Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Back and Busy June 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 11:19 pm

From now on, I will be continuing to blog about food and cooking at my alternate site unrelated to the Scroll:

Thank you all for reading!


So Soon May 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 1:21 pm

Three days.

In just a countable number of hours, I will be back in the United States, and this minute of free time as I lie burning up in my bed comes at the end of a crazy couple of weeks.

The temperature outside is about 80 degrees, but heat rises and we are on the top floor of our building. Humidity isn’t an issue, but this dry heat is also brutal and surprisingly sudden. However, it will feel good when we are able to bid goodbye in short sleeves early Thursday morning at our midnight salida from Zaragoza. A redeye bus will take us to Madrid, where we’ll catch our plane to Boston via Paris, arriving on Thursday afternoon.

In the last couple of weeks, I have gone to Soria with my host mother, taken the DELE (Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera, or the Spanish equivalent of the TOEFL), had a series of goodbye meals with various friends and relatives of my host mother, and in general completely lost track of time with friends, wandering the now-familiar streets of Zaragoza, and baking cakes to celebrate a plethora of happenings.

These days are incredibly bittersweet: sad to leave, happy to see friends, sad to say goodbye to friends here, excited for summer jobs and old familiar places.

I will try to catch up on photos once I get back in the States and have some free time, but I’ll be uber-busy with graduation and visiting family and friends.

Until then…


The Journey to San Martín May 11, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 8:33 am

After an hour and a half seated comfortably in the AVE, with a cream-cheese swirl cake snuggled clandestinely into the bottom of my bag, we arrived in Madrid. And the apocalypse began.
We got off the train and called my host aunt to see where she was waiting as my host grandfather was assisted by the “Atendo” renfe crew, who helped him into a wheelchair. “Near the taxis,” said the host aunt, and so we went out to the taxi stand. And it began to rain. We huddled under the overhang, gazing out over a sea of white taxis in a blurry raindrop whirl.
The host aunt’s van was nowhere to be seen.
Carmen pulled out her cell phone again and called her sister, Elena, again, to find out that they were actually by the Cercanías entrance. The attendance staff already off to help their next passenger, my host grandfather made his way slowly pushing his walker. I rushed ahead, burdened with my laptop, small weekend duffle bag, and my host grandmother’s inpossibly heavy rolling suitcase, to ask where the Cercanías entrance was. “To the end of the garden and on the left,” instructed the renfe crew person I found, and I scurried back across the station to inform my host mother. However, she interpreted “end of the garden” to be the other end of the garden, and with deafening cracks of thunder overhead, we began our procession across the humongous garden. Once we reached the opposite end, Carmen began asking everyone – fellow passengers, security guards, handymen – where the Cercanías entrance was. “On the other end of the garden,” they all replied, as my host grandfather, exhausted from the 100 meter march, looked out with confused eyes and grunted.
As the sound of heavy raindrops and thunder rumbles continued, we began our return trip to the other end of the garden, where Elena would be to meet us. After a long journey for my host grandfather, we saw Elena emerge from the crowd, our savior, with an orange-jacketed renfe woman wheeling an empty chair at her side. My host grandfather sat down, relieved, and while they went off in desperate search of a bathroom, the rest of us greeted each other with kisses and, as if our lives were scripted, the rain stopped with a weak grumble of thunder.
The elderly relatives – my host grandmother, grandfather, and great-aunt – piled into my host cousin’s car, while Carmen, Elena, and I clambered into her van for the hour-and-fifteen-minute ride to Elena’s new house, “the mansion”, in a small town of 7,000 called San Martín de Valdeiglesias.

The streets of San Martín de Valdeiglesias

The roads were busy because all the well-off Madrileños were escaping the city for the weekend and heading to their country homes in the Sierra mountains. During long weekends and the summer, San Martín’s population surges to 30,000 due to all the vacationers from Madrid. Plans to make the small route winding through the green mountains that reminded me of the Adirondacks into a large divided highway have been wafting through the curves and bends of the road, and Elena expressed her frustration: if Madrid could be reached in less than an hour, the mountains would be destroyed by the construction of chalets (the adopted-from-French Spanish word that means separated house) and San Martín would become permanently a city, flooded by too many cars and people than its carrying capacity could handle. Soon the landscape would be ruined, people would forget why they came to the country in the first place, and the suburbs of Madrid would have grown just another 60 miles. During Spain’s construction boom preceding the current economic crisis, hundreds of identical chalets were built in San Martín, and now the vast majority of them lie empty. The same happened in the outskirts of Ávila, a small, cold capital city about 50 miles northwest of San Martín which we visited the next day.

The “Ayuntamiento”, town hall, of San Martín

Regardless of the coming peril, however, we managed to enjoy the drive thoroughly, the beautiful landscape and fresh air a welcome change from Zaragoza. And once we arrived at the house, we were blown away: three narrow floors of bright colors and pretty furniture, an American kitchen, an Andalusian patio (despite the distance from Andalucía), and lots of windows. I loved the house, and when we put it to use making dinner I became even more enamored.
We dined on a revuelto of eggs, fresh green asparagus, and seta mushrooms, with lots of fresh bread and fruit for dessert. I was very glad that the apocalypse that had threatened us at the station had indeed decided not to arrive.


Spring English Class Reflection May 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:56 am

An English project I thought I’d share…

Ham: Family Visit

My father loves ham. Every day he lunches on a ham and cheese sandwich, and if my mother isn’t home to make it for him, he buys one. Ham is the most prevalent food in Spain, so on the eve of my parents’ arrival, the least of my worries was finding food for my visiting father.

“That’s the least of my worries”, however, is a catastrophic phrase in Bennett family lore. My father infamously pronounced those same words regarding auto theft on the night our truck proceeded to get stolen. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by my father’s reaction to Spanish ham. “Do you like ‘jamón’?” I asked, only to receive a negative shake of the head.

My plans for the next few days crumbled like a thin-cut slice of Serrano. My host mother had bought a humungous, dubiously-customs-safe hunk of jamón for my parents. I’d figured that when all else failed at mealtimes, my father could always get a good tapa of jamón and queso.

As a vegetarian, I’ve admittedly never tried jamón. It’s the one thing Spanish people can’t seem to get over. “Can’t you make an exception?” they plead as I nibble a slice of cheese while they chow down on fresh-from-the-leg Ibérico. But I have never heard of anyone who didn’t like jamón. Except my father.

I was slightly ashamed. My ham-loving father only likes processed American ham and rejects real ham? He prefers the American factory-farm pigs to the hazelnut-fed, outdoor-living, happy Spanish ones? Could a self-professed foodie such as myself really come from such lowly beginnings?

But then I remembered my first days in Spain. I remember taking one bite of the typical white rice with sweetish tomato sauce and putting down my spoon; today I found myself hoping that Montessori would serve it for lunch. Vegetable paella at first tasted horribly similar to the smell of my abuela’s apartment, but now I get excited when my host mother pulls out the rice and vegetables.

Perhaps my father just needed what I did: time to forget the food from home and come to love and embrace Spain.

Heaven: Arabic Architecture and Tea

The breathtaking mosque in Córdoba is technically a cathedral. After the Christians reconquered the city, they built a Baroque cathedral smack dab in the middle of the Arabic site. When we studied the building in art class, I became angry with the Catholics: how could they ruin such a precious and singular building with just another run-of-the-mill church? I decided that I would dislike the disruptive cathedral…until I saw it during our class trip to Andalucía.

Against my will, I found the Catedral de Córdoba to be the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen. And although I would have loved to see the mosque in its full and uninterrupted splendor – as a vast forest of red and white arches, rather than the hypnotic rows being more like a lawn for the Christian centerpiece – I really did enjoy the church. Carlos V (king and emperor) must have known that in order to destroy the mosque – a polemic decision even in his time – he would have to build a cathedral worthy of such a horrible honor.

The mezquita, however, is still the more stunning of the two pieces. After walking through the orange grove patio inside the tower-flanked gates, the entrance leads into the original section of the mosque, built when Córdoba was the capital of the emirate of Al-Andalus (the Arabic name for their territory in the Iberian peninsula, where the modern word for southern Spain, Andalucía, comes from). The columns were “recycled” – taken from old Roman and Visigoth buildings – and hence a bit mismatched. But all were topped by parallel rows of stone and brick arches, creating the effect of a red-and-white striped forest of columns.

The city soon grew, and another addition was added on, continuing the rows further. Then Al-Andalus split from the rest of the Arabic empire and became its own caliphate, meaning that its leader now had top political and religious power. This is the period in which Córdoba reached its utmost splendor, and when the richest addition to the cathedral was made.

The columns were again continued onward, but this time they were specially made for the purpose, and alternated pink and black. The arches are beautiful as always, but the true gem of the second addition is the quibla – the wall that points towards Mecca. Well, technically the wall points more south than southeast; the reason for the incorrectness is unknown but oft-speculated. The arches become lobed and intertwining, and more richly decorated with the same themes as before: geometric, calligraphic, and organic patterns. The wooden crossbeam ceilings are more opulently decorated, and before the wall they open up into stunning cupolas. The wall itself, especially the mihrab, a special part which in Spanish-Arabic art has a recessed apse and also indicates Mecca, is especially gorgeous, with its golden paint and bright colors, intricate detail, and horseshoe arch.

Our tour of the mosque/cathedral was followed by a quick run-through of the old Jewish neighborhood, la Judería. Unfortunately, the walk was cut short by rain, and we took shelter in a cushioned tea lounge, of course. Seeing as the rain did not let up, we decided to take advantage of Córdoba’s Arab roots and hop to another tetería, where we relaxed on the low couches with the Middle-Eastern background music for a couple hours.

Teterías do not exist, to my knowledge, in the United States. They are modern incarnations of the mezquita: hypnotizing, the smell of sweet hookah and tea lingering in the air and dancing with the twangs and twines of the oud.  Arabic writing decorates the walls, evoking the mihrab, and the menu inevitably contains typos. It also contains more types of tea than imaginable: red, black, white, green, gray; floral, spiced, herbed, straight; Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Israeli, and our favorite, Pakistani. Entrusted with their orders, I ordered Pakistani for the table. What came was beyond imagination. The tea arrived in three large worked-metal teapots, with gold-embroidered red handle covers. The cups were narrow, straight, and glass, decorated with twisting geometric green and blue lines. And the tea. The tea was milk-based, spiced with cardamom and cinnamon and sweetened with cane sugar. It was delicious. Although we didn’t smoke hookah, one would have thought we had as we lounged on the couch in ecstasy. It was the best tea we had drank in our lives, and we found only one way to describe it: it was the richness of the mihrab, the splendor of the quibla, the calmness of the trickling fountains, the enchantment of the repeating red and white arches, the intricate hypnosis of the intertwined lobed arcs, the glorious history of Arabic Spain…in a cup.

Churros: Social Eating in Spain

The Filmoteca, a tiny old movie theatre showing two-euro original version films, was one of my best discoveries in Zaragoza, and especially appreciated during their Woody Allen cycle. A great opportunity to see a movie in English and feel cultured at that, one Friday night I invited a friend to go see “Deconstructing Harry” at 10 o’clock. It was one of the best of the many Allen movies I saw that month, 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 a lovely little place 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, which is 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!  Regardless, that didn’t diminish the deliciousness of the tapa.

The next night I wasn’t about to stay home alone, so I called a few friends to try to set up a nighttime coffee soiree – with success. We agreed to meet after dinner.

Our coffee meeting ended up turning into a chocolate-and-churros meeting, but lots of fun all the same. We chatted about everything from the SAT to Atlas Shrugged, which inevitably involves economics, love, and how we imagine Hank and Dagny and John Galt; our host families, mostly complaining that they wouldn’t let us have more than one or two friends over at a time when they are home, despite the fact that we know it isn’t what Spaniards do: when they want to spend time together, they don’t get together and cook or watch a movie while sitting on the couch, they go out to a café or the cinema; the quality of the churros (not overly impressive); and my new purple and green plaid shirt true to my only-used-as-a-joke-nickname which comes from the plum-tree man in Candy Land, Plumpy.

It was just another average weekend in Zaragoza. Just another average weekend I’m really going to miss.

Chocolate Chips: My Wonderful Host Mother

Every Sunday that I’m not travelling, my host mother plans an activity, usually involving exercise to preemptively burn off the migas my abuela will have prepared for lunch. After I arrive home late from tapas, I sleep well to prepare for the weekly host mother outing the next day: bicis.

We descend the elevator to the dark underground parking, where my host mother performs obscene maneuvers to get around the two pillars, the motorcycle, and the van that surround her parking spot. We drive out to my host aunt and uncle’s apartment, where the bicycles are stored, and inevitably take an invariable route the 2008 Expo. One specific day we arrived back up to the apartment in time to prepare not only lunch but a loaf of zucchini bread – we were having guests for coffee, and I wanted to prepare something unique for them.

After my host mother recovered from the fact that I was using a vegetable – a vegetable! – in a sweet quick bread, she had another shock when I measured out the chocolate chips. “They come already cut up?!!” she exclaimed.

That’s right. Carmen had never seen or used chocolate chips before. I’m sure she has eaten things containing with them, but I suppose she hadn’t seen a bag like those that are a staple in my house in the states (we keep at least two bags of Trader Joes’ Semi- or Bittersweet Chips on hand, always). Occasionally her oven decides to throw me curve balls, and on this specific day the bottom heat coil decided not to work. The result was that after 45 minutes, though the top was cooked, I discovered when the bread collapsed that the bottom was not. I quickly put the pans back into the oven to try to redeem what I could, and after another half hour of baking at a higher temperature, the bottoms were no longer raw and we could serve the cake to our guests, two former medical students who had interned under Carmen.

Chocolate chips were also new to them. “How did you get the chocolate all throughout the cake like this?!” one exclaimed. Not quite sure what she was asking, I explained that I mixed in the chocolate chips before baking the batter…but Carmen intervened and explained that the chocolate came already in small pieces. Coming to the rescue, just like the wonderful host mother that she is.

Spain: Land of the Concupiscent

Alas, I have no terrible romantic calamity to inspire me.

The Spanish flag blowing in the Spanish wind

The Spanish trees budding Spanish buds and sprouting from Spanish cement

The Spanish student who I have awkwardly stared at in a very Spanish manner –

Despite such surroundings, I lack the true Spain,

the Fedra, opera, Carmen Spain

the awesome heartbreak by a dark-haired beauty

in a sensual language I don’t understand

(I do. It isn’t.)

To come to Spain

and leave

before a Spanish-guitar-narrated seduction,

a Woody Allen movie artist found beneath a Picasso

or even a one-night true-love fueled by Rioja –



But I have found – or more forced myself to –

love Spanish food.

Ajoblanco, with its gritty garlic taste

offset by sweet sliced grapes;

Goat cheese oozing from an onion-walnut crust

and melting into the quince jam by its side;

a banana croquette, taking my tapa virginity,

with a tangy drizzle of rum reduction;

bite-sized tomato pepper stuffed with sweet cream cheese;

Pakistani tea amongst passionate red cushions

and the heady smell of hookah;

a plate of nada from the dry-humored waiter at a café in Seville;

hot cheese croquettes bursting from their deep-fried shell at the tentative touch of a knife;

the irresistible, illogical deliciousness of golden stir-fried bread,

covered with paprika and eaten while sitting on grass;

refreshing straw-sips of the mysterious sweet horchata that tastes of its Arabic roots;

a dark bar of chocolate

laced with vanilla-roasted pumpkin seeds;

earth-flavoured lentils with fall-apart red pepper,

brought up from my abuela’s kitchen;

smiling mushrooms turned face-up

in a bath of olive oil and lemon –

I continue to believe that poetry is inspired by the pleasures of the body.


Weekend trip – no forms necessary!

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 7:21 am

This weekend will be my first time travelling without a parent signature.
That’s because I’m going to Madrid with my host mother, her parents, and her aunt, and we’ll be staying not in Madrid capital but in a small town – a very small town – almost on the Extremaduran border where my host aunt lives.
It should be fun, although definitely distinct from any other trip: this one will be filled with family lunches, family bickering, and a definite lack of people my age. But I’m excited – I have met my host mother’s twin sister once, and really liked her. She just built a house – which they have nicknamed “the mansion” – and regaled us with stories about the imbeciles of construction workers and how she had to whip them into shape.
So tomorrow after school I’m off on the AVE for the weekend…my last AVE trip. This is seriously sad.


Bulls May 6, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:55 am

Here I am watching a bullfight on television…who would have thought. The truth, though, is that gruesome s it is, bullfighting is an art. I haven’t seen a live one, which must be incredibly different; sitting on a couch and half-watching compared to smelling the blood and seeing the bulls’ pain live is very distant. I unfortunately happened to switch to the fight at the worst part, when the bullfighter is trying to kill the bull.
When Hemingway writes about bullfighting, it sounds so beautiful; in fact, I gave it a second thought only after reading the corrida de toros passages in “The Sun Also Rises” and “Dangerous Summer” – I do love Hemingway’s writing, especially because his bullfights are always perfect. In real life, or perhaps it’s just the modern bullfighters aren’t as good as the toreros of the past, the bull rarely dies on the first try, and they have to end up corning it, poking its nose, and stabbing artlessly…
I have the luxury of changing the channel; I don’t know how I’d handle it in real life. It is sad to see the bull at the end; he comes out so energetic, ready to fight! – and then, banderilla after banderilla, he begins to tire, his tongue starts to loll and hang out, his back gets covered in blood, he stumbles rather tan runs, and the torero really has to work to get him to change…the bull knows that he is going to die, and you can see how he has lost hope and given up. He never really had a chance, but now the fiction that he did has become the reality that he doesn’t.
The bullfights fought on horse – the rejones – are actually much more beautiful. They are a man on a horse, with complete control of his animal, who then stabs a variety of short knives with flags on them into the bulls back until eventually a long sword is used to kill the bull, all without getting of the horse and incorporating beautiful hoof-work. In regular bullfights, at least now, the torero does a few passes with the bull and then the picadores – men with long spears – come out riding armoured horses and just brutally stab the bull, no art to it; the bull runs into the rose, the horse stands there protected as if it didn’t have a 550-kilo animal ramming its horns into its side, and the picador, safe on his high horse, jabs repeatedly and mechanically. I can hardly stand that part, even just watching it on television…the beautiful part is when the unprotected torero, with just his cape, takes on the bull, or in rejones when the vulnerable rejonero is atop his unprotected and gorgeous horse…those parts take talent and art, and could even be called beautiful.
One thing I always love: the outfits, delicately embroidered and worn with arrogance. And in the case of a good bullfighter, the arrogance fits very well.


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!