Volunteering at A Spanish Language School

A year ago I spent a week in March in at a resort in the mountains north of Madrid volunteering at a language school for Spanish professionals who wanted to improve their English. My accommodations, meals and transportation to and from the resort were provided. All I had to do was speak English. A year later I tell my friends I would have paid to have the experience. It was just that memorable. Our group still chats regularly on WhatsApp to keep up with each other. This week one of them blogged about it, providing me a memory do-over . I thought you’d enjoy her account.

The Difference Between Tapas & Pinchos

My fellow blogger Fork on the Road  “Travel Tips for Curious Cooks” has finally written the post I’ve been waiting for, the one that describes our evening of food grazing in Valencia, Spain sponsored by the Valencia tourism board. As he is a foodie and I’m not, the finer details of what we were eating were lost on me. I was there for the ambiance, history and company. He was there to learn about tapas, pinchos and how a traditional evening of eating and drinking unfolds for the average Valencian. He took photos of food. I took photos of the interior of the restaurant and people. He gets credit for the photo and I get to share his expertise with you.

Read his post here.

Salamanca Spain’s Art Deco/Nouveau Museum

I’ve become a regular contributor to the regional magazine, WestSound Home and Garden. For me, travel is anything that takes me to new places or forces me to see the familiar with fresh eyes, no matter how small my travel distance. The magazine’s editor recently assigned me an article on art deco buildings in a nearby community. Often kismet plays a role in my travel experiences as it did with this assignment. It just so happened that I spent a day at the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco in Salamanca Spain when I was there this spring immersing myself in art, fashion, jewelry, dolls, fans, furniture and architecture of those two influential styles.

salamancasalamnaca-1

The museum is located in the Casa Lis, a building originally designed as a mansion for Don Miguel Lis, a wealthy Salamanca merchant fond of Art Nouveau. Restored in 1992, the building’s exterior stained glass windows are worthy of a few hours of inspired awe.

20160410_13352220160410_133054

You can begin your tour in the museum’s artfully decorated tearoom next to a stained glass window contemplating the guide pamphlet while lingering over a cappuccino.

I began with the doll collection first, not so much because I’m a fan of dolls, but because I never realized that Art Deco and Art Nouveau had any influence on children’s toys. There is an entire section of display cases filled with elaborately dressed bisque headed French dolls used to showcase miniature Parisian fashions to the aristocracy and German dolls called character babies because of their realistic facial expressions.

huevo-de-pekin-gregory-sbitnev

Collections range from decorative cloisonne embedded with precious stones such as this egg with rubies to elaborately painted bronzes like the Nativity scene figure below:

nativo-en-camello-franz-bergmann

While many European museums can be pricey, the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco is free on Thursday mornings and at other times costs 4 Euros for adults and 2 Euros for students. It’s a beautiful gem inside and out – worthy of an entire day of contemplating two influential styles that emerged from the Industrial Revolution and World War II.

The Language of Fanspeak

It sang. It danced. It conveyed passion and despite its silence I knew exactly what it said. I was mesmerized. Enchanted. Curious.

It was my first Flamenco performance and I’d selected an intimately sized Seville venue frequented less by tourists and more by locals. The ensemble’s guitar playing, singing and dancing remain my favorite performance of the many I’ve seen since, but it was a single dance – the choreography of woman and fan that took my breath away.

Fans 2

Fans originated in Egypt. It was the Japanese who invented the folding fan. Portugal imported the first fans to Spain who remains one of the few European countries that still manufactures them. You see them in shop windows in the touristy areas of Madrid and Barcelona but I waited to see learn more about them in southern Spain and in particular Seville and the surrounding Andalusian area where the fusion of Moors, Castilian settlers, Romani and Jewish cultures birthed the authentic form of Spanish Flamenco. I wanted to know how that fan spoke to me.

Fans 3

It was in Ronda that I finally ventured into a small store artfully displaying handmade Spanish fans, still awestruck by the Seville performance. The owner and his wife were artists and their shop a loving tribute to the art form of hand fans.

I told him about the performance in Seville. “Fans,” he said, “communicate a language about relationships and were used by women back in the day to send messages. A good Flamenco dancer doesn’t just use the fan as a prop, she uses it as an extension of herself.”

Fans 1

He tried to tell me how to do it, but I needed him to demonstrate. He willingly did. I learned the snap of a fan is all about the action of wrist and the first two fingers. That fan action can be fast and slow, each conveying a different message. That placement when open is important.

  • Open fan over the chest showing the design “Yes”
  • Open fan over the chest showing the back “No”
  • Open fan covering one of the cheeks “I like you”
  • Wave fan very fast: “I really like you”
  • Wave fan very slowly: “I am not interested”
  • Open fan covering your nose “I want to see you”
  • Open fan covering your chin “I want to talk to you”
  • Closed fan near the heart: “I love you”
  • Open fan placed over lips: “Kiss me”
  • Close fan waving; “I am thinking about it”
  • Hit close fan against hand “Leave me alone”
  • Open and close the fan: “I am upset”
  • Open fan waving energetically on one side “Don´t come now, other people around”

I bought a moderately priced gray and black fan signed by its Spanish artist that I use on hot days; flicking it back and forth in front of my face – the only practical use of a hand fan in 2016. So far, nobody has ever interpreted my fanspeak.

 

The Agua of Valencia

It was a Mother’s Day Vulcan mind meld! As promised in my previous blog post,  I started to write about Agua de Valencia, the specialty cocktail of Valencia, Spain. However, fellow blogger Fork on the Road (aka Glenn Kaufmann) beat me to it with a Mother’s Day post on the same topic. We took an evening tapas tour of Valencia compliments of the city tourism bureau that ended with Agua de Valencia at what became my favorite haunt, Cafe De Las Horas.  During our tour Glenn suggested I try another specialty of Valencia called horchata, a refreshing drink made from tiger nuts. His Fork on the Road informative blog about both drinks is posted here. He’s a food blogger focused on the story behind the food. Me, I’m an eclectic travel blogger who was enamored about the ambiance of the place and if I would ever be able reproduce the nectar known as Agua de Valencia once I got home.

20160330_114758 (1)

My first foray into the cafe was late at night with a tour guide and Fork On the Road. When trying to find it on my own during the day, it was hard to believe this nondescript exterior housed the magical interior of my first Agua de Valencia experience.

But once inside, Wowzer! There was the crystal bar chandelier and painted blue ceiling with gold stars that I remembered from my first Agua de Valencia night. But it was my second time that had me noticing all of the art deco lighting, the bouquet of fresh cut flowers and the play of light off the well-stocked bar.

20160330_115112

On my third venture in I studied the marble, the historic art on the walls and the lush red coat of paint everywhere. Fork On the Road describes it as a bordello-like atmosphere. Maybe so. I just know I was charmed by its baroque over the top attitude enough to return multiple times during my month’s stay. Literally translated Cafe de las Horas means Coffee Hour, but I never came for the coffee. It was their Agua de Valencia that brought me back every time.

20160330_114959

I asked the bartender for the recipe and he said good bartenders each have a slight variation in their ingredients, but an authentic recipe with advice could be found at SpanishWines.com. Here it is:

Recipe for Agua de Valencia

  • 200ml Orange Juice
  • 50ml Gin
  • 50ml Vodka
  • 700ml Cava (or Champagne)
  • Pinch of sugar

Method:

  • Into a pitcher jug, pour one glass of orange juice – best if it is freshly squeezed orange juice.
  • Add a bottle of semi-dry Cava (or Champagne if you do not have Cava).
  • Add a shot and a half of both vodka and gin.
  • Add the sugar according to taste.
  • Refrigerate before serving.
  • Serve in the jug, and then pour into glasses to drink. Enjoy!

If you are planning on making this drink then you may want to consider these pieces of advice. Do not use orange liquors such as Cointreau to make the drink as it is the fresh orange juice that gives the drink its aromatic qualities. Also, try to use oranges grown in the Valencia region as this will make the drink more authentic.

Naturally, good quality alcohol will make the drink taste better, and Cava is always preferable to Champagne as it is truly Spanish. The sugar is optional, and if you prefer a drier cocktail instead of a sweet one, then you can always use dry Cava or Brut. It is also a good idea to prepare this Spanish drink in advance as it is best served very cold which means time in the fridge. You should mix the drink in the pitcher with a spoon, but when serving the drink, you should try and remove the spoon from the jug without disturbing the mixture too much.

The Urge To Speak My Mother Tongue

I’d been in Valencia, Spain solo for two weeks when it struck me that I hadn’t had a full blown, uninhibited-by-the-constraints-of- my-mediocre-Spanish conversation in 14 days. I was living solo in an apartment in a city that was in the midst of Fallas, their exuberant March three weeks family and friend oriented festival which would be followed immediately by a family and friend oriented Easter. I needed to let loose a torrent of pent up English mother tongue words. But where to find English conversation in a city that speaks Valencia (a version of Catalan spoken in parts of Spain) and Spanish? I asked The Google. And then I asked The Facebook.

INTERCAMBIO EVENTS. Intercambio, which literally means exchange in Spanish are informal language and cultural events sponsored by schools, bookstores, coffee shops and pubs that allow participants to practice a language. It turned out there were many public intercambio English events in Valencia inviting English speakers to come converse over beers and coffee with Spanish speakers wanting to improve their conversational English.

20160322_141930

My first intercambio was at the Ubik Cafe , a coffee shop, wine bar, restaurant, bookstore in the charming Rusafa neighborhood. The evening was advertised as Singing in English and that’s exactly what it was. A local expat musician distributed sheet music of Beatles tunes and led the audience of Spanish and English speakers through a lively and social sing-along concert. On Monday evenings, Ubik sponsors a more traditional intercambio facilitated by a local language school where multiple language skills can be practiced including English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. I was unable to attend because while I was singing in English, a local told me about another intercambio venue:

20160322_194144_001 (1)

Valencia’s Portland Ale House is owned by two guys from Oregon fell who in love with Valencia and brought craft beer brewing and sensibilities to the city. The owners came from a land only three hours south of my home turf. I would not only be able to talk English, I could talk U.S.A. Pacific Northwest English! The pub was decorated in comforting memorabilia – a University of Oregon banner, Northwest Airline antique signs and black and white photos of Oregon. After the owner greeted me, I was seated at the intercambio table and given coupons for any combination of three free drinks and pizza as payment for my time as a conversation partner. I was joined by another English speaking partner (from Seattle no less!) and six locals – all young professionals wanting to practice English. The evening was a combination of informal table conversation and pub trivia contests where our intercambio table competed with the pub’s regular crowd. It was a trivia question that prompted another suggestion from one of the locals:

20160324_123146

IRISH PUBS An Irish friend once told me you can find an Irish pub in every moderate sized city in the world. Irish pubs are generally staffed by friendly Irish bartenders, televise soccer and rugby and are frequented by English speaking tourists and expats. There are at least five Irish pubs in Valencia but I only checked out one to see if it satisfied my need for an English chat. It did. Finnegans of Dublin was conveniently located on my daily walking route back to my apartment. The second time I dropped by for a beer after exploring all day, the bartender recognized me and introduced me to a group of London tourists who were there to watch a soccer match. I joined them and two soccer games later left saturated with English conversation.

20160308_225657

LOCAL TOUR GUIDES  The Valencia tour site Discovering Valencia offers a variety of guided tours with English speaking guides. I took the evening tapas and wine tasting tour with their lively and knowledgeable guide, Irma Mariscal and, as it turned out, another travel blogger from the U.S. That not only gave me an evening of speaking English but I also learned a lot about the protocol and culture of tapas, the history of Valencia and I discovered wonderful restaurants that I returned to during the rest of my stay.

I stayed in Valencia for a month with the intent of improving my Spanish by living there as an immersion into the language. My Spanish did improve. In fact, the rare English conversation I heard while out and about was so unusual it would nearly stop me in my tracks. By the end of my trip I thought I was hearing more English street conversation. It turned out the conversations were still in Spanish, but I understood more of it. Still, I found I needed the occasional relief of hearing and speaking unfettered English. As a solo traveler without the companionship of fellow English speakers, I needed to seek out those opportunities. And by doing that I also sang, played pub trivia, cheered a televised soccer match and sampled the cuisine and wine of Valencia.

Next post: Agua de Valencia.

 

La Alberca, Spain: Hemingway Never Ate Here

20160405_112548 (1)

I’d seen the sign before in Madrid proudly displayed on El Cuchi Restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. Hemingway Never Ate Here. I’d seen the phrase in a London gallery as the title of a painting by Patrick Caulfield. Now I was standing in the middle of a medieval plaza of a small Spanish village tucked into the mountains of La Sierra de Francia and there it was again on a bar specializing in wine, ham and bull tail stew.  I figure if the Fates send me the same odd message three times, it’s a sign my peregrine compass is about to discover something special. And La Alberca, Spain is special.

About four hours northwest of Madrid by car and an hour east of the university town of Salamanca, the village of La Alberca  was officially founded as a community in the 1300’s. Though geographically isolated, La Alberca did not escape the history that shaped Spain. There are cave paintings in the surrounding mountains indicating the area was inhabited as early as the Neolithic era. There is evidence the multi-cultural village had influential Jewish, Arabic and Catholic roots. The name La Alberca comes from the Arabic words, berka and al which translated means “place of the water”.

20160405_113714

The village’s layout of narrow streets and some of the architecture indicate there was an influential Jewish population in its early development.  Over some of the doorways are engravings from the Spanish Inquisition. These were the homes of Jewish or Muslim residents who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition and proclaimed their new faith to avoid prosecution.

20160405_112738

At the end of the Middle Ages, the image of the Virgen de la Pena Francia was discovered nearby and a shrine was built. Today the southern route (the Ruta de la Plata or Silver Route) of the famous Catholic pilgrimage, the  Camino de Santiago , also known as the Way of St James passes by La Alberca to reach the shrine as evidenced by the clam shell route markers on the walls of some of the buildings.

The Catholic Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in one of the village plazas is not only an architectural and historical structure, but it’s the starting point for a nightly ritual unique to La Alberca of local women who walk through the streets at sunset ringing a bell reminding residents to pray for lost souls.

20160405_113833

In 1940 the village was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Spanish government. The designation carried strict building and remodeling restrictions to insure that La Alberca is architecturally frozen in time giving visitors the opportunity to meander authentic medieval streets and shop and eat in buildings looking just as they did in the Middle Ages.

20160405_112814

The National Historic Landmark restrictions have resulted in interesting juxtapositions of important modern day building functions such as this bar over the public library.

I never did solve the mystery of the Hemingway sign. When I asked the barkeeper about it, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and gave me a sample of the area’s famous Iberian ham to taste.

It may be a village, but La Alberca caters to Spaniards and international visitors who want to do more than a day trip. Just outside of town within walking distance is the hotel and chalets of Abadia de los Templarios. The owner also owns the Hotel Dona Teresa inside the village and there are additional accommodations around the small main plaza.