Behind the Apron: Thanksgiving!

I would be hard pressed to identify another holiday that I love as much as Thanksgiving.

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This is 8 parts because I’m a foodie, and 2 parts because I love preparing and sharing a big meal. You’re wondering .. you don’t love your family? Nonsense. I love them just fine, but I don’t need a Thanksgiving meal to love my parents. For the record, we are usually a quiet threesome with a table full of awesome.

Thanksgiving 2010 was spent in Spain, with a flat full of fellow teachers. We had a pueblo turkey, pot-lucked sides and a loud, perfect home. We also hosted two Spaniards that needing some navigating around our dishes (see: sweet potatoes with colored marshmallows, a result of in-country shopping) and our table (the everlasting meal). Nothing says America like Thanksgiving, right?

Thanksgiving 2012 will be spent here in Charleston. I know, you’re freaking out. Don’t worry, I’m not cooking for myself. I’m cooking for myself and my dear friend, Holly. With work and the price of flights, we are too tired and too broke to head home, so we’re calling this a down home Illinois holiday.

So what’s on the menu:
* Turkey + gravy (yes, Holly is a vegetarian but I am all about leftovers)
* Stuffing
* Mashed potatoes
* Sweet potatoes
* Green bean casserole
* Copper pennies (carrots + brown sugar + butter)
* Scalloped pineapple
* Cranberry sauce
* Homemade bread

Anyone who has any qualms with the amount of food listed here, has never seen Holly and I eat. Oh, and there’s more.

* Pumpkin roll
* Pie .. apple? tbd.
* Pie .. imported from Springfield bakery Incredibly Delicious (because it is)
* Cranberry bread (the morning after, of course)
* Apple cider, mulled wine .. where was I? Oh right, PIE.

Here’s to you and yours this holiday – give thanks, eat up and save room for dessert!

Volver: To Return, to Go Back

[Friday, June 15]: Catching up on posts from last week!

Tienes hermanos, Kelly? Yo no. Soy la unica. Eres hija unica?!
Do you have brothers or sisters? Nope, I’m an only child. The only child??

Regardless of the language being spoken, after my admission of a solo childhood, there usually follows an expression of surprise. Some people ask if I enjoyed my only childhood, did I wish I had siblings. I usually tell the story that my parents told me: when I was 2 and people starting pestering me about my sibling status (“are you ready for a baby brother?”), I shook my head definitively and declared, “No, I’m quite enough.” Sometimes I crack a joke about not being able to blame the dog for any household wrongdoing, or refer to my common practice of borrowing other people’s siblings.

For those that know me, my parents and I are quite close. My friends also think of my parents as an extension of me; likewise, my parents adopt my friends. There are emails, letters, gifts, hospitality. What a compliment to have these two people that accept everyone I love, and automatically love them, too.

When I went abroad for the first time – age 20, hija unica – it was terrifying for my parents. They were pretty good about hiding it under a veil of excitement, only confessing to me upon my return that it was deeply and profoundly scary. Their only daughter spending six months overseas in a place they didn’t know, a language I kind of knew… I can understand the anxiety. But one small comfort, a silver lining – there would be a family.

Six months later, I would be sobbing hysterically in my Spanish apartment, clinging to my señora, torn between going home and leaving a place that had also become home. The cab driver telling me I would come back, “they always come back.”

Family 2010

Juan, Josefina, Kelly, Esther, Juani: 2010

Six years later, I prove him right, returning to the same apartment, visiting during my year teaching English abroad. As if no time had passed at all, the family sits down for lunch together and the sound of Castellano bounces around the room, bouyant, full of the joy of return. With every mouthful of paella, I am grinning, telling stories and recounting the last few years.

Eight years later, I will direct my taxi driver to the same apartment. I recall a train ride in from Sevilla two years earlier. Americans, gathering like they do, exchanging plans and stories. A girl several years younger than I, referring to her semester in Granada a few years back. I ask immediately about her living situation, and she mentions that she stayed with a host family. I ask where she lived, and she shakes her head – she can’t remember – and she returns the question. Startled, I repeat my host family’s address and explain the general direction. She shrugs and nods. This is my first true recognition that not all host family experiences are created equal.

Josefina Esther

Josefina & Esther: 2004

For me, a señora who loved to cook. Who always had “her face” on, who made me special meals when I was sick. She let me cook in her kitchen, and she comforted me when my grandmother died. Host to more than two decades of American girls, a most generous soul. A father, who worked hard on the family property and loved jokes and sweets. Extraordinarily shorter than his American daughter, and equally proud to escort me to the plaza on my first day in town. Two siblings already moving on with their lives: a handsome older son working in Madrid, a kind woman with a five year old princess who let me plan an Easter egg hunt for her.

Most notably, a sister. Gorgeous, model thin, incredibly Spanish. She quizzed me about my days at university, shuffled around in silly slippers, taught me Sevillanas (kind of) in the marble hallway. Inquired about boys, America and my future plans. Entertained my friends, praised the cultivation of an Andaluza accent and baked a birthday cake for my roommate. Quick to laugh, an expert at an American-Spanish accent and so animated, so Granadina.

And so tomorrow, a wedding. Her wedding. Tradition, fun, finery and .. family. A triumphant return to a beautiful city that I think about all the time. A seat at the table with a family not my own, a series of American sisters celebrating a sister not mine, or theirs. Olé.

the 12 hour communion

Another first this weekend here in southern Spain: a First Communion. As you know, I give private English classes here in Sevilla and one of my students is a 10 year old girl who I adore. Several weeks ago she invited me to her First Communion and I was eager to accept such a gracious invitation. I came down from Madrid late Friday night and woke up early Saturday morning for what would be one of the longest events I’ve ever witnessed.

9 a.m. bus to the school / church
After a morning without electricity, I wander out into the already warm neighborhood and catch a bus to Los Remedios. The C2 runs toward the Prado bus station and beach goers are the only ones joining me for the ride. I find the school and therefore, the church, without difficulty. Ducking inside to beat the heat I settle into a pew toward the back. The church is large, and simple. It is a welcome relief from the ostentatious cathedrals and eye popping Gothic gold that usually accompanies a Spanish iglesia.

9:40 a.m. music and revelers
As one would expect, the First Communion has very little to do with religion and a whole lot to do with socializing. I watched people of all ages file into the church, dressed in their summer finery. I shrug off my wrap once I see other people with bare shoulders in the chapel. There are two kisses on every cheek and cameras, video cameras and parental paraphernalia galore. I spot my student’s sister and parents and settle down to wait.

10 a.m. almost on time, and here come the kids
By some beautiful miracle, it looks like we will start on time. I am informed later on that this is because the church turns out two communions every Saturday in May – one at 10 a.m. and another at 12 Noon. Whatever the reason, on with the show.

the mini bride

10:03 a.m. here’s my girl!
My student walks in, looking like a mini bride in her brilliant white dress. She is at least a head taller than her classmates and I make a mental note to start talking about volleyball with her – as if she has time for another activity besides her English, dancing, painting, horseback riding and basketball. I am surprised to see a small class – only 16-20 students. Her dad tells me later that it is typical to do several ceremonies with less students, rather than what I’m used to seeing in the US. The church is packed and there are less than 2 dozen kids, so obviously the organizers know what they’re doing.

Fast forward: 11 something a.m. I sat in the right spot!
Although I am behind the majority of the congregation, I’m across the aisle from the offering of flowers, candles and wine (oil?). So here comes my student down the aisle on her way to pick up an offering to take up to the priests. I have to smile because she has been fidgeting the whole time and here in the middle of the aisle she starts to look around at the guests. She glances over her shoulder and I wave at her from the end of the pew. I am rewarded with a smile and she sticks her tongue out at me, raising her eyebrows like “can you believe this stuff?”

11:40 a.m. where is the organ?
Another surprise here in a Spanish church is the lack of the monster organ and the ominous hymns. Near the front sit three singers, a guitar player and a girl with a tambourine. This lends a folksy sound to the ceremony, and accompanies all of the religious songs in a way I’ve never heard before. The congregation sings along and does the hokey pokey when they’re supposed to, and at last we are done. The poor usher is shooing people out of the aisles as they try to walk the children down to the front door. The resulting sprint for the central aisle is chaos.

not a bad view

12:15 p.m. let’s get a drink
I’ve found my student’s family, told my kiddo she’s beautiful and we disembark for a drink at a private club along the river. At this point, we are about 15-20 people. Family, friends, and cousins out the wazoo. The children are amazed that I’m in attendance and that I speak English. There are a lot of “how are you” and “where are you from” -s going around. All this with the backdrop of the Rio Gaudalqivir and a blindingly sunny day.

1:32 p.m. we’re late, but we’re with the novia
Half serious and half joking, there have been several references to “la novia” – literally – the bride. Regardless, she is the star of the day and since we arrive in the same car, it’s ok that we’re late. After all we had to go upstairs and say hi to the dog before we left. There is a beautiful restaurant in front of us, with a typical Andalucian patio and goldenrod colored walls. Through a big wooden door I see a few tables and realize that this site has been reserved just for us. In the end we will be approximately 40 guests.

2 p.m. let the kids eat and pass the hors d’ouevres
The kids get their own table outside and they happily gnosh on tapas and later, fish and chips. They are high on coca cola and oohing and ahhing over the gifts. There is an ipod, a camera, a Nintendo DS, ipod speakers, and gift cards like whoa. I gave her a bag full of what she likes best – crayons, markers and pencils. Most importantly – imported from America. (Thanks, Mom!) Crayola is a big hit, and the kids exclaim left and right about this super cool American gift. Who needs an ipod when you can have crayons, right?

Fast forward. I haven’t looked at my watch in hours
After over an hour of butlered hors d’ouevres we head into the dining room. We start with salmorejo and ensaladilla which is cool and delicious. The highlight of the night is when they open the large wooden door to allow not one but two people to carry in the biggest pan of paella I have ever seen. It is probably the size of the dining room table in my apartment, and damn – it is GOOD.

6 p.m. Karaoke and games
My student is the epitome of creativity, and has organized a list of games for her friends to play. There are sack races and sponge races and a water balloon toss. At the end of the day there are 5 scraped knees, all girls. My student has shed her bride’s dress for a sensible pink sundress and is running around like a maniac. Her mom has plugged in the laptop and started a karaoke program, which the adults seem to pay more attention to than the kids.

9 p.m. Jumping rope and despedidas
Yes, we are still here, now 12 hours since I left my house. We have moved to the patio and now the dads have their ties and jackets off and everyone is taking a turn jumping rope. One woman jumps in with her fire engine red high heels on and does even better than the guys in their dress shoes. I take a spin or two myself, holding on to my dress and trying to keep up with the younger cousins.

10 p.m. The sun disappears
The restaurant staff (all 3 of them) start cleaning up inside and we start making noises about heading home. This doesn’t happen for another 50 minutes, but we make a good effort and pack the cars. I have 5 missed calls on my phone because we are having a party back at my apartment and it started about an hour ago. By the time I set my foot in the house, it’s 11 p.m. and the party is roaring.

All throughout the day, my student and her family kept checking in on me, making sure I was eating – drinking – having fun. Their friends and family were so welcoming, it was an absolutely pleasure to be a part of this event. Driving home at the end of the night, her mom asked me if it was a long day. I said no.. it was a full one.

I lost an hour in Ubeda

This Friday I took a train to the city of Jaen, a 22 euro fare and a 3 hour ride from Sevilla Santa Justa. In order to get to the outlying towns of Baeza and Ubeda, this seemed to be the best choice. On arrival I boarded a bus to Ubeda with a flood of university students flocking to their pueblo with dirty laundry and empty Tupperware. More on this weekend phenomenon in a later post.

By now the sky was darkening, but the hundreds, thousands, of rows of olive trees were still visible in contrast to the chalky soil. Neat rows of scraggly trees stretched across the countryside heavy with the region’s chief export and claim to fame. I made the decision to travel east because I’d never seen the province of Jaen, one of only two provinces I have yet to see here in Andalucia. A considerable bonus for my visit here was to spend time with a friend native to Ubeda. As with many of my experiences in Spain, the personal touch of a local family illuminates a city from the inside out. And so my weekend in Ubeda began with Rosana’s parents kindly picking me up at the bus station and driving me around the city for a nighttime tour of the muralla and the casco viejo (old city).

To stay in the Crespo family home is to stay in a palace filled with love, laughter and artwork. When Rosana joined us after work, we did the only logical thing: went out for tapas. At a beautiful pub only a few steps away, we settled in at the bar for one of Andalucia’s best offerings: free tapas! As in Granada, each time you request a drink, a plate of food magically appears bearing the most delightful treats: pork loin, ham, seafood salad, and a brilliant grilled asparagus – who needs dinner when you can tapear for the price of a drink? This would be the beginning of a weekend full of “Toma, Kelly” in which I am fed a piece of everything that materializes on the table or at the bar. It’s not long until I collapse under a down comforter in a dreamy haze of wine and good food.

In the morning I am treated to a guided tour of town led by the Artificis group that included the Capilla, the Ayuntamiento, one of the local churches and an informative walk around the old city. Young boys careen around in sailor suits while their female counterparts walk far more carefully to avoid dirtying their miniature bridal gowns – the spectacle that is the First Communion in Catholicism. We encounter a wedding in the ayuntamiento and a crowd of poshly dressed attendants and I am once again floored by the amount of females wobbling across the cobblestones in stilettos. The tour ends at a newly discovered marvel with special significance to the Crespo family: La Sinagoga del Agua, tucked away just off the main street. To give this interesting location its due, I will make a separate post detailing the history of this discovery. 

At Ana’s store one can find thoughtful souvenirs and beautiful ceramic pieces from local workshops. The traditional glaze is a startling green: the color of rainforests, springtime and jealousy.  From behind the counter, the workers procure a bag of ochíos filled with pisto and I happily munch my way through this snack similar to an empañada. After a tapas stop in a neaby plaza we return to the house to feast on homemade seafood soup and roasted red peppers with fresh bread. Already the Spaniards are wondering “where does she put it all?” There is nothing more satisfying to a Spanish mother than a guest, and an American one at that, who will clear her plate. With an appetite like mine, this is an easy request to fill 🙂

We embark on a siestilla (younger cousin to the siesta) and wake up bound for the neighboring pueblo of Baeza. It’s important to note that both cities fall under the mantle of the prestigious “Patrimonio de la Humanidad” title bestowed on them by the government that inspires a friendly competition between the two. Baeza is half the size of Ubeda (population 15,000 vs 30,000) but no less beautiful. The alleyways around the cathedral conjure images of royalty and peasants making their way to worship (through separate doors of course). Winding through the streets, the sounds of fife and drum can be heard nearby. This is neither fanfare nor celebration but practice, for the rapidly approaching Semana Santa. We make a stop so I can purchase some typical food from the region: a bag of ochíos (crunchy breadsticks from Ubeda) and a box of virolos (puffy pastries from Baeza). Before nightfall I’m able to catch a glimpse of the valley although its mostly shrouded in clouds, and I am rewarded another view of the landscape I traveled through earlier.

Back in Ubeda we meet with some of Rosana’s friends at a local bar. Several boys surround a guitar player and sing songs joking about the crisis and other topics befitting of a chirigota at carnival. Tapas follow – fried artichokes, and french fries with fried eggs (don’t make that face, its a delicious combination). It is only when we make our way to a local club that I hear the first strains of English I’ve heard since Friday morning. It should be no surprise that we encountered several American students from Sevilla on a weekend trip to the province. Defying the stereotype, one boy spoke to me in Spanish for at least ten minutes, something most American students can’t, don’t, or won’t do. So kudos to you, Andrew from Arizona – keep up the good work.

Fireworks sound in the distance when I wake up to my last day in town. I’ve lost an hour overnight, as we have just sprung forward into Central European Summer Time (CEST) here in Spain. I am loathe to lose the hour as today is the day la Iglesia de Santa Maria will open, after almost 3 decades without weddings, baptisms or masses performed within its walls. We will take a long walk around town waiting for the muncipal band to toot its final horn and for someone to please open the doors. Ultimately I will miss this event as we prepare to go back to our respective cities. But as they say you must leave something to come back to. We’ll meet again, Santa Maria!

With a bag of goodies, a book about the synagogue, a lovingly prepared bocadillo and a can of the miracle elixir (olive oil) – I travel back to the land of oranges. Where it will still be light by 8pm and summer is about to settle in for the long haul. By this time next week, it will already be April.

three if by train

[ Saturday ]

Train travel is one of the great wonders of Europe. My parents and I have now taken several trains across the Spanish plains: to and from Segovia out of Madrid, the high speed train to Sevilla, a medium distance train to Granada and now the long haul back to Madrid. For foreigners on holiday, the views afforded by these trains can’t be beat. The flat farmlands around the capital give way to olive groves and roaming hills.

The camino across Andalucia is one of my favorites – miles of scraggly olive trees and orange trees heavy wth fruit lead the way to the snow-capped mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. My parents spot sheep, horses and bulls in the stretches of land between stations. Wind farms with towering turbines, and rows of solar panels dot the countryside. My dad remarks more than once about the sheer abundance of open land, which seems an impossibility in the northeastern US where condos and commercial centers grow like weeds. We see several Caterpillar machines working on the expansion of train tracks outside of Granada and I make a mental toast to my dad’s retirement anniversary. Random roadside shrines and the occasional set of ruins crop up on the hillside as we speed by at 130+ kilometers per hour.

Granada is our last stop and the coldest. When the sun goes down we find ourselves reaching for gloves and adjusting our scarves. It is here the joy of travel is tainted by the small annoyances – the street noise outside of our ground floor apartment, the lack of English TV, the onset of the Spanish schedule (“just how long is siesta, exactly?”). We are tired, and challenged by the food choices or lack thereof. My parents witness the importance of the personal agenda of bus and taxi drivers as they stop to take a cigarette break (locking the bus with us still inside) or shouting out the window to their compatriots. We will not miss the pushy locals or the rude tourists who cannot follow the simple rules of standing in a line or avoiding a roped off area. Did they check their common sense with their luggage or what?

The charm of my long ago home is no match for our exhaustion, and we have our first day of rain. Despite all of this, there are moments of contentment in the shadows of the Albayzin. I will miss the luxury of hot water on demand and the modern convenience of a microwave (so advanced!). I would sell my soul for the jacuzzi tub in our apartment and would just as quickly strike a deal for the marshmallow delight that is the down comforter. Up on the hill the Alhambra lures us back into history and we wander from room to room remarking on the architecture, planting ourselves on marble benches to bake in the sun. My mom finds a print by a local artist that speaks to us both and I spend a long time chatting with the shop attendant – a Colombian girl far from home. We climb to the Mirador de San Nicolas at sunset and are rewarded by the Alhambra in full glory; the dramatic backdrop of the sierras and a quickly darkening sky. I find a magnet with a hand painted mudejar door, and we pick up a copy of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra.

We visit my university building and the AIFS office in a plaza nearby, enjoying a late morning plate of churros at Café Futbol with the director. In a new lounge area down the hall dozens of smiling faces look down from their respective yearbook covers. Ours is not hard to find with the bright red and yellow background and our fearless leaders striking a Charlie’s Angels pose on the front. Incredibly, it has been 7 years since I first set foot in this city. Where does the time go?

Our last night in Madrid finds us camped out in an airport hotel where the price is right, but even the BBC cannot drown out the sound of water trickling through the pipes in our walls each time a neighbor uses faucet, shower or toilet. We dine on fine Chinese cuisine, where the price is also right. My dad points out that we are in Spain, in a Chinese restaurant, watching an Italian western .. what a treat to see Clint Eastwood and feast on lemon chicken all at once. I have several moments where I am totally disoriented – is this Pennsylvania? Why am I still speaking Spanish? What the hell day is it? My translation powers fade and we collapse in three separate heaps to the sound of water in the walls.

After 12 days of travel, reality rears its ugly head and I put my parents on a plane back to the States. My mother makes me cry big crocodile tears in the middle of Terminal one and I retreat to Atocha to sulk until my train leaves for Sevilla. Somehow, it is the month of March, and Holly will arrive on Monday and I will go back to work. Not only has spring sprung but it is officially speeding by like the AVE train from one month to the next. Within 12 weeks, I will pack my bags and leave Sevilla behind.

Then what?