A Day in the Life


Ernest Hemingway was here in 1937.  And hombre, he was sure right when he said the “bell tolls for thee” – it wakes me up every morning.  From the window adjacent to mine is a clear view of the cathedral bell tower.  Not that seeing it makes it any easier to get up that early, but it’s not a bad view.


Breakfast here is light – usually cereal or toast with coffee (which, I might add, is slightly less thick than pudding and strong enough to stand a fork in).  On weekdays, classes start at 9 am.  We live very close to our classroom building, but I always enjoy the short walk in the morning – the air is cooler, and the streets are quiet, save for the gentle cooing of mourning doves.

Patio de Escuelas Menores.

The next five hours are filled with classes.  I usually bring some food to hold me over, because lunch comes much later in the day, around 2:30 or 3:00 pm, and there’s nothing worse than talking about Spanish food in your culture class while listening to your stomach rumble like the Daytona Beach Motorcycle Rally.

Lunch is typically the largest meal of the day.  In Spain, most families gather together at lunchtime for several hours; students return from school, the rest from work.  The official working hours in Spain respect this siesta time, and many shops close between 2-5 pm, with the exception of some restaurants.  We eat with our host sister Carolina, and sometimes our other sister Beatriz, when she’s not at work.  Tortilla de patatas, gazpacho, arroz a la Cubana, fideos, pescado, ensalada de garbanzos, relleno (the Spanish version), and many other dishes fill us up, always accompanied by a slice of baguette.

The whole family got together for lunch one weekend!

The siesta time continues after lunch.  There are several reasons for the siesta, namely, to avoid the hottest part of the day, and to make up for insufficient sleep from the night before (from which no one is exempt!).  Not everyone sleeps, but it’s a good time to rest.

Most afternoons are open-ended.  I enjoy playing sports with friends…


…going for a jog in the park or along the river…

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…or exploring new parts of the city.


And as I’m here to study, sometimes I’ll hit the books in the library down the street.  (I mostly go there for the air conditioning.)


We eat dinner at home around 8:30 pm, which is relatively early for Spanish families.  The weird hours date back to the 1940s, when the government made the time zone in Spain the same as in Germany.  To this day, Spain uses Central European time instead of the Western European time zone, which it belongs to geographically.  If everything were set behind by an hour, meal times and working hours would appear almost normal.  Alas.  It still doesn’t explain why Spaniards stay up so late.

After some time, the sun begins its descent on the horizon, and the world starts to stir.  Cafes fill their patios with customers, and the streets swell with people and live music.  The lights blink on in the Plaza Mayor, illuminating the golden-yellow facade against the dark backdrop of the night sky.  You can see the stars here, and the music plays on well into the night.


As my time here draws to a close, I look back on all the things I have learned, not just about the language, but about Spanish culture, and about people, and about myself.  Traveling changes you in a powerful way – there’s nothing quite like jumping headfirst into a new environment where unfamiliarity is the norm, and where your old perspectives and assumptions about the world are constantly challenged.  You learn to make friends with great people, and to avoid others.  You find joy in the unexpected.  Your comfort zone nearly doubles in size because you’re outside of it so often.

It will be difficult for me to leave Salamanca – I’ve come to call it home, and the lifestyle and people here have a hold on my heart.  I’ll return to the U.S., to college, to the old routine.  I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends, and going back to eating Big American Breakfasts, among other things.  But I will always remember the way I felt here, and I’m thankful to everyone who helped me embark on this journey – it has been an incredible experience, one that I will always remember.




¡Buen Provecho!

In case you’re wondering, that’s similar to saying ‘bon appetit’ in French, and it’s common courtesy here, if you chance upon someone eating – strangers walking by in the street are just as likely to say it to you as are members of your family.  And yes, I am dedicating an entire blog post to food, because, well, it’s pretty good here.

***Disclaimer: if you’re hungry right now, go eat something before you finish reading this. Seriously.

Where to begin? I suppose with some of the best-known Spanish cuisine.  Paella, for starters, is a scrumptious combination of rice, sauce, and most often, seafood.  It’s a favorite of just about everyone here (including me).  At home, we usually eat it on Sundays (it’s a little more labor-intensive than other dishes).  It goes nicely with homemade banana milkshakes.

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I’d be mistaken to leave jamón out of the picture – it’s one of (if not the) most famous foods to come out of Spain, and it’s hanging in just about every market or restaurant you go to.  It’s basically dry-cured ham.  The province of Salamanca produces some particularly famous jamón ibérico, which is sold throughout the country.

13439185_1085042948236215_8866160444344417918_n13502054_10154034053663429_4435811895114807951_n 13516165_10154031349538429_3288014564170171561_nTapas are another ubiquitous Spanish specialty to be found in most restaurants and bars.  There are countless types, (some variations are called “pinchos”), each consisting of a small, snack-like portion of food – meat, cheese, bread, meat, tortilla de patatas, peppers, more meat, potatoes…there are a lot of different types of meat.  Tapas are said to have originated in 13th-century Spain, when the King mandated that all pubs serve small portions of food alongside beverages, in an attempt to curb the detrimental effects of alcohol. It’s still common for bars to serve tapas with drinks, and they are substantial enough to make a meal, especially if you split your time between a few different places.DSCN3854

If you’re not sure what’s in a tapa, sometimes it’s better to enjoy the flavor and refrain from asking.  The dark brown tapas (see right) are called “morcilla”, or blood sausage – sausages filled with congealed blood, and sometimes rice or other cereals – they tasted great, especially because I didn’t know what they were at the time.  The tapas towards the bottom were called “lagrimas de pollo”, or chicken tears.  They were basically glorified chicken strips, but appropriately named.

Most of the cities we’ve been to (including Salamanca) have a large enclosed market with interesting foods.  Seafood is common here, and even more so in coastal towns.  The gooseneck barnacles shown below come from small islands off the coast of Galicia, in the Northwest.  The fishermen there work under very dangerous conditions, risking life and limb to bring the barnacles home – consequently, they command a high price.


More seafood…

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Francesinha (see below) is a Portuguese specialty.  It’s a sandwich-like stack of bread, ham, sausage, steak, and other meats, covered in sauce and melted cheese, and topped with a fried egg (better loosen your belt – it may look small, but it was nearly impossible to finish!).  To the right is a mixture of baked fish and mashed potatoes. (And don’t worry, those are just olives, I promise!)

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If you’re a vegetarian, there are plenty of non-meat options – we eat vegetables at home regularly.  If you aren’t a vegetarian, you might be by the end of an extended stay here.


Dessert, at least in the sense of sweets, is generally less common.  At home, we’ll often eat fruit at the end of a meal.  On the other hand, there is no shortage of bakeries, chocolaterías, and heladerías in Salamanca to satisfy your sweet tooth.  The croissants are wicked, and wherever you go, the gelato is superb, as long as you don’t mind waiting in line for it.  This devil carved into the side of the new cathedral likes ice cream, too.




Oporto, Porto by the sea


One of our more recent weekend adventures took us to the western coast of Portugal, a country that was surprisingly foreign, given its many similarities to Spain.  The first foreign thing we noticed was the climate – it’s semi-Mediterranean, but close enough to the Atlantic that the temperature is noticeably lower than it is inland.  The second thing was the language – most of the locals preferred to speak English over Spanish, when possible, which was just as well –  Spanish is similar to Portuguese, but not enough for us to understand anyone’s responses in Portuguese.  More surprises were just around the corner…

Waterfront on the Douro River.

Porto is to Portugal as Barcelona is to Spain.  That is to say, it’s the country’s second-largest city, and an important one, culturally and economically.  It began as a Celtic settlement, before being occupied by the Romans, Moors, and Visigoths, at various points. In contrast to Spanish Renaissance architecture throughout the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, Porto’s material of choice is granite (there’s a lot of it), with rows of colorful houses tucked between.


Porto (in Portuguese, Oporto, meaning “the port”) is the source of port wine, delicious seafood, and some of J.K. Rowling’s more profitable ideas.  The author presumably started writing the first Harry Potter book in the Majestic Café (see below) when she was living and working in Porto as an English teacher.  We saw some striking similarities to parts of the story – black, robe-like school uniforms, a bookstore straight out of Diagon Alley, and a train station not too unlike King’s Cross (you’ll have to go to London to see the real deal, but this one had cool tile artwork).

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While in Porto, we visited Caves Sandeman, one of the many wine companies lining the waterfront.  Most of the vineyards are located in the Douro Valley, but the wine is aged in the cellars in Porto, where the climate is perfect for the job.  The “House of Sandeman” was founded in London by a Scotsman, and made its way to Porto soon after; its logo combines the Portuguese student’s cape with the Spanish sombrero (there were important economic between the two countries).  I’m no wine connoisseur, but from what I could tell, they do a pretty good job there, if not with the wine, certainly with the marketing.

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And, naturally, we spent some time on the beach.


Porto was the kind of place that you could probably visit multiple times and still feel like everything is new.  It felt more like a Northern European city than anywhere I’ve been in Spain (not that I would know, but…) – I’d say it was distinctly Portuguese.  Without a doubt, it was a fantastic place to visit.


We returned to Salamanca on the night of the UEFA Euro Cup Championship game between France and Portugal.  Spain is sandwiched between the two countries, and from what I could tell, there was an even distribution of loyalties between fans here.  Having just returned from Porto, we were happy to see Portugal take the title.


Feliz en Cádiz

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 11.54.09 PMA few weekends ago we had the chance to travel to southern Spain, in the autonomous region of Andalucía.  Our journey took us all the way down the western side of the country, through Castilla y León, Extremadura, and Andalucía.

The majority of central Spain consists of dry flatlands dotted with shrubs, with rolling hills closer to the coastlines.  The journey was long, but the view from the edge of the bay in Cádiz was well worth it.

DSCN4152It was much cooler on the coast – a welcome break from the dry heat of Castilla y León. Cádiz is recognized as one of the oldest settlements in Europe, thanks to its location and resources.  It certainly has its fair share of historic architecture – stone forts line the bay, and the plazas, old quarters, and churches throughout the city exude a unique character, with multicultural influences.  Today, it remains an important base for the Spanish Navy.


As a port city, Cádiz has touches of other continents – the “Dragon tree” shown here can only be found in Cádiz, the Canary Islands, and Greece.  Its name comes from the legend of Hercules, who allegedly fought a dragon here.  The sap of the tree turns red, like dragon’s blood, when mixed with the soil.


DSCN419213580520_10206417480101880_7307191499935155013_oDSCN4191The beaches in Spain are different – they’re warm, crowded, and sometimes clothing-optional.  The majority of people that flock to the southern coast are either locals or Brits on holiday (whose tans, I might add, would make any Oregonian look like a regular sunbather).  Nonetheless, having spent some time there, I have no trouble understanding why the beach is so crowded – it’s an enjoyable place.

On the way home, we stopped for the night in Sevilla, which is Spain’s fourth-largest city.  It’s also quite possibly the hottest.  It was sizzling in Sevilla, and in more than one way – the ambiance of Don Juan and Carmen brings soul to the old walls and embodies what is for many the stereotypical image of Spain – bullfights, tapas, and passionate flamenco dancing. Did I mention it was really hot?

Throughout the Andalucía region, the spoken language is distinct  enough from Castillian to make communication difficult.  My friends in Salamanca assured me that everyone has trouble understanding the language down there, not just foreigners.  That made me feel a little better about accidentally ordering baby octopus for dinner.  As mistakes go, it was a good one.

Giralda tower.
Part of the cathedral.
The Alcázar.

Sevilla’s cathedral is the largest in Spain, and the third-largest church in the world.  The Giralda, or bell tower, is iconic of Sevilla and of the deep and varied history of the Spanish empire.  Also of note is the Alcázar, a palace originally built for Moorish royalty, and the Plaza de España, an impressive square with a small canal running through the center. Each   province has a tile display within the semicircle cloister.  Salamanca’s was easy to spot.


Plaza de España.

DSCN4205My favorite part about Sevilla was the flamenco dance we watched in the evening.  The flamenco is the most intense dance I have ever seen; pictures don’t do it justice.  The guitarist strummed furiously while the dancers moved vivaciously around the stage, the man’s ear-splitting machine-gun footwork accompanied by clapping, the woman’s flamboyance epitomized in her proud stance.  The singer’s melancholy wail brought forth a stream of emotions.  It was captivating.

¡Bienvenidos a Salamanca!

Río Tormes, with the Old and New Cathedrals in the background.

We arrived in Salamanca several weeks ago and were greeted there by our host families.  I saw immediately where the nickname “La Ciudad Dorada” comes from – when we arrived, the sun was sinking behind the hills in the distance, illuminating the city with brilliant golden light.  In the old city, the buildings are made of once-white sandstone, weathered over time to the rich golden color they have today.  Another student and I are living with a family near the heart of the old city, about a ten-minute walk from La Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor – the best in Spain!

Salamanca has the feel of a college town, with a history that rivals some of the oldest medieval cities in Europe – kind of a weird combination, but it works.  The University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain (almost 800 years!), and the second-oldest in Europe, behind Oxford.  Today, you can get an advanced degree in biotechnology – things are as modern as they can get – but hints of the university’s history are evident throughout, as well.  In the walls of the main courtyard, for instance, you can see handwriting – names and messages of victory written by students with bulls’ blood after successfully passing final exams. (They don’t do that anymore.)

DSCN4027In the early days of the University, students, all male, came from noble families to study theology or philosophy.  Many students (including Christopher Columbus) came to learn Latin before moving on to other courses of study, as everything was taught in Latin.  Now, many foreign students come here to learn Spanish.  Summer courses aren’t offered for regular students, so that part of the population decreases this time of year, although the swell of tourists and international students likely compensates.

University facade near Escuelas Menores.
Look a little closer. See the frog? It’s on the third skull from the right.

The “Puerta de Salamanca” facade, pictured above, is about a five-minute walk from our house, and across the courtyard from our classes.  The courtyard is often full of visitors searching for the famous frog carving, perched on the top of a skull.  They say that in the early days of the university, the frog was a symbol of lust, the skull, of death – a warning to students that womanizing would lead to failure and downfall.  A lighter, more recent version of the story goes that the frog brings good luck, and students who find it will be successful in their studies.  We’ll find out soon enough.

The way home.

In our first week here, we had orientation classes, which helped us navigate the cultural whitewaters we found ourselves in at first.  They also served as a refresher on Spanish grammar to prepare us for the placement exam the following week.  After receiving our class schedules, we dug in: Spanish language, culture, history, and conversation fill our mornings.  My professors are excellent.  So is the Chocolatería down the street.  My classmates hail from other parts of the world – the U.S., Japan, China, Korea, Saudi Arabia.  Most interesting, perhaps, is that between many of us, Spanish is our common language.


De Madrid al cielo

The full saying is “de Madrid al cielo y un agujerito para verlo” – “from Madrid to heaven, with a little hole to see it”, meaning that after seeing Madrid, heaven is the next step up.  I can’t say I agree, although Madrid was nice, and beauty can be found in many different forms.

Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

Like the majority of cities in Spain, Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, once the main square, is the heart of the city – all else is built outward from it, and if you need directions, locals will likely refer to a location in terms of its proximity to the Plaza.  At all times of the day (really, all times of the day) the Plaza is bustling with locals, street vendors, performers, and gawking tourists.

Madrid is a happening place!

While in Madrid, we took a side trip to El Escorial, a palace in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, northwest of Madrid.  The building is enormous – it contains more than 100 miles of passageways, and took over 20 years to construct.  It was built in the 16th century under the direction of King Philip II, who intended to use it as a summer palace, a monastery, and a school; it also served as headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition.  El Escorial contains royal living quarters, painting and tapestries, an impressive library, and the Royal Pantheon, an underground tomb DSCN3850containing the remains of monarchs from throughout Spanish history.  Its walls exude an uncanny aura – about what you might expect from a medieval castle. Decorations are minimal, but the sheer volume of the building is enough to take your breath away.  From the courtyard, the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial to victims of the Spanish Civil War, could be seen in the Guadarrama Mountains.


Back in Madrid, we paid a visit to the Prado Museum, which was full of impressive artwork dating up until the late 19th Century (pre-Picasso).  If you think looking at art is dull, you’re looking at the wrong art.  The Prado contains paintings from Francisco de Goya (Third of May, 1808), Velázquez (Las Meninas), Murillo, El Greco, Titian, and a host of other highly talented old guys who really knew how to paint – some bizarre, others illusionistic – all managing to convey human sentiment in a compelling way.  In more contemporary work, as the impressionist movement began to take hold, art became more outspoken – painters were working less for commissions and wages, and more for the sake of personal expression, leading to some powerful social commentary for the time.


The Royal Palace in Madrid (Palacio Real) is on par with the Palace of Versailles, in terms of extravagance (Philip V didn’t want to be outdone by the French). It’s full of rooms with wall-to-ceiling paintings, enormous clocks, and proud statues.  Spain has a constitutional monarchy, and although no one lives in the Palace today, it’s still used by the king from time to time to welcome foreign dignitaries.

A foyer fit for a king!


Madrid is an international hub, offering a window to larger events occurring throughout Europe.  “Brexit” has certainly been on people’s minds (“Spexit”, anyone?).  National (repeat) elections were held in Spain last week, although the outcome was unclear for several days following the election.  Our resident director told me that generally, interest in politics is low, but that every man, woman, and child would be following the soccer match between Spain and Italy the next day.  She was only half-joking.  In fact, it wasn’t at all difficult to find a t.v. with the game on that day.


Holy Toledo!

What a view!


Toledo is located about an hour’s drive south of Madrid.  The city is situated on a hill, surrounded on three sides by the Tajo River, and a long rampart on the fourth.  It’s widely acknowledged as Spain’s religious capital due to its cultural diversity and (partial) history of tolerance between people of different faiths – some consider it a second Jerusalem, or a “Jerusalem of the west” – hence, “Holy Toledo.”  Over its history, the city changed hands many times; nevertheless, it remained home to Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations, and served as the capital of Spain until the middle of the 16th century.


The whole gang!


13537678_10206891481540672_1540973142407139147_nThe cathedral was both enormous and full of detail.  It took over 250 years to build (for some perspective, that’s longer than the United States has existed), so you can imagine the complications of hiring a single contractor.  As a result, the architecture is a mix of styles, primarily Gothic.  The photo below shows seats in the choir, which have chronological carvings depicting the Christian Reconquista, as the towns around Granada were reconquered. “Holy war” is a bit of a contradiction, but they didn’t ask for my opinion, so you’ll just have to read it here.


13528761_10206891486620799_526828932368968075_nThe synagoga de Santa María Blanca has an interesting blend of cultures.  The Moorish architecture makes it look like a mosque, but it never was.  Originally, it was a Jewish synagogue; after the onset of the Inquisition, it was converted to a church (notice the Latin cross above the main arch).  Nearby the synagoga we found Santo Tomé, a chapel containing The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, one of El Greco’s masterpieces.  “The Greek” was a painter who lived and worked in Toledo for many years, so named because people had difficulty pronouncing his full name, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (can’t really blame ’em).  The subject of the painting, Count Don Gonzalo Ruiz, is buried beneath the chapel.