Five Years, Five Goals

The chalk squeaked as I drew a line under the word SUCCESS. My 4 ESO students read it, es-soox-essss, a habit I hadn’t been able to break in my three years working with them. I always knew it would be an uphill battle.

I crumpled small slips of paper from atop the teacher’s desk and picked one up. “Teacher, you are beautiful.” That little paper ball went right into Franci’s face.

At the end of my three years of teaching at I.E.S. Heliche, I asked my 16-year-olds to tell me one thing that made them feel successful before turning the question, “Has your English teacher been successful?

When I graduated, I made a list of three things to accomplish in my first three years out of college. Five years later, I’m closing in on my fifth anniversary of moving to Spain on September 12th. I told myself I could consider myself successful if I accomplished three things – but that list seems to grow as my years in the land of sunshine and siestas climb.

Last year, I examined the four things I love about Spain. This year, the five most important things I’ve accomplished during my years in Spain.

Year One. Move Abroad

Once I had studied abroad, I knew that the only place for me to go after graduation was to anywhere but America. I did all of the research, using my study abroad office and contacts I’d made through the Daily Iowan. When the opportunity to participate in the North American Language Assistants program came up, I abandoned my plans to do a work holiday in Ireland and brushed up on my Spanish. Working just 12 hours a week gave me time to do an internship at a travel company, make friends and travel throughout Iberia.

My parents came to visit at Christmas this year, and I struggled at even mundane tasks, like translating menus and asking for directions. My dad joked that I’d been to busy guzzling sangria to actually learn the language, so my goal for my second year in Spain was to work on perfecting my castellano.

Year Two. Learn Spanish. Really, like actually speak it.

As anyone who has traveled to Spain can tell you, the Spanish they teach you in school no vale over here. I struggled with my accent and theirs, didn’t understand their slang. It even took the Novio and I several months speaking in English before I worked up the nerve to ask to switch to Spanish.

The majority of my life in Spain is now down in my second tongue, but it didn’t come easy. I bought several books, began watching TV in Spanish and made an effort to use it as often as possible. Become proficient in Spanish has taken me thirteen years, but I finally have the C1 Certification of Proficiency from the Instituto Cervantes. Toma. Time to focus on something more fun, like traveling.

Read about preparing for and taking the DELE. Then read about my weirdo accent.

Year Three. Travel to 25 countries before turning 25.

The time I didn’t spend learning Spanish during my first year was time I spent traveling, hitting six new countries andseveral regions in Spain. My goal to travel to 25 foreign countries looked more and more possible.

I traveled overnight from Budapest to Prague with my friend Lauren, and she snapped a 6am picture of me setting foot in the 25th. Since then, I’ve been to several more, but all the while I’ve felt fortunate to have a springboard from which to explore Europe. I’ve done some cool things, like snuck into monasteries in Romania, ridden a donkey through rural Morocco, camped under the stars on Spain’s Most Beautiful Beach.

Read my Top 25 moments (with links between all five posts) on Backpacking Matt.

Year Four. Beat the Paperwork Game.

By far one of the biggest pitfalls of being a non-European in Spain is the paperwork hassle. Any guiri can tell you that the standing in lines, running from one office to another, surrendering all of your personal info and then not hearing back for weeks is enough to make you turn around and say adiós to Spain.

Stranded with few options for renewing my student visa status after the Auxiliares program dropped me, I struggled to find a way to legally stay in Spain, even considering working illegally. I exhausted my contacts one by one until the US Consular Agent suggested something that have never occurred to me: lying.

I already had paperwork pending for a Master’s I’d decided not to do, so I hopped on the first bus to Madrid and applied. Having never filed paperwork in the capital, I wasn’t aware that the Foreigner’s Office worked on an appointment system, and that they were booked for months (which also meant I stood out in the cold for several hours alone). The guard gave me the number, and I called. Tensely. Making things up. And I got in the day before my residence card expired.

Kike and I had also done a de-facto partnership, which was passed from a simple piece of paper denoting that he was responsible for me to a piece of plastic denoting I could stay in Spain for five years without having a porque to go near the office. I fought the law, and the law handed me a loophole.

Read How to Deal with the Foreigner’s Office and how to trick funcionarios and pretend you’re smart.

Year Five. Find a Stable Group of Friends

The problem with being an expat is that many people come and go, making my cycle of friends constantly in motion. Even those I think will be long-term sometimes pack up and go. And with a partner in the military, I still find myself alone. Finding friends is easy, but keeping those who are inclined to stick around – both American and foreign – has been more difficult. Thanks to the American Women’s Club, working at a school with Spaniards and making an effort to befriend Kike’s friends, I’ve got friends all over Spain, and I sadly don’t spend much time with people I know will only be in Seville for a year.

Algo se muere en el alma, right? Have drunkenly sung that sevillana far too many times.

Year Six. Figure out how long-term this all is.

My students decided that I had, in fact, been successful in my first three years in Spain. Still, all of these years abroad has gotten me a little disconcerted. I’ve spoken with a lot of expat friends on the subject fo staying in Spain, especially admist a crippling financial crisis and little job security. Why not go to America? I ask them and myself. Who wouldn’t want a mortgage, kids and to deal with all those stupid jingles?

Haha, oh yeah. Looks like it’s time to set some new goals – what should they be?

Seville Snapshots: Beware the Falling Oranges!

Camp is moving along smoothly, save a few bumps (literally) in the road, so I appreciate all of your contributions to Seville Snapshots. Today’s takes us to the chillier winter months, where the orange trees that dot the city become one of the city’s most important symbols.

Says Sam: I’ve been loving looking at your photos of Sevilla and reading your blog! I wanted to submit one of my own photos from my most recent trip there in March. It was taken with my phone, so it’s nothing fancy, but I love how it sums up what it’s like to walk around Sevilla at that time of year. Anyone who has spent time there knows the familiar resounding “splat!” of an orange hitting the sidewalk, usually just narrowly missing your head. This was the first time I’d seen a bunch of the oranges cleaned up off the ground in one bag. And to think, they look both harmless and delicious when they’re packaged up like that. There’s nothing about them that suggests that they’re just tiny little bombs, waiting to knock you out or obliterate your tapas and vino!


Many thanks to Sam Ley from !!

If you’d like to contribute your photos from Spain and Seville, please send me an email at sunshineandsiestas @ with your name, short description of the photo, and any bio or links directing you back to your own blog, Facebook page or twitter. There’s plenty more pictures of the gorgeous Seville on Sunshine and Siesta’s new Facebook page!

Seville Snapshots: The View from Patio de los Naranjos

As I hang out up north, running a summer camp and looking after 16 teachers and a blogger, I’m pining for Seville: the heat, the food, the open, wide sky. I’m delighted that Christine in Spain sent me a gorgeous picture that encompasses so many wonderful things about the city, and that she was patient enough to wait in line.
Says Christine: I chose to contribute this photo in particular because I think it captures the essence of Seville: the orange trees which are so symbolic of the city, and the commanding presence of the Cathedral and Giralda in the background. I took this on a mild, sunny January day when the streets were buzzing with people as they so often seem to do in Spain.

If you’d like to contribute your photos from Spain and Seville, please send me an email at sunshineandsiestas @ with your name, short description of the photo, and any bio or links directing you back to your own blog, Facebook page or twitter. There’s plenty more pictures of the gorgeous Seville on Sunshine and Siesta’s new Facebook page!

Baa, Baa Black Sheep: Sampling Ovejas Negras Tapas Bar

My friend Lindsay, fellow sevillana in a past life, has my back when it comes to new places in Sevilla. While catching up after Christmas over rebajas shopping, she practically dragged me to Plaza San Francisco to try a new restaurant she’d heard about called Ovejas Negras, Black Sheep.

I fully admit to loving the traditional bodegas and old man bars in Seville, where the tortilla is fluffy and the service always candid. Lately, however, as tourism keeps this country afloat, more and more gastrobars have been popping up in the city.

I thought back to living on Calle Numancia in the bustling Triana neighborhood. To Rafa and the crew, I became la vecinita, the neighbor, and often filled my belly on balmy summer nights with a finger or two of wine and some cheese. La Pura Tasca’s fresh take on mixing ingredients and inventive design left me craving some more modern.

Places like La Azotea, Zelai and the newer Robles Restaurant (reputed to be the best food in Seville) are now rubbing elbows with age-old eating establishments and tucking into the narrow, cobblestone streets of the old quarter. From first taste, I was hooked.

Located in the shadow of the commanding Puerta del Perdón of the Cathedral, Ovejas Negras is anything but the black sheep of the restaurant family. It stands apart from the multitude of tourist shops and rental apartments and pays homage to Seville’s old ultramarinos store, a shop where you could buy everything from powdered milk to meats by simply taking a number and waiting for the man behind the counter to fill your order. Typical Spanish products line the crude wooden shelves behind the bar, where, as tradition dictates, the bartender will ask “Quién es el último?” and take your order.

Traditional Spanish tapas show up on the clipboard menus, but the beauty of Ovejas Negras is the mix of new and international cuisine. I, like Lindsay, have taken so many people back to Ovejas Negras that I’ve already got my go-to list of favorites at the bar: creamy risotto with wild mushrooms, a french bread pizza with rucula and parmesan, spicy papas bravas and, per usual, a cold Cruzcampo.

The atmosphere in the place is always lively, and last night we were lucky to grab a spot at the bar, under Bonilla a la Vista potato chip canisters and Mahou bottles. Our plan was to introduce my visitors, Dave and Melissa from my high school days, to the tapas tradition, but the bright lights of the bar and the array of choices meant we’d get our fill just be ordering based on what our eyes and noses drank in.

When I could say that I was the next in line to order, I carefully recited what was on everyone’s list to try: wooden bowls of papas bravas, an eggplant and rucula sandwich, fried fish with an accompanying cream sauce, the risotto and small, sweet and sour empanadillas. The conversation flowed like the beer over the bustle of the street outside for the Corpus Christi celebrations. The portion size of the tapas is big enough that two-three between two people is typically enough, though I could have found room in my tummy for the not-so-mini hamburger or even a slice of cheesecake.

Later that night, we found ourselves at roof where Melissa asked for the kitchen menu. “Just wanted to see if the papas bravas here were any better!” she quipped before ordering them. Could the answer be any more obvious?

Ovejas Negras is located in the Antiguo Bodegón Pez Espada on C/ Hernando Colón, 8, just between the Town Hall and Cathedral. Hours are Tuesday – Sunday 13:00 – 17:00 and 20:00 – 00:00. Closed Monday. Tapas from 2,50€. Menu also available in English.

Been to Overjas Negras? What did you order, and what did you think? Know any worthwhile bars to try in Seville? Want to come with? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll get eating!

For the Love of the Dove: El Rocío

I’ve never been one for Bucket Lists, but often set travel goals for myself. When I was 20, I decided to do a 25 before 25, making a list of my top-five destinations when I moved to Spain two years later. Twenty-twelve meant no resolutions, just a few ideas for travel goals during 2012: one new country, one off-beat travel activity and one nationally recognized festival, in Spain or not.

It’s the end of May and I’ve just completed my goals. I think I shall hashtag this as #travellover. Last weekend, my sevillana half orange, La Dolan, and I went to visit Spain’s lushiest Virgin Mother, La Virgen del Rocío.

The festival of El Rocío is one-part religious pilgirimage, one-part full-blown fair and two parts party: those devoted to the Virgen, known as the Lady Of the Marshes or the White Dove (Nuestra Señora de Las Marismas, for the hermitage’s proximity to the protected swampland of Doñana National Park, or the Blanca Paloma), make a pilgrimage from their towns to the immaculate white church outside the village of Almonte. This can be done on foot, on horseback, or by riding in oxen-driven carrozas, a type of temporary covered wagon. Arriving on or before the Saturday of Pentecost, often sleeping and eating outdoors, the rocieros then gather in El Rocío for a series of masses, parades and the famed salta a la reja.

We arrived just before noon on Pentecost Sunday. I wore my celestial blue traje de gitana, coral flower on my head, while Cait opted for a breezy skirt. It was over 90º out, but the rocieros were in their typical costumes: the women in trajes de gitana or faldas rocieras, a skirt with ruffles suited for walking, and high leather boots. The male counterpart is a traje corto, with tight cropped pants made for horseback riding. I made a face at Cait, suddenly very hot with the sleeves of my dress and restricted in movement.

The whole village of El Rocío is like a town straight out of a Wild West film set – hitching posts set in front of modest houses, horses clopping gallantly around the sandy streets. It was difficult to walk with my espadrilles while dodging carriages, and sand soon filled my shoes.

As we neared the stark white church, a beacon against the bright blue Andalusian sky, we decided to visit the village’s most famous resident before going any further. As we neared, the tamboril drums and simple flutes that characterize the sevillanas rocieras grew to a furor, and the crowd standing under the scalloped entrance of the hermitage suddenly parted. The Pentecost mass had just ended, and a parade of the simpecaos, the banners carried by the different religious groups, had begun.

The knots of people ebbed and moved as the 110 hermandades, yes the same kind from Holy Week, from around Spain presented their faithful before the church and moved around the village’s dusty streets. From simple to elegant, each carry a symbol of the Virgen del Rocío. The pilgrimage dates back to the 17th Century, with the hermandad from Almonte, el Matriz, being the oldest. Following the banner come women in two straight lines on either side of the simpecao, carrying long silver staffs topped with images of their brotherhood’s virgen. Their necks were emblazoned with the same silhouette in the form of heavy pendants on the end of multi-colored rope cords.

The festival at the Aldea is characterized by religious devotion, of course, but there’s much more to it. As Cait and I reflected over our first action-packed hour, we listened to other bar-goers recount their tales. Once the hermandades arrive to El Rocío through the various routes from the East, West and South, they settle into houses that look like a giant corral or hotel around a central patio, with room for the carrozas and horses behind. Gines, Olivares, Villamanrique and Triana have enormous patios, and we peeked in to see the merriment between beers. People sing, dance and pray for up to one week during the pilgrimage and the celebration.

Feeling refreshed, we decided on visiting the Virgin herself. The temple is simple, white-washed, save the golden retablao and a few frescoes in the corners of the nave. Cola de batas, the boundy ruffles of the traje rociero, showed under confessional booths, and the romeros prayed to the Virgen Mother, who was kept safely behind a cast iron gate, called a reja. After praying the rosary that night at midnight, she would “jump over” the reja and be paraded around the village on the shoulders of revelers, called the salta a la reja. This is the culmination of the week’s events, and it signals the abandonment of the recinto and the camino back home.

Outside, we bought candles in the gift shop to take to the adjacent prayer chapel. There’s a life-sized statue of the Rocío that people press their candles to before lighting them and finding a place to prop them up. The whole chapel was cool, smoky and silent – a far cry from the music emanating from the casas outside.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the streets, popping into bars for a beer (and relief from the hot midday sun), visiting my students from Olivares and trying to keep the sand out of our shoes. We got on the bus six hours after we’d arrived, absolutely exhausted and still bigger feriantas than rocieras.

Have you been to El Rocío or done the peregrinación? What was your experience like, especially on the road towards the Aldea? For more pictures, be sure to check out my Facebook page and become a fan for up-to-date photos and posts about Spain and Seville.

Snail Tale, Part 2

Spring in Sevilla is like a four-act play: incense and nazarenos followed by sherry and sevillanas. Next comes the heat and absence of people in the streets and, finally, signs proclaiming HAY CARACOLES. Snails here.

While the squishy little animal is enough to make any American squirm, caracoles are anticipated the same way that we wait for sweetcorn on the 4th. As soon as the temperature cools off about 8 p.m., people flock to the streets to slurp up caracoles.

And when I say slurp, I mean slurp. The snails are cooked in a spicy brown sauce and served in either a tapa or a plate. Though toothpicks are given, most people prefer to just suck out the little brown thing and the juice. If they don´t come out, well, you make a little hole with your tooth in the shell and he slides right out!
Below are my favorite places for snails, taking into account price, ambience and slurpiness.
This tiny little locale on C/Esperanza de Triana is only open during snail season. The critters are cooked in a huge vat while the proprietor pours beer and throws montaditos on the grill. Diego is legendary, from the piping hot, spicy sauce the snails are cooked in to the plates balancing on the empty kegs of Cruzcampo outside. Calle Esperanza de Triana (Triana)
La Tiza is typical cevercería: old men in pressed white shirts serving you your cervecita, tabbing it up on the wall or on the bar in front of you with chalk. Pictures of Toro Lidia adorn the walls and kids run around your feet. La Tiza has more elbow room for those pesky ones that won´t slide out, and they´re cheap, too – 2,50€ for a tapa is all you need to say for me to be there! Paseo de Europa, (Los Bermejales)
Named for the first sailor to complete a trip by boat, El Cano is an old locale located in the old fisherman´s barrio between Heliópolis and Los Bermejales. The tile-lined bar is surrounded by a tall brick wall, perfect for resting your plate on during a warm night. These buggers are a bit more expensive, but slide right out and come extra spicy. This neighborhood has a lot of ambience, too – the fisherman’s chapel is right next door, and if you don’t like snails, the bar has everything from coagulated blood with onions to tripe. (Barriada El Cano)


While this bar’s claim to fame is the roast and peppered birds (hence the name), the Novio swears that the creepies are exquisitos at Casa Ruperto. The bar is nestled into a small, dusty patio between two residential buildings, so it feels like a small block party of friends.  Calle Santa Cecelia (Triana)


My old student Julián and I used to roam Sevilla while having conversation class, alternating neighborhoods by the month and stopping for beers often. As the caracol season snuck up on us, between the azahar and volantes, he touted Seville’s king of snails at Bar El Kiki. Tall wooden tables crowded the sidewalk under a wide awning, and the snails from Morocco are rumored to be the best in the city. I, sadly, have yet to try. off of José Laguillo (Santa Justa)

As I’m slurping up snails and celebrating Luna’s second birthday (for real! Where does the time go!?), head over to Interway, where I’ve been featured, along with Sarah of Love and Paella and fellow Seville blogger Fiona of Scribbler in Seville, for great expat blogs in Spain!

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