Some years ago in Peru, Rich and I were paddling canoes in an obscure subsidiary of the Amazon (the river, of course, not the online retailer) when I broke my finger. I’d like to tell you I sustained the injury wresting with an alligator, fending off a piranha, or messing about with one of the electric eels that lived under the dock in our camp. But the boring truth is that I was simply careless, holding on to the edge of our boat when it smacked up against another, with my finger in between. Ouch! That’s one piece of foolishness I’ll not repeat.
We were days downriver from the nearest medical facility, a small-town clinic of extremely dubious reputation. Our guide offered to take me there, or to the local shaman, Jesus, who a few days earlier had sold me a blowgun; somehow neither alternative appealed. Next our guide mentioned old stories about a tree that had thick sap that, when dried, would harden into a protective shell; he’d always wanted to try it on somebody, if I was game. Before I could say, “Isn’t LifeFlight an option?” Rich said, “I have something in my first aid kit that might help.”
In no time Rich had fashioned a dandy splint from the plastic casing that had held a syringe. (We used to carry them on remoter journeys, as we’d heard horror stories of people needing an emergency injection from a village doctor who’d run out of clean needles.) The splint was comfortable, offered excellent protection, and even had a piece of gauze taped over the end to keep out mosquitoes. A week later when I got back to the US, an ER doctor insisted on fitting me with a “real” splint that was far more uncomfortable and unwieldy; I immediately threw it away and went back to wearing Rich’s.
Up until now, that improvised splint has stood as my benchmark for ingenious solutions to medical issues on the road, but recently a challenger has emerged. I was looking up something on YouTube when I stumbled across “23 Smart Life Hacks for Every Occasion.” This fast-paced video includes, along with a jumble of other topics (replacing a lost earring back with the tip of a pencil eraser, etc.) various creative ways to deal with small health issues that might arise on the road. Most use simple materials you’re likely to have with you, find in a hotel room, or buy cheaply at a local store. To help you zero in on the ones mentioned, I’ve identified the time they appear on the video.
For instance, if a migraine strikes while you’re away from home, the video suggests putting your feet in warm water (the hotel sink will work nicely) and placing something cold (send your travel companion out for a bag of frozen peas) on the back of your neck (0.40). This can help the blood drain down from your head, offering relief. Apparently this one’s been around a while. “Every time I see that image, I cringe,” wrote therapist Tammy Rome on Migraine.com. “The comments alone drive me crazy. Too many people take the image literally and make comments about their inability to perch on the edge of the sink. I want to scream, ‘That’s not the freaking point!’ but truthfully, no one is listening.” Tammy goes on to say the remedy can bring relief, suggesting that those worried about falling off the bathroom counter can use a simpler approach involving a heating pad and an ice pack.
The video has other clever ideas, such as cutting the sticky ends of band-aids into strips and overlapping them at an angle so they adhere firmly to fingertips (1:27). Another section shows an old folk remedy for fending off mosquitoes with a cut lemon studded with cloves (5:21). I tried it last night and woke this morning unbitten. Having sustained three bites earlier in the week, I am cautiously optimistic but feel a bit more testing is required before classifying the experiment as solid scientific proof of efficacy.
Some of the other ideas seem a bit more questionable. If you’re at risk of being overwhelmed by smoke, the video suggests, you should breathe through wet cloth (7:13). So far, so good. Then they show a woman taking off her t-shirt and — no other fluid being readily available — urinating on it. She then holds the shirt over her nose and mouth to run out of the building into the street. Yikes! Would I be able to manage this in a crisis? Would I even want to?
Back in 1999, when The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was published, I gave a copy to Rich and we chuckled over it in the happy confidence we would never be called upon to do anything as outlandish as deliver a baby in a taxi or perform a tracheotomy with a Swiss army knife and a ball point pen. The book went missing long ago, but for my birthday in September, Rich gave me another copy. And such is the nature of these uncertain times that I am re-reading many sections with fresh interest. How to Survive an Earthquake, for instance, and How to Identify a Bomb, should one happen to arrive in the morning mail. Much of the advice about How to Survive if You Are in the Line of Gunfire — spoiler alert, it involves running away and hiding behind a solid object — may seem obvious, but it’s a sad fact of life that we now need to know this stuff. And remembering the finer points, such as running in a zig-zag pattern instead of a straight line, just might save my life someday.
I used to think the need for such crazy emergency measures would never arise outside of adventurous expeditions deep into the world’s wildest regions. But today, even while traveling to the most civilized places — Paris, London, California’s wine country — we all need to be prepared to cope with events that would once have been unthinkable. So I’m collecting all the advice I can find that may help me deal with emergencies on the road. Let me know if you have any handy home remedies, survival tips, or escape techniques you’re willing to share! In particular I’m seeking alternatives to the video’s urinate-on-your-shirt plan, because hey, there simply has to be a better way.
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With so many of you writing to ask me about the practicalities of living in Spain, I thought you might like to hear the story of my friend Sarah Gemba, who moved to Seville about the same time I did, following a very different trajectory. She arrived as a teenage student and is now the proprietor of the successful boutique tour company, Spain Savvy.
How did you get from small-town Massachusetts to Seville?
I did a semester abroad in Seville while in college and loved it so much I begged my school to let me return for another semester during my senior year. I immediately felt at home in Seville and knew my permanent return would be imminent. I graduated college at the turn of the century and by 2004 I was a permanent resident of Spain.
What were your first impressions of the city?
I was an innocent 19-year-old college student who was thrown into a beautiful, exotic city; I loved every minute of it. The only thing that annoyed me was that I was a guiri (the Spanish term of endearment for a foreigner) and I wanted to be one of the fun-loving Sevillanos. Wanting to move here permanently was a huge motivation for me to improve my Spanish and become a marketable employee so I could eventually make my life in Spain.
Tell us about your bicultural family.
My husband Daniel is Spanish and our three young children, Manuela, Lorenzo and Daniel Thomas (ages 8, 5 and 3), all have dual nationality. Our life here is conducted almost solely in Spanish but they are learning English at school and speak it with me, so our hope is that one day they will be fully bilingual and bicultural. We travel with them to the U.S. and other destinations as often as possible in an effort to teach them to be world citizens and eager, curious travelers.
How has Seville changed since you arrived?
The city has experienced a huge tourism boom in the past several years. The historical monuments have been bursting at the seams with visitors and have had to put measures in place to maintain order — not without the usual growing pains and bumps in the road. I am proud of how this city has grown and excited to see how it continues to evolve.
What inspired you to start Spain Savvy?
I had been working with a few local companies for several years in the cultural travel sector, organizing group and custom travel experiences for Americans. I realized I could offer the same services while working for myself, allowing me the flexibility to raise my children and still have a successful career on my own terms. It was the best decision I ever made!
Who are your customers?
I focus on the U.S. market, and my clients are anywhere from 2 to 80 years old (some of my favorite clients are families with small children!). My clients are interested in luxury or adventure travel. They are curious travelers who like to eat well and discover the hidden corners of their destinations. They speak a little Spanish but are yearning to learn more. They want to meet locals and learn what it would be like to live (or retire!) here.
What cultural activities do you focus on in winter?
Around the holidays, there are some great local experiences, like the zambomba flamenco parties that explode from the bars into the city streets, and the Feria de Belénes (Nativity fair) that you could take hours exploring. You can eat fresh roasted chestnuts or the famous churros or buñuelos (¡con chocolate!) from street vendors and enjoy the explosion of lights and historic Nativity scenes. The whole month of December is one big party in Seville!
How does Spanish gastronomy give you a window on Spanish culture?
There is absolutely no better way to get to know a culture than through its food. For instance, many classic Spanish dishes came to be during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when richer foods were hard to come by. One of our favorite hwww.youtube.com/watch?v=Ygra_2OK99Ioliday traditions is making migas on Christmas Eve at mid-day. Migas are made in a huge cazuela (ceramic deep dish) and the star ingredient is day-old bread crumbs (in some provinces, it is simply flour or semolina). There are hundreds of versions of this dish all over Spain, and it can be a fascinating way to learn about the history of a place by finding out why they use certain ingredients.
(Want to try making migas? Here's how.)
What advice would you give to first-time visitors?
Erase any pre-conceived notions you might have about Spain and prepare to be dazzled. This country will truly surprise you in so many ways. Do a bit of research and reading, and brush up on your high school Spanish so you can connect with the locals. If you are friendly, they will respond with a tremendous amount of warmth and welcome!
Do you feel living abroad has helped you to grow as a person?
It has truly changed me. I sometimes wonder where I would be had I not left small-town Massachusetts! It is thrilling to experience things so far outside of my childhood comfort zone and to have made a life so far removed from the only life I once knew. Living abroad has made me a more resilient person who is adaptable to change and always looking for new ways to do things, as well as tolerant of other people and their differences.
I have learned that people who aren’t necessarily blood-related can be considered family. Close friends become like brothers, sisters, and cousins, and in-laws become like your own aunts and uncles. I am truly blessed to have the loving family I have surrounded myself with. The Spanish people I am close with have welcomed me with open arms and made me feel at home. I have also come to learn (over time) that your family will always be your family, and even if you only see them once a year, they are always there for you!
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships of any kind. Any products or services I mention in my blog, books, or website are there solely because I believe you might find them interesting and useful in planning your own adventures.
Another cool thing to do in Seville: come see my new book printed!
We live in an age of miracles, and one of those happens to be the new print-on-demand machines that can produce a single book, cost-effectively, in just seven minutes. Amazon’s had these machines for years, but now some friends have installed one in their Seville bookstore, Isla de Papel (Calle Puerta del Osario, 14). You can simply stroll in, ask for a copy of my new book, Enjoy Moving Abroad, and they’ll print one for you on the spot in less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee. How cool is that?
Here’s how it works:
“Sometimes it takes a little longer than seven minutes, if the glue beads are still heating up for the day,” owner Enrique Parilla told me. “We’ll make sure we always have some copies of your book around for people who don’t feel like waiting.” My books are marketed almost exclusively online, so it’s a special thrill for me to see copies in a cozy neighborhood bookshop.
If you’re in Seville, stop by and witness this modern-day miracle for yourself.
Not in Seville? See the book on Amazon. Enjoy Moving Abroad is a three-book set of insider tips for making the transition to expat life, available in Kindle and paperback. Don't even consider an international move without it!
“So we’re going to take the train through the famous Chunnel at last,” I remarked rapturously.
Rich and I had been talking about it for years — ever since the Chunnel opened in 1994, in fact — and last September, as part of a surprise birthday excursion, he arranged for us to take the 2.75-hour rail journey from London to Paris. I was thrilled, wondering what it would be like to go speeding along at 300 kilometers per hour under the English channel.
It turns out that riding through the Chunnel looks exactly like this:
So not quite as visually thrilling as I’d imagined. Apparently others have been equally underwhelmed because the railway, Eurostar, now offers an alternative view. In the train station’s departure lounge enormous ads invite kids to rent virtual reality goggles; apparently you enter your seat number so the experience can be tailored to your precise place in the train. As a rule, Rich and I prefer actual reality during train rides, so we made a snap decision to pass. Obviously, now that we’ve done a bit more research, we are kicking ourselves for missing out on the opportunity to experience the Chunnel like this:
With or without virtual reality goggles, Rich and I remain steadfast fans of train travel. More civilized and less hectic than flying or driving, rail journeys let you read without getting carsick, stroll to the bar car for coffee, or engage in idle conversation with fellow passengers. And train travel isn’t just better for us, it’s better for the environment. By taking the Eurostar from London to Paris instead of flying, Rich and I lowered our trip’s CO2 emissions by 91%.
Math isn’t my strong suit, but when you figure there are about a billion inter-European air flights annually, if even a fraction of those fliers switched to trains, we’d make the planet a healthier place to live.
Whenever the subject of rail travel comes up, somebody always says, “Yes, I love trains too. If only I had the time to take them.” Maybe you do! Because it turns out that when you travel between European cities, it’s often faster to go by rail. Our Chunnel train from London to Paris was actually quicker than flying — only nine minutes quicker, but still!
Why don’t savvy travelers know that going by rail is often faster and always kinder to the environment? For one thing, the travel industry “only wants to sell you flights, flights, car hire, and more flights,” according to one of the most famous train travelers of our era, Mark Smith, better known as The Man in Seat 61. While working as a manager with British Rail, Mark launched a website and a personal crusade to inspire and assist railway travelers. His hobby grew into a career that’s made him a household name among train buffs around the world.
“People don't understand that by train (and for that matter, ship) the journey itself can be interesting, fun, romantic, adventurous, and an integral part of your experience,” Mark told me. “It's not just about 'getting there'! For those who have only experienced watching the hands on their watch go round on a long-haul flight, or droning down an eyesore motorway, that can be hard to grasp!”
Many of my favorite travel stories come out of our railway adventures. Like that time on the Hungarian-Romanian border when a couple of uniformed men took our passports and disappeared into the station. Twenty minutes later the train started up again, causing us to stick our heads out the window shrieking hysterically, “Our passports, our passports!” Only then did Rich and I realize that our part of the train wasn’t going anywhere. The lineman’s OK-to-go signal was for the back half of the train, which was separating from our section and returning to Hungary. The fact that everyone on the station platform knew this, and had doubtless arranged this amusing little prank countless times, didn’t seem to diminish their innocent delight in watching us make fools of ourselves.
Rich and I love long railway journeys, and one that lasted 83 days is chronicled in my book Adventures of a Railway Nomad. The journey took us through 13 countries on 38 trains for a total of 4627 railway miles. We came home with countless stories about silly misunderstandings, the kindness of strangers, and thrilling moments when we were gobsmacked by the unexpected.
“Anything is possible on a train,” wrote Paul Theroux. “A great meal, a binge, a visit from card sharks, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” Rich and I experienced all that and more as we traveled to areas so remote that, to us at least, they seemed the modern equivalent of those places on the ancient maps marked, “Here there be dragons.” You can imagine how excited we were when our train journey took us to Kraków, Poland, and we discovered these (alleged) actual dragon bones hanging on the wall of the cathedral.
According to legend, as long as these enormous bones — said to belong to the dragon Smok Wawelski — hang on the cathedral wall, Kraków is safe from destruction. Are they working? You bet. Otherwise, how would you account for the fact that during World War II, when just about every major city in Poland was bombed to rubble, Kraków survived more or less intact?
Railway journeys often inspire an adventurous spirit and profound thoughts. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity on a train. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed the lovely metaphor, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction,” which calls to mind a favorite saying passed on to me by a reader: “Never chase a missed train. Get a pastry and wait for the next one.” Today, we can add another form of train wisdom to our collective repertoire: choosing to ride the rails provides a practical way to support to the global climate recovery effort. In the long run, choosing railway travel may make us all more healthy, happy, and wise.
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“Is a groveling email offering to pay damages enough?” I asked Rich the morning after the party. “Or do you think this requires www.FakeMyDeath.com?”
“Let’s see how they respond to the email,” he said soothingly. “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”
It all started innocently enough when an American friend here in Seville remarked that in a moment of insanity he’d promised his young boys he’d make a life-sized bull’s head that they could paint. “How do I even start?” he wailed.
“You’re in luck,” I told him. “There’s a local artist who makes papier-mâché bull’s heads; I’m sure he’ll sell one unpainted. And I’ve got crafts supplies you can use.” Two weeks later my friend threw a big party, and before heading to the drinks table, I handed over a box of paints and brushes to a group of ten kids, aged maybe six to twelve, who disappeared into a room with a life-size papier-mâché bull’s head and no adult supervision.
It wasn’t until late in the evening, around the time one of the guests was demonstrating how to remove the cork from a bottle of champagne with a sword, that I began to wonder uneasily just what the kids might be getting up to. “I’m sure they’re fine,” I told myself, applauding as the cork shot across the room.
It wasn't until I woke up late the next morning that I began to focus properly, and with hideous clarity, on the amount of damage kids with paint brushes could inflict on walls, floors, furniture, lampshades … and did I remember that one of the guests had a white dog?
With some trepidation I emailed the hosts and received back blithe assurances that no damage at all had occurred, and everyone was delighted with the painting project. Whew! “I guess we don’t have to move to another city and assume new identities,” I told Rich.
Eventually those friends left Seville, and the bull’s head was passed along to another family, then another. A week ago, to my astonishment and delight, those currently housing the beast announced they were handing it over to me. As we (and by "we," of course, I mean Rich) carried the bull’s head home through the densely packed streets around the cathedral, locals and visitors poured out of cafés to capture the one-man parade with their iPhones.
People often ask me why I enjoy living abroad, and for a start I cite the many zany moments like this one that pop up unexpectedly, keeping expat life so vivid. Yes, living in a foreign place can be challenging at times, but it’s also tremendously exciting, with astonishing surprises seemingly around every corner. You certainly don’t find yourself stuck in a rut, operating on automatic pilot, wondering when your zing faded to monotony.
In the past, nearly all my American friends and relatives used to think I was bonkers to live abroad. Not anymore. Nowadays half the people I know, and quite a few I don’t, are flooding my email inbox with requests for advice about resettling overseas — preferably somewhere with congenial company, good weather, and affordable wine. And fewer rampaging wildfires, mass shootings, and terrifying headlines.
I can’t respond to each email in as much detail as I’d like, so as my regular readers know, I recently put together Enjoy Moving Abroad, a Three-Book Set of Insider Tips for Living Well Overseas. It includes updated and expanded editions of two previously published guides, 101 Ways to Enjoy Living Abroad: Essential Tips for Easing the Transition to Expat Life and my bestselling Pack Light, plus How to Meet People on the Road: A Guide to Forming Friendships in Foreign Lands, published here for the first time.
These days the vast majority of my books are bought in Kindle format, but with the holidays approaching, I thought a paperback would be nice for those who prefer giving “real” books. And while normally I market my books exclusively on Amazon, if you're in Seville, you'll soon have the opportunity to buy this book at an actual, brick-and-mortar shop: Isla de Papel (Puerto del Osario, 14).
This cozy bookstore is owned by my publisher friends Heidi and Enrique, who installed one of the amazing new print-on-demand machines — basically a giant copier that can print, collate, cover, and bind a book in just seven minutes. I emailed Enrique pdf files of the cover and text, and on Friday he did a successful test run, producing a single book. In the next week or so, he'll run off a small batch and then keep printing more copies whenever they are needed. How cool is that?
We live in an age of technological marvels that often outstrip the science fiction I read as a kid. When I’m in my home state of California, the atmosphere is a dizzying mix of thrilling futuristic visionaries and a dystopian landscape where whole towns can disappear overnight. I love my state and my country and spend time there regularly, but it’s always comforting to return to Seville, an ancient city that survived the Visigoths, the Moors, the Inquisition, and Franco’s dictatorship — to name but a few. Its past is a constant reminder that dark times don’t last forever and every generation somehow finds the strength and ingenuity to deal with the future.
In the meantime, Sevillanos have much to teach us about living in the present. Whatever else is happening, they never forget to enjoy family, friends, cold beer, hot tapas, and a one-man bull’s head parade. I can think of few better reasons for moving abroad that the lessons it teaches us about coping with uncertainty and embracing life’s small, quirky pleasures whenever they come our way.
Enjoy Moving Abroad is now available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.
The Kindle price will go up in a few weeks, but right now I have it priced as low as Amazon allows: 99 cents to purchase, free for those enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.
If you have a chance to order it from Amazon and leave a review I would be very grateful. The more reviews I get the higher the book is ranked, making it more visible to those seeking this kind of information. Unfortunately Amazon is now quite strict about insisting you order the book from them if you want to post a review.
One recent Sunday, Rich and I took a midday stroll out of Seville’s old centro into the more modern district of Nervion and chose, more or less at random, a bustling café-restaurant for lunch.
Our waiter (who turned out to be the chef) leaned in confidentially and said, “I recommend the wild boar.”
You don’t find jabalí on many menus these days, and as the price was just 5€ ($5.67) we figured it would be an appetizer we could sample before moving on to the main meal. What arrived was a heaping platter of slowly simmered meat swimming in gravy (by which I mean boar fat loaded with salt). The flavor was magnificent. As we tucked in, sopping up the gravy with crusty bread, I could feel my arteries hardening and waist thickening and absolutely did not care.
When the chef came by and saw we’d made serious inroads on the gravy, he asked if we’d like more. Before my conscience or common sense could kick in I said, “Yes, we would!” He whisked our platter away and returned it a few minutes later with the remaining meat soaking in another lake of boar fat. Mmmmm.
As we paid our lunch tab — which with two short beers came to a whopping 7.40€ ($8.39) — Rich said, “I’ve missed this. Don’t get me wrong, I love the new foodie places, but this is Sevilla profunda [deep Seville].”
I got to thinking that while many visitors to this fair city are dining on such exotic delicacies as smoking goblets of Peruvian-Japanese ceviche, they are missing out on the unpretentious old-school dishes that were once the only cuisine available in 99% of Seville’s eateries. So for those who’d like a taste of Sevilla profunda, here are some of my favorites — with suggestions for where to find the best in the city. Not in Seville at the moment? I’ve included links to recipes so you can make them at home.
Carrillada: Pork Cheeks
Yes, I know, pork cheeks may sound a bit odd, even off-putting at first, but as my friend Lauren puts it, “Carrillada is a melt in your mouth, get up and dance, and smack yourself in the head for not having eaten this earlier type of food.” The meat is surprisingly tender; like jabalí, the secret is slow cooking it for hours until it melts in your mouth.
Where to try it: Bodeguita Romero, Calle Harinas, 10
How to make it
Tortilla de España: Spanish Omelet
Where to try it: Boca a Boca, calle Barcelona, 5
I recommend this to guests who are picky eaters and order it myself on days when I can’t decide what I’m in the mood for. Tortilla de España aka tortilla de patatas (Spanish or potato omelet) is a dense egg dish cooked in a frying pan with potatoes and onion. It’s such a staple that our Spanish teachers included a tutorial in the curriculum. It’s not easy; you have to flip the omelet over using a plate or second frying pan. But it’s Spanish comfort food at its best.
How to make it
Solomillo al Whisky: Braised Pork with Whisky Sauce
Where to try it: Los Coloniales, Plaza Cristos de Burgos, 19
The secret to this dish is tons of garlic; I never worry about vampires when I walk home after a night of solomillo al whiskey. It’s served everywhere in Seville, but for my money, the best place to try it is Los Coloniales, where the portions are generous and the waiters serve it up with old-school service: fast, courteous, and if you speak Spanish, accompanied by a quip or two.
How to make it
Espinacas con Garbanzos: Spinach with Chickpeas
Where to try it: Bar Dueñas, Calle Girona, 3
When I first arrived in Seville I was a vegetarian and practically lived on this tapa, one of the few non-meat offerings available in those days. Now I eat everything, but I still love this dish, especially in colder weather. I’m told it originated in Persia and arrived via the African Moors, who loved spices and included a pinch of cumin in the recipe, a rare thing in Spanish cuisine.
How to make it
Cazón en Adobo: Marinated fried fish
Where to try it: Bar Blanco Cerrillo, Calle José de Velilla, 1
If you’re on Calle Velasquéz in the downtown shopping area, there’s this heavenly moment when your nose picks up a vinegary scent that’s so alluring it stops you in your tracks. Before you know it, you’re heading down an alley to Bar Blanco Cerrillo for their trademark cazón en adobo, which after half a century has become a tapa of near mythical status.
How to make it
Where to try it: Vineria San Telmo, Paseo de Catalina de Ribera, 4
On summer days, I love sitting down to a bowl of this cold, creamy soup made of tomato and day-old bread, enlivened with just enough garlic and vinegar to give it zest. Like gazpacho, it was invented in Andalucía as a thrifty use of yesterday’s baguettes. Garnished with chopped hard-boiled egg and scraps of ham, it’s a great light meal all by itself.
How to make it
Goulas: Fake Baby Eels
Where to try it: Casa Morales, Calle García de Vinuesa, 11
Not a huge fan of eating eels? Me neither, but the fake ones are delicious and I sometimes tease American visitors by ordering a dish of goulas. Real baby eels (anguilas) are hideously expensive, so locals make mock baby eels from pollock fish, trimmed to worm-like shapes and dyed grey along one edge to complete the illusion — much like the fake crab sold in the USA as “krab.”
How to make it
There isn’t space to describe all the classics, and perhaps another day I’ll write about colo de toro (bull’s tail), albondigas de choco (cuttlefish meatballs), and other wild and wonderful local favorites. In the meantime, if you do find yourself in Seville, take the time to seek out some of these traditional favorites, preferably in a family-run bar where somebody’s grandmother is doing the cooking. She won’t be serving up Japanese-Peruvian ceviche or chocolate-covered duck liver pâté with whimsical garnish, but she will deliver the kind of hearty, mouthwatering fare that’s been the pride of Seville dinner tables for countless generations.
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“Would you and Rich be interested in going on the test run for a new food tour a friend of mine is starting here in Seville?” an expat pal asked me a few years ago.
Tough work, but somebody has to do it!
“If it’ll help,” I replied graciously, thinking Hot damn! This is gonna be good.
And it was. Rich and I met up with Lauren Aloise and a small group of fellow volunteers to spend three hours strolling through the city’s back streets, nibbling and sipping along the way.
We had fabulous food and a marvelous time. If I had a complaint at all, it was that I was so stuffed by the end of the tour that I couldn’t do justice to the final round of tapas. Since then, Lauren and I have kept in touch, and I thought her story would be fun to share here, as an example of how one American woman built a new life for herself in Spain.
What drew you to Spain?
I spent my junior year of college between Granada and Buenos Aires, and loved both. That said, I saw very little of Spain and left with a very basic understanding of the culture and cuisine. Despite living with a host family, my experience only just skimmed the surface. I was focused on bettering my Spanish (and enjoying Granada's amazing nightlife!) and my host mother was a terrible cook. I left Spain thinking that Spaniards didn't eat meat (I only had it once while there!). I never planned to return to live here, but I studied Spanish as a second major, and at the end of my last semester, my professor recommended the Auxiliar de Conversación program [training to work as an English language assistant in Spain]. At the same time, my boss at a restaurant I was working at kept urging me to spend time in Spain to learn all I could about Spanish food and wine — he was convinced it would be the next big thing and that it would give me a leg up in the hospitality industry when I returned. So I applied for the program and packed my suitcases!
You had no intention of moving to Spain permanently?
That's right, I came with the intention of spending a year or two in Europe to learn about different cuisines. But I met my husband within a couple weeks of arriving, and that caused me to stay in Seville. I met his parents pretty early on in the relationship and really bonded with his mother over food. She taught me that simplicity is key, that Spanish home cooks never measure, and shared her best recipes with me. I also learned patience (Spanish classics aren't complicated, but often cook over many hours) and to make the most of a small kitchen (hers is tiny -- and so is mine!).
What inspired you to start your food and travel blog, Spanish Sabores?
I was a part-time English language assistant and gave private English lessons, but I fiercely missed the hospitality industry I'd always been a part of. Since I couldn't work legally, I decided to start writing about food and travel on the web. I had a couple of blog failures before starting Spanish Sabores! But I've always loved writing, so blogging came easily, and I also loved the challenge of learning about everything else involved — from web design, to SEO, to photo editing.
How did that lead to launching Devour Tours?
After I got married I knew I needed to get back into my career in hospitality and tourism — but we were in the middle of a recession, and jobs were few and far between. My husband and I decided to take a chance and move to Madrid, so we bought a bus ticket and left on an adventure. He started a company right away, offering software services for renewable energy facilities. I started freelance writing about food and travel, and gave cooking classes. One day I found an ad for a food tour in France and thought it sounded perfect. Food tours combine amazing food, local history and culture, and support for small businesses — what's not to love? I could step away from the computer and actually show people the types of things I was already writing about. So I just dove in and created a website and a few experiences. Today Devour Tours is in six cities: Seville, Granada, Malaga, San Sebastian, Barcelona, and Madrid.
Our mission is to connect curious travelers with local food and communities in a way that helps culture thrive. We'd love to take our mission beyond Spain to other incredible food destinations. In the age of huge chains and the "hipsterization" of traditional neighborhoods, the places that make our cities unique are disappearing. I hope to be a small part of telling those stories and helping them survive.
What do you love most about Spanish food?
We keep it simple in Spain. We take an incredible ingredient and do as little as possible to it. Maybe a drizzle of olive oil, a splash of sherry vinegar, or perhaps just a few flakes of sea salt. It's very much a quality-focused food culture.
Could you share a recipe with my readers?
One of my favorites is my mother-in-law’s recipe for salmorejo, a cold soup that's gazpacho’s thicker, creamier cousin. See recipe and video.
What advice would you give Americans who are coming to Spain for the first time?
I would recommend going slow, mixing big cities with some smaller villages, and coming back again and again. As for the food, be open minded and take a look at what the locals are eating before ordering. Don't expect lots of seasoning and sauces — enjoy the taste of the ingredients! And to kick everything off on the right foot, take a food tour! It'll set you up with context and tips for the rest of your trip.
Have you been on a memorable food tour — anywhere in the world? I'm always thinking ahead to future trips, and would love to hear suggestions in the comments below.
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Of all the stamps in my passport, the one that gives me most delight is the one for a country I’d never heard of till I got there, and that may or may not actually exist.
Two years ago, Rich and I were wandering around Vilnius, Lithuania’s engaging capital, when we suddenly found ourselves at the border of another nation: the Republic of Užupio.
Formed in the nineties by scofflaw bohemians in the wake of liberation from the Soviets, Užupio (also spelled Užupis) has no legal standing, but it does have its own flag, currency, constitution, president, anthem, patron saint (the ever-outrageous Frank Zappa), an army of 11 men (now retired), and a shopkeeper who, for a small fee, will stamp your passport. We were charmed by the sheer lunacy of it all.
When I tell stories about stumbling upon offbeat places like this, people often ask, “How do you find this stuff?” Those who don’t know us well assume Rich and I spend months scrutinizing options, doing a cost-benefit analysis of the fun-to-expenditure ratio. Not so! In fact, over time our trips have become less researched, less structured, and to the greatest extent practical, less burdened with baggage. And they’re way more fun. Want to try it? Here are some tips to get you started.
Travel with a purpose. Why go anywhere? For relaxation? A change of pace? Adventure? Answering these questions is the most vital — and the most commonly ignored — step in planning; skipping it can lead to ghastly misunderstandings and conflicts. For instance, are you looking forward to days of scuba diving and long nights at the casino, while your partner is dreaming of a second honeymoon? Before booking anything, see if you can identify activities you’d enjoy together. Long ago, Rich and I discovered we both get a kick out of funky dive bars, old-school diners, and weird roadside attractions; seeking them out has added zest to our wanderings for decades.
Pack light. Easier said than done, I know. And for some journeys, such as weddings and business trips, you really do need a pretty substantial wardrobe. But if you’re traveling for fun, you can get by on less, without sacrificing comfort, hygiene, or a basic standard of style. Here’s how I reduced my travel attire to the bare necessities on a month-long trip through four countries.
Don’t overplan. When we signed up for a tour of Cuba, we had no idea how packed our days would be. Attempts to dodge a few activities — the 8:00 AM talk on the history of music comes to mind — led to stern lectures about the fact we were there on an educational visa, so failure to show up for even a single activity would spark harsh, if unspecified, retribution from the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Republic of Cuba. Yikes! By the end of the trip, a simple walk through Havana felt like the Bataan death march. Never again. Now all our trips are entirely composed of free time, which we like to spend leisurely sipping espresso in a sidewalk café watching others gallop about in a sightseeing frenzy.
Take detours. Free time lets you indulge in whims and go exploring. You might stumble into unknown countries like Užupio, or those once isolated behind the Iron Curtain, such as Albania. Last spring Rich and I went to the Greek island of Corfu in what we fondly believed was the offseason, only to discover it was crawling with tourists. Aghast, I opened my laptop to look for alternatives. That’s when I discovered a hydrofoil that would take us to Sarandë, Albania, conveniently located just 8.7 miles across the Ionian Sea. The Albanians seemed genuinely surprised and pleased to see us. They chatted with us, showed us the catch of the day, and gave Rich a spiffy haircut. We had a wonderful time. Faleminderit për kujtimet, Albania. (Thanks for the memories.)
Recombobulate. Whenever we arrive in a new town, we immediately sit down and have a coffee. The ritual is, of course, less about coffee than about catching our breath, making sure we know where we’re going and how to get there, and — let me underscore this point — figuring out where there’s a cash machine so we can get enough local currency for our immediate needs. We once neglected this step while crossing from Romania into Bulgaria, where we were harassed so relentlessly by a black market cab driver that we fled the train station and hopped in the first legitimate taxi we saw. Halfway to our hotel we realized we were in the awkward position of having no Bulgarian lev to pay our fare. Our driver was kind enough to take Romanian leu, but we vowed never again to skip our recombobulation coffee.
Respect others. The reason we travel is to experience people and places that aren’t like home, yet we sometimes struggle to appreciate the differences. “Just like Americans have the American Dream, others have their own dreams,” wrote Rick Steves. “Put yourself in the shoes (or sandals, or bare feet) of the people you meet. Find out why Basque people are so passionate about their language. Drink with Catholics in a Northern Ireland pub, discussing the notion of the tyranny of the majority. As you travel, learn to celebrate the local Nathan Hales and Ethan Allens, such as Turkey's Atatürk or El Salvador's Oscar Romero.”
Return home changed. “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am,” said Michael Crichton. “Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes, you are forced into direct experience ... That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.”
So in the end, what adds joy to our journeys? I believe the Užupians expressed it best with the symbols on this sign posted at the border crossing: smile, proceed slowly, think artistically, and try not to fall into the river. Laimingas keliones (happy travels)!
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“I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde once said. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Today, he’d no doubt say, “I never travel without my phone. One should always have sensational images to scroll through on a plane.”
Taking sensational travel photos has become an international obsession. Witness the number of selfie-related injuries and deaths, a phenomena that’s now so common it has spawned its own Wikipedia page and two nicknames: “killfie” and “selfiecide.”
Fortunately most of us have learned that taking a powerful photo doesn’t require dancing with the grim reaper. Ever since I started this blog in 2011, I’ve been experimenting with (non-life-threatening) ways to improve my photography so that it adds punch to my stories. Just about the time I finally invested in a decent camera, I discovered my iPhone was giving me better shots, without all the fussing and fiddling. I gave away my “real” camera and now count on my phone to help me capture the sensation of joyful discovery I feel in the moment I first behold something truly wonderful.
Often a great shot is sheer luck — or as Ansel Adams put it, “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” Of course, you can't always count on luck, so next time you're ready to click the shutter, you might want to have a few tricks on your back pocket to boost your chances of doing justice to the scene.
Trick #1: Take multiple shots of the subject. Sometimes even a slight change in angle or focus can suddenly make the image sing. I rarely take less than two shots of anything and often go for five or ten. (Rich says this has taught him more Zen-like patience than any meditation course.) Occasionally I realize I’ve arrived at that golden moment when God’s ready for a closeup; often, however, I don’t recognize my best shots I have until I scroll through them later. Which is why I advise taking lots.
My iPhone’s camera has a burst mode, which lets you take multiple shots in quick succession just by holding down the shutter release button or the volume-up button. (Here’s how to do bursts on an Android.) To be honest, in the heat of the moment I usually forget it’s there, but it can be terrific for capturing action shots.
Trick #2: Shift your perspective. It’s natural to shoot from eye height, but sometimes you get a more intriguing view by positioning the camera higher or lower, or finding a scene with unusual angles or depth. When possible, avoid sticking the main subject squarely in the middle against a flat background; that feels more static, like a police mug shot. Try stepping to one side, going down on one knee, or climbing up to a higher viewpoint.
Trick #3: Blur the background. This places everyone’s attention on the main event when it might otherwise be deflected to random passersby, hideously inappropriate graffiti, or other background clutter. Even if the background’s fine, as in the bookstore below, blurring lends a certain dreamy romance to the mood. In the photo of the fans, the distant, hazy image of Plaza de España gives context, underscoring the exotic location.
To get this effect, I use my iPhone’s portrait mode; the same effect is possible for Android users with a little finagling.
Trick #4: Arrange food shots like still life paintings. We often grab snapshots of interesting meals, but they tell more of a story if you pull in other stuff that’s on the table: a napkin, crusty bread, a dish of olives, wine glasses, the map of Paris. You’ll also want to remove any unsightly distractions such as dirty plates from the previous course. Apologize in advance to your dinner companions and insist they begin eating while their food is hot.
Trick #5: Work with uneven light. Bright, even light can make photos look flat and boring; this is why I avoid using my flash. You’ll get lots more drama when you happen to be somewhere with slanted light — for instance, from windows, lamps, or the sun at the beginning or end of the day. If you’re struggling with really low lighting conditions, borrow a friend’s cell phone, switch on the flashlight function, and hold it above and to one side so that you create your own slanted light. Nowadays, whenever I stumble across a place with gorgeous natural illumination — like this Krakow café — I immediately reach for my phone.
Every picture tells a story, even if it’s something as simple as “We loved this spaghetti” or “I can’t believe I’m here!” or “Is it me or is that really weird?” If you’re having fun taking a photo, chances are some of your enjoyment will carry over into the image, and it will delight your family, friends, and random strangers on social media. “There are no rules for good photographs,” said Ansel Adams. “There are only good photographs.” OK, maybe he's right and there are no rules, but I can suggest one life-saving guideline: no matter how much you want the shot, promise me you won’t ever do this.
Got any hot tips or questions about travel photography? Let me know in the comments below!
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One of the most ghastly surprises of my expat life occurred during a convivial country barbeque shortly after we’d moved to Seville. Without warning, a Spanish friend called for attention and announced, “Now our American friends, Karen and Rich, will sing.”
This was horrifying on so many levels. I’m the least musical person on the planet, and (I say this lovingly) Rich is even worse. For a second I expected to look down, notice I was naked, and think, “Thank God, it’s only a nightmare.” When that didn’t pan out, I briefly considered hitching a ride to the airport and repatriating to America. But in the end Rich and I managed a hideously off-key rendering of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and everyone gave us pity applause and told us to keep our day jobs.
Incredibly, these same friends (clearly gluttons for punishment) continued to ask us to sing at other parties. It turns out that in Seville, as in many traditional societies, every guest is expected to contribute something to the evening’s entertainment. You are literally meant to sing for your supper — or tell a story, make a joke, juggle, or provide some other form of amusement. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be great, it just has to keep the evening rolling along.
Nowadays, meal-sharing apps and websites offer unprecedented opportunities to dine with locals in their homes. On such occasions, bear in mind that your social obligations don’t end with providing a valid credit card number. Don’t worry, you’re not required to juggle the dinner rolls or tap dance with a glass of water on your head (although if you do, I hope I’m there to see it). Most hosts have more modest expectations: that you’ll arrive with good manners, a friendly attitude, and a few entertaining ideas.
Tell a Joke
Are you good at telling jokes? I’m hopeless. I love storytelling and tossing out wisecracks but have a hard time remembering the kind of elaborate knee-slappers that start “these three nuns walk into a bar.” If you do tell jokes, consider your audience’s sensibilities and grasp of English. You’ll probably want to skip that hilariously raunchy political zinger you heard on Last Week Tonight and go with a more general crowd-pleaser like this classic.
Ask a Question
As you may have observed, if you get people talking about themselves, they’ll often emerge from the conversation thinking that you are a brilliant dinner companion. You might start by saying something nice about their city (“They’ve done a lovely job patching up the bullet holes in the main square!”) and asking if the region has changed much in recent years.
If it feels comfortable to shift to more personal topics, try out some of “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” used in a scientific study on establishing intimacy.
Listen to the answers, ask follow-up questions, and pour more wine, because the conversation is going to get interesting.
You never know what you’re going to learn about your dinner companions. Rich and I once signed up online for a Palestinian meal served in a private apartment in Barcelona. We arrived to find the other guests were Germans visiting a relative who now lived in Barcelona with his Spanish wife. As dessert came around, one brother said, “Before we conclude the meal, why don’t we each tell a story?” He led with a humorous account of meeting his wife, another spoke of his travels, and then it was the 93-year-old grandmother’s turn.
She told a sweet tale of falling in love with her late husband when he was a young man in the service. “We were separated for many years, but we wrote each other and never lost hope…” I did the math realized with a start that her beau had been a soldier in Germany’s Wehrmacht during WWII. Now that was a granny with some serious backstory.
Sometimes our entertainments take us into deeper waters than we were expecting. And that’s part of the adventure of connecting with people from other countries. Reaching across the cultural divide opens the door to vivid new experiences, and sometimes the ones we find most challenging turn out to be the most gratifying.
Many years after the barbecue incident, that same group of friends took us to visit a nursing home in a Spanish village, and when we got to the main lounge, they announced to the assembled residents and staff, “Now our American friends will sing.”
As usual, this came with no advance warning, but by then Rich and I were always ready. Knowing that call-and-response songs work best, we taught everyone the fa-la-la-la chorus and launched into “Deck the Halls.” In no time, everyone was clapping and singing; a few even let go of their walkers to dance. No one cared that we couldn’t carry a tune or that they were singing a Christmas carol on a sweltering afternoon in August. Within minutes, the pleasure of raising our voices together transformed us from strangers into a circle of kindred spirits. And isn’t that the whole point of connecting with locals when you’re abroad?
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Nearly all my American friends and relatives think I’m bonkers to live abroad. “But you’re from California,” they point out in bewilderment. “That’s where people move to. Why live anywhere else?”
No doubt some suspect that I’m hiding out in foreign parts because I’m secretly up to something, like the expat writers in William S. Burroughs famous quote: “They lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.” (For the record, I do not own a pet gazelle.)
Most of us move abroad for much the same reason we went away to college — not because we love our parents, our country, or our upbringing any less, but because they have prepared us to go out and embrace a bigger, brighter future. I often say that moving abroad is the greatest opportunity to reinvent yourself outside of the witness protection program. But to be more accurate, you’re not so much reinventing yourself as removing the external props that keep you confined within a particular cultural identity, so that now you can find out who you really are.
People considering a move abroad often send me emails asking if it’s worth it. The short answer? Yes. At least, it is for me. The long answer? Yes, because you learn and do amazing things. Like what?
Get comfortable with being outside your comfort zone. Worried about being in a rut? You can kiss that problem goodbye. As Bill Bryson put it, "Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."
Don't take yourself too seriously. Sometimes those interesting guesses lead to linguistic and cultural pratfalls. For instance, you might innocently ask the man at the farmers' market if he has huevos (literally eggs but slang for testicles) causing other shoppers to roar with laughter as he responds with a pithy zinger you can’t fathom and probably don’t want to.
Make do with less. In the early years, our shopping efforts often floundered to a halt in a welter of confusion and embarrassment, forcing us to flee the scene without the eggs, screwdriver, or other planned purchases. Eventually we managed to outfit our entire apartment, but as we originally intended to stay just a single year, we did it simply and cheaply. Nearly fourteen years later, minimizing possessions has become a way of life. On the road, I can easily live out of a single small suitcase for months and occasionally enjoy traveling without any luggage whatsoever.
Be patient. Eventually, you really will learn to accept with equanimity waiting in line for hours at the Foreigners’ Office, only to be told that your residency card application is delayed because you didn’t provide the document that this very same clerk refused to take from you three weeks ago when you presented it.
Talk with anybody about anything. One of the true joys of expat life is meeting extraordinary people from around the world (often while waiting in line at the Foreigners’ Office). I’ve learned if I ask the right questions (and stop talking about myself) most people have incredibly interesting stories to tell.
Appreciate America. Nothing gives you fresh perspective on your own country like living outside of it and learning how it appears to others. I don’t always find it easy to explain things like the 13th Amendment, the electoral college, or gerrymandering, but these conversations give me a lot to think about. And it’s encouraging to hear a Spanish friend say, as one did a few years ago, “Your country’s founders got it right. Democracy is always a messy business, but your constitution is an incredible document. You’re lucky to have it.”
I agree. Living in post-dictatorship Spain, traveling to countries occupied for decades by the Soviets, I have grown more passionate about democracy. That’s why I helped start a group here in Seville that provides American expats with information about issues, candidates, and how to vote from abroad. And why this summer, Rich and I decided to put off a long-planned, many-month train trip around the Mediterranean rim to work on voter registration in the US during the run-up to the midterm elections.
Last month in California, Rich and I signed up to do voter registration following the ceremony in which 800 immigrants from 84 countries were sworn in as American citizens. We arrived early, snuck into the back of the room, and listened to the crowd explode with cheers as their citizenship became official. Many were moved to tears, and I have to admit, I was too. Just like my own ancestors, they’d worked hard, gotten lucky, and found their place in the (admittedly somewhat dysfunctional) American family. I was thrilled for them and spent a good part of the morning congratulating and hugging the people I registered. One man told me he’d been working toward this day for 24 years.
Some people will always question the wisdom and sanity of my move abroad, but I believe it’s made me a better person, a more thoughtful citizen of the US, and an unofficial ambassador for my country. “I’ve never really talked to an American before,” one Spanish friend told me. “You’re not what I expected.” Since many Europeans base their views of the USA on The Simpsons, I wondered if she’d feel more at ease with me if I dyed my hair blue. Or got a pet gazelle. And it’s moments like this, when I see myself through the lens of another’s cultural perspective, that I realize how truly fortunate I am to live in a larger world.
Thinking about taking the plunge into expat life?
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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