El albergue

El albergue

Sunday, December 19, 2010

You always learn the randomest things.....

So it’s officially over.  My study abroad program ended, and I ran away to London for a week before finally boarding the plane for home, and now I’m back at my parents’ kitchen table in central California, halfway across the globe from Madrid.  Did I enjoy myself for the three and a half months that I was in Spain?  You bet your booties I did.  I had a blast.  It was three and a half months full of food, friends, and fun, baby.  Did I learn anything at all while I was over there?  Of course!  I was taking five classes all chock-full of lectures, homework, projects, essays, and tests on top of strengthening my Spanish every day – how could I not learn with all of that?  Oh, you mean besides academics….  Well, it goes kind of without saying that every new situation brings you in contact with new things, every day teaching you a little something new.  So to end off this slew of blogs about my time in Madrid (yes, I do realize how much I tend to write haha), I thought I’d leave you all with a couple of those random little things I learned during my time in Madrid:

1.    Everything is relative – Here in California, I’m an average sized-girl with an averaged sized-foot, but in Europe, I sometimes have difficulty finding what I need because most shoes stores don’t carry anything over a size 41, which is at the lower end of my size spectrum.  (Golly gee, that makes me sound like a giant!)
2.   Learn to look at the world from a different perspective - When you put half a canned peach upside down on a white plate, the result looks remarkably like a giant egg.  (We had a nice giggle over this one night at dinner)
3.   Everyone is capable of the unexpected - You know that candy brand called Chupa Chups?  Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but it has the sweetest little innocent logo that you’ve ever seen.  Well, wouldn’t you know, it was designed by the artist Dali!  Who’d a thunk someone with such crazy and dark paintings would create such a sweetly simple candy logo?
4.  Determination can overcome a lot, but even an insane amount of it isn’t able to overcome the impossible - A little lap dog will never be able to pull you around on your rollerblades, even if you’re a nine-year old boy and are whipping the leash about with all your might.  Sorry, there just isn’t motivation enough in that waving leash to get those tiny little legs to pull you even an inch.
5.   If you don’t worry about what other people think, you can do just about anything -  When you’re a white-haired old man you can go out to the park with your ancient roller skates, walkman, and capri pants and go around and around the same fountain for an hour dancing and singing at the top of your lungs and not worry about a thing; because really, who cares what the tourists about to post your antics on youtube might think?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Everybody loves the fat one

Yesterday I went out shopping for Christmas presents in Sol, where I usually tend to go to shop here in Madrid.  I know, I know, I’m not being very adventurous in this department, but it’s just so darn easy to shop here because there are a ton of stores, and most of the area immediately around the Puerta del Sol is a pedestrian zone, so you don’t have to worry about dodging traffic or anything like that…well, you do still have to deal with strolling groups of shoppers who string themselves out across the greater part of the path, but they’re usually a little easier to deal with than speeding vehicles. 

So, I went to Sol for some shopping, not remembering until I got there that yesterday was the first day of a really long holiday weekend here in Spain (Día de la Constitución on Monday and Día de la Inmaculada – patron saint of the entire country – on Wednesday combine to give everyone a nice, healthy break).  Apparently, as I found out, this weekend is one of the most traveled ones in all of Spain, meaning that there were tons and tons and tons (shall I go on?) of people filling the area to the brim as they devoted themselves to the pleasure of shopping and relaxing.  The Puerta del Sol, which is really quite a large plaza, was literally teaming with bodies.  At one point, as I was coming back from the Christmas fair in the Plaza Mayor, I looked out over the crowd and could only think of one word to describe it – an ocean.  Really.  It was an ocean of humanity, heaving and tossing waves of families and friends first into one side street and then another, ebbing and flowing with the tide of folks streaming in and out of the metro and pouring in from every possible direction. 

I was trying to swim to the other side of the plaza when I came across it, a crowd of people who seemed to be watching a street performer, of which there are many in Sol, or waiting for something to start.  Naturally, I was curious to see what so many people were watching, so I glanced to the front and to the back.  Nothing.  I glanced to the left.  Nothing but more people waiting.  Then I glanced to the right and realized that this crowd was really a gigantic line twisting away from the lottery stand.  Yup, there was a giant sea snake writhing through the heart of the ocean, with its head in the lottery stand.  Never thought the lottery would be so popular here?  Well, as I found out, it isn’t normally any more so than in the states, but for Christmas there’s a special lottery drawing for El Gordo, the fat one, that everyone participates in.  And I mean everyone, eh?  It’s a sort of tradition for most, and people who never play in the lottery the rest of the year buy a ticket or two for El Gordo.  Even my host mom, who says gambling is a vice, buys a ticket for herself and one with her group of friends.  It’s a social thing, with people earnestly discussing where to buy their tickets and somehow playing the system with all their friends so that they can win together.  You can wait in a line to buy tickets from a particular lottery store for hours, literally hours, because everyone loves El Gordo.

In fact, people love El Gordo so much that the air traffic controllers all across Spain that went on strike on Friday probably only did it to recreate the jolly environment of long lines and endless waits that they have grown to associate with fond memories of the Christmas lottery.  Sure, they wanted higher pay or something silly like that too, but I’ll bet their main goal was to share the holiday spirit with the millions of people who got stuck in every single Spanish airport.  I mean, what could be more festive and joyful than getting to know the people around you who are also waiting in an endless line for hours and hours on end?  Only, I think they tried to share their love of lines a little too long, and now the whole country is a little POed that they had to wait more than two days to fly off to wherever they were going for vacation.  Come on now, folks, don’t be so harsh.  Can’t you tell they just wanted to share the love they feel for the Fat One?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

El silencio escrito

Yesterday was the inaugural day of vacation – finals over, I decided to wander around the city for a while and see a few things I hadn’t gotten around to yet.  My first stop was the Real Basilica de San Francisco, popularly known as Sang Francisco el Grande (referring both to the size of the basilica cupola, which has the fourth largest inside diameter of all Catholic edifices, and the number of Franciscan monks that used to fill the monastery upstairs).  Sadly, it was closed when I got there in the early afternoon, so I went into the dahlia garden instead.  Well, I’m assuming it was a dahlia garden, since that’s what the sign said, but the beds were nothing but tilled earth and irrigation hoses, presumably because it is already winter.  It was an absolutely lovely day though, so I installed myself on a bench in the sunshine near the end and enjoyed the scene spreading out below the rise on which the garden was situated.

The sky was that clear, crisp blue of a sunny winter day, highlighting the peaks to the north that were beginning to show their winter cap of snow and providing a brilliant background to the city skyline rising up from the River Manzanares below.  Tall office buildings were interspersed with trees, smaller shops and open spaces, creating the look of a somewhat lumpy and well-loved blanket that disappeared into the distance.  Young magnolia trees shivered in their raised planters, trying vainly to shelter the ivy that trailed about at their feet from the nippy breeze that was playfully tossing their leaves about.  A hawk suddenly swooped down from the sky and snatched a lizard from the slope below, beating its wings a little against the breeze before finally making it around the ancient brick corner of the Basilica with its prey in its grasp.  There was a sense of peace and quiet, with the murmur of city traffic softly filling the background, the occasional burst of barking in the distance, and the crunch of feet on the gravel paths as other tourists came padding through to take their requisite photos and head back out.  I tilted my face back in the sunshine, letting it combat the frosty effects of the air, and closed my eyes, savoring the moment.  True, it wasn’t the most spectacular garden or vista that I’ve met with here in Madrid, but it was a beautiful day to be out and about, to enjoy the weather and the calm of a rather barren garden. 

Some hooligans had scrawled graffiti on the planters, so I leisurely set about reading what I could see.  Most of it was the typical nonsense, but one person in a more poetical mood had etched out the phrase “silencio escrito.”  I read that, looked about me at the quiet little garden, read it again, and decided that it was the perfect phrase for where I was and the day I was having, a place and a time of silence, the type of calm that makes you wish you had an excellent piece of literature in your hands to accompany it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

By jove, it's snowing!

I’ve led a rather deprived life.  I’ve never really seen it snow before.  It just doesn’t really happen around my little hometown in central California.  Of course, there was that one historic day in elementary school when it did actually snow a few inches and all the schools closed for the day in the general rush of excitement, but it all fell during the night, so I didn’t get to see it until it was on the ground.  And one time in jr. high a flurry of tiny flakes drew us all out of class in a laughing, happy mob, but it they were really pretty tiny.  Yesterday though, just before my three-hour final started, the entire class was staring through the windows as little spots of white started to drift down, continuing for pretty much the rest of the day. 

That’s right, it was snowing in Madrid!  Apparently, Madrid only started to get snow a few short years ago, and then usually only after the New Year, but here we are at the juncture between November and December, and snow is a near surety for the next week or so.  (Oh global warming, thank you for expanding my climatological experience!)

As I walked the 10 minute walk from my class room to the train station that would take me back to central Madrid, my umbrella only half sheltered me from the clumpy flakes that were drifting around at every odd angle on skittish drafts of wind; but it wasn’t really a problem, since it wasn’t exactly a deluge of snow – a few delicate blobs of ice stuck themselves to my coat and jeans and quietly melted, but they weren’t enough to get me wet.

It was kind of a wet snow in general though, but the temperature wasn’t low enough to keep it from melting into puddles as soon as it touched down to earth.  (However, it was still cold enough that if you’d asked me if my feet were a bit on the chilly side while I was walking, I would have answered, “I don’t know, I can’t feel them.”)  Pretty soon, all those little individual puddles had grown and melded into one another, making…well, larger puddles, the kind of puddles that like to leach up into your pant legs if you’re not paying enough attention.

So yeah, I was kinda cold, but it was fun watching little flurries of snow swirl around in the air – I’m more used to seeing dust devils.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I'd rather go here, there, anywhere....

Oye.  I really don’t feel like doing my homework.  Or studying.  I’m in the middle of an 8-pager that’s due…now, with other assignments waiting on the sidelines.  Massive amounts of studying are looming ahead of me as we barrel down on finals.  And here I sit, without the desire to attend to any of it.  I’d rather be out and about, traveling and exploring new places, like Córdoba and Granada, where we went this past weekend.

Get your bum out of bed at 8 am,
 and maybe you'll get to see a sky as beautiful as this one.
It was a whirlwind trip, with about 100 California kids from two universities in Madrid running amuck for three full days.  Well, there wasn’t much mucking about when we packed out two tour buses at 8 am on Friday morning – everyone was too tired to do much more than crash on the bus, bodies twisted into odd positions of comfort for about 6 straight hours.  Then we arrived…Córdoba!  It was a beautiful day, perfect for wandering the streets a little before taking the group tour of the mosque/cathedral/whatever you feel like calling it.  (Don’t worry, it’s not normally called that, most people referring to it as the Mosque of Córdoba.)

Not exactly your typical cathedral...
It was the largest mosque in all of civilization during the time that the Muslims ruled in Spain, forming an integral part this city that was home to some of the greatest cultural developments of the world.  Then when the Catholics “reconquered” Córdoba in the 13th century, it was converted into a cathedral, retaining pretty much all the same architecture.  This recycling if you will of a place of worship has as its result one of the most fascinating buildings you have ever seen.  You walk through the courtyard filled with orange trees and through a magnificent arched door into a forest of pillars connected by graceful double arches.  It’s extremely simple, the floors plain marble and little decoration besides that provided by the nearly 1,000 pillars.  Then you visit the main chapel, the most prominent Catholic addition, and you wonder, how in the world can this be in the same building as what I just saw?  It’s completely Renaissance and Baroque in style, with ornamentation everywhere you look, vivid colors, gold plating, and a vaulted ceiling. 

The inner courtyard of Carlos V's unfinished palace - it's got some of
the best acoustics you've ever heard.
The tour ended with a stroll through the old Jewish Quarter, then after some tapas, churros con chocolate, and a wonderful tango performance, it was off to bed to catch a few winks before that 7:45 wake-up call.  (The breakfast buffet was amazing – it was nice to eat something besides cereal in the morning, and that’s a lot coming from one of the world’s biggest cereal fans)  The big event of the day came after we arrived in Granada…La Alhambra!  Basically a small, luxurious city on a high hill overlooking Granada, it was built by the Muslim kings when they ruled the area and was turned over to Ferdinand and Isabel when they conquered this last Muslim stronghold in Spain in 1492.  Most of the complex of fortress towers and palaces is Arabic in origin, with evidence everywhere of their deep appreciation for beauty and delicacy, but one building that was particularly interesting was a palace that Carlos V started constructing in the 1520s.  He spent a 6-month honeymoon with his bride Isabel de Portugal here in this royal city, and they liked it so much that he decided to build a palace there for them to stay in whenever they went back (the court was itinerary at this time).  However, when his beloved Isabel died in childbirth in 1539, construction was halted and the project abandoned, as La Alhambra held too many painful memories for Carlos and he never wanted to see it again.  In more recent years, since tourism has become so important, a roof and doors and windows have been put in, and a museum as taken up residence, but it is still lacking the third and final floor and the huge vaulted ceiling that was to have covered the circular inner courtyard.  Despite its unfinished touch, the palace is still quite impressive (and the courtyard has amazing acoustics!).

Did you know about 10 people fall into this pool in the
Alhambra every year as they try to take pictures?
For the rest of the tour, we trailed around after our guide, listening to interesting anecdotes and tidbits of information as we gazed at the beautiful palaces and gardens and tried to recreate in our minds what it might have been like when ancient kings held sway there.

The next day held another beautiful sight in store for us – we trekked up to another high spot in the city, a popular lookout point that commanded a sweeping view from up the valley, across La Alhambra, and down the city towards the coast (although the actual sea was just beyond the line of the horizon).  Then it was back down through the maze of tiny streets to see the Capilla Real, the chapel where THE Ferdinand and Isabel are buried, along with their daughter and her husband, before a couple hours of wandering about, browsing crunched alleys full of tourist shops and warming up in a small café with churros con chocolate (of course!). 

And that was it.  Two cities in three days, and we were back on the bus, consigning ourselves to our seats for another six hours.  Just like that, we were back in Madrid.  It went by so fast.  We saw so much, and yet we saw so little – a whirlwind trip, un viaje relámpago…And now here I am sitting at my desk in my little room, still with the desire to run around the country and excitedly explore all the random little places that I can find.  True, we only have one more week left of studying and applying ourselves to the tasks before us, but I’m still avoiding the long list of things I need to do to finish off this semester.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The warmth of Salamanca

The colors of fall gracefully framed the old Roman bridge, and the leaves were just begging to be raked into a big pile and jumped in.

Last weekend, I went on a last-minute jaunt over to the city of Salamanca with a friend for two days, already knowing that the place was known for having the oldest university in Spain, but not being prepared to find a town with the warmest atmosphere I have ever encountered.  Now, the actual temperature was not very high, especially on Sunday when it was overcast and drizzly, but the town exuded a gentle warmth of spirit that captured my heart.  Perhaps the main reason for this was the overall color of the town – yellow.  Nearly all the buildings in the old town were fashioned from a local stone that happened to be a delightful golden buttery color, and the trees were all putting on their autumn dress, presenting a unified front of glorious, warming yellow.  The people were friendly too, and there was a general feel of camaraderie and openness in the air.  So if you ever feel a slight chill inside, I highly recommend Salamanca – it will warm your heart and make you feel right at home.
It was an absolutely beautiful day, and I loved the way the cathedral towers were illuminated against the backdrop of the clear blue sky, so of course I had to take a picture :)
It didn't hurt my new-found love for Salamanca that there was an awesome book fair in the Plaza Mayor - I bought a book by Charles Dickens for only 3 euros and one by Juan Pablo Ortega for 2!
Of course, the Plaza Mayor was gorgeous even without taking that most awesome book fair into account...
It was really interesting to walk through the old University and imagine myself going to class in those rooms.  Well, I wouldn't have been able to, being a girl, but that's beside the point.
As we were getting ready to head back to Madrid, we found a mushroom exhibit in the streets outside the Plaza Mayor - how sweet is that?  It was a fun little end to a lovely weekend full of warm and happy memories.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Barcelona, city of the old and the new

The main entrance to Parc Güell, one of the most famous attractions in Barcelona

Last weekend, I made a sort of last-minute trip to Barcelona, a city full of life and energy.  Before going, I had some expectations (of course, who doesn’t have thoughts and ideas about what their destination holds in store?), expectations formed around everything I’ve seen in other Spanish towns such as Segovia and Toledo, cities that have charmingly conserved an overall air of antiquity and historical importance.  In short, even though I knew that Barcelona was famous for such modern architecture as that of Gaudi, I was expecting to find a city that spoke to me of older times, that seemed to breathe the same breath as a thousand years ago.  Instead, I found a city of contrasts, modernism next to antiquity, the two coexisting in a juxtaposition that highlighted their differences while at the same time revealing the harmony of peaceful integration.

For instance, when we arrived Saturday morning, we went on a hike up the hills to the north of the city in the area called Tibidao; the hills were covered in a blanket of trees, mute and ageless witnesses to the change that has gone on below them through the centuries, to the creeping expanse of buildings that has grown up from the sea’s edge.  We dodged our way past the cloud of mountain bikers zooming around through the trails, stopping at first one lookout point then another, surrounded by the peaceful presence of nature and looking out at the vista of street upon street and building upon building of a thoroughly modern metropolis. 

The Nativity Façade of La Sagrada Familia
On Sunday, we visited the Parc Güell and La Sagrada Familia, both important works by the modern architect Gaudi, both an interesting mixture of past and present.  In Güell, the calm charms of nature once again formed the backdrop for the works of the present, although here, instead of looking out over them, we found them mingled with the bushes and the trees, oddly placed yet somehow at one with their environment.  La Sagrada Familia was also an interesting mix of old and new – construction began in 1882 and will continue for at least another half century, so some of the building is visibly aging while other sections have the pristine whiteness of fresh fabrication.  We sat on a bench in the park across the street from one of the completed sides, the Nativity façade, trying to take in the enormity of sculptural details that all function together to tell the story of why Jesus came to Earth, contrasting it in our minds to the more modernistic angular austerity of what we had seen in the Passion façade on the other side. 

Walking through the streets around our hostel at night, we experienced an incredible mixing of history and modernity – the crooked paths of the Barri Gótic (gothic neighborhood) were lined with touristy shops and restaurants nestled in among buildings whose architecture represented an age gone by, hordes of tourists pouring through the narrow channels in search of the essence of Barcelona or maybe just some place good to eat.  In the plaza in front of the beautiful, if somewhat dilapidated, cathedral, we came across the curious (and apparently weekly) sight of rings of Catalans in their regular, modern clothes dancing the sardana, the age-old traditional dance of the area, to the sound of a small live orchestra, celebrating tradition in the middle of a gawking crowd of invaders with cameras for eyes and map for minds. 

View of the port from Montjüic

Monday, we spent the day hiking through the vast grounds of Montjüic, a hilly promontory next to the port that combined yet again the durance of nature and the changes of a contemporary culture.  Not only were there magnificent views of the sea and the city, there were historical gardens and palaces once inhabited by the most important people as well as a modern art museum and the sports complex that hosted the 1992 Olympic games, everything connected by both quiet shady paths and busy paved roads. 

The Olympic Stadium
On Monday evening, as we waited for the hour to come when the overnight bus would whisk us away back to Madrid, we sat on a bench in the overlap area of the port and Las Ramblas, one of the most famous and touristy streets in the city, talking and watching the masses of people milling about as the sun set behind the bulky outline of Montjüic and the colors faded from the sky.  The sea breeze fluttered the sails of the boats in front of us, and the water softly washed up against the pier, a reminder of the durance of the natural landscape on which the city has grown; the Monument a Colom (Columbus Monument) stood out against the lights of the city, a reminder of the glory that Barcelona and Spain as a whole has seen in its history; the rumble of traffic filled the air around the large works of contemporary art that lined the port walk, a reminder of the modernity that has integrated itself with the natural and human history of the city.  The contrast of past and present was stark, obvious, yet perfect in its starkness, beautiful in its obviousness – it was Barcelona, city of both the old and the new.
Sunset, and the end of the trip

Friday, October 29, 2010

Some change

Somehow, the seasons are changing; right under my nose, it seems.  When we got here in late August, it was hotter ‘n’ blazes – you kind of felt scorched if you stayed out in the sun too long.  All of a sudden though, it’s switched to autumn.  Right now, I’m sitting in my room, listening to that particularly soothing sound of rain falling all around the building and to the somewhat testy sound of the wind rushing around the roof and across the windows.  It’s a good time to be inside, to feel cozy, to smell whatever it is that Señora Maria is cooking in the kitchen. 

Earlier this afternoon I went for a walk through El Retiro.  Before, the park was filled with the vibrant green of summer, the busy noise of hundreds of people enjoying days of leisure in the delicious shade of trees nodding gently in the breeze.  Now, there are still a lot of people, but not as many, and those that are there tend to seek out the sunnier spots and shun those cooler areas most frequented during the warmer months.  Many of the trees maintain their differing shades of green still, but the tints of summer are slowly fading into more muted tones of brown, occasionally brightened by a splash of orange or brilliant yellow.  The leaves are beginning to float to the sidewalk, covering the ground in a crisp mantle that crunches with every step.  Before, the sky was a clear blue, highlighted by brightness of the sun.  Now, the sky is darker, slightly ominous in keeping with the slight bite of the air, and looking up from the pathway, the treetops tower against a ponderous background of steely grey clouds.  It’s really quite beautiful; very different, but beautiful in that very difference I guess. 

So now, Madrid is settling softly down through the cushions of autumn to the cold of winter.  I know that when winter comes, it too will be beautiful in its own singular way, but right now, I want to enjoy a little the passing period of fall.  I want to enjoy the colors, the crisp air, the chill without the cold.  I want to take time to watch the clouds scud across the skies, to watch the leaves flutter to the ground.  I want to enjoy Madrid as it is right now, a metropolis in transition, full of the essence of fall.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

All right, I'll say it...I love you!

There’s been something gradually growing on the horizon of my consciousness for the past few weeks, a love that I was only half expecting, a love that has somehow surprised me now that I recognize its existence.  The object of my love?  Madrid.  Yes, I love Madrid. I first began to realize the existence of this affection when we went to Paris.  Yes, Paris is amazing, and I really enjoyed my time there, and I would go back again in a heartbeat, but I literally felt a sense of relief when we were getting on the plane back to Madrid.  It wasn’t just that I was going to be able to understand the people around me again, but more that I was going back to that lovely town, my home away from home, Madrid. 

The second instance that drove home how much I love this city is a dream I had the other night.  For some reason, in my dream, I had to go home during November – it was awful!  I kept trying to figure out how I could get back and stay for the full amount of time that I had been planning on, but somehow it just wasn’t working out.  Madrid had been taken away from me!  And ever since I woke up from that, I’ve been realizing more and more why I like this place so much.

1. El Retiro, of course!  That place is definitely one of my favorites in all of Madrid – it’s so beautiful and peaceful – although I visited the Casa de Campo this weekend, and it’s now hard on the heels of El Retiro.  Both places are filled with trees, benches, crowds of people taking advantage of the good weather, and plenty of lovely spots to sit down and read a good book.  Although, Casa de Campo is by far the larger of the two, as it’s more like a campground/wilderness-ish area, and it also has an amusement park and zoo.  I took a delightful turn around the lake there on Saturday, taking pleasure in the crisp autumn air and the happy splashing of school children out for a rowing excursion, and I look forward to going back sometime soon (before the heralded cold of winter comes).

2. People watching.  There are so many different types of people wandering around great big city – young, old, business-like, touristy, fashionable, loud, quiet, happy, somber, and everything in between.  Hair styles are different, the trendy ones at least – for some reason, a lot of the young guys seem to think that short hair in front goes perfectly with a handful of or fewer dreadlocks in the back.  Oh!  I’m pretty sure that I saw my first toupee in use today when I was on the metro…kind of cool, but pretty creepy.

3. Taking walks through the streets.  There’s so much to see downtown, with pedestrians thronging every sidewalk and vehicles pouring through every street, shops open for business at all hours and little bars and cafes constantly inviting entrance.  On Friday, I went out for a few hours, mostly just walking along, people watching, and taking in the sights and sounds.  It was relaxing.  Of course, near the end there I was pretty famished, which brings me to the next thing I love about Madrid…..

4. The food!!!  Or at least, my host mom’s food…Seriously, she cooks amazing food all the time.  Like today for example: delicious fried potatoes with the perfect amount of salt, garlic red bell pepper, and an amazing joint of baked lamb.  Mmm.  The lamb was full of flavor, tender, juicy, and the outside was just a tad bit crispy.  This was of course accompanied by the requisite chunk of bread, which worked perfectly to sop up some of the garlic olive oil that the bell peppers were in.  Or the other day when she made us some veggie paella – to die for!  Outside of Maria’s cooking though, there are those lovely little things called tapas, and a wide variety of delectable little pastries, sweet and savory!

5. Friends.  I’ve met a lot of really cool people here, although to be honest, most of them are international students like me…ah well, the people are always one of the make-or-break points, right?  I love it when I make friends who just organize a day outside, playing beach volleyball in the polideportivo downtown and throwing in a picnic and an outing to the heladería to pick up some delicious ice cream.  I also love meeting random people in random ways, like the guy who joined us yesterday when we were playing volleyball – nobody had met him before, but hey, why not? 

6. Street performers.  Coming from a small town, I never grew up with seeing people on the street corners, in the parks, or wherever with their crazy costumes, magic shows, and musical instruments.  I like it.  It’s fun hearing accordions in El Retiro, watching performance artists en Puerta de Sol, and listening to snatches of jazz tunes being played on a trumpet in the metro station.  Of course, not all of the performers are that great, like one older woman who insists on singing karaoke in one metro station fairly frequently, but then you also have the really good ones like the three piece string quartet I saw in Sol the other night, and the somewhat random ones like the hippy playing some strange homemade instrument that defies description.

There are tons of other little things that I love about Madrid, but these six are some that I like the most.  Isn’t that always the way of love though?  It’s not a set list of six points that completes the reasons for loving, but one to which new points are always being added, each day a new experience and a new reason to love…Madrid, I love you!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

An oddity: the monastic palace

El Escorial: the chosen living place of King Felipe II, the Prudent, who reigned from 1556 to 1598.  Built in San Lorenzo de El Escorial in honor of said saint, who was martyred on a giant grill during Roman times.  Built to house the über spiritual Felipe and his family.  Built in an odd combination of palace and monastery, royal glory and monastic austerity.  Sequestered in the peaceful quiet of the mountains just north of Madrid, this interesting residence overlooks a sweeping panorama, placed the king above his subjects both literally and figuratively. 

The imposing walls sweep up from a stern courtyard on two sides and on the other two from a sliver of garden that crowns the very edge of the hilltop.  Crowning the various towers that quietly adorn the roof is the cupola of the basilica within the monastery, a reminder that the church reigns supreme over all life within the walls.  There are other reminders of the church throughout the building, from the hundreds of religious paintings to the private rooms adjacent to the quarters of the king and queen that connected them to the basilica and allowed them to attend mass without leaving their own rooms.  The halls and rooms are, for the most part, rather small, with low ceilings and an economy of windows.  Even the rooms where the king met with courtiers are not exceedingly large or magnificent.  One of the largest and most decorated rooms is the Hall of Battles, with vaulted and delicately painted ceiling and a full panel of windows that line one of the walls covered in murals depicting important military victories during Felipe’s reign.  This hall is a sort of history class in and of itself, teaching the viewer a bit about the conquests of the Spanish army while walking its length in open-eyed silence. 

Perhaps the single place in El Escorial that most strongly demonstrates the presence of royalty is the Pantheon of Kings, the burial place of the kings and queens from Carlos I to modern days.  This circular room beneath the basilica, beautifully constructed of marble of various colors, displays the coffins of the rulers of Spain for more than 400 years.  There are a few exceptions of sovereigns who have been buried in other places, but these number in a small minority.  Interestingly enough, this near continuous interment of royal bodies has brought the country to a question of debate:  There are only two more coffins available, which will be filled once the bodies of the father and mother of the current king, Juan Carlos I, have finished decomposing in another location…so where will Juan Carlos be buried?  There is no space for him to be buried with his forefathers.  There is still a fair amount of space in the nearby Pantheon of Princes, but those tombs are for the offspring of kings, not kings themselves.  So where will today’s king and queen be buried when they die?  Who knows?

By far the most majestic area of El Escorial is the basilica, as makes sense, given Felipe II’s supreme devotion to his faith.  Inside, the magnificently frescoed ceiling is held up by towering walls of smooth stone and hangs over an incredible altarpiece that rises from the floor in tier upon tier of painting masterpieces and golden sculptures.  It’s austere and serene, quiet in a sort of ponderous dignity and majesty. Outside, the architecture echoes the feeling of simple dignity, with clean lines that bespeak both power and calm, dominating the complex as a whole.

By far the most beautiful area is the gardens.  From the windows above, intricate designs show up in the calm green of the shrubbery, and from the ground, quiet fountains bubble in the middle of sedate hedges backed by an absolutely gorgeous view – the hills bow their verdant heads at the feet of the palace, giving way to the rolling plane on which the metropolis of Madrid is just visible.  The sun shines gently on the grounds, chasing away the chill that comes from spending the day inside thick stone walls. 

And there you have it, El Escorial, the place from which Felipe II spearheaded the Counter Reformation, from which he directed a country in the middle of its literary Golden Age, from which he commanded the Spanish Armada to sail against England, from which he controlled a veritable empire spanning the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, all the while devoting a large portion of his time to the observance of the Catholic faith in his own basilica and monastery.  Retired and peaceful, it is indeed an oddity in its own fashion, the home of kings, the resting place of kings, a monastic palace, and a palatial monastery.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Snapshots of Paris

Late afternoon on Thursday, the Madrid metro:
I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  I had to wait in line at the printing station on campus for 20 minutes to pick up the boarding passes I printed off online in the computer lab upstairs, then I had to run to the grocery store down the street to pick up lunch, then I just missed the train and had to wait impatiently for the next one, then once I got to the apartment building I had to run around like a crazy woman to finish all my packing and somehow fit two big bags of food that Señora María packed for Marisol and me to take on our trip to Paris.  I don’t have a whole lot of time to get to the airport and go through security (I don’t yet know that the flight will be delayed over an hour, giving me extra time), so I feel a little flurried right now, but I guess there’s not much I can do to make the metro go faster.  *sigh*  The woman standing next to me is asking me which stop she needs to get off on if she’s going to terminal 1…I think her calm and friendly wordiness will help calm me down, so here’s to making conversation with strangers on the metro!

Late-ish Thursday night, the hostel in Paris:
We finally made it to our hostel, after a bus ride from the airport that lasted over an hour and a half and the adventure to figuring out how to work the Paris metro system.  We’ve hammered out the room situation at the front desk and rented our sheets and towels, and now we’re up in our rooms…not quite top notch, but we were trying to find the cheapest place near the town center…..  Marisol and I have two really friendly Malaysian roommates who arrived earlier in the day and staked their claim on the lower bunks, so we’re chatting with them as we stow our bags and settle in a little before heading out to explore the surrounding streets for a tad.

Noon-ish on Friday, the Louvre:
We’ve just seen the Mona Lisa!  It was actually pretty small….and surrounded as it was in a huge room filled with paintings that I thought were more beautiful, impressive to the eye, etc, I had to wonder – why is it that this single small painting is one of the single most famous paintings in the world?  Apparently, Da Vinci said that it was his best work, and that’s why it’s so famous.  It is lovely, with perfect detail, but why does he consider it his best when he has so many others that seem to me to be more beautiful?  Ah well, I’m no art major, so I really have no answer, I just form part of the crowd of humanity paying homage every day to this small painting and the artistic genius that it embodies. 

Shortly after:
It seems that my contemplative pace isn’t suited to the tastes of my companions, who like to move along through the exhibits with a livelier step, so they’ve gone on ahead.  I’ll just call them on our cell phones when I’m done to see where they are so we can meet back up……

Around 3 on Friday, the Louvre:
I’ve been wandering around by myself, a solitary sailor floating on the waves of humanity that flow through the halls of this giant palace-turned museum, but now I’m getting hungry and decide that it would probably be a good idea to join back up with the girls.  I turn on my cell phone and realize that it only gets reception in Spain.  Crap. We didn’t set up a meeting place or time since we were relying on our phones.  Crap.  So basically, I’m stuck.  Crap.  This place is gorgeous, but how in the world do I meet back up with my group.  Crap.  Luckily for me, the information desk is extremely helpful and calls the number I give them (my friends have a different server than me, so their phones work), and I’m able to talk with the girls and figure out where they are.  Thank God!

5-ish on Friday, Champs-Élysées:
The Arc de Triomphe is huge!  It dominates this part of what I think the French might call “the most beautiful street in the world,” towering over the traffic that perpetually circles the round-about and vying with the tall stores on either side for preeminence.  It’s covered in names that I’m pretty sure are the names of battles that the French have won in the past, or at least that’s the kind of thing I would expect to be on a monument with such a name as this one has.  Even more interesting, we’ve stumbled across some sort of military ceremony that fills the ground in the middle of the arch, complete with a band, honor guard, large bouquets of flowers, and an impressive array of flags belonging presumably to the different sections of the French army, although oddly enough we spy an American flag in there among the rest.

Friday evening, next to our hostel:
Trying to decide on what to eat for dinner, we’ve fixed upon the little Chinese restaurant right door to where we’re staying.  The menu looked good when we went by earlier, so we step in and follow the owner of the place over to a little table in the corner.  He’s the cutest little old man, friendly and chatty in his own way.  We get our food, and it’s delicious!  I have a curry vermicelli dish, which he says is a really good Singapore chow mein, or something like that, and he speaks the truth – it really is quite delicious.  I’m serious.  Delicious.  The other girls have ordered kung pow chicken, so he’s constantly coming back to our table to refill our water pitcher, each time with an endearing nod of the head and some small comment.  He’s definitely getting a tip.

Saturday morning, walking up the street to Versailles:
The buildings all around us are quite impressive to look at, with imposing architecture, stately windows, and immaculate shrubberies, but we can see the impossibly huge and ornate Versailles growing larger as we get closer, leaving all the rest in the shadows of its magnificence.

Saturday afternoon, Versailles:
We have to stop and take a rest on some of the benches in one of the innumerable rooms.  We’re nearing the end, and our feet are tired.  We are in one of the less crowded areas, so we sit and listen to the free audio guide we picked up at the entrance, learning little odds and ends of information about this particular room.  Once the recording is done, we remain seated for a little while, comparing this room to what we have seen in the chapel, in the Hall of Mirrors, in the King’s Bedroom, in the rooms of state, in the Queen’s Bedroom.  It’s not quite as ornate, but it would still be something else to live in. 

Friday evening, Versailles:
The fountain show is over, so entrance to the gardens is now free.  Yes.  I love free stuff.  We walk through the turn stall into an exquisitely landscaped world planned out to demonstrate the wealth of the French monarchy and all the beauty that it could command.  The flowers seem to be wild at first glance, then you look a little more closely and realize just how carefully they have been placed within the curling fleur-de-lis design of the low shrubs.  Looking down from the giant open area just behind the building, you can see the rest of the grounds laid out in a sweeping expanse of ponds, canals, pathways, and above all trees.  It looks like a veritable forest out there.  Hiding somewhere is Marie Antoinette’s estate, with her own farm and gardens, but I think it would take a good 20 minutes to walk there.  We mean to go visit that area, but instead we decide to relax near the boats tied up around the canal and watch the day fade on the horizon.  It’s beautiful.  Fall is in the air, and the sun is coloring the skies soft hues of orange that peek out from the surrounding treetops.

Friday night, the Eiffel Tower:
As we were walking up to the Eiffel Tower, we thought we were in the middle of some fireworks show – there were tons of blue lights flying up into the sky and floating down to earth in lazy arcs, fierce and happy little sparks.  What it turned out to be was a random little light-up toy that the street vendors were trying to sell to all the tourists.  Their tacticts of demonstration seem to work too, since the three girls I’m with have all bought one and are now laughing hysterically at themselves as they try to figure out how to use them.  I laugh on the sidelines, watching the show as they run around, the river Seine on one side and the beautifully lit Eiffel Tower on the other.

Sunday morning, Moulin Rouge:
We’ve just come from a little flea market we found in the northern part of the central city, and now we’re outside the famous Moulin Rouge.  It looks kind of funny, a bright red building with a bright red windmill on top in the middle of a thoroughly modern street filled with thoroughly modern buildings various shades of gray and neutral tones.  The girls are having a ton of fun taking pictures on what I’m assuming is a metro vent, their scarves and hair blowing around their heads and their smiles wide with nonstop giggles.

Sunday afternoon, just outside Notre Dame:
This cathedral is really quite impressive.  Huge.  Beautiful.  Filled with detail.  And that’s just the outside.  The inside is gorgeous.  It’s filled with artwork, stained glass windows, and gilded chandeliers and such perfectly placed on the imposing stone walls and towering columns to create an amazingly majestic atmosphere.  It’s filled with sightseers, but the ethereal music wafting through the cavernous space fills everyone with a sense of awe and respect.  Outside, the crowd is a little more boisterous, a troupe of break-dancers performs to the delight of the every passerby, and little children fill the air with happy sounds as they play on the seesaws near the bench where we’re eating our sandwiches.

Late Sunday afternoon, a little park in Paris:
When we saw that one of the metro stops was named “Bastille,” I assumed that it was next to the actual Bastille, so I convinced the girls to stop there and see this famous fortress-prison….which was apparently demolished before the 1900s.  So instead of some huge stone edifice, we came out of the metro to see an opera house and a completely modern roundabout with a monument in the middle commemorating the French Revolution.  Luckily, it wasn’t a bust, since after wandering around the surrounding streets for a little bit, we found this charming little park filled to overflowing with people.  The French seem to all come out before dinner and congregate in droves – the grass was completely covered with bodies.  We found a little spot on the grass, and now we’re enjoying the sunshine on our backs and the throngs of people all around us.  We’re people watching, looking up at the square of buildings surrounding us, and trying to figure out if the group next to us is doing some sort of book reading.  It’s quite relaxing.

Sunday evening, the Eiffel Tower:
We’re on top of the Eiffel Tower!  Granted, the wind is more than a bit nippy, but the view is gorgeous.  The city spreads out below us in shimmering light, main thoroughfares forming strong currents that pull along the more dimly lit side streets and outline the face of the metropolis.  The Seine curves away from beneath the tower, flowing silently out into the ocean of humanity that surrounds us. 

Monday afternoon, the airplane taking us back to Madrid:
Our weekend in Paris is over.  There’s so much that we didn’t get to see.  And yet there’s so much that we did manage to fit in during our few days in the city.  Did I enjoy it?  Yes.  Would I go back again?  Yes.  I’m reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and come across a passage that makes me smile – it makes me think of everything I’ve seen in Paris and the role it has always played in the world.  It’s the perfect ending to a wonderful weekend, a thought that caps off the whole experience:
“Of bounds and limits, Paris has none…Paris does more than lay down the law; it lays down the fashion; Paris does more than lay down the fashion; it lays down the routine.  Paris can be stupid if it likes; sometimes it indulges in this luxury, and the whole universe is stupid along with it.  Then Paris wakes up, rubs its eyes, and says, “Am I ever stupid!” and bursts out laughing in the face of mankind.  What a marvel, this city!”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Durn feet

I seem to have developed the most annoying habit lately of kicking steps.  Sometimes it results in nothing more than a stubbed toe and a little precarious teetering, but just as often it seems to involve sprawling awkwardly about and looking like I’m going through a gangly growth spurt again.  I’m not sure if it’s just because my mind wanders and my feet somehow forget that the next step is going to be the exact same distance away as the last one, or if it’s my body trying to speed up the emergence of a mutant second toenail that has been holding a months-long coup as it tries to kick out the one that was there first.  (To those of you who have a strangely irrational fear of feet, sorry about that, but it’s been quite the bother being ashamed to wear open-toed shoes.) 

It started one school day last week.  Marisol and I were walking up the steps that lead out of the train station close to campus, when all of a sudden, I was flailing my arms to avoid landing flat on my face in front of the crowd of other students on their way to class.  (Straighten up quickly!  Glance around to make sure no one has noticed!  Assume an overtly nonchalant air to mask embarrassment….) Again, while walking up the stairs from the basement library behind two classmates, I all of a sudden had to fling out my hand to steady myself as my toe yet again caught the edge of a step, and ended up with my hand on her rear end.  (Ah!  Sorry!  My bad!  I don’t understand what’s up with my feet……) I guess I could say that at least all this kicking of steps helped break in my new ballerina flats a little bit faster……

So I started thinking a lot more about lifting my feet as I went up stairs, trying to evade another encounter between my toes and the unforgiving surface of the steps, but it kind of slipped my mind on Saturday morning when Marisol and I were racing through the metro to try to make it to the early train out to Salamanca.  We were really close on time, so we were literally running up the escalators, when all of a sudden, my feet forgot again.  Yep, I sprawled right there next to a rather surprised woman with a shopping bag who called out “¡Cuidado!” as I somehow scrambled back into the upright position and tried to catch up with Marisol, who was ahead of me.  Unfortunately, I kind of pulled something in the side of my foot this time, given the greater than normal speed of the incident.  And we were planning on spending the whole day sightseeing in Salamanca!  Well, despite our heroic running, we didn’t quite make it in time, so after asking the recommendations of the ticket clerk, we bought tickets to Ávila, the hometown of Saint Teresa and San Jaun de la Cruz.  We wander around the station for a little while (well, Marisol walked and I kind of limped), waiting for our train to arrive, and once we got on there, oh it felt good to stretch out my leg and let my foot rest. 

To be honest, once we got walking and my ankle got nice and loosened up, the day was pretty good, and I was able to enjoy trekking around the old section of Ávila.  It was stiff whenever we got up from any sitting spell though and occasionally rebuked me with slight tinges if I stepped funny, so I tried to take care of it.  I took full advantage of handrails as we went up and down the precipitous steps of the city wall and looked out over the city below.  (Look at that groovy church over there!  Everyone is so little from up here…) I was careful when clambering down into the wild blackberry bushes by the river.  (I told you there weren’t any rattlesnakes, Marisol…)  I gave it the delightful refreshment of the cool wind when I took off my shoes at the lookout point that gave us a view of nearly all the Old Town.  (It’s so pretty!  If only there weren’t two giant cranes doing construction in the middle of all those quaint little streets…Hey!  I think I see a bride and groom taking wedding pictures on the lawn by the wall!) I rested it in the peaceful quiet of the chapel in Saint Teresa’s church, built on the site of the home where she was raised.  (This tour group we happened upon is rather informative, but wait!  Shhh.  Here comes someone to pray.)  I gently stretched it while perusing the museum displays in the sepulchral tunnels underneath the church.  (This would be quite nice, but why do the lights keep turning off?!)  I gave it a breather for a minute in the exhibit on the Vettons, the Iron-Age inhabitants of the region (They made giant statues of bulls?!  Cool!)

By the time we were ready to head, home, I could barely tell that I had strained my foot earlier, and I hadn’t tripped on any more steps that day, so I celebrated with a delightful chocolate-covered churro from a stand that we came across on our way back to the train station.  (Mmmm, so good.) I managed to get on the train without hurting myself, and with our feet up on the footrests in front of us, we watched the beautiful skyline as the sun set behind the hills and illuminated the scattered clouds above with brilliant hues of pink and orange.  Or, at least, we watched as best we could around the woman in front of the window, a thin, bespectacled lady with a prominent upper lip who was in the middle of destroying her very hammy sandwich. 

We arrived home to a slightly confused Señora María, who took a little while to understand that we hadn’t ended up going to Salamanca at all like we had told her.  Once we chatted for a little bit though and cleared up the whole mystery, she led us to the kitchen and fed us yet another delicious meal (oh happiness…).  Soon enough, I was saying goodnight and putting my foot to bed.  Now hopefully I don’t go kicking any more steps any time soon….

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hay que pensar.....

I don’t want to be one of those tourists who goes city shopping, who travels around with a camera glued to their eye, who frantically tries to lengthen the list of places visited just so they can say they’ve been somewhere and have the photos to prove it.  They try to add a cosmopolitan air to the image that their friends back home have of them, giving themselves an added edge of importance in the eyes of their social circle.  But why travel to foreign countries and spend all that money if you’re only going to spend all your time behind your camera or thinking about how much this particular trip will give you to brag about to your buddies?  Why not just buy some pictures of the place, read up on it, and regale your friends with the marvelous information that you’ve learned?  Is that any more ridiculous than just passing through and checking off one more place on your list of super duper travels? 

I don’t want to be one of those tourists.  I want to be one who thinks about what I see.  After all, why is it so important that I see it?  What is it about this particular site that draws me to itself?  Is it just because everyone else in the world has seen it?  Am I just trying to fill out my checklist of famous monuments and scenes?  Or am I actually thinking about what I see in front of me, about the construction of an edifice that took decades to finish, the meticulous care that went into a painting, the immense complexity of an landscape that God’s hand spread out for all eyes to see and wonder at?  Am I thinking about everything that has happened in this place, the people who have come through in various stages of life and history?  Because that’s what I want to do.  I want to be cogent of everything this site entails.  I want to stop completely in my journey, sit down, and think about what I’m looking at and experiencing. 

In some places, like Segovia, where Marisol and I were last Friday, the history can be overwhelming if you really stop to think about what the town has been through.  And yet it makes seeing the Roman aqueduct so much more incredible when you imagine the ancient crews of workmen cutting huge blocks of stone just so and hauling them by cart over untamed terrain to the building site, where they fit together each perfectly made piece in slender arches and columns that tower above the countryside, all without the use of modern machines, or even mortar for that matter.  Today, the stones are rounded, softened by close to two millennia of existence, but they still fit so precisely together that they look as though they will remain in their perfectly engineered state of balance for yet another two thousand years.  How many gallons of water has this structure moved across the land?  How many acres of land did it water, giving life and moisture where there was not enough?  How long did it take the Romans to build the entire length, of which the part in Segovia is but a small section?  How many people were involved in the building of it?  What was it like to build it?  How many millions of pairs of eyes have seen it?  How many millions of pairs of feet have walked in its shadow?  How many millions of pairs of hands have touched the rough surface of the stone, feeling the solidity of the pillars?  What were their names?  What did they wear?  Were they boisterous and noisy like the groups of schoolchildren that flock the stairs going up and down the wall nearby?  Did they sit in peace on the small stretch of grass and contemplate this ancient masterpiece?  Did they look at it only through the lens of their camera?  Did they quietly sketch the perfectly engineered symmetry as the sun shone through the curving arches? 

It’s intriguing to think about what the town’s main square, the Plaza Mayor, has been through too, from the declaration of Isabel as queen over Castile y León (yes, this would be the Isabel who unified all of Spain by marring Ferdinand of Aragon and who later sent Columbus off on his journey to find the Indies), to the present day swarm of tourists coming to eat in cafes or view the monolithic cathedral with its myriad gothic spires.  There’s the stamp of feet and squirl of oboes and snare drums as a parade of townsfolk in traditional dress and bearing fresh produce circle around the Plaza on their way to offer thanks for the harvest in the cathedral.  There’s the flocks of pigeons that circle overhead, alighting on one cathedral spire just to take off in a scattered swirl and re-condense on another.  There’s the one-legged beggar outside the cathedral door.  There’s the old woman hawking beautiful hand-embroidered shawls.  How many stories could these stones tell?  How many conversations have they heard?  How many events have they seen take place?

And the rest of the city?  It used to be the hub of a kingdom.  It still boasts of its Alcázar, the beautiful castle that once housed royalty and later the royal academy of artillery before being opened to the public view.  But it has been centuries since this town has seen the hustle and bustle attendant on royal life.  And yet it is still full of vitality, the intricate decorative patterns on the walls of nearly every building echoing back the tramp of feet and the happy shout of laughter, the narrow streets channeling streams of humanity through the network of calles and plazas at a slow yet steady pace.  

And so I think.  I imagine.  I look at relics of the past and ponder what they once were, what they once saw.  I don’t want to run by in search of the next thing to check off my list and miss everything that what I have in front of me has to offer.  There’s a certain richness behind everything that I want to find, that I want to taste of.  Because it’s true, hay que pensar.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Today is Monday

Mondays.  Garfield always hated Mondays.  Now, why in the world did he hate Mondays?  He didn’t actually do anything over the weekend or have to go to work or school on Monday morning.  It’s not like he had to wake up at 7:30 in order to catch the bus at 8:30 in order to make the train at 8:45 in order to make it to class with just enough time to settle into the desk before the professor started at 9:30.  Some of you may think that this might be me complaining about my morning schedule….and it sort of is, but in all reality I don’t really have a whole lot to complain about.  After all, I am in a foreign country, getting to experience all sorts of things that I wouldn’t back home in California.  So I have to get up at 7:30 every school day.  At least I only have class four days a week.  So it takes me a little less than an hour to make it from my front door to my classroom desk.  At least I usually get to read a left-behind paper on the train (or let the gentle rocking motion lull me into a sleepy stupor, but that doesn’t sound quite as nice and studious, now does it?).  Also, starting early usually means that I get to end my days fairly early too.  At least I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Wednesdays aren’t quite as nice.  And as for Mondays……well, on Mondays I don’t get home until after 8 pm. 

After Professional Spanish is over at 5:30, Marisol and I walk over to History of Spain, usually late since there isn’t a cushioning passing period at all.  Our History Professor tends to start a few minutes late though, so we slip in while the class is still settling down and get out our notebooks while he clears his throat and organizes his thoughts and papers.  It’s really a pretty interesting class – no dusty dates delivered in the monotonous voice of an equally dusty old professor tottering around the front of the room.  No, our professor is fairly young, with a strong voice that tends to reverberate a little around the smooth, boxy classroom.  Admittedly, said echoes kind of confuse the clarity of his speech at times, but most of the little pearls of historical wisdom that fall from his lips are eagerly snatched up by us, his ready students.  Or maybe they would be if it wasn’t so durn late in the day and half the class wasn’t thinking about what they were going to eat for dinner.  At 7 we’re finally done with class for the day.  We join the stream of people heading back to the train station.  The platform fills, knots forming here and there with different languages floating out from each one. 

Normally, the train comes through every ten minutes or so, but today for some reason it tarried a little while somewhere up the tracks, so by the time it got there, the people in my group had had plenty of time to enumerate all the different hunger pains they were experiencing, comparing levels of hunger and amounts of food eaten already during the day.  “I’m so hungry!”  “I’m about ready to die of hunger!”  “I haven’t eaten a bite since lunch at 1!”  (Since 1?!  That ain’t nothin’!  I haven’t eaten anything since….oh yeah, that’s right, I ate lunch at 2…..)  On the train ride back, I sat with two guys from my History class, and we talked about various things, things like the benefit of practicing a musical instrument…..and food.  Yes we talked about food.  Glorious food.  There’s so much to talk about when food is involved – meal times, favorite meal, favorite food, cooking vs. being served, food missed the most, food habits.  Truly, foods can be an inexhaustible source of conversation, especially when you’re hungry.

When Marisol and I got home a bit after 8, our host mom wasn’t home yet, so we split off to our separate rooms to check emails or putz around until she came back and dinner was served.  Not too long after we got home, we heard the jingle of Maria’s keys in the door (yay!).  She hurried in, asked us if we were hungry, and then preceded to run around the house: Take off the coat.  Put the groceries in the kitchen.  Turn on the burner to warm up the lentils her sister-in-law had given her.  Fill the frying pan with olive oil and turn on the burner to get it hot.  Turn on the oven to heat up the bread.  Scurry away to answer the telephone.  Get out the silverware.  The lentils are hot so take them off the burner before they burn.  The oil is hot, so start frying the empanadillas.  (I tried to help a little getting the table set, but there is only so much one can do to help in such a small kitchen when the cook is all over the place, here one second and there the next.)  Serve up the lentils.  The empanadillas are almost done.  Oop!  There goes the phone again.  Quick!  Get the bread out before it gets too toasty!  Careful, it’s hot!  The empanadillas are done, so put them on a plate and get them on the table. (Maria told us that after something heavy like lentils one can only eat something light like empanadillas, but if fried dough filled with cheese is ever light, you can call me a turkey and eat me for Thanksgiving dinner)  Now slice the melon and serve it up for dessert before grabbing the coat and running back out the door to finish up one last errand for the day.

Marisol and I finished up and put our plates in the sink, lucky that she hadn’t had time to make us salad or do more than remind us of the other desserts that were in the fridge.  She’s a marvelous cook (yesterday she made us a paella that was exquisite), but she sure tries to pack it into us!  It’s kind of fun coming home from class each day and seeing what she has on the stove for dinner.  Makes getting up early ok, because I have that much more time to look forward to dinner.  Well, I guess I could still enjoy dinner just as much if I got to sleep in a little longer, but since I do have to get up at 7:30, I might as well make up as many excuses as I can to convince myself that I like it, right?