Canada + Spain + Cupcakes=A Mix of Cultures that Works

(As previously seen on the Writer With A Passport blog.)

It’s 1pm on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’ve finally managed to get out of the house. I walk down a few blocks, past the supermarket, and past the park, and hang a left on Calle San Francisco. My intention is to make good on a two-week-old promise: to go to Canada Cupcake Cafe and interview the owners of the shop. It’ll be a sacrifice to drink good coffee and eat a cupcake, but hey, I’m used to hard work.


Thankfully, Arthur—one of the owners—remembers me when I enter. I order an iced latte and a really yummy chocolate ganache cupcake that I eat (in total) before I can remember to take a picture. When Arthur has a minute, he comes to sit with me and has his own cup of coffee. His partner, Shawn, is sitting close by and helps out any straggling customers before the shop closes for siesta time.


I do a quick recap for Arthur—I’m a writer from California, I’m living in Spain for the summer, and I love interviewing people and making new connections. Then, I get straight to the questions.

“How long have you been doing this?” I ask him.

Arthur tells me that he and Shawn opened CCC last August. They’re just getting ready to celebrate the shop’s one-year anniversary, and are still in the process of putting something together to show appreciation for loyal customers and draw in new clientele.

Like any “new and/or newer” business, there are loyal customers, newbies (like me!), a healthy rotation of students—especially Americans, and tourists. CCC offers a relaxing atmosphere, custom coffee, fresh desserts and bagels, and free WiFi. It sounds like a normal coffee/dessert shop in Northern California, but here in Spain, CCC is somewhat of an anomaly. Arthur and Shawn run a slightly different business model than other shops like them (there are only a handful of cupcake shops in Alicante, by the way), and walk a fine line between offering something culturally new while still providing some cultural comforts.


“Alicante chose us,” Arthur explains.

When he and Shawn decided to create a new adventure for themselves in Spain, they weren’t planning on making it to the south. They initially went to Barcelona, but the cost of living there is very expensive, and most people prefer to speak Catalan—a dialect of the region. Alicante drew in these Canadians with its good climate, lower cost of living, mix of people, and business potential.

At CCC, Arthur and Shawn make everything by hand with high-quality ingredients. They don’t use anything frozen or pre-made. And though this sounds normal to a California girl, it’s not so normal for everyone here. When the guys first began their cupcake endeavors, some people commented that cupcakes are cool, but just a “fashion” or phase in Spain. In other words, they didn’t anticipate the store to be a big hit—especially long-term.


But I think Arthur and Shawn will be seeing said people eating humble pie–or maybe humble cupcake. Canadian Cupcake Cafe seems like it will not only remain a part of Alicante, but also will grow and expand in the near future. Arthur shares with me that the goals of CCC are to make North Americans feel like they’re getting a taste of home, while allowing the Spanish to symbolically travel through their taste buds.

Even purchasing coffee at CCC is a different experience for most of the Spanish people here. For example, when I order a latte at a cafe I frequent here, it’s always in a porcelain cup—one size. But at CCC, you can choose a small, medium, or large size, AND can even have it customized to your preferences. Kinda like that one really popular coffee shop in North America that starts with a S… Plus, you can take your stuff to go (para llevar).

And the cups and utensils are unique as well. Both Arthur and Shawn take decreasing our carbon footprint very seriously. Therefore, they use biodegradable cups and utensils. They even have a sort of recycling center set up. Arthur joked that at times, it has “scared” the Spanish people here to see such a thing in the store. (See image below of the recycling center.) But customers are catching on, and Arthur and Shawn are teaching many people here something good—something that will help the environment and generations to come.


Though things seem to be going pretty well, success doesn’t come without hardship. Arthur tells me of the difficulties of all the paperwork involved in starting a business in Spain.

“Things are constantly changing,” he says. “At times, it feels like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing—and that’s not a knock against the process; it’s just how it is.”

Especially for a foreigner to start a business, it can be a struggle. But Canada Cupcake Cafe made it through the hoops and jumps, and now, Arthur and Shawn can focus on things like defining their products (they have recently added bagels to the menu and offer ice cream in the summer), and defining their market.

To top things off, both guys are community-oriented. They host intercambio (language exchange) groups at their shop, and aim to create a comfortable and relaxing environment for everyone. Shawn also tells me that they are both passionate about animals, and have been developing treats for pets. They’d like to partner with a local animal shelter in the near future, and donate a portion of pet treats sales to the shelter.


It’s safe to say that I’ll be making a return visit to Canada Cupcake Cafe—and soon. I’m glad I discovered this place and had the pleasure of speaking with its owners. If you find yourself in Alicante, be sure to visit them. You can eat your cupcake and drink your coffee in the store, or take them to go if you’re headed to the beach.

Virtually Connect with Canada Cupcake Cafe:

Website (English version)





The Day I Climbed Arthur’s Seat

(As previously seen on Writer With a Passport.)

It was Friday morning in Edinburgh, early May. The weather was unusually nice, and by nice, I mean that it was slightly overcast and in the low 60’s. I decided to take advantage of all things free in Edinburgh, and put the walking tour on my docket. There is no price charged for the tour itself, but the tour guides work on tips, so if you go on a walking tour there, bring some cash with you.

At 10:25am, one of the guides came to my hostel to lead us to the site where the tour would begin. There were a few friendly folks from my hostel who had the same plan as I, so we made small talk: Where are you from, where have you been, why are you in Scotland, etc.

We waited at the site pictured below until 11am, which is when the tour officially began.

Part of The Royal Mile, right in front of a Starbucks.

Part of The Royal Mile, right in front of a Starbucks.

Another part of The Royal Mile.

Another part of The Royal Mile.

We met our tour guide, Kiel, who happened to be from Australia, but called Scotland his adopted home. Right off the bat, Kiel was very amiable, knowledgeable, and just plain hilarious. My kind of tour guide. We started the tour by walking down The Royal Mile and headed to a church.

Sights on the way to the church on The Royal Mile. Like England, Scotland also has the famous red telephone boxes.

Sights on the way to the church on The Royal Mile. Like England, Scotland also has the famous red telephone boxes.

After walking for less than 5 minutes, it was already time for a sitting break. I thought: Man, I like this tour already! (Ha!) The church (or, kirk as they say in Scotland) is none other than the famous St. Giles’ Cathedral.

St. Giles' Cathedral aka High Kirk of Edinburgh

St. Giles’ Cathedral aka High Kirk of Edinburgh

Kiel gave us some history about the kirk, but I honestly can’t remember any of it. So, if you’re really curious, click HERE to read some history and facts about St. Giles’. (You’re welcome.) In between history lessons, facts, and perfectly-timed jokes, Kiel had us all make short introductions: names and hometown. During that time was when I saw him–Nick, my soon-to-be instant friend for the day. Only, I had no clue. But that’s one of the coolest things about traveling: when you keep an open mind and let shyness take a back seat, you meet the most extraordinary strangers who become some of the coolest people you could ever encounter.

We continued on our walking tour, seeing all the things I put on my “to-do” list, including the cafe where JK Rowling wrote a lot of Harry Potter (check!), as well as the graveyard where she would go for inspiration–like name ideas for characters such as Tom Riddle and Professor McGonagall. Finally, we reached Grassmarket (click HERE to read all about it) and took a break.

This is where I discovered Mary’s Milk Bar for the first time. You can read my review by clicking HERE.

View of the castle from Grassmarket.

View of the castle from Grassmarket.

Mary's Milk Bar. Best hot chocolate shop in the land.

Mary’s Milk Bar. Best hot chocolate shop in the land.

Just as I was finishing up the delicious and decadent dark hot chocolate with sea salt, the guy I had seen from earlier approached me. “How’s the hot chocolate?” he asked. “It’s SO good!” I excitedly told him. And for the rest of the tour, we chatted.

Nick told me how he was from the States but was living in Oxford for the year, working at CS Lewis’s house–don’t know what’s cooler than that! And I told him how I was living in Spain for the summer, but taking a holiday in Scotland.

When the tour was over, we happened to be in the same square as the admission-free Writers’ Museum, so we checked it out together. After that, I kind of invited myself along to hang out with Nick and be a part of whatever he was doing for the day. Since he had been to Edinburgh before, I relied on him to direct our next adventure. And what did he choose? To climb to Arthur’s Seat. I thought: How bad can it be?

Armed with my chucks, old lady beret, and chocolate running through my veins, I said: “Sure, why not?”

And, truly, it’s not a bad climb at 822 ft. But I hadn’t been on a hike of that magnitude for quite some time.

I stared up at the mountain, praying I'd be able to reach the top without much difficulty.

I stared up at the mountain, praying I’d be able to reach the top without much difficulty.

Things started out easy enough, and with such great company, I was like: I’ve SO got this. We took every opportunity to admire the view, and also stopped at some ruins.

At every turn, Edinburgh is a truly beautiful city, offering views of its plush green landscapes.

At every turn, Edinburgh is a truly beautiful city, offering views of its plush green landscapes.

St. Anthony's Chapel (ruins)

St. Anthony’s Chapel (ruins)

St. Anthony's Chapel (ruins)

St. Anthony’s Chapel (ruins)

Nick and I continued our ascent to Arthur’s Seat. Every time we paused (for my sake), I was overwhelmed by the beauty of this spectacular city.

IMG_5496 IMG_5500There was one point where I didn’t think I could make it the rest of the way…probably at the halfway point. While we sat, I confessed to Nick that I have Fibromyalgia. Though I am SO MUCH better, especially since living in Europe for the past two months, I sometimes get easily tired or have pain. I am by no means a lazy person, and I enjoy exercise. However, the past several years, living with pain and fatigue and trying to figure out how to improve my standard of living has been somewhat difficult. (Not to mention having knee surgery two years ago, relieving lots of pain, but rendering my knee changed forever.)

But Nick cheered me on, saying: “You can make it!” And it revived my determination. I was going to reach the top, no matter what.

So, I took a long sip of water, and started again.

Breathtaking panoramic view, about midway to Arthur's Seat.

Breathtaking panoramic view, about midway to Arthur’s Seat.

With Nick’s patience (thank you, Nick, if you’re reading this!) and the gorgeous views, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way of making it to the top for the ultimate view of the city in its entirety. We continued to take little breaks, and I took about a bajillion and one pictures.

IMG_5507IMG_5522Finally, we reached the top! I can’t fully describe it in words, but thankfully, I have pictures.

Another panoramic shot, from the very top of Arthur's Seat.

Another panoramic shot, from the very top of Arthur’s Seat.


Nick is the one to the left. He didn't know he made it in my shot--ha!

Nick is the one to the left. He didn’t know he made it in my shot–ha!


Why must people insist on defacing stuff?

Why must people insist on defacing stuff?

By the way, though it’s not certain that the legendary King Arthur himself sat on this “mountain” (it’s more of a grand hill, really), it is rumored that it is a possible location for the famous Camelot. Also, Arthur’s Seat has been mentioned quite a bit in literature. Regardless of the actual, factual reality, I’d say that it’s a must-see while visiting Edinburgh. Click HERE to read more on hiking the hill.

I was overjoyed that I was able to make it to Arthur’s Seat. The views were worth it, but it meant more to me than that. Maybe it sounds corny, but as I continue to recover from some difficult years of sickness and pain, it was a symbol of how far I’ve come–how much my body is now able to handle. And sometimes, part of traveling means that you accomplish extraordinary things–things you may not have otherwise done in your own hometown.

When we got back down to the bottom, I looked up to the top of Arthur’s Seat and felt a smile crawl across my face: I did it.

View of Arthur's Seat from the bottom of the hill.

View of Arthur’s Seat from the bottom of the hill.

I will always remember the day I climbed to Arthur’s Seat. And if I ever make it back to Edinburgh, I’d climb it again in a heartbeat. I’ll be forever grateful to Nick who was very encouraging while I made the trek with him, especially because I probably wouldn’t have done it without him.

After coming back “home” to Alicante, I was so ready to tackle another hill–the hill that leads up to the Castillo de Santa Barbara (which I’ll write about in another post), and I did it! It was easier than Arthur’s Seat, but still gave me a good workout.

As you travel, or even “staycation,” I would like to encourage you to try something new like I did. You never know what new friends and adventures are waiting for you.

Until next time…cheers! xx

Chocolate So Good, You’ll Skip That Pint

(As previously seen on the Writer With a Passport blog.)

The Scottish have simple names for many places. For example, the road that connects the castle in Edinburgh to the rest of the Old Town is named: The Royal Mile. A famous square with many pubs and shops is named Grassmarket, because that’s where grass was sold back in the day. And, in this square, there is a simple little chocolate and gelato shop: Mary’s Milk Bar. However, nothing inside Mary’s place is simple; everything is quite extraordinary.


© 2014 Tamar Hela

I stumbled upon Mary’s Milk Bar during a free walking tour of the city. The weather behaved unusually well during my week in Edinburgh, but I wanted to sip on something warm during our fifteen-minute break. I don’t know whether it was the chocolate or the retro look of the store that called to me, but I trusted my choice. I was determined to try this so-called “amazing” hot chocolate, which our guide had mentioned during his spiel. Praying that this drink wouldn’t cost me more than a few pounds—and by pounds, I mean the money used in the UK—I marched over to Mary’s Milk Bar to see what all the fuss was about.


© 2014 Tamar Hela

When you enter Mary’s, the aroma of chocolate is strong; you can almost taste it in your mouth. It’s like getting a free sample, right off the bat. I took my place in line—it was quite busy in the little shop—and looked around. Handmade chocolates are displayed on shelves and placed in clear bags with ribbons, or boxes with clear tops—just the way chocolate should be displayed. The lights on the wall are shaped like glass ice cream cones, and every item displayed is nostalgic of a 1950’s era American ice cream shop, but is actually modeled after milk bars that were popular between the 1920’s and 1960’s in the UK. Behind a glass counter, rows of gelato wait, like sweet and icy sirens screaming to be eaten. And, to make it all complete, Mary stands behind the counter, wearing a sweet smile, personally attending to each customer.


© 2014 Tamar Hela


© 2014 Tamar Hela

I looked at the menu, trying to decide which hot chocolate I wanted to try. Yes, you bet there are options! Dark chocolate has always been my favorite, so I opted for the dark chocolate with sea salt. I happily handed over £2.50 to Mary, and gave the concoction a taste. Were my taste buds blown away? Um… YES. I promised Mary I’d be back to try the other flavors, and practically floated out of her store because I was high on chocolate.

Why is this drink so good? Well, I’ll tell you why: Mary uses real chocolate (not the powder crap), which is melted, and then mixed with yummy, frothy milk. It’s the real deal, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but: It’s even better than the famous hot chocolate in Paris.


© 2014 Tamar Hela

I kept true to my promise to visit again (and again) to try the other hot chocolate flavors. Mary was only happy to oblige. Besides, I wanted to chat with this lovely lady, and find out how she made Mary’s Milk Bar a reality.

On the second visit, I tried the milk hot chocolate with orange and cinnamon. However, my dreams of interviewing Mary melted away—no pun intended—because the shop was busy that day (no surprise). I slipped out to the Grassmarket square and bought a crepe with butter and sugar, prepared in the French way. It was the perfect companion to that particular hot chocolate flavor.


© 2014 Tamar Hela


© 2014 Tamar Hela

Finally, on the third day, I was able to open the floodgates of my curiosity in regards to Mary and her shop. I ordered a white hot chocolate with cardamom. It was nothing short of ecstasy in my mouth.

When Mary had finished with another customer, I asked her if I could take a few snaps of the store, and she was more than agreeable. After my mini session of capturing the elements of the shop as best I could, I sat down by the window and began to chat with the store’s namesake.


© 2014 Tamar Hela

Mary, like most entrepreneurs, tried quite a few different things until she found her niche. She told me that she had intended to open Mary’s Milk Shop, but not until later in life. However, life has a funny way of presenting opportunities when we least expect them, and Mary took her chance. Not even a full year in business, and the shop seems to be doing quite well. But it’s no surprise; after all, its owner is very creative, amiable, and talented. Mary was actually trained at an Italian Gelato school in Bologna, and therefore is a gelato graduate. She also worked as a chocolatier for five years, prior to starting her business. It’s safe to say: the lady knows what she’s doing.


© 2014 Tamar Hela


© 2014 Tamar Hela

In between my questions and her need to attend to customers, I gazed out the window of the storefront, in awe of the dreamy Edinburgh Castle in clear view. Talk about a million-dollar view while sipping on melted, milky chocolate. I felt like I was in a fairytale with a touch of retro, surrounded by chocolate and gelato that will make you forget about that afternoon pint.

After leaving Mary with my best wishes and gratitude, I actually felt somewhat hollow, realizing that it would be a long while before visiting Edinburgh again and being able to make a jaunt to Grassmarket to drink the world’s best hot chocolate.  As I walked back to my hostel, I had a fleeting thought: Could Mary possibly mail me hot chocolate?


© 2014 Tamar Hela

So, take it from a self-proclaimed chocolate connoisseur, who was taught the word “chocolate” at an early age: Mary’s Milk Bar is a must-see shop in Edinburgh. You owe it to yourself to make the trek. Perhaps, someday, Mary’s will be so well known, that people from all over the world make an annual pilgrimage. I know that if I get the chance to head back to the UK, this chocolate and gelato shop in Scotland will be on my priority list.

Add it to your list too, and when you drop in to see Mary and order a cup of her incredibly rich and drool-worthy hot chocolate, let her know I sent you.

By the way, to find out more about Mary’s Milk Bar, click HERE to view the website, HERE to visit the Facebook page, and HERE to follow on Twitter. Cheers!

The Romance (or not) In Travel

(As previously seen on Writer With a Passport.)

View of Alicante from the Castillo de Santa Barabara.

View of Alicante from the Castillo de Santa Barabara.

I’m a writer and artist living abroad for the summer, experiencing a new culture and language, and developing a routine in order to thrive creatively. Read that first sentence aloud, and it sounds sexier than simply reading it in your mind. But it’s not all romance when traveling abroad, especially when you’re alone.

Today, I woke up before the sunrise–which in Spain, during this time of year, is before 7am. Most people had just arrived home from the night just an hour before that, and I definitely heard them. ALL. Nevertheless, I felt refreshed and ready to start the day.

I made myself cafe con leche and had some croissants with jam and butter while reading articles, slowly waking up. Then I read for an hour or so and took my time getting dressed and putting on makeup. After I finished, it was 11am, and I was ready to go for my daily walk. At this point, I’m sure you’re not so convinced of this “non-romance” I hinted at earlier.

My walk towards the coastline was wonderful. It’s Saturday and EVERYONE is out. Everyone, that is, except for the party-goers of last night, all of whom were probably still sleeping off their hangovers. After walking down one of the main streets, La Rambla, I made it to the coastline, which is where it gets really touristy and, sometimes, annoying.

The vendors, who are mostly African men (and some women), were all out and about, trying to sell their loot: fake designer purses, sunglasses, battery-operated toys, you name it. One began to follow me, speaking in Spanish: “Hola! Mira aqui! Hola, guapa!” I just ignored him, walking away without even looking to the side. When I failed to respond in Spanish, or in any language for that matter, he tried Italian. He finally gave up, and I found a quiet bench that overlooked the port, and sat for a bit while soaking up the sun.

IMGP0512.JPG - Version 2 copy

When I began to walk again, ready to hit up my new favorite cafe for lunch, I got clicked at. Yes, CLICKED at. Perhaps that’s the Spanish mating call? The guy who did it wasn’t bad-looking–at all–but I was so surprised that I continued to walk, without any reaction, while processing this new way of being cat-called. Then I kind of chuckled to myself and carried on about my business.

I made it to the cafe without any further incident, ordered a tortilla espanola with vino blanco, and settled in to read a book while I waited. Honestly, it was bliss. I sat there, uninterrupted, eating my meal and drinking some wine. Then, because I felt like it, I ordered a cafe con leche and continued to read.

Something I really appreciate about the Europeans is that they don’t come and check on you all the time like in America. I cannot fully express how nice it is to eat in peace without having someone come to to check on me every ten minutes: “How’s your food? Can I get you anything else? Is everything okay?”

One of the books I'm currently reading. It's very fascinating and I highly recommend it.

One of the books I’m currently reading. It’s very fascinating and I highly recommend it.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate hospitality, but the Europeans have something right about meals that we Americans fail to understand: meal time is sacred. It’s a time to either socialize with friends, or individually regroup and reflect on the day, etc. Here in Spain, if I want something, I get the server’s attention and ask for it–even the check (la cuenta). It may be alien to those who have never traveled here before, but once you get used to it, it’s really nice. At least, it is for me. (Says the “ambivert” who needs social AND alone time every day.)

Corte Ingles is like Target, JC Penny, the gourmet food section of Whole Foods, and a supermarket all in one.

Corte Ingles is like Target, JC Penny, the gourmet food section of Whole Foods, and a supermarket all in one.

After lunch, I walked back to my apartment (passing a Corte Ingles) and climbed the six flights of stairs–which I’m still getting used to. My building doesn’t have a lift, and I prefer it to be that way. Walking up all those stairs those is definitely not a romantic part of living and traveling abroad. Still…it’s surprising what you get used to when you accept that things are done in a different manner in other parts of the world.

Okay, so perhaps my traveling life thus far has more “romance” than otherwise. I can agree with that. But I also came here, expecting to not be catered to. I mean, I’m not even sure if people know I’m an American, which is fine by me. I force myself to stumble through the language and go out every day–even if it’s just for a walk and coffee. The other night, someone asked me for directions and I was actually able to direct them to the right place. Perhaps I’m blending in better than I thought.

But even when there’s a lack of this romance in the day-to-day of being somewhere else, I look for magic and always find it. I find the magic in the old, dirty windows of my bedroom that let in too much noise. I find it in the bathtub that clogs within 20 seconds of being in the shower. I find it in the broken lamp on my nightstand. I even find it when the Internet is dodgy in the middle of writing a blog post. I feel it, see it, and hear it all around me. And that’s where the romance in travel shows itself to me and I embrace each experience and nuance. So, I smile, remember to be grateful for every minute of my life and look forward to what’s ahead.

Plaza de los Lucero, right by my apartment.

Plaza de los Lucero, right by my apartment.

The Magic in the Noise

(As previously seen on Writer With a Passport.)

There’s something magical about noise when I’m traveling. Not everyone enjoys noise, especially during the wee hours of the night. But I love it. The Spanish sometimes remind me of New Yorkers–especially here in Alicante. It feels like the city that never sleeps.

The esplanada in Alicante at night.

The Esplanada in Alicante at night.

When the summer is here, as I’ve witnessed firsthand six years ago, the nightlife will be even more alive. Right now, especially during the weekday, it’s not as busy. And yet, it seems that there’s always something going on.

It’s 9am and I have my coffee and an apple for breakfast. My window is wide open and I can hear all the noise of the morning bustle. True, many places do not open until later, but there are many businesses that operate earlier than 10am. Buses are flying by on the street, and I can hear people talking on the sidewalk.

Later in the day, there will be another burst of noise as people gather at the sidewalk cafes for lunch and “siesta.” Tonight, there will be lots of people going out for tapas, drinks, and dancing–especially because it’s Friday–el fin de semana: Fiesta time! When they come home in the early morning, I’ll probably hear them chatting excitedly to one another, regaling the new memories just made–and they’ll probably be borrachos. But even before that, around 1 or 2 in the morning, the garbage truck and street cleaners will be in my neighborhood, making more noise.

The view of the street from my apartment window.

The view of the street from my apartment window.

So why do I like all this noise? Because it represents life. Life and humanity. When you travel alone, even if you don’t have a direct connection to another person, there is always life around you (unless you’re a complete hermit, of course). It’s in the noise of the city, it’s in being confined in small spaces like a tram or metro and remembering that most other cultures don’t have a personal bubble when it comes to the daily commute, and it’s in watching people interact. I’ve always been an avid people-watcher, and now, as a writer who travels, being in another country is like being a scientist who has just been granted access to one of the best experimental labs in the world.

There is magic all around me, but it’s especially in the noise. It’s there when I’m trying to sleep at 2am and I hear someone’s conversation four stories down, almost amplified by the old window in my room. Finding that magic while traveling, I think, is important. It’s what helps me keep an open mind, pushing me to try new things, when I have fear or feel intimidated by language barriers.

The next time YOU find yourself traveling, no matter where it is, stop and find the magic in the noise. Look at life all around you and take time to appreciate what a miracle it is to be alive. Maybe it’ll help you sleep better; maybe it won’t. But, I bet you’ll look at things with a new appreciation, and isn’t that what travel is all about?

Until next time,