The Basque Country: pinchos y vistas

Madrid is one of the few comunidades autónomas blessed with Teachers’ Day on January 28.  The extended weekend meant that a getaway was necessary, and our chosen destination was the Basque Country (País Vasco), specifically the cities of San Sebastián and Bilbao.  My long-awaited exploration of Northern Spain has begun!

There are plenty of political, linguistic and historical paths I could wander down in the post, but what it really boils down to is that I fell in love with San Sebastián.  Yes, Bilbao has the amazing Guggenheim designed by Frank Ghery, but the coastal city of San Sebastián boasts a beautiful river, a shell-shaped beach tucked between two verdant mountains, and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.  El País Vasco (the comunidad autónoma where both cities are located) is known for pinchos (or pintxos, in Basque), which are small tapas, often spread across the bar, unlabeled, for viewing (and sometimes grabbing) pleasure, and many times have a small toothpick in them that later becomes the receipt.  Most range between 1 and 3 euros.  Since each portion is smaller, the pinchos culture involves even more bar hopping than the tapas scene, which means more opportunities to try delicious bites, both traditional and modern.  We were lucky to have an excellent AirBnB host who gave us a thorough list of bars and pinchos that we had to try, and he truly did not steer us wrong.  His guidance, combined with a bit of internet research and a lot of following our eyes, stomachs and noses, provided for a downright mouthwatering gastronomical experience.

As I mentioned, the views in San Sebastián were quite impressive themselves.  Here are a few of my favorite shots from the weekend.  A return trip in the summer, with bluer skies and weather for sunbathing, will provide even better images.

In windy weather, the waves crash up onto the boardwalk and send people a'runnin'

In windy weather, the waves crash up onto the boardwalk and send people a’runnin’

The cathedral by moonlight

The cathedral by moonlight

A view of the Bay of Biscay from atop Mount Igueldo

A view of the Bay of Biscay from atop Mount Igueldo

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mini urban planners

My “little guys” (7th and 8th graders) had the chance to design their perfect imaginary cities.  Here I include some of the gems, with original spelling and grammar.  Long live the youthful imagination.

Pawelton

In Pawelton ar 3 very good teams of football, there names are: Pawelona, Pawelid and Paweletico.  The weather is hot.  There is a monument called Pawelia, a museum called Pawelseum and a park called Pawelark.  The typical foods are the pizza and hamburger.  They speak Pawelish.  There are about 12,400,000 people, it’s very big.  In my city you can’t sell drugs.  The foundator is me.  There isn’t crisis.  There isn’t school.  Pawel is the best city in the world and his foundator is the best.  I haven’t ego!

Arniland

Arniland is colocated in the Archipelago of the Google.  Of course Arniland is the biggest island.  It is warm all the year, but there is a big mountain called Hamalakuka that is in winter snowed.  You can go surfing to the Google beach, also you can see the monument of The Head of Arnau.

Chocolate City

All is made of chocolate (except the people, the clothes and the animals) and it isn’t mealt.  You can eat and make art of chocolate.  In this fair you can ride in a rollercoaster of chocolate and eat it but the rollercoaster can regenerate its.  You can eat Chinese food but of chocolate (of course) and you have to eat it with chop sticks.  In this restaurant its an expecially tradicional food of the city: chocolate rice….

Colour City

Colour City is a city whit old made of colours, there’s nothing white or black, there’s an important monument called Colour Tower because is a tower with all the colours of the world.  I like this city because the people is very original and funny and the places too.  There’s a beach and the people in this city love to go to beach.  In Colour City all the people know the other people because is a very small city with only 300 habitants.  I love to go to the beach or to ride horse in the blue forest or play with my dog in my pink garden.  But the most thing I like is to go with my family to skiing in purple snow.

Hotland

…In all the houses there are 2 jacuzzis and 1 elevator.  You can’t were red clothes there…

Caketon

The city is located in an island, in the east of USA.  My city has 85,000 habitants.  All people there live in houses with many candies and sweet food.  Each morning deliverer give cakes to all the houses there.  The streets are decorated with candles made of different colors.  There are lots of museums that shows you how the city was made.  There are also many parks where you can play with cake.  There is a special place called Cake Circus.  There you can trought cakes to a target or you can also trought you to the aire and fall down into a big cake.  There is a monument that has the shape of a cake called Cake Empire.

Lollipop City

…Lollipop is in front of Spain, in the Atlantic Ocean.  There are like 200,000 people and there are 5 important citys: Madridpop, Parispop, Romepop, Brusselspop, Londonpop…

Christmas City

…The typical food is present ice-cream.  Is a ice-cream with inside a magic present.  We speak a lot of languages.  Big size…

Gold City

In my city there are a lot of golden monuments that shine in the night.  The parks to have a picnic and walk and some museums.  The children don’t go to the normal school, they go to a special school where they study playing games.  It is a good place to the children and the family

New Olea City

…It is a big town like London.  It have a lot of beach, all of their have got purple sand and you can drink the water, it’s Fanta!…

Sideland

In my city all the products are free because we stoll Washington.  The city is like an enormouse castle because all the buildings are made of wood or stone with a rustic style.  The city is surrounded by a big wall and with 6 tunnels that communicates to the other cities.  There are a lot of funlands.  The population is about 5 million of persons and all of it have house, because we made him with materials of Boston, New York and Las Vegas.  Also there is an accuatic tunnel that communicates with Spain.  The townhall is the unic futuristic building, it haves two enormous doors of reforced iron with an eye detector.  Im the mayor and I only can enter into the townhall.  To produce money, we have a machine that produced it, if you enter popcorns.  Also we have a lot of traditionals parks for the people and the enter is free.  The restaurants are served and constructed by robots.  The people don’t work.  The weather is perfect, not too much hot and not too much frost.  The two principals languages are Spanish and English.  Our college or high school are perfect and free, we teach all the languages and subjects by inserting a chip on the brain, is fantastic!

The Lazy Happy Smile Land

In this town all the people gets up at two o’clock.  Anyone work never.  It’s bann.  All the days are party in the middle of the town.  We only eat pasta and pizza.  The people is around 3,000.  We can eat because we have a machine, that it create food and other things (houses)…

Musicville

In my own town there are a lot of nice things.  It’s not a big town so there aren’t a lot of people.  The weather is nice but in winter snows all the days, with this you now know that I love snow.  There are a lot of parks for take a walk or only see the beautiful views.  When you go outside the music is on but you can choose the music that you like.  It’s great!  There are restaurants with food from around the world.  Here, all the people like Real Madrid, oh yeah, it’s a fantastic football team.  There are tall buildings and small houses like a big city but like a small town too.  People here are very lovely.  My own town is incredible.  In this town we speak English and Spanish.  Now, do you want to come here?

Madridton

…The people is rich and eats any what they want.  The language is español and the people can’t speak another languages.  The Sundays in the great square there are people giving out money.

funny English

Living and traveling in countries whose main language is not English does not mean one will not see English on a daily basis.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the level of English in some of these places is astonishingly high.  And even when it’s not perfect, a translated menu or sign can provide a great deal of solace for a weary traveler or a homesick expat.

Some of these translation mishaps, along with “novelty English” (the use of random or excessive English words in a seemingly unnecessary context, just to seem “cool”), can give us a good laugh.  Here is a sampling of some that I’ve seen so far.

Rome, ItalyWhat is fried coffee?

Rome, Italy
What is fried coffee?

Rome, ItalyThese rules at The Forum, despite being hilarious in content, include the following: It's forbidden to "go every barrier beyond."

Rome, Italy
These rules at The Forum, despite being hilarious in content, include the following: It’s forbidden to “go every barrier beyond.”

Rome, ItalyThis sign outside a restaurant wants tourists to know that they don't close for the Italian version of siesta.  "Open NO STOP" is not perfect English, but it gets the point across.

Rome, Italy
This sign outside a restaurant wants tourists to know that they don’t close for the Italian version of siesta. “Open NO STOP” is not perfect English, but it gets the point across.

Rome, ItalyPizza and rest.  I like both of those things.

Rome, Italy
Pizza and rest. I like both of those things.

Valencia, SpainMaybe I'm wrong here, and this bar, called Laboratorio, really provides entertainment in the form of science experiments.  It seems more likely, however, that they were going for "experiences" and got mixed up with the Spanish word "experimentar" (to experience)

Valencia, Spain
Maybe I’m wrong here, and this bar, called Laboratorio, really provides entertainment in the form of science experiments. It seems more likely, however, that they were going for “experiences” and got mixed up with the Spanish word “experimentar” (to experience)

Valencia, SpainWhy did they erase the 'e' in "are"? They had it right the first time.  "Banking" is kind of hanging at the end by itself, but even without punctuation or a complete sentence, the graffiti is easily understood.  And accurate.

Valencia, Spain
Why did they erase the ‘e’ in “are”? They had it right the first time. “Banking” is kind of hanging at the end by itself, but even without punctuation or a complete sentence, the graffiti is easily understood. And accurate.

Istanbul, TurkeyAlthough this "yogurt soap" menu was sited in Turkey, it must have been translated by a Spaniard, because the confusion between the Spanish word for soup (sopa) and soap can be quite tricky.

Istanbul, Turkey
Although this “yogurt soap” menu was sited in Turkey, it must have been translated by a Spaniard, because the confusion between the Spanish word for soup (sopa) and soap can be quite tricky.

Majadahonda, Spain"Sundae" has become "Sandy" in Spain's BKs.  My students had lots of questions when the hurricane hit.

Majadahonda, Spain
“Sundae” has become “Sandy” in Spain’s BKs. My students had lots of questions when the hurricane hit.

Madrid, SpainI purchased these kids' towels in El Corte Ingés, Spain's main department store chain, because they were on sale.  In case there's any doubt, they have the word "children" embroidered all over them.

Madrid, Spain
I purchased these kids’ towels in El Corte Ingés, Spain’s main department store chain, because they were on sale. In case there’s any doubt about whom they’re intended for, they have the word “children” embroidered all over them.

Madrid, SpainHere we actually have a very creative play on words.  The Spanish words "en" (in), guay (slang for cool, awesome) and "si" (yes) are put together to sound like NYC at this supposedly authentic pizza joint.

Madrid, Spain
Here we actually have a very creative play on words. The Spanish words “en” (in), “guay” (slang for cool, awesome) and “si” (yes) are put together to sound like NYC at this supposedly authentic pizza joint.

Istanbul

Following ten days in Florence and Rome with my parents and brother, I met up with a fellow auxiliar de conversación in Istanbul for the rest of Christmas vacation.  Despite an average of 1.21 mishaps per day, each of varying severity (most of them minor), we had an enjoyable stay and an eye-opening experience.  I say “eye-opening” because this trip was my first self-planned and self-guided jaunt to a non-Western, non-Christian nation.  Two years ago, while living in Sevilla, I joined a tour group of expats to Morocco, a nation even less similar to my own, but the organized tour provided a buffer from some, though not all, of the realities of Moroccan culture.  Although Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia and has a sprinkling of Starbucks, McDonald’s and other less tangible markers of globalization, it is still a far cry from a Western city.  This is by no means a denigration, but rather an explanation of the experience’s educational potential.

Instead of chronicling our journey day by day, I will share some of the most beautiful and lasting images and memories through words, my own photos, and a few borrowed from Flickr users who were able to capture certain moments better than I.

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Turkish breakfast

My Istanbul guidebook described Turkish breakfast as “a hard-boiled egg with bread, olives, white cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and honey.”  I didn’t find the description particularly appealing, but when Erika and I walked into Privato Café on our first morning and ordered the “Turkish Village Breakfast” (after eyeing another customer’s table and being told we must order it), my opinion took a complete 180°.  Our waiters brought us approximately 15 China dishes filled with sweet Turkish pancakes, spinach and cheese pastries, cucumber and tomato salad with fresh herbs, grilled Haloumi cheese, various sliced fruit in delicious syrups, bread, olives, honey, fresh cheeses and spreads, our eyes and taste buds were completely charmed.  We ordered tea a la carte – one day I enjoyed the mint tea – hot water, mint leaves and lemon slices, and on another day (yes, we went back) the cinnamon honey tea, in a mug filled with cinnamon sticks.

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Prayer

As a city in a Muslim nation, Istanbul’s streets and skylines are liberally dotted with the minarets of its many mosques.  From these towers, five times per day, one can hear the call to prayer, a hauntingly beautiful Arabic chant that is timed according to the location of the sun.  In any corner of the city, one is in earshot of at least one mosque.  From my experience, prayer appears to be put aside for nothing, and the best example can be found in the Grand Bazaar, where many shopkeepers closed their stands and the usually-bustling aisles fell silent and full of kneeling men, performing the early-afternoon prayer.

Photo by NKCPhoto, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Photo by NKCPhoto, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Tea (and coffee and juice)

While Spain holds the culture of the café con leche (more or less a latte) and the caña (small beer on tap), and Italy is the land of the espresso, Turkey is the territory of tea.  Turks consume more tea per capita than any other nation in the world, including the Brits.  The popular drink is of the chai variety and is served piping hot without milk but with optional sugar cubes in small hourglass-shaped clear glass.  The tea was offered to us at the end of many meals, but the most curious phenomenon surrounding the chai was the deliverymen who carried trays of the hot tea up and down city streets and aisles of the bazaars to anxiously awaiting shopkeepers.

Photo by intellidryad on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Photo by intellidryad on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Turkish coffee, which I knew was thick and “sludge-like,” was actually not far from an Italian espresso (but certainly not the same), although there was a significant amount of thick residue left at the bottom of the mug.  With a spoonful of sugar, it went down just fine.

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And finally, the fresh-squeezed juices available at many a roadside stand were refreshing and delicious, my favorite being the pomegranate.

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Asia

Istanbul is the world’s only “legitimate” two-continent city, as a few other cities have small portions that spill over onto other continents, but Istanbul actually has a legitimate European side and Asian side.  A mere 15-minute and 3 lira (less than $2) ferry ride brought us to Asia.  Another continent checked off the list.

It doesn't look much different, but that's Asia!

It doesn’t look much different, but that’s Asia!

Fish sandwiches

Right along the Bosphorus Straight, one can find a series of boats on which fishermen grill up freshly caught fish, throw them in a half of a loaf of bread with some lettuce and onions and sell them for cheap right off the boat.  This was one of the most fresh, delicious and charming dining experiences I’ve had.

IMG_2407

Cooking class

Erika and I signed up for a cooking class at Cooking Alaturka, where we were joined by an Australian family, a Canadian couple, and a British solo traveler.  Charming chef Feyzi guided us through the preparation of five courses, from zucchini and cheese fritters to lamb stew atop smoky eggplant puree to walnut-stuffed dates in clove syrup.  After a few hours in the kitchen, we sat down to enjoy the fruits (and meats and legumes and vegetables…) of our labors, alongside restaurant patrons who also got to taste our delectable dishes!

Feyzi and Erika preparing the batter for the zucchini and cheese fritters

Feyzi and Erika preparing the batter for the zucchini and cheese fritters

Beautiful architecture

And of course, no recap of a trip to Istanbul (or a trip anywhere taken by yours truly) is complete without gawk-worthy photos of churches and such…or in this case, mosques.  Below are a few of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

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The Blue Mosque at sunset

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace

in Italy, where everybody knows your…language

My biggest takeaways from ten days in Italy:

  1. Italian food is beyond delicious, but a meal that includes bread, an appetizer, pasta, meat/seafood, dessert, espresso and wine is overwhelming.
  2. Florence was just as foggy in December 2012 as it was in November 2010.  Next time, if there is a next time, not in winter…
  3. Rome is so full of ancient buildings and statues that only about a third of them appear to be mentioned in even the most thorough of guidebooks.  That’s impressive.
  4. The Italian language is absolutely beautiful.   I think I need to learn it.
  5. I must go back.  There is much left to be explored.

And finally…everyone (okay, not everyone) speaks English!  (and French, and Spanish, and Italian…)

Having only briefly been to Portugal and never to France, Germany or further east in Europe (save Turkey, which I’ll talk about in the next post)…and having only ever been in Spain as a resident rather than a non-Spanish-speaking tourist, I can’t really make fair comparisons here.

But what I can say is that both in Florence, a city whose main industry is tourism, and in Rome, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, the level of multilingualism among the locals is astonishing.  Although skills in multiple languages are expected from airport workers, hotel staff, museum employees, tour guides and menus at the most tourist-centric dining establishments, hearing one’s native language in a foreign country should never be taken for granted.  But then there are the waiters at the not-so-tourist-y restaurants, the clerks at the copy centers, and the taxi drivers, all of whom know at least enough English to get by and at most enough to do a stand-up comedy routine and write a few novels in the language of Shakespeare.  The most vivid illustration of this linguistic flexibility was at Trattoria Cecio in Rome, where our waiter, in almost perfect English, gave a quite hilarious (if wholly inappropriate) monologue on sex and Italian politics, and then flittered around to other tables occupied by Spaniards and Frenchmen, entertaining them as well in their native tongues.

This waiter, and all the others like him, is a worker in the service sector/tourism industry.  Without any intention of diminishing said field, I simply want to emphasize that all of these multilingual mavens are probably not considered the cream of Italy’s intellectual crop.  And yet they speak two, three, four or more languages.

Although the argument can be made that it isn’t necessary in the US, I leave you with this question: how many American waiters and cabbies (and lawyers, doctors, and politicians…) do you know who speak that many languages?