and grab a beer or sandwich.

In the end, we decided to take a tour bus, which promised round-trip transportation and safe-keeping of our belongings. Though Kelly and I made an effort to speak the bus driver to get an idea of just how safe the bus would be in the middle of a festival of drunk guiris, we watched the bus pull out 20 minutes before the assigned return time, and we were forced to wait 90 minutes while it went to Valencia and came back for us. We had decided to take our bags with a change of clothes and snacks with us and store them at a local’s house, thankfully, or we would have been cold and stinky for hours. The organization was terrible and not worth the 35€ we paid for the entrance, transportation and luggage storage. If we did it again, we’d take the cercanías train.

Keep in mind that you can’t just show up to the Tomatina after this year – revelers are required to pay a 10€ entrance fee, and only 15,000 tickets are allocated for visitors. While there was outcry that the town hall of Buñol has privatized the festival without debate, I personally thought this was the best way to make the party accessible and enjoyable.

The Clothing and Gear

Rule of Thumb: everything you wear to the Tomatina will be covered in tomato gunk and stink, so be prepared to part with it once the tomato slinging is done. I threw everything away but my swimsuit!

Kelly and I made a run to Decathlon for a plain white cotton T, elastic biking shorts, a swim cap and goggles. You’ll see people in costumes, in plastic rain coats, in swimsuits and the like. We also bought disposable waterproof cameras, a small wallet for our IDs and health insurance cards and paper money, which we put into plastic bags.

I was surprised to see the number of people with GoPros. Having gotten mine for the Camino and then unpacking it for sake of weight, I wish I would have had it on me. Word on the street is that you can get relatively cheap cases for your DSLR or point-and-shoot, so consider it if you want better pictures than this:

Without fail, you should bring a change of clothes. Most townspeople near the center of the village will let you use their hoses for a minimal fee, but wearing wet clothes in damp weather won’t do you any favors. I brought a simple dress and a pair of flip-flops for the after party that rages on all afternoon, as well as a bottle of water and a sandwich. Food and drink is available in Buñol, and for cheaper than the Feria de Sevilla!

The logistics of La Tomatina

There are two parts to the city of Buñol: la de arriba (upper Buñol) and la de abajo (lower Buñol). Kelly and I got a call from our friend Gatis just as we pulled into the parking lot. Scoping out the party, we assumed we were near the entrance, so we told him we’d meet him at the gates in 10minutes, after we dropped off our bags.

Turns out, the village is a lot longer than we thought, and it took us far longer to get there!

When you sign up for the Tomatina, you’ll be given a wristband that you must show to access Plaza del Pueblo, where the action takes place. You then have to walk about 500m downhill towards the castle, passing food stands and bars, before arriving to two of four access gates. Show your wristband, but not before going to the bathroom – there is NOWHERE to pee once you’re in Buñol de Abajo.

Shortly before 11am, one of the townspeople participates in the palo de jabón. Climbing up a wooden pole slicked with soap, the trucks can officially pass through once the pueblerino has reached the top and hoisted the ham leg, which sits at the very top, over his head. Five trucks carrying tons and tons of tomatoes will pass through once a siren has been sounded. Participants understand that they cannot throw anything but tomatoes (which you should squeeze first to avoid injury), and only between the sirens signifying the beginning and end of the event, which only lasts one hour.

Those who live in the city center board up their houses and drape plastic sheets over their facades, though they’re quick to douse you with water after you’re finished. Call them campeones – they’ll hit you with water first.

The majority of the after party from what we could see is held in the part of the town uphill. There was music, beer and sausages. Had I not been so cold and smelly, it would have been my happy place.

The Experience

I can’t say that experiencing La Tomatina was ever on my Spain bucketlist (and neither is San Fermines, so don’t ask if I’ll ever go to the Running of the Bulls). But when a week with nothing to do, a cheap place ticket and an eager friend suggested going, I figured this would be my one and only chance to do so. Am I glad I did it? Most definitely, but I’m not planning on signing up for it again.

That said, it was a lot of fun. Being crunched up between total strangers, mashing tomatoes in their hair and putting it down the backs of their shirts, swimming afterwards in what was essentially an enormous pool of salmorejo, was serious fun. Belting out Spanish fight songs, squashing the fruit so as not to hurt anyone when I pelted him with it. The water fights, the after party, the townspeople who so graciously gave us their gardens and their hoses to use (Luisa, I’m looking at you, and we owe you a bottle of your beloved fino). I even found the downpour just before 11am to be hilariously good fun.

Have you ever been to the Tomatina, or are you interested in going? What’s your favorite festival in Spain – have car, will rock out – y’all know me!

Six Years in Spain – Six Posts You Can’t Miss

Six years ago, my 90-day student visa was cancelled as I stepped off the plane in Madrid’s Barajas airport. Happy Spaniversary to me!

Somehow, in the span of six years, my blog has gone from a little pet project to being a story of sticking it to El Hombre, of carving out a space in my little Spanish burbuja and learning to embrace my new home. People know my Spain story…or so they think.

Want to know something? My first year was hard.

And so was the second and third.

And then I couldn’t figure out how to stay in Spain legally and make enough to support my tapas and traveling habits.

Just recently, my group of guiritas and I were talking about how we all finally, finally – after four, six or even eight years – feel settled in Spain. I’ve written before about how I feel like I have a life in two places, like I can’t be 100% present in either, and that choosing one over another would be extremely painful.

I’ve made Seville my home, but it’s been like the prodigal rollercoaster – highs bring elation, lows bring the dark storm clouds of depression. During six years in Spain, I’ve weathered homesickness, disappointment, rejection, a break up. I’ve cried with friends over Skype when their loved ones have died, gotten teary when getting the news when amigas have married or had kids, and I’ve missed it.

Today, as I celebrate six years living in the land of sunshine and siestas, I’m actually reminded of the times where I’ve had to grit my teeth or scream or curse the Spanish government for their inefficiency.

Think you know the girl behind this blog? If you haven’t read from the beginning, you may not know the whole story.

Year One

I arrived to Spain on September 13th, 2007 and promptly toppled over, the weight of my bags way too much to handle (and before I got weighed down by solomillo al whiskey and torrijas). This was, in many ways, a taste of what was to come: stumbling, falling, laughing about it, and getting up again.

While it was the direction I wanted to take after college, I felt utterly alone in Spain. I came without knowing anyone, with little Spanish and no idea what to expect in my job. The first few weeks were trying, and I was ready to up and go home. Meeting Kate and Christine, two guiris with whom I’m very close, changed everything (thankfully). When I read the following post, of how lonely and depressed I was, I cringe. What a difference a year (or five) makes. read: Sin Título.

Year Two

Believe it or not, my second year in Spain was tougher than the first. Yes, I spoke more Spanish and, yes, I had the abroad thing more or less figured out. But it was the year that the Novio started going to Somalia for long months with no phone contact, the year that I had serious doubts about a life in Spain and the year I almost went home forever…that was the intention, anyhow. Oh, and I got hit by a car, too.

But by far the worst was the fact that my ugly American was creeping in. I was discriminated against for jobs, told my Spanish was absolute kaka and got taken for tonta. Apart from my personal doubts, I was so sick of the sevillanía that had me feeling like an outcast. read: Hoy Me Quejo De.

Year Three

My third year in Spanilandia was by far the most fun – loads of great fun with close friends, traveling to Morocco and Prague and Budapest, finally coming to terms with my two years in Spain. I was determined it would be my last, but it was just the beginning. The Novio and I rekindled our romance not even 12 hours off the plane, and I decided he was worth staying in Spain for. As I tearfully said goodbye to my students at IES Heliche, I was faced with the problem of how to keep living in Spain legally.

I figured out a way to skirt around stupid government regulations in what has been my proudest moment to date. Getting a last-minute appointment o renew my NIE number and lying through my teeth, I could breathe easier knowing that the Spanish government would come knocking on my brother-in-law’s door if I ever got in trouble. Suckers! read: Breaking Rules and Breaking Down.

Year Four

My fourth year of Spain seemed to have everything turn around: I got a steady job, I moved in with the Novio and I had a great group of friends. I was no longer an auxiliar, traveling on the weekends and botelloning around the city. Just when I began to feel comfortable, I was faced with making loads of grownup decisions about a stable future in Spain (with a pleasant surprise!). read: What a Week.

Year Five

For six years, I’ve made a living teaching people my native tongue. After three school courses as a language and culture assistant with the government, I scrambled to find a job, register for a social security number, and then learn the politics of working at a private school. While the gig provided me with the financial support I needed and a steady job, I soon realized it wasn’t for me. After two years, I had to say goodbye to a job that I enjoyed, forcing me to realize that I was an adult and I would have to make tough decisions every once in a while.

I miss my kiddos all the time, but still get some contact hours at my academy while playing the admin role as the Director of Studies (no, I do not blog full-time). read: Saying Goodbye.

Year Six

Alright, I’m a hag and I admit it. Cautiously optimistic after a few years of disappointments and setbacks in Spain, sure, but my ornery abuelita card has come out recently as I start to get annoyed with Seville. Don’t get my wrong, it is the ciudad de mi alma, but as with any city, there are things that drive me absolutely insane.

If it weren’t for wearing a tight flamenco dress once a year and the cheap beer, I’d be out. As my dear sevilliamericana la Dolan says, ‘La sevillanía me mata y me da vida.’ read: Jaded Expat: Four Things I Dislike About Living in Seville.

My Spanish life is just that: life. I pay taxes and get unemployment benefits, I have car payments, I have a house to clean (dios do I miss my señora). I’m a young professional living for the weekend, traveling when I can, and taking the good with the bad. Since the beginning, I fought to have raíces here not because I’m afraid of failing, but because I feel like it’s where I am meant to be right now.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced while living abroad?  

The Do’s and Dont’s of the Feria de Abril of Seville

Recently, Shawn of Azahar Sevilla and the mastermind behind Seville Tapas tweeted that I have a reputation of being feriante, a lover of Seville’s famous festival, the Feria de Abril. We may have only met briefly, but mujer gets me. What’s not to love about a week dedicated to revelry, horses, wine and curve-hugging dresses?

Two weeks after sevillanos have dried their tears after another washed out Holy Week, a makeshift city of temporary tents is erected at the southwest end of the city. Known as the Real de la Feria, this pueblecito comes alive during six days of the year, from 9pm on the Monday two weeks after Resurrection Sunday to the following Sunday’s fireworks show.

The dizzying, vibrant week can be characterized by a whirl of polka dotted dresses, the jingle of horse bells and the sound of sevillanas, a type of flamenco music, and it’s one of Spain’s most well known festivals. But as a city deep-rooted in tradition, even the April Fair has its set of unofficial rules. I consider myself a fairly well-weathered feriante after five years of teaching class after late nights, of using my enchufe to my advantage and of lasting through six days of partying.

DO bring your wallet

One of the biggest pitfalls to Feria is that it falls two weeks after Holy Week (my perfect excuse for traveling during 10 days). Feria is a wallet drain.

First is the costly flamenco dress and everything that goes with it – the flower, shawl, earrings and shoes. I got my most recent dress during the July sale season for a mere 125€ and the accessories, called complementos, cost me another 60€. Styles change de feria en feria, so some wealthy women get a new dress each year!

My caseta membership costs Kike and I 150€ a year (we alternate who pays, this year me toca, while he’ll pay the cheaper gym membership), and then there’s the food, the drinks and the need to buy a new pair of shoes when I dance the others right into the trash. Tapas are not served in casetas, but rather raciones that can be 6 – 12€, while a jarra of rebujito can cost up to 10€! What’s more, hotels and taxis operate on a holiday price, so rates will be sky-high like during Holy Week. City buses have a 2€ day pass, and they’ll extend working hours – look for the “Especial Feria” bus.

To keep costs down, I usually eat lunch at home and walk to the fairgrounds and always ignore my dwindling bank account for the sake of un buen rato. Feria only comes once a year!

DON’T only see Feria by night

The fairgrounds open daily around 1p.m. and most casetas stay open until the wee hours, meaning the Feria de Abril is an exercise in stamina, and not just for your wallet. My first few years in Seville, I worked outside the city and therefore had to run home, change into my traje de gitana, eat and get to Calle Gitanillo de Triana. I’d alternate dancing sevillanas with sips of rebujito and riding the carnival attractions in Calle del Infierno, arriving home in the early morning hours and collapsing in my bed hoping to get a few hours of sleep.

I may have inadvertently taught my high schoolers the word “hangover” in English my second year in Olivares.

There are two different sides to the fair – during the day, horse carriages and riders crowd the streets, even parking their horse next to their caseta and drinking sherry by the glass atop the stallion. Music spills out of the tents at all hours, and kids roam the streets with plastic toys and cotton candy the size of their torsos. The ambience is festive and cultural.

As night falls, the carnival rides at the Calle del Infierno begin to light up, and the round paper lanterns, called farolillos, come on. While you’d be pressed to find a caseta that isn’t playing a rumba or sevillana, everyone switches from rebujito and beer to mixed drinks, and casetas are often open all night long. I’ve had mornings where I’ve ended the long day of partying with chocolate con churros!

I’m also partial to weekday visits. During Friday and Saturday, other villages in the area get a day off to enjoy the fair, which means that it’s difficult to walk and navigate around the streets, all named for bullfighters.

DO dress up

Feria is the pinnacle of pijo culture – women will don the traditional traje de gitana, a tight, ruffled dress that cost upwards of 500€. If you’re not keen on dressing like a wealthy gypsy, be sure to look nice. I went to the alumbrado, the lighting of the main gate and the official start to the festivities, wearing ratty jeans and sneakers, not fully aware of how the event worked. I’ve since wizened up and now make it a priority to have a few nice dresses on hand in case there’s a chance of rain or I can’t bear wearing my traje.

If you’re a chico, wear a suit and tie. Caseta etiquette is very important, and you’ll be expected to follow suit (literally!). If you’re planning on riding a horse, a traje corto, a short jacket and riding pants with a wide-brimmed hat called a cordobés. I’ve ridden in horse carriages, but never on the back of a jerezano stallion, kind of my dream!

DON’T forget the caseta etiquette

Casetas are the temporary tents that act as houses, kitchens, concert halls and lounges during the Feria. Since the private spaces come at a commodity (there’s even a waiting list for when a family or organization decides not to continue paying), a certain type of behavior is expected – you can’t be overly drunk, improperly dressed or smoking within the walls.

One year, a friend of a friend was visiting, and I took them to the Novio’s friend’s caseta. This girl, K, was not sipping the lethal rebujito, but instead treating it like a shot. She bumbled around like an idiot and starting making out with the Novio’s youngest brother, causing quite an escándolo and getting us banned from the caseta.

There’s also an unspoken rule that you can’t bring your twelve friends with you. The Novio’s best friend’s wife, Susana, often encourages me to invite some pals, but I try and keep it limited to two, maybe three. Even my own caseta has a one-buddy-per-socio rule!

DO set limits on consumption

If Feria is a marathon for your wallet and feet, it’s no stroll through the Real for your liver, either. The drink of choice is rebujito, a refreshing mix of half a litre of dry sherry and 7-Up, and it is potent. The sugary drink is usually served in enormous jars and drunk out of plastic shot glasses or sherry glasses between friends. Drinking water and curbing the intake often helps, as well as getting some fresh air every so often. During my first year, the only kind of connection I had was in Los Sanotes, and Kelly and I made sure to be there every day. Susana’s uncle finally reminded me that there was more to Feria than one caseta out of over 1000, and a break in the dancing and drinking will allow you to take in the ambience.

Be sure to eat during the day, too. I usually don’t want to stop dancing for a montadito or fried fish, but spacing out your drinks and punctuating them with some heavy food like carrillada or tortilla will help you last longer.

DON’T be pesada with your contacts, and try and make them early.

Feria is a time when enchufe, the age-old connections game that lives and thrives in Seville – nearly all of the casetas are private and protected by a doorman. I usually have to say the name of the person who I’m meeting or offer to drag that person back to the door after I’ve found them to prove that I’ve been invited. Phone lines collapse and batteries run dead, or someone is too drunk to get to their phone. Make your plans with friends ahead of time to avoid the letdown of arriving to the fairgrounds and having to wander around while you wait for an invitation.

I’ve have several invitations to casetas where I’m brought food and drink outside, though I’ve never actually psychically been inside of them. But that’s alright with me…as long as there’s rebujito and a plate of ham waiting, that is!

While I’m busy with pouring over relaciones institucionales or dancing my brains out on Calle Gitanillo de Triana, here are a few of the articles I’ve written in the past about la semana más bonita:

How to dress up a flamenco dress

A vivir! Que son dos días!

The Feria during the economic crisis

My first Feria experience 

Any other tips and tricks for enjoying the fair?

Andalusia: A Love Letter in Photos

The immortal Amigos de Gines sing, Andalucia es mi tierra, yo soy del sur. Andalusia is my home, I’m from the South. While I can’t claim to be a full-blood sevillana, I have certainly grown to love my adopted home. My skyscraper-dominated landscape at home now has just church spires and the Giralda piercing the sky, my all-beef hot dogs replaced by acorn-fed ham.

Tomorrow is Día de Andalucía, the day in which Andalusia was ratified as an autonomous state within the newly formed Spanish Republic just 33 years ago (fun fact: Andalusia is six months younger than the Novio!!). We get a day off of work, and many private places open their doors to the public, like the Town Hall or the Congressional Palace.

And why not celebrate? This is the land that has given us the Iberian Lynx and Jerez Stallions, given rise to Antonio Banderas and Paz Vega, cultivated olive oil and sherry. García Lorca wrote homages to his native land, Washington Irving made the Alhambra famous, and Velázquez and Picasso left Andalusia to become two of the most famous Spanish painters in history. Steeped in history and architecture, folklore and culture. Columbus set sail for La India from its very shores, and the last Muslim emperor was expelled from Granada, signalling the reconquest of Spain. Camarón put flamenco on the map from his chabola in San Fernando, while David Bisbal rocketed to fame with the pop hit, Bulería. It’s a place where a si, claro because a ahi, aro illo!

My visual homage to lovely Andalucía:

The landscapes and cityscapes

Seville

Granada

Santa Cruz, Sevilla

Estepa (Seville province)

The beach at Bolonia and ruins of Baelo Claudia

The pueblos blancos, or white villages

Tarifa (Cádiz)

Iglesia del Carmen, Zahora de los Atunes (Cádiz)

The food and drink (and la marcha!)

The folklore and culture

La Manera de Ser

Have you ever visited Andalusia? What do you like about this region? Can you believe I’ve actually never been to Jaén or Almería?

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