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.