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 city...my 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.