Understanding the Spanish Menú

One of the hardest facts of life in Spain for Americans to fully adapt to is the Spanish meal schedule. In Spain, breakfast is of low importance and usually consists of an espresso with milk and a dry muffin or cookie.  It is taken around 7:30 or 8 AM. The next major meal, la comida (literally, the food), does not occur until 2-4 PM. Obviously that is a huge time gap between meals and most Spaniards sneak in some kind of snack.

But when lunchtime comes, it is finally time to eat. La comida is the largest meal of the day, contrary to American meal habits. This fact often confuses American tourists in Spain who presume to maintain their American schedule, eating something light and fast at noon and waiting out for a large restaurant meal later in the evening. Unfortunately, by 6 to 7 PM, most restaurants have long finished serving the big meal and cater from that point on to Spaniards looking to merendar and tapear (both essentially mean to snack). One can walk by restaurant after restaurant from 6 PM onward and literally not see a soul really eating to nourish. Yes, there will be people sipping on a beer and snacking on olives, but not much in the way of real food to fill. The Spanish typically just eat a light dinner at home at 10PM or make a dinner out of wine and tapas.

What Americans, especially as tourists, have to understand is that the best deal for food in restaurants is what Spain calls the menú del día. The menú del día is usually a 3 course fixed plate option that most restaurants offer as a comida. The first plate is usually fairly light. It might be a salad or soup. The second is heavier and often is a meat or fish dish. Most menús also include bread, wine and desert. Menús in the small towns generally run from 9 to 12 EUR. While that’s not exactly cheap (especially in terms of U.S. greenbacks), it’s the best deal if what you want is a real sitdown meal. Menú deals coincide with the lunch hour, so 2 PM is about when you should show up.

However, be prepared for the lunch meal to be even later on Saturday and Sunday, when Spaniards sleep late and push their schedules back. Amanda and I were once again amazed last Sunday when we were walking through the town of Llanes about 4PM, and lots of people were just sitting down to eat their big lunch in the restaurants. At nearly the time when some Americans are beginning to think about dinner, the Spanish natives were beginning to enjoy their lunch. When it comes to food and sense of time, Spain still continues to amaze me. Maybe the old cliché slogan still says it best: “Spain is different.”

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Roadside profiling

For some of my classes I was recently thinking about cultural traits that make Americans distinct, especially in relation to Spanish culture. One characteristic that was brought to mind was the issue of privacy. As Americans, we generally prefer a great degree of privacy in our lives. It seems in fact very American to enjoy personal privacy, especially given that the Constitution guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

I was reminded last weekend that Spain often takes a different view of privacy, especially when it comes to traveling on the roads. On the way to the Picos de Europa we passed a Guardia Civil roadside checkpoint, where the police were literally profiling vehicles, pulling some over and letting others pass. The car in front of us was motioned to pull over for a check, while our car was allowed to pass. I’m not sure why Amanda and I were allowed through; maybe we just looked super touristy and they didn’t want to deal with us.

At any rate, in Spain we have to be prepared with our passports in hand any time we go by car, just in case the Guardia wants to check what we are up to.

In the U.S., random roadside checkpoints without probable cause violate the 4th amendment. And as Americans, we are accustomed to driving from point A to point B without being stopped at random police checkpoints. However, I just read an article by Ron Paul describing how the TSA has just begun to conduct roadside searches on Tennessee highways. The greatest tragedy with such searches, as Dr. Paul mentions, is that people slowly get accustomed to them and assume the government should be doing them for our own good and safety. Such is the case with Spain, where no one, it seems, questions the government’s searches or their right to conduct them.

As I reflect on differences between Spanish and American cultures, I hope Americans will hang on to our understanding of privacy.

A typical day in Laredo…

Here is an idea of what our daily routine in Spain is like:

1.  Wake up to alarm set for 7am.  Realize when it goes off that it is still pitch black outdoors, hit snooze until 7:15am and then resolve to wake up by 8am. It will still be dark outside the persiana (the curtain that keeps all light whatsoever out of your apartment-we have a love/hate relationship with it) and the street will be as silent as it is the entire day when your feet finally hit the floor.

2.  Make a coffee in our silver Italian coffee maker.  Consider buying a real coffee pot for 20 euros, think about how expensive that is, decide not to and just make multiple espresso coffee shots throughout the day with what you’ve got. Talk with Andrew about his allergies and debate what makes his eyes puffy every morning. Figure out you haven’t got a clue, decide to medicate the problem instead of solving it for now.  Eat a muffin or toast.

3.  Hurry off to class with the lesson you’ve prepared, hoping it will go over well.  Wish you’d worn better shoes for the rain.  Wander into the class, teach for 50 minutes up to 4 times a day.  Try in vain to plan your next lesson with each respective teacher.  Pray that every level of your English classes are doing approximately the same lesson.

4.  Trudge home exhausted.  Stop by the bakery for white bread.  Yes, we know, it is not healthy.  Make some type of spoon food for lunch.  Listen to Andrew tell you it’s winter food.  Feel thankful when there is only one pot to wash afterwards.  Make another coffee to get through siesta hour.  Maybe bake cookies or a quick bread for a snack/dessert, likely a treat easily adaptable to veganism, like this tasty option. Marvel at your fabulous American measuring cups.

5.  Start thinking about planning your next class.  Get distracted watching youtube videos of Halloween songs.  Decide to show your class Monster Mash. Be elated they will see Igor from Young Frankenstein even though they will likely never watch it, therefore they will not appreciate the subtle American culture reference. Figure out that the whole Hocus Pocus movie is on youtube. Do a happy dance.  Give thanks for being able to use youtube in Spain.  Be amazed at the amount of music, movies, books and media that are on the internet about Halloween.  Read the three witches incantation scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and wonder if the 11 year olds you are teaching tomorrow will like double double toil and trouble. 

6.  Get down to business with the lessons.  Figure out ways to get kids talking. Use this awesome site for help. Feel relieved when you have got down how to pass 50 minutes effectively.  Be surprised once again at the amount of noise the parrot that lives one floor up can make, but still be even more baffled that you once thought it was a misbehaved child. Curse.

7.  Head back outdoors.  Do exercise possibly.  Try to find a hypo-allergenic pillow for Andrew’s allergies.  Laugh when the sales lady tells you there is nothing you can do for the allergic, but take her advice to thoroughly clean your apartment to get rid of all dust and to wash the bedspread.  Find it funny she is no longer worried about selling her product once she finds out why you’ve entered the store.

8.  Either go to a movie (we recently saw and can recommend this one), grab a drink, read for a while, do a little trip planning or work on a blog post or school. Call it a day.

Long Weekend: Picos de Europa

Since every other week our schools have arranged for us to have a four day weekend, Andrew and I took an incredible 2 night, 3 day trip to Los Picos de Europa. We rented a car on Friday morning and were on the road before 9:30 am.  Andrew adapted quickly to driving a stick shift and I served as our somewhat fearless navigator.  After a short two hours driving time (What freedom we felt with our “own” wheels! No stinky bus neighbors, no sick man behind you, no sharp curves into the mountains while riding on the back row of the bus, hooray!) we arrived in the National Park.  We still can’t believe how lucky we were:  the skies were clear for two entire days, the weather was perfect, temperatures stayed in the 60-70’s, we had our own bathroom at the hotel (!) and were served coffee and hot milk along with our buffet breakfast.

Our first order of business, once arriving to our final destination within in the park, was making PB & J sandwiches with the peanut butter Mrs. Dauna sent us in a package that arrived just in the nick of time.  With a sack lunch in tow, we ascended to the top of one of the peaks from the teleférico, cable car, that leaves from the tiny village of Fuente Dé.  We hiked down the mountain on a 14.5 km trail that wound around through a refugio, past billy goats and dairy cows, into a forest that is similar to what you’d find an East Tennessee- type landscape. That’s one of the wonders of the Picos: one second it feels like the Rockies, the next it feels like the Smokies. The hike overall deserves an A- rating, which means we thought it was a great trail.  It was difficult enough to keep us entertained, and the most frightened we felt wasn’t caused by the steepness of trail, but rather by the threatening warning of a billy goat to get out of his territory.

Our hotel, La Cabaña, was located in the touristy, but inviting, town of Potes.  We can definitely recommend this jewel as a home base for your adventures in the Picos.  It boasts scenic views of the Macizo Oriental and is located minutes from amazing hiking.  On day 2, we took another 10km hike that started in the sleepy mountain town of Espinama.  After we had finished our hike and explored the charming streets of Espinama, we treated ourselves to a menú del día of cocido lebaniego.  Since the people that live in the mountains year round are exposed to harsh conditions during the winter and early spring months, the typical food of this region of Spain is a hearty stew that is made with garbanzo beans, roasted lamb, spicy chorizo sausage and lots of pork fat.  While it was quite rich and delicious, it was also a shock to our normally vegetarian systems to digest.  That said we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and left fat and happy.  To work off our intake of extra calories, we headed up to the fourth holiest pilgrimage site in the Catholic church (according to something Andrew read):  the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Supposedly the largest piece of the original cross is housed there, but we were more impressed by the views back on Potes and of the surrounding countryside.

Our last morning in Potes offered a few clouds, but we loaded up the yellow Fiat Panda and headed toward the other side of the mountain range, which is located in the Principality of Asturias.  We expected more accessible hiking and fairly easy driving, but were quickly intimidated (or at least I was) by the vastness of the cliffs before us.   Somehow we ended up driving up a steep incline to a Mirador (lookout) to check out the most iconic peak in the park, Naranjo de Bulnes.  The cloudiness impeded our view and the incline up was too much for me.  Andrew did a stellar job driving even though I wasn’t too much help in the passenger seat, sweating bullets.  We decided to skip the hike we had tentatively planned from Poncebos to Bulnes since it was starting to spit rain (not because we were a little scared off the difficulty and danger).  We continued our day in the car by heading to los Lagos de Covadonga.  After another insane drive 12km straight up the side of a mountain face, we reached the aquamarine lakes that are nestled dramatically in between mountain peaks.  We were too tired and sore to do any real hiking, but we did check out two different lagos and in the meantime were almost blown away by the fiercest wind I have ever experienced.  This is definitely a popular local tourist site, since the park here was crammed full of grandmas and parents pushing strollers.  We headed back down the windy road, ate a sandwich in front of the cathedral in Covadonga and bid farewell to my favorite part of Spain thus far.  A quick historical note: Covadonga is also quite important in Spanish history, as the Reconquista began here after the Spanish were able to stop the Moorish invaders.  You could see why it would be tough for the Moors to continue on their rampage once you saw the geography of the area.  On the trip home, we stopped in Llanes, a sweet coastal town in Asturias, and took a quick stroll along the port.

I was actually sad to see the park fade away behind us.  It is a unique place in Spain that is relatively unknown by tourists outside of Spain. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves the outdoors and hiking and I’m crossing my fingers we’ll have a reason to go back!

18 kilometer day in Santoña

Last Saturday, with remarkably pleasant fall weather, Amanda and I embarked on another day hike, to Santoña’s Monte Buciero. The town of Santoña is about 3 miles from Laredo as the crow flies; it’s basically visible from our apartment. That being said, it normally wouldn’t require more than 10 minutes in a car to get there. However, we are still carless, and had to instead rely on local public transportation. What should have been a pleasant 10 minute drive across the wetlands separating Laredo and Santoña turned into a 45 minute crowded bus ride (I just don’t understand Europe’s obsession with collective transportation). After stopping about 10 times in route, we finally arrived in Santoña, where we could easily see across the bay to Laredo. We thought, “Wow!, we could have walked that in less time than the bus ride took. Laredo is so close!”

Once on the ground, we forgot about the inefficient and overpriced bus system and made our way to Monte Buciero to begin our hike. We opted to take a 4 hour loop around the mountain that was marked “dificultad baja” (low dificulty). At 12.5 kilometers in distance, we thought it was going to be a piece of cake.

In reality, the route was much more difficult than advertised, at least by American standards. We had expected a ring route that would be mainly flat. Instead, we were ascending and descending for nearly the entire time. The most memorable part of the hike was a lighthouse detour only accessible by 600 stone steps. If it hadn’t been for the metal chain that served as a hand rail, it would have been a very dangerous descent.

After seeing the lighthouse and making a nearly vertical ascent back to the main trail, we continued on our path back to Santoña. Once we arrived back at the base of the mountain, we realized that we had just missed the bus to Laredo. The next one would not leave for another 2 hours hours and it would take an additional 45 minutes once aboard. It would seem that we would have been stuck in Santoña, but alas, we found a faster way. There is a ferry that travels the straight between Santoña and Laredo, and for 1.70 euros, will drop you off on the other side. The ferry ride is about 2 minutes long and travels no further than 50 yards to Laredo’s western beachhead. While not a good price for such a short journey (a Spanish lady on the boast shouted, “It costs a fortune!”), the ferry saved us at least 2 hours in getting home.

Once on the Laredo side of the beach we still had about a 35 minute walk to our apartment. While not ideal, we both valued the liberty to walk at our own pace more than waiting for a bus. All in all, we rounded out the day at about 18 kilometers walking. While not the most spectacular hiking we have experienced, it was certainly good exercise and great to be outdoors.

If you ever find yourself in Santander…

After the first trip to the Foreigner’s Office in Santander, Andrew and I had an entire day to explore the seaside city of Santander.  We can say that Santander merits no more than a day for touristic purposes and that it doesn’t have much to offer as far as monumental sights go.  If you like white sandy beaches nestled along a spectacular craggy coast though, you will enjoy the vistas here. We have written a tentative day plan for you, courtesy of almost exactly what we did:

Start your morning off at any of the myriad cafés that are located on every block and each corner.  Look out for desayunos.  Desayuno is translated to the English word breakfast, but you will find it to be a misnomer since you will only receive a small shot of espresso with lots of frothy milk and a slice of greasy toast if you order this.  Rest assured though, it is the best you’ll find before noontime anywhere in Spain.  Grab some fruit at a supermarket or frutería for a mid morning snack and head towards the jardines de Pereda, a park that is located next to the water and along the port of Santander. On the way stop by the Catedral de Santa María de la Asunción.  Peek your head in but don’t feel obligated to stay.  It’s not the Notre Dame.  Next take a stroll through the park and stop by the tourist office on the way out for a map of the city and of the bus routes.  You could also ask about the bikes the local government rents out that you can ride on the bike path that runs next to the water.  This sounds like a lovely idea, and I too, wanted to try it.  The machine where you swipe your credit card for payment notifies you that your bank will be authorizing a payment of 160 euros if the bike doesn’t get turned back in properly and I wasn’t willing to get near a possible withdrawal of that much cash.

Now turn back towards the center of town and meander through the newly restored district, full of unique shops and trendy bars.  Stop back here during the evening hours for tapeando or the Spanish version of bar hopping.  After checking out overpriced baby clothes and admiring where all the functionaries live in their restored apartment builidings, hop the bus down to the Peninsula de la Magdalena. It isn’t as interesting as the Lets Go travel book makes it out, but the palace is impressive and it offers interesting views back toward Santander and also down the coast.  Hike around awhile, take a break and get ready for lunch.

When it gets to be the sacred hour of the day, or 2 pm, start making your way further down the paseo along the water towards the casino.  Indulge in a menú that is sure to be inexplicable combinations of white rice, mayonnaise, canned tuna, olives, tomato sauce and a hard boiled egg as the first course, followed by fried local fish and fried potatoes.  There may or may not be an entire bottle of wine that accompanies your lunch meal.  Stumble to a park and take a quick nap to regroup. Watch folks frolicking on the beach, wish you brought your swimsuit to join in, and once you are feeling human again, follow the beachside trail back to the main part of the city.

Back in the city treat yourself to a 2 euro cone that is heaped over with delicious artisan-made ice cream.  Mosey back to the hotel or bus station and make your way to your next travel destination along the Northern Spanish coastline.  You should now be utterly exhausted or at least stuffed.

New Challenges

I can’t believe I am already saying this, but teaching is difficult!  Maybe this is just the “I’m new at this and am normally good at new things I try out and this is going to take some practice” jitters, but I don’t like it.  Working in a bank is much easier! I am appreciative of the challenge to teach, though.  I know that it is the healthiest way to live each day.  The problem is that I like to succeed at the projects I undertake as well.  Immediately.  I know it’s not a pass/fail test and that you don’t evolve into a fabulous conversation leader overnight, but I am going to need patience.  How is Andrew so calm and I am freaking out?  Oh, wait.  He has already been a teacher.  He’s good at it.  Deep breath.

Today I led a class that I think is going to be one of the most difficult I have. They are students that have already decided they no longer wanted to study and have tried their hand at finding a job in the big scary world.  They have, for some reason or another, decided they needed more education and have come back to high school to complete a ciclo formativo.  They are taking vocational courses in administration and are hoping to find a better job for themselves once they finish this two year program.  They have to take business English.  The challenge for me lies in that each student has a completely different level of English.  Some of the students comprehend what I say to the class, others stare at me blankly, and the last third of the class want a translation of what I said.  They turn to the students that understood what I said and get the Spanish version in seconds.  To suggest they only speak English seems impossible.

Today, I tried to get them to participate in a role play.  Three people worked together in each group. The ideas was to practice introducing themselves, simulate a phone call, and explain what they were interested in.  I thought “This should be a piece of cake.” They thought, “I have never been confronted with such a difficult task as this at 9:30am.”

From this experience I learned:

1.  Amanda please don’t take yourself so seriously, kids (even if they are 22 years old, just like you are) like to have fun.

2. Play games to get them speaking English!

3. Keep trying.

4. The teacher in charge of the class isn’t going to think you failed even if the activity you attempted failed.  She, in fact, is older and wiser than you and knows that you are learning.  There is forgiveness in Spanish culture.  Maybe even more so than American culture.

5. It is okay if you leave the class for the day and the students didn’t give an elaborate oration on what they would like to be when they grow up, where they would like to work and why.  In English or Spanish.  They don’t know, that’s why they’re here. The truth is that is why I’m here too.

Have you even been in a setting where you were the teacher?  How did you keep students interested and get them talking?  As a teacher of beginning level English students, how do you help them improve their conversational skills?