Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ramblings on Spain

Sat July 12, 2014 I don't know what happened to the last month! Just as I suspected, once living here became normal, it's become much harder to write about. And I've been busy, but I feel like a native now! I understand pretty much everyone, I know what to say in different situations (it was the cultural more than the language that I wasn't sure about at the start—they are much more informal and direct than in Latin America). I'm a pro at the metro, I've got the neighborhoods around me down. I know what most of the food is, I have friends, and I've learned tons about the history of Spain. And I've explored a good chunk of the cultural/geographical areas of the country (Galicia, Catalonia, Andalusia, and Castille). In short, this is great. I wouldn't really want to live in the city again, but it has made traveling easy, and I am loving Spain. Here are some things I've noticed about Spain in general (most of them in Madrid). • They're not big on details. ◦ Like street signs. Sure, there are arrows on the road showing direction that major roads will take you, but if you're looking for a specific address, just be ready to have to ask people the names of streets (but people have always very helpful when I ask directions. They usually know, and will tell you when they don't, unlike the Dominican Republic where they just make it up in an effort to be “helpful”...). They have plaques on the sides of the buildings showing the street names, but not necessarily at every intersection. And they're not uniform at all, so you don't always know what to look for. ◦ Menus. The menu of the day is usually a handwritten chalkboard sign with about 3-4 firsts (I don't think that's what we call it in English...oh well...), and about 3-4 main dishes. You just choose it by the meat, and they don't ever tell you the side. I've learned to ask lots of questions. You can pretty much assume the side will be fried potatoes, but yesterday I ordered fish, and instead of coming with fried potatoes, or even rice like I would have expected, it came with shredded cabbage. Which was good, but had I known, I wouldn't have ordered a salad as my first. I would have ordered the gazpacho. Yum...gazpacho. ◦ Public transportation. It seems like the best thing to do if you want to go on a trip is go ahead of time directly to the bus or train station you'll depart from and purchase tickets. The internet is useful for looking up the train or bus station you'll need (Madrid has 2 train stations, an airport, various major bus stations, and tons of train/bus connection points where you can meet up with the metro), but as far as actually purchasing the tickets, I've rarely been successful online. It seems that a good number of people just show up to catch the train/bus they need, and get a seat then. I like to have mine ahead of time though. They're just not forthcoming with information. I've gone to the info booth in the main downtown metro station a couple times to ask about tourist passes, and never have they said here's how it works, and given me all the info on all the different choices I have. Rather, I do the research on my own (online, or asking people), and then go there and ask questions, and most of the time figure it out. There's a Spain Rail pass you can get that I should have gotten when I first got here, but I just didn't have all the information yet! And yesterday coming back from Granada, I bought our return tickets with an open date/time so we wouldn't have a time constraint. But I was told by one person that I could just go up to the bus I want with that ticket and get on, which wasn't true. You have to wait in the ticketing line again. Chandra and I ended up having to take a later bus than expected because of that small detail, but it wasn't really a big deal, since they run so often (the public transportation is fantastic!). • Parks ◦ I love that Madrid has lots of parks. I think I would have been found curled up in the fetal position somewhere, drooling and shaking if it weren't for the parks. Especially the more natural section of the Parque del Retiro. Lots of them are so manicured that I don't feel like I'm even in nature. Thankfully, Madrid is pretty green, and the parks have saved me. Along with my visits to the beach, smaller towns, and walking through the forest on the camino. I don't know how people live in cities. How do they wear shoes every day? I just have to go barefoot outside often. ◦ Some observations about the parks: ▪ If you want to sunbathe, it's totally normal to do so in the middle of a park. In a swimsuit. And you don't necessarily need a top. ▪ Some parks have a section for dogs. At mine I've noticed it's usually packed. Up to 25 or 30 dogs at a time. Whereas the human park generally only has 2 or 3 humans. :( Looks like a declining birthrate for humans. Not so much for dogs though... ▪ Parks are crowded at night. Late at night. If I go on a Saturday, mid-morning, I'll have the park on my street pretty much to myself. But at night, there's rarely a spare bench. And that's when the dogs and kids come out to play. • Food. ◦ Yum. Spanish food is good. I love that restaurants have home-cooked food. Unless they're really high quality, and more expensive, American Restaurants have a flavor. A flavor that's not good. Like if you go to Chili's or Mimi's, for just a mainstream American meal, it doesn't taste quite like actual food. There's something about it. A flavor. A not-real-food-here flavor. Spain does have chains too (Vips, 100 montaditos, el corte ingles), and the food isn't quite as good to me in those chains, but it's still far ahead of American chains. It doesn't have the “flavor.” And what I love, is that chains are less common than just normal cafes and restaurants. I love that lunch is the biggest meal. And I love ordering the 3 course standard lunch. You get something like a salad, soup (hot in the winter, cold in the summer) or sliced tomatoes or sautéed mushrooms, or melon with cured ham (like prosciutto) to name a few. Then, the main dish has some form of ham, beef, fish, pork (I realize I said that already, but they love their ham!) or pasta. You also get a drink and a dessert. And THE BEST part is that there's always a fruit option for dessert. The melon is probably my favorite. Yum. And the food tastes real. Granted, I have found restaurants that have a better tortilla española, or better gazpacho, or the best grilled peppers, but the food is generally good anywhere. Because it tastes like real food. ◦ They usually eat breakfast late, around 9 or 10, lunch is served from 2-4, and then restaurants open for dinner at 9, but people don't usually eat until 10, or even 11. Last night I saw a sign at a restaurant for brunch, which was being served from 12-2! If you get hungry between meals you just stop for tapas or raciones (larger tapas that can be shared amongst friends). I love that they are all about serving up small things if you like. In the US restaurants definitely don't promote ordering small portions of things to share with friends. They even have a verb for it here, picar, meaning to snack or just pick at food. It's nice. But maybe they do it because everyone orders so much alcohol it's worth it for restaurants. ◦ My biggest complaint about the food is that there's A LOT of bread. Basically, breakfast is bread and sugar. Lunch is served with a basket of bread, tapas most often are served over bread. Smaller snacks and meals are mostly bocadillos (rolls of french bread with meat or cheese inside), empanadas, etc. So it's hard to find snacks, or quick small meals. I just go to the fruterias and get fruit and eat lots of nuts. Well, I was going to write about recent travels, but now I'm out of time, so I'll have to catch up on that later... I guess I like this sort of thing better. Traveling is fun, but regular life in a foreign country is the best!