Photo Post: La Hermandad Rociera de Triana and the Pilgrimage to El Rocío

“No, no, no,” Lucía shook her head fiercely as curls of white smoke escaped from her lips. “You shouldn’t be in Cerro de Águila by yourself. Crime is rampant over there.”

That following morning at the Novio’s new house in Cerro, I was woken up by the fourth-floor shaking as what sounded like a loud pop boomed throughout. I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind me.

Turns out the potential guns from the ‘crime capital’ of Seville were actually noisemakers of the neighborhood’s religious brotherhood.

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Fifty days after Resurrection Sunday, those faithful to the Virgen del Rocío (which is practically all of Southern Spain) make a pilgrimage towards La Aldea, a small hamlet full of stately mansions and dirt roads. The striking hermitage – a grandiose white mirage set at the southern edge of la Aldea with views to the marshes of Doñana National Park – was first built on the supposed spot where Alfonso the Wise found an effigy of the Virgin Mother. Today, it’s popular for its most raucous fiesta in the middle of the springtime. 

Seville counts five hermandades – Savlador and Triana are the most famous – whose numbers are staggering. On the Wednesday before Pentecost Sunday, covered wagons pulled by oxen, horses or even tractors set out towards the Almonte and la Aldea, following a silver-laden carriage with an image of the Rocío known as a simpecado. For many of the devout, this spiritual cleansing, characterized by sleeping and eating outdoors, song and dance and prayer, is the most important part.

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When I worked in Olivares, many of my students went missing in the days leading up to El Rocío and the days surrounding Pentecost. I had a handful named Rocío or Paloma in homenage to the Virgin Mary who, quite possible, is the most revered in Andalucía. 

Few things get me out of bed before 8am, but today I was already out the door at that time, Camarón fully charged and ready to shoot (the cohetes would have woken me up regardless). Mass at the chapel on calle Evangelista began at 7:30am, and the simpecado, preceeded by horses and pilgrims, left shortly thereafter. In the past, the carretas that carry supplied for the ten-day pilgrimage were allowed to traverse Triana, but city ordinance now mandate that the wagons start from Plaza Chapina at the northern end of the neighborhood.

romeros ready for El Rocio

Devout pilgrims at el Rocio

Romeros on Calle Pureza Triana

I followed the crowd to Calle Pureza and the door of the Esperanza de Triana church. Here, in one of the most emblematic monuments of the barrio, the simpecado would pass, the devout would pray and the pilgrimage would truly begin.

Perched on the curb just opposite the gleaming white temple, itself a nod to its marisma counterpart 70 kilometers west, I watched as romeros – the name for pilgrims around these parts – flooded the streets. Men wear straw hats and women don flamenco dresses that are easier to walk in, all clutching medals that bear the Virgen del Rocío.

Rocio Fashion 2015

carretas of El Rocio

Gitanas El Rocio

A three-piece band led the procession. Sevillanas with a twist, rocieras use a cane and a bass drum instead of cajas and flutes in place of guitars, and singers belt out songs proclaiming the glory of the Blanca Paloma. Behind them came romeros on horseback and the image of the Virgen herself.

music of el Rocio

prensa en el rocio

Triana to El Rocio on horseback

romeros
Romeros de Triana 2015

Calle Pureza during El Rocio

El Rocio passing by the Esperanza de Triana

Once the simpecado had reached the door of the church, pulled by two oxen, a man on horseback removed his had and, red faced, began to rally.¡Viva La Virgen del Rocío! ¡Viva la Blanca Paloma!¡Viva la Marismeña! Each battle cry was followed by a hearty ¡Viva! 

“¡Y Viva Triana! ¡Viva Triana! ¡Viva Triana!”

Salida del Simpecado Rociero

 

Everyone around me erupted into song as petals were thrown from the roof of the church. While El Rocío has a steady dose of hedonism, the true root of the festival lies in soul-stirring devotion. I felt moved in the same way that Semana Santa touched me. People stopped shoving and began to cry, crossing themselves as they proclaimed that only in Heaven is the Virgen del Rocío more loved.

Want to read more about the festival? I attended the Pentecost Sunday activities –¡vestida de gitana! – in 2012.

The A-Z of the Feria de Abril

It’s the happiest time of the year – now that the azahar has bloomed and the gold-laden Holy Week floats have been stored, Seville takes a week to celebrate Andalusian horses, Andalusian sherry and Andalusian music at the April Fair.

The Feria de Abril’s origins lie in a former cattle and livestock fair in the Prado de San Sebastián, though you’d never know it – the biggest and most traditional fair is all about appearances and connections, and it comes with its own set of vocabulary.

Feria de Abril Glossary

For a first-time fairgoer, your senses will be put to the test. The grounds smell of fried fish and horse poop and the music coming from the tents all begins to mix together into a raucous jumble of flamenco, but it’s a visual feast with the lights, the garb and the horses. 

I was completely underprepared for the fair my first year – I wore jeans and a ratty shirt, and then wore the wrong types of accessories with my flamenco dress and didn’t know how to dance sevillanas – but look forward to it each year. Like everything in Seville, there are traditions and rules about how to dress and how to act, and the vocabulary that’s used to describe every aspect is used increasingly in the weeks leading up to the big event.

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

You’ll already stick out as a foreigner, but here’s a list of 20 indispensable words to know if you’re heading to the Feria de Abril:

Albero: Albero is the sandy mix of terrain that lines the sidewalks of the fairgrounds. 

Alumbrado: Happening at midnight on the Lunes (Monday) of Feria, the main gate is lit by the city’s mayor. There are hundreds of thousands of bulbs covering both the portada and the lights along the streets, but they’re all LED!

Amazona: Women choose to wear either a traditional gypsy dress or don a riding outfit to ride side-saddle. An Amazona is a way to call the latter.

Calle del Infierno: Literally translated as ‘Hell Street,’ the Calle del Infierno is located at the western edge of the fairgrounds and has carnival rides, booths and food stands. Keep an extra eye on your purse here.

feria casetas tents farolillos lights in seville spain

Caseta: The makeshift tents that line the streets of the Real. These small structures are owned by families, political parties, businesses or organizations, some of them being private while others public. Each caseta has a kitchen, bathroom and room to dance or eat. 

Coche de Caballos: A central element of the fair is the Andalusian horse, and horse carriages circulate on a city-mandated route from noon until 8pm. The permission to bring a horse carriage is only granted to several hundred official carriages, and the licenses are pricey! Just be sure to watch for horse poop!

feria horses april fair seville

Complementos: A traditional dress is nothing without its larger-than-life accessories. Women don shawls (mantoncillos), earrings (pendientes), combs (peinetas) and large flowers, and it’s not uncommon to see bracelets of necklaces, either. 

Corrida de Toros: Big-name bullfighters come to Seville during the fair to practice their sport at the Maestranza bull ring. Tickets are pricey and seats are limited. In fact, the names of the streets in the real are named for Andalusian bullfighters, like Juan Belmonte or Curro Romero.

El Pescaíto: The opening meal of the fair, open to members of the casetas, where fried fish is served. This dinner usually commences at 9pm. The day itself is called the lunes de pescaíto.

Enchufe: A catch-all word that means plug in a literal and figurative sense, having connections and invitations to a caseta means you’ve got enchufe. Start asking around a few weeks before Semana Santa to see who has access and who can invite you (in exchange for food and drink, of course!).

Farolillo: Paper lanterns that are strung up in the fairgrounds and lit at night.

me and luna in the door of the caseta

Feriante: an adjective referring to anyone who is a fair-goer. As in, Cat es muy feriante.

Fino: Sherry wine made from Palomino grapes that is consumed by the bucketload. See also: rebujito.

Portero: The doorman in private casetas reserves the right to let you in or not. Flirting sometimes works, but you’re better off saying you know someone inside and will just nip in to look for him.

Portada: Taking on a different design every year, the portada is the main gate that crowns Calle Antonio Bienvenida. It’s covered in lightbulbs and is known as a meeting point (even though ‘Let’s meet under the portada‘ is like saying, I’ll try to look for you somewhere in the city center).

Portada de la Feria 2013

Real de la Feria: The recinto ferial isn’t enough of a name – Seville’s fairgrounds has an upgraded moniker known as the Real de la Feria, or simply el Real. It’s often referred to this way in the press.

Rebujito: This sherry and 7-up hybrid is the drink of choice for many sevillanos during the week. Served in a pitcher with ice and small glasses for sipping, it’s concocted from a half liter of dry sherry and two cans of the soft drink. Be careful – it’s a lot more potent than you’d imagine!

Sevillanas: Locals are known for being rancios – overly traditional – and the only music you’ll hear spilling out of the casetas are rumbas or sevillanas. Sevillanas is a four-part dance in which partners court one another. The basic steps repeat over and over again, but the difficult increases from the first to the fourth parts (and after too much rebujito).

Socio(s): Those with enchufe will likely know socios, or card-carrying members of casetas. Individuals will pay a yearly fee – in addition to whatever they spend – for the maintenance and decor of the caseta. Each one usually elects a president who must hire the food and entertainment, along with the people who erect the tent before the festivities. When the Novio and I were socios, we had to show a special card plus a yearly pass to be able to enter!

Traje de Gitana: Women tend to wear a flamenco dress with ruffles and polka dots, known as a traje de gitana or simply a traje. These garments can cost 500€ or more depending on the fabric, designer and number of ruffles, or volantes, and they are worn with complementos. Some women have multiple dresses so as not to be seen twice in the same traje. The only rule is that the dresses are not worn on the Lunes del Pecaíto.

And a word I taught my Spanish students after my first Alumbrado? Hangover.

Did I miss any words on the list? What are your favorite feria-esque words?

Tapa Thursday: 10 Typical Foods You’ll Eat at the Feria de Abril

I’ll just say it right away – sevillanos do not flock to the Real de la Feria for good eats. In a week dedicated to drinking and dancing, food is often an afterthought and sure to make a dent in your wallet faster than a new traje de gitana or registration for your horse carriage.

What to Eat at the Feria de Sevilla

Each of the marquees, called casetas, have a makeshift kitchen in which a contracted restaurant and bar keeps function. Typical favorites end up on the list in ración forms, so friends usually get together a common purse, known as a bote, to pay for food and drink. Because different restaurants are contracted out to feed them masses, food choices differ between venues. One thing you can expect anywhere, though, is to pay 2-5€ more for a plate of food at the fairgrounds, and beers will run 1.50€

Typical Sevillano

If the fair is a celebration of Andalusian culture, its most typical foods are regional dishes. From meats to fish to creamy salmorejo, eating at the fair means chowing down on hearty dishes synonymous with Southern cuisine.

Pescaíto

The fair officially kicks off with a dinner amongst caseta members, called el pecaíto (peck-eye-ee-toe). Traditionally beginning at 9pm on Monday and ending when the main gate is lit at midnight, fried fish is served. For the rest of the week, you can find friend cuttlefish, monkfish, baby squid and other seafood like shrimp on menus.

choco frito Sol y Sombra

It’s no wonder I always come home reeking like overused olive oil.

Cola de Toro

The bullfighting season in Seville reaches a fever pitch during the festivities, with big names in the taurino world squaring off against horned opponents during daily afternoon faenas. Each part of the beast is then used for something.

Bar Sol y Sombra Cola de Toro

Among one of Seville’s star dishes is cola de toro, or stewed bull’s tail. The tender meat is served still on the bone and with vegetables, often over fried potatoes. If you splurge on one thing at the fair that isn’t jamón, let it be bull tail. 

Solomillo de Whiskey

A dish for the less adventurous, solomillo is a versatile cut of meat from the part of a pig between the lower ribs and the spine. Usually served with a sauce, whisky and garlic is one of the most common ways to serve it. Pro tip: grab some bread and make a sandwich, or mop up the left over oil.

Cash Savers

When the economic crisis hit in 2008, Cruzcampo capitalized on a phenomenal marketing opportunity by turning a sour note into a moment to enjoy sharing food with friends (and a hilarious sevillana).

jamon y queso

Jamón may be delicious, but it’s not wallet-friendly. 

In all of my years in the recinto ferial, I’ve learned a few things about where and what to eat, and how to save money – one year, I even brought a turkey sandwich in my purse and, embarrassed, scarfed it down in the bathroom! I will usually eat one big midday meal at the fair, preferring to eat at home to save money, though the bars will serve food in the wee hours of the morning when you’ve had too much rebujito. It’s also not uncommon to see people eating at restaurants in the area in full Feria garb!

If you’re looking for a cheap way to mop up the booze apart from picos or bags of potato chips, try:

Caldo de Puchero

This warm broth is not only a cheap way to load up on calories during a binge, but local lore says it will also help you coat your stomach to keep drinking. The broth is made from the drippings of pringá meat – blood sausage, chorizo, chicken thigh, a salted bone, lard and morcillo de vaca – with a hint of peppermint.

Tortilla de Patatas

Tapa of Tortilla Española

Spain’s most universal dish is served all around the fair, often for 5€ or so. It’s easy to eat, pairs well with bread and is a good choice for vegetarians, as it’s made of egg, potato and salt, and often has onions or peppers mixed in. A tortilla lover’s condiment of choice is mayonnaise, which is usually available in individual packets.

Montaditos and Pinchos

montaditos

A budget lover’s go-to food at the fair are small sandwiches, montaditos, and meat skewers, or pinchitos. Available for about 1.50 – 2€, you can fill up on pork loin sandwiches and pork or chicken skewers. This will leave you with more money to ride the attractions at Calle del Infierno or invite your friends to another round – the Feria de Sevilla is all about appearances, after all.

For the Goloso

Once you’ve had your fill of savory foods, head to the periphery of the recinto ferial for a cheap dessert. There are sweets stalls standing just outside of the fairground limits, and on the western edge you can find Calle del Infierno, an area dedicated to sugary goodies and rickety looking amusement park rides, ferris wheels and game booths.

I’d just suggest going on the rides before consuming a questionable waffle or plate of churros.

Buñuelos and Churros con Chocolate

There’s nothing better than gooey, fried doughy foods in the middle of the night. Buñuelos are small dough balls with a chocolate, caramel or jelly sauce, whereas churros are long rods of dough that get dipped in hot chocolate.

bunuelo

Apart from the sevillanas music and horse carriages, a staple of the fair is the gypsy family who serves up hundreds of buñuelos an hour, just under the main gate. Even the most presumptious of sevillanos get their sweet fix there, so it’s a prime place for people watching!

Chucherías

Gummy, sugary candies are classified as chucerías, and they come in every imaginable size, shape and flavor. Check out the long ‘chuche brooms’ that are nearly a meter long and challenge yourself to eat one on your walk home.

Beverages

Drinking is a central part of any Andalusian fair, with special drinks taking center stage. You can still get your standard beer, wine, soft drinks and coffee, though sherry wine is drank by the bucketful (and I mean literally – 1/2 liter bottles are served in a bucket full of ice!).

Fino or Manzanilla Sherry

The April Fair has its origins in the livestock trade, though I like to believe it gave locals a good chance to imbibe in sherry wine of the fino sort. Palomino grapes lend a dry flavor to this beverage, which is produced in the Sherry Triangle of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puero de Santa María and Sanlúcar la Barrameda.

fino sherry

Sherry is an acquired taste for many, with fino being a dry taste and a pale appearance, whereas manzanilla is a bit sweeter and darker. When you ask for a bottle at the Feria, you’ll be served a half liter in a bucket of ice and will be asked how many small glasses you’d like. Sherry is meant to be sipped.

Rebujito

If you’re looking for a way to take the bite out of the sherry, mix half a liter with two cans of 7-Up and add ice, and you’ve got rebujito. This drink is crisp, refreshing…and more potent than it looks! 

rebujito at the Feria de Sevilla

A ‘jarra’ of rebujito is about 8-10 euros and served with small plastic glasses. Though it looks like a shot, it’s meant to be sipped and you should probably share it with an amigo. Again, this drink is toxic in large quantities, so you’d do well to order a few montaditos or a tortilla long with it!

Have you ever been to an Andalusian fair? What are your favorite eats? 

I’m what you might call a feriante – I love the April Fair. If you want to learn more, check out these posts:

The Do’s and Don’ts of the Feria | the Feria de Jerez | My Five Favorite Feria de Abril Moments | Buying a Flamenco Dress | Buying Accessories for your Flamenco Dress

Seville Snapshots: Palm Sunday Processions

I packed my bag hurriedly but with purpose: I’d need sunscreen, lipstick, a street map and my camera with long-distance lens. Nothing more, nothing less. I locked the door and walked hurriedly to the bar.

After more than seven years in Seville, I was finally staying to see Holy Week, the somber processions that punctuate the spring rains and precursor to the raucous fair. My ten-day break from school usually means a trip to somewhere far away from pointy hats and heavy floats – I’ve used Semana Santa to see the Taj Mahal, sip Turkish coffee in Istanbul, to road trip through Europe’s youngest country.

But this year, I made torrijas, a typical sweet eaten during Lent, and buckled down to see the pasos. After lunch in Triana, Kelly and I took the long way to see La Estrella – one of the neighborhood brotherhoods, called hermandades. This takes planning, sturdy shoes and a lot of patience.

Carrera Oficial Semana Santa Sevilla

Friends in Spain

As a Semana Santa Virgin – bad pun, I admit it – I was intrigued and had an open mind. And after weeks without even taking Camarón with me, he was long overdue for a day out. Over 400 photos later, I’ve been convinced that Holy Week is aesthetically pleasing, albeit a logistical headache, even in the back-end of Triana! Here are some of my (untouched!) favorites:

La Estrella – from the Seville side of the Puente de Triana

Rather than crossing over the Puente de Triana, we took El Cachorro. The city’s most iconic bridge sees five brotherhoods pass over on its way to the Carrera Oficial between la Campana and the Cathedral and back home.

La Estrella is Triana’s first and one of its most beloved. The purple and blue antifaces seemed less jarring in a bright afternoon light. Seeing my first paso had all of the hallmarks – nazarenos handing out candy to kids, barefoot brothers seeking penitence while clutching rosaries, two floats and brass bands.

We watched the Cristo de las Penas pass by, the air tinged with incense and azahar mixing with doughy fried churro steam. And, in true Semana Santa, we then went to a bar, had a drink, and emerged an hour later to wait for the Virgen de la Estrella.

I’d come to discover that this is Semana Santa – waiting, pushing, waiting, drinking a beer, walking, waiting.

Penitent of La Estrella Brotherhood Sevilla

Photographing Semana Santa

Incense Holy Week

El Cristo de la Penas en su Procesion

Barefoot penitents

Kid Nazarenos

Virgen de la Estrella

El Jesús Despojado – from Antonia Día/Adriano

As soon as the band immediately behind the Virgen de las Estrella passed by, the throngs of people immediately disseminated. Like a couple of cabritas, we followed them, hatching out a semi-plan with the use of the Llamador guide and a vague idea of where some streets were.

We found a spot on the curb just past the bull ring to watch Jesús Depojado – an image of Christ being disrobed – just before the Cruz de Guía emerged from an alleyway. Brothers handed us small pictures of the images, called estampitas, as they passed by, lighting the candles they held in their hands as dusk fell.

This particular procession captivated me, from the way children dipped their white gloves into the pools of hot wax as the cirios burned down to the way the costaleros turned the float around a tight corner to cheers and clapping. 

Cruz de Guia Jesús Despojado

Wax balls Holy Week

Holy Week Processions in Sevilla

Penitence Cross Holy Week Seville

Virgin Mary Procession

Virgen of the Jesus Despojada

Cirios in Holy Week Seville

La Amargura from Placentines/Alemanes

Kelly and I found Ximena and Helen after taking the long way around Barrio Santa Cruz. Helen had found a pocket of space in the shadow of the Giralda to watch her boyfriend’s procession, La Amargura. It was past 10pm, and the lights of the buildings had been switched off.

La Amargura is a serious brotherhood whose nazarenos cannot break rank. Even with their faces covered and hands grasping their antifaces, the solemnity was evident. When the white-clad nazarenos begin filing by with their cirios lit, I gasped. It was eery, haunting.

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La Amargura near the Cathedral

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Just as I was crossing over the Carrera Oficial with the help of some local police and a hold up with El Amor’s procession, my mom called. I stumbled back to Triana via side streets just in time to watch El Cristo de las Penas enter into its temple.

Like a car backing up into a garage, the float was maneuvered halfway in before lurching out three times, finally entering on the shoulders of 48 costaleros after more than 13 hours of procession. I stumbled into bed well after 3am, myself having done a procession of my own for 13 hours.

Have you ever seen Semana Santa in Sevilla? Which processions are your favorites?

Photo Post: the Chirigotas of the Carnavales de Cádiz

How to do the Carnavales de Cadiz

Pá qué quieren ir ha Chipiona shi aquí tenemoh Caí?

Two more beers and a plate of chicharrones were slammed down in front of us as the bar keep expressed exasperation. Why would anyone want to head to nearby Chipiona if the peninsula’s best Carnival celebration were right here in Cádiz?

We’d braved an overcast, misty day to head to San Fernando for the Novio’s wedding tuxedo the morning, and the fried fish and carnavales celebration were calling his name. 

A view of the bay of Cadiz

Entering the barrio de Santa María just north of the old city walls, there were few signs of debauchery and partygoers. I myself have been to the nighttime festivities of the Carnavales de Cádiz twice. Two booze-soaked nights where I stepped in puddles of urine and around broken glass.

Ah, youth.

When the Novio suggested making a day trip to see a friend of his and see the famed chirigotas, I was in. Not that I didn’t have fond memories of botellones and ridiculous children’s costumes, of course.

The Plaza del Ayuntamiento, one I’d seen so full of drunk people and bottles of San David, was bright in the midday sun. As we’d drank our beers, the mist had rolled off of one side of the Atlantic and over the Bahía Sur, passing Cádiz’s skinny land mass in the time it had taken to drink two cervezas

We’d met Jorge in the tangle of streets in the old town. Cádiz is one of Europe’s largest cities, and thus there is little rhyme or reason to the layout of the peninsula. Long on one side, short on the other, I was instantly turned around in the colonial-style pedestrian streets.

Streets of Cádiz old town

Lunch was at trendy La Candelaria, owned by a far-flung relative of Jorge’s. In this city of water and industry, it sees that families have been here as long as Hercules himself, and nearly everyone who walked into the bar over our long lunch knew one another.  

But we came for more than atún rojo en tempura and never-ending glasses of wine (the good stuff, not the plastic bottle stuff). We came for the chirigotas and costumes. 

The origins of carnival celebrations worldwide are rooted in Christian tradition. Celebrated each year just before Lent, believers often used this six-week period to refrain from life’s excesses. Carnaval, a play on the Latin words ‘carne’ for meat and ‘vale’ for farewell, is a last-ditch effort to eat, drink and be merry/drunk before Lent begins. I’d taken that advice to heart all of those years ago, but today would be a far lighter – I’d volunteered to drive home.

Costumes are traditionally worn, and Cádiz’s celebration – one of the largest in Spain – makes light of the humor of gaditanos. Rather than extravagant costumes, gaditanos use their costumes as social commentary. Especially popular this year were Pablo Iglesia, whatsapp icons and the Duquesa de Alba.

costumes of the carnivals de cadiz

Funny Costume Ideas Carnavales de Cadiz

Crazy costumes at Cadiz carnavales

san esteban Carnavales de Cadiz

The chirigotas themselves are the huge draw of the daytime during the two weeks that the festivities drag on. These choruses, usually made up of men in the same costume, sing satirical verses about politics, current events and everyday life while troubadoring around the streets of the Casco Antiguo.

Small clumps of people choked the skinny alleyways as chorus members drank beer until they’d deemed that enough people had gathered to watch. They’d break into song, often asking audience members to join in. We saw everyone from kids dressed as housewives to men dressed as questionable nuns with plastic butts under their habits and plastic cups of beer in their hands.

what is a chirigota

costumes for Carnival

carnival in Cadiz chirigotas

The most famous chirigotas perform for crowds in the famed Teatro Gran Falla, but those who take to the street are often illegal – illegal as in looking for a good buzz on the street!

We wound our way from the Plaza de la Catedral to the Plaza San Antonio and up Calle Cervantes to the Plaza del Mentidero. Named not for liars but the fact that this is where town criers often announced news and events, this square has transformed into the place for rumors to be born – making it a focal point of the festivities (and closer to the Carnavales I knew – littered with bottles and half-eaten food!).

What it's like at the Carnavales de Cadiz

We were back in Seville before nightfall, thoroughly exhausted and still sporting wet shoes from the morning rainfall. Jorge took us around the Alameda park on the northern tip of the island as the sun began to set, a welcome respite from the crowds and noise.

Want more Spanish fiesta? Read my posts on the Feria de Sevilla | La Tomatina de Buñol | The Feria del Caballo de Jerez 

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.

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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! 

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