Stephen Akehurst, proprietor of The Greek Kitchen, in Athens, Greece. Photographed by Ioanna Fotiadi for Greece Is
One of the things I loved most about being a teenager was all the sneaking around. After years of being a studious, obedient Catholic school kid, around age fifteen I suddenly discovered the joys of clandestine shenanigans. Want details? It was the sixties. Enough said.
But zipping off to another country? That never even crossed my mind. So I was impressed and charmed by the story of Stephen Akehurst of Brighton, England, who at the age of seventeen told his mother he was visiting London and instead snuck off to Athens, where he began a lifelong love affair with the city, the culture, and the food.
When I was a child in the UK the supermarkets built massive stores on all the nurseries and farmer's markets, taking away local produce, dictating what we should be eating, and covering it in plastic. The thought of Greece with its blue water and white houses and fresh produce seemed like paradise. Athens was crazy and alive and filled with colour. The central market was amazing and terrifying at the same time; it was a real onslaught of the senses. But I was hooked. Once you've eaten real Greek food in Greece you've spoiled yourself for many other cuisines.
Wanderlust later took you to Latin America, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, but you kept returning to Greece.
Travel led me to a career as a tour manager with a small-group travel company, and I got to work in Greece a lot. During the tours I would always talk about the amazing local food and how important it was to eat as many local dishes as possible. People started asking about cooking classes, of which there were few, often more suited to budget travellers. I saw a gap in the market and decided to settle in Athens and fill it.
Is it true that Greek food and wine can help you live 100 years or more?
The island of Ikaria is a Blue Zone, where people live far longer than the national average, and it is believed that drinking the local wine, along with a high-plant diet and plenty of physical activity in a great climate, contribute to this. This is quite common throughout Greece; you will see people living independently well into their elderly years.
Today, Ikarians are almost entirely free of dementia and some of the chronic diseases that plague Americans; one in three make it to their 90s. A combination of factors explain it, including geography, culture, diet, lifestyle, and outlook. They enjoy strong red wine, late-night domino games, and a relaxed pace of life that ignores clocks. Clean air, warm breezes and rugged terrain draw them outdoors into an active lifestyle.
Cooking classes led to market tours, and now you’re launching wine tastings?
We really wanted the wine tasting at The Greek Kitchen to be a fun learning experience for anyone, no matter their level of interest or experience in wine — a low-key few hours with great wine and great company. We give you an introduction to each wine, talk about the region and pair the wines with local dishes.
Cooking is at the heart of everything we do at The Greek Kitchen. So I gathered up the whole team, who all come from different parts of Greece and have very different tastes, and we drank the wines to work out the pairings. Each team member brought something interesting and unique to the table, and we surprised each other. The wines are all quite versatile, and we have so many amazing things to eat in Greece that we want to encourage people to really explore the combinations.
What about retsina?
Retsina is an interesting one! It's considered to be the oldest wine we drink here. The flavour is influenced by the ancient Greeks’ use of resin to line the wine barrels. It can be really hit or miss; personally I have to have it ice cold if I'm going to drink it. While retsinas are produced all over Greece, it’s considered the drink of Thessaloniki; Afros, the one that we use in our wine tasting, is from there. Retsina goes with a lot of your classic Greek dishes like Greek salad and fish; it pairs really well with sharp ingredients like barrel-aged feta and the other cheeses. However people who love retsina will drink it with anything. It’s nice in a spritz, and some people even drink it with coke, but that's a bit gross even for me!
Rich and I loved the Greek wines we tried there last spring — including the retsina at Diporto, a modest underground eatery near the central market in Athens. They didn't even ask if we wanted it; they just automatically put a jug of it on the table. For more, see my post The Mystery of the Vanishing Greek Taverna.
Any advice for people who aren’t in Greece but would like to try the wines?
To be honest it can be really hard to find Greek wine outside of Greece; for some reason we don't export very much. But if you find some, I would start with a classic like an Assyrtiko, an old variety from Santorini — so it is rich with minerals and has an essence of the sea in it. My favourite at the moment is Greek sparkling wine. We have a Moscato Blanco from the island of Limnos, and it's so fruity and fun; just the smell of it makes me think of having a great time with friends and eating sticky orange pie.
Photo by Santo Wines
For those planning a visit to Greece, what wines would you suggest?
There are so many! I really love going to Santorini and exploring the wineries there. Santo Wines is so dreamy and in one of the most amazing locations on earth, while Domaine Sigalas and Gaia Wines are also producing some amazing bottles. Closer to Athens you have the Spata region with Gikas, Boutari, and Papgiannakos — all worth checking out. Then in northern Greece you have the Naousa region with excellent wineries like Dalamara and Argotia.
The ancient Greeks were masters at wine cultivation and most of the techniques and practices that we use today were developed by them; we're talking about centuries of skills and experience being passed down from generation to generation. Wine is at the heart of so many occasions; we drink it at celebrations, with family and friends, in religious services, and use it in many of the dishes we enjoy. I can't remember the last time I went to a Greek home and wasn't given a jug of wine to get through.
One of the joys of leaving the teenage years behind is that you no longer have to sneak around to obtain a jug of wine. Also, you’re able to bring a bit more budget and discernment to the party. Rich and I plan to be in Greece this summer (more about that in future posts) and we’re looking forward to checking out as many of Stephen’s suggestions as possible. Will we try retsina with coke? Stay tuned to find out.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships or product placement of any kind. Any products and 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.
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Did you ever notice there are no recipes for leftover chocolate? That’s because it doesn’t exist, at least not in my family. When Rich first started coming to our summer reunions, he showed up with a two-layer box of See’s Nuts & Chews for each of my sisters. “I’m not saying I can be bought,” one said. “But this is a good down payment.”
Over the years I’ve written about chocolate’s surprising health benefits, how the French use it to lose weight, and the heady delights of a Nativity scene composed of 1500 kilos of chocolate. But now I find I’ve just been scratching the surface. Canadian journalist Doreen Pendgracs has been traveling the world digging deep into the history, cultivation, production, and joys of cacao in all its many forms. In the spirit of selfless research, she’s even gone to spas where she was bathed from head to foot in warm, molten chocolate. (I know! That’s my idea of heaven, too!)
I felt I owed it to you, my readers, to find out more about Doreen’s fieldwork, which is chronicled in her award-winning book Chocolatour: A Quest for the World’s Best Chocolate. This first volume of her trilogy covers Europe; the second, due out in March, focuses on the Americas and the Caribbean.
What made you decide to write about travel and chocolate?
I embarked on my freelance writing career in 1993, and fortunately one of my editors assigned me a story that opened the door to travel writing. It was about a lodge up in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada—Polar Bear Capital of the World. I remember going dogsledding in Churchill when it was -66 degrees Celsius (that’s almost -87F with the windchill factored in!). I was never colder in my life. Not every trip of a travel writer is glamorous!
Later I decided to combine my love of travel writing with my love of chocolate; I would make it my mission to educate the travelling public and chocolate lovers around the world about all the different aspects of chocolate travel. That includes interviewing hundreds of chocolatiers, visiting cacao plantations in various growing regions, attending chocolate festivals, attractions, and events, and discovering every delectable aspect of chocolate around the world, my favorite being chocolate spas.
What spa experience was the most drop-dead fabulous?
I’ve had some pretty decadent chocolate body treatments in some pretty fancy spas, but the one that stands out for me most was at the Pure Jungle Spa in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. The cocoa was so fresh that the entire experience was totally intoxicating. The aroma of the freshly pressed cocoa beans was pure and intense, and as the cocoa seeped into my pores, a beautifully natural high overtook me. Cocoa beans release serotonin and dopamine into the body, and whether we ingest it orally or through our pores, we become overtaken by a natural high if we consume enough of it. So there I was — in the outdoor jungle shower — trying to wash off the cocoa that had been slathered onto my body while laughing hysterically in a totally joyous state.
Where have you found the most amazing chocolate culture?
I’d have to say Switzerland. The Swiss live and breathe chocolate. They are the highest consumers of chocolate in the world, chocolate festivals and events are common, and the quality of Swiss chocolate is superb. But I think you have to go where cocoa is grown for completely authentic cocoa culture, and the best chocolate spas and cocoa cuisine I’ve encountered (to date) are in the Caribbean. Hotel Chocolat Boucan in St. Lucia is a perfect example. They grow the cocoa close to the resort, the on-site spa specializes in treatments that feature cocoa, you can learn how to make chocolate right from the cocoa beans, and cocoa cuisine is the basis of the menu.
An all-cocoa dinner? Is that too much of a good thing?
Absolutely not! When done well, each course features a different side of chocolate. There will be courses that are savory or sultry. A couple of the best I’ve ever had were in Winnipeg: chocolate ravioli and cocoa-rubbed ribs (chocolate ravioli filled with orange and thyme, and duck finished with a Frangelico cream sauce garnished with cocoa nibs, hazelnuts, and pea shoots).
You’re gearing up to lead chocolate tours around the world. What’s the plan?
Yes, I would indeed like to lead small groups on chocolate travel tours — to be the ambassador and guide who helps educate, entertain, and entice chocolate lovers to experience the ever-changing world of chocolate in a fun yet meaningful way. Up until this point in time, I had family obligations that prevented me from being away too much. And at present, I am working on volume II of my trilogy. But within a year, I do expect to lead the first-ever Chocolatour customized group adventure abroad.
What about the worrying articles suggesting climate change may endanger the world’s chocolate supply?
Climate change may be wreaking havoc in some growing regions like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, where hurricanes have completely ravaged cacao crops on occasion. But climate change has also seen cacao being grown in regions where it previously did not grow like Hawaii, and more recently, Miami, Florida. So I don’t think we chocolate lovers have to panic at this point in time. It is quite likely that the price of quality chocolate will continue to rise, but I don’t think we’ll run out of it any time soon.
Whew! Looks like chocolate isn’t headed for extinction (yet). But just in case, I have added it to the modest stockpile of survival food in my Catastrophe-Preparedness Kit. And I’m keeping plenty on hand in my snack cupboard, too. Because in these uncertain times, one thing I know I can rely on is the healing power of chocolate to sustain me during dark days and add joy to everything from family reunions to world travel. Bon appétit!
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships or product placement 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.
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Did I ever tell you about the night I was on my way to New York to be interviewed on national TV and managed to get myself locked inside a museum in Cleveland?
This was back in the nineties, when I was living in Ohio and serving on the board of a minor downtown museum. As usual, I was running behind schedule, and squeezing in a late board meeting left me with barely enough time to race to my car, drive to the airport, and catch the last plane to New York. I spent most of the meeting fretting. Had I remembered to pack my hair dryer? Chosen the right dress? Brought the plane tickets? When the board finally adjourned, I dashed upstairs on some errand I can’t recall, probably leaving a note or file on the front desk. I do remember with hideous clarity being halfway across the dimly lit lobby and hearing the stairwell door swing shut behind me. And lock.
That’s when I realized I was trapped.
Every exit was bolted, and the building was deserted; the modest museum had no security guards at night, and in the five minutes since the meeting had ended, all the other board members had leapt in their cars to head home. The landline was shut down for the night, and in those long-ago days before the Internet and cell phones, this meant there was no way to contact the outside world. Scenes from various action movies tumbled through my head. Pick up a chair and smash a lock or a window? Use a lighter (not that I had one) to set off a fire alarm? No, what I needed to do was think.
And then the opening lines from my favorite poem, Lost, drifted into my head. “Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.” I stood still. I thought about what was here. And my eyes fell upon the front desk. Aha! I walked behind it, found a key labeled “Stairs,” and made my escape. I caught the plane to New York with minutes to spare.
I often think about that night and the lesson it taught me about standing still long enough to see a place not from my own viewpoint but from that of those who normally inhabit it.
Over the years, that memory has helped me feel at ease in a wide range of unfamiliar places, such as the underground military bunker in Lviv, Ukraine, the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in California, and the Bhutanese guesthouse outhouse that I could only reach by scaling a high wall. (Luckily it was a moonlit night and there were ladders on either side of the wall, but still!) Those lines of poetry and those moments in the museum remind me that no matter how lost I may feel, the place I’m standing is familiar to somebody, and in fact may be their most cherished definition of “home.”
A friend recently told Rich, “I don’t know how you two handle road trips lasting months. After three weeks I need my own bed. I need to be home.”
But for many of us, especially expats, the definition of home has become pretty elusive. Is it one of the seven houses I lived in before I went to college? The old stone house outside of Cleveland where Rich and I spent the first two decades of our marriage? The apartment we’ve rented in Seville for 14 years? The cottage north of San Francisco where we spend our summers?
In Real Simple, a reader suggests, “Home is a place you can feel comfortable cooking breakfast in your pajamas.” I love this definition, because it embraces every Airbnb apartment I’ve ever rented. And that’s my point. Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling of belonging. And with luck and a bit of practice, you can take that feeling with you pretty much anywhere. Just because you’re not sleeping in your own bed doesn’t mean you have to feel alienated and adrift in the world. As the 17th century poet Matsuo Bashō put it, “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
When Rich and I are about to embark on a long journey, I often have a few days of the pre-launch jitters, rushing about feeling as fretful and distracted as I was that evening in Cleveland preparing to fly to New York. But once we actually hit the road, all that tends to fall away, and I find myself comfortably settling into a state of bemused wonder, waiting with a pleasurable sense of anticipation to see what’s around the next corner. And that feeling, as much as anything else, is what I call home.
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Today is our 32nd wedding anniversary. Yes, Rich and I were married two days after Christmas, creating maximum inconvenience for family and friends, especially those arriving from out of town. Selfishly, we chose this awkward date to enable us to take two weeks off work for our Costa Rica honeymoon. And although we'd talked of living abroad on our very first date, and have traveled as often as possible throughout our marriage, in those early days we could never have imagined that we’d be celebrating this anniversary at our home in Seville, Spain.
“What is the traditional gift for the 32nd?” Rich asked me this morning.
We’d already exchanged our modest gifts, so I knew this was mere idle curiosity. I had no idea, and when I went to look it up, I discovered that — at least in the US and UK — nobody else does either. After the 20th (china) most gift charts only show milestone anniversaries; apparently they assume that after two-plus decades of wedded life, you’re either divorced, dead, or able to come up with a suitable present on your own. Recently, however, greeting card manufacturers and others eager to promote anniversary-related spending have come up with a few ideas to fill in the gaps, and for the 32nd they’ve designated transportation.
“To honour your 32nd wedding anniversary with a gift, surprise your wife with a new car,” says MyWeddingAnniversary.com. As there’s no equivalent recommendation for something women might give their husbands (that list started with a travel mug) this suggestion seems based on flagrantly paternalistic stereotypes. And then, as if that wasn’t offensive enough, they add, “Smaller and less-expensive 32nd anniversary treats can include car air fresheners in her favourite scent.” No, they can’t. If Rich ever gave me a car air freshener on a romantic occasion, we would be at the office of a marriage counselor the very next morning.
I can only assume that these ridiculous suggestions are written by young people whose ideas about aging and long-term relationships are based entirely on memes and sitcoms. As a culture, our views about aging are all over the place; we can’t even agree about when it starts. In the NY Times article Am I ‘Old’? Stephen Petrow wrote, “As with beauty, the meaning of ‘old’ also depends on the person you ask. Millennials, now in their 20s and 30s, say that old starts at 59, according to a 2017 study by U.S. Trust. Gen Xers, now in their 40s — and no doubt with a new appreciation for just how close they are to entering their 50s — say 65 is the onset of old. Boomers and the Greatest Generation pegged 73 as the beginning of old. Clearly, much depends on the perspective of who’s being asking to define ‘old.’”
I don’t often quote Ronald Reagan, but he did a lovely job of putting age in its place during a 1984 presidential debate when he was 73 and running against 56-year-old Walter Mondale.
Two thousand years ago, the average life expectancy was 25, and if you were lucky enough to survive into your seventies, you were revered for your wisdom and consulted by your tribe on matters great and small. Today traditional knowledge isn’t very helpful when we’re struggling to come to grips with a new iPhone or decide whether to invest in a driverless car from Tesla. But that’s just stuff. When it's a question of living a good life, those of us in what the Spanish call “the third age” still have some tremendous advantages. For a start, we have seen a great many scenarios unfold over the years and, if we’ve been paying attention, have learned a thing or two about human nature and the ways of the world. And perhaps even more importantly, we realize the value of relationships built over time.
That’s why I love getting cards, notes, and emails at the holidays; to me, every single one is a love letter.
In December of 2012 I wrote, “Today, I live thousands of miles from my relatives and many others who are dear to me; they’re scattered around the globe from the Americas to Asia to Europe to Down Under. I’ll never again see everyone I love gathered under one roof. At holiday celebrations I sometimes feel a pang about the faces I don’t see around my table.
“But I am deeply grateful that I live in an age where I can stay in close contact with those who are far away. We email, we talk on Skype, and when the stars align, we meet up somewhere and enjoy each other’s company. My social circle is no longer geographically defined. It’s a bit like iCloud; my friends are not always physically on hand, but they seem to appear when I need them most.”
After seven years as a blogger, I feel much the same way about my readers. Many of you have written comments on my posts for years; others send me private notes via email; some have come to visit me in Seville or arranged for us to rendezvous in other parts of the world. You have made me laugh, and cry, and think, and keep on writing. My friendship circle continues to expand in ways Rich and I could never have envisioned when we walked down the aisle all those years ago. I want to thank you all for being a part of it. And I want to thank Rich for learning the real secret of a happy marriage: never, ever give your wife a car air freshener as an anniversary gift.
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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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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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