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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An Afternoon at el Mercado de Motores

A vintage stand at El Mercado de Motores.

A vintage stand at El Mercado de Motores.

You probably don’t know this about me because it’s nerdy and I keep it to myself, but I like transportation. No, I don’t have elaborate model train sets in my basement or hundreds of hand-painted balsa wood airplanes. But I get a kick out of efficient transport systems, especially public transportation or high-speed trains.

So, imagine my happiness when I discovered that there’s a market in Madrid’s Museo del Ferrocarril. Trains and a market? Is this heaven?

On the first weekend of the month, artists and antiquarians set up their stands alongside centenarian steam trains and art deco train cars. They peddle their artisan, vintage and gourmet goods while live music plays on the terrace outside.

I wasn’t sure what to expect — I was picturing something more akin to El Rastro, which is fun, but in the same way junk-filled rummage sales are fun. Upon arrival to the Mercado de Motores, however, I was immediately impressed by all the beautiful things for sale. The museum’s main depot area hosts the hand-made and artisan goods, while the space outside the museum is filled with antique and vintage finds. You can even hop on a miniature steam train, but only if you’re accompanying a child. We learned that the hard way.

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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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Belgium in Photos: Brussels, Bruges & Ghent

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Vibrant buildings in Bruges’ Markt, or Market Square.

In March, I visited Brussels, Bruges and Ghent with my mom, step-dad and sister. The beer was amazing, the food was delicious, and the architecture was beautiful. We ate Belgian waffles, toted around cones of frites, and enjoyed practicing both our French and Dutch. We learned Belgium is split into Dutch-speaking and French-speaking areas. Brussels, as the capital, is considered a “neutral” zone, where both languages are spoken. (For example, police officers in Brussels always work in pairs: One must be a French-speaker and the other must be a Dutch-speaker.)

While the weather was chilly and rainy, we loved our visit — Bruges especially. Here are some of my favorite photos from our trip.

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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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“Vamos de Excursión!” or, How to Make the Auxiliar Lose Her Mind

La Mujer Gigante, Parque de Europa

La Mujer Gigante in all her 1970s animatronic glory.

A couple of weeks ago, our jefa de estudios asked me if I wanted to join the 1st and 2nd grade classes on their field trip. “Of course!” I beamed: all the other auxiliares had been on field trips before, and I’d been not-so-patiently waiting my turn for months. That Friday was my chance.

No one actually told me where we were going, so I sought out the word on the street. Or rather, word on the patio, the fenced-in and paved area that serves as their playground. The first graders successfully told me we’d be visiting La Mujer Gigante (The Giant Woman). “It’s an attractions park!” one of them gleefully shouted at me.

“Okay, so I’m going to an amusement park named after a giant woman,” I thought. After interrogating a few more children, I finally turned to a more reliable source. Paloma, one of the teachers, explained that La Mujer Gigante is actually a giant model of the human body. We’d be able to go inside of her (questionable) and learn about the internal processes that keep us all running. After our visit, we’d walk around the park that houses La Mujer Gigante, the Parque de Europa, famous for its scale replicas of famous European monuments.

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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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