Sunday, May 24, 2015

Exploring England: Southern Lake District

I was 15 the first time I visited England. Every year, my high school takes the upcoming senior class on a European trip. The itinerary for our trip was: London, Paris, and Barcelona. We spent a few days in London, took the Chunnel to Paris, saw Paris and Versailles, and finished in Barcelona. 

My first trip to Europe was great. Since then, I've obviously covered a lot more ground. While living two years in Madrid, I took advantage of budget airlines, Euro Rail train passes, and one Mediterranean cruise to see a bit of the European continent. To date, I have visited the following European countries:
Czech Republic
Gibraltar (they actually stamp your passport!)
Morocco (in Africa, I know. But I include it here because I visited during my residence in Spain.)
Spain, including the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands
United Kingdom (England and Scotland)

Since moving to northern England, I've been able to explore more of the surrounding areas. Most American tourists don't get the chance to see much more of the UK than London, Edinburgh, and perhaps Cambridge or Oxford. I feel like living here and seeing the smaller towns gives us a more authentic feel of British life.

Just 30 minutes up the road from our town is the famous Lake District National Park. One of England's oldest National Parks, the Lake District sees some 15 million visitors per year. The hundreds of parkland includes ample lakeside trails, mountains, fells, and valleys for biking, hiking, or casual strolling. Sprinkled throughout the park are quaint, charming cities with lots of character. 

Map of Lake District National Park

The first time I visited the Lake District was one chilly October morning to go biking with my husband. We started in the southern Lakes, by Bowness-on-Windermere. We rode north along the lake to Ambleside. It's amazing just how green and lush the English countryside is. Probably due to the high amounts of rain they receive. 

We biked north to Bowness and Lake Windermere.
Windermere and neighboring town Bowness-on-Windermere reminded me of little ski towns. They were compact, with cute coffee shops and outdoor athletic wear stores. There are ample options of B&B's and elegant lakeside hotels for all the visiting families. You can also take a ferry from Bowness-on-Windermere to the northern end of the lake. I bet that's a favorite for summer.

Views of Lake Windermere from our ride.
Mental note: research this cute B&B to return.
On the way to Ambleside.
At Ambleside, we tried our first full English breakfast. Having biked all morning, we were quite hungry and, at the time, eating a heavy farm-boy breakfast seemed like a good idea. English breakfast is delicious when you are eating it. Fried eggs, sausages, bacon, toast, sometimes black pudding (sometimes not if you're American and have an aversion to eating blood), a stewed tomato, and beans make up this "fry-up". The English breakfast does satisfy a starving adult, however you are left to deal with the bad conscience of just how much grease you consumed at one sitting. We were so full, I'm not even sure we ate dinner that night. 

Dockside at Ambleside.
Can you handle this? This was the "vegetarian" version. Still enormous.
Here's a pic of a quintessential English Breakfast for anyone who hasn't experienced it, complete with blood sausage (those black medallions) 
All that being said, definitely check out the towns of Windermere, Bowness-on-Windermere, and Ambleside if you are exploring the southern Lakes. Take the English breakfast at your own risk, or opt for a nice icecream instead. (What? I'm assuming if you're in the Lakes you're on vacation anyway!) Rent a bike and go exploring. Don't forget gloves if you're going in the fall, winter, or spring! 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tres Reyes

The final holiday event in Spain is January 6, or Three Kings' Day. Three Kings' Day represents the arrival of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem. It's also known as Epiphany in other parts of the world.
On this day, Los Tres Reyes Magos bring children presents, just like they brought to Baby Jesus. I actually like this tradition a lot. It's more symbolic to the Biblical story of gift-giving than our Santa (although I still support him too!). All the children of Spain wake up to see what gifts the Kings have left them in their shoes. My little niece didn't like the idea of strangers coming into their house at night, so she asked my sister-in-law if the Kings could leave the gifts at the doorstep.

Usually, each town will host a Three Kings parade and throw out candy to the children. The parade in Madrid is the biggest, and competition for candy is fierce. Several veteran candy catchers bring umbrellas turned upside down to catch the candy as it showers down.

In my husband's family's town in northern Spain, the Three Kings also make an appearance in the town square and pass out little toys to children. So back we went to the square to see the Kings. The crowd was even bigger this time than when Santa was visiting. Later that night we caught candy and waved at the Kings and their entourage of characters during the parade.

Meeting Los Reyes Magos.

Three Kings Parade
And Spongebob?? Don't remember him in the journey to Bethlehem.
Finally, you must eat a roscón de reyes on January 6. Similar to a King's Cake, the roscón is a baked, bready cake with sugar and candied fruit on top. Hidden inside the cake is a small porcelain baby Jesus or Wise Man. There is also a dried bean hidden. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the baby or the Wise Man, gets to be the king of the party- a paper crown is included with the roscón! Whoever gets the bean has to buy the cake the next year. I got lucky this year and found the figurine!

Queen of the party! 

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Year's Eve: Grapes and Good Luck

Many Americans have a love/hate relationship with New Year's Eve. There is so much pressure to do something "awesome" to celebrate the new year that people spend too much time stressing about it. In Spain, there is a pretty set celebration itinerary that is repeated year in and year out.

To start off New Year's Eve, young people usually eat dinner at home with their families. At midnight, everyone in the nation turns on their TVs to watch the clock strike the new year broadcasted from the heart of Spain, Madrid's Plaza del Sol. For each of the 12 chimes of the clock, Spaniards eat a grape for luck. Legend has it, if you fail to eat all 12 grapes before the clock strikes midnight, you will have bad luck in the new year. This tradition of grape eating is so serious that residents of Madrid gather the night before to do a practice run on December 30th! A small disaster occurred this year on a local Spanish channel. By mistake, the broadcasters cut to commercials during the midnight hour. When they finally returned the coverage, several chimes had been missed. Having no warning the clock was striking midnight, the viewers were caught totally off guard. Some began popping all the grapes at once, hoping to catch up. Others just sat is bewilderment, not grasping the fact that the TV programmers had bungled it and caused the misfortune of a whole Spanish town. Pobrecitos.

To see the bungled New Year's Eve broadcasting and a compilation of people's reactions, click below:

After (hopefully) putting away the grapes and gaining a year's worth of luck, the Spanish youth put on their fancy outfits and meet with their friends around 2:00 or 3:00 AM. A few hours are passed with friends at a house party until it's socially acceptable to hit the discotecas around 5:00 or 6:00 AM. The whole night ends when the discotecas clear out and partiers head to the local cafes for churros and chocolate.

My first Galician New Year's Eve was pretty spot on. The frigid temperatures did not put a damper on the festivities. Living up to expectations, my husband and I made it home at 9:00 AM. (Yes, 9:00 AM!)

Eating our grapes out of conch shells seemed appropriate in coastal northern Spain. 
Churros and chocolate at 8:00 AM. Hashtag Success.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Christmas with the In-Laws

Like most couples, we have to divide up holidays for visiting family. However in our case, the situation is slightly more complicated as we have family living on different continents.

Last year, my husband (then boyfriend) came to the U.S. to spend Christmas and New Year's Eve with my family. It was the first time he missed Christmas at home. This year it was our turn to go to Spain for Christmas. I had spent already one Christmas in Spain, my first year in Madrid, but my parents and brother had been there to visit. We had Christmas in Madrid and then went skiing in the Alps in northern Spain (the highlight of my brother's trip). We concluded the trip in Barcelona.

The Christmas season in Spain is great, but it's hard to beat your own family traditions. We decorate the house with lights, we listen to Christmas music all month long, we host neighborhood parties, we bake a ton of cookies... These are the kinds of things that make you nostalgic when living abroad.

I didn't really know what to expect about Christmas with my husband's family. Traditionally, Christmas is not as big as a celebration in Spain as the Three Kings' Day (January 6), or Epiphany as English speakers know it. Plus, New Year's Eve has a reputation for being one the biggest party nights in Spain, which is really saying something because the average weekend can see partiers until 6:00 or 7:00 AM.  One thing's for sure: there would be no tacky Christmas sweater parties. Spaniards in general don't have a lot of costume parties nor do they understand the reasoning behind willingly making yourself look silly. If you're going to put so much effort into an outfit, shouldn't it be stylish?

We arrived a few days before Christmas and I was happy to see the "Boas Festas" (Galician for Merry Christmas) lights around my husband's hometown. On Christmas Eve, the town council organized a visit from Santa, or Papa Noel. Among older generations, Papa Noel was not celebrated, but, like Halloween, this is an American custom that is slowly being adapted into popular culture in Spain. Some lucky children might get a small present from Papa Noel and from the Three Kings on January 6!

The town welcomed Papa Noel in the city hall and children and their families lined up to meet him. One by one the children came to sit on Papa Noel's lap as I did as a child. My husband's wife has two young girls and they were excited for their chance to reach the front of the line. Apparently a few years ago, when the city had more resources for holiday budgeting, Papa Noel arrived by helicopter drop. This must have been quite a sight.

Santa!! I know him!!
The big family meal is on Christmas Eve. In the coastal region of Galicia where my husband is from, seafood is the traditional dinner. Much to the dismay of my in-laws, I am not a big seafood eater. Each time I visit, I try to be a little more adventurous about tasting new things they prepare. This Christmas Eve dinner began with shrimp and stuffed clams, leading up to the main dish of baked bream. The bream is cooked many hours in a sauce of potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. The fish is cooked whole: tail, head, and everything. No room for wimps at this dinner.

Seafood Christmas was definitely a first for me. I can't say I'm a converted fan, but I did eat enough to satisfy my Spanish family. Give it a few more years and maybe I'll be embracing my coastal side like a pro. My favorite part of the meal was the free-for-all turrón fest. Turrón is a Spanish sweet only served during the Christmas holidays. Traditional turrón resembles an almond brittle; a hard consistency with nuts, honey, and sugar. The more modern kinds also include chocolate or krispies. We purchased all kinds of turrón to last us until the end of the Christmas holidays on January 6. If turrón is something you like, you have to buy it before January 7 because they stop stocking the stores immediately after the Three Kings.

The size of these shrimp!
Contemplating the besugo (bream).


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Chicken for Thanksgiving

Not long after moving to England, Thanksgiving was upon us.

This wasn't my first Thanksgiving abroad. I'd spent one in Madrid and one in Paris with a friend while living in Madrid. The Paris Thanksgiving was actually one of my most memorable because we somehow stumbled into an Irish pub having an American Thanksgiving party. (An American party in an Irish pub in Paris. Let that sink in.) The American party was serving typical food and we were lucky enough to grab the last piece of pumpkin pie!

But this was different. Not only was this our first Thanksgiving being married, but it was my husband's first Thanksgiving ever. The pressure was on to impress him with our grand feasting tradition. Thanksgiving scenes take place in nearly every American series and countless movies, therefore he was already familiar with the common customs.

Even though we were living abroad and no family would be joining us, I decided to prepare our favorite dishes regardless. My mom mailed us a box of crucial Thanksgiving items: a carved wooden pilgrim statue, a turkey Beanie Baby, an apron, a US engraved glass serving platter (complete with bald eagle), and Georgia napkins. Armed with my recipes, I headed to the grocery store to find the necessary Thanksgiving ingredients.

At the grocery store, several items were quite difficult to find. Locating creamed corn for the corn casserole and the fried onions for the green bean casserole was nearly impossible. Boxed Christmas stuffing was already being sold, so I picked up some of that for good measure. (Sidenote: because obviously Thanksgiving is not celebrated in England, Christmas lights, candy, and food are put up right after Halloween. Talk about an extended holiday season!) The only Thanksgiving staples I was unsuccessful in finding were cranberry sauce, pumpkin/pecan pie, and a turkey. To confess, there were a few Christmas turkeys, but the idea of preparing a massive turkey for two people just was too much for me. I thought about buying smaller cuts of turkey, but decided to buy a whole chicken instead. Yes, I prepared a Thanksgiving chicken. Does that make me a bad American?

With my Thanksgiving chicken in the oven, I encountered another setback. We don't own so many cooking pans the right size for making casseroles. I had to make the corn casserole in muffin trays. The top of the green bean casserole ended up a little too crispy (nice way of saying burnt), however the pineapple casserole came out right. The chicken was delicious I might add.

To not feel so lonely about our small Thanksgiving dinner, we Skyped with my parents who were together with the family at my aunt's house. To end the night, "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" was on TV, which I thought was a little odd, but I'll take it!

All in all our first Thanksgiving was a little unconventional, but my we were full for days after so I guess it was a success!

Skype: every expat's favorite technology.

Our turkey wanna-be and cornbread casserole muffins, the next big Thanksgiving trend.
If you marry a foreigner, you at least have to buy him a t-shirt from your home state to wear on Thanksgiving.
A Charlie Brown classic.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

London and my first NFL game

Two days after our wedding, my husband and I hopped on a plane for England. 

We planned to honeymoon in London before settling into our city in the north end of the country. It'd been 10 years since I'd been to London with our high school senior trip and I was looking forward to going back. A few months earlier, I'd found that my home NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons, would be playing in London the very same weekend we were there. Firstly, I love American football. Secondly, I've never actually been to a Falcons game, or any other NFL game. (Disclaimer: I live in the South and everyone supports their university teams so going to University of Georgia games always trumped the Falcons.) Thirdly, what are the chances that the weekend you go to London your team is playing an NFL game there? 

This was an opportunity too good to miss. Several years back, the NFL recognized the fan potential they had in the UK and decided to partner with London to host a rotation of NFL games every season. It has been quite a success and last year four NFL games were held in London's Wembley Stadium. I figured it might be some time before the Falcons get asked back to play in London. Plus, as I was moving to England, my future chances to see live American football were slim. 

The dilemma: my Spanish husband neither understands nor appreciates American football (oh, the horror). I have tried in vain to teach him the ways of the glorious game we have invented, but it just never caught. To a person raised in the soccer (or should I say fútbol) capital of the world, any game where you pick up the ball in your hands is sacrilege. 

You can only imagine his surprise when I wanted to see a football game during our honeymoon. I think at first he thought I was joking. But he shouldn't have been surprised, I used to get him to stream UGA football games on his computer from some Chinese provider so I could watch my team from Spain. So he agreed and when we arrived in London after the wedding, the whole city was in a hype over the big game. US and NFL flags hung down Regent Street, and we caught just the tail end of the Falcons fan rally in Trafalgar Square. 

Making our way to Wembley Stadium, home to the English national football team and the biggest stadium in the UK, I was getting pretty excited. Falcons gear was everywhere and fans from all over Europe were showing their support. I heard a variety of languages being spoken amongst the crowd, just going to show that the love of American football reaches far beyond our borders. I of course had my Falcons shirt on and picked up a "Rise Up" flag on the way in. The Falcons were the designated 'home team' so all the stadium was decorated in red and black and the rallying cries were always for our team. 

I loved the whole thing. Well, except for the fact that the Detroit Lions managed to come back from behind to beat us by one point. One. My husband observed the game with about the same amount of interest I would show toward a game of cricket. I suppose I did enough cheering for the both of us. Although I failed to convert my husband to American football, and despite the heart-breaking loss, being in Wembley Stadium with Atlanta and foreign fans alike was an unforgettable experience. 

The rest of our days in London we spent doing the usual sightseeing circuit and relaxing from a few crazy days of getting married and moving abroad. 

Other pictures from our trip:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Blog Update: International Wedding and Moving to England

I've been needing to revamp my blog for some time now. As most of you know I was previously writing about my daily life and adventures while living in Madrid from 2011-2013. I worked for the Spanish Ministry of Education and was also studying a Master program in Political Analysis. In October 2013, I completed my thesis paper, graduated from the Complutense Universidad de Madrid, moved back to the US, and took a job in marketing for international pharmaceutical companies in Atlanta.

At the same time I took my job in Atlanta, my boyfriend from Spain completed his PhD program in Madrid and accepted a position teaching at a university in England. We had a (very) long-distance relationship for a year, traveling back and forth between countries every few months. On one such visit to England, he proposed and I began planning our Atlanta wedding for fall 2014. 

That was six months ago. In case anyone is curious, we met through a mutual friend who put us in contact to do what's commonly known in Spain as a "language exchange". I was determined to improve my Spanish and he was studying his PhD in English. Luckily my amatuer Spanish level didn't put him off and the rest is history. I always warn people about the hazards of traveling abroad: you might meet your future spouse and never go back home! 

Now we live in a very historic, cobblestone street city in northern England. I haven't adjusted to the lack of sunshine in the UK, but I am getting used to life as a British resident. 

Our wedding had an international theme, reflecting our relationship and both our Spanish and American background. The ceremony was held in my home church in Marietta and the reception was at The Biltmore in Atlanta, a national registered historic site. The bridesmaids had roses with Spanish fans and the guest seating chart at the reception was in the layout of a flight departure screen. Guests signed a framed world map as our guestbook and the passport emblem on the cocktail napkins matched our invitation design. Each table was marked with a vintage travel poster of an international city. Inspiring our guests for travel, we gave out luggage bag tags for gifts. My husband and I made our grand entrance to the epic "España Cañí" pasadoble song, complete with matador's hat and Spanish decorative fan for me. If you feel like listening to this instrumental while reading the blog, it might enhance your Spanish experience!

See some of our wedding pictures below: