Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pintxo Party!

A few weeks ago, I got to do something I have always dreamed about - kind of like a dream job I guess you could say.  Imagine...eating top-notch pintxos, sharing your experiences about life in Donosti, helping people make thier own memories here, drinking tasty wine and getting paid for it.  Yea!  I had the lucky opportunity to be a pintxo tour guide!

It all came about with Erika, my old boss.  As you may remember, she is Swedish.  Well, a friend of a friend of her's was working for a luxury tour company and was planning an all-out weekend tour of the Basque Country for his high-end clients.  Included in the trip was a pintxo tour led by someone who lives and eats (haha) in San Sebastian.  When there was tons of interest in the trip, Erika realized she and the Swedish guide couldn't handle the group of 30 on thier own and asked me to lead a group too so we would each have a manageable 10-person pintxo party.  I happily agreed.

Erika had planned the route out beforehand and when I arrived basically had done all the work - I just needed to guide my people to a bar and order the pintxos and enjoy!  Seeing as I didn't speak Swedish, all of the youngest tourists were with me.  While basically every Swede I know speaks perfect English, we figured the younger ones (30s & 40s) would be more apt to feel comfortable eating and drinking in my language.

At first the tour was a bit awkward because everyone was with thier couple and only talking amogst themselves, but soon after we headed out some couples started asking me questions about the city, how I came to live here, what a regular weekend is like, etc.  While big-money-makers, the Swedes were all very sweet and interested in my regular-person life.  A bit weird though - they had all dressed like they were going to a fancy theater show (black dresses, ties, etc) while I sported my regular jeans and boots.  Boots or heels, we equally enjoyed the pintxos and pintxo bar hopping.  In Basque bar crawling from bar to bar is called poteo, so essentially we did what is called here - pintxo poteo.

At the first bar, we enjoyed a glass of red wine from the Ribera del Duero region of Spain.  Funny enough - this is the first wine I had when Joseba and I were on our second date.  Erika had selected some of the best pintxos from each bar and made a 'mini-menu' for ths Swedes to choose from (she obviously had translated it to Swedish too).  Each person was able to pick 2 pintxos from the list to enjoy at each bar.  At this bar, Viento Sur (South wind), I took advantage of the free pintxos to enjoy some of the tasty selections at this expensive bar.  First was the carrillera con bechamel y alubias - which roughly would be called a pork neck with white sauce and white navy beans.  I know, a pig neck sounds disgusting but it is really a hit of a pintxo in this area.  I often order it when I go pintxo poteoing with my friends, so don't be grossed out.  For my second pintxo I selected some more meat when I ordered the brick de ternera con curry y salsa agridulce - some veal with 2 dipping sauces, curry and sweet and sour.  The Swedes had eaten at a 4-star Michelin restaurant that afternoon called Arzak.  Listed as the 8th best restaurant in the world, they paid something around $300 for thier lunch, and I was surprised that they even had stomach room left to eat pintxos, but they were happiily chomping away until I shuffled us out the door an onto the next bar.

At Hidalgo 56 Bar, the selected wine was a Manzanilla - which is more a less a sherry as a wine.  I don't like it, but being the guide ordered it anyways.  Turns out none of them liked it either, so we quickly ate our pintxos (me a shrimp kebab wrapped in goat cheese and bacon with pieces of pinapple) and headed off to the 3rd bar, braving the sprinkling rain.

Bergara, the next stop, is a famous Donostia pintxo bar because it seems every year they win something from the Pintxo Txapelketa - the annual pintxo competition.  One year they even won Txapelduna - first prize for one of thier pintxos.  Directly from Basque, txapel means 'hat' and duna means 'the one with'.  So Txapelduna would be the 'one with the hat' - the champion.  Here, trophies aren't given for winning, Basque boinas, a type of beret hat are the coveted prize gear.  Throughout the night, the Swedes were eagerly asking how to say things in Spanish, how to order thier own pintxos, how to say excuse me, etc.  While I know all of these answers, I also now can say I know a lot of the answers in Basque.  Seeing as most of them had already travelled to Spain, I wanted to try and give them a different experience and teach them these sentences in Basque - seeing as they WERE in the Basque Country.  They were delighted to learn how to say 'another one' when they wanted a new drink - beste bat.  Or when we were in a packed bar, how to politely push by people by saying barkatu, excuse me.  I also tried to give them a brief understanding of the Basque's desire to be independant and the rich culture that I get to see on a daily basis.  I guess being married to a Basque man, I have become a bit biased, and really wanted them to remember they were not (as many signs hanging around town proclaim) in France or Spain, but the Basque Country.  They were like kids hungry for knowledge and were excited to learn about this independance struggle and the gems of the Basque Country.  Not only did they gobble down what I was saying but at this bar we also tried a random pintxo from the bar (they were so excited to be able to just grab it from the bar and take it to thier table) and some mushroom risotto to go with our Txakoli, a young Basque white wine.

For our last bar we stopped of at Andra Mari, the Basque way of saying Our Lady Mary.  We lucked out with it being our last bar because they had reserved an entire table for us - much needed after almost 3 hours of eating.  Grilled foie gras was the first pintxo we all ordered - a Basque staple.  Almost every bar offers this pintxo, and while I am not the biggest foie fan, this was delectible.  For a second pintxo I selected a piece of toast topped with smoked tuna and grilled tomatoes to go with our wine from Valencia (in the SE of Spain).  By this time the Swedes were happily intoxicated and with full bellies.  After wining and dining for the last few hours, I was sad to see them go, but so happy I had gotten the chance to lead such a tour.  Now, if only I could do this as my job everyday...


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shine on me

While reading a science magazine I normally buy here, I learned that not only do Americans love Spain for flamenco dancing, bull-fighting and sangria and sunny beaches, but that we also appreciate Spain's 340 days of sun a year for solar power.  Let me clarify that those 340 days of glorgous rays are more for the central and southern parts of the country, hence you don't see as many sunny pictures of mine on this blog.  Regardless, it is one of the sunniest countries in the world with the capacity to caputre the sun's energy and use it as a renewable energy.

As the 4th largest manufacturer of solar power technology, I guess it is not surprising that even President Obama is interested.  Turns out, he has big plans for our sunny state of Arizona - and purchased a $1,110,000 project that will produce 250MW of energy.  From the article I am not completely sure if the plant will be exactly the same to the one that recently was opened in Badajoz, Spain, and is listed as the largest solar power plant in the world (just nudging out the USA by 10MW).  With mirrors that oscilate with the movement of the sun, the plant uses the harsh rays to relfect the sunlight to a fluid-filled tube which then heats the liquid to produce steam which runs the turbines.  About the size of 75 football fields, this plant looks like an oasis in the middle of the dry desert.

Spain is not only a contender in solar energy, but also has managed to get a leg up on wind energy.  In the region (State) of Navarra - The Basque Country's neighbor - they already produce 75% of thier energy from wind, solar, hydro and biomass.  The country as a whole boasts 12% of energy from these renewable energies.  The Basque Country (who as I mentioned early has much less sun than the south of Spain) only attributes a little over 5% of its total energy to renewable energies but the hyrdo and wind power sectors are growing rapidly.  Sidenote:  Joseba is a mechanical engineer and often works on pieces of wind power towers that are being used in the Basque Country and even exported around the world!

I don't know where the nearest solar energy site is near you, but maybe next time you think of one, you can remember me and think that 70% of the mirrors used in solar panel energy plants around the world come from Spain, so there is a itty-bitty chance that one of the mirrors once captured my reflection ;)  As they say 'it never rains in the plains of Spain' and I guess bragging about that finally has come up with some good results!


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Exhibition: Amanda's new hobby

I have never taken a painting class.  Heck, I've never taken an art class.  I am pretty convinced by my thin stick people drawings that I have no artistic talent.  However, the past few years I have been itching to see for myself if I have any ability in this field.  All through high school and college, while art classes were offered in every direction, I opted for writing, marketing, computers, etc.  Now, I guess I figure it's my time to try it out, and so I signed up for a class through the Culture Center in Donostia for oil painting!  The class started last Thursday and I had zero expectations and just wanted to try out something totally out of character for myself. 

I originally thought that I could kill two birds with one stone and maybe meet some fun and nice people, but as it turns out, I think I (and maybe a 35 year old woman I sat next to) are the only people under 50 in the class.  Maybe there was a special senior citizens discount??  Regardless, I went with an open mind and quite liked it.  We started off by learning to mix different oil colors - from primary colors to make the secondary ones - as well as how white changes the colors drastically.  We painted our own color wheels and I can honestly say mine wasn't the worst!  So that's a good start no? 

When the teacher went through the laundry list of supplies we need to buy, I realized that not only will this class serve as a fun hobby on Thursday afternoons, but also as a way to expand my Spanish vocabulary.  Art techniques and tools are not really words you learn often.  And to think that I considered taking this class in Basque HAHA! 

In this blog I have included a few pieces of art that I found for sale online that show the beauty of the Basque Country in oil.  While I might rock the color wheel, I recognize that I probably won't be painting anything near this nice for years to come, but this week, when I go to buy all the required supplies, I guess I can be remind myself that I live in a beautiful place that maybe someday (with a lot of talent/practice) I will be able to paint a canvas and try to capture the rolling hills, lively dancers, incredible food and crashing sea. 


Thursday, October 13, 2011

SOS - not as an emergency

As a wedding present, Erika (my old boss) got us a night at 4-star hotel in a small Spanish town called Sos de Rey Católico.  No, it is not an emergency response town, nor a deserted island with the letters SOS laid out in palm tree leaves.  Quite the contrary actually - it is a small town that used to sit on the border between the Kingdoms of Aragon and Navarra (the then Basque Country).  The small village sits atop a hill with 360º views of the valley looming below and was considered to be an ideal spot for living and it is known that people have lived here even before King Sancho I of Navarra founded the town in 907. 

About 2 hours drive from our house, the distance really makes a drastic difference from the lush and coastal Basque cities.  Sos sits in a dustbowl type of location and while spotted with low and sparse bushes, the color of the sand blends with the stone buildings that maintain thier charm from the 13th century.  A completely walled-in city, the steep cobblstone streets still stand although entrances to buildings long forgotten show the city's age.  Once just a small unimportant village, Sos became Sos de Rey Católico (Sos of the Catholic King) after King Ferdinand II was born there in 1452.  While home to the King, Sos was also a thriving commercial center on its own.  With an engraved measuring system in the stones as well as a triangular area carved out for a Roman scale, historians note that Sos was a meeting place and had a successful market in thier Plaza Mayor.  With seven gates in the surrounding walls, the medeival days of Kings, Queens and jesters would have had a lively atmosphere in this town.  

With narrow streets and arching doorways, one small alleyway leads to the unique Saint Steven church.  Special in the sense that it's approach was defended by a tunnel that led to the original church.  Later the church was expanded to its current size - practically untouched.  The curious thing about the town was that besides the eerily quiet buildings it seemed almost void of residents during the day - then we went out for an evening walk and the town came alive.  It seemed at every corner there was a group of friends drinking and laughing and we even stumbled upon a group of friends singing thier hearts out at a local bar.

A small town, seemily locked in history, that didn't seem to neither change for hundreds of years nor want to, was a great way to spend a relaxing wekeend and was a most appreciated wedding getaway.  Life went at the pace it probably did back at the town's founding and we were able to enjoy the 4-star hotel to the fullest as well as take in the medievel architecture in a city rich with history.