the cortado – my daily ritual

I can make a ritual out of almost anything. Perhaps it’s my Catholic past. Maybe my inner bruja. No sé. Rituals help me mark the time. Moments. Hours. Days. Seasons. States of mind. They are asterisks on experiences. A reminder that I was a little more aware, more present in this moment. That I took the time to appreciate a gift – no matter how tiny – that was given me by god, nature, the universe.

One of my daily rituals here in Spain is having a coffee. On the rough, cold winter days I had in the place we do not speak of, it was reason for me to get out of bed and drag myself across the chilled marble floor of my little piso. On others, it was impetus for me to get dressed, leave the house, and will myself to a nearby cafe where, hopefully (could today be the day?) I’d meet someone willing to strike up a friendly convo, but, usually, I’d just sit taking small comfort in both the sound of voices other than my own and the smile from the person behind the counter serving me my beverage. At other times, it’s been my way of noting to self that this is the start of a new day, and I’m ready for it. In fact, I now have a saying: I haven’t woken up until I’ve brushed my teeth, and I haven’t started the day until I’ve had a coffee.

cortado-perfection-solo-in-spain

 

Early Adult Education

The cortado at the high school where I work is the best in town. Perhaps, the best in all of Spain; possibly, even, the known universe. But only when Emi, the lunch lady, makes it –  not her husband. For some reason, he never steams the milk quite right, and the fluffy ‘capa’ that I love, is always missing when he makes it. I once intimated this to Emi. Now, when I enter I don’t even have to order it anymore. As soon as she sees me, she starts pulling the shot and warming the milk.

emis-cortado-solo-in-spain

 

Sweet Sublimation

Adding the sugar is a subritual in itself, and can vary slightly depending on if the coffee is for wake up, post meal, or hangover treatment. For the first, about a third of the packet is sprinkled lightly on top of the foam; the resulting design appreciated before it submerges and disappears into the caffeinated depths of the cup. For the second, very little sugar is used. Sometimes, it’s skipped altogether. For the last, a little more sugar is added after every sip, so that the final swallow is absent of any bitterness, and can be considered more sweet treat than am beverage.

cortado-love-solo-in-spain

 

(Im)patient Initiation

The perfect cortado is often elusive. But once you’ve had it, you’ll never stop searching for it again. Anything less will seem like a huge letdown, a testament that the preparer is a novice or just completely out of touch with Spanish coffee culture. At my neighborhood coffee shop, they change and add new bar staff so often, that at least once a month, I find myself side-eyeing the new blood for serving up an inferior product. I have become part of their initiation. The old head notices either the confused look on the initiate’s face when I order, or the dissatisfied slight scowl on mine when my drink is received. Oldhead rushes to instruct. “Es como un solo, pero con poca leche. Y te metes la leche enfrente de ella, hasta k ella te dice, ‘Ya’.” The noob attempts, presents. I taste. Of course, it isn’t quite there yet. But. She’ll learn. I’ll be back again tomorrow for more practice. Yesterday, the new new girl was alone on her shift. No old head to guide her. Ok. Let’s see whatcha got, dahlin. She doesn’t do well. My cup is full of more not-quite-hot milk than coffee. The cup looks like it’s full of very dirty dishwater. I return the beverage, apologetically explaining that that’s too much milk for me (I’m going to the library next. Please. Think of the others.) She attempts again. It’s better. But only slightly. I try to drink it, but the excess amount of milk starts to work on me almost instantly. I return the cup to her half full, pay and exit swiftly. I’m miffed. The superstitious part of me links a bad coffee to a bad day ahead.

 

Prophetic perfection

The following day, Saturday, I have work to do. I have no time for instruction. I ride slowly past my neighborhood bar to see who’s working. It’s new girl. Alone again. Not on today, sugah. I U-turn and head to a cafe in the town center. I rarely go there, because their prices are higher. But there’s a reason for that. I order. A few moments later, perfection is placed before me. The beverage, a few shades darker than me, which lets me know that not too much milk has been added. A beautiful, fluffy cloud of steamed milk rests at the top of the cup, its bright white nucleus like a target that silently suggests, ‘add sugar here’. I sigh delightedly. It’s been too long. I savor each sip until the very last. At the finish, the last remnants of fluffy foam cling to the sides and bottom of the glass. Some people read tea leaves. Me? Coffee foam. I can see the future. It’s going to be a great day.

cortado-reading-the-foam-solo-in-spain

Traveling Solo: What to Do When Everything Goes Wrong

Oh, f**k. I am literally stuck in Portugal.

My heart rate quickened a few paces. I hadn’t really allowed myself to think that the worst possible scenario would happen, so now that it was in fact happening, I found myself momentarily bewildered. I’d made the foolish mistake of traveling to Portugal  without my passport, but since I’d gotten lucky on the flight out of Spain, I thought my luck might hold out for the return trip. It didn’t. After trying other alternatives (presenting a copy of my passport, then my Spanish resident ID) that were refused by the airline agent, it became clear that I was not getting on this flight.

My brain began slowly filling with a thousand thoughts:

Shit.

Um. Ok. What the hell are you going to do now?

This can’t be happening.

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod

What if I can’t get out of here? What if I’m stuck in this airport for months or years like that one movie with Tom Hanks?

How could I be so stupid!?

Shit!

This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Why do bad things always happen to me?

Jesus Christ, I’m sooo stupid!!

I just wanna go home.

*Eyes starting to well up with tears*

If you travel often enough, eventually it will happen. The worst possible scenario. You find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere. You missed your flight. The hotel booking fell through. You’re lost in an unfamiliar place where you don’t speak the language. Or worse yet, you’ve been pickpocketed or injured.

While I haven’t had any serious travel emergencies yet (knock on wood), I’ve definitely found myself in a pickle more than once while travelling – most recently on a solo trip back to Spain from Portugal. What I’ve learned from these travel blunders is that the best and quickest way out of them is to… keep calm and carry on.

you could panic. but what  good would that do?
you could panic. but what good would that do?

 

Don’t Panic (Ok, panic. But make it brief.)

After realizing that my pleading with the airline agent was useless, I found a bench to sit on, and let the reality of the situation settle in a bit. I tried to tame my wildly racing thoughts as best I could (repeating over and over to myself, ‘It’s going to be ok. It’s going to be ok.’). Suddenly, a calming piece of advice that a friend of mine once said to me popped up in my mind: ‘Every problem has at least 5 solutions’.

Slowly, I felt the panic begin to subside and a steely resolve take its place. After a few more moments, I went to the bathroom, washed my face, fixed my hair, and touched up my makeup. Then, I set to work.

escape-from-portugal-oporto-airport
well, at least it’s roomier than my apartment back in spain.

 

Gather Your Tools

I knew I would need to rely heavily on my cell phone, so I checked the battery. It was about half full. I started scouting out the airport terminal for power outlets. Then, checked to see if there was free Wi-fi at the airport. No luck. Fortunately, my cell phone data plan worked, and the signal was strong.

Once you’ve calmed yourself down, take inventory of what you’ve got to help you get out of this situation – cell phone, map, GPS, snacks, the phone number of ‘a guy who knows a guy’. Use whatever you’ve got within reach to help you get yourself out of this predicament or weather the storm until you do.

Using travel tools proactively can also be a big help in case of a travel mishap. For example, take pics of your hotel, the hotel stationery, or the street you’re staying on in case you get lost and can’t communicate where you need to go. Save emergency contact info into a notes app on your phone. Save text versions of walking directions to/from your hotel on your phone to use in case you can’t access GPS. Download maps that are accessible offline. Download travel apps you can use to book last-minute flights and hotels and find bus and train schedules.

 

Brainstorm & Prioritize Your Options

What’s the thing that needs to happen first? What’s most important right now? What’s the fastest, most efficient way to get that thing done?

My 3 main options were: Getting on another flight, finding a place to stay, or finding another mode of transportation to get back to Spain.

After a quick search online for other flights, I ruled out that option. Even if I could get past security for another airline (sans passport), the cost of the flight would be ridiculous. Since I was already out of the money from the lost flight, I didn’t want to pay more than I needed to.

My next best bet was finding an alternative way out. Lastly, I’d look for a place to crash, if finding a way out took longer than I hoped.

 

Be Resourceful – Know Where to Go for Info or Help

Thankfully, I had apps for Renfe – Spain’s railway system, BlaBlaCar, and Skyscanner on my phone, and I’d bookmarked the site for Portugal’s railway system. I used Google to search for buses going between Portugal and Spain. In under an hour, I’d found info on the next trains, buses, and rideshares going to Madrid. But online bus information can often be out of date, so I ended up consulting with both an airport security guard and the airport tourist info office to make sure the info I’d found online was correct (turns out, it wasn’t). Since there was nothing leaving until the next day, I used my handy AirBnB and Booking.com apps to look for a cheap place to stay in the meantime.

Having the right info at hand during a travel emergency makes all the difference, and knowing where to go to find it is essential. In my case, I relied heavily on online travel tools. But the people around you can also be excellent sources of help and information. Information desks or tourist offices are available in most large cities. Bus drivers and taxi drivers are great for helping you find your way – they know the area well. Hotel concierges and desk staff, security guards and police officers, store workers in commercial areas – not only are all of these people good sources of ‘official’ info, they’re also more likely to speak English than a random person on the street.

 

Think Positively

Even if you do everything you should do in a travel emergency, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get out of the situation quickly. No matter what happens, though, keeping a positive mindset and being able to laugh at yourself will help you make the best of a bad situation.

In the end, it took a few hours of searching for and confirming transport and lodging, an overnight stay at a cheap but centrally located AirBnB room (15 euros), and a 5-hour BlaBlaCar ride (30 euros) the next day from Oporto to Madrid. During that time, I encountered some rude and unhelpful people, took a walk through what – at first glance – looked like a sketchy area, and suffered a late-night bout of gastrointestinal distress. I tried to view the whole ordeal as a comical adventure, which kept me from getting too riled up or freaked out, even though there were several times when I wanted to do both. In the end, I made it out of a sticky situation without too much incident, feeling like I earned a merit badge in the process.  And a ridiculously hilarious travel story to boot.

did i ever tell you about that one time when i smuggled myself into spain from portugal? fun times.
did i ever tell you about that one time when i smuggled myself into spain from portugal? fun times.

 

Have you ever experienced an embarrassing travel mishap or stressful travel emergency? How did you make it out alive? Share your experience in the comments!

 

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how to cope when you hate your host country

Living in a different country isn’t always sunshine and roses. Sometimes the experience is a complete emotional rollercoaster. One moment, you’re all thrilled and tickled with the newness of it all – the sights and sounds, the new people you’re meeting, all the fun you’re having. The next moment, something happens that throws you for a loop, knocks you on your ass, and literally leaves you cursing the ground you stand on. Most times, though, the good experiences outweigh the bad, and the bad experiences just turn into funny stories that you share with friends over drinks.

But sometimes,  the bad feelings don’t just blow over. Sometimes everything about your host country works your last effing nerve. Sometimes the potent combination of: being isolated from family and friends, not speaking the language, confusing cultural differences, climactic anomalies and missing ‘normal’ food becomes way too much to bear. And as the days and weeks pass without any sign of your situation improving, you find yourself seriously wondering if you should just call it quits, pack up and go back home where you belong.

go-home-meme

Since I’ve actually experienced the scenario above (and talked myself out of a one-way plane ticket home), I thought I’d share some suggestions for dealing with the post-honeymoon phase; or, as i like to call it: ‘a survival guide for expats who’ve considered repatriation when the novelty wasn’t enuf’.

7 Ways to Cope When You Hate Your Host Country

Don’t lash out – Often, the reception you get from the locals in your host country can feel less than hospitable. It can be tempting and sometimes, warranted, to fight fire with fire, picking a fight with anyone who rubs you the wrong way. Fighting the good fight day in and day out, however, quickly becomes exhausting. You’re constantly on edge, waiting for the next person to ‘make your day’. You’ll end up wearing yourself down long before you wear them down.  My advice: even if you’re getting bad energy from people, resist the urge to give it back. At least not too harshly. In short, throwing shade is cool. Throwing epithets and punches, not so much.

         Don’t clam up – I get it. You hate the place, so obviously you want to limit your exposure to it. But becoming a recluse solves nothing. Find places that you enjoy going to – bookstores, cafes, parks, libraries, movie theaters – and make it a regular habit to visit them. If you haven’t found your social group yet and feel shy about going out alone, go to restaurants and bars during off-peak hours, when you’re less likely to be surrounded by couples and families. Sign up for a class or join a gym.  If you do end up taking some time to be a recluse, that’s ok. Just try not to let it linger for too long.
          Take a step back – Remove yourself as a participant in the daily expat struggles that you encounter.  Become an observer instead. Imagine that you are there to explore, compare, and document, as an anthropologist, journalist, artist, historian. Treat this experience as your work or project. Approach your time abroad this way and you’ll be less likely to get emotionally riled when frustrating things happen. Even if you do get riled, at least you’ll have a productive outlet for your emotions.
          Stay connected – Stay in touch with people back home. Especially those who are good listeners, or make you laugh. Join online groups or communities (some of my faves: Black Americans Living Abroad, Solo Women Travelers, Bellas Morenas de Espana), where you can share with other people who can relate to the experiences you’re going through. Look for local gatherings or groups to join – especially those where you’re likely to find other expats. Check Couchsurfing, and Meetup.com to see if there are active groups in your area.
          Plug in – I’m not usually an advocate of binge-watching tv, but as an expat, it may not be as easy or feasible (due to language barriers or telecommunications issues) to watch your favorite programs from back home. Scheduling time to catch up is a good distraction from expat woes.
          Travel – Maybe it’s your city or region that doesn’t agree with you? Explore other parts of the country, or find cheap ways to travel to nearby countries.
          Get a job – Occupy your time? Make money? This one’s a no brainer. Find side jobs based in your home country that you can do remotely from your host country. Check Craigslist, ODesk, and other freelance job sites for opportunities. Giving private English lessons is another good money-making option that works for almost anyone, since native speakers are usually highly prized non-English-speaking countries.

Remember the reason – Why’d you want to move to another country in the first place? Is that reason still valid? Have you strayed from your original goal? Do you need to set a new goal to help motivate you?

 

What are some ways that you’ve battled the expat blues? How do you know when it’s time to throw in the towel and head back home? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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spanish word of the day: cojones

The things you learn on roadtrips.

On a recent one with some Spanish friends, I learned just how important cojones are to Spanish people.

It happened just after we passed Toledo heading southbound. Tio Pepe blurted out from the back seat, “Tocame los cojones! Que me voy a Bargas! Y si no me los toca… a Menasalbas!”

Hwhhaaaaat?

While my three Spanish compadres were laughing among themselves, I was once again left scratching my head at some vulgar Spanish expression whose meaning completely escaped me.From what I could gather from Pepe’s explanation,  the expression had something to do with two towns we’d passed – Bargas and Menasalbas – south of Toledo. I’d never heard of those towns before, but I’d heard plenty of expressions using that oh-so-familiar Spanish word for testicles.

“Spanish people talk about cojones a lot,” I intimated to my friends.

They all agreed. Eager to impress upon me just how essential cojones are to Castellano, my travel companions took the opportunity to school me on several uses and variants of the word. And I took notes. Here are some of my favorites:

    • que cojones…?  – used as part of a rhetorical question, as in, ‘que cojones es esto (what the hell is this)?

pero-que-cojones

    • hasta los cojones  – (to have had it) up to here; to be fed up. Literal translation: up to the balls.

 

    • acojonante – fabulous, amazing.

 

    • vas como los cojones de los galgos – used when someone lags behind. A galgo is a Spanish greyound. Approximate translation: you’re moving like greyhounds’ balls.
Galgo_Español_en_la_arena
i’m sorry you got dragged into this.
    • par de cojones – when someone is brave or fearless they are said to have a par de cojones or to have done something con dos cojones. Literal translation: a pair of balls.

con-dos-cojones

    • cojonudo – awesome, amazing, great

 

    • cojonazos (aka, huevasos) – guy who is henpecked, or a guy who sits around ‘tocando sus cojones’ (touching his balls / doing nothing) all day.

 

    • un cojon – a whole lot. (e.g., ‘te quiero un cojon’)

 

    • mil pares de cojones – with a lot of force, effort, or difficult. Literal translation: A thousand pairs of balls.

 

And that’s just a short list. Turns out there are dozens more uses for the word cojones in Spain. Which means that cojones could quite possibly be the most versatile word ever.

how to do lisbon: learn how to say thank you in portuguese

I love the sound of Portuguese.

As soon as I slid into my seat on the plane from Madrid to Lisbon, I couldn’t help but smile. Portuguese swirled around me, sounding like a hybrid of Italian and Spanish spoken with lilting intonations that lulled me to calm.

Despite it being a big city, Lisbon’s residents were never too busy to engage in a small bit of conversation, and always seemed quite friendly and willing to help – especially if you tried to speak even the smallest bit of Portuguese.

To show appreciation for their hospitality, the great food, perfect weather, and the affordability of it all – learning how to give a heartfelt thanks in Portugese was the least I could do.

Obrigada!

More Useful Portuguese Phrases

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

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how to do lisbon: have a bifana

While the bifana didn’t originate in Lisbon (that credit goes to the town of Vendas Novas), the snack is strongly associated with Portugal’s capital city. The bifana consists of a juicy stack of thinly sliced pork layered on fresh, soft yet crusty bread. Sounds simple, but the unseen effort and just-right ingredients are what make this sandwich sublime.
The pork is slow-simmered in a seasoned marinade. The bread is pillowy inside and just crackly enough outside. When the sandwich comes together, the juices from the meat seep into the bread, staining it with flavor. Served along with a helping of mustard that you can add as you please, the bifana is a deliciously indulgent snack that you can only experience in Portugal.


Cafe Beira Gare on Google+

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

 

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how to do lisbon: take a day trip to sintra or cascais

Two of Lisbon’s most popular options for day trips are Cascais – a beach resort town – and Sintra – a historic village known for its old castles. Both cities are only about an hour away using Lisbon suburban rail line, Comboios. I chose to visit the quaint and charming Sintra and its majestically quirky storybook castle. There’s an admission fee to enter the castle grounds and the castle’s terraces – but I think it’s worth it to get an up close look at such a colorful spectacle perched high among the clouds. Of course, you’ll have to share the view with lots of other visitors and photo-snappers.

Exploring the town center with its lush gardens, outdoor art installations, and tiny shops and bars is a must either before or after visiting the castle.

If a leisurely day at the beach followed by gazing and shopping at cute boutiques is more up your alley, Cascais is the better option. But, why choose? If you have the time, visit both.

Lisbon to Sintra – How to Get There, What to See

Lisbon to Cascais – How to Get There, Where to Eat, What to See

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

how to do lisbon: see the monuments in belem

Belem – located in the southwest corner of Lisbon – is a perfect place to spend a leisurely, sunny afternoon. Some of the most iconic monuments of Lisbon are found here, namely The Jeronimo Monastery, The Monumento do Descubrimento, and the Torre de Belem.
My advice is to take your time strolling through the area. Stop to people watch in the park in front of the Jeronimo Monastery. Soak up some sun at the edge of the river next to the Monumento de Descubrimento. Have a gelato before walking over to Belem Park and stretching out in the shade of a tree for a while.

 

 

Perhaps the most famous ‘monument’ in Belem is the beloved Portugese pastry, pastel de Belem. This creamy, custardy tart can be found all over Lisbon and throughout the rest of Portugal (where it goes by the name, pastel de nata), but its birthplace is Belem. Its best enjoyed with a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon on top. So good.

 

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

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how to do lisbon: sample portugese cuisine at mercado da ribeira

I love myself a good market. And Lisbon has plenty to choose from. After reviewing a list of the best markets in Lisbon, I decided to try the Mercado da Ribeira – mainly because it offered both fresh foods and a selection of restaurants to eat in.

I had no idea what I was in for when I arrived. The fresh food market was good, not great – even though I was able to score some okra (YAAY!!).

mercado da ribeira
fresh market

But the real draw at the Mercado da Ribeira is the jaw-dropping selection of gourmet restaurant and food stalls on the opposite side of the building. There were stalls offering asian noodles, gourmet burgers, whole roast pig, craft beer and cider, and several with updated takes on traditional Portugese cuisine. DO go here on an empty stomach. The quality and creativity of the offerings were top notch. The prices, however, were unbelievably reasonable.

roasted bacalao with garbanzo puree
salmon burger w/seaweed salad on squid ink bun
whole roast suckling pig

Diners sit at communal tables in the center of the market. Since the Mercado da Ribeira is a popular spot for locals and visitors, I found myself chatting – and even sharing a few bites – with diners from 3 different countries.

Mercado da Ribeira on Google+

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

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how to do lisbon: use the metro

The Lisbon metro is modern, efficient, and pretty easy to use. The only hiccup I experienced was when I first arrived at the airport and couldn’t figure which direction to head in.

waiting on the Comboios suburban train from Belem to the city center

The metro goes to all of the neighborhoods and points of interest in central Lisbon.  A reloadable, multi-trip card can be purchased and refilled at machines in every station. One of the best things about Lisbon’s public transportation system is that you can use the same multi-trip card on the underground metro, above-ground trams, trolleys and buses, and the suburban trains that go all the way to Cascais and Sintra.

For long-distance destinations like Coimbra and Porto, you’ll have to purchase a separate ticket for one of the regional or inter-regional trains that depart from Santa Apolonia Station.

regional train at Santa Apolonia Station in Lisbon

Official Lisbon Metro Site – Fares, Maps, and Trip Planner

Lisbon Comboios Site – for Medium to Long-Distance Trips Outside of Lisbon

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.

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