The Gypsy Who Taught Me What Christmas Is

Today I witnessed a Christmas miracle in a six-year-old who doesn’t even understand what Christmas is. She is tiny, even among her fellow first graders, and wears the same red sweatshirt nearly every day. Her black hair is always pulled back in the same long braid and her skin is a few shades darker than most of her classmates. She is a gypsy. And in Spain that makes her “the other.”

Madrid Street

Gypsies here (and in most of Europe) are not the free-loving hippie folk that I used to associate with the word. In Spain, gypsies are a separate race, both physically and culturally different from Spaniards. Gypsies — more politically correctly, and more rarely, called Roma– have lived on the Iberian peninsula for centuries, but they have never integrated into Spanish culture. Gypsies are typically migrant people, often working in traveling fairs, shows and circuses. They are stereotyped as drug dealers and thieves. From my eyes, they are the last, albeit slightly modernized, remnant of the Javelin-tournament era where traveling storytellers and dancing bears enticed village people while their cohorts pick-pocketed the crowd’s gold coins. Or at least thats the feeling I get from many of the Spaniards at school.

In a  country where every resident has access to full health care coverage, the blatant racism towards gypsies stands out like a glaring anomaly to an otherwise equality-driven society. The word alone incites a specific facial expression among most people that falls somewhere among pity, exasperation, anger and ambivalence. And that’s in Spain, where the Roma people have more rights and access to services than just about anywhere else in Europe. One of those rights, which gypsies apparently don’t have in some other European countries, is to public schools where they are integrated into normal classes.

For many at my school in the Madrid suburbs, that integration is both a blessing and a curse. For example, in fourth grade there is a gypsy boy who missed the first two months of school because his family thought it was more important for him to work at the fair than to go to school. He is ten years old, he can’t read and he can barely write. During his bilingual science class he draws pictures and traces the English words his teacher writes for him while his fellow students recite the differences between metamorphic and ionic rocks. When I asked him what his job was at the fair he said with a proud smile, “I was the dragon.”

Spanish toys and candy

Candies and toys for sale at Feria de Abril in Sevilla.

Of the handful of gypsy students I work with, not one of them can tell me the colors in English. Most can’t even write them in Spanish. The first grade girl I mentioned before can write her name but only barely. She hasn’t figured out yet what the letters mean. That stems largely from the fact that she’s continuously absent from school. In the two days per week that I am in her classroom, she is absent about a third of them.

But when she is in class, she is bounding from wall to wall with excitement. “Me ayudas?” she asks during every section of every activity, bouncing in front of me until I come over to her desk and attempt to explain which picture is the fireman. Today while the students were pulling out their English books she ran over and threw her arms around my thigh, the highest part of me that she can reach. She just stood there for awhile hugging my thigh. When I reached down to pull a stray clump of her hair behind her ear the other teacher in the room warned me to “be careful of her hair.” Apparently she’s afraid the girl may have lice. The teacher later explained to me that the child lives in what amounts to a slum outside of Madrid, where the houses are made from scrap metal and “low quality building materials.” That would explain the warts and sores I’ve seen on the girls face and hands.

Granada Gypsy Hills

Some immigrants in Granada lived in caves dug out of the hillside overlooking the city.

When I first walked into class today the first graders were all rummaging around in their bags, getting their materials out for the lesson. This gypsy girl was tugging on something in the small pink drawstring bag that she carries with her to school. She doesn’t have a backpack, or a worksheet binder or a red homework folder… or any folders for that matter. She doesn’t have any of the school goodies that pour out of her classmates roller-wheeled backpacks and trifold pencil cases. But she doesn’t know that. She has her pink princess drawstring bag and a pouch with a couple of pencils.

And today she had something else that she was struggling to pull from the pink bag. “Me ayudas?” she asked me as I walked in. I took her bag and pulled out a heavy sack of something wrapped in a plastic bag. “What is this?!?” I asked fearing that it was what it felt like: a sack of paper-wrapped ground beef. It took me a moment to understand her reply. “Es para los niños en pobreza!” she said, both pride and sympathy flashing across her face.

Then I saw it. The red lettering on the bag. This was the plastic bag teachers were handing out last week for donations to the holiday food bank. Inside the little gypsy girl’s ripped plastic bag was a brand new sack of lentils. She was donating to the poor.

Never Stop Loving

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Thanksgiving in Spain: A Madrid Scavenger Hunt

I have a whole new appreciation for cranberries. And also red currants, for that matter. Which, although they are red and round and relatively cranberry-shaped and might have been on the “arandanos/cranberries” shelf at Corte Ingles, are actually nothing like cranberries.

These Aren't Cranberries

This is one of the manyyyyyyy fun little lessons I learned this year while attempting to bring all the goodies of my family’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner to a table halfway around the world. My American amiga and I invited my Spanish roommates and neighbors to celebrate their first Thanksgiving with us on Saturday (seeing as we all had to work Thursday and Friday). We promised them an authentic American holiday, and, by dios, we were going to give them all the deliciousness of a true American Thanksgiving! Pulling that off in a country were pumpkin is usually pig food and pecans don’t even have a word in Spanish took a bit more planning than just scratching out a grocery list. It was more on the scale of a city-wide scavenger hunt mixed with an opening hours roulette. The first hurdle on our list of Turkey Day adventures: find a whole turkey.

In Spain, the big box buy-everything-you-could-ever-want-at-one-time American-style stores are just beginning to pop up in the commercial (read: accessible by car only) parts of town. Being carless and having a mild obsession with food markets, food quality and freshness I was determined to get our turkey from a stand-alone butcher shop, or carneceria. Why I decided to chose a butcher that was 10 metro stops away from my apartment… well, that just adds to the adventure, right?

Weighing the Turkey

Hauling our 13-pound raw turkey 30 minutes down Madrid’s brown line turned out to be massively worth it. Señor Pavo, as the butcher told me, was raised on a farm near Zaragoza (a city in Northeastern Spain). He was butchered on Thursday, driven to Madrid on Friday and we ate him on Saturday. Hellooooo fresh! When I first spoke to the smiley, cleaver-waving butcher about our Thanksgiving experiment, he immediately picked up the telephone to call his farmer. The farmer vowed to find us a reasonable-sized turkey after my eyes bulged at the butcher’s 7-kilo suggestion. Fourteen pounds, apparently, was small. “But it’s Thanksgiving!” the farmer told the butcher, “She’s supposed to have a giant turkey!” The 6.5-kilo (13lb) pavo we ended up with was one of the smallest he had. The butcher later told me that turkeys from this farm get as large as 23 pounds!

With the most important part secured, I moved on to the sides and stuffing. Cornbread mix was my next target. Last year while living in the rural Northwestern province of Galicia I attempted to make cornbread (an ingredient for my stuffing) from scratch. It was, to say the least, a massive fail. This year, in a city of 3 million where Taste of America stores and Corte Ingleses exist, I had high hopes of having help from Mrs. Jiffy. I was wrong. I could buy gingerbread mix, funfetti cake mix, crepe mix, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, wheat bread mix and Duncan Hines double chocolate brownie mix. But nowhere in Madrid (that I could hunt down) sells cornbread mix. Our stuffing would just have to go without.

Thanksgiving Stuffing

After similarly unsuccessful city-wide wild goose chases for crystalized ginger (yes, it was a castillo en el aire kind of dream to begin with) and some serious price-gouging on pecans, yellow cake mix, karo syrup and pumpkin spice, we decided to drop all of the above from the menu. No pecan bars for us this year. But not to fear! We would still have my aunt’s famous apple pie and Maureen’s aunt’s infamous pumpkin-ginger pie. Also impossible to find were fresh cranberries, although we didn’t realize that until the night before our cranberry sauce was to make its Thanksgiving debut. While unloading the jumbo bags of supplies Maureen brought, I spotted some small, red  definitely-not-cranberry berries. Apparently the signs had been switched at Corte Ingles. Instead of “arandanos rojos” we ended up with “grosellas” aka red currants. Oops! We dashed down to the grocery store, bought some dried cranberries and tossed them in a bowl to rehydrate overnight. Crisis averted? As my Andalucian-accented roommate would say, “ma o meno.”

Mercado de MaravillasThe week leading up to our cook-a-thon I was exploring Madrid’s top food markets for a post over at the Madrid Food Tour blog. Amid the insane variety of random (and apparently edible) items at the Mercado de Maravillas I found almost all of the fresh ingredients on our list: gorgeous brussel sprouts, ecologically-produced apples, ridiculously flavorful sausage, sweet potatoes the size of my forearm, adorable little cheery tomatoes and unfairly good goat cheese. I was in market food heaven. The sausage-selling man told me all about how much his daughter loves America (she is working in New York). The ecological fruit and veggie people described the flavor profiles of their three types of tomatoes and helped me pick out the perfect pie-making apples. This, to me, is how grocery shopping should be. Each item we bought for our Thanksgiving meal had it’s own story, it’s own history and knowing those made each dish that much more delicious. That is, after all, what the first Thanksgiving was all about right?

Will the ingredients gathered (or at least we thought) Maureen and I invaded the kitchen Friday night to begin our two-day cooking adventure. The pies came first.

Thanksgiving pie crust making

What I imagined would be a quick two-hour pie making sesh turned out to be an all night pie creating extravaganza. At 1:30 am we finally pulled the last pie out of the oven and fell into bed.  Señor Pavo joined the sleepover and spent the night on my balcony. There was no way he was fitting in the fridge.

Sleepover with Señor Pavo

Saturday morning started off as all Thanksgiving days should. With mimosas. We encountered our first hiccup approximately 5 seconds after we began. We had the turkey. We had the oven. But we had no way to get said turkey into said oven. In our haste to gather ingredients, we might have forgotten to buy a pan…  Maureen frantically searched the grocery store, the convenience store and finally the everything-you-could-ever-need Chino store for a pan, while I got to work on the stuffing. Shee finally found a pan just barely big enough to fit the turkey and just barely small enough to fit in the oven. Señor Pavo made it into the oven with literally centimeters to spare on all sides. Thank the pilgrims we didn’t end up with a 13-kilo turkey!

The next five hours were a blur of chopping, sipping, laughing and explaining as my roommates and neighbors trickled in and out of the kitchen to check on our progress. Around 2 p.m. we convinced them to partake in the traditional Thanksgiving morning mimosas and before we knew it the guys were taking turns making Cava and OJ runs. I don’t think I want to know how many empty Cava bottles ended up in our recycling that afternoon…

Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner

While Maureen and I were basting turkey and stirring cranberries, my piso-mates were (unbeknownst to me) preparing their own slice of magic in the neighbor’s spacious salon. Since my apartment doesn’t have a dining room, we had asked the neighbor guys if we could have the eating part of Thanksgiving in their grande salón. Being amazing as they are, they erected a huge table and together with mis compis laid the most perfect table for our celebration, complete with starry tablecloths and candles.

When at last we decided (guessed) that our turkey was ready, a flurry of table-setting, food carrying and cork popping ensued. The second the turkey hit the table phones flew into hands as every single member of our 11-person feast snapped photos. I have to admit. It was a beautiful sight!

Our Thanksgiving Turkey

Then, we dug in. Plates filled, glasses emptied and the room filled with the rumble of mixed-language chatter and bilingual “yums and ñums.” Looking out over the scene with a ridiculously juicy, flavorful bite of turkey in my mouth all I could think was que perfecto. After an enthusiastic round of seconds, I proposed a toast to the gracious and truly amazing friends who gathered to eat our odd (to a Spaniard) food and celebrate our 100 percent American tradition. We then went around the table and each person said what they were thankful for. Some of the Spaniards made a valiant attempt at saying their piece in English while some of the Americans gave it a go in Spanish. It was a massive collision of cultures in the best kind of way. And I couldn’t help but wonder… hope… if next year we would all be sitting around the same table, raising our glasses to Spainsgiving 2.0.

Spainsgiving 2013

Pintxos: The Haute Couture of Spanish Tapas

Best Pintxos in BilbaoOne of the first and most important words I learned upon moving to Spain was “tapas,” those often bite-sized morsels of delectable Spanish cooking that proliferate in the country’s montón of bars and cervecerias. Minutes into my first night of tapeando and I was infatuated. Tapas are small enough that I could try four or five different dishes in one night (#win); they are varied enough that no matter if I was sipping a Cruzcampo or savoring a Rioja the flavors paired delightfully, and they were cheap enough (especially here in free-tapas Galicia!) that I had no remorse going out fo tapas as much as humanly possible!

But this weekend as I explored the wonders of Bilbao and San Sebastián in the Basque Country, my beloved tapas met their match. Forget tapas. I’m over tapas. Bring on the pintxos!!

Pintxo is the Basque word for tapa, but this northern province has translated far more than the letters to arrive at their version of the Spanish staple. Where tapas are versatile, representative and convenient, pintxos are unique, daring and tantalizing. The Basque Country has taken traditional tapas and turned them into avant-garde works of both visual and culinary art, defying the simplicity of typical Spanish food and daring to mix, match and creatively stack the best flavors of this delectable cuisine into tiny masterpieces of flavor, spunk and excitement.

Here are the six most mind-blowingly awesome pintxos I had the distinct pleasure of devouring in Bilbao and San Sebastián. Somehow I think my next Tortilla Española here in Galicia is going to seem wildly lacking…

1. Toasted cracker topped with goat cheese and tomato marmalade, garnished with sesame seeds.

Tomato Jelly and Goat Cheese Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: In the heart of San Sebastián’s pintxo land, just south of Mount Urgull (which I highly recommend climbing!) is a long, narrow bar called Txalupa, where the pintxos are plenty and the bartenders are friendly.  Calle Fermín Calbetón nº 3  in  San Sebastián

2. Calamari piled on crusty bread

Calamari Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: In the heard of Bilbao’s old town is the city’s main plaza, ironically called “Plaza Nueva.” The entire square is bordered by pintxos places and is packed during the afternoon and evening pintxos hours. We stopped in to Victor Montes to snag this scrumptious bit of squid. Plaza Nueva, 8  in Bilbao.

3. Garlicky grilled mushrooms

Grilled Mushroom Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Calle Somera in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo was on hoppin when we strolled over to Motrikes Saturday night around 9 p, (prime pintxos time!) While many of the bars along that route are geared more toward the younger drinks-rather-than-dinner crowd, the mushrooms at Motrikes  make it 100 percent worth adding to any pintxos evening. Calle Somera, 41 in Bilbao

4. Roasted zucchini, eggplant, fried cheese, lettuce and mushroom veggie burger on a dense, seedy wheat bun. 

Veggie Burger Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Kuku Soak, also in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo region has hands-down the most creative and exciting, if not the best pintxos we tried in the entire city. Barrenkale Barrena, 18 in Bilbao

5. Marinated sun-dried tomatoes, creamy sharp cheese and membrillo topped with red currants.

Sundried tomato, cheese and quince pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: Berton gave Kuku Soak a run for it’s money in my best pintxos of Bilbao competition. Both this daring delicacy and the roasted mushroom and serrano ham number that I tried were ridiculously tasty and refreshingly creative. Calle Jardines, 11 in Bilbao

6. Stewed veal in a red wine reduction

Red Wine Stewed Veal Pintxo

Where to get the deliciousness: La Cuchara del San Telmo was without question the best pintxos bar of the trip. This melt-in-your-mouth veal was one of about a dozen pintxos available, all of which looked positively amazing. Unlike most pintxos bars, La Cuchara serves their pintxos  hot and therefore does not have them displayed on the counter. Judging by the jam-packed bar, no one in San Sebastián holds that against them. Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28 in San Sebastián

All things Spanish, Christmas-style.

The Grinch Lives in Spain

Christmastime is in the air in Sarria, and for many Spaniards that apparently is a bad thing. After wrapping up the last of many Navidad-themed lessons (a Frosty the Snowman sing-along with third grade) I was practically skipping down the hall, debating how many bars of turrón to take back to the states for my family and admiring the elementary Christmas crafts adorning the walls, when I fell into step with another teacher. “Feliz Navidad!” I said, perhaps a little too cheerily considering it was pre-afternoon coffee. “I hate Christmas,” she responded, straight-faced and even-toned.

Whaaaa?!? This profesora, whose name I annoyingly can’t remember, went on to explain that, roughly “in Spain we don’t live as intensely as you do in America. We don’t celebrate as intensely.” She said Christmas for her is just a lot of work. It’s stressful and makes her miss the family members and friends who can’t be here with her. “If you have young kids, it’s fine,” she added. “But now it’s just mucho trabajo.

At first I thought she must be an anomaly. After all, who can really hate Christmas?!? But minutes later, when I asked the gym teacher (and resident Galician historian) Jose Manuel what his Navidad plans were, he gave the same response: “I don’t like Christmas. It’s too much work. Too much stress.”

As a unabashedly enthusiastic Christmas-lover I was initially flabbergasted that this culture that I hold as a standard-bearer for living as happily as possible was so llena with Grinches. But this Scrooge-dom, I suppose, has a pretty sturdy footing considering Spain’s Christmas traditions.

Just like most (all) Spanish holidays, the cornerstone of Christmas is two massive family meals, one on Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, and one on Christmas Day. Unlike in America, where we have one ham or one turkey as the centerpiece of the meal, in Galicia these Christmas meals are chock full of protein options. In the Galician Christmas spread you could find roasted pork shoulder, shrimp, fish filets, cured ham, chorizo, sausage, clams, and fresh sardine-like fish all clustered onto the table between side dishes of usually garden-grown vegetables and varying shades of bread loaves.

Preparing such a feast not once, but SIX times over the Christmas break (on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve, New Years Day, January 5th for the night before the Three Kings, or Reyes Magos, arrive and again on January 6th for Three Kings day) must be positively exhausting. And while spending the holidays with family is what makes it so special, mingling with those stubborn relatives for three weeks straight would undoubtedly give me a gray hair or two as well.

Despite the apparent lack of love for Christmas time among these middle-aged Spaniards, my little town of Sarria hasn’t let that Grinchiness prevent a full holiday transformation. Blinking snowflakes and glowing christmas tree lights line all of the main streets and Santa Clause figurines are hanging from a smattering of windows and balconies (apparently Santa climbs up buildings instead of slides down buildings in Spain).

Christmas spirit was in full swing during my weekend trip to A Coruña, Galicia’s second-largest town that sits on the Atlantic coast. Here’s a taste of that Spanish-style holiday cheer! (Click any picture to pull up the full-sized gallery)