A Texas Rose in a Spanish Garden

First Date Jitters

It is hard enough to go on a first date with someone you like when back home (for me it is Texas), but it is another thing to do this in a foreign country like Spain, where I now reside. For this date, I had better make myself into a Texas rose in a Spanish garden. For this, I will need help. I wonder what kind of woman he likes and why he asked me out. Too many questions run through my head. I had better stop this or I will drive myself crazy. Just get ready as you usually do when you want to look your best.

I pull out a few outfits from the closet and try to bury the first date jitters. One by one I try them on and discard them as choices. I can borrow something from a friend, just accept what I have, or go to that wonderful dress boutique around the corner. The owner is a designer and makes everything herself. You never see the same thing twice on the racks. I want something simple and not too dressy, but with a Spanish flair. This means embroidery as a rule or a long skirt with a high slit. I want to make an impact and search for just the right garment. With the help of the owner, we select a blue fitted dress with a fabric waist. The buckle is large and gorgeous. It is like wearing a piece of jewelry. Then all I need is to add some basic earrings. Okay, so the groundwork is laid.

Next comes makeup and hair. I like to wear my hair loose and down, but the blue dress dictates an updo held in place with a barrette. It is just the right touch. I can amp up the glamour with a touch of natural makeup. I use a smidgeon of foundation applied with a wet sponge followed by a rose-colored blusher. It is pale and soft and not intrusive. Since my makeup is simple I can concentrate on the eyes. Rather than use dark liner, I decide to either wear false eyelashes or dress up my own as they are long and thick. I get out a new heated eyelash curler I just found. Thus, the lashes stay bent and are ready for the application of mascara. The heating unit is a real innovation. I have been using eyelash curlers for years but varying results. This time my eyelashes look luscious. I will bat them for sure in my most irresistible flirty manner.

The date was a smoking success, especially since my companion complemented my look. I had done everything right I guess. You don’t always get feedback. Now I will know that the blue dress and heavier eye makeup are winners. I will keep that heated eyelash curler handy. It won’t just be used for special occasions.

Visiting a Spanish City Versus an American One

One of the things that I’ve heard from some of my classmates here when they talk about the U.S. is that they were surprised how huge the U.S. is when they visited it. You don’t have to tell me that. I come from the second largest state in the Union. It takes forever to travel over Texas. You can go to all sorts of different Spanish cities over the course of a month, and traveling to a new Spanish city is a weekend trip. In Texas, that would be the sort of thing that you would have to plan for a while.

Europe feels more connected than the U.S. in many ways, which is partly a function of its size. However, some of it might be the shared history and culture that a lot of these people have. They have a history that goes back thousands of years. In the United States, our history only goes back a couple hundred years, and it has been a pretty unfriendly one. I still here people at home complaining about the Civil War.

There are little things that you notice about Spain. People aren’t as likely to order ice in their drinks, which are also way more reasonably priced than most American drinks. People spend more time outdoors and less time in their cars going from one location to the next. However, most of all, you notice that this is a culture that is very old, and yet it is all contained in this much smaller area. It’s like you get more culture in every step in Spain.

The Challenge of Learning a New Language

For me, the hardest part of learning a new language has always been the spoken part. I can usually learn the written part okay. I picked up written Spanish pretty easily. Watching a Spanish movie is harder for me than reading a Spanish book, unless there are subtitles attached, which really only makes it feel like I’m reading a book anyway. I don’t think I’m alone here, although I’m sure that there are plenty of other people who think that learning a language visually is easier than learning a language orally.

I think that a lot of it comes down to this: a language changes when it is spoken out loud. On the page, the words look exactly the same each and every time. Your pattern recognition skills can help you out, and you don’t need to puzzle over whether you really got the word right. This really isn’t the case when it comes to spoken languages, including spoken Spanish. The speakers will talk faster or slower than you will expect, and that is the case for every language. People’s personal ways of talking will change the way in which the words sound, which is going to be tough for someone who is still a novice in the language.

My main experience in listening to someone speak in a foreign language is to process what they said a few seconds too late. They’ll say something, I’ll vaguely recognize the words that they just used, and then I’ll actually understand what they just said. The problem is, the conversation has usually moved on by then. It’s like everything is going in fast motion, and I’m still stuck in slow motion.

However, it really is just the sort of thing that you have to practice. The brain gets better and better at processing that sort of challenging information the more and more you are exposed to it, and that’s the great thing about an immersion program in a place like Spain in the first place. You can’t say that you’ll practice Spanish tomorrow and you have more Facebook to read right now, and that Facebook will all be in English. People are talking to you in Spanish right now, and you have to make sure that your brain works, and you have to make it work if it isn’t happening. You have that responsibility, and you need to use it.

I tend to work better when people actually make me work, since I am one of the worst procrastinators that you will ever meet as both a student and as a general worker. Being placed right in the middle of Spain where I need to speak Spanish just to get by is actually making me learn it and do the work, which I just wouldn’t have done on my own time.

I’ve always found speaking to be easier than listening when it comes to the oral use of the language. You can pick your own words and talk at your own pace. I’m sure that I sound really slow to the native speakers of Spanish, but at least I can understand what I’m saying. The thing is, sometimes I’ll try to say something, and I won’t automatically know which word I’m supposed to use. I’ll have to think about another way to state the exact same thing, even if that new way isn’t really a part of my normal speech patterns and I sound kind of weird to myself when I think about the meaning of what I just said. Soon, I also end up using that phrase habitually, because it helps me express whatever it was that I needed to say in the first place.

When you learn a new language, you aren’t learning a direct counterpart to your native language. I talk in a fairly casual way normally, with a little formality thrown in. When I speak in Spanish, I talk in a more formal way with some slang terms thrown in, because that’s largely how I learned to talk in the language. I don’t have enough experience with the language to be able to speak with the same level of skill that a native speaker would, which means that I am not able to talk in quite the same naturalistic way that they can. I really almost feel like I’m a different character when I’m speaking in Spanish, and not just that I’m myself and I’m talking in a different language. Hopefully, that aspect of the process isn’t going to last forever, and there is going to be a point where I really feel like it’s me speaking the language, and I’m not just playing a character.

I guess that’s essentially what achieving fluency means. You can put on an accent, but even if it is good enough to fool people who naturally have that accent, it still isn’t going to feel like yours unless it is one that you use often enough for it to be considered just another way that you speak.

The Beauty of Spain

The Beauty of Spain

I really can’t get over just what a beautiful country Spain is. Coming from Texas, I’m used to the kind of climate where if you didn’t have air conditioning, you’d need your own additional vacation in the summertime. Texas is a great place, but it isn’t really known for its lush, natural beauty. I’ve always thought that one of the reasons why people always talk about and brag about the great, big Texas sky is that at certain points throughout the year, the empty sky is really the prettiest thing you’re going to see.

I can definitely see why a lot of people are interested in buying real estate in Spain. The climate here is absolutely gorgeous. In Texas, when it gets hot, it gets humid. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Texas heat is a dry heat. It sure never felt that way to me. Ever since I’ve been studying in Spain, it feels like I’ve been studying in Heaven, or at least one of the neighboring areas.

The Mediterranean climate of Spain is basically considered the ideal climate for humans, and I can definitely see why. It feels like it’s around seventy degrees all the time. It’s warm but not oppressively hot. It’s comfortable sunny, but not so bright that you need sunglasses just to step outside. I can totally understand people wanting to move here just for the climate alone.

Places You Have to Visit in Spain

Places You Have to Visit in Spain

My parents have said over and over again that I’m in Spain to study, and having fun is really only secondary. In fact, if I mention having fun over Skype or on the phone, they’ll assume that this means that I’m not working hard enough. Indeed, I really do want to make it clear to people who think that studying abroad is going to be a never-ending party that this really isn’t remotely true. It’s still school and it’s still work.

However, I know that if I went to school in Texas, I wouldn’t feel any great need to see the sites or check out all of the really cool stuff that’s there, even though Texas does have plenty of cool stuff in its own right. In Spain though, I really do want to go on the weekends to see all of the great stuff in Spain. It’s even been enough of an incentive that I try to do my homework early, which is definitely a first for me.

I’ve never even been on a zip-line before, but Spain literally has a zip-line that lets you go from one country to another. It isn’t super long or anything: I think I spent around a minute in the air. However, I still managed to cross nations while on a zip-line, which sounds like the sort of thing that you would only be able to do if you could fly, or if you had some sort of futuristic technological device that could give you all sorts of cool powers that would seem magical. You know how you can stop in some places in the United States and stand at a point at the border, where you are literally standing in two different states at once? The zip-line is like that. It helps you play games with the border of the country so you really can visit several places immediately, at least technically.

I am also really pleased to say that I have officially eaten at the world’s oldest restaurant. I guess eating at a restaurant isn’t normally the sort of thing you’re supposed to be proud of or ashamed of: it’s just the kind of thing that people do sometimes and it’s totally neutral. Going to Sobrino de Botin is definitely not neutral. I went there on a weekend trip, and it was fantastic. I guess we don’t technically know with absolute certainty that this is the world’s oldest restaurant, but it probably is, and it sounds really cool one way or another. This is a restaurant that dates back to 1725, which is too cool for words. Fortunately, the food is fresher than that, so you get the best of both worlds.

I know that I should be recommending all of the historical sites that you can see in Spain, and I do recommend them as well. I actually went there when I was working on a history paper and I ended up talking with one of the guides for a half an hour about the topic I was working on, and it’s cool to talk to a real expert in person at the site itself. However, I can tell you that riding on an international zip-line is something that you can’t experience online, and neither is eating at the world’s oldest restaurant.

Mouse Removal not Extermination

Eek! There’s a mouse in the house, or maybe more. I hear tiny footsteps, the pitter patter of nasty little filthy feet. I am not willing to live and let be. But pest control is not my forte. I will need some help. I have no idea what they do in Spain. With different laws regulating the practice, who knows what terrible toxin could be released in my house. Sure, it would slay the mice, but it might also get me. There are no laws that I know banning the heaviest of sprays and repellents.

So I want to get rid of a mouse, not conventional extermination. Do you remember the old days when they had actual metal spring traps? The stereotype is that you put a tasty morsel of cheese on one end to attract the witless critter. He would go for a bite and instantly a leg or tail would be caught in the trap. He would meet an inglorious end. But then you had to dispose of the carcass somehow.

I think it is more humane now. Traps catch live animals so they can be recycled, i.e., sent out into nature to a place where they belong. (Where is that by the way?). They can go into the sewer for all I know and join up with their brother rats. My Spanish is good enough to ask questions, but I’m not sure I want to find out any gory details if they are not spared in the process of pest elimination.

This is going to have to happen soon as it is just plain unsanitary. As I ponder what to do, I have an “aha” experience. The neighborhood stray cat! This cat comes around regularly for some water and an occasional meal of leftovers or kibble if I have any on hand. I could provide a fat juicy mouse as an enticing entrée. To the inferno with saving the dreaded creature. It is too much trouble to take him in a cage to an unknown destination. Guilt would probably destroy me in the process.

I will have to plan this out carefully. I need to see the mouse in front of me while simultaneously attracting the cat. It should be during his normal supper time. When is that? Too many issues here to work out, too many doubtful details. Nonetheless, I am going to do it. I will get some canned food since it smells the minute you open it. I will open the front door and put it on the ledge of the steps. Once the cat is in the vicinity, I will move the bowl into the house. There his eagle eyes should do the rest of the work.

One week later: I am happy to report that the plan worked. The cat came into the house unafraid as he had been there before. He ate his small supper and was still no doubt hungry for more. I petted him gently and waited for the mouse. About an hour into the shenanigans, the little fellow appeared. The cat and I had been lulled into a post-repast slumber, so we were pretty quiet. As the mouse scurried across the kitchen floor, one cat eye snapped open, followed by the other. He was on alert!

It was almost a Spanish standoff. The two animals facing one another, but one with delight and one in fear. The cat was the quicker and avidly snatched the mouse between his sharp teeth. They were made for this kind of adventure. Frankly, I didn’t want to look too closely as the cat trotted to the front door, gave me a fleeting glance, and was off into the distance.

I will imagine here that he let the mouse go and did me a real favor. I will not imagine the alternative, nor do I care. I solved my problem of pest control without internal extermination using chemicals and traps. I can’t say I am proud, disappointed, or disheartened. I can say I am glad that the mouse is gone.

How NOT to gain weight while studying abroad

Long walks in the radiant Spanish sun make you indolent and lazy. You better pick up the pace because the food is that good and you are likely to gain weight if you stay a while. You, of course, will want to see the glorious south of Spain where I live as well as the northern metropolis of Madrid and even further Barcelona. Tasting the local fare is what it is all about and I would suggest not missing a meal.

However, if you are skittish about a little extra poundage, be sure to bring a portable bathroom scale. They don’t have them in even the best hotels. You can then keep track of your gain and try to mitigate it with a little in-room exercise or a hearty walk.

Sightseeing is better when on foot so if you don’t take a taxi or bus you will keep trim. You can then feast on all the squid paella you want. Traditional Spanish culture is revealed in the fine food served. Try jamón, or Spanish ham, a trademark of the cuisine. Every restaurant is proud to offer it. The curing process is a sacred art and therefore a family secret, so don’t expect to find out. I mean this stuff goes back a thousand years.

No wonder people eat virtually all of the time it seems. And olives are not dietetic items! There is only one solution: cook your own healthy meals. Like Spaniards shop regularly for fresh produce, you can also enjoy this practice as you stock your kitchen. You will become a real Andalusian if you want to or even a Madrileño if you reside there. Each region is known for different types of food. When you cook, why not do it like a native. You can stay healthy using olive oil and local seasonings. You can get lots of flavor and little fat if you select accordingly. Trim all your meats and pass on dessert, as difficult as that may be. And none of that divine intense hot chocolate.

Once your weight drops and you have adjusted to the lovely fare, you will eat less if you exert a little self-discipline. If you are a student like me, you know there is always more out there and you won’t overindulge. When you visit, you feel like you don’t want to forego one little savory item.

You will want to cook when you see how wonderful the shops are. Each specializes in something unique and it is fun to go door to door. If you don’t have much of a kitchen, as most students don’t, you can make everything on the top of the stove in a big frying pan. Sautéing is my style. You can bake if you have even a small oven or broil. During the nice weather, you might even grill some shrimp outside. Spicy sauces are common so I hope you like them.

Regional specialty dishes may be too hard to do on your own, however. You hope to get invited to someone else’s home. This happened to me while traveling through the Costa del Sol. I met a young woman on a bus who invited me home for dinner. We were talking idly when I mentioned how great the food was. I was not sorry! It was a veritable feast of seafood, being on the coast of course, and some exquisite vegetarian dishes.

So my blog is a two-edge sword today. On the one hand experience what you can of specialty foods in Spain, on the other hand try to diet and not go home too fat. I think there is a happy medium here, a kind of balance between the two that you can achieve.

A Cool Breeze on a Hot Day

I have spent the coldest winter of my life in Spain and the hottest summer. This is a country of extremes. It is the same with the regional differences from north to south and east to west, from mountains and farmlands to the sea. The variety is compelling—and extreme. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is a country that merits in-depth exploration to discover its riches.

I love the sunny climate and look forward to spring and summer—even Agosto. I don’t mind sweltering under the brilliant sun. It is less stifling than intense. I like that. But when you are trying to sleep, and the temperature has not dropped one degree, you start looking for your spare portable fan. You dig through your boxes of off season gear, hoping it is not buried too deep.

Some people are lucky enough to have a ceiling version. Air conditioning is a luxury that few can afford. A ceiling fan will cool a room mighty fast and eliminate the necessity for central air on most days. While it is hot, it is not like other parts of the world where you get a sudden spurt of 110 degrees. It is a steady, even, and not unpleasant phenomenon.

Ceiling fans look great and offer a lot of ambience that suits the architecture. They can be rustic or elegant depending upon the materials. They come in every shape and size from bamboo and wood to plastic and metal for the neo-modernists. If you are handy with a hammer and nails you can install one yourself providing there is an electrical outlet nearby. You will love the cool internal breeze on a warm vernal day, and especially a sweltering estival one. The problem is that most rental spaces don’t have them in every room. I haven’t seen bedrooms that are so equipped. You might have to either sleep in your sitting room in peak season or use both a ceiling and a portable fan in different areas of the house.

If you open your windows, you might get the luxury of a cool natural breeze now and then that will compete with your electric kind. You might also bring the scent of orange blossoms into your rooms. But when it seems almost unbearable out there, you simply close up shop and turn on the fan. It may tack a few pesetas onto your utility bill, but no matter; you have to survive.

Trying to find the best ceiling fans is not as easy as you might think given the universal need for them, especially in southern Spain. It is not like you can walk over to the nearest lamp and shade store. These may be found in every mall in the U.S., but not in this country. You will have to ask around, do some digging, and go to an urban area as well. You might stumble across a used furniture store here and there that might have suitable candidates; but if you are looking for new, you may need a decorator to steer you correctly. They know where the hidden resources are.

Given the wonderful climate most of the year, I hope I have given a good impression of my adopted country. If you live in snow country or an area that experiences frigid hail, your reveries will immediately roam to Spain where sunny skies are the norm. You will escape completely from zero below weather. Spain will offer you sandy beaches, iridescent blue water, fine seafood cuisine, and a population of friendly spirited souls. If you dare to get off your towel, there are many picturesque places to visit nearby. You will enjoy a vacation that is special, filled with a vista of Moorish architecture, formidable fortresses, world class museums, and so much more.

What Kind of Backpack Are You?

I have the good fortune of living in Spain right now, and it often serves as a jumping off point for a bit of frequent travel as my studies permit. While I could go into raptures about places I’ve been this year, I will dedicate this blog to an interesting phenomenon: the travelling backpack.

I see this item everywhere, but what makes this subject unique, is the way a given model seems to suit a specific type of person. It is kind of like the idea of one’s dog taking on the owner’s appearance. You’ve seen those photos where a bulldog is juxtaposed to a man with jowls, etc. In any case, I have noticed that backpacks reflect personality types. Maybe you will see yourself in one of the categories below.

Dapper Dan: this tourist has to look good, even while on the road. Hence the reason he stands out. Few travelers I know go to many extremes to match their clothing, not to mention their backpack color and style, to the season. Maybe this person has more than one. The most notable is the gorgeous brown leather job that is the perfect accessory for similar toned boots (yes they are hiking) and belt. It is a wonderful sight to behold given that it is so rare.

Subway Susie: this gal is a bit of a mess and you might mistake her for one of those beggars in the metro or underground who needs a handout. Her clothes are rumpled to match her hair. She slings a backpack over her shoulders, and it, too, looks a bit smashed and forlorn. She can’t have many possessions in it—it is rather small—so maybe just essentials. I hope there is a comb and a brush.

Toting Tim: this guy relies on his trusty backpack since he has no other luggage in tow. It is jam packed with a change of clothes, toiletries, books, and even an all-weather jacket. Tim is a dutiful traveler who has thought through every item. His choice of backpack is a sturdy heavy fabric double stitched and accented with rivets. This thing will last through the entire itinerary for sure. The straps are not flimsy and look like they can bear most any weight.

Fashionista: this individual, male or female, likes the latest thing. That goes for one’s backpack as well. Whether he or she is on a train to Madrid, a bus to Toledo, or a car to Granada, everyone will know who has taste and who does not. This person prides himself or herself on being on trend and in the know, and they always can be seen with the best backpacks. They are not afraid of color and ornamentation. They are thrilled about new models by Marc Jacobs, Chloe, and Moschino. It is a major point of pride to own one.

Jivin’ Jackson: this hipster has a backpack that screams “musician.” Even if he is not one, he wants to look cool. It is essential to create the right vibe. You never know who you will meet while wandering about the world. The surface of the tote bag he carries is laden with stickers that reveal his favorite pop and rock groups, and special venues where he has enjoyed them. There is even one for Burning Man, the new Woodstock. This fellow reeks cool, so let’s give him his due when you run across him.

Camping Carla: this practical miss likes to save money by traveling in the summer when the weather is nice. She won’t hesitate to camp out if necessary. Thus, her backpack serves her needs well. It is chock full of compartments inside so she can find things in a jiffy. If she needs utensils for a meal on the run, her cell phone, dark glasses, hair clips and the like, she knows where they reside. Nothing is ever amiss as she knows the art of packing quite well.

Jumbled Jim: last but not least we have an individual who could care less about backpack contents. He stuffs and stuffs things in as fast as he can. He is always on to the next stop. His model of choice is therefore expandable. The sides open up to accommodate pretty much any need. His clothes are soft, so his bag looks like a giant balloon made of denim. Where on earth did he find this monstrosity of a backpack? But it does its job in stride.

So do you recognize yourself in any of these stereotypes that I myself have encountered? If not, let me know if there is one I have missed and I will add you to the list.

Filtered Water: Worth It?

My parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday, something I could really use in my rented home in Seville, Spain. They were probably thinking area rug, toaster, mini vacuum, or set of dishes. I promptly replied: a water filtration system for the kitchen sink. If I had been physically present, I would have seen some blank stares. “I am not kidding,” I would have said and I would pull out a photo with some tiny writing below in Spanish.

Let me backtrack for a moment and tell you why I want such a “luxury” item in my humble abode. You can buy bottled water, of course, and when you cook with tap water, it is boiled. So what is all the fuss? Yes, it adds up when you buy water. Such a natural element of life should be free, or libre as we say here. If I had a personal water filtration system connected to my tap, I wouldn’t have to tote the bottles every day, day after day, from the little shop around the corner. It gets tiresome.

My left arm is beginning to ache. That’s the one I use to handle my backpack when it is full of bottles of water. People say the water in some countries is fine, such as Spain, but I take no chances. I think they are referring to people who grow up on the stuff and are immune to the myriad of impurities. I just don’t want to gulp them down.

I know that it is simpler to have a filtration device that attaches to a vessel of water, kind of like the Brita system which works quite well. There are some portable ones great for travel. A charcoal filter is used to produce crystal clear, tasteless water. But cleaning the Brita jug is time consuming and unpleasant, what with all the residue that accumulates. I want one of those faucet water filters on my sink so that I can cook with it, wash my hands and hair, drink it, and feed it to the neighborhood cat who comes abegging every once in a while. Plus I can take it with me when I leave.

You may be asking, is it worth it? I answer with a resounding yes. The type of system I am thinking of isn’t expensive, and if it is from my parents, it will be virtually cost free to me. So calculating the savings in buying bottled water, it will pay for itself in about a month. Because it came gratis, I will have an extra of ten dollars per week or forty per month that I can save – or spend. With this money, I have plans. I can buy a train ticket to France and tour the countryside in search of Gothic cathedrals. I can visit one of the world class ski resorts in Switzerland, or I can eat pasta overlooking the Amalfi Coast. I can drive to Andorra, stopping off to see the Gaudi architecture in Barcelona. I can go to Gibraltar and see the rock.

I can come up with lots of non-travel ideas for my forty dollars a month as well. I would love to buy leather shoes made in Spain, and a gorgeous handbag to match. A leather jacket or coat would be a major splurge, and a big treat. I can buy gifts for my family to distribute upon my return. I can buy wine for friends and host dinner parties or see a bullfight and some flamenco dancing.

I am not at a loss for words when it comes to extra money. When you live abroad, you want to make the most of the experience. I thought about what to do to cut corners, and saving on bottled water was my best bet. I am poised for new opportunities that will come as a result.

Adulting is Hard: Power Washing

I adore my own apartment and especially living on my own. I don’t need supervision. It is the fastest way to grow up for those who have been a bit too coddled. (What is this trend in the U.S. of adult children living at home well into their thirties!) What could be better than doing it abroad in sunny southern Spain? Adopting an adult lifestyle as a student, however, can mean handling some difficult chores. I now cook, clean, do the shopping, take care of my clothing – washing, ironing mostly – and anything else that pops up suddenly on the DIY agenda.

I do everything as mentioned, but I certainly never expected to use a power washer in my little abode. I noticed a lot of accumulated dirt on my balcony and also at the bottom of my house along the ground where muddy water had risen and retreated, leaving a distinctive mark. It wasn’t attractive so I am going to tell you about how I addressed the problem with the help of a borrowed implement.

A power washer is super handy and easy to use. I have seen it done and it is within the realm of female possibilities. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder to wield one. You just have to be careful as you turn it on and adjust the pressure. I decided one Saturday would be enough to tackle the two areas of concern.

My building already has a communal hose and there is enough length on it to reach my garden. The balcony is just above. I pulled on the snaky thing and found it could reach with some effort. I turned it on and tested the power nozzle before going full out. Wham! It gushed forth, spraying anything in a 180 degree direction. Whoosh! Dirt and grime are gone. The white washed walls of my apartment came sparking clean, gleaming in the sunlight like a freshly waxed car. It was too clean. By that I mean that the rest of the building looked odd next to my cleansed area. It was begging for attention.

Ok, here is what happened. I did my neighbors a favor and pressure cleaned the entire ground floor of the building going full circle. It looked fabulous. The fuchsia and green bougainvillea were striking by comparison to the blaring whiteness of the walls. It was quite beautiful to behold. I spent a half hour at the task, not minding getting wet a bit. It was fun and productive. I returned to my garden and shot the nozzle upward toward the balcony. I am not sure why. It would have been better to do it from inside, but I thought it better not to lug a hose though my living room and risking a major aftermath cleanup. Doing it from below send a giant waterfall downward in my direction. I completely drenched.

I did get some dirt off the bottom of the balcony and a bit from the tile surface. I got most of the dirt off of me! Finally, I adjusted the nozzle by trial and error and got better results. A more directed spray did the job of attacking the entire tiny area on all sides. The wrought iron looked freshly polished and rust free. I think this is a job that had not been done for quite some time. I was thoroughly proud of my handiwork as were the neighbors who came out to watch and cheer me on. It turned out to be a communal event that evolved into a sangria party.

Try a power washer in your neighborhood. You may meet some new friends!

My Spanish Flame

I have spent among the most frigid winters ever in supposedly sunny Spain. Tourists who visit in the peak season don’t know what it is all about: freezing. I remember one room in Madrid in January was like sleeping “al aire libre.” I immediately moved myself from the budget hotel to a more expensive place. I longed for warmth whether from a heater or fireplace, and there was one in the lobby. I was off in a jiffy to the south, where it was still cool and rained. Alas. You just have to wait patiently for summer in glorious beach towns like Marbella or any of the picturesque cities a quick train ride nearby.

Seville is no different. To prepare for the onslaught of winter, the firewood is cut and stacked outside the back door. If you have gas logs, no matter. Mentally, you get attuned to what is to come. There is nothing like a great wood stove to gather in front of with friends and family, sipping hot chocolate of the Spanish kind. This is not like the American version, mind you; it is thick, deep and dark in texture and flavor. You learn to crave it and nothing else will do.

Meanwhile, fireplaces in Spain are not as uncommon as you might expect given the sunny climate. They are certainly in need when there is a bit of a chill in the air. There is nothing that creates such a cozy, comfy mood like a nice one. Plus, think of what they do for décor what with black mesh screens and brass andirons. If you can find antique ones, it adds a distinctive character to your sitting room.

Unless a lot of remodeling is going on behind my back, most Spanish dwellings I have visited are modest enough in terms of state-of-the-art amenities. Like elsewhere in Europe, things are old. Southern Spain, however, offers white washed surfaces, terracotta tile roofs, and hot fuchsia bougainvillea galore. It is picturesque beyond belief populated with winding stairways and paths. Then there are the wonderful local tiles that bedeck doors and gates in the house and garden. When such tiles grace the surroundings of a fireplace, you are in Iberian heaven.

I think newcomers want the old world charm more than the new. Sure there are lots of modern apartment buildings that are cookie cutter and bland but offer the latest in conveniences. I say give me an old casa any day. If it has a fireplace, I will lay an area rug right in front. Many a good conversation has gone on this way. You can tell from my pining that I don’t have a fireplace and covet one.

A real wood fire is ideal. Somehow I find the flames to be different from gas, although it may certainly be my imagination. I will take either one and be glad to just have the option. Students can’t be as picky about living quarters as working people with a bigger budget to spend. If someone in your group has one, they become instantly super popular.

In the spring and summer, you move outside to bask under the perpetual blue skies and bright Spanish sun—el sol—that gives the environs distinct life. You immediately feel a siesta coming on about two o’clock in the afternoon. When you wake refreshed and alert, you are ready to roll. I love visiting shops and cafes along cobblestone streets, peering into windows to see what’s inside.

When I want a trek, I go to the Alhambra in Granada for an almost mystical experience. The architecture is so sublime. In Cordoba, you also have an amazing mosque. Southern Spain is known for Moorish influence and there is a wealth of things to see. In my own region, there is an eclectic mix of old and new from the Romanesque arches Gothic flying buttresses to the magical modernism of Matthias Hildebrandt.

In Spain, you are in a visual frenzy all the time taking in the glorious sights. When you are tired and ready to retreat in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine, you know you have had a good day. You look over your digital photos and share the best with friends. You tweet of your adventures and text your thoughts. With the flames licking upward, you may become hypnotized and find yourself falling slowly to sleep. When you awake, you plan a new day in one of the most exciting spots in the world.

Creating Storage Space in a Small Bathroom

Imagine two rooms in a modest white-washed multiplex just outside the town center of Seville, Spain. You climb one flight of tile bedecked stairs to an arched wooden door with elegant hand-made wrought iron handles. On a nice day you gaze up at the deep blue sky and give a nod to the ubiquitous sun that warms your back. On the way down, your eyes slide off the terracotta roof tiles to the ground below upon which bright bougainvillea flowers grow, angling down from higher vines.

You admire the beauty around you each day like clockwork before you enter your realm. Tile floors, spick and span, are decorated with simple area rugs to warm up the space. Everything is white, as on the exterior, with accents of green and brown on the wood trim. There is a fair amount of it including two sturdy wooden ceiling beams. Since the area is small, the eye can take it all in with one or two glances.

With admiration, you give a nod to the cuteness of the tiny kitchen with only two above ground cabinets. They are stuffed to the brim. Local tile is everywhere on the backsplash and countertop. Not two feet away is an even tinier bathroom that houses an amazing amount of stuff for its size. To say that it is crammed to the gills is an understatement.

This room bears a little extra scrutiny, especially in regard to the cleverness used to maximize storage. First of all there are built-in shelves practically floor to ceiling. One has a little sliding door so any unmentionables can be hidden. A rack on the shower door holds a towel, a washcloth, and a couple of pairs of drying hose. The compact little toilet looks like it must have required a shoehorn to fit it in between the basin and shower, but it’s there. It’s definitely not the most comfortable one I’ve ever used, but when you’re having such a great time living in Spain, you tend to overlook little inconveniences like this.

Where there is even space to save, “space savers” abound. These come in the form of colorful painted boxes purchased at a local outdoor mart. They are better looking than the plastic kind. Arrayed artistically, they create a nice ambiance to match the towels and area rug. Most are on the shelves, but several of the larger ones are on the ground. The effect is rather magical and very special.

Space saving continues on into the bedroom area that I will call an alcove off the main living or sitting space. A single bed is graced with the presence of an antique fringed shawl replete with gorgeous embroidery. The shawl is cream skill and features an array of pink, green, and yellow roses with entwined stems. It is too pretty to move so it is left on the bed all the time, merely folded back a bit for sleeping. Pillows in the same color silk are strewn about the two-seater sofa at the other end of the room. In front is a small chest that serves both as a coffee table and storage unit. There are books and CDs inside, some old photo albums, and a bundle of letters.

It is a very personalized space, as small as it is, and it seems to contain innumerable belongings for its size. There isn’t anything unused left except for maybe the ceiling. If a way could be devised to use it, I’m sure that it would be done. It seems that finding storage space in a small bathroom, as well as an entire home, is a real project that takes some planning.

When moving to a faraway place like Spain, you aren’t likely to take much with you, but you do need some basic cooking appliances, bedding, and clothing. You have to learn to live on less as a student and with less as an inhabitant of a mini space. You often wonder what it would be like to move to larger quarters. It no doubt would be a kind of culture shock.

Even later in life, when you look back on all this stringency, you smile. You loved it and would not replace the experience with any other.

Doing Double Duty to Save Space

Most people in Spain are not able to rent or buy excess space. Apartments in particular are small. Mine is no exception. You don’t get a big American kitchen in any case, even in a pretty nice place. Students make do with what they have and are grateful to get a small stove and budget refrigerator. You learn to shop often for fresh produce and milk. There is no such thing as storage!

Part of the fun of living here is the shopping for groceries and other necessities of life. It is an almost daily activity to visit your favorites and pick up some bread, cheese, wine, and olives. The simplest things become a feast when you are in new surroundings.

When you live in diminutive abodes, you can’t put everything on the counter, whatever there is of it. You learn to put a cutting board over the sink or stove for prep work. You don’t indulge in just any appliance and limit yourself to a coffee pot and maybe a toaster. An electric stand mixer with attachments: don’t even think about it – you’ll need to get by with a cheap hand mixer instead. Some people can’t do without their microwaves but they don’t come with the rent, so try to find the smallest one available.

I remember trying to make a meal in my wee cocina for a few friends. I virtually had to use everything including the floor. I had to do a lot of work by hand not having a food processor. The ingredients for the entrée were strewn everywhere. Having only enough refrigerator space for a few yogurts, I had the fresh items in the sink. There is no garbage disposal so I only had to move them during cooking. I would then pile the used pots and pans in their place. It was a comedy of errors that with some practice could actually become a real skill.

So everything was coming and going in a kind of culinary blur as I managed to prepare an appetizer, a main dish, and dessert—a golden egg flan. Any leftovers would have to be stored in the oven, already doing double duty as a kitchen cabinet. I would have to plan when I was going to use any remaining items not consumed by guests.

You get handy at saving space when abroad and faced with less than spacious circumstances. You hesitate about offering dinner to friends, however, given the shenanigans it takes to do everything well and on time. You wish you had more utensils and food preparation gear, but at least now you know how to literally cook from scratch.

There is nothing like sitting in the patio under a shady orange tree eating a fine array of local fare. You learn about seafood, and what goes in paella along with the saffron rice. You also learn to ask a lot of questions at the market and ply neighbors for the secrets of the cuisine trade. You buy recipe books for southern Spain and mark the ones that look easy. If you are smart, you adapt.

I have a friend who shares an apartment in the center of Seville that has a real kitchen. I am so jealous of the fridge, which is half the size of a normal one. It is bigger than mine! He also has one entire stretch of tile counter which is a real luxury in these parts. Since his wife likes to cook, they have placed there a small toaster oven so they can make two dishes at once. You learn to appreciate simple appliances when they are few and far between. Cramped space means developing a bit of ingenuity, and we all do it in different ways. In the winter, I place butter and fruit outside my window sill when it is cold enough to keep things fresh. You don’t want freezing temperatures, however, as you can imagine the results.

Doing double duty means using your kitchen table as your office. It also means dining outside when you can and storing things under wraps beneath the table. It means stacking dishes tightly in a hall or bedroom closet and story tablecloths in your desk. Whatever you can do creatively to make the space work is admirable. Students can give lessons in living with less, that’s for sure. They have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves. I have friends who use the fireplace, the back of their bicycles, under the bed, and in the bathroom for storage of any and all kinds.

Seeing a New City for the First Time

I should say off the bat that I’m not a country girl. I know a lot of people think of the rural parts of Texas when they think of Texas, but most of the population of Texas still lives in the city, so I don’t know why the Texas countryside gets so much press. I grew up in Houston, so I guess I’m used to living in an urban environment that differs culturally from most of the rest of a given area. Exploring new cities has always been fun and engaging for me.

Ever since I started at the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo, I’ve just wanted to explore all of the neighboring cities. The classes here are challenging enough that it limits my time to explore the cities at least a little, but I can still definitely spend time doing so on the weekends, which is more than enough for me.

One of the great things about Spain is that it is so much easier to walk outdoors in a lot of the cities. In Texas and a lot of US cities, it really feels like they’re almost trying to punish you for not having a car, or at least for not using it right now. I really never got that impression in Spain. It really feels like they’re a whole lot friendlier with the tourists and with the students who are studying abroad, which makes a huge difference to me.

You always get a feel of the character in a given city. There are certain places to be, and great restaurants where everyone goes, and things like that. We tend to associate that kind of thing with the small towns. I guess that happens more often with small towns. I have a lot of relatives that live in small towns, and there are always a few places there that are more or less the life of the place, which doesn’t always leave a lot of room for other locations. That effect is still at least somewhat in place in cities, since you learn to avoid specific places and come back to other ones. However, with cities, finding the best places is like an adventure.

When I find a great new restaurant in a city, it really does feel like I discovered it, even if I technically found it in an online listing of the great places to go in Spain or someone at school told me about it. When I see a historical site that’s in a given city, it’s like uncovering that city’s past, even if the site is famous. Ever since I’ve been to school here, I really do feel that way almost all the time. It’s fantastic. I get more education than what I was paying for originally, which really makes all the difference.