Guiri 101: A Guide to the -erías

Lisa’s skype call was full of nervous questions about what to pack and how to arrive alive to Sevilla. I’d be about to take the DELE when her train arrived, leaving her with a few hours to wander around town and grab something to eat, per a detailed list of suggestions. She quizzed me on names of places she might need to stop before our rendezvous: estación de autobuses, aseo, farmacia

Her last question: “If I want to have a beer, do I just look for a beerería?” She wasn’t too far off, doing some linguistic gymnastics as I reminded her of the word for beer and finally forming the word for bar: ser-vay-suh-ree-ya. Cervecería.

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One of the biggest learning curves for people moving to Spain is knowing where to shop and what you can find there. That there’s a more convenient place to buy stamps than the post office, or that you’re better off picking up pens and pencils at a copy shop. There’s a specific store for undergarments (pick up a spare zipper or some ribbon while you’re there, too), another sells only fish and sea creatures, and a cafetería is a good place to stop if you want more than just coffee.

Typically denoted by a clue in the word (hence ‘cerveza’) followed by the -ería, here’s a Guiri Guide to the -erías you can find in Spain:

Food & Drink

The –erías are rife when it comes to wining and dining in Spain, and nearly every class of food is followed by the suffix.

Bocatería: Sandwich shop.

This is a general term for anything made with two slabs of a viena, though Spanish sandwiches and subs tend to be severely lacking in ingredients. You can usually get food to go with a drink or some chips.

Cafetería: Cafeteria.

La pallaresa Bakery

This place has just about everything – you can have a coffee or a cold one, a sandwich or a sweet. Cafeterías are a happy mix between bar and coffee shop, and they’re a good go to if your tripa rumbles between lunch and dinner. Have your cake and eat it, too, which is perfectly acceptable here.

Carnicería: Butcher shop.

feria del jamon de aracena 6

Take a number and wait until you’re called to get any sort of beef or pork cut. Your butcher might also have less common meats, like horse or rabbit, and expect to find tripe, cow tongue and pig feet. For good measure, of course. In Madrid, these places are usually called casquerías.

Many carnicerías will also package meat for freezing, or can clean the cut for you.

Cervecería: Beer bar.

Vermouth Bar Madrid

Perhaps my most frequent stop outside of the grocery store, the cervecería (or beerería, as Lisa says) serves beer, wine and soft drinks, and usually a limited menu. Think stark white walls, stainless steel countertop and plenty of abuelitos. What sets these establishments apart from another bar is that the bares in Spain tend to have larger menu options.

Churrería: Churros stand.

Just smell that hot oil frying, and you’ll know you’re in the right place. Many bars also sell churros, particularly for snack time and weekend breakfasts, or even fried potato chips.

best churros in Seville

Freiduría: Fried fish joint.

Noticing a trend with fried food? Freidurías will throw anything breaded – namely fish and croquettes – into hot oil and serve it up in a paper cone for you. As one of Seville’s food staples, pecaito frito is fast food that doesn’t make you feel as guilty. Plus, it’s practically requisite to eat fried fish on the first night of Feria and Fridays during Lent.

Note that freidurias are closed on Monday, as no fresh fish comes into the markets.

Frutería: Green grocer’s / fruit stand.

You’ll find all of your fruits and vegetables here, along with nuts, soup mixes and a pumpkin for carving at Halloween. Here you can look but don’t touch – the greengrocer will usually handle the goods for you.

Fruit stands at the Mercado de Triana food market

Fruits and vegetables are seasonal in Spain, so don’t look for strawberries in August or watermelons in February. More exotic fruits like mangos and avocadoes can usually be found at market stalls.

Heladería: Ice cream parlor.

Heladeria Verdu

If you’ve ever been to Spain in the summer, you’ve probably frequented an heladería. Many will serve more than cones and sundaes, with offerings ranging from pastries to mixed drinks. Because a G&T tastes better with dulce de leche ice cream.

Panadería: Bakery.

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A meal in Spain wouldn’t be a meal without copious amounts of bread, and panaderías seem as ubiquitous as ATMs. My go-to local bakeries also serve as mini-marts and offer pastries, snacks, sandwiches and even cold beer.

Pescadería: Fishmonger’s.

For the catch of the day, look no further. You can buy fish and shellfish and have them cleaned or chopped in any way you like. Like the freiduría, the pescadería is always closed on Mondays, meaning the market is a ghost town at the beginning of the week, and offerings – as well as prices – will change daily.

Pollería: Poultry shop.

If your butcher doesn’t sell fowl, a pollería will, along with eggs, turkey and duck – I get my Thanksgiving turkey from José in the mercado and he’ll even pull out those last few stubborn feathers and its innards. Alternately, the chicken shop may be a roasted chicken distributor, too, AKA your Sunday night cooking solved.

Repostería: Pastry shop.

Manu Jara Dulceria Sevilla

If you see a line out the door around January 5th, chances are you’re staring down a repostería, or a fancy pastry shop. While I’m not keen on Spanish sweets, all of the abuelitas congregate here to buy cakes and sweets, though it’s different from a cafetería in that it usually doesn’t have room to snarf the pastel with a coffee or anisette.

De Compras

Copistería / Papelería: Copy shop / paper goods store.

I remember a crisis of not having enough pens to write down my observations of Seville, post-study abroad, in a travel journal. It was my first time in Seville and I’d run out of ink, so I went to the sure-fire place to find them: the Corte Inglés. A simple pack of three Bics put me back 3,50€, or the price of a beer and tapa around the corner.

Copy shop in Spain copisteria papeleria

Copisterías are commonplace, and they do more than print, scan and fax: you can find any school supply you can think of, buy political and geographical maps of Spain and the EU and go insane over the sheer amount of colors and sizes of plastic wallets the peddle. Nope? Just me? Imagine it like an all-ages Kinkos.

Papelerías are much the same, just with no fancy copy machines. What they lack in inkjet they make up for in beautiful journals, fancy wrapping paper and a rainbow of highlighter colors.

Ferretería: Hardware store.
Hardware store Spain

My best friend back home is part of a hardware store dynasty, and I’d often frequent with my handyman father. Spanish ferreterías are a bit backwards because there are lots of small items, many will ask you to place an order and they will find it for you. This is the place to get keys cut, buy tools and even find that old-lady carrito you’ve been eyeing. Some ferreterías are specialized in cookware, others in making plaques and signs, and even others sell kitchen goods.

Leroy Merlin is my new drug.

Florestería: Florist.

It may be easier to pick up a few spare carnations from the peddlers on the street or the venta ambulante, but florists still exist. Just don’t expect to buy satchels of seeds here – floristerías are strictly for flower arrangements and decorative bits and bobs.

Librería: Bookshop.

old world bookstore spain

Don’t fall victim to this false friend – a librería is a place to buy novels and books…and the random book bag, bookmark or greeting card. You’ll find them clustered near schools and they generally have all of the required reading textbooks for private schools on hand.

Lencería: Lingerie shop.

Before you get your panties in a bundle (ha!), remember that lencerías sell a bit more than undergarments. General hoisery is a hot commodity come Autumn, and I’ve also picked up sewing items like thread and buttons here, along with yarn for crochet. Just be sure to push past the old ladies who wouldn’t be caught dead buying their stockings in Calzedonia (they also sell push-up leggings there, DIOS SANTO!)

Peluquería: Salon.

Much like their American counterparts, salons in Spain are a haven for gossip and hairspray. I can’t say enough about Top Image in Seville, where I entrust my locks and secrets to Loli – yes, I plan my visits to Seville around her openings. If you’re looking for a beauty parlor that has a larger array of services, try a spa o gabinete de belleza. A beauty cabinet. Men head to a barbería (as in the Barber of Seville, of course!) or peluquería de hombres.

Perfumería: Drugstore.

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The first time my Spanish roommate sent me out to the grocery store alone, she told me to pick up all of the cleaning products, detergent and toilet paper at the perfumería around the corner from our apartment. Once I fought my way past the fragrances and makeup, all of the cleaning products on the market were stuffed into shelves, from toilet bowl cleaner to air fresheners.

But I accidentally bought myself conditioner instead of shampoo. Those were rough, greasy times. I find that supermarket prices are more appealing, and there are only so many little abuelas I can fend off on any given morning.

Semillería: Nursery.

Maybe it’s just because there’s one on my block, but this is the sort of nursery where you can buy seed satchels and…snacks? Most of the rest of society go to a vivero. And, for the record, I’m still a little wary of wandering into the semillería.

Tintorería: Dry Clearners.

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Not to be confused with lavandería, or laundromat, tintorerías are far more common in Spain than a coin-operated bank of washers and dryers. Check those tags from Zara – there’s a lot more delicate material and non-washables on sale, and Spanish washing machines are notorious for tearing apart clothing!

Zapatería: Shoe store.

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Most of my disposable income went to shoe shopping when I first moved to Spain. I was doing a great deal of walking around town and quickly wore out the soles on all of the ballerina flats I bought. Be aware that European shoes have different number sizes than in the US, which leads to a whole lot of confusion and squished toes on your first few trials.

The non -erías

Ok, so I lied – not all shops and eateries end with -ería. Several other important shops and stops exist, though many with not-so-clear perameters as to what they sell.

Farmacia: Pharmacy.

Denoted by a green cross, farmacias sell strictly prescription and nonprescription drugs. Well, until you add reading glasses, walkers, diapers and pacifiers. Clients tend to be loyal to their local pharmacy, so products may vary according to location. Do keep in mind that should a pharmacy not have what you need, you can have it ordered for next day service, and there are 24-hour pharmacies in every large urban center.

Tobacos / Estanco: Tobacco shop.

My roommate once asked me if I wouldn’t mind picking up an application form for a university scholarship while she was sick. I marched over to the university, stood in line at the purser’s window and ask for the solicitud, only to be told it could be procured at the tobacco stand across the street.

….ok.

Emblazoned in crimson and gold with a large T announcing them, tobacco shops – usually called estancos – sell packs and cartons of cigarettes, pipes, loose-leaf tobacco, lighters and sometimes even shishas (hashtag Spain is different). But it’s also a shop I frequent to buy stamps and envelopes without the long line at the Oficina de Correos, and they also have copies of rental contracts, declaraciones jurídicas and other forms needed for everyday Spanish bureaucracy.

Oficina de Correos: Post Office.

Every address in Spain is assigned to a post office, and Correos is the national mail service, owned and operate by the Estado. For whatever reason, your assigned office is never the closest one, and no matter when you go, there’s always a line worse than waiting to see the belén on Christmas Eve.

Mail service is only the tip of the iceberg here: you can also register to vote, pay traffic fines and utility bills or send money by wire. Just take a number and wedge yourself between the other 100 people there any given morning.

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Supermercado: Supermarket.

Though the older generation still prefers buying at their market and small shops (this abuelita included), supermarkets are one-stop shopping. Imagine the shock and awe when you walk into an American superamarket for the first time in 10 months after having somehow subsided on whatever was packed into a two-aisle ‘supermercado’ in your neighborhood.

I was so spoiled living next to an Alcampo for four years, but have come to relish buying from the market a few blocks away.

Alimentación / Bazar: Mini-mart.

There’s really no way to describe these sorts of shops. Sometimes they have food, sometimes they don’t. Many sell cheap home furnishings, clothes or household items. Cold beer is usually a feature in them all, and even the lady at my alimentación has taken to calling me gorda for my addiction to the green Doritos. These shops are usually open on Sundays, too, so if you realize the fridge is empty and the súpers closed, there’s always the alimentación.

Ultramarinos: Canned goods shop.

Somods Bulcher Candy Shop

How I wish supermarkets hadn’t given these age-old shops a run for their money (as in, livelihood for skyrocketing rent costs). Ultramarinos sold the gamut of dry goods, from legumes to tins of conservas like fish or vegetables. They were usually narrow and stocked from floor to ceiling with merchandise. There’s still one on Calle Arfe in the Arenal district and another near the Setas on Puente y Pellón, but I feel that their days are contados

Kiosko: Newspaper kiosk

One of very few words in Spanish that begin with K, these pop-up booths sell newspapers and magazines. Check near touristic sites in major cities if you’re looking for international press or in a Corte Inglés.

Olé tú if you find one of the kiosks that sells candy and cans of pop instead of reading materials. Have small change handy.

Tienda de ropa / regalos / mascotas / deportes: Shop.

Any shop specialized in a certain kind of merchandise can be characterized as a tienda de something. If you’re confused about any of the -erías above, tienda can subsitute whatever you’re looking for.

Agencia de viajes / inmobiliaria / seguros: Agency.

Storefronts that offer a service are typically categorized as an agencia, or agency. Just as banks and bars are easy to trip over, so too are vacation, real estate and insurance agencies.

Locutorio: Internet Café.

grand luxe hostel seville common room 1

When I studied abroad in 2005, Blackberries weren’t on the market nor did Skype exist. We’d check our newly created Facebook accounts on shared computers and call our parents with – shock! gasp! – real phones in little plywood booths. Though they’re not as commonplace as they were a decade ago, locutorios have fax and printer capabilities if you’re in a bind.

OJO!

Opening Hours

If you’re outside of  a major city, don’t count on anything being open on a Sunday and midday closures are also typical. Most small shops and businesses will be open from about 9am until 2pm and reopen from 5pm to 8pm. Fridays and Saturday hours are shortened.

An exception is anything food-related: an alimentación is open at seemingly all hours, and panaderías will open Sunday mornings. And if all else fails, bars are usually open daily at normal eating times. Do note that many bars and restaurants close midday, so you’re better off having a pastry to tide you over.

grocery shopping in Spain

False friends

Not all -erías are created the same: just as you would blush from saying you were pregnant rather than embarrassed, a few false friends exist. If you need money, don’t ask for monería, as this is an adjective for something cute. Go to a banco or cajero automático instead. And a factoría is not always a brick-and-mortar factory but can be used in a metaphorical sense.

Looking for some of my favorites around Seville? Check out my Seville Superlatives list or let me know about your tried and true! And now that you’re a better shopper than the abuelitas in Triana, why not assemble a Cesta de Navidad for your family?

What’s in a Name? A Primer on Spanish Names

“When we have kids, promise you’ll let me name all of the boys.”

I don’t remember where or in what context the Novio asked me this favor, but I shrugged – and then mentally shuddered. We were only a few months into our relationship and I was probably thinking about where we should have dinner, not children. After all, I was 22, temporarily teaching English in Spain and Gambrinus would not be a proper name for a peque.

Who are you? Street art in Seville, Spain

Nine years later, we’d been married for eight months when I found out I was pregnant with our first child. As the Novio shouted, “We’re screwed!” and I immediately regretted the beers I’d drunk the night before (I deep-down suspected being preñada while having dinner with a friend), he pointed at me and reminded me of the promise to let him name the varones.

Admittedly, the only time I’d felt inclined to pick out baby names was when I had a grade-school crush on Jakob Dylan and vowed that my child would have musical prowess and blue eyes. And when you’re expecting a child whose parents do not share a language or culture, it was almost better that we’d divided the task. But naming a child is a big job. As the gender reveal date hurtled towards us, I had a lot of thinking to do.

Middle names and last names in Spain

The only people who call me by my full name, Catherine Mary, are my mother and the Novio’s youngest brother. Oh, and the doctors who look blankly at the list of names and peep a, “Mah-reeee?” before I stand up and correct them, or the letters addressed to “SRTA. MARY” as if it were my first surname.

I often have to explain to people over the phone that I have one surname, Gaa, and two first names. In Spain, most have one name and two surnames. If I were Spanish, my first surname would be my father’s first and the second would be my mother’s first. This means I would share surnames with my siblings, but not my parents.

lost child

So, imagine my mother is named María Gracia González de la Fuente and my father is Ricardo Hidalgo Barros. So, I’d probably be Mari Catherine Hidalgo González. Because I decided to keep my last name when the Novio and I got married, our child(ren) will have a Spanish surname first, followed by my hard-to-pronounce, very odd and very Central European surname. Vaya.

And then there’s the question of compound names: Jose María (male), María José (female), Juan José, Luis Miguel, and so on. These are considered full first names, not a first and a middle.

The Novio was very firm: no compound names, and no middle names. And with a last name like mine, it’s highly unlikely that someone will share a name with Micro during his lifetime (and that only one name will be sternly shouted when I have to get cross).

Family ties and the name game

Paco regaled me with his favorite idioms in English as I tried to gauge his level of English during our first class. “My tailor is rich!” he repeated a few times before asking me for a moment to skim the sports section as I picked at my nails. I asked him about the basics, hearing drilled answers about his job and summer vacation rattled off until I asked him if he had children.

“My wife, she is Rosa. We have got two childrens, no, no! Two chiiiiildren, aha! They are Javi and Rosa.” I glanced at he business card he’d given me. Paco’s name is really Francisco Javier, as is his son’s, and his wife and daughter share a name. Two Franciscos and two Rosas sharing 65 square meters. Typical Spanish.

This is a common practice in Spain, which came in handy when I’d meet the parents of my students for the first time. If I’d neglected to look at the school records, I assumed the child shared a name with a parent; more than half of the time, I would be right. Perhaps more so than in the USA, children are named for close family.

I made it clear to my parents, Nancy and Don, that we wouldn’t be naming our children after them. After all, Nancy is the name of a knockoff Barbie that had her heyday in the 70s and 80s in Spain, and Donald is Mickey Mouses’s duckbilled pal. It’s bad enough to have a weird last name.

Both the Novio and I were named for family members; in fact, my mother tried to petition to change her name to Catherine Mary, after her maternal grandmother. My grandmother Agnes wouldn’t even entertain the idea, so the name for her firstborn daughter was picked out before my mom could even drive a car.

The Novio shares a name with his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. My own grandparents are Jack, Donald, Marguerite and Agnes; the Novio’s, Alquilino, María del Robledo and Elundina. My father has a Jr. after his name, and we have four John Robert Nicholases on my mom’s side.  Many of the Novio’s cousins were named for family members or a combination of them. O sea, it wasn’t until I began thinking of what to name my own child that I noticed all of the patterns in baby naming in our families.

If we had a boy, there would be no discussion about names. Punto, pelota.

How do you solve a problem like María?

The English department of I.E.S. Heliche consisted of six women and a lone male, Miguel; Charo, Nieves, Valle, Asunción joined Ángeles and Silvia. While I admit that my Spanish wasn’t very good when I first moved to Spain, I gathered that their names were Rosary, Snows, Valley, Assumption, Angels… and Silvia.

Virgen de la Estrella

The majority of them were in their early 40s, meaning they’d been born during the Franco era in which women were required to have their name proceeded by María de, Mary of Something. Our Lady of Whatever. Most women of a certain age have a religious name or biblical allusion, so you rarely heard a Jessica or Jennifer in a small town like Olivares. I soon began to connect the names I heard with their religious names: Pili comes from María del Pilar, the patron saint of Zaragoza, Maribel was the juxtaposition of María Isabel.

Many women drop María in favor of their second name, or they blend them.

Of Saints and Sinners

I had a very concerned parent at the door on the morning of September 13th, half apologizing and half worried that her daughter would act up that day. The result wasn’t a fever or a poor night’s sleep: I had neglected to recognize a little girl’s Saint Day.

In a place like Sevilla, religion runs deep, and María wouldn’t let me forget that as she pouted her way through even P.E. class, directing her six-year-old rabia straight at me as she played dodgeball.

Should I have been born sevillana on my same date of birth, there is a good chance I’d have been called Reyes. August 15th is not only a national holiday, but the observed feast of the Assumption, known as Día de los Reyes. Many Spaniards are named for the saint on the day they were born, such as my former coworker who was born on St. Joseph’s Day and thus called María José (if you’re curious, here’s the Catholic church’s Santoral so you can check out your birthday); others for a patron saint of their parents’ village. And then there’s the question of naming a child after a petition or promise one makes to the church.

One of the Novio’s coworkers has a strange name due to a promise his mother, who had trouble conceiving, made the the nuns she asked to pray for her. They tied a string around her stomach, which she was told not to take off until she was pregnant. She promised that, should she have a daughter, she would call her María de la Cinta; when M was born, his full name became M de la Cinta.

st james at the santiago cathedral

Some names are particularly regional or local; it’s common to hear shouts of Diego! in the main square of San Nicolás del Puerto, where the saint was born in year 1400. Eulalia, a teenaged martyr in Luisitania, is popular for baby girls in Mérida, and Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia, is amongst the most popular name for boys, year after year (there are 67,000 of them!).

In 2012, the Instituto Nacional de Estadística released a database of the most popular names and surnames by province. Much like in the US, age-old names are making a resurgence: Nearly half a million children were born in 2015, and María and Daniel amongst the most popular.

Remember Paco? I taught him out of his office for two years immediately after giving his son, Javi, class at home. Javi had coyly told me about a girl he was interested in, and Paco slapped his palms on the table to echo the news – though far more excitedly – that Javi was finally dating. “Guess her name, Cat! It is so typical in Seville.” I tried the three most common: Macarena, Esperanza and Rocío.

I not only named his girlfriend, but her two younger sisters.

Micro’s due date is January 1st, so we could have considered Jesús or Manuel. Not on our shortlist, though.

The guiri conundrum: language versus culture 

As if I didn’t have a million names spinning around my head already, we have the language issue: I am incapable of pronouncing the Novio’s name correctly and call him by his nickname. Rodrigo was out of the picture for the difficulty with the Rs. And if I can’t pronounce them, his American grandparents wouldn’t be able to, either.

baby-names-in-spain

Many of the female names that are popular today have English equivalents: Laura, Paula, Emma, Sofia, Julia. I like them in Spanish but not in English, or vice-versa. Paula in English becomes pauw-luh and Emma pronounced in Spanish sounds like you get your mouth stuck between syllables. Of my guiri friends who live in Spain and have had babies in the last few months, only a handful of them have chosen non-Spanish names; of those, the Anglo names are easy to pronounce with Spanish vowels.

What we’re naming our son

I’d been assigned any girl’s names, despite feeling like I was carrying a boy from the beginning. My mom quizzed me on which names I liked before asking the equivalent in English. “So, you’re saying that I could have a granddaughter named after the town where Jesus was born?”

Point taken, Nancy.

I casually thought about girl names. I like Belén, Martina, Carolina and Laia, but tried not to get my heart set on any one name until we found out the gender. I’d long known that a first-born male would have the same name as his father (and the three that came before him), and that Santiago and Diego were close seconds as the patrons of Spain and the Novio’s village, respectfully.

Baby Shower in Spain

As I’ve found in my eight months of being pregnant in Spain, there’s no waiting to find out the gender of your baby. In fact, I’ve met just one woman who wanted to be surprised, and mostly because her Irish partner preferred waiting. I was a bit crestfallen when the Novio expressed that he’d wanted to know right away, as I genuinely believe this could have been one of the last happy surprises we’d ever get. But knowing we were having a boy made the naming process easier.

When the obstetrician pointed out the baby’s extra extremity, I breathed a sigh of relief as I pronounced his name aloud for the first time. The fifth in a long line of men who had been farmers and soldiers. And I could forget about female names until perhaps the next one came around.

We’re only five weeks or so away from getting a first glance of Enrique, who will be born in Triana between Christmas and Reyes. I often imagine who he’ll look more like, what we’ll teach him and how he’ll change us – giving him a name before he’s born has made his presence far more real to us.

What people name their children in Spain

What do you think about Spanish naming trends? I’m curious to hear the common names where you live!

What to Do in Alcalá de Henares: the City of Cervantes

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid over 400 years ago.

If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you’ve likely been force-fed the adventures of a wayward knight whose fantasies took over his perceptions of daily life. These days, my fantasies have been about getting out and exploring my new city and its surrondings.

So it seemed only fitting to make our first day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to his and contributions to the Spanish language and its literature. I’d visited Alcalá on a biting cold April afternoon in 2013; this time, the Novio and I chose a clear day in mid-July to escape the heat in La Capi.

Sunshine and Siestas in Plaza Cervantes

My sense of direction is far sharper than my common sense, so my feet led us right into the historic center and to the Plaza de Cervantes. Ringed with benches and Spanish abuelos (Do I need to tell you that I fell in love with the city immediately?), it sidles up to the university, historic city and Calle Mayor, and is crowned by the former Santa María la Mayor church.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcalá

Plaza de Cervantes Alcalá

Alcalá is actually a town of 200,000, making it a city by Spain standards. But on a long weekend in the middle of summer, the city itself was about as dead as Cervantes – plazas and bars were empty and shops closed. And without a plan or interest in ducking into a museum, we did little else than stroll from plaza to bar to plaza.

Houses n Alcalá de Henares

Don Quijote in Alcalá

The historic center itself is small and easily walkable, a pleasant cross between the squat, wood-laden buildings conserved from the 16th Century and a modern city with a cutting-edge educational institution.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world and became the first planned university city, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage nod. Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and fascinating history of the campus (and it’s under 5€ if you have a carnet joven!) and the role it still has in Spain’s educational system. Oh, and it’s pretty.

University of Alcalá de Henares

Facade of the Complutense in Alcalá

The Novio and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, stumbling upon sun-dappled plazas and retracing the footsteps of Cervantes, Caredenal Cisneros and other prominent Spanish figures. Alcalá was also the city in which the Catholic Kings conceded a meeting to Christopher Columbus and agreed to study his claim that the world was, indeed, not flat.

Calle Mayor Alcalá de Henares

We sidled up to the bar at Bar Índalo, an institution known for its generous free tapas. Most bars give heaping plates of snacks to its student population, but we were más que comidos for less than 12€ and chose tapas rather than having something shoved in front of us. If there’s one thing that Madrid does better than Seville, it’s free bites with your drink (and vermouth. I am an old man when it comes to alcohol).

Tapas at Indalo Alcalá de Henares

Visiting the city following a springtime trip to see the Manchego windmills that Don Quijote thought to be giants, the hallmarks of El Príncipe de los Genios were evident, from statues of the Man of La Mancha to bars hailing Sancho Panza, the voice of reason in Cervantes’s most famous title. It certainly gave me context to the man who wrote the Spanish novel I’ve yet to tackle (I’ve had a 400th Anniversary edition for nearly a dozen years).

Alcalá de Henares

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 or C7 line from Atocha – roundtrip is about 7,20€. Large city festivals include the Día Cervantino on September 9th and Día del Libro on April 23rd, the day marking both Cervantes and Shakespeare’s deaths.

Have you ever been to Alcalá de Henares or another UNESCO World Hertiage site in Spain? My university town is a UNESCO Literary City, and I’m kind of a book nerd, so please share below!

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?

Keeping in Touch with the Spanish Speaking World (or, my ode to my second language)

I popped Pereza’s 2005 breakout disc, “Animales” into Pequeño Monty’s antiquated CR player as soon as I’d rolled down the windows. As a study abroad student, I’d listed to “Princesas” more times than I could count, on each play slowly deciphering the song.

After eight years in Spain, I’ve finally memorized and can understand all 10 songs. For the girl who whined about having to learn Spanish instead of French, I can say for the umpeenth time that Mother Knows Best – My name is Cat, y soy una hispanófila.

staying in touch

400 million Facebook friends

It’s more than just the 400 million hispanoparlantes – when you start speaking the language fluently it’s like a whole new galaxy opens up. I cannot only talk to what feels like a billion new people but I have access to many great Spanish movies, understand Spanish music in a completely new way and have had the opportunity to immerse myself into a very rich Spanish culture (hola, daily naps and delicious food!). More than anything, I’ve made countless new friends all over the world, which is why I rely apps like NobelApp to be able to make cheap international calls.

Staying in touch ten years ago when I studied abroad meant standing in line at a locurtorio – now I just need to have my mobile phone on me!

Immersing in the Spanish Linguistic Culture

In my experience, Spanish speakers are quite proud of their linguistic heritage, and because a fairly large number doesn’t know English at a highly functional level, I’ve been able to learn to hold my own in a second language (in addition to having the need for English keep me employed!).

texting in Spain

I’m constantly amazed by new words, their use and mostly their origin. Did you know that the Spanish word for lizard (lagarto) gave way to the word alligator in English culture? Thankfully, the Novio is a linguistic wiz who never tires of explaining!

Keeping in touch through NobelApp

In these eight years in Seville (and counting!), I have made Spanish-speaking friends from all over the world – from my Erasmus friends to the amigos from Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico. Luckily through cheap international calls by NobelCom I manage to keep in touch with most of them, calling them on their celulares anytime I like without stressing over the cost  – and they can do that through the same app to call me in Europe.

I love talking to my friends in Central and South America and asking them about their life and current events – especially because the Spanish-speaking world encompasses so much more than Spain.

friends from South America

I also get the chance to talk regularly with my friends in the US through mobile apps and social media, making me feel like El Charco isn’t so big.

El Mundo es un Pañuelo

Do you think it’s hard to adapt to the warm Spanish sun, the easy-going lifestyle or the amazing food and good wine? Sí – I haven’t had any problems, but I often miss the comforts of home (mainly in the form of an all-beef hot dog and a shih tzu named Moxie.

I feel so fortunate that technology has advanced so much and that we have things like WiFi, 3G and VoIP and that we can call overseas for just a few cents. Nowadays, you don’t even have to rely on a solid Internet connection. All you need is a Nobelcom calling card and you can basically call anyone in the world from any landline or mobile phone by using a special access number and your dedicated PIN.

“Princesas” is still my favorite song on the album – in fact, it was the first song played at my wedding! As I spend more time in Spain, it’s nearly impossible to separate my vida española from the American one, but it’s fun to share in all of my expat circles around the world!

How do you stay in touch with your loved ones when abroad?

Why do Spaniards call us ‘Guiris’?

Hay alguién aquí de fuera? called the drag queen from the stage. A hoarse shout came from right behind me: “Mi guiri, mi guiri!”

My friend S had sold me out to a total stranger and a bar full of side-eyeing pijas, and she’d done so be calling me a guiri. This was before any of us turned 30 but after an entire afternoon of beers, so I skipped to the stage and joined the drag queen, dancing all of my shame out. She later apologized for screaming HERE’S A FOREIGNER a few days later, though I’d already consented to another drink after my show as a way to shrug it off.

the word guiri

Guiri is a catch-all phrase for both foreign tourists and Northern Europeans, used more often than not in a joking, affable way. I’d never really taken any interest in knowing where the word come from until an early morning wake up call on a Sunday morning had me watching Canal Sur’s program about the origins of common practices and traditions in Andalucía. If you are into etymology like me, your ears would have perked up when you heard “Where does the word guiri come from?’ I nearly spilled my coffee on our new coach.

The most common explanation is literally a page out of a Spanish history book: The word guiri has existed for some 130 years since the time of the Guerras Carlistas during the first half of the 19th Century, a series of skirmishes that followed the death of King Fernando and that pitted the royal’s only a heir, Isabel, against his brother, Carlos María Isidoro de Borbón (it is, therefore, not a phrase derived from a way to call out the socks with sandals thing).

According to the Royal Decree of 1713, all ascendents to the throne were required to be male, so Carlos V made a play for Isabel’s blue-blood given right. This sparked the first of the Carlist Wars, with Isabel’s mother, María Cristina de Borbón Dos-Sicilias fighting for her daughter.

300px-Primera_Guerra_Carlista

photo credit

Those who supported Isabel and her mother became known as cristinos, and fighting was especially fierce in the northern regions of Navarra and País Vasco. Cristinos from this region saw their leader as radical liberals who hoped to  make sweeping reforms in the whole country, beginning with the right to the throne. What’s more, the this band received support from other countries like France and Great Britain, causing alarm with the northerns who were, characteristically, more traditional and supporters of Carlos V.

The name for the northern became known as guiristinos to the carlistas, an ambiguation of cristinos in the Basque language. Because the majority of María Cristina’s supporters were Basque and Navarrese, the name stuck and was even used as a way to call Guardia Civil officers during Franco’s regime. At its most basic, it also served as a moniker for outsiders and people with radical new ideas, shortened to simply guiri.

Guiris dressed up as flamencas

However, the word guiri didn’t become popular in Spain until the 1960s when tourism began to bring thousands of travelers – namely the British and the Dutch – to coastal resorts. Post-war Spain and Francoist mentality were not ready for the influx of foreigners in the wake of two decades of self-sustainability, so guiri became the popular way to call light-skinned tourists, usually from Northern Europe, the US and Canada. (Another beloved Spanish tradition to surge during this decade? The menú del día. Bendito manjar, clearly).

Some decry the word as a direct attack on those who fall into the category, but most Spaniards will insist that it’s a term of endearment. As most groups of friends have the token ‘El Cabesa’ and ‘El Tonto,’ being ‘La Guiri’ is kind of like my calling card, a simple way to distinguish myself and make me feel like I’ve squeezed my way into tight sevillano social circles.

Have you ever been called a guiri? How do you feel about it?

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