Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Do We Love Jaén?

I told my mom I'd renewed for a third year in Spain, to which she replied, “You must really love it there.” She has a good point. Most people do the auxiliary thing for no more than two years, then return home to start the careers they studied for, pay off student loans, make more money than what NALCA pays us, or because they miss friends and family too much.

I can understand people wanting to stay for several years in Spain. It's an exciting country, so different from our lives back home. What I don't understand is why my friends have chosen Jaén, year after year, over more popular cities like Granada, Sevilla, Málaga, Madrid, or Barcelona. I know many foreigners in Jaén who have chosen to be here for three years or more. The usual reason is that the foreigner has met a local, and wants to stay for the sake of the relationship. However, amongst my friends in Jaén, that is the exception rather than the rule. 95% of us are single, and have been for a while (I'm talking about a minimum one-year drought, y'all).

It certainly isn't money making us stay here. Sure, Jaén is one of the cheapest cities to live in in Spain. Rent is extremely low, and you can literally walk out of the house with 5E and eat and drink like a king. However, our low salaries as English teachers match that cost of living.

We also aren't exactly overblown by awe-inspiring monuments. We have some, albeit on a much smaller scale than the mezquita of Córdoba or the Alhambra of Sevilla. Jaén's cathedral is okay, and the Santa Catalina castle is worth the strenuous hike, but that's all that comes to mind. True, the entire province is littered with fantastic castles, but not everyone has a car nor is interested in that sort of thing (I am a nerd so the castles make me very happy, but not having a car puts a serious dent in my plans).

Travel can be a nightmare. The closest airport is Granada, but it has limited flights. There's Málaga, but that is 2.5 hours (by car) or almost 4 hours (by bus) away. Buses take even longer. Trains are the same, plus expensive.

Wanna dance? If you're old like me, Jaén gets a thumbs-down. Mind you, I tend to ignore the youngness of the crowd and dance my heart out, 'cause that's why I go, not to take someone home. But there are only THREE places here to dance, and the music is not great. We also don't normally get exciting bands coming to town to perform. (I heard recently that Bob Dylan came to Jaén several years ago. Who the heck convinced him to come here?)

With all of my complaints about this city, in terms of personal goals this place suits me. Firstly, I love that very few locals speak English, which has helped me reach my goal of having high fluency in Spanish. Also, as a food lover, you can't beat the (somewhat) complementary tapas that come with each beverage, alcoholic or not. Last but not least, I (almost always) like Jaén's small-town feel, rather than the craziness that comes with big cities.

And you? What's your reason for choosing Jaén? Comment below.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Etnosur Redux and Cultural Conversation

Etnosur was an amazing experience last year, because it was my first time. This year, I went again, partly because it's free, partly because it features amazing indie music, partly because the attendees are mostly hippies and I feel comfortable, but mostly because it was a chance to see my friends from my pueblo. It had been too many months since my last visit to Villacarrillo, and honestly it was like almost nothing had changed since Etnosur 2014. One thing that did change slightly was the language barrier; I joked that last year, with their strong Jaén accents, I understood 20%. This year, ....30% (just kidding, it's a lot higher than that).

Two Etnosur faves: Chocolata & Befunkbop
What didn't change: we're still young at heart, Etnosur was still an awesome 3-day botellón (outdoor drinking party), and I'm still part of the family. This having been my second year in a row attending, I felt more comfortable with my experience. I knew how to pace myself, when to pack it in, what food to eat (fresh fruit is so important), when to time my coffee and energy drinks in order to dance all night, what to wear (the cold evenings were a refreshing change from Jaén's heat), and how to sleep (a quiet flat and earplugs are essential for me).

I returned to Jaén with a Spanish friend, and we had the most interesting conversation about culture shock. She lived in Leeds for a while to study and learn English. I told her that I loved Etnosur because although people looked at me a little bit, due to the nature of the festival I didn't feel like an alien being Asian. Meanwhile, on the streets of Jaén, people almost break their necks staring at me, and it makes me uncomfortable. She, on the other hand, thought there was something physically wrong with her in Leeds because over there, hardly anyone gave her a glance, even though she's beautiful. Of course she eventually learned that in other parts of the world, staring is a big no-no.

We also talked about racism, specifically how people sometimes maliciously yell “¡China!” at me. She said it wasn't racism, rather it was people being assholes and picking what they consider the weakest part of me. It could be someone's face, skin, fatness, skinnyness, clothes... whatever assholes intuitively believe will hurt you, they'll use it as a weapon. For my friend, due to her exotic features she'd been called “Moro” (Moroccan) time to time, but she brushed it off and attributed it to people being anything from jokesters to jerks (to whom she'd respond '¡Que te den por culo!' or “Go f*** yourself.”) To the Canadian, it's racism. To my friend, it's the Spanish 'anything goes' nature. We concluded that this was why we love cultural mixes; we learn something new every time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How Water Almost Washed Out Córdoba

For the past three weeks, due to a broken washing machine, I have washed clothes by hand. My landlord doesn't understand the need to wash sweaty clothing during a summer of daily temperatures hitting 40 – 50 degrees Celsius, so his search for a replacement has been slow, to say the least. When technicians finally came to fix the old one, I felt relieved, until there was a problem cutting the water. Due to my favorite friend, Mr. Language Barrier, I didn't understand what was involved in turning off the water to my flat. The techs very quickly, in Spanish, said “Youneedtogetaplumberorsomeonewithakeytoturnitoffdownstairsinthewaterroom.” I had no idea what they were talking about, as I'd never done it before. They left, water dripping under the sink where they'd disconnected the water hose. “But I'm leaving for Córdoba in a few hours,” I said.

“Have a nice trip,” said the tech, and he slammed the front door closed.

I called my landlord, who was not in town. He very quickly, in Spanish, said “Youneedtogetthekeytoopenthewaterroomdownstairsandturnoffthewatertoyourflat.” This key, which I didn't have, involved knocking on several neighbours' doors, finding no one home, and having to walk all the way to one neighbour's workplace in order to get her key. “When are you leaving for Córdoba?” my landlord asked, as I huffed back to my flat.

“At 1 p.m.”

“It's only 11:30 a.m., there's plenty of time,” he assured me. Uh, do you know what country we're living in? I thought. 1.5 hours is NOT enough time to deal with this problem.

Sure enough, I was right. By the time I struggled to turn off the water, waited for my landlord's relative to come and try to turn off the water as well, and cleaned up the mess from the leak in my flat, I had missed my window for the Blablacar. I ended up having to settle for a bus 3 hours later. I called my travel buddy and begged him to meet me for a mandatory alcoholic drink.

As the wine settled into my veins and relaxed me, I excitedly looked forward to forgetting the catastrophic morning and hearing great music at the Guitar Festival of Córdoba. The concert of the night: Chicuelo, Santiago Lara, and Alfredo Lagos. Three absolutely talented guitarists. It was a mesmerizing evening, watching their fingers fly over the strings.
We stayed at the very comfortable, centrally-located Hotel González overnight, and made the most of the next day: a visit to the Mezquita, a climb up the Cathedral tower, an indulgent visit to a microbrewery, and a fabulous meal of salmorejo Cordobese and THE BEST CROQUETAS I've ever eaten, at Casa Pepe. We survived the intense heat by walking in the shade, always having a granizado or cold water in hand, and popping into every air-conditioned shop that was open on a Sunday.

Córdoba's antique centre requires, at minimum, a full day. Every turn you make, you stumble across a unique restaurant, or shop, or historic site. This was my third visit and I realized that there were still more hidden spots that I had no time to see. I'll be visiting Córdoba again, hopefully this time without a flood.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Marbella, Málaga: Always Find a Local

I love Málaga - the men, the beaches, the temperature, the seafood, the sweet wine. Last weekend I took a detour and stayed in Marbella. It was a small and cute place, but as my friend pointed out, "Está sobrevalorada." [It's overrated.] As with all places you visit though, it pays to talk to locals.

I stayed in the old town (casco antiguo), in the Bohemia Hostel. I'm not normally picky about where I stay, but this place gave me the creeps. It was old and needed fixing. Needless to say, it'll be getting a negative review from me. The location was very convenient, though. A few minutes from the beach with the best sand, restaurants, the Park Alameda, and the old town.

On Saturday I travelled by bus very easily to Puerto Banús, the rich area. I went to the street market, which had a mix of crappy, dollar-store merchandise and higher-quality, more expensive goods. I walked away buying nothing and feeling disappointed by the prices. While waiting for the bus back to Marbella, a Filipina struck up a conversation with me. I commented on how Marbella was filled with Asians from different countries, while in Jaén it's a whole other ballgame. She told me that San Pedro not only was one of the best places to visit, there were also tonnes of Filipinos and of course, our food. My mouth started watering as I explained that I hadn't eaten Filipino food since Christmas, when I visited my parents. She told me there was a place near my hostel, and she kindly walked me there. It was hilarious speaking with the owner, who scolded me for not knowing Tagalog, and for having an "ugly" Andalucían accent. "It sounds like there's something stuck in your throat! 'E' que, e' que' [Es que, es que].... qué asco!" she chided.

We had a good laugh, and I had my Filipino food that I'd been craving: chicken adobo, where the meat is simmered in a sauce that combines white vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaves, pepper, and other spices. Poured over white rice, it's a heavy dish but so satisfying. I then walked to the beach, stripped down to my bikini, and fell asleep on the sand.

Overall, Marbella is a nice place to relax and get away from the heat of Andalucía's interior. But with its prices and small size, I'll probably stick with Málaga next time.