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.