Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


notes on Spanish night life

Feliz año nuevo a todos! Happy New Year, everyone!

I hope you’ve all had a wonderful holiday season and are now hard at work on some good propósitos del año nuevo (New Year’s resolutions) for 2013. Between the unseasonably warm temps and a very alternative Christmas dinner (homemade Italian and American dishes, all vegetarian), it didn’t feel a whole lot like the holidays here, but I cherish the experiences I’ve had. Certainly there will never be others quite like them.

I spent New Year’s in Barcelona, a city that truly never sleeps. You see the slogan “the city that never sleeps” given to cities like NYC and Vegas, but I think the most deserving of this title is any of Spain’s cities. While crazy long nights happen occasionally in many cities around the world, I think it’s safe to say that the regularity of such long nights in Spain goes unrivaled. My Barcelona New Year’s experience really solidified this idea for me.

To talk about Spanish night life, you need to first talk about Spanish day life. People get up at pretty normal times on work days; most people have to be at work around 8:30 or 9. A lot of people work straight through until 3 or so (as in, no lunch break) and many others work a split shift from about 9:00-2:00 and then again from about 4-7. The lunch breaks for split-shifters vary, but are never less than an hour and are sometimes almost 3 full hours. This speaks to the priority made of sitting down to enjoy your food, catch up with friends or family, take a walk, etc. Contrary to popular belief, a vast majority of Spanish people do NOT go home and faceplant into bed during the afternoon siesta.

When everyone finishes work around 7 or 8, it’s still not time for dinner. Most commonly, people are out mingling in the streets, having a glass of wine with friends or going for a walk. Dinner is at 9 at the earliest–an exception being if you have really young kids, in which case 8 or 8:30 is acceptable. Restaurants literally do not commonly serve dinner before 9pm.

For Spaniards, eating is much more about the experience and enjoyment with friends and family than the simple act of putting food in your body, so dinners can (and often do) last for hours. I recently sat down to dinner at 9:30 with some Spanish friends in Madrid, and we didn’t leave the restaurant until after 1:00am. This is completely normal.

This makes for a very different New Year’s Eve experience, as you can probably imagine. Most people are just moving onto dessert when midnight strikes, so the most traditional thing to do here is to bring in the New Year at the dinner table. Others, like myself last year in Madrid and this year in Barcelona, gather in the city’s main square with a big clock tower to count down and eat the traditional “12 lucky grapes.”

So now that it’s almost 1:00am, is it time to go home? Maybe for kids or elderly people (although it’s not uncommon to see people of any age out and about well into the wee hours of the morning), but otherwise, heavens no! Bars are packed and overflowing into the streets with people laughing, drinking, digesting, and getting ready for the next stage of Spanish night life: finding a discoteca or salsa hall in which to shake your groove thang. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read in Spain travel guidebooks or websites something along the lines of “don’t even think about going dancing in Spain until at least 2am.” It’s true–the discotecas don’t even open their doors until at least midnight, and they’re empty for the first couple of hours. People are still finishing dinner, after all. The discotecas typically stay open until at least 6, at which point most people head home to try to get started on some z’s before the sun of the new day comes up.

I attended a New Year’s Party at Razzmatazz, Barcelona’s famous indie-fabulous discoteca. Right around 6am, the lights came on, the DJ took a bow, the people cheered and started filtering out into the street. The next day, I was telling my Spanish roommate about my New Year’s Eve in Barcelona. Her shocked reaction could only come from someone who grew up here in the land that never sleeps:

“They closed at 6am?! Why so soon?? It was NEW YEAR’S!!!”


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Bilbao BBK Live

A couple weekends ago, I had the opportunity to attend an awesome music festival called BBK Live. Among the headliners were a couple of my favorite bands: Mumford & Sons and Radiohead. The venue was phenomenal: 3 stages on a huge green space nestled up in the mountains overlooking Bilbao.

I’ve never been to such a big music festival (there were almost 110,000 total attendees at BBK Live this year) but from what I do know about music festivals, I know that this one has a few characteristics that make it quite unique, or namely, quite Spanish.

Even though there was ample camping available on the festival site, many attendees stay in Bilbao city center, so there was a free shuttle bus service running every 5 minutes, day and night, from the center of Bilbao up to the festival site on the mountain. The line for the bus wound around San Mamés, Bilbao Athletic Club’s fútbol stadium, and almost everyone in line seemed to have gotten the “botellón” memo. Spanish, British, French, American or otherwise– a vast majority had with them a bit of kalimotxo or San Miguel to uh…quench their thirst during the wait for the bus ride. Upon arrival at the festival, there was another large botellón gathering just outside the entrance (no outside beverages allowed, per usual). Some call it recklessness, some call it an economically sound reason to take advantage of Spain’s extremely laid back public drinking culture.

pre-bus botellón beer art

Another very Spanish characteristic of the festival was the schedule. The music kicked off around 6pm and didn’t stop until after sunrise the next morning–around 8am. It’s not uncommon to see both the sunset and sunrise on a night out in Spain, and the festival attendees seemed to, at least for the weekend, adopt the Spanish tendency to keep the party going in order to watch one day close and another begin. On that note, after almost a whole year here I still haven’t figured out when/if most Spanish people actually get a full night’s sleep.

8:00am – looking towards the Bay of Biscay from the campsite

It was a fantastic experience- well worth the 3-day pass price of just 105€. I’ve thrown together a few clips I took at the concert. They’re not fantastic, as bringing my expensive camera into a rowdy crowd of 100,000+ seemed unwise, but I hope you enjoy nonetheless:

If you’re a Mumford fan like me, check out this vid someone (with a much nicer camera than mine) got of “Little Lion Man.”

If you want to read more about this year’s BBK Live event, check out this great article.

Thanks for reading!


16 and Spanish

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go along with two other teachers at my school to accompany our 4 ESO (high school sophomore) students on their Viaje de Estudios, or class trip. This gave me some extra insight into the lives of Spanish teenagers, and I’d like to share with you some of the differences I’ve observed. I may be getting old (24 next week!!!), but I don’t think I’m so far removed from my teenage years that I can’t remember what it was like. As far as I can tell, being a teen here is VERY different from my experience at that age.

Difference #1: The Thrill Factor

We kicked off the trip with an action-packed couple of days in the Pyrenees Mountains on the France-Spain border: white water rafting, paint-balling and “canyoning,” which is essentially descending a long, cascading waterfall using a variety of techniques including rappelling, jumping, swimming and climbing.

This brings me to Difference #1: Spanish (or maybe specifically Basque) teens are overall, for lack of a better term, more badass than American teens. Tell me: if you went on a HS class trip, what sort of activities did you and your classmates do? I’m guessing it probably didn’t involve any extreme sports. You know, with wet suits, helmets, carabiners, cables and plunges into icy pools at the bases of several waterfall drops. I suppose it helps a lot that the teens here are just generally more active, thus in better shape, than most American teens. The fact that the people of this country don’t have an obsession with liability lawsuits like in the US probably helps facilitate these opportunities as well.

white water rafting with my students in the Pyrenees

one of my students inside one of the many cascade drops of the waterfall we descended

the whole crew at the last drop

Difference #2: The Fiesta Factor

The second half of the trip was spent in Salou, a beachy resort town and notorious teen party capital of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. When I told anyone we were going to Salou, the unanimous response was “Ooooh…mucha fiesta!” It made me wonder, and still sorta does, why a school would willingly put a notorious party town on their high schoolers’ class trip itinerary. My school wasn’t alone in that decision either. In our beachfront hotel alone there were two other high school student groups from other parts of Spain on their class trip. On the nights in Salou, the kids would scurry down to our 9pm dinner, scarf down some food and head out on the town. The other chaperones and I hung out and had a few drinks before meeting up with the kids around 1am at whatever club they may be at. Just to do a headcount. To make sure everyone was still upright. And they were! All 35 of them could handle a night of partying better than a majority of American college freshmen. Their final curfew, around 4am (early by Spanish clubbing standards) was obeyed by every last one of them. That’s more than can be said for the average American teen, my former teen self included.

Sunny Salou

Difference #3: The Apathy Factor

Teenagers across the globe are known to have attitudes of apathy and angst unmatched by any other age group, but I think this attitude is stronger here than in the US. When I was in high school, most of the “cool kids” were also the smart, academically achieving kids. Though this may not be the case in the US as a whole, I’m pretty confident in saying that the relationship between high academic achievement and level of “cool-ness” is a lot more inversely related here than it is back home. For these teens, failing and repeating classes is the norm, not the exception. They talk about failing classes really openly and joke about it.

School performance isn’t the only place I’ve seen this attitude. To use an example from the class trip: we spent an afternoon touring Barcelona, and though the tour guide we had wasn’t stellar, I was appalled by how little the students paid attention during the tour. They slept when she was talking to us on the bus and wandered off when we were walking around with her. For many of them, it was their first time in Barcelona, and they just acted like it was the lamest thing they’ve ever done. I couldn’t figure it out. I remember going to Chicago and NYC for school music trips and being completely enthralled with the experience of seeing a new city. And don’t think I was the lone travel dork–my classmates were right along with me.

I’ve made a lot of generalizations here, and it is of course important to consider that my personal HS experience could be quite different from someone who grew up in a totally different corner of our vast land mass that is the US of A. And even though Spain isn’t geographically all that large, there are regional differences galore here too.

What do you think? Are Spanish teens better off than American ones? Does the significantly lower drinking age help them adopt a healthier attitude towards drinking and socializing in a party environment? How does their attitude of apathy and angst compare with that of American teens? I’d love to hear any of your thoughts–feel free to leave a comment!

I’ll leave you with a tune that’s very popular with the kids these days (one that I got to hear on repeat on our bus trip :-D):

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the concept of carnival


[kahr-nuh-vahl] noun.
1. a traveling amusement show, having sideshows, rides, etc.
2. any merrymaking, revelry, or festival, as a program of sports or entertainment: a winter carnival.
3. the season immediately preceding Lent, often observed with merrymaking.
     Up until two years ago, when I came to Europe for the first time, I would have defined “carnival” as something similar to either #1 or #2 above, probably with some added mention of a ferris wheel and cotton candy. I knew nothing of this third definition of “carnival” and its significance in so much of the world.
     Carnival is best-known here as the week before Lent begins when students are free from school, many people are free from work, towns hold lots of special parades, concerts and events, everyone–I mean EVERYone: kids, parents, grandparents, etc.–gets completely decked out in a variety of costumes. To say that the Carnival tradition of craziness has manifested itself nicely in post-dictatorship Spain is an understatement. It seems people here live for this week…or at least that it tides them over until the madness of Spain’s summer fiesta season begins in June.
     When I studied abroad in Spain in 2010, some of my classmates were on top of their research on the topic way beforehand and had already scoped out the best place to spend this week of craziness in mid-February: a week for which we, like most students in Europe, didn’t have class. So a bunch of us headed way south to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the capital of the Canary Islands. The Carnival festivities there are known to be some of the very best in the world; many say they’re second only to the world-famous Carnival in Rio de Janiero. You can read a lot more about the Las Palmas Carnival festivities (which I highly recommend, btw) in my post about it here.
A snippet of nightlife in Las Palmas during Carnival week:
     This year, I was in Bilbao for the Carnival festivities. I can’t say that they were intense as those that I experienced in Las Palmas, but it needs to be taken into account that Carnival brings forth its own scale of “crazy” to which little else can be compared. If on this already-ultra-crazy scale, Las Palmas was a 10, Bilbao still easily qualifies for a 7. That’s pretty impressive considering the 20-or-so degree difference in temperatures (in Fahrenheit, of course ;)) because the biggest and BAMF-est fiestas on this continent take place almost completely outdoors.
I’ve compiled a few video clips from the Carnival action here in Bilbao:
And a few snapshots as well:

Carnival festivities in Plaza Nueva, Bilbao.

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Just a bunch of face-stuffing, football-watching Americanos

A couple weeks ago, I started teaching a lesson about Thanksgiving to a few of my classes. The lesson started with an explanation of the history of the holiday. Then I helped them work through a Thanksgiving crossword puzzle. After that, I had them make a list of things they’re thankful for, which, for a vast majority of students, looked just like this:

“I am thankful for…

My family

My friends

My cat/dog

My girlfriend/boyfriend

My iPhone/Xbox/Playstation/etc

Pretty standard for teens, I suppose. 🙂

So yeah yeah yeah, the history and purpose of the holiday are nice, but what the kids really wanted to know was this: what do we actually do on Thanksgiving Day, hoy en dia (nowadays)?

Well uh, haha…good question. My favorite stand-up comic, Jim Gaffigan, sums it up pretty well:

I literally gave them this breakdown of a typical Thanksgiving Day in the lives of an American family: wake up, watch the Macy’s Day Parade on TV. Help prepare/wait for the gigantic meal. Consume your daily caloric allowance in a matter of minutes. Feel miserable. Take a nap and/or watch the Thanksgiving Day NFL game.

It never really seemed so pathetic until I said it aloud to several groups of kids who grew up in a place where holidays seem to have a lot more tradition and meaning, and during which families still go out and do things in order to celebrate.

I was asked just this week to talk about parades in the US, since we have a few that are kind of a big deal. I guess you could even say I have inside info about these parades, since my high school marching band is nationally recognized for having marched in the Rose Bowl Parade, Orange Bowl Parade, Hollywood Christmas Parade, Target Thanksgiving Parade, in Disney World and others (it’s true, check out Jamestown’s Wikipedia page!) :-p Anyway, when preparing to talk about parades, it occurred to me that the majority of them actually revolve around NFL football games. As in, that’s the sole purpose of having the parade/celebration in the first place. As I am not a fan of this sport that is so near and dear to my fellow Americans’ hearts, I think this is a bit sad. But I know many would beg to differ.

Explaining both Thanksgiving traditions and parade culture in the US was a humorous and thought-provoking experience. It’s funny how things that have seemed so commonplace all your life can suddenly seem so strange.

For better or worse, we Americans celebrate our holidays just the the way we like, and I suppose that’s just fine. A few of us expats even managed to scrap together a pretty decent Thanksgiving feast here in Bilbao–complete with a very hard-to-find turkey (“what do you mean, you don’t eat HAM on a HOLIDAY!??!” -all Spaniards), mashed ‘taters, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, deviled eggs, mac ‘n cheese, and stuffing. The bread and wine were Spanish….forgive us.

¡pobre pavo!

Vinos de Rioja: a splash of Spanish excellence for our American feast

pretty impressive spread!

Happy belated Thanksgiving, everyone! I am thankful for YOU!



I was just reviewing my  “to do” list for the week in Evernote (an application you should download immediately if you haven’t already). One of the bullet points, “update blog” has been copied and pasted from one day’s list to another for a week now; something for which I have no good excuse. I’ve had the last five days off of work, after all! I have posts on a handful of topics that are still in the works, but I can’t seem to wrap any of them up tonight so I thought I’d try something new. I have lots to say about things that have nothing to do with each other, so I’ve decided to organize this smörgåsbord of topics in a bullet-point format, inspired by my ever-growing “to do” list 🙂

So here are some updates on my life, in no particular order:

  • As I mentioned, I’m coming off of a 5-day break from work. I always have Fridays off, and then we all had Monday and Tuesday off for something called a “puente.” This word literally means “bridge,” but in this case it refers to the general consensus in Spain that if a holiday falls awkwardly in the middle of the week (today is All Saints Day), they will also make the day before or after it a day off as well in order to “bridge” it to the weekend. I am in full support of this custom.
  • Speaking of holidays, happy belated Halloween! Several other Americans and I had our share of Halloween fun despite the fact that it’s not widely recognized here. We had Halloween “potlucks” on both Saturday AND Monday nights, complete with dirt cupcakes and candlelight. Then we took to the streets to call even more attention than usual to our costume-donned American selves! :-p
  • We have yet to have internet installed in our apartment. Such things run on what we like to call “Spain time,” which is a very different timetable than the “giveittomeNOW” ideal so dear to our American hearts. I’ve been spending a lot of time at WiFi bars, and at home I’m tethering internet from my mobile phone which has gotten me through, but it is r-e-e-e-e-a-l-l-y  s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w. Imagine waiting 10 minutes for a simple YouTube video to load and/or just time out. Dial-up, anyone? The Euskaltel dude is supposed to come give us The Internets by Monday at the latest. w00t!
  • I’m ashamed to confess that I’ve consumed Ramen noodles (the Spanish version of them, anyway) on a couple of desperate occasions recently. The grocery store had a couple flavors that piqued my curiosity (i.e. curry and shrimp) so I went for it. In related news, I saw a commercial today for two new flavors of Lays potato chips that have hit the Spanish market: shrimp and KEBAB. I can’t make this up.
  • I have watched more episodes of Friends in the last two weeks than I had in my entire life up to that point. It is on almost 24/7, and our fancy TV usually lets us change the audio to English. Treat!
  • I went to Gernika yesterday and it was pure insanity. Every Monday is “market day” in Gernika, but the last Monday of October is the biggest one of the year. Farmers bring in the best and last of their fall harvest, and the streets of Gernika become one giant Basque party. I had heard this was a big deal, but I greeeeatly underestimated just how big this deal would be. The line for buses to Gernika from downtown Bilbao was down the street and around the corner. I finally got to Gernika at 1pm, and the streets were already packed to the gills and littered with bottles of sidra (hard cider). The main streets were lined with vendors selling everything from gourmet cheese to handmade toys to, of course, mouth-wateringly fresh produce. There was lots of live music, lots of laughing, and lots of broken glass. Not having braced for such intense fiesta so early in the day, I left after being there just a few hours. I definitely appreciated the cultural experience, but a total immersion would have been a bit much for me at that point 😉

empty sidra bottles. lots of them.

  • Is it really November? Because we’re still hitting the 70s on a regular basis here. I grew up in a place where Halloween costumes were altered to include winter coats, hats and sometimes even snow pants, so this temperate climate thing is a new concept for me. The temps in the 70s won’t last, but I’m pretty sure I can handle the upper 40s/lower 50s that will be the “winter” here. It’s a pretty nice upgrade for a North Dakota girl.
  • I finally hung pictures in my room of all my family and friends, and it made me miss everyone back home so much. I love you guys! Come visit!
That’s all for now, folks! Hasta luego!


Las Palmas Carnival 2010: Five days of Magical MADNESS

I apologize for the belatedness of this post, but due to the inundation of homework to complete upon my return last week combined with my level of exhaustion from the Carnival festivities, my blog was neglected for a few days. If you have any quandaries about that, I ask that you accept it as a clear indication of the intensity of Las Palmas Carnival. Go next year and see for yourself. I promise you’ll be out of commission for productivity for a few days.

It was that good. It was that crazy. I find myself at a loss for words when describing the festivities to friends or family. To put it simply, in the words of the boy in the wildly popular Youtube vid “David After Dentist,” we spent much of our vacation wondering, “Is this real life?” We spent our days laying lazily in the hot sun, our afternoons observing the holiday festivities from parades to live music, our evenings eating fantastic local food, from über-fresh seafood to authentic Italian dishes, and our late-late-late nights/early mornings in festive costumes, makeup and masks, dancing away to a combination of live salsa-inspired music and some euro-techno house beats. Then we took a nap.

Ryan and I representin´UND in the Canaries!

Zoro (Manuel) and I

The Canary Islands of Spain draw tourists from around the world due to their eternal-spring climate, beautiful beaches, majestic volcanoes and vast deserts. Their nickname, in fact is Las Islas Afortunadas, or “The Fortunate Islands.” Not surprisingly, there is usually a size-able sampling of American tourists on the islands. Last weekend though, it seemed the only Americans in sight were 17 goofball college students visiting from mainland Spain: the USACers. I would imagine that this was a less-than-peak time for Americans to visit due to the fact that 1. We don’t celebrate Carnival in the US (aside from Mardis Gras) and 2. The intensity with which the Europeans there celebrate their holiday would be, for most Americans, an acquired taste. At first glance, it’s a little nuts. The island was bustling with activity constantly, day and night, the entire time we were there. I really found myself wondering when these people actually sleep. From my observations, they couldn’t have slept more than a couple hours at a time a couple times per day. They had places to go, people to see, sun to take in, costumes to wear, and parades to march in. Sleep when you’re dead, right!?

Looking back on the time we spent there, I appreciate that it was a total authentic cultural immersion. We lived among people celebrating a holiday in their culture to the fullest extent. I know I’ve been abroad for over a month now, but something about observing how another culture celebrates gives real insight into their values and customs in a way day-to-day life cannot. It seems that, for them, life stopped for a few days and the focus was shifted to what really matters: spending time with friends and family, letting loose, having fun and making great memories. That’s it. Though many US Americans might criticize Europeans for being too laid back, I think that it can be equally argued that we don’t chill out and have fun quite often enough in our culture. I’m definitely enjoying the increase in emphasis on social interaction here. I’ve come out of my shell and put it in long-term storage, perhaps never to be retrieved.

Un montón de new pics can be found in my Picasa web albums, as well as seven new videos from my time in the Canaries on my Youtube channel. Here is one of those vids:

¡Hasta la próxima!

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