My American Crush on Memphis (Or, How I Realized Just How American I Am)

Our rented Kia Soul’s direction was mainly southwest down I-55 to Saint Louis before we dipped slightly further south and nudged a bit east into the Deep South. As a Yankee and expat overseas, my forays into American life had been limited to power points about Thanksgiving and begging sports bars to show American football.

It wasn’t until Memphis – 570 miles and eight hours southwest of my hometown – that the meaning of being an American abroad hit me by seeing my country from the outside in for once. And it took a Spaniard abroad to point that out.

downtown memphis streets

Lucía was cooking puchero in her olla exprés when we arrived to her condo on Mud Island. Out her kitchen window sat downtown Memphis and the ghastly pyramid. And out her living room window, the Mississippi thundered by, eventually dumping out into the Gulf of Mexico. Her 18-month-old daughter played nearby with a series of books in both Spanish and English.

“Just have to wait until this is done, and we can head out,” she said, handing the Novio and I a bottle of American beer. “Oh! And I took tomorrow off of work to be your guide.”

Lucía and I have known each other since I moved to Spain. Staunchly andaluza with a world view – she’s worked in half a dozen countries as a medic and EMT – she and I have always had a lot in common. And she and the Novio have been friends for well over a decade. As we planned a road trip down to New Orleans, a stop in Bluff City was a non-negotiable pit stop, even if it meant one night fewer in NOLA.

South Main District Memphis

Memphis has been a always been a thread weaved into my formative years, I’ve realized six months later. My father spent most of his working life at Federal Express, whose headquarters is in Memphis. I grew up on Elvis and rock n’ roll. My elementary school was called Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. Ask me what foods I miss most from the US, and pulled pork with baked beans push into the top five.

While reluctant to spend two nights in Memphis, I welcomed the opportunity to see Lu, cross into a new state and stuff myself, post-wedding, on BBQ. Armed with a list of my dad’s list of musts – the Peabody Ducks, blues joints and ribs – we pulled up to the condo as dusk was falling behind us in Arkansas, snaking through a construction-riddled downtown 3rd Street.

Lucía and her husband may be doctors, but they’re also history buffs, rooted in Memphian and American life with one foot firmly planted in the Spanish camp. Sounds familiar. We five piled in the car for a quick trip around Mud Island, where the city’s elite (and my other Noviom Justin Timberlake) live relatively crime-free in what is considered one of America’s most dangerous cities.

Memphis TN and the Mississippi

Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, the Rock River – one of the Mississippi’s tributaries – seemed to separate upper middle class from the lower class as the Mississippi did in Memphis. Downtown gleamed in the twilight against a ruddy river. I brought up the Civil Rights Movement and my afternoon trip to the National Civil Rights Museum museum, housed in the motel where MLK was shot. As I stood in the very room where he died, my mind racing back to my formative years, learning about tolerance and equal rights. The museum was among the best I’ve seen.

It’s a touchy subject, but I wanted an outside perspective on the Black Lives Matter and the race riots. Memphis’s population is predominately black and the city is considered the poorest metropolitan area in the United States. Lucía and Isra looked at each other and she said to wait until the following day, when she’d be our private tour guide through not just downtown Memphis, but the last century or so of its history.

Memphis South Main

The following morning, I woke up to the smell of Spanish coffee. Lu sped us through our morning routine, promising a muggy, hazy August morning outside. We walked south on Mud Island, the toddler holding my hand as I struggled to wade through the heat. Mosquitos buzzed all around my head – here’s the wet, hot American summer I’d been missing.

Mud Island houses an outdoor museum featuring a small-scale Mississippi River at a 2112:1 scale. From the watershed walls that feature my home state to several of the places we stopped in as we traveled south along a portion of the Mighty Mississippi’s 954 miles, I explained how Old Man River (and rivers in general) had been a feature in my entire life – like reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer hald a dozen times or using the crossing on the I-80 as a marker on my trips to and from Iowa City during college. What brought commerce to Tennessee made it the center of the world for package distribution decades later.

We were promptly chased out at 9:50am, told the River Walk didn’t open until 10.

Our next stop was St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, where both Lucía and Isra work. Having done fundraisers for the hospital as a child and volunteered with families experiencing pediatric cancer throughout college, I couldn’t believe I was finally standing in the temple that Danny Thomas built. I thought of my friend Kelsey, who died from complications with leukemia shortly before her 22nd birthday in 2011 and in whose memory I walked part of the Camino de Santiago. The whole place was magical – the entire staff smiled, despite the troubling nature of their work, and we quickly scratched our plans to donate money to Air Force Orphans. 

Choose 901 Memphis

Isra was in his office, studying for a procedure he’d perform that afternoon. As a highly skilled worker, he’d been invited as a pediatric resident to St. Jude’s – a testament to his brilliance and compassion. Lucía researches cures. And I teach prepositions. Consider me humbled.

Shortly after, we parked downtown on the former Cotton Row. Lucía spends most of her free time reading history books, and her running commentary of Memphis’s history against the backdrop of the brick buildings and blues joints gave the city more context than any museum could have.

Founded by Andrew Jackson for its strategic location on a high bluff, Memphis quickly grew into a commercial capital, thanks to its cotton crop and access to the Mississippi. This brought a large number of African American slaves with it, even post-war, to work as laborers. Changes in demographics would lead to decades of unrest between the affluent Whites – mainly Irish immigrants – and Blacks. We weaved throughout the downtown area, the historically Black neighborhood, and near Victorian Row to see just how different life was for the two.

Crumbling Memphis buildings

Many of Memphis’s storefronts are boarded up and out of business, just steps away from the landmark Peabody Hotel or Orpheum Theatre that once played host to Blues and Rock n’Roll greats. Riots after King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel only marginalized the city’s black population, which resided mostly in the lower middle class district south of downtown, now known as the South Main Arts District.

Lucía recounted the last five decades’ history over beers at the Arcade Diner, an iconic Memphian restaurant that Elvis once frequented. The six blocks that comprised the district had once been home to the booming railway business but fell into disrepair in the 1950s. Iconic Hotel Chisca and its radio station closed. Now, it’s experiencing a revitalization and were filled with craft beer breweries, oyster bars, galleries and pop-up shops. Think exposed brick and old signs and general gentrification- this part of the city came to represent Memphis for me: a city that knows how to bounce back. A city that holds its head high. A city whose past is pushing it into the future.

Beale Street Memphis signs

Later that night, we gorged on ribs at Rendezvous before strolling down Beale Street. Blues tumbled out of bars and the neon lights lit up the night. Over whiskey, our anfitriones told us what we already knew: the Black population in Memphis were feeling the heat. Even in a city that is predominantly Black and that once tried to resist slavery, the Confederacy and even segregated schools, it’s still considered an unsafe city and one that locals decry for censoring the media. We were there just two weeks after Trey Bolton, a Memphis cop, was killed.

And Memphis didn’t riot. In Memphis, acceptance is now preached as the city moves past MLK, the Memphis Riots of 1866 and the slavery that propelled it into one of the South’s most prosperous cities. As Black Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said shortly after the shooting, “All Lives Matter.” 

lorraine motel memphis

Like MLK’s iconic speech the night before his assassination, something is happening.

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” […]

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

“I have been to the Mountaintop” – Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1968

In a 21st Century frame, it’s still relevant – and call me crazy, but I think I saw the manifestation of that in Memphis. So, yeah. I had a big crush on gtirry Bluff City and what it stands for:

Memphis quality

And in many ways, Memphis was a representation of the values my parents tried teaching me when I was young: acceptance, humility, hard work and compassion for others. When we pulled back onto the I-55 for a long trips towards New Orleans, I grew quiet, thinking of how these lessons had shaped me.

The rest of our post-wedding road trip affirmed that: an eye-opening Civil War Museum in St. Louis and rafting on the Occee River near Chattanooga. Talking to locals over crayfish in New Orleans, nearly 10 years post-Katrina, about why they’d come to NOLA, or why they stayed. Witnessing how the sharing culture is helping millennials like me make ends meet and chase their goals down.

Memphis shook me out of my Spain haze and helped me look at my country for what it is, for better or for worse. Ticking through seven states in one summer road trip passed in a blur of county lines, of truck stop meals, of miles on the odometer. But Memphis was a real, gritty American city that reminded me where I came from, having grown up in “tough” cities like Flint and Rockford.

I am an American, firstly. Someone who knows what it means to work hard and what it means to be free to choose. Someone who trusts in the inherent aims of her country, but isn’t afraid to voice opposition (or cast a vote). Someone who is fiercely loyal to her first land but understands its context in a wider scope.  

And those values haven’t in any way been muted by my years in Spain. My American Dream is far different now than it was when I finished high school or college, but it’s rooted in the way I grew up.

Memphis 

Have you ever been to Memphis? What were your impressions?

Five Realizations I’ve Made About Myself as a Traveler

Staring at my 2015 planner just one year ago, I circled just two dates: August 8th, my wedding day, and August 15th, my 30th birthday. I inhaled sharply, knowing that as a new homeowner, long-term travel was off the table unless I was living with my parents.  

Quotes about Travel

For someone whose mentality was clocked in airline miles and train tickets accumulated, I was crestfallen. In the span of 60 days in 2014, we closed on a house and I signed away the freedoms and money drains I’d previously had.

2015 was not a red-letter year for my passport, but with minimum means to jet off, I began to scrimp and save for different things in my life that mattered: furniture to make myself at home in Triana, better food products for my never-ending battle to learn how to cook, and my wedding. And somehow, I still managed to travel to four countries and drive through six new states, plus visit several new places in Spain in a year in travel that was very bottom-heavy.

CASTLE

I made five key realizations about myself in the process, and began my 30s looking ahead to a different means to travel.

I cannot stick to a budget

I have never claimed to be a budget traveler, and it’s been brought to my attention that I am unable to stick to one, anyway. Oftentimes, my plane or train tickets are far less than what I spend in my destination (much to the dismay of my travel companions).

Case in point: my four days in Copenhagen. I cashed in on a free one-way flight from Vueling, shelling out just 93€ to finally touch down in Scandanavia. Armed with a list of cheap places to eat and things to do, I was ready to make the most of my first visit when I did the conversion and realized my euros had nothing on the sleek Danish kröner, and that even beers at happy hour were three times the cost of one in Seville. 

Nyhavn Denmark views

For the record, I do not like making dinner in my hostel or AirBnB’s kitchen, I rarely use public transportation or buy city passes, and I bring home senseless souvenirs. I’ve tried Couchsurfing and can’t resist a cool food tour. My wallet is defenseless outside of the 954 area code.

I am a slave to thinking that this may be my one chance to experience a culture and its cuisine, and I end up twice as far in the hole as I expect to be on the majority of my trips. Did I need one more pastry or that quick trip to Sweden when in Scandanavia? Probably not, nor could I resist the hot dogs or gløgg.

European Euros money

In Turkey, this meant a massage at a bath house. In Greece, I carted back an extra suitcase of gifts. My wallet is often empty, but what difference does it make if I’m not a long-term traveler and have a salary?

I know what it means – no new shoes when another pair falls apart.

Long-term travel is not for me

In all of the years I have blogged, I’ve let the idea of saving up and cashing in on a year-long trip play bumperpool in my head. Back when I was an auxiliar de conversación, I figured I’d spend a few years in Spain, then make bank as an EFL teacher in Korea or Japan and backpack around SE Asia for six months before getting a “real” job.

cobblestone road Europe

But when you’ve dealt with bedbugs, missed connections and lonliness, suddenly hitting the road for an extended period of time doesn’t seem like the best option.

For me, having a home base and possessions and a partner has been more fulflling, and the rest of Europe isn’t that far off. Yes, this means limited vacation days at times when prices spike, but thanks to Spain’s low cost of living, I feel it’s more justified to splurge (see? Not a budget traveler). 

I’m not into long roadtrips

Unable to afford a traditional honeymoon to Japan as we’d always planned, the Novio and I rented a car and drove to New Orleans, stopping in St. Louis and Memphis on the way down, Chatanooga, Nashville and Louisville on the way up.

Here’s the thing – I like driving. I believe that cars can take you where tours can’t. I find getting lost a lot of fun, once I’ve let out the requisite swear words. But I’m not into long distances – blame my commute to university for that one.

best hamburger in arkansas

The Novio and I had loads of fun on our trip, visiting a friend in Memphis and drinking down Bourbon Street in the lovely bubble of post-wedding bliss. We rafted down the Occoe River near Chatanooga, visited the Jim Beam distillery and stuffed ourselves with barbequed ribs and pulled pork. And we spent so.much.time. in the car, most of which had me either searching for radio stations in the middle of nowhere or writing wedding Thank You cards. Knowing we had a flight to catch meant missing a lot of things that we would have liked to see for sake of time.

I’ve discovered I’m more of a pound-the-pavement type of person, and sitting in the passenger seat of a Kia for hundreds of miles of cornfields wasn’t my idea of fun.

Best road trip car

That said, my parents are planning a 2016 summer roadtrip to the National Parks. Yaay?

I love showing visitors MY Spain

As someone living in Europe, I am often given the burden of planning itineraries. For me, it’s (more than) half the fun to read up on a destination, devour a book set in a new country and search for things to do, but when the trip actually hits, there are snags. My own parents went six days without luggage over Christmas, and it meant skipping some of our plans to wait at home for missing suitcases. 

Mirador de Graça Lisboa

But my favorite part about living in Spain is that I have a leg up on guide books and travel forums. I live here and consider myself fairly immersed in Spanish culture, and it’s most pleasurable to see my visitors dive right in to Spanish life.

When my best male friend finally made good on his promise to come see us, I had little else on the itinerary but eat, drink and head to the beach for a day. He’d come from South Africa, where he’d done all of those magical travel things like swim with sharks and bike through wineries. I couldn’t promise him much more than a taste of la vida española and took him to my favorite rincones of the city.

Calle del Infierno Feria de Abril

He claims to be satisfied with the experience. Who else would tell jetlag to go to hell when it’s the last night of the Feria?

That’s another big reason why my blog is so Spain-based. It’s my safe zone, my muse and the reason why most of you read it!

I don’t need to go far to be happy

There were times when my version of getting high was scouring flight search engines for good deals. That’s how I ended up with round-trip tickets to Marrakesh for 30€, to Brussels for 26€ and 102€ to Croatia, how my geographic knowledge of Europe improved…and how I drained my meager savings. I lived to spend my long weekends traipsing around Europe. And this was before Instagram and pinterest, so I traveled for the story and not the perception (although, I admit, at warp speed).

Don’t get me wrong – I still use all of those tactics nowadays and love hearing the ping in my mailbox with my reservations, but a year of limited resources meant Spain was my go-to destination. In fact, from my trip to the US over the 2014 holidays until my trip home for summer the following year, the only flight I took was to Barcelona! 

Portuguese National Beer Super Bock

I’ve long adopted the, “have car, will adventure” outlook, and having my own set of wheels has allowed me to delve into Spain and Portugal more.

One long weekend with rain on the horizon, I found my plans to go hiking in the Sierra de Grazalema foiled, so Kelly and I hopped in the car and drove north, away from the storm clouds. We stopped wherever we felt like it. “I hear there’s a castle in Real de la Jara.” We saw a castle. “Zafra has a parador.” Detour (complete with convent cookies!). “Oh look, a random monastery!” Nearly ran ourselves off the road trying to reach the top on a blustery day.

With itchy feet, anywhere but home will do, even if for a day.

View from the Hancock Tower

I have just one trip on the horizon – back to Chicago for my sister’s June wedding – and tons of ideas for quick trips, some to new cities and some to my favorite places. It’s almost just as liberating to know I am wide open to whatever adventure pops up as to having every long weekend in 2016 scribbled with travel plans in my agenda.

And after clicking out this post, I’ve realized that I don’t take nearly enough pictures of myself when traveling. Noted.

I didn’t do an annual travel round up, but went to Sicily, Denmark, Sweden and Portugal towards the end of the year. Where are you headed in 2016? What are your favorite destinations in and around Spain? I’m talking culinary travel, rowdy festivals and things to do in the great outdoors!

My 15 Favorite Instagrams of 2015

A picture is worth a thousand words they say, and my 189 Instagram shots from 2015 speak of 1000 (and then some) calories, 1000+ kilometers and 1000 moments. It has been a red-letter year: planning my wedding, saying my vows to the Novio and turning 30. And for all of the joy, there were heart-wrenching moments, like losing my aunt to a short battle with cancer, putting our family dog down and watching loved ones go through tough moments, not really sure of what to say.

Nothing is set for 2016, and for once, I’m not penning a list of goals. My life feels like it’s grinded to a halt after 30 years of fast-forwarding, of crossing items off of an ever-growing list. But now there’s someone else helping steer my life and my goals, and a nagging in the back of my head to take another leap of faith, much like I did eight years ago when I moved to Seville.

I’m often nostalgic by year’s end, browsing photos and taking stock of what the last 12 months have brought. Instagram is, by far, one of my favorite ways to share Spain and my life here (but, um, sorry for all of the food and beer pictures).

My 15 favorite have been some of my most popular, but also some of my fondest moments of a year spent mostly in Iberia. Here they are, with about 1000 words to accompany them:

 

Words to freaking live by: eat and drink as life is happy.

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

La Chunga’s waxy paper napkins succinctly summed up one of the small pleasure that makes life in Spain what it is: Eat and Drink, as Life is Happy. As someone who prescribes to the life is short, so have another piece of cake school, I’ll have another round to that, and 2015 was an experiment in eating and drinking well.

 

Ya huele a #Feria! Shopping with @hayleycomments A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

The most wonderful time of the year for sevillanos is not Christmas – it’s the springtime, when orange blossoms and incense perfume the air and every other word is “traje de gitana,” “rebujito” or “feria.” Browsing the shops for flamenco dresses and accessories is way more fun than stressing over what to buy my family (and major apologies for my HDR-happy phase in filters).

 

City streets in #Seville. Pura maravilla.

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I’ve loved a lot of places in my life, but Seville may be my all-time swoon. The city streets at 9am on a dewey Saturday remind me that, even with my gripes about La Hispalense, it’s a privilege to live here. Come on, churros is an acceptable breakfast and, as evident above, there’s nothing better than wearing a traje de gitana for an entire season straight.  

 

Benditos #Domingos in #Triana A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

More simple pleasures: your más querido wearing a sweater you bought him on the first warm afternoon of the spring, chasing patches of midday sunlight, caña in hand.

 

Entrada de #SanGonzalo in #Triana #SSantaSevilla15

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I couldn’t call myself the Sevillamericana without having seen the city’s famous Holy Week processions. And living in Triana, there was no way to escape it anyway. Thanks to a family emergency and lack of funds before the wedding, I skipped a far-flung destination in favor of making Seville my life-sized rat trap, only with life-like portrayals of the life and death of Christ and a thousand other bodies as my dead ends. This photo was taken after 2am on Holy Monday as my barrio procession, San Gonzalo and Nuestra Señora de la Salud, re-entered their temple after more than 12 hours pounding pavement.

 

Two Romeros pray to the Esperanza de #Triana before beginning the #ElRocio pilgrimage to La Aldea A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

Living in a neighborhood like mine means brass bands and religious processions happen as often as block parties (or they flat-out replace your block parties). Just before Pentecost Sunday, droves of romeros set out from TrianatowardsLaAldeaattheedgeoftheDoñana National Park, and I captured two on horseback in a moment of concentrated devotion.

 

For real, #Seville. Just STOP. #latergram #dusk #skyline #sevillahoy #seville

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

This is my commute from work during the summer months, and on my bike. Suck it, Chicago and your traffic on the Kennedy.

 

Boats on Elkhart Lake, #wisconsin #latergram #boats #elkhartlake A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

With the wedding looming, I broke my no-beer-before-boda rule to have a family outing to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin for Road America. My dad and his two brothers, plus my sister, her fiancé, my cousin and his friend and I spent the weekend playing jokes on one another between beers and vintage car races. It was bittersweet knowing that this would be one of the last family trips we’d likely take for a while. But my dad paid his daughters a compliment: “You girls were so fun as kids, but you’re even more delightful to have around as adults.” No wonder I married someone who reminds me of my father!

 

I get to exchange I Do’s with this stud today! #halforange8815 A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I posted this photo – taken at our rehearsal dinner the night before – as I was getting my hair done for my wedding. I woke up on August 8th calmer than I’d been in weeks and ready to exchange vows. Call me a romance sucker, but I felt beautiful, fortunate and ecstatic for 2:30pm. If only I remembered more of the wedding – it went SO FAST!  

We adopted Moxie from the Shih Tzu Rescue of Illinois in 2012 just after we put Morgan down. We knew he’d be with us for a short time given his senior canine status and health issues, but this photo reminds me of how happily he lived out his last years in his forever home before joining Morgita in Puppy Heaven at Thanksgiving.

That same day, my parents adopted Mox Box’s younger lookalike, Murphy. 

My 30th was more of an afterthought – the big day happened exactly one week after The Bigger Day. For the first time, the Novio and I spent both of our August birthdays together between Chicago and New Orleans, and we did so with my family and friends.  Miles may separate us, but the important people are always there for the important moments!

 

Saturday lunch: huevos rotos with chistorra. Bests what I made for lunch today! A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

The year of eating continued after the wedding, where watching what I ate mattered a lot less than ordering one more beer. This plate of huevos rotos was so beautiful, I made my friends wait to tuck in so I could take a picture and slap a filter on it.

 

Only *moderately* obsessed with my new mug from @mrwonderful and @lovelystreets. So fitting! A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I bought this mug from Lovely Streets and was immediately enamored. I usually go for frivolous, but this mug actually does something else than look pretty – and it’s dishwasher friendly! You can check out their Lo que Me Enamora series for cities around the world at FNAC or online.

 

Oooh, #Zafra, you definitely are #charming. #typicalnonspanish A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

Overseas travel didn’t happen in the first half of 2015, but I made Spain travel a priority this year. Kelly and I left a stormy Sunday Seville in October for Extremadura, where showers were rumored to hold off for the day, and stumbled upon quaint Zafra.

We filled up on nun cookies and local wine in Plaza Chica, stopping at points of interest on the way back down south. You never know what’s in your backyard, they say.

My trip to Sicily in late October felt pretty off the beaten path, despite being part of Western Europe. Think no English, no road signs and no feelings of being comfortable. The Novio suggested I take the rental car to Villa Romana de Casale, an old Roman house with beautifully preserved mosaics. 

And the drive was just as romantically terrifying as could be expected for an untamed corner of Italy.  

 

Current obsession: the Danes and their beautiful capital city. It’s seriously a hip, gorgeous place!

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I ended 2015 with a solo trip to Denmark. I was immediately enamored with the orderly, modern way that Danes live, along with their Christmas markets and hot dog stands. The trip left me in the hole, but one last hurrah for a big year seemed like a fitting way to end it.

Feels both foreign and fitting to be plan-less for once, but I’ll be snap happy when the azahar blooms and I settle in to married life – I carry memories on me like I do my phone, after all. 

MY 15 FAVORITE

Are you on instagram? I’d love to add you! Find more Spain, Europe and good eats from me by searching @sunshinesiestas

When Living Abroad Starts Feeling Like Living in America

I could have easily been in a neighborhood pub back home in Chicago. Armed with two guiri friends and a stomach that hadn’t eaten all day, I ordered a cheeseburger meal, piled on the ketchup and sat down on a couch, directly under drapes of spider webs. It was Halloween, and one my friends mentioned that – gasp! – another American friend of ours had had trick-or-treaters the night before in her pueblo.

De verdad? Since when does the oh-so-racio Seville feel just like America?

When

Slowly, Americana has been permeating into a city as Spanish as the tortilla. At first, I embraced the introduction of peanut butter onto supermarket shelves (and willingly forked over 7€ for it) and made special trips to Madrid for international cuisine. Eight years on, I’m feeling like I’m in a parallel universe sometimes as craft beer, Netflix and my favorite holiday are becoming mainstream, albeit jabbered on about in Spanish.

I’ve long been the guiri who drags her heels when it comes to embracing my culture while living in another. I famously chastised my friends for shopping at the American food store and have yet to set foot in Costco. I do not regularly catch baseball or American football games in bars, nor could I tell you the best place to watch one. Yes, I cook Thanksgiving for my in-laws with American products and dress up for Halloween, but those moments were always reserved for special parties with my compatriots. What I love about living in Spain really boils down to the fact that I love living in Spain.

Cue the hate comments: I didn’t really sign up for an American life when I moved to Seville. And in all fairness, I’m letting it happen.

Spanish potato omelette

The line between life abroad and life as I knew it before 22 is blurrier than ever. I conduct a large part of my day in English, have English-speaking friends and watch TV in English. I just picked up a Spanish book for the first time in three years. I consume news in English via my smartphone and had to recently ask the Novio the name of the new mayor in town. 

I knew I needed to make a change when the Novio suggested we get Netflix as a wedding present to ourselves. Wait, you mean I can watch a show on a big screen with no need to let the show buffer for ten minutes? And in my native language? The fun of the TDT system, which allowed shows to be aired in their original language instead of dubbing. Ni de coña – I will binge watch my American television shows on my laptop. Wouldn’t that 8€ a month be better spent on something else?

While Spain is definitely not America when it comes to lines at the bank, reliable service or a way around 902 toll numbers, I find my adult life becoming more on par with that which my friends are living in the US. I got more than a fair dosage of Americanism this year, spending more than four months of fifteen in the US. Going home is a treat – Target, Portillo’s and endless hours of snuggling with our family dog – but it’s lost a lot of its sheen now that Seville has Americanized itself, be it for tourists or for sevillanos

But at what price? Gone are the decades-old ultramarinos that once peddled canned goods – they’ve made way for trendy bars and clothing chains. While I admit that the Setas – a harsh contrast from the turn-of-the-century buildings that ring Plaza de la Encarnación – have grown on me, they caused a lot of backlash and an entire neighborhood to address itself. Do I really need a fancy coffee bar to do work at, or a gym with the latest in training classes?

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

As my world becomes more globalized, I find myself seeking the Spain I fell in love with when I studied abroad in Valladolid and the Seville that existed in 2007. We’re talking pre-Crisis, pre-smartphones and pre-instagram filters, and one where a Frapuccino every now and then helped me combat my homesickness. The Spain that was challenging, new and often frustrating. The Spain in which I relished long siestas, late nights and a voracious desire to learn new slang and new rincones of a new place.

But… how do I get back there? The Sevilla I discovered at age 22 is barely recognizable. Do I love it? Do I deal with it? I mostly stick around Triana, which stills feels as barrio and as authentic as it did when I took up residence on Calle Numancia in 2007.

This sort of rant seems to be a November thing, when rain has me cooped up outside instead of indulging in day drinking and mentally preparing myself to de-feather and de-gut a turkey. Maybe I’m in a slump. Maybe I’m comfortable. Maybe I’m lazy. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Spain doesn’t present the same day-to-day victories as it once did. 

One thing I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to jumping back into the Spanish manera de ser once the Novio arrives back home this week. I can’t wait to head to San Nicolás, sans computer, and search for castañas, to sleep without an alarm and to remember why and how Spain became mi cosa.

Do you ever feel like you’re no longer living abroad? Any pointers to get me back on track?

Let’s Have a Little Talk About Spanish Toilets

The smell hits me like a pata de jamón to the head: a cocktail of bathroom disinfectant, spilled hand soap, ancient pipes and bleach. And that’s only if the person before me hasn’t bothered to flush.

Verdad verdadera: if you drink liquids, you have to pee. If you drink beer, you have to pee twice as much. And if you drink beer in Spain, you have to pee in a filthy, poorly lit bathroom that likely doesn’t have toilet paper (and if it does, you’d better steal what’s left of the roll and stash that contraband in your purse).

In the eight years I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve not been able to get over Spanish bathrooms.I’d do a silent fist pump when I’d find a few scraps of toilet paper, or a toilet seat, or even hand soap (also known as the váter Holy Trifecta) in a public bathroom.

But váter, you and I have to have a talk.

Let's Talk About Bathrooms in Spain

It was on a sweltering July night at an old man bar in my neighborhood that I actually considered shuffling three blocks back to house to use our facilities. But I’d had several vermouths, so I handed the Novio my purse and scuttled to the unisex bathroom.

The space was hardly larger than a broom closet (in fact, it probably once was), and my toes rested right next to the door when I closed it. I was wearing sandals, so the bottoms of my feet became soaked in who knows what. As I squatted, my butt hit the wet pipe attached to the flush, and I struggled to find the light switch in the dark. The pipes creaked as I attempted to flush a running toilet, so I gave up entirely, ran my hands under the faucet obsessively and ordered another vermouth (though grain alcohol to kill any germs might have been a better option).

I won’t call out any names here, but as a rule of thumb, if it’s a brightly-lit cervecería frequented by old men, you shouldn’t expect anything special. A step up might be a restaurant frequented by the same old men. I won’t even get into the toilets at discos – particularly the outdoor terraces in the summer. I mean, even the Parador de Zafra, a luxury hotel owned by the Spanish government, has a problem keeping toilets stocked with toilet paper!

Not all hope is lost – any place that caters to tourists or business travelers has a better shot at possessing the Váter Trifecta. But Andalucía seems to be the worst when it comes to bathrooms. A friend of mine runs food tours and trained her Seville guides to always bring a small pack of tissues for tour guests, lest they be forced to drip dry.

What are toilets like in Spain

My buttload of gripes has grown as I’ve gotten older. I mean, I went to a large Midwestern University where Saturday morning tailgating meant either sneaking into a stranger’s house on Melrose Court, or finding an alternative solution. But a civilized country deserves a civilized sort of outhouse.

First off, women’s restrooms in Spain tend to double as storage closets for empty beverage bottles, stacking crates and even cleaning supplies (so where the cojones do they keep the toilet paper?!). On more than one occasion, I’ve had to crawl over a pile of crap just to get to the toilet.

I’ve made it abundantly clear that toilet paper is noticeably absent in a high percentage of bathrooms. If you’re a lady, whenever you feel the urge, you either have to rummage around in your purse for kleenex, discreetly ask a friend, or grab a wad of napkins from a table. But Spanish napkins aren’t designed to do anything more than mop up wax, so you’re better off not even trying with them. Note to self: add Kleenex packets to my shopping list.

But don’t throw tissue (or waxy napkins, or really anything non-liquid) into the toilet bowl, because you will cause stress on already overworked pipes and clog the toilet. I once made that mistake and couldn’t show my face in that bar for two months – TWO months! But don’t worry, there will be a NO TIRAR PAPELES AL WC sign affixed somewhere in the room just in case you forget. “We won’t replace the toilet paper for months because we don’t want you to accidentally throw it in the bowl” seems to be every old man bar’s mantra.

bathroom soap in Spain

Soap and paper towels have no place in a  Spanish bathroom either, so even washing your hands can be futile. Alternatives are your jeans, your jacket, or simply walking out of the toilet with wet hands, people moving away from you as if you were covered in blood or leprosy sores. Makes you want to wipe your hands on the bartender’s jeans instead.

And let’s talk briefly about you can only use bathrooms if you’ve had a consumición at the bar? I’ve had to resort to slamming a beer and beelining to the bathroom or ordering a scalding café con leche and have it sit waiting for me as I squatted over yet another shitty (pardon the pun) latrine. Even the holes in the ground in China and Turkey seem more sanitary than the “marvels of modern plumbing” in Iberia.

My first vision of Spain was from a bus that pulled into my study abroad city, Valladolid. I pulled the Iberia blanket off of my head and groggily stared out the window as we stopped at a stoplight. A young mother was holding her child at arm’s length as the little girl let out a steady stream of pis. On the street. In plain daylight. Consumption at a bar be damned, this kid is peeing on a tree.

Pues nada.

This post is a little NSFW, yes, but a constant topic when I’m with my guiri friends. Have any other bathroom gripes to add?

30 Things I’m Glad to Have Done Before Turning 30, part 2

Did you miss the first 16? You can find them here – from things I’m glad I learned to indispensable travel experiences along with career decisions.

30 things

My 20s brought me endless fun experiences and friendships, and my 30th birthday was the marriage of what I realized I needed in my life gong forward into my fourth decade: my family, festivals, a few beers.

Relationship Life

17.  Become Close to My Parents – My dad paid my sister and I a wonderful compliment this summer when he said that we were always a lot of fun, but even better to be around as adults. Margaret and I share a lot of interests with our parents – skiing and beer with our dad, shopping and eating out with our mom – and Margaret and her fiancé recently moved back to Chicago. The eye rolls I paid them as a teen are now hugs and the clink of beer glasses.

Additionally, I’m close to the Novio’s parents and younger brothers and count on them like I do on my family. Having a support system in two countries is an absolute privilege. 

 

I couldn’t imagine not having a close relationship with my parents. They know every single thing happening with my life, and I see a lot of them in me (and a lot of my Dad in the Novio!). I look forward to long school breaks knowing that they’ll mean beers and hugs and often a plane ticket to explore.

18.  Said No When Necessary – When I took psychology in high school, Mr. Fitts correctly called me an ESFP at the end of our first week. I’m impulsive, a pleaser and terribly sensitive. And I have a problem with conflict.

Early on into my Spain foray, I found that foreigners are very easily taken advantage of. Learning to say no – and sometimes enter into conflict or disappoint people – has been a tough pill to swallow, but I am one person, and while I can do a lot, I can’t do everything. Those Nos have negated jobs with low pay, gypsy offerings near the cathedral and even poor treatment in my relationships.

19.  Been Broken Up With – Boyfriends were not on my mind at all in college. I was having far more fun meeting people, dating and studying to stop for a relationship. The one person I could have seen a future with in college and I went back and forth for years. It was always a question of timing and commitment, and when he told me to back off, I was devastated. 

I recently found my journal when cleaning out my childhood bedroom and had to laugh at myself for the sweeping fantasies of love and life.

where am I going

This guy and I salvaged our relationship to become wonderful, honest (and he reads this blog!), but in the end, we’re both glad it didn’t work out. I learned what I really needed out of a significant other, and the Novio came into my life a few months later. Finding a partner goes beyond attraction and mutual love – I needed someone who fit into my life and plans just as much as I needed to feel nurtured and encouraged by that person.

2o.  Waited to Be Married (and Be Confident in My Choice) – The Novio and I met when I was barely 22, and he was 28. Right away, the fact that he had a job and had bought a house appealed to me, and though the first years proved rocky between language and age differences, we made it through.

After nearly seven years together and four living under the same roof, he simply said, “Let’s plan a wedding.” There was no grand gesture, no ring and no doubt in my mind – I probably smiled, nodded and hopped right on Pinterest while he took a nap.

[Chrystl wedding photo]

It’s odd, in a way, to know that I have friends who are separating and divorcing. Some feel remorseful, and other feel powered. As someone who can be fickle and who often second guesses even grocery store purchases, I couldn’t tread lightly with choosing a partner. I didn’t feel ready to actually be married until we’d decided on the house and I’d said, sí, quiero, to more than just the Novio – I’d said yes to Spain, to a life abroad, and to making decisions with more than just me involved.

The day of our wedding, my usual nerves were absent. 

21.  Waited to Have Kids – I was recently carrying around a friend’s 7-month-old baby, a blubbering and inquisitive little girl who I’ve taken to. After getting married, I started feeling a lot more pressure to have kids. With María in my arms, I wanted to have one.

And then I went home, had a two-hour post-nap nap and realized I wouldn’t have been able to have that nap with kids.

luna cumple dos

While they’re likely not too far off, I’m relieved to have waited until turning 30 and doing the other things on this list. I’m taking a few more trips and preparing myself mentally and physically to become a mother, and I can’t wait to teach our kids to be fearless, confident and bilingual.

22. Learned How to Say Sorry and When to Forgive – Typical Leo: loves attention and has a quick temper. I get stressed out really easily and bark at anyone close enough. I consider it one of my greatest character flaws, though I am also the first to sheepishly admit my wrongdoing.

I am also incapable of holding a grudge – forgive and forget was ingrained into me when I was very young, and they’re words I live by.

Asturian Countryside

Sometimes the hardest part of growing up has been learning to let go of people who do hold grudges. I can’t deal with passive-aggressiveness, but thankfully read people well enough to know that they’re not interested in a friendship with me. My friend pool is large, but the inner circle has a select few. I’m a communicator and need people to communicate with me.

23.  Stayed Close to Elementary School and High School Friends – I have to admit that I get selfish when my friends start to move away from Chicago. When I go back home for Christmas or the summer, I want to have everyone I love from high school there for barbecues and beers. At my bachelorette party, an Uber driver asked how we all know each other. My youngest friendship was a ripe old 15!

Best friends at my wedding

Thanks to Facebook and whatsapp, I feel close to my family and friends, and an endless stream of visitors has come to see my sunshine and siestas lifestyle. When choosing my bridesmaids, I had no issues – my sister and my two closest friends from Wheaton Warrenville South and the UIowa. A vast majority our wedding invites were people we’d known for more than a decade, and many longer than I’d been in Spain.

Life Life

24.  Partied all Night and at Different Festivals – I’m never one to turn down small town fêtes or music festivals, and I’ve been to some of the greatest celebrations in Europe. Downing steins in Munich at Oktoberfest, sleeping on the ground during Santiago’s patron saint festival and slinging tomatoes at the Tomatina. I can’t say no to something fun and new, and I’m ready to curl up with a book and a glass of Ribera on a Saturday every now and then. My party girl days are over.

dressed in a dirndl at oktoberfest

25.  Grown to Love Beer – seriously! – The first time I got drunk was on four Mike’s Hard Lemonades my senior year of high school. I was terrified of being buzzed and passed right into the blackout phase, and vowed never to drink again.

Then I went to college in the middle of a cornfield and was introduced to flippy cup, tailgating and cheap cases of Natty Light, and I reluctantly began to drink beer. 

In Europe, and particularly in Spain, beer culture is imminent – I feel that without a Cruzcampo, I’d not have experienced an integral part of this country. My language skills were strengthened when the Novio and I courted at local cervecerías and I made friends at Plaza Salvador with a fresca in hand. I would have been appalled if you’d told me at 22 that I’d drink beer with my main meals, but when in Sevilla…

26.  Voted – Speaking of Iowa, I was finally of legal age to vote during the 2004 straw polls. As a swing state, Iowa is a political hotbed, and I saw candidates stumped by celebrities, both from Wahsington and from Hollywood. I changed my voter registration to Iowa, knowing that a liberal vote in Illinois would count for very little.

American Flag in Times Square

Even from abroad, I vote in the only political election I’m allowed – the federal election. They say that when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold, and I wholeheartedly find that to be true. I may be one of 300 million, but I believe in the democratic process and the ideals of my country. It takes 20 minutes to register and the flick of a pencil to vote, so I shake my head at people who abstain because “Oh, I don’t really like anyone this year.” This isn’t Homecoming Court, so do your duty as an American living in a free country and vote.

End rant. Until next fall. And, yes, you can all come live with me if you’re dissatisfied (but only if you voted).

27.  Bought a House – It took me a year as a homeowner to realize how smart it was to invest in a property. I’ve had my moment where I literally thought of the popular Spanish refrain – tirar la casa por la ventana – as I struggled to curb spending habits. It’s been a while since I’ve hopped a plane to a different country, and I haven’t bought a new flamenco dress in a few years.

new house

But I have a place rooting me to Seville. A beautiful house with an enormous terrace in my favorite rinconcín of the city. I’m not throwing money into the bottomless pit that is rent and am buying functional pieces that are ours forever. I may miss my indulgences, but a Saturday at home with a bottle of wine and the Novio is a pretty good alternative (ugh, did I just say that?!).

28.  Moved Abroad – Much of all of this wouldn’t have been possible or wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t worked up the nerve to get on a Spain-bound plane in 2007. I have long stopped wondering about the what ifs – the decisions I’ve taken in the last decade have led me to this point, and there’s no turning back.

Moving abroad in my 20s meant letting go of a few of the dreams I’d had – living in Chicago, standing up in all of my friends’ weddings and having a job in radio. Even that second goal seems gratuitous, as I had to scrap my brain for an third goal. The older I get, the more I realize that my goals were always further on the horizon, away from the US and my comfort zone and my native language. While I never feel entirely at home in either country, creating a life overseas has been my proudest accomplishment.

Revuelto de Abril

I’m more confident, more independent and more wise after eight years in Spain. Just please don’t ask me how to be an adult in America – I know nothing about 401k, Obamacare or anything else “mature.”

29. Found Myself Content to Move Past the Last Decade – I’m the youngest of my group of friends, which was the worst when they all got driver’s licenses and could get into campus bars. All of them mourned the death of my 20s, saying “Welcome to the Club.”

Wait, you jerks told me that when I turned 22, so what’s different now?

I’m happy with how my 20s panned out – loads of new faces, foods, countries and experiences. And there are loads of other things I could add to this list – have a pet to learn about taking care of a living thing, joining a sorority to learn leadership in college, and working hard to go to the college I’d always to go to. Call it being satisfied or exhausted, but it’s time to be a grown up and move on.

My 30s are still a gigantic question mark to me. Where am I going professionally? Personally? I’m terrified. I feel far more vulnerable to mistakes and wrong turns. Maybe 30 will be a kick in the pants, but everyone says that the best is yet to come. I’m ready.

What have you learned in your 20s?

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