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Black In Spain

So, what’s it like there?
I heard that Spain isn’t a good place for black people.
I heard that Spanish guys loooove black women!
I heard that Spain is one of the most racist countries in Europe.

The questions come from many places. Family back home. Friends of friends who are considering travelling here. Acquaintances on social media. And every time I get the questions, I always wish I could answer simply. No. Spain isn’t a good place for black people. Yes. Spanish men love black women. Yes. Spain is one of the most racist countries in Europe. But, I can’t. There’s too much nuance, too many instances and experiences that I’ve had that both confirm and negate those statements. So, instead of a definitive answer, I reply with the equivalent of ‘It depends’, or ‘Yes, but,’ then expound on that neither-here-nor-there answer as best I can for the audience that I’m speaking to.

As with any country, the topic of race in Spain is a complex one that has many facets and requires a more-than-surface-level exploration to even begin to formulate any definitive conclusions.


“Being black in Spain is hard sometimes,” I say with a sigh.

“How so?” My friend Annie replies.

We’re sitting on a bench in a park in central Malaga, sharing a bottle of cava. I take a sip from my little plastic cup before responding.

“Welll…” I begin, “First, there are the stares. Which honestly, aren’t always that bad, but it can take some getting used to.”

In the brief space of time before I continue, my mind flits to several incidents, tiny little moments, and curious occurrences that I’ve experienced in my now almost 10 months living on the Iberian peninsula. How do I summarize all of these things to Annie in a casual conversation? How do I recount those myriad moments that have either curdled my blood or left me shaking my head in bemusement? I decide not to go into it all right now. It’s a gloriously sunny day, I’m beginning to feel the effects of the cava, and I don’t want to ruin either my sunshine- or champagne- buzz with heavy talk. I quickly sum up my previous statement about the stares with some observations on times when I felt I was stared at rudely, and others when I felt it was out of admiration or curiosity. I get the feeling that Annie gets my feeling of not wanting to go much deeper into the subject, and, soon, we switch to more situation-appropriate topics.

Over the next few days, however, my exchange with Annie comes back to mind often. How would I sum up the experience of being a black American in this country? I realize it’s an important part of my cultural immersion and exchange to make note of such sociological differences, and to analyze them both critically (as a student of culture) and personally (as a black woman with my own story to tell). So, I decided to start not only being more aware of these moments, but also to start taking notes on the experiences that I’ve had so far.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing first-hand observations and experiences with the concepts of race, color, and culture that I’ve gathered during my time in Spain. In doing so, I hope to shed some more light on a subject that – in my opinion – warrants a more in-depth examination, especially in light of recent incidents regarding race and police brutality against black people back in the United States.

One of the many cries of frustration that I’ve heard from my brown-skinned kin from back home in the aftermath of these racially-charged incidents has been ‘maybe it’s time to leave the US behind’, or similar statements that paint the non-US experience as a more suitable one for black people. I hope that my experience as an African-American living in Spain reveals that issues of color and race aren’t exclusively American, and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the pond.

Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the “black experience” in Spain and the US.

Read the other posts in the series now:

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How I Lost over 15 Pounds While Living in Spain (and Eating Everything!)

Wow! You look great!

Hey skinny lady!

Who’s that in the picture?

 

It almost never fails. Every time I post a pic of myself on Facebook or some other social media outlet, these are the comments I get from friends and family back home. Since first moving to Spain for a 6-month stint in 2014, and after living here for almost another 8 months, I’ve lost quite a bit of weight. I’ve never been one to track my weight (scales, schmales), so I’m not exactly sure how much I’ve lost (that 15lbs in the title was really just a guesstimate); but I do know that not only have I dropped a couple of dress sizes, I also feel a lot better about my body – the way it looks, feels, and how it serves me as I go about my daily business. And get this: I’ve never once been to the gym.

living-in-spain-weight-loss-before-after
Left: Me – 1 week after arriving in Spain. Right: Me – after living in Spain for a little over a year

 

Before I have you thinking that I’ve slimmed down to the point of having no body issues at all, let me tell you: I’ve still got quite a little pooch going on, I still have minor anxiety sporting a two-piece on a beach full of super-fit Europeans, and, at over 35 years old, I’ve got bits that are jiggling and swaying way more than they ever did (or should). Still, more often than not, I like what I see looking back at me when I look in the mirror, and I know for certain that it has a lot to do with abandoning my American eating and living habits and adopting a more Spanish or European lifestyle. Namely:

 

Smaller restaurant portions

Though I eat all the things I try to avoid when eating out at home – like taters, bread, and pasta – and I drink like there’s no tomorrow, I’ve still managed to shed pounds. Part of this is because the amount of these things that I consume in a sitting is much less than what I’d consume in the States. The US is notorious for its ridiculous portion sizes. If you order a meal for one in a typical US dining establishment, you’re usually presented with enough food for 2 people. Ditto for drinks – especially sodas and beers. Here in Spain, the tradition of tapas – or small plates of food that are meant to be eaten in a few bites – makes it easy to have a filling meal with lots of variety, yet not overeat. One of my favorite Spanish portion control options is the caña – which is basically a half-sized serving of beer. Even when I go out and have multiple rounds of beers, I’m still only drinking half as much as I would if I did the same in the States.

 

Several small meals a day

My typical daily eating pattern in Spain goes something like this…

For breakfast (before 11am): Coffee and/or water.

Post-breakfast / Pre-lunch (between 11am and 2pm): A piece of fruit or, occasionally, a small pastry or slice of Spanish tortilla.

For lunch (between 2 and 3pm): A quick, home-cooked meal like a pasta dish, a big salad, or a meat-and-veggie dish.

Post-lunch: A piece of fruit or two for an after-lunch dessert or snack.

For dinner (between 8 and 10pm): A couple of rounds of drinks and accompanying free tapas or another quick, home-cooked meal.

I’ve adopted this pattern of eating after observing and eventually falling in line with the way I’ve seen the folks around me eat. The concept of eating several small meals a day isn’t unique to Spain. In fact, most nutritionists and weight loss experts in the US recommend this method of eating. Still, it isn’t the norm for the average American. We’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that you should eat ‘3 square meals’ a day – a hearty breakfast, a hearty lunch, and an especially hearty dinner – and that’s pretty much how I used to eat back home (with the exception of the hearty breakfast). Here, lunch – not dinner – is often the biggest meal of the day, which leaves plenty of time to burn off the calories before settling in for the evening.

A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.
A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.

 

Lunch at home

You’ve probably heard of the Spanish siesta – that 2-3 hour lull in the middle of the day where everything shuts down and people go home to take a nap. While not everyone actually takes a nap during that time, almost everyone I know goes home for a home-cooked lunch. Having that large block of time to go home, prepare a healthy meal, eat it like a normal human (versus inhaling it like a vacuum cleaner), and let it digest a bit before heading back to work, is a luxury that I wish I had in the US. At home, I would barely have time to stuff some chicken fingers and fries (or a similarly unhealthy option) from the downstairs food court into my gullet before heading off to a meeting or rushing to meet an end-of-day deadline. Even on the days when I did go for a healthier lunch option, it was often more expensive to do so, and I’d end up resorting to the cheaper, less healthy lunch the very next day.

 

Coffee done right

Coffee is a known metabolism booster, and can help you burn extra calories IF you drink it the right way. What’s the right way? Well, ditching all the milk and sugar (I’m lookin’ at you, Starbucks), and drinking a small amount of black coffee or coffee with very little milk and sugar (like my beloved cortado) is a start. Also, it’s typical in Spain to have a coffee directly after or between meals, which is just when your body benefits from an extra boost of metabolism to help burn off the food you recently consumed.

The cortado - a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.
The cortado – a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.

 

Shared meals

In Spain, especially in smaller cities like the one I live in, eating is not a solo sport. Meals are meant to be shared – with friends, family members, coworkers, roommates. When you go out to eat with a group, it’s typical for everyone to share from common plates or to share bites of their individually ordered dish with everyone else at the table. At first, I turned my nose up at this practice. But… I want all my food for myself! But, I’m still hungry! But over time, I’ve adjusted. I’ve even noticed that the slower pace of eating in a group setting, helps me feel more full with less food.  I’ve also noticed that Spaniards tend to share snack foods with folks around them. Whenever one of my colleagues has what we Americans would consider a single serving bag of chips or a similar snack, they always end up offering away at least a third of it to others, or eating about half and saving the rest for another time.

Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.
Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.

 

Walking

When I lived in the States, my work kept me sitting at a desk for multiple hours a day. After work, I’d walk 2 minutes to get in my car and drive home, where I’d often do more work sitting at a computer, before cooking dinner and watching TV or reading for a couple of hours before bed. Even if I ran errands in the neighborhood – like going to the grocery store that’s literally at the end of my street – it meant getting into my car and driving there. In the US, walking is often seen as a hardship or something that the less fortunate (i.e., those who can’t afford cars) do. The combination of a car-centric culture, and sprawling cities and neighborhoods, make walking for anything other than intentional exercise either unfashionable or implausible.

To put things in perspective, the entire country of Spain is smaller than the state of Texas (in square miles). The lack of sprawl makes walking a lot more feasible. Neighborhoods are designed so that you have almost everything you need within walking distance of your home – grocery stores, banks, schools, retail shops, personal services. And you’re not seen as odd or less fortunate if you walk everywhere, because almost everyone else – from infant to elderly – is walking too.

 

Water, water, everywhere

Because of all the walking I do, and because of a personal commitment to myself to consume more water, I almost always have a bottle of water on hand. I keep a 5L bottle of water in my room by my bedside, so I can not only track roughly how much water I drink a day, but also so I never have to go far to get it.

 

Biking

This is probably the single most influential factor in my weight loss. At the beginning of this school year, one of the professors at my high school was kind enough to loan me a bike to use during my time here. It just so happens that this bike is the oldest specimen of 2-wheeled locomotion ever known to man. It’s also a fixed gear, and it can leave my legs feeling like jelly even when riding on relatively flat terrain. Still, it’s a more efficient mode of transportation than walking, and I ride my rusty steed everywhere – to school, to the grocery store, to the park, to the library. I usually spend around 30-40 minutes biking each day, which isn’t a lot, but it’s definitely made a lot of difference.

My rusty steed - who I've affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote's mule of a horse.
My rusty steed – who I’ve affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote’s mule of a horse.

 

Easy access to healthy, cheap ingredients

Within a 3-5 minute walk in any direction from my apartment, I have a least 4 independently owned fresh fruit/veggie stands, and 2-3 chain grocery stores. The selection of produce in either of those outlets is generally less varied than what I’d find in the US, but the price and the quality is significantly better. And the fact that they’re so close and right in front of my face, makes it easier for me to grab a healthy snack versus the fast food that I’d normally go for back home.

My favorite neighborhood fruteria - cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone's throw away from my place
My favorite neighborhood fruteria – cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone’s throw away from my place

 

Fast food is an occasional treat

In the US, fast food is convenience food. Don’t have time to cook? Forgot to pack a healthy lunch? No problem. Just stop by one of the dozen fast food restaurants you’re sure to pass on your way to and from home and pick up an extremely high-calorie, extremely low cost meal. Fast food is so widely available and frequently consumed in the US, it could almost be considered its own food group. While I wasn’t a frequent consumer of fast food at home, I certainly ate my fair share of quick-serve lunches at work, and my go-to snack when on the run was an order of french fries from the nearest Chik-Fil-A or McDonald’s. Here, a trip to a fast food outlet is seen as a treat – something you do every once in a while as a special outing for the kids or yourself. And the prices reflect that. Going to Mickey D’s, KFC or Burger King is often an expensive proposition – a combo meal can run from 5 to 7 euros, and there’s rarely, if ever, a dollar menu. There are also fewer fast food locations to choose from. You almost have to go out of your way to get to one, and you’ll have to pass several cheaper, considerably healthier options to do so.

 

Now, are any of the above behaviors impossible to duplicate in the US? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that there are no overweight or obese Spaniards? Nope. In either country, individual health and body weight are often a reflection of the daily lifestyle choices we make. But due to cultural norms, I think it’s more difficult to make these choices and stick to them on a regular basis back home in the US of A. As my time in Spain comes to an end, I often worry if I’ll be able to hold on to these healthy habits that I’ve picked up in my host country. I like to think that it’ll be easy, but I’m not 100% sure. For my own sake, and for the sake of my Facebook photo admirers, I certainly hope so. 🙂

Have you noticed any positive body changes during your travels or time living abroad? What do you think was behind it? Have you been able to stick to your healthy habits after returning to your home country?

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7 reasons you shouldn’t couchsurf if you haven’t already

Ok. So you’ve heard about Couchsurfing (CS) from a friend of a friend or an article in a travel magazine or around a campfire that one time when you ran into a band of wandering hippies. You may even be thinking of trying it out for yourself. I’m a big fan of both the concept and the reality of Couchsurfing – I’ve used it at least 4 times in 4 different countries (all while travelling solo), and each of my experiences has been amazing. I’d even go so far as to say that my Couchsurfing experiences have renewed my faith in the kindness and hospitality of my fellow upright bi-pedders.

But I also realize that Couchsurfing is not for everyone. It’s not intended to be. And that’s ok. So, if you’re on the fence about Couchsurfing, here are 7 reasons that may (or may not) convince you to book a hotel instead.

#1: Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t personally know someone who has surfed or hosted.

Couchsurfing sounds strange and scary, especially for us Americans. What if this person kills me? Robs me? Rapes me? Makes me listen to Enya all night long? Having a friend or associate who has Couchsurfed before will give you the chance to ask all the questions you want and have your suspicions and fears put at ease before you ever go looking for a host or guest.  If this person knows you well, they’ll be better equipped to help you figure out if Couchsurfing is something that fits your personal needs and tastes. Plus, an experienced Couchsurfer will be able to school you on all of the unwritten rules and customs that are common among CS’ers.

#2: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking for a free room.

Yes. If you find a Couchsurfing host, you will be able to stay at his/her place without paying a red cent. But this isn’t just about what you get out of the situation, it’s also about what you’re willing to give – namely, some of your time, personality, and life experiences. Couchsurfers are all about meeting and getting to know people from all over the world. Many of them have learned second languages, discovered new music, tried new foods, or planned their next vacation to previously unheard of destinations just from the interactions they’ve had with fellow surfers. The goal is to build relationships, not just freeload at someone’s house. It’s even common to bring a little gift or token of appreciation for your host – a bottle of wine, a fridge magnet from your home country or state, or any little thing that says, ‘thanks for letting this stranger sleep in your house’.

#3: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re not prepared to do some upfront work.

Nothing in life is truly free. This applies even to Couchsurfing. In order to have a quality Couchsurfing experience, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time thoroughly filling out your CS profile. The more thorough, honest, and detailed your profile is, the more likely you’ll be able to find someone with similar interests or a compatible outlook on life. Once you’re ready to look for a host, you’ll also need to put in quite a lot of time perusing potential hosts’ profiles, going over all of the feedback that previous guests have given, sending couch requests, waiting for replies, etc. I liken the whole CS reservation request experience to looking for a match on a dating or friend site. It takes time to get quality results. You should also be prepared to leave detailed and useful feedback about your host after your stay – it’s this contribution that helps the next person decide if they should follow in your footsteps.

#4 – Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t have a Plan B.

At the end of the day, you’re dealing with someone you don’t know. Even if you’ve done all of your pre-work and feel comfy with your host, shit happens. Maybe your host will need to cancel at the last minute. Maybe you won’t like the vibe you get when you get there. Whatever the reason, always have a backup plan – another nearby hotel or hostel you can head to if need be, and enough money to pay for a more traditional living arrangement should the need arise.

#5 – Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t like sharing or if you have an inherent mistrust of strangers or the internet.

By its very nature, CS is more suitable for open-minded, gregarious people who don’t mind sharing a little bit about themselves on the internet (i.e., your CS profile) or with people they’ve never met before. If you already know that’s not your style, don’t stress yourself or other CS’ers out.

#6 – Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking to hook up or get laid.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your stance on the issue), some folks out there think that CS is the perfect way to get easy sex with strangers. To each his or her own, I say. But, if that’s all you’re looking for, there are plenty of other sites out there that are more suited for that purpose. If you somehow feel like you MUST use CS to achieve your sex-with-strangers fantasy, at least be upfront about your intent with potential guests / hosts, and be prepared for the other person not being on the same page. Full disclosure: I’ve messaged potential hosts who responded with messages that made it clear that their intent or interest would be to engage in some physical recreation with me. While it creeped me out a bit, I was mostly relieved that they were upfront about their intent. I politely declined their offer, and kept searching for a more suitable host. No harm, no foul.

#7 – Don’t Couchsurf if the little voice tells you not to.

As a frequent solo traveler, I’ve learned that one of the best tools in my nomad toolkit is my intuition, aka, the little voice. If you have even the slightest hint of uneasiness or a feeling that something might not be right with a potential Couchsurfing situation, don’t go into it. At the end of the day, you’re travelling to have a good experience, you are under no obligation to suffer discomfort or weirdness even if you’re staying with someone for free.

Have you Couchsurfed before? What have your experiences been like? Still not sure if Couchsurfing is for you? What are some of your concerns or worries?
Share your feedback in the comments!
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my travel style, aka, how I travel on the cheap in spain

Since I’m in the habit of giving advice and tips about the places I’ve traveled to on this blog, I thought it was worthwhile to share some more information on exactly the type of traveler I am. Travel advice is really only relevant if the receiver has similar travel interests and preferences as the person giving the advice. For instance, some people would never stay in a hostel or couchsurf, while others – like myself – usually steer clear of chain hotels and all-inclusives. So, with that, here’s some insight into my personal travel style, so you can decide for yourself whether my travel advice is suitable for you.

 

I live cheaply when not travelling – I live in a pretty small town in the interior of Spain, so most things here are cheaper than they are elsewhere in the country. My major expense – rent – runs me about 150 euros a month, and that includes all of my utilities. I share an apartment with 3 other ladies – a fairly common arrangement in Spain, even for working professionals – so that helps to keep costs low. Even when I lived on my own, rent and utilities averaged 275 euros a month – extremely cheap by American standards. I eat out, but not too often. When I do, it’s usually at a place where I buy a beer or a glass of wine and get a free tapa. At the grocery store, I buy very few packaged goods – which are typically more expensive than whole foods – choosing veggies, fresh fruits, fish, and meats instead of heat-and-serve meals. I also don’t waste leftovers. I remix them until they’re all gone.
Blablacar – I describe Blablacar as a safer way to hitchhike. I tend to use it for short to mid-distance trips to nearby cities or provinces (roughly, 4 hours or less). Using the site or app, you can search for drivers who are leaving from your area and heading to a destination you want to go to. The drivers offer available seats in their car for a much, much lower price than a train or even a bus. An added benefit is that you get the chance to chat with a local about any number of things, including their recommendations on what you should see and do when you reach your destination.

SpainPass – Like much of Europe, Spain’s long distance train system is quite good. The trains are reliable and fast, and depending on how early you buy your ticket, they can also be quite affordable. I tend to use trains for exploratory, long-distance trips. Renfe – Spain’s national train service – offers a very attractive multi-trip pass for non-Spanish travelers. It’s called SpainPass, and it allows you to travel multiple legs on the train for about 40 euros per leg. The only catch is that all trips must be paid for upfront, and they must all be used in 30 days. Because of the time limit, I try to use this option strategically. For instance, in December, there was both a long holiday at the beginning of the month and the Christmas holidays at the end of the month. Using SpainPass, I was able to travel to Valencia, Malaga, and Barcelona that month for much less than plane tickets or regular-price train tickets. Whenever I use SpainPass, I typically search for a destination that would cost me a lot of money to get to and go there.

 

Skyscanner – Simply the best app or flight search site I’ve found for showing the lowest prices to my chosen destination. There’s enough flexibility in Skyscanner’s search function for me to select a departure location and leave the destination open, which allows me to see where I can fly to for the least amount of money.
Pack light – when I don’t travel via train or Blablacar, I’m usually on one of what I call ‘ghettoeurope’ airlines – Ryanair or Easyjet. These super low-cost airlines are able to keep their prices low because they offer a no-frills service. This is especially true when it comes to baggage restrictions. Both of these airlines only allow you to travel with a small carry-on bag for free. While the luggage size isn’t restrictively small, it may take some smart packing to keep from having a too-large bag that costs you more money.
Hostels – Unfortunately, this is one way I could probably travel even more cheaply. But, since I’m over 35 and my dorm room days are decades behind me, I find it hard to stomach the idea of a communal bathroom, and I simply can’t wrap my head around the idea of sleeping in a room with strangers. I mean, what if I need to poot, scratch, rub one out? Now, I have stayed in hostels, but I always opt for the private room option when I do – it’s more expensive than the traditional hostel experience, but still much cheaper than a standard hotel.

Home stays – I do, however, love Couchsurfingand Airbnb – two options for staying in a home or apartment while travelling. Usually there’s a kitchen I can use to cook a quick meal or even just have some fruit, bread, and cheese for breakfast or a snack.

one of my most unique and enjoyable homestays – a hammock on a houseboat in amsterdam

 

Eat out only for the main meal – I’m a foodie, so I definitely like to eat out when I’m travelling – but I try to eat out for my main meal of the day – typically late lunch or dinner – and just eat fruit or snacks purchased at a local supermarket for the other meals. I also try to save dining out experiences for iconic dishes or local specialties, not just because I’m hungry and need a bite.
Public transportation– Most cities in Spain are very walkable, but when my feet get tired, I opt for public transportation, not taxis or car hires. Not only is public transport cheaper, it’s also a good way to quickly get a feel of the layout of the city and what the people are like.
No tours – I just don’t believe in paying for them. And since I’m not one who feels like I need to see EVERYthing when I visit a place – I typically pick out 2 or 3 must-sees, and let the rest happen as it may – tours aren’t really worth my money. Also, since I stay with locals, there’s no need for a tour. A quick conversation with my host about what I’m looking for and how to get there, and it’s like I’ve received a customized itinerary. However, there are occasionally exceptions to this rule.
Skip paid attractions– Again, there are some rare occasions when I’ll make an exception to this rule. But for the most part, I skip any site that I have to pay to enter. This includes museums and theme parks.  I prefer parks, neighborhoods, plazas, local markets, and other outdoor activities as they give me more of a feel for what the city and its people are like.
What are some of your tips for keeping costs low while travelling in Spain, Europe, or elsewhere in the world? Share them in the comments!
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how to do barcelona

I’ll admit it. I’m kind of addicted to this town. Maybe it’s because it was the first Spanish city I visited on my own. Maybe it’s because my first visit was the very definition of serendipity. Or maybe it’s because Barcelona is the one city in Spain that I know I can go to to satisfy all my cravings of home. In my opinion, Barna (not Barça – that abbreviation is specifically reserved for the football club) is the most metropolitan city in Spain, even more so than the capital of Madrid, and that’s because Barcelona has something that I think Madrid lacks – soul. Since that first visit just a little over a year ago, I’ve been back to the Catalonian capital 4 times, and it’s only a matter of time before I go again.
After those 5 visits, here are some of my favorite ways to ‘do’ Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Take a Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

Yes, yes, I know. What sort of insider’s guide starts with, ‘book a tour’? I’m usually not a fan of tours, since I think it’s useless trying to pack in too much sightseeing in a single trip, and I prefer finding (and sometimes losing) my own way. But, there are some cities – such as London and Barcelona – that have so many different sites of interest spread out over such a large area, that I think it’s not only worth paying the price for a tour, it’s also worth saving yourself from aching feet and the frustration of trying to locate even your very top must-see sites using public transportation. My personal advice when booking a HOHO tour in Barna is this: Start early, then stay on the bus for a full loop (yes, it will be hard to resist getting off for photo opps, but do it) before you disembark anywhere. This will allow you get the tourist version of a sampler platter – a little taste of all that the city has to offer – before deciding which places you’d like to hop off at and delve deeper into. Barcelona’s most popular HOHO bus tour is the Barcelona Bus Turistic, and it’s the one I recommend. Some of my favorite places to hop off for a more up-close look include:
Park Güell – You simply can’t visit Barcelona without seeing this impressive outdoor space designed by Antonio Gaudí. While you have to pay for up-close access to some areas of the park, I didn’t, and I felt plenty fulfilled enjoying the park’s free areas.
 A sunny day at Park Guell
La Sagrada Familia – Perpetually under-construction, this magnificent example of Gaudí’s architectural style is always jam-packed with crowds, inside and out. I recommend viewing it from a quiet spot in the park Plaça de Gaudí located just behind the church.

La Sagrada Familia as seen from Placa de Gaudi
Casa Battló – Yet another jaw-dropping example of Gaudi’s signature style. I also like this stop because you can take a leisurely southbound stroll from here down either the Passeig de Gracia or the Rambla de Catalunya. Walking down either of these streets, you’ll eventually encounter Plaça Catalunya, the Cathedral and Barrio Gótic, passing tons of shops, street performers and other sensory satisfaction along the way.
Casa Battlo at night
The ‘Coquettish Giraffe’ statue on La Rambla Catalunya
Barcelona’s Cathedral
Batucada street performers in Barri Gotic
Arc de Triomf / Parc de la Ciutadella – The Arc de Triomf is a breathtaking structure that makes for a nice photo opp. At the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella, you’ll find an equally impressive fountain and waterfall feature – La Cascada. On weekend afternoons, there’s usually a group of African drummers doing their thing near the center of the park. It’s an ideal place to cop a squat and soak up the sounds and sun.
The impressive Arc de Triomf
Parc Ciutadella’s magnificent fountain and waterfall
Weekend African drumming in Parc Ciutadella
Some places I think are better seen from the bus:
Dona I Ocell as seen from the tourist bus

Plaça Espanya – the nearby Magic Fountain is a prime draw, but since the fountains are better seen at night after the tour bus stops running, you’re better off catching the metro to this location at a later time.

Parc de Joan Miró – you can snap pretty decent pics of the iconic Dona I Ocell statue from the open-air top section of the bus.
Olympic Ring – home to the telecommunications tower or, Torre Telefónica– a quirky architectural structure that’s a nice visual treat.
MNAC – unless you plan on going inside of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, get your oohs and aahs on as you whizz by.
Camp Nou – I’m not a big football (or, soccer) fan anyway, so an up-close look wouldn’t really do anything for me.

 

 

How to Do Barcelona: Buy a Metro Pass

Barcelona’s metro system is pretty easy to navigate, and there are several options available for multi-trip Barcelona metro passes. While which pass you buy will totally depend on how long you’ll be staying in the city and what areas you plan on visiting using the metro, I’ve only ever bought the 10-ride pass, aka the T10. A single one-way ticket on the metro runs €2.15, and the 10-trip pass will set you back €9.95, so it’s a great value; you can even share it with others travelling with you. I don’t mind walking between a lot of the places that I visit, and only use the metro if I have to go from one area of town to another, so the 10-ride pass has been sufficient for my multiple 3-4 day trips to Barcelona.

How to Do Barcelona: Stroll the Beach

Barcelona’s most accessible beach, Barceloneta, isn’t exactly the most picturesque, but it’s definitely a nice place to have a Sunday stroll during cooler months, or work on your tan during warmer ones. At night, the area along the beach is filled with nightcrawlers visiting the many posh Miami-style nightclubs in the area.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Eat

There are no shortage of amazing places to eat in Barcelona, and I know for sure that I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to fabulous dining options, but the following Barcelona restaurants have met or exceeded my standards for price, quality and uniqueness.
Teranga – Senegalese restaurant located en El Born district of Barcelona. The lamb dishes are my favorites.
Restaurante Bar Roble – Located on the edge of Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. A good option for lunch or dinner, this very old school restaurant often gets busy, and the service is typical Spanish / Catalan – occasionally brusque, but always efficient. And if you go when they have the lunch menu special (or menu del día), and you order wine as your included beverage, they plop the bottle on your table, and you drink as much as you want. Doesn’t get much better than that.

All-you-can-drink wine at Restaurante Bar Roble
Fideos de marisco con ali-oli on Restaurante Bar Roble lunch menu del dia
Milk – Bar and restaurant located not far from Las Ramblas. An excellent choice for first meal, as they offer a daily ‘Recovery Brunch’ from 9am to 4:30pm. Perfect for coming back to life after a night out partying in Barna. If you go on weekends, get there early – Spanish early, like 10 – to beat the rush.

Huevos rancheros at Milk. I dream of this brunch dish often.
A Tu Bola – Funky little eatery in the eclectic Raval neighborhood. Billing itself as a gourmet street food restaurant, the menu features a variety of different meat or veggie balls. Slightly pricier than I would normally go for, but the food and service are both very high quality.

Savory Mediterranean ball at A Tu Bola
Sweet chocolate truffle ball at A Tu Bola
Wok 2 Walk– A quick serve chain restaurant with 3 Barcelona locations. Is it life-changing food? No. But I really miss Asian noodles, so it does it for me. Plus, the food is fresh and fast.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Enjoy the Nightlife

Grácia– Probably my favorite neighborhood in Barcelona. Full of funky shops, bars, and people – a perfect place to just stroll around and get lost in, day or night. Plaça del Sol is a good launching point for exploring the neighborhood.
El Born – A little sexier and more polished than Gracia, with higher-end shops and restaurants, El Born is a great Barcelona ‘hood to see and be seen.

Antique jewely shopping in El Born

 

Afro Bar Bella Bestia – Offering a variety of soulful entertainment, from ska to soul to soulful rock, this low-key bar is a good place to get your groove on.
Harlem Jazz Club– Live music that might include funk, flamenco, Cuban jazz, and everything in between. More tourists than locals, but the music makes it worth your while.

 

Plaça Reial– Just off La Rambla, this well-known plaza is a good place to go for late night hanging, after you’ve finished dinner and clubbing elsewhere and you want to watch (or act like) a drunken Spaniard or Catalan.

How to Do Barcelona: Where to Stay

L’Eixample – The L’Eixample neighborhood is fairly centrally located and you can find some good bargains on vacation rentals or homestays in this part of town. However, it’s also a pretty big area, so where you choose to stay in L’Eixample can make a big difference as far as walkability to points of interest is concerned.
Where I’ve Stayed in L’Eixample: Airbnb room near Passeig de Graciaand Hostalet Barcelona
Las Ramblas On my first few visits to Barcelona, I avoided staying here because I didn’t want to be smack dab in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle that is Las Ramblas. But the one time I did stay here, it was quite nice to be able to quickly get back to the flat after a typical late night out without having to worry about catching the last train or possibly walking a really long way after the metro had shut down for the night.
Where I’ve Stayed in Las Ramblas: Airbnb Room with Private Lounge
Near Park Güell – If you’d prefer to be able to retire from the noise and crowds in central Barcelona at the end of the day, staying near Park Güell is a good idea. But – and I stress this caveat – be absolutelysure that you’re willing to tackle the very steep, very long incline that leads up to this area, especially if you plan on staying out late – I (and my hamstrings) learned this the hard way.  Depending on your fitness level, it can be a beast going and coming.
Note: Unfortunately, the very affordable housetrip.com room I stayed in is no longer available.

How to Do Barcelona: Beware of Pickpockets

Before my first trip to Barcelona, I’d heard so many stories about how bad and rampant pickpocketing was, that I was definitely on high alert. I actually even saw a foiled pickpocketing attempt occur right in front of me on the metro during my first visit. But, honestly, a little common sense and street smarts will go a long way and keep you from becoming a victim. Walk confidently with your head up (not staring at a tourist guide or map), make eye contact with too-close strangers, and always keep a hand on your personal belongings (tip: go for a crossover-style bag versus a backpack), and you’ll be fine. Especially if you’re used to travelling in large metropolitan cities like New York or Chicago.
Other Barcelona blogs and resources:
Resident Advisor – I’m a big fan of soulful house music and there’s usually some place to get my fix in Barna. RA keeps an up-to-date listing of weekly  and special events for house heads.
Planning a visit to Barcelona or other Spanish cities? Check out: 7 Things You Must See in Every Spanish City for a quick and dirty guide on sightseeing in Spain.
What are your favorite ways to do Barcelona? Any tips on places to see or avoid? Leave ’em in the comments! 

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tapa of the week: bar california, ciudad real

“Kisha, a few friends are going out to celebrate a birthday on Friday. Would you like to join us?”

The invitation came from Pablo – the dad in my adoptive family here. I gladly accepted, eager for the opportunity to meet some new people.

When the day arrived, I was a little bit apprehensive about the fact that I might not be able to understand the rapid-fire Spanish conversations that were sure to ensue. But after sufficiently lubricating ourselves at Bar Acuario, I found my ears were up for the challenge.

After finishing our first round, the birthday girl suggested we head to Bar California for more substantial tapas. We entered, copped a table for 5, and I listened as they ordered, not exactly sure what was going to show up on the table.

What arrived a few minutes later was this:

Gambas in garlic sauce. Basically a well-prepared version of shrimp scampi. Served still sizzling in a mini casserole dish. The shrimp were fresh and perfectly cooked. The sauce – perfect for mopping up with pieces of crusty bread.

Lomo con queso. Tender slices of pork loin cooked with herbs and caramelized onion, and topped with little piees of what I think was goat cheese. In my head, pork and cheese shouldn’t go together. But in my mouth? Magic.

 

 

“Oh. What’s this?” I ask. Pablo responds, “Orejas de cerdo.” Wait. Did he just say ‘pig ears’? Like the ones my grandma and her grandma used to make? Like the ones I never eat ’cause I think it’s gross? Hm. Well, I suppose I should try just a little bit, so as not to be rude.

The small bite I take is fatty, a little chewy, with just enough meatiness on it to make it worth eating, The pieces of meat have been chopped small and cooked so that the fat has rendered out a bit and left some nice charred bits on the edges. I try at least one more bite before deciding that this dish is best left to my dining companions.

Chuckling at the similarity of this dish to the Southern one I’m used to, I share with Pablo that we have a saying back home that we eat everything on the pig ‘from the rooter to the tooter’. Pablo laughs and shares that Manchegos have a similar phrase.

So much for not being able to understand.

Bar California

Calle Palma, 12, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price per Tapa: Prices vary according to menu. Since I was treated to the meal, I can’t say for sure :}

My Rating: High-quality tapas. A good place to go for sharing a few plates with friends. 

 

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useful auxiliar tip: how to conduct your first private english conversation lesson

A blank slate can be rather intimidating.
Signing up a new student or group for private English conversation classes is thrilling! You start thinking of all sorts of ideas for teaching the class, you dream of all the money you’ll be earning, and you imagine how awesome your new student or students are going to think you are.
But then you realize that before any of that can happen, you’ve got to make it through your very first lesson. What do you do with a brand new student? Where do you start if you don’t know where to start?
I had the same fears when teaching my first lesson, but after finding this guide for conducting your first private English lesson with a new student, I no longer feel any trace of fear or worry.
Essentially, this guide provides you a framework for treating the initial lesson as more of a getting-to-know-you session, which is what it should be. You need to figure out what level of English your student has, what his or her interests and goals are, and you need to share a bit of your experience and teaching methods. By removing the pressure to perform in the blind on your very first meeting, you’ll lay the foundation for a much more productive interaction between you and your student going forward.
I usually charge a reduced rate or even give this introductory ‘lesson’ for free to new students, and often the first lesson is much shorter – say 40 minutes versus an hour – than a regular lesson. How you modify the guide’s suggested steps is up to you.
What other suggestions do you have for successfully conducting a private lesson with a new student?
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estoy harta (i’m fed up)

Living in a small Spanish town is hard. Harder than I thought. I can’t believe it’s been 4 months, and I still struggle with being here. Still. I mean, I’m usually a pretty adaptable person, so I’m kind of shocked that I haven’t successfully done so here. I feel like almost every moment is a struggle. Nothing comes easily. Nothing is without a little bit of pain, inconvenience, or the unexpected element of surprise. I feel like I’ve been being (or trying to be) mentally and physically tough the entire time I’ve been here. And I don’t think I want to keep it up anymore. Or at least… I need to take a break from this sh*t.
***
Today, I left the bike behind at the house and walked to school instead. I got to school about 30 minutes late for my first class. I had no excuse other than, I couldn’t make it. That’s it. For my evening class, I showed up about 5 minutes late, and I flat out told the teacher – I’m totally unprepared today. She told me to go home. I did. This is what I call radical self-care tinged with a little bit of, ‘Yo. Eff this sh*t’.
***
Living alone was probably not the best decision after all, so I’ve started looking for a new apartment – with roommates. I spent time at the instituto this morning contacting the few shared apartments I found online last night. This evening, they both called back. I’ll be going to take a look at them tomorrow. Hopefully, at least one of them will feel like a better situation than I’m in right now. God, I hope so. I really need an improvement – just for my state of mind. I’m starting to feel so mentally worn down and raw-edged. Like, anything could make me cry these days. What kinda thug cries at the drop of a hat?
***
I watched two movies this weekend about folks locked down in solitary confinement. One was a movie with Kevin Bacon (who did his thing in the role, I might add) as a petty criminal who’d been in solitary in Alcatraz for 3 years in the 1930s. The other was the biopic about Ruben Hurricane Carter starring Denzel. Both felt like my life right now. Mumbling to myself, laughing to myself, entertaining myself with my own vivid daydreams and imaginings. Plus, something that Denzel-as-Ruben said in the movie really stuck with me. I just gotta focus on doing the time. Not on when I’ll get out, not on what my life used to be like in some other place. Just doing the time.
So far, I’ve done 4 months. I’d been thinking that I had 5 more months to go, and that there was no way in hell or on God’s green earth that I could possibly do another 5 months like this. But, then, all of a sudden I realized that the end of May is only a little more than 3 months away (I did start the program late, after all). 90 days doesn’t seem nearly as bad as 5 months. Maybe I can make it. Maybe.
***
I’m tired of fighting the cold
I’m tired of fighting the bike
I’m tired of fighting my schedule
I’m tired of fighting my shower
I’m tired of fighting my coffee maker
I’m tired of fighting my bed
I’m tired of the internet being so damned slow. Slow? No. slow would be an improvement
I’m tired of not having a DVD player
I’m tired of watching the same damned TV shows every damned day
I’m tired of the same crappy movies on Paramount channel
I’m tired of the cold
I’m tired of being sick
I’m sick of waiting a week for my clothes to dry
I’m sick of not having any clothes to wear
I’m sick of going shopping for clothes only to realize that I’m not made like a Spanish woman. (Yes, this dress is very nice. But where do my boobs go?)
I’m sick of going to the library
I’m sick of going to my evening class
I’m sick of this town
No. I’m over this town
I’m over these people who live here and the way they walk (Seriously? Can you f*ckin’ move, please?)
I’m over my students acting like slack-jawed yokels some days (What’s up with that? Think, dammit!)
I’m over this cold
I’m over this sh*tty ass food. Like, really, can I get one decent restaurant that either doesn’t have the same tired ass tapas that EVERY other restaurant has, OR isn’t ridiculously overpriced!? The f*ck?
I’m over positive self-talk. I’m over trying to convince myself that I can do this, that I got this, that I can make it if I just try. No. Enough of that. Today, it’s just me, my screwface, and hip-hop blaring through my headphones as I stomp-walk through the streets of Ciudad Real.
I can try again… tomorrow.

******
UPDATE; Since I first penned these thoughts almost a month ago, things have changed considerably. That apartment and those roommates I was hunting for? Found ’em. I now live with 3 other ladies of varying ages. It feels nice to no longer have only myself to talk to, and to have other living, breathing humans to share the details of my day with. I’ve even made some connections with other Americans living in town, and we meet fairly regularly to share tapas, drinks, laughter, and stories of expat life.

That cold that I was so very sick of? The new apartment has much better heating, and the seemingly neverending winter in my little Spanish town has magically transformed into spring – almost overnight. This means that I’ve been able to reunite with my rusty old bike that one of my coworkers loaned me. Now that I no longer have to abrigarme every day, I can actually enjoy the sometimes-challenging ride through town on my way to school or to run errands. I even catch myself humming or singing little tunes as I pedal through the streets – a much better use of my vocal chords than the under-my-breath curses that I used to emit.

That terrible Internet connection that forced me to go to use the wifi at the public library, where I was often prey for creepy library stalkers… it is no more. The wifi in my new place is about as strong as it gets. So, not only can I get more writing work done in the comfort of my own room, I can also watch a variety of TV programs and movies that just weren’t available to me before. And sometimes, when I am just sitting in my room, enjoying the relative softness of my new bed, or watching the sunlight stream in through the window, I hear the lilting sounds of my neighbor practicing the flute (thankfully, he or she is pretty damned good!) or the bells from the nearby cathedral chiming the hour… and I smile, and say a little prayer of thanks.

Through all of this, I’ve realized (or been reminded) that making a mid-course correction isn’t the same as failing; that suffering isn’t necessary, that when going through something that you know is making you stronger and more resilient, you still have the right and the power to say when you’ve reached your limit.

And that sometimes, ‘eff this sh*t’, is exactly the right answer.

A little reminder I wrote to myself and kept on my bedside table when I decided to stop struggling.
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useful auxiliar tip: the 15-minute back pocket exercise

Keep a back-pocket full of 15-minute activities, exercises or simple games that you can whip out at a moment’s notice. It should be something that is suitable or easily adaptable for all levels, and doesn’t need any special materials or equipment. Invariably, you will find yourself in a situation where the teacher has deserted you or you have extra time on your hands at the end of a previous activity. I call them ‘gaping hole’ moments. You don’t want gaping hole moments. A few of my favorite 15-minute activities: Celebrity, Jeopardy!, conversation cards, and a little game I like to call ‘Say It, Spell It, Count It’. With this game, I write different words, numbers, or simple math problems on slips of paper. Each student takes turn pulling a slip of paper from the bag. They have to either say the word in English (it’s written in Spanish on the paper), Spell the word in English (also written in Spanish on the paper), or count something (i.e., say a number or give the answer to a simple problem).
What sort of ‘gaping hole’ activities do you use with your classes and private lessons?

spanish word of the day: caber

Caber (verb) – to fit, to have room for.

As is my usual habit on Thursdays, I go have a coffee and a churrito in the cafeteria at school after my first and only class of the day. Today, the churritos weren’t yet ready when I arrived and ordered my coffee. The guy who runs the cafeteria set out a mini muffin for me to eat while the churritos finished cooking.

“Oh, no…” I protested, “Yo puedo esperar por el churrito.” (I can wait for the churrito.)

“Tu eres grande,” he replied. “Te cabe!” (You’re big. You have room for it!)

Sir!!