El albergue

El albergue

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


grubby |ˈgrəbē|            (adjective)
- dirty; grimy : the grubby face of a young boy.
- figurative disreputable; sordid : grubby little moneylenders

And that is exactly what the word means.  After all, who could argue with the dictionary?  However, definitions found in books are usually such abstract things, giving you only a vague mental picture of what that word could mean.  Indeed, words like grubby are themselves often shadowy entities, little murky clouds your mind lightly skirts without much deep thought when they pop up in a sentence, hazy fog that barely hints at the shape of its underlying physical reality. 

Real definitions of such words are not to be found in dictionaries, those arbiters of linguistic truth.  No, they are to be found in the real, physical world, in the tangibility of our daily experiences.  Thus, I propose a different definition of the word “grubby,” a definition that that I have compiled quite unconsciously.  A definition that the other day I finally realized had developed when I was thinking back over my day working at the school.  So, here I give to you the real life definition of grubby, as found in the life of Laura.

-It’s the feel of a little hand in yours all sticky with God knows what after lunch.
-It’s those little fingers that I see diggin’ away at the gold they know they’re bound to find way at the back – no, at the very root – of the nose.
-It’s little eager faces smudged with dirt after playing on the playground.
-It’s shaggy bangs on shaggy little heads that have been plastered to one side by the deluge of sweat pouring from energetic foreheads during a rousing, dusty game of soccer.
-It’s trouser knees covered with dusty gravel after kneeling in the sand over a round of marbles, knees that shed pebbles and particles as their owner jumps up and down in the classroom.
-It’s little hands begrimed with the moist playground sand they were painstakingly gathering into little mountains after it fell off onto the floor during assembly.
-It’s little fingers powdered with chalk after haphazardly erasing a word on the board.
-It’s the food, sweat, dirt, boogers, sand, dust, and chalk you can feel being transferred to you whenever your students reach out to get your attention or affectionately hold your hand.
-It’s my students, precious little grubby things that they are.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in Madrid

My first Thanksgiving abroad being a little on the disappointing side (going to a restaurant with the 100+ students in my study abroad program just wasn’t quite perfect), I was determined that this year it would be everything a Thanksgiving should be.  My roommates were heartily in agreement, so we made a pact with another friend to hold a lovely meal together.  So by last Sunday, we were ready to get ready.  And, oh, did we enjoy spreading out the Thanksgiving joy over as many days as possible. 

We wanted to take cookies to our schools to share with the teachers, cookies being easier to transport than other more traditional turkey day treats, so Sunday evening I whipped up a great big double batch of pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, an essential fall goody a college roommate introduced me to.  I wanted the cookies to be as fresh as possible on Tuesday, when we were planning on taking the cookies, so I waited to bake the dough until Monday evening.  13 dozen cookies take a long time to bake though, so I had a rather full night of it.  It was all worth it though to pull out the marvelously moist and seductively steaming pillows of pumpkin and chocolate (oh alliteration) from the oven, popping one into my mouth every other sheet.  SO good.  And then during coffee break at school on Tuesday, I asked the lunch ladies to pop them into the oven for a few minutes to get them all warm and perfect before serving them…they looked a little worse for wear after bumping around in my purse during my morning commute, but they still tasted good!!!  And I like to think that they imparted a little bit of Thanksgiving joy to the teachers I work with.

Deep-dish apple pie, oh yeah
On Wednesdays, I get off of work before lunch (translation = 1 o’clock), so the past Wednesday I hurried home as soon as I could to make the pies for our Thanksgiving feast.  After a quick lunch, I moved on to heroically blending an enormous amount of all-butter pie crust dough with a fork.  That required muscle baby.  As the dough chilled, I mixed up the batter for the pumpkin pie, kind of playing around with the ingredients since the normally-used sweetened condensed milk would have cost an arm and a leg, not to mention a trip across town to the American food store.  Then, after rolling out a crust with my very classy wine bottle rolling pin (you do what you gotta do) and placing it in our 9x9 baking dish (why buy a pie pan when there’s something functional at hand?), I poured in the batter and placed the whole in the oven, hoping to God that in the strange mix of uncertain pie ingredients and proportions and a completely unmarked oven temperature dial (350 must be around here somewhere) a heavenly work of art would somehow be created to grace our holiday board.  Next, it was time for the apple pie.  What did I have available to bake it in?  Nothing less than a three-inch tall spring form pan.  That’s right, we had a deep dish apple pie, baby.  And to prepare us for the feasting of the next day, I made a quiche in our 13x9 with the leftover pie crust (yes, there was a lot of pie crust).  It was at the moment of biting into that quiche that I received the revelation that is a butter pie crust.  Oh wow.  So flaky and, and, well…glorious.
Stuffing step one: tear apart the bread

Thanksgiving day, we had to work in the morning, but my school graciously let me go before lunch, so I was able to meet up with the other two (who always have short days on Thursdays) at home to buckle down and enter the final stretch of preparations.  On our list: stuffing, gravy, and green bean casserole.  I was pretty uncertain about the first two, since I’d never made them before (one of my roommates was in charge of the green beans, so I didn’t have to worry about those at all), but Kels and I dove right in, chopping, sautéing, boiling, adding, mixing, and generally just getting our hands dirty.  It was so much fun.  And when we actually tasted our creations, we had to high-five each other, we were that impressed with ourselves. 

As it got closer and closer to 8, the hour when we were supposed to be at our friend’s house, things got more and more hectic in the apartment, especially when we had to figure out how to transport all the ridiculous amounts of food we had.  Finally though, we were all dressed and ready, each with at least one fragrant bag loading us down.  We set out, forming a rather odd parade with our various burdens as we wended our way to the metro – we were strongly aware of more than one stare directed our way while in the metro cars as people vaguely pondered what in the world four people were doing with all those lumpy-looking bags. 

We arrived safely, with all our dishes intact, and added them to two roast chickens (turkeys are a little hard to find), sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, and a second kind of stuffing all crammed between 10 zebra-esque plates and Valentine flamingo napkins (ok, so there wasn’t much of any Thanksgiving décor going on).  We all sat down together to this fabulous meal, five Americans, one Frenchman, one English girl, one German, and two Italians, said grace, and dug in.

What could be better than good food with great people?
Man oh man, was it amazing.  The second stuffing had a rich rosemary flavor, ours was slightly sweet and went really well with the gravy, which was full of deliciously browned chicken and onions and gently sweet white wine.  The mashed potatoes were also an excellent creamy addition to the mix (I’m a fan of mixing…), and the sweet potatoes were basically like sweet potato pie without the crust, with candied walnuts on top to die for.  The green bean casserole was a general hit with its soupy cheesy wonder, and the chickens got kind of shoved into corners and forgotten in the general rush for the other food.  Silence reigned intermittently as we all savored every morsel on our plates, conversations flaring up first on one side then in the other corner of the table, dying down quickly enough as another mouthful was loaded onto the fork.  We had to slow down the eating though, as we had to wait for a little space to open back up in our happy stomachs, so conversations started to actually take on life and survive.  Soon, we were all sitting back in our chairs under the low-hanging light fixture with all the signs of a well-fought culinary battle lying before us on the table.  We talked for an hour or so, sharing life and good times.  After a while, some dishes were washed, and some space was cleared in the war-torn kitchen to make mulled wine.

It was a very crowded kitchen indeed
Mulled wine!!!
Soon enough, we were breaking out the pies to go with the last little bit of the mulled wine, taking great pleasure in how creamy the pumpkin one came out and how extremely apply the apple (it was deep-dish, after all).   Around 1 am, officially replete with festive food and fellowship, our apartment gathered up our remnants and headed back home by metro, our return trip very much less full of energy and excitement and very much more like a happily tired trudge. 

Of course, Thanksgiving doesn’t end with midnight on Thursday.  No.  There are all those lovely leftovers to eat now!  Thus, Friday morning, we breakfasted on apple pie (hey, it’s a fruit!) and pumpkin pie (vegetable!).  And for dinner, we feasted on the beautiful tortilla española and roasted green bell peppers our neighbor made for us out of her amazing generosity and kindness to go with our Thanksgiving dinner but for which there was absolutely no room to eat the night before.  And there are still more leftovers!!!  Wow, I’m looking forward to eating stuffing tomorrow…

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Very Spanish Weekend

The past two weekends, I have had the particular joy of behaving in a very Madrileñan fashion.  What does this mean?  What does it include?  Well, in a nutshell, let me say that it is very fun, although not feasible for every day of the week.  What in the world might that mean?!  Well, read on….

Thursday evening - Ah, relaxation.  That’s what this night is for.  I watch a movie with my roommates, and we enjoy a late dinner around 9 or 10.  And we go to bed.

Friday – Oh the joys of sleeping in until 10 or so.  So lovely.  After a lazy morning of odd chores around the apartment, we go out to run errands or go shopping.   This past Friday the article sought for was a good pair of tall boots.  Unfortunately, they proved to be rather the proverbial needle in the haystack.  Sigh.  I did however come out at the end of the afternoon with a long knit scarf of bright orange.  Perfect for my red coat.  And it was only 2.50 euros!  Score.  In the evening, we putz around the apartment, watching TV or a movie online, or chatting with friends on skype.  What a wonderful thing skype is.  Really.  It is quite wonderful.  Around 8, we start dinner.  Last Friday, it was biscuits and gravy.  Oh heavens how homey and delightful it was.  We continue to putz for a few more hours, eventually dressing to go out dancing around 12 or 12:30.  Finally, around 1 am, we are heading out the door.

Friday night/Saturday morning – As we catch the metro to head out to the salsa club of the week, we comment between ourselves at the craziness of all the people that are still up and wandering around the city.  Oh wait, we’re up too.  Ah well, that is Madrid I guess.  We meet up with a friend or two on our way, and by 2, we are dancing salsa, bachata, and merengue with anyone who will ask us for the next dance.  Well, almost anyone.  I have had to avoid one or two obviously desperate old men here and there.  (No thank you, I most definitely do NOT want to get a drink with you.)  When we’re tired, we get a free drink at the bar.  It actually comes with the price of entrance, so I guess it isn’t really free, but it’s nice anyways.  I recently discovered rum and coke, so I’ve been ordering that at the bar the past couple of weeks, sipping on my cold glass and delighting in the combination of the rich, slightly buttery flavor of the rum and the sweetly invigorating taste of the coke as I watch the really good dancers do their thing.  I wish that just by watching I could become as good as them…..  Sometime between 5 and 6 am, we head on home.  If we leave more towards 6, we can catch the metro, which opens back up at that hour.  If not, we just might have to walk home, like last week, when we arrived at the bus station right after the last night bus pulled out.

Saturday – We fall into bed about 7 in the morning, ready to sleep forever.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to sleep as long as our bodies might like, due to neighborly noises.  Sigh.  Sometimes you just kind of wish you were the only person on earth so you could sleep!  Admittedly, it is pretty ridiculous to expect a large building full of apartments to work around your own personal sleep schedule.  So we get up around 2 pm.  And we make delicious breakfast.  Mmmmm.  Last week, my roommate and her friend made us all crepes.  And this week, I made us banana pancakes.  Once I figured out how much flour I needed and how high the flame on the burner needed to be, they turned out as some of the fluffiest, tastiest pancakes I have ever had.  Another lazy “morning,” then it’s either out to the park for an hour or so before the sun sets or out on some other errand like shopping (still no boots…bummer).  In the evening, we share a meal made out of whatever the heck happens to be in the cupboard, skype with different friends, and go to bed early.  We’re tired.

Sunday – After sleeping in as long as possibly, we jump out of bed and dash about the apartment getting ready for church, which starts at 11:30.  I really like our church.  The people are all really friendly, the music is great, and the pastor is quite an excellent speaker.  I am challenged.  I have to think and reconsider different things.  The ambience is also quite unique.  Main services are in a local bar.  Kind of strange, huh?  Well, they have their own building, but it doesn’t have nearly enough space for a large group meeting, so they have to rent out a bar/club a block away from their center.  We go to that center after church to socialize, chatting with different friends we don’t get to see very much during the week.  Around 1:30, someone usually starts trying to organize something for lunch, and around 2 most of the people have splintered off in little groups to eat somewhere.  Last week, I ended up wandering around with one of my roommates and a friend for a couple of hours, finally deciding on a restaurant around 4.  It was Senegalese (from the small West-African country of Senegal).  It was packed out.  We decided it had to be really good to be so packed.  We were right.  We didn’t get a table until about 4:30.  By the time we got around to ordering, there were only a few options left from the menu because they had run out of everything else.  So we didn’t get our first choice, but man was it delicious.  DELICIOUS.  I got to savor the amazingness of roasted vegetables with Senegalese rice.  It wasn’t spicy, but it had just enough heat to where I could feel it in my belly like a tender warmth that spread out to the rest of my body in a calming ebb and flow.  Heavenly.  I literally didn’t eat dessert after because I didn’t want to chase away residual flavors.  It was that good.  We’re definitely going back.  Preferably at an earlier hour so that our orders can be guided more by personal choice than a scarcity of options. 

Sunday evening – Finally, we finish off with another relaxing night at home.  We skype family, have a light dinner, make cookies (oh the delightfulness of pumpkin chocolate chip cookies!!!), and/or attend to various small things that must be taken care of before the new week starts.  If there is time, we might watch a movie or show together.  But really, we should go to bed early, because it is the end of our very Spanish weekend, and we must go to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Surfing in Santander

Friday, around 4:30 –
            Kels and I are running about the apartment trying to pack everything we need for a weekend surfing trip in Santander that a friend invited us to not too long ago.  We’re kind of nervous for the trip for a couple of different reasons, the first being that the weather is going to be a little inclement, and the second being that neither of us knows how to surf.  Seems like kind of a big problem, no?  Well, I’m sure we’ll figure it out somehow…

Friday, after dark –
            After milling around for a little while under a light drizzle with the large group we are going with, we finally get in the cars and head north to the region of Santander, which lays on the coast of the Bay of Biscay.  The mantle of night soon drapes its sable folds over the landscape so that all we can see is the occasional outline of a tree-covered hill sliding by or the quiet shine of some light gleaming out from little hamlets or solitary homes nestled in the bottom of gentle valleys along the way, making up for the lack of light that would otherwise be provided by stars hiding behind a mask of dark cloud.  And so we pass the 5 hours of darkness sharing riddles and mind games.

Saturday, 10ish in the morning –
            I poke my head out of the room Kels and I are sharing in the 7-person apartment that forms a third of our party’s lodging to see what the plan is for breakfast.  It’s a flurry of getting dressed, and then we’re off getting tea and coffee at a bar before the supermarket opens at 11.  Yes, that’s right, none of the markets in this little town open before 11 in the morning.  How Spanish. 

Slightly later, BREAKFAST! –
            Among the smorgasbord of food our apartment bought to share is something called Sobao.  A typical dessert here in Cantabria, which is the region that the state of Santander is in, it’s a barely dry cake that tastes somewhat like shortbread and comes in large single-serve squares.  Yummy!

Saturday, 12:30-2 –
            After outfitting ourselves at the surf shop with some rental boards and wetsuits, we are ready to hit the waves.  Or, as we find out when we get to the beach, we are ready for the wind and waves to hit us.  Seriously, the airborne and watery blasts are pretty strong.  However, we experience something like exhilaration from the bracing effects of the weather.  We may be getting tumbled about and dragged through the waves, but it feels like a sort of dance with the power of nature – almost as though we were tiny crickets being pawed about by a giant friendly lion.  Of course, the currents are a little too strong to really try to learn how to surf on your own, so we end up swimming and body surfing for the most part, which is really fun!

Our walk took us along this wind-swept path
Saturday, 7ish –
            We’ve finished eating lunch/dinner with our apartment mates, so Kels and I head out into the gale while there’s still a little bit of light and it’s not raining to see if we can find a walk along the beach.  The wind whips stray hairs loose from our ponytails, combining their flailing tips with tiny grains of biting sand to make us turn out backs to the ferocious blast and hide our eyes behind gloved fingers.  At a couple of points along our way, the wind is so strong that we can lean backwards into it, and with arms outstretched we give ourselves over to the fierce beauty of the weather.  There is a wild energy and raucous joy in the tumultuous atmosphere that fills my heart with wonder.  It is a beautiful night, full of that savage beauty that raw displays of nature’s power usually reveal.
The beach right outside our aparment

Sunday, 10ish in the morning –
            People are sort of not really up yet, so I decide to head out for a walk on the beach.  The wind is even stronger than yesterday, but I tuck my chin into my scarf and trek along the sand in my boots (not really beach-worthy footwear, but it’s too cold for sandals!).  An undulating line of washed-up jellyfish marks the edge of the surf, and mixed in among them are several lovely seashells.  I start to pick out a shell here and there that catches my eye, however, it is as though the wind doesn’t want me to steal them from its clutches, which I don’t really understand since I’m sure that the few I’m picking up comprise only the tiniest fraction of the sea’s overall wealth of shells.

Sunday, noonish –
            Confusion!  Mayhem!  What are we doing?!  Where are we going?!  Those are the feelings of the hour, as the group tries to get itself into motion to pack up and head out to more favorable waves in a different location.  Finally though, the caravan is underway.

Group shot!
Immediately after –
            Our first stop is a beautiful lookout on a cliff above the loveliest little cove, where we all huddle together with our backs somewhat to the wind to take an endless number of group photos.  We head out after a couple of minutes though for another place, where we may or may not stay to actually surf.

Sunday, around 1 –
            We’ve been driving for a little while, on our way to the rendezvous point, but we’ve sort of lost our way because we took a detour to find a bathroom and because we don’t really know exactly where everyone is supposed to meet up.  There’s a bit of tension in the car, a compound of tiredness, irritability, and clashing viewpoints.  Eventually though, we make it to the others.

Sunday, around 3 –
            There is a little tension in the air as people try to talk over each other to figure out who is staying to surf and who is going back to Madrid, and the multiple repetitions that invariably come with big group planning don’t do anything to keep everyone happy.  And then, for a little while, there’s some music playing in the restaurant we’re in that has some ridiculously neurotic beat, that kind that makes it impossible to calm down or feel otherwise than nervous.  However, things get figured out in the end, and Kels and I head back to Madrid with one of the earlier cars.

Sunday, 4ish –
            We’ve left Santander and are now driving through the meandering roads of Cantabria, gazing out over charming little clusters of terra cotta roofs and glassed-in balconies framed by the background of a countryside lush to the point of being positively shaggy in its verdure.  A typical sight in the area, I take it.

Sunday, 6ish –
A scene delightful in its inclemency
            We just passed a sign pointing to some prehistoric caves in the cliffs nearby, so we turn around and go back, determined to have a little adventure.  We trundle out into the rain and heavy wind, and as the rain pours off the edge of my umbrella, we look out over a scene delightful in its inclemency – the wind plays a symphony with the numerous tree branches and shrubs that is accented now and again by the simple clank of a bell hung round the neck of one of the sheep in the small pasture below, and the peaks of the hills overhead demurely hide behind the filmy gauze of the lowest flying clouds.

Isn't it beautiful?
Sunday, 7ish –
            We’re out on a sort of plateau, so we can see spread out before us the beautifully brilliant orange glow on the horizon that astonishes with its intensity and colors the low clouds a flaming pink.  What a glorious sunset.

Sunday, just after sunset –
The Gothic cathedral in Burgos
            We decide to make a touristic stop in the city of Burgos, one of the most important of the district, to visit the historic cathedral and look around a little.  The cathedral, with its classic Gothic architecture set against the lowering background of dark clouds and strangely illuminated by the lights of the square, appears to be the perfect setting for one of the Bronte sisters’ novels.  One of the chapels inside is filled with the lingering scent of incense, a scent that reminds me of Christmas with its pleasantly strong overtones of cloves.  Before we head back to the car, we have to try some morcilla, the blood sausage for which the city is famous.  So we head to El Morrito, a snug little bar that is actually a lot bigger than it feels and that serves some amazing morcilla, morcilla so amazing that for a couple of hours afterward I even refrain from eating the chocolate I have stashed in my purse because I want to relish the flavor for as long as possible.

Sunday, the end of the day –
            By the time we leave Burgos, the sun has completely set, leaving the world draped in darkness once again and encapsulating the five of us in the tiny world of our car.  It is a pleasant enough journey though, and we soon arrive in Madrid, at the end of our weekend of surfing in Santander.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Day in the Park

Today, the first and second graders took a field trip to El Retiro, a giant park in the center of Madrid that is one of my favorite places of all time.  It was definitely a fun day – the kids got to run around and make leaf rubbings, and I got to interact with them on a slightly different level than the normal classroom setting.  However, it did rather feel a lot like herding cats for most of the day – “Carlos, stay off the grass,” “Maria, where’s your partner?,” “Nacho, get back in line,” “Move along guys and leave the poor mushroom alone.”  Besides the small frustrations though (it’s amazing how difficult it was for some of them to understand the premise of a leaf rubbing), there were many moments that were fun or even precious.  For instance, I got to spend a little time with some of the teachers outside the school and participate in their conversations…more like listen in a central position, but that’s beside the point.  Then there was one little guy who expressed his true huggy nature by squeezing my middle (and at least once leaving a little snot on my shirt) every time he ran past me during a giant game of amoeba tag, of whose boundaries I formed a part.  Another little guy, who could fall into the special needs category, got really affectionate with me too at lunch time, coming to sit by my side on the grass, leaning heavily on my arm, and even falling sideways over my lap as he giggled over the gobbledy-gook words we were conversing with (he might actually have been speaking Spanish, but I was definitely speaking pig latin).  What made this last little guy’s actions even more precious was the surprise it engendered in the teachers, who told me that he never acts that way with pretty much anyone else.  …I think my heart just grew one size bigger.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Oh neighbors…

Finally, now that I’ve been up for an hour, I can go back to sleep.  Sigh.  I don’t have to go to work today, and all I wanted to do this morning was sleep in.

Here’s the problem.  One thing about living in a giant apartment type building is that you are easily disturbed by noisy neighbors.  For the most part, we’ve got pretty great neighbors – no raucous parties in the middle of the night or upstairs neighbors who like river dancing.  However, there is someone around the central patio area outside my window who decided that this morning was a great time to take up their frequent hobby of banging away at heaven knows what.  It’s a monotonous sound – bang bang bang bang bang…pause…bang bang bang.  While rather annoying, it’s common enough that I believe I might have been able to sleep through it if not for the neighbor on the other side of the building who for some reason though that 9:30 in the morning was the absolutely perfect time to drill a hole through their wall.  Or actually, probably every single one of his walls, for how long that awful, sleep-depriving drone whined on.  Who knows, maybe it was someone trying to drill a tunnel under the building to rob the bank.  Whatever their intention might have been, the dull roar has finally stopped now, so that means I can go back to sleep….oh wait, now my roommate’s up and cleaning her room with her music on…bummer.