Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Cádiz Continued April 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 6:55 am

The view from the roof of my host family’s apartment was incredible, stretching across the bay of Cádiz to the city.

Tonight I’ve put on a CD of La Falla, with his “Andalusian Gypsy Scene” El Amor Brujo. Perhaps the fact that it is being played by the London Symphony Orchestra saps some of the Spanishness out of it, because the pieces don’t particularly evoke Spain, and the so-called “jota” would offend any decent jota dancer despite his attempt to include castanets, but perhaps he’s just warming up with the introduction pieces.

Vejer de la Frontera was a beautiful little town, part of the “Villas Blancas”, five coastal pueblos composed of white-washed houses nestled into the mountainside. After searching for a parking spot for ages – Cádiz has serious parking problems – we walked up to the family’s favorite bakery. I had a generous piece of poppyseed cake, a rich cake black with the tangy tiny poppyseeds. We then explored the town, going up to the castle, past a couple of churches, and ending at a little plaza with a pretty fountain and the entrance to the town’s gem: an Arabic tea-house and inn. We walked through the gorgeous dining area to reach the equally stunning tetería, with cubical red seats and a terrace above. The drizzle kept us inside but nothing could keep me away from my Pakistani tea, which I enjoyed as we discussed everything from politics to Paula’s class schedule.

The next day I saw her schedule for myself. School started at 8 a.m. and went until 2:15 with a half-hour snack break around 11. I don’t remember the exact classes, but I do remember economics (we went to the computer lab to invest in imaginary stock), math (a refresher course for me in derivatives – my teacher from last year would be proud to know that it all came back quickly and because of my calculator-free training I excelled in simple mental math computations!), and history (the American stock market crash of 1929). That afternoon Paula had a math tutoring class so I went with her parents to Cádiz again, where we took a spin by the salinas. Cádiz used to make a lot of money evaporating sea water in fields that look like organized swamps, but now mined salt has swept the market and many of the salt fields are flooded or empty.

salinas with mountains of sea salt

The days flew by and melted together, so I’m having trouble recalling the exact sequence of events…on Friday school ended early and we went to the cemetery, the duck-less Duck Park, and for churros. We then hung out in the big park, sitting on the grass (southern Spain actually has grass!!) until Paula’s brother picked us up to go home for lunch. Lunch was just a hiatus from friends, and soon we were back in the streets until my midnight curfew. Her friends were great, and we had a wonderful time – I really wish Cádiz wasn’t so far away!

On Saturday, we went to Jerez de la Frontera, a bigger city hosting a manga fair that weekend. A manga fair entails a variety of booths selling anime and comic paraphernalia, Japanese candy, and lots of people dressed up as their favorite television characters or music stars. We didn’t wear costumes, but we had a great time watching those who had! We took the train back – Spanish trains are incredible – and spent the last remaining hour of the evening on a bench overlooking the Atlantic.

The only time the renfe trains are not incredible is when they come to take me away from places I do not want to leave. Don’t get me wrong; I love Zaragoza too, with its Tubo tapas bars, art museums, moderista and renaissance and mudéjar architecture, and my host mother. However, in San Fernando I had made my first true Spanish friends of my age, and hanging out with them was an experience I wanted to repeat every week of the few remaining I had. The distance between Cádiz and Zaragoza, however, proves to be a complete budget-wrecker, so I had to say goodbye for the foreseeable future.

The travel gods were once again on my side, however, and decided to complicate the trip back for the six of us returning from various Cádiz cities to Zaragoza on the same train. It was a train-hotel, due to arrive in Zaz at 5:30 a.m. after a 3-hour stop in Catalayud for engine repairs. However, the engine didn’t end up needing work and we arrived in Zaragoza at 3 in the morning. After a taxi ride and some elevator buttons I was outside my apartment, keys and luggage in hand, with just one problem: Carmen, expecting to be up by the time I got home, had left her keys in the door, making it impossible to open even with my own set of keys. I called her mobile, but I was already low on battery and about 5 calls later it died. I then rang the doorbell, but reaching a level of frustration I pushed the button for a solid 15 seconds, until with a pop! the doorbell blew out. Sitting helpless at the top of the stairway in the middle of the night, I was truly at a point of desperation. I had only one option, and it broke my heart: I’d have to go down one flight and wake up my light-sleeping host grandmother and have her call Carmen until she woke up.

With heavy feet and a reluctant hand, I rang the pleasant doorbell of my abuela’s apartment; its cheery notes seemed to mock my situation. Spewing apologies, I explained the uncomfortable situation, but eventually ended up in the correct apartment and in my own bed, with just another reason to have stayed in San Fernando!


5 Days in, 15 days ago April 29, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:00 am

This moment is an apt one to begin writing about San Fernando, Cádiz. I apologize for the temporal jump, but with Camerón music playing in the background, his wailing, nostalgic voice has made me miss San Fernando in an inspirational manner.

Camerón is a gypsy flamenco singer from San Fernando, the town I stayed in for 6 days, located just 15 minutes from the city of Cádiz. Camerón is so famous that his first name has become obsolete, because just with the last one everyone knows who you are talking about. On the Friday I was in San Fernando, one of Paula’s, my host sister, friends dragged us all to the town cemetery to show us the tomb of Camerón. He sits, long and straggly hair reaching past his shoulders, on a simple chair, dressed in worn formal flamenco dress, the whole statue made of bronze. He shares San Fernando’s musical fame with Miguel de La Falla, a classical composer buried in the cathedral of Cádiz city.

The reason I found myself in San Fernando, population 90,000, located in the autonomous community of Cádiz, perched on the southern Atlantic coast just a few miles from where the ocean waters mix with the Mediterranean Sea, was a school-wide exchange program. Each student found themselves in a different Spanish city, with a new temporary Spanish family. Six of us went to Cádiz, with one other girl staying in my city. However, since our host sisters weren’t particularly close friends, I enjoyed a week being the only American and speaking exclusively Spanish.

I arrived, after a long train ride with a change in Madrid – Cádiz is as far away as you could possibly get leaving Zaragoza in a southwestwardly direction – on Tuesday afternoon, in time for a spin around San Fernando. Waiting for me at the top of the escalator were my host sister, Paula; her older brother; his girlfriend, who was practically part of the family; and my host father, who worked for the military. Once “home” in their 7-floor apartment I met my host mother, anxious about what to prepare me for dinner that wouldn’t include meat. However, she had little cause for worry: my first comment upon entering was how delicious whatever was in the oven smelled.

We still had a few hours before dinner, however, so Paula took me into the city to see a play one of her friends was in. After the performance, they toured me around their city: to the big park, the main shopping center, the duck-less Duck Park, the main street, and ending in the long and narrow park, where we sat on a bench for a while. Her friends took me in as though I had known them for years, and I felt completely comfortable in a way I haven’t felt with youth in Zaragoza. It was a general difference we who went to the South noticed: an openness and welcoming attitude, an immediate confidence harder won in the North.

However, after the sun had set and a slightly cold wind had come on, we went home for dinner. The father was from Santender, a city on the very northern Cantabrian coast of Spain, and two of his friends were visiting and joined us at the table.

That meal was one of the most enjoyable I’ve yet had in Spain. We laughed our way through the red pepper soup and vegetable pizza, and even through the strawberry dessert. I felt immediately at home, and knew that leaving after so few days was going to be extremely difficult.

The next day, the majority of Paula’s classmates had a field trip that she wasn’t a part of, so she got permission to miss school and take me to Cádiz and Vejer de la Frontera. Her brother and his girlfriend accompanied us to the capital city. Founded in 1011 B.C., Cádiz is Europe’s oldest city. And it feels ancient: all the buildings, most of the older ones built with a porous rock taken from the sea, look as though they have been worn by centuries of wind while watching the port attentively. However, they retain a noble and regal feel, like widows who continue to scan the sea with a never-dying hope that a long-lost sailor will return home. Cádiz’s new publicity campaign is “1812: When Spain was an Island”, referring to when the French officially took over all of Spain except Cádiz. Technically, Cádiz is connected to the mainland by a long, thin strip of beach, now shared with a road and train tracks, but the truth is that the isthmus feels like a tiny thread. San Fernando was the site of the signing of the first Spanish constitution that year.

We passed through the tall, narrow streets of the oldest walled part of Cádiz – the city’s walls were oft-expanded through the years. My favorite plaza was the Plaza de las Flores, where flower vendors sell their colorful, lively wares. We entered the austere cathedral, which seems to defy gravity with its huge rock ceiling being among the highest I’ve seen, and descending to the crypt where La Falla, along with various rich, famous, or religious figures (or any combination of the three), is buried.

Cádiz was filled with unassuming but beautiful plazas and streets, which I visited a couple times more during the week. However, this day we had to return home for lunch before a drive to Vejer de la Frontera…while I’ll write about tomorrow.


Busy Busy Busy! April 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 1:22 pm

Hello! Spring is in the air and with the warm weather has come a whirlwind of deadlines and things to do…everything from a political science essay to going out for tapas to a violin concert to day trips with my host mother have kept me away from my blog. I’m still alive and well and thinking about posts, but I haven’t had time to sit down and write them out lately. I’ll do my best towrite soon!


Return to Taormina and Climbing Mt. Etna April 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 10:12 am

Taormina’s Greek theatre

Mercoledi and Thursday (I could never remember Thursday in Italian):
After yet another delicious breakfast of almond milk and with orange blossom honey, we drove with our younger host brother to Taormina, where we would spend the day exploring. Our first destination: chasing nostalgia by looking for Heather’s old favorite hot chocolate place. Next stop: a mid-morning snack. I found a delicious slice of ricotta cake in a small bakery, just perfect alimentation for the walk down to the beach.
Situated at the bottom of the steep drop to the coast from the city, beach is actually a bit of a misnomer for the coastline: it is a collection of pebbles, gorgeous to look at by horrible for the feet as we discovered when we walked barefoot to the picture-postcard island at the other end.

However, the view of the ocean and the feel of the water and stones was definitely worth the temporary pain!
We took a cable car ride back up (the hill was way too daunting, especially with our tender soles) and walked over to the Greek theatre. At least 2000 years old (mindboggling numbers!), the theatre has a terrific view of the ocean and Mount Etna, and we sat for a while taking in the sun and the sites.

We lunched at a patioed restaurant, where I enjoyed ricotta ravioli with pistachio sauce and delicious tiramisu for dessert. After searching for Heather’s father’s favorite type of liquor, I also bought some almond wine as a gift for my host mother before meeting our host mother of the week in the main plaza.
The day was gorgeous and the plaza looks out over the sea, and with some street musicians in the background we couldn’t help but sit, people-watch, contemplate, and converse for a lazy afternoon. Before leaving we stopped for gelato; my flavor was turron, an almond Christmas sweet in Spain but made with other nuts too and eaten year-round in Sicily.
Before going home we picked up our host sister and went to Acitrezza, a town with a pretty coast and the Farglioni, the rocks that Polythemus threw in Greek mythology. After walking out on the pier and exploring the city a bit, we headed back home for dinner. It was another relaxing day with a lovely artichoke pasta ending.
Thursday we woke up ready to conquer the world…or Mount Etna, as it were to be.

Etna is the volcano that defines Sicily, giving it blood oranges and substance. We drove up as far as one could and got out to explore some minor craters.

With my red-tinged sunglasses, despite the snow in the background, the mountain looked just like Mars.

Lichen and small grasses are the first plants to grow back on the black rocky soil of Mount Etna.
Heading back to the car, we passed a huge truck full of blood oranges stopping to drop off a load at the restaurant there to feed the hungry Etna-expeditioners. I said in Italian that I was really going to miss blood oranges to our host father, and one of the blood-orange-truck men overheard. “Here,” he said, handing me an armsful of oranges. A delicious and refreshing break after scaling the dusty rock! And just another example of the kindness and openness of all the Italian people I met.

We pushed out of our mind the sad fact of our departure the next day, and instead enjoyed lunch: pasta with a scrumptious sweet cherry tomato sauce. I had made a cake the day before, a chocolate-almond cake with Sicilian almond milk, and so we had the honors of trying it. It wasn’t the best cake I’ve ever made (the lack of measuring cups always causes slight texture variations!) but the flavour was good and delicious with a glass of almond milk.
That night, our host sister’s friends came over for a pizza party dinner…yet again, I spent most of the time in a language-barrier vortex but managed to communicate rather well when the conversation slowed down to accommodate me. All the girls there were incredibly nice, and I was even sadder to leave knowing that I would have been able to make good friends had I been able to stay. I now understand more completely when Heather says, “I miss my Italians.”


More About Sicily: A (Hopefully) Condensed Version April 21, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 8:27 am

Lunedí, Martedí:

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the Recupero family was busy at work and school, leaving Heather and I on our own to explore the town of Acireale. Heather already knew it well and directed us on Monday and Tuesday mornings to the scogli, a rock beach bathed by the sun. We climbed over them and past a lone fisherman to find flattish rocks for stretching ourselves out on to enjoy the spring sun. From a one-lane highway it was a steep walk downhill to the coast, and we seemed to be the only ones walking the grassy path both days, except an elderly couple and a young one, both in love. The truth was that almost all of Sicily seemed a very romantic place.

The photos say everything I could: the beauty of the Sicilian coast is hard to beat.

We later walked back up to the main part of town and enjoyed a breakfast supplement – hazelnut-chocolate gelato or pastries ranging from liquor-soaked baba with strawberries to a delicious cookie-marzipan treat called dolcezze. We also walked to Heather’s old house (it’s incredible to think she was lucky enough to live in Acireale for three years!!), the market, and the small shops lining the main street of downtown. Lunch both days was, needless to say, impressive as usual: tortellini with sage and butter, artichokes, leftover zucchini risotto al graten with mozzarella, and the next day, a pesto pasta salad with sweet tomatoes and mozzarella, minestrone soup, bruschetta, and salad.

On Monday afternoon we drove to Taormina, a precious town perched above the sea north of Acireale. We wandered the small streets and determined that we’d come back on Wednesday to spend the entire day there – it was worth more thorough exploring. We returned home for dinner; I made espinacas a la catalana, a Spanish dish of spinach with pine nuts and raisins. We also dined on pesto pasta, lentils, and bruschetta…and of course after all of these meals, dessert was a big ripe blood orange.

Tuesday afternoon was spent quietly at home, watching Moulin Rouge (which Heather had never seen and always makes me cry) and baking improvised chocolate chip cookies. The quiet afternoon was in stark contrast to the chaos that would be Tuesday night: a reunion of Heather’s 3rd grade class in a local pizza place. As good as my Italian might have been for only being in Italy a handful of days, it was nowhere near up to pace with what seemed like dozens but must have been about 20 Italian teenagers. I sat completely lost the entire evening, but managed, through smiles and broken Italian and English, to make small side conversations with a few of the others. Added to the French host family experience in Lyon, this was the second gathering in two weeks that I hadn’t been able to understand – and yet another crazy SYA experience I never would have imagined.


Back from San Fernando; Sicily, Belated April 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 6:45 am

I just got back from San Fernando, a small city of 90,000 where I spent 5 days with a Spanish host family. Leaving was incredibly sad, but it turned out to be a good thing that I left when I did – I woke up the morning after my midnight-arrival in Zaragoza to find that I had picked up a stomach bug somewhere, and I was definitely glad to be at my relative home to deal with it. Although looking at anything made me nauseous this morning, the doctor’s shot and my recent ability to ingest liquids has given me the strength to write a little about Sicily – three weeks late.

Sabato: I woke up at 5:30 after getting in from a night of tapas at 1:30 am, in time to catch a taxi to the bus station for our 7 am ride to the Barcelona airport. Heather and I were off to Sicily, and although the autobus was a slow and torturous start, we were too excited to mind. My first introduction to Italy (and Italian) was on the AlItalia flight, where we all received blood orange juice (zucco de arancia rossa, blood orange juice, my first Italian phrase besides the few I’d memorized off some BBC “Learn Italian” printouts). Blood oranges only grow in Sicily, where their bright red color and intense flavor is caused by mineral deposits from Mount Etna, Sicily’s outstanding and still-active volcano.

After a layover in Milan we arrived in Catania at 9 o’clock pm, and waited for what seemed like forever for our baggage. My nerves were turned to high: I was about to meet the family we’d be staying with for the next 6 days, family friends of Heather’s from when she lived in Sicily as a child. Her Italian was choppy but warming up to the flowing level; I, however, was completely lost. Armed with the phrases “this pumpkin is for you” and “toothbrush”, we grabbed our baggage and headed out to meet them.

Heather recognized her old friends right away, and there were a couple of seconds of backlag for me. She introduced me to the 13-year-old boy, his 16-year-old sister, and their mother. At their house in a town called Acireale (A-chi-rey-all-ey) I’d meet their father, their dog Mimi (aka Scunia, “naughty”), and older brother, home visiting from the university. The youngest and the mother spoke really good English, and so did our contemporary once she got over her shyness, but Heather was determined to recuperate her Italian and I was excited to learn, so we spoke in both languages.

After the 45-minute car ride we arrived at their American-style home. It used to be part of a complex of military housing, where American families stationed in Sicily lived before new measures made them move closer to the base. Due to its origins, the house had an extensive yard and a large kitchen – the first I’d seen of both for 7 months! We sat down to dinner and from the first bite I knew that regardless of the language barrier, I would understand this family: like all Italians, they appreciated good food. Zucchini-parmesan risotto was followed by a tomato and mozzarella salad with strawberries in sweet blood orange juice for dessert. (My Italian augmented: pomodoro, tomato, insalate, salad, and fraggiolo, strawberry.) I was able to tell them that I liked everything – “Tutti mi piaccionno molto”, more or less – before Heather and I collapsed, exhausted from the long day of travel, into bed.

Domenica: We woke up and after a breakfast of Greek yogurt with blood-orange-flower honey, and Italian coffee of course, we drove into downtown Acireale. While the parents went to a Palm Sunday church service in the main duomo, we four adolescents sat across the square and ate Italian ice with brioche. Italian ice is, might I say, a thousand times better when consumed in Italy. Our graniza flavor was mandorla, almond, made from the island’s famously delicious almond milk.

After exploring the main square a bit more, seeing the town park (with fantastic views overlooking the Mediterranean), and buying arranccini for lunch (fried rice balls filled with spinach and cheese or meat and tomato), we headed home, where our midday meal was augmented by pasta with stir-fried broccoli, and cannoli and tartufa for dessert. Cannoli exist in the US – a fried pastry shell filled with sweetened smooth ricotta cheese – but it is Sicily’s specialty and complemented by a chocolate coating and crushed pistachios at the ends.

That afternoon we went to Siracusa, a bigger city just a half-hour away, where we saw a rock formation called the “ear of Diana”, churches, plazas, and the sea. Sicily is involved in a lot of Roman mythology, which explained the abundance of mythical references in the environment. We dined in the center of Siracusa and I experienced my first Italian pizza. I thought of my mother’s affection for eggplant as I ordered a pizza alla norma, the typical Sicilian combination of tomato, ricotta, eggplant, and mozzarella. The delicious ends to the wonderful days soon became another typical Sicilian thing.


Familia en Cádiz April 14, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 7:57 am

After a long absence, I am back on and writing from yet another new location: San Fernando, a town in Cádiz, the very southern tip of Spain. We have a beach touching the Atlantic Ocean and the city of Cádiz right across the bay, and I have a new host family for the week: a girl my age, her older brother, and their parents. Everyone in the school has gone to different places in Spain until Sunday to stay with host families there for a these five days. But I should be chatting with my family instead of posting here – sorry to go offline again, but I’ll try to get caught up on posts as soon as I get back to Zaragoza!