Five Things that Make Planning a Spanish-American Wedding a Logistical Nightmare

I’m going to admit it – my upcoming wedding is bringing out the worst in me. There’s the stress of planning from abroad, coupled with my body changing with the coming of the Second Puberty (otherwise known as turning 30), the bickering and tension with trying to keep both families happy and me in the middle, plus the logistics and the blind faith of letting other people decide details for someone who doesn’t know how to delegate.

Everyone said weddings are work, and I’m realizing that, yeah, that’s an understatement if I ever heard one!

Planning a Spanish American Wedding

I’m officially down to six months until the sí, quiero. When I chose a date and venue and bought a dress in late July of 2014, August 2015 seemed forever away. So I went about my merry Spanish life, eating jamón and indulging in siestas (kidding, not my real life, and the only difference post-pedido is one more thing in my agenda to do each day).

And then when my sister got engaged at Christmas and started eating a bit healthier, I felt like August was right around the corner, waiting to stick out its leg, trip me and laugh as I picked myself off the floor.

Can I just say that my wedding may kill me?

I keep reminding myself that no one will really remember what they ate (unless it’s terrible or exceptional) or what music the DJ played (unless it’s terrible or exceptional or I convince the Novio to dance sevillanas with me). The most important thing is that we’re there, we’re happy and we’re ready for what comes after the party.

But we’ve still got to get there.

Distance

By far the biggest challenge to the wedding madness is the distance – I’m living in Seville and planning a wedding in Chicago (6,731 kilometers away, in case you were wondering).

Weddings at Meson Sabika

I’m a control freak having to cope with letting someone else decide a lot of the details, though giving up said control means does I’m not obsessing over every detail. This has worked out nicely for my mother and her sweet tooth, as it’s them who will be deciding on our wedding cake, and my Travel Ninja dad is working on the logistics, transportation rentals and hotels for our out-of-town guests.

So, planning. Last summer, I spent hours pouring over wedding magazines, calling vendors and venues, and beginning to work out plans for the big day. I was never one of those girls who dreamed about getting married one day, so I was literally staring with zero ideas, except knowing who I was going to marry. On the way home from the airport in July 2014, we stopped at Jewel and Nancy bought my three wedding magazines. I fell asleep on top of them – THAT was how I felt at that point.

Slowly, plans came together, even if I did do a few things backwards, and when I left for Spain six weeks later, I’d hammered out the big plans, leaving my mom to do the flowers (I sent her a pinterest board with some ideas, and I hate myself for ever typing that) and address US-bound invitations, my dad the tuxedos, and my sister to supervise.

Planning for a wedding abroad

When I chose vendors, I immediately eliminated a few who rolled their eyes when I told them where I lived. Flexibility and email skills were important, as the time difference with Chicago would be killer. One such contact is proving to be less likely to answer me within two weeks (ahem, the church), and I will have to sometimes cancel plans to take a Skype call after work.

Thankfully, I have five weeks of summer vacation to smooth out all of the last-minute details, RSVPs and seating charts. My sister-in-law is in charge of wrangling the Spaniards up and getting them where they need to go on time. Hopefully the day will be enough of a blur that I can ignore the small problems and concentrate on remembering to breathe, eat and smile.

Last Name and Paperwork

Surprise! My last name is not pronounced “gaaaah” but “gay.” Imagine being the new kid in middle school and having your teachers ask you to repeat it time and time again in middle school so they’d get it right.

Yes, that happened, and I couldn’t wait to get married and change my name when I was younger. In fact, my mother told my father on their first blind date that she’s never marry him because of his surname. Thirty-some years on, I’m convinced that she got over that quickly.

mom and dad wedding

Aww, my parents on their wedding day in 1983

Nearly two decades later, who am I to scoff at sexist Bible readings for the ceremony and then go ahead and change my name? I’m not an ultra feminist, but have taken that argument to heart. It’s mine, so why should I have to give it up for tradition’s sake? Not like we’re a normal couple anyway.

In many Hispanic countries, everyone has two last names: first their father’s, and then their mother’s. So if your name is María de Dolores de la Cruz García, de la Cruz is your father’s first last name, García is your mother’s. Imagine trying to write all of that at the top of a standardized test.

I’d gotten so used to using my middle name to fill out paperwork that when signing up for things like bank accounts and supermarket discount cards, I’d put my middle name as my first last name. My name was wrong on my paycheck stub for an entire year, despite my pleas to change it, lest I lose years towards retirement.

The whole name change thing makes my head spin. Apart from changing my email nick, I’d have to change my US-issued passport, driver’s license, social security as a start. In Spain, it’s about the same, though the process is bound to be arduous.

Cat+EnriqueEngagement042

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

At the moment, I’ve decided to stick with Gaa and bring a whole new generation of guiri descendants to Spain. I do have to renew my NIE, passport and US license within eight months of another, so I could change my mind. Regardless, my middle name and the Novio’s surname begin with the same letter, and Catherine M Gaa could totally pass for both.

The Novio’s solution is simple: convert my surname back to its original Dutch form, lost and subsequently butchered when my ancestors immigrated to America: Van Gaal.

Priest and Traditions

When I first arrived to Chicago, my first order of business should have been contacting the church where I did my confirmation to check availability and book a date. I went ahead and scheduled appointments to see venues and find a wedding dress first because, priorities (and my sister was in town from Texas).

I was hesitant about whether or not to get married in a church – not because of religion, but because one usually be a part of the congregation. What saved me from questions was that I’d done a sacrament and that my dad is active at Saint Mike’s, and August 2015 was wide open.

orange and blue wedding flowers

As Catholics, we’re required to complete a pre-marriage course called a pre-cana. In the archdiocese that my church belongs to, this is a weekend-long event to the tune of $250, plus subsequent sessions and attendance at mass. But Father Dan gave us the go ahead to do the course in Spain since we live here and communicate in Spanish – in fact, he even offered to do the course over Skype with us! I assured him we’d find a course in Seville, and he told us we’d just need to present a certificate of completion and the Novio’s birth certificate.

Bonus: the curso preboda is free in Spain and less of a time commitment!

With that figured out, we could focus on the ceremony and reception. But first, a primer: while Spanish weddings and their American counterparts are largely the same, there are a few big differences, and they’re causing confusion to the Spaniards (and usually the ones who pleaded that I have a big, fat, Hollywood-style wedding).

If I have to repeat, “There are no rules to what you wear to American weddings” one more time, I may throw up. If someone asks me “por favor can you find a way to smuggle in jamón,” I will break down into tears. Attire and timetables are proving to be more meddlesome than I excepted.

Spanish women wear short dresses and fascinators at day weddings, and long dresses to night ceremonies, so imagine the confusion with the ceremony at 2:30pm and the reception at 5:30. I don’t care, so long as you don’t come in jeans. This is also appropriate:

Spain's Duchess of Alba Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva dances flamenco beside her husband Alfonso Diez at the entrance of Las Duenas Palace after their wedding in Seville

And when will the Spaniards eat?! I may be up the night before my wedding making ham bocadillos for them to chow on between the ceremony and reception, and because we’re getting kicked out at 11pm, we had to look for a place for an after party and serve more food to soak up the liquor from the open bar. Because of this, we’ll be buying our own alcohol based on estimates from the caterer, yet one more pre-wedding task (but one that means I’m not stuck drinking Michelob). Our menu is pretty American, but with a few Andalusian twists. Y punto. No 12-hour gorge fest. 

We’ve also opted for a wedding party, so I’m coordinating tuxedos with the three Spanish groomsmen living in three different cities. My American bridesmaids are all set to go and will even be sporting a few Spanish fashions, but not having the mother of the groom as the official witness did mean some feelings got hurt. The solution is letting her accompany the groom to the altar.

The matter of a registry was also a pain. In Spain, most couples receive money, either to a joint bank account before the wedding or in an envelope between dinner courses. While my family scoffed at the idea of giving us money, it’s what we prefer because we’ll be making our home in Spain and don’t want to cart gifts back on an airplane. In the end, we decided to do ZankYou, which is an online registry available in both languages, and where we can choose to buy the items or pocket the money. Our house has the basics, but we’d rather not jump the gun and buy something we don’t want.

The ceremony has yet to take shape. Unfortunately, Catholic tradition is pretty rigid, so we’re still unsure about how much wiggle room we’ll have. I’d have loved our exit song to be a heavy metal ballad played on strings, or something a bit more nosotros, but we picked our readings blindly and happened to agree on them. Also an easy decision? No mass!

Language

I learned Spanish for many reasons, and one of those was love. The Novio and I speak about 90% of the time in Spanish, with occasional English words mixed in, like, “Estoy muy sleepy.”

How, then, do you plan a ceremony, speeches and the like in two different languages? The reception has a decidedly Spanish theme, between azulejo tiles and oranges, but there was no way I’d make two sets of save-the-dates, two sets of programs and two sets of invitations.

Bilingual Save the Dates

Our wedding web is currently in two languages, and the save-the-dates play on easy Spanish words. My bridesmaids also got tiny packets of saffron with a cut-out Osborne bull that said, “Help me with the wedding BULLshit. Will you be my bridesmaid?”

But I’m still puzzled as to what to do for the church programs and have decided that menu cards are totally unnecessary – you choose your entrée people! The tricky part could be the reception cards that will need to come back.

In Spain, invitations are handed out in person just a few weeks before the big day, and everyone is served the same food. This means that all of the extra stuff – the reception card, the RSVP and the extra, self-addressed envelope – is useless and even confusing to a Spaniard. People considered our save-the-dates to be the actual invitation, as a matter of fact!

Bilingual Wedding Invitations

For this reason, we’ll be sticking a few extra pieces of paper into the envelopes going to Spaniards to explain that they have to return the reply card and to give them our bank information.

The ceremony will likely have one reading in English and one in Spanish, and we’re hoping to speak to a Spanish priest about the verses and refrains used here. I want to have a balance so that the Spaniards don’t feel left out during the service – because you know I’ll have tons of crappy Spanish pop songs and sevillanas at the reception! Speeches are not common at Spanish weddings, though we may ask a groomsmen to do one. We’ve also decided to splurge on a videographer so that family and friends who aren’t able to make the trip can share in our big day.

I’m almost relieved that the church won’t allows us to make up our own vows, because that would open a whole new can of worms. I know my family would like me to do the votos in English, and the Novio’s family in Spanish. My goal? To fill in the language gap with laughter and love. Oh dios was that cheesy.

Timeframe 

For me, there was no argument about when to get married – I’d need to work around my work schedule, even though I am entitled by law to 15 days off. Looking at a calendar, we had four Saturdays: July 25th, August 1st, August 8th or August 15th. The 15th was off the table – it’s my 30th birthday.

I had a few things to consider: When could he come? When would be convenient for the Spaniards with their holiday time? What about fares from Madrid to Chicago? And, considering how much I’d have to do before the wedding, which date would give me the most time to prepare before the big day?

Cat+EnriqueEngagement065

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

We chose August 8th, as all of the pieces just seemed to line up, both with holiday time and vendor availability. This, of course, caused uproar because of pricey flights from Europe. The Novio gave me good advice: those who want to come will make the effort. Those who don’t – that’s one less person to coordinate. I rejoice that my partner is so pragmatic, particularly when I get carried away.

I also headed home over the holidays to meet with a florist, have my dress fitted and do a hair and makeup trial, and I’ll be jetting back for a month before the wedding to take care of the last details, including having a shower of sorts and a bachelorette party (bonus! I get one in Spain, too!). July and August have been insane months for the last three years, and 2015 will keep pace.

We’re opting not to take a honeymoon just yet because of other expenses (clearly not my choice!). Japan and Cuba are the top choices, and hopefully a minimoon just before returning to Spain to begin married life.

The Countdown

While many people enjoy the planning process of a wedding, I don’t feel like I’m much a part of the whole thing. The Novio’s been out of town on business for four of the last six months, and I’m not stuffing envelopes with my bridesmaids. The light at the end of the tunnel is being husband and wife and able to share our love and future with our más queridos. So for every headache, there is something to look forward to in the future.

Cat+EnriqueEngagement078

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

People have asked me if I’m nervous to get married or to stay in Spain for life. The Novio and I have been pretty serious since we first met, so the answer is no. We also did the very Spanish thing of dating for a bajillion years before getting engaged, so his feeling on the matter is, “I’ve learned to live with your caprichitos, and I’m old enough to know what I want and who I want.”

So glad we’re sticking to traditional vows! 

12 Grapes, 12 Months and 12 things I’m going to start doing in 2015

At 5:04, I realized the champagne hadn’t been poured and the grapes hadn’t been sectioned off into groups of  a dozen yet. We’d missed Spain’s ringing in of the new year, and just like 2014 passed in a flash, amidst a flurry of giggles and general catching up, I’d failed to take notice of how fast the time was creeping along. I popped the grapes in my mouth, washing it down with a swig of champagne as my friends watched, half amused and half horrified. What can I say? I’m superstitious, and I want this year to count.

2015 has always been in the back of my mind as the year I would turn 30, and it’s already here. As my wise (and sassy) great aunt Mary Jane says, Years are like toilet paper rolls. The further along you are, the faster things run out.

2015 new year's resolutions

I’m one to reflect, and I seriously love making resolutions. Setting goals has always helped me stay on track and continue to better certain aspects of my life. My biggest goals after college were to move abroad, become fluent in Spanish and travel to 25 countries, and then eventually get a master’s degree. So what now, considering I’ve got that all ticked off my list?

This year, as I mark two big milestones, I want to make it all about me. 

In 2015 

1. I’m going to make more time for me and for more important things than working all the time.

I’ll get it out in the open right away: I’m going to be shuffling priorities this year, and maintaining Sunshine and Siestas may fall a bit lower on my list. This blog is important to me, but it’s taking up time that could be used on other things I need to get done.

Holy Cows in India

I’ll be updating once a week, minimum, but considering I have two other websites to keep at, I’ll likely be writing longer form articles and working on my Typical NonSpanish project with Caser Expat.

I’ll still be active on social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram, so head there if you’re dying to know what I’m eating, mostly.

2. I’m going to make a conscious effort to write offline

All that time not spent sitting behind a computer might actually get me up on my awesome terrace so that I can jot down personal things in my life.

Who are you? Street art in Seville, Spain

I even bought a new notebook, and this list was the first thing in it. Toma, goals.

3. I’m going to drink less beer and more water.

I don’t love this reolustion, but if my altitude sickness and gut can attest to this last trip to the US, I’d be healthier and a bit slimmer if I didn’t love beer so darn much. I had to make a choice, though: deprive myself from delicious food, or  to lay off the Cruzcampo. 

buza bar beer

But I do love drinking beer on the water…

This may mean behaving during the week, swapping the beer for a glass of tinto or even just having a sin every once in a while, but my wedding will be full of craft beer, and I will gladly drink up.

4. I’m going to be better about staying in touch.

I may suffer from a mild form of reverse culture shock when I land at O’Hare once or twice a year, I am fortunate to have a beautiful group of friends back home with whom I’m still close. You know, the sort that you don’t see for to years (or even six, in Val’s case this Christmas) but never run out of topics to talk about, or college mishaps to laugh over.

All of my friends

But even with Facebook and whatsapp and a million other ways to stay in touch, I don’t make enough time for Skype and emails. I’m looking forward to my wedding as a time to have my más queridos in one place, but that’s one day when I’ll see them for a split second. And with everyone getting older, making plans and moving way (that’s the pot calling the kettle black if I ever heard it), there’s no time like now.

5. and 6. I’m going to learn something new, one of those being to learn to cook.

I’ve said I’m going to learn to cook for ages, but recently I’ve actually enjoyed making new dishes and reinventing old ones. Plus, it’s cheaper than eating out all the time.

cooking at a cooking day in malaga

I’d also like to learn a new skill, like lightroom or CSS for the benefit of this blog, or relearn how to sew. For real, 30 is making me feel like I need a lot more skills than I have. Napping is not a skill, as much as I try to make it happen.

7.  I’m going to take better care of my skin, cuticles and nails.

I am about as low maintenance as they come, and my skin and hands have suffered because of it. I have ugly nails, ugly hands and skin that should be taken better care of. This means taking off my makeup every night and getting more regular hair trims, but so be it!

8. I’m going to read more books.

Reading is one of my great passions, but TV binge watching while moving and unpacking got the better of me this year. When I did my master’s, I was still able to polish off 25 or 30 books, so I’ll be pushing for 20 this year. I’m nearly done with my first: Yo, Cayetana, an autobiography of the Duquesa de Alba and in Spanish. That counts for two, right?

vintage books El Jueves Market Sevilla

Thankfully, my sister is an English teacher and sends countless recommendations, and my e-reader comes with my to the gym, but no more TV before bed. Besides, it may be killing us.

9. I’m going to make travel more meaningful.

When I first came to Spain in 2007, I drained my bank account running around to European capitals on cramped budget airlines, staying in accommodation that was questionable and eating countless kabobs in the street, all in the name of passport stamps and ticking things off the list. Travel was fun, but it wasn’t meaningful.

India changed that.

The Colors of India - Taj Mahal

From now on, I want my money to be better spent on travel. I want experiences, not countries. Food and not tourist sites. I want to hit the streets of a new place or visit family. I’ve just been invited to Romania on a blog trip, and I can’t wait to explore the country more over Semana Santa.

10. I’m going to save money. 

A year ago, 100% of my salary was for me to enjoy, be it on weekends trips, tapas out with friends or even a taxi. Since buying a house, I’ve had to take a serious look at the money I make and how much I spend.

The last few months of 2014 were hard – I haven’t lived paycheck to paycheck for a few years – and the start of the mortgage coincided with the two months of the year I don’t get paid. Then there were the new break pads, a visiting friend, furniture to purchase. Needless to say, the money I’d worked to save last year while still treating myself is long gone, and I remember it every time I sit on our new (amazing) couch. 

European Euros money

I’m making a pledge to put away a minimum of 150€ a month, going as far as to map out my weird expenses, like insurance or the odd plane ticket. I may even get a retirement account!

11. I’m going to remember to go with my gut.

When I visited Jaipur in 2014, Ali took us to see his guru. Skeptical from the moment he mentioned it, we weren’t surprised to see that this guru also had a jewelry shop, and that he wanted us to buy. But when we went into a back office and he began to make shockingly accurate claims about our families, I decided to listen.

sunsets at monkey temple jaipur

The man told me I had a white aura, meaning my crown chakra. At that point in my life, I felt happy and satisfied with everything – my relationships, my job, and the life I’d created. The crown chakra is connected with positivity, inspiration and trust. With the big changes in my life (and the stress of planning a wedding abroad), I’m remembering to trust my instincts, make a decision and stop second guessing myself.

12. I’m going to remember that it’s ok to say no.

I had the opportunity to meet Geada Ford, a brand consultant who has worked with Martha Stuart, and have her over to my house in October. She gave me advice that I wish someone had given me when I was far younger: it’s OK to say no. As someone who likes pleasing people and being able to help when I’m asked, saying no is hard.

But it’s time to say no to people who won’t make me happy, plans that I don’t feel like making, sponsorships that don’t fit into my niche. 

playa de las catedrales galicia beach

Rather than using ‘stop’ or ‘will,’ I wanted to hold myself accountable and start the year on a positive note, despite a few small hiccups. I’m going to make my time count, my health important and my relationships worth leaving the computer for.

What are you resolutions and propósitos for 2015? I’m interested in hearing!

The Anatomy of a Cesta de Navidad

When my very first cesta de navidad arrived, wrapped up in cellophane and emblazoned with Corte Inglés publicity, I excitedly ripped open the top of the box and dug out the contents of the box.

I was literally a kid on Christmas morning, just three weeks early.

Many companies and organizations give pre-packaged Christmas baskets to their employees during the holiday. They’re also raffled off at bars and hermandades for a few euros, but they all have two things in common: edibles and booze.

cestas de navidad el corte ingles

In my first cesta, I received four bottles of wine, one of whiskey and one of anisette, plus enough cured meat to tide me over until Easter. Baskets also include typical Christmas sweets, cheeses, conservas like bonito or white asparagus and an interesting brick of something called a “Christmas Broth.” Contents are neatly packed up and shipped out to the tune of anywhere from around 20€ and up to 300€! 

While my Christmas shopping usually consists of plane tickets to spend the holidays somewhere with my parents, this year I’ll be flying home for wedding planning. Rather than scramble for gifts amidst other scrambled shoppers, I decided to make a twist on the traditional Christmas basket by bringing my favorite and American-palatte-approved goodies home in ceramics.

What is in a Spanish gift basket

Because, really, what do you get the woman who has it all (as far as Spanish souvenirs go) and is picky? 

My American-Tastes-and-Customs-Friendly-While-Still-Being-Andalusian Cesta de Navidad:

1 50g sachet of saffron – 5€

Cesta de navidad saffron

The same amount of azafrán in the US costs $16, so I was thrilled to find it wrapped up nicely!

1 220g package of Andalusian oranges covered with chocolate and olive oil – 5€

cesta de navidad chocolate covered oranges

Everyone in my family but me are chocoholics, and these oranges are representative of Seville, with the olive oil giving it an appropriate amount of acidity.

1 300g orange marmalade spread – 4,50€

cesta de navidad orange marmelade

Naranjos abound in Seville, and the oranges collected from them are made into bitter orange marmalade. Nuns at the Santa Paula monastery make this particular type, and peddle it out of their turnstiles.

1 250mL tin of Basilippo Arbequina extra virgin olive oil – 8€

cesta de navidad Andalusian olive oil

Basilippo is an award-winning brand of extra virgin olive oil planted, harvested and pressed in nearby El Viso del Alcor.  The arbequina olive it’s made from is known for its suave and balanced taste.

1 package of Ines Rosales Tortas de Aceite with cinnamon and sugar – 2,50€

cesta de navidad Ines Rosales cakes

Tortas de Aceite have been around for ages, and Ines Rosales is an international superstar when it comes to producing them just outside of Seville. Other varieties include savory with rosemary and sea salt, or made with oranges.

Assorted lard-free polverones – 2€

mantecados de estepa

I’m not a fan of these crumbly cookies, which are ubiquitous with Christmas in Spain. The most common version are made from manteca, or pig’s lard, which is a no-no with customs in the US. I found some piggy-free varieties at Ines Rosales.

6 Cola Cao individual packages – 1,43€

cesta de navidad Cola Cao

The bright yellow plastic canisters are a Spanish kitchen staple, and I love the powdery goodness of Cola Cao every Sunday with my churros. Rather than buying the canister, you can get individual packets just like at a bar.

1 package of Suchard turrón with whole almonds – 2,94€

cesta de navidad suchard

Spanish Christmas sweets let me down, but chocolate turrón is practically a gigantic candy bar. The normal stuff is nougat, made only with sugar, egg whites and honey.   

3 individual bottles of Frexienet cava – 3,99€

cesta de navidad champagne

These small bottles of cava are festive and perfect for toasting the new year at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And they’re easy to carry and open!

3 individual tetra bricks of Don Simón red wine – 1,35€

cesta de navidad don simon

I’m the only wine drinker in my family, so these miniature tetras are for novelty more than anything! Plus, customs is getting stricter on how much alcohol you can bring back, and it must be claimed on your customs form.

1 jar of pimientos de piquillo – 1€

cesta de navidad pimientos de piquillo

For whatever reason, I thought that pimientos de piquillo would make a good gift for a dad who loves to experiment with recipes. If all else fails, I don’t think they’ll go bad any time soon!

San Vicente semi-cured cheese – 3,65€

Cesta de navidad hard cheese

Meats are a big no with customs, but hard and semi-hard cheeses are totally fine. My sister loves any sort of stinky cheeses, and this is one gift I’m glad to get in on!

2 bottles of Taïfa beer – 4,40€

cesta de navidad local beer

My family members are big beer drinkers, so I picked up some local Taïfa cervezas from the Mercado de Triana. 

And to put it all together, 1 ceramic bowl – 12€

cesta de navidad ceramics

All that extra weight cost me 50.05€ for each cesta. 

I added little touches of things I’d known would be hits, such as black-and-white old photos of Seville for my parents, a tub of Nutella for my sister (not Spanish, but what everyone equates with European snack food) and a Spanish heavy metal CD for my brother-in-law.

Noticeably absent are the meats, the fish and the olives, but why transport things home that could get me in trouble with customs, or go uneaten?

Are you decking the halls, or are you more of a Scrooge? More on Christmas in Spain: Spanish Christmas Sweets | My Favorite Spanish Christmas TraditionsSnapshots of the Reyes Magos

Thirteen Weird Spanish Superstitions

In planning a Spanish-American wedding in America, I’m having to juggle between two cultures, two languages – and a whole set of weird traditions and superstitions. Upon finally activating my online registry, my soon-to-be mother-in-law was horrified to see cutlery knives.

“Is that not a bad sign in the United States?” she asked, genuinely concerned that I’d be dooming our marriage before we’d even decided on entrees. Who knew that getting knives for a gift spells D-I-V-O-R-C-I-O in Spanish culture?

Moving to a new country often means tiptoeing when it comes to avoiding cultural blunders. Many of Spain’s odd superstitious are deep-rooted in tradition and the Catholic religion, and while some are laughable, as someone who grew up borderline obsessive compulsive, I find myself playing into their Spanish equivalents quite often.

El Gordo

There is a love of the game in Spain, and not just fútbolonline betting games, slot machines in bars and the national lottery system are all thriving in the midst of the financial crisis, and it’s not uncommon to see people lining up for big draws.

Spain’s biggest draw happens just before Christmas, known as El Gordo, or The Big One. People tune into the drawing on December 22nd to hear the children of Colegio San Ildefonso sing out the numbers, and many of the ticket holders religiously ask for the same numbers or only buy from places where other large prizes have been bought.

Apparently ‘lightning doesn’t strike twice’ is a concept lost on the Spaniards.

Witches, La Santa Compaña and La Güestia 

My suegra is from Asturias, a province in the north of Spain with a strong belief in superstitions and the supernatural (hence the horror of practically severing my marital bond before it started!). 

source

Fernando told us about La Santa Compaña before we left Baamonde’s pilgrim lodge one night. On dark, rainy nights in Galicia, these witches often offer candles to help light the way, converting you into a soul doomed to wander the Galician countryside for all eternity (there are worse things – it’s beautiful!). 

Similarly, La Güestia line up and travel from hamlet to hamlet in the sparsely populated countryside of Asturias, snatching up the souls of the dying.

And then there are the witches, dwarves and forest animals who play evil tricks on people, popular in local lore in the foggy, dream-like parts of northern Spain. In fact, many superstitions come from trying to avoid them!

Saintly Behavior

Per Catholic tradition, saints are revered. When I called a church about a premarital course, the priest asked our professions so that he might pray for us. Each saint is the patron of something – an affliction, an animal, a profession – and saint days are celebrated. 

Let’s just say I usually pray to the Virgin of Loretto when I hop on a RyanAir flight.

Bad Sweep Job

Not only should you avoid bringing a used broom into a new house (oops), but sweeping over someone’s feet will mean that that person will never marry. Good thing I’m the one who sweeps in the house most often!

A Place to Leave Your Hat

Just like in Italy, leaving your hat on top of a bed signifies that something bad will happen. Most often, this is related to losing one’s memory.

Un brindís!

Perhaps my favorite superstition is the belief that people, when toasting, must look one another in the eye. I can’t wait for the creepiness at my wedding when I get to stare down my family and friends!

What Not to Give a Baby

Babies should never be gifted anything in the color yellow, as it’s believed to bring the evil eye. There goes my nursery neutrality plan…

Salty

My mother always taught me that the salt and pepper must never be divorced (really, am I just cursing myself for fun now?!), making sure I passed them together to another diner’s hand. In Spain, the salt must never be passed or spilled, as this brings bad luck.

Tuesday the 13th

The film Friday the 13th probably didn’t gain much traction in Spain, as if the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday, a Spaniard isn’t bothered by it. Instead, Tuesday the 13th brings the mala suerte, as the word for Tuesday, martes, is related to the God of war.

As for the knives? Apparently taping a penny to the blade wards off divorce lawyers. Still, I’d rather not risk it!

Do you know any Spanish superstitions?

How Greek Life Made Me a Better Expat

I am a member of Alpha Delta Pi and came home to ADPi more than ten years ago to the Alpha Beta Chapter at the University of Iowa (my chapter turns 100 next January!). As trite as it may sound, Greek life made my college experience for more rounded, fun and significant – and it’s helped me to adapt to expat life in many ways.

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My dad, former president of local fraternity Sigma Nu Chi at St. Norbert’s College, encouraged me to rush. Indeed, all of his cousins joined him at ENX, as well as his middle brother. Joining a sorority could make a big school seem more manageable, he claimed. Is Greek Life right for me? was never a question that crossed my mind – the social, leadership-craving me wanted it.

Choosing to go to college with several of my high school classmates could have been a big disaster, but as several of my WWS classmates and I sat on Beth’s futon after our first day of recruitment, I had already narrowed down by choices to three houses. As the week went on, my choice was clear: I wanted to go ADPi. I pledged in 2003 after recruitment week.

I have wonderful memories of playing tricks on one another in the Pi house, of coordinated dance routines for Greek Week and Homecoming (please, I got to play Peg in a Napolean Dynamite routine), of volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City. Several of my sisters have come to visit me in Spain, and thanks to social media, I still feel involved in their lives.

And it was my sister Aly who encouraged me to study abroad! On my first day of university classes, she called me from across a lecture hall in Spanish class, and we became instant friends, both studying abroad in Valladolid.

While speaking about Greek Life to Spaniards, it’s a hard concept to fully explain. It’s like subtracting the religious part of an hermandad and adding kalimotxo to some degree, but it’s so uniquely North American that most shrug it off as another thing we Americans do, like tractor pulls and fireworks on the 4th.

But despite all of that, Alpha Delta Pi has been a significant part of my life as I served many positions – including Membership Education Vice President on the Executive Board – and sought out the advice and shoulders of my sisters. 

As I prepared to enter the real world, I knew that Europe was my path, and that my leadership training with ADPi had given me a solid kick in the pants when it led to starting a life abroad.

Conversation Skills

My birthday always fell during recruitment week, which was as awesome (100+ singing you happy birthday all at once) as it was not. For hours, we’d spend time getting to know women interested in Greek life, telling them about our sisterhood and finding ways to connect with total strangers. Through those countless informal chats, I’ve found that having well-honed conversation skills is a must for any professional today.

Now that I live in a different country and often travel by myself, I have a constant turnover of friends and acquaintances. Aspiring expats and new arrivals reach out to me through my blog, and I’m often out meeting someone for a coffee or caña. The one thing we have in common is usually Spain, so I read up on what’s happening in my adopted city and country and always have a story on hand to ease into those awkward first moments. Just as transitions into conversations during recruitment can be unnerving, so can meeting people.

It was then that I also realized how much first impressions count, and that intuition can go far. Sure, there’s the aspect of recruitment which means telling a woman she’s not right for your group of friends (in the most stripped-down sense of recruitment, that is), but following your gut is really what it’s all about. And the same goes for choosing a sorority to call home.

Moving abroad to teach in a program like the auxiliares de conversación is a lot like going away to college – there are other people just like you who are uncertain, homesick and looking to make friends. Just as you’d leave your dorm room door open, life as an expat means leaving a figurative puerta open to tapas, drinks and weekend trips.

In those blurred first weeks in Spain, I felt I really didn’t connect with a lot of people. Most of them had studied abroad together, so I was the one left feeling like the transfer student who didn’t understand the local lingo. It wasn’t until I had an easy conversation with two other American girls that I got that gut feeling that I had found new friends.

My intuition served right – Kate, who lived around the corner from my aunt in another Chicago suburbs just as she lived around the corner from me in Triana, introduced me to the Novio a few weeks later.

Social Responsibility and Philanthropy

On the third day of recruitment, we learned about ADPi’s national philanthropy, the Ronald McDonald House. As someone who volunteered throughout high school, I knew that I wanted service to be a big part of my college years. Apart from weekly volunteering, fundraising and participating in other philanthropic events at other chapters.

One of the best ways I volunteered my time in college was by joining Dance Marathon, a student-run philanthropy that raises money for the Children’s Hospital of Iowa. A good number of hours went weekly into fundraising efforts, into visiting kids at RMH or the hospital and into the logistics of running an event with more than 1,000 people. Along with Alpha Delta Pi, it was one of the better decisions I made in college, and something I was happy to make time for.

Now that I’m abroad, I found it impossible to not work with kids, and not just because that’s the easiest profession to get into in Iberia. I never thought I’d say it, but teaching is a perfect fit more my personality. What’s more, social responsibility is ever-present in my mind. I work to teach values to my young students, from recycling to manners to animal care. I encourage my older students to volunteer or spend time with their grandparents when they could be whatsapping.

It was also for a one of my Dance Marathon kids that I chose to walk the Camino de Santiago. I completed 200 miles on the Northern Route in memory of Kelsey, spreading the word about pediatric cancer care in the US and handing out purple and orange ribbons – the colors of leukemia and sarcoma awareness. I even raised $500 that was earmarked directly to an organization I care deeply about. In fact, many families I came into contact with through Dance Marathon used the nearby Ronald McDonald House while their child was undergoing treatment. It was like everything came full circle.

Now back in Spain for the school year, I hope to find more volunteer opportunities.

(if you’re interested in learning more or even donating to the University of Iowa Dance Marathon, please click here)

The Importance of Taking Care of Your Friends

ADPi’s motto sums it all up: We Live For Each Other.

Living under one roof with so many friends certainly bred strong friendships, and my sisters were there for me when I needed it the most. Most notably, when my maternal grandfather died during finals week, a few of my closest in the house took me for a midday Dairy Queen and kept me company while I sobbed through “Elf” when they should have been studying. I had people to advise me on everything from classes to take to job searching tips just a few feet away. My best memories of Iowa City were usually with “the girls from my house.”

The longer I live abroad, and now that I’ve made a decision to buy a house and make Spain my permanent home, the more I realize how important my friends are to me. With my family so far away, I lean on the Novio’s family and my group of guiri girlfriends to gripe to, to share Thanksgiving with.

Alpha Delta Pi taught me the value of friendship, the kind that goes further than hanging out for a coffee or a bite. With my Spain girlfriends, we’ve endured engagements and break ups, promotions and being laid off, the struggle to decide if we’re doing the right thing or if we’re with the right person. I know I could call up my closest friends in Seville if I ever needed something, even if they don’t live down the hall in the Pi house. Making time for them means sometimes having to shut out other guiris, but cultivating those friendships is far more important.

I joined a sorority for, above all else, the camaraderie, and perhaps that’s what I most got out of my four years in college.

I always knew it, but it became more real when I took the Novio to my chapter house and recounted the stories of pranks, of late nights studying or talking and showed him our composites and where I used to sleep in Third Quad. Many aspects of my life had been shaped through my Greek experience at Iowa through more than just socials, date parties and philanthropies.

Somehow, I ended up in Spain, far away from my sisters and their growing families, but I felt just as close to them as I did when we were all in school.

Were you Greek? How has that experience impacted your life? If you weren’t, was there any significant aspect of your college years that shaped you?

Five Weird Things You’ll Find in Your Spanish Apartment

Everything came full circle on my first day back in Spain after a summer in the states – the Novio asked me to pick up a few housewares and suggested I head to the cheap bazaar shop two blocks away. My jet-lagged body was on auto pilot as I walked in, found the corner dedicated to tupperware and kitchen utensils, and picked out a few necessities.

It hit me: this was the same place I bought my household necessities when I first moved into a shared flat in Triana seven years ago. And now, with a big kid paycheck and an entire house to fill, I was back at the same chino to buy dishes and tools.

As we settle into our newly purchased chalet in Barrio León, we’re slowly learning the quirks of the so-called ‘Alcázar.’ Our outside lights don’t work, the oven takes an hour to heat for a morning tostada and the lock on the heavy iron door to our parking spaces split a key in two. But it’s ours! Part of the fun (or agony) of looking for a place to live in Spain is the differences between homes in the US and homes here. 

It goes far, far beyond the house versus apartment debate.

Bombonas

Melissa was clear about setting down the rules: she would shower every evening at 8pm once she was done with her classes, so no one could use the hot water from 6pm. When I inquired why (first world problems, indeed), she opened a cabinet in the kitchen to reveal a bright orange tank  – of propane.

In order to heat water, the bombona uses pressure and a small flame, which flows into the pipes in your sink, shower and washing machine. When the tank runs dry, no hot water: you’ll have to call up Repsol and wait for them to deliver a new one, or just wait until siesta time, when the truck will inevitably drive by and clank all of the fuel tanks together to wake you up.

I ended up joining a gym nearby just to have unlimited hot water.   Flash forward to 2014 and there’s an electric hot water tank in my house that holds enough water for a family of four!

Lights on the Outside of the Room

How many times have you fumbled around in the dark to find a light switch?

Surprise! Spanish living spaces tend to have the light switches outside of the room they correspond to. This isn’t always the case, but you may have to reach around the doorframe to illuminate the kitchen after a night out. That, or use the fridge to guide you.

The lights above correspond not to the hall or study, but to my bedroom. When I’m just waking up in the morning, I’m thankful it’s already daylight.

Persianas

I never leave home without a pair of sunglasses because the Andalusian sun is far too bright. Your house has an answer to that, though, as one of the greatest inventions known to man – persianas. These industrial strength blinds are awesome for cutting out light and noise when you’re taking a midday snooze or wanting to sleep in late, but they also mean zero air flow. Fine when it’s cold, but not fine when you’re on the fourth floor and it’s summertime.

Now that I’m living in a house and not a flat, curious neighbors are always peering into our living room, so we often have the persianas down and the lights on. I’m still bumping into walls as I search for the lights.

Braseros

Believe it or not, it gets cold in Spain – even in the south. While houses in the north are more prone to have central heating and thick carpets, Andalusian houses have thick walls, tile floors and often a noticeable lack of central heating and/or air.

Take it from a Chicagoan: you do not know cold until you have lived a damp Andalusian winter.

Spaniards cope with homes that are colder than the temps on the street by installing something called a brasero. Simply put, a space heater is put under a table, and a thick blanket is draped over the table to trap in the heat. People gather around the brasero and try to cover as much of their bodies with the blanket (extra points if it’s velvet). Ingenious? Maybe. Dangerous? Definitely.

Jesus Tiles

There is nothing more Spanish than bad decor. It was hard for me to imagine living in my new house while the former tenants’ things were still there – heavy wooden furniture, mismatched fabrics and enormous portraits of the Virgin Mother above every bed.

It’s not uncommon to see a flat that has hand-painted tiles depicting Jesus Christ crowned with thorns or a weeping virgin (or, if you’re that lucky, the timeless Spanish rose known as Cayetana de Alba). Each city and town have their own patron saints, which grace buildings, benches and even bars. Sevillano favorites? The Virgen of the Macarena, Jesus of the Great Power and the Queen of the Swamps, Our Lady of Rocío.

The Novio and I have one new tile, a housewarming gift courtesy of my younger sister: 

If you’re lucky, your digs will have modern furniture, an oven and a dryer – and you will have essentially won the Spanish housing lottery. Snatch that place up if the price is right! You also won’t get mosquito screens or air conditioning, so start training your body to cope with bugs and heat rash.

Our second year on Calle Numancia, we were able to give the place a good coat of paint, though the mint green in my room clashed with the heavy, dark wooden furniture. But somehow, it felt a little more like my own place in the city. Now that my name is on the deed, I have come to miss those days when I paid rent and utilities, and left the rest to Manolo, my landlord.

Are you stressing out over the apartment search? Fumbling through online ads and not understanding the lingo? COMO Consulting’s guide to Moving to Spain has an extensive chapter on finding flats, from deciphering online ads to what questions to ask your landlord, plus two pages of relevant vocabulary. And that’s just one of nine chapters! Click on the button above or here to learn more about Moving to Spain: A Comprehensive Guide to Your First Weeks on the Iberian Peninsula.

More links: Where to Live in Seville // How to Survive Spanish Convivencia

How are you going about searching for an apartment? Have you found anything strange or kooky?

 

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