Return to the Motherland

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Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.

Looks like I’ve officially joined the masses of sporadic bloggers. We should all form a sorry-guys-but-life-is-just-crazy-right-now society or something. We can sit around at Starbucks in our yoga pants. It will be rad.

Anyway, I have a good excuse. (I swear!) I just got back to the U.S. on the 11th, so I’ve been overcoming jet lag/unpacking/going through weird reverse culture shock since then. Things that have surprised me include:

  • One-dollar bills are really bulky. The other day I thought I had $20, but I really just had 6 one-dollar bills. I have a new appreciation for the Sacagawea dollar coins.
  • Toilets flush via a handle on the side. In most of Europe, there’s a button on top of the tank or a plunger that you pull up. For some reason that was really confusing to me for the first week home.
  • We have to drive everywhere.
  • Grocery stores. Our grocery stores are huge and have an enormous selection of items. I missed that.
  • Free water. I’m consistently surprised by those random glasses of water that appear on the table. “Is that really mine?” I whisper, eyes gleaming at such a beautiful sight.
  • Everyone understands everything I say. It’s funny, but I have a hard time talking to people when I buy things or order food. I spoke the majority of my Spanish that way, and it’s really unnerving that people here understand me with such clarity. (On that note, I can no longer use English as a secret language.)
  • A beer at a restaurant costs at least $4. Thank goodness I have all those dollar bills.

Overall, though, it’s been good to be home. I was sort of gloomy and unhappy for the first few days, especially since I didn’t really have much to do and was waking up at 6 a.m. every day. I don’t do very well without some sort of life plan, so I’ve shed a few frustrated tears and indulged in my fair share of emotional eating. I spent the first couple days here cleaning my room and purging all my old clothes to make room for my two 50-pound suitcases.

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What’s Keeping Me Up At Night

And here we are, in June. It’s part of the block-lettered expiration date on my Spanish residency card, yet I somehow never thought it would arrive — it always seemed like some distant, intangible construct of time. In Madrid, its arrival has been quiet and understated, marked by warm breezes and long, sunny days. Madrileños and tourists alike are flocking to the city’s countless terraces and plazas, making each barrio hum with laughter and clinking glasses. Summer is here, and everything is as it should be. Except for my growing feelings of indecision and doubt.

I’ve been keeping my plans quiet because I’m still not sure what they are, but here goes: at the last minute, I decided to renew my position here in Madrid. I adore this city, thanks to its endless supply of museums, restaurants, nightlife, terrazas, and concerts. I love speaking Spanish, and I’ve made some wonderful friends from all over the world.

That said, I don’t think I’m coming back. Why, dear readers?

For the past seven months, I spent nearly six hours a week repeating 50 basic questions to hordes of second-graders. The goal was to prepare them for the notorious Trinity exam, but most of them only memorized the questions and the proper responses since the teacher never taught them what the questions meant in the first place.

I work with teachers who constantly tell me they haven’t planned anything, and that’s okay because we can just look at the book right now. The other day, one English teacher told me that she doesn’t like English. Nay, it goes further: she wishes everyone in the world spoke one language because it’s “inconvenient to learn other languages.”

And then there are the kids themselves, many of whom are so talkative and disrespectful that I can’t teach them anything. I’m forced to spend half the class period trying to keep them quiet while the teacher sits on the computer or leaves the room entirely.

Don’t get me wrong, some of my classes are good. Fun, even. (Read: Only my classes with teachers who prepare coursework and control the students’ behavior fall into this category.) I adore all of the first-graders, most of the second- and third-graders, and even a few of the fifth-graders. Sometimes we do special projects or help with holidays, which is usually a good time. But the teachers I work most closely with are so frustrating that I’m not sure I could handle another year.

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Small Curiosities of Everyday Life in Spain

Persianas in Spain

Persianas, the typical Spanish blinds. Source.

They aren’t necessarily good, and they aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just curious.

Persianas

What are these big metal things outside my window? Storm shutters? No, friends, those are persianas, the typical Spanish metal blinds that double as blackout shades. They’re in almost every home, apartment and building, including my school.

Want to protect your window from wind and weather? Lower the persianas. Want to block out all sunlight as you regret the previous night’s activities/eat chips in your bed? Persianas are your new best friend.

I’m personally not a huge fan of them — they make the room too dark for my taste. However, almost all my neighbors put them down at night. Either they’re afraid of people peeking in, or they really, really hate being woken up by the sun. I would sleep till 12 if I used my persianas, but hey, everyone’s different. And you really can’t beat them for blocking out that notorious Spanish sun and heat, which is going to be very important come June.

Side note: The rattle of persianas being raised in the morning is, oddly, a sound that will always remind me of Spain.

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Cinque Terre: Four Days in the Five Lands

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Vernazza, one of the five villages that form Cinque Terre.

March and April have both been a whirlwind. Between three separate family visits and two other trips with friends, I have a lot of catching up to do! (I keep saying I won’t do this to myself. I’m a masochistic blogger, apparently.)

In the middle of March, I realized I had a free weekend between the last day of school and the day my family arrived. My destination? The five quaint and colorful villages on the northwestern coast of Italy, known collectively as Cinque Terre. I’ve wanted to go ever since two of my friends made the trip during our semester abroad in Alicante. I asked Jo to come along, and, after a little research, we booked tickets to Milan on everyone’s favorite low-cost airline. I couldn’t wait to see the beautiful place I’d heard so much about.

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El Afilador de Cuchillos, a Remnant of Old Spain

An afilador in Madrid. Photo credit: Bicicletario.com (Click image for source page.)

An afilador in Madrid. Photo credit: Bicicletario.com (Click image for source.)

Two weekends ago, my housemate Irene and I were in the living room. It was about 60º F (15º C) and sunny, so we opened the door to the terrace. As we did so, I heard a strange, lilting melody coming from the street below.

A few minutes later, I heard it again.

“Eso tendría que ser el móvil de alguien, no?” (“Is that someone’s ringtone?”) I asked Irene.
“No, no,” she replied. “Es el afilador de cuchillos.”
“El afilador? Qué es?”

Irene, who’s from Zaragoza, explained that el afilador de cuchillos, or knife-sharpener, is exactly what he sounds like. Well, almost. He travels around town, usually on a specially outfitted bicycle or motorbike, playing his melody on a harmonica or pan flute. When customers hear him, they bring their knives and he sharpens them on-the-spot. Most of their regular business comes from fishmongers and butchers who prefer to have el afilador to come to them, rather than having to take their knives elsewhere to be sharpened. In short, el afilador is like a more practical take on the ice cream truck.

Irene also said the tradition of el afilador is dying in Spain. It’s slightly more common to see them in small towns, but, overall, they’re disappearing with each passing year.

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A Weekend in the North: Bilbao, Spain

Bilbao, Spain

“You have to go to the north. You have to go to Bilbao.”

These are one of the phrases I heard most from Iván, a native vasco and my speaking partner at college. As part of the Spanish program at Drake, each student was put into a small group with 2-4 other students and assigned three hours a week of conversation practice. These sessions with Iván did wonders for my spoken Spanish — he was a dedicated and friendly teacher who always had plenty to say. And, as a typical vasco, much of that had to do with selling us on the merits of northern Spain, including the food, the sights, and the landscape. (Also, every abuelito in Bilbao wears a beret, as I was soon to discover. I loved this.)

For some reason, though, I never made it to northern Spain while I was studying abroad. When I moved to Madrid in September, I promised myself I’d finally visit Bilbao. We had a long weekend in early December, so Jo, Kaitlin, Lauren and I hopped the high-speed train and headed north.

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November in Review

I swooned. He gave me two guitar picks. Everything was wonderful.

The Tallest Man on Earth: I swooned. He gave me two guitar picks. Everything was wonderful.

I’ve been trying to avoid writing one of these “Sorry for not blogging, this is everything I’ve done in the past month!” posts, but November really got away from me. I had good intentions and thought I’d be able to get individual posts down about each respective activity, but I just don’t think I’ll have time. So this will have to do. (Besides, I know you’re all just dying for information.)

Here’s how I spent November in Spain:

I went to concerts.

The National: Cara loves the National, so when we heard they were playing the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid, we decided to buy tickets. They were €50, which was a bit on the expensive side, but the show was incredible and worth every céntimo — even for a new fan like me. They had amazing energy and we had fun the entire time.

Daughter: I bought tickets to see Daughter way back in August, and I almost forgot about them. Thankfully I didn’t, because their show was amazing, too. They’re a British band who just released their first full-length album this fall. The concert was pretty low-key, but the music was gorgeous. As a bonus, we were also able to get pretty close to the stage, although I have no photo evidence because my Spanish phone has the worst camera I’ve ever seen.

The Tallest Man on Earth: This was definitely my favorite show of the three, and also one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. My slightly corny story about The Tallest Man on Earth is that I started listening to him when I was studying abroad, so I really liked that I got to finally see him live now that I’m back in Spain. I’m a big nerd and know almost every word to every song.

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