Remembering the pueblo turkey

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This time last year, I had a naked turkey between my feet on the ride home from school. It was in a plastic bag, but that was all that was shielding Turkey Tom from the elements and my sneakers.

It was so heavy. Joaquin bolted from the copy room the minute I walked into school that day. Beaming from ear to ear, he assured me it would be the perfect turkey, although a bit bigger than originally intended. A bit? In Spanish we call that una mentira.. a lie.

Just a few days earlier, I had a pow wow with Joaquin and Loli. Yes, it needs to be cleaned. Right, everything out. Everything. Yes, I still want the whole bird. No, I don’t want to kill it myself! Hearty laughter after this last exclamation, despite the panicked look in my eye.

Thanksgiving Eve found my roommates and I up to our elbows in turkey. Plucked? Yes.. except for those horrible little downy feathers that stuck to our fingers. Cleaned out? Yes.. except for the lungs that I discovered while skyping with my mom. My roommate Alex towering over my shoulder, angling my laptop just so. “Mom there’s squishy stuff near the ribs.” “Take everything out.” “What the hell is it?” “I don’t know, but you have to take it out.”

Several hours later we are cursing the bird, the pueblo it came from and the very idea of Thanksgiving. We go to school the next day, tired and checking on the side dishes coming to us from friends, in a potluck-style celebration. I think about the package from my parents (because there’s always a package from my parents). This one holds McCormick gravy mix, cranberry sauce, Stove Top stuffing.

In the end our table seats fifteen. We are mostly Americans, with two Spaniards in the mix. The turkey is awesome, my roommate Andrea glowing in her apron and her success. Ana brings wine from her family’s bodega and we give a toast – each guest saying what they’re thankful for.

This year I’m in an airport in Peoria, Illinois, waiting for a flight home to Pennsylvania.

The table will seat three: my parents and I the ultimate trio. Thanksgiving Eve will be for drinks and conversation with classmates (Happy 10 Year Reunion) .. no giblets or lung bits in sight. No sawing off the neck or other unsavory tail-end cleanup (thanks, Alex).

But I will think about our Triana apartment, full of food and friends. All good things come in plastic bags? This one did.

Happy Thanksgiving!

on leading a double life

The alarm goes off at 7:11 a.m. but I don’t get out of bed until approximately 7:29. I’m not tired or hungover, or channeling my former roommate .. I’m actually surfing on my iTouch. It’s true – I don’t even get out of my bed before I go online. How many of you are guilty of the same? (as you read this from your handheld devices in questionable locations).

image credit: nowsourcing, @JustinParks

So what’s on first? The weather. Bethlehem, Madrid. It’s already 1:11 p.m. in Spain, and I take a few seconds to think about my other life while comparing the temperatures. Then I check my email. Sale at Kohl’s, free shipping from Cheryl & Co, Qmail from ArtsQuest, SPANISH. Yes! A return email from a dear friend 3,000 miles away, in another language. My other language.

When I was living in Seville, I talked about leading a dual life between pueblo and city – commuting to work in Bollullos, 45 km from my flat in Triana. Email, video chats and this very blog brought many of things I love closer to me than in my semester abroad in 2004. You know, back when I was calling my parents from a pay phone in the street and sending carrier pigeons instead of text messages …

So what are the challenges of leading a double life? Isn’t it supposed to be sexy like a spy film or high profile like that of a celebrity? In fact, no. Sometimes it seems fictitious, as though the past year was nothing but a figment of my imagination. Sometimes it is exciting when I get to share my stories with anyone who will listen. Sometimes it can be downright painful when I find myself missing everything from the orange trees to the local diner. Sometimes it can be confusing when I can’t find the words to express something in my native language. With one foot in each country, it often takes more concentration than I can muster just to be in the present moment. Some days, in both places, I wonder what on earth I’m doing there .. or here.

Now suddenly, it’s August. I find myself standing in Pennsylvania, blinking in the sunlight and wondering where the hell my FBI clearance is. Across the pond, my new boss is writing me emails about the upcoming year. I chat with friends returning to nuestra tierra in mere weeks, and friends who have never left. I cringe over flight prices and plan my ten year high school reunion that I will likely miss. I’m working full time to make money that I will be spending somewhere else. The new suitcase I just purchased is the pretty purple elephant in the room, a reminder and a deadline.

This double life gig is not about having your cake and eating it, too. It’s like trying to make your favorite cake in a foreign country in someone else’s kitchen with almost ingredients and an oven with an attitude. But the icing is delicious. Trust me.

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Kudos to fellow bloggers who have recently completed the #My7Links challenge: Natalie, Cat & Jessica. Premiere quote of this archive-combing expedition goes to Jessica from Budajest who has summarized my expat existence in seven graphic words: “Three years abroad has opened my bones.”

On being a tourist in my own country

When I first came home I was a lot of things. Tired, excited, impatient, hoping my luggage hadn’t burst open in transit. Happy to see my parents. Overjoyed to fall into my bed. Beside myself at the cereal selection in the cabinet. And then some point after all the emotional spikes leveled out and my body adjusted to the new time zone, I realized: I’m not in Spain any more.

One of the last cards I received before I departed was from my dear friend Holly, who will soon be off on her own wonderful adventures. She sent me a wonderful card from Etsy with a quote from W. Maugham: “I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took.” This is easily the most obvious answer for what we know to be reverse culture shock. Even the Europeans know about it – as this article in Cafe Babel points to the ERASMUS program for the same reason, referring to it as “ex-Erasmus syndrome”.  A dramatic quote from the article underscores the most shocking realizations of coming home:

“El ex Erasmus no lo descubre hasta que no vuelve: su casa le parecerá cutre, su pueblo frío, la facultad horrible, la tele lúgubre, los amigos inútiles”. “The ex-Erasmus [student] doesn’t discover it until he doesn’t return: your house is eh, your town is eh, your school is eh, TV is eh and your friends are eh.” Thank you, Debbie Downer!

Ok, it’s not that bad. Reverse culture shock is not so much like hitting a brick wall but more of a soft bounce in a rubber room. It does have that touch of insanity to it, as is usually associated with rubber rooms. Sometimes, I have distinct moments where I am suddenly confused that I’m here, not there, despite the fact I am most definitely in North America. Equally startling are the times when I’m deep in conversation with a friend or colleague and still mentally reach for Spanish.

As a direct result of being away for the better part of a year, re-entry means a social life on fire. I have been out at a restaurant once if not twice every day this week. Friends are in flux throughout the city and now I’m back at work in a familiar place for the summer, adding hordes of colleagues to the welcome wagon. This? Is awesome. It’s exhausting both on my brain and my wallet (and my gas tank) but it is exactly what I was thinking of those days in Spain when I was craving home.

So what’s all the commotion about? Here are some of the (silly) things I’ve been coping with since my arrival:

I wanted a sandwich – a real, honest-to-god, piled high with preservative loaded meats and cheeses sandwich. You know what? I’m over it. I think I’ve had two. Where are the bakeries in this godforsaken town? I need a panaderia, stat. Pass me a baguette before I hit you over the head with this ridiculous loaf of sandwich bread.

I prefer warm milk in my coffee, not cold. Really this is wildly intelligent if you think about it .. your coffee stays hot a lot longer. Even when it is sub-par, American coffee.

I am having a really hard time finding things to do for free. Everything costs money! Which is something I don’t have a lot of these days. I made the mistake (twice) of walking into one of those fro-yo places where you pay by weight for your cup of yogurt and toppings and stared blankly at the $11 result for two cups of yogurt.

My parents live in the suburbs. We drive everywhere, out of necessity. There are three people in my house, and therefore = 3 cars. I missed my car with a fiery passion and although I am incredibly happy to be driving again .. I’d rather not. As Natalie is rediscovering in California – we are on the hurt for public transportation in a big way here in These United States.

There is volleyball, glorious volleyball. And Gatorade! (a non entity in Spain). Yes, I have to drive to my all of my matches, but after an 8 month dry spell, I’d drive across the country to reach the nearest volleyball court. And if I keep eating at all of these local restaurants, I am going to have to jack up my gym regimen.

The ENGLISH. Remember my violent reaction to the valley girls that were seemingly crawling the walls of the Cathedral and leaking out into the streets of Sevilla speaking their hideous, like, language? It would be appear that they all live here, in my town. I realize that I’m now back in the land where it is almost impossible not to eavesdrop because everyone is speaking your native language. It is extremely distracting!

The SPANISH. I need to sign up for a book group at Barnes and Noble or something. My mom tells me to speak Spanish to her and she promises to smile and nod. This is a valiant effort on her part, but I really do need someone to talk back to me in this precious language. My concern is not that I will lose my speaking abilities, just a preference to keep on speaking.

I’ve been home for 15 days and have not yet hooked up my cell phone. You know what? I don’t want to! At first it was a monetary decision, now its just the principal of the thing. My friends are annoyed, my parents are not a fan, but I think it’s spectacular. Just facebook me, I’ll get to you .. in due time 🙂

old bananas

My roommate crinkled her nose at some browning bananas on our counter top and commented that they were too ripe and should be thrown out. Not so fast! I had visions of banana bread dancing in my head, and quickly took ownership of them. As you may remember, I’ve tried baking here before with limited success. But really, I can only go so long without a mixing bowl in my hand and some flour on my shirt (and everywhere else).

The last attempt I made was over Christmas, when we baked cookies for our carpool… an amusing but ultimately successful ordeal in the kitchen. This came on the tail of a wild Thanksgiving meal in which we re-plucked a turkey and shared a massive potluck with fellow auxiliares. Our oven is a good one, and apparently better than most (see: people with no oven who rely on an oversized toaster). But the heating elements are strange and you have to set up camp in the kitchen to keep an eye on what you’re making if you want it to turn out right. Batches of cookies can’t be whipped in and out of the oven and left for their standard 8 minutes while you go file your nails. The oven gets too hot and the broiler bears down on the poor things like the Andalucian sun. So! Bread? Great idea.

A new friend here in Spain, also an auxiliar and fellow baker commiserated with me about baking hazards last month when I visited her in Galicia. She also makes bread back at home, so she beats my cookie craving! (It’s something I hope to try once I get back to the States … add it to the list). So Natalie, this one is for you!

I used a simple recipe that only presented a few challenges: 1) Vanilla extract, as I have lamented before, is only in sugar form here.  2) Butter – I had to whip out the converter because my block of butter was not in the neat little packages from home with the measurement on the wrapper. 3) Sour cream. In Spain? yeah right! Substitute plain yogurt. 4) A loaf pan. Not included in our arsenal of pots and pans that came with our apartment, so I went to … you guessed it, the Chinos. I ended up with some interesting aluminum pans that honestly look like takeout containers with the sides folded up to hold it together. Whatever, it was €1.20 and beggars can’t be choosers.

I didn’t have access to my grandmother’s recipe, so I used this one from my friend Martha Stewart with a few of my own edits.*

Due to the super mega hot oven, I had to tent some foil over the top after the first 20 minutes to keep it from burning but other than that it was pretty low maintenance. However, in my eagerness to see how it turned out .. I flipped it out of the pan too soon and lost some of the bottom. But in the end, it tastes amazing and I saved two bananas from a trashy end. Everyone wins!

 

* I added 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and skipped the nuts.

advanced countdown syndrome

I’ve talked before about the fact I am hooked on countdowns. Whether this is a result of my life as a Northeastern American or a traveler or a perpetual student or a planner – it’s just me. Now that I’ve crested into March, there are a lot of different countdowns in my head – as well as a long glance to the last few months and all the things that I’ve previously counted down to. I’ve enjoyed visits from five American friends (parents included!) and one couch surfer. I’ve traveled to four countries since my arrival (Portugal, Scotland, Italy, Netherlands) and have made countless weekend trips in Spain.

I’ve lived here for six months. Is there an invisible line that one crosses while living abroad? The divide where the most exciting things become the most lamented things and incredible feats of nature and architecture blend into the montage of daily life. When I traveled with Hillary in December, she was so taken by the orange trees and I remember thinking – well, yes. I scolded myself and tried to see those orange trees in the same way, because I can assure you they aren’t growing in Pennsylvania. When I traveled with Holly just a few weeks ago, we went to the monstrous cathedral in Jerez and I thought, “hmm, another one.” Yes, I’ve seen a few (ok, a hundred) – but they’re still pretty amazing. When do we pass from awe to nonchalance?

Here in Spain my friends and I have marched into the lamentation territory with full force. “I’m never going to get a coffee this cheap at home” or “I will never taste a tomato like this again” or “These three baguettes cost me 90 cents, this would never happen in the US.” Making comparisons like this is perilous, because in most cases there is always a winner and a loser. I try to stick to the mantra, it’s not better or worse just different. But try to get me to say that after I’ve devoured a kebab, and .. well.

Right now the main countdown concerns Greece, where I will go for one week in Semana Santa to meet a friend from home. Already our emails are flying back and forth with all sorts of hotels, foods and ideas. (If you’ve been there before, we welcome your recommendations!)

I am equally excited to go home. That’s right, I said it: home! I plan to travel briefly after the program ends, and hope to circle back to my dear state in mid June. What am I most excited about? This time its not peanut butter, because my friends have kept me well equipped in that department. I am ready for hot water on demand, the microwave, the dryer, the toaster oven, Panera, Barnes & Noble and White Orchid. Oh and my family and friends, of course 🙂 I must note that high on this list is celebrating my new role as honorary auntie to several beautiful babies (Liana, I’m looking at you little one).

Yes, Spain is awesome. But you know what? There is nothing quite like home.