Monday, November 7, 2011

I've moved!

"Kata Goes Basque" was becoming increasingly unfitting for a girl living in, you know, not Basque country.

As promised, I've moved my blog. The new address is - that's "blue armadillo," if you're wondering, and it's going to be a more image-driven (but still adventure-filled) website.

See you there!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apartment Hunting Abroad: a guide

So enough about the locura that was my final weeks in the Bilbao apartment. After all, yes, it was difficult and weird and overwhelming, but the things that stand out when I look back? My pastor going far, far out of his way to help me know my rights and get me out of there. My friend Bryan who let me crash on his couch for that last week. Ismene (one of the original, awesome roommates) taking me out for a relaxation drive, then protecting me when Ione started calling everyone she knew I knew to try and hunt me down. Everyone else who sought me out, cheered me up and reminded me that the good far outweighed the bad in that last week.

And the lessons, those "hindsight is 20/20" things that I would have liked to have known going into renting abroad. So, if you're looking to rent abroad, or you might someday, or you know someone who is, this is for you.

1. Red flag: you aren't offered a contract to sign. If you aren't on a contract, you're probably subleasing, which (in Spain at least) is illegal. It turned out I was on a long chain of subletters in my apartment, all of whom were paying the landlady untaxed money and living on the down-low.

Maybe that's OK with you, but keep this in mind: a landlord or landlady who is comfortable with black-market housing is also probably comfortable with letting other things happen that violate your rights as a tenant.

2. Red flag #2: the phantom landlord/landlady. A good property owner is going to be around when you're signing your contract, going to want to meet you and make sure you aren't a sketchball, going to want to make sure you know what they're taking care of around the place. If they're not doing that, don't mess with the place.

3. Red flag #3: you're thinking of settling for the place out of fear. "What if I don't find a place to stay?" "What if I totally drain my budget and I never find a side job teaching English?"

News flash: you will find a place to stay. You will find English lessons. Do yourself a favor, save up a little cushion fund for the apartment hunt, and relax. Treat the search for an apartment like something fun, because it can be.

4. Know your rights. Just finding out that my roommates had no legal ground to demand (more) money from me helped me to relax and realize the Guardia Civil wouldn't be knocking on my door and hauling my terrified guiri butt off to jail with the etarras and graffiti-ing teen boys anytime soon. Which helped me to stand my ground and not start forking over hundreds of euros.

5. Reach out.. If you don't know your rights, I guarantee you, there is someone - your pastor, your bartender, your intercambio conversation partner who will explain things to you or help you find someone who can.

This is helpful when you're first searching for a place (they can help you to understand what's normal practice and what sounds like under-the-table shenanigans), and it becomes absolutely necessary if you do get yourself into some kind of a pickle.

 Don't be afraid to be a little vulnerable and ask a few people for help. This was the difference for me between being able to enjoy my last week in Bilbao and me spending that week in an overwhelmed, twitching heap.

6. Trust your gut. This applies to picking an apartment in the first place, obviously: if everything seems good but the pit of your stomach is doing gymnastics, walk away. See Red Flag #3, enough said.

This also applies to interviewing potential new roommates. As my mom reminded me, when Ione first met with us to move in, I had a bad feeling. I kept it to myself. In retrospect, my roommates would have been totally understanding and probably agreed with me that she didn't seem right.

 People come and go a lot in shared apartments, so if you wind up in the position of helping your current roommates replace someone who's leaving, remember, if you have an uneasy feeling about someone, speak up. Those cool people you took your time to select as roommates should be understanding.

 Hope this helps! Anyone have other tips to add? Adventures in housing abroad to share? Leave 'em in the comments!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Misadventures in Spanish Apartments, Part the Second

OK so I've been postponing and postponing writing on my blog (for months - crazy!) because I promised a conclusion to the story about my roommates taking a turn for the super-aggressive and demanding money. I honestly just didn't want to dwell on it or mess with how stressed-out I felt when I left Bilbao!

But... I promised.

So here's the long and short of it: I went to my pastor's house and he had a friend come over who actually worked in Spanish housing law.

The friend explained to me that not only did the roommates have no legal ground for demanding I pay them for every month they couldn't find someone to replace me (looking at it now, it's a bit of a "duh" - what would stop them from refusing all potential roommates, then charging me for the empty storage space they could use?); I won't go into all the details here but what they were trying was actually illegal. He offered to go to a lawyer's office and have the lawyer call the ringleader and tell her to stop threatening me!

We decided it was best for me not to mess with lawyers, just go home, don't talk to my roommates at all (which, by the way, is a surefire way to make apartment living super comfortable and not at all awkward). We decided I'd move out early and stay on a friend's couch so I wouldn't be in Awkwardlandia for my last couple of days in Bilbao.

Then, Monday night, I returned home to a screaming confrontation. "BUT, IMAGINATE, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE AND WE HAVEN'T FOUND SOMEONE TO TAKE YOUR PLACE?" I shut myself in my room. Overwhelmed, I called Pastor Tony in tears. What do I do?

Ten minutes later, Tony called me back. He had called Bryan, my friend with the couch, and asked him, Can Kata come tonight?

How fast can you be ready, he asked me. I told him two hours and spent the next hour and a half throwing all of my belongings into suitcases. Tony, his son Aitor, and Bryan arrived just as I finished packing. We carried my stuff downstairs (without confrontations - my roommates were all in their rooms by then).

I left my keys on the coffee table.

Coming next (I won't wait 3 months this time, promise): the "Hindsight is 20/20" guide to renting abroad.

Friday, June 17, 2011

living abroad: when good apartments go bad (Part 1)

With Jenny, one of my very sweet original roommates

A year abroad wasn't supposed to end like that. It wasn't supposed to end with me hiding in my bedroom and calling my pastor in a panic; three roommates ganging up against the other two of us in a move that was questionable at best; an adrenaline-filled late-night escape to my friend's apartment, where I spent my final week in Bilbao.

Wait, back up. Kit, didn't you love your apartment? Weren't your roommates super nice girls who took you to special events at Mango and to see their beautiful hometowns?

Yes, yes they were. But first Maite and Jenny (who is not American, I promise) moved in with their boyfriends, then Ismene got a sweet internship in California, then Maria got a sweet job in Vitoria. So over a 4-month period I got all new roommates.

And as it turned out, the living situation was fairly sketchy to start with, made OK only in the beginning by the awesome original roommates who lived there. There was no contract, for one thing. None at all. None of us had ever met the landlady, for another - it was just done by a long, questionable chain of subleasing (which - and this would have been interesting to know circa September - is illegal in Spain).

And so it came to pass that I awoke one morning - a week before my flight home, in fact - to what I have to admit was a pretty gutsy letter that one of my new roommates had written. I'll call her Ione, because her name is Ione. The letter, written in pseudo-legalese, was to me and the other girl who was also moving out at the end of the month. Boiled down, it declared that we were legally bound by "tacit agreement" to pay the rent every month that we didn't live there that they didn't find someone to replace us.

It was signed - and I think this is a spectacularly catty touch - "Un abrazo." A hug.

I was, and this should come as no surprise, completely clueless in regards to Spanish housing law. On the one hand, I was terrified; what if this was true? What if I really owed them for every month I couldn't find a replacement to their liking? On the other hand, something seemed wrong. I took a picture of the letter and emailed it to my pastor, who is native to Spain and an ex-attorney.

What do I do? I asked him. Is this right?
He replied that it wasn't, that I shouldn't worry, and invited me over for lunch with him, the family and a Spanish housing expert. Perfect.

Continued with what happened, plus a guide to shopping smart for a rental abroad (hint: never-present owner = no bueno).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

an update: new camera, and yes, I'm still here

So in the works is a post series about finding housing abroad - my terrifying and (in retrospect) hilarious experience, plus a "how you can shop smart for an apartment/room rental abroad" guide.

But I can't keep my thoughts on it, because I have more breaking news to share. I got my camera.

It's a Canon 5D Mark II and it is rocking my world.

First picture. Taken on full auto before I learned how to work the controls.

So for those of you who have been wondering: yes, this blog will continue even though I don't live in Bilbao anymore. It'll be a different format, different content and probably move. I'm working on it.

And thank YOU, beautiful new camera, because the quality of images is about to go way, way up. I'm too excited.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

that last daytrip: vitoria-gasteiz


People always think Bilbao is the capital of Basque Country. Frankly, this is because it is the most badass and awesome of the three major cities, but unfortunately it is also incorrect.

The actual capital of Euskadi is Vitoria-Gasteiz, located in Alava. It was my destination for my final daytrip in Basque Country. Three friends and I packed onto a bus last Sunday morning to see what it was all about.

Los Indignados - and my friend Cat has already done a great summary of what that is all about, if you don't know, which you can read here - occupied the main square, the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca with their tent village.


"Yes We Camp"

my friend Thomas was good enough to sit for about 689789 portraits

We spent the remainder of the day wandering around the city and noticing that it feels more, well, European than Bilbao (or even Donosti in some ways). One friend kept getting reminded of northern Italy. To me, the big, glassy windows on many of the buildings in the center of town were reminiscent of A Coruña.

For lunch we stopped in a couple of the bars that line the small streets of the old city, sharing pintxos around.

Bull's tail stew and carrillera (veal cheek) - from the first place we stopped

All in all a solid little adventure to say "farewell" to Euskadi. For now...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"agur" is a four-letter word.

"It's cool," the customs guy in Washington, D.C. told me. "You're a civilian now - you're not a tourist anymore." The relief finally hit me: I'm home. I belong here.

I needed it, because starting yesterday with the end of classes I'd been a mess. I was waiting for my last train out of Laudio when it really started to hit me how much I'm leaving behind. The past 48 hours I've been breaking down and crying on and off. It's the "lasts" that have gotten me: Last Saturday daytrip. Last time singing in church. Last hug with each friend.

This morning I thought I was going to make it OK - I was too sleepy to cry, I figured. Then my friend who had brought me to the airport started crying. I lost it. I've been crying like a baby on and off the whole way home.

Of course, the amount this is hurting really only confirms that it was time to move back now. I know I'm not up to building an expat life for the long term at this point, and if it was this hard now, it would have only been more difficult next year. I know and love people who have remained in Spain because, well, they woke up one day and realized that their life was more in Spain than back home. I'm not ready to do that, not ready to leave American life behind. If it's this hard now, it would have been impossible next year.

I have so much to look forward to here in the USA. It's why I'm moving back home. But as my pastor said, "tienes el corazón dividido." Your heart's divided now.

"Agur" is Basque for "goodbye," by the way. It could be the worst word in the whole language.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

what will you miss?

with my friends Thomas and Bryan at the Hanging Bridge in Portugalete
(photo credit: Bryan Alfano

with my friend Esmeralda in Vitoria-Gasteiz

My friends here in Bilbao and I have been playing this game lately: answering the questions "what will you miss? What won't you miss?" about life here. Most of them are staying here for another year, while I'm flying home this Saturday. It's getting truly strange and bittersweet - of course there are things I can't leave behind fast enough, but I'm also realizing that I'm leaving a pretty significant part of my heart behind here.

So I thought I'd share some of the biggest things I will and won't miss about life here. First up:

Things I Will Not Miss At All About Life In Bilbao

Not belonging. It's thrilling at first, but after nine months standing out it becomes exhausting.

Little things - people walking 4 deep on a sidewalk and not moving, forcing you onto the street; staring being totally A-OK; strangers yelling at me "HELLO!" on the sidewalk because I look foreign (as a side note, if American kids did this to a lady from, say, Mexico, how yelled at would they get by their parents?! So yelled at).

Living in a monoculture. Being as isolated (at least in many ways) from other peoples as Basque country has been for this long makes xenophobia almost a given. Specifying in an ad what ethnicities are and aren't welcome to come check out your room for rent is considered totally acceptable. "Oh, hey, Civil Rights Movement, we didn't see you there. We were too busy recovering from a dictatorship by making films about the crazy stuff we weren't allowed to make films about before."

Not smiling. I've compared notes with other Americans (North and Latin), and the verdict is that people here don't smile nearly as much as we do. Even children - it's pretty standard to see kids playing in a park together with serious little faces, no smiles.

Teaching. If there's anything I don't enjoy, it's teaching people who don't want to learn. It's like, if you don't want to learn English, then don't. If you want to limit your horizons to working in a hardware shop in Alava or something, who am I to stop you?

Things I Will Miss Like Crazy About Life In Bilbao

Living in a monoculture. The flipside of this is that the culture is more condensed, so you get to experience it closer to what it was like hundreds of years ago. There's not so much figuring out what Basque culture is exactly, and the little things that are special about this place stand out more. It's pretty straightforward, you experience it, and you love it.

That incredible travel high that comes from being accepted in a different culture. To everyone who made me feel welcome, accepted, like I could belong even if just for a minute, thank you. You can't know how much it means to me. Unless you've lived abroad. Then you know.

Specialized food shops. I had a good thing going with my butcher, who knew my favorite cuts for stews, and had found my favorite shop for cheap, amazing fruits and veggies. Goodbye, Fresh Local Produce; hello, Trader Joe's.

Random delightful moments. We had our kitchen window open this evening and while I was cooking, voices singing "Happy Birthday" in Basque from another apartment came breezing in. Moments like that.

Specific people - my housemate from last semester, my church family, and a handful of other incredible people. A lot of people have stepped up and been amazing friends to me here when it came down to it (more on that to come).

Fellow expats: what about y'all? What would you most miss - and be the most glad to leave behind?

Friday, May 20, 2011

aaand the postcard goes to...

Miss Cat Gaa.

Right now I am supposed to pretend like it was all random. I had planned for it to be.

I have a confession to make, though: kind of hit the number generator a lot of times until it came up with Cat's number. The thing about her friend Cody was pretty adorbs, y'all.

Get ready for a random and hopefully unexpected postcard, Cody!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

a giveaway, of sorts

I just discovered I have one postcard stamp left. To anywhere in the world.

And two postcards: one of the Laudio main square, which is awesome because Laudio is like BFE, Alava, and you wouldn't expect them to have a postcard, and yet they do. The other is an artsy depiction of a Basque farm lady bringing her astoa (that's donkey, duh) and some fresh vegetables to market.

I mention all this because I'm sending one to one of you. Just post a comment on this post by 5 PM Basque time on May 20th. You can specify "Laudio" or "Lady + donkey" if you like. I'll choose one at random from the comments, contact you for your mailing address, and send you a postcard. I'll write things to you on it.

Enter or this guy will club you with a spoon.

That's it! have at it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

a festival, and students

Laudio had its annual feria right before the Giant Humongous Two Week Spring Break. The festival meant lots of stands with local food...

Idiazabal cheese-on-bread pintxos

Basque cakes

...Tractors (no photos of those, but you're not missing out much - it's pretty much all John Deere over here too, if you're interested in that stuff), livestock...

Some delightfully patriotic cows

(as a side note, at the end of the row of really beautiful horses they had were a cluster of decidedly not-beautiful horses. Hanging over their sides was a sign that said "Horses for meat." What up, culture shock?!?)

...and as an added bonus, my last class got to skip its lesson. Instead, the other (i.e. real) teacher and I took the class over to the feria.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

one of those reminiscing posts

"pour cider perfectly" could have been a goal. check.

Way back in July, I made a list of things I wanted to make sure I accomplished during my stay here. With less than a month to go (exactly 3 weeks now!) left in Bilbao, I thought it was time to revisit those plans and see how I did.

So, presenting the Basque Country Goals Progress Report:

1. Calçotada. Yes, yes, and yes. It was everything I dreamed it would be.

2a. Yep. Visited Sevilla; saw stepsister.

2b. Obviously. These things are so good they shouldn't even be classified in the same species as regular olives. They should be called "angel droppings" or something.

2c. Nope. Donald proved impossible to find.

3. Partial success - I did the harder part, interestingly, and can now sing you the entire Athletic song in Basque, although I didn't make it to the stadium. Whatever, time over here has made me realize, once Betica, always Betica. Embarrassing but true. Choose your first soccer team wisely, kids, it's your team forever.

4. Not necessary, Cristiano Ronaldo creates these every day without any help from my creativity.

5. Not really. I have no idea what the heck my accent is at this point; it's certainly not an actual Bilbao one, although my andalu comes back after I try for a while. Anyway, ambitious much? What did I even think I was going to do here in Bilbao, learn to talk like someone from the Canary Islands?

6. Oh yes. My winter runs were always along the river, by the Gugg. The incredible good fortune of living five minutes from the actual Guggenheim museum isn't something I'll forget anytime soon.

7a. Whopping fail.

7b. Whopping success.

8. No. But I did begin mashing them often, which was new, and also went through a pretty big "homemade fries" phase last semester. Also made patatas a la Riojana, which I hated (for chorizo reasons).

9. Not happening. Your loss, Pamplona.

a blog confession. and a cheeseburger.

So first off, during the hectic whirlwind that was my mom having surgery/my dad moving/my best friend getting married all in the week that I was back in the States, I did make sure to get my hands on the sorts of food you can't get here in Iberia. This included Mexican food, American Chinese food (as opposed to Spanish Chinese food, and believe me, there's a world of difference), and a Five Guys bacon cheeseburger.

Three words: no regrets there.

And now, the confession: I really didn't want to write this blog post. Ever go through phases where you just. don't. want. to. write in your blog? I sure am right now. I mean, the school year and my time in Bilbao are both drawing to a close, my mind's off in North Carolina at least half the time and seriously, what am I going to write about? "Students frustrating again today"? "Flowers bloom in springtime"? "Pollen worse in Raleigh"?

Full disclosure: blogging regularly is not the easiest thing. Especially when I don't feel I have much to say. Anyone relate? Other bloggers: how do you get past "slumps" in writing?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

...and not a drop to shower with

I just woke up from a pretty serious nap. Which I took the second I got home today from a lot of hours on three airplanes that took me from Raleigh back to Bilbao.

And just discovered the hot water doesn't work. Why? The landlady changed our account while we still had at least 600 euros in it, then didn't tell us in time for the charges to come through to the new (empty) account, so when the Hot Water Folks came to take the Hot Water Money out of our account, it was Empty. Don't worry, guys, that last "E" was capitalized on purpose; it makes me feel like an American from the 18th century (ever read Ben Franklin's capitalizations? HILARIOUS).

So anyway, I'm praying this deodorant lasts a crazy long time, or one of my non-vacationing friends calls to offer up their shower. I've been on airplanes for many hours, people. Help a sister out.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

moving on.

About two weeks ago, my dad and stepmom found out they would be selling their house. And moving. Soon.

Like this Friday soon.

So here I am, back in North Carolina for my best friend's wedding, going through bunches of old stuff, taking what I want and leaving what I don't want to or can't bring with me.

Like these roses. Dad and Wendy put a lot into making their backyard gorgeous. I could say all the stuff you usually say about how we never really appreciate these things until they're gone, but it always goes that way, right? Of course it's bittersweet, but it comes down to this: it's time for a new chapter. I'm happy to get to watch them begin it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

a field guide to spanish junk food. part 2: gummies

You thought I'd forgotten about this series, didn't you? That I was going to leave you all alone, clueless and overwhelmed in the Spanish candy store, unless all you happened to want were some caramels?

Think again, because today I'm tackling what is probably the most popular and definitely the most overwhelming of the Spanish candy families: gummies, known locally as txutxes or the less-Basquified chuches.

The first thing you're going to notice when you approach the gummy section is how dang much there is to choose from.

only a tiny selection from a local chucheria

Hang on, you're saying, is that an egg? A turtle? A bone? A brain? A twisty-looking something or other?

The first thing to keep in mind is this: if it looks like something, it probably doesn't taste like that thing. Clownfish don't taste like clownfish, and burgers don't taste like burgers. They both taste like generic chemical fruit flavor.

The only exceptions to this rule I can think of are 1) fruits and 2) chilli peppers. Yes, this is Sp- uh, Iberia, where nothing is ever spicy, but these little guys are picantes nonetheless. Way to buck two rules at once, gummy chillis.

The next thing you'll notice is this: they're all priced by weight, so you can mix and match. And for your first time in the den of sugar rush that is the chuchería, this is your best plan of approach. My suggestion? Go through and grab one of everything that looks interesting. Grab one of everything that looks popular, too. Do a taste test and remember which ones were your favorites.

At this point, I've narrowed it down to a couple standbys I go for every time. Red gummies of the Manneken Pis (see middle right-hand side of picture) are reliably wonderful and taste a lot like Swedish fish, if you can get past the admitted weirdness inherent in chewing on a tiny peeing boy.
Cola bottles are good and, come to think of it, another exception to the "things don't taste like what they look like" rule.

My very favorites, though, are the bizarre fruit licorice tubes filled with cream (see just below Manneken Pis). Picture a Twizzler or an Australian fruit licorice, filled with the filling of a Cow Tale, and you pretty much have the amazing treat you see here. Lucky for you, these are also the most ubiquitous - I've never been in a chucheria without seeing these.

So get after it! Just keep in mind, though, if you're planning on returning to the US, you're going to find yourself stocking up before heading home, then hoarding them Gollum-like upon arrival on American soil. I still bring them back in embarrassing quantities to my friend Elizabeth.

these things: not just blackberry and raspberry flavored anymore

Thursday, April 14, 2011

today´s post brought to you (unknowingly) by Laudio BHI

My students this week have been writing stories.

I give them a list of words, they get in groups and have to write stories using all of the words. I thought I´d share some of their results. I didn´t edit anything. The word lists were:

mango ugly sofa toilet embarrassed coffee Lady Gaga giraffe kiss dance skateboard chicken


car Bart Simpson octopus fat Cristiano Ronaldo beautiful silly apples run gross sing foot

And now, the results.

Once upon a time, Bart Simpson throws a green and delicious apple to Cristiano Ronaldo and made him stupid. He run to the hospital but when he is arriving he imagines an octopus near his foot. And he say:
-Oh it is a beautiful fat octopus.
When he finished the vision, goes to the hospital and the nurse says:
-Cristiano Ronaldo the silliest and grossest person in the world is singing a song in the car.

In toilet Lady Gaga is drinking coffe, later she is dancing in sofa. The chicken is ugly and she eat mango. She is embarrassed with her giraffe. because it mount in a skateboard. the giraffe kiss very well.

Cristiano Ronaldo is very gross and silly man. This man is very stuck-up. that´s why the persons doesn´t like it, Meanwhile Bart Simsomp a beautiful happy and funy boy, his favorite food is apples and he sing very good but cristiano ronaldo sing very bad.

The ugly of Lady Gaga was dancing in the sofa kissing a mango. The giraffe was jealous. It was dancing in the street and it triped with a skateboard and it got embarrassed and it went to its toilet to cry. Another day Lady Gaga and her mango were eating chicken and the giraffe ate the mango. the giraffe was thirsty, so it dronk a coffee. When Lady Gaga saw her mango eaten she shot the giraffe.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

just some things

So first off, Amorebieta - the town I work in during the evenings - has a pretty side. Did y'all know it had a pretty side? Because I didn't. You get there on the bus/train and it is mildly industrial and it has that weird spiny potato and sometimes it smells like a paper mill. But check it:


Second, why does everyone have to pronounce all their S's in northern, um, Iberia? Spanish as a second language people: try to say "Las respuestas" with all the S's. It takes like 15 minutes, right?! I want my acento andalu back, now.

Third, guess what, people? I led worship in church today. Have you ever been a worship leader, Kit? No. Was it kind of haphazard? Yes. Was it kind of awesome? Yes.

Monday, April 4, 2011


I've been wanting to do a post on fashion in Basque country for a while. Delightful folks (like this one) keep posting on Spanish chic, and I wanted to clear the air a little.

Before I first visited, you see, I sort of wondered: is there a specific Basque style, or is it all just, you know, kind of Iberian?

Yes to both, as it turns out. Much like in "Spain Spain" (you know, like I'm in Spain, but not Spain Spain), you do see lots of neutrals. Boots are a winter must, you can't wear sweatpants/workout gear in public, and tights under shorts is just how you roll if you're under 30.

But this isn't about the stuff that people wear here, in Madrid, in Sevilla, and in Barcelona. Think of this post as a love letter to those fashion trends that are truly and uniquely Basque.

Presenting 10 Rules of Basque Fashion:

1. Wearing outdoor apparel to do things other than go hiking is not just for Americans.

2. El Flequillo Vasco: Basque Bangs. It's hard to describe this accurately to people who haven't spent a little time in Basque Country, but it varies between an Audrey Hepburn (but with a bit more of the "a dog has been chewing on my hair" effect):
(All rights reserved by fastshelby on flickr)

and a really short, blunt fringe.

This haircut is great because 1) it works for ladies with short or long hair AND for men with a little mullet going on and 2) people can tell what your views on Basque independence probably are without having to ask. This haircut says, "I joined ETA and all I got were these lousy bangs."

(***Disclaimer: I have several friends who have had this haircut and are not members of ETA. I should also note here that they are all at least three times as fashionable as I.)

3a. Ladies: put on some makeup. What do you think you are, American?

3b. Not that much makeup. What do you think you are, Spanish?

4. Teenagers: Buy a Loreak Mendian hoodie. Wear it at least once a week.

5. Younger gentlemen: Hiking pants with contrasting color patches on the knees and butt are all kinds of fly.

The best are made by Ternua, and if you're really hardcore you can make a Tolosa tuxedo out of it by rocking a Ternua brand hiking jacket with it as well.

6. Also for the younger gentlemen: you need either an Athletic Bilbao or Real Sociedad jersey. You need to wear it once a week. You can supplement the other days by wearing band T-shirts or shirts with the Basque national soccer team logo.

7. For the older gentlemen: 4 things are key. 1) txapela (Basque beret). 2) camisa de cuadros (checkered Oxford shirt). 3. Cigar in your hand. 4. cardigan around your shoulders (most key in Donosti). Allow me and my Carnaval costume, Patxi, to demonstrate:

(photo credit Jessica Chandras)

8. Whoever told you fanny packs weren't fashionable was lying. They go great with those Ternua pants.

9. Tweens: Surf gear! Billabong jackets, backpacks, whatever. The more you can look like an Australian, the better, really.

10. Do all of this nonsense and still manage to, as a people, look more put-together than the average American can ever dream of.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

they hold these truths to be self-evident

It's bound to happen any time you move to a foreign country, really: you come up against the Local Truths. Things that had never occurred to you as possible outlooks on life, but there they are, confronting you and your American background at every turn. Here are some of my favorite facts of Basque life (and the ones that have challenged me the most).

1. "Spanish" is a palabrota, a cuss word. Don't call a Basque a Spaniard. Some do think of themselves as Spanish, but it's too politically-charged to say so nonetheless.

2. The word "Iberian" is a lifesaver. Because sometimes you want to refer to something that happens everywhere within the borders of Spain, but as we've learned, you can't just go around saying "Spanish." Although "Iberian" technically means the whole Peninsula, including Portugal, we know you're not talking about the Portuguese, are you?

3. Repeat after me: Staring. Is. Not. Rude.

4. You're walking on the street, and someone makes eye contact with you. What do you do? Give them a little, polite "Hi" smile, right? Wrong. This is one of the hardest things for Americans to adjust to, but adjust we must, because (at least for ladies) smiling at a random dude on the street can mean "hey, baby, you're lookin' fly!" For everyone else it just looks weird.

5. 14 is an appropriate age to begin staying out all night with your friends and drinking. And smoking, because it makes you look totally mature and cool.

6a. You can almost always tell who's, ahem, Iberian, just by looking.

6b. If you don't look Iberian, it will happen to you at least once that people yell at you on the street in whatever language they think you might speak (this is always English). Usually this means "Hello!", "I love you!" or one of the two cuss words they know.

7. Your waiter probably isn't being rude - table service just isn't as attentive as it is in the States.

8. Walking four people deep on a sidewalk is your inalienable right. You needn't budge - say, walk two and two - to let others pass.

9a. Stop worrying about efficiency - it's just not a priority here to the extent that it is to Americans. Yes, that means things will sometimes take 3 times as long as you think they should. But sometimes it can be a good thing because...

9b. ...Cheap food is usually higher quality than what you'd get in the same situations in the USA. Example: the sole restaurant by San Juan de Gaztelugatxe serves excellent pintxos. In the US, the only restaurant serving hungry visitors to a popular destination is usually not going to put that much thought into quality - probably a stand serving overpriced hot dogs and fries. Even though they've completely cornered the market, though, that bar puts out seriously delicious and affordable treats. Efficient, from a business perspective? Maybe not. Awesome? Heck yes.

10. Late isn't late, unless it is. Basque society is caught in this funny pull between Spanish culture and not-Spanish culture, and here's one of the places it shows. Sometimes (especially for social engagements) you don't show up on time. Other times you do. Beats me how they decide.

Other expats: what about you? What are some of the things you've noticed they take for granted in your new home that would never have occurred to you before? Which ones ruffled your feathers the most? Bonus points for expats from other places living in America - I'd love to hear which crazy American behaviors stand out the most!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

la spezia market

I'm not going to say a lot here, only that the market in La Spezia (very close to Riomaggiore and the other Cinque Terre towns) is outstanding. Great FLP and a lot of really special elaborated foods (breads, cheeses and olives stand out, although we missed the olive boat).


grana padano cheese

Side note about that Grana Padano: I was saving half of it to take home with me to Bilbao. Then, on my last night in Milan, I broke down and ate it ALL, by myself, in the hotel room, watching QVC in Italian.

It was so good I didn't even mind that I was watching QVC in Italian.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How NOT to hike San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

safely arrived, after the Mountain Descent Fiasco

It all fell together perfectly. Or so I thought.

Last Saturday promised gorgeous weather, and I had a backpack full of gear for my upcoming Camino de Santiago hike I needed to begin training with. Everyone had been telling me how gorgeous the hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe on the Biscayan coast was practically since the moment I arrived in Bilbao, so a couple of friends and I decided we'd make the hike from nearby Bakio (no buses go straight to San Juan) to the church/ex-monastery. I wore my fully-packed Camino backpack and everything just to test it out.

We were doing fine until we found the path.

beginning the hike down the mountain, thanks to my friend Thomas for the photo

It was clearly a footpath branching off to the left of the regular paved trail that led toward the road (and, eventually, the monastery). Bryan whipped out his iPhone and confirmed it: this was a shortcut.

Then the path got less well-defined. We were about to give up and turn around until Thomas found a post-marker. Obviously this was a trail, we reasoned - why else would there be a post-marker there?

Then the trail thinned some more and the mountain became steeper. THEN the trail disappeared altogether and "steeper" took on a whole new meaning. But we cleared the woods (by this point we were basically sliding down almost-cliffs on our butts), and we could see the hermitage. It was beautiful. And it was possibly accessible - we couldn't tell from our angle.

We'd only gone a little further when one of my legs did something hilarious. It said, No. Thank you for the offer, but I will not go any further.

Actually, it said, Insane Muscle Squeeze! Just you TRY and make me go down any further, lady!

Apparently, a steep 30-minute descent with 20 pounds your legs are not used to supporting does not go over so well in the leg muscles. Who knew? I was less than interested in the very real possibility of being airlifted out by rescue helicopter, so we retraced our steps (and you never think to thank God for making your legs use different muscles to go up a hill than to go down one until moments like these, do you?) and took the regular path to the hermitage. Which was even more gorgeous up close.

And where we discovered that, had we kept going just a little bit further, there was indeed an access point to the hermitage. Whoops.

Some tips if you care to hike San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (Liz, who also went on Saturday, minus the jolly side-trip, has more):

1. Post markers don't always mean there's a trail. Sometimes they're there for the heck of it.

2. 20 pounds is a lot on your legs. Keep it in mind if you're going bushwacking on the side of a mountain, because mine are still sore and it's Tuesday.

3. Spain does have an equivalent of poison ivy or something, and I have no idea what it looks like. All I know is it throws a great big itch party all over your legs, and then your face somehow gets invited to the fiesta and then that itches too.

Just some things to keep in mind.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Four years ago, I took this photo in Granada.

It was featured on today. Awesome, and thank you to the WhyGo folks!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Focaccia: Greatest Hits

And so there I went, blabbering on about different travel styles and the Cinque Terre. Too much self-awareness, especially when I know what you people really want.


And so here are what I´m going to call my Top Three Focaccia Moments, even though really the pesto-mozzarella one I had in Genoa should be in here. But it´s not, because 1) I couldn´t delay the gratification to take photos and 2) my hands were too freezing to take photos. So my Almost Top Three, as follows:

3. Vegetarian Focaccia.

Ingredients, besides focaccia bread: Black olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms
Where I ate it: Monterosso
Other notes: Greasy, greasy, greasy, in the best way.

2. Potato-cheese focaccia.

Ingredients, besides focaccia bread: Potato, amazing cheese (asiago?)
Where I ate it: also Monterosso
Other notes: Perfect amount of crunch (from crispy cheese) and squish (from perfectly cooked potato). Mmm.

And the #1 focaccia of my trip, my life, ever:

Ingredients, besides focaccia bread: mozzarella, green beans, focaccia
Where I ate it: Princi bakery, Via Speronari #6, Milan.
Other notes: This is the best baked goods place I´ve ever been to. I know them´s fightin´ words, but I´m sticking with it. There was just enough pesto on here to give you that tangy, salty kick but still left you wanting more rather than overwhelmed. And green beans! Amazing. I wasn´t gonna, but I went back for a cream-filled carnavale pastry afterward. Couldn´t help it. I´m ´bout to start drooling, Homer Simpson-style, just thinking about this place.

I can´t stress this enough: Milan is worth it just for Princi bakery. The place will possibly be packed when you go, so it may take you a while to get your order in. Take it as the good sign it is and use the time to build the anticipation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

the cinque terre

the picturesque Manarola by night

Ah, the Cinque Terre. Five pristine, gorgeous towns along the Northern Italian coast. If you read any Rick Steves, at some point you're going to come across several gushing passages about how very wonderful and picturesque this place is. The towns are so small, he'll tell you. It's relaxing. It's so picturesque (get ready, I'm going to be using that word a lot)!

cat lounging picturesquely

Rick Steves is telling you the truth. It is small. It is gorgeous. It is relaxing.

And it is so heavily touristed that it's hard to tell where the Disneyland tourist stuff ends and the actual "local culture" begins.

This isn't a slam of the Cinque Terre. I really did enjoy my time there, I really did appreciate how beautiful it was. What I'm saying is, if you have a high value for your travels to include something picturesque (yes!) and to be able to get by on English because most people speak at least a little, the Cinque Terre is your spot. I want you to listen carefully: I think that's totally valid. It's just that I discovered that...

...If you place a higher value on, for example, "authentic local food," such as it is, the CInque Terre should perhaps be a day or two stop only on your itinerary. With the exception of one very good focaccia (don't worry, a focaccia greatest hits post is coming), every meal we had out was - there's not really a nicer way to say this - mediocre tourist food. I'm talking the same quality frozen pizza you get in the US. And while I couldn't blame the residents of the five picturesque (that's the 4th use, if you're counting) towns for adapting in this way to accommodate tourism, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief when I arrived in the less beautiful but much less tourism-impacted La Spezia.

exploring in a picturesque cove of wildflowers, photo courtesy my friend Bryan

Let's be clear: I'm not saying here that I wasn't a tourist. By golly, I was all sorts of tourist. I gawked at sites and snapped photos and, let's face it, even the fact that I was interested in such a thing as "authentic local cuisine" is a dead giveaway. But there are different styles of tourism, and as it turns out, mine consists more of pushing myself culturally (I barely know a word of Italian, see previous post) in order to access a part of a country less impacted by hordes of people descending upon it to take pictures and eat pizza, but not pizza that's too unfamiliar, pizza like they had in America, only here in Italy.

Whew, what a long sentence. Congratulations if you made it through that one. Conclusion: the Cinque Terre really are beautiful. Jaw-droppingly, mind-numbingly gorgeous. And, no surprises here, you're not the first person to realize that. Weigh what's more important to you, a perfect-looking spot or a more authentic eating experience, and plan accordingly.

picturesque boat

Sunday, March 20, 2011

speaking American

Today's post was going to be about the Cinque Terre, where I spent much of my Carnival vacation last week.

Then I found out about this (I originally found it here, via another language assistant's blog).

This came on the heels of another discussion about how racism is notably more socially acceptable in Spain than in the United States. And usually that's true - talking about how you "have to watch out for the black people" or doing the "chinese eye stretch" doesn't get a second glance here, while in most of America that sort of thing is a pretty big no-no. Especially for a lot of Southerners - hello, residual slavery/Jim Crow/generally behaving like asses about the Civil RIghts movement guilt - "racist" is about the worst thing someone can call you.

Then my home state went and shamed me. A quick summary of the article above: Latino customers, who did not speak English, went into a diner in Lexington on two occasions and ordered using gestures and probably some Spanish words. Management of the diner put up a sign that those who did not speak "American" (they meant English) would not be served. God bless America, it said.

Huh? I understand that, when a customer goes into a restaurant, the impetus is on them to be able to order. That said, you can communicate plenty using gestures and pointing at menus. The best meal I had in Genoa was at a restaurant where the waitress spoke no English. I spoke no Italian. We just ordered by saying the names of what we wanted off the menu in our bad Italian accents. She brought us the check and, wow, numbers are the same in Italy as in America, so we knew how much to pay. No problem. I would have been flabbergasted if she had refused to serve us because we didn't speak Italian!

The thing that really upsets me here is I really don't think that's America's heart. I truly believe that, by and large, Americans are an open, friendly people. We're one of only a few countries that's been so defined by its diversity, and while I know each new wave of immigrants has faced prejudice on some level or other, I think the overall attitude towards diversity is a positive one. Here in Bilbao, you can tell who's not Basque (or at very least who's not Iberian), but you can't tell who's not American in America. Ethnicity won't tell you; language won't tell you; dress won't tell you. It's one of the things I love most about my country.

So when a diner in North Carolina goes and puts up a "no English, no service" sign, it breaks my heart, not only because of the way it must have made non-English speakers in the community feel, but because it's an attack on the very thing that makes America great.

I love our diversity. I love that we don't have an official language, that the minute you pledge allegiance to the Flag, whatever language you speak becomes "American."

God bless America.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stylish Blogger Award (7 things you don't know about me)

The awesome Kaley of "...y mucho mas" fame tagged me as a Stylish Blogger. I'll be honest, I'm not totally clear on what that is, but I'm solidly flattered regardless.

The rules:
1. Link back to the awesome person who gave you the award
2. Tell everyone 7 things about yourself
3. Pass it on to 7 other bloggers!

So here they are, 7 things you don't necessarily know about me, unless you know me fairly well, in which case you might. Sorry, I'm not much of a secret-haver.

1. I'm terrified of snakes. The catch: I had a job doing herpetology research at a summer camp one year. What is herpetology? The study of amphibians and reptiles, even the flipping terrifying ones. I had to catch and measure snakes and educate the campers about them. By the end of the summer, every time we'd see a snake I'd pray it was too fast for me to catch it. When I did come up on the misfortune of a slow-moving, catchable snake, I'd hold it up and go "look guys, it's so pretty!" while trying not to wet myself.

he's a rough green snake, if you're wondering

2. I love stucco. Don't even care if it makes a house tackier, I want it.

3. I think about dog names the way some girls my age thing about baby names. I've considered a doggy "hope chest" with bandanas and chew toys and all. Thankfully I haven't reached that point yet.

4. My dad makes the best Cuban sandwiches I've ever had. It's not that I don't think real Cubans can make a better one; it's just that I haven't seen the proof yet. Amazing Cuban sandwich makers, feel free to start sending me roundtrip tickets to your cities to show me what's what.

5. I hate having long nails.

6. My three best friends live on three different continents. Go figure.

7. I have a secret weakness for limericks. And by "secret," I mean "I tormented my friend Elizabeth with it for a solid month last summer." In fact, hey, it's still St. Patrick's Day, so I have all sorts of a segway to share my favorite ever limerick with the Whole Internet!**

There is a young poet named Herman.
He's not very good, but he's learnin',
Though he often offends
Because he so often ends
Alle sein Limericks auf Deutsch.

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. And now, my 7 stylish blogs***:

1. Canelle et Vanille. Can I get an amen? Aran Goyoaga puts out amazing photos, creative recipes, and proof that foodie brilliance comes out of places other than Guipuzkoa (bonus points: she's from Zornotza, where I spend about 12 hours every week!).

2. Madrid in Living Color. My good friend Jessica has been updating steadfastly on the city I love to hate for two years. Props to her (and her two roommates Tory and Allison) for helping talk me into doing this program in the first place!

3. Tomboy Style. Fashion inspiration that reminds me that glamorous can be laid-back, too (phew!).

4. Love & Paella. Do I even need to say this one? Sarah is hilarious, candid and an awesome photographer. This is one of the best blogs I've ever read, in general, period.

5. You Are My Fave. Melanie's an event planner, and her blog just makes me happy. She just puts up all these beautiful and fun things on a really reliable basis! How can you not love it?

6. Leah Mari Photography. Leah Valenzuela is a singer, mom, photographer, and is rocking all three! Not sure how she does it, but it's great to read these glimpses into her life!

7. Francesca at Christian Socialist Movement. This is obviously not a food-, photography-, or expat-related blog, but I had to mention the awesome stuff my friend Francesca is doing over here. She works with Christians in Parliament (yep, British) and has an incredible heart for social justice.

Kaley, who tagged me in the first place, goes without saying. She does an awesome job of tackling the good, the exhilarating and the frustrating of life as an American in Spain with equal grace and honesty.

**Fun fact: this limerick is already on the Whole Internet.
***Please don't take this as a "you must pass this on or your true love will not find you/the Devil wins/you'll have bad luck" type piece of nonsense. If you don't feel like doing it, please don't, and just take it for the compliment it is :)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Shortly before we left on this adventure, the friend I was traveling with suggested we make a pit stop in Genoa on the way to our destination in the Cinque Terre.

We should have booked at least two nights there.

The city has really everything you could want: a university vibe in some areas, gorgeous buildings, free blood oranges on the ground (ok, just the one).

And pesto. My golly, that pesto. All I can say to explain how much I loved my piece of focaccia with cheese and pesto slathered all over it is I'm seriously considering naming my first dog "pesto." "Here, pesto! Roll over! That's a good boy!"

Sorry, no pictures. I was too busy stuffing it into my gaping maw. You'll just have to imagine it.

There was also an incredibly greasy but incredibly good rabbit lunch. And a pizza that involved raw tomato, which I managed to be pretty cool about, considering.

It certainly is.