I had the pleasure of visiting Toledo recently with one of my host families. Toledo is about an hour and a half south of Madrid by car and definitely worth it. Toledo is known as bull country. One of the most prominent bull rings sits in coliseum-like glory among the many apartment buildings. What still amazes me about Europe is that you could be living next to an ancient bull ring and think nothing of it. History is a part of life here. Finally finding a parking space (Americans don’t know how good they have it), we headed to a McDonald’s. The novelty is the same but there is one major difference. Beer. Being the American prude that I am, I was astounded. Beer at McDonald’s? Mother of God. My host family had a little laugh as I took a picture. Pilar explained to me that beer is like coke here. You grab it and you go.
After our lunch we headed to the Cathedral of Toledo. As I have said before, I love cathedrals. Like, a lot. This time I was able to visit for over an hour, much to the dismay of the nine and fifteen year old with us. Toledo is also known for the famous El Greco and his paintings. El Greco was an artist from Crete who was captivated by Toledo. He decided to stay and paint on commission. Many of his most famous paintings remain in the sacristy in the Cathedral of Toledo. Outside of the sacristy is a larger than life alter. What is above the alter is the surprise. Cathedrals were designed to become the literal house of God. So that must mean that heaven is close… If you move toward the alter and look directly above, there it is. Heaven. There is a cavern in the ceiling with angels carved around the mouth. The alcove leads to a circular window that lights up the row of saints sitting in the clouds. I apologize for my description, it doesn’t do the real thing justice. Neither does this picture, but I wish to share it all the same.
The air in Toledo is tranquil. Even the stroll on the cobble stones back to the car was pleasant. Laughing and joking, we enjoy each other’s company as the sky turns lavender. It is times like these that I appreciate how lucky I am. Such wonderful adventures with such sweet people.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I am not fluent in Castilian Spanish. I have gotten to be an amazing guesser and I’m pretty sure I could kick anyone’s butt in charades. I am even starting to dream in Spanish. Have I picked up anything? Thankfully, yes. A ton. So here are some things I wish I knew as a beginner in Spain:
1. The lisp. Do not fear it. Just respect it.
2. Do not by any means use sarcasm. Leave this to the advanced bilinguals. Otherwise you will be doing something you never wanted to do out of sheer shame.
3. Spaniards are very forgiving of your language ignorance. Just give it your best try. The other day I was locked out of the apartment lobby and the janitor was giving me the stink eye. He opened the door just enough to look at me when I said “Lo siento no habla Espanol.” He gave me a huge grin and let me in.
4. The way people in Spain try to explain something in English can be really funny, so don’t laugh. My example? “The children of the snake fish.”
5. Accept that no matter what you say in Spanish, you will sound stupid. You just have to leave pride at the airport because at least you are trying. Spaniards get that.
Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of visiting a little place called Segovia. Segovia is this incredible town founded in the middle ages. The streets are narrow and twisting with the added thrill of cobblestones, so one must watch their step. Segovia is known for mainly two things: the Roman aqueduct that slices through the village and something called Cochinillo.
My second host family and I began our visit next to the aqueduct and crossed through the Muslim district. This district is filled with beautiful Andalusian arches and ornate diamonds carved into the walls of every Muslim building. Crossing the street, we entered the Christian settlement where we found the Cathedral of Segovia. I am a Cathedral lover. I could spend all day in those drafty, gargantuan halls made for God himself. The amazing work and inspiration that went into creating these gothic cathedrals astounds me. The goal of gothic architecture is to make the highest ceilings possible, according to my audio guide. Every detail of every bit of ornamentation must be perfect because a cathedral is literally God’s house. And you can bet he will notice.
We left the cathedral and immediately entered the Jewish district. You can tell because there is a small golden marker at the entryway with Hebrew on it.
These districts were able to coexist in peace for hundreds of years. That is pretty amazing given the history of these religions. Respect, Segovia! The main attraction of Segovia is the Alcazar, the favorite castle getaway of the Spanish royals in the middle ages. It is a fairly small castle compared to others, but its location is what makes it spectacular. It sits jutting out over this vast valley of rolling, Tuscan hills.
Segovia is well worth the drive through the Spanish mountains. It’s history is held close by the people who live there. It is already the favorite of my trip thus far. If you ever get the chance, make sure Segovia is at the top of your list! oh, and Cochinillo is a whole roasted piglet.
The food in Spain is crazy awesome. Every meal is something new and that is not an exaggeration. I went out to eat with my second family last Friday night and got to try some very diverse cuisine. First were the croquettas. They have the same concept at croquettes in the USA, mashed potato in a fried shell. But these croquettas were different. These had bull’s tail in them. One hot, savory bite and I was a fan. The next dish had shrimp and a number of squiggly gray noodles mixed in. When I asked what they were, all they could tell me was that they were “…the children of the snake fish.” So I’m guessing eel babies? I ate eel babies. Hm.
Saturday rolls around and Peter and Helga decide to take me to Madrid. The city is a gem. The buildings have stood there for centuries and are an array of mango yellows and tomato reds. The three of us stop at a bar and order beer. I have to say, I enjoy a small brew at lunch. We order olives and albondigas (meatballs). I overhear a loud American couple next to our group. They are in their fifties or sixties and very confused. I take pity on them and tell them that the potato salad is complementary and to not worry about paying for it. When their albondigas come, the woman exclaims loudly “How am I supposed to eat this? There are five of them!” Trying hard not to roll my eyes I reply, “They are delicious, just try them.” She loves them. Peter whispers to me, “Those are the tourist meatballs, we ordered the real ones.” I’m in good hands. Next, we visit San Miguel Market. The market place has been there since medieval times but now it is in a very sleek and modern building. What I love about San Miguel’s is that five hundred years ago, people were yelling at the top of their lungs, haggling over the price of eel babies and nothing has changed. Madrid is enchanting.
When living in a Spanish household, activities are planned around food. In the morning, people usually have milk and cookies, or galletas (thin, think Lorna Doone), cereal and fruit. I was offered a whole mango once and I sincerely tried to finish it. Pilar shops every other day at the super market for fresh seafood, fruits, and vegetables. When she buys food, it will be used either that night or the following night. Spaniards don’t shop for a week’s worth of food like Americans do. They keep relatively empty refrigerators because they only buy what they know they are going to use. They don’t have to worry about finding the bad smell in the fridge because everything is eaten within two days of being bought. That being said, portion sizes are huge here. My first family took me to a restaurant the day I arrived in Madrid. Everyone ordered a pizza and I asked for some type of appetizer. When the food came, I almost cried. Each person had a large pizza in front of them. And my appetizer? Five large slices of tomato with mozzarella and basil and there I was, still full from the macaroni and cheese on the plane. On Sunday, Pilar made me paella. Middle class families like the this one can’t afford saffron, so they use other spices. The paella was amazing. At first what I thought were bits of hotdog turned out to be little slivers of squid. Go figure. The muscles and clams were fresh and unlike any other seafood I have tried. I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that Spain probably has THE best seafood in the world. It’s totally awesome to enjoy food like this.
Today I got to tutor one of my host moms and one of the daughters. First I met with Pilar, the mother of the first family I am staying with. She has a masters in art history and loves archaeology. My kind of woman. In the evening I met with Amelia, the daughter of the other host family. She is very charismatic and loves to laugh. She apparently has an uncle who starred in Spain’s version of “America’s Got Talent”. On this show, the contestant is given a famous singer to imitate. I watched a video of the uncle, dressed like an early 90’s Will Smith singing “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Get Jiggy With It”. This show is gold. We need one like it in the U.S.
We were walking so fast I couldn’t stay to take a better picture. Pronounced “Platha” De Mayor.