27 September 2008

This weekend really is lazy. . .

This is something I never thought I would say, but maybe a three day weekend is too long.
I've had the whole apartment to myself almost the whole weekend because my roommates had better things to do which they did not tell me about- it's cool, I like having the place to myself (except when there are a ton of unexplained/creepy noises around the place, which there were last night). And when I take weekend vacays to exotic and exciting locales, I might just forget to invite/tell them too.
I've got a vote for Estonia so far. It will be tough to find cheap tickets to these less-traveled places, but I'm already looking. Any of the Baltic states would be a cool opportunity, and of course it would be nice to connect with my roots in Sweden. But as it gets colder, I might want to hit up a warmer area, like Greece, or Italy, or even Africa. How exciting would that be?!
So yesterday I didn't do much, because we were expecting IES staff to come inspect the apartment, and I had just sort of planned to be there and ask them some questions and then get on with my day. I was ready for them at nine, because no one had told me when to expect them and I wasn't trying to take any chances. My ra said the plan was for them to show up at 1- but they never did. That kind of screwed with my day.
In the late afternoon, after I expected places to have reopened from siesta, I went out to shop and get groceries. I checked out lefties, which is an outlet of one of the big stores here, and H&M, which was right next door. They were both located on Gran Via, a big street near Sol, so I walked there next.
When I was jogging through Sol the other night, I saw those two Irish pubs which show baseball and American football sometimes (I don't remember if I mentioned them already?). I thought for sure at least one of them would have the Sox/Yanks game on their schedule for the night, but it was not the case, unfortunately. Slightly upset, I headed over to Calle Princesa (yeah, it was a little out of the way, but I would rather take the subway 10 minutes than walk the same amount of time back towards Gran Via) to get groceries, and then I went back to the apartment.
Basically, I spent around 3 hours just walking, and I was feeling it by the time I got back. I'm usually sore in my hip flexors more than anywhere else. Walking is brutal. I totally support it as legitimate exercise, but I am not in favor of race walking as an Olympic sport (did you hear that like five Russian race-walkers failed drug tests recently? Embarrassing). But I digress.
The day was not a total loss, by any means. For instance, I got caught up on both Project Runway and America's Next Top Model (thank goodness for YouTube).
Today has been more of the same. I've watched something like three different versions of Peter Pan (I started out looking for the newer, live action version but couldn't find it, so I settled for the animated version and an old-school musical version before finally finding what I had looked for in the first place). Then it was music videos ('Chicken Noodle Soup' and 'Tell Me When to Go,' to name a couple). Now I'm listening to the Mules game on the web. Uncle Willie was being interviewed on the pre-game show, and I think that officially makes his voice the first family member's voice I have heard since I left the country.
Oh yeah- my mom will want an update on my classes. Grammar class is going well, but I'm probably not speaking up enough in class. The other day she had us do a tongue-twister to work on our r's: "El perro de San Roque no tiene rabo porque Ramón Rodriguez lo ha robado." We said it one by one the way we would normally say it, then she made us say it with the rolling r's exaggerated, and then we repeated it one more time as fast as we could. We all sounded pretty silly.
On Monday, my Creative Writing teacher couldn't make it, but all we were doing was watching a movie, so that wasn't a big deal. It was a little weird, though, because it was the third day of that class, and it was the second that she missed. On Wednesday, we got a new teacher. The woman who is the head of IES Madrid came in to tell us because it was a last minute thing and the new teacher was on his way. This new guy, Enrique, made a dramatic entrance, throwing the door open and sliding in (unintentionally).
He is very funny. As he introduced himself and asked us about the class, I felt like I was watching a comedian. When he isn't sure what to say or when he is thinking or needs a filler, he makes a little noise like, "Tak tak tak, tak tak, tak tak." It's really funny. I think he'll be a good teacher, but I am going to miss the other one too- mostly because she was going to call me Isabela.
Contemporary Spanish Theatre is going well, but I think it might kind of be a tough class. I mean, the teacher couldn't be there on Tuesday, so he is making us make up the class. Monday afternoon at four. I kind of am not in favor of that.
Ceramics is good, except for the walk to and from the studio. I've completed another pot, this one modeled after a traditional Muscogee/Creek tribe seed pot. It's shaped like a frog, which I've done before. I'm not used to raku glazes though, or only being given three minutes to glaze, so it kind of came out of the second firing not looking so good. The other girls in the class think it looks like a panda bear. "Just tell everyone that's what it is!" they tell me, and I'm just like, "But the Muscogees didn't have panda bears!" so I am kind of looking to get rid of this one asap.
The Prado class is going well, but it is really pretty exhausting to spend an hour and a half in the late afternoon on your feet. We are all a little impatient in there, and easily distracted. This week we studied Titian.
Theatre Workshop is pretty cool. I don't know if I mentioned the teacher before, but she is a stage actress, and she comes to class in pretty eccentric outfits, like full, floor-length skirts and bright shawls. She reminds me of a fortune teller.
We got our scripts this week- it's not a play you would have heard of, and she assigned parts pretty randomly. I am Mujer 2 in a play called Ramón.
I'll have my first music workshop class this upcoming Monday, and that should make my week just a little bit busier. No, I'm not required to have any prior musical experience; no, it is not worth any credits; and no, it does not cost any money. You can expect me to come back a virtuoso.
Tomorrow I plan to head back to the Rastro- I still need to get that flamenco dress for Cousin Brooke. She may just have to be happy with castanets or something, because I checked out a flamenco specialty store yesterday and the dresses were priced upwards of 600 euro. I'm really looking for another pashmina for cheap, because they go with everything, and they make great breathing masks for Ceramics class when we open up the kiln and smoke goes everywhere.
I encourage you all to try tortilla española- it's my favorite Spanish food so far. Basically you take eggs, chopped boiled potatoes, and chopped onions, and you mix it up and put it in a pan and cook it until it is like an omelette. Then you put that in a baguette. I've had it with mayonnaise and a big, grilled green pepper slab on top, and those are both delicious, too. (You have to cook the pepper enough though- I think maybe they slather it in olive oil? I don't know if it's actually grilled or how they cook it but it is good.) I highly recommend it, and I am definitely taking Mom out to my favorite bocadillo place to try some when she comes to Madrid in December.
Sorry this update wasn't very exciting- I haven't been up to much these last couple of days. Funny how I still managed to write way too much.

25 September 2008

Mailing Address

First of all, I want to direct your attention to post below this one if you haven't seen it already- this is my second post today. I remembered that a lot of you have asked for my mailing address, so here it is (it's a little different from the one I was originally told to use, but it's simpler now):

IES Madrid
[My full first and last name]
Avda. Séneca, 7
28040 Madrid

Another question I am frequently asked is when I expect to be home. Right now the likely date is Sunday, the 21st of December. It depends on what my mom and I want to see in Europe, though. . . but I think we should be able to get everything done in 8 days.

I'm also thinking about doing some travelling on the weekends, since my last class of the week ends mid-afternoon Thursday and then I'm free til Monday morning. Some places I was thinking about going were Tallinn, Estonia, Stockholm, Morocco, and then I've also been told to see Greece, and I've heard that Prague is really cheap. And of course I'd like to return to London, or see Dublin for real (instead of just the inside of an airport), and anywhere in France would be amazing. Does anyone have any suggestions? Dave and Family, I know you are all world travellers; your thoughts, please?

". . .I was a duck."

Okay, before I start writing about the last leg of our journey, I need to add something I forgot to mention the other day.

I've already mentioned our dinner at La Fonda Begoña- the savory dishes, the hospitality of our hosts, all of that. But I forgot to tell you that while I was sitting at the table, surrounded by good food and awesome people, and when I least expected it, I heard a sound- a very distinctive sound. It was a sound like the little rocks that you put in a fish bowl, all grinding together, the sort of noise that convinces people to stop smoking. That's right, it was the same voice I'd heard at breakfast earlier in the day, in a totally different part of the country.
My mind raced. I was sure I wasn't mistaken- it was exactly the same voice. What were the odds that the same man could have taken the same route as us totally by coincidence? Pretty low, I decided. That left only one option- he was a serial killer stalking us.
I know how I must have looked, sitting there, my shoulders hunched with tension, neck tingly, my eyes shifting back and forth, trying to formulate a plan for escape.
"Anna," I whispered to the girl next to me," don't look now, but I think we're being followed. By a murderer."
"What are you talking about?" she asked, entirely too loudly. He would hear us, I knew he would, and then he would make us his first victims.
"That man. . . he was at the place where we had breakfast. I heard him!" I tried to express the urgency of the situation to her with my tone.
She looked at me like I was crazy (and maybe she wasn't that far off). "That's our bus driver," she said plainly, before ladeling some more mushrooms onto her plate.
Yeah, I felt a little silly, but really, a young traveller can't be too careful. I mean, he definitely sounded like a serial killer. I was just looking out for everyone's best interests.

So. Where was I? Right- leaving Valdeón; getting back on the open road.
I use the term 'open road' here as a figure of speech, or an expression, because we took the same twisting mountain path out of Valdeon as we had taken to get in, and open is definitely one of the last words I would choose to describe it. It is a very un-open road, and it was actually a little terrifying at times. But our would-be serial killer of a bus driver handled the conditions admirably, and we made it t0 Llanes, a quiet little town in the region of Asturias, in one piece.
I was thrilled to hear that our hotel was actually a converted monastery- and there were showers in every room! It was really, really nice- it said three stars, so now I'm trying to figure out what you have to do to get any more, because the place was great. I mean, there were no clocks in the room, and that kind of bugged me, but that's nitpicking, honestly.
Another thing that I was so excited about- the ocean! I guess some of the students actually got in the water not too long after we got there (and that was a big deal because it was maybe 60 or 70 degrees, and really windy), but I just wanted to lay low for a little while, because we had 4 hours until dinner.
When I did go out to explore the town by myself, I think most of the students had already come back. I didn't know which way the sea was; I thought it would be really cool and authentic if I just followed the sound of the gulls and the smell of salt and fish or whatever. I did pretty much head straight to the beach, but I think that was just coincidence because there were gulls everywhere in Llanes, and the whole place smelled a little funky.
On the way, I passed an old tower, and some old chapels, and then some more old stone walls. I know I reference a lot of obscure places I've already been too, but this place really did remind me of St. Malo in France. St. Malo is also a coastal village with ancient fortress bits still surrounding a lot of it, because pirates used to be a big problem there. I don't know if Llanes has a history with pirates, but they were all ready to go in any case.
So. . . the beach was beautiful! It was in an inlet, with a cliff on one side, and more coast on the other. Even though it looked pretty man-made, I just wanted to stay there and have my hair and makeup messed up by the wind, and have salt in my hair, and get my jacket soaked through with dampness. Eventually I pulled myself away from it, because I saw something else that looked almost equally interesting: a path of stone steps leading up the cliff. Naturally, I followed it.
I had some initial misgivings (a, it smelled like pee, and b, it was a whole lot of steps) but I eventually made it up to the top of the cliff and the Paseo de San Pedro. There's a whole beautiful area up there to walk along and view the ocean. There were towers, and some caves, and huge cliff faces, and waves crashing against them. . . it was so incredible. Really, there aren't many things I love as much as the sea, so I stayed up there for an hour or two, alone, walking as far as I think I was allowed to and just absorbing the splendor of it.
This is the part where I tell you how many pictures I took. Over the three days we were away, I took approximately 400 pictures. I edited them 'in the field' (because being an art major and having taken my sister's senior pictures practically makes me a professional photographer, you know, and we use lingo like that) down to 288, and since I got back, I'm down to around 120. But I mention this because the battery on my camera started to get low, and I'd already used up my first rechargeable battery, and I'd brought my big converter to plug the recharger into the wall, and it didn't fit the recessed outlets. So I was turning my camera on, taking quick pictures, and then turning it off again, which actually might have used up more power than just letting the camera do its own power-save thing.
After taking one last picture using the auto-timer setting in a blocked-off tower (maybe I wasn't supposed to go up there; what are you going to do about it?) I realized that I needed to rush back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. My hair couldn't be helped, but I changed out of my tennis shoes into slightly less practical ones, but besides that, it was the same jeans I'd worn up to the Paseo and the tank tops I'd worn for our marcha that morning, with my hoodie on over. That's how I dress up for a wine tasting/cocktail hour.
I'm actually not sure what they served us. It tasted like straight up apple cider, but I could smell the alcohol in it, so I know it wasn't just juice in a wine glass. At the same time, it wasn't strong enough to be the cider that Llanes is famous for. I didn't worry about it too much, and had a couple of glasses. I got the second glass so I could be able to toast my two friends who were getting married back in Kansas pretty much as we were having our cocktails (shout out to Kendra and Abby!). Along with that, they served little tapas, like tortilla, gazpacho (delicious!), espinaca- the list goes on. They served us enough to basically fill us up.
Afterwards, I went out with a group of people who wanted to try the famous cidra, but I did not appreciate the taste and nibbled on bread instead. I came back relatively early (12:30) so I could get rested up to run in the morning. One of the girls had told me she'd gone jogging up along the Paseo de San Pedro and really liked it, so I wanted to try that.
I got up at 6:30, hoping to have ample time before breakfast, but I keep forgetting that the sun seems to come up later here. I started around 7, running through the town towards the beach, and I just stayed on the boardwalk (it was concrete, not boards, but I'm not sure how else to describe it) where there were plenty of lights, and did agilities and short sprints, all the while taking in the great view of the morning waves.
It started to get gradually lighter, and I made my way up to the Paseo (I did have to take an alternate route because I ran into a couple of people making out). I ran down to the tower at the end and then came back to where the cliff overlooked the beach. I waited, hoping to see the sun rise over the water, but I really needed to get back and shower before breakfast, so I jogged back to the hotel. Along the way, I passed a couple of the guys I'd seen the night before at the cider place, doing some sort of bachelor party thing. You see that sort of thing a lot in Spain (the staying out all night thing, not the bachelor party).
After breakfast, we got to explore the town just a little bit more before getting back on the bus to start the trip home. This time, I found that I was in the back of the bus with mostly boys. I liked this- they were funny. One of them mentioned the bus driver and his creepy voice. "Yeah, I saw him at breakfast this morning," he said, "and he was eating a bowl of gravel." This led to another guy, one from my Contemporary Theatre class, being asked to do an impression of him.
It turns out that this guy is really good at impressions. I mean really good. He did a couple, and took requests. "Can you do Christopher Walken?" one of the boys asked. "Christopher Walken is really hard actually, but I've been working on it: 'Wow. . . I mean, wow. . .'" and it was pretty much spot on. But he wasn't satisfied. "I'm sorry; that sounded a little too Daniel Plainview. . . 'I'm an oil man. . .'" and that was a perfect impression too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ml2Ae2SIXac
Then the conversation went back to Christopher Walken. He told us a story he'd heard from someone who'd been an assistant on the set of one of his movies. [Stop me if you've heard this one.] One day, filming shut down for lunch, and everyone started to go their separate ways. Instead of going out to grab something or heading to one of the trailers to get food, Christopher Walken just walked straight out into a pond on set, and he stayed there, just standing in the pond, for the entire lunch break.
When the break ended, everyone regrouped, and the director asked a few of the people how they'd passed their lunch break. He came to Christopher Walken. "What did you do for lunch?" he asked him, because everyone was trying to figure out what he'd been up to out in that pond. "For lunch," Walken told them, ". . . I was a duck."
Anyway, it was funnier when this kid told it. There were also impressions of George Bush and Sarah Palin done. A good time was had by all.

23 September 2008

Chicos de Europa

At 3 we headed back to the buses and went on our merry way. It was something like 3 or 4 hours to our final stop for the day, but I didn't sleep for any of it because after about an hour or two, things started to get really, really beautiful.
I think it started with a dam. We were driving around this man-made lake, and mountains just sort of sprang up around it. There were peaks gradually stretching up towards the sky, some of them white and barren, others covered with pines and other plants, all of it reflected in the blue waters of the lake.
We wound our way around the mountains, and then sometimes we just went through them. As we began to climb higher, however, our route became more and more arduous, and less direct. Some of the students started to get a little carsick, but there was nowhere to stop. A few times we had to stop abruptly when another vehicle approached at a place where the road was too narrow for us both. Then one of us (well, always the car) would back up, or drive to the side of the road. Sometimes there was a forest on one side of us, and a ravine on the other. Sometimes you couldn't see the bottom through the trees clinging to the cliffside.
I thought we might just drive right on through the mountainous region (those mountains are called the Picos de Europa by the way, hence the title), but we were fortunate enough to stop right in the middle of it, in a tiny town called Valdeón.
To say that Valdeón was picturesque doesn't even begin to describe it. Ángel told us (in one of many announcements of his that began with the word chicos) that this town had only 20 residents. I'm not sure if that was true, because I think there were at least twenty buildings in town, but it was definitely smaller than Spring Hill. Maybe even smaller than Jaudin (that's a town along the state line that takes 7 seconds to drive through. . . my dad should know what I'm talking about).
Our inn, the Fonda Begoña, was extremely tiny. Only girls were staying there, and we had to sleep two to a little double bed, in an itsy bitsy, sparsely furnished room. We had a wardrobe, a chair, and nighstand, the little bed, and a charming goat pelt on the floor, to add that rustic touch. Honestly, I don't know how they even fit that much into the room- see for yourself.
The quiet atmosphere of the town and the tinyness of the hotel reminded me of somewhere else I'd stayed a few years ago- a tiny beach town in France called (if I remember correctly, and I probably don't) St. Cast le Guildo. That hotel was most memorable for the fact that our group was the only one staying there, and when we all started plugging in hair dryers and camcorders and PSP's, we blew a fuse or shorted something or whatever- whatever happened, we had no power. So I was immediately worried about that.
The boys and some of the girls were staying at a different hotel. When we heard the boys got beds to themselves, we were a little upset, but the woman who ran our inn did not see the injustice in it at all. It was totally unheard of for boys to share beds apparently. I didn't mind; I wasn't expecting a bed to myself.
We all went out to explore the town and surrounding countryside, and all of us found different things to fall in love with. There were the flowers, the adorable homes, the tiny streets, the local pets, the people- everything. Everyone was out for evening strolls, and most were more than willing to chat with us. One woman told us about her adventures up on the mountains. We asked her how long she'd lived in the town, and she basically told us she'd come up for vacation and never left.
The people who weren't out walking were in town, gathered around a little plaza area. They have a pasttime in this town, a game sort of like ten pins and bocce ball, with maybe a little horseshoes thrown in, and they play it in the evenings, or maybe all day, I don't know. They were hospitable enough to let some of our boys play, but even the most athletic IES kids were no match for the older men of Valdeón. I was really impressed with the way they used backspin to get the ball to stay near the pins so they could try and knock down a few more on their second toss, and I kind of felt like playing softball might have given me a little bit of an advantage at the game, but I was more content to stand back and take pictures of the pros.
The sun began to set, and as it did, the temperature dropped. We went into the hotel for dinner as the mist from the mountains began to close in around us.
I know I've mentioned this partially already, but dinner here is very late, and very big. They prepared seperate vegetarian dishes, and I had conveniently seated myself next to the other vegetarian at the table without realizing it. They started us off with bread (it was pretty great bread, too), and then we got a cream of vegetable soup (really rich, and really garlicky). The next dish to come out was something like macaroni noodles in a tomato sauce with mushrooms- it reminded all of us of Rice-a-Roni or Hamburger Helper or something like that, and I probably ate too many of the mushrooms. They burned my tongue.
That sounds like a complete and delicious meal, right? Well you are WRONG (about the complete part, not the delicious part). There was more to come. At this point, everyone else got chicken filets with fries, and we got tortilla (basically an omelet) with asparagus and fries. It was very, very good, but I'm not crazy about asparagus (and don't worry, I've tried it; we used to grow it at home), so I sort of picked around it. And after that was dessert. I played it safe and ordered ice cream, but some of the more intrepid diners opted for 'crema de queso'- the regional specialty, a blue cheese which is traditionally cured (or whatever it is you do to cheese) in the local caves. This, inevitably, led to dares and bets and even 5 euro prizes for its consumption. You couldn't have paid me enough to try it- I could smell it down the table, and it brought back unpleasant memories of 'special' cheeses the last time I came to Europe.
As soon as I was done and saw that we were excused, I dashed upstairs to grab a shower. Oh, did I forget to mention that there were only two for twenty or thirty girls? That's right! I jumped in right away. There was another girl in the other shower, so that made me the second girl to use a shower there in probably a while. Anyone familiar with my luck will not be surprised to hear that the shower had turned ice cold before I'd even rinsed the shampoo from my hair, let alone conditioned my hair or shaved my legs. [In hindsight, I should have seen this coming, as the same thing happened at that tiny French hotel I keep mentioning in St. Cast le Guildo.] I eventually finished rinsing my head in the sink, but had to content myself with unconditioned hair and stubbly legs before squeezing into our tiny bed.
I awoke bright and early the next day. I faced a daunting task- a 9 km marcha, or hike, and wanted to prepare accordingly. Copious amounts of sunscreen were in order, as well as a durable hairstyle and versatile clothing. After a big breakfast (which was basically like being at a family get-together or something, with the hotel owner bringing around platter after platter of fried dough, cakes, bread and butter, and repeating, "Calm down! I'll bring more!" whenever we ran out of something) we got going.
Ángel had told us during our prep for the hike that everyone would have a different pace ("¡Chicos. . .!"), and that was okay. At the time, it seemed like reassurance, but looking back, I realized it was probably more of a warning. That man walks at a blistering pace.
We passed a few cows on the road. I mean they were literally in the middle of the road. One of the girls I was with expressed a little concern at this, but I told her not to worry because I am a cow whisperer. She thought I was joking, but the cows here are nothing. Like they about the Watusi, the back end is way more dangerous than the front. [That adage was even more true with these cattle- I have no idea what they ate, but it clearly did not agree with them. I would give more detail but that would just be so, so gross.]
I was surrounded by people who clearly knew nothing about cattle. One girl behind me was like, "Oh, that's a bull, it has horns," to which I replied, "No, it's a cow," because it clearly wasn't a bull or a steer, and the girl said, "Yeah, it's a boy cow," and then I was like, "No, it's a cow- cow means female," and another girl asked, "Then why do they call all of them cows?" and I tried to explain that the plural 'cows' to refer to males and females is a colloquialism, and the proper plural is cattle, but then the first girl said, "Oh, you mean it's a heifer," and I said, "Actually, a cow is heifer that hasn't calved yet. . ." but then I just sort of gave up because no one was following, and I'm sure I've lost you too. But one thing that I did really like about the cattle up in the mountains- they actually wear cowbells! How cute is that?
I took so many pictures along the way, and as a result, I kept falling behind. But everything in the mountains is so beautiful! I can definitely say that it was a spiritual experience for me. I mean, how many Liz's would fit inside one of those mountains? How do things so big get made? I roughly understand the scientific explanations, but I'm not satisfied with that. Scientific explanations make too much sense- the mountains are way too stunning, too confusing, to be explained away so easily.
My camera has about a billion different settings on it. There are settings for fireworks, things behind glass, food, sunsets- but, strangely, no Picos de Europa setting. Resultingly, the lighting is off in a lot of my pictures. I hope you'll enjoy them anyway.
I took a lot of pictures- I'll tell you just how many later- but I'm pretty sure some of the boys took more. At one point a few of them climbed up a hill off the road and just started walking that way. I was expecting someone to break into 'The Sound of Music,' [that's right, it's the next song on the European soundtrack] and I would have paid good money to hear some yodeling as well.
We never actually left the road to hike through the woods, as I had expected. Basically we just walked down the middle of the road. Some cars passed us, and there was actually one stoplight on the way, to manage traffic going through a treacherous single-lane area (we saw three cars lined up at the light and joked that it was rush hour in Valdeón). It was really disheartening when other IES hikers passed us in taxis headed back to Valdeón while we were still 45 minutes out of Caín, our hiking destination (it sounds confusing and a little pointless, but we had to take taxis back because our buses would never have made it and we sure as heck were not planning on walking back).
We did end up getting getting to Caín, though, and were met by the sight of Ángel attempting to school everyone in foosball at the restaurant. We ate our bocadillos (well, some of us did; some of us fed them to the little perrito that was following us around) and took taxis back.
Then it was goodbye to Valdeón, and back on the bus.

I'll wrap up this little saga sometime tomorrow probably, so stay tuned.


Okay, so I totally don't have time to be doing this, but my mom is demanding more stories, so I will try to get started telling you all about my weekend excursion as I'm getting ready for school.

First I should say that I did go out Thursday night, and probably stayed out later than I should have. Well, no, I didn't stay out late, I just stayed up late packing. (Going out was totally worth it; at one of the clubs we went to, they played 'Rapper's Delight' by the Sugarhill Gang, and that just about made my week.) Friday morning (we never have classes on Fridays) we had to be at the center at 7:30am to get on buses.
I need to take a time out real quick to introduce you to Ángel, one of the IES staff. He's very funny, and very adorable, though not intentionally. Basically the way he moves sort of reminds me of Jack off of Will & Grace, and he always has his hands clasped in front of him. He starts every announcement with "Chicos!" It's very entertaining.
We lucked out because he was the teacher on our bus. He kept us informed and entertained the entire journey.
Our first stop was. . . well, I don't actually remember where it was, but we stopped at a hotel and had a nice big breakfast. I was totally creeped out by the guy who sat next to us- by his voice, really. For those of you familiar with Harvey Fierstein, it sounded like that. For those of you not familiar with him, he was Yao in Mulan (his best work in my opinion) and the original Edna Turnblad in Hairspray the musical. Here's a clip of him singing to Kathie Lee Gifford: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11r6iJCcypY&NR=1
So then we got back on the road and headed to the region/city of León, the main attraction of which is the cathedral. Our tour guide gave us a remedial lesson in Gothic architecture which I almost totally ignored. She missed the announcement that the cathedral would close at 1:30, and was still talking as they were trying to shoo us out. I don't have any pictures from inside the cathedral, because there were signs everywhere asking us not to take pictures (I think I was the only one who saw them though). Here are a few pics from outside the cathedral.
More later, I'm going to be late for class.

17 September 2008

Second day of classes!

Good news: I think my sleep habits are beginning to improve! Last night I went to bed around 11, which is super early for me. I didn't have class til 10:25 this morning, but before that, I had to make a deposit towards our optional trip to Lisbon next month. It didn't take long, because IES' bank is on the same Metro line as my neighborhood, and then it's only one transfer to get to school.
Today was the first day of our Spanish class. Straight off, our teacher told us that our assignment was to find a Spanish boy/girlfriend. She listed the advantages of this for some time, before basically telling us, "Just kidding- but seriously. . ." She also told us that she is going to use a lot of jokes and exaggerations to help us remember things, and warned us that her style of comedy is not politically correct. "Americans and Spaniards think the same things. The only difference is, the Spanish say what they think, while the Americans do not." So she should be pretty colorful.
Creative Writing went well- that teacher's really fun. She was reading our names off of a roster which included our pictures, and when she asked which of us was Claudia, she looked at the girl with her hand raised, then back to the roster, and said, "Wow, you're much prettier than in this picture. Much, much prettier." Then she said the girl's full name. . . and we realized that it wasn't the same girl. Bit of an awkward moment there.
She asked us what names we preferred to use, and was sometimes fascinated by our American pronunciations (there's a Te'Niija in the class, so that should provide a challenge for her). She was thrilled when one of the students preferred to be called Mateo instead of the usual Matt, and said, "You're in Spain! Why not?" so when I saw that I was not the only Elizabeth in the class, I said, "How about Isabela?" and she just about flipped, talking about a children's story about puppets in which the beautiful grand empress is named Isabela. "It sounds European! It sounds Italian! It sounds Spanish!" she continued, as my face got redder. She's very nice, though, and very expressive (as I hopefully conveyed). And she doesn't believe in grading, or deadlines. My kind of teacher.
Then I had a real adventure with my Prado class. The adventure was not so much in the Prado as in the finding of it. To make a long story short, I was supposed to meet a girl at the exit of the Banco de España Metro station, but it turns out there are four exits. So I went around to each of them, looking for this girl, thinking the Prado was just around the corner, but I gradually realized that the Prado was just around the corner. . . and through a park. I finally gave up on this girl, but then I had to ask several passers-by how to get to the Prado, and I ended up running to meet my group, because our meeting place was on the far side of the building. But I made it, sort of sneaking in to the back of our group, and the girl I was supposed to meet was already there.
But that teacher is brutal. I think he said he actually is a tour guide a the Prado, and he is not one of those teachers who, when you get an answer wrong, will be like, "Well. . . you're on the right track. . ." No. When he pointed to a three-part painting and asked us, "What is this?" I raised my hand and answered, "A triptych" when called upon.
His answer was a crushing, resounding, "No."
I don't even get that. Not a triptych? How was it not a triptych? Because it wasn't hinged? How do we know it wasn't originally hinged? So that was traumatizing. It's a good thing I got over it pretty quickly, because otherwise who would have told the class that this painting http://www.artbible.info/art/large/352.html by Tintoretto depicted Jesus washing the disciples' feet? As if the halos and foot-washing weren't a giveaway. . . seriously, classmates, step up your game. . .
Overall, the Prado is pretty cool, I guess. We didn't see much of it today, just a few rooms. I've got all semester to become better aquainted with it.

[For anyone wondering: right now my approximate return date is Decemeber 21. That is not concrete, however.]

16 September 2008

Cambio de clases!

I had my first day of classes today, and it was a rough one. My first class was at 8:30. . . it seems a lot earlier when you consider I needed to be at the bus stop around 7:45 to guarantee punctuality. It's a twenty minute bus ride (or more?) and a ten minute walk, but it can be 15 minutes between buses.
Anyway, that first class was Spanish/English Translation Strategies, and it was a pretty good class. It wasn't anything I couldn't handle, but I wasn't too into it. Plus, I just really wanted to take a couple of different classes. So when that was over around 10:30, I headed into the office to change my schedule.
I am now enrolled in Contemporary Spanish Theater, the required Spanish grammar class, Creative Writing, Ceramics, Theater and Performance Workshop, and El Greco, Velazquez, and Goya in the Prado Museum. It's basically my dream schedule, but it's also 6 classes (not normal) and 19 credit hours (the max). I feel like dropping Translation (a tough class) in favor of both Creative Writing and Contemporary Theater (fun classes) is a fair trade, and I don't want anyone telling me otherwise. Plus, not only is mine a tough courseload hours-wise, it's also going to be pretty time-consuming. On Tuesdays, for instance, I'll be arriving at the IES Center at 9 in the morning and I won't have a break until about 3:45, when I'll go grab lunch somewhere (I really love this little sandwich place called Rodilla), but my Prado class will be meeting (at the Prado, naturally) from 5 to 6:30, so I can't be late for that. But I think I'm going to like being busy all the time, especially because all of my classes are on subjects that I really enjoy.
Ceramics, for instance- that class was great today! The walk was a little ridiculous- our guide took us around the Parque del Oueste instead of through it, in case we have to walk alone (which will literally never happen, because we will all be at the IES Center right before that for our required grammar class)- and it took 40 minutes! But once we arrived, the instructors set us right to work glazing already-made plates, and then we fired them, raku-style! [Raku is a Japanese ceramic technique that involves putting the pieces in fire pits!] Somehow, they managed to fire them in about 2 hours, and during those two hours, we made pinch pots- pretty much the starting point of any ceramics class. There are only two of us in the class with prior ceramics experience, so I feel pretty good about. I was really surprised that we actually started making things on our very first day.
In a totally unrelated story. . . Mom, I've already got your Christmas present! (Just kidding. . . this one's got Gracie's name all over it.]
So tomorrow's Spanish, Creative Writing, and the Prado class (again). We also find out what level of Spanish we tested into. I'm not too worried about that: if I did well, I get to be a high-level, impressive-sounding class; if I did poorly, I can coast through it. Woo hoo!

14 September 2008

Not so bajo weekend!

Even though I've spent the majority of the weekend in the apartment, I am still exhausted from all the things I did do.
Yesterday I was missing home a little. I decided I needed some sunlight, so I went out to get tomatoes and juice, just a couple of things that I had been needing. I walked all the way down to the fruit shop of the Hnos. Delgado (Delgado Bros.?) because that was really the only fruit place that I'd been to and was pretty sure of the location. Forget that it's all the way down in Moncloa, a twenty or thirty minute walk from the apartment.
I love the little fruit markets around here- except for the fact that you have to wear gloves to select your produce. I consider myself a pretty great selecter of fruits and vegetables, and wearing gloves kind of crimps my style. But I still managed to find some peaches (they are massive here, like softball sized), a half watermelon, a lot of tomatoes, and a jar of honey all to my liking. What's great about the Delgado brothers is that if you spend 10 euro on their produce, they will give you a half dozen eggs free! (Actually I think a lot of fruit markets do something like that, but it still makes me feel special.)
I had a nice little convo with the cashier (I'm pretty sure he was not one of the brothers Delgado) because he noticed that I was having a little trouble with my Spanish. It gets confusing when you are trying to get used to Spanish Spanish, and then this guy throws an Ecuadorian accent your way.
After that, I walked back to the apartment, stopping to grab my juice on the way. If you have never tried Zumosol, and I'm sure most of you have not, you don't even know what you are missing. I probably drink close to a liter of their peach juice every single day, and it is kind of starting to become an expensive habit. But it is so good!
Then I laid low in the apartment til I heard the fireworks signaling the start of La Noche en Blanco, the White Night. It's a tradition in several of the European cities that are jealous of the northern cities on whom the sun does not set around the summer solstice, or something like that. Basically, the city partied all night. There were concerts, and movies shown, the museums stayed open, and the subways ran later than normal.
The first subway we tried to get on, going almost directly towards the city center in the south, was so full that we waited three trains before deciding to change plans and head north to switch trains. This worked better, but because we got on the subway near where the line started, we were nearly smushed like sardines by the time we made it to our destination. [Oh, by the way, while we were waiting in the station, I saw this ad which I liked and thought my dad would enjoy as well. It asks, "Do you have a monstrous cell phone?" and then "You" and "Your cell phone."]
There were people everywhere in the Plaza Mayor! So many people! We went down one street, and then another, and we saw a band playing swing music, and another playing Pachelbel's Canon in D, and then we ended up near the Plaza de España, where the theatre district is. We wanted to go on an exlusive backstage tour of Beauty and the Beast, but there were only a total of 80 tickets available for four tours, so we didn't like our odds.
The Plaza de España was where it was at. They'd set up a giant moon on the side of a building, because it was supposed to be light all night in the city. I took this cheesy picture in front of it.
La Noche en Blanco is an all-night thing, but we weren't up to that. At about 1 we dragged ourselves back onto the subway and returned to the apartment.
And today we went to El Rastro! It was absolutely huge! I thought I had seen all of it, but then I found another alleyway, which opened up onto another square, and that lead to another street. . . There wasn't as much variety as I'd hoped for, though. There were a lot of scarves, like so many scarves, because everyone is wearing them right now, and there were a lot of belts and leather things, and some swords and then there were antiques, which I liked best, because they were so much more unexpected. I mean, you'll see the same patterns and colors in the scarves all season, but who knows if you'll ever see something like this old painting, or this ancient book? I did buy a couple of scarves, and also a pair of old photographs- portraits of women in mantillas. I don't know if they were wedding portraits or what, but I felt like they were the sort of thing I would never be able to find in the U.S.
I spent a lot of time playing photographer myself, trying to take candid shots of people in the Rastro. I don't think I got anything great, but it's all pretty interesting.
Looking down the street. I don't think this truly conveys how many people were there.

She was playing some instrument- I'm not sure what it was.

Didgeridoo player!He packed up whatever it was he was selling and took off.
Tomorrow I basically have free because our daily languages classes don't start until Tuesday, and that would be the only class I have on Mondays. What will I do with all my free time?
Oh, and just an update: Haven't seen the RA in approximately 34 hours. . .

Besos, besos, sloppy besos!

I just really felt that this needed to be shared:
Thursday morning as we were getting ready to head out the door, we realized that one of our roommates still wasn't up. We woke her up, and ran out the door. On the way to class she told us that the night before she'd stayed up til 3 studying/having a beer, and then couldn't get to sleep. So she took an Ambien. That didn't seem to work, so she'd taken another- roughly five hours before we'd needed to leave to catch our bus. We were a little bit worried about her, of course, but she seemed to be fine, and was also extremely amusing.
After we heard her story about the sleeping pills, the note we'd found on our refrigerator made slightly more sense:
Don't worry if it doesn't make sense to you- it doesn't entirely make sense to us either. It says "Holla chicas (este es un manana notica bueno. A mi special alguienes [this is a good morning note [?] to my special someones]), FYI. . . en la tarde, yo sacare la basura [in the afternoon, I will take out the trash]. Besos! Besos! Sloppy besos!" And yes, that is a pair of lips with eyes and a smile drawn on them, and that is a dripping tongue sticking out of them.
Just thought you'd like to see what the atmosphere is like in the apartment.

12 September 2008

I anticipate un finde bajo. . .

The last few days have been pretty quiet. We've had just the one class each day, a four-hour, language-intensive class (with a break in the middle of it), to prepare us for the placement exams which were part of today and yesterday.
We learned a lot of useful things in these classes. They've tried to give us sort of a crash course in customs and traditions here, like when people eat (breakfast: 7 or 8am; before-lunch meal: noon; lunch: around 2 or 3; early evening snacktime: 6pm; and dinner: 9 or 10pm) and when and where it's appropriate to do certain things. Kissing your significant other is appropriate basically anywhere, except for when class is actually in session, or in your parents' house. It's also perfectly acceptable to leave your trash at a bar, because some establishments consider it a mark of popularity: the bar with the most trash has had the most customers. It's never appropriate to put your feet up on a table or chair. That wasn't surprising, but did you know it's also almost never okay to smile in this town? We were told that it is okay to smile in an office, or in your house or a friend's.
I wish someone had told me that sooner. People always tell me I look like I'm unhappy so I try to make an effort to either smile or at least not look angry. I smile at people I pass on the street- or at least, I did. Now whenever I catch myself smiling politely at someone my first reaction is to suck in my face like I've just tasted a lemon. It would be safe to say it's not an attractive look for me.
So part of class yesterday we spent doing our written exams. They asked us to write about our history with the Spanish language and then gave us a couple of situations. I think I probably aced the first situation. Basically the instructions were to write a note to a friend explaining why you have to bail on her when you've already made plans for the evening. I thought it would be a good opportunity to show off my skills as a creative writer, so my note went a little something like this (but in Spanish):

Dear Laura,
I'm really sorry, but I won't be able to go to Pedro's party with you tonight. I got an invitation to the Oscars, and I will be attending with my boyfriend Michael Phelps (yes, he is an actor too). I'm really sorry and hope you won't hate me forever. Maybe we can make plans for some other time.
Your friend,
When I saw that our teacher would be the one grading them rather than some other teacher, I felt really good about it because she is pretty much obsessed with Michael Phelps. She told us he won more gold medals than this entire country. That's not surprising- worldwide athletic domination does not seem high on Spain's to-do list. So far I have seen one pool that looks like it could maybe be used for laps, but even it was only about 20 yards in length and maybe 3 lanes wide. I see very few fellow runners on the streets or in the parks.

I decided to switch it up a little tonight and went running in the Parque del Oueste, near the IES Center. I didn't pass anyone else running through the park, but I sure did see a lot of kids making out. There were also a lot of dogs. Very few of them were on leashes, and a lot of them were very large. One guy had a couple of labs and a German shepherds all chasing a tennis ball while several other dogs, some of which were strange mixes of things like labs and Great Danes, congregated around him. That sort of worried me a little, but I don't really think the dogs here get much exercise either. Someone should really do something about the number of obese canines in Madrid- and while they're at it, they should make it mandatory for dog owners to clean up after their pets. I've taken care of Pepe enough to know that that is just good etiquette.

Oh so I totally skipped over today- I know Mom at least will want to hear about how my speaking test went. Well, it got off to a not-so-good start- I missed my bus and was almost ten minutes late. So I was power-walking (read: one foot on the ground at all times, legs fully straightened, just like in the Olympics) while my roommates lagged behind me. They were all like, "Nothing you can do about it now," and I was like, "Um. . . I can be less late!" But it turned out all right, because when I finally made it into the classroom, panting and apologizing profusely, my teacher told me it was no problem, because the girl who was supposed to go after me had arrived early and basically switched me. Both the teachers told me not to worry about it, and they were even laughing and handing me papers to fan myself with. Long story short, the exam was no problem, but I feel like my accent was pretty weak.

I walked home because I wanted to take pictures of some of the great graffiti I see every day on my bus ride to school. It might sound cliche, but I really feel like graffiti can be art (besides being vandalism). When it's on the pull-down screens in front of the little shops, you can't see it during business hours, and it looks pretty cool at night.
I snapped 105 pictures, stopped in four shops, and took about an hour and a half to get back to the apartment. I've since trimmed those 105 shots down to fewer than thirty, and some of those are the pictures I've scattered through this post. As you can see, I ended up taking pictures of things other than just graffiti.
I hope everyone enjoys these pictures! When I come home I'm going to print the best ones, and make cd's of them so you can see all of them.

Also, I wanted to add that I appreciate everyone's comments! In response:

1) I don't understand why they can't just come up with some catchy phrase (a catchphrase, if you will), like 'Mind the gap' instead of a confusing picture. I really thought that was the back of the train and this guy was falling off of it or something. There is almost no gap between the trains and the platforms at all, so I hadn't realized it was an issue.

2) It did storm here a few nights ago. There was a lot of rain, and a lot of lightning, and a lot of hail, which apparently is not common here. My teacher said that her little daughter woke up and ran into her room asking, "Is it Ike?!" That is a well-informed 6-year-old. I guess a lot of the people here are not used to storms either, because other students were saying that they couldn't sleep, and they don't usually get lightning at home. I loved it though; I like falling asleep to thunderstorm sounds. Because these other students appear to be wimps when it comes to inclement weather, I was a little bit skeptical of their claims of hail, but I checked the cars parked out on the street, and there are tiny but visible dents from the granizo ( I think that's the word for hail- I never learned it because I never expected to use it).

This weekend, half the IES students are in Valencia. I'm jealous, but those of us who are still in town getting to experience La Noche en Blanco, which I think means to stay up all night or something like that. Basically all the museums will be open all tomorrow night, and the trains will run like they do during the daytime. So I might get a sneak preview of the Prado, or I might try and figure out which of the other museums has the Vermeers, and go there. Maybe I'll sleep, maybe I won't. Then Sunday morning, the plan is to hit up El Rastro, the massive outdoor market Madrid is famous for. Anyone need me to pick them up anything?

10 September 2008

To whom it may concern. . .

To: Mom (and others)
Re: You being concerned about me being in the Parque del Buen Retiro alone

Pretty sure you can stop worrying about me going places and doing stuff alone. I'm so on edge when I'm on the subway, I think my reaction to a would-be creeper would go a little something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaSEXUOeP5A&feature=related
Also, class went well today because I have the SWEETEST TEACHER EVER and I sat next to a cute guy.
She said our theatre workshop teacher is actually a famous stage actress here in Madrid, but I don't know about that. On the topic of famous actors, one of the boys' apartments is right next door to the apartment of Federico Luppi, an Argentinian actor who was in Pan's Labyrinth.
That's pretty much it for today. I might start posting less, because Madrid is starting to get boring.


P.S. I probably forgot something and will have to post again later. Don't worry about it.

09 September 2008

Corriendo por el Parque

Today was a totally free day, and I basically did nothing. I slept in super late today, even though I did not end up going out last night. At nine or ten I think I heard people, like a lot of people, making animal noises somewhere on the street. I don't know if that has anything to do with today's feast day, which was for Santa Maria de la Cabeza, or St. Maria Torribia. I guess they still have her head as a relic, which is why she's called Santa Maria de la Cabeza.
So I just laid around awhile, because we don't have homework yet, and eventually convinced myself to go run. It was tough, as I've figured out that if I go one night without washing my hair, it accumulates roughly as much nastiness as it would in maybe four or five days here. How does that happen? Anyway, I pulled it back and put on a headband and bit the bullet.
I decided to go running at el Parque del Buen Retiro, even though my teacher had specifically discouraged us from running there. I'd seen some runners there on Sunday.
[Side note: I'd also been considering Retiro as a place to practice with this baseball player who's in the program, but Retiro can be a little sketchy, and I just kept envisioning myself laying out for a ground ball in the grass and coming up with a discarded needle in my arm. So I stuck to the pathways today.]
I didn't bring a watch (I know, I should have listened to you, Mom) and I haven't been able to put money on my cell yet, so I had no concept of time. It probably took about 20 or 30 minutes to get there by Metro- I'm not sure. All I know is, when I went down into the Marañon station, it was sunny, and when I emerged from Retiro station, I heard thunder. I began running anyway. Then it started to pour.
There were a few other runners around, but most of the people running were just trying to get out of the rain (one particularly upbeat Spaniard started cheering me on I think, yelling, "¡Venga! ¡Venga! ¡Venga!" as he ran past me). Let me tell you, that park is every bit as huge as I had hoped it wouldn't be. I tried to break up the monotony of jogging with softball agilities, but that just earned me weird looks from the locals.
The sun came out as I was scaling the montaña artificial, which was pretty much the end of my workout. I went back down into Retiro station to catch the train back.
Being the modest young lady that I am, I was a little bit concerned that I might not smell so fresh after my run, and I positioned myself away from everyone else waiting on the platform. But then I remembered that this was the Metro. There was absolutely no way that I could be the worst-smelling thing on the Metro. And I was right. Here in Spain, people either wear deodorant or they wear anti-perspirant. Nobody wears both. There's no Secret Clinical Protection or anything like that (so it's a good thing I brought a brand-new stick). The teenage boys standing next to me were smelling particularly ripe.
And that brings me to another point: the mullet is experiencing a resurgence here. I don't know if I've mentioned that or not already. These boys had the tops of their hair gelled up, and then they had curls happening in the back. Sometimes you see a mullet with dreads in the back. It's a horrible mess.
I also happened to take a gander at the reflection of my own face in the window across from me, and can I please tell you that I literally look like a ghost next to these people? The Spanish are Mediterraneans, and some of them have South American or Middle Eastern heritage, and they are all tan. Even in a vague reflection you can clearly see the difference.
Oh! I also saw a robbery nearly take place. As a bunch of people got on the train, one guy 'accidentally' dropped his keys, and he was crouched down at the feet of this guy, who turned out to be a British tourist, which the key-dropper no doubt already knew. He was shaking this guy's pants and everything, pretending to search desperately for these keys, but the British guy was having none of it. He'd noticed that the key-dropper's friend was standing right behind him, ready to pick his pocket as soon as he was distracted. Instead, the British guy told him to stop, and the other two men jumped back off the train before the doors had even closed, at the same stop, which pretty much confirmed that they were up to no good.
Anyway, I made it back all right. It's still raining, and I like that.
Class resumes tomorrow- too bad. I like doing nothing.

Oh yes, my address. If you want to send me a note or anything, IES recommends sending it to their center rather than to my apartment. So send it to:

ME (use my full first and last name, please)
c/o IES Madrid
Colegio Mayor Universitario San Agustín
Avenida de Séneca, 7
Ciudad Universitaria
28040 Madrid

It will take about a week for anything to get to me. Don't send anything important or valuable, because I'm worried it will get lost/stolen. Thanks!

08 September 2008

El Parque del Buen Retiro

I haven't had a chance to really exercise since I got here, but I'm still so exhausted all the time! Yesterday, Sunday, we slept in til 12:30 or 13:00. Then we just sat around the apartemento all day until we had to leave for a paseo por el Parque del Buen Retiro.
We took the Metro, and all I'm going to say is that maybe I spoke prematurely when I said that I was an expert on taking the subway. That's all I'm going to say, though.
So we were late. The groups had already left when we arrived, so we entered the park on our own to look around. We walked past some guys from the band we'd seen playing in the Plaza Mayor the night before (I guess Madrid isn't that big after all), and found our way to the big, man-made lake in the center of the park. We met up with one of the groups as we passed fortune-tellers, flamenco dancers, comedians, jugglers, and a dancing man in drag and clown makeup.
Apparently en Parque is the place to be on a Sunday afternoon. It's huge! I would compare it to Central Park, but I doubt it's that big. There were so many bikers and rollerbladers, and even a few joggers. We saw a lot of young people partaking of the favorite pasttime of botellon, where they just sit and drink in a public place (apparently it's illegal now, but you could have fooled me).
After an hour and a half, Laura and I were about sick of the Parque, so we lost our group and headed for the exit and got back on the Metro. Once again, I proved what a non-expert I am at taking the subway (but that's all I will say).
Today was our first day at the Colegio Mayor. We signed up for excursions (I did not get the one I wanted, and I am not happy about that) and got our computers configured to work at the IES Center (I don't plan on carrying mine through the Metro ever again so that was pointless). Then we were divided up based on how we had scored on the multiple choice test for a class. These classes are just for the week and are designed to help us settle in. I think my class has the best teacher.
Right now I am scheduled to take Translation Strategies, a ceramics class, Theatre and Performance Workshop, an obligatory Spanish class, and art class in the Prado. The Translation Strategies class is supposed to be pretty tough (it's listed as 484), so I might switch to Contemporary Spanish Theatre, which is at the same time. I've decided not to take actual university classes because I've heard the schedule isn't really compatible with the IES schedule. All these classes start next Monday. This week is just orientation.
We get tomorrow off, though. I think it's a feast day or something. Tonight some of us might go out to the Chueca district, or I might just stay in. I'm still exhausted!

07 September 2008

These are a few of my favorite things. . .

There are just a few things I've seen already during my time in Madrid that I really feel need to be shared with you. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have:
Mixta commercials: I'm not really sure what these ads are for- I think it's beer?- but they make me laugh. Here are a couple of links to them on YouTube.

Seriously, when is a flying, beat-boxing pig in sunglasses not funny?

Giant Burger King billboards: This massive billboard is right next to the Moncloa subway station, across the street from the entrance to the park that we have to walk through to get to the IES center. I believe it translates literally as 'Open your heart to the long chicken.'

The Metro: See lower left picture. Actually, see all of them. The top right one is nice; it seems to discourage the thumbs up, but the lower left is my favorite. Is that little guy falling out of the subway or what's the dealio? It's a little vague. But great.
I'm sure there will be more.

Un dia en Segovia

Laura and me in front of the apartment. . . of our dreams. This is actually the castle called El Alcazar in Segovia, which we visited yesterday.

The drive to Segovia was beautiful! There are mountains and grassy plains and little villages and it's just so picturesque. There are ancient stone fortresses and churches on the hilltops and the hillsides are just covered in boulders. I must have taken about 50 pictures just on the bus.
Segovia is an old, old city, and if you ever visit, there are several sites you absolutely have to see. The first one we saw was an old church. I can't remember what it was called, but its name had something to do with the True Cross- I think it used to house a relic of it. It was built around the 12th century, and designed after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, so it's fairly round, with 10 or 12 sides. There's no nave, and no transept. But there was a lot of old art in there, so I was really surprised that they allowed flash photography- I took all my pictures without a flash because I know it can really damage old paintings especially. This is a picture of what I think is a Renaissance altarpiece, although it's not near the altar. I should also mention that this church used to be a meeting place for the Knights Templar or something, but now it belongs to the Knights of Malta, and the Maltese cross is featured on several banners around the church.
Then we got back on our bus and headed up to the actual city. First we saw the aqueducts, which I think were in use up until a few centuries ago.
This is a picture of three of the girls who live in apartment 6C, because Meghann went to hang with her actual family here in Spain for the day. It's not a great picture of Leah, but it was the best one of me.
You might notice a lot of little holes in the stones of the aqueduct- that's because the Romans used to insert marble plates over the stone to make it look nicer.
Then we trekked through the town for like a half hour, maybe more. We passed a lot of interesting stuff though, including a lot of street performers [this guy was standing in front of a house that used to be place where people were beheaded, and he was playing Por Una Cabeza, a tango tune that, if you are like my papi, you will recognize from the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Jamie Lee Curtis 'classic' True Lies. So you can add Por Una Cabeza to the soundtrack.]
We saw a statue of Juan Bravo (is there a cooler name? I don't think so), who I think was the founder of Segovia or something, or maybe just a hero in the war against the Moors, and across the street was his house. Beside him was a statue of a sphinx. I have no idea what she was doing there, but it looked like her face had fallen off.

Then we stopped in the Plaza Mayor, where we saw people getting ready for the first of several weddings we saw yesterday. The focal point of the Plaza Mayor in Segovia is the cathedral. You can tell from its buttresses and Flamboyant towers that it is late/high Gothic, but the dome at the top indicates a Byzantine or Mediterranean influence as well. They call it Spain's last great Gothic cathedral.
Finally we arrived at el Alcazar (there's supposed to be an accent above the second a). It's an ancient castle/fortress which was one of several castles inhabited by Isabel and Ferdinand. It's smaller than you might think, but the collection of religious and royal artwork inside is pretty dazzling. I want to post all my pictures from there but I kind of feel like you might get sick of them.
This first one is the view of the castle from the Church of the True Cross (Veracruz) which I talked about earlier. I looked out those windows and stood out on the terrace of the castle.
This is our would-be roommate, a suit of armor in one of the halls at the castle. I love my new camera and all of its settings, especially the self-portrait setting, which comes in so handy at moments like these. This suit of armor was made for a kid.
[If you're hoping for another track on the European soundtrack that fits this section of the adventure, all I can recommend is chamber music. That seems like it would work.]
There were so many beautiful stained-glass windows in the castle, but I really want to show you two of them. They're so beautifully stylized, and so expressive. The first is a caballero, I guess, located in the throne room.
I think this other one is St. Francis? I'm not sure, but that monk hairstyle is usually a giveaway for him. Anyone know what the thing above his head is? And that window was fifteen or twenty feet off the ground- I'm so glad I got a camera with 5x zoom.
I have so many more great pictures! But I will show you all when I get home.
After that, we walked back through the city (downhill this time, so it was mas facil) and headed off for lunch-dinner (it was three in the afternoon, or 1500) in Torrecaballeros. El Rancho, where we ate, was also hosting a wedding (the third we saw that day).
Our meal was huge! First we were served water and wine with bread (I had an urge to dip the bread in the wine, like Communion), then grilled red peppers (yeah, just the peppers by themselves) then little dry bread slices with tomato paste on top, then tortilla again (the omelettey thing that is so good!), then croquetes (I don't think I spelled that right?) which are fried ham and cheese balls. That was sort like a bunch of appetizers, because then there was mixed salad with tuna and chicken for everyone else, with grilled vegetables for me, and dessert. We were so full by the time we left.
When we got back, our ra still wasn't back! She didn't get back until like 8 or 9- her car had broken down the night before and she'd had to stay over at a friend's house! We'd thought she'd just been out partying all night and all morning (you know what they say: there ain't no party like a Spanish party because a Spanish party don't stop, or something like that). The clubs open at midnight or one, and then they stay open until six or later in the morning.
We thought we might like to go out and try this for ourselves. A few of the other girls had said they were meeting in the Plaza Mayor (of Madrid- not Segovia) at 10:30 (I know, 2230) to go out, so Laura and I took the Metro there.
I would like to take this opportunity to let you all know that I am officially an expert at taking the Metro after like 2 days.
So we were there, and we were waiting, and we couldn't find anyone and no one was answering Laura's texts. We were entertained nonetheless, however, by the guys selling contraband in the Plaza, because every few minutes the police would come through in little cars or on Segways and they would pull the corners of their blankets closed, creating a knapsack with all their illegal goods inside, and run off en masse. We also saw a group of South American Indians playing well-known tunes on little guitars and pan pipes and such. They had amps and everything. They played The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, so that is now track number 6 on my European soundtrack. I just wish you could hear it the way they played it- it was very soothing. I might go back to the Plaza Mayor tonight to listen to them again.
In the end, our friends never showed up, so we took the subway back at 11:20. When we got back to the piso, Laura checked her facebook and saw that the girls had changed our meeting time to 11:30 at the last minute. We'd just missed them.
Today has been nothing but sleep and computer. We are all so exhausted from our non-stop adventures. Tonight: paseo por el Parque con IES.

06 September 2008

La Husa Princesa: Orientacion. . . y Beyond

I apologize for writing a short novel every time I post on here, but I know there are some people (well, maybe just my mom) who want to know every detalle of my vida aqui. I'm going to try to keep it brief, though, because the things that I am writing about happened a couple of days ago and I want to catch up.
First, I think I need to recognize my lifeguard friends. I mentioned earlier the disposable camera they were putting to good use, and it made me so happy to look at those pictures when leaving my mom had made me so sad. Pretty much as soon as the plane left the ground I had that packet of pictures open.
Alison and Friends, you did not disappoint me. I really, really, really want to share a few of the fotos, but like I said, my cd/dvd drive isn't working right now.
Another thing I wanted to mention- my internal soundtrack. I should add the next two songs I had stuck in my head while I was travelling: Paper Planes by M.I.A., when I was trying to get the pay phone to work in the Dublin airport and it just kept taking my money, and My Brain is Hanging Upside Down by the Ramones, pretty much that whole day.
Alright so: back to Madrid and my arrival at the Hotel Husa Princesa. I really didn't expect IES to set us up in a 5-star hotel, but they did. Maybe European standards are a little lower? I don't know. It was nice either way.
The first day, we had an orientation lunch. There was a safety demonstration, so now I know all the tricks for stealing my cell or wallet (not really). Then we got our room keys and learned who our roommates would be for the night. Here was where I ran into some trouble.
As I explained earlier, my name in Spanish sounds nothing like it should, and it was absolutely mangled by the woman handing out room keys, so much so that I didn't realize that they had even said my name for a while. I resolved to change my name in Spain asap.
I made it up to my room, however, and my roommate arrived later. Some of us went out for tapas that night, and then we got some bocanellos later (basically I ate an omelette sandwich with tomato slices and half a grilled pepper on it). I couldn't get on the internet because it was 6,50 euros for a half hour, and by then it was too late to go to Starbucks.
The next day we had meetings about our apartments or dorms or homestays. There was more name-mangling at these meetings. One of the boys named Jeff had his name so destroyed, it reminded me of the SNL skit with Noonie and Nuni and they can't pronounce the name Jeff; they keep saying things like Guerf instead. If I could find it on YouTube I would post it.] I met Laura, one of my flatmates, and eventually we found Leah, another flatmate. There's also Meghann, who used to live in Spain and is basically fluent. We checked out and met our RA (they just call thems ras here) and took cabs to our apartment, at Fernandez de la Hoz 58-6[insert degree sign here]. We are apartment 6C.
I might have told some of you that I was going to have 4 flatmates plus an RA. Well, one of the girls cancelled, so we were left with a single room and two doubles for us four girls and somehow, I ended up with a double room to myself. It's the best thing ever.
After we went to the IES center for our language placement test [let me just say that I thought I had aced it through the first ten questions. . . too bad there were 90 more and they got progressively harder] we went out to El Corte Ingles, which is kind of like Macy's and WalMart combined.
You need to know that the section of bebidas took up maybe a third of the grocery section. There was row after row of every alcoholic drink you could think of (at least, every one I could think of. . . I'm not very imaginative when it comes to alcohol). I thought it would be nice to get a bottle of wine and drink a little with dinner- you know, when in Rome.
[We got in trouble for trying to take pictures in the produce section]
When I got back to the piso [let me add for future reference that our ra was not there, and we hadn't seen her since we'd gone to the IES center together], I made myself a Hot Pocket [made with three cheeses. . . but what three cheeses?] and went to the kitchen with Laura to pour us some wine. She'd bought a white wine, and I'd gone with a nice pink bottle- we thought that would be a safe, tasty option.

I don't know if there was some champagne action going on in that wine, but it definitely made a loud popping sound when Laura pulled the corkscrew out. We got a few laughs from that, and then we poured ourselves some.

Can I please just say that it was horrible? I didn't realize that in Europe it was legal to bottle cleaning supplies and sell it in legitimate supermercados [In fairness, I should add that price was a factor in my selection, and the wine I chose had cost 3 euro. . . that's about $4.] After my first sip, I made a face that Laura thought was funny, and told her she could have the rest of it.

So my first adventure in wine selection was a disaster. On the upside, however, whenever I decide to take off this toenail polish, I have a whole bottle of pink liquid that should do the trick.

Later, Laura and I had a hankering for some helado- ice cream. The three of us- Leah, Laura, and I- decided to trek out to get some. We went around our block a few times before we realized it was futile. Our ra still wasn't back when we returned to the apartment.
I went to bed late- she wasn't here. When we woke up to get ready for our field trip to Segovia, she was still MIA.
More about Segovia later.
[That's me looking all enthusiastic. I thought it would be delicioso.]