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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Autumn in Aranjuez

 As we were wandering through the immense Jardín del Príncipe in Aranjuez yesterday, the three of us girls sort of settled into this state of stupor.  It was that sort of drugged state that you experience when traveling – you are looking every which way, taking in every little detail until your mind and body are replete with the scenery, replete to the point that the very essence of what you are meandering through and gazing upon seems to be oozing out of your very pores.  That was how I, at least, felt yesterday as we gazed upon the endless beauty of fall evident in a vast forest-like country retreat, or what used to be part of the country retreat of the Spanish kings.  Every other minute almost, phrases such as “It’s so beautiful,” “Oh how pretty,” and the like fell from my lips almost unconsciously as my eyes drank in every fresh sight we came upon.

First sight of the day was a long road over which arched stately old trees – we entered it soon upon leaving the train station.  Second sight of the day was the most impressive palace.  Built in the style of Spanish Classicism, it’s pompously imposing lines were fronted by a large elliptical plaza and surrounded on all sides by trees, with the sound of a small nearby waterworks gently filling the background.
Just a simple summer house....


I loved the trees surrounding the plaza in front
of the chapel.

Third sight of the day was a giant square off the back of the palace girdled on all sides by delicate trees just entering the turning point of autumn, their leaves barely hanging on to the translucent green of the end of summer.  On the side farthest from the palace was a giant chapel built in beautiful rose-colored bricks and white stone to match the extensive buildings of the palace and adjacent structures.  The open middle ground revealed an exquisitely blue sky with traces of snowy clouds.

Fourth sight of the day was everything that the Jardín del Príncipe could be.  In short, it was amazing.  Soon after entering, we took advantage of a well-placed bench to pull out our lunch of tuna sandwiches and pears and watch other explorers like us stroll on by.  Then it was beautiful sight after beautiful sight, filling our hearts with the joy of the day, the joy of life, and the joy of autumn.  We meandered about in a semi daze for a number of hours, filling our cameras with pictures and our minds the wonder of nature.





El Río Tajo




Fifth experience of the day was El Rana Verde, a restaurant on the side of the Río Tajo whose sign prominently displayed the green frog after which it was named.  There, we ordered white wine and croquetas – the wine was delightfully sweet, cool, crisp, and refreshing; and the croquetas were, as they almost always are, simply divine.  We spent a good while sitting on the terrazza of the restaurant, enjoying our little treat as we slowly emerged from our site-seeing daze, and savoring the last bit of our autumn day in Aranjuez.

It's Autumn in Aranjuez!



Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tour Tidbits


The other day, Kels really wanted to go on a tour of Madrid that we had seen a poster for in our hostel that first week we were here, so I decided to go along with her.  And, even though I had a tour from my history teacher while I was studying here last year, there were a lot of fun little bits of information that I didn’t learn for the first time or only vaguely remembered hearing come from my professor’s mouth.  So I thought I’d share a few of those little pearls with you…

1.     1)    In the 1600s, the king of Spain decided to construct the Plaza Mayor that we have today, and in his honor, the people of the time erected a giant statue of him seated on a horse in the middle of the square.  Soon after construction was finished, a horrible smell started to permeate the entire Plaza.  No one could figure out what it was or where it came from.  They cleaned the entire plaza numerous times, hoping that the 11th round would take care of what the 10 before hadn’t (numbers taken completely out of thin air, by the way).  For centuries, the smell persisted.  Finally, in the early 1900s, an anarchist threw a bomb at the statue (or it just happened to hit it in a larger brawl, I’m not sure) that blew open the bellow of the horse.  And out poured innumerable bird corpses.  Crazy!  Apparently, the sculptor had originally left the mouth of the horse open with just enough space that birds could crawl in, but not enough space that they could fly out.  So the silly things kept crawling in on top of their dead and dying brethren, only to find that they themselves were simply adding to the pile of decaying bodies.  Silly things!

2.     2)    One of the last kings before the Spanish Civil War started was really into fútbol – really into it.  So much so that he founded the team Real Madrid as his personal team.  Which is why the team has the name it has, Real meaning Royal

3.     3)    The Catedral de la Almudena, which stands right in front of the Palacio Real was completely finished in the early 1990s, even though plans to build it were originally put into motion in the 1700s.  And talks about building it started in the 1600s!  Talk about procrastination…

4.    4)     A few years ago, there was a poll all across Spain asking the average citizen who they thought was the most important person in all of Spanish history.  In first place came the current king, Juan Carlos I, who played an incredibly vital roll in bringing the country out of the fascist regime once Franco died in 1975.  In second came Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha.  I guess authors can be national heroes too J

5.    5)     There is a restaurant right outside the Plaza Mayor called El Botín that claims to be the oldest still-functioning restaurant in the world.  It was opened sometime in the 1700s and has maintained a thriving business through the centuries, so I guess that gives it a legitimate claim to the title. 

6.     6)    The Palacio Real is the largest palace in Western Europe (I believe), with five stories and a whopping 2,000 rooms, of which the public can only see a tiny portion – 50 rooms.

7.     7)    The Puerta del Sol, which is an extremely important plaza in the life of the city, is the geographical center of the country.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Raisins


Raisins are such delicious little things.  They’re like tiny shots of amazing flavor and sweetness.  Especially the ones my dad sent along with me when I left home.  Oh man, are they good.  The Princess grapes they’re made from were vine ripened to the point of almost Muscat sweetness, their skins mellowed to a beautiful translucent yellow.  The personal attention during the drying process at home was careful and selective.  End product: soft, juicy raisins the size of an almond whose flavor is unequaled in the world of raisindom.

Apparently, I am not the only one to hold a high opinion of raisins either.  We ran into our portera the other day coming into the building, and she held nothing in her hand but a bag of raisins that she had just bought at the supermarket.  So what was the topic of our friendly small talk?  Raisins of course!  We bonded over our mutual love of those tasty little things, praising their health benefits and downright delightfulness.  She shared a few of her muscatel beauties with us, telling us exactly where we could purchase them, and once I got into our apartment, I ran and grabbed my bag of homemade wonders to share some with her.  She remarked on their admirable size and flavor, declaring that they were indeed delicious (although I hardly needed any confirmation on that point). 

I realized though when I was sharing with our portera that my bag of Princess lovelies is running rather low.  They’re amazingly delicious, so I don’t want to stop eating them, but the end will be coming soon…so I want to ration them to prolong the treat…but they’re delicious, so I don’t want to stop eating them…I guess I’ll be visiting our portera’s raisin spot before long.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oh the fads


One thing that always sets a foreign country apart from our own is the difference in fads and fashions.  In America, it is generally thought that Western European countries tend to be on the forefront of the changes in style, whether for clothes, hair, or whatever else.  I, of course, am in no way going to try to naysay this common belief.  Indeed, when I was here in Madrid last fall, I saw many fashions that were completely new to me, but which came out more and more often in California after I had gone back home.  But however the situation may be with apparel and the like, I am not interested in such at the moment.  But I am talking of fads, no?  So what in the world could I be talking about? 

Do you remember your childhood?  Do you remember being in elementary school and wishing so desperately that you had whatever it was that the cool kids had?  And what did they have?  In Little Women, as my roommate so recently reminded me, the object of universal covetousness at the school was limes.  During my elementary days, it was Gigapets, those annoying little digital pets on keychain-like toys who seemed to always need attention or else they died.  I’ve seen other young children trying to amass the coolest-looking pencils or marbles. 

These all seem like silly obsessions, but I recently witnessed perhaps the most interesting one of all at the school I’m working at.  What is it?  “Homemade colored pencils.”  Basically, the kids find toothpicks, take them out to the playground at recess, and color them with bright markers so that they resemble miniature colored pencils.  There seems to be some sort of status level connected with how many one can collect, children with many proudly displaying their rainbow-colored horde, and those with none quietly sighing in the background.  And when those more blessed children chance to give one or two of the colored sticks to someone without any, they do so with a sort of condescension and the sincere belief that they are being extremely generous.  The other day, one of my little students even presented me with a lovely pink one, a sort of innocent love gift, if you will.

For upward of a week, I was completely baffled by the little toothpicks the children were excitedly showing me, but once the strange craze was explained to me by one of the teachers, I was able to appreciate the full import of the precious little stashes in pencil cases or tightly gripped fists.  I’ve asked my roommates if this fad has shown up in their schools, but it seems to have caught on only in mine…who knows, maybe that just means that our school is at the forefront of juvenile fashion, and little brightly-colored “pencils” will be popping up in other classrooms around Madrid before anyone sees them coming.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to be sick in a foreign country


Gather round, everyone, and listen closely, because I am about to tell you exactly the best way in which you could be sick in a foreign country. 

First, steep yourself well in the atmosphere of an elementary school, taking care to breath in the delightful germs sprayed forth by miniature sneezes and coughs and to hold every sticky little hand that seeks to insinuate itself into your palm.  All those strains of disease foreign to your immune system are sure to quickly find the cracks in your defenses, their force magnified by the fact that they come at you in a unified front from their breeding grounds, the classroom.

Second, ignore the signs your body sends you that it is getting sick and go out at night.  Enjoy the fun of a late night tango class here, and drink with friends there. 

Now that the illness has already placed a fairly firm hold on your body, staking its claim with occasional feverishness, a soar throat, tiredness, and the like, go to the pharmacy and buy yourself some Frenadol.  What is Frenadol?  It’s a magic powder with a rather acrid flavor that comes in envelopes half the size of a post card that you dissolve into a glass of water and drink, or gag down in the case of my roommate.  Unfortunately for you, you have waited too long, and the formidable force that is Frenadol, although you do feel mildly better after the first dosage, does not prevail against the disease.

So you sort of give in for a day or two, vainly attempting with occasional bouts of violent coughing to rid yourself of that darn tickle at the back of your throat and helplessly surrendering your voice as a victim of war.  Then, all of a sudden, the motherly portera in your building (she’s the one who takes care of the building) realizes how poorly you are faring in this one-sided battle, and she comes to the rescue.  She rushes to prop up your limping immune system with some brisk orders – “Go to the doctor!”  She even helps you look up the closest place available through your insurance, ensuring that you will follow through with her command.

And so you go to the doctor, dragging along your friend so that they can sit with you in the waiting room, probably ensuring that they too will eventually become ill from the general aura of sickliness that prevails in the room.  Finally, you here your name called and can go in to see the doctor, a friendly man who patiently searches for as many synonyms as he can of words that you don’t quite understand so that you know what he’s asking you.  Then, with a diagnosis of laryngitis and a prescription for an antibiotic and heavy-duty ibuprofen in hand, you walk out the door, much better equipped than before for the battle ahead.

“Sickness, you are going down!”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Life, Big and Beautiful


“Life is big and beautiful,” I thought to myself as I sat in the Plaza de España taking advantage of the last weekend daylight before the sun disappeared and the sky went dark.  I had claimed a bench on the rim of one of the larger open areas earlier in order to plunge myself into the delights of James A. Michener’s Alaska, but now the novel was lying shut in my lap with my hands crossed on top of it, my attention lost in taking in the scenes of everyday life all around me.  I watched in amusement as the little sparrows wriggled themselves around in the loose dirt at my feet and fluffed their feathers to the max in order to better spread particles of dust all over their tiny bodies.  After a few minutes, I looked up with a little grin on my face, switching my focus from those charming little creatures to the people all around me.  I watched couples cuddling ob other benches, families taking an evening stroll together, tourists taking turns posing in front of both the big fountain and the huge statue dedicated to the author Quevedo.  I chuckled as I watched one little toddler in particular first do a little dance with her arms high in the air then plop down in the dirt and try to eat something her hovering father obviously didn’t want her to even touch.  Then I looked up, gazing through branches fast being denuded of their summer mantles, at the clear blue sky, and my attention drifted yet again to the buildings rising high all around me.  The edifice on my left was particularly beautiful as it basked in the final glowing rays of the sun, its  yellow stone taking on a golden hue.  An old man eased himself down onto the bench beside me and started talking to me in raspy mumble about the weather and how Madrid is a great city.  “Sí,” “Mm,” “Claro,” I answered to various assertions that I didn’t always quite get the full gist of.  “De dónde eres?” (“Where are you from?”)  Confident of my reply, I answered “De California,” then continued my part of the conversation with half smiles and nods that could go for either positive of negative agreement, as well as the odd murmured comment here and there.  We fell into companionable silence and watched the people around us.  After a couple of minutes, my friend slowly stood to his feet, bid me adieu, and quietly waddled away into the crowds milling about the craft fair in the middle of the plaza.  I remained seated in silence for a while longer, enjoying the sights and sounds of life, then I also got up from the bench and strolled on home.  And as I walked, I thought to myself, “Life is indeed big and beautiful, peaceful and full of so many wonderful things.”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Space Age Banking


Maybe it’s just because I’m from a small town and have never spent enough time in a big city to need to enter one of its banks, but I swear the banks here in Madrid are fast moving toward space age status.  The first time I walked into a branch of Santander, I was with Kels, and we both stared in wonder at the glistening tubes of glass monitoring passage from the entryway into the inner sanctum.  Scanning them both, we saw a button on the side of the one on the right.  We pushed the button.  One of the panels of glass swung around, opening up the passageway to the inside.  We both stepped inside.  A digitalized voice calmly told us that this was not possible, that only one person was allowed inside the tube at a time.  So I backed out and watched as the panel swung back around, closing Kels off from me.  A panel on the other side swung around, releasing her into the nerve center of the bank.  Not until that side was completely closed was the near side opened and I was allowed to follow my roommate inside.  And when we left, it was exactly the same, although through the twin of the tube through which we had entered. 

And of course, these tubes are so uncanny that not only can they tell when more than one person has entered them, they will tell people that their bags are too big or that they have too much metal on them, directing them towards lockers in the entryway in which to leave those forbidden objects.  So strange for a small town girl like me!

In-Home Pyrotechnics


Who says you have to leave home to experience the stunning wonder of fire displays, right?  Why not just enjoy them from the comfort of your own kitchen?  Doesn’t that sound lovely?

We had our first opportunity to witness this phenomenon the first time we tried cooking anything in our new piso (apartment).  The stove is gas, with none of those fancy automatic lighters that I got used to back home.  Instead, we had to scrounge up a mechero (cigarette lighter) in the silverware drawer, and do an anxious little dance with around the burner as we slowly turned on the gas, hoping desperately the whole time not to burn our nervous little fingers with flame from either the mechero or the burner.  The very first time I did it, the burst of blue flame in a perfect circle so surprised me that I automatically shut off both the mechero and the burner.  After the first couple of tries though, we have all become adept at turning on our stove, perfecting the angle at which to hold the lighter and the speed at which to turn up the gas – and we now all daily perform little fire shows in our kitchen, the finger dance of nervous anticipation culminating in the beautiful display of perfect rings of blue flame.

And then, of course, are the fire displays that are quite unintentional.  Don’t worry, no one has tried to light the stove after leaving the gas on for a while, but we did have a rather interesting show when we tried to turn on our oven…

On Thursday, like the poor students that we are, we were trying to make cheesey garlic toast in the oven to go with our hard boiled eggs and simple salad.  And since the oven is electric, we plugged it in and twisted the knob in what seemed to be the direction of “on,” of which we were mildly unsure since all the markings had been rubbed off some time ago.  A few seconds later, I realized that the warming plate (also electric and fed by the same plug) on the stove was also accidentally on, and not thirty seconds after turning it off, “BANG!!”  There was a bright flash coming from the direction of the plug, we all screamed, and the entire piso was plunged into complete darkness.  Heart thumping, I groped my way to the door and out to the portera’s (concierge’s) little communication window, which I knocked on earnestly as I called out to her.  She seemed mildly amused by our fright, since she knew it was just the circuit breaker that had gone out, so she showed us how to turn it back on.  Upon the flipping of the switch though, there was another bang, flash, and blackout…apparently we had forgotten to turn off the oven.  So we turned it off to the best of our reckoning and even unplugged it just to make sure.  Up went the breaker switch, on came the lights.  Under everyone’s watchful eyes, I tried plugging it again, only to snatch back my hand and leap away in fright as the plug yet again emitted a stunning flash and bang and we were once more plunged into darkness.  By that time, the portera was thoroughly convinced that our oven didn’t work, offering to bake our toast for us in her oven and counseling us never to try using our oven again, which was pretty easy advice to follow since I had dropped the plug behind the stove in my last fit of fright.

So fireworks…yes, I still believe that they are beautiful, but maybe they’re best when not lit up in the small confines of one’s own home.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What the heck am I doing here anyways?


It just occurred to me that I have yet to actually explain what I am doing here in Madrid this year.  So, let me tell you what’s up……..

Last fall, I fell absolutely in love with Madrid while I was here studying abroad for a semester, and I knew that I really wanted to come back.  So I started talking to friends I had made here who were teaching English, and thought, “Hey, I could do that!”  I was mulling over various options when my Spanish major advisor from Davis sent out an email letting everyone in the major know about this program called Auxiliares de Conversación, which was a part of Spain’s Education Department and actually paid participants a little money rather than asking them for money like many other similar programs in different Spanish speaking countries.

It seemed like a really great opportunity, so I took the plunge and applied. 

As I went through the process of applying, getting lots of paperwork together, and sitting through orientation sessions, I learned more and more about the program and what it is all about.  It started in the Comunidad de Madrid (basically, the state of Madrid) about a decade ago as a way to improve their bilingual education in elementary and high schools and brings close to two thousand English speaking young people into Spain every year to help out in English classes and bilingual programs across the country.  There are also a couple hundred French and German participants who assist in, well, French and German classes.  Since the program started in the Comunidad de Madrid and still carries the most weight in this area, roughly 1400 of all the participants are placed in the capitol and in the surrounding towns and suburbs.  For instance, I and my roommate Danielle are in a suburb to the south of the capitol called Leganés, and my other roommate Kelsey is in a city to the west called Villanueva de la Cañada. 

Through Auxiliares de Conversación, participants like myself not only contribute in a big way to the education of the children, but we also are trained in the various classroom settings we work in so that can expand our abilities as teachers, youth workers, and the like.  In short, it’s an educational experience for all.

School days, school days


Wow, am I ever exhausted.  It’s only the third day of work too.  I do have two hours of commuting each day though, so I guess that’s what’s been making my days so long.  Or maybe it’s the two hour break I have in the middle of the day from 1-3 because of daily teacher meetings plus lunch.  Although, lunch is pretty darn important here, so two hours allows parents to come pick up their kids and take them home for a family lunch time (working parents will often come home for lunch too).  It’s kind of cool actually when you think of it that way, as a break for family to spend time together with the common purpose of the breaking of bread. 

And then there’s the half hour for snack/”breakfast” at 11:30, during which I eat my fair share of the free fruit, bread, juice, and snackage in the teacher’s area.  That way I can bring less for my “actual” lunch at 2 and save a little bit of money….oh man, did that ever make me sound like a starving student!  It’s so true though – I’m trying to save every little penny I can in order to be able to travel on extended weekends, so I’m taking advantage of any free food that comes within my radar.

Oh yes, and then there’s the kids, those little beings whose education I am focusing my entire stay here on.  So far, they’ve been really great - I’m working with 2nd and 3rd graders mostly, and they are just adorable.  Today in the 2nd grade, I showed them some pictures via power point and told them about my home, my family and my hobbies, and then they had to draw a picture of me and something from my life that I had told them about.  I won’t see all the finished products until tomorrow since they are finishing them at home as part of their homework, but I’m sure they’re going to be precious.  A lot of the kids were proudly coming to me at every stage of their drawings to show me their artistic prowess, and apparently, according to one little girl’s picture, my hair comes all the way around my neck in the manner of a beard.  Needless to say, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy looking through all of them tomorrow.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Place to Call Our Own

Finally, after about a week of searching for a place to live, we have an apartment that we can now call our own.  Thursday morning we went through the lease agreement with the landlady and the agent handling the deal, signed it, and were handed the keys.  The landlady, Olaya, a sweet little woman probably just under five feet tall, went through our new abode with us, explaining different things like appliances and the like, then came in and out a few times throughout the day bringing us sheets or a blanket or a new microwave turntable, or attending to some minor thing that hadn’t quite gotten fixed yet.  She lives right below us, so these numerous trips weren’t too much of a hassle, although she did say later on in the evening that she had gotten her day’s worth of exercise in going up and down the stairs.

La calle en que vivimos
So what does this new place look like?  Well, turning off the Plaza de España, you first see a cute little street with a few giant Christmas star lights hanging over the center that seem to stay up all year.  You pass by a couple of nearby cafes and restaurants that almost always have tables and chairs set up outside on the terrazas (basically just a larger sidewalk), and after the brilliantly colored theater across the street, you come to the door of our building.  We’re just inside, on the first floor, so we’re well sheltered from the heat of summer by the surrounding buildings and apartments.  That may mean we’ll get pretty chilly in winter, but I guess we’ll just have to see. 

As you walk through the door to our place, you see the tiny kitchen on the left, the first bedroom on the right, and the narrow hallway paved in rather interesting tiles curving away to the left, where it leads to the small bathroom, the cozy little living room area with the couches from a couple decades ago, and then the two other bedrooms.  My bedroom is one of these last two, with a window that lets in a fair amount of natural light over my bed when I don’t have the Persian blinds closed. 

At the Templo de Debod, which is just a pair of blocks away!
It’s a nice quiet neighborhood, with no great amount of traffic going by our building and no crowds of noisy people tramping about at night.  In all, it’s pretty calm.  In fact, this morning, we had some of our windows open, and we could hear the soothing strains of someone’s Frank-style music coming from an upper story somewhere.  Quite nice to go with a cup of tea.