Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ryanair, You Suck!

Sorry, had to remove this one, but the title and Dilbert say it all.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ah, Refreshed at Last

I would have never guessed I could wake up so clear and refreshed after merely one day of a semi recovery. Last night I still enjoyed a couple of canas and a few hours of terrace time with my dear friends before heading home on the late metro and staying up far too late once again. But when I returned home I made a command decision to get organized at last, regardless of the time on the clock. I once lived by to-do lists, but lately it has fallen by the way side as my responsibilities seem less pressing. Last night I pulled it together and went into a productive frenzy, planning the next several months before I head back home (temporarily). I woke up this morning before the alarm after having my first uninterrupted sleep in ages and pleasant dreams to match.

It remarkably all comes down to a lesson told by my dad many times, a lesson almost as old as time: everything in moderation. For a moment I was worried that in order to rebalance myself, I'd have to say goodbye to my social nights and glasses of wine on the terrace after work. But my problem has not been my lively routine; it was more an issue of not moderating myself. As I commence with morning Spanish classes in June, it's a relief to know that I can spend my final month of many of my friends being here enjoying their company and still not be wrecked the next day.

So the plans are set for the summer months at last and I feel a great weight is lifted, being replaced by a burst of excitement. This weekend I set off to the sunny beaches of Mallorca and when I return, my much needed intensive Spanish course begins. June will be more tame, staying here in Madrid to enjoy my people, and closing it with a bang in Amsterdam for my birthday. I'll need to get back to Spain fast, though, because a hoard of friends from home along with my brother, who I miss like crazy, will all be here, ready to see all the goodness I've already discovered in this country. When they leave at the end of the month, I'll either post up in a cottage on the sea or hit the trail on the Camino de Santiago. I get to look forward to seeing family and friends in September when I at last book my flight to get back home. It will be a return flight, though, because I am not ready to leave this place. Next year will surely be a different Madrid with many of my friends moving on, but I look forward to embracing a now familiar city and hopefully achieving the ultimate goal of cracking the code that is the Spanish language. Outlook is bright today and it's all thanks to simple moderation and at last being good to my mind, body, and soul.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It Keeps Going and Going and Going

The marathon continues as I can't seem to step away from the constant activity of this lively city.  Every day I fall more and more in love with the laid back Spanish culture valuing leisure and togetherness, countless bars and restaurants with their outdoor terraces and late hours, and the expansive parks cluttered with lounging people enjoying the warm Spain sunshine.  The energy lures me in as I join the masses for long afternoon pic-nics, giant botellons, and sleepless nights.  With the week long political demonstrations going on as well, this city is buzzing uncontrollably. It's absolutely incredible to witness so many passionate people fighting for their beliefs and simaltaneously making way for party.  I can't seem to get enough but I don't know how these people do it. Almost everyday this week I've been burning the midnight oil or watching the sunrise over plenty of constantly flowing wine and never ending fiesta.  When am I going to crash and why haven't I yet?  I feel like the Engergizer bunny. 

Aside from the influence of this country, there is a part of me feeling the pressure to be more structured and productive, a past voice telling me that is my inevitable responsibility as an adult to get serious and have a plan. But why deny this great feeling of happiness to satisfy a muttled inner voice? I feel divided, but making certain sacrifices is worth soaking in these great vibes and enjoying my time. Each day I live this way, collectively reflecting with my peers here following the beat to this other drum too, I become more secure with forfeiting certain luxuries in order to have a life of relaxed pleasure, at least for now. Sure, work is an inevitable necessity that I completely acknowledge and welcome, but that doesn't mean adopting another 50 hour a week schedule and burying myself in stressful tasks.

With all that said, I realize there is a time for work and a time for play. I am incredibly off balance right now, playing entirely too much like I'm in college again, but as the days wind down to summer and this experience comes to an end, or at least a dramatic transition, I can justify the scale being slightly tipped. Many of my close expat companions will be making their way back to the "real world" to commence in higher education, career pursuits, or another adventure. After June it is challenging for many to earn money and therefore makes it difficult to stay through the summer months, so our time together is rapidly coming to a close. We've committed to each other that for our last month or so together, the time is now to sacrifice sleep for fiesta and routine for spontaneity. Sure I'm feeling the effects and my body and wallet are not thrilled with me, but for the first time I don't feel guilty for the endless party and focus on fun. A time will come once again when work will be in the forefront, so for now I'll embrace. Another week is ahead of already scheduled gatherings and a cloudless weather forecast, so unless my body completely gives out on me, I will be right there to soak up every possible minute of it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Marathon Weekends

While I absolutely love how action packed my weekends here in Madrid are, Mondays are always painful.  From Thursday to Sunday my responsibilities are over and with perfect weather, incredible friends, and constant festivities, it's impossible for me to not get sucked into the vibe.  I could resist, but why?  This is the time to enjoy.  Still, I can't help wondering if I need to give my body a break and sacrifice missing out of some of the action.

It never ceases to amazing me how many exciting things constantly happening in this country.  After an epic night out Friday, I sealed the blinds shut to block out any peep of the already rising sun managing to eek out some sleep before chanting from outside my window stirred my curiousity and pulled me out of my cozy bed.  A demonstration, among many this weekend, was occuring down below with scores of Spanish flags waving and a sea of unbrellas of the on-looking crowd lining the streets for as far as I could see.  I spent as much time as I could bear observing the passionate political scene before hopping on the metro and getting an early start to another incredible unplanned evening out.  We sought out a familiar atmosphere, taking a break from the Spanish way and ducked into a popular neighborhood English bookstore, stuffed with expats from the UK, Ireland, and the States.  We gulped down a few blood maries and made our way to Carmencita, our favorite bar here, owned by a good friend of ours.  Before we knew it, we were putting down fishbowl sized gin drinks and hiccuping our way down the long calles, enjoying the sights and sounds of our city. 

The next day I was apruptly awakened from my dreamless sleep by loud music and shouting people speaking a slew of different native languages.  Right below my friend's window was cranking club music and loud drunken chatter.  In disbelief at the display on the clock reading 8:30 am, I did my best to ignore the maddening noise for the next hour.  At last I pulled myself to the window and shouted tirelessly at the top of my lungs for them to end the music and terribly abnoxious converstation.  It only got worse as the music drowned out my voice.  Until 11 am, the party rocked on and I lay, eyes wide open and glued to the cieling.  Sleep was no longer an option, so I got an early start on our Sunday Funday and by noon we were out the door, gulping fresh squeezed oj and cafe double to ward off our increasingly familiar hangovers. 

The Rastro, one of Europe's largest and most popular outdoor markets, was our main objective for the day.  We sorted through piles of junk and treasures and wandered through the mazes of streets filled with various street vendors, antique shops, and hand made goods.  The sun was shining brilliantly and the overwhelming crowds and merchandise kept our minds off the fact that the coffee was fading and we were essentially the appitamy of death, all heated up.  When the markets packed it up at 3:00 we decided to cure our pounding heads by putting hair on the dog at the famous Sunday spot in Madrid, La Latina.  With not a cloud in the sky, there was no other option for us than perching up at one of the many out door cafe tables and joining the minons for canas and vino for countless hours.  With converstation flowing in unison with the drinks, we barely realized that the sun was setting on our perfect day.  Six hours later we found ourselves reluctantly strolling nearer to the metro for an "early" end to the weekend.  But just as we began to throw in the towel, the lure of excitement from inside a tiny Spanish pub sparked our curiousity and mutual desire for just one more vino tinto and plate of tapas.  After 2 more wines and incredible "enlightening" converstation, the doors of the restaurant closed on us and finally set us on our way. 

Today I pay for it but can't help but still have a hazy smile on my face from the good times every weekend seems to bring.  Sure it's not a sustainable way to live- spending my little bit of money on an uncountable amount of booze and being less than productive with my free days.  But I will never be living in Spain again, free, young, broke, but loving it.  I've decided to stop feeling guilty for my good time and instead embrace the fact that after paying my dues working for the man, I can now enjoy this pocket of time to kick my feet up and turn the hands on the clock back.  Oh Spain...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

It's Hard to Find Things When You Are Looking For Them

I woke up this morning with a pounding headache and the residue of a tromoltuous evening filled with drama and heightened emotions.  I had been dreaming vividly this morning and this montra, that it is dificult to find things when you are looking, was the last clear memory from the dream.  As I came to and recalled the previous hectic evening, I realized that this is true in so many different regaurds, even in unexpected situations like last night's explosion.  We all have experienced those moments when you are desperately searching high and low for you keys only to discover they were nestled safely in your pocket, waiting for you to stop tearing apart your house trying to find them.  The same is true with other, less tangable things.  Last night I discovered the true strength of my friendship here with the very girls I was passionately arguing with.  Being here, living this uncertain life, can create great stress, but also bonds people in the most incredible ways.  I was in no way expecting such a lousy situation to transform into finding out that these people were such amazing friends to me.  I am learning this lesson the hard way since I always seem to be seeking out something more- a possible future career, where to settle my roots, even prince charming.  Slowly but surely I must stop deliberately searching for these things and allow them to materialize naturally when I am not expecting it.  My dear friends reminded me of how important this was last night as I stressed endlessly about things I simply can't control.  We can all gain from this very true phenominon and I for one will do my best to let life flow and stop searching so tirelessly for what is likely right infront of my face once I stop looking.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Missing Special Moments

One tough part about living abroad is when significant moments occur that I can't be there for.  My little bro, Jason is graduating this weekend from uni, and even though some don't see this as a huge momentous occasion, the fact that our entire extended family, as little as it may be, is finally in one place at the same time is a rare and special event.  Unfortunately with ticket prices being exorbitant from here to the US, making the long flight back for a few short days absolutely impossible.  I know you guys will be reading this when you get all unpacked and settled in, so I am glad I can take a moment to say I love you all so much and you mean the world to me!  Enjoy your stay in NC and when I finally make my return to the States, the first thing I'm doing is heading south and west for a long visit.  And congrats, Jas!  Hard to believe you are already finished.  See you here in two months when we can really celebrate.  Los quiero a todos con todo mi corazón!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tapas, Vino, y Amigas

If there is one thing that makes me nervous, it's trying anything new in the kitchen.  Cooking has never been my strong suit, but for some reason, the simplicity of Spanish cuisine eased me into the ambitious endeavor of creating a meal for 12 of my closest friends here in Madrid.  I decided to take a risk and make 5 dishes of traditional Spanish tapas and use my girl friends as guinea pigs to sample my creations.  The results were outstanding and I feel compelled to share the experience and receipts for these surprisingly successful dishes. 

I began the process by marinating green olives for 2 days in 2 different simple brines: one a spicy Spanish style and the other a citrus Moroccan style.  The Spanish style consisted of diced garlic, spicy paprika, olive oil, and salt.  In the Moroccan olives, I used the juice from two Valencia oranges, olive oil, and seasoned with lots of whole cumin and some salt and pepper.  I rinsed the olives, mixed in the new brine, and sealed them back in their original jars to marinate for the next 2 days, shaking them occasionally, and tasting them, of course.

My next endeavor was a cold salad consisting of spinach, garbanzo beans, red pepper, and green onions.  Besides lightly sauteing a large bag of spinach and draining and washing a jar of cooked chickpeas, the only requirement is mixing up a few simple ingredients.  I added chopped red pepper and green onions to the mix with a drizzle of olive oil, the juice from one lemon, and some salt and pepper to taste.  I threw some toasted brown bread, coated lightly in olive oil, on the side and watched as the dish evaporated before my eyes.

Now the real cooking begins.  One experimental dish I found was a honey baked tomato bruschetta.  It consistes of halved medium sized tomatoes a top a toasted slice of brown bread.  To prepare the tomatoes, I removed the cores, places one thin slice of garlic in the center of each, dusted them with thyme, salt, and pepper and drizzled a mixture of honey and olive oil over the top and inside the tomatoes.  The sat for 30 minutes, soaking up the flavors, before being placed in the oven for 20 minutes at 200 degrees C.  When they were finished, I placed them atop the toast, allowing the leaking juices to be absorbed by the bread.  These little suckers were my favorite hands down.

Finally, the star of the show was the Spanish Tortilla.  This dish is famous all over Spain and is a staple in virtually every bar, cafe, and restaurant.  It is essentially a giant omelet, cut into slices and shared.  It is made with a generous heap of potatoes, usually onions, eggs, and any other filling your heart desires, from ham and chorizo to pepper and broccoli.  My creation was made with caramelized onions and red bell peppers and a little bit of mozzarella cheese.  I began by cooking up the veggies and placing them to the side.  Then in a large pan filled with olive oil, I cooked 4 thinly sliced potatoes until they were golden brown and as soft as I could get them.  Then I combine the cooked ingredients in with six large eggs, cheese, salt, and pepper.  After making sure everything was well mixed, I poured the concoction into a large pan with a thin base, coated lightly in olive oil.  I used a low heat and continued to allow the runny un cooked egg to seep to the bottom.  The hardest part is the flip, so with a drum roll and camera ready, I used a shallow bowl, larger than the pan, to transfer the half cooked omelet.  It worked! I then slid the tortilla back into the pan, allowing the other side to cook for about five more minutes.  I presented it to my guests with pride and moments later it was completely devoured. 

The final touch was a large cheese platter, slicing the blocks of cheese into thin triangles and serving them with bite sized pieces of fresh baggett.  My lovely ladies generously added to the expansive buffet with more cheese and bread, fabulous desserts, and other creative dishes.  And what party isn't complete without a wide variety of Spanish wine that continued to flow and transformed our quaint dinner party into a lively night out that lasted until the sun came up. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Trekking Through Andalucia

Spain loves their holidays and I love Spain for it. Ten days off for everyone right smack dab in the middle of the spring. Today is yet another Monday off so I'm taking advantage to finally update the blog on the wonders of Andalucía, discovered by way of driving through the country side and taking it all in during one of Spain's most famous celebrations, Semana Santa.

We started off our adventure in Grenada on a mission to see one of the world's wonders, the ancient Moorish Mosque, the Alhambra. Before going, all I really knew was that people that have been gush over its beauty and grand scale. I am now one of those people. The day began with late breakfast in the sun and a long stroll through the city. The old town of Grenada was buzzing with people in the little markets and unique plazas. We gradually made our way through the crowds, stopping to take in the atmosphere, buy fruit off the streets, and enjoy the fantastic weather. Eventually we made it to the entrance of the Alhambra's grounds and began our ascent through the vast wooded hills surrounding the musk. As we inched closer, the sounds of the chirping birds and babbling stream and sight of all the lush greenery took over our senses. We finally arrived at the top and my breath was taken. The mosque itself was amazingly preserved and had an incredible effect over all of its guests. Typically when I am surrounded by tourists, they detract from the goodness of the actual site. But this was different. As we strolled through the interior rooms and out into the colorful gardens, people all seemed almost mesmerized by the tranquility of their surroundings. Everything, from the detailed design and scripture on the walls to the still, glistening ponds and breathtaking views put me in a state of pure peacefulness and transcendence.

This peaceful easy feeling didn't exactly last as we made our way back to the city to catch the first of several match ups of rivals Barcelona and Madrid. After a day in the sun with very little food or water, the beers went down just a little too easy and that peaceful feeling transformed into a hazy blur and over enthusiasm for Madrid's victory. The next day, as we nursed our pounding headaches over breakfast in a street side cafe, the church processions were underway for Palm Sunday, congregations carrying their symbolic palm leaves and singing in unison. We took it in and watched the scene for a while until it was time to hit the road again and head south for some much needed R&R beachside on the Costa del Sol.

We arrived in Torremolinos, a touristic beach town outside of Malaga, ready for a peaceful lie on the sand. It wasn't quite in the cards for us with the clouds beginning to roll in and the beaches littered with souvenir shops and fish and chips shops everywhere. Even though we were looking forward to a quite hide away, our massive flat with an up close beach view and enormous terrace was a fair trade. The rain rolled in all day the next day, robbing us from the beach experience, but we still managed to tour the spectacle that was, for me, the boardwalk from hell, covered in cheesy shops, hotels as far as the eye can see, and even an American themed steak house with a electric bull. All we could do was laugh and try to shut out the fact that we were still in Spain- it was too depressing to see what tourism has done to the southern coast of Spain. From up in the hills of the city, the red clay shingles and white buildings gave the illusion that we were in a quaint Spanish beach village, but this scene completely robbed us of that.

The next day we said goodbye to the best part of our stay, our great apartment, and made our way to our last stop- Cordoba. Before heading off, we stopped in a little slice of heaven, Marbella. It completely reenergized me and renewed my impression of the Costa del Sol. The adorable winding streets of the old town were perfectly quaint and exactly what I imagined a Spanish beach city to look like. We stumbled over a charming cafe, tucked away in a flowery back street and took five over a tinto de verano before heading back on the road, stopping at artsy shops and a classic old Spanish church on the way out.
We pulled into Cordoba around five and were quickly reminded of what Semana Santa truly is to the people of Spain. Every attempt to drive in to the city was a fail with streets closed off for the slew of processions making their way through the city. We gave up, parked the car, and decided to explore. We were not prepared for the spectacle that ensued. We followed a crowd of people and the sound of horn marching band to find our first paso, a large float with the life sized Virgin Mary and hundreds of candles adorn it, being carried by a slew of young guys slowly through the town. Accompanying the paso was a priest swaying the traditional incense barrel and filling the air with a musky, potent aroma. The most initially shocking site was the army of robed and hooded people walking with the parade of people. To Americans especially, it is a shocking sight, looking remarkably similar to the infamous Ku Klux Klan uniform.

Later that night after settling in and enjoying a superb dinner of tapas and wine by the river for a ridiculously cheap price, we stumbled upon yet another procession, this time even larger and more intense. We were over loaded on the religious parades and sought refuge in a plaza, adequately named Plaza de Canas. When the one bar still open shut down, we called it a night and geared up for our final day of seeing the peculiar Mosquito Mosque. This was once an Arabic mosque, but was transformed over the centuries as Spain shifted rule. Now it is an odd hodge podge of Moorish architecture and Christian symbols and art. Very odd, but still quite beautiful. We had our final meal of our trip and hit the road at last, making our way back to Madrid.

Exhausted and over stimulated from all we saw, I spent the next half of the long break slugging around the city, simply eating and drinking away the time and the rainy weather. Stepping back into the swing of things proved to be quite a challenge for many the following week, but after a close to perfect long weekend back home and another day off today, I am back to normal and finally got the chance to recall the goodness of one of many treks through this amazing country.