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24 posts categorized "Penny Savryn"

Madrid Burger Quest 2018: Part I

It’s time to talk about burgers.  Specifically burgers in Madrid. AKA HEAVEN.

This project has been a long time coming for me, a self-proclaimed burger fanatic.  I haven’t always been obsessed. I used to just be in love. But the love has transformed over time into fanaticism.  Not the kind that drives you crazy, but the kind that’s always there, always reminding you that it is there. I’ve been told lately that my go-to foods are: burgers, pizza, and pasta.  I’ll take it.

It was a Saturday.  The plan had been floating in the air for a few days--commence the Madrid Burger Tour on Saturday--but I hadn’t done much planning.  I had, however, done a lot of research. In my phone there has always been a list of burgers to try in Madrid; in my heart, always a yearning.  Waking up that Saturday, it just felt right. Today would be the day. The day of all days.


Before leaving, I wrote down the date and six spots to try.  Part of me wanted to achieve all six by the end of the day. The other part of me knew I was being overambitious.  Another part of me just wanted to list all of the burgers I want to try. I sectioned off three stops and ordered them.  They fell into place geographically by chance; I didn’t really care if I had to pass spot C to go to spot A and then pass spot C again to get to spot B.  This route was not about efficiency. I’m happy to report, though, that it ended up being efficient.

I embarked on my Madrid hamburger route with my hungry sidekick, a small notebook, an inky pen, and hunger on a Saturday around 4 o’clock in the afternoon--a good time because though the menús are coming to an end, the burger places are still cookin’, still beckoning people in with the smells of patties, buns, ketchup and cheesy goodness.

First check-in:  New York Burger. [Everything in quotes is directly from my handy-dandy notebook]

I’m not sure what I expected.  Kitschy names like that, well, I always appreciate ‘em.  But could whatever this place was serving really earn the title New York Burger???

4:20pm -- Arrived at New York Burger.  It took a bit of time to be attended to by the host, but finally we were told it’d be a five-minute wait.  I’m starting to realize that most places in Madrid tell you it will be a five or ten-minute wait, even if it really will be twenty or more.  I’m down to play naive for food!


The place smelled “nice,” as I wrote in my notes, and was “chill but crowded.”  In my notebook, I express some concern that the place would close in 30 minutes, so we’d look at the menu while waiting to not lose any time.  “Smells delicious,” I later amend to my earlier “smells nice” comment. But, and a big “but” here, “maybe clouded by starvation.” If I had arrived full, would it have smelled as great?  Some of these questions may never be answered.  

4:36pm -- Seated!  The usual debate ensued: do we order just a burger?  Or do we order plates of other delectable fried goods?  But that would make us too full. We need to experience the burger and just the burger in all of its singular wonder.  Ok. Just the burger. But now which one? Which one??? The age-old question. “Leaning towards ‘Meat Packing’--> double meat, double cheddar, salsa ‘NYB’ sounds like it’ll give us what they have to offer.”  One of the great parts about this place is that they go full-throttle on the New York theme. All of the burgers are named after something New-Yorky. There’s the Chinatown with noodles on it, the Little Italy with parmesan, basil and semi-dried tomato, the Park Avenue with foie and roasted apple compote.  The Meat Packing was listed under “Hamburguesas Prime” for only €1,00 more and sounded promising.

4:45pm -- Ordered.  According to my notebook, my patience was waning.  Luckily we were given two glasses of H2O immediately.  “Side dish ordered?  Patatas fritas, come on.”  There’s free wifi that’s easy to access, the water glasses were giant, and I wondered how they chose those glasses.  Perhaps because they are so heavy, they won’t break easily?


4:56pm -- “Burger arrives.  Wrong one. Then correct one comes out, looks delicious.  Small amount of bacon, dollop of sauce on top of bun” which is facing up next to the patty on the other half of the bun.  “Fries look banging. Cheese amazing-looking.” My sidekick says the cheddar is real--a helpful and knowledgeable sidekick who knows just when to chime in.  Though they were slightly under room-temperature, the fries were delicious and well-salted.

IMG_3015 IMG_3015

5:06pm -- “Plate is ridiculously clean.  Burger was AMAZING. Perfectly juicy and compact.”  Juice was running down my fingers, hand-wipes were given for good reason, the burger did not need ketchup or any other taste, it was incredible.  “I finished before my fast-eating companion. Incredible.” INCREDIBLE, I TELL YOU! I’m itching to go back and fulfill both my craving and curiosity: will it be as good as the first time?  We shall see.


I spend the next page and a half of my notebook musing on what I had just experienced.  The fries tasted a bit like oil but they were still delicious and perfectly cut. Apparently I licked my fingers and palms and entire hands.  “So amazing @ end was looking for more, so I licked knife that had [been used to] cut burger initially. Used juice on plate for sopping up with fries.”  I appreciated the wipes and was sad it was over. “Half-birthday dinner will be here.” I was already planning. The bun was well-chosen and not too large as to overpower everything it cradled.  Then again, it was a double patty.

5:14pm -- Two candies given with the bill, €12,40.  “Hard to leave,” I wrote.

Meat Packing: Double meat, 125g each, double cheddar, caramelized bacon, NYB sauce, always served al punto.

While walking to the next place, I was overcome with emotion.  I stopped on the street a few times to write down thoughts I had post-burgerjoy.  I noted that we had eaten halves, how that may alter the experience because you don’t have to start from the outside working your way in.  The presentation wasn’t perfect, that dollop of sauce on the bun had to be swirled around before placement. The bacon portion was small. “Good to have bit of a walk between places.”  My companion, in an effort to salvage the image of Meat Packing, mentioned that the sauce oozed around. But I was thinking of the potential issues with my process. “This whole thing depends on angle you take on experience.”  

My sidekick luckily burped up some of the burger.  I was jealous they got an extra taste. “Unfair.”

5:48pm -- Arrived at Bacoa.  A highly anticipated arrival.  I’d seen solid reviews from a solid amount of reviewers.  


Now, this was one of those places created on the “Burger Bubble.”  The “Burger Bubble” is the explosion of corporatey burger spots. These are the places that have tried their darndest to adjust for all kinds of issues, the places that want to maximize performance and efficiency at the same time, the places that have thick portfolios in black binders with the large three rings explaining the psychology behind how people order and the justification for this kind of sauce and not that one, this type of bun, but not that one.  They offer all they have on a sheet of paper for you to choose from by drawing a checkmark in tiny boxes with the tiny eraser-less pencils they offer. The less social interaction between burger management and burger customer the better. They try to show off with their fancy shiny TV screens and they want you to know, no, they need you to know, that they have done everything they can to ensure what you eat has made it to your plate only after the most environmentally-friendly, people-friendly, workplace-friendly journey.  Are you getting the vibe of this place? Oh, and it’s spotlessly clean, which, those of you who know me, may think I’d appreciate, but come on! We all have dust in our corners!


So, the place is empty when we get there, which was lucky, because it’s right next to Sol, so it has the potential to be absurdly crowded.  There are picnic-style tables, with long, thick chestnut benches. They’ve also already thought through the entire seating process, of course, so there are baskets beneath the benches for your bags.  As a safety-first person, there was no way I was going to put my bag in a bin out of sight beneath my seat, but I appreciated their thoughtfulness.


5:56pm -- Ordered.  I was into the jabby “quips via written word,” for example, under their listing of french fries they wrote “never frozen.”  There was a flatscreen TV playing a montage of burgers cooking. I got suckered into adding truffle mayo to the fries for an extra charge.  I was really not into the benches; it wasn’t simple to contort my leg in the precise way it’d fit underneath the table. “For a place into recycling, you’d expect a non-gendered bathroom, but alas…”  Free wifi available.

6:08pm -- Burger arrives.  “Sizable patty. Thick and juicy-looking.  Portion of fries doesn’t look worth €2,50, but mustard well-draped over pickles.  Yellow and white cheese looks good, bun looks pretty thick/brioche-y but could be good for thick patty.  Writing while eating -- says something.”


The truffle mayo was incredible, but things kept falling out of the burger in pieces.  The pickles were those sweet kinds that I don’t love but can appreciate. I couldn’t really taste the cheese, but it was a good burger.  The fries--unimpressive. The truffle mayo was the standout. The mustard was good as well. The meat wasn’t as juicy as New York Burger’s and I had to fight the urge to schmear the truffle mayo on the last bite of the burger.

I kept writing about the significance of the truffle mayo as the standout.  “Nuff said.” My companion agreed that Bacoa was “less special.” New York Burger had set the bar ridiculously high.  Could anything ever live up to that???? Additionally, the bathrooms weren’t up to the standards of the main floor. The reviews were stellar for Bacoa, so I was kind of surprised.  I figure because it’s near Sol it attracts a lot of attention. And it’s not bad, so the heavily populated area nearby plus the quality gets it those tons of good reviews. “Flavorless fries, not thrilled that we finished them...I had truffle mayo plain.”  If I’m upset about finishing a plate of fries………………………………………………………………………………………………...


At this point, I write “[NYB does NY proud].”

7:00pm -- We walked by Mad Waffle and wondered why we weren’t doing a waffle tour.  Bacoa had let our minds wander…

7:34pm -- Arrived at SteakBurger.  It had the usual condiments, plus a fiery chilli ketchup.  The menu is a metal slab. You feel as though you’ve arrived at a burger factory.  The place was fairly empty because, again, odd time of day. It was easy to choose what to order -- the SteakBurger with caramelized onion, monterey jack cheese, and STB sauce.  I’m a sucker for that mystery sauce that’s always named after the place and always is some combo of ketchup and mayo in different proportions, or it’s just Russian dressing.


The waitress and my sidekick were concerned that the 160g patty wouldn’t be enough, so we upped it to 250g, with fries.  

The metal chairs weren’t the most comfortable things I’ve ever sat upon, but the booths looked plump.  Wifi is accessible.

7:55pm -- Burger arrived.  It was another follower of the trend, presented split into two.  The bun with the patty was smothered in cheese and the usuals--lettuce and tomato.  The amount of caramelized onion was “not overly generous.” Those “usuals” are not my usuals, and it didn’t look wonderful, but the bun with seeds looked fluffy.  “Fries look yum but look a bit undercooked.” Fun shape for the fries, though! Like little leaf boats to ship the condiments into your mouth.


The sauce oozed out upon cutting and it smelled delicious.  The meat was juicy, but not too juicy, and the onions weren’t too sweet but added a nice sweetness.  Delicious meat on that burger and overall a really yummy burger. Unfortunately there was a lot of cheese concentrated at the edges, so it was too easy to get a lot off in one bite.  But I loved the special sauce, a Russian dressing-type. Though I’d eaten everything off the burger by the last few bites, they were still delicious.


At this point I mused.  How hard it was to boil places down to one, single menu item!  “But you do get the gist,” I reassured myself.

SteakBurger got points for airing women’s basketball on their TV, though I assume unknowingly.

8:10pm -- Food over.  

SteakBurger had my favorite atmosphere of the three because New York Burger was a bit dim.  Bacoa felt too commercial/inhuman/touristy. SteakBurger is definitely always filled with tourists, though.  

Interestingly, New York Burger felt kind of local.  It looked like families had come in for a Saturday lunch together.  Now you know my weekend plans. The burger quest in Madrid has only just begun.

Puentes Galore!

O ‘tis but a joy to be an auxiliar.  Oh the places you’ll go. The puentes you’ll have!  Who could complain?

This past puente I found myself visiting a friend in Geneva.  Random. YES! But that’s what’s exciting about living here. You take those kinds of trips that you probably wouldn’t if you were flying to another continent for a week’s vacation from work.  I’d never been to Switzerland before and was very excited to add another country to the list!

Traveling is exhilarating.  There is always something new to see, to eat, to hear.  It’s a full sensory experience. Switzerland has such an interesting mix of languages and people.  At the airport there was a sign saying “Bienvenue. Welcome. Wilkommen.”


That night my friend took me to an outdoor market with little stands from which to buy olives, cheeses, breads, beers, wines, everything!  Heaven! And it was crowded with people standing everywhere and sitting all over the ground with their cheese plates, antipasti platters, beers, and wines.  Thankfully my friend is a fluent French speaker, so I could just relax and enjoy the eating.

We had an incredible cheese plate -- my favorite was the Gruyere.  The land of Gruyere. I had a dream to visit Gruyères and the chocolate factory nearby in Broc, but wasn’t sure it would work out because of transit and money.  I had given up the dream until I was reminded of rental cars. What an invention, right? We would rent a car Sunday to drive to the chocolate factory and Gruyères.  And then of course all of these other options piled on the visit-plate: Charlie Chaplin’s world near Montreux, Montreux--home of all things jazz, the Queen Studio Experience, a lake promenade.  Too much, as usual. I’ve found myself more on the side of hustling on trips than on the relaxation side. And I’m not unhappy about it!


So, Friday we wanted to go to Bern.  We didn’t buy the tickets ahead of time.  Switzerland is NOT a cheap country. I repeat:  Switzerland is a VERY EXPENSIVE country. But what could we do?  We were only there this one time. So we bit the bullet and bought tickets that morning at the station.  I can’t share the price. It was worth it, regardless.

At the train station we purchased some snacks as the ride from Geneva to Bern is just under 2 hours.  I had a gut feeling I should get the pastrami sandwich on a light brown bread. Looked like there were greens in it and some sauce.  We also got a mini quiche. WOW!!!! The pastrami sandwich was incredible! I can taste it as I write this. If only I could ship them in tons to me.  If only…


So, the train ride was entertaining and not just because of the snacks.  The train chugs (in a 21st-century sense) right along the lake and my goodness how gorgeous it is.  Oh and also the Alps are there. THE ALPS. I’ve never seen anything like it. For those of you who think “mountains are mountains, come on.”  No. Just, no. These mountains are incredibly and overwhelmingly gorgeous, pointed, intimidating, lovely. I gotta say I could not stop thinking about the Disney Matterhorn while there.  Disney really does an incredible job of evoking the aesthetic of a place…

The train ride was an attraction in itself (another justification for the price of the tickets).  We arrived in Bern and I was googly-eyed. I just love being in a new place--such a funny concept for me, so anti-change, so into the new.  Now that I’m home I can’t remember how I became aware of a museum pass. Oh I think it was some online research on the train. This was one of the least-planned trips I’ve ever taken.  [We had a hotel booked in Barcelona for Monday-Wednesday, but no travel booked to get there hahaha, it’s funny now looking back hahaha.] So the museum pass! We calculated it made sense to get it, so we went to the tourist office at the station.  What a joy to have a credit-card-like card just for museums. It was incredible to waltz into a museum, show the card, and be granted access immediately.

Our first stop was the Zentrum Paul Klee.  I didn’t love it, but the setting is beautiful.  You have to take a bus from the station to the museum and that’s very easy to do.  There was an exhibition devoted to Down syndrome and an exhibition on Klee’s work during WWI--a bit uncomfortable because he was drafted into the German army.  The museum seems to be a spot for events more than for the Klee work (though I’m sure Klee specialists are thrilled with it). The building designed by Renzo Piano was the most intriguing part of the visit--three metallic gray slopes in the middle of the hills, the modern in the natural and the natural in the modern.


After the Klee stuff, we took the bus back down to the Bärenpark.  The symbol of Bern is the brown bear, and so they are known for this bear pit, literally.  We passed a mini stone pit but saw no bears. We realized there why some would be upset by the treatment of the bears.  I had read that there was a new home for the bears that was more suitable. I desperately wanted to see the bears, but among the trees next to the river, we saw nothing.  Then! The bear! Napping in the shade! Couldn’t get a good photo. Of course upon walking away from the bears we see that two of the three bears are right there out in the open next to the bridge.  Bears, check. Lovely meeting you, Bjork, Finn, and Ursina.


We walked onto the main drag and passed so many shops, so many well-dressed people, so many “classy” restaurants.  We saw a lot of these doors that opened to what seemed like an underground cellar where the monsters hide in horror films but these turned out to be steps leading down under the street to shops, cafes, etc.  That seemed to be a popular thing. We passed the Einstein house and popped in (covered by our museum pass). Einstein lived in Bern for a bit. Some places will really really take advantage of any big name that can be associated with it.

We continued and found a beautiful chocolate shop with a beautiful tiny sandwich on pretzel bread.  Delicious. It had the magic touch of a pickle.

We then found a cafe and took a chance on a good looking apricot cake.  Not my favorite flavor, but it looked good. It was incredible. Fresh, soft, not dry, delicious.  AMAZING.


We trekked onward towards the famous clock.  Passed a shop with a beautiful display of buttons, arranged by color.  Once we got closer to the clock we saw that it was covered with a sheet.  A trompe l’oeil! I’d been fooled!


The Kunstmuseum had an amazing exhibition on the works discovered in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt--art dealer for the Nazis during WWII.  I was impressed by the museum’s openness to present their work as it is--in the process of determining provenance. It’s kind of a mystery why Cornelius Gurlitt bequeathed the art to the Kunstmuseum in Bern, and they mention that.  Every work has a label telling you they know who it was stolen from, if it was stolen, if it wasn’t, etc. It was special to be there for this show.

I’m gonna skip ahead to the snacks we purchased for the train ride home.  There’s an incredible (yes, I’ve overused this word) chain of quick-stop food called Brezelkonig.  How I wish they existed elsewhere. We got a Raclette Pretzel and a hot dog stuffed inside a pretzel bun.  They had all kinds of pretzels, but I can attest to the goodness of the raclette option. And the hot dog one.  Wow.


In Geneva we took a boat tour on the lake, we walked around the old town, we saw the university.  We passed all the watch companies you can name in 10 seconds and some immaculate chocolate shops. Major food stop in Geneva was a crepe cafe.  We had a waffle with salted caramel topping and two crepes: one with spinach, egg, gruyere and ham, the other with banana and chocolate. Oh and chantilly cream--one of my weak spots.  I too am laughing at myself for writing about food this much, go ahead, it’s okay.


Geneva wasn’t my favorite city, but I’m still glad I saw it.  Au revoir for now!

A Week's Vacation in Three Parts: Cantabria

Spring has sprung in Madrid.  The smell of olives is wafting into my apartment.  People have morphed into vultures, circling around the cafe terrazas waiting to pounce on a free table.  The sky is lit until 9pm, deceiving you into thinking you could sit out until it got dark and still have time to accomplish everything you want to that evening.  So I’m in vacation mode and would like to return to the roadtrip. Part Two. Cantabria.

Teleférico of Fuente De.  The teleférico of fuente de.  Wow. What words are there to describe it?  High up. Snow. Mountains. Words not usually associated with me, but that day, they were.

We arrived in sneakers and well I guess we weren’t dressed properly for the skiing, wood cabin, put-up-a-fire-and-let’s-have-some-hot-cocoa mountain look, so we went into the trunk in the parking lot and I pulled out my winter hat.  Still in sneakers, we ascended the stairs to the entrance amongst a crowd of winter-hatted others with chunky boots and cameras. Does that age people now? To say they have a camera? Yikes. We had our disposable ones :) I digress.  Luckily there weren’t a lot of people because it was early. Perhaps also some stayed away because they thought it would be foggy. We were so lucky. Bright blue sky, bright sun, bright white mountains.

Now this is not a cheap experience.  17€ round trip. But it was worth it for me.  I’m not often up in the snow-capped mountains taking chairlifts up hills to ski down, let alone in one of Spain’s national parks--Los Picos de Europa--with access to one of the major tourist highlights.

Initially, I couldn’t see the thing.  I couldn’t see a cable in the air, or poles, or something moving, nothing.  Just gigantic mountains and little dark spots of trees poking out like hairs.  After paying for the ticket, I watched as a red, white, and blue box-like thing was lowered into the loading dock.  I was gonna get on THAT???? I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. It didn’t even stop swinging a bit, so when you get on, your foot is not in the spot you thought it would be when you picked it up to put it on.  Am I being dramatic? Absolutely. Did it feel this dramatic? Absolutely.

Before I could change my mind, the door closed and we were ascending.  I just kept thinking don’t look down don’t look down don’t look down. I don’t think I did.  I was looking up and straight ahead. It was getting brighter and brighter as more and more of the mountain range revealed itself.  Always hiding from people, make you work hard to see it.

At the top I breathed air like I’ve never before.  Both literally how I breathed and the air I breathed.  Full, crisp, intoxicating. To be eye-to-eye with the mountains was to soar.  If I had done nothing else “exciting” the whole trip, I would’ve been beyond content to have just experienced this.

It wasn’t long before I found myself in the gift shop (only after 200 photos, of course).  And then nearby there was a small room with photographs documenting the history of the teleférico.  I was reassured reading about the two ways you can be saved if your cable car stops in the middle.  It's clear that this attraction is a jewel of the region.

On the way back down I felt confident.  I had conquered. Triumphant, I looked down on the way down.  Before I knew it, I was back on the ground looking up at those glorious mountains I had just had the pleasure of meeting.  The world is open.

A Week's Vacation in Three Parts: Asturias

The trip started, as most do, with a car, a contract, and a discussion on whether or not we should pay for a prepaid tank of gas.  But I’ll fast forward through those nitty-gritties. On the road we went. Destination? Oviedo. Asturias would be our first stop.

The way there felt like we were rolling through that ride at Disney where you pass through different movie sets, except we rolled through seasons.  One second we were winding between snow-covered mountains, the next we were among the greenest hills I’d ever seen. Probably one of my favorite observations from the trip was that you’ll be on the highway and the speed limit will be 120 km/h, then it’ll be 90 km/h, eventually getting to 30 km/h when you go through a town.  These towns consist of a 1 to 2-minute stretch of highway (one lane, each direction) and on the mountain side of the road there’s a pharmacy, a bar, and laundry hanging out the window of homes. The other side is a drop down (I didn’t look). Before you know it, the town name is on a rectangular white sign with a diagonal red line through it signaling “you are now leaving” whatever town it was.  The speed limit jumps back up. We’d do this dance many times along the way.

We made only one stop on the way, to purchase jamón chips, of course, so we got to Oviedo just when the sun was setting around 8:30pm.  I’d picked this particular place to stay because it had beautiful views of the city. I’ve learned that if a place has beautiful views, that usually means the drive to get to it requires going up steep hills often with twisties.  Also picked it for the breakfast the next day. The room had a view and it was breathtaking. At night we could see the town lit up like the reflection of stars in a tiny pond between the mountains.

By 10:15pm we were seated at Tierra de Astur, recommended to us by the hotel and a popular spot on Calle Gascona--the street of cider.  This is where the major sidrerias are. Once you order your 3€ bottle of cider, the waiter will perform the pour. Proper pour position is: bottle is lifted above head, arm straight up in the air, eyes looking straight ahead, not up at bottle, glass is held in other hand below waist, that arm is pointing downward, commence pour.  Beware of some drizzle on your ankles! No one says that, but now I’ve told you.

Along with our yummy cider, we wanted to have fabada--the special Asturian stew of fava beans and Spanish meats.  They were out of it! So we had a similar stew instead, with cabbage. It was delish. The chorizo was amazing and having the bread to sop up every last bit was a life-saver.  Oh my goodness, I skipped perhaps the best part of the meal. We started with a wonderful cheese--Rey Silo. It arrived beautifully laid out on a block of wood with some quince (sweet) paste and apple slices.  I loved the cheese so much, I wrote down its name in my phone. It forced me to create a memo on my phone devoted to “Cheeses We Like.”

We finished off the meal with what the waiter suggested as a typical Asturian dessert: leche frita (fried milk).  It came cinnamon-sugared-up in a bed of tasty creamy yellow liquid.  Inside the fried exterior was a soft milky interior. All of this for 25€ people, get going!

The next morning we had breakfast in a room with windows for walls showing the beautiful views of the city.  At times it felt like we were looking at a green screen. It was hard to yank ourselves away, but we managed to do so and headed out to see some of Oviedo in the daytime.  We had to hustle because our next stop for the night was in Pembes--about 112 miles away. And we needed to stop in Gijón, Covadonga, and somewhere in the Cabrales region for a cheese tasting.  

We made a point of looking for Mafalda in Oviedo and we found her on a bench in a park!  After a solid photoshoot, we walked around. There were Botero statues, rainbow-painted benches, and a long line outside of Starbucks because they were handing out cups for a free drink.  We purchased 2 disposable cameras and headed for Gijón.

In Gijón we walked along the beach for a bit, took some pics with the established photo-op--Gijón in red letters on the waterfront--and got back in the car to go to Covadonga.  Along the way we pulled over for souvenirs. How could I not stop, it was a giant building filled with souvenirs. I left without a purchase and regret.

In Covadonga we circled around and around the same small area ready to pounce on a parking spot.  A giant waterfall jutting out of an imposing mountain cascaded into a tiny reservoir. People were walking up the side of it to go into a cave that housed a chapel and shelves of candles.  We would do the same.

If this post sounds a little packed, I’d like to tell you that the trip was more than a little packed, to the point where it’s hard to recall what was done on which day.  I’m getting stressed just writing about it. But I’m also grateful.

After Covadonga, we called a cheese factory to see if they were open for tours.  Luckily they were. I haven’t been that close to real cows perhaps ever. We even watched them get milked by a machine!  And we saw a baby calf. The tour finished with some samples. Queso de cabrales is not for the faint of heart, I’ll leave it at that.  

Leaving the cheese factory, I was struck by how peaceful it felt to be standing in the middle of fields and mountains.  My city-self is not always at ease in the midst of wide open spaces. But here, I breathed it in. And how wonderful it was.  Asturias.


MY 20th POST!!!!!  As my blog-journey turns 20 posts old, my teaching journey turns just over 6 months old/young.  Half a year! If I had one of those photo albums dedicated to “my new baby” (teaching baby, that is), well, the thing would be filled and I’d have to buy a new one.  I’m pretty sure I’ve taken at least 3,000 photos since arriving. At least. And I gotta say, I feel more confident as a teacher than ever.

This one class that I used to dread going to has been such a learning experience.  I realized that I was imagining the students to be worse than they actually are. They’re 1º ESO for cryin’ out loud!  Babies! If I go to class already feeling resistant to it, then it’s not gonna go well for anybody. Instead I’ve loosened up, and it’s felt much better.  I have fun with them and take advantage of my position as an assistant, dabbling in discipline when I feel it’s extremely necessary.

This week a teacher prepared an activity for me to lead in that class.  I read through pages of a textbook while the students listened and tried to fill in sentences with words missing.  I took the opportunity to practice public speaking: projecting, standing still, enunciating, taking my time. As someone who’s always had stage fright, I felt strong.  Like I said to my older students the other day, if you’re a shy speaker or a bit soft around the edges, boy, will middle-schoolers whip you into SHAPE. If they smell the slightest bit of weakness on you, you’re done for.  They’re like sharks: one whiff of blood… Unlike sharks (culturally speaking), they can be sweet and they’re still in such an in-between period of life. They may very well be obnoxious sometimes, but that can be molded. Thankfully they’re not already cynical adults stuck in their ways.

Speaking of public speaking, I’m coaching a team of five 1º Bachillerato students for a debate competition in June.  I had an epiphany the other day that a lot of the work I’ve done with writing is applicable to speaking debate-style.  I was given a handout that explains the organization of the debate (introduction, rebuttals, etc.) and realized that the emphasis on how to structure spoken arguments is not that different from structuring written ones.  When introducing a point, it helps to illustrate it with examples from real life--just like backing up a claim with evidence in an essay.

I thought of the debate training, though, because it is yet another chance for me to work on speaking skills--confident speaking skills.  When I explained to the students that they’ll need to pay attention to their body language, tone, volume, eye contact, clarity, I was practicing all of those techniques myself.  I whispered and shouted, raised my voice at one point and lowered it at another, stared at a student (to show what not to do)... One of my favorite things to do in classes is perform body language that is ineffective: leaning against the wall, playing with hair, laughing at a co-presenter.  After this, they really get the picture (for the most part...undoubtedly some students will continue these habits).

If you’re reading this, future auxiliar, just know that there’s a plethora of opportunities to learn and grow beyond how to be teacherly.  Whatever profession you end up in, these skills will be of the essence. You’ll need them at the very least for job interviews! The other stuff, like letting go of a resistance you may have based upon something imagined, applies to everything.  

Jamón Chips

We need to talk about jamón chips.  Jamón potato chips. Jamón-flavored potato chips.  They are heavenly. They are so weird, but you don’t even think about that because they are so delicious.  They are salty, but not too salty (while you’re eating them) to the point where you’re wondering why they’re so salty and what preservatives and flavoring methods have been used.  No. No, no, no. Ruffles jamón chips are deliciousness in a purplish-maroon bag.

Jamon bien
Image from https://www.pepsico.es/brands/information/products/ruffles/08410199008329

Everyone here eats them.  Well, maybe not everyone, but at least some people in every sociologically-determined group eats jamón chips.  My point is that they’re just not local fanfare for tourists. Everyone here knows jamón is a big deal. You can have it serrano-style, ibérico-style, York-style, the list goes on.  You can have it on sandwiches, in crepes, on eggs, on a box, on a fox, in a house, with green eggs and ham, I say! It’s one of the symbols of the city/country. Museo del Jamón is a temple for locals and tourists alike; cheap bocadillos of jamón (and other specialty meats) abound along with cañas of beer.  If you haven’t seen legs of jamón hanging from some type of surface, you may as well erase Madrid from your list of “Cities I’ve Visited.”  BUT, if you have tried a jamón chips, feel free to write that one back in.

Crunchy, crispy, jamón chips can be purchased in bags of all sizes.  For as little as 60-cents for a small “individual-sized” bag—do not be fooled, these are not sufficient for one person—and as much as probably no more than €1.50 for a “large” bag.  That large one may satisfy two people, but I’d buy another just to be prepared. And buy some more for your trip home! And some more for your family members anxiously awaiting souvenirs!  And then maybe some for your coworkers! And heck, why not a lifetime supply to always snack on!

I’ve never seen them in the U.S, and this concerns me.  I’m sure I will deeply miss jamón chips. They satisfy a savory craving unlike any other.  For now, I will focus on the fact that they are right at my fingertips (and then lingering on them until the ceremonial hand-washing occurs—this would ideally take place after the ceremonial hand-licking, and yes, your entire hand, because crumbs will accumulate all over as you reach in for these treasures).  

Just be sure to have a glass of water nearby when you decide to indulge.


For this week’s post I’m just going to briefly touch on something I’ve been thinking about for a while here:  the omnipresence of English. No, no, I don’t mean tourists or expats speaking in English. I mean the integration of the language into daily Spanish life.  Every week I pass yet another advertisement or sign of some sort that uses English.

What strikes me the most is the fact that the opposite does not seem to occur in New York.  In some neighborhoods it does. For example, in Washington Heights there are ads translated into Spanish because the predominant community there speaks Spanish.  One of my favorites is a New York Lottery ad at a bus stop that I cannot find a picture of, unfortunately.

But what’s different is that these ads exist in English and are translated to specifically target Spanish-speaking communities.  Here, neighborhood differences don’t seem to determine whether or not there’s an ad in English or with an English word. Check out how in this ad for an upcoming production of Young Frankenstein the whole thing is in Spanish except for that word “casting” thrown in there.  It’s located near the Royal Palace.





Or how in the window of this glasses shop they’re advertising “New Sun Collection” -- and this one’s not even close to the city-center.




This is one of my favorites.  It doesn’t really count because it’s the name of a store, but I have to share it.  Reader, meet Aristocrazy.




This use of English is the kind that has a match in the States.  One widespread use of Spanish in the U.S. is Rafael Nadal’s Nike/clothing line.  “Vamos, Rafa” is on hats, t-shirts, etc. But here, “Ready?” is at the bottom of advertisements for major internet-provider and phone network Vodafone.  These ads extend beyond the city of Madrid into the outer-cities of the province of Madrid. They are on billboards and bus stops.

So many English words have been adopted into Spanish, and this brings me to the next major area of English-incorporation:  speaking. Often you can hear native Spanish-speakers refer to “un show” or “un text” or “un email,” “un brunch,” etc.  Sometimes English words have been translated into a similar Spanish version.  “To troll” is trolear, “to Google” is googlear, but often one will hear English words as they are.

Moral of the story?  I’m not quite sure. The dominance of English sparks a lot of thought.  I’m fascinated when I witness two people from different European countries here communicating in English; it’s the go-to, default language.  It’s clear that I’m lucky to have it as my native tongue. Funny, though, how I wish I had experienced Spanish from a young age the way people here experience English.  

Granada: Part II

Let’s talk about tapas.  Tapas in Granada are, as some would say, next level.  Tapas in Granada are when you pay 2-euros for a drink and are gifted a plate of something substantial.  In Madrid, when you order a drink, you usually will get a bowl of olives or potato chips with it.  In Granada, IN GRANADA I SAID, you may get any of the following plates with your ~2-euro drink:

  • Paella (Bodegas Castañeda - special housemade vermouth from a barrel as well)
  • Potatoes with ali-oli (Bar Aixa)
  • Meatballs with patatas fritas (La Porrona)
  • A mini hamburger with patatas fritas (La Botilleria - amazing, would eat sit-down dinner here)
  • A piece of bread with a slice of jamón, olive oil, tomato, and olives (Taberna La Tana - for wine lovers and everyone)
  • Sliced chorizo in a wine sauce (Bar La Riviera - you get to choose the tapa you’d like!)
  • Patatas caseras with bacon, onion, and a creamy cheesy sauce (Bar La Riviera)
  • A plate of fried sardines (Bar Los Diamantes, go early otherwise very crowded, one of the most well-known in Granada)
  • Tosta with guacamole and squid (El Cambalache, this was incredible)

And there is so much more!  So much more, the list goes on and on.  Moral of the story: after your beautiful day seeing the Alhambra, go on a self-guided tapas tour!  Start early to avoid crowds.  Or go late if you like the crowds!  If you see people outside an establishment with drinks and a small plate of food, it usually means you’ll get that plate of food free with your drink.

Now let’s talk about ice cream.  Helados San Nicolas, right by the viewpoint, which will seem like an outdoor party.  Vendors abound at the Mirador, people gather for the view of the Alhambra and the rest of the city.  I had a beautiful purple cone of lavender ice cream while looking at the Alhambra from a few ways away.  A bit more peaceful.  And there’s a splendid backdrop of the Alhambra in the shop for a photo-op!

The special dessert of Granada is the Pionono - a very VERY sweet little cake with sweeter sweet stuff on top named after Pope Pius IX who was supposed to come to Granada but didn’t (according to a tour guide?).  The dessert remains.  I enjoyed a spontaneous eclair from a bakery in Plaza Larga even more.  Be free with your food choices.  You never know what could surprise you.

So what are you waiting for??  Go get some tapas in Granada!  The Andalucian weather is just one of the many draws.

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Granada: Part I

Granada is a stew of religions.  A stone-roaded, twisty-streeted, living history map.  Coca-cola signs hang above bars in circles of the signature Grenadine white-and-blue ceramic style.  Street names change at every intersection, even while continuing in the same direction.  A small archway leads down a tiny street of shops, formerly a silk market.  Around the corner is the Aljibe de Trillo, which holds just some of the secrets to the city’s genius water system.  Teterías (Arab-influenced tea-rooms) calmly await visitors.  Carmens abound with orange trees and special views of, oh yes, the Alhambra.  

The Alhambra sits atop the city, guarding and guiding it as it has for centuries through all sorts of transitions.  The complex dates to about the 13th or 14th century (though there may have been construction earlier).  Now you can visit: Generalife (palace and gardens), Palacio de Carlos V (16th-17th-century Roman-style palace with circular inside and small art museum), Palacios Nazaríes (the most well-known with incredible patios, ceilings, and the quintessential tiles sold in souvenir shops around the country), and the Alcazaba (lookout point with flags and views of the city and surrounding mountains).  Quranic ideals flood the Palacios Nazaríes and Generalife in particular with patios of ponds, greenery, and fountains, paradise in the sacred book of Islam, as well as script from text itself.   

Once the Catholics took over the Iberian Peninsula, at the end of the 1400s by Ferdinand and Isabella (los reyes católicos), they continued using the Alhambra, described to us as a “city” by a local tour-guide.  But they destroyed the Great Mosque, and, upon that exact spot, placed a church.  Our tour-guide explained that a key to understanding the city is that the shift to Catholic rule did not entail eradication of all that had come before (though there was destruction).  So when he pointed out the Iglesia de San Gil y Santa Ana, he noted that the tower still looks exactly like a minaret, and still has the blue and white patterns from the time of Muslim-rule--it’s mudejar and reflects the coexistence of Muslim and Christian cultures.  

Today, the main cathedral of Granada is the second-largest in Spain.  We only got a brief look inside, but it seemed like one of the more interesting cathedrals in Spain visually.  The inside is a bright white--quite a change from the usual tannish brown stone.  The outside, though, does have that tan color, which makes the inside that much more exciting.  A mosque was here before, and it was destroyed and replaced with the cathedral.  According to Rick Steves, there was a plot of land nearby that would have been more suitable for the building of the cathedral, but the new rulers insisted on using the same plot as the mosque.  Also according to Steves, the “Ave Maria” at front-and-center of the cathedral’s facade was accepted by the Muslims because Mary plays a large role in the Quran.  This is just one of many tidbits of information that make Granada unique.  Though the religion in power shifted, there were still aspects of the previous culture that remained and kept it alive with the city’s inhabitants.

Instead of paying to go further into the cathedral, we decided we couldn’t pass on the Capilla Real--the burial site of Ferdinand and Isabel.  The right decision.  Though creepy in ways, the tombs of the Catholic Monarchs (as well as their daughter, Juana, and her husband, Felipe I) are aesthetically remarkable.  Carvings surround every side of the large cubes--the eternal beds of the royals--on which the monarchs lay.  On the tomb of Juana and Felipe, each monarch has an animal for a footrest and a pillow for their head.  On the other tomb, Ferdinand and Isabel have animals at their feet, but not below them.  All of the pillows are intricately carved with patterns and tassels.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Apparently some attribute Isabel’s large impression in her pillow, larger than Ferdinand’s, as a symbol of her intelligence.   

And if visitors aren’t already bombarded with the visual superiority of the monarchs, across from their tomb is the altar.  Not just any altar.  This is a humongous gold altarpiece filled with dioramas dedicated to various saints and biblical stories.  Two deaths of saints are centrally represented, one of which I remember for certain involves a beheading--one figure holds the head up next to the beheaded body.  Most interestingly, Ferdinand and Isabel are represented at each side of the altar on their knees praying.  The whole piece looks like a toy dollhouse, figures have skin-tones, eyeballs of color, vibrant outfits, and hairstyles.  The attempt at realism is alarming, as is the juxtaposition of this altar of colors-galore with the stone-gray tombs.  I’m not used to seeing life-size color sculptures of 15th-century monarchs.

Just beyond the tombs is Isabel's art collection, including pieces by Rogier van der Weyden, Sandro Botticelli, and Hans Memling.  Just before leaving are two sculptures of Isabel and Ferdinand kneeling in prayer.  These are the originals that were by the altar inside.  Ferdinand (I believe) didn't think they looked pious enough, or something like that.  Exit the Capilla Real, and you're back on the streets of incense.  To be continued...

A Potpourri

I saw La familia Addams this weekend.  Fun show!  It was fascinating to see how an American musical was translated not only into Spanish language, but into Spain’s culture as well (including a reference to popular words and recognizable social types).  Even if you miss some of the jokes and quick twists of the tongue, you can grasp the difference between a line of plot and a line for the audience’s enjoyment.  The latter is that moment when a character breaks away from the other ones, walks towards the audience, and digresses briefly about something, often using physical cues to signal something outside the story.  This could be an eye-roll or some kind of body movement--physical comedy--something that says “this is a joke that is not related to this musical but is related to the world in which we all live in and we should all laugh about it now!”  Concise, I know.

It was also interesting to be in that theater.  The stage seemed to be very close to the audience and at eye-level.  This was quite different from some spectacles on a Broadway stage.  I was wondering if this is what performance was like way back when.  In a college course, I learned about the evolution of the physical stage-audience relationship.  The beginnings of superstardom (mostly in pop music, I believe) coincided with the separation of stage and audience.  Intimacy out, gigantic stages in stadiums in.  This theater, though, felt like it could have been used in the 1700s for a royal night of music.  The show, therefore, was a fascinating mixture of that sensation with the modern musical.

Another thing to note: the audience at the end did not go wild the way most audiences seem to do nowadays.  I appreciated that.  In the era of everyone-gets-a-standing-O-on-American-Idol and everyone-has-a-great-voice-on-The-Voice, it was refreshing to be part of an audience that was not ready to stand up for just any performance.  

The next evening for a birthday I found myself at a restaurant called Amazónico.  Prices?  High.  Quality of food?  High.  Worth it?  Yes.  For a special occasion.  I had skirt steak and it was delicious.  Though it’s easy and affordable to find solomillo here, it’s not everyday auxiliares can drop euros on a nice steak.  What better opportunity to do so than at a celebration of a quarter-century of someone’s life?  None, you say?  And I agree.  Emphatically!  Additionally, we had samosa-style spring rolls with chicken.  Delicious.  We had a bottle of moscato.  Delicious.  To finish off the meal, we had two desserts:  1) grilled pineapple with cake and coconut ice cream and 2) a stone bowl filled with warm melty chocolate.  The chocolate was a bit dark for my taste but OH MY GOODNESS someone stop me I’m turning this into a food blog!  Hard not to.  Food gets me going.  I thought I had writer’s block until I started to write about this meal…  Is anyone surprised?

Before we part...I’ve been wanting to post this video for a while.  It captures fuzzy feelings I had during one weekend-walk.  I found myself gliding through a plaza, surrounded by the chatter of people and children playing, the clinking of glasses, the smell of coffee and wine in the air, sunglasses resting on tables, cigarettes “breathing” their final stilted breaths on the ground, metal chairs being dragged from table to table, and the song of a Spanish guitar.   


[As for the Super Bowl, I do have a comment:  MY EAGLES WON!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Chicken wings are not the easiest to find ‘round here FYI, but it can be done.  It can be done.]     

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