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.

Monday, March 14, 2011

if obelix had proposed right then, i would have said yes

Asterix and Obelix: favorite costume by far

Those of you in the non-Catholic world may not have noticed, but this past week was Carnival. A celebration in wackiness, costumes and all things enjoyable before Lent starts, Carnival (or Carnaval in espaneesh) is like an extended Mardi Gras. Except instead of one day, it's a week long; instead of ladies lifting up their shirts for beads, costumed children spray each other with silly string (as far as I can tell no one lifts up their shirt for anything here); and instead of raucous drunkenness it's... well, OK, there's still a lot of raucous drunkenness.

They set up a fairground with rides in the old part of the city here in Bilbao, where every adorable child in the city dressed as a pirate, dinosaur, flamenco dancer or clown dragged their parents Saturday afternoon.

daaaaaaaaaaaaw look at the little lion!

Luckily for me I was off to Italy, land of the truly wacky-doodle Carnaval (or Carnavale, as they say - say it with me, in an obnoxious Italian accent: Car-na-VAH-lay!), the next day. My friend Bryan and I gathered up extra confetti from the stands in Viareggio, then had an all-out confetti war. I was still picking confetti out of my shoes/hair/clothing days later.

Then off to Milan I went, where I went straight to the cathedral, the Duomo, and encountered the Most Confetti Ever.

As a side note: men in Venetian masks are not to be trusted. They will Silly String you like it ain't no thing.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

i found this blood orange lying on the ground

and then I ate it.

tales of Italy, Carnaval and everything else I ate (not true, only highlights) coming soon.

Friday, March 4, 2011

a field guide to spanish junk food. part 1: caramel family

caramel/coffee/cream varieties

Ah, the chuchería. These junk food meccas are found all over this fine peninsula. The moment you step inside, you realize how much America in fact has to learn in the snacking department. Upwards of 20 varieties of puffed rice snack; gummy and sour treats beyond what you had previously even imagined; caramels with beautiful down-home looking labels. A first visit to one of these places can be daunting - where do you even begin?

Fear not: "A Field Guide to Spanish Junk Food" is here to help you navigate the snacking wonderland you've just discovered. Today, Part 1: the caramel and coffee candy family.

I rounded up some of the more common caramel and coffee flavored candies (OK, common in the Bilbao area), did a tasting (hey, it's educational) and came up with my top 3 most absolutely special and delicious local caramel treats to be found in your local chuchería.

Third Place: La Cafetera, Café con Leche (Pastillas Aroma)

Flavor: Coffee
Where it's from: Pamplona
Why it's awesome: Rich, creamy coffee flavor. And check out that label - this one definitely has the coolest label.

Second Place: Caramelos con Piñones, El Caserío

Flavor: Caramel and pine nuts
Where it's from: Tafalla (Navarra)
Why it's awesome: First flavor you notice: delicate caramel. Second flavor you notice: roasted pine nuts. And there are actual pine nuts in there, so the texture is fun, like a Bit o' Honey if it were hard instead of chewy.

First Place: Caramelos de Malavisco, Confiteria de Santiaguito.

Flavor: Caramel
Where it's from: Bilbao
Why it's awesome: Whoa, look at that amber color! The "Santiaguito" is perfectly simple: just pure caramel flavor, in that amazing "crust on top of a creme brulee" kind of way. Simple things done right, y'all. These are the ones my dad devours when I bring them home to NC.

Go forth and devour caramels.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


that's stereotypes about Americans, for those of you who aren't into puns of the "Daaaaad, you're embarrassing me!" variety.

Not a false stereotype at all, but what I spent a good $40 on at the State Fair last year. Followed by another $5 on Tums.

In the past couple weeks I have had my students ask me:

-if I know anyone famous (no)

-if I drive an expensive car (no)

-if I have lots of money (of course; I teach English for the Spanish government. If the Spanish gov isn't a high rollin' boss I don't know who is)

-if I eat hamburgers all the time (come on, be serious)

-if I like Eminem (see hamburgers answer)

Some day I'm going to respond by asking them if they've blown up any buildings or won any Michelin stars lately.***

***these are the only two stereotypes Americans even come close to having about Basque people. Because terrorism and haute cuisine are the only things that make it through to us, best case scenario. I'm sure you could tease another good generalization about Americans being ignorant out of there somewhere.

coming soon: field guide to Spanish junk food. I'm pretty pumped about it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

green doesn't look so good on me...

That's not to be taken literally, of course. Green actually looks awesome on me. What a great color.

Nope, I'm talking about envy - pure, unadulterated blog envy. Posts by my friend Jessica and also the super-inspiring Melanie over at You Are My Fave have gotten me thinking about this.

It's so easy to fall into that trap: first, read an amazing blog. Maybe their travel is more extensive, their web design better, their commitment to regular posting more solid, or their camera nicer (see, uh, everyone under "inspiration") than yours. The next step after you notice the discrepancy between their site and yours: get bummed out. You think, how can I ever make something this cool?

Plus the fact that, OK, people who are blogging don't typically post the mundane things so much - just the hilarious anecdotes, the exhilarating travels, the mouth-watering photos of things they cooked or picked or whatever - makes it feel like these other people have dreamy, perfect lives. How can yours possibly measure up?

Here's how I'm dealing with it:

1. Giving myself goals. For me this means learning more about food arrangement in photos, researching web design stuff for when I get home, writing as much as I can to keep that muscle active and learning as much as I can about how to use my camera.

2. Recognizing that there are some things I just can't do yet. My food photos are not going to be on the level of, say, Canelle et Vanille until I upgrade in camera/lens quality; comparing myself to people with more experience and resources does no one any good (actually, comparing yourself to anyone does no one any good). And doing what I can with what I have (see #1) so that I am ready when the time comes for an upgrade.

3. Soaking in the sites that make me a little bit jealous, getting over the jealousy and letting myself get inspired! This is huge because, duh, you wouldn't be jealous of something if it didn't have something you wanted. If you can let go of the "why-can't-this-be-me" mindset and focus on appreciating, the parts of that inspiration that are meant to soak in and influence your own style will. Or you'll try it and realize it isn't you. Either way, you're growing.

4. Paying attention to what jumps out at me most: what styles of writing, layouts and aesthetics really make me smile. For example, I love the "this photo could have been taken in Provence" style but don't consider it the most "me"; I'm not at all into the "British 1950s equestrian" aesthetic; I adore the "this thing looks like it was taken from a tiny town in Cuba/Santa Fe, New Mexico/Frida Kahlo's house" aesthetic the most. Being mindful of the kinds of things that speak to you the most can help you shape a site others eventually will (and if they don't, at least you'll love it!).

Maybe my favorite image ever, by Manuel Salgado on Flickr. Who doesn't love those little blue armadillos?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

will i eat 600 pieces of focaccia? i think so.

This Sunday afternoon I am going to get on an airplane. This airplane will take me to a fantastical place where there is none of this:

and lots of this:

Seven days. Italy. I'll be in Genoa, the Cinque Terre and Milan. If I don't come out of this slightly greener from all the pesto, I will consider this a job half done.