A comedy of errors would be putting it nicely.
The first day of “Siiri in Spain” was pretty amusing, both in real time and even more so after the fact. Looking back on it now, it was clearly a sign of things to come. I had prepared the hell out of my arrival and that always means you forgot something or you’re about to cut off your nose to spite your face.
My connection in Stockholm was only 45 minutes and having never been to Stockholm before, I had no idea a plane change meant I would also need to clear customs because no one tells you when or where you’ll have to clear customs. So in addition to having to sprint to my gate (thank god I’m a runner and also lift heavy awkward things all the time in the kitchen), everyone was speaking Swedish, Danish and German to me from the moment I stepped onto the plane at JFK. Every time I would reply with, “I’m sorry, I only speak English,” I would get the head tilt and look of, “Seriously? You look like you’re from this other country.” Sorry to disappoint, people, but I’m only working on learning Spanish again, so step aside, I’ve got a plane to chase down.
I made my connecting flight with not a moment to spare and landed in Barcelona without event. My phone battery had taken a bit of a hit and in trying to get my map function, train schedule, international texting, etc. up and running when I landed, I was already in dangerous territory before getting to my first train interchange. It took me two trains and a bus to get to the first homestay, a sweet little town just south of the Costa Brava, where I was being expected by my host family. Of course the problems began when I needed to pay for my ticket on the “Bus” and I use that term loosely. The rural town buses are like the size of a Vegas party bus (and please don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about) or retirement community bus (for those of you in denial) and the isle isn’t wide enough for me to walk through facing straight forward without slamming one hip into the side of the seat, never mind my suitcase and messenger bag with knife kit sticking out the side. After painstakingly figuring out the bus fare with the driver who was on his first day (oh, GREAT) we were on our way. Thank god for friends with leftover Euros (Lori and Kate, you guys are my angels). Then I realize as the bus is going up the street, there are no street signs. Anywhere.
Actually there are, sometimes. But they’re on the sides of buildings, sometimes. And they’re on the other side of the building from the side you’re on, sometimes. And they’re hand painted, and old, so you can’t read them from the inside of the bus as it screams by going up the hill, sometimes. I had told the bus driver where I was going, in Spanish, and showed him the address. He informs me it’s his first day and he doesn’t know where that is. I ask him if he can at least tell me which stop to get off at and he said okay. Obviously we know that’s not what is going to happen. At some point, he stops the bus and, from what little I could understand, informs me that I need to get off because this is the last stop in town. I ask him which direction to go or where my street should be and he has no idea, but demands I get off the bus with all my shit. Oh and my phone just died.
I have the address written down on paper, but that’s it. I get off the bus as requested and am standing at a sign-less intersection at the corner of “Where the EFF am I?” and “What in the Hell do I think I’m doing?” There is not a single sign or person or stray dog in sight. I have no idea what time of day it is and no way to call anyone. My host dad is at work in Barcelona for another hour and no one knows where I am, including me. I am over it, so over it. I need a meal, a shower, and a glass of wine wouldn’t hurt either. I have all this crap with me which is simultaneously the most shit ever and not enough to get me through a full week, and don’t know which way to walk. What’s worse is that no streets in Spain are numbers or letters or alphabetized or in any order or grid. Everything my dad ever taught me about being lost is so not helping and that’s IT. I. Loose. My. Cool.
Now I’m standing on this sign-less corner with all my shit, hungry, tired with a dead phone and crying. Real cute, Sampson. Reallllll cute. Just then, a man walking his tiny dog turns the corner and I accost him, trying to wipe away the tears of defeat and exhaustion and general “okay now we’re really doing this, no turning back” realization. He walks with me and we speak enough Spanglish to figure out we need to head into town. After 35 minutes and stopping to ask 5 shop owners which way to go, I am headed up a very steep hillside in the town, which leads to a street that has a sign, finally, and a man in his yard watching traffic who confirms I’m going the right direction.
Finally, I make it and the hellacious voyage is over, and also, has just begun.
[Let me just say that this time abroad is anything but easy. For those thinking, “Gosh, I wish I could take vacation like you and go on a trip like that," I say: Yes, this is an incredible time and I am extremely grateful that I am afforded this opportunity! But by no means is this a vacation. I am hustling every day, trying to connect the right opportunities now that I’m here in person. Yes, I’m having incredible moments here and some days are very exciting, and yes, there are lots of great picture and stories. But that all came about by a very thoughtful and diligent process of working many jobs, crazy hours and a constant hushing of the internal voice of doubt. This is not an easy path to choose, am I so glad I gave up the life I had to get to the life I have now.]
My first week was filled with days on end of continuously asking “What? What? Which?” in Spanish, directly followed by, “Thank you, sorry!” or “I’m sorry, I just got here, my Spanish needs more practice.” Ironically I can say those phrases quickly and perfectly because I’ve had so much practice saying them, and as soon as I say it, the other person replies, “you’re Spanish is actually pretty good, where’d you learn to speak?” So, fine. I know I have a lot of work to do, and that’s exactly why I’m here.
I had the opportunity to meet and stay with an amazing host family through my international peacekeepers program, Servas. The first town I stayed in, just north of Barcelona proper, is on the Mediterranean Sea. Each time the car or train goes past the coast line I think, “Man, what a way to live!” There are quaint beach side cafes, called “chiringuitos” that serve myriad treats, of which my personal favorite is chipinones, or tiny little squid (or “pulpitos” tiny little octopus if you can find them). Dusted in a light batter and flash fried to a crispy perfection. Served with sea salt and lemon. There’s always some sort of house wine from the province which never seems to come to an end. There’s always more wine here.
I spent the first full day after my arrival with my host family. Thank god Lluis, the husband/father, speaks a lot of English and wanted to do a fun practice swap. I had a couple of day trips to Barcelona to snoop around and was lucky enough to meet up with two fantastic women from back home who happened to be there at the same time! Julia, a childhood friend of my best friend, Liz, was on a large, multi-stop family vacation prior to starting her first year of graduate school back in Washington DC. We met for five minutes one day in Seattle when she was visiting for a week and happened to be having lunch with Liz when I met up with them to retrieve my sleeping bag for my impending travels. We realized in that five minute span we’d both be in Barcelona at the same time and of course made good on meeting up and getting to know each other over tapas, cava and shared stories of our travels.
Grace is just about to finish her degree and was traveling with her mother through Spain for the summer. She is my second (or third?) cousin on my mom’s side. The last time I saw her, she was four years old. HA! What a trip….
The three of us had such a blast romping around Barcelona together and jointly crossing off list items each of us had. It was a nice way to softly transition from America to Spain, and from English to Spanish, to have these smart, sassy, intelligent ladies with me for a short time.
There was also a wonderful American woman staying with the family when I arrived, Katie, who is friends with their oldest son. She was also about to wrap up her Spanish travels and head back to the states when I got there, but we had a couple afternoons to walk around and get lost (which we were exceedingly good at). We always managed to find our way to the beach for a bit of swimming and relaxing to the waves (and sometimes I even provided the entertainment by falling and skinning my knee, or combatting a wave and falling over in the sea). Katie had been living in California and the two of us were definitely holding our own West Coast vibes party on the shores of the Mediterranean.
The summer in Spain is full of incredible festivals in every town, on every coast, throughout each province. You can throw a rock and hit a festival every day, filled with local foods, traditional parades and fireworks. Spain loves fireworks and I love fireworks, and it’s a match made in heaven. The most interesting food or cooking I learned about though, happened at home with the family.
My host family has this awesome solar oven that I’m pretty obsessed with and definitely need to get my hands on when I finally get back to the states. Essentially it uses the power of the sun to direct the heat to your cooking vessel, but is completely safe and cool to the touch. Here is a bit of info on how solar cooking works and you can easily see why I’m stoked on it.
My other educational food experience worth noting is our trip to the fish market. First of all, most of the people working at the first market or counter are female. This is not isolated to this area, as I’m writing this much after the fact and have experienced the same situation everywhere.
It’s really encouraging to see women working with their hands, breaking down cuts and getting into this work. It’s something that back home, not many women (in my experience) know about and I’d like to try to change that. Growing up in Seattle with the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, many lakes and Pacific Ocean at our disposal meant we were always eating fresh, amazing seafood. In my family, you had to be able to catch it, kill it, clean it and cook it or you weren’t getting any of it. What an important life skill I’m so happy to have!
There are a few fish I recognized, but mostly ones that were new to me in all different shapes, sizes and colors. Merluza (Hake) is a variety of fish pretty common around these parts, and I have always loved it but never really see it at the local fish market and it definitely is not the economical buy when I do see it stateside. Which of course means I had to purchase a whole one and roast it for the family my first week here.
Barcelona in the middle of summer is not exactly where I would recommend people to vacation (now having done it myself) because it turns out all of Europe is already there! Regardless, I had many food adventures in and around the city for the first two weeks or so of my time here in Spain. I stayed with three different host families and happened to land in Spain in the midst of what, after further inspection, appears to be a summer long time lovingly referred to simply as “fiestas.” Fitting because, after two days back to back of fiestas in different towns, you’re like, “oh, what, ANOTHER PARTY?! OKAYYYYYYYYYYYYYY.”
As it turns out, after I unclenched a little and start repeating my new mantra, "Nothing taxing, just relaxing," everything begins to come into focus and just come together. Dang it, Spain, I think I'm gonna 'like you' like you....but will you check the YES, NO or MAYBE box on me?