Hunting for Mushrooms in Catalunya

Last Saturday, I moved in with my new host family – always a slightly dreaded yet exciting experience. I had been in contact with them prior to meeting via email, and they had asked me if the following day I’d be interested in going with them to the mountains for mushroom (aka bolets in Catalan) hunting. I had heard about this tradition last year, but never had the privilege to go. So of course I jumped on the opportunity!

My first concern, of course, was the fact that there exists many toxic and/or hallucinogenic mushroom varieties. When I asked my host family about this, they assured me that we’d be going with some “experts” (aka friends they know living in the mountains) who know the difference between the edible and inedible varieties. As a side note, they also mentioned that there are reports every year of people dying from eating the wrong types of mushrooms.

So proceed with caution.

When we got to Montseny, the mountain region, I was super ready to find some mushrooms. I stepped out of the car and I couldn’t believe how many I saw! White, yellow, brown, red… they were everywhere!

My host family and their friends quickly calmed my enthusiasm. The majority of the mushrooms I was seeing were inedible. I followed the “experts” around for 10 to 20 minutes, trying to decipher which types of mushrooms were the good ones. Like all good things, the ‘good’ mushrooms always seemed to be hidden quite well!

It took me at least 30 minutes to find my first edible mushroom all on my own. It seems so simple, but it felt like such a huge accomplishment! You either try to pull it up carefully by the stem, or if necessary, you can use a small blade to cut it at the base. It is common to carry a basket with you to collect them all.

We found 5 varieties of edible mushrooms:

Camagrocs, or “yellow legs.” We found a bunch of these in one specific area of the forest, and they were delicious in a Spanish Omelette!

“Trumpetas de Muerte,” or “Trumpets of Death.” They don’t look or sound edible, do they? But they are! I didn’t personally get to try any of these because this was all we found, but my host family’s friends said they were delicious.

Ou de Reig, or “Reig’s Egg.” Everyone got super excited to find this one, apparently it is rare. It is unique because it first starts out looking like an egg (see the white part at the bottom?) and then the inner mushroom bursts out and continues growing.

Pinetells. We found quite a lot of these and the following mushroom as well, but I still can’t tell the difference between them! Photo Cred: usuaris.tinet.cat

Rovelló. Photo Cred: http://www.ambientech.org

And I found a few others that were inedible, but cool nonetheless:

Some years are better than others, apparently. My host family told me that the year prior all of their baskets had been overflowing with mushrooms – they were absolutely everywhere! Although we did find a decent amount, they said it was nothing compared to the year before.

We hiked around the mountainside for a good 3 hours or so, the enthusiasm only dwindling when our hunger started rising. We headed back to their friend’s house and dropped off the mushrooms for an extra few sets of “expert” eyes to look over the mushrooms, just to doublecheck that we didn’t accidentally pick up a poisonous variety.

Once we were given the OK for our mushrooms, we drove back to the city and decided to enjoy the camagrocs in a Spanish omelette. It takes a surprising amount of work to cut and clean them all! And, of course, once you put them in a pan, they shrink considerably. So don’t expect a huge feast of mushrooms! But of course it is so rewarding to eat the things you scavenged yourself.

The following day, we cut up the rovellóns and pinetells, which I obviously couldn’t tell the difference between. We also added in 2 ous de Reig, which the family friends had kindly added to our basket without our knowing. The host dad sauteed them all in oil, and even though we started with what seemed like a big amount, we each only got a small spoonful of our bounty. But it was tasty 🙂 I highly recommend the experience! Even for people who don’t really like mushrooms.

One of the great things about living with a host family is being exposed to new traditions, such as this. And it’s just the beginning of an amazing year! To learn more about mushrooms in Catalunya, visit the official site here.

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A Day Out in Barcelona: Palau de la Música Catalana, Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, and La Boqueria

One of the most commonly visited places in Barcelona is the Palau de la Música Catalana, which is understandable because it is quite beautiful inside and out. However, it does carry a steep price tag… €18 a person. I was almost tempted to skip this beauty, but it definitely is something worth seeing once in your life. Many people mistakenly think this is yet another marvellous piece of architecture by Gaudi, but it was actually designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of Gaudi’s rivals.

(Not my photo... my camera at the time was awful!)

(Not my photo… my camera at the time was awful!)

The tour starts with a 5 minute video describing the making of the building and also the importance. Numerous world-renowned figures have performed here and insist that it is one of the most magical and honouring places to be.

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The Muses behind the stage, half in mosaic, half in statue

The first thing you notice when you walk inside is the ceiling. It is a dome made of glass that extends down towards the floor and is in the shape of the sun. It allows the building to be filled with beautiful, natural light. Never seen anything quite like it! There is also beautiful detail on the rest of the ceiling in the shape of roses, yet another inspiration from nature.

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During the tour, they also take you out onto one of the little patio areas which has some beautiful mosaic pillars. Throughout the building you see references to Catalan culture, such as in the windows and on the ceilings. And besides that… I don’t really have much to say about this building. It was beautiful, no doubt, but I think the tour was pretty lacking considering the steep price tag.

1fe4b8314fcd8e80a96e51bbed8cba2a24e0e8b9f22432c41b1aad108b56fb01After that, my host family and I went to visit the Basílica de Santa María del Mar in El Born. It is definitely a beautiful cathedral, and located in a very nice area (I love El Born!) but honestly, if you’ve been to as many cathedrals as I have been to… it isn’t all that special. However, the area surrounding it is quite lovely… many cute and artistic shops and some great restaurants and tapas bars to visit! If you go there at night it is also a really nice area to listen to live music.

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El Born is known for it's artsy side

El Born is known for it’s artsy side

After wandering around some more, we ended up at the famous La Boquería market. I had heard so many things about this place, so I was very city to finally get to see it. It is basically a huge marketplace where you can buy pretty much any food item for cheap. It is a sensory overload… there’s so many smells, colors, and sights to see all the while trying to push your way through the crowd. The vendors are smart and take any chance possible to try and get you to buy something. This is also a place known for pick-pockets, and it is definitely smart to hold onto your bag and be cautious. But it is definitely worth experiencing! I’d love to go back. I’ll shut my mouth now, the pictures speak for themselves…

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Champignones, their prized mushrooms

Champignones, their prized mushrooms

Colcots, Escargot, & a Monster Steak: Making Memories w/ the Host Family

Yesterday I went with my host family to this fantastic restaurant called Masia Can Sardà up in the mountains of  Cerdanyola del Vallès. My family had told me about this family reunion weeks ago to make sure I could go, and I am so glad they did! We had a huge group of about 20 people occupying a large part of the restaurant, and I got to try a lot of new tasty things.

I wish they stayed small forever... I wanted to take one home!

I wish they stayed small forever… I wanted to take one home!

Out front of the restaurant is a mini farm with turkey, goats (and baby goats!), chickens, and an emu. It was a nice place for a big get together like this because once the kids got bored, they could run and play outside. The inside of the restaurant wasn’t anything all too special, but it had pork legs and garlic hanging from the ceiling and just a very small-town vibe (hell, we didn’t even have cell service!).

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Our first course we had Colcots, a Catalonian specialty. It is basically giant green onions grilled until black. You are given a bib and gloves (100% necessary). They deliver a trough of these giant onions to you and also a bowl of this rich, orange sauce. First you grab an onion and pull off the black, burnt part with your hands (hence the gloves – it causes an awful mess!). Then, you dip the onion end into the sauce, hold it high over your head, and devour it from the bottom. It is surprisingly delicious! And it seems super easy to make… you better bet I’m going to try this when I get home.

The giant grill outside where they make the delicious Calcots.

The giant grill outside where they make the delicious Calcots.

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What's left... the burnt part and the top green ends. Thank god the host family stopped me, I nearly ate it whole!

What’s left… the burnt part and the top green ends. Thank god the host family stopped me, I nearly ate it whole!

Vegetarians… the pictures ahead may be disturbing! Turn away now!

For the second course, the host mother told me she was going to order for me. She gave my order to the waiter and he looked at me and said (in Spanish) “You know it is really big, right?” My host mother shushed him and said “No, she doesn’t know… shh!!!” So I knew it was going to be big, but I didn’t understand just how insanely massive this steak was.

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Haha guys… very funny…

The meat didn’t even fit on the plate. This picture doesn’t do it justice…. And it wasn’t just large for the plate… it was THICK. Like super thick. Nearly as thick as my fist. Of course at this point, everyone finds it really funny and I find myself turning super red. What the hell do I do?! Pawn the meet off, of course. I cut off big pieces and gave it to some of the people around me and, finally, as a team… we conquered that beast. They kept telling me to pick up the bone to gnaw off the rest but man, I don’t even think it was an option with that monster. Jessica vs. Food Episode 1.

I swear I had help with this!

I swear I had help with this!

For her second course, the mother ordered escargot and insisted that I try some. I had tried escargot in the past while on a cruise ship, but I promised to try it again. Before when I had it, they had a special dish with rivets in the bottom (think like a mini muffin tin). Each rivet had one… erm… snail? However, it was all covered in a delicious looking garlic sauce so that you couldn’t see the snails themselves. I was so brave that day… I had like 4 or 5 and really liked it until I accidentally looked down at my fork and could make out the shape of the slug… then I had to stop.

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Well, this time it was even more difficult. The snails were delivered in their shell in a garlicky/salty sauce… there was no mistaking the fact that these were, indeed, snails. I asked the host mother how to eat them, and she told me to stick the whole thing in my mouth. I was like wait… what? You don’t eat the shell, right?! She told me you just suck on the shell to get the sauce… oi. So after a moment’s pause (and a motivational speech in my head), I stuck the whole thing in my mouth… only to have the woman across from me (a cousin of the host mom’s) scream out OH NO NOT LIKE THAT! A mini panic attack ensued as I quickly spit the shell out. I guess she was confused and didn’t realize I was just sucking on the shell like they told me to… but that didn’t help my anxiety when they told me to do it again.

After doing it correctly this time, the host mom showed me how to pull the slug out of the shell and that you have to pinch it off at one point (I guess you don’t eat the whole slug?). I tried it, it happened, and I’m proud… but I definitely couldn’t eat more than 1 after that fiasco!

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We ended our meal with some liqueur (they just kept pouring) and some good stories. It was so much fun talking with the rest of the family and sharing stories of travels, both here in Spain and back in the States. It is experiences like these that make me so grateful that I took this leap and moved across the world. The people here have been so incredibly welcoming and kind… I couldn’t ask for more!

Valencia: Part I

One of the big advantages of having a host family is that, if they’re awesome like mine was, they will show you around. In the first month I was with my host family, they took me around the Barcelona Cathedral, Las Ramblas, Plaça de Catalunya, MareMagnum, Montjuic, etc. But the best thing by far that they showed me was the beautiful city of Valencia, the third biggest city in Spain.

The beautiful waterfront in front of my host family's flat.

The beautiful waterfront in front of my host family’s flat. That famous Valencia sun is intense!

2014-10-25 10.32.10Luckily for me, the host father has two teenaged daughters who live in Valencia with their mother. He would go to Valencia every other weekend to see them, but the rest of the family (including me!) went once a month to see them so that all of the sisters can spend time together. It is about a 3 hour car ride from Barcelona, which was exhausting, but so worth it!

I fell in love with Port Saplaya, Valencia! So picturesque.

I fell in love with Port Saplaya, Valencia! So picturesque.

After walking around Port Saplaya a bit (which was breath-taking in itself), we walked around the city of Valencia to explore. We hit the Mercat Central de Valencia which had some live music playing and local vendors selling everything from honey to scuba diving trips. After that, we just meandered the streets a bit and enjoyed the spectacular views that Valencia has to offer.2014-10-25 12.39.502014-10-25 12.41.48

The wetlands and rice fields at Albufera.

The wetlands and rice fields at Albufera.

Later on my first day, they took me to the Parque Natural de la Albufera de Valencia. It is a natural wetlands preserve where they have been growing rice for centuries.  Doesn’t sound all too interesting, right…? Wrong! They use this rice for PAELLA. Oh heavens, that paella…. If you didn’t know, Valencia is the birthplace of paella and the family (God bless them) took me here, to the actual birthplace of paella, to try the real deal.

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The taste was beyond description. True Valencian paella is made without seafood; instead, it has chicken, rabbit, and white beans. The flavors of the rice are so rich and delicious that I could have eaten that whole pan by myself. And the lemon itself just enhances all of those flavors to an unfathomable degree. And once you scoop out all of the paella onto the various plates, there is still the delicous crust that forms on the bottom that can make your eyes roll back in pleasure. I can never have enough paella.

Ajuntament de Valencia

Ajuntament de Valencia

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After lunch, we wandered around the city some more for some laid-back sight-seeing. I fell in love with Valencia. The people are very friendly and go out of their way to help you, everyone is dressed in nice colorful clothing, and there’s just something in the atmosphere that makes you happy.

El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía

El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía

The next day, they took me for a nice stroll at the Ciudad de Las Artes y Las Ciencias. Basically, it is a group of 4 huge and futuristic buildings dedicated to the Arts and Sciences designed by Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela. The buildings are surrounded by a beautiful park, and as we were walking through I couldn’t help but feel as though I had been transported 100 years into the future. It was such a marvellous feeling.

L'Hemisfèric

L’Hemisfèric

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L'Àgora

L’Àgora

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However, unfortunately the city of Valencia no longer has the funds to maintain these amazing structures, and the normal wear and tear is beginning to show without the proper maintenance. Also, these buildings (sadly) are relatively unused except for a few concerts and events. While an amazing attraction and a must-see, it is unfortunate that the proper planning did not go into this project.

2014-10-26 12.16.14As we were walking around the City of Arts and Sciences, we happened upon a stand selling Horchata. Now, back home in California, horchata is a delicious but very sweet drink made from rice and cinnamon. However, here in Spain, Horchata is a drink made from Tiger Nut or Chufa in Spanish. The Tiger Nut is found in Africa, then it is dried and goes through an extraction process to obtain the sweet liquid inside. It was pretty good… but I think mostly an acquired taste. I personally prefer good old Mexican horchata.

L'Umbracle

L’Umbracle

2014-10-26 12.46.32Finally, we ended our trip there by going through the gardens. This was during the fall, so I am sure in the Spring it is even prettier. The park surrounding this all is also amazing; it is huge! Trees, little rivers, plenty of grass and activities… I wish I had a park like this near me! I think I’d have a lot more motivation to go out running… Or so I’d like to think…!

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Host Families

So a big part of this program involves living with a host family. Every 3 months we move to a new family, which can be both a curse and a godsend. After talking with many of the other people in the program, I have realized that all of our experiences are quite different. Some of the people, like myself, can’t say enough nice things about their host families: “Oh, they’re so sweet! And the children are adorable!”, “OMG, the host mother is such an amazing cook!”, “They involve me in everything, I feel so lucky!”, etc.

In the 3 months I was with my host family, they took me to Valencia twice, took me sightseeing to the Palau de la Musica Catalana, around Las Ramblas, to Montjuic and Tibidabo, to Blanes, and even to go see Sister Act with them at a theater in Barcelona.  They also took me out many times for lunch and dinner with their friends and family, I truly felt like a part of their lives. Of course, no one is perfect (myself included) and we did get into a couple of disagreements, but that is to be expected. I know that for the rest of my life I will remember the kindness this family showed to me. Every time I thought of having to move from there I could nearly cry.  However, it makes sense that the program has us move every 3 months… it keeps the cost for the families reasonable, and also if the relationship between the person and host family wasn’t the best, they’re not stuck together forever.

Unfortunately, I did hear a lot of negative stories about host families. Some people insisted the children in their family were evil and plotting against them, others reported that their families barely fed them, and even others were upset because their family didn’t give them keys to the house which meant they had to always accompany someone from the family home.  I even heard one story about a girl who was placed into a family with 2 adult autistic men, and she had 0 experience with individuals with special needs. The worst part was that she had no heads up about it.

Host families really are a gamble… and it isn’t for everyone. In fact, one of the English teachers at the school I work for told me she lived with a nightmare of a host family in Norway. She was paying the family to live there and it was supposed to include food and laundry, but the only food the family ever had was breakfast cereal and they refused to do her laundry. I feel super lucky that things have turned out the way they have. If I had been given a bad host family, I don’t know what I would have done. The program doesn’t really allow you to switch families. But when you move to a new country, I guess you have to be ready for anything. I came into this experience with an open mind, excited to learn the customs of a new culture, learn the language, and become more comfortable with kids. And I am so thankful I did this!

Independent Exploration

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I have never been one to really go out and do things on my own, but I always envied those who did.  I feel like I need to have a purpose to go somewhere alone, such as going to the grocery store for food or grabbing a coffee and then heading home.  Doing something without a purpose gave me anxiety.

Moving to Barcelona on my own was a big step.  What was my purpose? To travel and get paid to do it.  However, this whole idea of exploring on my own was a little difficult to grasp.  Ideally I would have met a bunch of friends by now who would explore with me, but friends don’t just appear out of thin air.  It was my fifth day in Barcelona and I could either stay home or go out to explore by myself… I obviously chose the latter, if for nothing else to avoid the guilt I would give myself for not taking advantage of my time here.

I was to meet my tutor, Roser, for lunch in Badalona and so I decided to walk around my new hometown.  I felt comfortable in knowing that I couldn’t really get lost; as long as I knew where the ocean was, I knew how to get home.2014-09-29 11.19.55

It was a lot warmer out than I expected, so after wandering around a bit I found myself quickly tired and sweaty.  I walked into the first cafe I found and asked (in broken Spanish) for a cold water and a cappucino.  I am still uncomfortable conversing in Spanish (or I guess I should begin referring to it as Castellano), and always feel bad when a shopkeeper says something to me and I just respond with a blank stare.  Sometimes I am so stumped trying to figure out what they are saying that I forget to politely apologize that I don’t speak much castellano. So hopefully they recognize that I’m a tourist… otherwise I just look like an awkwardly rude girl.

imageCappucinos never fail to put a smile on my face and make me feel content.  I slowly sipped on my cappucino and downed my water to help me cool down as I people watched and read my book, “Eat, Pray, Love.” At one point, a classic American song came on (for the life of me I now can’t remember which) and I started smiling and swaying to the music. For a moment I was transported back to America; then I realized no one else in that coffee shop understood what the song was saying. I have had this experience many times since; songs in English are extremely popular here and give me a sense that perhaps I’m not so far away from home after all.

I continued walking around the streets, peering into the little shops curiously.  It really is the small things that fascinate me.  The butcher shops all have large, full legs of various animals on display: thigh, knee, calf, hoof and all.  They shave off pieces  of the meat for customers and package it up which is something so simple yet so unheard of in America, or at least the suburbs of southern California.  We Americans dont’t want to see where our meat comes from; just package it prettily for us and we will be on our way.

I passed by another grocery store that had a closed basket full of snails on display.  Real, live, slimy snails. Crawling all over each other and on the sides of the basket.  I could not imagine someone walking up, opening the basket, and choosing snails for dinner later that night. How do you choose them? “Oh, that one looks extra slimy, I must have that one” or “I like the colors on this one’s shell, it probably tastes delicious.” Unfortunately, I did not see anyone open up the snail baskets so I couldn’t witness how they chose which lucky snails to take home. Maybe next time.

The smells walking around the city are amazing.  You walk down one street and smell some pretty flowers, then down the next and a whiff of sewage and dog shit offends your nose.  Then down the next you smell some freshly baked bread or brewed coffee, then a staleness, and then perhaps a hint of saltwater. Never before has my nose been blessed with so many olfactory experiences.

As I was walking down one street, there was a young man passing in the other direction.  He made eye contact with me and gave the hint of a smile, but I quickly averted my gaze. Why do I do that? How can I ever expect to meet people if I’m constantly coming across this way? I came all the way across the world for new experiences and also to improve myself, and I vow to myself that I will become much more outwardly friendly and extraverted in my time here. Here’s to hoping.

imageAround lunchtime, I met with my tutor and her family for lunch.  We went to a small Italian restaurant and had the menu del dia, which is a prefixed menu for a cheap and affordable price.  I got the caprese salad and a proscuitto and mushroom pizza; it was delicious! Unfortunately Roser’s husband and son do not speak much English. However, it was a fun challenge trying to understand the other’s language as Roser hurriedly tried to translate everything that is being said.

After lunch I ventured into Barcelona on my own.  Maria had recommended I visit La Padrera so I took the metro in that direction. When I arrived, there was an extremely long line and my neck was hurting a bit, so I decided just to walk around the area instead. Something about waiting in a line alone also scared me.

Using the Trip Advisor app, I found my way around Paseig de Gracia and found some of the lesser known buildings designed by Gaudi. I stopped inside a cafe for my first sangria in Barcelona and was surprised to find that their booths inside were all covered in beautiful mosaics in the likeness of Gaudi’s patio areas.

imageAfter walking around some more I found my way back to the metro and navigated myself back home. I was super proud of myself for taking that step toward independence and found that I was happy every step of the way.  Being happy without having someone there to appreciate the experience was a huge leap for me.

Gaudi has so much of his architecture spread across this beautiful city. This building, which for the life of me I can't remember the name of, is not a huge tourist attraction (in fact, you can't even go inside) but it is a wonder to look at.

Gaudi has so much of his architecture spread across this beautiful city. This building, which for the life of me I can’t remember the name of, is not a huge tourist attraction (in fact, you can’t even go inside) but it is a wonder to look at.

That night, I met the father of the family, Paco.  He did not speak nearly as much English as Maria, but it was an interesting experience trying to communicate through gestures (along with a dictionary and the help of little Francesca). I hope that as the weeks pass the two of us become closer and have an easier time communicating with each other.

A Rainy Day in Barcelona

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The Gothic Quarter

Plaça Real

Plaça Real

On Sunday, Maria gave me a small tour around the city of Barcelona including Paseig de Gracia, Plaça de Catalunya, Plaça Real and the Cathedral. It was very interesting to see the city from a local’s perspective. It began to rain and puddles were accumulating everywhere due to the uneven pavement.  Poor Francesca kept up as we walked all around the city and then finally stopped for some montaditos at a Basque restaurant called Txapela. I had Maria order for me because the menu was really extremely confusing; it was in Catalan, not Spanish, so I had absolutely no chance of understanding it.

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We had a mini hamburger (good but didn’t compare to a slider back home), a small dish with bocadillo (codfish), oil and spices that was extremely tasty (top right), and piece of toast topped with shrimp, mushroom, and prosciutto… that was probably my favorite! After all of that we were still a bit hungry so we order another montadito, which was a piece of toast topped with a type of scrambled eggs and proscuitto. I was skeptical about the scrambled eggs (I don’t normally like it; I’m weird, I know) but it had a texture I had never tasted and I loved it!

A monument in tribute to the Castellers, or the brave souls who make the human towers.

A monument in tribute to the Castellers, or the brave souls who make the human towers.

We then rushed back onto the metro and went home, deciding to take shelter from the rain.  We played a game of scrabble, one time in English and then one time in Spanish. It was surprisingly difficult for me to play in Spanish… I definitely have a lot of learning to do! I really hope that by the end of this experience I can actually hold a conversation in Spanish and not have to constantly translate everything in my head.

The Cloister of Barcelona Cathedral

The Cloister of Barcelona Cathedral

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Francesca also showed me her book, “Sleeping Beauty,” that tells the story in both English and Spanish. We decided to make it a routine to read 5 pages or so every night, first in English and then in Spanish to help us both with our pronunciation.  I am glad that she has become comfortable with me so quickly and I think the activity is helping both of us 🙂 She is such an adorable little girl, and extremely intelligent! I wish my family had started me learning languages a lot sooner in life.