Photo of the Day – Barcelona jamon

photo of the day
The humble ham and cheese sandwich is a basic staple of the travel diet. In nearly every country I’ve traveled to, I can count on finding a cheap and tasty toasted ham and cheese at a snack bar or cafe while exploring a new city. With a nice glass of local wine or a cold beer, this simple sandwich can be sublime. The Spanish, however, have made ham an art form, noted by this display in Barcelona taken by Flickr user BaboMike. From the relatively cheap Pernil Bodega to the pricey (but worth it) Pernil Iberic de Gla, any of these would make a divine snack or a meal. Since I live in a Muslim country where pork is hard to find and expensive, I remember eyeing ham like this in Barcelona like a wolf in an old cartoon and contemplated bringing one home to be the envy of all my fellow expats in Istanbul.

Do you agree with the photographer that the Spanish out-do the Italians in the ham department? Where have you had the best ham? Upload your tastiest shots to the Gadling Flickr pool and we might salivate over them for a future Photo of the Day.

My Spanish self: How learning a new language has expanded more than my vocabulary

In high school, I hated my Spanish class and resisted learning the language every step of the way.

“Why should I?” I wondered. After all, the guy at my favorite taco stand already spoke English. So instead of listening, I passed notes, stared out the window, and generally didn’t participate unless called on. Señor Steel tried his best to pry my attention with references to The Grateful Dead –my only real subject of interest at the time.

“¿Jerry Garcia es muy bueno, no?” or “¿Dónde esta el concerto de Grateful Dead?”

But these days, as I spend my winters in Mexico, learning Spanish has become suddenly fascinating. Not only is it pragmatically useful for getting around, but it also serves to legitimize these overly long tropical sojourns. “To learn Spanish,” I explain studiously.

I’ve always been told there was some merit in learning another language. It’s a way to become more multi-cultural and less Anglo-centric, and it probably prevents Alzheimer’s. What I didn’t know is how adopting a new language would reformat my thinking.

During my winters in Mexico, I occupy a totally different brain, a more creative brain. My whole adjective-noun-verb worldview shifts, and I break from the bounds of English cliché. There I find a wide-open space of expression.With a limited vocabulary, I’m forced into new and sometimes absurd ways of saying things. “Is the machine sleeping?” I’ve asked a bartender when the jukebox wasn’t working. Instead of “The sun is setting,” I’ll say, “The sun says goodbye.” And after a particularly heady night at the disco, I might dub my potent margarita “El Diablo.”

Of course, I make inadvertent mistakes as well. Once, giving a friend directions to my hotel, I said “Va tres cuadernos alli!” or “Go three notebooks that way!” Instead of asking for a cuchillo — a knife – I’ve asked for a cucaracha. And purchasing aspirin for my headache, I’ve explained to the pharmacist, “Tengo un dolor de calabaza” (“There is a pain in my pumpkin”). And I always confuse the llenar-llevar-llamar-llegar verbs – just like I did back in high school Spanish class.

But here’s the thing: I no longer care. In this new language, I’ve become bold – a person unafraid of mistakes. Last season, I even became something of a poet, writing long, languorous love poems for my Spanish-speaking beau, Javier. He delighted in every misshapen line.

The day I left, Javier blew kisses from the pier as my boat pulled away. His messy black curls tossed in the wind. He looked so content, so noble, and so handsome that I was tempted to jump from the boat and swim back to him. Instead, I leaned over the bow and became a babbling Neruda: “You are like art!” I hollered. “You are like a light!” I took another stab at it: “Eres un pelicano!”

His huge white smile beamed at me like a lighthouse.

Whenever I return to the U.S., I slip back into familiar English, and become my regular self again — hemmed in by platitudes and worn-out idioms. I go back to saying dull things like “Hi, how are you?’ and “Nice weather.” But I still yearn for the sensual feel of “ias” and “ios” and “ientes” filling my mouth. I long to roll my ‘r’s. But mostly I miss my Spanish-self – that quirky, childlike, and unpredictable person I get to be for a few months each year.

When I think back to my high school Spanish class, I feel bad. Señor Steel tried everything to get me to learn Spanish. But if I didn’t understand it then, at least I get it now: to learn a new language is to make your mind new again. That is my point. This story is going to bed now, the words are sleepy, and my pumpkin is empty.

Christina Ammon is a freelance writer traveling around the world in a truck made of garbage. For more information about her and her travels, visit www.flyinghobogirl.com.

[flickr image via lipar]

Useful foreign phrases, Part 2: how to say, “Can you write this down for me?” in 10 languages

useful foreign phrasesA post written by Chris on Tuesday reminded me of this little language series I started in March. In “Ten things Ugly Americans need to know before visiting a foreign land,” Chris recommended brushing up on the local language. He joked about dashing around Venice clutching his concierge’s handwritten note, “Do you have 220/110 plug converters for this stupid American who left his at home?”

Thanks, Chris, because I’ve had this post sitting in my queue for awhile, as I debated whether or not my phrase of choice would appear useful to readers. It’s saved my butt many a time, when a generous concierge or empathetic English-speaker would jot down crucial directions to provide to a cab driver. It’s also helped me out when I’ve embarked on long-distance journeys that require me to get off at an unscheduled stop.

I have a recurring nightmare in which I board the wrong bus or train in a developing nation, and end up in some godforsaken, f—ed up place in the wee hours. Actually, that’s happened to me more than once, except I was actually in my intended destination. So the other piece of advice I’d like to impart is: do some research ahead of time on accommodations and how to reach them as safely as possible if you’re arriving anywhere in the wee hours–especially if you’re alone, regardless of your gender.

I digress. Before your next trip to a foreign land, take the time to scribble the words, “Can you (please) write this down for me?” in your guidebook or dog-ear it in your phrasebook (you’re bringing one, right? Right?). It will serve you well, I promise you. Below, how to make this useful request in ten languages.

P.S. It bears repeating that I’m far from a polylinguist; I’m relying on phrases based on past experience or research. If I inadvertently offend anyone’s native tongue, please provide a correction in the “Comments” section.

1. Spanish (Catalan): ?Puedes escribirlo, por favor?

2. Italian: Può ripeterlo, per favore?

useful foreign phrases3. French: Pourriez-vous, l’écrire, s’il vous plait?

4. German: Könnten Sie das bitte aufschreiben?

5. Czech: Můžete prosím napsat to pro mě?

6. Portuguese: Escreva, se faz favor.

As I noted in my Part 1, many languages, including those spoken throughout Asia and the Middle East, use written characters. For that reason, transliteration will vary, which is why the spelling or phonetics may differ. These languages are also tonal in nature, which makes them notoriously intimidating to Westerner travelers. Just smile, do your best, and have your pen and paper handy.

7. Chinese (Cantonese): Ng goi nei bong ngo se dai.

8. Japanese: Anata ga shite kudasai watashi no tame ni sore o kakikomu koto ga dekimasu ka?

9. Vietnamese: Có thể bạn hãy viết ra cho tôi?

10. Moroccan Arabic: Ktebha līya.

What useful phrases have helped you on your travels? Please tell us!

[Photo credits: pencil, Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography; tourist, Flickr user Esteban Manchado]

Useful foreign phrases, Part 1: how to say, “I’m just looking” in 10 languages

useful foreign phrasesI’ve frequently pimped Lonely Planet’s Phrasebooks on this site, but I swear I don’t get kickbacks from the company. It’s just that I’m a big believer in not being a). A Tourist (although, let’s face it, if I’m not at home, I am indeed A Tourist) and b). helpless.

Even if you’re the biggest xenophobe on earth–which would make foreign travel a really weird and pointless pastime you might want to reconsider– it’s hard to dispute the importance of knowing how ask “Where’s the bathroom?” in certain urgent circumstances.

It’s with such experiences in mind that I came up with this fun little series. There are a handful of phrases I’ve cultivated in various languages that have served me well, in situations both good and bad. Not only are they inscribed on the dog-eared inner covers of my trusty Phrasebooks; they’re etched into my mind, so I can summon them at will. Whether you need to ward off annoying vendors, personal humiliation, potential suitors, or would-be attackers, it pays to be prepared and know what to say, when. Since things like “Yes, No, Thank you, Please, Hello,” etc. are generally not too challenging, for the purposes of this series, I’ll leave them out. That doesn’t mean they’re not very important to learn, however.

This week’s lesson: “I’m just looking.” Invaluable for politely but firmly stating your desire to see with your eyes, not your wallet. It may not stop persistent hawkers from trying to close a deal, but at least you’re showing respect by speaking in their native tongue (or an approximation thereof). And who knows? If you change your mind, that alone may help you score a better bargain.

P.S. I don’t claim to be polylingual: I’m compiling phrases based on past experience or research. If I offend anyone’s native tongue, please provide a correction in the “Comments” section. Be nice!

1. Spanish: Solo estoy mirando.

2. Italian: Sto solo guardando.

3. French: Je regarde.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Gerry Balding]useful foreign phrases4. German: Nur schauen.

5. Czech: Jen se dívám.

6. Portuguese: Estou só a olhar.

Many languages, especially those spoken in Asia and the Middle East, use written characters. Transliteration will vary, depending upon the guidebook/translator, which is why the spelling or phonetics below may be different from other sources. Since these languages are largely tonal (and may require accents or characters not available on a Western computer), look at this way: odds are you’re going to mangle the pronunciation anyway, so just do your best! It’s the thought that counts.

7. Chinese (Cantonese): Tái haa.

8. Japanese: Watashi ga mite iru dakedesu (here’s to Japan getting back on its feet and attracting travelers soon!) To make a Red Cross donation, click here.

9. Vietnamese: Tôi chỉ xem thôi.

14. Moroccan Arabic: Ghir kanshuf.

What’s the most useful phrase you’ve ever learned in a foreign language? How has it helped your travels? We want to hear from you!

[Photo credit: Flickr user wanderer_by_trade]


It’s still Christmas in Spain!

Spain, spain, roscon, Christmas, christmasWell, Epiphany actually, but in Spain this is when we give presents. Christmas in Spain is a time for big meals and family fun, as well as church services for those who are so inclined. Santa passes Spain by to deal with the Anglo and Germanic countries, and Japan from what I hear. Spanish children wait for Los Reyes, the Three Kings, who come on their camels bearing gifts for good little boys and girls just like they did with Jesus all those years back.

The night before, it’s traditional to eat roscón de Reyes, the tasty donut-like creation seen here. This year my wife Almudena took some time off from astronomy to bake her very first roscón. It came out great. As usual, we ate it over at my 99 year-old neighbor’s place, and my wife’s roscón was better than the store-bought one she provided. Roscón is typically eaten with chocolate, hot chocolate. Now this isn’t your wimpy American cocoa; it’s a big chocolate bar melted down and served in tea cups! Perfect for dipping your roscón into.

Every roscón comes with a secret toy surprise baked somewhere inside. If you get it in your slice you have good luck for the rest of the year. I got the toy from the store-bought one, and my son Julián got the one from my wife’s roscón. Some mothers mark the spot where the toy is and make sure their kid gets that piece. I can neither confirm nor deny that Almudena did that.

Another tradition on January 5 is the Cabalgata de Reyes, a big parade where the Three Kings pass through town accompanied by their friends. Check out the video below to see this year’s parade in Madrid. After the parade the kids go to sleep, setting a shoe out for the Kings to leave the gifts next to. They also leave supplies for the hungry Kings and their camels. Julián left out peanuts for the camels and Baileys for the Kings. Remarkably, it was all gone the next morning! I thought of making a trail of peanut shells leading from Julián’s bed to his presents, but decided that would be a bit creepy.

The morning of January 6 is just like Christmas morning in other countries. The kids are up and out of bed early to see what those magical home invaders have brought. Since Julián was a good boy he got everything he asked for in his letter to the Kings. This was easy because he only requested four things. Ah, the advantages of not having a television! In fact, he got more than he asked for.

Now we’re off to my mother-in-law’s house because the Kings stopped there too. I have a shoe sitting in her living room and I’m dying to know what’s next to it. Although we did our shopping last minute (some traditions are universal), we made sure every shoe was well stocked. A few years back we got our elderly neighbor a Furby, which she still has and loves. Yeah, we all made fun of those things when they came out, but imagine how amazing a Furby is to someone born in 1911.

¡¡¡Felices Reyes!!!