Going ‘Round in Circles

Olivares, the village where I worked for three years, is exactly 16 kilometers away from my old house in the Triana neighborhood. This meant a 40-minute bus ride (barring cows and tractors in the two-lane highway) or a 25-minute trip with a coworker. I soon found out that this was equivalent to 10 miles to metric system-challenged Americans like me.

And then, one day, I walked 16 kilometers. I remembered Martin, my bike-wielding Dutch workmate, who came daily on two wheels and wondered how I could have walked the distance from Triana to Olivares (and, yes, uphill in the hot Spanish sun).

Monica and I, not feeling the beach or wanting to stick around in Sevilla, hopped a Cercanias short-distance train to the town of Cazalla de la Sierra, a mountain pass away from Kike’s village. Known for its enormous cathedral, white buildings and liqueurs, it is the one of the major tourism towns in the north of the province.

As we boarded the train in Santa Justa, it became apparent that the town is heavily-touristed. Scout troops, families and bikers boarded the train, leaving hardly enough seats for those who got on at other stops along the route. The train climbed higher and higher into the Sierra Norte, the farmland rich in acorn trees that feed those delicious piggies that give us ham and caña de lomo. When it let us off 90 minutes later in Cazalla, we saw no emblematic Miura signs or that big ol’ castle. We saw wilderness.

I approached a toothless man sitting outside the train station, which had no attendant. “Which way to Cazalla?” I asked.

He responded in perfect English: “Where are you from?” and, despite not having teeth, said it without any trace of an accent. I had to repeat Chicago about six times, and my neoyorquina friend kept her mouth shut before he pointed to the highway and said, “Just up that road, eight kilometres. The scenic route is flooded.”

I apologized six times to Monica, who just laughed at me as we watched the bikers head down the scenic route. So, up we went, with our sturdy walking sticks, Herbert and Leonard.

Poppies were in full bloom around the fincas full of olive trees and ganadería, livestock ranging from chickens to sheep to the elusive pigs and bulls we’d seen from the train windows. We hiked. And hiked. And kept hiking as cars and bikes whizzed past us. The clear sky coupled with Kike’s army-issued backpack that carried nuts, sunscreen and a book made for sweaty hikers, but we found some shade when we reached a fork in the road. At this point, we’d seen just one house, so the crossed-out CAZALLA was a bit ominous.

“Let’s Robert Frost this,” Monica suggested when we reached a fork in the road 100 meters up. An uphill path lead us to the gate of the Cartuja monastery overlooking horse pastures and a pristine view of the surrounding valleys. I peeked inside at the crumbling brick masterpiece of ochre and cerulean blue before a woman came face to face with me.

“You come for visit, or to stay the night?” she asked in crisp English. Geez, everyone here speaks my tongue! We told Mari Carmen, the supposed proprietor of the place, that we were headed into town. “Well, it’s three miles, so you better hop in the back.” She motioned to her blue van and Mon and I got in. Turns out that the cordobesa had bought the monastery over three decades ago and was lovingly restoring it. She was certainly weathered and looked like she’d dedicated 34 years to that place.

MC dropped us off at one end of the pueblo near a wholesale grocery store. Figuring our first stop should be the tourism office, we followed signs for the cathedral, passing pensioner’s homes and abandoned anís factories. The only people in the plaza were pensioners, and the tourism office, supermarkets and, um, everything were closed. A bar was the next stop.

People marveled at the two guiris in the two bars we had two beers in (yes, I prefer even numbers). We were treated to fried pig, sautéed mushrooms and nuts, free advice and a whole lot of stares. I asked numerous partons how long it would take to hike the Via Las Landeras back to the train station, the apparently flooded route. Tongues wagged when they told us it would take us about three hours and we had far less that to make it. Skeptical, I stopped at another bar and asked and was told I had the pleasure of meeting the town drunk, Rafael. He swore to be from Triana and asked where I was from.


“That’s not a real place. You’re from Carolina, then?” Si, por alli. Around there. We followed Rafael’s advice to take the main road down past the Cathedral until we got to a fountain and look for the small sign marking the start to the Via Verde, a green road established through a collaboration of the Environmental and Tourism office. What we found was a dirty and a dead-end. Now fearing we may never make it to the train station, we asked several more people before ending up at the other end of the main street.

The sign marking the trail claimed the hike down would take up to three hours. Monica and I tried jogging it, which didn’t last long due to horseback riders, steep turns and the intense sun on our backs. The flat path through fields of poppies quickly gave way to craggy farmland full of sheep, slate rock rivers and clandestine fields.

We made it down to the train station in just over an hour, sweating and beat. My butt hurt after the 16-kilometers. Monica’s calves quivered. It took us not even three minutes to fall asleep on the train.

I thought of Martin and realized that his 40 years looked good because, after a full 16 kilometers on his bike, he must be beat.

Sé lo que Hicistéis…you left me!

I was a freshman in college when Friends went off the air. We all gathered in Katie and Afton’s room to watch the finale, where they were shocked to know that I only watch the sitcom when nothing else was on: I didn’t know the name of Rachel’s baby, or Ross’s profession or how Monica and Chandler got together. Nevertheless, when the ever-so-frequent fire alarms went off in Burge, we risked fines or death by fire to watch Ross and Rachel get together. By turning off the lights, putting on the subtitles and stuffing a towel under the door, we did it.

While my 13-year-old self felt more affected by Seinfeld’s small-screen departure, I actually cry while watching the farewell episode of my favorite Spanish TV show, Se lo Que Hicisteis (I know What You Did). Patricia Conde, the hostess, immediately cries when she gets on set, too. After five years and 1010 episodes, her show has been cancelled due to high costs and low audience numbers.

The show’s hallmark has always been to lambast famous Spaniards, humorously comment on current events and controversies and make fun of one another. But to me, it was the best way for me to see Spain from the inside. I used to sit perched on the couch and ask, “Quién es?” to every person features. Kike (and God bless him for his patience with me!) would say, she’s a late-night sex operator. Oh. Or, “She’s one of those ladies you see reading people’s fortunes.¨ Hmm. I loved when he tried telling me who a person was while trying to keep from laughing. Without them, Belen Esteban would just be that ugly uncultured woman on Telecinco. Come on, how can you not love a segment dedicated to her weekly, if not, daily? I got my first real dose of prensa rosa, tabloids, from Spain, and their commentaries on Spanish lifestyles, history and current events made adaptation a little bit easier, and a lot more comical.
In the finale, Patri asks, “Where do all the TV shows go when they die?” She’s suddenly taken to see God, who is Miki dressed in white with an iPad and asks him. He tells her that good shows with awards, high market shares and ingenious reporters stay in Programas Muertos heaven. Then Dani shows up, dressed as the Devil, and says that ones with fines for slander and low market shares go to hell. He pulls her down with him. Cut to three months after the program ended, and Patri is sitting on a couch with the shades drawn, mourning the death of SLQH by watching clips of their greatest hits and most memorable personajes. I do the typical: I laugh, I cry. But, really, it’s like losing one of the first friends I made in Spain.

I’ll miss Miki Nadal dressing like flamenco god(dess) Falete (the pride of Sevilla) and Dani as his boyfriend, with shouts of “Ayyy, que me están secuestrando!” (They’re kidnapping me!). I’ll miss Patri acting like a complete nut and running around in her underwear. I cursed both Angel and Pilar for leaving the show this year. These people became my afternoon staple, what I, being the great journalist I am, watched instead of the news. I mean, come on, SLQH has the Que está pasando en Telecinco sketch, which is kinda news?

Maybe I’ll just miss the way I felt like I had a little bit of insight into Spain’s larger-than-life celebrities. Maybe I’ll just miss hearing the theme song while I made lunch on Friday afternoons, waiting for Kike to come home. Or maybe it’s Kike’s last departure and knowing that I couldn’t watch the 1010th episode with him, the way we’d probably watched 200 episodes together before that.

As Patri said her goodbyes on their newly-remodeled set, meant to look like the Central Perk, I felt a bit clavada. Did their departure mean I had to settle for the news, or worse, NCIS? I need you, SLQH! I now have absolutely NO faith in the Spanish-made boob tube.

Volveremos a Primera, Real Betis Balompié

They say there are three great fútbol afficions in Europe: Barça, Real Madrid and Betis. The azulgrana is mighty, Madrid a heavy hitter and, um, Betis isn’t even in the premiere league.

Until tonight.

After a rough week, my friend Kim called to invite me to a game. Based on a points system (I swear these people must be economists), Spaniards make predictions on who will ascend to or, worse, be kicked out of the top tier of the Spanish League. Number of goals scored is more important than whether the game is won or tied, and the other Sevillian team’s nine points ahead of it’s next opponent as of the kick-off time made it clear that, with a win tonight and Celta’s loss to a strong Salamanca tomorrow, the return to primera was locked in.

In order to boost attendance at games, season ticket holders, called socios, can score extra tickets for only 15€. I grabbed the only green shirt I had (the other option was my lime-green shawl from Feria) and headed south to Estadio Benito Villamarín, home to the verdiblancos.

Roaring with cariño, the béticos waved their green and blue scarves while shouting insults at their crosstown rivals, FC Sevilla, and the night’s opponents, Tenerife. Once in our seats at the top end of the home section, we joined the fans dancing to theme songs, chants and dances. The line up announced, the béticos perched in their seats, Betis’s Casto delivered a clear shot into the net, and the béticos were on their feet.

I miss American football, namely watching Monday Night Football with my dad or drinking my first beer at 6am on Melrose Avenue in Iowa City. But something about my afición for my second city and its fútbol is starting to make me feel more at home.

The fútbol that night was a little bit soso, but Betis pulled out a win, and our return to the top division is secured. Fans rushed the field, diving onto the astroturf, waving scarves and flags, and taking pictures. I was rushed back to Kinnick stadium on game days, making me nostalgic and a little
bit homesick. But, I had to live in the moment. Volveremos a primera, Real Betis Balompíe!!

Is My Travel Habit Irresponsible?

On St. Patrick’s Day, I had one of those overwhelming chuche cravings. I need sweet, tangy gummies or I likely would lose my dinner appetite.

Stopping by the nearest gummy wonderland, I lost my ganas upon seeing a plastic plane with a dog and gumdrops inside. A perfect little gift, really, for my pilot boyfriend whom I call Puppy. I dropped my bag of candy and checked out.

Five minutes later, I had finished heaving up five flights of stairs and presented him with my purchase. He laughed, but told me, “You shouldn’t have wasted your money on something like this, Puppy.” It was only two euros.

Recently, we were talking about our plans for the summer, for life, the usual. He said, “The thing you should do right now is save. If we want to have a family, we need a bigger house, and you need to save in order to be able to have your name on the deed. None of this inviting friends to beers, buying clothes, going on trips. That’s irresponsible.”

Wait, what!!??

Didn’t I move to Europe in the first place to travel and learn languages? Didn’t I adopt the, ‘Get ‘er done’ attitude when it came to speaking Spanish, reaching 25 countries before my 25th birthday, trying new things and meeting new people? And, really, isn’t that what travel is all about?

When I came to Spain nearly four years ago, I was working 12 hours a week for 631,06€. I had been thrifty the summer before and managed to save quite a bit of money, plus the scholarship money that was paid out to me just before leaving. I used that to pay my plane ticket to Spain. Having a short work week and the idea that the job was an “intercambio” a Spanish word meaning an even exchange, an auxiliar tends to take the long weekends and frequent holidays as a good excuse to see the rest of Spain and Europe. It became a running joke in my school to ask where I’d go each long weekend. I always had a trip planned. From every corner to Spain to seven new countries, I was convinced that traveling was my biggest hobby.

The following year, much poorer and with an even bigger desire to travel, I started knocking off destinations I never expected to go to, like Asturias in Northern Spain, and I also solo traveled and couchsurfed for the first time. Slowly, my goal became more and more reachable, and I became more confident. I realized that travel isn’t just about snapping the famous sites or racking up frequent flyer miles, but as savoring the lifestyle. I spent more time in Seville, having beers in Salvador, visiting new museums, making friends. Bullfights, Erasmus parties and days at the beach became my life.

And for the last two years, I’ve been changing my attitudes on travel, on settling and on life. After completing my goal of traveling within 25 foreign countries, I started to slow down a bit. I traveled Northern Spain to beat the heat, worked at a few camps around Spain, then began to work a full-time job. Gone were puentes, Spain’s excuse for long weekends, gone were quick weekend trips and gone were my ganas to do anything on the weekend but rest. I have had the chance to go to Valladolid, Lisbon, Ireland, Amsterdam, Lucerne, Berlin and all over Romania (ok, wow, that’s epic), but since Kike and I were talking about settling down and I applied for my five-year residency, I started thinking: Is my travel addiction a little irresponsible?

Honestly, I see his point. I make more money than a sevillano, pay less taxes and live rent-free. When Kike and I talked about the conditions of my living in his house, he wouldn’t let me pay rent because I had no job lined up for the following fall, and when I did start earning, he told me to save. And, I mean, I have, but who can resist taking a trip during a ten-day break? He called it silly when I could go to the beach cheaper (where it poured all week, while the Dacia got just four drops of Romania rain.

When contemplating my trip back to America this summer, I realize just how much it will cost out-of-pocket, now that my relatives´s generosity is running thin. And, since  won’t be working, how far will my small salary last when all of my friends are making big paychecks back home? How can I possibly justify trips when the one I am most looking forward to is the biggest cost?

And, really, when it comes down to it, I’m kinda losing the travel bug. How did this happen?

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