Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Sicily and Barcelona March 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:46 am

Spring break starts after my last class today, and after a usual exciting Friday of violin practice, vegetarian cooking class, and tapas with friends, I’m taking off early tomorrow morning for Catania, Sicily, with my friend who lived there for three years, to stay with family friends of hers. After six days at the toe of the boot, we are going to meet my parents in Barcelona for Easter.
In simpler words, I’m about to start the best Spring Break ever.
I might not (and by that I mean “I won’t) be able to blog until after Easter, so enjoy your holiday and happy spring!


Lyon, Continued March 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:56 am

My first Lyon post, for some reason or other, wouldn’t copy to here. You can read it at

After our first night in the glass-walled albergue, we walked down the hill and across the two rivers the next day to arrive at the Center of Resistance and Deportation. The museum-college-community building combines a detailed and well-done museum to the victims of the Vichy (Nazi collaboration in France) regime and the brave people who resisted and fought against the Nazi invaders and French collaborators, including many Spanish Republicans fled from the newly-formed fascist regime here in Spain. We thoroughly explored the museum space on Friday morning, with a talk – in French – from a survivor as the culminating experience. The SYA France students translated for us with the help of their teacher, and we all came out full of respect for this brave individual who had fought for his country and his principles during the Vichy regime.

The conference also involved rotating discussion groups composed of one SYA student from each site in a library room in the center. The Italians would put in their historical views, the French would add theirs, and so would us Spaniards, using the three different but related events and opinions to come to a bit of a conclusion. Our topics of discussion varied from the basic facts – what happened in the bombing of Viterbo? – to historical memory – how is the event remembered? are there monuments, museums, documents? – to post-event trauma – exiles? deaths? – and ending in a full group discussion of historical memory, while oscilated from Europe to the United States.

All this was broken up by a French goat-cheese and tomato grilled sandwich, salads of the best sort, roasted spiced potatoes, a chevre-apple bake, crepes with chestnut puree and chocolate, Morrocan tea, and even an American food shop where we were served toasted bagels (our first bagels in almost 7 months!) with cream cheese and fresh crisp vegetables. I also couldn’t resist a package of Reeses peanut butter cups… Needless to say, Lyon lived up to its reputation as a gastronomical capital.

Another great experience of the trip was our connection with French students. On Friday we went to a public school a couple of tram stops from the history center for lunch and an afternoon discussion. We also found out who we would be staying with the following night – each of us chose a French host student! We learned a lot about the French school system, living in Lyon, etc – all wonderful conversations. The group of students two friends and I fell in with were all studying Cinema in the Literature track of study. We met up again on Saturday after lunch, this time leaving the group until the next morning, and they took us all over Lyon: hanging out in the art museum, sitting in the sun at the Roman theatre (two perfectly preserved stone theatres now a park), and at the country house of one of them, with a porch from which one can see the twinkling lights of the city at night. We left with each other’s facebook contacts and addresses, and I hope we can all keep in touch.

After making such great friends and enjoying ourselves so much in the quiet but busy historic city of Lyon, we were all sad to leave. But looking forward to a Friday night of tapas, my new discovery of a delicious bakery near school, and my departure on Saturday for Sicily with Heather, the future looks to be just as wonderful as my five days in France!


A Weekend in Zaragoza, Home Sweet Home March 16, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 7:51 am

Nurturing vain fantasies of an audience waiting on the edge of their seats for each blog entry, I will apologize for being absent these last couple of days. I didn’t do anything particularly exciting or interesting this weekend, but I did manage to keep myself busy here in Zaragoza.

On Friday, I had my busy afternoon of usual: practice violin (since the school is closed on the weekends, Friday is my last day of the week to get some rehearsal in) and then off to my vegetarian cooking class in Miralbueno. This week we made two sweet-tooth-soothing recipes, donuts (or, as the Spanish say, doe-nuutes) and a coconut mold with strawberry sauce. We used agar-agar, a gelatinizing agent made from seaweed, to make the coconut mold hold its shape. Although I’ve encountered agar-agar before, I was always too skeptical of, first, my cooking skills and second, its gelatinous properties to try it. However, the dessert came out wonderfully delicious, as did the yeast-risen donuts.

Class went late as usual and I arrived back in the Centro around 9:30, with just a few minutes to run home and drop off the donuts I’d brought home before meeting a friend to go see a Woody Allen movie at the Filmoteca. The movie, “Deconstructing Harry”, is one of the best ones I’ve seen yet, and made even better by the fact that this time I had accompaniment. Neither of us had eaten a real dinner, so after the projection we went for tapas – and yes, you can eat dinner at 11:30 at night here in Spain. We found two lovely little places chock full of ambiance, with posters of old Spanish advertisements with the stereotypical dark and mysterious Andalusian flamenco-dancing beauty and even a torero costume adorning the walls. Sitting at a high round wooden table, we enjoyed spinach-, pine nut-, and raisin- stuffed almond pastry, and then moved to another little gem of a place with similarly Spanish décor. My next delight was a mini-portion of seta (a type of mushroom) risotto…one of my new favorite foods in its creamy, tangy goodness. I had to pick out a couple of bits of jamón – I would have guessed that mushroom risotto would be vegetarian, but one never knows in Spain! – but that didn’t diminish the deliciousness of the tapa. Earlier in the day I had bought some chocolate with pumpkin seeds and vanilla from a creative candy shop near my house, which we enjoyed for dessert…and I arrived home right before our 1:30 curfew.

On Saturday morning I went to visit a nun who I interviewed way back for my school newspaper article to take a photo to adorn the page. Before the evening I also managed to skype with my parents, sister, and best friend – a grand achievement considering the various time differences involved! I had another night of tapas to look forward too – seeing as I was staying in Zaragoza, I wanted to explore its gastronomical scene to the fullest. I’ll save you the mouthwatering list of tapas, involving cream-cheese stuffed deep-fried artichokes and baguette with a slice of cheese and raspberry jam, and jump to the best discovery of the night: Meli Melo, an award-winning tapas bar right on my street. I dug into a huge slice of goat cheese encrusted with crisp onions and sunflower seeds, served with a sweet fruit sauce and wine reduction; I cannot put into words the scrumptiousness. My friend ordered a ración of papas bravas, or potatoes served in a delicious, slightly-spicy cream sauce, which she proceeded to share – and I promise you that these were the best papas bravas I’ve yet had! We also stopped at a famous and long-standing sweets shop on my street, where I enjoyed a pastry with nuts, honey, and raisins…a nice sweet break between two goat-cheese tapas.

On Sunday I met up with the 7 other students who leave for Lyon, France on Wednesday for SYA’s Europe Conference. 8 students from each of the European sites – including me! – are gathering in the central location of Lyon for a conference on historical memory. We have been studying Francisco Franco’s 40-year fascist regime and its effects, and will discuss and compare Spain’s fascist era to the shorter but similar fascist moments in France’s and Italy’s histories. We also surveyed almost 100 Spaniards to find the public opinion regarding fascism, political legitimacy, and historical memory. I don’t think I’m allowed to publish any results since I collected a couple of them on a renfe train (haha…but seriously, they would hunt me down!), but I will say that some were interesting and even surprising.

In any case, I am off to France from Wednesday to Sunday, and probably will be too busy making friends, learning French, and talking history to post. Au revoir and hasta la vista!


Fotos y Final March 11, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:50 am
The main facade of the Catedral de Santiago
The famous statue of Santiago on the romanesque Pórtico de la Gloria by Maestro Mateo

A special indulgence offered due to the Año Jacobeo – if you say a “Our Father” or a “Hail Mary” and then take communion, you can get a pardon for the sins of a deceased relative! (I didn’t know these things still existed in the Catholic Church.)

The statue of Santiago that dominates the special Año Jacobeo door.

The interior of the Cathedral. Note the botafumiero above the priest and the classic romanesque architecture.

On Sunday morning, we opportunely stumbled upon a monastery of nuns which sold sweets and were able to buy a Tarta de Santiago, the typical cake-pie of the city which is like a pecan pie but made with coarsely ground almonds instead. Absolutely delicious!!!! Combined with orange juice at a Celtic-influenced café, it made the perfect Sunday morning breakfast (also the perfect pre-train snack that afternoon, dessert that evening, and before-school breakfast the next day as well!).

Determined to experience the emotional approach of the cathedral via the Camino de Santiago, we explored the outskirts of the city, walking through the Alameda park and part of the historic university campus to arrive at the Camino (the pilgrimmage path) which we followed back to the city despite the drizzle. Feeling very “peregrina”, we took photos in front of the yellow arrows and shell-shaped trail markers (Saint James is easily identifiable for the shell adorning his clothes, acquired during his postmortum sea journey to Galicia) and arrived at the cathedral in its full glory – a fulfilling and necessary experience.

Our train back to Zaragoza was due to arrive at 6:30 am, in time for us to go home and prepare for classes which start at 9. However, the train experienced some delays and we pulled into the station right when my art history class was beginning! A nice student told us that the train-hotel almost always arrives late, and we knew that since the delay was more than 2 hours, we would get full ticket refunds. But we still felt bad arriving to class, without our school supplies which were at home, about half an hour late. The matter, however, was out of our hands, and we were pardoned – especially since we came in raving about the great trip and the architectural details of the Cathedral, which we’d studied just the week before!!

Tarta de Santiago, made by nuns and the most delicious ever.

Grass! A park!

Gothic church, part of the Museo do Pobo Galego

Stairs worn by centuries of pilgrims in the Cathedral. They lead to a statue of Santiago which the devout hug from behind.

A cityscape of Santiago. You can see the cathedral and also a couple of glassed-in balconies, really typical of Galician residential architecture.


Santiago y La Coruña March 10, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 6:43 pm

We disembarked in A Coruña around noon and decided to kill the two hours until lunch wandering around the old part of the city. A couple of expositions caught our eye, so we meandered through a lovely building with an exhibition celebrating the Day of the Woman (it was Monday) and an aptly temporary structure detailing the history and cultural influence of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela. Apparently the Camino was a huge economical and cultural factor thorough the Middle Ages in Spain; Romanesque and Gothic architecture were brought to Spain via its pathways, along with the money of millions of devout Europeans. We also found the Museum of Fine Arts of A Coruña, with an incredibly varied collection spanning centuries of Spanish art history.

After getting seriously lost due to major confusion regarding the scale of our map, we found the vegetarian restaurant we looked for and enjoyed a pleasant lunch ending with the best flan I’ve yet had. Usually flan, to me, is depressingly bland, but this one had a better texture than usual and a lovely orange flavor.

We leisurely strolled the boardwalk on the way back to the train station, where we caught a commuter-type train to Santiago de Compostela.

As soon as we lugged our bags up the stairs and peered out over Santiago de Compostela, we knew we were going to love it. The first store on the corner was a “Teletortilla”, which is perhaps the most hilarious cultural mix-up I’ve yet seen: a company obviously copying “Telepizza”, a Spanish home delivery pizza company inspired in the American companies, but rather than the Americanized-Italian foodstuff, this store delivered tortillas, Spain’s most widespread food: no matter where you go, the place will have this thick potato omelet on the menu.

Santiago is a lot better designed than A Coruña, although it sprouted far before urban planners – the first church of Santiago was built around the 9th century. It is a small, compact town with a dense center of narrow streets, but we managed to find our hostel without a single wrong turn. The albergue was awesome – very small, with capacity for about 16 people, purple sheets, and a well-equipped kitchen. My friend had been sent some Annie’s boxed macaroni and cheese, which we absolutely had to make for a taste of home. I added my own touch by attempting to recreate Deerfield’s classic mac and cheese accompaniment, stewed tomatoes. A couple juicy tomato-cutting squirts, a pinch of salt, and a spoonful of vinegar later, I had achieved success: a thick tomato sauce that tasted just like Deerfield’s!!! It was, in a word, a glorious meal.

But we didn’t just stay in the hostel and cook. The narrow stone streets begged to be wandered and meander we did! We even found an artisan chocolate shop, which we could have resisted had it not been for the dark-chocolate filled and covered figs in the window. The classic Galician architectural element is stone. The climate is humid, which translates into lots of green – vegetarian which we dearly miss being in the desert that Zaragoza is. Another student who had travelled there described Galicia as looking as though it had been underwater; we concurred. The city had a feeling of old that nowhere else in Spain has yet matched. Galicia stayed out of the reach of the Arabs, so its Celtic-influenced culture has marched on relatively uninterrupted for centuries. The result: bagpipe music wafting through the streets, a rich cuisine (unfortunately for me, based in seafood), their own language (the aforementioned Gallego), and big cultural pride.

We determined, however, that this pride is well-deserved. In our humble opinions, the gallego accent when speaking Castilian was the prettiest we’ve heard, and the language itself sounded beautiful when we heard it. Everyone we met was incredibly friendly and helpful, and our random conversation count went through the roof.

Also, Santiago boasts one of the best cathedrals in Spain, certainly the perfect Romanesque example. Although I prefer Gothic cathedrals with their huge windows and airy ambiance, I had to appreciate the Catedral de Santiago. We had thoroughly analyzed the main entryway, the Pórtico de la Gloria, in our art class; unfortunately, it was undergoing restoration and we could only see the bottom of the supports and, just barely, the statue of Saint James (Sant Yago, or Santiago). However, this year is very special to make up for it: it is an Año Jacobeo, in which the Saint Day of James/Yago falls on a Sunday! The daily festivities include the opening of one of the alternate cathedral doors that only opens during Jacobeo years, an especially enthusiastic influx of pilgrims, and the use of the botafumeiro at the end of almost every mass.

The botafumeiro is a humongous censer (incense ball), originally used to purify the cathedral’s air from the smell of the pilgrims who, exhausted, dirty, and penniless, would sleep, eat, and temporarily live inside the cathedral at the end of their long walk. We decided to stay through an entire mass just to see it. A simple pulley system enables a group of clergy to tug a rope and launch the botafumeiro into the air, swinging it from one end of the transept to the other. We were convinced that the metal container – filled with burning incense – was either going to crash against the ceiling or fall into the crowd, but it safely scented the church and gently swung back to its origin. Also, the statistics were against us: our art teacher told us that the botafumeiro has only one recorded accident, in which no one was hurt – the incense container went flying out a window. The original one was also stolen by the French during the War of Independence from 1808 to 1814…in case it ever comes up in Trivial Pursuit or something!

After mass, we decided to make ourselves some lunch. Breakfast – sunflower seed butter French toast with strawberries – had set a high standard, but we definitely reached it with grilled-tetilla-cheese sandwiches (tetilla means “breast”, and the typical Galician cheese gets its name from its unmistakable shape), homemade tomato soup (really just a variation on the stewed tomatoes from the night anterior), and dessert purchased from a Gallegan bakery filled with jars of little round cookies.

We passed the rest of the afternoon in the Galicia Modern Art Museum (a bit disappointing overall, but some good artwork), the Museum of the Pueblo Gallego (or, in Gallego, o Museo do Pobo Galego) which was interesting and set in a spectacular building, and exploring a park above the museums. This was no average Spanish park: more like a university quad, it was actually a tree-spotted field of grass open for lying upon! With true Whitman style we loafed and admired the sky, and also delighted in seeing the first person going barefoot we’d seen in 6 months. I successfully surveyed a few people for my history project (apparently grassy fields are better surveying ground than train cafeterias) before we decided to have a tapa dinner.

Tapas didn’t appear before we reached another irresistible establishment, though: a candy and nuts store called “Pecados de Compostela”, or “Sins of Compostela”. Bright colors and rows of candy called to us, although we opted for pistachios, corn nuts, and pumpkin seeds. We also discovered a Seoane exhibit in a Caixa exposition hall.

After passing a couple of relaxing hours in a comfortable Gallegan nighttime hot chocolate place, with stone walls decorated with wooden masks and ceramic tiles, we turned in, sad that we had just one more day in Santiago but excited to spend it well.


Trenhotel Ida March 9, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:48 am

A fancy bedroom car of the TrenHotel. Hopefully it's not illegal to photograph RENFE trains...

Reclining in my grand comfort seat...

“Perdón, I have to go. I need to catch a train,” I excused myself from band rehearsal at 9:45 on Thursday night. I had arranged to meet my two friends in the train station at 10:15 to catch our 11 o’clock (this is 23:00, or p.m.) train-hotel to Galicia. The rehearsal had passed splendidly: first off, my violin teacher had said that I was improving, and then during the group practice, we received a new piece of music: Bryan Adams’s “I Do it For You”, which just happens to be, first off, one of my favorite songs, and second, has a violin solo pretty much throughout the entire thing! Since I was the only violinist there that night, I got a lot of playing in – and you all know how I just soak up the spotlight.

The evening took a turn for the sour when one of my friends realized, as we scanned our tickets to board, that she had bought them backwards: she had the same trip, but from A Coruña to Zaragoza rather than Zaragoza to A Coruña. She couldn’t sort it out in time to catch the train, so my other friend and I ruefully boarded without her. She ended up not being able to find an economical way to meet us there the next day, so Melanie and I made the best of things on our own. Luckily we were able to change our hostel reservation to two, and although we missed her dearly, we managed to go on with the trip and have lots of fun.

The train-hotel takes 12 hours to cross the northern edge of Spain from Zaragoza to A Coruña (La Coruña in Castillian…yet another regional language confusion!) and is composed of an elegant restaurant car, a café car, four “butaca gran comfort” (big comfortable seats) cars, one of which we were in, and seemingly infinite cars with four rooms each. Rumor has it that each room has two or three cots and even a shower, but we, on our student budgets, were confined to the seats. Not to say they weren’t comfortable – the degree of recline was astonishing!

We woke up the next morning to Galician landscape. In preparation for the SYA conference in Lyon I’ll be going to in a couple of weeks, I have to survey a medley of Spaniards regarding historical memory. I figured that these last couple of train hours would be a good opportunity, and made my way to the cafeteria car to corner some survey victims. I had success, and had racked up two more people surveyed when a RENFE (the train company) official came up to me and said, “Can I speak to you for a moment?” (In Spanish, of course.) He took me into the next car and informed me that taking surveys is illegal on RENFE trains! Luckily, however, I was able to explain that it was a history project, wouldn’t be published, I wouldn’t do it again, I’m not from Spain, etc, and the officer said that this time it could be “forgotten”. Oops.

Luckily we managed to arrive in A Coruña on time and without committing any more crimes, ready to enjoy a Galician long weekend!


Galicia March 4, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 11:08 am

Tonight I leave for Galicia on the trenhotel – “Train Hotel”. After an overnight ride across Spain to the Atlantic Coast, we will arrive in Galicia, the westernmost Spanish autonomous community perched right above Portugal.

Galicia's location within Spain

The city we’re staying in, Santiago de Compostela, is the famous final destination of the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage trail from southern France almost to the Spanish Atlantic coast. Galicia is yet another Spanish place with its own language, gallego, which is most closely related to Portuguese.

Santiago is in the province of La Coruña (A Coruña in Gallego), whose capital city is - surprise - A Coruña!

We’ve heard it’s a gorgeous place, so photos will be sure to appear post-trip!