We took a three-day trip just a bit outside of Madrid. We stayed in a rural house/hotel that was a renovated farmhouse; it was about 15 km from Segovia and was in the smallest town on earth. On Friday night we went into Segovia for dinner and a bit of sightseeing. Surprisingly, there was a festival going on in front of the Roman Aqueduct with ladies dancing in clogs and using sheets as props. For dinner we had tapas- chipirones (little squids in olive oil), calamares, y gambas (shrimp). For dessert we had a Segovian specialty called “Ponche Segoviano” which was a delicious cake that sort of tasted like a s’more even though there wasn’t any chocolate in it. We actually got more of the cake the next day because we loved it so much.

On Saturday we drove on a medieval town tour. The scenery was gorgeous and we couldn’t believe that we were less than 2 hours from Madrid. Spain is so diverse; I am always shocked at how many different looks it has. We went to Pedraza, Riaza, Sepulveda, and Duraton National Park. Our drive was marked by a lot of blue sky, golden wheat, brown earth, fields of sunflowers, occasional dilapidated castles, and a few sheep.

Pedraza is a walled town with a castle and a lot of charm. We went to Pedraza in the morning and then again at 10 pm because it was “la noche de las velas”(night of the candles). The town’s people put over 35,000 candles out in the streets- windows, sidewalks, plazas etc during the celebration. A classical orchestra played music in the plaza mayor. It was sort of like what I imagine the jack-o-lanterns are like at Roger Williams Zoo during Halloween season in RI… although I never actually went to that because of the long lines. Speaking of long lines- the streets were super narrow in Pedraza and the entrance/exit to the town was actually just an arched doorway.  It was super packed with people when we tried to leave and we all sort of moved as one through the arch. There were two older women, in their mid-80s, who were a part of the group. They were laughing so hard as we were passively pushed through the exit that it made me appreciate the comedy of the situation as well.

Riaza was special because it had a plaza mayor with a sand-filled ground, used for it’s own private bull fight every September. Sepulveda was where we had our second, and best, serving of Ponche Segoviano. Trust me- this cake was good. So good that Sean asked “hey, should I go buy another piece?” immediately after he ate his first. The Duraton National Park was right outside of Sepulveda. After driving through the park, on a really bumpy dirt road where a small car tipped into a ditch ahead of ours, we reached Ermita de San Frutos (hermitage of Saint Frutos (?). This was an “island” of land with ruins of a hermitage on it perched over a magnificent canyon. The water below was eerily green, like the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day.  Huge turkey vultures flew above.

We returned to Segovia on Sunday morning. I was most impressed with the Alcazar, which is a castle (with a legit moat!) that served as inspiration for the Disney Cinderella castle. We walked around the town, went to an art museum, cathedral, walked up the tower of the Alcazar, and then drove back to the hustle and bustle of Madrid. Our Spanish home.

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Intercambio in a cafe

July 10, 2011

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Inma and I have had our intercambio since November. We meet twice a week at a random cafeteria that we selected on the first day we met. The cafeteria is quite ugly, with the smell of jamon wafting in the air and mirrors lining the walls, but it has been the perfect spot to chat. The workers are always very supportive of my language learning; they even try out a few phrases of English to experiment. T he place is usually filled with worker-men and everyone says good-bye to us as we leave. Adios- hasta luego! Adios- hasta luego! Adios- hasta luego! It is nice and I will miss them.


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El Escorial with Inma

July 1, 2011

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Last week Inma took me to El Escorial, which is a small town about an hour outside of Madrid. Inma is my dear friend and intercambio partner. We meant to do an “intensive” language outing, whereby we speak only English for 30 minutes and then only Spanish for the next and so on. We were pretty good about sticking to this in the beginning but the hot sun took our energy and by the end of the day we didn’t talk as much.

Escorial is a world heritage site because it is a historical residence of the king of Spain. There is a monastery, royal palace, and royal park grounds. There is also a very old library that has over 40,000 volumes, many of which are from the early 17th century.  I tried to snap a photo of this but the security guards caught me. The town is surrounded by mountains and was very peaceful. Up on a cliff there is the “chair of King Philp II”, which is actually stones carved into a bit of a seat that overlooks the small town. It is quite nice.

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On Thursday, Madrid celebrated another Puente (holiday on Thursday so they extend the vacation to include Friday as well- like a “bridge”. Makes sense to me!).  We took a four-day trip to Asturias with Daniela and her boyfriend.  Asturias is one of the most beautiful areas of Spain. It is in the Northwestern area, and it borders the Cantabrian Sea. It is a very green, mountainous area with beautiful water views.

We always have a great time when we are with Daniela because #1. she is a darling, and #2. she is a native Spanish speaker and we eat very well when we know what we are ordering.   Asturias is famous for cider (Sidra) and the waiters have a fancy way of pouring the liquid. They hold the bottle high over their heads and only look at the liquid as it falls into the glass. A lot of it splashes on their pants. They pour about a sip worth at a time, because it is best to drink immediately. If you have liquid still in your glass when they return to refill, they throw it on the floor (even indoors!).  This is in keeping with the tradition because originally cider was use to be consumed outside and the leftover liquid was fertilizer for the earth, plus sometimes they only give you two glass to share and the thought is that it is more hygienic to get rid of the last sip.

Our hotel was in Oviedo and we were in for a surprise the first night. There was a special celebration with a huge bonfire in the middle of the city. People wrote things they didn’t like about their lives and threw the paper into the fire. It was magnificent. On Friday we went to a small town called Congas de Onis, which has a Roman bridge with a large cross hanging from the center. From Congas, we went to see the Covadonga (virgin Mary) in a chapel built into a cliff and the surrounding lakes. We took a taxi when we went to the lakes because the windy road was very narrow- not to mention occupied by cows.  The area seemed enchanted because it was so green and fresh, and the air was filled with the sound of cowbells, which the cows wore around their necks. Someone told me that people drop the cows off in the area in spring to let them graze free until the end of the summer, then they collect them once they have been fattened. It seems like a nice alternative to a factory farm I suppose.

On Saturday we went up the Sella River on canoes.  There were many people there because the weather was warm and the water was cool. We saw about 15 boats flip because of the rapids but luckily we were safe. After the river we drove to the beach town of Gijon. The seawater was so warm compared to the coast of RI but it is supposedly quite cold for Spain.  And lastly, on Sunday we went to my favorite place, Cudillero. Cudillero is an old fishing town built on a cliff. The houses are quite charming. We had delicious seafood there and, of course, more cider. One of the best things about Spain is that the people eat a huge meal for lunch instead of at dinnertime. The restaurants serve a “menu del dia” which is usually 8-12 euro. It includes bread and wine/beer/cider, a first course (salad, pasta, paella, etc), a second course (fish with a side veg, ham, chicken, etc), then a dessert and café con leche). All for VERY cheap.

Asturias was suppose to be our last big trip before we return home but we are considering squeezing in one more… maybe… Asturias will be hard to beat though!


March 23, 2011

Sevilla started off with a six hour overnight bus ride.   Two women in front of us, yapping and enjoying each other’s company, as is their right, as is their right.  But dag: hay que dormir, chicas.

We arrived to Sevilla’s bus station. Bus stations all over the world are melting pots of unusual.   There was a woman, maybe sixty-five, and a man, maybe thirty, who looked to be romantically involved.  They were whispering into each other’s ears and doing an odd mutual neck caress.  You can’t hate: the heart always has its reasons.

Then there was this guy who was wearing a four piece suit, but with sweatpants.   He was a trendsetter, a smoker, maybe fifty-two, also owner of earth’s most violent cough.  Tough dude: the cough would kill any weaker man instantly and the sweatpants you have to repect when accompanied by a four-piece.  Sweater vest, tie, Brooks Brothers jacket, smooth blue button-down, cuff links, and sweatpants from Russell Sporting goods.

He was friends with another guy who would just yell.  Not curses, not prayers, just loud and primal noise from the gut.

We left the station thinking our trip was already good enough.  But Sevilla surpassed all expectation.  It was infused with the splendor of good temperature and striking architecture.

One night we walked through a couple plazas that had hordes of people drinking sangria.  Am impromptu party outside, but the best kind of party: when you only know only one person and you can enjoy the feel of the crowd without interacting with it.  B and I toasted our good fortune, and I began coughing and screaming as a testament to my old friends.

Recommendation: go there.  It’s a tourist spot but don’t hate: you’re a tourist too.  Financially, it’s easy to do cheap.   Just get gritty and take the bus.   Don’t stay in a pricey hotel but do stay in the center. Lots of good restaurants and a giant Starbucks where you can hide and sleep if you didn’t on the overnight bus ride.

My highest recommendation outside of the bus station is Plaza de Espana: it’s half-park, half-castle.  It reminded me of that scene in Aladdin when the Genie advised our hero to ‘beeee yourself’ when they were on top of Jasmine’s castle.



February 8, 2011

We arrived in Tangier and didn’t know what language to speak.  We only speak English, so that made it especially hard.  A guidebook described the city as, ‘Certainly not European, not African, not even Morrocan.’  Considering its located in two of those places, I was confused.

But it was true.  This place does not have a typical cultural identity.  Part of it is location.  It’s in Morocco but you can see Spain from the coast, and it’s traditionally been a port or trade city.

Part of it is history.  It has a mixture of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian influence.

What this leads to is a really fascinating city that has touches of everything.  It’s a melting pot of energy and small-shop commerce, mixed in with some kids and adults who try to game you at every corner.

One kid tried selling us chiclet gum for forty minutes.  He was savvy- a showman, really – and spoke to us in four different languages before settling on Spanish. Dios Mio. There’s a real facility for multi-lingualism here, as everyone seems to go back and forth.  For fans of the Bible or that Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchett movie, it was like Babel (or Babel), only not at all.  Everyone understood everyone.

Upon arriving, our taxi driver dropped us off at the entrance of the Medina, the famous series of tangled, narrow streets.  William Burroughs lived there and apparently ran wild. The Rolling Stones passed through.  As the guidebook said, ‘They relished the place where nothing- and no one– was forbidden.’  It’s not like that now, though.  Time tends to tame.

The taxi driver gave this half-second glimpse to this other man at the entrance.  This man became our unofficial tour guide.  We read that this happens, and that they expect a tip after showing you around the confusing maze of the Medina.  We pledged to avoid it.  We are savvy travelers.

We didn’t avoid it and are not savvy travelers.  The dude showed us the Medina for a good twenty minutes and we were powerless to escape.  He knew that we needed him.  The Medina has maps- some better than others- but as our hotel receptionist told us ‘it’s nearly impossible to find this place on your first day.’  Our guide, a man who also toggled between multiple languages, helped us out.  We gave him a tip – less than he wanted but fair enough – and we were off.

We saw the Kasbah and walked along the beach.  We ate at a really delicious French restaurant (three times).  We ate a really delicious Morrocan restaurant.  There was a camel on the beach.  There were spontaneous soccer games amongst teens that seemed to break out of nowhere.  The kids were talented- one reminded me of a soccer-ish Kevin Durant- and played for hours.  We sat on terraces.  The city could feel tougher in the Medina at night, especially after that one guy spit on us.

Just asked B what she would rate it on her now famous five star scale.  She said ‘2.5, but I’m sure other places in Morocco are a four or even a five.’  Not the most comfortable spot, but we agree it’s a trip that will age well.  I’ll go 3.25, inching towards 3 and half.

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Two weekends ago we took a bus trip to Valencia, the third largest city in Spain and the (currently) most important port-town. We stayed at a B&B and our room was located in a separate building from the main one. (this marks the start of our experimentation with cheaper accommodations) The room was a bit chilly and we had to share three bathrooms with 5 rooms, but, overall, it was quite comfortable. The “breakfast” part of the B&B was delicious and free. The only real problem with the setup was that we got lost trying to find the random apartment building after a day out on the town. We tried the key in at least 5 doors before we realized we were on the wrong street.

The outskirts of Valencia were a bit dodgy but the historic city center was charming. We went to the city of arts and science, which is a massive area with about 5 museums. It was like a modern, sci-fi version of museum campus in Chicago. We got a day pass so we could pop from building to building. We spent so much time in the aquarium that we only managed to see the science museum before the place closed. The next day we went to a cathedral (again, we have seen about a million). This cathedral was very special though. It had the holy grail… yes! the holy grail.  It didn’t look like it was protected all that well so I wondered why someone hasn’t stollen it. The cathedral also had the arm of Saint Vincent. His arm was withered within a glass box and went from fingertip to elbow. He had some rings on his fingers. It was sort of creepy.

Our favorite part of Valencia was the paella and horchata. Horchata is a traditional drink that sort of tasted like liquid cookie dough. It was great. On the way back to Madrid there was a snowstorm. I was nervous because I was sitting, without Sean, in the front seat. I didn’t know if Spaniards knew how to drive in the snow since it doesn’t happen all that often, unless you are in the north. One of my students told me it is like cars “waltz” on the road when there is snow. The front window was fogged up except for a 6×3 inch space the driver could peak out of. I was sweating, trying to create a sentence in Spanish like “can I wipe the window for you???”. Luckily, the snow occurred at the halfway mark of the trip and the driver eventually pulled over for a break. Phew!  We give Valencia 4/5 stars. -b

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January 29, 2011

The third part of an ongoing series on how we’re learning the language.

You pick up certain things while you’re watching programs in Spanish.

You tend to watch shows you would never otherwise.  For instance, there’s this show on Nick with one chubby high-school kid and his friend who’s not as chubby and thus more popular.   There’s a lot of physical comedy and overacting and plots ripped from Saved by the Bell.

In English, I would only watch it with my brother Dan, the connoisseur of bad films and television.

In Spanish, it’s a learning tool.   We watched five episodes over the course of three days in Cordoba.   The plot doesn’t necessarily advance as much as it dizzies itself, but we did learn a few expressions. ‘Es mejor que me vaya.’

There’s also a popular show called Glee.  For those who don’t know, it follows two teenagers from Chicago’s west side over a period of four years in their quest for glory on the court.  It’s difficult to watch at times.  They are gifted players- one preternaturally so- and their smooth and uninhibited play is tragically paralleled by brutal trauma in their private lives.   For anyone who wants a look at urban America- without the unforgivable moralizing of that Hillary Swank movie where she’s white and the students are black- watch Glee.

Just joking that’s Hoop Dreams.

Glee exists in an alternate universe where Justin Timberlake becomes a high school Spanish teacher and coaches the most gifted glee club ever.  Its cast is diverse in a way that appeases Huffington Post liberals, but subtly condescending in a way that upsets The Nation liberals.  The students can sing for real though.  I don’t think my dad watches it, but if he did: ‘Sue can you believe it? These kids have effin’ pipes.’

It’s pretty fun to watch in dubbed Spanish.  On good days, you understand fifteen percent of it.


Intercambios and the lottery

December 23, 2010

I have a new language exchange partner named Inmaculada (Inma for short). We meet two times a week to chat in both English and Spanish. Her English is far better than my Spanish but she is eternally patient. I make the same mistakes each time we meet but she doesn’t seem to mind. When we talk, I try to use every word I know in the same sentence. I’m sure I sound nuts. She asked me once, “does it sounds strange when I speak in English like how you sound speaking Spanish?”. I’m guessing I sound worse.

Yesterday we met at a cafe and the Christmas lottery was being announced for over two hours. This particular lotto is no joking matter. There have been lines trailing into the streets for the last few weeks from the stores. The top prize is usually only 300,000 but it is traditional and every Spanish person I’ve talked to participates. There are children who are trained for an entire year to learn how to announce each number. They announce in a strange monotonous sing-song voice. Here is a link to demonstrate-  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRgas3xBhYc&feature=related

Deadly right?

Tomorrow we are off to Rome for Christmas. We got our Spanish student card this morning so we now have documentation to prove that we can be here until September. Without it, we probably would get deported at the airport. I’m not sure what the internet situation we be like when we are away so Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! -b