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!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Differences so far

I'm going to write about the HUGE (and the subtle) differences I've encountered so far between American and Spanish cultures.

1. Toilets. These are important no matter where you go. Here they're small and uncomfortable whether you're at the airport, in a bar or in a theater. I wonder what logic goes into determining how much water to maintain at the bottom of the toilet after every flush? Spanish plumbers decided only two inches at the bottom were necessary.

2. Meals. These once-simple necessities have reared their ugly heads to show me their true significance. First of all, timing: Spaniards eat a light breakfast (sometimes just coffee), a snack at noon (yogurt or an apple), lunch around 3 (which is typically entree and a pastry or piece of fruit for dessert), merienda around 6 (time for tapas!), and dinner around 9 (almost always two plates and dessert). As for content: it's not a meal without pan (bread), which is typically a fresh-baked, long, crispy loaf of white bread. The typical plates are: paella, any kind of seafood, any kind of pork, any kind of beef, chicken, bean soup, chicken noodle soup, chickpeas, tortilla (which looks like an omelet with potatoes), rice, and/or fried potatoes. They also hardly ever eat vegetables...I'm not going to gripe much more on that subject though...and the occasional salad consists of Iceberg lettuce, olives, and tomatoes drenched in oil and a spot of vinegar. Going out to eat at a restaurant - even the cheap ones - means it's a 3-course meal - even if you didn't feel hungry enough for an appetizer or dessert - and if feel too full to finish your second plate, the option of taking it home in a styrofoam box is simply unheard of. It's a bit of a damper on my old habit of going out to eat, ordering just one (always gigantic) plate and bringing back the untouched half for leftovers the next day...

3. Sex. I've been startled on countless occasions by how much this once-notoriously Catholic country is cool with sex. It's totally unremarkable to have breasts on the TV (no matter what genre the show), hotels ads showing dominatrices in action, and documentaries with cartoon characters getting erections and boinking (yes, the sound effect was literally "boink") on the bed along with interviews of porn stars interspersed with clips demonstrating their work.

4. American pop culture - in Spanish. They have more American songs, TV shows and movies than I can count. Just today "Walker, Texas Ranger" was on while I was eating breakfast, and even Chuck Norris had a Spanish voice-over. I've watched "Avatar" and "Star Trek" in Spanish, and on the bus I've heard Beyonce's "Si Yo Fuera Un Chico" ("If I Were a Boy"). Not all musicians could record Spanish in place of the original, like Michael Jackson or The Beatles or...Lady GaGa...but for the most part, the American/British music I've heard here is in Spanish. I've been warned by a friend that they also use Spanish voice actors for currently running seasons, too - in other words, I need to find a way within the next two weeks to download LOST online or I'm going to be clutching at my dictionary for half the episode! As for the accents, some translate and some don't. For example, Chekhov's voice actor in "Star Trek" sounded very Russian by rolling his R's...for every single consonant. But doing a Southern American accent in Spanish is simply impossible (no Sawyer, no Bones) and the Scottish accent comes off stilted at best (sorry Desmond, Scotty).

5. Websites. About downloading LOST -, and a plethora of other websites don't have international you can't watch their videos anywhere else but the States. It's kind of devastating the first time you click on a video (for me it was the finale of the most recent LOST season) and realize it's never going to leave that black frame...

6. Appearances/Fashion/Hairstyles/Trends


Primeros días

It's now Day 5 and I'm writing in my slant-ceilinged chilly room on a gorgeous, sunny Friday afternoon. Why am I not outside? Because I have no way to contact anybody I know except through my computer. Before I got to Spain, I was thinking I would try to live without cell phone dependency. Now, as I'm waiting for Joe (the other student at Alcalá from Rider) to log on to Facebook or Skype or something, I've realized that's ridiculous. I'm going to finish typing this and if he's not awake/online by then (it's 2pm here), I'm just going downtown myself.

So far, I've been to center city every day, but not yet by myself. Joe and I, as neighbors (he lives half a block down the street) and apparently the only two students from the East coast in the entire Instituto Franklin program (the program we North Americans are enrolled in at the University of Alcalá), have been travel buddies the entire trip. We've had amazing conversations about everything: politics, love, families, fidelity, happiness...and it's funny, we always start on in Spanish and try to keep up with it, but we end up regressing into English to make an important point.

I don't know about Joe, but I'm getting sick of not being able to make myself clear or to understand whoever I'm talking to very well. Everyone tells me "poco a poco" and "it takes time to be fluent," but every so often I get really discouraged because there's so much to take in and I'm only just starting!

It's especially difficult when I'm home with my host family – I don't understand them most of the time and I'm not able to speak to them sufficiently. With the university orientation sessions it's easier because you don't have to comprehend everything and they don't expect you to respond. But my host family - la abuela (the grandmother) especially - expects me to talk with them like I know Spanish already. She keeps telling me all these stories and she looks so disappointed every time I have to say "Que" or "Como" or "No le entiendo" (What? How? I don't understand you"). On top of that, when it's just her and me in the house (Mercedes, the mom, and Alexis, her kid, are often out) she makes me eat so much! And I can see from her face that I upset her every time I refuse...when I refuse the shrimp, then the flan, then the fruit, then the fig and almond pastry, even though I ate so much cocido (chicken-chickpea-potato soup) already! My stomach is not that powerful. I know I have to eat in small increments, but they serve huge portions! They’re trying to show their generosity but...damn. And out of all the Spaniard I’ve seen so far, only two were fat.

Another thing I have to learn as soon as I meet a Spaniard who knows English is how to say the phrases in Spanish that I say most often in English: "that's great," "sounds good," "awesome," "wonderful," and many more. I've encountered a few Spaniards outside of the professors at our Instituto Franklin orientation sessions: at the Corral de Comedias (the oldest theater in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe, built in 1602) un chico opened the door when I knocked and asked for a calendario of events. His name was Israel, and I tried talking to him a bit, even asking him why he had specks of white paint on his hands, but he looked like he wanted to get back to work. Then, at the end of our first day of orientation, Joe and I took the correct bus the incorrect way home, and we ended up at the opposite end of the city. We must've appeared confused, so the two ladies at the bus stop with us asked us what we were looking for. We ended up talking to them a bit, asking them where they were from and if they like this city, and they listened to us talk about our experience so far. But I still need to find a local Spaniard that will actually want to hang out with me and talk for more than a few minutes! I hope I can find someone this weekend. I've spoken to a few online through Couchsurfing (an international community where you can ask to stay at someone's house for free if you're traveling, or arrange a meet-up in town, or plan a poker night, etc.) including Daniel, who was studying at Rutgers in New Brunswick but is now back in Galicia, in the north of Spain. He encouraged me: "no te preocupes Julie. es natural al principio que no entiendas bien. sé por experiencia que es muy desagradable cuando te preguntan algo y no entiendes, pero ellos deben comprender que aún no puedes expresarte con claridad y tú tienes que tener una actitud relajada. i think that you speak spanish very well, solo necesitas escuchar más castellano."

As for the university is gorgeous and the center is super old and the people are friendly and curious. There is history all around us, and the transportation system is very easy and convenient. Joe and Rich (our main friend here so far, who's from Ft. Worth but goes to school at University of Oklahoma) and I have walked down and around the Calle Mayor (Main Street) and all the other busy streets around our university next to the Plaza Cervantes. The first day, we went to a famous tapas bar called Indalo, which was small and archaic looking and just beautiful. Joe and Rich celebrated because they realized they could smoke in here! As it turns out - the worse for me, because I hate the smell of cigarettes - you can smoke almost anywhere. The next day, Carlos, the professor who's been our tour guide and with whom I've haltingly discussed literature and Spanish customs, told me about El Perro Verde (The Green Dog), which he described as the cafe where the older literary circle meets. Joe and Rich and I found it, but we didn't have a great time - it was clearly only a cafe bar, not a tapas bar, and we were hungry. I plan on going back alone to write in my journal and eavesdrop when my Spanish is a little better.

I just want to find all the best cafes to write in, the bars to watch fútbol in, and any parks/woods/empty spaces. Last night when Joe and I decided to take a walk, we just hopped off the bus at the first interesting street and explored. Joe really wanted churros so we stopped in a churrería and I ordered tea while he scarfed down his fried sweets. I didn't try any because I felt like I couldn't stomach it, which I'll explain later. After we left, we walked around and looked at the stores. When we came to the end of the street, I let out a woot: right in front of us was the first park I've seen since we arrived! I skipped across the intersection and touched the first bit of Spanish earth (rather than cement, cobblestone or asphalt) I've stepped foot on so far. Immediately I was hit by a wave of fresh air: all around us were towering trees, some with leaves and others with pines and pinecones. We advanced into the murky and winding little avenues, running into a little fountain, some empty benches and a couple standing in the grass smoking beneath a tangle of branches. In the middle of the park we discovered a little mound with spiral stone steps which led up to a pond in the shape of a donut - in the middle of the donut is a cement sitting area, where there were two men who were very still, very quiet and very close together. We guessed that we might've accidentally intruded on something that was supposed to be secretive and left.

Today I finally feel better, after being alternately too hungry and too full for the past three days. The thing is, I tend to forget how delicate some of my systems are. For example, my digestive system: my belly is used to getting a fortified breakfast - not just cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and some small pastry (croissants and whatnot). Moreover, for lunch and dinner I'm used to having vegetables or salad or something, not just ham and cheese on white bread for lunch and giant shrimp with mayo and chicken noodle soup for dinner. It came to a breaking point yesterday: in the middle of the day I felt so ill that I had to take a 3-hour nap. What happened was, la abuela called me down to lunch at 3 (which was some kind of soup and beef), my stomach was so tired of not having seen a single veggie my whole trip and I felt like i was going to throw up. So I excused myself hastily, went to bed and cried a little. I decided I would have to write Mercedes and la abuela a note, because I thought I had made it clear earlier that I needed to eat more vegetables, less meat and less heavy/oily/salty/sugary food, but evidently they didn't get me. After I woke up from my nap, I had a snack of Iceburg lettuce (which la abuela slathered in oil and vinegar) and then I finally felt okay. But still hungry. I think I got sick because I was starting to feel like my stomach was rejecting everything - it was acting up perhaps because I hadn't eaten anything nutritious in so long. Then, before I went out with Joe around 7, I ate a yogurt and a banana and started to feel more like myself. For dinner last night, la abuela made me an unidentifiable creamy soup, Iceberg-lettuce salad and an egg-ham-and-cheese omelet. I ate it all without feeling ill, but I was still dreaming of asparagus, broccoli and green beans.

On the way back from our tour of Madrid on Wednesday night, I felt so awful because I'd eaten nothing all day but two tiny muffins and a tiny plate of potatoes. Joe and I had hoped to meet up with Thayse, the Brazilian from Rider who's studying at Nebrija University in Madrid, and Manuel, our tutor/adviser in Madrid. Carlos finally asked us to call them at the end of our tour when we were literally in the train station. At this point I was holding back tears from being so hungry, so pathetic at speaking Spanish, so misunderstood in my house and so wet (it snowed earlier in the week and it's been raining ever since we got here, which is really strange weather for Madrid) that I just wanted to get back to our chalet and go to bed. Joe did all the talking on his Blackberry (since I obviously still don't have a phone) and told them I didn't want to hang out tonight. I plan on explaining the whole situation when I see them next so they don't take it personally. Hopefully that'll be tomorrow night! I'm trying to get in touch with Thayse because I want to see the real Madrid - without the grim pale faces looming out of the fog.