Sunday, September 30, 2007

Estoy viviendo la vida


I don’t believe I’m ever going to be able to eat a Hershey bar again. I don’t know why America doesn’t know how to make chocolate like Europe, but it really is so much better over here. There are these places called churrerías where you go and get, well…churros. Churros are soft sticks of fried dough that you dip in chocolate sauce and it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever tasted. Afterwards, you drink the remaining chocolate, and it is literally hot chocolate. Our favorite churrería (also the only one I’ve ever been to) is called Valor and it has more than just churros. Today we had fondue which is just fruit with the same chocolate dip. They also have Godiva-type morsel chocolates, chocolate drinks, chocolate everything…sometimes I really think I’m dreaming that I’m in Europe and I’m gonna wake up and it won’t be real.

Gina, Anne, and I were talking about that today – about how sometimes we have to pinch ourselves to make sure this is all real because it still seems too good to be true. Salamanca is the perfect little European city to study in because it is a college town full of stuff to do, but it’s also really old and full of culture. None of us ever dreamed this place would be this good. I’m a little sad because Anne, our German roommate, is leaving tomorrow. We all went out the other night, for the first time and the last. Anne brought her German friends and Gina and I brought our American friends, so we were a group of 10-12 Germans and Americans in this Spanish bar the other night (that is a REALLY big group by Spanish standards). At any given moment, there were 3 languages being spoken within our group that night – it is crazy for me to think about that because I have never experienced that before. All of the Germans speak English perfectly, that is the language they all learn first. It’s a little…um, humbling when you are speaking Spanish together and then someone whose first language is German tells you “Ok, I have to say this in English because it’s too complicated to say in Spanish”, and then you remember that English is their second language, not their first. I’m still working on my second and they are on their third and fourth languages. It’s a shame. Regardless, that night was really fun, and I’m really going to miss Anne because her, Gina, and I all arrived the same day so we connected more with each other than any of us have with our other roommates.

In general, I have been speaking Spanish more than I did the first couple of weeks. It’s still a little difficult to speak all the time in Spanish to my American friends, but we try. Today, though, we spoke a little more English than we have been (terrible I know) and my senora was making fun of me all through dinner. I tried to tell her something when I walked in the house before dinner and just could not get the words together, so I stopped talking and went to my room. The first thing she commented on when I returned to the kitchen for dinner was how she could tell I hadn’t been speaking Spanish all day. You kind of had to be there to tell, but the conversation was interesting and comical.

I never thought that I would live to see the day that a hummer would appear in Spain, but I saw one today. It was the get-away car (or honeymoon car, whatever it’s called) for a wedding that we passed today. Wait, it gets better…I also saw a Native American in the street today playing the flute all decked out in his headdress and moccasins. A hummer and an Indian in the same day…no lo creo! My senora said that hummers are very unusual for Spain, I’m not even sure she really knew what it was, we had to explain to her that it was a big SUV that you can find everywhere in the U.S. Anyway, for Spain’s sake, I hope they remain unusual in this country. I don’t even know how they are going to drive through these streets in that thing. I apologize if you are reading this and you own a hummer, but I’m obviously not a fan of them.

I think I’m going to take a siesta now. According to the daughter of my senora, the only people who take siestas in Spain are the foreigners :) I think that is probably not entirely true because all of the stores still close in the middle of the day. Nevertheless, buenas noches y hasta luego…

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Todos los dias son como…


I just had my first normal weekend in Salamanca, and it was pretty great. I watched the Bourne Identity in Spanish on Friday night because apparently I’m missing out since I haven’t seen the Bourne series yet. The third is still playing in the theater here, so if I watch the second one soon enough, I can see the third one on the big screen in Spanish! I love the movies here because they are so much cheaper than in the States. I think the reason is because nights out in Spain start at 1am, so what are you supposed to do between dinner (which ends at 10 or so) until 1? Go watch a movie of course, and then go out and spend more money and drinks and such.

The next night we went out for tapas, then a tarta at my new favorite café called Mandala. There are so many fruit juices, and I’m not talking about OceanSpray. At Mandala they make their juices fresh and right now my favorite flavor is peach, but I am anxious to try more. Then we walked around the city for a while. It was really nice and quite a bit more relaxing than the weekends that we travel.

Right now is sort of a transition time at school – all of the Spanish students just started school and I’m about to finish my first month of study and start the actual trimester. I can’t wait because I think my classes will be a lot more interesting during the trimester than they have been this month. I will take Art History and 20th Century Spanish Literature rather than the writing and oral classes that I had this month. Home has been a little crazy, too. Raymond, the French man that was staying with us just left and three Italian girls just moved in. That makes 7 of us in the house now plus our senora (and by house, I mean apartment)! The Italian girls are only staying for 8 days and Anne, the German girl that moved in around the same time Gina and I did, is also leaving after this week L. I really love that so many people live with us all the time, I’ve run into quite a few languages since I’ve been here.

So this is how everyday life is for me, and I’m loving it so much. I have really good news…I posted pictures! They are on Facebook, but here is the link to the album. I’m not finished labeling them yet, but be patient, I’ll get to it. Also, these are only the pictures from before I arrived in Salamanca, I have many more pictures to put up, and I will post the link in my blogs as I put them on facebook. I hope it works! Enjoy…

Monday, September 24, 2007

Un buen dia


I have had such a good day today that I must share it. Actually, this morning I was really cranky, I’m not sure why. Perhaps I didn’t get enough sleep yesterday. Anyway, the fun started at lunch today. For some reason, Gina and I got back in time to eat with the other two students that are living with us at the moment – Ramon from France and Anne from Germany. There was a lot of confusion during our whole conversation that centered around the fact that there is only one word for both of the English words “morning” and “tomorrow.” First of all, Europeans all like to talk at the same time when discussions get heated or someone’s trying to get a point across (actually that happens in the States, too, it’s just a lot more noticeable when it’s not a language your used to). I won’t bore you with the details of the conversation, but please try to imagine 4 languages/accents at one table trying to explain and understand when people are doing what when there is no difference between morning and tomorrow in Spanish. It took my roommate 10 minutes to figure out that the senora was not going to the theater at 9 in the morning, but that she was going tomorrow night. Maybe you had to be there to think it was funny, but it reminded me of the dialogue (can’t remember the theater name for it) “Who’s on First” if anyone has ever heard that. It was quite the comedy!
Tonight I went with some friends to see Hairspray (in Spanish, por supuesto!) and I loved it! The previews I’ve seen for it made it look so corny, but it was really good. All of the dialogue was in Spanish, but all of the songs were in English, and since it was a musical it was really easy to know what was going on. However, it is much easier to understand the Spanish parts of movies when it is not interrupted by English. I also saw Evan Almighty in Spanish and I understood more of the Spanish in that movie than I did in Hairspray. Movies are also a good way to determine how well your improving.
Speaking of, I was really excited yesterday when I talked to my program director for the first time since the first week I was here. I used to be too nervous to talk to any of the program directors because it is so embarrassing when they have to start talking to you in English, but Fatima and I had a really long conversation about classes and the program and she never had to speak English to me. It doesn’t seem like it should be that big of a deal because I have conversations with my teachers and my senora every day in Spanish, but for some reason it is because I was only ever intimidated by the directors (even though they are really nice).
Back to my day, Gina and I stopped by a Turkish restaurant on the way home from the movie because I hadn’t eaten dinner yet and I’ve never had Turkish food before. There are Turkish restaurants everywhere here. I had a salad with fried vegetables and yogurt dressing, it was really good. Yogurt dressing sounds strange, but it’s basically just like runny ranch. So I had a few new cultural experiences today and I had a lot of fun.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Corrida del toros y San Sebastian…


Well, I went to the bullfights yesterday. It is definitely the farthest thing from American culture I’ve seen so far. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I went, but it was interesting. There is a very particular ritual in the bullfights, and I learned a lot about it just by watching even though I didn’t know anything about it before I went. We also asked the fans around us a lot of questions, so it was really good practice talking to local Spaniards and learning the culture. They ended up killing 6 bulls that afternoon and it was a little bit sad. Also, when a particular bullfight goes really well (meaning they kill it fast and in the right place) they cut off the dead bull’s ear as a trophy for the bullfighter. Well, one torero (bullfighter) received an ear during the afternoon I went and he threw it into the audience – a little reminiscent of foul balls during baseball games in the States, only a little bit more…what’s the right word? Different? All in all, it was a great cultural experience that I don’t care to experience again.

The trip to San Sebastian was a good cultural experience as well, and it brought on more positive thoughts than the bullfights. A warning…it was a long trip, and I’m going to tell all. I just hope it doesn’t get boring for all of you. It starts with my first train ride. Let me tell you, the train rides here unfortunately do not resemble the Hogwarts Express (for all my fellow Harry Potter fans). We traveled Friday night from midnight to 6 in the morning, so we were on a sleeping compartment train. It would have been really great, except I’m not fond of sleeping with strangers, so it was a little awkward and muy uncomfortable! So we arrived in San Sebastian around 6 or 6:30 and went searching for our hostel. Spaniards are night owls – late to bed, late to rise. So at 7 in the morning it felt like 3 or 4 and was a little nerve-wracking walking around the city that early in the morning. Thankfully, we were able to get into our hostel even though we couldn’t check in until noon. There was absolutely nothing for us to do except sit in the lobby of the hostel because our rooms were not yet vacant and even cafés in Spain do not open until 9:00. So all 8 of us fell fast asleep at 8:00 (I don’t think anyone had decent sleep on the train) and like clockwork woke up at 9:00 all at the same time. It was so crazy (but you probably had to be there). We then set out to find breakfast and happened upon an amazing little place that had incredible morning sweets and café con leche. Also, their hot chocolate was like a melted chocolate bar, it looked so good, even though I didn’t have any. We all felt much better after that.

For most of the first day, we were on the beach. San Sebastian has two beaches, one that is more or less a bay and then one that completely faces out into the ocean. We were at the first one because it was safer and the more popular of the two. The water was so cold, but it was so nice just to lay out in the sand after a full week of school, fiestas every night, and a long train ride! That afternoon, we took a tour on a little train around the city (which wasn’t really a train because it rides on wheels not tracks). The city was so beautiful, but I can’t say much about it because I got tired of listening to the tour in four languages – Spanish, Basque, French, and English. The Basque language is really weird and does not resemble anything I’ve ever seen or heard before, but everything was also in Spanish and everyone spoke Spanish, so we didn’t have any problems. What I do know is that there is an old part of the city and a new part, just like Toledo and many other Spanish cities. The old part of the city is 400-500 years old and the “new” part of the city is at least 200 years old (to put it into perspective, the “new” Spanish cities are as old as the United States of America). After the tour, we ate dinner at Café La Concha which sits right beside the beach. I had seafood kabobs and rice – seafood doesn’t get much better than eating it right beside the ocean from where it came!

Instead of going out like we usually do, we all decided to spend time together at the hostel. One thing that I’ve actually learned to appreciate about the States is that you can just go to other people’s houses and watch movies or talk or do anything. I didn’t realize this, but that’s how you get to know people really well. My friends and I don’t have that luxury here in Spain because it is not customary to invite guests to the house unless it’s for a family function, and then it’s usually just family (go figure). So we had a really good time playing Mafia (a camp game that I taught everyone…it’s never gone over well outside of camp, but it did this time!). No matter what company you’re in, when you go out with friends you always have to have some sort of composure because you are in public, but when it was just us in a more intimate setting, we could let our guards down and be goofy, which especially worked because we were all delirious from a lack of sleep. Needless to say, the hostel beds that night were pretty comfortable.

On Sunday, we climbed a mountain on top of which stood a HUGE statue of Jesus. It reminded me of the cross at Valle de los Caidos that we toured at the beginning of my program. Of course it was absolutely gorgeous because from the mountain you could see all of San Sebastian, the ocean, and the island called Santa Klara between the bay and the rest of the ocean. I really should open up a postcard stand with all of the pictures I have of these places!
Our group split up after our hike and I went with a couple of other friends to explore the other beach and poke around the rest of the city. We hit up the souvenir shops and a few other stores in the old part of the city. The plan was to go visit some museums and cathedrals, but the museums were closed because it was Sunday. We were so tired by early afternoon, it was hard not to lay down like bums on the steps of the massive cathedrals. We ended up going to the beach until it was time for dinner and the train ride home. A fun fact about European beaches…they don’t have to be declared nude beaches to see more skin than necessary. My friends and I were definitely in the minority with our bikini tops on the whole time. I know all the guys are drooling right now, but the 60 and 70 year olds were right there with the youngun’s bearing all (and no, that is not an exaggeration on the age)! The women also like to roll there bottoms up to resemble thongs to get maximum tan, not always a pretty sight. I even witnessed men and women, alike, change on the beach right there in front of everyone. They at least covered up everything below the waist with towels (which worked provided that the towel actually stayed up for the duration of their changing clothes, and it sometimes did not). The women didn’t even bother to put on tops when they went up to the bar to get a drink. It is definitely a different world over here!

Después de la playa (after the beach), we went for pinchos (same as tapas – little appetizers that Spanish people like to eat for dinner). The food consisted mostly of slices of tortilla (remember, tortillas are not flat bread, they are omelets) and different seafood spreads on baguette slices. I had a slice of tortilla bacalao (not sure what bacalao is, but it’s seafood and it’s good), and some tuna spread on bread, it was delicious.

We finally made our way to the station (it had been a long day) to catch our 10:30pm-4:30am train ride. This ride seemed a tad shorter, which probably meant I was able to sleep better that time than on the way to San Sebastian. It was still pretty uncomfortable sleeping with 3 other old men who didn’t even speak any language that I speak (I have two to choose from now!) My friends and I tried to switch compartments so that we could all be together, but the conductor would not have that, and the conductor had tall, mean-looking security friends with pistols and nightsticks, so we didn’t press our luck. I stood outside the train compartment with my friend for the last hour of the ride because it was so uncomfortable in the compartments. It was actually a really enjoyable ride standing and looking out of the window watching the country go by.

I did indeed have to go to school today after all of that. I got back to the house at 5 or 5:30 and went to school at 9 this morning. It was raining all day, too, which made me long for my bed even more. Most of the people in my classes also took a weekend trip, and we were all so tired that one of my teachers told the class to sleep more at home so we wouldn’t be as tired in class. I felt kind of bad because usually I’m really engaged in class and I ask a lot of questions, but I was just dead today. It was SO worth it though, and I had a really good siesta this afternoon! (I slept for two hours and woke up not having any idea where I was or what was going on. It took me a second to get my bearings, that’s how hard I fell asleep.) Surprisingly, I was really good at Spanish today even though I was pretty exhausted (usually it takes me at least 30 seconds to form a sentence in Spanish before I have my coffee in the morning). My señora and I had dinner tonight, just the two of us, which has never happened because there are 3 other students living in the house. It was really good because I had to talk to her by myself, I didn’t have the luxury of turning to Gina when I didn’t understand something, or simply not taking a big part in the conversation (which I try to avoid, but happens when I’m tired).

Well, that’s about it for my weekend. San Sebastian was such a good trip because we did so much for so little cost! We definitely took advantage of our time and did everything we could possibly do. The weather was perfect and the city was beautiful, it turned out to be the perfect first trip that I’ve ever planned with only peers. ¡Buenas noches, todos! ¡Besos y abrazos (kisses and hugs)!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ferias y Fiestas


¡Ay carumba! I have so much that I need to catch up on for this blog…I’ll start with the fiesta since it is freshest on my mind. It is definitely more than the array of rednecks and expensive food at Riverfest. We started off with the parade for the Virgin de la Vega, it’s been so long since I’ve seen a parade. The costumes were elaborate and the flowers for the virgin were unbelievable. They had displays of roses and arches of flowers that took 2-4 people to carry. After the parade, we hit up the casetas, which are street vendors that sell drinks and pinchas. They are very similar to the corn dog and funnel cake stands in the States except the food is Spanish. Let’s see…I ate a bocadillo con lomo (pork sandwich), a bocheta (kabob with bananas, chicken, and ham), huevos holandes (fried egg on bread – sounds bad but is actually very good), and some paella which was not so good. I got all of this and drinks for less than five euros total! At festivals in the States, you pay five dollars for a corn dog alone, I still can’t believe I spent less than 10 euros last night.

After pinchas, we went and watched the fireworks show which was absolutely breathtaking! I know I’m so corny, but you should have been there. I had this moment where I thought “I am standing in the middle of a city that is so old and beautiful that it should really be a museum, watching fireworks with all of these Spanish-speaking people among whom I live and function.” It’s a very strange feeling.

So back on topic, after fireworks we went to a bar. Please keep in mind that going to a bar is different here than in the States. There was definitely a baby in the bar who was still awake and perfectly happy to be there at midnight on a Friday night. Every time someone would mention that they were getting tired around 11 or 12, we would see a toddler waddling down the street with their family having a grand old time. We all felt so lame that even the infants can stay out as late as we usually do at our prime party age. Also, there were definitely some grandparents rockin’ out at the concert at 11:00 or so. Speaking of, I forgot to mention the concert. Between casetas and the bar we stopped by the concert in the Plaza Mayor where a British band was playing called “The Waterboys”. They were pretty good, so if you want to check out some new music then see if you can find some of theirs.

Where was I? A ves, we ended our night at a discoteca (dance club) which was a lot of fun, but it was full of Americans and techno music. Not that Americans are in any way bad (considering that I am one), but I got the feeling that the club was one of those places where Americans go to hang out with other Americans, which I don’t want to be pulled into. So we definitely had an eventful night last night!

So that brings us to today, which has been as fulfilling as last night, but in a different way. This morning I went to the train station and bought tickets for San Sebastian!! It’s always really disappointing when you are trying to speak Spanish to the natives and then they start talking to you in English because they speak English better than you speak Spanish. Well, the person who was helping us at the bus station spoke English to the person in front of us because he was having trouble, but when it was our turn he never started speaking English! That was our first little victory of the day. Then we needed to get to the ticket office for the bull fights this week and we didn’t know how to get there so we needed to call cabs. Well, it’s still really hard to communicate with people when you can’t see their face so we weren’t so confident about calling for a taxi. I volunteered and successfully ordered to cabs to where we were, alas, victory number two! Then I didn’t have any cash at the ticket place and needed to find an ATM. I had to ask some of the people in line if there was one close and someone gave me directions. I was able to understand and follow the directions (and we all know that I am directionally challenged even in my own language), and what d’ya know…I found the ATM! Yes, that is the third triumph so far. I lost at the ATM machine because it wouldn’t give me money, but it turned out okay because my friends bought my ticket for me. The bank will soon be receiving an angry call, though, for not putting a memo in the system about my and my bankcard being in Spain. I’m almost positive that the problem is that I bought a train ticket and that sends a red flag to the bank. Anyway, I’ve come to appreciate the small things in life because it takes such baby steps to learn a new language.

Alright, flashback now to the past week…I just finished my first week of school. It’s going pretty well, except I didn’t expect to be so busy all of the time. I have 5 hours straight of class a day starting at 9. I haven’t had that since high school, but it’s really not as bad as it sounds. My classes are really easy, but it really helps to learn Spanish from professors who will not speak English to you. In the States, I had classes that were taught in Spanish, but if a student didn’t know a word or understand a concept, the professor would always go over it in English. Here, if you don’t know a word, the meaning is explained in Spanish, so there is no easy out and it really does make a huge difference. Some of my professors don’t even know how to speak English.

As for the life at home, Gina and I got really lucky. A lot of people already have some complaints about their families, not necessarily serious ones, but I have had a perfect experience so far in my homestay. My señora is so such a good cook, first of all. More importantly, though, we talk to her so much about everything. When I first got here, she was the only native speaker that I didn’t find intimidating to talk to. I still get nervous when I have to talk to the directors of my program. I can talk to my teachers pretty well. In fact, I saw one of my teachers at the fiesta and we had a casual conversation. Then one day when I was in class, another teacher asked about a concept and I answered in front of the class in Spanish. He was so impressed that he broke his chalk in half and gave it to me (a gesture that meant at that moment I was his equal – not a Spanish gesture, just from this particular professor because he’s a little eccentric, but a very good teacher!). I feel like I’m 6 years old as I’m writing this, being excited that I got something right in class, but again, even the simple things like that are what count here right now.

Friday, September 7, 2007

En Salamanca

I'm so sorry that it takes me so long to post blogs. I write them whenever I have time, but I only have a few hours in the day when I have access to free internet, and it's too difficult drag my computer around with me all the time. Anyway, here are the blogs from a few days ago. Yesterday I toured the Cathedral in Salamanca, so soon you all will be getting another history lesson when I get around to writing it. Coming up...there is a festival this weekend to celebrate the patron virgin of Salamanca. It actually lasts for 5 days or so and there will be a bullfight on Wednesday. My preconception is that it will be much like Little Rock's Riverfest, but we'll have to see. Hasta luego...


En Salamanca

I started school officially today. It feels so much better to have some sort of structure to my days now rather than taking tours and running around Salamanca trying to figure out what to do. Not that I haven’t been having the time of my life, it just gets so exhausting, especially when I have days like yesterday. Gina and I woke up an hour late yesterday and we were almost late for our tour around Salamanca. If we had missed it, I would have been so lost because, well, I’m Jessi and I get lost. We had to take the placement test first, and I had barely had time to wake up and get my bearings when all of a sudden I am handed 80 questions and have 30 minutes to complete them. I got a little more than halfway through the test in that half hour (I’m such a slow test-taker), and then I was the first to be called out for the speaking exam. The hallway was crowded and all of the chatter was echoing off the walls, so I could barely hear my examiner. He tried to ask me where I was born three times and I just could not hear him. So after that, I was flustered and couldn’t understand anything Rodrigo (one of the directors) said on the tour and finally just went home. My señora could tell I was upset and hugged me and kissed me (on the cheeks, as is customary in Spain) and told me that I would be fine. And at lunch I told her I liked watermelon so she gave me a huge slice to make me feel better, it was really sweet. The afternoon was much better. I went shopping with Gina and a few others and found some really inexpensive clothes because all of the sales are going on right now. We were kind of disappointed because everything we bought looked exactly like the clothes you buy in America, and we really wanted to try out the European style. Then we thought about it and the only real difference is the way they wear their clothes, not what they wear. The Spaniards always dress up and look much more put-together than Americans. They even dress up jeans and t-shirts. It is definitely not okay to wear sweats and pajama pants and such outside of the house in Spain like it is in Arkansas. Also, skinny jeans are really popular here, and everyone looks good in them. In America, that style is a little bit harder to accomplish because, well, Europeans tend to be thinner than Americans.

Today was a good day even though first days of school are always boring. We did ice-breakers like we do in the States and it was the same thing in every class. The only class I have a problem with is my oral practice class because some of the people in there cannot even read Spanish off of a piece of paper. I guess that’s what I get for being so nervous on test day. That class is intermediate and my others are advanced, so really I’m doing pretty well. I could move up to the advanced oral class, but I’ll probably just stay in the intermediate one because sometimes I do have a lot more trouble speaking than anything else. It was, for the most part, an uneventful day (if that’s possible). I have some homework and I’m going to meet some friends later for ice cream. I’m pretty much just livin’ life…except it’s in Spain!

I spoke in Spanish all afternoon! I sat with my friends outside a little café for an hour or so and we spoke only in Spanish to each other. This is the first day that I have spoken more Spanish than English while I’ve been here – that’s pretty exciting! I’m actually really anxious to start what they call “intercambios.” It’s a meeting between Spanish students who want to learn English and the ISA students who are learning Spanish, and we help each other out with our respective languages. It’s a really great way to meet Spanish students…well, there really is no other way. All of our classes are in the “International Courses” building on campus, so there are no Spaniards at all. I have met a few people from other countries who don’t speak English, so our common language is Spanish, but the point of being here is to get the whole cultural experience and you can’t really get that without knowing any Spanish people. I just haven’t had the opportunity to meet any Spaniards yet.

I’m also looking forward to the festival this weekend, which will be a cultural experience in itself. I’m still not sure what the reason is for the celebration, I suppose there’s a topic for me to ask my señora at dinner tonight. Anyway, the city has been preparing for this festival since we got here at the beginning of the week, and we are all very excited (by we I mean my friends in my program). I’m not sure what to expect except a lot of people, food, and drinks. I guess I’ll find out soon, though.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Salamanca

We are now traveling by bus from Toledo to Salamanca to meet our families and get settled in before school starts tomorrow. I had a preconception that Europe’s terrain was mostly settled whether in the form of huge, bustling cities like Madrid or small villages. I am finding out that Spain actually has a really beautiful countryside covered in trees and barely spotted with little old houses and buildings. The view of the mountains is magnificent; I also didn’t realize that Spain had so many mountains. That’s what impressed me so much about Toledo, that no matter where you stood, you were either looking down on the entire city or looking up at ancient monuments and neighborhoods that sit on the hillside.

Luego (Later)…I’M IN SALAMANCA!! It finally hit when I was unpacking – I’m here for a whole semester, thousands of miles away from home in a place where I can barely understand what’s going on. Actually, I think my Spanish improved more in this one day than in the past 7 or so years that I’ve been studying it, so that’s encouraging. When we were touring the other cities the past few days, it was difficult for me to exchange even a few sentences with the shop clerks and today I have had several real conversations in Spanish with my señora and Gina. In fact, this morning I didn’t even know that I was able to do that, and it just kind of happened (like everyone said it would). It’s still really difficult to understand everything and it’s frustrating when I just don’t know the vocabulary to express myself, but I was really surprised today about how much I actually do know and how much I am learning from context clues. I can’t get too comfortable, though, because I’m also finding out that there are a lot of simple things that I don’t know yet, for example, I just now learned the words for “key” and “frog” and a few other simple words like that.
It’s really nice having Gina, especially right now, because our Spanish strengths and weaknesses are almost exactly opposite, so we can always help each other out. I get along with most of the people in my program, and it’s nice knowing that we all have each other as a kind of support base while we’re here. Hopefully it won’t take too long to make Spanish and other international friends. Other than Gina and I, there are two more students living with us – Paco is a Spanish student studying at the university, and Ane from Germany just arrived. Our host-mom makes her living by housing students whether they are international or just from another part of Spain. So far I like her a lot, she is so friendly and helpful, and if lunch was any indication, she cooks very well also.
I’m getting really excited about this semester. Before now, it hadn’t really occurred to me that I’m finally studying in Spain. I just felt like a tourist in a strange place. The last few days, it seemed like it was going to be impossible to be here and actually learn the language because I was always so lost, but now I can imagine myself settling in and being comfortable here. Don’t worry, I still know where home is. I miss all of you, I hope everything is going very well.
Hasta luego!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Tours around Spain...

El valle de los caidos:
My favorite tour so far has been the valle de los caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen. Just a little background…Franco was the tyrannical leader of Spain from the 1930s to 1975, and is comparable to how Hitler was to Germany. He was a conservative radical who intended to purge Spain of anyone who did not support him politically and even some who were ethnically different such as the Basques of Northern Spain. Franco built this memorial for his people that died in the war in Spain in the 1930s and he built it as a tomb for himself. Therefore, the visit was somewhat bittersweet because it typifies one of the most cruel and oppressive political eras of Spain.
The structure is so beautiful! El valle de los caídos includes a basilica and tombs mainly. The basilica looked over a large brick landing that was actually supposed to be a reflection pool to reflect the 150-meter cross (when I put pictures up you’ll know what I’m talking about), but Franco ran out of money, so he couldn’t finish the reflection pool. He probably ran out of money because it was so dangerous to build that each worker worked one day and got 6 days off. That’s the only way Franco could get enough people to finish it.
Inside the basilica, it’s a little bit different than the other Spanish places of religion (for lack of a better word) because it is not nearly as ornate with gilded bronze and so much detail that your eyes start to water. There are some spectacular mosaics, though. The entire dome is a mosaic representation of the people that had fallen, and they were up in heaven havin’ a good ole time (a typical work of art in a basilica’s dome in Europe, except they are usually frescos instead of mosaics). In the smaller rooms off to the side, the ceilings were also done in mosaic, and the work was so detailed it must have taken someone forever to finish it. I wish I could have taken pictures of everything inside, but you’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the historical places.
We also visited the monastery of San Lorenzo de el Escorial. It is still in use and houses 52 monks. Also, it serves as a school for K-12 children – there are about 900 students that attend. Ironically enough, the school is actually secular and only a couple of monks and nuns teach there.
The cathedral in the monastery had more typical Spanish decoration than the basilica at el valle de los caídos. There was gilded bronze EVERYWHERE, it was all very busy, lots of movement and expression. I think I am taking a Spanish art history class while I’m here, so hopefully I’ll have more accurate knowledge of the style of art by then. It reminds me of the baroque style, and I can’t say for sure that it’s classified as baroque, but I think that is the norm for Spanish churches.
For me, the most impressive part about the monastery was the tombs. There are rooms upon rooms of white marble tombs that were carved by hand. They were so detailed, too. Some of the tombs had the fleur-de-lis all over them (because that was the symbol of the Borbones, one of the Spanish royal families) and they were so perfect that it was unbelievable!
Another thing worth mentioning was this sun calendar that they used back then. Basically, it is a strip carved onto the floor in one of the rooms and each month is labeled up and down this strip (they were labeled by their astrological signs which is interesting since astrology and religion don’t mix very well). There’s a hole in the wall placed to where at noon everyday, the sun shines so that it indicates the month on the calendar. So if it’s August 15 at noon, the sun’s rays coming through the hole will stop in the middle between the marks for August and September. Unfortunately, the hole is closed up now, so you can’t witness it anymore.
The tour guide that took us through the monastery was so funny; if it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention to anything because I was so exhausted. In the chapel, he was explaining about four children who were born of one of the Spanish kings – 3 of them died and the only one that was left was named Mary. Apparently, the bloody mary drink was named after her and he asked us was a bloody mary was called without alcohol…are you ready?...”a bloody shame”! Haha, maybe you had to be there, but we all thought it was funny.
We ended the tour in this little room with an arched ceiling, and it was sort of an archway of secrets. The tour guide described it as a place where you can tell a secret in secret because two people can stand across from each other diagonally and speak into the corner, the sound travels via the arched ceiling and the person in the other corner can hear, but the people in the middle cannot hear at all. We all tried it and it really works!
So those were the tours of today. I understood a lot more of what they were saying today than I have the past couple of days. Carmen, one of our ISA advisors that has been touring with us, was explaining the history of the Franco era in Spain before we toured el valle de los caídos, and I caught almost all of that I think because I already knew some of the history from the book I’ve been reading. I used context clues to figure out what she was telling us that I didn’t already know. It’s still really frustrating because everyone speaks so quickly that it just blows me away, but sometimes I’ll be listening and pick up on words and language that I didn’t realize I even know. I’m doing ok, I do a LOT more listening than talking at this point, but I have gotten the courage up to ask a few questions here and there. I’m actually doing really well considering that even a few days before I left I couldn’t understand anything at all when I would listen to Spanish speakers in the States. Here, the ISA advisors don’t ever speak in English, so it’s either understand them or not know what’s going on. And if you are late meeting for the tours then you will get left behind, we left 7 people behind on the first day because they heard the wrong time or something and they had to take taxis to the museum. This is definitely not middle school anymore where they count heads 3 times before you go anywhere.

So now I’m in Toledo and we had such a great time tonight. My ISA group is basically split into 2 groups, those of us who can’t speak Spanish and those who can and don’t want to talk to you if you can’t. Anyway, so 10 of us went out for tapas and drinks tonight. At the first place we went to, we got wine and beer for all 10 of us for 20 euros total and we got 2 plates of tapas for free. We had all pitched in 5 euros at the beginning so we had 30 euros left. So we went to another place and got 2 pitchers of sangria and 2 pizzas for 28 euros, and got free tapas again. So for 5 euros a piece (about $8), we each got 2-3 drinks and lots of food. I really don’t understand how all of the Europeans stay so thin (and they ALL are thin) because this is what I had for dinner: at the first restaurant the tapas consisted of French fries covered in ketchup and mayonnaise, meat kabobs (not sure what the meat was), and breadsticks (like the kind you find in gardetto snacks). At the second tapas bar we had pizza and potato chips ( the other free tapas – I think they opened a bag of lays and poured it on a plate, it was kind of strange). And of course all of the fruity wine we had. I had tinto de verano which is red wine with seltzer at the first restaurant – it translates as summer red wine because it’s iced down and has soda in it, it was really good.
Lunch was a good deal, too. I ate with two other girls at a really nice restaurant in el Escorial that had tablecloths and servers in suits and a beautiful view of the monastery. They served your choice of appetizer, entrée, dessert, and drink all for 10 euros. It may seem kind of expensive for lunch, but lunch in Spain is like dinner in the States, and vice versa – lunch is the main meal of the day. (Plus, you don’t pay tips and the tax is always added in beforehand, so I paid 10 euros and nothing more, whereas in the states, if a meal is $10 on the menu, I would end up paying like $13). One thing that takes getting used to is that you really do have to pay as much or more for water than beer and wine in Spain. It’s not tap water either, it comes in a fancy glass bottle, and that’s really the only option. In fact, last night when we went out for dinner, one of the girls in my group asked if they offered free water from the tap and the server gave us a pitcher of water, but she was so mad and rude for the rest of the meal. When she was taking our order, she stopped right in the middle of it to help some other customers and then came back 5 or 10 minutes later to finish taking our order. Haha, I could just imagine what would happen if a server did that at Cajun’s. Well, its not like she’s working for a tip, so I guess she can get away with it. Anyway, there are definitely small differences between Europe and the US that I’m figuring out, but I’m still in tourist mode and it hasn’t quite hit that I’m going to be here for a whole semester. I guess I’ll realize it when I can’t speak English at all anymore in Salamanca starting Sunday.

9.1.07 I believe Toledo must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world! Madrid was really interesting, but it was like New York or Paris or any other major city of the world. Toledo is so Spanish and different than what I’m used to, although it was still a little touristy. Spain is so different from the United States because it has always been a monarchy. You can go to Washington D.C. and visit 200-year old government buildings (and don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love D.C.), but in Spain you see palaces that are several centuries old and statues of kings riding on horseback, and it just reminds me of a fairytale almost. The historical sites of Toledo did not impress me as much as the ones in Madrid. Today we took a tour around the city and visited a monastery and a church. The really remarkable thing about the church we went to was that, historically, it encompassed the three primary monotheistic religions – it was built by Muslims, utilized by Jews as a temple, and then later converted into a church by Christians. There are elements of all three religions present in the church. (to be continued...)