Tag Archives: Spain

the truth about study abroad

I’ve been in Spain for nearly six months now. I’ve seen a lot of great things, traveled to a ton of cool places, and met many new friends. I party my ass off, take long walks, and study hard when the moment requires. I’ve immersed myself in this society as much as I can and I’m wildly, perfectly happy here – or at least, that’s what you’d think if you read my blog or stalked my Facebook. But here’s the truth: what I tell you about my time abroad is only a small portion. I leave out the frustrating phone conversations with my horseback riding trainer, who was supposed to pick me up at 4:30 but didn’t and then called me twelve times while I was on the metro and couldn’t understand whether he wanted me to wait at the station or walk to the barn. I don’t mention the insatiable craving I feel for a goddamn Subway sandwich, followed by the even worse guilt over my inherent and unshakeable Americanness. I keep mum about the nagging feeling that I’m not truly taking advantage of my time here that I get when I stay in and watch movies on a Friday night. And then worse, the inadequacy I feel over the fact that I’ve been here so long and still haven’t made a truly close Spanish friend. I look at some of the other girls who’ve been here since September and they have Spanish boyfriends, for God’s sake, and even though I don’t really want a relationship, I feel somehow less-than.

When you see the life I put out on the Internet, you’re really only seeing the best ten percent of what I do here. You don’t see all the boring days where I don’t do much more than go to class and do homework after, or the petty squabble I have with a friend, or the nights I go out for a beer or two then turn in early. And you definitely don’t see the moments when I break down and just want to go home.

Which, in case you hadn’t guessed, is right now.

In a lot of ways, I think that’s dishonest of me. While I was getting everything together to come out here, all I heard about studying abroad was how awesome it was going to be. Every person I talked to (including the woman working the phones at Chase who made sure my debit card wouldn’t get flagged while I was abroad) gushed over my trip. Past study abroaders fed me story after story of endless fun. And at first, Sevilla was like that. I devoured this city.

But at a certain point, this stopped being a vacation for me. I thought I could outrun my social anxiety and introversion, but of course that’s impossible. I had this image of myself as Sevillana Katy, some sort of study abroad alter ego. And that Katy was fun and adventurous, organized and driven but always up for a spontaneous night out. She would strike up conversations with everyone and snap street photos without fear. But that person doesn’t really exist – at the end of the day, I still start to sweat when I ask someone if I can take their photo. I still long for quiet nights in with a terrible movie and too much Diet Coke. I still come off as stand-offish, or worse, boring, to new acquaintances thanks to my debilitating shyness in groups. None of that went away simply because I ran off to Spain.

It’s funny, this has been one of the hardest things to write and put out there. I want everyone back home to believe I’m having this unreal time. When people, even some of my closest friends, ask how I’m doing I invariably answer “incredible” or “amazing” or some other superlative. “I may never come home,” I say. I’ve been feeding the stereotype that it’s all good times, all the time. It feels wrong. So here you go, readers: study abroad is not always fun. It’s real life. Ups and downs happen, and I think on a more extreme scale than back home. So if you’re planning to go abroad anytime soon, try not to idealize it too much before you leave. Because sooner or later you’re going to have a terrible day – there’s no need to make it worse by feeling bad about feeling bad.

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la vida extremeña

the alleys of caceres's jewish quarter.

I’m starting to realize how much I like traveling alone. I don’t have to worry if I’m boring my travel companions. I can eat when and what I want. And if I get lost, I can wander at leisure until I eventually find my way back to a place I recognize. I think that’s the best part of traveling – turning up a street just because you like the look of the cobblestones, or ducking into a cafe solely based on the cute sign. A few weeks ago, I was sent to Extremadura for an interview and got the chance to do just that. I was headed to an isolated farm in the middle of nowhere and ended up spending the night in the small city of Caceres, which I had never heard of before I bought my bus ticket.

When I pulled into the city that Friday night, Caceres looked like any modern town in Spain – blockish apartment complexes, department stores, freeways. I was glad I would be leaving at 7 the next morning. But when I went hunting for a bocadillo at dinnertime, I found this.

the plaza mayor of caceres. a lovely place to stop for a coffee and people watch!

Turns out, Caceres’s medieval walled city is a UNESCO heritage site – just like Toledo. I immediately extended my stay a night so I could explore all day Sunday. All thanks to a lucky right turn as I stepped out the front door of my hotel.

To be honest, Caceres can be seen in a day. But i liked having time to turn up random streets as I felt like it. I didn’t even have a map – I had no idea what the important sights even were, let alone how to find them. And that was nice. So if you have a day or two, check out Caceres. Or any little town on your way to the next must-see city (I’m looking at you three, Madrid, Barcelona, and Granada!). You just might be surprised.

bougainvillea in the casco antiguo.

If you go…

Stay: Hotel los Naranjos. Clean and cheap, los Naranjos has a great staff. They’ll even be nice to you when you wake them out of a deep sleep at 5 am when you hit the doorbell accidentally on your way out. Not that I’ve done that. It’s located just outside the Casco Antiguo, and about a 5-10 minute bus ride from the main bus station.

Eat: At any of the little carnicerias lining the streets. You can order a sandwich made fresh with the best jamon iberico in the country and delicious sheep’s milk cheese for under 3 euros.

See: The whole old city. Climb the wall (free on Sundays!), walk through the cobbled streets, and stop when you feel like it. It’s worth it, I promise.

caceres seen through the arrow slits in the citadel walls.

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thankful

the feast!

So Thanksgiving happened, and it was a grand success – or at least good enough to eat the leftovers in two days. It was quiet and cozy, just like it always is at home. We had just four people around the little dining room table – Asa, Elisabeth, my friend Michelle, and myself of course – which is just how I like it. I didn’t even mess up the turkey roulades, though there was a brief panic moment when I opened the package from the butcher to find an in-tact chest cavity (complete with aorta!) instead of the neat, boneless breasts I’d been expecting. Luckily, Fali (what a name for a butcher!) is a lovely man and was perfectly willing to chop it up for me when I went back to see what could be done. And even though I accidentally got fava beans instead of green beans, and I ran out of time before I could do the gravy, and a million other little things, by the time we were all sitting together it just didn’t matter.

I have to say, I was initially expecting some serious homesickness on the day. In the week leading up to our Friday night feast, I was aching to get back to Portland, if just for the holiday meal. I went through most of last week in a bit of a daze. See, I may joke a lot about my love of Thanksgiving stemming from my inner fat kid, but if I’m honest (and a little sappy) it’s more the family time I’m in to. The dinner is great, sure, but I wouldn’t mind giving all the food away in exchange for wine-soaked bickering with my mom over dirty dishes, a knowing smile and roll of the eyes from my dad when I ask him to run to the store for the fifth time, and my sister sneaking a taste of the desserts when she thinks I’m not looking. That’s Thanksgiving to me – loud, bustling, dirty, imperfect Thanksgiving, and I didn’t think any imitation I could slap together here would stand up to the real thing.

Of course, my holiday wasn’t anything like my family’s version. That experience is unique to that specific group of people. I couldn’t recreate it in any other setting. But what I got was just as good. I don’t think I realized before we all sat down to the huge meal I’d made on my own, in my host mother’s kitchen, just how much this place feels like home. Asa and Elisabeth are my family now. This third-floor walk-up apartment on the river is where I live. I haven’t lost my roots back in Oregon, but after almost three months in Sevilla I feel like I belong here. And that’s never been clearer to me than when I was shoveling my second helping of stuffing into my mouth. It was the most American meal I’ve had in months, but it was my meal, made in my adopted home in my adopted city. I’ll never be all Spanish – you can’t change where you’re from – but this place is part of my DNA now.

A while ago, Asa, Elisabeth, and I were browsing the fish selection at a market on Calle Feria. Asa asked one of the vendors about his salmon, and the woman behind her in line began giving her all sorts of suggestions. “In Spain, we traditionally like to grill them a la plancha,” the woman said, somewhat bossily. “If you want to experience real Spanish culture, that’s how you should cook  them.” Of course, Asa didn’t need this woman to tell her that – she’s lived in Spain since she was nine years old. But later, as we sat down to salmoneta filets for lunch, Asa just shrugged it off, smiling.

“You can’t get rid of who you are,” she said. “I’m Swedish. I was raised in a Swedish household. No matter how long I live here, people will be able to look at me and know I’m not Spanish. But who says that’s a bad thing? We all have our roots.”

That’s how I feel about my life here in Sevilla. I will never fool these people into thinking I’m a native. Even if I live here for forty more years, I’ll still have a faint accent. I’ll still love stuffing and pumpkin pie and wearing hoodies when it’s cold out. But I can make myself a part of the landscape here. And on this Monday evening, just a few days after Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

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oh the weather outside is weather…

snuggly sweaters and lacy layers.

Well, it’s finally happened: fall has arrived. Last week clouds rolled in, the wind was blowing, and I finally started to understand why everyone’s senora freaks out about bare feet in the house – these tiles are freezing. And along with all the rain and chill breezes came a deep sense of regret for items left behind.

Yup, I packed too light.

It’s a little hard to believe, actually. I’m one of those people who lives in perpetual fear of needing something I don’t happen to have on me. On any given day I’m most likely carrying on my person a bottle of Advil, perfume, a travel-sized toothbrush, five bobby pins, and my external hard drive. I mean, I literally brought thirteen pairs of shoes with me for three months in Argentina. Thirteen! I had to buy an extra duffle bag and transfer them all over from my huge suitcase in the middle of PDX just so I’d be under the weight limit.

And yet, here I am, freezing my tail off in southern Spain because I failed to pack anything warmer than my favorite blazer.

Of course, I’m well-aware of why this all came about. Airline baggage policies have changed quite a bit since I flew to South America: in 2008, I was allowed two 50-pound suitcases plus the normal carry-ons for international flights. On my way here, I had to fit my whole life into one 23-kilo square, plus the duffle I lugged over a dozen pairs of shoes in three years ago. All things considered, that’s not a lot of space. But I figured, as my mother repeatedly said to me as I edited my wardrobe down to airline regulation size, they do sell clothes in Spain. I wasn’t permanently limited to what I could stuff into my measly 28-inch box.

Two months in, I can tell you from personal experience that yes, they do sell clothes here. But they sell clothes in euros. With value-added tax. And no Forever 21s. So yeah, I’ve been doing some shopping out of necessity. A girl can’t live in sundresses and pink shorts alone. But it definitely would have been a good deal cheaper in the long run to pay the extra baggage fee.

Learn from my mistakes, future study-abroaders: pack what you need.

That said, I’m pretty excited about my recent additions to my wardrobe. I’ve been slowly adding fall pieces, one or two at a time, and I think I can reasonably say that I’m prepared for colder days ahead.

my closet - finally almost full!

So what have I bought for fall? Let’s recap, shall we?

1. Cocoon coat in a lovely shade of tobacco (Pull&Bear)
2. Foliage/leopard-inspired printed dress (Pull&Bear)
3. Wide-striped sweatshirt dress (Stradovarius)
4. Cozy gray cableknit sweater (Oysho)
5. Pink and camel striped mohair sweater (H&M)
6. White lace tee (Zara)
7. Black stacked-heel ankle boots (H&M)
8. Black mini-dress with Stella McCartney-esque polka dot sleeves (Zara TRF)

Notice the trend of WARMTH. I was taken by surprise when the stormy weather blew through, but I will not be defeated by a little wind and rain. So if you’re planning some time abroad in Spain, make sure you come prepared; my blazers definitely aren’t enough.

the h&m boots - less comfy than they look, but so worth it.

I’m less than thrilled about the amount of money I’ve spent on this capsule wardrobe, but at least it’s all pieces I can wear back home, too. I have to remind myself that I’m not shopping on a whim here. While I’m excited about everything I’ve bought, it’s all necessary to a certain extent: I can’t run around in 40 degree weather in my sundresses. I needed some substantial clothes. But to those of you preparing for spring semester abroad, a word of caution: sometimes it’s worth it to pay for the extra baggage! Make sure you pack for weather from freezing temperatures to humid and rainy to dry and 100 degrees. This city is insane; choose your clothes wisely.

dresses in neutral colors for mixing and matching.

As the departure date for spring study-abroaders approaches, keep an eye out for packing tips from yours truly! I’ll do what I can to keep you from making the same mistakes I did.

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cookbook review: 1080 recetas de cocina by simone ortega

soooo preeeettyyyy

I don’t remember the first time I saw this cookbook. The illustrated version only came out in 2003, but in my memory, it’s been in our armoire of awesomeness (the hideaway for every cookbook and Bon Appetit published since 1985) since before I was born. The original edition, much less pretty than this one, was published just a few years before my mother spent her year in Madrid, and it instantly became a classic in Spanish cooking. If you are at all interested in Spanish culture and cuisine, or even if you just like cooking, this book is a must-have in your arsenal.

Hence, why I just dropped an obscene amount of cash on this baby. “Ediciones de lujo,” as they call this monstrosity, don’t come cheap. But I figure I’ll be able to keep this book around for a long time. After all, it’s practically fine art.

one of the many full-page illustrations in the book.

1080 Recetas de cocina is exactly what it sounds like – over one thousand delicious recipes, mostly from the Spanish tradition, but including many French, Italian, and other continental influences as well. Simone Ortega, the original author, remains one of the most well-respected cooking authorities in Spain; countless Spanish cooks count her among their influences. I mean, seriously, Ferran Adria wrote the foreword for this cookbook. And if you don’t know who that is, fire up your Google – he is THE biggest name in celebrity chefs in the entire world. But seriously though, look him up. I’ll wait.

This cookbook inspired a generation of young Spanish chefs, who are now regarded as the cutting edge of haute cuisine. That whole molecular gastronomy movement? Adria’s. And if another restaurant exists that manages to meld centuries of tradition with the avant-guarde as successfully as Arzak, I want to hear about it. This country is legit. And even with all that forward-thinking attitude, the chefs here haven’t lost their roots. They’re Spanish, and their food is inherently Spanish too. 1080 Recetas offers the most comprehensive look at those influences that I’ve ever found.

Also, there are cute drawings of fishies.

see? a fish.

The book is organized by type of dish, including appetizers, sauces, eggs, poultry, and wild game, to name a few, and also includes a section on complementary information – how to liquify caramel, for example, and tricks on preventing onion-related tears. I wish I could tell you the trick for the latter, but unfortunately I can’t understand what it says. That’s what I get for being cocky and buying the Spanish version – my reading comprehension in this language makes me want to cry. But there you go.

The recipes are also all indexed by dish name and ingredient in the back, for your searching pleasure.

the index, very comprehensive and indexy.

All in all, I’m beyond stoked to put this bad boy to use. My biggest problem at the moment, however, is choosing a recipe to start with. 1080 is a lot, in case you were wondering; the book weighs seriously 50 pounds. (Well, maybe not actually. But it is really heavy.) For the moment I’m just admiring it. I take it out every once in a while just to browse the gorgeous illustrations. Looking at them, you’d think someone just sketched straight on the pages with pastels (or is it chalk? I really don’t know.) I’m kind of obsessed.

the title page...so cute!

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la ciudad de las tres culturas

toledo's medieval city, as seen from the cathedral tower.

At the moment, I’m sprawled out on the couch in the living room, watching a movie about baseball dubbed over in Spanish. I haven’t been able to make myself leave the house today, aside from to go to class this morning. I’m not sick anymore (thank God) – I’m just taking advantage of finally being back home. In the last month, I’ve traveled every single weekend: Cordoba with my program, Lagos for three days of sunbathing, Toledo with my friend Michelle, and finally Barcelona these past four days. It’s been exhausting, but in the best way. But as much fun as I’ve had, I’m just so glad to be back in my flat for the foreseeable future. I was literally grinning the whole way to class this morning because I was so happy to pass all my favorite landmarks – the confiteria with the fabulous pastries, my post-siesta beer stop, the gorgeous designer bridal boutique with the feathered dress in the window…perfection.

Two weeks ago, however, I was getting restless in Sevilla. I was ready to get out and see some more of this country that’s my home for the next nine months. Cordoba was a brief day trip, and since my jaunt to Portugal (while fun) was with a company specializing in trips for American students I didn’t feel like I was seeing anything culturally significant. On Wednesday I mentioned this to my friend Michelle, who agreed, and on Friday morning at 1 AM we were boarding a bus for the first leg of an 8-hour journey to Toledo.

a view of the cathedral from the winding streets.

For those not in the know, Toledo is a small city about 20 minutes by train outside of Madrid. It’s famous for its medieval center, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. As in, the whole thing.

So as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s pretty awesome.

We got in around 9 or 10 on Friday morning, and since our hostel couldn’t check us in until noon, we went straight away to see the cathedral. Like Sevilla’s, the cathedral is from the Gothic period with a reclaimed minaret for a bell tower. But Toledo’s cathedral was built much earlier than Sevilla’s, as it was the first major Arab city in Spain to be reconquered by the Christians. I didn’t even realize the bell tower was originally Muslim; a nice security guard who ended up giving us something of a free tour told me. Overall, the church is a great example of Gothic style – I was pretty into it. And since we showed up right as they were opening the ticket booth, we managed to avoid the crush of tour groups. It’s always nice to see churches when they’re quiet; we even got to see part of a Mass going on in one of the side chapels.

the biggest bell in the tower. it's HUGE.

My favorite part of the cathedral was definitely the bell tower. The climb is actually terrifying – I can’t even begin to describe how tiny and twisty the staircase is – but it’s worth the effort. The bells are beautiful, as is the view. The biggest bell has only been rung two times. It’s cracked now so they don’t use it, but its smaller companions manage to make up for it.

One of the reasons Toledo is so famous is its history as “la ciudad de las tres culturas” – the city of three cultures. The Arabs first set foot in Spain in 711, and by 780 they had taken over most of the Iberian Peninsula. Toledo became a major epicenter during the first few centuries of Moorish rule, and the time became known as “la Convivencia” – the co-existence. Supposedly, Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in relative harmony. In reality, there were probably some tensions between the three, but Toledo still carries the mark of all three. See: la Juderia, the Jewish Quarter, and the two beautiful synagogues still in tact.

the arches of sinagoga de santa maria la blanca.

The more famous of the two is la Sinagoga del Transito, which now houses the Museo Sefardi. It’s certainly larger. But I liked the much-smaller Santa Maria la Blanca better (and yes, I realize it’s a bit of a misnomer). The courtyard was beautiful, and inside was a beautiful art exposition featuring drawings of a Judeo-Christian bend. A kindly older nun was selling them, and we got to talk to her a little bit. She said she was part of an order that helped take care of the synagogue (which was converted into a church, and now back to synagogue). Either way, both synagogues are worth a visit.

After all the sightseeing we did, Michelle and I were desperate for some good food. The first night, the guy working the front desk at our hostel gave us a recommendation for dinner: “Bar Enebro,” he said. “Cheap, delicious, fun.” I can’t even begin to tell you how true that is! We had originally thought about going to a real restaurant first and stopping by Enebro for drinks after, but I’m so glad we didn’t. You see, with every drink you buy, you get a HUGE plate of fries and bocadillos. So for 5 euros each, we both got two drinks and a full meal. The sandwiches were delicious – melty manchego cheese and either ham or bacon, depending on the bartender’s mood – and I couldn’t believe the amount of fries they served. Suffice to say, I was impressed.

outside of convento de san clemente.

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post-siesta paseos

I seem to have a bit of ‘splainin to do. I’ve been really busy the past two weeks, so posts to this blog have been thin on the ground. Reasons:

1. Lagos, a.k.a. Lag Vegas, where I went on a weekend trip with mah CNMJ ladies (minus Yvonne, but we’re Photoshopping her into the photos so it’s LIKE she was there). I didn’t bring my camera for fear of ruination via sand, sun, and surf, and also sangria. In retrospect, this was an EXCELLENT decision. Seriously, Portugal is not the best place for something as adored as my brand-new Canon Rebel.

2. OTHER BLOGS! I know, such a betrayal. But I’m now doing biweekly cooking blogs for Ethos Magazine, which just happens to be my favorite mag EVER. And then in addition I’m writing a few entries for CIEE’s Sevilla blog. Like this one. Read it. You (might) like it.

3. I’m sick as snot. No, really, I just sneezed and got mucus all over the screen. It’s really attractive.

Hence, no posts of real value for Sol y Sombra. But I will tell you a little about my afternoon paseo routine.

this balcony in barrio santa cruz is exactly what i used to picture when i daydreamed about my life in spain.

First off, in Sevilla the siesta is not a myth. Every day, from around 2:30 or 3 until 5:30 or so, the world pretty much shuts down. It’s pretty much the only quiet time in the city. Example: I left my window open last night in an attempt to coax in a little breeze, and a troupe of hooligans (“cannis,” though I wouldn’t call them that to their face) woke me up at around 4 AM. And it was a Monday. But right now, the only sounds outside are the occasional passing car and the horrible, yappy little rat of a dog in the flat below me.

But I digress.

You see, after the lovely little afternoon nap, I start feeling a little restless. I have class in the mornings, but my afternoons are my own. So I’ve been taking walks. I leave around 6 or so and wander the streets with my camera, trying to get lost. It doesn’t usually work – the center of Sevilla runs in something of a circle, so I usually end up right where I started. But it’s still fun.

helado "crema sevillana" from la fiorentina, one of the two best heladerias in town.

The idea of a paseo is definitely very Latin. I remember doing essentially the same thing in Argentina, usually accompanied by a big scoop of helado from the little shop down the road. As it turns out, the Spaniards are just as stoked on ice cream as the Argentines. And who am I to ignore customs with such cross-cultural significance? So I often stop at one of two heladerias in my neighborhood – Rayas and La Fiorentina. There’s a bit of competition between the two over which is better, and both have their firm supporters. I won’t say it’s as fierce as Sevilla and Betis (the two soccer teams in town), but it’s pretty damn close.

Personally, I like the flavors at Rayas better – fig is a personal favorite – but the service at La Fiorentina can’t be beat. When I took these photos last week, the guy serving me insisted on setting up a beautiful shot of my cone, complete with styling. I was pretty impressed.

the employee's photographic masterpiece. much better than my shot.

Of course, being the studious little lady that I am, I can’t justify wandering around eating ice cream all afternoon without fitting in a little work, too. That’s where bars come in.

Yes, that sounds ridiculous. But really though. I love plopping down in a square somewhere with a book for my literature class. One of my favorites is la Alicantina, a top-rated tapas bar in la Plaza del Salvador. The service is fast and the people watching is top-notch – apparently a lot of locally famous folks stop in from time to time, including bullfighters and soccer stars. La Alicantina is also top rated for their ensaladilla rusa, a potato and tuna salad that’s pretty delicious. But I usually just order a beer and some olives, which I’m pretty sure is the ideal study combo. The whole thing costs me a little under 3 euros, and nobody seems to care if I linger at the table for an hour or two.

'san manuel bueno, martir' and a cruzcampo. my life is so difficult.

I think the best part about the paseo for me is the opportunity to be by myself. I’m the type of person that recharges through time away from people. Not that I’m anti-social – I just need to have quiet time in order to relax. So between a luxurious mid-day nap and my two hours or so of walking, I’m ready to interact with my host family, my friends, and anyone else I run into before I turn in for the night. All in all, the paseo is the perfect way for me to take in this city I’m beginning to think of as home.

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american as apple galette

the masterpiece.

Most of the time, I hate getting advice. Maybe I’m a know-it-all, but I like to think I can at the very least figure things out myself. Generally that means I make a lot of very avoidable mistakes (ice-related car crash over the Santiam Pass ten minutes after Mom tells you to drive SLOW and avoid sharp turns = embarrassing), but I guess that’s life.

Anyway, even though I’m not into taking suggestions, allow me to impart on you all a little wisdom I learned the hard way: don’t, as in DO NOT, try to make a pie crust with all the blinds up in the middle of siesta time in southern Spain. I know it’s hard to take, but trust me, it will save you a lot of heartache. Why shouldn’t I? you may ask. To which I answer, just trust me. But just to hammer the lesson home, here are a few reasons.

1. Your host family will think you are crazy for bumbling around in the kitchen right after lunch.
2. You will absolutely miss your nap and then you will be cranky.
3. All the butter in your dough will melt in .25 seconds and you will have to constantly throw everything in the freezer to keep your crust from being ruined.

i always write out the recipe i'm using by hand so i don't have to keep checking back with the computer, book, magazine, etc.

For those of you with no pastry experience, that last reason might be a little weird. After all, you might say, doesn’t it all go in the oven anyway? And isn’t butter supposed to melt during baking?

Well, yes. But the key phrase there is during baking. Allow me to go all Bakewise on you for a second: the most important part of making awesome pastry is keeping the fat COLD and therefore separate from the dry ingredients. What makes a crust flaky is the pockets of butter that melt in the oven, leaving little holes all over the pastry. When I first started making pies, I had no idea how important this was, so I was always disappointed in the slightly soggy crusts I ended up with. But once you get the technique of “cutting in” the fat (butter, shortening, or lard) while it’s still cold, you’re almost guaranteed a successful pie crust.

Hence, the issue of the burning hot Spanish sun.

cold butter, ready for cutting.

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a contradiction in terms

reflection

the beautiful reflecting pool of the real alcazar.

Yesterday, I got my first real glimpse of mudéjar architecture. Mudéjar basically means buildings in the style of the Moors in Spain, but created by Christians after the Reconquista – a somewhat contradictory concept, and a phenomenon that seems to me counterintuitive. As one of the most complete examples of mudéjar style, the Real Alcázar is proof-positive of the profound Muslim influence in Spain, despite past attempts to eradicate the memory of al-Andalus.

I have to say, I haven’t been all that interested in architecture in the past. The beauty of most buildings escapes me. What I am interested in is people and what makes them do the things they do. So the Alcázar, while unbelievably gorgeous, fascinates me more for the stories associated with it than anything else. It straddles two great empires, one crumbling and the other on the brink of world power, and it’s crazy to see how the two interact.

At its roots, the Alcázar is Arab. The Arab kings built the barest sketch of a fortified palace here in 712 AD, and two or three of the main buildings visible now were laid down in the ninth and 10th centuries.

mini fountain

a small fountain in the arab portion of the alcazar. i had to lay down on the floor to get the shot - i looked more than a little insane.

But by 1248, Sevilla was back in Christian hands, and as a backlash against the Moorish influence Alfonso X ordered three salons in the gothic style – not surprising, considering the Moors still held a decent portion of territory in the Iberian Peninsula. But things got a little interesting in the 1360s – Pedro I de Castilla decided to add something to the mix, and the Palacio Mudéjar was born. By far the largest part of the compound, the main palace is a tribute to the Moorish aesthetic, with horse shoe-shaped arches, intricate tilework, and even entire rooms of plaster walls covered in verses from the Quran.

a small bit of the plaster work. as islam forbids iconography, geometric designs were common, and often included religious verses in intricate calligraphy.

Our guide Angel, who happens to also teach my Cultural History of Spain class, pointed out what a contradiction this is. At the time, Spain was in the middle of the Reconquista. The great Moorish empire had been pushed back to Granada, and just over 100 years later they would be defeated and those remaining in Spain forced to convert. Tensions between those of Arab descent and “native” Spaniards were so high that soon after the turn of the 16th century, the Moors would be expelled from Spain completely. And yet the Christian monarchy was so fascinated with the culture that they copied it for at least a century! As Angel quipped, the existence of mudéjar architecture seems to say to the Moors, “We hate you, get out of our country, but your style is awesome so we’ll just snatch that up.” (Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but whatever.)

the girls in the garden.

Regardless, both the buildings and the extensive gardens are gorgeous, but I think my favorite part was the bath. Pedro I built them for his mistress, María de Padilla. Obviously a scandal, since he had a wife. I’ve been to a traditional hammam in Morocco before, and it was cool to see the Spanish rendition – even though the water was disgusting – and since the baths are below ground, it was a nice respite from the horrible humidity outside.

hammam

a hall in the royal baths. i can totally see the king's mistress gliding through here to bathe during the scorching afternoons!

By the time we left, my head was buzzing with stories. I wrote part of a historical fiction novel about the Moors in the time of the Reconquista for a class my senior year (thank you OES English), and I’ve been fascinated by their history ever since. But I’ve never thought about the story from the other side – from the point of view of the Spaniards as they pushed the “invaders” back into a corner. Having had just a taste of the clash of cultures for myself now, I can’t wait to get to Cordoba and Granada to see more.

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mucho gusto, sevilla.

view

the view from the top of the ciee study center.

So I made it, in case you were wondering, and allow me to inform you that this place is amazing. I’ve only been here five days but I’m pretty sure I’m in love.

this would be where i go to school. nbd.

A BRIEF RECAP:

1. I arrived after 21 hours of torture by airline travel on September 5, greasy and exhausted but no worse for wear. We stayed in a hotel just around the corner from the CIEE center – excuse me, palace – in the medieval part of the city. The hotel building dates from the 18th century apparently, and the streets have been the same since the 1400s. There’s actually a law in place that says nobody can change how the streets run, which makes for some interesting traffic shenanigans.

trailing after mama pato (mama duck, also known as maria) through the streets of sevilla.

2. The seven of us followed our two guides Maria and Pablo through the city for a few days, learning the ropes. They’re both students in the Communication department of la Universidad de Sevilla. We ate at some seriously delicious restaurants, wolfing down beautiful tapas. Expect a recap of the best ones soon.

the stairs to my apartment. it was pretty funny to watch chuqui (as they call ricardo, don't ask me why) carry my 50 pound suitcase up three flights.

3. Two days ago, I moved into my homestay. It’s a flat in la Plaza de la Puerta Real, just steps from the river and less than ten minutes on foot from the CIEE study center. I live with Asa, who is Swedish but has lived in Sevilla for 30 years, and her son Ricardo, who’s 25 (at least, for now. He’ll be leaving for cooking school in Barcelona pretty soon.) I can’t believe how lucky I got with this place! The whole thing is just gorgeous, and Asa is a great cook (as is her son, obviously).

Today, we got our schedules for the next semester. Overall, I’m pretty stoked with mine – a little less than 4 hours of class 4 days a week, which is  better than I’ve ever done at U of O. In a couple hours I’m off to the study center again for a seminar on extracurriculars to be had (flamenco classes, cooking lessons, language exchanges…I’m foaming at the mouth already). Hasta pronto!

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