Last year, during my sophomore year at Hendrix, I had the privledge of becoming friends with a foreign exchange student named Ana. We've only known each other a year, but sometimes it feels like a lifetime, as she has become one of my dearest friends. Ana is not only one of the most genuine people I know, but she is also a selfless friend, who is truly happy for me (sometimes even happier than I am) when I accomplish something. Unfortunately, that trait is a bit of a rarity these days, so I really cherish her friendship.
Anyway, Ana was gracious enough to invite me live with her for a week before I had to move into my apartment in Oxford. Spain. Sounds fun right? Oh it was. Let me tell you Galecia is beautiful. I'm talking beaches everywhere, exercise machines along the boardwalk, which for me was as much of a tourist attraction as anything else and amazing shellfish. Okay, so I didn't actually eat any of the fish while there, but I was repeatedly told how amazing it was. The only down side? I don't speak Spanish. Unless you count the numbers and colors I learned when I was six years old and the conversational phrases I learned in the seventh grade that is. On the plus side, Ana was an amazing translator, her dad was a wonderful tour guide, and my background in French allowed me to understand the gist of what was being said. The only problem was I couldn't say anything back and anything I did try to say sounded more like I was from Latin America rather than Spain.
I visited some truly beautiful places and one of the things that struck me the most was how much everybody walked over there. I know as a tourist walking is pretty common, but how many Americans do you know that walk to the grocery store? In her area, people rely less on cars and more on their own two feet. Even the elderly were out every morning getting their fresh bread and fruit. It was really nice to see.
**A Note to my Readers: for the past month or so, I've been on this "healthy living kick" if you will, so most of my observations of Spain were about activity level and nutrition. Sorry if that bores you, but it also brings me to my next point: Food.
As I already mentioned, that particular area is known for its fish. As my mother will tell you, I'm not a fish person. Actually, my mother will tell you that I'm a picky eater, but this is not true. I hardly discriminate when it comes to carbs and sweets. I love them all :) Anyway, I passed up the opportunity to eat octopus and other rare nautical treasures that most tourists probably flock to. Oh well, someone else can blog about that. I will say though the portion sizes and meals times are a little different in most of Europe. For example, lunch is the main meal of the day and is eaten around 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Dinner portions are much lighter than in America and dinner happens around 8 at night, sometimes later. Regardless of the meal, the portion sizes are smaller and generally speaking, much healthier. This is not exactly new news, but I'm pretty sure if Oreos in the US were packaged the way they are in Spain, there would be an uprising. Oreos don't come in a case with 3 giant rows here. Instead they come in a rather small box which contains maybe six packs of 4 cookies. This helps immensely with portion control. I'm remind of the night before I left for Spain. I visited a certian teammate of my who I swear ate an entire row of Oreos in one sitting. Don't worry. She ran 6 miles that morning so it all evened out, but still, the point is, in Europe eating a whole row of Oreos by yourself just doesn't happen.
In the past few years, there has been a trend of 100 Calorie packs in the U.S., and I must admit I jumped on that bandwagon a long time ago. For those of you who are also on said bandwagon, you can probably relate to my sentiments that a tiny bag of 100 calories worth of our favorite snacks somehow doesn't always satisfy. Well my friends, in Spain it does. Everything from the cookies to the ice cream bars have less calories than in America, but still taste great.
My favorite Spanish recipe was "tortilla y potatas." I'll have to double check with Ana on the exact name and spelling, but basically it is a combination of eggs and potatoes. Onions are optional, but in my case prefered. As I learned during one of Ana's and my many conversations about language, in her region tortilla generally refers to "eggs" as opposed to the thin, round, bread-like wraps we use to make tacos, quesadillas and such. The "sopa" or soup was also really good. It was kind of like chicken noodle soup only minus the chicken and the big noodles. Okay, so it was like chicken broth only a million times healthier. It is bascially prepared with water, carrots, this weird vegetable I had never seen that looked like celery, but tastes more like an onion, a little teeny bit of salt, and a bit of chicken and a bit of beef. The chicken and beef were more like "scraps." Not stuff people would actually eat. They are just meant to add flavor. The end result: a tasty broth. Just add itty bitty round noodles and you've got yourself an authentic Spanish dish. (Based on my explanation of these recipes, somehow I don't think Rachel Ray will be asking me to be a guest on her show, not for cooking anyway.)
In continuation with the food theme, I would like to officially note that Europe and the UK have not yet been introduced to the love of my life since the 2nd grade...MOUNTAIN DEW. (Don't worry I'm surviving on coca-cola.)
This brings me to my next bit which I have dubbed the "Pros and Woes of Traveling." I intend to update this as much as possible with each country I visit and each amusing, frustrating, or otherwise noteworthy experience I have while abroad.
Okay so here goes...
1. I owe a big "Muchos Gracias" to Ana's dad who not only cooked for me each day, but also treated me to serveral wonderful restuarants during my stay. He was truly hospitable, making sure I had a complete and wonderful experience. Thanks to his generosity, I didn't spend a single euro while in Spain.
2. The beaches: Need I say more? On our last night, Ana and I went for one final walk along one of the beaches by her houses. This "adventure" of ours ending up with me doing cartwheels along the beach and Ana channeling her inner paparrazzi.
3. Ana's house: Her house was amazing. When it's time for me to buy a place of my own, someone please remind me I want lots of ceiling to floor bookcases and an L-shaped desk.
4. I learned that I really need to learn Spanish. (Once I have completed my French studies of course.)
5. American style of teaching foreign languages: While in walking around in the town where Ana's dad teaches, we met one of his students. He must have been about 13 or 14 years old, which according to Ana means that he has been learning English in school for about 6 years. When told I was American, he could barely remember the word hello. My mom would say it was because he was captivated by my beauty and I will say that blonde hair and blue eyes are rare in Spain, but Ana had a different theory. In Spain, while they start learning English well before most American students begin learning a second language, usually Spanish, but in my case French, the emphasis is on grammar not vocabulary. Most Spanish kids find conguagating English verbs very boring and never really grasp the conversation skills. In America, or at least in my experience, the emphasis is on vocabulary and key phrases. I only took a month worth of Spanish in the seventh grade, but I knew more conversational phrases in Spanish than this kid did in English and he has much more experience with English than I do with Spanish. So props to my foreign language teachers, because even though there has been much debate about the American education system, especially in comparison to other countries, at least we seem to have the right approach to teaching foreign languages. Ana and her Dad agreed the American appraoch seemed to be much more effective and I will say this, even though all the people I came across were very friendly, I only met 2 people other than Ana who could speak English. One was her sister and the other was an English teacher at the high school. While this reaffirmed to me that I need to learn Spanish someday, it also proved Ana's point, that the "vocabulary emphasis" is a better approach. All in all, let's just say that the blonde haired, blued-eyed, English speaking girl got a lot of stares and curious looks.
6. Customs: I have always dreaded customs. Do you declare it? Do you not? Will the person be friendly? Even coming back to the US, you know the country of which I am a CITIZEN, is not a breeze. (The customs officers in JFK are not very friendly...) You want to know what is a breeze? European customs. In both England and Portugal, I just had to hand them my passport, tell them wear I was going and how long I'd be there and I was sent along my merry way. I didn't have to fill out a million and a half forms, or try to fit my giant suitcases on conveyor belt so they could be scanned so the airport staff to get a good look at my undergarments and prove that I was not in fact carrying a bomb. Nope. It was a breeze.
1. Airport security: As anyone who has flown within the past couple years knows, liquids are limited to 3 oz. Well I wear contacts, and my brand of contact solution is sold in 2 travel sizes: 2 oz. and 4 oz. Both bottles say TSA approved Carry-on Size on the packaging. Naturally, I purchased the larger one. Better value (or so I thought.) Here's the thing. Even though I had not opened the box let alone the bottle itself, and even though it said Carry-on Size, I was informed that my bottle had 118 mL and the limit was 100 mL. And so it was taken away at Gatwick. (Got through Little Rock without a problem.) I told Ana about this and she joked that I should have just left it in my bag and they might not have even noticed it.
2. You don't always benefit from showing up early. My flight from LR to Gatwick got in at 7 a.m. and no, I did not sleep on the plane. (I did however watch The Karate Kid and Letters to Juliet, both of which were good.) My flight to Portugal didn't leave until nearly 5 p.m. I had two large suitcases, a backpack and a purse. As you can imagine it was a lot to drag around, especially when I found out that the airline I was flying with's counter did not open until 10 a.m. So I could not check my bags for 3 hours. Not fun. Life got a little easier once I got myself a "trolley" or cart for my suitcases, but let's just say, I had never been so happy to check my bags in my life. Once I got through security and had my contact solution taken away, I had to wait in the departure area until my plane left. The only problem was that they don't post gates until about an hour before depature, or in the case of my flight, half an hour before take off. So basically I had to hang out in the departure area for what felt like an eternity. It's a lot like a mall so it wasn't all bad, but still, lesson learned being too early, isn't always what it is cracked up to be, especially since I experienced the same thing on my way from Portugal back to England. We got there in plenty of time. I went through security and passport control only to find that the doors to gate 12 were not open and would not open until 45 minutes later.
Well, that's all for Adventures Abroad: Spanish Edition. I am still new to blogging so bear with me. I will try to figure out if I can add pictures of the places I visited and will update about my Oxford experiences shortly.
As they say here in England...Cheers!