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Xareta is an association of four Basque villages – Zugarramurdi, Sare, Ainhoa, and Urdax – which are united by cultural elements such as fantastic caves and Pottok ponies. What makes this connection unusual and interesting is that it straddles a national border – Sare and Ainhoa are French villages (2 of the 148 most beautiful in the country!), while Zugarramurdi and Urdax (Urdazubi) are Spanish.

On my last trip in Spain, a road trip to the North and East of Navarra, we passed through all four – seeing the witch caves of Zugarramurdi, getting lost in Sare, eating some Basque cake in Ainhoa, and taking a tour of the caves of Urdax. I know that there are a number of lovely walks to be taken in the region – I only wish we’d had more time to explore!

Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 23:55  Leave a Comment  

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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Snowed In!

Marketa and I had planned four days of road trips around Navarra, but then the snow came, and made the roads so icy that our friend Nerea’s parents couldn’t even get from Bilbao to Pamplona. We decided to play it safe and stay in instead, maybe for the best with finals approaching. We’re hoping to get out for 1-3 days next week…

Published in: on December 4, 2010 at 22:18  Leave a Comment  

Snow and Studying

One of nine snowman in Plaza Felix Huarte

It’s snowing pretty hard today. First serious exam tomorrow – Cultura Visual.

I made a quick grocery run – bought milk, bread, tomato sauce, and relleno. I could have survived the day with what I had in my cupboard, and shouldn’t have wasted the time with my exam approaching, but then again it only takes ten minutes, and tomorrow I’m busy, and Sunday it’ll be closed, and Monday and Tuesday perhaps too – there’s some sort of holiday. Even today lots of things are closed for Dia de Navarra, but luckily not the grocery store. Besides, I wanted to feel the snow under my own feet – this was an excuse.

Snowball fight in Plaza Felix Huarte

Plaza Felix Huarte has nine new residents as of this morning – very pale and a bit misshapen. I don’t know if they’ll make it to nightfall without melting away entirely- the temperature is only just at freezing, after all.

My room smells like the wet laundry hung up to dry. It’s not unpleasant. There’s enough light bouncing off the snow and coming in through the window that I can leave the electric ones turned off. The air is cool but I’ve got my wool socks and a sweatshirt on as I sit in bed and study with a mug of Colacao. Life is good.

Published in: on December 3, 2010 at 15:57  Leave a Comment  


Olentzero Dator - Olentzero is Coming

You might call Olentzero the Basque Santa Claus – but you’d lose a lot in translation. Sure, he’s a fat old man who comes down out of the mountains around Christmas time to give children presents, but that’s about where the similarities end. Cultures around the world often adapt their pagan traditions to Christianity, but Olentzero’s cover story seems to hold a bit less water than average.

The most common story about Olentzero’s origin is that he is the last of the Jentillak, (a mythological race of Pyrenean giants – name cognate to gentile), left behind when the others returned within the earth or threw themselves off a mountain when they heard of the coming of Christ. And he gets weirder – here’s my favourite stanza from a Christmas song I learned in Basque class:

He looks nice enough...

Olentzero gurea

ezin dugu ase
osorik jan dizkigu
hamar txerri gazte.
Saiheski ta solomo
horrenbeste heste
Jesus jaio delako
erruki zaitezte.

Our Olentzero
we can’t sate him
he has eaten whole
ten piglets.
Ribs and pork loin
so many intestines
because Jesus is born
have mercy.

Let me repeat that last part: “He has eaten whole ten piglets. Ribs and pork loin, so many instestines, because Jesus is born – have mercy.” Whatever happened to cookies and milk?

The worst part is, this is the new and improved Olentzero, the modern version sanitized for today’s children. In many older versions of the legend, if the children were bad, (for example, if they didn’t want to go to bed right away), a sickle would be thrown down the chimney to indicate that Olentzero was coming to cut their throats.

Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 22:14  Leave a Comment  

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.


In Bilbao, I went to a pintxo bar called Irrintzi. Like the names of many pintxo bars, to the newcomer to the Basque Country it looks like a mess of random letters, more like a random file name you typed out in a rush than a word with significance and meaning. Still, like most of them, it does actually have a meaning.

It’s basically a crazy, high pitched scream, serving the traditional purpose of calling throughout the mountains, like yodelling. Nowadays it’s often used by Basque as expressions of excitement, happiness, and emotion at fiestas and the like. Here’s a definition I particularly like, from buber.net – “The traditional Basque mountain cry, a ululation characterized by a rising pitch and concluded with a kind of demented laugh.”

Because real life has to add a darker and more complex tone to everything, Irrintzi has recently developed another meaning – it is the name of a new Basque terrorist group that works in France with the motto, “Euskal Herria ez dago salgai” – “The Basque Country is not for sale.”


Pass the - rubbery fish in tomato sauce? Not exactly my most traditional Thanksgiving meal to date!

Being away for Thanksgiving was a bit harder than being away for Halloween. Sure, I missed stuffing my face with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and dressing up with my friends, but Thanksgiving is more than a party and a sugar rush – it’s about pulling out cookbook’s with a years worth of dust on them, sitting in a circle pulling apart bread and painfully hot chicken by hand to make traditional Metheny stuffing, and playing Aggravation and Tripoli between mini-feasts.

On Facebook, my friends back home joke about how much turkey they’re going to eat and how much weight they’re going to gain, or count their blessings (sarcastically or in earnest).  Meanwhile all of my fellow American ex-pats have changed their Skype statuses to reflect their homesickness. Some of the international students are even putting on little Thanksgiving dinners in miniature – limited both by what they know how to cook themselves, and on available ingredients. 

As I told my sister, yes, I’m alone for Thanksgiving, but it’s not as if everyone around me is baking turkey and sweet potatoes and hugging relatives while I’m eating a turkey and gravy t.v. dinner. Life goes on as normal, and it helps. But it’s hard to ignore completely. The truth is I’m glad to spend only one fall abroad. The highlight of the day was talking to my family via Skype. They’re at Todd’s in St. Louis and it’s snowing there. Everyone took turns talking to me – Mom, Dad, Melissa, Uncle Bob and a barrage of cousins.  They even held up Tidbit for me to see/talk to… she could hear me calling her and was cocking her head back and forth – so confused about where the familiar voice could be coming from!

Ida from Finland tried to get into the Thanksgiving Spirit with this super-traditional Native American attire...

The International Office here held an event the day after Thanksgiving called “Spainsgiving”. A little cheesy, and confusing too – the meal had nothing to do with Thanksgiving whatsoever – not turkey, not green bean cassarole, not even pumpkin pie! Still, several of my friends signed up, so I went along too. The food was not terribly good, (although the chorizo appetizer was tasty), and the event as a whole was overpriced, but I guess it’s the thought that counts!

Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 16:44  Leave a Comment  

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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