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Pinxtos de País Vasco, the best kept secret of Spain

26 Jan
Bakalao

Bakalao

“Oh my gawd!” Before I could catch myself, the words escaped my mouth. I was in Spain afterall and should be expressing my delight in Spanish, right? But, here I was, in San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque), surprised and absolutely enthralled with the circus playing in my mouth. The tastes were exquisite and divine, the sights before me indescribable. A feast was set before me on the bar, all ready to tickle my taste buds and seduce me further into Spain’s culture, especially that of Basque country.

The Feast of Pinxtos

The Feast of Pinxtos

My companion and I

My companion and I

My companion laughed at my phrasing, as apparently many Basque and Spanish do when they hear an American say “Oh my god!” As a matter of fact, he made a video of my saying it, because I said it several more times that evening! And for the next few days, in his wonderful Spanish accent, he would mimic me, saying “Oh my gawd” and then break into laughter.

Pinxtos are NOT tapas that you find in other parts of Spain. They are generally not free with a paid drink. They cost anywhere from one to three euros and are worth every cent. They are absolute entertainment for the mouth – the variety of flavors and tastes that play on the taste buds. Many times I have no idea what I am eating. I simply look at the beauty set before me and choose one I haven’t eaten before and am delighted by the savory taste. Come to Basque country – you will not be disappointed by the Pinxtos.

Pinxtos del Cafe Aitziar en Casco Viejo, Bilbao

Pinxtos del Cafe Aitziar en Casco Viejo, Bilbao

Champiñones

Champiñones

Gambas Deliciosas

Gambas Deliciosas

Una Croqueta de jamon

Una Croqueta de jamon

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El Puente Colgante, Portugalete, Vizcaya

25 Jan
El Puente Colgante, Portulagete, Vizcaya

El Puente Colgante, Portulagete, Vizcaya

On a cold and dreary day in early January, my daughter, a friend and I traveled by metro from Bilbao to Portugalete to see the Puente Colgante for ourselves. It was built in 1893 and is the world’s oldest transporter bridge. It is quite a site to see. Puente Colgante literally means “Hanging Bridge” in English. The bridge “hangs” and “slides” which makes it able to transport six cars and several people between the towns of Portugalate and Las Arenas. It was an engineering feat in the laste 1800s when a disciple of Eiffel designed and built the bridge. It has been in continuous operation since its opening, except for four years during the Spanish Civil War.

Transporting Cars

Transporting Cars

View from above

View from above

The Port of Bilbao

The Port of Bilbao

Tourists are able to take an elevator to the top of the bridge and have fabulous views of the Port of Bilbao and the surrounding area. The cost is 6 euro and can read some of the history of the bridge in English, Spanish and Euskara.

The Port of Bilbao

The Port of Bilbao

La Cocina Vasca

23 Jan

meal

Yesterday was very spontaneous. After ten days of rain with no sunshine, the sun finally decided to make an appearance. As I walked from the bus stop to the academy, I had an idea: why not have my hour and a half class outside, walking around the different shops, and speaking in English? Anything had to be better than sitting inside a dingy classroom where it was colder inside than outside, and darker and more dreary than the beautiful weather that awaited us.

Lucky for me, I only have one student in this morning class on Tuesdays, and she happily agreed. What a glorious meeting we had for an hour and a half. We spoke in English as we walked around the neighborhood, and I explained the different shops that were missing in my hometown of Shelbyville, KY. She remarked about the similarities and differences during her trip to New York.

We stopped for her coffee and my hot chocolate. She commented pescado frescothat Tuesdays she always goes to the pescadería after class to buy fish. I told her I had always been afraid to go because I didn´t know what to do. So the best part of my day arrived; Carmen invited me to her house for lunch! We decided that she would show me how to get to Casco Viejo (Siete Calles), a quaint part of the city where all the streets run at angles to each other and I get lost every time I go there. When we arrived though, the pescadería was very crowded, and we couldn´t wait in the long line (I had a class to teach at 1530). So we walked back towards Carmen´s house and bought fish at a different one. I learned how to order fresh fish, Basque style, and now have the confidence to do it myself. I can hardly wait! We stopped at a panadería and bought a fresh loaf of bread and at a pastelería and bought some delicious cookies.

Then to Carmen´s house to make the meal. She made it seem so easy. limpiando el pescadoWhy do I complicate matters? She cleaned the fish, placed it in a pan, cut some onions, garlic and tomatos and placed around the fish and then baked it in the oven for about 20-30 minutes. While the fish was cooking, she made the most delicious salad I have had since my arrival in Spain. All with the touch of olive oil. (Have I mentioned that olive oil here in Spain is the absolute best! I don´t know what changes between here and the US but it is somehow infinitely better here.) When the fish finished cooking, Carmen fried some garlic in olive oil and then crushed it in the molinillero. She then poured the hot olive oil into the crushed garlic, added some salt and white vinegar and poured it over the freshly baked fish. I must say, it was delectably delicious.

antes de asar la ensalada

As if salad and fish weren´t enough, she also made albóndigas, Spanish meatballs, in tomato sauce. Heavens gracious, they were tasty. The simple meal was topped off with the scrumptious cookies from the pastelería we had purchased on our way to Carmen´s house.

I could not have asked for a better morning or way to spend my afternoon. I learned a new way to arrive to Casco Viejo, how to order fresh fish in Spanish and enjoyed a wonderful meal with a new friend.

Las Navidades Escolares

21 Dec
Teacher Agape Dinner

Teacher Agape Dinner

Today is the end of the world! At least as we know it. So say the Mayans. Here in Bilbao, it is the festival of Santo Tomás, a day when the people of the surrounding villages come to the city to sell their wares for Christmas – crafts and  local food. At school, it was a day of parties and celebration for la Navidad. The students prepared for a couple of months, wrote the scripts and performed the skits. I was amazed at the creatiity and political astuteness of this generation of students. Everyone knows about the Spanish economic crisis, right? About all of the severe cuts the government has made? Well, these students don´t like it and they let us know! They had a very cute skit where students were sitting comfortably at desks with large, oversize pencils. Then a group of officials arrived with the ¨recortes¨ and cut the pencils in half, took away the desks and half the chairs, leaving students to make do with very little. Sound familiar? I was surprised by the political awareness of these young people.

After the student performance, the day ended for the students and began for the teachers. Teachers arrived in the Sala de Profesores for an Agape with chorizo, vino tinto, txokoli, pan, y murcilla – which was absolutely delicious! And yes, there were alcoholic beverages served on school premises for teachers, purchased with school monies! What a novel concept.Overall a very nice day. Off to the festival de Santo Tomás!

Stress-less or simply less stress?

22 Nov

That is the question of the day. But either way, I have come to the conclusion that whether my life here in Spain is stress-less or simply just has less of it has an awful lot to do with leaving the driving up to the public transportation workers. Today is Thanksgiving in the US and I am thankful for Spain’s wonderfully reliable public transport system!

I was talking with my adult students at the Academy this evening and decided that one of the biggest reasons my life is defintely less stressful is that I no longer have the worries and frustration of a car and being a driver. No more idiots cutting me off. No more interminable red lights. No more racing through yellow lights to gain 2.3 seconds to get to work on time. I leave all that up to the bus drivers now. All I have to do is make sure I pay attention and get off at the right stop! (I almost missed my stop today because I was so focused on reading what everyone was thankful for on Facebook on my mobile phone.)

During our conversation, I explained to them that in the part of Kentucky where I come from that yes, there is a public bus system, but that it is certainly not as reliable and efficient as it is here in Bilbao. And that actually, Louisville CUT bus services because not enough people used it. Here, there are thirty-five (yes, 35!) bus lines just inside the city limits (Bilbao is about 400,000 people.) Each line runs every fifteen to thirty minutes daily, in a constant swarm throughout the city. There is also the regional busline which has close to one hundred routes that service the whole province (that would be like the whole state of Kentucky) on a daily basis, transporting people back and forth between cities. Bilbao also has the metro (subway) with two lines and a third one under construction. I never have to worry about getting somewhere because a bus or the metro will get me there.

I also live bien comunicado. Well-situated. There is a bus stop across the street from house and another one block away. The metro is a ten minute walk. That definitely helps. But even if I didn’t, I would enjoy every minute of my walk because I am no longer the one fighting the traffic!

Granted, I will admit, I have to walk. Sometimes a little farther than I would like. And I have to carry things. Not always convenient. But guess what….You walk when you go to Wal-Mart or Meijer. Look at how far you walk when you park your car. That’s about the distance I walk to get to the bus stop from my house. A nice walk outside is refreshing and the exercise is good for the soul. I have learned not to shop impulsively and not to buy things I do not need which helps a lot when it comes to carrying things home.

I sometimes miss the convenience of a car, especially when I am tired and don’t feel like walking the last block uphill home (yes, I live at the top of a very steep hill and no matter where I go, it is ALWAYS uphill home.) But overall, public transport has definitely alleviated my stress level and for that I am thankful!

Banking in Spain

2 Nov

Money makes the world go around they say, and that is certainly no different in Spain. If I want to be paid by my primary job, I am required to have a bank account so the Basque government can directly deposit my paycheck. I was anxious to get this done when I first arrived so on advice of a colleague in another part of Spain, I went to La Caixa and began the long and arduous process of opening a bank account with my passport because I did not yet have my Spanish version of the Green Card (my NIE). Some ninety minutes and twenty pages of paper later, I emerged with my Spanish bank account, debit card ordered, and access to online banking. I had deposited fifty euros, with an understanding that there was a thirteen euro initial ingreso (charge) for opening the account with a passport.

Two weeks later, I picked up my debit card at the bank and had it activated. Imagine my surprise when I finally went to use it to withdraw twenty euros, I saw that I was thirteen euros en el rojo (yes, that’s right — in the red!) At first, I thought perhaps they banked differently in Spain. After all, they use periods where we use commas, and they use commas where we use periods. Perhaps they used red where we use black and black where we use red. It was possible, wasn’t it?! Not so when I went to the bank a couple days later to have the bank stamp my direct deposit form for my pay. Not only was I thirteen dollars in the hole, but they also wanted to charge me six more euros to fill out the direct deposit form! And when I asked where all the money had gone (sixty-three euro and some change), it was all fees! That is worse than overdraft charges in the US and I hadn’t even written a check. There was a twenty-three euro charge for a police check because I opened the account with my passport rather than a residency (NIE) card, a thirty-three euro charge for an annual fee for the debit card (that no one bothered to tell me about), and a six euro charge for a monthly service fee.

Needless to say, I closed that bank account. I now have my NIE (número de identificación de extranjeros) and went to a new bank where they didn´t charge me to fill out the direct deposit form. At my new bank, the process of opening the bank account with the NIE took about twenty minutes and there are no fees unless I have a month with no direct deposit. I can deal with that. I opened the account on Tuesday and went to the bank today and the gentleman who helped me called me by my first name already. I am quite satisfied having changed banks.

My mom always told me that patience is a virtue and she is right. Had I waited to open my bank account until I had my NIE, I could have saved sixty-three euros in expensive charges and ninety minutes of precious time.

Siempre aprendiendo y probando

28 Oct

Last evening I went to a quedada, a get-together, with a couple people I knew and met some other fantastic people. There were twelve of us total. The wine was great, the food was good and the company best of all. But, as I continue to discover, I am learning something new every day besides words to add to my castellano vocabulary. Perhaps I am giving away my uncultured background here, but eso es; I hereby divulge my ignorance. Then again, if no one tells me, how do learn? I have one advantage to being here in Spain: they believe it is just different in the States! And in many ways, yes it is. But I was just doing some research and discovered that I have been doing it wrong all these years.

The correct way to hold a glass of red wineLesson Number One: Drinking wine. Hold the copa by the stem, not the bottom of the goblet, so as not to warm the wine with the temperature of the hand. Well, I knew that for champagne and white wine, but for red wine does it make a difference? I mean, red wine is already room temperature. But apparently it does, so I now will hold my wine glass by the stem. (In my defense, one of the glasses of red wine was served chilled and I wanted to warm it up!)

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson Number Two: Finishing a meal. Place your fork and knife together across the plate, with the handles at five o´clock and the tines and blade at ten o´clock. This demonstrates that you are done with your meal and that you are pleased with it. I knew all about placing the silverware on the plate, but had been crossing my fork and knife on the plate. Apparently that is an insult, indicating that you are displeased or dissatisfied with the meal. Before the server took my plate, my companion beside was sure to explain this to me, so I quickly corrected myself so as not to offend anyone.

 

 

Disfrutando un café con lecheFirst new experience: Café con leche (and a lot of azúcar). My friends and family know that I do not drink coffee. My feeling is that if you have to learn how to drink it, it is not worth drinking, so I never learned how to drink coffee. But here I was, at the quedada, and everyone was having coffee after the meal. And here in Spain, they serve the very fuerte coffee in the cutest little tazas! I just had to try some. My first taste of café con leche (coffee with creme) was like drinking dirt…seriously people, how do you do it? So I added a packet of sugar. Yes, a little better. The gal across the table offered her half packet of sugar and, Voila! perfect cup of coffee. So now I can add that to my list of new adventures. Who would have thought I would have to travel across the Atlantic to try coffee?!

 

Second new experience: Karaoke, Spanish style. When the ¨gang¨ suggested we go to a Karaoke bar, I quickly agreed. What better way to experience some Spanish culture than to watch and listen to people singing their hearts out. Of course, I thought I would get a good laugh, too, as many people singing Karaoke usually aren´t the best singers in the world, myself included. I also wanted to see if there were any differences between the US and Spanish versions. It´s official folks; Karaoke is Karaoke, no matter where you are. Some great singers, some mediocre singers, and some who can´t carry a tune in a bucket if their life depended on it, yet continue to sing song after song, much to the dismay of all the other patrons.

Overall, last night was a great learning experience and an absolute joy to meet more new people here in Bilbao. If I didn´t have so much to learn, life would be dull and lifeless, which is perhaps why I am loving this place so much.

 

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