Thursday, December 28, 2017

Hasta Pronto, Sevilla

Almost four months after arriving in Sevilla, I can name the specific peak of my cultural Spanish experience: the weekend that my host family took me to the beach. My family has a small home surrounded by the ocean in a town near Huelva, a couple of hours from Sevilla. 20 minutes into the drive, one brother was carsick, another had lice, and the third had come down with laryngitis. My nuclear family is a bit hectic, so I felt right at home. We all spent the weekend playing and fighting and eating more kinds of seafood than I knew existed (think four kinds of mollusks, five kinds of shellfish, and three kinds of fish at one lunch, followed by entirely different varieties at the next meal, and repeated over a period of 48 hours. There was not a vegetable - or even jamón - in sight) while spending time in very close quarters in their gorgeous seaside apartment. The weekend at the beach felt utterly Spanish and familial and left me feeling like I'd somehow figured out a piece of Spanish culture.

I left Sevilla this past week, in a bit of disbelief at leaving another city where I've found a home. I was much relieved to be over and done with final exams (recall that finals were challenging, to say the least,) and to just enjoy my remaining days in Spain. Everything Christmas was happening; 90 first graders stopped by my house on their nativity tour to see the table-sized nativity in the playroom (my host mom is a strong woman). 

How on earth can I summarize an entire semester of new experiences in one final blog post? I'll leave this post short and sweet, unable to capture everything I feel in regards to this time; it was a cool four months of experiences, moments, language, and reflection. In the midst of learning to use Spanish in an academic context, traveling to many cities, befriending a professional soccer player, eating my way through Europe, and finding and exploring a home in Sevilla, I learned about my own values and priorities. I return to Carleton College extremely excited and ready to surround myself with friends and studies (and sub-zero weather). I am filled up with gratitude for the people, places, and opportunities of this semester. And I'm especially thankful for my host family. I don't doubt that I'll be back.
We forgot to take a family photo until 11pm; Ale was asleep

Last week I said long goodbyes to my friends, both Spanish and American, and my host family threw a lovely departure dinner for me and my nuclear family (who came to visit at the end of my program). What a treat to be able to share beautiful Sevilla with my family. The next morning my family loaded up our rental car with olives, sweets, salmorejo, and Spanish tortillas, and hit the road for Portugal. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Found a Rhythm

The reason that I decided to study abroad in the first place was because I wanted to try to create a student life for myself in another country. And here I am now, after more than three months in Sevilla, realizing that I've developed my own rhythm despite the crazy schedule.

I wake up usually around 9am, and either go for a run or do some studying. I fix some breakfast (a tostada: toasted bread with olive oil and tomato, plus coffee and maybe an orange). Then I head to my sociology class taught through my program. After class, I study for a bit or run errands until lunch time. I eat a big lunch with my host family (around 3pm) and then grab a bicycle to head to my Psychology class (the times change throughout the week for this class - 3pm, 4pm, 5pm, 7pm - so no two days are alike). After class I head to the gym or I grab another bike to head straight over to the Biology campus. I really like the department's library, so I study for a bit before my 7pm Biology class. Then I bike home for a light dinner with the family around 10pm. Afterwards maybe I'll hang with friends or study or head to sleep. That's the gist of how my weekdays work. Recently lots of studying and much less socializing. Some days there's an extra class or two tossed into the mix, or I tutor a girl in English, or I'll even do something exciting. And yes, I do spend more time commuting to my Universidad de Sevilla classes than I actually spend in class.

As monotonous as the above paragraph sounds, it's all mine. Those are the bones of my schedule. Sprinkled in are pastries, nights out with friends, walks to explore, and lots of family time. On the last night of classes each week (usually Thursday night, unless there's a holiday) I usually go out to dinner with three of my friends. And it is all so normal now.

I've learned how to bike with speed down winding cobblestone streets, and the old, colorful buildings are just how my life looks. I don't eat as much ice cream as when I first arrived, since it's so much colder, but I've found my favorite cookie shop and have been trying out various churro places. I know the distances between the landmarks on my river runs. I've even figured out the directions of the one-way streets.

And then there's my new host family (I switched families about a month ago). I live in a house with two parents, three boys (ages 6, 11, and 13) and approximately five birds. There's loads going on in the house always, and while it often feels like there's no pattern and I'm always kept on my toes, somehow that has made all the difference in helping me find my feet and establish myself. I'm now comfortable at home and with a family, and that's how I know that I've found a rhythm that is right.

Here's an illustration of my newfound family life. I play Playmobile with Ale, the 6-year-old, on the floor of the play room, and listen to Evaristo, the 11-year-old, describe video games (that I do not understand) in excruciating detail for minutes on end. I set the table and help out with household chores, while discussing politics and gastronomy with my host parents, Noemi and Evaristo. I wake up each morning to shouts of getting everyone fed and out the door, and once I'm up I inevitably find that Juan, the 13-year-old has accidentally locked me out of our shared bathroom. Dinner is consumed on the couch, while we chat, yell, and watch television until almost 11pm every night. I eat jamon pretty much every day, usually in more than one form, and I've tried more shellfish than I've ever seen in my life. There's always someone racing around the house, whether the boys are chasing one another or Noemi is cleaning up after them. And through it all, the five birds are always there, doing their thing in their cages, and I'm making coffee and trying to fit in the study hours.

So that, right now, is Eliza in Sevilla.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Misc. Thoughts

In the past week the reality of my two Universidad de Sevilla classes has hit me: in less than a month I will be taking two finals, each covering all of the material from the entire course, and each worth my entire grade for the semester. This means that literally anything covered in the term is fair game for the test, and in my Psychology class, the test will consist of 50 true/false questions, and incorrect answers count as a grade reduction. In my Biology class, the final exam is accompanied by a lab exam in which I will be asked to identify the parts of various microscopic plant tissues. While this might sound like a very doable task, it's currently feeling like a monstrosity and I genuinely am crossing my fingers that I will be able to pull off a passing grade.

So I've spent the week studying. A lot. And will just keep right on studying for the next month. I haven't studied so far in advance for a test since I took the ACT in 2013. I imagine that this might be what it feels like to prepare for the MCAT?

This post is just a series of random thoughts and observations from the last while in Sevilla.

- Christmas is here. The entire city center has been decorated with massive light displays. Unfortunately they won't be turned on until December 8, almost two weeks from now. All of the Christmas sweets are also appearing. And Jingle Bells was playing in a coffee shop the other day.

- Black Friday is also here, and I hated it. The streets were so clogged with people that I couldn't bike or even walk my bike. I ended up just standing in the middle of the pedestrian shopping street, immobile. So many people. In the US I do my Black Friday shopping exclusively on the internet.

- The weather finally turned cool a few weeks ago! Mornings are chilly, and afternoons are in the 70s. It's nice. My runs are so much more doable.

- Our program took us to an Irish pub for an American Thanksgiving dinner. It was very Irish, and I was a little underwhelmed. My host family, though, prepared a special holiday meal for me, in honor of Thanksgiving (jumbo shrimp, very fancy jamón, cheese, crackers, sparkling wine) and it was so very kind.

- I've been eating even more pork, and learning even more about ham than I mentioned in my last post. Imagine a some sort of roasted cut of pork, stuffed with ham, accompanied by delicious mushrooms sprinkled with ham bits. And broccoli salad with ham. And also roasted trout stuffed with ham. It's a new way of life!

- I now have people who I talk to regularly in both of my university classes, which is very exciting. In my psychology class my friends are the two boys from my presentation group. Our presentations last week went swimmingly. Even better, I think I made a really funny joke because the two of them were laughing with me (and usually they're laughing at me)!

- I moved host families several weeks ago and this one's a riot and I love them. Yesterday I sat on the floor and played Playmobile with the 6-year-old before I remembered that I had to study.

- I officially have a favorite ice cream place. It's called Bolas.

- This morning I needed to buy soap and suddenly realized that I had no idea where in the city I might find that. Most stores here are not like stores at home (Target!) in the sense that you can't go to one place and pick up grapes, toilet paper, sunglasses, and nail polish all in one go (consumerism at its most convenient.) That wasn't an issue for me until today, when I couldn't imagine what kind of store might carry soap. Lucky for me, my friends are good at shopping and directed me to the supermarket.

- I've been doing quite a bit of traveling: Italy, Belgium (ate almost exclusively fries, chocolate, beer, and waffles), Morocco, and this weekend Barcelona. This girl loves to travel, and also loves Sevilla; some days feeling conflicted.

I can't believe that I have less than a month left in this city.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Jamón (and my lacking knowledge of meat)

Shortly after arriving in Sevilla, someone asked me what top three words I had previously associated with Spain. The first one I could come up with was jamón, or ham, and two months into my time here, it's still the first word that comes to mind. Part of that is because there is just so very much jamón in this country, in every form; the other part is that jamón presents a distinct phase in my own eating habits.

By my observations, cured Spanish ham (jamón serrano) seems to be most popular. It's also not something that I had ever tried in my life before arriving. In the markets, entire left legs of pig hang from hooks, and vendors slice thin strips for customers. These same legs also dangle in restaurants and bars. I've heard that it's not uncommon for families to buy a whole leg and keep eating at it in their kitchen for extended periods of time, but I have yet to see that for myself. Besides the cured ham, chopped up pieces of ham come in all sizes and types and are added to everything, from pasta to vegetables to eggs to soups. There is just so much ham. 

The very special pork is the jamón ibérico, ham from Iberian pigs. My understanding is that these pigs somehow have more desirable meat and are very flavorful, and only live in the Iberian peninsula.  So jamón ibérico is an even bigger deal than jamón serrano; as far as I can tell it comes in all of the same forms, but is always more pricey.

Here's the thing. I grew up not eating meat almost at all. I wasn't vegetarian and my family wasn't vegetarian (although, Dad, you're maybe vegan now?), but we just didn't eat much meat. We'd eat fish once or twice a week, chicken maybe every other week, and beef a few times a year. We're Jewish, and as good reform Jews, we pick and choose which religious laws to follow - so we never bought or cooked or ate pork at all in our home. Due to this relatively meat-free background, I was never exposed to an abundance of forms of animal protein. 

Ham aside, in Spain the other significant turf protein seems to be ternera. Which I think is baby cow, so I guess it's called veal. For some reason Spaniards are way more into ternera than into regular beef, to the extent that ternera is frequently consumed in place of beef (or at least where I imagine regular beef would normally be found - imagine very soft hamburgers, meatballs, etc.) Veal is another meat new to me.

Because I didn't spend much time around meat while growing up, I don't know how to identify meat at all. My knowledge is simply too lacking. This means that when served meat in Spain, I often have no idea what sort of animal I might be eating (usually ham, veal, chicken, or a combination of the above), and to this I have become quite accustomed. For me a huge part of travel is the food (!!) and so in coming to Spain, I knew that I'd be eating all sorts of meat and I decided that I would eat pork. This is what I'd done while living in Honduras and in Mexico, but in neither of those locations was pork such a dietary staple, and in neither of those situations was every meal prepared for me. So I'm really turning over new leaves here.

Being exposed to meat has opened new doors for me. Since arriving in Spain I have fully embraced pork as part of the cultural experience, not just eating it when served to me, but trying it whenever the opportunity arises and never turning it down. I have had red pork, black pork, light pork, brown pork; hot pork, cold pork, thin pork, thick pork. I do feel, though, that my lack of knowledge about meat has set me back quite a bit in understanding what I'm eating. Because I can't identify meat, once I learn that I'm eating pork, that's all the information I can manage. I'm not equipped to appreciate each cut of pork, the differences between its varied forms, and the specific flavors. Instead, here I am consuming blindly - which I don't mind, but it does mean that I can't actually write about Spanish pork in much detail. I can quickly explain the difference between jamón serrano and jamón ibérico (one pig has black toes, the other doesn't), but I certainly can't taste the difference.

I was in Italy over our fall break with Camila, a friend from my program. Camila loves jamón. As we ate our way through Rome and Naples, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of food. In my previous life absent of pork, any time I saw pork on a menu, I wrote off the dish and looked for something else. I usually avoided meat altogether. But that was never the case in sharing dishes with Camila; my eyes were opened to the world of meat. We ate pasta carbonara with crispy bacon in it, and pizzas with salami or prosciutto or sausage or all three. It's really a whole new ball game out here, and I'm not quite sure what to do with my newfound knowledge of protein in gastronomy.

Final thought: haven't yet decided how I feel about jamón and pork in general. For now it's certainly not bad, and I guess it's quite the thrill to discover what new and unanticipated foods jamón has been snuck into. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Granada and La Alhambra

Last weekend I visited Granada with two friends from my program in Sevilla, Rebecca and Camila. One of my friends from Carleton is currently studying in Granada, and the entire Carleton Madrid program was also visiting Granada, so I planned our visit to be able to meet up with everyone. Just like the previous weekend in Valencia, it was so fun to see friends from home.

Granada is a few hours from Sevilla by bus, also in the Andalucía region of Spain, and is such a cool city. Unlike Sevilla, Granada has elevation and hills, with clear views of snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. Granada was the last Arab city in the region to be conquered by the Catholic Monarchs, and as such, retains significant Arab influence, in the form of food and art and culture. And Granada somehow seems to be more laid-back and colorful than Sevilla, with loads of street art and political graffiti (Sevilla doesn't feel very politically involved). I was really, really into the city's vibes.

I must mention the free tapas. In Granada, with every drink ordered, a free tapa (small plate of food) arrives. It's a little bit like magic. In Sevilla if you order a drink maybe you'll get some olives or something, but Granada is a whole different story. Over the course of the weekend we got chicken curry, bread with tomato spread and cheese, stuffed olives, falafel, and couscous. All with the purchase of a glass of wine or a beer. Like I said, magic.

When my friends and I first started planning our trip to Granada, my host dad told me that we absolutely had to go to La Alhambra. Not knowing anything about it and having only seen a few photos, I responded something along the lines of, "I mean we've already been to the Alcazar in Sevilla, isn't it the same thing?" My host father was visibly astonished and the entire family couldn't believe what I'd said; a very passionate and convincing discussion ensued.

Ultimately, we knew that we'd have to visit La Alhambra (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and apparently one of the most popular tourist stops in Europe). Unfortunately, when we tried to prebook our tickets a few weeks in advance, everything was already sold out. I read online that same day tickets could be purchased if we showed up to wait in line at 6:30am, fingers crossed that they wouldn't run out. So that became our game plan for getting into La Alhambra.

Our first afternoon in Granada was spent exploring with my friend Caroline, who showed us around the city where she lives. Great food, including the best churros we've had in Spain (went back the next day). We met up with my other Carleton friends at night (Saul, Sylvie, Dallas; see previous post). At 2:30am I set my alarm for 5:55am.

Still somewhat asleep, we trekked the 20 minutes up the steep hill to la Alhambra in the pitch-black dark of the morning. It was really more of a trail than a road, with zero illumination. Very creepy. When we arrived at the top of the hill, a security guard with a flashlight explained to us that since October 1, it was no longer possible to queue in the morning for same-day tickets. Tickets had to be purchased online, and the last rush tickets had been sold an hour before. We were crushed. Once the guard realized that we spoke Spanish, he told us that the new trick was to start refreshing the ticket webpage every minute, after midnight, until we obtained tickets. So we walked back to the Airbnb, climbed into our beds, and slept for another three hours.

When we finally woke up we made a lovely egg brunch (I cooked so much kale!) and re-evaluated our day. We spent the entire day walking around Granada, seeking out street art, and enjoying the beautiful views. I loved it. We even found a tiny Colombian take-away restaurant, which was joyful for everyone involved. Most definitely could have seen myself studying in Granada.

After a dinner of free tapas with Carleton friends, Rebecca, Camila, and I spent an intense hour trying to purchase tickets to La Alhambra while walking across Granada. We gave up and resigned ourselves to missing the world-renowned Arab palace. We were only finally successful with one last attempt, once we were at the discoteca dancing ourselves silly.

Sunday morning we rolled out of bed, made more eggs, and climbed back up the hill to the Alhambra. The entire journey there was surreal, since due to the chain of events, none of us could believe that we were actually going to visit. The Alhambra was beautiful. An ancient Arab royal palace and fortress, on a hill overlooking the city, with extensive palatial gardens. Unbelievably intricate decoration and tile work. Columns, fountains, flowers, and colors. It was expanded by different Islamic rulers throughout time, each addition following the theme of paradise. (Fun fact, La Alhambra was occupied by squatters after centuries of neglect, before being rediscovered and converted to present-day World Heritage Site.) I can't at all describe it, so please look at the photos and know that it was at least 12x better than I could capture. I highly recommend. Once we'd filled up on beauty, we hiked back down into town and boarded a bus back to Sevilla.