Seville, I’m breaking up with you

Querida Sevilla mía,

You know that age-old, “It’s not you, it’s me”? Well, it’s not me. Eres tú. We’ve reached the end of a nine-year relationship, one marked with uncertainty at the beginning, with as much elation as frustration in the years since we became intimate. And más pronto que tarde, I knew we’d end up here.

Te estoy dejando.

giralda sunset1

My friend Stacy maintains that the first Spaniard you fall for is never the one you stay with – it’s always the second. If Spanish lovers were cities, you’d be my second great love, my second Spaniard. Two years before we got to know each other, Valladolid entered my life. Stately and daunting, but a romance that was always a little off. Castilla y León’s capital never did it for me, a bit too cold and a bit too stand-offish to be anything long-term. Neither the castles nor the robust red wine could woo me, but it was a foray into what it meant to truly love a city.

You and I met on a sweltering July day in 2005, your characteristic heat baking midday as I dragged a suitcase towards Calle Gravina. Back then, the Alameda was all albero, you could drive down Constitution and around the roundabout at Puerta Jerez and there was a noticeable lack of skyscrapers, gastrobars and coffee houses. On the surface, you were beautiful, but I pined for Valladolid, not entirely convinced you were boyfriend material.

tapas bodeguita romero typical Spanish tavern

Two years later, we were thrust together again. Still sore from being flat-out rejected by Granada, I set out to try and get to know you on a Sunday evening in late September when everything was shuttered. Walking down Pagés del Coro, I craned my neck to watch the swallows dip between the balconies and around the spire of La Estrella chapel.

Swallows, golondrinas, always return to where they’re from. Even at that moment, exhausted from two weeks traveling and unsure about starting my job the next morning at IES Heliche, I knew I had returned to where I was to be from. In those tender first steps in our relationship, I was smitten. I would soon fall deeply in love with you.

Plaza del Altozano Triana

But today, nine years later, I ripped the band aid off, and HARD. I just up and left it seems, without time for long goodbyes at all of the places I’ve come to haunt in these years together, to the hundreds of caras I’ve come to know in the barrio. No ugly cries, just a few tears pricking my eyes as I locked up my house, rolled one suitcase to the bus stop and headed towards Santa Justa and, later, Madrid.

Like I said, it’s you, not me.

I guess you could say I saw this coming, like that little ball that sits low in your stomach when you know life is going to darte un giro in a big, big way. I needed that giro because you’d simply gotten to easy. I can understand even the oldest abuelo buried deep into one of your old man bars, can no longer get lost in your tangle of streets. You are a comfortable lover, warm and welcoming, familiar and comforting.

But I’m not one to be estancada, stagnant, comfortable. Walking down La Castellana in March, the ball in my stomach dissipated as I skipped from a job interview back towards Atocha. The trees were bare, but the sky was the same bright blue that always welcomes me in Seville. As they say, de Madrid al cielo. Madrid was calling.

Sunshine and Siestas at the Feria de Abril

Sevilla, you’ve been more than good to me, giving me just about everything I’ve ever needed. You’re easy on the eyes, fiery and passionate, deeply sensual and surprising. You’ve shown me the Spain I always wanted to find, even between castles and tintos de Ribera del Duero and my first impression of Spain. You’ve reignited my love for culture, for making strangers my friends, for morning beers and for living in the moment. You changed me for the better.

And you will always be that second great love, te lo prometo. Triana will always be my home.

But you’ve just gotten too small. My dreams and ambitions are too big for your pueblo feel, as much as I’ve come to love it. Your aesthetic beauty continues to enchant me as I ride my bike past the cathedral at twilight or I leave extranjería and am not even mad that my least favorite place in Seville is also one of my favorites. Your manjares are no match for the sleek pubs and international food in Madrid, which I know I’ll grow tired of.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

I admit that it was difficult to reach your core, to understand the way you are and learn to appreciate those nuances. At the beginning, it was all new and fun and boisterous, the out-loud way that you live each day, those directionless afternoons and long, raucous nights. Lunches that stretch into breakfast. Balmy evenings, Cruzcampo in hand. Festival after procession after traffic jam. Unforgettable sunsets. Unannounced rain showers. Biting cold and scalding heat. You are a city of extremes and mood swings, for sure, but you’re at your best that way. You are as passionate as they say you are.

Still, there were frustrations with the language, that lazy way that you “forget” letters and entire syllables. Frustrations with getting around and untangling the back alleys of your deepest barrios. Frustrations navigating the choque between our two cultures and figuring out a way to make it work for nearly a decade. There was a lot of give and take, that’s for sure.

my first feria de abril

And that’s not to say you haven’t changed for the better in these nine years together.

You’re more guiri-friendly, easier to get around and constantly coming up with ways to reinvent yourself without losing what makes you, . Even when I rolled by eyes at the Setas, I found the best views from its waffle-like towers. You always find a way to stay true to yourself, even if that means having to take the long way home when the streets are choked with a procession or if I call the Ayuntamiento and they send my call from office to office without ever getting through to an actual human.

But those same things that I once loved have become annoyances as we’ve gotten more comfortable with one another. Some of it is trivial, lo sé, but in the bigger scheme of things, we need time apart. Room to breathe, to try new things. I can’t get everything I need from you right now, Seville, y ya está. I know the decision was quick and may have its repercussions, but it’s what I have to do right now if we ever want a chance again.

Expat in Seville Cat Gaa

Madrid presents so many new possibilities. I scoffed at the idea of living there and opening myself up to loving it, but it will never be you. In fact, I think it will be like Valladolid, a tough nut to crack and one whose true character I may never know the way that I know you.

I’ll look for you in the bares de viejos, in a sevillano passing by wearing a Betis t-shirt, in the way that the Madrid gatos will laugh at my accent or look puzzled when I ask for a copistería or a cervecita. You’ll probably follow me around, to be honest. You were never one to let go lightly.

I love Seville Heart Necklace

This morning, as I drove over the San Telmo bridge towards Triana, the swallows returned. It was already a warm July morning, maybe even eleven years to the day since I first felt the breeze over the Guadalquivir. Eres un amor para toda la vida, Sevilla. Maybe in three or five years’ time, we’ll find ourselves back together, a bit more mature and ready for a new stage in our relationship. You’ll have changed, I have no doubt, and so will I.

But if the golondrinas are any indication, volveré. It’s the natural course.

Con todo mi cariño,

Cat

Wondering about my absence the past two months? I’ve been back and forth on the AVE, making trips to Madrid for job interviews, spending time alone with Sevilla and even squeezed in a ten-day trip to the US for my sister’s wedding. On July 3rd, 2016 – coincidentally the same day I applied for my visa for Spain in 2007 – the Novio and I officially moved to Madrid. I’ll start a job in a few weeks as an admissions counselor at a prestigious American university with a campus in the heart of La Capi. Adiós, teaching – never thought I’d see the day!!

No time for complatency

Will I like Madrid? I’m positive I will. Will I love it? Not in the same way that I love Seville, but the Novio and I have big plans for the next few years, and Seville was simply too small for our career ambitions. I’m not entirely sure how the scope of Sunshine and Siestas, a blog that has largely been about Andalucía, will change, but you can count on my voice coming through! 

I’m curious to hear your reactions to the news, which I’ve managed to keep surprisingly quiet! Not even sure I believe it myself!

Chasing Don Quixote: a Detour through Castilla-La Mancha

Bueno, Castilla-La Mancha isn’t exactly known for its long, winding highways,” Inmaculada said, dragging her fingertip across the screen of her mobile phone six consecutive times as the car pointed towards Valencia. It had been nearly 100 kilometers since I’d had to even move the steering wheel for anything other than overtaking.

Literally called the scorch or the stain in Spanish, La Mancha may not be famous for its roads, but it is renowned for two things: Don Quixote and Manchego cheese. Resting comfortably on top of Andalucía and cradled between Madrid and Valencia, its size and its small towns have intimidated me. Everything seemed a bit archaic, a bit sleepy and, mostly, a bit unreachable without a car and an extra-long weekend.

windmills and Don Quijote

Stretching out on either side of the highway as I drove Inmaculada and Jaime to Valencia was land. Sand. Barely a glimpse of a small town. Like any other Spanish student, we were made to read Quixote in high school and made a point of paying homage to a fictional knight bound by the ideals of chivalry and true love. But the landscapes I’d read about in Cervantes’s greatest novel were nothing but  flat and brown. A literal scorch of earth, true to the region’s name.

Three days later, I left the coast, shoes and jacket blackened from Las Fallas, and tilted back towards the heart of Castilla-La Mancha. The great hidalgo‘s “giants” were only a few hours away. I took my old, tired car, an allusion to the old, tired steer, Rocinante, with me.

The drive should have been easy enough: the Autovía de Este until it met the Autovía del Sur and a few minutes’ drive west to Consuegra, where eight or ten windmills stand guard on a jagged crest of mountain, crowned by a medieval castle.

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is nobel, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.

Per Trevor’s suggestion, I wanted to stop first in Alcázar de San Juan, home to a number of beautifully restored windmills that wouldn’t be run over with tourists. Spit out from the Contreras Reservoir that naturally separates La Mancha from the Comunitat Valenciana, the radio frequency suddenly switched to a CD, and soon the Eagles (could there be a more perfect band for a road trip?) were running through my stereo.

I calculated I had enough gas and my bladder could make it the 200 kilometers to San Juan. It was an easy jaunt on the A-3 until Tomelloso, where I’d hop onto the CM-42.

Maybe it was the Eagles or the long, flat, endless journey down the motorway, but I turned onto the wrong highway at Atalaya del Cañavate. As someone who uses landmarks to mark the way, the names of towns, echoing old battlegrounds and ruined castles, began to seem foreign. Stopping in Alamarcha, my phone confirmed what I’d suspected for several dozen kilometers: I’d gotten myself lost.

But the giants were calling, and I wasn’t too far off the path. Monty-nante roared back to life, I turned up the music and rolled down the windows. We set off, a girl and her horsepower, to slay giants. Or, take some pictures of windmills before lunch. The allusions end there for a bit, lo prometo.

Like our Quixotic hero, I blinked hard to make sure I was seeing what lay ahead. As soon as I’d gotten on the CM-420, the long, straight highways became curls around hills, between cherry and almond groves and without a soul or engine in sight. The brown patches of earth were immediately lush and covered in alfalfa, dewey from the previous day’s rain, and full of low, stout grapevines. I pulled over and turned off my GPS, happy to sit in near silence as Monty’s tires shifted effortlessly around curves. After all, this was as adventurous as my Holy Week travels would be.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

I began climbing a hill at what I believed to be halfway to San Juan. Just below the cusp, I saw the stationary arm of a giant – a set of windmills protect the town of Mota del Cuervo. We nudged our way towards them, standing in a solitary row of six or eight.

Windmills in Castilla

molinos at mota del cuervo, la mancha

Windmill landscape

The tourism office was closed and my car was the only one parked in the ample gravel lot. I had the giants to myself, and I practically squealed. Lately I’ve been feeling jaded as I travel in Spain, as if nothing else can ever impress me the way that laying eyes on the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal did; but feeling the wind whip by my ears as I looked across the scorched Manchego plain reminded me that, yes, there is still plenty of Spain to discover.

But I had to press on, to not let perception or kilometers or a low phone battery squash my dream of seeing Consuegra when I was this close. I drove right past San Juan and its beautiful windmills atop an olive tree grove crawling up the hillside. As soon as I’d crossed the A-4 highway some 40 kilometers later, the giants at Consuegra began to come into view, huddled around a castle.

windmills in my rearview mirror

The town itself was dusty and sleepy, as I’d expected. Streets had no names, rendering my GPS useless. Monty chugged slowly up the steep, barely-meter wide streets as old women swept street porches and clung to their door frames. Images of the old hidalgo became commonplace – bars named Chispa and La Panza de Sancho, souvenir shops touting wooden swords and images of windmills and an old warrior atop a barebones steed.

Rounding the final curve, a man waved his arms up and down, pleading me to stop and flagging me into a full parking lot. “It’s International Poetry Day,” he said, “and the molinos are closed to car traffic.” Closing my eyes and throwing the car into reverse, I consulted the day’s plan. After getting lost twice and being pulled over by a Guardia Civil, I had to make a decision: resign myself to hiking 500 meters up to the windmills as the clouds closed in ahead, or drive back down towards Andalucía for a winery tour in Valdepeñas.

I chose to buy a bottle of wine in the DO and call it a day. I had dreams and bucket list items to chase.

The windmills were barely visible, save a few solitary blades reaching over the rock face. After an entire morning searching for them, it was like they had stopped spinning, as if the proverbial wind had been blown out of my sails. And coupled with a bus full of tourists, they just didn’t have the wonder that the molinos and my moment of silence at Mota del Cuervo had.

Even the clouds overhead looked menacing and about to burst.

Panoramica molinos de Consuegra

Windmills at Consuegra

I hiked to the farthest point from the castle, to windmills bearing less common names and without selfie-stick toting tourists resting on the stoops. These windmills were decidedly less picturesque but somehow more authentic.

A View of Don Quixote's Giants

panorama of Don Quixote's windmills

Maybe it was a pipe dream to think I’d have the windmills all to myself for an hour of reflection. Maybe I thought they’d be bigger, like the giants I’d read about in high school. But like all things in the chronicle of the hidalgo, not everything is always as it seems. Feeling a bit dejected and pressed for time, I climbed back into Monty-nante, a true warrior after 1000 kilometers over four days, and took the autovía south.

“Take my advice and live for a long, long time. Because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”

It’s been over a decade since I’ve studied abroad, and half a lifetime since we read an abridged version of Don Quixote junior year of high school. And it’s been just over four centuries since Miguel de Cervantes penned the closing chapter to a masterpiece that endures time and place.

Molinos de Consuegra

In high school, I remember thinking Don Quixote was a fool, a haggard old man with pájaros en la cabeza who should have listened to his trusted Sancho Panza. Feeling very much like a pícara myself at this moment, I had a car ride to reflect on things and my somewhat failed mission to fulfill a teenage dream.

After a few weeks that could very well change the Spain game, I couldn’t help thinking that the old man had a few things to remind me: about perspective, about the clarity in insanity and that failure is also a means to a happier ending.

EXHIBITION

Have you ever seen the windmills at Consuegra?

My American Crush on Memphis (Or, How I Realized Just How American I Am)

Our rented Kia Soul’s direction was mainly southwest down I-55 to Saint Louis before we dipped slightly further south and nudged a bit east into the Deep South. As a Yankee and expat overseas, my forays into American life had been limited to power points about Thanksgiving and begging sports bars to show American football.

It wasn’t until Memphis – 570 miles and eight hours southwest of my hometown – that the meaning of being an American abroad hit me by seeing my country from the outside in for once. And it took a Spaniard abroad to point that out.

downtown memphis streets

Lucía was cooking puchero in her olla exprés when we arrived to her condo on Mud Island. Out her kitchen window sat downtown Memphis and the ghastly pyramid. And out her living room window, the Mississippi thundered by, eventually dumping out into the Gulf of Mexico. Her 18-month-old daughter played nearby with a series of books in both Spanish and English.

“Just have to wait until this is done, and we can head out,” she said, handing the Novio and I a bottle of American beer. “Oh! And I took tomorrow off of work to be your guide.”

Lucía and I have known each other since I moved to Spain. Staunchly andaluza with a world view – she’s worked in half a dozen countries as a medic and EMT – she and I have always had a lot in common. And she and the Novio have been friends for well over a decade. As we planned a road trip down to New Orleans, a stop in Bluff City was a non-negotiable pit stop, even if it meant one night fewer in NOLA.

South Main District Memphis

Memphis has been a always been a thread weaved into my formative years, I’ve realized six months later. My father spent most of his working life at Federal Express, whose headquarters is in Memphis. I grew up on Elvis and rock n’ roll. My elementary school was called Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. Ask me what foods I miss most from the US, and pulled pork with baked beans push into the top five.

While reluctant to spend two nights in Memphis, I welcomed the opportunity to see Lu, cross into a new state and stuff myself, post-wedding, on BBQ. Armed with a list of my dad’s list of musts – the Peabody Ducks, blues joints and ribs – we pulled up to the condo as dusk was falling behind us in Arkansas, snaking through a construction-riddled downtown 3rd Street.

Lucía and her husband may be doctors, but they’re also history buffs, rooted in Memphian and American life with one foot firmly planted in the Spanish camp. Sounds familiar. We five piled in the car for a quick trip around Mud Island, where the city’s elite (and my other Noviom Justin Timberlake) live relatively crime-free in what is considered one of America’s most dangerous cities.

Memphis TN and the Mississippi

Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, the Rock River – one of the Mississippi’s tributaries – seemed to separate upper middle class from the lower class as the Mississippi did in Memphis. Downtown gleamed in the twilight against a ruddy river. I brought up the Civil Rights Movement and my afternoon trip to the National Civil Rights Museum museum, housed in the motel where MLK was shot. As I stood in the very room where he died, my mind racing back to my formative years, learning about tolerance and equal rights. The museum was among the best I’ve seen.

It’s a touchy subject, but I wanted an outside perspective on the Black Lives Matter and the race riots. Memphis’s population is predominately black and the city is considered the poorest metropolitan area in the United States. Lucía and Isra looked at each other and she said to wait until the following day, when she’d be our private tour guide through not just downtown Memphis, but the last century or so of its history.

Memphis South Main

The following morning, I woke up to the smell of Spanish coffee. Lu sped us through our morning routine, promising a muggy, hazy August morning outside. We walked south on Mud Island, the toddler holding my hand as I struggled to wade through the heat. Mosquitos buzzed all around my head – here’s the wet, hot American summer I’d been missing.

Mud Island houses an outdoor museum featuring a small-scale Mississippi River at a 2112:1 scale. From the watershed walls that feature my home state to several of the places we stopped in as we traveled south along a portion of the Mighty Mississippi’s 954 miles, I explained how Old Man River (and rivers in general) had been a feature in my entire life – like reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer hald a dozen times or using the crossing on the I-80 as a marker on my trips to and from Iowa City during college. What brought commerce to Tennessee made it the center of the world for package distribution decades later.

We were promptly chased out at 9:50am, told the River Walk didn’t open until 10.

Our next stop was St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, where both Lucía and Isra work. Having done fundraisers for the hospital as a child and volunteered with families experiencing pediatric cancer throughout college, I couldn’t believe I was finally standing in the temple that Danny Thomas built. I thought of my friend Kelsey, who died from complications with leukemia shortly before her 22nd birthday in 2011 and in whose memory I walked part of the Camino de Santiago. The whole place was magical – the entire staff smiled, despite the troubling nature of their work, and we quickly scratched our plans to donate money to Air Force Orphans. 

Choose 901 Memphis

Isra was in his office, studying for a procedure he’d perform that afternoon. As a highly skilled worker, he’d been invited as a pediatric resident to St. Jude’s – a testament to his brilliance and compassion. Lucía researches cures. And I teach prepositions. Consider me humbled.

Shortly after, we parked downtown on the former Cotton Row. Lucía spends most of her free time reading history books, and her running commentary of Memphis’s history against the backdrop of the brick buildings and blues joints gave the city more context than any museum could have.

Founded by Andrew Jackson for its strategic location on a high bluff, Memphis quickly grew into a commercial capital, thanks to its cotton crop and access to the Mississippi. This brought a large number of African American slaves with it, even post-war, to work as laborers. Changes in demographics would lead to decades of unrest between the affluent Whites – mainly Irish immigrants – and Blacks. We weaved throughout the downtown area, the historically Black neighborhood, and near Victorian Row to see just how different life was for the two.

Crumbling Memphis buildings

Many of Memphis’s storefronts are boarded up and out of business, just steps away from the landmark Peabody Hotel or Orpheum Theatre that once played host to Blues and Rock n’Roll greats. Riots after King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel only marginalized the city’s black population, which resided mostly in the lower middle class district south of downtown, now known as the South Main Arts District.

Lucía recounted the last five decades’ history over beers at the Arcade Diner, an iconic Memphian restaurant that Elvis once frequented. The six blocks that comprised the district had once been home to the booming railway business but fell into disrepair in the 1950s. Iconic Hotel Chisca and its radio station closed. Now, it’s experiencing a revitalization and were filled with craft beer breweries, oyster bars, galleries and pop-up shops. Think exposed brick and old signs and general gentrification- this part of the city came to represent Memphis for me: a city that knows how to bounce back. A city that holds its head high. A city whose past is pushing it into the future.

Beale Street Memphis signs

Later that night, we gorged on ribs at Rendezvous before strolling down Beale Street. Blues tumbled out of bars and the neon lights lit up the night. Over whiskey, our anfitriones told us what we already knew: the Black population in Memphis were feeling the heat. Even in a city that is predominantly Black and that once tried to resist slavery, the Confederacy and even segregated schools, it’s still considered an unsafe city and one that locals decry for censoring the media. We were there just two weeks after Trey Bolton, a Memphis cop, was killed.

And Memphis didn’t riot. In Memphis, acceptance is now preached as the city moves past MLK, the Memphis Riots of 1866 and the slavery that propelled it into one of the South’s most prosperous cities. As Black Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said shortly after the shooting, “All Lives Matter.” 

lorraine motel memphis

Like MLK’s iconic speech the night before his assassination, something is happening.

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” […]

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

“I have been to the Mountaintop” – Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1968

In a 21st Century frame, it’s still relevant – and call me crazy, but I think I saw the manifestation of that in Memphis. So, yeah. I had a big crush on gtirry Bluff City and what it stands for:

Memphis quality

And in many ways, Memphis was a representation of the values my parents tried teaching me when I was young: acceptance, humility, hard work and compassion for others. When we pulled back onto the I-55 for a long trips towards New Orleans, I grew quiet, thinking of how these lessons had shaped me.

The rest of our post-wedding road trip affirmed that: an eye-opening Civil War Museum in St. Louis and rafting on the Occee River near Chattanooga. Talking to locals over crayfish in New Orleans, nearly 10 years post-Katrina, about why they’d come to NOLA, or why they stayed. Witnessing how the sharing culture is helping millennials like me make ends meet and chase their goals down.

Memphis shook me out of my Spain haze and helped me look at my country for what it is, for better or for worse. Ticking through seven states in one summer road trip passed in a blur of county lines, of truck stop meals, of miles on the odometer. But Memphis was a real, gritty American city that reminded me where I came from, having grown up in “tough” cities like Flint and Rockford.

I am an American, firstly. Someone who knows what it means to work hard and what it means to be free to choose. Someone who trusts in the inherent aims of her country, but isn’t afraid to voice opposition (or cast a vote). Someone who is fiercely loyal to her first land but understands its context in a wider scope.  

And those values haven’t in any way been muted by my years in Spain. My American Dream is far different now than it was when I finished high school or college, but it’s rooted in the way I grew up.

Memphis 

Have you ever been to Memphis? What were your impressions?

Five Realizations I’ve Made About Myself as a Traveler

Staring at my 2015 planner just one year ago, I circled just two dates: August 8th, my wedding day, and August 15th, my 30th birthday. I inhaled sharply, knowing that as a new homeowner, long-term travel was off the table unless I was living with my parents.  

Quotes about Travel

For someone whose mentality was clocked in airline miles and train tickets accumulated, I was crestfallen. In the span of 60 days in 2014, we closed on a house and I signed away the freedoms and money drains I’d previously had.

2015 was not a red-letter year for my passport, but with minimum means to jet off, I began to scrimp and save for different things in my life that mattered: furniture to make myself at home in Triana, better food products for my never-ending battle to learn how to cook, and my wedding. And somehow, I still managed to travel to four countries and drive through six new states, plus visit several new places in Spain in a year in travel that was very bottom-heavy.

CASTLE

I made five key realizations about myself in the process, and began my 30s looking ahead to a different means to travel.

I cannot stick to a budget

I have never claimed to be a budget traveler, and it’s been brought to my attention that I am unable to stick to one, anyway. Oftentimes, my plane or train tickets are far less than what I spend in my destination (much to the dismay of my travel companions).

Case in point: my four days in Copenhagen. I cashed in on a free one-way flight from Vueling, shelling out just 93€ to finally touch down in Scandanavia. Armed with a list of cheap places to eat and things to do, I was ready to make the most of my first visit when I did the conversion and realized my euros had nothing on the sleek Danish kröner, and that even beers at happy hour were three times the cost of one in Seville. 

Nyhavn Denmark views

For the record, I do not like making dinner in my hostel or AirBnB’s kitchen, I rarely use public transportation or buy city passes, and I bring home senseless souvenirs. I’ve tried Couchsurfing and can’t resist a cool food tour. My wallet is defenseless outside of the 954 area code.

I am a slave to thinking that this may be my one chance to experience a culture and its cuisine, and I end up twice as far in the hole as I expect to be on the majority of my trips. Did I need one more pastry or that quick trip to Sweden when in Scandanavia? Probably not, nor could I resist the hot dogs or gløgg.

European Euros money

In Turkey, this meant a massage at a bath house. In Greece, I carted back an extra suitcase of gifts. My wallet is often empty, but what difference does it make if I’m not a long-term traveler and have a salary?

I know what it means – no new shoes when another pair falls apart.

Long-term travel is not for me

In all of the years I have blogged, I’ve let the idea of saving up and cashing in on a year-long trip play bumperpool in my head. Back when I was an auxiliar de conversación, I figured I’d spend a few years in Spain, then make bank as an EFL teacher in Korea or Japan and backpack around SE Asia for six months before getting a “real” job.

cobblestone road Europe

But when you’ve dealt with bedbugs, missed connections and lonliness, suddenly hitting the road for an extended period of time doesn’t seem like the best option.

For me, having a home base and possessions and a partner has been more fulflling, and the rest of Europe isn’t that far off. Yes, this means limited vacation days at times when prices spike, but thanks to Spain’s low cost of living, I feel it’s more justified to splurge (see? Not a budget traveler). 

I’m not into long roadtrips

Unable to afford a traditional honeymoon to Japan as we’d always planned, the Novio and I rented a car and drove to New Orleans, stopping in St. Louis and Memphis on the way down, Chatanooga, Nashville and Louisville on the way up.

Here’s the thing – I like driving. I believe that cars can take you where tours can’t. I find getting lost a lot of fun, once I’ve let out the requisite swear words. But I’m not into long distances – blame my commute to university for that one.

best hamburger in arkansas

The Novio and I had loads of fun on our trip, visiting a friend in Memphis and drinking down Bourbon Street in the lovely bubble of post-wedding bliss. We rafted down the Occoe River near Chatanooga, visited the Jim Beam distillery and stuffed ourselves with barbequed ribs and pulled pork. And we spent so.much.time. in the car, most of which had me either searching for radio stations in the middle of nowhere or writing wedding Thank You cards. Knowing we had a flight to catch meant missing a lot of things that we would have liked to see for sake of time.

I’ve discovered I’m more of a pound-the-pavement type of person, and sitting in the passenger seat of a Kia for hundreds of miles of cornfields wasn’t my idea of fun.

Best road trip car

That said, my parents are planning a 2016 summer roadtrip to the National Parks. Yaay?

I love showing visitors MY Spain

As someone living in Europe, I am often given the burden of planning itineraries. For me, it’s (more than) half the fun to read up on a destination, devour a book set in a new country and search for things to do, but when the trip actually hits, there are snags. My own parents went six days without luggage over Christmas, and it meant skipping some of our plans to wait at home for missing suitcases. 

Mirador de Graça Lisboa

But my favorite part about living in Spain is that I have a leg up on guide books and travel forums. I live here and consider myself fairly immersed in Spanish culture, and it’s most pleasurable to see my visitors dive right in to Spanish life.

When my best male friend finally made good on his promise to come see us, I had little else on the itinerary but eat, drink and head to the beach for a day. He’d come from South Africa, where he’d done all of those magical travel things like swim with sharks and bike through wineries. I couldn’t promise him much more than a taste of la vida española and took him to my favorite rincones of the city.

Calle del Infierno Feria de Abril

He claims to be satisfied with the experience. Who else would tell jetlag to go to hell when it’s the last night of the Feria?

That’s another big reason why my blog is so Spain-based. It’s my safe zone, my muse and the reason why most of you read it!

I don’t need to go far to be happy

There were times when my version of getting high was scouring flight search engines for good deals. That’s how I ended up with round-trip tickets to Marrakesh for 30€, to Brussels for 26€ and 102€ to Croatia, how my geographic knowledge of Europe improved…and how I drained my meager savings. I lived to spend my long weekends traipsing around Europe. And this was before Instagram and pinterest, so I traveled for the story and not the perception (although, I admit, at warp speed).

Don’t get me wrong – I still use all of those tactics nowadays and love hearing the ping in my mailbox with my reservations, but a year of limited resources meant Spain was my go-to destination. In fact, from my trip to the US over the 2014 holidays until my trip home for summer the following year, the only flight I took was to Barcelona! 

Portuguese National Beer Super Bock

I’ve long adopted the, “have car, will adventure” outlook, and having my own set of wheels has allowed me to delve into Spain and Portugal more.

One long weekend with rain on the horizon, I found my plans to go hiking in the Sierra de Grazalema foiled, so Kelly and I hopped in the car and drove north, away from the storm clouds. We stopped wherever we felt like it. “I hear there’s a castle in Real de la Jara.” We saw a castle. “Zafra has a parador.” Detour (complete with convent cookies!). “Oh look, a random monastery!” Nearly ran ourselves off the road trying to reach the top on a blustery day.

With itchy feet, anywhere but home will do, even if for a day.

View from the Hancock Tower

I have just one trip on the horizon – back to Chicago for my sister’s June wedding – and tons of ideas for quick trips, some to new cities and some to my favorite places. It’s almost just as liberating to know I am wide open to whatever adventure pops up as to having every long weekend in 2016 scribbled with travel plans in my agenda.

And after clicking out this post, I’ve realized that I don’t take nearly enough pictures of myself when traveling. Noted.

I didn’t do an annual travel round up, but went to Sicily, Denmark, Sweden and Portugal towards the end of the year. Where are you headed in 2016? What are your favorite destinations in and around Spain? I’m talking culinary travel, rowdy festivals and things to do in the great outdoors!

My 15 Favorite Instagrams of 2015

A picture is worth a thousand words they say, and my 189 Instagram shots from 2015 speak of 1000 (and then some) calories, 1000+ kilometers and 1000 moments. It has been a red-letter year: planning my wedding, saying my vows to the Novio and turning 30. And for all of the joy, there were heart-wrenching moments, like losing my aunt to a short battle with cancer, putting our family dog down and watching loved ones go through tough moments, not really sure of what to say.

Nothing is set for 2016, and for once, I’m not penning a list of goals. My life feels like it’s grinded to a halt after 30 years of fast-forwarding, of crossing items off of an ever-growing list. But now there’s someone else helping steer my life and my goals, and a nagging in the back of my head to take another leap of faith, much like I did eight years ago when I moved to Seville.

I’m often nostalgic by year’s end, browsing photos and taking stock of what the last 12 months have brought. Instagram is, by far, one of my favorite ways to share Spain and my life here (but, um, sorry for all of the food and beer pictures).

My 15 favorite have been some of my most popular, but also some of my fondest moments of a year spent mostly in Iberia. Here they are, with about 1000 words to accompany them:

 

Words to freaking live by: eat and drink as life is happy.

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

La Chunga’s waxy paper napkins succinctly summed up one of the small pleasure that makes life in Spain what it is: Eat and Drink, as Life is Happy. As someone who prescribes to the life is short, so have another piece of cake school, I’ll have another round to that, and 2015 was an experiment in eating and drinking well.

 

Ya huele a #Feria! Shopping with @hayleycomments A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

The most wonderful time of the year for sevillanos is not Christmas – it’s the springtime, when orange blossoms and incense perfume the air and every other word is “traje de gitana,” “rebujito” or “feria.” Browsing the shops for flamenco dresses and accessories is way more fun than stressing over what to buy my family (and major apologies for my HDR-happy phase in filters).

 

City streets in #Seville. Pura maravilla.

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I’ve loved a lot of places in my life, but Seville may be my all-time swoon. The city streets at 9am on a dewey Saturday remind me that, even with my gripes about La Hispalense, it’s a privilege to live here. Come on, churros is an acceptable breakfast and, as evident above, there’s nothing better than wearing a traje de gitana for an entire season straight.  

 

Benditos #Domingos in #Triana A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

More simple pleasures: your más querido wearing a sweater you bought him on the first warm afternoon of the spring, chasing patches of midday sunlight, caña in hand.

 

Entrada de #SanGonzalo in #Triana #SSantaSevilla15

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I couldn’t call myself the Sevillamericana without having seen the city’s famous Holy Week processions. And living in Triana, there was no way to escape it anyway. Thanks to a family emergency and lack of funds before the wedding, I skipped a far-flung destination in favor of making Seville my life-sized rat trap, only with life-like portrayals of the life and death of Christ and a thousand other bodies as my dead ends. This photo was taken after 2am on Holy Monday as my barrio procession, San Gonzalo and Nuestra Señora de la Salud, re-entered their temple after more than 12 hours pounding pavement.

 

Two Romeros pray to the Esperanza de #Triana before beginning the #ElRocio pilgrimage to La Aldea A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

Living in a neighborhood like mine means brass bands and religious processions happen as often as block parties (or they flat-out replace your block parties). Just before Pentecost Sunday, droves of romeros set out from TrianatowardsLaAldeaattheedgeoftheDoñana National Park, and I captured two on horseback in a moment of concentrated devotion.

 

For real, #Seville. Just STOP. #latergram #dusk #skyline #sevillahoy #seville

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

This is my commute from work during the summer months, and on my bike. Suck it, Chicago and your traffic on the Kennedy.

 

Boats on Elkhart Lake, #wisconsin #latergram #boats #elkhartlake A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

With the wedding looming, I broke my no-beer-before-boda rule to have a family outing to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin for Road America. My dad and his two brothers, plus my sister, her fiancé, my cousin and his friend and I spent the weekend playing jokes on one another between beers and vintage car races. It was bittersweet knowing that this would be one of the last family trips we’d likely take for a while. But my dad paid his daughters a compliment: “You girls were so fun as kids, but you’re even more delightful to have around as adults.” No wonder I married someone who reminds me of my father!

 

I get to exchange I Do’s with this stud today! #halforange8815 A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I posted this photo – taken at our rehearsal dinner the night before – as I was getting my hair done for my wedding. I woke up on August 8th calmer than I’d been in weeks and ready to exchange vows. Call me a romance sucker, but I felt beautiful, fortunate and ecstatic for 2:30pm. If only I remembered more of the wedding – it went SO FAST!  

We adopted Moxie from the Shih Tzu Rescue of Illinois in 2012 just after we put Morgan down. We knew he’d be with us for a short time given his senior canine status and health issues, but this photo reminds me of how happily he lived out his last years in his forever home before joining Morgita in Puppy Heaven at Thanksgiving.

That same day, my parents adopted Mox Box’s younger lookalike, Murphy. 

My 30th was more of an afterthought – the big day happened exactly one week after The Bigger Day. For the first time, the Novio and I spent both of our August birthdays together between Chicago and New Orleans, and we did so with my family and friends.  Miles may separate us, but the important people are always there for the important moments!

 

Saturday lunch: huevos rotos with chistorra. Bests what I made for lunch today! A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

The year of eating continued after the wedding, where watching what I ate mattered a lot less than ordering one more beer. This plate of huevos rotos was so beautiful, I made my friends wait to tuck in so I could take a picture and slap a filter on it.

 

Only *moderately* obsessed with my new mug from @mrwonderful and @lovelystreets. So fitting! A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I bought this mug from Lovely Streets and was immediately enamored. I usually go for frivolous, but this mug actually does something else than look pretty – and it’s dishwasher friendly! You can check out their Lo que Me Enamora series for cities around the world at FNAC or online.

 

Oooh, #Zafra, you definitely are #charming. #typicalnonspanish A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

Overseas travel didn’t happen in the first half of 2015, but I made Spain travel a priority this year. Kelly and I left a stormy Sunday Seville in October for Extremadura, where showers were rumored to hold off for the day, and stumbled upon quaint Zafra.

We filled up on nun cookies and local wine in Plaza Chica, stopping at points of interest on the way back down south. You never know what’s in your backyard, they say.

My trip to Sicily in late October felt pretty off the beaten path, despite being part of Western Europe. Think no English, no road signs and no feelings of being comfortable. The Novio suggested I take the rental car to Villa Romana de Casale, an old Roman house with beautifully preserved mosaics. 

And the drive was just as romantically terrifying as could be expected for an untamed corner of Italy.  

 

Current obsession: the Danes and their beautiful capital city. It’s seriously a hip, gorgeous place!

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

I ended 2015 with a solo trip to Denmark. I was immediately enamored with the orderly, modern way that Danes live, along with their Christmas markets and hot dog stands. The trip left me in the hole, but one last hurrah for a big year seemed like a fitting way to end it.

Feels both foreign and fitting to be plan-less for once, but I’ll be snap happy when the azahar blooms and I settle in to married life – I carry memories on me like I do my phone, after all. 

MY 15 FAVORITE

Are you on instagram? I’d love to add you! Find more Spain, Europe and good eats from me by searching @sunshinesiestas

When Living Abroad Starts Feeling Like Living in America

I could have easily been in a neighborhood pub back home in Chicago. Armed with two guiri friends and a stomach that hadn’t eaten all day, I ordered a cheeseburger meal, piled on the ketchup and sat down on a couch, directly under drapes of spider webs. It was Halloween, and one my friends mentioned that – gasp! – another American friend of ours had had trick-or-treaters the night before in her pueblo.

De verdad? Since when does the oh-so-racio Seville feel just like America?

When

Slowly, Americana has been permeating into a city as Spanish as the tortilla. At first, I embraced the introduction of peanut butter onto supermarket shelves (and willingly forked over 7€ for it) and made special trips to Madrid for international cuisine. Eight years on, I’m feeling like I’m in a parallel universe sometimes as craft beer, Netflix and my favorite holiday are becoming mainstream, albeit jabbered on about in Spanish.

I’ve long been the guiri who drags her heels when it comes to embracing my culture while living in another. I famously chastised my friends for shopping at the American food store and have yet to set foot in Costco. I do not regularly catch baseball or American football games in bars, nor could I tell you the best place to watch one. Yes, I cook Thanksgiving for my in-laws with American products and dress up for Halloween, but those moments were always reserved for special parties with my compatriots. What I love about living in Spain really boils down to the fact that I love living in Spain.

Cue the hate comments: I didn’t really sign up for an American life when I moved to Seville. And in all fairness, I’m letting it happen.

Spanish potato omelette

The line between life abroad and life as I knew it before 22 is blurrier than ever. I conduct a large part of my day in English, have English-speaking friends and watch TV in English. I just picked up a Spanish book for the first time in three years. I consume news in English via my smartphone and had to recently ask the Novio the name of the new mayor in town. 

I knew I needed to make a change when the Novio suggested we get Netflix as a wedding present to ourselves. Wait, you mean I can watch a show on a big screen with no need to let the show buffer for ten minutes? And in my native language? The fun of the TDT system, which allowed shows to be aired in their original language instead of dubbing. Ni de coña – I will binge watch my American television shows on my laptop. Wouldn’t that 8€ a month be better spent on something else?

While Spain is definitely not America when it comes to lines at the bank, reliable service or a way around 902 toll numbers, I find my adult life becoming more on par with that which my friends are living in the US. I got more than a fair dosage of Americanism this year, spending more than four months of fifteen in the US. Going home is a treat – Target, Portillo’s and endless hours of snuggling with our family dog – but it’s lost a lot of its sheen now that Seville has Americanized itself, be it for tourists or for sevillanos

But at what price? Gone are the decades-old ultramarinos that once peddled canned goods – they’ve made way for trendy bars and clothing chains. While I admit that the Setas – a harsh contrast from the turn-of-the-century buildings that ring Plaza de la Encarnación – have grown on me, they caused a lot of backlash and an entire neighborhood to address itself. Do I really need a fancy coffee bar to do work at, or a gym with the latest in training classes?

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

As my world becomes more globalized, I find myself seeking the Spain I fell in love with when I studied abroad in Valladolid and the Seville that existed in 2007. We’re talking pre-Crisis, pre-smartphones and pre-instagram filters, and one where a Frapuccino every now and then helped me combat my homesickness. The Spain that was challenging, new and often frustrating. The Spain in which I relished long siestas, late nights and a voracious desire to learn new slang and new rincones of a new place.

But… how do I get back there? The Sevilla I discovered at age 22 is barely recognizable. Do I love it? Do I deal with it? I mostly stick around Triana, which stills feels as barrio and as authentic as it did when I took up residence on Calle Numancia in 2007.

This sort of rant seems to be a November thing, when rain has me cooped up outside instead of indulging in day drinking and mentally preparing myself to de-feather and de-gut a turkey. Maybe I’m in a slump. Maybe I’m comfortable. Maybe I’m lazy. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Spain doesn’t present the same day-to-day victories as it once did. 

One thing I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to jumping back into the Spanish manera de ser once the Novio arrives back home this week. I can’t wait to head to San Nicolás, sans computer, and search for castañas, to sleep without an alarm and to remember why and how Spain became mi cosa.

Do you ever feel like you’re no longer living abroad? Any pointers to get me back on track?

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