Monday, January 1, 2018

Reverse Culture Shock is Real

Go tell it on the mountain Jesus Christ born! Thank God! Thank God that Christmas is finally here and we can all FREAKIN’ RELAX! Dear Lord, why do we do this to ourselves each year?!?!

The celebration of Christmas, more than anything since we’ve moved back to the US, has been an absolute shock. On what should be a high-energy, cheerful, Christmas morning I woke up, did the Santa thing, and quickly felt desperate for a nap. After breakfast, I excused myself and went back to bed because I was EXHAUSTED TO THE CORE. Feeling frustrated for lacking the capacity to participate in the festivities, I began reflecting on the past few days, the past few weeks, which ultimately led me back to the days following Thanksgiving. I closed my eyes, visualizing everything that had happened in December. Images flashed through my mind in fast forward: Black Friday mania. Nonstop Christmas music. Planning events. Making lists. Organizing gatherings. Shopping. Teacher gifts. Friend gifts. In-laws gifts. Family gifts. Co-worker gifts. Create, order, and mail the Christmas. Attend work holiday parties. Research and execute creative Secret Santa ideas. Buy and wear Christmas-themed clothes. Catch the flu and miss days of work. Amazon promotions emails. Inspire kids to make homemade crafts and write cards. Lefse day. Band concert. Gingerbread house day. School class celebrations. Sugar cookie day. Ugly sweater day. Watch temps drop below freezing. Theatre play. Violin recital. Oh! And Elf on the Shelf is America's new parental obligation (if you love your kids that is), so every day for the ENTIRE month you must remember to place him in creative precarious positions to keep the holiday magic alive and then post how brilliant your Elf is on social media!!!!! Snapping back to the present moment I concluded that, wow, I’m a horrible American because I resent so much of this, and that, wow, I sure as hell did deserve a nap! Jesus’s birthday is insanity! How did it get so over-the-top?

It’s been five months since we’ve been back after living in Spain for two years. I don’t know what the ‘norm’ is for the amount of time it takes to re-adjust to your own culture upon returning from living abroad, but I do remember being educated on the concept of “reverse culture shock” before I left to study abroad in Australia in college. Reverse culture shock deals with the psychological, emotional, and cultural aspects of reentry into your home country. Of course, there is always a shock when you immerse yourself in a new culture, but the surprising part is after you adjust/learn/change, the same thing can happen when you go back home…and this experience is more prominent the more time you’ve spent away.

I began preparing myself early on for reverse culture shock when we returned. Americans had elected a new president with, ahem, “unprecedented” ideas and plans. I had spent much of my time abroad defending Americans who, like me, didn’t vote for Trump, explaining that I was just as baffled as they were at the result. Europeans often viewed Trump as a joke, but as it directly affected me and my country, it was a painfully real discussion and hardly felt laughable. Black lives, women’s rights, immigration, healthcare, ever-changing technological advances, net neutrality, foreign relations, divide between the rich and poor, climate change etc - all of these issues are weighing on our nation and it was such a relief to escape them and the unrelenting American media for even just a brief period of time. It was physically and emotionally liberating to be separated from this negative cultural climate (not that other countries don’t have their own issues, it’s just more pressing when it’s your own). After five months, however, I can report that while I’ve had some highs and lows, I am doing surprisingly well at maintaining positivity, optimism and not letting it all bring me down. I am mindful of the news and media I consume. We hardly ever turn on the TV, therefore it hasn’t been as bad as I had been anticipating. Just when thought I had worked through all reverse culture shock and settled back into the American way of life… Christmas arrived.

The Christmas experience and meaning of the holiday is unique for everybody and I am not defining that for our nation or any individual. I’m simply sharing that experience of the American holiday that I witnessed from an outsider’s perspective was shocking to me this year. I was shocked by the consumerism, the advertising, the excessiveness, the go-go-go, the pressure to DO so many things, to have so many things, and the underlying message that all of the DOING and all of the STUFF will make us happy. And while I’ve always known this to be a lie, it was so much more offensive, blatant, and insulting to me this year and I felt angry that we’ve let capitalism define the holiday.

When I went to Target two days ago to buy a few stocking stuffers and groceries, I found myself standing in a line that stretched the length of the store and lasted for 45 minutes. I was caught unawares in last minute Christmas rush frenzy, another consumer feeding the fire and I couldn’t help but feel completely disgusted with myself, my fellow Americans, and our cultural obsession with materialism. How did this happen? I wanted to yell “EVERYBODY STOP!!! ENOUGH!!! It doesn’t have to be this way! In fact, in other countries, it’s not! We don’t need more stuff! We are drowning in crap! Can’t we just agree that Christmas is about being together? You bring the drinks, I’ll make the food, and we’ll simply BE and LOVE and share GRATITUDE for all the good things we have going for us?!?!?!” Why can’t wish each other Happy Holidays without feeling compelled to do so in tandem with impractical trinkets and/or ridiculous amounts of unhealthy junk food? I’ve witnessed so many teachers receive excessive amounts of things they will never use or eat. Then I imagine how the kids whose families can’t afford gifts feel when they walk into the class empty-handed. Yet, I feel compelled to jump on the bandwagon because I won’t want to look like the asshole if everybody is doing it...if it’s the cultural norm.

Moving to Spain gave us the opportunity to decide which holiday traditions were important to keep while incorporating new ones. It’s much more difficult to re-enter in the US and define your celebration if it is distinct from the cultural norm (and you’re American). This Christmas Eve morning it snowed. We had a warm shelter, delicious food, and family to share it with. Of course, my children received presents from Santa, but I found myself going out of my way in our dialogue to underscore the importance of gratitude rather than gifts because I don’t want the American mentality that 'more is better' to become part of their value system. Encouraging them to reflect on the difference between needs and wants, and to reflect about the long-term consequences of consumerism on our planet has been a priority. I’m not going to single-handedly change American culture. Really, who am I to judge? Much of our family income depends on Americans buying sports equipment so maybe that makes me a hypocrite?

I’m grateful for our Christmas in 2017. But I’m equally grateful it’s over.

To all my friends and family, I wish you a Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad. I pray that you are healthy and happy, that you find peace and balance during this holiday season madness, and that you can celebrate all of life’s simple blessings. PEACE AND LOVE, Jenny.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Hasta Luego España

Querido Javea,

No te digo adios;
Te doy las gracias,
Porque hoy soy mucho mejor persona
Que el dia en que te conoci.

Con amor,

Leaving Spain
I’m already crying before I write this blog post, which is telling of why I’ve procrastinated so long to write it. I knew it would force me to feel some pretty raw emotions about leaving Spain, our home for the past two years. Already it feels like a dream - an incredible adventure story filled with fascinating characters, castles, seas, mountains, music, costumes, celebrations, and lots of sunshine - then I open up my photo library and see my family’s faces as the protagonists in these scenes. We lived this story and now that we’re back in Minnesota, it’s hard to believe it all really happened.

After putting so much on the line to make this journey a reality, it was tough to swallow the reality that we would be moving back home - whatever “home” means. Is it where you came from? Is it where you currently own a home? Is it the place where keep all of your stuff? This term often confused our kids. “Mom, are you talking about home here in Spain, or our house in Minneapolis, or the US?” After living with few personal possessions in a rented apartment for the past two years, “home”, to me, has become a feeling rather than a place. The comfort and love I feel when I’m with my family, regardless of where we physically are located is “home”. And I’ve observed that it is an especially profound sense of love, absent of the stability and predictability that a house, belongings, and extended family and friends provide. From the start, we have faced together the whole gamut of emotions that come with uncertainty, and it has made us better as individuals, and a more cohesive family unit.

On Moving
Uprooting our lives in Minneapolis and moving to Spain was hard but like they say, the harder the task, the greater the reward and all of our work paid off tenfold. We arrived in Spain with open minds, open hearts, and open eyes. We took it all in. We fell in love. With the people. With the food. With the countryside. With the culture. With the sea. With the sunshine. It was all more fulfilling than I could have hoped for, which is why, when it came time to say goodbye it was all more painful than I could have expected. Now, I would have to face all of the things I’d realized I didn’t like about the US. I would have to leave behind a lot of fantastic friends that I had gotten close to. My fun playing padel tennis would come to an end. We would be moving into my in-law’s house. I wouldn’t have a job, a car, nor my own space.

We’ve been back now for a couple months and I’m still processing all of this change. While I can’t discount how wonderful it is to reconnect with family and friends, I’ve realized that coming back was much harder than leaving -- logistically and emotionally.

Logistically, returning to the US was easier, although not without its complexities. All we brought to Spain was eight suitcases and a bike, therefore, in a couple years we had accumulated clothes, bikes, toys, kitchen appliances, etc. Selling online is my husband’s specialty and in the US we mastered purging all of our belongings between Craigslist, Nextdoor, and Facebook. In Spain, we figured we could do the same (as it’s way too expensive to ship things to the US). Whatever we wanted to bring back would have fit in the suitcase. This meant some difficult choices. (Especially since we’d be traveling for four weeks through Europe with these suitcases -- more on that later).

We posted the majority of what we wanted to sell on Milanuncios and Wallapop, two second-hand Spanish apps, but to our dismay, we hardly received any offers and those we did receive weren’t worth our time. It was interesting to learn how in Spain there really is no market for second-hand goods. It appears that if something has been used, even minimally, nobody wants it unless it’s free or “casi gratis”. In the end, or close to the end of our time there, we sold a few things on facebook to other foreigners and the rest we gave away to friends.

Our biggest loss of sleep was our car. Long story short- we practically gave it away to the British guy we bought it from (UGH!). But we were desperate to get at least SOME € in return since we’d need to buy cars when we got back to the States.

So while moving back was logistically challenging and it was hard to let go of a lot of our things, that paled in comparison to emotionally “letting go”. When you move half a world away from home, your friends become your family and it is really hard to say goodbye, not knowing what the future holds. I hated having to break the news to my friends, because I knew, or thought I knew, that most would be gravely disappointed. But more terrifying was, what if they weren’t? How good of friends were we? Would we stay in contact or was this a situational friendship? I lost sleep over these doubts and insecurities. In fact, two weeks before we were to move I got terribly sick and couldn’t get out of bed for a several days which is a rare occurrence for me. Whether I caught a bug, or emotional stress manifested into physical illness, I will never know. What was frustrating was I had to cancel kids’ playdates and plans to meet with friends. Repeating emotional “last time” get-togethers and goodbyes was exhausting.

I knew I had to get together with friends Angel and Marissa who were our family in Spain. They were people that I knew I could count on for help, trust to take my kids, and ask stupid cultural questions without being judged. True friends. So on a Friday, I was recovered enough to get out of bed and take them up on their invitation to one last happy hour in the Arenal (which for me was going to be non-alcoholic since my immune system was down). I told myself I could do this and needed to. Davin, the kids, and I showed up and it was just Angel, no Marissa. He ordered some beers, and we started chatting. He received a phone call, then all the sudden says, “Marissa is at another bar” so grab your beers and let’s go meet them. I should have known something was up because, in Spain, there is always time to finish a beer. Who takes a beer and leaves the bar? Well, we did. Davin went off to meet a guy about selling our car and Angel leads me down the promenade to Kandala, the bar where we were headed. Trying to keep up with the situation, I turn the corner to look into the bar, completely shocked at what I see. A huge crew of our friends -- Spanish, Expats, Padel, Cycling, and kid’s friends -- yell “Surprise!!!!!” I look around and see that along the ceiling of the bar is a long laundry line hung full of photos of me and my friends. There was handmade “padel” tennis ball dessert and padel-themed decorations. Somebody (whom I later discovered was my doubles partner) had done a LOT of work and planning to make this happen and I couldn't help but burst out in tears. I cried first because I was SO completely touched and felt so loved, and I cried more fiercely because I thought, “Oh my God, can I do this right now? Can I be the center of the party?” Well, I did and I will never forget how amazing that felt.

Our two years in Javea, changed me. More than anything it taught me that there really isn’t anything more important in life than the people with whom we surround ourselves and how we make them feel. I pray that I can find a clueless foreigner in Forest Lake and pay forward all of the love and support my Javea friends gave me. I have no idea what the future holds, but Javea (and Spain as whole) will forever have a piece of my heart. In Spain, they don’t say "Goodbye" but rather “Until later” and I like that.

Hasta luego Espana! Ha sido un verdadero placer!

Stay tuned for my next blog post about our last great adventures before we returned to the States! 4 countries in 4 weeks

What/Whom I'm missing most:
Routine hikes to the top of Cabo San Antonio 

Playing Padel tennis with great people

Sepia lighting on our balcony during the sunset

Adventures with friends

Doing anything active with Marta

These kids playing together


Hikes with Marissa

Weekly coffee and language intercambio with Laura

Surfin and SUPing with my main squeeze

Saturday, May 6, 2017

An Andalusian Adventure

"Un buen viajero no tiene planes fijos ni la intención de llegar." Lao Tzu

This year the kids’ school spring break coincided with Easter and they had just over a week of vacation. We decided to take the opportunity to avoid the tourists flocking to Jávea and join the tourist train in the south of Spain. “Semana Santa”, or Holy Week, is one of the biggest fiestas in Andalucía (southern region of Spain) so we booked some AirBnBs in advance and hit the road in our Cordoba Seat with the plan to visit the following cities: Mojácar, Málaga, Sevilla, Córdoba, and Granada. Each city had something substantially different to offer, however together, the cities gave us a well-rounded insight of the Moorish impact on the culture, language, and architecture that make Andalucía so romantically unique. In this blog, I highlight our experience covering 1,666 kilometers of the countryside and describe the gifts each city has to offer.

What brought us Mojácar? Nothing cultural actually. Just a sweet AirBnB listing. The goal was to get to Málaga, but I wanted to break up the long drive from Jávea by finding an interesting town along the way. Cartagena caught my eye but accommodation was expensive so when I came across the “Terrazas del Sol” listing in the coastal town of Mojácar, situated in a white-washed village, I booked. We only had the afternoon and evening to explore but when the kids saw the apartment, they refused to leave. The apartment was really unique, with two bedrooms and a glassed-in living/room kitchen surrounded by a terrace. It was meticulous and unique to the neighborhood, so it felt like we had our own fort above the rest of the neighborhood. After exploring every nook and cranny and playing hide-and-go-seek (something the kids do no matter how small the place), eventually, hunger became the motivating factor to get us out and explore. We climbed down our windy staircase and wandered down the beach where we settled on a restaurant with a questionable menu, but a nice patio where we could sit outside. With low expectations, we ordered a few things and to our surprise, every tapa that was delivered to our table blew our minds, each richer than the last. 

Completely satisfied after our delicious lunch, we returned to our open air terrace and both Davin and I took legitimate Spanish siestas with the sea breeze blowing through white billowing curtains (priceless). After that, we took a sunset stroll down the other direction of the beach which had a playground/football pitch. Declan quickly became immersed in a pick-up soccer game. Volly ran around the playground. Davin was roped into a game of charades by a Spanish Bachelorette party, and I became enthralled in listening to the live band music and watching couples dancing at a beachside restaurant. It was a low-key, yet festive atmosphere. The last gift Mojácar gave us was coloring the white stuccoed, red-tile rooftops of the village with a yellowish glow during the sunset, a feast for the eyes and a perfect compliment to the red wine we were drinking.

We arrived in Málaga just in time for the “Resurrección” parade, the last of the week-long Easter (Pascua) celebration. This 500 (plus)-year tradition in Málaga is something I had to see in person after learning about the robed men (nazarenos) wearing cone-shaped hoods (capirotes) with holes for only their eyes to see (an image I’d only ever associated with the KKK), and the huge floats weighing over 5,000 kilos carried through the streets by an estimated 250 participants. Aromas of incense and flowers filled the air, drums from the marching band set the rhythm of the participant’s steps, swaying back and forth to the solemn music as they carried the ornate floats (tronos) depicting the Passion of Christ and Sorrow of the Virgin Mary. Standing in one spot watching, the parade lasts about an hour and is like no other parade you’ve seen, tapping all of your senses!

After the parade, we set off on foot to explore the city. We walked to the port, enjoyed people-watching and made our way toward the “Alcazar” which refers to a palatial fortification of Moorish decent. Naturally, the fortress was situated up high on a hill and we climbed up for a good 30-45 minutes up to the top through beautiful gardens. From the alcazar, we had 360-degree views of the port, old town, and countryside. The circular (abandoned) bull fighting ring stood out amongst the other buildings. 

Back in the city center we found a cozy restaurant and tried some new tapas. We were recommended the “Bacaloa al Pil Pil” which is salt cod, garlic, and olive oil, breaded.  Luckily it arrived really hot so I could try some before the kids gobbled it all up. They couldn’t get enough! We ordered this dish several more times throughout the trip per the kids' request.

Next stop was Sevilla, which was meant heading inland away from the sea. Traveling by car is really convenient in Spain until you want to get into a city center. In some Spanish cities it is impossible or prohibited to drive in the city center, and even in cities where it is permitted, I wouldn't dare to endeavor (¡Porque me agobia!). Therefore, Davin researched parking options outside each city before we left and we’d leave our luggage in the trunk and carry what we needed for the day in a backpack. (We were relieved each time we returned to our car and it hadn’t been broken into or towed, although we did get an earful from the parking attendant in Sevilla!)

Davin spent a year in Sevilla during university and promised me that one day he’d take me to see the city I’d heard so much about. Little did we know we’d have two kids in tow when we checked this trip off the bucket list! He was our tour guide and walked us through the city showing us where he had coffee every morning, where is host-mom lived (unfortunately we couldn’t track her down), where he caught the bus to university, and of course, where the night life was. I had heard so many people talk about how they loved Sevilla they assured me I would love it, which was exactly the case. I thought it would be due to unique and colorful architecture, which to an extent was the case, however, it wasn't as drastically different as I thought it would be. While it is a beautiful city, what I fell in love with was not so much what I saw, but how the city made me feel. Sevilla is a hot city and we saw temps in the mid-80s. Naturally, the heat slows down the pace of life and while the city is bustling it seems to move at a relaxed pace. In no other city in Spain that I’ve visited has a caña (a small tap beer) been so cold and so refreshing. We all fell in love with Gazpacho which is the perfect food for feeling refreshed in hot temperatures as well. Then there are the sounds of the city. Very few cars enter the city center and everywhere you go there are horse-drawn carriage rides for tourists creating the repeating soundtrack of horse hooves clopping through the cobblestone streets. You can’t move around the city without encountering various street performers, many playing flamenco guitar which only adds to the enchanting ambiance (I was surprised how Sevilla trumped Paris in creating this romantic feeling). 

While it was delightful enough to simply relive Davin’s memories in Sevilla, there were several other highlights of our visit. First and foremost, we had purchased tickets to see a Flamenco Show at the Casa de La Memoria. I’d read about how Flamenco developed in Andalucía and knew that if we wanted to see an authentic performance (not simply a tourist show), Sevilla was the place. The show consisted of one guitarist, one singer, and both a male and a female dancer. The guitar is specific to the style of music, the vocals, almost like an emotional cry were accompanied by various rhythms of hand clapping. The Flamenco dancing involved intricate toe-and-heel clicking steps, both the male and female portraying strength and emotion, while the female was very graceful with her body and hand movements. It was easy to see their passion and emotion as the performers got lost in the song and dance, however, I couldn’t identify with it. I felt like an outsider being told the story of a painful history a culture had suffered. I think the kids felt the same, that it was really interesting to see but very foreign. I’m so glad we had the opportunity see authentic Flamenco. And although I couldn’t see myself ever having a reason to wear one, I couldn’t help but drool over all of the colorful, ruffly, gorgeous Flamenco dresses every storefront presented. I tried my best to justify (to myself and Davin) that I needed to buy a €400+ polka dotted, sexy, gypsy Flamenco dress, to have a memory of Spain forever, but failed and settled on simply fantasizing about it.

The best part of Sevilla, for me, was the Plaza de España. I knew nothing of it beforehand, so when we walked through gorgeous green park space and slowly approached this magnificent, grandiose example of architecture I was blown away. It’s size and c-shaped layout is impressionable from a distance, but then as you get up close and you can see the intricate detail of the tile artwork which creates a whole new level of beauty. Both Star Wars and Game of Thrones have been filmed here so you can imagine how awe-inspiring it must be. 

We were able to see amazing views of the city when we went to the Sevilla Cathedral. It is the largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in the world. Inside, we wandered past the burial site of Christopher Columbus, through one of the longest naves of all Spanish cathedrals, and stopped to ponder the vast Gothic retablo of carved scenes from the life of Christ on the massive altarpiece, the lifework of its artist. We climbed the Giralda bell tower twenty-some stories and just as we reached the top the bells chimed vibrating through our entire body.

Córdoba gave us the opposite experience of Sevilla. It provided endless charm and was visually inspiring but we felt unwelcome. It could be because we arrived at the tail end of spring break and all the locals were burnt out on tourists. Regardless, we were so glad we visited the city and saw its rich mix of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim culture. 

Before we left for Andalucía, my inner teacher-lesson-planner inspired me to create travel journal books for the kids that were specific to each city that we were to visit. I spent some time re-reading Iberia and ordered children’s books about the Córdoba Mosque. Between this information and Google Maps, I created a scavenger hunt for the kids, which directed our journey through the walkable neighborhoods of Córdoba. It led us first through the Jewish district surrounded by a fortress and full of spice stores, down towards the river where we crossed the giant Roman bridge and then ultimately caught our first views of the Mosque. We continued north through the old town streets and stumbled upon a neighborhood patio tour. Typical Andalucían homes have an open-aired patio unseen from the outside and we had the luck of arriving during the one time of year they open up their homes to the public to see the incredible flower-packed spaces they’ve created for free. 

The endless white-washed stucco buildings hung with classic Mediterranean blue flower pots full of colorful flowers will forever be the image that comes to my mind when I think of Córdoba. However, visiting the Mosque was easily the most impressive part of visiting the town. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it’s so cool to step inside and feel like you've gone back in time. It is an enormous hall of endless arches, then, smack dab in this beautiful Moorish place of worship, is a giant Catholic Cathedral which if located somewhere else outside could be admired for its ornate beauty, but really just appears to be an eye-sore in the context of a Mosque. However, the dissonance of the architecture is a visual reminder that rule of Spain has changed hands amongst the three religions over the course of hundreds of years, each leaving their lasting marks.

The drive into Granada was the most dramatic. After visiting the other cities in warm weather, it was stunning to approach Granada backdropped by white snow-capped mountains. We climbed to the top of the hill and parked near the Alhambra, what Lonely Planet describes as, “Granada’s and Europe’s love letter to Moorish culture- part palace, part World Heritage Site, and part lesson on medieval architecture.” Granada was definitely the perfect finale to our Andalucían road trip. 

There were several highlights of Granada. Visiting the Alhambra was so interesting and complex that I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves. We also loved walking through the Albaicin, which is the Moorish area of the city and oldest part of Granada. It’s packed with tourist shops, Teterías (Tea restaurants), and Moroccan food. We ate so well in Granada, indulging in hummus, babaganush, couscous, tajine, zaalook, etc. The kids went nuts over the sweet teas and the beautiful teapot in which it was presented. The city has a great energy, and while it is bustling with tourists, it still felt like a modern day city that just happens to have this incredible historical gem overlooking the city. We were also aware of a sort of Bohemian subculture of 20-something-year-old hippies who made and sold crafts on the streets and hung out by the river in small groups which gave the city an interesting vibe.

Surprisingly we ate the best Italian food I’ve ever had in my life in Granada as well. A friend of ours clued us into a tiny restaurant with a crazy passionate chef (who reminded me of Prince) who makes everything from scratch. So I’d tell anyone that in addition to the mandatory Alhambra visit, you must eat at Vidaextra Live Cooking Show!

In the end, we were exhausted after packing in so much in such a short amount of time (typically not our style). However, had we just picked one city and moved at a more relaxed pace we would have missed out on so much significant Andalucían history! To top it off (proud Mom moment) we didn't bring any electronics and listened to one of my favorite books of all time The Alchemist in the car ride as a family. Listening to the story of an Andalucían shepherd boy who sets off to travel as we drove through Andalucía on our own journey was nothing short of poetic (especially since we spotted few shepherds along the way). "And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it."- states the author Paulo Coelho in the tale. I hope my kids heard that part.

Gracias Andalucía para tu belleza, tu amor, y tu historia increíble. Hemos disfrutado todo los que nos ofrecías y esperamos a volver en el futuro! 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Las Fallas

“Las Fallas” is one of the biggest fiestas in the Valencia region of Spain, one that we learned about after we had arrived. It takes place the week of March 15-19th and while the main fiesta is in Valencia, other cities and pueblos in the region have their own celebrations as well.

I’ve read several articles about “Las Fallas” and most people agree it started with the pagans who celebrated the return of Spring with the burning of all the carpentry debris (wood, street parots, candles, etc) that had accumulated over the winter. Everything was thrown into the street and large bonfires were held. The Christians, later on, made the fiestas coincide with Saint Joseph’s day, the patron saint of Carpenters. Then over time, the ‘debris’ was fashioned into puppets with the likeness of public figures that were burned to criticize or mock unpopular politics / politicians.

The Celebration
Today, the fiesta still involves a ceremonious burning of puppets called “ninots” however they are huge statues, made from wood, cardboard, white cork, papier-mache and plaster and costs thousands of dollars (some over $50,000). The ninots are still constructed to portray political satire and current events, poking fun at corrupt politicians and Spanish celebrities. Neighborhood organizations raise the money to hire artists to construct the ninots, which take almost the entire year to build and are judged in the end. Only one is “pardoned” and finds a place in the Museum of the Ninot along with the favorites from years past. The rest are burned one by one on the 19th of March, la Crema, starting at 12:15 am, and the first place ninot burned last around 3:00 am in the morning. The burning symbolizes a freedom from thinking any longer about unpleasant issues and starting fresh.  

The celebration is more than just the creation and destruction of the ninots. There are parades, fireworks, royal courts, and the ofrenda de flores de la Virgen de los Desamparados where Falleras and Falleros wearing traditional costumes band through the city as they offer bouquets of flowers to the giant image of the Virgen.

Las Fallas in Denia
We were told by friends that going to Las Fallas in Valencia was crazy. You must be prepared to battle crowds like those in Times Square on New Year's Eve, and to tolerate the noise and vibration of endless fireworks that are being lit carelessly in the streets in addition to the official fiesta pyrotechnics. Since none of us were too keen on this idea, we decided to experience Las Fallas on a smaller scale in the neighboring town of Denia which was perfect. It felt equally as exciting but without feeling completely overwhelming.

On Saturday, March 18th, Volly and I drove over just in time for the mascletas which are the daily pyrotechnic shows at 2 pm during the fiesta week. It’s hard to describe the mascletas because they are really only truly experienced in person. Unlike fireworks that are visually stimulating, mascletas (which are named for the masclets- very loud firecrackers) seek to stimulate the body through strong rhythmic sounds. The firecrackers are strung up with ropes at a medium height and are set off in a chain reaction. For mascletas to be considered such, the explosions must find a rhythm that constantly increases to a dramatic conclusion. The firework artists are allowed to use a maximum of a half a metric ton of black powder if that means anything to you. All I know is that it was INTENSE. I immediately doubted my parental decision to subject my daughter to such a terrifying/exciting/loud event, even though there were plenty of other families with kids there to experience it as well. Even though we plugged our ears, we had partial hearing loss for the next 20 minutes and my heart continued to beat fast for a long time after the show had ceased.

We enjoyed wandering the streets of Denia and looking at the intricate details of all the ninots. I can’t pretend that I understood any of the political satire but it didn’t make me appreciate the works of art any less. I found it hard to not think what a waste! All of the materials, time, and effort to create the ninots, only to light them on fire!

It is always a treat to see the classic Spanish costumes worn during these fiestas. I would love the opportunity to dress up the same, but I don’t think I could endure wearing the makeup, hair pieces, and the huge heavy dress all week in the hot, hot sun.

Like most Americans would be, I was shocked to see young children lighting fireworks in every nook and cranny of the streets. I’m not talking about the lame black snake ‘fireworks’ we were allowed to light as kids. I’m talking about legit firecrackers being shot off without seemingly no concern or supervision by any adults. You’ll be walking down the street, absorbing all the fiesta stimuli and without any notice, a large CRACK goes off right by your feet and it scares the hell out of you. Then you see kids scurry off onto a doorstep to light the next one… all part the Las Fallas experience.

I tried to capture as much of the ‘feeling’ as I could in this video below:

Friday, March 17, 2017

My Spanish Love Affair

It’s time to come clean. Recently my discipline to write regular blog posts has eluded me and I’m feeling guilty. What’s to blame? Padel. Estoy enamorada.

What is Padel?
When I tell people here in Spain that I’m playing “padel” they know exactly what I’m talking about, but when I tell family and friends back home they are left confused. I didn’t even know the sport existed because it doesn’t in the USA, save a few places like LA, Miami, and Houston. So first, I’ll tell you what “padel” (and the spelling is important) is not. It is not: tennis, squash, racquetball, ping pong, pickleball, platform tennis, matkot, badminton, or paddle tennis (thus the importance of the spelling). “Padel” is a sport distinct from any racket sport I’d ever known before moving to Javea.

Phenomenal Ferrer
When we moved to Javea we soon discovered that our small coastal town’s claim to fame was raising one of the top tennis players in the world: David Ferrer. You can’t enter the town without seeing his face on billboards - for real estate or pool installation (his parent’s business), or enter local bars without seeing a signed racket or jersey hanging on the wall. The Ferrer family took over the Club de Tenis some years ago and created the Academia Tenis Ferrer to develop competitive young players and it is run by his brother, Javier. David comes home when he’s not traveling the world competing, and I will never forget when I brought the kids to tennis practice one day and he was training on the court next to them (Volly won’t either because she was so starstruck she accidently walked into a pole). Often we go out to eat and see his family at the same restaurants (Javea is small). I drive past his humble home near the pueblo daily. Yesterday he was at the club training while Volly was at practice and I shamelessly ignored my daughter and took this video:

For those who don’t know me well, I will tell you that tennis has a been a huge part of my life. My grandfather was a well-known girls tennis coach in Edina MN, later USPTA pro and my mom followed in his footsteps. Both of my parents coached me and my sister in highschool, it was the family sport. I played college tennis at the University of MN Duluth and during those summers I worked as a tennis instructor at one of the best summer camps in the midwest “Tennis and Life Camps”- which I had attended as a camper myself. Tennis is in my blood.

I arrived in Javea with no job, no friends, and lots of time. I thought that tennis would be my “in” to make new friends and enjoy myself. When I went to the ‘Club de Tenis’ and attempted (through broken Spanish) to explain that I was interested in joining a women’s tennis league, I was told that this didn’t exist. Certain it was a language barrier, I had a friend (with good Spanish) inquire but only to confirm the bad news: No women my age competitively play tennis here, they play padel.

Padel is THE Sport To Play
This was really disappointing news for me, especially with all the Ferrer hype! How could it be? I checked out the padel courts at the Club de Tenis and noted that they are a smaller version of a tennis court (one-third the size) without alleys, and are enclosed by glass (or stucco) walls towards the baseline. The sides are partially surrounded by walls and the rest by fencing. I watched it played by four players with weird looking “padels” and upon first impression, I thought it looked silly and skill-less compared to tennis. I noticed simplified strokes with lots of slice and not much physical movement required. The style of the padels looked different enough from tennis rackets (short, thick, round with holes) that it would require significant time and effort to get accustomed.

Since our plan was to live in Javea for only one year, I decided that I didn’t want to invest in this new sport, no matter how popular it was. Instead, I dedicated my time to surf and SUP (which you can’t do year round back home) and fell in love with spin classes at the gym- totally different than MN spin- I’m talking black lights, music so loud you can’t talk, and lots whooping - a proper fiesta. However, my friend Angel convinced me to try padel, saying that if I was a tennis player, I was going to love it. I played once and realized that my tennis skills were relatively transferable to the game and I could play somewhat competitively. He was right. It was fun.

My Journey
When we decided that we were going to stay at least one more year in Javea, I told my husband that I wanted to give Padel a try. After all, it would be a cultural experience if it’s what all the Spaniards are into. Why not dive in!? I signed up for a weekly lesson at the Escuela Padel Ferrer in September and it has slowly taken over my life. No exaggeration.

I’ve “been in the game” now for about six months and have found a large community of players so much so that if I wanted to, or was able to, I could play a match every single day of the week. In six months I’ve learned a montón (heaps)- strategy of the game, new strokes, and the most difficult adjustment - how to play off the back walls and use the fences as an offensive strategy. I’ve spent six months un-learning a lot of tennis fundamentals (hopefully they aren’t gone forever) and I’ve developed a solid game. My strengths in tennis- quick hands, slice, and finesse serve me well in padel and I’ve surprised this community of players at how fast I’ve improved in such a short period of time.

But being “good” and winning is not what it’s all about of course!!! (Although I'm sure winning helps solicit invitations to play). What has been so meaningful about immersing myself in this new sport and community is that it has totally changed my experience living in Spain. Because this sport is specific to Spain (and South America) there are few foreigners (at least English speaking) like myself who have managed penetrate the padel scene. It’s been the first time living here where I have felt complete immersion (besides autoescuela). When I go to play, mainly at indoor courts in Pedreguer (a neighboring town) I have no English crutches and me he metido con los españoles completemente. They make me feel accepted and I have found an identity amongst similar people which is incredibly gratifying.

La Liga & El Equipo
I found a partner who I really love and we’ve been playing in a league for the past couple months. We are undefeated and play against the other undefeated pair tonight… at 21:00pm. UGH. Of course in Spain matches go late into the evening, long after my bedtime, and it’s totally normal. At Padel Covert in Pedreguer we play more or less in a warehouse which has four courts and nothing else besides a desk to pay the €5 court fee and if you want, hang out and drink beer (God, I love Spain). There is nothing pretentious about this facility which is situated inconspicuously in an industrial park, however, it seems like the place to hang out. Everybody is friendly and it’s a lively scene between animated players on the courts and spectators watching while they have a drink. It never ceases to surprise me how loud it can get in there with men yelling in frustration “¡Que rabia!” or “¡Coño!” or “¡Me cago en todo” when they make an error. What cracks me up the most though are the girls, like sweet red haired Inma, expressing their frustrations that, when I translate in my head, I can’t help but burst out laughing: “I shit in your bitch of the mother!” “Cunt!” “Whores!”- terribly fouled mouthed rants but all playful and well… Spanish. (If you’ve read my blog about swearing these phrases don’t carry the same weight in Spanish as they do in English).

I also was invited to play on the women’s Padel team for the Escuela Padel Ferrer in the Club de Tenis in Javea and I even made the “A” team. I was really nervous during my first match last Saturday in Denia as I wanted to prove I was up to this level of play. I was relieved when my partner and I pulled off a 6-4, 6-1 win! (scoring is the same as tennis) Atope! More interestingly, though, I found out that after the match the routine is to have beers outside at the club cafe with the other team. A few of the players even had a cigarette, something that would be so taboo in the US, but I find it amusing (I’ve also seen Spaniards finish running a half marathon then light up).

Pinch Me
My new teammate and friend, Laura, has a private court on her hilltop estate which overlooks Javea and the Mediterranean. I’m lucky enough to get invited to play there often and I’ve had countless “pinch me moments” on that court. When I’m there I’m always in good company, speaking Spanish, and playing a fun game, but for me, it’s more. I find myself consciously breathing the fresh, fragrant air deep into my nostrils, observing unique details of colorful tropical plants in the surrounding gardens, tuning my ears into the faint crowing of roosters nearby, and glancing between plays at the vast blue horizon dotted with white sailboats and occasional cargo ship cruising by slowly. And this is all REAL I have to tell myself. I’m ACTUALLY playing padel with my Spanish friends while overlooking Mediterranean sea views that couldn’t be more stunning. In these moments I feel so alive and promise myself to never forget every little detail.

Tennis and Life
Tennis has taught me so much about how to face what life presents you. It is a tough mental game and I’m sure that has served me in all aspects of life, especially in this case of learning a new sport and making myself vulnerable in the beginning. I’m so grateful for the gift of tennis in my life which I’ve realized continues to “serve” me mainly through all of the amazing people I meet and the lifelong friendships I’ve obtained. I can’t help but think of my high school, UMD teammates, and fellow TLC instructors when I play padel because I know they would all love this sport as well. It’s a shame that it hasn’t gained more popularity in the states!

All About The Game of Padel
For those of you who are curious about the game I’ll share what I know:

As it turns out padel is THE sport to play in Spain and has grown a ton in the last decade while
The padel I use
interest/participation in tennis is diminishing.
Why is it so popular? It took me a while to figure this one out, but after falling in love with the game I get it.
  • 1) It is much easier to play than tennis: If you’ve had even a little experience in racket sports you can pick it up quickly without having out having extensive knowledge of technique.
  • 2) It is cheap: Since the financial crisis people don’t have a lot to spend, and you can buy a basic padel for €40 euros. To rent the court it’s €3-5 for an hour and a half.
  • 3) It’s not physically demanding: At least for entry level players
  • 4) Social relationships: Because it requires four people, it’s more interesting, fun and social.
  • 5) It’s played outside in the fresh air: Although indoor courts are available and popular as well.

The physicality of the sport changes once you reach a competitive level and I find myself worked after a match! After struggling to put my finger on exactly why it is so addicting I've decided it's because it can be really fast at times and you’re always trying to get to the net to win the point. The walls and fence, which I really struggled with at first, make it exciting because you can play off them creating interesting bounces/spins. The points also can last forever! Just went you think it’s over, the ball comes back over the net. For example, somebody could whiff at an overhead but still recover and play it off the back wall! The balls look the same as tennis balls but are different and the scoring is the same. Check out the video of what a padel can look like below:

In conclusion, if you want to experience Spain beyond the delicious wine, jamon serrano, and beautiful countryside, pick up a padel and give the sport a try because you too could fall in love.

Padel Vocabulario (My notes to myself)
La pala (paleta o raqueta)- racquet

Golpe - hit/stroke

El Remate - offensive overhead smash (like in tennis)

La Bandeja - defensive overhead, hit at medium height in front with slice, finish across your body to left shoulder - aim the ball to the center so the ball stays low and hits the wall, then recover

La Víbora - offensive, hit at eye height with more pace than bandeja always crosscourt moving through the ball towards the net, aim towards the corner so the ball sits low with spin and hits both walls

El Picado - soft overhead volly with snap of the wrist, short, into the fence (vaya) or wall (pica) within 1 meter from the fence. Use backhand grip so the ball goes crosscourt. Do not bend elbow down like on an overhead

El Resto - return

El saque- serve

La volea - volley

Bote pronto - half volley

Cortado - slice

La pared de fondo - back wall

Sarcar- to serve

Restar- to return

La pelota / bola- ball

Muro- the side fence

La red - net

Rebote - a bounce

El suelo -  césped sintético con arena

Partner- compañero or more playfully “compi”

“Buen saque” - good serve”

“Bien jugado” - well played

“No te compares con los demás. Compárate con la person que eras ayer.”