Saturday, May 15, 2010

While you were celebrating Detroit's Downtown Hoedown...

The music got louder and above the dancing crowds, smoke and hopping bar came the sole word through the microphone: ‘Michigaaaan!!’ Michigan frat party? Not quite. I had just entered into my seƱora’s private tent in La Feria de Sevilla, and like everywhere else in this country, my face stuck out like a true red-white-and blue American. The band’s lead singer had met Haley and Melissa the day before, and because he happened to remember the name of our wolverine state, he happily alerted the rest of the tent that, yes folks, the Americans have arrived! I did a little dance of surprise/Michigan pride until I remembered that I was in Spain and NOT at a frat party—somewhere people actually dance like professionals…

So what is this ‘feria’ I am talking about? Originally a cattle trading fair, Sevillanos took up the opportunity (as they often do) to turn this random social gathering into a giant party and it quickly evolved into a weeklong round-the-clock spectacle including drinking, eating and best of all, dancing. There are hundreds of tents decorated with streamers and lanterns, many filled with live bands and of course all the tapas you could want. Just like at the most elite frat parties (is there really such a thing?) you have to be on the list to get past the intimidating looking suit-dressed bouncers (basically the same as a sober monitor t-shirt, no?) but once you’re in, you’re set for the night.

The women all wear elaborately styled flamenco dresses, complete with flowers in their hair, while the men all dress in suits. The music and ‘rebujito’ (famous Feria drink—pretty much straight up sherry) get flowing around the same time and pretty soon, the dance floors are packed. For the preteens who tire of the dancing too easily, there are dozens of carnival rides and roller coasters on the other side of the tents, where screams of terror fill the air. People arrive as early as 10am, and stick around until 6 or 7 the following morning (just in time for a churros and chocolate breakfast on the streets!)

Melissa had decided to buy a dress in Sevilla, but as I spent the first half of the week in Italy, the 200 euros for the dress wasn’t really worth it for three days of Feria. But as we got ready to leave the house (Melissa looking oh-so-Sevilliana and me, well, far too American in my sundress and sandals) Carmen casually mentioned that I might be able to fit into her daughter’s dress (who was conveniently traveling that weekend.) What ensued was an hour long make(-Gayle-into-a-Sevilliana-)over, with a whole lot of squeals of excitement from every direction. As we made it to the bus stop, (all these fancily dressed people took the bus to the Feria grounds—quite the sight) and asked two girls to take our picture, they asked where we were from, followed immediately by “We would have thought you were Spanish before you started talking!’ (Note—we asked them to take our picture in Spanish…)

We spent the next three days in Carmen’s tent, making our best efforts to limit our dancing partners to only other Americans, men over 60 or children under 10 (the ones least likely to judge.) Below you can see my favorite step of the Sevillanos dance (it's the last one, and far too much fun to just throw up your hands as so in the very last second and smile confidently, alerting others that clearly you've been doing it right all along.)

We spent one afternoon with some 15-year old friends we had made riding the carnival rides, where (though the oldest in the crowd by at least 5 years), I STILL managed to scream the loudest on the pirate ship. And we finally finished off the festivities with Carmen’s whole family, up until the grand finale fireworks show. I can easily say that Feria has been one of my favorite weeks in Sevilla thus far, and as I promised Carmen, I’d be sure to be back. The older Sevillanos will tell you that for them, the weeklong activities of Feria is just too long (too many people and exhausting), but for the young people, it’s not quite long enough. Considering my 15-year old friends were shocked to find out I was actually 21 after spending all afternoon together, I figure I’ve still got plenty of time to be young (or at least look it.) So Feria, adios for now, but know I’ll be seeing you again.

Monday, May 3, 2010

When in Rome…Eat as the Romans Do

In her bestselling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert narrates her yearlong journey to Italy, India and Bali, where she attempts to rediscover herself through each country’s ‘specialty.’ Clearly, Italy was the ‘Eat’ country, where Gilbert chooses to indulge herself in pleasure, or rather the three key p’s—pizza, pasta and pesto, with an added emphasis on gelato. She fittingly names it her “no carb left behind experience.”

Following in Gilbert’s footsteps (or rather her increasing pant size), I successfully managed to use my weeklong Italian spring break vacation to fill myself with enough of Italy’s culinary goodness to last me at least until the next time I make it back. My friend (half)-joked before we left for Florence, “Is it bad that I’m more excited for the gelato than I am for David?” The most famous sculpture of ALL TIME versus rich, creamy deliciousness in hundreds of flavors? Clearly an easy choice.

I began my trip in Rome, where I was greeted by my lovely Ann Arbor roommate Carly and her lovely Roman roommates, who had prepared a three-course dinner for my arrival. After ingesting far too much bruschetta, lasagna and finishing a full platter of tiramisu between five of us, we submitted to our food-induced comas and called it an early night.

Our next day started out well. Pizza for breakfast. Gelato for lunch. And a 4 hour trip into a new country and back. Wait, what? We spent the day in Vatican City, the sovereign city-state in the heart of Rome, which, with a population of 800, is the smallest country in the world. Vatican City is home to the Pope (currently Benedict XVI), the Vatican Museum (housing Caravaggio’s ‘Entombment’ and Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’, among other world-famous pieces of art), St. Peter’s Basilica (one of the ‘holiest Christian sites’ and burial site of Jesus’s disciple Peter), and the Sistine Chapel (my personal favorite, and the site of daily neck straining on account of all those attempting to fully take in Michelangelo painted ceiling, which includes images ‘The Last Judgement’ and ‘Creation of Adam’).

We finished the day at the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, where legend holds it that any visitors who toss a coin into the fountain are ensured a return to Rome (upon hearing this, I immediately tossed my coin.) An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each DAY, which then goes to a supermarket for the poor. Our cultural excursions continued the next day in the Colosseum, built in 70 AD to be used for gladiator battles, animal hunts and executions. The inhumane idea of slaves being torn to shreds by wild beasts as the upper class crowd watched in delight made me uncomfortable to say the least, but I was relieved to find that today the Colosseum is a symbol of the international campaign against capital punishment. The local Roman government use special night lights in the Colosseum whenever a person condemned to the death penalty anywhere in the world is released, or a state abolishes the death penalty, illuminating the city of Rome as a symbol of peace and hope.

My last day in Rome, I managed to squeeze in the Roman Forum (the remains of ancient Rome and the ‘underground’ city), and the Spanish steps (longest and widest staircase in all of Europe…also exceptionally beautiful at this time of year when they are covered with bright pink azalea flowers), and most importantly, a 4-hour cooking class at the greatest restaurant in Rome. Learning how to flawlessly whip homemade pasta, curl roman artichokes, season grilled zucchini and soak tiramisu’s ladyfingers for just the right amount of time was my favorite part of Rome, and skills I will definitely be bringing home with me.

I hopped on the train to Florence, a city whose history is often compared with the Biblical story of its famous patron, David. In his 23-foot beauty, David, a scrawny, poorly equipped and doubted boy, looks off into the distance at his competitor Goliath, a large, strong, heavily armed man with a look of determined calm. We all know that at the end of the story, David ends up conquering Goliath with his wit and intelligence. In a similar manner, Florentines had cast out their tyrannical ruling family (the Medicis) in 1494, only seven years before Michelangelo (also a Florentine) began constructing The David. With hopes of creating a new Republic from what was a weak and rocky start, The David stood as a reminder to the Florentine people of the strength of mind over matter.

I spent the next three days with my good friend Laura—seeing the David AND eating gelato (ha! Managed to do both!), touring the Uffizi Art Gallery (got to see Martini’s ‘Annunciation’ and Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’), marveling Brunelleschi’s Duomo, hiking in the famously scenic town right outside Florence, and of course, shopping in the leather market. We ended my trip literally ‘under the Tuscan sun’ with a night watching the sunset over the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio (only bridge in Florence not to be destroyed during WWII by the Germans…supposedly because of its beauty) from the highest lookout point in Florenze.

I somehow managed to escape the hovering cloud of volcanic ash and made it back to Sevilla just in time for La Feria. After 7 days of nonstop eating, I pulled a 180 to 3 full days of dancing (remember those flamenco skills I’d been practicing so much??) Managed to burn off a good amount of the calories I'd consumed in the previous week AND embarrass myself to no end. Details to come…