Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dining Differences

And yet another post on cultural differences...

Yesterday when eating at a restaurant with my parents, four major differences came to mind when I think about dining out in a Spanish restaurant as opposed to an American one.

1. They "go Dutch"
I have probably mentioned this before, but I will say it again since it fits into this list... The Spanish always split checks evenly at restaurants. It isn´t just my host family, either, since I remember discussing it with my grammar teacher in Alicante. Whenever we go to a restaurant and the check comes, we look at the amount, round up to the next euro, then split it by however many people there are at the table. 30 euros for ten people? Okay, everyone hand over your 3 euros. It doesn´t matter if I only had the coke and that person had three beers and patatas bravas. You don´t want to come off as cheap, trying to split every penny into random amounts so I pay 1.25 and that person pays 5.87. It´s just not how it works. Honestly, it is really nice, since it takes the annoying 10-minute math ordeal out of the way, and the coming up short (wait, you only paid 8 and you need to pay 11. We're short by 3.75. Who didn´t pay?) is never an issue. And it just seems classier. You don´t come off as the cheapie who is saying they at the salad and only needs to pay 5 dollars and the t-bone steak dude needs to pay his proper 18. I will admit, I am definitely the cheapie in the states. Yet here, I don´t feel bothered at all by this tradition. The dining out experience is about chatting with friends, catching up and having a good time. It´s not about saving money or eating less or more. The focus is on the company, and paying the bill in 30 seconds allows you to enjoy it more.

2. No sharing
I love sharing food. Unless, of course, I have the best pulled pork sandwich ever on my plate. Then you need to keep your hands off or I´ll bite off a finger.
When I eat dinner with friends or family, there is always some sort of sharing involved. "This salad is amazing! Wanna bite?" "Don´t mind if I do!" There is always reaching across the table for a french fry, a sip of that fruity cocktail, a dip in that yummy sauce...
Same with my family. We eat at a restaurant and often switch plates around towards the end. My dad purposefully never orders the same as someone else at the table because we plan on trying a bit of everything and he doesn´t want to limit us to one less dish of options!
Here in Spain (and other European cultures) this is a bit unheard of. In Switzerland, my parents and I did our usual plate rotation, and the waiter came by and thought something was wrong since my mom no longer had her pasta, I no longer had my ravioli, and my dad no longer had his veal. We must have switched our plates because we all were disappointed with what we got, right? I tried to tell the waiter we were just trying a bit of everything, but he stared at me with a blank face: a combination of confusion, language barriors and cultural barriors.

3. No Leftovers
When I went out with Cristina and her friends to a pizza place, I had a couple slices left that I wanted to take home. I asked for a carry out box for the leftovers, and Cristina and her friends were like, "Um, they might not have that here." Yes, plenty of restaurants do carry out...but they usually don´t do those "leftover boxes" that we are so used to. The waitress said "Let me see what I can do" and came back from the kitchen with a full-size pizza box for the two slices. That´s the best they had, since sometimes people order pizza to go. Can you imagine going to any sit down restaurant in the states, having leftover food and being told "I don´t know if we have anything for you to take that home in." Seriously, that would be unheard of.

4. No personalization
As someone who has worked as a waitress at a restaurant and at a Coldstone creamery, I can tell you on behalf of all waiters/waitresses everywhere that personalization is the bane of any server's existence.
"I´ll have the crazy tacos. Are those spicy? Yes? Then no spicy sauce. And can you swap the cheddar cheese for mozzarella cheese? And no refried beans, can I have extra chips in its place? I know the rice is pre-mixed, but can someone pick out the green peppers? I hate green food. And no mole sauce, of course. I'll have french fries if you can't do the rice thing. And can I have a side of BBQ sauce and ranch sauce on the side if you DO bring french fries? And I'll have a Diet coke, no ice, with two lemons and a lime."
Yes, seriously, people do this. Hell, I order a side of BBQ with pretty much everything I eat that has red meat, pig meat, or fries.
And when a restaurant is super busy, that one person will ruin the entire order of everything because you have to enter that into the computer, then run to the kitchen and let the chef know that you may or may not murder the lady at table 6, but to call an ambulance just in case.

I have never once heard anyone order anything super specific. They just order, and they are done. "Hi, we'll have patatas bravas, grilled eggplant, morro, and three Cokes." Done. Food ordered. Never, ever, ever, with all the people I have gone to restaurants with over the three times I´ve been here, has there ever been a person who took more than 5 seconds to say what they want to eat. As we would say to campers "You get what you get and you don't get upset!"
I also like this, because then it´s a fair way to judge your waitress/kitchen speed. In the states, NO DUH it takes 45 minutes to prepare your different cheese, no sauce, extra chips, no peppers, non-marinated chicken tacos. If you order straight off the menu, you get your food faster, and then can judge your waitress fairly on her laziness, crankiness and 20 minute smoke break.

Oh, and side note: We order morro everywhere we go as an appetizer. Remember in that one food post about the crunchy, chewy, fried gross mystery meat that I ate and had to swallow whole with a chunk of bread so as not to gag?

That was morro.

And morro is fried, chopped pig snout.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Preview of Fallas?

I know, I know, Fallas was last weekend and I have yet to post anything.

This week has been really busy with working long hours (as Spain's work schedule normally is...) and getting stuff together for a mini weekend trip to Barcelona with my parents.

But I thought I'd share this with you, since it's like a little taste of the many things I will talk about in another, more extensive post (or maybe more than one post...there's a lot to discuss).

Lucia's school sold these little ribbon bracelets for a fundraiser, and I went to the website because I wanted to see what else they offered. They look like they are all Valencian-themed (since Fallas only takes place here), so I would assume their HQ is here as well.

Anyways, here is a bracelet design (one that I didn't buy) that explains the essence of all of Fallas in one simple picture....

Check out the Fallas bracelets at www.muchascintas.com
How cute is this? So let me explain, since all of this is in Castellano (Spanish) or Valenciano.

Plantà: This is the act of "planting" the fallas in their place. Each Casal Faller sets up their falla in a designated spot, with help from the artist and sometimes cranes. Then, a few nights before the burning, they put down sod to cover up the ugly wooden feet or foam glue they use to keep it into place.

Chocolate con buñuelos: Hot chocolate so thick it's like pudding, and buñuelos are little fried dough blobs covered in sugar. They are sold all over the place in carnival-like pop-up stands sprinkled throughout the city.

Mascletà: Every day during Fallas season (beginning March 1st), at 2pm they set off a huge fireworks/firecracker show called the mascletà. They goal: make it as loud as possible. We watched one on TV during last weekend and there was a decibel meter on the side of the screen. Towards the end of the 10-minute show of smoke and pops, the decibels reached 125. Yes, that is super loud. Doctors recommend you exposed yourself to less than 15 min a day of 125dB to avoid permanent hearing damage.

La ofrenda: The falleras get dressed up and march towards the Plaza de la Virgen with flowers in tow. They bring them to the plaza, and they are arranged into beautiful bouquets that are several stories high. More pictures to come.

Nit del Foc: A giant fireworks show during fallas festival on the final night. Other firework shows take place prior to this, but this one is the biggest. Literally translated "Night of fire."

La cremà: The burning of the fallas monuments.

Verbena: Outdoor street parties. None in particular, just the entire ambiance. This is a noisy holiday.

Paella: It's Valencia. Paella is a given.

Pasacalles: Informal parades throughout the city. Kind of like each casal faller saying "We're loud and we're proud to be a Casal!" They have a marching band follow them and carry their flag in front of the group. They sing, dance, and march.

Despertà: Each morning during fallas festival, at 8am, people start doing those pasacalles, playing marching band music as loud as they can. Falleros and falleras follow them, throwing firecrackers and those little popping fire snaps. With the music alone, I felt like I was living on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.

An Idiot's Guide to Fallas Monuments

I hate to call my readers idiots. However, I can't write "FAQs" since there technically aren't any questions involved. So pardon the insult and just take it as "A person who doesn't know much about Fallas's guide to Fallas Monuments"

Let me briefly explain Fallas (not the festival, but the actual Fallas monuments themselves):

Casal Faller

Each Casal Faller has two fallas. They have a large one, for the adults, and a smaller one, for the kids. The small one is called the "falla infantil." 
Both are made out of wood and styrofoam, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts (about going to the warehouse where they are stored).

There are many many Casal Falleres throughout the city. Since there are two fallas for each casal, you can imagine how many are sprinkled throughout the city...how many, to be exact? 764. There are 382 casal falleres. 

The two types of Fallas monuments

The large one usually is three or four stories high. They require a crane to set up. They are usually satirical or humorous, because this is all about fun times, remember? They can be crude (as you will see in photos I post of our falla that include, ahem, hair styles for below the belt), rude, vulgar (swearing in fallas caption cards is welcome!), and uncensored (lots of naked bodies. I am a bit desensitized).

The fallas infantiles, on the other hand, are for the kids. They are smaller, only about 10 feet high at most. They are cute and kid-themed. Some themes I saw this year were carousels (like Marina's), babies, Las Fallas festival itself, storybook characters (like ours), the circus, pirates, puppets, etc.

How they are categorized

There is a contest run every year for the fallas, therefore encouraging beautiful, unique and creative designs for the monuments. However, to have a bunch of judges judge over 700 monuments throughout the entire city would probably be exhausting.

First of all, they judge the large fallas separately from the fallas infantiles. They are each in their own field of judging, like how basketball teams don't play against football teams. They are two completely different things.
The fallas are divided into levels, based on cost. Obviously the ones in the highest cost tier are the coolest because they have lots of money to design the best thing ever. Those are the ones with the most visitors, too, since even the locals make an effort to see these higher-tier fallas. It also makes sense to split them by cost, because then you don't have this magnificent one competing against some dinky cheap one, because the winner would be obvious.

The best of the best, or the highest tier of fallas for the infantiles is called "sección especial" and below that is "sección 1," "sección 2" etc. The special section this year contained 13 fallas in the 20,000 to 78,000 euros price bracket. Our casal faller was in the 9th section, which had a cost between 3,500 to 3,515 euros. And guess what? We got first place in our section!

The larger fallas are a little more complicated in their section labelings. Like the infantiles, there is a "sección especial." But below that, there is section 1A, section 1B, section1C, then section 2A, 2B,2C...etc with ABC in each all the way through 7. We were in section 1A and won 7th place  (out of 19). The price bracket we were in was 30,000 to 84,000 euros. The special section's price bracket was between 100,000 and 400,000 euros. Yes, they spent a US graduate's typical student debt on a styrofoam sculpture. Doesn't that make you feel good.

The judging is done based on overall design, and those are the prizes I mentioned. However, there are also creativity or humor awards, but those are just icing on the cake. You want the meaty, overall prize before any of those additional ones, since they don't mean as much.

Where the money comes from

These monuments cost a lot of money. Artists spend several months working on them: sketching, collecting materials, designing, forming the shapes, painting, assembling...and those artists have to be paid. And those materials cost money too.

As I have said, a Casal Faller is like a club in the way that you pay fees and dues. You pay a monthly membership to be in the casal. And your kids pay memberships to be in it, too. And there are many people in each falla. Not all of them participate in the various activities year round (like the little parade we did in February, or Valentine's Day dinners or whatnot). Some people join a Casal just to participate in the 4 days of Fallas, where they join up to eat, walk around in their Fallera dresses, and offer flowers to the Virgin Mary during the Ofrenda (more on this in another post). Why? It's tradition and it's fun. Why do people join knitting circles? Or soccer teams? Because they like it, and they like to meet people and it's something to do. But fallas also has a bit of tradition behind it, which gives it a "I'm a proud Valencian" vibe.

Larger casals obviously have more money, since more people are in them. You can really join any one you like. Cristina and her family changed casals only a few years ago because they wanted a change.

Each casal faller has a place to meet up. They are places specifically for meeting up with the others in the casal. Ours, many years ago, used to be a nightclub. Upstairs there are a couple bathrooms and a kitchen and bar area with dining tables. Downstairs looks like a nightclub with low ceilings (it's a basement) and not much else. There are folding tables that we occasionally use when we are eating there.

So where do the membership costs go? Ours goes to the upkeep of the casal faller, like electricity, water, heat, etc. It also goes to the flower bouquets the falleras carry in the Ofrenda, the food/drinks we consume throughout the year and during fallas weekend, as well as paying the Falla artist and paying for the falla monuments themselves.

What happens to the fallas monuments after Las Fallas

The artist gets an opportunity to pick a ninot, or a doll, from their falla to keep before it burns. Marina, since she makes jewelry with her very distinct style of whimsy, wanted to keep a ninot to put in one of the stores where she sells jewelry. I am not sure which one she chose, but I believe she can pick any she wants. Before she picks hers, however, the fallera infantil (a girl from the casal who decides to be that casal's fallera, kind of like a pageant queen for the casal who dresses up all the time for any casal event) gets first dibs on picking a ninot to keep.

The same occurs for the large falla monument. The artist picks a ninot to keep, and I believe the fallera  mayor (a woman in her 20s, usually, who is also a "pageant queen" of sorts for the casal) picks one to keep as well. I am sure about the infantil one, but this one I am not so sure about.

And then what happens? On March 19th, they burn them.

As I mentioned before, the large ones are aimed at the adults, and the small ones at the kids. Therefore the small ones are burned early around 10pm (yes, for Spain that's early), so the kids don't stay up super late to get to see theirs burn. The fallera infantil lights a string of firecrackers that is attached to the monument and up it goes in flames (we didn't have a fallera infantil this year, so the fallera mayor did it). The large ones are burned around midnight or sometimes 2am.

Before burning them, they have firemen scope out the scene, checking that the barricades are at a proper distance for spectators and that other hazards are taken care of. Then someone sprinkles some kerosene around the monument, strings it with some firecracker-laced wicking, then rolls out a string long enough for the fallera to light it without setting her dress on fire.

The result is a fireworks show that is accompanied by marching band music as the crowd watches the monument burn.

For the larger ones, the firefighters start hosing down nearby buildings, bus stops, and other structures and continue the water flow until the falla monument is a pile of ashes and not emitting much heat, so that stuff doesn't catch on fire.

The fallas monuments are all designed and structured in a way so they will collapse inward, so that 3 story sculpture doesn't just fall plop into the crowd. And the firefighters are there early setting up, checking for weather conditions and stuff. If it's windy, they won't burn it until it calms down.

I know what you're thinking. They burn these things that COST MONEY? Yes. Yes they do. 400,000 euros, spent on something that takes several months to create all to be set on fire. Kind of cathartic, right?


A couple weeks ago, on March 11, the family and I went to the Valencia CF fútbol (soccer) game with the kids and Monica and Cristina. It is the first soccer game I've been to in my life, as well as the first sporting event I've attended in Spain.

I've attended university football games, high school football games, Cubs game (singular, just once), Sox games, Bulls games, etc. I have even been to hockey games. I am no pro in the subject, since baseball is the only sport I fully understand and could explain to someone (football is completely foreign to me), but I am saying that yes, I have experience attending sporting events.

Well, as this is the first time attending a foreign sports game, I experienced quite a few things different from my American sports experiences.
The view from our seats, only 6 rows away from the field.

  1. First of all, everyone cares about the game. We were playing against RCD Mallorca, which isn't a very good team (I looked them up on the rankings. We are in 3rd place and Mallorca, at the time, was 17th. Out of 20). Therefore it shouldn't have been a real edge-of-your-seat game. Yet everyone in the stands were just enthralled. I mean ENTHRALLED.  The seats were only about 80% full, but that's still pretty good attendance, right? When you watch a baseball game on TV, count how many times the camera cuts to an audience member talking on the phone. I'll do the math for you now: 843. I never once saw someone on their phone or paying attention to anything OTHER than the game. Obviously yes, you are there to see the game, but these people take it a step further. 
  2. On that note, there are no distractions from the game. No cheerleaders. No mascots dancing the hokey pokey. No announcers blasting a play-by-play over the loudspeakers. No occasional YMCA lyrics shouted at the audience to make them dance. No entertainment during time-outs or breaks that involve 10-year-olds doing grocery cart races across the field or stuffing themselves into round cages and rolling towards giant bowling pins. NONE OF THAT. This is soccer. In Europe. Thou shall not need entertainment, other than the joy of WATCHING YOUR TEAM PLAY. And a 10-person marching band that circled the field once during halftime, playing to an apathetic crowd.
  3. I know this is the 3rd point on the topic, but seriously, this is ridiculous. On the concourse, aka the inside covered area where you can buy snacks, use the bathroom, etc, THERE WAS NO ONE. Not one soul. During my bathroom break, during the moment I wanted a snack...both times I saw no people. Other than one security guard and the people running concessions. I didn't get up during the half-time break, which I know was busy since I saw a lot of people getting up. Any other time, aka any time the team was playing, NO ONE WOULD DARE LEAVE. The bathroom was dead. I could choose any stall! No lines! NO LINES! Let me say that again: Sports arena. No Lines. Cubs game? Head to the concourse at any given moment and the line is 10 people deep for a hot dog. Or 20 people deep for a beer. Let's not even TALK about the long lines at the bathrooms.
  4. There are no people offering snacks walking down the aisles. No "PEANUTS! GET YOUR PEANUTS!" 
  5. The food offered on the concourse is obviously of a different variety. When I think of "arena food" I think nachos, popcorn, candy, hot dogs, rib sandwiches, cheeseburgers, etc. Not surprisingly, those are very American foods. Hell, you might even get sushi (at Ichi-roll at the Seattle Mariners stadium) in the US. Being in Spain, one will not find American food. They will find popcorn, since that's a staple at these sorts of events. Other than candy (which is severely lacking in the chocolate variety and instead is like, a million ways to serve a gummy bear), the food options are quite different from the US. Instead, get excited to buy a HAM AND CHEESE SANDWICH! Wooo! Nothing says "Let's go team" like a ham and cheese sandwich.
  6. Water is served in cups. No bottled water. Actually, maybe the same is done in the US. From the Spanish side of my POV, I find this odd. Bottled water is everywhere you go; it's impossible to get a cup of tap water anywhere (and the water is nowhere near Mexico-levels of stomach poison...so I don't really know what the problem is). 
  7. Speaking of food, the concourse was only open for the first half! RIDICULOUS! I went out to look for ice cream about halfway through the second half and guess what? Everything was closed. As I mentioned above, it's not like they had long lines to start with, so I guess they weren't losing too much business. 
  8. Any sports game in the US of A will begin with the national anthem because this is AMURICAH. Hands on your hearts! In Spain, it opened with a "minute of silence" for a coach that recently passed away. And the minute was only about 15 seconds. No Spain national anthem, no hands on hearts. 
  9. It's really quiet. As I said, there is no announcer or music, so there's none of that. But there also isn't a lot of noise from the crowd. Except during a goal, or a big play. Not even the occasional drunk dude shouting "C'MON JAVI! KICK THE DAMN BALL!" If you looked away, you wouldn't have any idea what was going on on the field. Maybe that's why people don't go on the concourse?
  10. This isn't so much of a cultural difference as it is a sports difference: the game is precisely the time on the clock. With time outs, delays, halftimes, etc that I am used to from almost any American sport, games never can be predicted as far as duration. Bears games can last 5 hours. Or so it sometimes feels. Baseball games are the most engaging for me because I actually understand, but to be honest, they are major nap-time material. Not a lotta action. Soccer? 45 minutes first half. Short halftime break. 45 minutes break. You are in and out of there in less than 2 hours, guaranteed. Like going to a movie. 
  11. Smoking is allowed in the seats. Recently they banned smoking in enclosed areas in Spain (a huuuuge move that makes going to dinner/bars 10000x more pleasant). However, this is a soccer stadium. Therefore it is "outdoors." So yes, there was a dude smoking his way through a pack of cigs about 5 feet away from me.