Saturday, October 9, 2010

The rest of September

Students protest education in Argentine capital

So I went to get an MRI on Sept. 14, and the results show that I tore my ACL and I’ll need surgery. For the past month I’ve been worrying over whether I should get the surgery here in Argentina for free and be immobile for awhile, or get it done in the States and have some gigantic co-pay. In the end I decided to get it done right around New Year’s at home, that way by the time next semester starts at Rider I’ll be able to get to class on my own in crutches.

That same week I saw two movies, "El Baile de la Victoria" - Spanish director, Latin American actors, takes place in Santiago de Chile - which was funny and tragic and inspirational and broke my heart with all the gorgeous shots of the Andes; and "La Dolce Vita" - Italian, Fellini magnum opus – which was fascinating and weird and brilliant and classic and modern all at once.

I finally got to see my favorite play from the Spanish Golden Age, Calderon de la Barca’s "La vida es sueño", which is like Spain's answer to "Hamlet" in a time when these nations were mortal enemies...I told Mario, the IFSA director, that I’d had a class on it in Spain and I’d like to share what my wonderful professor taught me with the other students going, so they’d get more out of their experience by knowing what to look for: how the structure of poetry reveals the emotion behind it like music, and how the characters with the same goal have mirrored speech, and how women were allowed to perform onstage unlike in England so when the main character dresses like a man to avenge her honor it’s so much more potent…it’s really exciting! Of course the production was phenomenal, and I was so happy I got to see this masterpiece in its entirety. Heather and I even got to give the actor who played Segismundo a kiss outside the theatre when everyone was clamoring around to take photos.

I'm finally taking advantage of living in a big city with all these cultural opportunities, which is the main reason so many people come here! I just have to thank IFSA for giving me the opportunity; without them securing us free tickets to so many events we request, I wouldn’t be able to afford the majority of the art I’ve been lucky enough to see here.

Speaking of gettin’ cultured, I went to a wine tasting with a group from SAE; it was delicious. Here are the wines we tried:
Don Salvador Torrontés, my favorite
Ernesto Catena Tahuantinsuyo (the Inca word for Four Zones) Malbec
Del Fin Del Mundo Reserva Pinot Noir
Martin Koch 13 Meses Cabernet Sauvignon

On Sept. 18 Heather and I went to Carly’s (the English girl who started working at SAE) housewarming party she put on with her housemates David (Mexican American picking up Spanish and already maneuvering the subjunctive perfectly, I’m so jealous), Kevin (David’s friend from Arizona), and Erin (from California). I brought along plátanos and started cooking tostones as Heather mixed us a couple of screwdrivers. Erin’s Argentine boyfriend, Juan, taught Heather and me and Santi (he’s Colombian, he studies history and journalism, and he’ll be in Miami with his family for Christmas too!), how to play this card game called Truco at the party (Fabio had shown me the game before but it’s so complicated that I wanted a second explanation)! I also got into a long, tough political conversation with Carly and Pedro, and I learned that Argentines are afraid to bring up the most recent dictatorship with other Argentines that aren’t family or close friends; Pedro told us that you never know who had family on which side, and emotions still run high. We left the house to go out; somehow Juan had us ending up at a private party in the middle of a farm with stables you could smell from the dance floor and soccer fields and at sunrise when we were kicked out Heather and I walked back to Av. Santa Fe to catch our bus and as we went past the racetrack we saw all the jockeys warming up the horses…it was unreal.

That weekend I also went to an amazing venue for the first time called Salón Irreal on Perón 1281 and I can’t wait to go back! I got to hang out with my co-worker from the internship; he was the one who invited me. He’s a character: Mohawk, tattoos, wearing mascara and black nailpolish, and with fantastic taste in music. An apparently popular Argentine band called Adicta played; I didn’t know them at all, nor is it my kind of music really, but I thought it’d be worth checking out for the experience. I’m really glad I did because everything I felt was missing in the porteños (such as warmth, acceptance, free-spiritedness, friendliness, freedom and diversity) I found there! The opening band was called Peter Pank and what a show they put on – they had boys dancing in leather, and fans in the crowd (I heard mostly girls screaming surprisingly) whistling and cheering as the lead singer seduced us all; he pulled people up to come onstage and dance and there were no security guards or anyone saying that was against the rules. Everyone was just enjoying themselves; the atmosphere was so uplifting – people with all different takes on their own sexualities supporting and encouraging each other, strangers greeting one another, boys reaching out to girls just to be silly and dance together, not to try to hook up…I walked out of there not only rejuvenated and happy but also profoundly affected, considering the range of human behavior and thinking, how is it that social rejects are always the most fascinating people? The individuals that must be hard and soft, sensitive and tough: fighting society and at the same time holding out their arms to it; caring about the world so deeply that they reject it, sickened; craving to express their wildness and their primal urges but all the while with sophisticated wits and higher morals and sharp consciences…

Which reminds me – forgive me while I analyze society just a moment longer – what I wrote on a facebook status Sam posted about the phrase “sex sells” is actually very relevant to Argentina and the US and I thought I’d add it here:

What Sam said: “I swear to god I will lose my mind if I hear the “sex sells” fallacy one more time. Sex does not sell. If sex sold, we would see penises where we see boobs. Naked men would be on everything that naked women are on. Sex isn’t what they’re selling you. They’re selling you an impossible, pornographically fueled misogynistic idea of the perfect woman.”

What I said: “i don't know, there's a lot to think about in this subject, economically, politically, historically, etc. in the economy we've constructed for ourselves, extreme consumerism thrives on our insatiable desires and fantasies. men and women are..., on the whole, different and as such they sum up, average out and target us differently; of course we all have sex drives but women are expected to prioritize other interests/objectives and this is reflected in the way ads, movies, entertainment etc. cater to a female vs. a male audience...not to mention, it's a fairly recent phenomenon that everyday women can make decisions, control their lifestyles, earn money and own property...and that it's not a life-devastating thing if we're not virgins! as for historical influences: we come from puritan, prudish, highly regulated and sexually repressed founders (i've learned just how extremely this affects us because i can assure you, if you think it's bad in the states how often you see half-naked women, it's NOTHING compared to spain or argentina) = the forbidden is fascinating and powerfully attractive. then you can dive into the political side of this whole thing: it seems that to keep us ordered, controlled and unified we're spoon-fed more or less fixed ideas of what we should do, say, respect, look like, aspire to, believe...(i.e. bombarding us with images of the perfect woman tells men that's what they should want/earn and tells women that's what they should be to get respect/attention/fulfillment). as for what you said about porn, Sam - well, erotic or "obscene" images, stories etc. are universal and ancient and potentially artistic but our modern methods are pervasively, extraordinarily twisted (and one-sided).
now i haven't gotten the chance to blog about argentine norms and values and how they're different from ours but here's a hint - this is the regular ol' primetime celebrity competition show that they sit around and watch together after dinner: ”


The following weekend, Sept. 25-26, I went to Rosario (here's my photo album) with the other literature concentration students, the advisor Diego and his wife and 2-year-old daughter Ema, the Spanish grammar professor Darío, and two more IFSA guests, Rachel and Heather (who got to come because her concentration’s trip was scheduled for the same weekend that her boyfriend’s gonna be here). It was exactly what I needed since it’d been over five weeks since I’d gotten out of the big exhausting capital. We saw all the touristy attractions such as the Monument to the Flag and the never-ending parks, and we took a lovely little boat trip up and down the river during which Darío taught us the Argentina version of the card game Spoons (which is so much more fun because you can win by lying – so typical, seems like Argentine games always want to make lying a big part of the strategy!). I had a fantastic time just wandering around this beautiful, open city with such a wonderful group of people.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Yo te sigo a todas partes a donde vas cada vez te quiero mas

I’m sorry for the delay, as usual…

The highlight of my whole trip so far happened this past Tuesday. The year of the Bicentennial celebrating Argentina’s revolution for independence, the Spanish national football team traveled here to play against their old colony! It was stressful trying to get tickets in this impossible, unpredictable, unsystematic country, but in the end Phil (remember, the manager of South American Explorers, the NGO for which I’m volunteering to write two sections of their Buenos Aires guide) managed to get us tickets through a tour group of about 100 people. We went in two full buses, had pizza and beer before the game, and took our seats with an hour to wait. When the Spanish selection walked out to the middle of the field to be interviewed and sign autographs I nearly fainted; I couldn’t believe the boys I’ve been hero-worshipping for the past 4 years were right in front of me!

That wasn’t even the best part though. The game finally started after the national anthems were played and millions of pieces of blue-and-white and red-and-yellow confetti were shot into the air. We were in the section with a perfect view of a corner, and in the first half it was Spain’s territory. When Messi scored the first goal in the 10th minute, it was right in front of our seats; we saw every detail of his masterful fast break and how he made a fool out of the Spanish defenders. After hugging his teammates, he turned around and looked directly up at our section so I could even see the fierce joy in his eyes. Then he kissed the Argentine emblem of his jersey, hit his chest, waved his hand in a circle which I think meant “let’s do it again!” and crossed himself like a good Catholic boy!

Here’s the video of this, one of the most gratifying moments of my life:

As for the 4-1 score (Spain hadn’t let anyone score 4 goals against them in the past 10 years)…well, I knew something was up when I saw the captain’s band on Xabi Alonso. That meant that Iker Casillas was not in goal (instead they played some idiot whose big mistakes cemented the first 3 goals and made everyone laugh and chant, “Qué raro! Qué raro!”) and that Carles Puyol, the Catalan defender who got Spain to the World Cup final by scoring with a phenomenal header against Germany, wasn’t playing either. So out of the stunning starting line-up, only 6 even made it on the field, and they were never together because they were substituted for one another. I had the pleasure of seeing David Villa’s impressive shot in person, although he never scored and got taken out at halftime. The scrawniest footballer ever, David Silva, put all his wee little heart into the game but also got taken out at halftime. The legendary Xavi entered 10 minutes into the second half as Spain’s last sub, and they took out Cesc.

Still, despite not seeing the team I was hoping to see (it’s the second time I’ve gone to a game where Fernando Torres’ team played and I didn’t even get to see El Niño in action), I was pleasantly surprised at an even greater phenomenon, namely Argentina’s courage and seamless teamwork – despite not having a secure coach (Diego Maradona stepped down) and rarely playing together in their own country (they’re all superstars on wealthy European teams). Messi of course is a dream, and my boy Kun Aguero from Atlético de Madrid topped it all off with a last spectacular goal in the final minute. Not to mention, they had an awesome fireworks show prepared for Argentina’s victory! It was such an incredible experience.

If you care as much as I do, here’s the best video I could find of the highlights and goals:

What’s funny is, we were sweating in our shorts and t-shirts all day but as soon as the sun went down, we were shivering in our jackets and scarves. I used to think autumn was my favorite season, but this year I’ve had 6 months of winter and since autumn is the advent of winter, I’ve started to resent it. I hardly had a summer so I’m really impatient for spring to come to Buenos Aires. Of course traveling around Europe from May-July I had 6 weeks of mostly warm weather (except in Dublin), but my only real taste of summer as I define it – relaxing, reading, spending time with family, and playing on the beach – was the four days I spent in Mexico for my sister’s wedding. Even that was upsetting in a way, because I realized I was leaving all that behind so soon, while everyone I love in both my dear, dear continents continued on enjoying my favorite time of year, with the sun painting their skin and the smells of jasmine and the earth cooling at night and singing and walking outside under the dying leaves, still vibrant but breathing their last...

I’m stuck in my house all over again because I’m a dumb impatient little kid and I hurt the same knee playing basketball last night, except it’s even worse this time because it’s the ligaments at the front instead of the back so I can’t even bend my knee. I hope it gets better in double the recovery time, though; I cried last night to think that I wouldn't be able to play sports for another 6 weeks or even longer if it is a worse injury this time. One of the best things about living in a city is having hundreds of people close to you and ready to go play a pick-up game at any minute, and I’ve been so sick of being powerless to participate; then when I finally thought I was sufficiently healed, I just hurt myself worse. That’s one of the bad things about living in the suburbs in the USA: everyone has to work and commute and doesn’t care enough to put time aside from their day to play soccer or basketball or if they do, they won’t play with a girl who’s not even any good. I really tried hard to find a soccer club last year and I had no luck. I guess I'll just have to drive the hour it takes to get to Philadelphia once a week and play a game with students and foreigners and Couchsurfers that don’t care about winning or showing off, but just love to play and to have a good time with cool people...

But anyway, besides recovering, I’m reading a lot, which is the bulk of my homework as a literature/history student. It’s a blessing and a pleasure to go to school here, all of my professors are brilliant, and I’m learning so much!...except for this week, because we haven’t had class: the university is being held hostage by dozens of students who think the government should provide them with their own building with a library and a cafeteria. In the past, other students have held strikes to try to get similar things as well, because as prestigious as the university is, a lot of the property is old and decrepit. It’s not falling apart, although the students are trying to rally support by saying a window fell and broke all on its own but no one got hurt; last week our professor told us this wasn't true, that it was a set-up and that he’s been working in the political field for 40 years and he’s never had to lie... in Argentina, you never know who to believe, really.

There’s a whole debate going on below my facebook status about this. I wrote: You know you’re in Buenos Aires when you go to class (at the free public university where the professors are volunteers) but chairs and posters block all the doors; you try the stairs and get yelled at by the hostiles holding the university hostage; and you want to say “I’m a foreigner trying to learn your history, but you bunch of stupid French posers are too lazy to go to class…”

Then Heather said: Que fuerte... ellos no, pero nosotras si pagamos.
To roughly translate: How shocking…they don’t, but we do pay.

To which I responded: claro! que verguenza...son todos tontos
Again: Of course! It’s shameful…they’re all idiots

Then some support from the Ferraros, and then an Argentine girl I know through Couchsurfing said: Welcome to our world =) Feel special. They are demanding rights. Here if we don´t do a strike, nothing happens. That´s the way this country works, and about this matter that you pay, and we don´t, has nothing to do about anything.
Third world ladies, if not, u should take your money to a first world country.

And Heather deleted her subsequent comment which remarked on the stereotype that everyone from the United States has so much money, which we get a lot.

Then I said: well i would LOVE IT if what they were striking about was a substantial human justice issue, like getting abortion legalized for example. unfortunately they are not demanding rights - they are vying for their own building with their own library and their own cafeteria. it is not your 'right' to have these commodities if you're not paying a single centavo. it would just raise every Argentine citizen's taxes and for what? up until now it looks like UBA's hundreds of thousands of students have managed to get their free & prestigious first-class education well enough by - shockingly - sharing the space available and being flexible, resourceful, open-minded and appreciative. these are the traits i admire, not protesting and selfishly denying everyone else's right to go to class because of some misguided sense of entitlement (which i hardly blame them for, it gives me the creeps to see how rampant the media is here, and how much the fashionistas deck themselves out like they think they're in Paris, London or New's sick how obsessed they are with self-image, how desperately they want to feel powerful, how much importance they give to superficialities)...i expected better from the students of one of the most prestigious universities in Latin America...

And Heather’s final note: the money isn't what my point was, my point was that it's bad timing considering we're here to study and well, can't study. I wasn't clear.

As you can see, even education here is cause for a protest. I complained to Darío (my advisor/Spanish professor here) about how they’re taking away my right to go to class and he said that some of these people are militants: they don’t graduate and just stay in school, using their student status and the university as a forum to make themselves and their ambitions known in the political world, where they eventually end up.

It’s all very interesting…as a city though, Buenos Aires is not for me. It’s quirky and different and exciting but I don’t belong here. My spirit longs for nature, and the intricate close connection that the cities I've fallen in love with have to nature, like Amsterdam and Barcelona and Granada and Cascais and Charleston and Miami and Salt Lake City; plus I like smaller cities where people are kind and respectful and want to be close rather than strongly alienated, like in Alcalá de Henares and Galway and Belfast and Toledo and Segovia and, of course, Philadelphia. I miss bonding, and no one here wants to make me their best friend only to see me leave in 3 months. I can't blame them. But still, to tell the truth, I can’t wait to move on.

In my Contemporary Argentine Literature and Culture class we’re reading Jorge Luis Borges. He’s a genius. Even he saw the hypocrisy of the two extremes of his country's culture: the ignorant gauchos and the literary elite that tried to be French...I still don't have as much patience and affection as he does for his home, unfortunately.

Although it’s true, I do feel better about the country as a whole now. I exorcised my resentment by getting out of the hellishness of the city and escaping to Patagonia, to Puerto Madryn to see the whales and a grey fox and an armadillo and loads of guanacos and sea lions and dolphins and lots of tuffs of grass and a big huge sky and flat space as far as the eye can that I've returned and I'm no longer sick (just seeing real untainted land and the waves made by the whales jumping in the sea healed me, I think), I've started to enjoy my life here and I've made some German, Australian, British, Kiwi and, yes, even Argentine acquaintances. All that I'm waiting for now is for my knee to get better so I can run and play again, and for spring to come.

(Photos of the game are pending, and Heather’s amazing photos of the trip to Patagonia can be found here:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Primeros días x 2: Buenos Aires edition

Stepping out of the plane into the air outside the Ezekiel airport, my legs and belly seared from the sunburn I gave myself in Mexico; I could barely see anything through the misting rain, but I could see my own breath. I laughed out loud, just like the first time I stepped foot in Ireland, though I’m not sure why the cold has that lunatic effect on me.

I saw a sign for IFSA-Butler and met Patricio, one of the assistant directors and the cinema concentration coordinator (which makes total sense looking at him – he’s Argentina’s answer to J.J. Abrams), and he told me our program would start bright and early tomorrow. Today they just wanted us to arrive, relax, get to know our host families and settle into our new rooms. I was slightly bitter because I thought we’d be doing something exciting on our first day; why else would they make it mandatory for all of us to fly in by a 2pm deadline? I wished I’d stayed in Mexico with my beautiful sister and her funny friends and our weird, interesting family.

I met a few other Americans in my program waiting for the other IFSA workers to fetch us taxis. I remembered my airport experience in Spain, when I had Joe there to give me comfort, and we met Katie whom I never got to know quite as well as I would’ve liked, even after four months of going to school together in Alcalá, and how we had to drive the bus back and forth twice to pick up stragglers and then a couple dozen kids from Alabama.

But then my mind was rudely brought back to Argentina: the taxi ride into the city from the airport was terrifying. I finally saw what my dad kept warning me about – the worst manifestations of urban decay, discontent and squalor. I felt guilty for doing so, but I prayed that I’d be living as far away from this area as possible and hoped I’d never have to go back through it. I would like to help the people living in that kind of hell, but I have no idea how.

Imagine my relief when we kept driving for about half an hour past that area. I realized we had been in the Buenos Aires provinces, and we were only just now getting into the city proper – the autonomous city of Buenos Aires (C.A.B.A). In our orientation over the next couple of days, we learned that area we had to drive through to get to the city from the airport is the poorest in the entire country. And it shares its border with the south of the city of Buenos Aires, just like the richest areas of the entire country share their borders with the city’s northwest. In this country the rich and poor classes are literally, geographically, diametrically opposed.

I talked to the taxi driver very little. I was in a pensive mood. When I arrived to my new home I soon cheered up, because my host mom Haydee is a warm, compassionate, sweet and thoughtful lady and I clicked with her immediately. She introduced me to Lola, who is the ideal Argentine dog (she looks like a cow – she’s white with black spots). What’s funny is Lola’s apparently the hottie of the neighborhood. It’s a struggle every time Haydee takes her out for a walk – the other dogs go mad over her.

Haydee showed me the house and then gave me my space to unpack and settle in. At one point she asked if I wanted a cup of tea and we sat and talked for a long time. I showed her my photos and she showed me all of hers, which are scattered all over the house. When her husband Fabio came home at 9 we finally ate dinner – the late dinner hour was unexpected but is no longer a surprise after Spain. I had a fun conversation with my host dad, asking him all sorts of questions about the local football clubs and sharing our thoughts on the recently finished World Cup. I went to sleep very content and looking forward to my new life here in Argentina.

My first week was a series of ups and downs after that first night. I’d assumed this program would be full of sensible, self-motivated undergrads like Heather and me. While I was right in some cases – my favorites are the clever Puerto Rican from Brown and the sweet French and American students from Columbia – the orientation overall has been a waste of time. I don’t want to waste more time explaining why it was a waste of time, so instead I’ll give just the highlights.

The first day we played a good icebreaker game. We all stood up and formed a gigantic circle around the room, and as Mario (the head boss) called out traits we had to take a step forward if we fit them. For example, he’d say, “If you’re from the East coast of the United States…” or “If your major is History…” or “If you plan on playing fútbol…” It was great to get a better idea of who the other 140 students were, what their interests were and where they’re from.

They printed out maps with dangerous areas circled and explained the nature of each one. Mario, who is a wonderful character and makes the orientation worthwhile, told us about the different neighborhoods and the demographics of the ones we’re living in. (I’m living in Villa Crespo, by the way, which is a very central, safe, busy, popular shopping area; Heather lives a mile away in Palermo – the biggest neighborhood, which is divided in two sub-neighborhoods called Hollywood and SoHo – other kids are living in the upper-class neighborhoods of Belgrano – where all the British and German immigrants apparently settled – and Recoleta – the downtown shopping area where our program’s situated). He told us the same traffic laws we have don’t apply in reality here, so we have to be extra careful crossing the street. He told us other safety concerns about taxis, passports and ID, ATMs, protests, fútbol hooliganism, typical pickpockets’ tricks, and not to linger outside clubs after they close because of prostitution. All of this was highly entertaining because Mario would tell us in little anecdotes, whether they be funny or tragic. For example, he asked us if we thought it a good idea to consume drugs, and after a monotonous chorus of “No,” he said, “Not even in your bedrooms? No, because the host mothers have the noses of detectives… Not even in the bathroom? Well you could, but how boring! Not even in brownies? Be careful to not make the same mistake as another kid did and feed one to the dog…”

The second day Mario picked some questions we’d written down the first day out of a box and answered them. I was appalled to see how much fear and insecurity permeated these questions, and how Mario was not only unsurprised but also willing to humor them. The only one worth remarking on is this: a student wrote, “How can I make friends?” and Mario asked us if we thought we’d make Argentine friends easily. I figured it’d be rather like how it was in Spain, or every single other place I’ve ever lived: the people generally are proud, already have their friends, and don’t open up—but then there are those blessed few who warm up to you and after little effort welcome you into their lives. Still, Mario impressed me in his answer. Instead of getting impatient with these childish questions like I was, he said this: here the locals won’t be awed by us like in other parts of the country, where the people have an exaggerated admiration for Americans, or at least consider Americans something of a novelty. “Aca, hay que conquistar…seducir” – he explained the other meaning of seduce in Spanish. I liked that, but then he said things I already knew and I got bored again… we have to do things independently, to learn how to be alone, to avoid sticking with big groups of Americans, yada yada…

A few days later Mario was analyzing the Argentine and American cultures to try to help us overcome culture shock or whatever. Again, I didn’t care for the baby treatment but I was fascinated to hear what he thought about the differences between the cultures, so I took notes. He said one big difference is how we keep to ourselves and give others privacy, too, and this manifests in a few ways. He talked about “la mirada” – the gaze. On the bus, on the sidewalk, in the subway Argentines stare; they invade the other. Americans keep our eyes to ourselves; we mind our own business and tuck our heads down. People here make more remarks out loud, especially children. He said how an Argentine kid will point at a man and say, “Look, Mom! Look at the fat man!” and the mom responds, “Yes, son: he is fat, he eats well, that’s good.” Mario continued describing how the two peoples feel about body language, personal space, and completing promises. He said Argentines never say “No.” They say, “Yes, but…”

Last week we had our first couple of Spanish classes, which is provided and obligatory through IFSA. My professor’s Darío Steimberg (you might’ve already guessed, but his family comes from Jewish refugees), and I’m already learning a lot about Argentina just from listening to him and observing his mannerisms. He’s knowledgeable, passionate, sweet, and interesting. He taught us the difference between all the local newspapers, which required a good 45-minute history lesson; he made it incredibly clear where he stands politically, although he constantly reminded us that it’s only his opinion and he can be wrong and that we’re free to think whatever we want, which was super refreshing.

Throughout the whole two-week orientation, Heather and I tried to find cheap places to eat lunch – that and Saturday dinner are the meals not included in our homestay – but since we were in Recoleta, one of the most expensive shopping neighborhoods of the city, we didn’t have much luck. I have found better places in my neighborhood and in San Telmo, which I’ll mention again later.

Heather’s (21st) birthday was the first Monday we were here and I tried to plan a big weekend for her. Friday night we went to a Couchsurfer’s house to hang out and drink a bit before going out to a bar or a club for the first time. We met some really cool people from all over South America but ironically ended up being too exhausted from the program to go out when everyone finally decided it was a good time (at 1:30...which is when we realized that Buenos Aires has more than just dinnertime in common with Spain). On Saturday night, after I got home from playing fútbol just two miles away with a bunch of Couchsurfers, I treated her to a delicious dinner with an awesome salad bar, red wine and pizza made with breaded beef instead of dough (Argentina’s so funny with their beef obsession!). It ended up raining on Sunday, but at least we got to go to Mass with Fabio, who’s Catholic like Heather. We also attempted to go out in the rain and saw some really cool graffiti in her neighborhood, Palermo SoHo, as well as some good bookstores and record stores. On Monday, her actual birthday, we did some touristy things that we’d been meaning to do earlier but didn’t get to because the program took up so much of our time. We went to the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral, the Obelisk, and the Casa Rosada (like the White House, only more stylish).

And speaking of food, it’s one of the highlights of my life here. Not only is my host mom and amazing cook, Argentine food is just better in general. The import nothing. Not to mention, besides the beef (which is a big part of their cuisine, and comes in lots of different ways), there's grilled everything, chicken in orange salsa, spinach and egg pie, salads with all kinds of flavorful leafy things, lots of pizza, milanesa (breaded and fried chicken or beef), ravioli and every other type of pasta, tortilla española, soy bean salad, fluffy meatballs, stuffed peppers and other veggies I’ve never seen before, and lots more...!

Emotionally, I’m a bit sensitive to the isolation (though alienation is not to be unexpected of a huge capital city in the middle of winter). I can’t remember ever having experienced this firsthand, even though the majority of my favorite stories have protagonists whose biggest issue is exactly that. I’ve realized how much I need to give and receive love to be happy – moreover, I like to have many, many people I can connect to on this level, not only one or two. I believe that’s why I was so unhappy last fall at Rider, even though I had Jules and Judith there for me. Here, I’m really thankful to have Heather and to live with incredible host parents, with whom I get to see what it’s like to have a happy marriage and a healthy relationship with their children.

Last Wednesday, my first free weekday morning (without a mandatory IFSA meeting), started magnificently – I went to San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires, to meet Phil, the manager of an NGO called South American Explorers to see what I could do as a volunteer, and he and I talked for an hour and a half about absolutely everything. Then I went to my program and got all my happy energy ripped out again by the same exact remedial conversations the inept Americans I’m surrounded by keep having about their exes and their blackouts and Mardi Gras and their search for more drunken messes here… Heather and I were both miserable after that – I can’t stand when that happens because neither of us can cheer the other up – and we both realized how much we want to go home. I miss everyone I love, and I miss reading and relaxing in the sun, and I miss summer storms…but I believe I will get better as I get to know the city more and, most importantly, as spring starts to take root.

On Thursday, I took Heather to San Telmo so I could introduce her to Phil and show her my new favorite neighborhood in the city. We walked around to check out all the many little literary cafes and art galleries. We had a huge, cheap lunch (gnocchis), and then we decided to go to the Plaza de Mayo to see the Madres de los Desaparecidos (the women/families that still march every Thursday in front of the President’s office with photos of their brothers and sisters and husbands and children that were kidnapped or jailed by the repressive government in the 70s and never seen again). It was wonderful to see some of the best parts of the city, to spend hours with Heather, and to see some living political history. Plus, we went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Beautiful Art, great name huh?) and saw paintings by this genius Argentine named Berni, not to mention Goya and Manet and Van Gogh and El Greco, and I enjoyed another wonderful dinner with my host parents as always.

After dinner, Heather and I took the 106 bus (sitting on it for the first time felt like such a victory!) to the same neighborhood we go to for our program, Recoleta, and met up with Phil again. He was still eating dinner with his coworker from Lima, her boyfriend, and an American traveler who’s a member of the organization. Heather and I went two doors down to a Mexican restaurant/bar just to have drinks and dessert while we waited. She got a Cuba libre and I got a margarita, my first one since Gabby’s wedding, which was actually stronger than the ones they made at the resort in Mexico! Then Phil and the others came and joined our table, and we all hung out and talked until his coworker had to go. The American, named Will, sat next to me and I learned his story: as an undergrad he majored in Anthropology and Italian, then he did Teach for America and now he’s helping to fix the education system in Newark – small world, huh? He came here on vacation to improve his Spanish, which is just as good as mine, shamefully enough. Heather was tired and said goodbye after that, but I went with the others to a bar and restaurant hotspot area – still, unfortunately, in Recoleta, which means it was too expensive so we just ordered two pitchers of beer and nursed them until the bar closed.

On Friday we went out to the theatre district (which is close to where I live!) to see the Argentine translation of “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller with Mario. It was absolutely phenomenal! According to Mario, the actor who played Joe, the protagonist, is famous and important; in fact, he said everyone in the production was a well-known actor. While that means almost nothing to me in this brand new theatre world, I thoroughly appreciated all of them. The famous protagonist captured the mannerisms of a concerned businessman and father who just wanted to disappear and forget his sacrifices. The actor who played Chris, Joe’s son, was exquisite: never too exaggerated, with reactions perfectly on time, he was handsome, wild and heartbreaking. The story of the play is very hard to stomach though, so as we were walking out I asked Heather for a hug, and we both still had tears in our eyes, and we couldn’t really join in on the conversation Mario started with the other 13 students right outside the theatre. Then Mario treated us to dinner – whether on his bill or the program’s I don’t know, but it was fantastic. Besides the couple different kinds of beef, we got grilled cheese (I mean literally, a whole wheel of cheese grilled on the parilla), some greens, French fries and flan for dessert. We shared some red wine and talked about our lives here in Buenos Aires.

Saturday night I first met up with Luis, a Chilean Couchsurfer born and raised in Norway, for a language exchange—my English for his Spanish and a mini-lesson in Norwegian. He has a fascinatingly similar and yet mirror-opposite story to mine: his father opposed Pinochet’s rise to power and as such had to escape before being assassinated; he hopped on the nearest boat with foreign flags, which happened to be headed to Norway, and he met another Chilean, and they got married! Now their son is majoring in Latin American studies in Oslo, studying abroad in Buenos Aires, and in his free time learning English. We had a great talk about politics, history and culture, and next time we meet we’ll tackle mythology.

I said goodbye to Luis and walked across the street to a bar called Club V to meet another Couchsurfer for another language exchange, except this one was a group thing and an organization called Spanglish arranged it. Andrea is a born and raised porteña and recently opened her own store. She already speaks English fluently but wants to learn more vocabulary and practice. Heather met us there and we had a blast talking to each other before the event officially started; she taught us the funniest bad words in the Spanish of the Rio de Plata. The language exchange went well, too; in pairs we talk 5 minutes in Spanish, 5 minutes in English, and then switch tables. Both Heather and I ended up meeting a really sweet Colombian girl, and I got her email address at the end. Then Andrea, Heather and I grabbed a taxi to a hostel where her friend Sara from Washington, DC was staying, so we could all meet before going out.

After getting sick of waiting in line outside a bar/restaurant called Sugar we walked down the street to the only other restaurant still open at 1:30am, although they had nothing to eat but nachos with cheese and guacamole. It was called Muu (say it out loud, it makes more sense than the way we spell it!), an American 50s-diner-style restaurant with a big video projector and Rolling Stones concert footage playing. I was absolutely delighted to watch them perform “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Time is On My Side”, and we ended up having a fun conversation about American and British culture and music in which Andrea the Argentine knew more than any of the three American girls at the table…when I said, “I know I should know this, but is Mick Jagger gay?” She shrieked, “Are you kidding me? All Mick Jagger needs to do is look you in the eyes and you get pregnant!”

A little less tipsy after filling up on nachos, we took another taxi, this time joined by a Nicaraguan trying to hook up with Sara, and another taxi with a bunch of his friends inside followed. We stopped at Club Aráoz and lamented at the length of the line, but the Nicaraguan (I can’t remember his name, or any of his friends’ for that matter) insisted he could get us in the fast line because he knew someone who worked there. After a few minutes he did, and we stayed there dancing until 6 am. Heather and I were both glad to finally have a night out, but we realized neither of us have enough money to do that every week.

Speaking of money, even though the Argentine peso – American dollar exchange is 4:1, the prices of everything are numerically much higher than normal, so it’s equivalent. For example, a cup of tea is A$8, and when I treated Heather to dinner, it was A$180 with tip. Mario told us everywhere else in Argentina is cheaper than Buenos Aires, so at least when we go traveling it won’t be so hard on our wallets. Heather and I are planning monthly excursions to see other parts of this huge country, like the peninsula of whales, the Incas in the Andes Mountains to the north, one of the top three Oktoberfests in the world in the province of Córdoba, and then south to the glacier at the end of the world...

So Sunday’s course of events is actually the reason I finally had enough time to sit and write these seven long pages of my Argentine experience. I played fútbol again, though this time with IFSA students and three Argentine men as captains. Towards the end of the two hours of play, I threw myself after the ball and either stepped on it or tripped on the student, it happened too fast and I couldn’t remember for the pain – as I went down I heard my left knee pop twice. I grabbed it and started yelling, but it wasn’t bad enough to make me scream and cry like I did when I sprained my knee skiing, so I knew it couldn’t be too serious. Another student named Julia who tore her ACL twice helped me out, calmly telling me to be still and translating what I was saying to the Argentines in charge, since I was in too much pain to think in Spanish. She helped me hobble off the pitch and later into the van, telling me that in her (experienced) opinion it’s probably just an inflamed ligament, or torn at the worst, but not sprained or broken or fractured. She soothed my anxiety and gave me her number in case I needed more help. When I got home the IFSA people had already alerted my host mom, so Haydee and Fabio were both there ready to take care of me.

Ever since Sunday night I’ve been relaxing, pampered, as my host parents have been providing me ice and tea and food while I finished my book – “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime" by Mark Haddon (I bought a translation in Spain, so it was in typical Spanish slang, which was a joy for me). It was a quick and easy read, and I was surprised at the realistic yet fortifying ending after the painfully tense 150 pages preceding it. I highly recommend it. I’ve started reading “Bodas de Sangre” by Federico García Lorca, after a Mexican American student at Alcalá told me the first week we met in Spain that I was missing a lot having only read the English translation. Now I realize the benefits of being sick or injured, and why some kids would even go so far as to fake it – the treatment is just fantastic! Yesterday at the insistence of IFSA Haydee took me to the local hospital, which was beautiful for some reason – it looked like it could’ve been a museum or political building before, but Haydee told me it’s always been the Hospital Italiano. It took a couple hours altogether, and the doctors told me the same thing my brother Justin told me from 5000 miles away – but at least we know for sure there’s no swelling, and I just have to take it easy and not play fútbol for a couple weeks. After just two days my knee’s feeling a lot better, so I’m going to be able to slowly walk to my first class tomorrow night!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Birthday week

I’m really sorry for the ludicrous delay in writing. So much has happened, and I couldn’t even find the time to record it! But now that it’s Semana Santa (our spring break) I have a little time to breathe and write. I’ll start from where I left off, the beginning of February (and you can see from how packed every day is why I haven’t been writing):

On Feb. 1 I had coffee with Jerry Poyo, professor and history department chair from St. Mary’s University in Texas (check out his work), who was kind enough to read my research and autobiographical essays on Cuba, my family and my life. He complimented my writing and said that he was impressed with how I treated complex ethnic identity issues. We had a fantastic conversation about scholarly writing, objectivity and emotional responses, the search for identity, pride, insecurity, challenging your own thoughts, judgments, fairness, and more. He told me about his project that he’s been working on for something like 30 years, a book combining history and memoir of his father’s life and his journey as a Cuban born in New Jersey, growing up in Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina, then moving to America during the scary time of “the disappeared” (los desaparecidos). Jerry’s wife, Miryam, is on the board of Sandra Cisneros’ writing workshop community in San Antonio called Macondo. He suggested I read the work of Ruth Behar, a Jewish Cuban American who’s a writer, a professor, a feminist, a poet and an anthropologist. As we were parting he also suggested I read, “We Came All The Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?”

I just realized I haven't written about my classes! Well, they're fairly similar in style and structure to my classes at Rider, with two main differences: English is not allowed, and we’re supposed to call our professors by their first names. Antonio, a director/coordinator in Instituto Franklin, said my placement exam earned me a spot in the Spanish Superior class (I thought I’d be lucky to get into Intermediate!). It’s been tough so far, but the teacher has a sweet demeanor and wants so much for us to learn. She looks younger than some of the students in our class; she must be only about 25 herself. I’m also taking Cervantes and His Work with Ana, the housing director who picked us up at the airport. It's fantastic so far because we're learning all about the time period and how it influenced Cervantes, and the details of his biography that shaped his frame of mind and his writing. It's inspiring me to follow in his footsteps! My last class is Theatre in the Golden Age, which was taught for the first two weeks by an actress named Iria while our real professor, Ernesto Filardi, was on vacation in Buenos Aires. It's fascinating because we're learning all about the history of the time period, the connections between the art and the conflicts going on in the society, including religious wars and international territorial scuffles. Our professor finally returned that same Monday, Feb. 1, and ever since his class has been my favorite because he’s incredibly enthusiastic, witty, creative and easy to understand despite how quickly he talks (with all his happy energy for his subject, it’s hard for him to slow down)! I also learned that he’s a published poet, and Israel told me that he’s a director and an actor – he directed "La Niña de Plata" at the Corral de Comedias in October. It seems Ernesto is impressed with me as well, because he told Israel at the Corral (they had a poetry reading and one of his poems was presented) that I’m so attentive that I make him nervous in class!

So, back to February 1. Israel called me later and asked if I’d want to get together that night. I told him I could only meet much later, after my first ever intercambios date with Mayte (MA-ria Y TE-resa), who lives in Alcalá and works in Madrid. Carlos hooked us up, and after emailing and setting up a time and place we finally met. The language exchange was a bit one-sided, because we spoke in Spanish almost the entire time, but I wasn’t complaining! We hit it off immediately and now I hang out with her at least once a week. She has really made me feel welcome and happy over the past two months. I think I’d be utterly miserable without her—not only is she the only amiga I have here, and therefore the only person I can truly girl-talk with, but she’s also hilarious, generous, patient, fun-loving, interested, a talented painter/poet/photographer, and has good taste in movies and music.

After Mayte and I said good-bye and planned to go to trivia the following Monday at an Irish pub called Whelan’s, I called Israel to tell him I was available to meet. On the phone I was super curious when he told me about his “local,” and he brought me there. It turns out it’s a building which, on the bottom floor, has classroom-type rooms with countertops and a giant common room with a ton of chairs and murals coating the walls (where they do theater or poetry or concerts or gymnastics); the top floor is bedrooms, about the size of Rider’s standard dorm room, and tinier rooms including just a desk, computer and sound system or something to that effect. Israel rents his one room with three of his friends and chips in for the rent of the rest of the building with a bunch of other young people—he doesn’t even know them all that well. I got the impression that it’s kind of the rebellious response to the fact that everyone in Spain lives with their parents until they get married; it’s just so expensive to pay mortgage or rent a whole place on your own, but sometimes there are things you want to do without your parents around. Israel’s room had a fold-out couch, a few chairs, a long desk, a fridge, a shelf, a boom box and a TV. They also took care of four stray cats with various levels of disheveled and skinny appearance, but the poor things were incredibly sweet. This is when I finally found out he’s a painter.

Antonio had warned me that classes were to start this week, so on Tuesday, Feb. 2 I went to UAH’s Colegio Málaga, where my 20th Century British Literature class was supposed to be. I went to the room, discovered the door was locked, and waited outside for someone—professor, janitor, classmate, anybody—to come. At 11:05 when still nobody had shown up, I was worried the classroom had changed and I didn’t hear about it. I looked around at all the signs and posters with such info, and saw that my class was in the same room where I was. Finally I tapped someone on the shoulder, asked if he was a student and if he could help. He took me to the same signs where I already found the info, and then to the front desk that I didn’t even know existed. We spoke to a receptionist and found out that classes were to start that Thursday, not today. So I suddenly had a free afternoon! The student said he had some free time too, so we left and went to a café to get coffee together. His name’s Francisco (he goes by Fran or Frank in English) and he’s a doctorate student (or master’s; I’m not sure if the levels are the same here) in Italian history, focusing on the era of the Roman Empire. His thesis has something to do with gladiators, which is just so awesome! He’s fluent in Italian; he said he needed to be to read a lot of the pertinent texts, but that it wasn’t too hard for him since Spanish is his native language and they’re enviably similar.

The following night I went out to a bar with Israel, Gerardo (his friend from Venezuela), Joe and Rich. With Gero I immediately launched into a conversation about Chavez and Castro, communism as an ideology, and health care, of all things. He was easier to talk to because he understood English well (when I had to regress to make a point), and he could restate a thought in English if I didn’t understand it in Spanish. We stayed out late, went for a walk, and then Israel and I went back to his local. It’s a bit strange and a bit funny to be with a Spaniard who speaks so little English: there are still moments when he has to explain what he said in a different way because I didn't understand the vocabulary he used...or he has to wait for me to form a complete sentence, which still takes awhile in the past tense (there are four different ways you can speak in the past in Spanish) or the godforsaken subjunctive! The next day I wrote a short story based on my experiences with Israel that I’m going to translate into Spanish when I have a bit more time (for my own practice).

On Thursday I had plans to meet José in Madrid and go to El Prado, but I decided to stay home to do homework and get some trip-planning done—just in case you were wondering how I’m even passing my classes!

On Friday, February 5 (my birthday!), the Instituto Franklin took us on a daytrip to Toledo, and I fell in love with the city: the swords and the jewelry and the hills and tiny alleys and the clouds just like El Greco painted them, low and dark with the blinding sun poking through every few moments. Not to mention, we learned about the historical significance of the school of translators (founded in the 12th century) where scholars of all creeds worked together to make a plethora of information on philosophy, science, geography, history, medicine and engineering more accessible, from ancient Greek to Arabic, Arabic to Latin and Hebrew. Plus, we saw how the three religions of Abraham (Catholicism, Judaism and Islam) coexisted in harmony until 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) kicked out all the Jews, mercilessly expelling families from their homes even though Toledo had been the major Jewish city in Europe for centuries.

By the way, here's my photo album of the weekend, starting from Toledo.

That night when we returned I wanted to go out drinking and dancing because I was turning 20 and that’s good enough in this country! I called Joe and we got together with Israel, Gerardo and Israel’s co-worker Javier. We went to a couple different bars just to drink and chat and wait until the clubs started filling with people. After getting a bit happier and warmer we finally went to a club in El Val, the same neighborhood where Israel’s local is. Surprisingly, we knew people there, people that we ran into the first night we went out in Alcalá: Julian, Kurt and Manuel! They introduced us to the girls they were with and we all danced in a big giggling group until the club closed at 6am. Joe and I had to rush out of there because we had to catch our bus to Sevilla from Madrid at 8am! Gero was nice enough to drive us home so we’d have more time to grab our stuff and then run to the train station. Despite this, we still arrived late in Madrid and missed the original bus. I was fine with that though, because I was still feeling drunk and wanted to use the time to sober up with lots of water and coffee.

Sevilla is a bit far from us (it took us 6 hours by bus) but absolutely worth it. It’s in the south, in Andalusia, 60 miles from the coast; it was warm and sunny and had orange trees like Florida. When we arrived we met Amanda, Anna and Thayse, who had caught the original bus and were already checked in at the hostel and everything by the time we got there. We wanted to see the important monuments and the Cathedral, but it was already after 6pm and many places were closed. We ended up just walking along the river, taking in the beauty of the city and the weather (it was February 6 but the low at night there was the high during the day in Madrid: 45°F/65!). The three girls had maps and led us (they also arranged the hostel and the buses, it was a spontaneous trip and I just told them I’d go ahead with whatever they found) so Joe and I just kind of trailed behind and had no idea where we were the whole time. I’d thought it would be liberating but I’ve learned something about myself from this trip: I don’t necessarily need to be in charge, but I do like to have my own map so I know where we are and what we’re doing. We ended up basically wasting the afternoon there because we didn’t have much of an agenda, and even when we did decide we got lost. Eventually we just saw the outside of the Cathedral (it was closed before sunset) and returned to the hostel. Then we wanted to go get dinner but we couldn’t decide: Thayse didn’t want to spend too much money, but I wanted some authentic Andalusian food, and I don’t remember what the others had in mind. After arguing and passing up a lot of good-looking places finally we were just starving and no longer cared. We ended up in an ordinary café and had paella and hot dogs. I was disappointed but cheered up when I saw a Liverpool game was on the TV! I haven’t been keeping track of their schedule since I got here but I was thrilled to see them again. Amanda likes to tease me. Whenever she saw me absorbed she’d tell the others, “quick, fake an interest!” then proceeded to stare fixedly at the tele, her mouth hanging slightly open in concentration. She’s a great comedian and convincing actress. Now this is a reoccurring joke between us because I’m always so excited when we stumble upon a football game, and the others honestly couldn’t care less.

After eating we went back to our hostel and enjoyed my birthday present from the girls: Fanta and some kind of blue vodka! After hanging out and playing Thumper and drinking enough to feel sufficiently tipsy, we (everyone except for Thayse, she wanted to stay in and call her mom and be a good girl) went downtown. It was an enjoyable albeit long walk; our hostel was about half an hour from where all the action is. We wandered around and around, trying to find the bar where Anna and Amanda heard from our hostel receptionist that there would be a free flamenco show. We saw a lot of the old part of the city because we walked down all these winding, cobblestone streets with hardly a soul around. Then we’d stumble upon a plaza jumping with people eating and drinking outside, or walking to their favorite bar. I eavesdropped, listening intently to try to catch the Andalusian accent I heard so much about. I didn’t really discern it, but I figured that’ll come when my Spanish improves.

Finally, when we realized we’d gone in circles and landed at the same corner twice with an obscure, noiseless and sign-less building, Amanda asked two guys standing outside the old, beat-up wooden door (only maybe six feet high) if there was flamenco inside. They answered either proudly or mockingly—I really couldn’t tell—that yes, there was a show with flamenco very typical of Sevilla going on right this minute. We hurried inside, and immediately realized this must be it. It wasn’t just that we heard the stomping and clapping characteristic of flamenco coming from the back room: we were greeted by a bunch of tiny tables in corners and against the plaster walls, separated by centuries-old wooden beams and columns holding up the low ceiling. People were leaning close to each other and blowing smoke at passers-by; the smoke swirled up to the ceiling, visible and lingering for unnaturally long in the dim lights and suffocating heat; there were no windows to relieve us of the overabundance of CO2 and the one and only door was tiny, sturdy and always closed or blocked by people going in and out. The floor was uneven and there was a dusty old piano leaned haphazardly against the tiny stretch of wall between the bathrooms (which only had a sheet draped in front) and the one table that sat more than four people comfortably—it looked like a stolen picnic table. We followed the slightly-inclining path into the back room, which was completely different, besides that it was overflowing with people: it was a logical rectangular room with wooden floors, a wooden bar and a wooden stage. We climbed the five steps up to the slightly raised level facing the stage opposite. From here we got a phenomenal view of the wooden beams and column in front of us, but when we craned our necks the perfect archetype of a flamenco dancer conjured in front of our eyes: a woman with thick, long, curly black hair, wearing golden hoop earrings, a white blouse with billowing sleeves and a long red multi-layered skirt. Three musicians were seated behind her, a guitarist, a flautist and a singer/clapper. We just made it for the last three or so songs. The energy was infections, really dramatic and intense, with climaxes and drops and mood shifts. The musicians and the dancer were all talented and super focused. I felt really lucky and grateful to see even the little we caught.

After the show, we went to a different bar and passed the time people-watching and drinking until it was time for the clubs to start filling up. We walked down a street that had maybe three dance clubs with queues and chose one all the way at the end because it had no line. And the music was really great! They played popular songs with remixed (usually better) beats, some hip-hop and a few mash-ups. I remember they played the chorus of “Could You Be Loved” with some other song and kept doubling the beats or something; that was really fun. There I met Benji, a boy from Holland. I’d seen him near us earlier and was impressed by how he much he was into dancing; he looked like he was off in his own world. I don’t remember if I spoke to him first or he to me, but after a minute he asked if I speak English. I told him where I was from and of course, and he laughed. He said he thought for sure I was Spanish. How cool is that? He bought me a drink, we talked, and then we danced together, though only for a little while because his friends called him away to go to another club. He asked if we’d be in town the next day; we exchanged numbers before saying good-bye.

The next day we woke up at a decent time to take advantage of the morning. We went to one of the most breath-taking places I’ve ever seen: the Alcazar and its luscious, sprawling gardens! We took it all in for hours and then when we realized we had to leave to eat lunch and catch the bus, Amanda and I got lost! It’s such a big place and so much of the castle itself looks similar, with the elaborate porcelain walls and Moorish ceilings. Not to mention, the corridor that turned out to be the right one had stairs, and I swore up and down that I didn’t remember needing stairs to get to the main castle and gardens…but I was wrong. It was quite the thrilling experience though! I actually got a bit freaked out by the end, especially when we asked people where to go and they pointed us in the wrong direction, but I kept laughing and admiring the beauty of it all.

I never really get myself in my photos so here's some by Joe, who not only has a great eye for photography but also plays with the colors and contrasts with a program called Picasso or something:

Ladies posing in front of the Cathedral

Taking a break in the gardens of the Alcazar.

This was taken by Amanda. We're cute.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Short answers to some questions

The host family is very different. The thing is, they are super pushy and touchy without even meaning it. I never thought Americans were prudent or distant or incredibly polite, but in comparison we totally are. I think I've memorized every pore on Mercedes' face by now. As for the abuela, she yells at me every day for something or another, and it's always the same dialogue! For example, when I come home after midnight, even though I've reported in advance that I'm coming home late and won't be there for dinner, the next day at lunch she asks me why I didn't wake her up so I could eat and how could I go all night and all day without eating anything, yadayadayada...I've told her many times before that I wish she would stop worrying about me because (surprisingly) I know how to order food when I'm out, I know where to find bread, and I do know I'm allowed to open the refrigerator door...not to mention I would never dream of tossing an old lady out of bed at 1 a.m. so she could make me some pork chops and french fries or something...And she just yells at me, insisting that I should not to be afraid to ask her for's a vicious circle of graciousness and crabbiness, really it's unbelievable! Then other times I'll be getting ready for a daytrip and already be in the kitchen, then she'll come in there trying to force the whole container of 10 croissants in my bag when I already have two packed along with a sandwich and yogurt and fruit and nuts and chips...Then every single day after lunch (no exaggeration...every single day) she tells me I should take a nap and then wake up and come downstairs to eat a snack...I try to tell her that I'm busy, that I have things to write, but she seems to think I should spend my whole day resting and eating. Maybe this wouldn't bother a normal kid, but I love my work and it's just draining to go through the same time-wasting, trying-to-be-nice yelling match with the abuela every day.

On top of that, they think I have a special diet or that I'm a picky eater or watching my weight or something ever since I explained to them that my favorite cuisine is fresh fruits and raw vegetables and herbal tea. Plus, when they cook a plate of something new and I'm playing with it and examining it (I'm a curious person, you know, and so much food here is different, so I like to check it out before I gulp it down - all these shrimp and little fried fish with their skin and tails and heads and spines and everything!) they think I'm rejecting it or scared to eat it...then they try to tell me that it doesn't have fat or gluten or sugar or whatever! Not to mention, the abuela tries to give me triple servings for every meal and then still tells me I didn't eat enough and gets up to hand me more bread or another banana or something. It's even worse when I go out for tapas or eat a snack a couple hours before dinner, because my stomach can't handle all three full courses as usual and they think there's something wrong with me. Ha!

I'm not very happy in this house, to be honest. They're not awful to me or anything; I just hate being treated like a child day in and day out. The good thing is, I don't spend a lot of time at home because I'm always doing something!

The food is local as far as I can tell. I know for sure the meat is because there's a butcher shop on every corner. They probably ship some fruits and veggies in from the countryside, but it's such a small nation that that's not as big of a deal in our country as it is here. And there's a bakery on every street, too. Pan (bread) is the most important element to every can't sit down at a Spanish table without a fresh loaf of bread! Also, they eat dessert with every meal. Usually it's a piece of fruit but if your sweet-tooth is acting up they always have flan, pudding and yogurt.

I honestly don't know how they all stay skinny here, either, for a few main reasons: 1. They eat huge portions! Whoever says Europeans eat smaller plates than Americans was lying, or didn't visit Spain. 2. They hardly every eat veggies; mostly they eat a ton of protein (seafood, pork and beef of all kinds, eggs) and some carbs (bread mentioned before, but also a lot of potatoes). 3. Leftovers do not exist in this country. At home when I can't bring myself to finish my epic portion, I try to sneak into the kitchen first so I can wrap it in aluminum foil and hide it in the fridge. Because if I let the abuela take my plate, she'll just throw all the perfectly wholesome food out. And then, when you go to a restaurant, they usually serve three courses. Each single plate is more than enough to fill you up, but then it's such a shame to let any go to waste. So you're probably thinking: it's okay, just ask for a to-go box right?...Of course, but in this country there is no such thing as "to-go"! They'd look at you like you had three heads if you asked for a box. They'd probably think you were planning on buying wine from them or something. You just have to eat a bit or scrape a few bites onto your dinner partner's plate so you don't look rude. Somehow most Spaniards are slim though!

My classmates in my Spanish classes are all from America: Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, California and Florida are the main states represented. My classes with actual Spanish students (but in English) start tomorrow...I'll let you know what that's like, and how the fashion and everything is, when I go. Wish me luck!

Monday, January 25, 2010

The rest of January!

I've been trying to put this jumbled post into some kind of eloquent order for the past two weeks before posting, but so much time has passed and so many things have happened that I'm just going to throw everything together and hope it sorts itself out.

There have been quite a few highlights since my first update:

I've gone out a lot by now, but as for my first experience of the nightlife here...Joe and I went to "La Zona" (where all the popular clubs and bars are) around midnight on Friday, Jan. 15th. We ended up at a rock bar called La Ruina and worked up the courage to start our first conversations with Spanish peers. Joe wandered off to a table of girls and I talked to a couple of guys right next to me that looked like they had good taste in music (one had dreds, always a dead giveaway). They were really nice and the conversation wasn't too hard - they knew enough English to make up for what I couldn't express in Spanish, and vice versa. The one with dreds, whose name is Andres and who's in a rock/reggae band, needed to go home at 2ish so he could get a good night's sleep and study all day on Saturday (final exams for the Spanish university calendar were the week of Jan. 18-22). Carlos, his friend who is not a student, asked us if we wanted to go to Louisiana Rock, another bar where he was meeting some friends. We agreed and off we went. We walked down a few streets and passed flocks of young people, some smoking pot right on the corner, completely out in the open. I asked Carlos about this and we had a conversation about the culturally different views between Spanish law enforcement and American law enforcement, and how the US has a funny paradox between individual freedom and strict laws on certain behaviors (gay marriage, for example). He told us for the most part, there's nothing to worry about here; it's still illegal to smoke marijuana, but the cops don't harass people as much. I told him about America's war on drugs with the various sentences in different states for possession of marijuana, crack and cocaine - the tiny bit of legal knowledge on the subject that I remember from my BHP: The Guilty and the Innocent class. When we entered the bar we met his friends: Kurt (wearing a Cobain shirt too), Julian (who spoke perfect English and halted our Spanish progress for the evening) and Manuel (Carlos' cousin). I got their email addresses at the end of the night and happily returned to my bed at 5am.

Two days later, Sunday the 17th, Manuel (our tutor) came to Alcala with Thayse and Amanda to show us around. It turns out he knows everything and everyone in this little city because his dad's a really important professor/historian here. I think he might've grown up here but I didn't quite catch that (of course, I'm working on my language skills still). We went to the Rectory, Cardenal Cisneros' tomb and the birth house of Miguel de Cervantes. I'm planning on going back just to see the room with all the antique and translated editions of Don Quijote. That night, Joe and I went to the Corral de Comedias to see our first show, "Las Criadas" (The Maids) by Jean Genet. It was shocking, sexually charged, melodramatic, brutal and really sad, revealing the pathetic delusions of people surrounded by decadence, servitude and class superficiality. There was no intermission, which appears to be the typical because I went to another play last Sunday and there was no intermission either. As Joe and I gathered our coats and things, we looked behind us and saw Lauren, another girl from Oklahoma who's with us in the Instituto Franklin. It turns out she's a theatre major and came by herself to see the Spanish version of this French play, which she did at her school a year ago. We were the last ones to leave the theatre; I was purposefully delaying because I was trying to sort out what I wanted to say to Israel, the boy who works there, the one I met at the door earlier that week. Finally I just went up and talked to him. He remembered Joe and me, and he asked if we understood the play. I told him I got the concept through the actors' body language and the exclamations more than the dialogue itself. He responded and then we stood a bit awkwardly. Eventually I asked him outright if he wanted to improve his English in exchange for helping me with my Spanish, and he said yes and gave me his number.

Israel and I hung out the following Wednesday, just to get coffee and go for a walk. We had a slow but enjoyable conversation, and I was pleasantly surprised by how patient he was with me and my broken Spanish. He was really perceptive and could often tell what I was trying to get at, saving me the struggle by guessing my thoughts and giving me the end of my own sentences (except spoken properly). At the end of the night we spontaneously decided to go see Avatar. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it in Spanish; it made me proud to realize how much I understood without subtitles (even if the dialogue, storyline and diction are really simple, typical and dramatic one-liners...oh well). He walked me home and we decided to hang out again soon.

The next day, Thursday, I went to the mountains with Irene, a Spanish student at Nebrija University that studied at Rider last semester (you can see the photos here on facebook) and realized that my dream landscapes truly can be found in real life. We spent the whole day together and I slept over her house in Colmenar Viejo, which is an hour and a half by train from my city. She drove me to the mountain town next to hers, Manzanares el Real (Manzanares is the river that provides Madrid's water). We walked around this little town with winding streets and tiny alleyways, bustling restaurants and quirky shops. Everything was on a slope because the whole town was at the base of the Sierra Madrid, including a 400-year-old castle on top of a hill: El Castillo de los Mendoza. It was a Thursday and Irene and I had the whole castle to ourselves - there were no other tourists in sight! We galloped up and down the stone steps of the towers and wished we were 4-year-olds again so we could fit in the small, roped-off passageways. Later Irene treated me to lunch at a typical Spanish restaurant: first plate paella, second plate empanadillas, and flan for desert. I was thrilled because every single course reminded me of my second home, Miami - Cubans make all three of those dishes as well. Then Irene drove us up a mountain until we got half-way up and the car path stopped. We got out and walked about 5 kilometers up the mountain, passing walls built of stones for long-gone cattle and hundreds of ferns, blueberry bushes and sappy pines. The sunset made us turn around to come back down to Earth. We kept up a profound conversation the whole time about God, faith, religion, morals, truth, drama, self-esteem, and what it means to be a good person. When we were sitting down for dinner with her family a couple hours later, I was taken by surprise when her family reverently said grace. I realized I was staring awkwardly, so I folded my hands and dropped my eyes. The only time I ever hear people say grace or give thanks for their blessings is on a holiday, not before everyday meals. It's interesting how little rituals can hold so much significance. Finally, we played Mario Kart on her family's Wii and watched Star Trek in Spanish (with subtitles so I could catch all the foreign futuristic/scientific vocabulary).

Two days later, Manuel and his friend José drove Joe, Thayse, Amanda, a student from their university named Anna who's from Hong Kong, and me in their little cars for our Saturday day trip. We visited Segovia: the land of the roast suckling pig and the home of the Roman aqueduct, a giant Catholic cathedral and a old converted-Moorish castle. Here's my photo album. I was completely blown away by the huge, methodical ancient aqueduct, and I thoroughly enjoyed finding stones that didn't match up to their neighbors and what I affectionately called the "Oh shit" stones, the tiny wedges that were placed between some arches and notably absent in others. I admired the vaulted ceilings in the Cathedral and was struck by the power of time when I saw how some elaborate ceilings retained their brilliance while others had not a drop of paint left on the original stone. Next, we walked down the old Jewish district and I stopped to read a sign about how hundreds of families were ripped out of the homes at the end of the 15th century, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally claimed the 800-year-old Catholic Reconquista victorious. We entered the Alcázar, which Manuel believes was one of Walt Disney's inspirations when he designed his castle. It was gorgeous, especially (again) the decorated ceilings. With all these beautiful sights so high up, all day I used muscles in my neck that never got quite such a workout before! We ended our daytrip with a grand Segovian lunch: judiones soup (the biggest beans I've ever seen) and complete sections of roast pig. We could literally see who got which part of the animal because some of us had hooves, some had tails and others midsections. I'm pretty sure we ate two whole pigs between the seven of us. It was really strange then, but now that I've been here three weeks, I'm used to recognizing the exact creature that I'm about to eat - 1/4 of a little pig, jumbo shrimp with their heads and legs, and sardines that we eat by pulling the meat off the spine with our fingers. I'm afraid vegetarians must have a really hard time in this country.

It turns out, “Hamlet” has come up twice in conversation since I've come to Spain. I didn't know it before, but my home in Bucks County, PA really is a treasure. I can go to Philly and NYC for plays whenever I want, and I can find them in almost any language, which is especially important in works that lose too much in translation such as Shakespeare and Lorca and Gombrowicz. I had a conversation in Segovia with José (Manuel's friend) who said he wishes his English was good enough so that he could see a production of Hamlet, but he wouldn't really comprehend it even if it were available (which it's not). It's amazing how little Spaniards as a society care about learning English, even though they import so much pop culture from the US and some from the UK. All of their movies are overdubbed with Spanish voice actors, a lot of the popular music is sung by the artist in Spanish lyrics (you can search Beyonce's "Si Yo Fuera Un Chico" on youtube), and they rarely ever travel those countries.

Finally on Sunday the 24th I got the chance to call Mom with my brand new mobile and international calling card. I asked her to send me my bathrobe (it’s so difficult to get out of my warm bed into the freezing atmosphere of the room every morning), thick socks, my Alpaca sweater, and a black long-sleeved undershirt because I didn’t realize how much I’d need warm clothing every minute of every day. Also, I asked for batteries (they’re more expensive here) and more peanut butter (I brought a jar for my host family but it’s already gone – they think it’s delicious, but it’s uncommon in this country and the whole continent). Speaking of food, I just got used to not eating veggies except iceberg lettuce saturated in olive oil. I'm not too worried about it; I figured I'll make up for it by eating all raw foods when I come home.

On Thursday, Jan. 28 (I don't have classes on Thursday) I went with Israel to Madrid in the morning for my first real glimpse of the city. We arrived at the Atocha metro/train station and Israel took me up to this completely random, indoor tropical rainforest! There was a pond on the outskirts with hundreds of turtles taking in the UV rays from the lamps 50 feet above our heads. It was incredible! We went to the Reina Sofia Museum and I had the great honor of sitting in front of Guernica and really feeling it for what felt like about half an hour. Israel was a great companion for the art museum - he noticed so many obscure things, little symbols and emotions buried deep in the canvas - because it turns out, he is a painter! But I didn't know that until very recently, which I'll get to in the next post. Then Joe, Amanda and Anna met in the afternoon and we went to El Retiro, the giant park in the center of the city. We met some other students from Syracuse who grew up in New Jersey on the steps in front of the lake. Then Israel and Anna left, and Joe and Amanda and I went back to the apartment Amanda's staying in because it was only around 8pm and we still had hours to kill before the evening's fun started. Those two sat and watched "The Simpsons," in Spanish of course, and I passed out on the couch for an hour. Around 10pm when I awoke from my power nap, we met Nacho, a couchsurfer who wants to intercambios in order to pass the TOEFL in three months. He gave us directions to Oui Madrid, a really stylish bar with a big table full of finger food (free dinner!) and drinks from 5-8 Euros each. He was super easy to talk to because he didn't mumble or speak too quickly, and his English is already great so I can revert to it if I need to. Finally, Joe and Amanda and I took the last metro to a club called Joy Eslava next to Sol, the center of Madrid. Amanda went home while we were still waiting in line...which took almost an hour...but Joe and I ended up running into Thayse there, so everything worked out! There were a ton of Italian, French and American students, but not too many Spaniards, so while I had a great time dancing, I plan on frequenting other clubs instead.

Last Saturday I went to Madrid to meet up with José (Manuel's friend) with the intention to go to a photography exhibition. We ended up distracted by an outdoor book sale (it resembled a flea market, but it was hundreds of books!) and walked through it for at least an hour, stopping to talk heatedly about Shakespeare, Neil Gaiman, Nietzsche, Pablo Neruda, Isaac Asimov, and Federico García Lorca. He's really sweet and knows both Spanish and English, so he was supposed to help me practice, but that didn't happen because our conversation often turned to into a debate (a word I had to teach him, ironically). Later we walked through El Retiro and talked about our families, lifestyles, friendships, and relationships. It was strange to talk to him about such personal things when we've really only just met, but I suppose we're the trusting kind. We saw the statue of El Angel Caido (The Fallen Angel = Lucifer) and the sky was perfectly dramatic for such an emotional statue. It's a shame I'm a bad photographer; that picture could've been phenomenal. José treated me to lunch at a vegetarian restaurant near his work, and I laughed out loud at my entree; I was so excited to have vegetables but was thwarted again by the very Spanish manner of cuisine! The sides of broccoli and carrots ended up being two little bites of each veggie, with the "meat" - in my case, seitan - taking up 4/5 of the plate. It was all delicious, of course - a little sad for my still-veggie-deprived belly, but still very good. Then José and I walked aimlessly around center city until we stumbled upon a Cuban bar. We ordered mojitos and found an empty table to sit and talk, this time about me as a writer and him as a photographer. I taught him how to play Rummy with the deck of cards I carry around in my purse - which reminds me, Spanish cards are impossibly different! Look at these! I have no idea what I'm doing with them. It's amazing how little things I expected to be universal, like a deck of cards, can be completely foreign while bigger things like daily cuisine and university classes are more familiar. So, we left and headed to a bar in the southern part of the city to go to the birthday party of one of his co-workers. When we were still in the busiest part of Madrid and making our way to the metro, we ran into Carlos, the professor/tour guide from Alcala, of all people! Those "it's a small world after all moments" are so amazing. Anyway, I was a bit nervous to go to this party because I didn't know anybody and they're all older, but I ended up having a great time! I talked to quite a few of José's co-workers: one girl about Jack and Sawyer from Lost, Juan (who looked like a more attractive version of Dominic Monaghan) from Asturias (a region on the northern coast) about Rome and fashion, Samuel about music and our favorite bands, and a really enthusiastic girl named Amparo about musicals. After the bar closed we took three taxis to an awesome club with a Nigerian saxophonist, a DJ and a great bongo player in a barrio (neighborhood) called Malasaña. The saxophonist actually approached me after a couple hours (which is why I know he's from Nigeria) to ask me to come onstage - he saw that I was dancing like crazy, and he wanted me to join the other two girls on stage who were getting more into the live music than a lot of the hipsters in the crowd. I said no thank you because we were leaving soon, so we exchanged facebook info and I told him I'll come back again.

The last day of January, I slept in to recover from the long night out before. I woke up for lunch and got all my homework done, then called Joe to see if he wanted to go to the play at the Corral that night: "El Gran Atasco." I knew it was a modern play and thought it might be easier for us to understand than the strange French one. It turns out my supposition was true, not only because the dialogue was more updated (lots of "Joder!" and "Hombre!") but also because the storyline was more digestible. It was very modern though, because it played with Aristotles' Three Unities, mixed media (including film clips), an absurd setting and plenty of comedic relief. It was shorter too, because there were only two actors. Amanda and Anna came from Madrid to see the show, and they were really pleased as well. When we were first taking our seats we had a moment of hilarity with Israel: he had just set up the chairs on the second floor to accommodate a group of ladies on our right, and then he had to shuffle them around again to fit all four of us. We went out for tapas afterward at one of my favorite places, an Argentine bar that serves pizza in the Plaza Cervantes. I laughed more that night than the whole trip so far; it felt really good.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pre-Departure and Arrival (Prequel)

I was so full of things to say about my first week in Spain last post that I didn't write a single thing about preparing to leave, how I felt before my departure, and the trip itself. A few things are noteworthy, and end up being relevant even more so in retrospect.

The day before I left, my mom and Larry had their annual holiday party, which they plan for the first Saturday after the Epiphany/Three Kings' Day. This time, it coincided with my traveling and my grandmother's 88th birthday (thus it miraculously became a Bon Voyage/Happy 88th Birthday party). I felt very grateful to see all my loved ones before I left, including all my mom's children, all her siblings (my favorite aunts and uncles), a few cousins, my godmother Cheryl, my roommate Judith (who just flew in from Spain three days prior), my best friends including Ang, Sam, Lauren, and Maria, and of course Julius. I spent the night running around and juggling multiple conversations simultaneously and attempting to eat in the few moments I could sit. Although in my mind knew it was the last time in a long time I would see most of these people, my heart didn't quite believe it. So when everyone - and it really was almost everyone - asked me if I'm excited/thrilled/nervous/scared to go, my honest answer was, "It's tomorrow, and it still doesn't feel real." There were many highlights, including when my mom put on "Concert for George" and blasted it, dancing the entire length of the recording. It was really funny when it was just her breaking it down for songs like "Horse to the Water," but then it got really fun when the rest of us joined in for songs like "Taxman" and "My Sweet Lord."

I spent my last night with Julius at his house. In the morning we had a couple hours before he had to drop me off, and we spent it cleaning (his home was being washed from top to bottom for an Open House that same day). I ended up being glad to have menial chores to keep my mind off my undulating emotions. In fact, all week I'd been shamelessly clutching at distractions so I wouldn't think about how frightened I was to be leaving everything I was comfortable and happy with behind. I enjoyed a very loving, heartfelt goodbye with Julius' mom Chris, his dad Jules Sr., and his sister Seraphina.

Julius took me home. We told each other why we were thankful for one another. He took me in his arms and asked if I wanted him to sing something. For some reason hearing his voice singing so sweetly finally broke through the defenses I'd been building up against my own emotions, and then as I sang "Don't worry about a thing..." to him we both started sobbing. Rushing relief and pure fear gripped my chest - I finally showed how I scared and sorry I was. I shivered as I walked him to the door.

Ang came over in the afternoon and cheered me up, as she unfailingly does. We set up Skype, ate lunch and chatted with Aunt Nancy, Uncle Jimmy, Mom and Larry. She made me smile as we said goodbye.

I ran upstairs to grab my luggage at 5:30 and call Julius one last time before shutting off my phone for the next six months. My breath caught in my throat and I started panicking, but he talked me out of it, saying how good it'll feel to get to Spain and shut off the light and get into bed after all this. Downstairs my mom saw tears on my cheeks and how much I was shaking, and she told me to let it out. I wept very high-pitched and pathetically on her shoulder as she held me in a tight hug. I've never heard myself cry like that before. Aunt Nancy hugged me next, saying how she wanted to feel it too - our family's got some trouble with expressing emotions - she cried and gave me some words of encouragement. Then Uncle Jimmy gave me a big hug and told me this is what it's all about - you can read books all your life but you never really learn until you experience it, and traveling's the best way.

Mom and Larry drove me to the airport in the big white Buick, with all three of us squished up front so Mom we could see each other. That was the most intense car ride of my life: when I talked to Mom about Bonnie Miles and The Four Agreements I felt calm and pensive, but a split second later I would think of Julius or Ang and get suddenly dizzy, choked up, sick to my stomach and start tearing up all over again. By the end of the ride I was exhausted, and I hadn't even started flying yet! Walking into the airport and waiting in line at check-in, I was just a bundle of nerves. Mom made me smile and laugh by waving to me from the window like an enthusiastic madwoman.

The flight to London was smoother than my two past trans-Atlantic experiences. I slept most of the time and read Lorca's "Poet in New York," the bilingual edition Julie Abernathy gave to me who knows how long ago. I was on one of those planes that have little individual screens for each passenger with games, movies, and music to select. Eager to practice my Spanish, I found the five movies offered in the language and selected "500 Days of Summer/500 días con ella." I didn't think anything of its romantic comedy label or possibly painful storyline until a scene where the girl puts her hand on the boy's chest in a beautiful, intimate stomach plummeted. I quickly turned of the screen and shut my eyes to block out the image and the strange, uncontrollable ache. Grabbing my purse, I dug out my iPod, selected the soothing melodies of The Album Leaf and fell asleep.

Joe bought me my first legal alcohol of the journey: a half-pint of Stella in the Heathrow airport. He brought a 5-pound note just for that reason!

The whole flight to Madrid I slept on and off. When they gave us a snack an hour before arrival, I got so nervous that I felt sick. I realized I'd have to either mentally repress my butterflies or take out my iPod and put myself to sleep again. This time I selected Enya.

The landing was easy and my butterflies finally turned to excitement. The airport was massive - it was such a quest just getting to the baggage claim! Customs was surprisingly simple though; they didn't check our bags at all. Our tutor Manuel found us and talked our ears off (not for the last time!) then left us with Anna, the housing coordinator from our program. Katie from Oklahoma joined us and we took the bus to another terminal while we waited for other students to arrive. I spent my first Euros on Fanta and some pineapple.

As we embarked the bus at 6:30 we thought we were heading home; but alas, Anna and the bus driver took us out to the highway and back around to pick up straggling travelers so many times I lost count. Some from Colorado, another (Rich, the one I mentioned below) from Oklahoma and a huge group of students from Alabama climbed aboard...and as we drove away, Joe and I realized we lost Anna. I have no idea where she went that night, but another lady ended up getting us to Alcalá and depositing us where we were supposed to meet up with our host families. I was the last student of the whole batch to be picked up, about 10 minutes after the other two dozen students were already gone. It gave me time to memorize my surroundings and take photos.

Then Mercedes arrived in her Mercedes...

Just kidding, though I had to do it, right? Her son Alexis was strapped in to the back of her nondescript mini-van. The 7-year-old was all big, curious eyes and toothy grin. He has such an adorable voice and accent - talking with him was my first taste of really interacting with a Spaniard outside of the tutor-student role, and it was hard but fun.

When we finally got to my new home, Mercedes gave me a tour and explained how everything works. She said electricity here is very expensive and asked me to turn the heat off (which consists of two separate units, a ceiling/remote air heater and a halogen heater on the floor) when I go to bed or leave the room. She also taught me to close each door behind me so the heat in the rooms of the house doesn't overwork futilely to warm up the eternally cold hallways and spacious three-tiered staircase. I also know from living environmentally-conscious all my life to unplug my computer, cell phone charger, etc. when not in use.

We sat down to dinner after the tour. La abuela made tortilla and lamb (only the second time I've ever eaten it in my life). I told them about my family at home and all my siblings. Mercedes' interaction with her son is interesting for me to witness, because she's one of just a few mothers I've seen with little children. Alexis is a smart cookie; he tries to get away with a lot because he's an only child and has a brilliant smile. After dinner they asked me if I wanted to shower, and I said yes, very much (I'd been longing for a shower even more so than bed since Heathrow airport). The shower stall itself is the tiniest I've ever been in, but I make it work. I'm just glad to have hot water! At the end of the night, we discussed plans for breakfast and getting to the university for orientation the following morning. Mercedes gave me slippers to use since I didn't bring any - I didn't believe another house could be as cold as Mom's and Larry's...but I was wrong!