Long Way Home

View from my window

December 18th was probably the longest night of my life. I mean literally. I’ve never been so far north, so close to the equinox. But figuratively it wasn’t a piece of cake, either.

To save money, I picked a cheap flight from Studentuniverse.com, even if it was a bit convoluted. In the end, I had to spend a short night in Bilbao, get up at 5 to get to the airport, fly to Madrid, transfer, fly to Miami, transfer again, and then fly home to Tampa. I was awake for a full 24 hours, and going through security twice and customs once and fighting stairs and busses with all my suitcases, they weren’t particularly pleasant, either.

At least I kept flying south – the bad winter Europe’s having is playing havoc with all airports north of about Paris, and when I was in Bilbao they kept delaying the flights to Germany and the U.K. by hours at a time.

As we neared Miami, the Spanish pilot came on the air and said, only in Spanish, “As you know, Iberian ham products of all kinds are prohibited in the United States. If you declare them, they will take them away. So, you have two choices – either you can not declare them, and take them home and enjoy them with your family for Christmas… or you can declare them, and we will take them home and do the same.”

Published in: on December 20, 2010 at 22:40  Comments (1)  

Spanish Nativity

As UNAV is a catholic university, there is a prominent nativity scene in the foyer of the main building right now. It’s quite sweet, and I had a minute before I was meeting a friend, so I took a few quick pictures. I love that the buildings look just like the ones in the little villages all around Navarra! It’s such a nice touch, really gives the scene some local flavour.

Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 23:34  Leave a Comment  


Mus games in Zumaia, Basque Country.

I first saw mus being played in little bars and restaurants by older men in the Basque country – it seemed to have a certain quaintness to it that reminded me more of dominoes than of poker. In Zumaia, I even saw them betting with piles of tiny snail shells!

According to the internet, though, mus is far from a quaint village tradition – it’s the most popular card game in Spain – and a mainstay among college students! If that’s true, then it’s another thing for the north to be proud of – it originated in Navarra and the Basque Country.

Apparently the game is a bit like spades, a betting game played with a partner. The rules I’ve found online look complicated, but I’ve heard it’s really quite simple, that the mechanics just take awhile to put into words. I’ll find out soon, I imagine – I bought my dad a set for Christmas. Unfortunately, no snail shells in this pack!

Published in: on December 6, 2010 at 11:52  Leave a Comment  
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Stage Three: Going Deeper

As I rapidly approach the end of my time in Spain, I can see that looking back my time here has fallen into three stages, each distinct and with its own challenges, triumphs, and small miracles.

Stage One: Crash Landing

On the day trip to San Sebastian, I ended up with three random girls - Lea from Austria, Cynthia from Germany, and Ida from Finland. The first two later became two of my best friends here in Spain.

From the time I arrived in Pamplona in August and had to spend the night at the bus station, to perhaps as late as the end of September, I was getting my bearings. Every day brought a new challenge, and while I took a few day trips to nearby cities, most of my energy was spent trying to figure out this new world I’d been placed in, whether that meant Spain in general, Pamplona and UNAV specifically, or even the entire Erasmus situation. In the first weeks, I didn’t know how to get an ID card or use the school’s WIFI or library. I carried a map just to get across town. I had no idea who my friends were going to be or what classes I was going to be in. The world around me was a giant swirling chaos that I was trying to make sense of, one element at the time – the months ahead, a blank state filled with dizzying potential and a bit of fear. I felt tired a lot during this period, and nervous, and stupid. Sometimes I even felt angry. I didn’t really feel homesick, though – I was too busy for that, and everything was still so new that even when it was frustrating or frightening it was terribly exciting. Hardly a day passed where I didn’t, at different times, feel that I could do nothing right, and that I could take over the world single-handedly.

Stage Two: Far and Away

I spent some amazing days in Galicia with Sara and Colleen. Very rainy, a little stressful, but amazing.

Then, everything changed. Suddenly all the important things had finally been settled, and I knew how to get by. I trusted myself to be able to figure things out and handle day to day activities competently. Classes were in full swing, but exams were still far off and I didn’t have any big projects yet. Spain – or, at least, Pamplona – was starting to feel like home. As summer turned to autumn, I began to look around me for activities to fill my new life. I joined Club de Montaña and went canyoning in Aragon, climbed a Pyrenean mountain, and hiked through the Selva de Irati. I visited a friend in Alicante, partied in Madrid, explored Asturias and Galicia, went surfing in France and saw a U2 concert in San Sebastian. This was certainly the most exciting part of my time in Spain, and to outward appearances my happiest. In reality, though, not every day was storied ex-pat bliss. Travelling is stressful, after all, and although every time I set off for a new adventure I was buzzing with excitement, there were always busses and hostels to coordinate, budgets to keep an eye on, and schoolwork to make up (or at least feel guilty for missing). The stress hit at funny times – some mornings I felt nervous for no reason, other times I fretted over how quickly time was going by, and, I admit it, at the midway point I even felt a little bit homesick. After the first weeks I became more aware at how time was continuing without me back home, that I was missing birthdays and holidays and entire seasons of real life.

Stage Three: Going Deeper

Safe at home is sometimes right where you want to be during a northern Spanish winter.

In early November, things changed again. Winter arrived and brought with it freezing temperatures and the approaching threat of final exams. A homing instinct kicked in and I stopped my boundless wandering and returned to Pamplona, more or less for good. These practical concerns were a blessing, though, because when I stopped moving around so often, I started going deeper into life at home.  A few of my Spanish contacts began to develop into something like friends, and my group of Erasmus friends became tighter and more familiar and comfortable. I learned how to cook regional specialities, I got a library card, I found some volunteer work at a nearby Basque high school. I took some short trips around Navarra, my home state, and was amazed anew at the variety and beauty tucked into such a small area. With a new sense of stability (not to mention a plane ticket in hand to go home for Christmas) the last traces of fear and uncertainty left. My life in Spain began to feel totally normal, even routine – and that – to watch a foreign country lose its foreignness – to see it become home – is a magical thing, a miracle – and it might even be the best argument for studying abroad.

Churros y Chocolate

Churro with Orange Chocolate in Pontevedra, Galicia.

I had been looking forward to real Spanish churros for a long time. Deep fried, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and dipped in hot chocolate so thick it’s difficult to swallow – it seemed like the perfect recipe. Still, I’d tried similar things in the United States – stale tasting ‘churros’ at Disney World, Taco Bell’s “CinnaTwists”, etc… and I was eager to put aside for once and for all the creeping doubt that such a brilliant idea had been allowed to take only such pitiful forms.

I ate my first Spanish churros in Madrid – in the most traditional manner possible. After a night of partying, we jumped into a taxi and asked them to take us to Chocolatería San Ginés – one of the few restaurants open at 5 in the morning, and the traditional place to wind down for bed as the sun rises. The churros were good, I thought, better than any I’d had before – and dipping them into the hot chocolate was a brilliant and welcome decision.Still, I found myself wondering if San Ginés deserved its reputation as the best churros place – perhaps its mere popularity is a self-defeating prophecy, perhaps we simply came at a bad time, but the churros seemed a little bit limp and soggy to me. Anywhere else, I would have been quite happy with them – but were they really the best in Madrid – the best in Spain?

Sara and Colleen are extremely excited about these churros.

My next churros were in Pontevedra, Galicia. My friends and I were craving a real meal, but when we saw a sign advertising churros with hot white chocolate, we couldn’t refuse. The churros here were only decent, a little tough perhaps, but the chocolate was incredible – we ordered one big cup of white chocolate, and one of chocolate and orange, both so rich they seemed alcoholic. We didn’t leave before painstakingly swallowing every last drop.

I decided I liked these churro things, but the search for amazing ones – the ones that could truly embody my ideal of the recipe’s potential – was still on. You have to remember that I’m a Midwestern American girl, that Missouri leans towards the south when it comes to our carnival cuisine, and that I’ve always been a big fan of funnel cake and extra krispies to know where I’m coming from on this, and when I first saw the stand in Utebo, Aragon (near Zaragoza), I think I knew.

The Search for the Perfect Churros: Complete!

It was a greasy looking stand in the middle of nowhere – a playground in a suburb of Zaragoza. An unseasonably warm night was falling, and the fat man working there looked relaxed, his son bored. They were out of hot chocolate, but Lea and I were in a bit of a hurry anyway. We ordered one dozen churros, with sugar, and he squeezed the dough out fresh from a star-shaped nozzle into a vat of hot oil. A minute later we were headed towards the bus stop with a paper bag full of greasy, hot churros. The most American part of me was fantastically excited.

They were brilliant. They were crunchy on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside without seeming undercooked, they were coated with the perfect amount of cinnamon and sugar, prickling my tongue just right, they were luxuriously greasy, but never crossed that line that makes me too aware of it, instead it was all one, beautiful product, impossible to tell where the pleasure coming off of one magical component ended and another began. Did I mention that they were hot? I ate the first three without coming up for air, and savoured my second half slowly as they started to cool in the night air. They were still amazing.

Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 12:25  Comments (2)  
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Seasons in Pamplona

“En Pamplona solo hay dos estaciones – de lluvia y de autobuses.” – Ainhoa

In Spanish, the same word, ‘estacion’, means both ‘season’ and ‘station’. This leads to Ainhoa’s nice little joke – “In Pamplona there are only two estaciones – the rainy estacion and the bus estacion.” 🙂

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 20:42  Leave a Comment  


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On a beautiful mid-November Saturday, my friend Lea and I headed southeast to Zaragoza, the capital of Navarra’s neighbor state of Aragon. Many of our friends had gone a few weeks earlier during the Fiesta de Pilar, but Lea had a visitor at the time and I was in Madrid, so it was just the two of us this time. As with Bilbao, we hadn’t heard glowing reviews of Zaragoza before coming. First, I was told that there wasn’t much to do there other than walk around and shop. When I confronted them with what I’d found out online – that Zaragoza has several world heritage sites and an amazing cathedral, they sighed and said, “Well, other than those, there’s not much to do.” – I guess some people can never be satisfied.

The Arabic Palace

Our first stop on arrival was la Aljafaria – Arabic for the House of Jaffar (a bit funny for those who grew up watching Disney’s Aladdin.) The palace is more than a thousand years old and is perhaps the best example of Islamic architecture from the period of the independent kingdoms in Spain, and is the only such building outside of Andalucia in the far south of Spain. Although it was altered several times – from Arabic palace to the royal residence of Catholic kings to a military base and even a hospital, it preserves much of the intricate Muslim decoration I hadn’t hoped to find so far north. The building seems to be all graceful arches, impossibly complex stone carvings and the play of sun and shadows. In keeping with it’s multi-purpose past, today the Aljafaria is not only a popular tourist destination, it also houses Aragon’s regional parliament.

Next, we took a walk through the streets of Zaragoza, where the first Christmas decorations had already been put  up. We wandered in vague search of some Asian cuisine, but somehow found ourselves at a pintxos bar instead – apparently Zaragoza is almost as well known for this close cousin to tapas as Pamplona and the Basque Country. Between the two of us, we managed to consume a total of 16 different pintxos, most of them quite tasty, although perhaps a bit heavy on mashed potatoes.

The Two Cathedrals

After lunch we made for the epicenter of Zaragoza’s attractions, the Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. As Mary is considered the patron saint of Spain, as well as all Hispanic people, a reflecting pool and a fountain on the western side combine to form a mirror like map of the Americas from Mexico down to Argentina – this is the Fuente de Hispanidad, or the Fountain of Hispanic Identity. The rest of the plaza is mostly empty, with plenty of room for the striking shadows of the churches that surround it on three sides. Two of these are cathedrals – la Seo, and the famous Basilica.

The Basilica is a huge building that dominates the view of Zaragoza for kilometers along the river. It is built in the Arab-influenced Mudejar style and includes brightly coloured domes. Inside, the ceilings are covered with frescoes by Francisco Goya, and you can see the pillar and image of Mary that she was said to give to St. James during her only apparition prior to her death. Equally miraculous is the church’s survival through the Spanish civil war – three bombs were dropped on it, but none of them exploded, and the basilica stands to this day.

Afternoon Wanderings

With Zaragoza’s most mandatory sites out of the way, both Lea and I had something in the area that sparked our curiosity. Lea wanted to see the sight of the Expo 2008, which was hosted by Zaragoza, while I wanted to hop a bus to neighboring Utebo to see another element of the Mudejar World Heritage Site, a lovely tower. We headed to the Expo first, as the sun was sinking fast and we needed light to see the old water park. The site of the Expo is in some disrepair, and looks like it hasn’t been touched since the day the party ended. Still, I didn’t regret the leisurely walk along the banks of the river to get there. Zaragoza may be the fifth most populous city in Spain, but it still didn’t feel too metropolitan – we passed a group of men fishing under the shadow of the cathedral, for example, and the lawns around the Expo are now a sort of park, where a few families were walking or picnicking. A piece of interpretive art nearby played strange music from some underwater world – remixed whale calls and flowing water, and we spent half an hour listening to it while lying on our backs looking up at the late afternoon sky.

We had just enough time before our bus ride home to get over to Utebo to see my tower. It was as beautiful as I had imagined, and I was happy to get to see it. There wasn’t much else to do in Utebo, though, so it might not be worth the effort to everyone. On the way back through, we stopped at a greasy little stand where I had the best churros of my time in Spain so far – a sweet end to a lovely day.

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 21:15  Leave a Comment  
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Spanish Bull-boards

Archaic coats-of-arms? So out. Overtly masculine bull icons? So in.

Since arriving in Spain, I’ve seen the simple but striking outline of a black bull emblazoned on t-shirts, keychains, and bumper stickers. It seems to be every bit as strong a national symbol as the Spanish flag itself – in fact, the two are often combined, especially for sporting events!

There are also postcards sold here and there which appear to show a large, standing interpretation of the black bull in a field of sunflowers. Later, I was out with some friends when we spotted one by the road. It was enormous – a thin piece of metal painted jet black and standing proudly over the highway. I was starting to get curious. This was clearly a different specimen than I had seen in the postcards, and, now that I thought about it, I’d seen another one in my friend’s photographs from the Canary Islands. So there were at least three across Spain, I thought, and logic would say there were likely to be more… a good deal more.

I’ve kept my eye out on my travels around Spain, and by now I’ve probably seen close to a dozen, perched everywhere from the dry, rocky roadsides of Alicante to the lush green hills of Galicia. My curiosity was piqued. How many were there? How did they get where they were? How are they maintained? I assumed that they had been placed along the highways in order to reflect a national symbol – but after a little bit of research, I learned that the truth was precisely the opposite, and that the bulls have a long and complicated history that has taken turns no one could have predicted.


The History of the Osborne Bulls:

It all started in the 1950’s, when the sherry company Osborne (incidentally, the second oldest company in Spain), chose a simple bull logo to advertise their new brandy, and began erecting modestly sized wooden billboards in the shape of this logo, each painted with the word “Osborne”. If these bulls sound quite different from those seen today, that’s because they were!

There were once more than a hundred 'bulls' across Spain, each held together with more than 1,000 bolts.

Soon, weather conditions required the company to switch their material from wood to metal, and they increased the size of the billboards to 7 meters. Then, in 1962, new laws required advertisements to be kept further from the roads, so the size of the bulls was double to a massive 14 meters, and they were strategically placed over flat stretches or on hilltops in order to maximize visibility.

Advertising restrictions continued to tighten, and by the late 1980’s Osborne had to remove their names from the sign and paint them plain black in order to follow regulations. This worked for a few years, until new laws said that the bulls – plain black or no – would have to be taken down.

Then, something extraordinary happened – the media and the people of Spain leapt to the billboards’ defense – a massive ‘save the bulls’ campaign was initiated. The argument went all the way to Spain’s Supreme Court, which in 1997 ruled that the bulls had transcended mere advertising icons, and were now part of Spain’s cultural identity and heritage.

The bulls were safe! Well, mostly. Some had already been destroyed before they were given protected status, and those that remain are still subject to the weather (in 2009, one of the Alicante bulls was demolished by strong winds – it has since been rebuilt) and vandalism (the only bull in Catalonia, near Barcelona, has been repeatedly vandalized by Catalan nationalists, and has not been rebuilt after its most recent destruction.)

The Osborne company itself has had mixed feelings about the bull saga. Just as the status of the bulls as cultural icons has protected them from advertising regulations, it has protected manufacturers of souvenirs utilizing the logo from copyright restrictions.


Where are they now?

Wikipedia's map showing bulls per Spanish province.

The 89 remaining Osburne Bulls are scattered unevenly across Spain, from the greatest concentration (23) in Andalucia, to the single speciments of the Basque Country, Navarra, Catalunya, the Balearic Islands, and the Canary Islands.

For fellow residents of Navarra, ours is in the south, near Tudela.

Wherever they are located, the bulls are taken care of today by Felix Tejada and his family, in whose workshop they were first created.

Published in: on November 14, 2010 at 13:56  Comments (1)  


Foie from Bar Gaucho. Highly recommended.

I’d never tasted Foie before coming to Spain, so it wasn’t a flavour for me – merely a topic for debate. It’s extremely controversial – but there’s a reason people fight for it. This stuff will change your life.

If you’re having trouble picking sides, there’s also growing talk of a compromise – a sustainable and humane foie gras, made by taking advantage of the goose’s natural seasonal binging, which may even be better than the traditional stuff. Oddly enough, it’s coming mostly from Spain. I’m sure the stuff I get in Pamplona’s Pintxos bars isn’t the ‘responsible’ stuff – but after all, it could be… besides, in all honesty, it tastes so good it overrides the part of my brain responsible for ethical choices.

Published in: on November 6, 2010 at 00:44  Leave a Comment  
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Zizur Txikia

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If you head south on the Camino de Santiago from Pamplona, you’ll pass through UNAV’s campus and a few agricultural fields, cross over the highway, and find yourself in Zizur Txikia (Cizur Menor in Spanish). It’s a nice 30-45 minute walk from where I live, and I’ve taken it twice now on days when the weather is nice. Zizur Txikia has two little churches that look far away from Pamplona, perched on a distant hill, and it’s fun to know you’ve walked there on your own feet!

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 22:40  Leave a Comment