Agua, Azucarillos y Aguardiente: A Night at the Zarzuela

Remember that time I told myself to take Frances Mayes’s advice and make Spain new again? I’m really trying. Honest. I mean, what could get more new than a fresh coat of “pijo” white paint on our walls after the bug infestation? And a new grade at school?

Friday rolled around again, and instead of the normal school-nap-beer routine, I substituted hops for hoops – hooped skirts, that is. My friend Inma belongs to the Compañía Sevilla de Zarzuela, a sort of traveling singing group, and invited me to an encore performance of their popular Agua, Azucarillos y Aguardiente performance.

I’d heard of zarzuela, an art form made popular in Madrid in the mid 19th Century. Truth be told, I was sitting on the beach of Las Rodas on the Atlantic isle of the Isla Ciès in August 2010, laying on my stomach on white sand. My weathered old copy of Iberia, a Michener classic with reed-thin and yellowed pages lay open on my towel. I thumbed through the colossal book’s 800 pages, stopping at a black and white photo of women dressed in an old-fashioned type of dress resembling a traje de flamenco with puffy sleeves and carnations perched atop a simple white bonnet. Quickly flipping to the beginning of the novel, where Michener describes his first days on the Iberian Penninsula, I worked my way halfway through the book before lending it to a student who went to Los Angeles for three month, never arriving to the latter chapters on Madrid. Andrés, bring back my book in one piece, please!!

Agua, Azucarillos y Aguardiente is the story of a much-smitten Asia and her mother, who have come to Madrid from Valdepatatas, a forlon town with no real inspiration for the young poet from her looks of total distress when her mother suggests they move back there to relieve some debts. When the casero comes knocking for his rent money, rollers-and-housedress-clad Mamá scrambles, saying her lovesick daughter’s rich boyfriend will lend them the money.

Zarzuela surged in the latter half of the 18th century as a folly directed towards social commentary, a way to entertain the masses before the onslaught of TV and Internet by way of poking fun of plitics, current events and the vida cotidiana, daily life. Bu using exaggerations and larger-than-life characters mixed with influences of Italian opera, a new genre was born. Zarzuelas are often an eclectic mixture of song, spoken dialogue and humor.

When Asia and her mother, who has never met the rich Serafín, set out to ask him for money, they find themselves in the Recoletos park in a beautiful and wealthy area of Madrid. Here Pepa, the wisecracking barmaid, and her husband Lorenzo are having a discussion about money that Serfín has promised them on the day before the Feast of San Lorenzo. Pepa is protagonized as a larger woman who gives her husband a bit of tough love, and their height difference in the Sevilla troupe was hilariously perfect. Pepa is soon confronted by Manuela, a lovely barmaid who also sells water and aguardiente to the patrons of Recoletos. As it turns out, Manuela is the new girlfriend of Pepa’s old flame. The two women bicker about who has the right to be selling drinks in that square of Recoletos before Asia and her mother show up to wait for Serafín. As Don Alquilino, the landlord, realizes, the 100 pesetas circulating between the hands of the cast of characters is, in fact, Serafín’s, and he is using his status as the son of an ex-minister to puff up his status. Towards the end of the night, the fighting barmaids and their men celebrate the Feast of San Lorenzo and Serafín appears, realizing he has been swindled of both wallet and pants.

It was clear that the play takes place in turn-of-the-century Madrid for its mentions of Recoletos, Colón, Paseo de la Castellana, but for being a present-day sevillano production, there was mention ofthe liderazgo of Seville football team Betis in the BBVA league, of the crisis, and of sevillano speak (mi arma, duh). For being something composed in the last years of the 19th Century, the humor added to serious subjects allowed for the company to sing their way into the hearts of a packed house in Joaquín Turina. The cast was brought onstage for two encores, voices as big as the puffy sleeves on the women.

For doing something new, my faith is renewed in looking for new things to do in the Hispalense. I’ve dabbled in flamenco and done my obligatory bullfight, but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of cultural offerings in Sevilla. The offering of humor and poking at social issues reminded me of my 18th birthday, when I took a few friends to Chicago to see a Second City performance. As the improv show was sold out, we chose the smaller stage for a show called “Pants on Fire,” a hilarious take on the Iraq War. I was practically on the floor laughing as my friends stared, dumbfounded (I have been reading the newspaper since I was barely old enough to do more than understand the comics). I sometimes feel like I live in a expat Seville bublble, far away from the economic crisis and the social reforms taking place.

All I needed was a little joke, and maybe an aguardiente, to put me back in my place.

Have you got anything I should do or see in Seville that’s not on my bucketlist? Or other ideas for the bigger cities? Have you heard of zarzuela? Are there popular artforms that are characteristic of your region or country?

On Spanish Tacos and Balls.

Ah, Spain. Land of bullfighters, flamenco, tapas and tacos.

Wait, no. That’s Mexico. Four years later, my friends do ask me, “How delicious are the tacos in Spain? I bet you don’t want to eat any when you’re home.”

Quite the opposite, amigos. To a Spaniard, edible tacos are much too spicy, and tacos to a Spaniard is a generic word for swear word, meaning the same as palabrota. A Spaniard’s favorite taco? I mean, joder and mierda more than get their due, but in the South, cojones reigns supreme.

It makes sense, when you think about it. I remember when I went to the hallowed ground at Pompeii and was initially shocked with the remains of a woman trying to crawl away from the lava, only to be preserved for camera-happy tourists by being swallowed up by ash. Then, on our free hour to explore, I noticed strange symbols on streets and buildings: a phallic symbol. Come on, we’re in the Mediterranean, and everyone knows that machismo is alive and well here.

That’s right, cojones is best translated as balls.

I’ve gotten an exercise in the language this weekend at the Novio and I have been painting our 42 square meter casa (and here is your special mention, corazón). From the extreme temperatures to the falling plaster work, the word cojones has converted itself into the taco del día, the swear word of choice.

I once read a book that talked about the meaning of the word, which claimed that in older ages, having cojones was another way to say one was courageous. I am exposed to the Spanish language the majority of my day, and I’ve heard that expression infrequently. The cojones I’m talking about conjure disgust, exasperation and good old anatomy.

Estar hasta los cojones – to be sick of something

Literally meaning to be sick of something, cojones can be replaced with el mono (bun), la polla, narices, or any other body part. Since it’s got the use of a taco, it’s typically for anything severe. For example, Estaba hasta los cojones de sus tonterías might mean, He was sick of her silly games. Likewise, Estoy hasta el moño con este trabajo, is a more polite way of saying you’re f-ing sick of your job.

Tocar los cojones – to annoy, to be annoyed

This is the Novio’s favorite, and it’s often said to me! Tocar los cojones (pelotas, polla, huevos) is meant to express being bothered by something. Generally, it’s used in the negative command form, or in the positive present simple form. My nov loves to tell me, No me toques los cojones, or don’t bother me/stop doing that/you’re being annoying, go away. In the simple form, however, it states a fact and that something annoys you on a regular basis. Repasar este puto blog me toca los cojones. Proofreading this blog annoys me (hence the many mistakes).

Por cierto, tocarse los cojones, a reflexive play on the phrase, means to just be all-out lazy. What did you do today, Cat? Pues, me he tocado los huevos (though I did write this blog!) Thanks, Buckley, Jose and Juanjo for the clarification!

Mandar cojones (huevos) – what a pain, geez

This is the newest palabra acojonuda that I’ve learned, and it’s usually employed as an interjection to express surprise. For example. Your annoying neighbor leaves his fish-ridden garbage outside your door overnight and the smell has wafted into your house. That is something that manda cojones. Or you read that the Bolsa has dropped yet again and that those clowns in the parliament still have no idea how to stop it? Well they sure do mandar cojones, right? More than anything, it’s just used as it is: Manda cojones.

Sudarse los cojones – to not matter

If I ask the Novio what he’d like to eat for lunch, he sometimes answers me, a bit annoyingly, Me suda los cojones, which literally means, it makes my balls sweat. Más bien, it translates to I don’t care or it doesn’t matter. I’ve used it to tell someone to do whatever he feels like (also an eloquent, haz los que te salga de la polla, look that one up).

De los cojones – stupid (as an adjective of emphasis)

If something is bothering you, it’s athonishingly simple to add “de los cojones” to emphasize your point, such as, este calor de los cojones, this f-ing heat. It can also be used in a much more severe way, but my neighbors read this blog!

As I write this blog, Kike has started preparing his lunch. He’s bought huevas, the so-called manjar de dioses, or Gods’s treat. I was once with a vegetarian friend in the Corte Inglés supermarket when she inquired as to what exactly they were. The fish monger simply took the orangey and veiny fish part and stuck them up under a headless fish. That’s about as close to cojones as fish have got, I guess.

Any other good ones to share, Hispanophiles? Write me in the comments. This will all be useful to me when I take the DELE in a few months!

Happy Spaniversary to Me!

Dragging my gently worn suitcases outside, I hoisted 100 pounds of my life into to car. Four hours from that moment, after a quick lunch at Portillo’s and a long goodbye, I’d be on a plane bound for Madrid-Barajas with my grandmother, ready to reimmerse myself in Spanish life for two weeks before making a nine-month move to Seville.

Ha, what would my life be if it actually happened like that?

That, my friends, was four years ago today. That’s about 12 percent of my life, as long as I called myself a Hawkeye, twice as long as I thought I’d ever make it in the land of Sunshine and Siestas. But, here I am, quasi married, españolizada’d and just plain happy with where I’m at.

When Helen left Spain a few weeks later, after we’d spent hours on trains, long meals getting to know each other, and discovering just how many facets Iberia seems to have, she left not just Spain, but me, too. I was all alone.

I took her to the airport in Granada and cried. Where would I go from here? Well, I went to Carrefour, Spain’s closest thing to Target, and bought a comforter. This had to mean I was a real Spaniard now, right?

As I read the reactions of first timers in Spain, I like to think I hit the ground running on this whole “España” thing. When Kike and I went to a wedding and I belted out the words to an 80s song touting just how great Spain is, I received cheers, and Kike pats on the back. I love Spain, and Spain loves me right back.

McDonalds is made of skinny cows? Deep.

So, in honor of my four years in the wonderful word of Cervantes, machos, lack of tacos and people in desperate need of my native tongue (aka I have a way to earn money always), here’s four things I love about it (hint: it’s not fútbol or flamenco):


Esa semana tan emblamética…There are no words sufficient enough to describe the sight of thousands dressed in flamenco dresses, the smell of fried food and sherry (ok, and a whiff of horse poop) and the sound of lively flamenco music pouring out of striped tents. I’ve lived some of my favorite moments in the Real, a stark stretch of nothing 51 weeks of the year, and many of them have left me feeling more Spanish than American (ruffles and a big old comb stuck in your head will do that to a girl).


My mother always said that food was a way to a man’s heart, employing me in the business of baked goods goddess when I was barely old enough to reach the counter. While it isn’t easy to cook in Spain with the conversion to the metric system, grabbing a tapa is as easy as walking ten meters in any direction. And, dude, do I love it all – dátiles con beicon, fabada, lentejas, gazpacho, solomillo. Since Spain has influences from around the Mediterranean and I’m the sixth member of a Spanish family, I am no longer concerned that I will whittle away to ná.

What’s more, meals in Spain are sacred. Midday grub is hearty and often lasts hours, stretching to café and then cognac. Going out for tapas is the way to be seen, be fed, and be happy – the ultimate social experiment. And Fernan Adrià has put tapas and haûte cuisine on the map in Spain, bringing fame to San Sebastian’s pintxos, Granada’s free tapas and a squealing little cochinillo in the central regions.

If you’re really daring, ask me what I eat. While I’ve never been picky, I’m certainly more adventurous (though I will never forgive my boyfriend for once feeding my pig kidney soaked in wine. Ew).


Maybe it’s simply because Switzerland was cloudy while I was there, but I love the varied landscapes Spain bets with. As one of the most mountainous regions in all of Europe, I have no shortage of valleys, rivers, peaks and everything in between. What’s more, Andalucía, the region I call home, meets the sea – both Mediterranean and Atlantic. The North has lush, rolling hills in Santander, stark plains in Castilla La Mancha and acre after acre of sunflower fields all over the country. Train and bus rides aren’t mundane – they’re inspiring.

La manera de ser

Call me crazy, but I love Spanish people, especially Andalusians and Galicians. The way a people can be so aware of their past, so adherent to their traditions and so stuck on living la vida buena. Anyone who knew me pre-Spain knows me as wound-up, neurotic and biting off way more than even fits in my mouse. But Spain’s attitude of mañana, mañana– just plain old taking it easy – has helped me calm down and take things as they come. That foreigner’s office business? Meh, this is Spain friends. And not having a job when school started? Well, this is the way things work here.

But somehow, I think I’ve ended up just where I wanted to be. And where I was meant to, too.

September 11th, 10 years later

Daydreaming really never bothered me during my school hours, as I was always a good student who took copious notes. Call it journalistic training, if you like. Then I was assigned to Mr. Cherry’s pre-Calc class. I had it in my head that the only reason I needed math was to get into college, and then I could forget about anything but basic addition and subtraction (for the record, I am mostly right!).

Three weeks into my junior year of high school, I was still daydreaming in my second-hour math class. My second row seat meant that Mr. Cherry often called on me, but I could usually fake it (I somehow faked my way to a B+ in class, too), so as Bob wrote out daily problems on the overhead in blue pen, a knock came at the door. Mr. Cherry stepped outside, his tall frame barely fitting through the door. I stared at the back of Ellen Lee’s head, wishing I was still in 1st period PE playing volleyball.

A few seconds later, my teacher returned, white-faced and wheeling a TV from the math department office next door. Merely switching it on, we were horrified to watch a second plane slam into one of the iconic towers next to one already smoking.

As a wannabe journalist, I was relieved that our teachers let us watch news coverage for the rest of the day. I jogged through hallways to not miss a single press conference, major development or other tidbit of this monumental day, one in which Americans finally felt the instability of today’s world. In the ten years since that day, life has changed for even the most far-reached from the twin towers.

September 11th has affected me in countless ways, both big and small. Living so far from New York City and never having been there, I don’t know anyone who died that day, nor do I have a constant reminder in my home city.


Most of the people I know outside of Spain may consider this day to be just a blip in international news, but for Spain, it was a brush with Islamic terrorism, just a few years after my own country’s doomsday. On the morning of March 11th, 2004, bombs ripped through commuter trains throughout Madrid and the surrounding suburbs, killing nearly 200. Happening just days before the general elections. then-president José María Aznár wrongly accused the Basque Separatist group ETA for the attacks, hoping to be the straw that broke the Basque camel’s back, as he had a personal vengeance against the group that has caused him so much trauma during his presidency and campaign. As a result, Aznár lost the government to now outgoing president José Luis Rodriguéz Zapatero.

Still, I’m reminded of the dark day in recent Spanish memory (and, seriously, this last century is littered with them) every time I take the train to Madrid. My boyfriend’s brother lives just blocks from the station, and the red brick and glass monument meant to honor the victims looms over the passing gates for the cercanías trains and metro. I always have to hoist my bags onto airport-style security scanners when traveling on the high-speed trains, and the presence of guards actually makes me more nervous than lack thereof.

Atocha Station’s Tribute to Victims of 11-M

Body Scanners and Airport Security

I had read about the body scanners long before I ever used them. In fact, my most recent trip to America was the first time I was ever required to step into that small blue hallway and surrender all that is my dignity for the sake of a safe flight. And you know what? I don’t care. When my grandpa offered to fly me to France shortly before my 17th birthday, he suggested July 4th as our departure date. Being a worry wart for the better part of my younger years, I refused and made him change the flight to two days later, fearful for my well-being on a transatlantic jog from one of the world’s busiest airports.

Funny story: After arriving to de Gaulle to take our connecting flight to Nice, my grandfather complained about having to take his shoes off when going through security again. I begged him to lower his voice so the security guards would leave old Mr. Eccentric alone. We boarded the plane and I fell asleep. Two hours later, we were still on the ground, as a passenger’s bags had made it onto the plane, but the passenger himself didn’t. Glad my mother told me to wear gym shoes, I scrambled off the plane, found my big purple suitcase and wheeled it onto another baggage cart before falling asleep again (dude, jetlag is a bitch.). I woke up an hour later, stretched and open the window blinds. We were over water at a low altitude. I panicked, tightening my seat belt and putting my head between my knees as countless safety videos had instructed. My grandfather, a Korea vet and Navy pilot, laughed at me. Apparently the Nice airport is right on the coast, but the sensation of dying in a crash has afforded me a lot of patience when it comes to bag searches, pat downs and having the security guard at O’Hare give me a lashing…for being a Cubs fan.

American Stigma

I admit, I fully look like the American I am, from the haircut to the hips to my jeans. This is both a good thing and a bad thing while living abroad. A pro, for example, would be the anything but shortage of language jobs available to me as a TEFL professional. The biggest con, however, is the American stigma I get stuck with. Ok, I look like I’m 20, so that automatically qualifies me for the study abroad student in Seville to spend Daddy’s money on chupitas, copas, tapas and weekend trips to Lagos. Um, sorry, but no.

Further, being one of 250 million makes everyone think that every cosmopolitan New Yorker, hippie from the Pacific Northwest and down-home farmer is just like me. I am a twentysomething from Chicago with a big mouth, small dose of common sense and love for the big, big world. But one of the most common questions I got while I studied abroad in 2005 was, “Bush or Kerry?” I wasn’t one of the ones who voted in the majority that election, but he is one man who made one decision based on millions of opinions. Sometimes it’s hard for people to see past the fact that I am merely a single individual whose thought don’t always reflect those of my country.

I carry around a stigma everywhere in the world I’ve gone in the last ten years. I must be rich, or as dumb as that Bush guy. I must be arrogant and fat from all the McDonalds I eat. I must know every Hollywood star and drive a sports car and not speak anything else but English. These stereotypes are some of many that have been flung my way during my four years living abroad. But the one that stings the most? Being called unpatriotic.

English Teaching

Strangely enough, September 11th provides me with a go-to example of the past continuous. I can describe precisely where I was and what I was doing that morning, like I can the moment the newsflash about invading Afghanistan (sadly, I was watching Trista’s season of the “Bachelorette” and was angry that it was interrupted. Shame on me!). And in case you were wondering, I was eating Jeff Nowicki’s famous crepes in his living room when we found out Princess Di had been killed. It’s easy to asked what one was doing/wearing/watching/feeling when something monumental happened. For Spaniards, asking about 11-M or November 20, 1975, the day that Francisco Franco died, is a simple example to illustrate a not-so-simple grammar point. Like it or not, life-changing moments are a TEFL teacher’s best friend.

What were you doing when it happened?

As an educator, it seems strange that my students weren’t even alive when these events unfolded. My mom remembers bathing me one afternoon when the Challenger exploded, just a few months after I was born. Though I obviously don’t remember that day, the weight of its impact affected me when Columbia burst into flames when I was 17. To think that I’ll let Monday pass without so much as mentioning it is a bit sad to me. If I were a teacher in America, talking about September 11th would be like my 7th grade social studies teacher talking about the Vietnam War.

Regardless, the images and the emotions from that day will likely be on my mind forever, affecting me in my day-to-day.

Here Come the Hawks!

As an American living far away form the Land of the Free and the Home of the Supersized McMenu, I am often asked what I miss most from America. I can tell you lots of things that I don’t miss (tipping, picking up after my dog, paying for gas), but there are few things that I miss so, so dearly. If I want a hamburger, I cough up the money and go to Friday’s. If I want an American brew, they sell Sam Adams at the supermarket next door. En fin, I’ve learned to adapt and still retain my Americaness.

But if I want this, well, I just have to remember that college football is only three months of the year.

There are few things I love more than hearing “Touchdown, Iowa!” and screaming IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII as the black and gold flag is waved at the student section. No better way to start a football Saturday than cracking a beer to the darlings of the Hawkeye State on Melrose Avenue at 6am. For a state with no professional teams, the Hawks are about as close as they’ve got, and fans pour into Iowa City during every home game. So, yes, I miss Hawkeye Football and everything that comes along with it (Kirk Ferentz’s trastero included).

My elementary school gym teacher had a yellow and black bumper sticker on the door to his office, 80s-style old-school, that read: It’s great to be a Hawkeye! I got a postcard announcing my acceptance into my first-choice school which proclaimed the same. Damn, it feels good to be a Hawkeye.

Yes, this is from the kids’ section, and yes, you can make fun of me for it.

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