26 December 2010

The City of Lights

Last weekend, I spent a few days in one of the most spectacular cities in the world, Paris, France. A friend and I spent 4 days in the city, site seeing and taking in the culture. After my short stint there, I left feeling thoroughly impressed but significantly poorer than when I first came. Paris is definitely a great city, but its greatness is funded by ridiculously expensive, well, everything.

While we wanted to see "real" Paris and try to spend some time off of the beaten path, we also could not allow ourselves to miss any of the major sites. So, we ended up spending most of our time site seeing at all of the major points in the city. The next time that I am in Paris, I hope to spend a bit more time in some of the more remote areas of the city, taking in the real Parisian culture, but for this first time, a tourist's whirlwind would have to do. The charm of the city is rooted in the same things that the rest of Europe boasts, mainly the interconnected coexistence of history and modernity that creates a sort of unexplainable existential argument that can be seen on every street corner, cafe, and pastry shop. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe loom over their respective parts of the city, reminding everyone around of what once was. Most tourists who visit these places aren't even really aware of what they are actually looking at. But, they look nonetheless in awe of the beauty of the structures. At the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay, I was able to see the Mona Lisa and works from Michaelangelo, Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Manet, and several other of the worlds greatest artists.

My friend and I also visited Versailles, in the suburbs of Paris, which put into perspective the amount of excess that was prominent in the days of the old kings and queens of Europe. The mansion that has been home to several French royal families and various historically important events and famous guests, is lined with extravagant paintings, intricate tapestries, and ostentatious decorations that make you forget that you are walking through the halls of someone's house, not a museum full of artifacts. The gardens, which were covered in snow, are said to be some of the most beautiful in the world. We were able to appreciate them in their state of winter sleep, taking some pictures of the pond and trees that captured the serenity of the area, but in the summer I can imagine that the blooms of the flowers and trees coupled with a slight breeze and a bright blue sky would be surreal.

The food in Paris was pretty good, too, but then again, I didn't really eat that much of it. Of course, I ate, but eating real French food turned out to be laughingly expensive and a bit hard to track down. We had one real meal at which my friend ate duck and I had rabbit, but other than that we ate at local eateries that offered pretty standard menu options. It didn't seem to be like some of the other cities that I have been to in which they advertise their traditional dishes and make them readily available to anyone with clear vision. I know of the popularity and prestige of French cuisine, but I was definitely surprised by the difficulty that we had actually finding some and it being affordable.

Our only problem came in the form of a cancelled flight that left us in the city for an extra day. We had to miss work and pay for another night in the hostel, but even with those added inconveniences, I can definitely think of things that are much worse than getting 'stuck' in Paris for another day. Paris turned out to be a fun city to see, one full of history and beauty that pictures do little justice in actually capturing. While I don't think that it will be my favorite city that I visit, I am glad that I was able to go and to see more of the fascinating history and culture that comprises the network of countries on this intriguing continent.

Click here to see my pictures from my trip to Paris.

22 November 2010

Just How Lucky We Are

I have recently come to terms with just how lucky I am to be an American...

Before I explain what I mean, allow me to explain what I don't mean. While I am most certainly proud to be an American, I am not going to sit here and proclaim that America is the greatest country and that all others should bow in our presence. Sure, there are lots of good things about America, most of which even those who claim to be anti-American must admit. For instance, America has long been known as the land of opportunity, a place where millions of people from around the world dream about as their ultimate home, many of whom never actually get the chance to make that dream a reality. America has all of the latest gadgets, an advanced postal system, a government that, while dysfunctional most of the time, does not directly persecute or otherwise seek to harm its own citizens, and an economic system that has pushed the world to new heights (yes, I am aware that capitalism is controversial and even hated by many people, but the point is that the American system has allowed for advancements and developments in the world that otherwise would only have been possible in the very distant future, if possible even at all.) America also has a judicial system that, while not perfect, is leaps and bounds ahead of any other system on the planet. Like I said, in many ways, America is good.

I am also willing to admit that America can be quite bad. The aforementioned and lightly praised economic system has lead to a disparity of income that in some cases is knocking on the door of human rights violations and in all cases is an embarrassment to the legacy of the country. America's public education system fails to provide a modern, relevant education to its children and leaves minorities in the dust at every turn, and while whites are far luckier and more privileged in the current system, the education that it provides this majority group isn't much to be applauded, either. The American people are also incredibly wasteful, comprising only 6% of the world's population but producing about 50% of the world's trash. A recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope cites that American's waste 25-50% of all the food that is produced in the United States. Beyond that, many Americans are arrogant, tribalist creatures who are unwilling to entertain the idea that being American doesn't, in fact, make them any better than anyone else.

The point to all of this rambling is to say that America is both good and bad, and while many people will angrily argue either side of that coin without actually ever listening to the other perspective, that is not the debate that I am trying to ignite. The idea that I want to promote is the notion that instead of arguing about America's greatness or terribleness, US citizens should be talking about just how lucky they are to be able to carry that label around. Allow me to outline this concept...

First of all, it is important for me to initially note that not everyone in America benefits from being an American. I am aware that there are people (mostly rural poor) who benefit very little from their homeland's identity, but this group is quite small when compared to its percentage of the overall population. That is not to say that those people don't matter or that since they are such a small minority that they don't count. Instead, I mean to acknowledge that group while making a qualifying statement that the remainder of my points do not necessarily apply to those people within it.

The overwhelming majority of Americans benefit greatly from the happenstance of their birth, and many of them don't even realize it. The debates about same-sex marriage, gun control, educational reform, and economic policy are often inundated with claims that America is the sovereign-entity incarnation of the devil, himself, while failing to recognize that America is one of the only countries in the world where such debates are even allowed to be had. Americans don't fear governmental punishment for the expression of opinions. Individuals and groups alike can march up and down any street they want holding signs, banners, and toting bullhorns to protest or support any number of causes, free of charge and free of persecution. While our school system is floundering and does not compete with the top-tiered nations, the fact that we have a public education system in which boys, girls, rich, and poor are all allowed to participate sets us apart from a large portion of the world and makes us the envy of millions. While race relations in America are not where we think that they should be, the reality is that they are far better than most places in the world, even in so called progressive Europe, where in many cases, African, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants are treated like second class citizens, not seen as equals, and given little opportunity to advance themselves in societal systems. (Many Europeans would disagree wholeheartedly with the previous statement, but just a few weeks of observation with a fresh perspective will prove this to be generally true.)

In the overwhelming majority of cases, poverty in the United States doesn't even begin to compare to poverty in the rest of the world. Yes, poverty is an issue in America, and there are many who struggle on a daily basis, but it is the definition of struggle that makes Americans different, and lucky. Poverty in America often means receiving governmental assistance, wearing clothes that are old and dirty, not receiving adequate preventative healthcare, living in an area with a higher crime rate and a lower level of education, having a glass ceiling to cap off social mobility, being subject to a cycle of poverty that takes generations to dig out of, if ever. Poverty in much of the rest of the world means not eating at regular intervals and succumbing to malnutrition, being subject to diseases like malaria and cholera that are unable to be contained due to lack of resources and expertise, no running water, no electricity, widespread illiteracy, unreliable emergency services, outdated medical care (if any), fearing violence at the hands of renegade militant groups and corrupt government officials who kidnap, rape, and kill their own people.

Ultimately, we Americans should be proud of the problems that we have, because in many cases, they aren't even really problems at all. Yes, our economy seems to be fading rapidly, BUT our GDP is still much higher than any other prosperous nation. Yes, we have a healthcare system that underserves its people and costs hundreds of times more than it should in many cases, BUT our people aren't dying from epidemic-like, curable diseases that run rampant due to a lack of knowledge and/or resources. Yes, we have a government that is no longer for the people and that makes decisions on a daily basis that are seemingly leading to our demise as a superpower, BUT no one fears that the government is going to raid his house in the middle of the night, raping his wife and children or taking a machete to his neck. Yes, blacks, latinos, women and homosexuals do not stand on an entirely even playing field with the white American male, BUT those minority groups have the right to express their opinions, fight for their rights, and make progress, even if it is slow progression. The fact that there even is a "race debate," "educational reform," "healthcare reform" and a "Prop 8" shows that people are discussing, arguing, working and pushing for a better America. Those sorts of things don't happen in most other places, and even in the places where they do happen, they don't happen to the degree that they do in America.

The beautiful thing about all of America's problems is the realization that many of them are a result of the standard to which we hold ourselves. For many years, America has been seen as the benchmark on several topics, human rights, economic progression, creativity and business marketing, social equality and mobility, healthcare. These are all things that Americans expect to execute perfectly, things that are not perfect anywhere, nor will they ever be. With great power comes great responsibility, and with great success comes high expectations. Americans should be mad at themselves for a lot of which goes on in our country, not necessarily because they are so awfully atrocious, but because they could and should be better. Americans should expect more from our society in lots of ways, not because our society is lacking or disgraceful, but because it is seen as the example to the rest of the world and should comport itself as such. I, for one, am proud of the high standard to which we hold ourselves. America is not a terrible place; it is a place that has the capability of being better, and its citizens know it.

In order to put into perspective this series of high standards and expectations, Americans just need to realize the foundations and purposes of their arguments and discussions. Turning on the TV, one can see any number of channels hosting talking heads that are discussing various issues, many of which are important. The problem is that these talking heads are often talking for the wrong reasons. Listening to the debates, one can easily detect within a few minutes that the participants aren't even really talking about the issue(s) at hand. Instead, they are trying their damnedest to prove the other person wrong at all costs. Instead of discussing their own opinions and working to a compromise, they yell at one another in a blind rage, only concerned with making a fool of the other person and fundamentally forgetting the fact that such a public debate is one of the beauties of American society. It is the same with political debates. The issues are no longer at the forefront, but instead, the chance to prove someone else wrong and by default one's self right. Politicians and political pundits are rarely concerned with what is best, but instead, with what they want personally. For Americans, these sorts of debates and decision making tactics are pointless, because they just create more strife and often cause a circular debate that never comes to any sort of conclusion.

Americans must put their issues into perspective and attack them accordingly. Instead of worrying about whose fault the problems are, we should be talking about how we can fix them...together. Instead of claiming that America is the devil and that all that it does is evil and unfair, we should look at our problems in comparison with the rest of the world, take a deep breath, calm down and create a plan of action that helps the most people in the shortest amount of time.

We just need to realize that we are lucky. Yes, we have our problems. No, we are not perfect. There are lots of things that the US could and should do better, some of which we are making little progress with; however, there are also many on which we are progressing quite nicely when viewed through the lens of the comparative world. In many ways, most Americans have it pretty good, even those who in American are perceived to have it pretty bad. The point is not to trivialize the struggles of Americans or in anyway discredit their problems or issues. The point is to view these struggles, problems and issues with the right frame of mind, a lucky one.

Que Será, Será

So, life has pretty much settled in here in Madrid. I do still experience some new things here and there and when I am explicitly reminded that I am actually living in Spain right now, I get all juiced up, but overall, life has become life. That is not to say that I am getting bored or otherwise dissatisfied with my experience, but instead, that I am actually beginning to feel like I am living a life here and not just visiting.

Moving to a new place is hard. When I moved to Memphis, I was going into the most vibrant and easily accessible social scene that exists, a college campus. I dealt with a bit of the transitional woes that always come with moving to a new spot, but that transition was one that was facilitated by several factors both in and out of the university that helped to soften the blow. When I moved to Chicago, I spent almost a year trying to get settled. While working the equivalent of two whole work weeks in just one calendar week, I hadn't much time to go out and make friends or otherwise acclimate to my new surroundings. I socialized every once in a while, and I did make some friends (and some lasting ones at that), but it took the better part of a year for me to really feel at home.

So far in Madrid, I cannot say that I feel "at home," but I do feel settled to a large degree. I have figured out my routine, gotten to know the city, spent ample time with my students, and made some friends along the way. I am no longer nervous about going to the grocery store and having to talk to the clerk. I rarely have to guess as to what exactly it is that I am ordering off of a restaurant menu. And, I can navigate the train system in my sleep.

Somehow, in only two months, I really feel as though I am living my life here and not just treading water with my head barely high enough so as not to drown. Perhaps it is the fact that I have more free time than I have had in years. Or, maybe its that I don't really have the daily stresses of a normal life. Or, it could be that work requires little effort, and well, thats really my only responsibility, if you can call it that. I have no idea what it is, but I do know that this will not last forever. I also know, however, that I should cherish it while it does. Few people get to take a pause from life and actually live. Now, obviously, every day of my life here is not particularly exciting. I mean, going to work, coming home, cooking dinner, and going to bed is not exactly the plot line of a riveting summer blockbuster. But, its the lack of stress accompanied by the intermittent spurts of excitement that make life here enjoyable. In my spare time, I read the news online, watch some TV online, or plan my next excursion. Sometimes I will call a friend, go for a walk, or take a nap, just because I can. I play English games with my students, shoot basketball with them on the playground, and then take a 2.5 hour lunch break to do as a please. Oh yea, and did I mention that I don't work on Fridays?

I am still not as confident in my Spanish abilities as I would like to be, partly due to the fact that I don't really speak it all that much. That might surprise you, considering where I live, but if you really think about it, it makes sense. I work in English all day because my job is to teach it. I live in an apartment with 3 other people whom I rarely ever see (which means we don't really talk), and meeting Spanish people is like building a skyscraper with play-doh, which is to say borderline impossible. I have a few Spanish acquaintances, and relatively often I get to have good conversations with Spaniards by way of social gatherings or things of the like. But, I would not say that I am completely immersed in the language in my daily life. My Spanish skills have definitely improved since I have been here, and I know that as time goes on, I will meet more people and get more chances to practice; however, after two months, the process is a bit slower than expected.

The only real question looming over my head that might cause me stress in the coming months is what to do next...? I have to decide if I want to do this program again by March. If I decide yes, then the problem is solved and I will be living in Spain for another year. But, if I decide no, then the real questions begin. I have at least a trillion ideas as to what I would like to do with myself and no real way of prioritizing them. I have thought about going back to school in the States or going back to school abroad, but either way, what would I study? I could move back to Tennessee, or back to Chicago, or to another place in the US, but where? There is also the exciting prospect of moving somewhere else in Europe or even somewhere else in the world altogether. I could get a job at a ski resort (I know, random, but I have actually thought about this one). I could stay here and get a random job doing something else in Spain, or I could try to work for Teach For America or the Harlem Children's Zone...and the list goes on. The point is, I have no clue what I want to do after this. Heck, I don't even know what I am going to do this afternoon. But, oh well, if there is one thing that I am learning it is that it will all work itself out. I am not going to allow myself to get stressed out about something that I cannot control at this moment. Worrying about the future would force me to stop enjoying the present so much, and I am not really willing to let that happen. When decision time comes, I will choose, and if I don't like my decision, I will choose again. I think its pretty obvious by now that I am not going to really follow the traditional life path, so choosing and then choosing again and then choosing again doesn't really frighten me. For now, I am going to focus on savoring every moment of the present while looking forward to the immediate future. I will be traveling to Málaga, Spain during the first week of December. Then, I will be off to Amsterdam for Christmas and Geneva, Switzerland and the French Alps for a skiing adventure in early January. After that, well, who cares? Its too far away to matter at this point.

07 November 2010

Weekend in Rome

I went to Rome last weekend. After the trip, I started laying out my plan for my extensive blog post, outlining each and every thing that we did and saw and how I felt about it. But, after writing for some time and seemingly getting nowhere, I realized that I was wasting my time. Its not about the individual happenings and the minutia of it all. Its about the experience as a whole, the physical, mental and emotional transformation that I go through every time that I do something new here.

While in Rome, I saw all of the major stuff. My friend and I (and two other Americans whom we met our second day there) sauntered all over the Eternal City seeing the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Forum, Palatine Hill, Trevi Fountain, and dozens of other monuments and spectacles, some famous and some not so famous. We ate incredible food, met some really nice people and experienced a brand new culture for the very first time. My weekend in Rome was amazing and writing about it is difficult, but I think that it is important for me to try. So, avoiding a minute by minute itinerary recap of the entire 4 days, I'm just going to highlight, well, the highlights, and while the "highlights" are still quite extensive, believe it or not, what you are about to read is, indeed, the abridged version of the trip. I could write for days about some of the individual things that I saw and experienced during my weekend in Rome, and someday, maybe I will. But, for now, you get the highlights, and the rest will remain for me to enjoy...

It is important to know that I am a history buff, and that going to Rome was like going to small piece of heaven for me. Now, when I say "history buff," I am not implying that I am all knowing or even incredibly knowledgeable about world history. I think that I know a fair amount, possibly more than the average person, but to me, "buff" is more in reference to my affinity for the subject. I love to think about how things used to be and how that they have come to be as they are in the present moment. Standing in front of something that is hundreds or thousands of years old gives me a sense of humility and insignificance that fascinates me. To stand where others have stood before, others about whom I have read and watched since I can remember, is to come as close to traveling through time as I will ever come. In Rome, I felt this with an almost incessant desire to remain forever in that particular moment, although "that particular moment" references a string of 4 days of constant movement and stimulation during which I would be hard pressed to find a "particular moment" in which I would rather be more than any other.

St. Peter's Basilica at night
The monuments and historical pieces were each impressive and breathtaking in their own right, of course some more so than others. Our first stop was the Vatican City, through which we took a guided tour with a man from Amsterdam. The Vatican is full of some of the most beautiful and respected pieces of art that this world has ever known. Walking through the halls of its in-house museum is like walking through a history book in which Michelangelo and Raphael are the principal illustrators. Sculptures of emperors, dignitaries and gods line the walls. Massive tapestries interwoven with silk and gold hang along corridors. One hallway alone houses over 1,000 hand carved statues, most of which are busts or full body depictions of important leaders and Roman gods. At the end of the museum, I was able to see the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's famed masterpiece, which he was forced to paint under intense pressure by Pope Julius II. Michelangelo's ceiling fresco, accompanied by The Last Judgement, his front wall mural painted 24 years after the ceiling, makes for quite a spectacular viewing experience. Outside of the chapel, we passed through the tombs of the popes and St. Peter's Basilica, both incredibly powerful sites full of masterful decor and inexplicable energy. Once outside of the Basilica, we stood in the famous St. Peter's Square, surrounded by other awestruck tourists and Italian police personnel. From the Square, we wandered to the banks of the Tiber River while having a cup of gelato and allowing to marinate in our minds the significance of our just finished tour of one of the most unique sites on earth.

The Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill were also quite interesting. These three sites are all basically in the same spot in the city and are much more "Roman" than the Vatican in that they represent some of the most important aspects of ancient Roman society apart from the catholic sector. The Colosseum was home to arguably the most gruesome series of public entertainment events that the world has ever witnessed. Built by more than 12,000 Jewish slaves between 70 and 80 AD, the venue could hold more than 50,000 spectators and was often packed to the brink of overflowing. Events here consisted of imprisoned gladiators being forced to fight animals and/or other gladiators. Crowds would go crazy as unwilling participants sent to die in front of thousands were forced to fight lions, tigers, rhinoceroses and other monstrous beasts. Across the street, atop Palatine Hill and at the Roman Forum, is where the business of ancient Rome took place. This plot of land was home to most if not all of the major players in the city. Government operated from this hill and many of the major financial institutions set up shop here. Today, Palatine and the Forum are a series of ancient ruins, most of which are generally unrecognizable. Pieces of broken columns and smashed buildings are strewn about in seemingly unorganized fashion. There are some mock up drawings of what the area looked like in its prime, but those are only as accurate as one is willing to believe. A few major structures still stand tall, towering over the not so well preserved collection of artifacts that constitutes most of the area. These conjoined sites of ruins are the most authentically ancient Roman attraction that the city has to offer, and while they were not the most exciting things to walk through, they are an important part of the story of one of the greatest empires in the history of the world, and I am glad that I was able to experience them.

View from the south end of Piazza Navona
In the center of the city I was able to visit the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. The Trevi Fountain is considered to be the most impressive fountain in Rome. Nestled against the side of a building, the fountain is a massive sculptural masterpiece depicting Oceanus being guided in a shell chariot by tritons and horses. Legend claims that if you face away from the fountain while throwing a coin over your shoulder and into the water, you will one day return to Rome. Nearby is the Pantheon, a concrete domed structure that is thought to be the most well preserved building in the ancient city. The dome is made of non-reinforced concrete and is the largest of its kind. At the top is a large hole that allows the elements of nature to enter. When it rains in Rome, it rains in the Pantheon. Inside the dome is a chapel of sorts with several shrines to saints and the tomb of the great Raphael. Down the street from the Pantheon are the Spanish Steps and the Piazza Navona. The Spanish Steps is the largest and widest staircase in Europe, leading into the Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Plaza). In close proximity to the staircase is the house of famed poet John Keats and the house of the Medici, an historically significant Italian family who during the Renaissance owned a major part of the financial entities of the region. The Piazza Navona is a large oval plaza that is home to several restaurants, street vendors, and the building that currently serves as the Brazilian embassy. This centralized area of sites was very entertaining, and besides site seeing here, my friend and I spent a lot of our time in the restaurants, bakeries and gelato places nearby.

The food in Rome was, of course, incredible. Pasta, pizza, gelato (actually spelled gelati in Italy) and wine. Among my daily meals, I had the pleasure of dining at two separate restaurants on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto, a serene and eternally romantic 20 minute walk from the Vatican wall. The pasta was cooked to the perfect consistency, not too soft, but not too hard, covered in a presumably homemade sauce that is unrivaled by anything you or I have ever tasted. The pizza, cooked in a handcrafted brick oven, came to our plate with a thin, crispy crust topped with the freshest, purest, most delectable of ingredients. This was, no doubt, real Italian food. There was no shredded cheese or factory produced tomato sauce. The sausage was not mysteriously in the shape of a marble and the ham had been sliced from the cured leg of a local pig, not cut from a log of bologna in the back. The bread was freshly baked and the tiramisu made by some little old Italian lady who has been using the same recipe for so long that she can't even remember from whence it came. The servers didn't speak english, and the menu was nearly impossible to read. At one of these dinners, we were able to sit outside, in the streets of real authentic Rome. Families, children, old couples and priests walked by as we enjoyed our dinner. The stars danced overhead and the remnants of an area once devastated by religious expulsion but now revitalized with traditional culture surrounded our table. Perhaps it was more than the food that made those dinners taste so good. Perhaps it was the ambiance, the fact that we were in Rome and we knew it. Perhaps it was the quiet serenity of a neighborhood consumed with history and significance that I have only dreamed of. Or, perhaps, it was just the food.

The most amazing part of my trip to Rome took place on the night of the first full day that I was there, and believe it or not, it had nothing to do with Rome itself. My friend and I were sitting at a restaurant just off of a small street that leads to Piazza Navona. After chatting with the waitresses, we sat at a table that was precariously situated half indoors and half out. We ordered a bottle of wine to share and started browsing the menu. As we perused the choices, we discussed and decided that we were willing to spend a bit in order to have a good meal. It was our first real night in Rome, and we were going to enjoy ourselves. Eventually, we both made our selections and then sipped wine and nibbled on bread as we waited. After a few minutes, a couple was seated at the table next to us. This couple, two Americans who seemed to be in their mid fifties, was doing the same as my friend and I, enjoying a dinner in Rome and attempting to appreciate a short stay in such a haven of historical magnitude. While completely consumed by my risotto di mare (seafood risotto) and chatting with my friend about our lives back in the states, I was interrupted by the female half of the American couple. "Are you two Americans?" she asked as she nervously gestured, failing at her attempt to hide the fact that she felt rude to interrupt our conversation.

"Yes, we are," my friend and I replied, "where are you all from?"

After this initial greeting, we four began to chat for what seemed like no less than 30 to 45 minutes. They were from Iowa and were taking a vacation to a few spots around Italy. They had been to Italy before, but they love Rome so much that they decided to come back. We chatted about traveling, life in the states, the brutal winters of Chicago, and what we had seen and done in Rome so far. Inevitably, they asked what we were doing in Rome, and we proceeded to explain to them that we live in Madrid as elementary school English teachers but were visiting Rome for the weekend. They appeared to be very impressed and commented extensively on how great they thought it was that we would travel across the world to do such a thing. We gave them some tips on ways to skip the lines at the sites in Rome and presented to them a sales pitch as to why they should visit Spain, a place they said that they had regrettably never been. After some time, they let us know that they were leaving. They spoke to the waitress, paid their tab, shook our hands, and walked away. Once they were walking away, my friend and I decided to call the waitress over to request our own check so that we could go enjoy the rest of our night, but before we could signal for her, she approached our table voluntarily. "I'm not sure if you know this, but they just paid for your dinner," she said in broken but surprisingly well spoken English.

"What?" we said, not sure if we heard her correctly.

"They paid for your dinner. I don't think that they wanted you to know, but they told us that they wanted to pay for your dinner and then they were going to leave."

My friend and I sat speechless, staring at each other not knowing what to say. The couple was still within our view, and we could have run out to tell them thank you and to try to pay them for our food, but we both knew that wasn't what they wanted. They didn't want us to know. They didn't do it so that we could tell them thanks. Instead of running after them and spoiling their good deed, my friend and I both reacted to the shocking revelation with the exact same idea. "When I'm older, I'm going to do that for someone. I have to." There was no doubt in either of our minds that we were just handed a free dinner and an obligation of reciprocation, an obligation that we both accepted willingly. I am not sure why they paid for our food, and I guess it really doesn't matter. I definitely didn't expect them to do so, and when the waitress told us of what had happened, it was one of the few times in my life that I have been rendered speechless. All we did was chat with a couple at the table next to us while enjoying our Italian cuisine. We could have shrugged them off, answering that "yes" we were Americans and then turning our backs to continue our solitary dinner. But, we didn't. We had a great time chatting with them and sharing stories about a wide range of topics. I guess paying our tab and leaving without giving us a chance to realize what they had done was their way of saying "thanks for the company."

Well, you're welcome.

(click here to see the remainder of my pictures from my weekend in Rome)

26 October 2010

La Corrida de Toros

Two days ago, I had the privilege of attending my first bullfight, known in Spain as a corrida de toros. I say privilege in italics because I am still not sure how to view my experience, and at this point I prefer to give it the benefit of the doubt. Bullfights are something that happen all over Spain, except in the Canary Islands, which banned bullfighting in 1991 (note that Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain adjacent to France, has voted to ban bullfighting, as well, but the ban does not take effect until January of 2012).

In the next several paragraphs, I am going to describe to you the history and the process of the bullfighting tradition in Spain. If you would rather just read about my experience, skip past this italicized section. If you wish to know what exactly happens at a bullfight, continue here...

The tradition of bullfighting dates back as early as the 8th century and has been heralded in the works of several authors including Ernest Hemingway and Federico García Lorca. For many people in Spain, the tradition is alive and well, and if you attend a fight, you will hear and see the enthusiasm of the crowd as the bullfighters dance with the bulls. For others, the spectacle is a bit outdated, barbaric, even grotesque. Some traditionalists even fear that modern activists will eventually vote to have the events banned across Spain, the votes in the Canaries and Catalonia only a preview of what is to come. But, for now, the tradition continues.

The first recorded bullfight in Spanish history took place in 711 A.D. as part of a celebration to mark the crowning of King Alfonso VIII. Although altered in its process over the years, the general concept has remained the same, with man showing his dominance over beast, marking his ultimate domination by slaughtering the animal. Originally, the bullfights were executed by men on horseback, and only the rich and privileged were able to participate. Fearing that such a barbaric practice would prove to be a bad example to the public, King Felipe V banned the aristocracy from participating in bullfighting during his reign as king. As a result, everyday common people adopted the sport, and because horses were not readily affordable to this demographic, they began doing the bullfights on foot in the early 18th century. Since then, bullfights have followed the same general pattern, and while style and flare make every fight a bit different, there are very specific aspects of the fight that are always followed.

The parade of participants before the bullfight begins.
Before the fight begins, the matadors (bullfighters) and their assistants parade out into the ring, waving to the crowd and paying their homage to the president of the activity who presides over the fights. Along with the matadors, picadores (men on horse back carrying spears), and the ring cleaning crew make a ceremonial lap around the ring. All of these men are accompanied by 3 mules, which are decoratively dress and harnessed together. (These mules will serve as the hearse for the bull once it is killed.)

After the ceremonial parade, the matadors and their assistants take their place inside the ring while the others exit. Once the ring is clear, a trumpet sounds and the bull enters the ring...

(The following takes place 6 different times during the entire event. 3 matadors take alternating turns fighting and subsequently killing 2 bulls each.)

The chief assistant of the matador begins waving a yellow and magenta cape in order to attract the bull. While he does this, several other assistants hide behind boards on the edge of the ring. Seemingly at random, these other assistants leave their proverbial foxholes and yell at the bull waving similar capes as the one held by the chief assistant. For several minutes, the assistants take turns waving their capes around and yelling at the bull, which over time serves to not only confuse the bull but also to piss it off royally. During this time, the matador is reading the bull, seeing how he reacts to the cuadrilla (entourage of assistants), what his temperament is, what his style is. At the end of this first stage of the fight, the matador comes out from his hiding spot from which he has been observing and performs a few tandas (passes with the cape).

A picador stabbing the bull with his spear.
After the matador performs his initial tandas, a trumpet sounds and the second part of the first third of the bullfight begins. At the sound of the trumpet, a gate opens and two picadores emerge. These men are armored with protective gear from head to toe and they are each atop a horse that is also protected by a large, supposedly impenetrable decorative cloth. (In previous times, the horses were not protected and were often disemboweled and killed during this stage of the process.) The cuadrilla now direct the attention to the picadores who are sitting horseback with spear ready. Eventually, the bull attacks the horse, attempting to gore it with its horns. While the bull futilely tries to kill the horse, the picador atop the horse jams his spear into the shoulder blade region of the bull's back. Once the spear is removed, blood spurts up a few inches high from the animal, splashing on the ground and creating a steady stream that runs down the side of the injured bull. Once more, the bull's attention is directed towards one of the picadores, and upon the bull's second attack of the horse, another spear is stabbed into the other side of its shoulder blade region. After two picador attacks have been successfully executed, a trumpet sounds, the picadores leave the ring, and the second stage of the bullfight begins.

During the second stage, three banderilleros (flagmen) each attempt to insert 2 banderillas (barbed flags with decorative shafts) into the back of the bull, following the same general technique of standing in a sort of praying mantis position then running at the bull, jumping and stabbing it with the banderillas. With the 6 barbed flags sticking out of its back, the bull is now very angry, tired, and bleeding heavily. After the banderillas are successfully inserted into the bull, the second stage of the bullfight is complete.

The third stage is known as the faena and is considered to be the most beautiful and artful part of the whole tradition. During this time, the matador must prove his dominance over the animal, but he must do so very gracefully and with precise technique and flare. First, the matador switches his yellow and magenta cape for his muleta (the traditional red cape). Then, with sword in hand (always in the right hand), the matador begins his dance with the bull. The matador executes several tandas with the bull, which serve two purposes. The first is to show the matador's dominance over the beast, getting as close as possible to the bull, often brushing up against his body and covering himself in the animal's blood. The second is to tire the bull some more, readying him for the kill. During the progression of tandas, the matador often stops, yells ¡vamos! (let's go), and looks to the crowd for approval. Finally, the matador goes to the side of the ring, switches swords, and prepares to kill the bull.

A bull, just killed, is dragged out of the arena by mules.
Standing 10-12 feet from the bull, the matador holds up the sword, seeming to line up his aim for the estocada (the stabbing of the bull with the final sword). In one swift move, the matador runs at the bull and slices through the back of the bull at a vertical angle, almost perpendicular to the ground. The goal here is to stab the bull through the heart and/or aorta, making the killing more humane. After the bull has been successfully mortally wounded, it stumbles around, attempting to still put up a fight. The assistants run out from behind their hiding walls and wave their capes at the bull simultaneously, confusing the bull to the point at which it lays down and surrenders to its inevitably impending death. Once the bull has laid down, an assistant walks up and places a dagger in the base of the skull, severing the spinal chord and ultimately killing the bull. Finally, the band of 3 mules comes out and an assistant attaches the bull to the mules which then drag it to the depths of the stadium, away from the view of the crowd. A cleaning crew runs out into the ring, scoops up the bloody dirt, and then runs back out of the ring.

My experience at the bullfight was a bit intense, and it definitely bothered me more than I expected. Parts of the process truly are beautiful. The costumes are extravagant, the technique is almost romantic, and the ancient tradition surrounding the whole thing is difficult not to respect. On the one hand, I understand the tradition and the want to keep things from the past, and as I have stated in previous posts, one of the things that intrigues me most about Spain is its ability to allow the old to coincide with the new, not always mandating that newfangled advancements take over what was already in place. But, there is something about watching grown men confuse, torture, and then kill a basically helpless animal that will make you think twice about tradition. While the bull does weigh anywhere from a few hundred up to 2000 pounds and it has immensely sharp horns that if used would kill a man with very little effort, the technique of the toreros (general term for bullfighters without distinguishing between matador or assistant) is so precise that the bull doesn't really stand a chance. The nimble men are able to stay out of the bull's way for the most part, confusing him with the tandas and exhausting him from the chase.

When the first picador stabbed the first bull and removed his spear, I immediately realized that I was not going to like what was about to transpire. The initial spurt of blood jumped several inches from the bull's back, leaping out like a fountain, splashing the horse and the ground. I winced, and a girl two rows back began to cry. Not phased by the wound, the bull continued to attack the horse and the caudrilla, but I was not sure that I wanted to see more. The insertion of the bandilleras, while undoubtedly painful for the bull, was somehow less disturbing than the picador to the spectating eye. The final encounter between bull and matador, however, was the part that has stayed with me the most. When the entirety of the sword was slid into the back of the bull, leaving only the handle showing atop the shoulder blades, I could barely watch. As the bull stumbled around, fighting for breath and challenging the men to one last stand off, there was a mixed reaction from the crowd. Some were cheering on the toreros, chanting for them to finish the bull and complete the faena. Others, like myself, were cringing and wincing, hoping that somehow the bull would escape or at least take one of the toreros down with him. The insertion of the final dagger into the base of the skull was nauseating as all 1000+ pounds of the bull twitched and stiffened, jerking around and gyrating as the body reacted to the trauma of a 6 inch blade slicing through the spinal chord and the brainstem. In a matter of seconds, the bull was dead and the fight was over, but the images remained. After the first, I contemplating leaving, believing that I had probably seen enough to have a decent understanding of the process and not quite sure that I wanted to see the gruesomeness 5 more times. For some reason, I stayed. Maybe it was because I paid albeit not very much, or maybe it was because I was strangely intrigued. I am not sure if I will ever or even if I can ever decide which it was that kept me in my seat, as either leaves me with a bit of explaining to do and deciding upon one would force me to contemplate the possible morbidity of my inner self.

For now, all I know is that I went. I saw a bullfight. I witnessed the tradition, the beauty, and the horror, but I do not in any way think that I am scarred or tangibly traumatized by my experience. The majority of the night definitely was grotesque and unpleasant, but while it teetered ever so carefully on the line of inexplicably intriguing and conscientiously unbearable, it was not so bad as to be completely intolerable, and while perhaps some will take offense to that statement, as is their right, I would like to emphatically restate that I did not in any way find what I saw to be pleasant. Explaining my reaction is difficult, as there were several ideas and emotions racing through my mind as I watched the ceremonial murder of an animal in front of an encouraging crowd. My appreciation for the art and my humanitarian heart battled each other throughout the entire event, neither coming to any sort of appreciable conclusion.

I definitely do not regret my decision to attend the bullfight. There are several things that are Spanish by their very nature, and bullfighting is at or near the top of that list. Living in Spain, I knew that I would attend a fight, and until I went, I was unaware of how it would affect me. Well, now I know. I know that there are things about it that can be appreciated. I know that there are things about it that are disturbing. I know that I am not a fan of watching a bull be killed and that I will leave that viewing experience for other tourists and loyal Spaniards. I have been to a bullfight and seen the outcome, and as disturbing as it may have been, I feel as though I can confidently place "attending a bullfight" on my increasingly long list of things in life that I have done and would never take back but that I would never do again.

Click here to see the rest of the pictures and video from the bullfight.

23 October 2010

The Same Job...Kind of

Moving to Spain, I knew that my job was going to be to teach. Now, to define teaching in its entirety would take volumes of books, many of which have already been written by countless scholars and supposed experts, but I think that it is safe to say that we all know what being a teacher is, at least on the surface. During my time in Chicago, I spent a large chunk of my weekends planning the lessons for the week. Then, starting Monday morning, I was a teacher by day and a tweaker by night. Each day, I had to come home and think about what had happened during my classes. What worked? What didn't? How much did we cover? Is there something that we didn't get to? Do I need to go over a particular topic again? All of these questions were asked inside my head several times a day in an attempt to give my students the best education that I could. In the classroom, my job often turned from teacher to officer, and I was tasked with making sure that no one left the room bloody or broken, educational advancements aside. After two years of that exhausting routine, I think that I have a pretty good idea of what it is to be a teacher. An expert? No, never will be, and anyone who claims to be an expert in the field of teaching needs to be challenged to the nth degree. But, I do feel as though I have a little knowledge on the subject, if for no other reason than I worked in a very difficult and unique situation and was forced to study the craft in order to survive the daily grind.

In many ways, my job in Spain is quite the same as in Chicago, my ultimate goal being that my students have learned something by the end of each day; however, the ways through which I work towards that goal and the children with whom I am working are a bit different...

For starters, I teach 5th and 6th grade in Spain (I taught high school in Chicago), and I am not actually the official classroom teacher. I am an assistant, a language and culture expert whose job is to provide perfectly accented pronunciation when speaking English and to act as an encyclopedia of all things American. Usually, I spend my days pulling groups of students out of class, playing games and having formulaic conversations with them in order to improve their English comprehension and production.

Another thing that is different about my teaching job here in Spain is that most of the children hold a more positive attitude than did my students in Chicago. Most of my students in Spain want to learn English. They enjoy talking with me and trying to tell me things in English. To work with me in a group is a treat to them, and when I don't call their name to join me on a particular day, they get upset and ask me when it will be their turn again. In Chicago, this was not the case. Now, don't get me wrong, I truly love my students from Chicago and I still talk to many of them quite often through Facebook and email, but the truth is that most of my students in Chicago could not have cared less about learning in my classroom. And, while I am not necessarily blaming them for this lack of educational ambition, I cannot pretend like it didn't exist. Getting my students in Chicago to be quiet, stay still, and work on something in class was often an exhausting task that led me to lose my cool or otherwise veer from the educational objective. Here in Spain, I don't really have those issues.

My work load and stress level are also quite different now that I am in Madrid. In Chicago, I often worked 10-14 hours a day planning lessons, making worksheets, grading papers, and brainstorming about how to better my classroom. For one of my subjects which I taught three times a day, I was not even provided with a curriculum and had to create one myself. For both of the subjects that I taught, I did not have a textbook and, thus, created EVERYTHING that I used in my class. Whenever I would go out with friends for dinner or for some activity in the city, I would often have trouble pulling my mind away from the things that I should have been doing for work instead of being out attempting to have fun. Many of my friends in Chicago were the same way, and 90% of our conversations were about teaching because that was our lives. In Spain, I work from 9am to 430pm, but I have a 2.5 hr lunch break. I only actually do work for about 4 hours a day, and the work that I do is enjoyable and not difficult. Once I leave work, I have no grading, no planning, no nothing. I am completely free to do as I choose until I go to work the next day. Oh yea, and to top it all off, I don't work on Fridays. So, I have a 3 day weekend every single weekend, and because Spain has so many holidays, I often have 4 day weekends. Almost every day of the week, I spend my afternoons and evenings with friends going to see things in the city or relaxing at a cafe. We tell stories from work about how cute the kids are and about the funny things that they say and do during class. On the weekends we travel to various parts of Spain or Europe, soaking in the culture and exploring our surroundings. Everyone that I know here is just enjoying life, taking advantage of their youth and of this opportunity that they have been given, a stark contrast to my last two years.

Besides the fact that I am not getting paid that much, there is no stress in my life at the moment, and to be honest, its pretty weird. Sometimes I don't know what to do with myself because I actually have nothing to do. After having spent the last 2 years in a very stressful environment with no time to do much of anything but work, I am learning all over again how to relax and how to be ok with having nothing going on. My experience in Chicago is something that I would never take back. I am proud of the things that I did while working with my students there, and I am even more proud of the things that many of them did. I created long lasting, deep rooted relationships with many of my Chicago students, and I see many of them as my own children. And, while my job there was not easy, it did have its rewards, and I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to teach where I taught. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't fun, but it taught me things about myself and about the world that I would have never learned otherwise. My move to Spain was, in part, a purposeful digression to an easier life. I came here wanting a bit of a break, a chance to just relax and have a good time. I know that in a year or two I will return to my life in the states to work towards goals that I have set for myself. The career path(s) that I will probably take are not going to be easy and I will end up spending most of my life working very hard with very little tangible reward, but for now I want to be young. I want to be in Europe, relaxing, traveling, and experiencing life before I join the real world one last time for good. A little over a month into the adventure, I think that I am well on my way to accomplishing my objective.

10 October 2010

A Weekend Trip to the Bay of Biscay

For the past few days, I have been passing my time on the northern coast of Spain. A friend and I flew up here on Friday morning and are scheduled to depart back to Madrid on Monday morning. Santander is the name of the city that I am in. It is a city of about 180,000 inhabitants and a large student population. For Spaniards, this is an out of the way, medium sized city that has beautiful beaches and great seafood. Santander is known as a popular vacation spot for people from Madrid because of its relaxed atmosphere, beautiful scenery, and amazing culinary options. While the city is fun and the people are nice, I can definitely see why Santander is known as a weekend getaway and not a place to call home. The weather is constantly changing and usually for the worse. One minute it is raining, the next minute the wind is blowing with gale force intensity, and the next minute it is 70 degrees and sunny. The food and the scenery definitely are amazing, but that is about all that Santander has to offer. There are not a lot of things to do here, which is fine for a weekend excursion but not for everyday living.

My friend and I arrived at about 9am on Friday morning. The flight itself was only thirty five minutes long, but the overall travel time ended up being about two hours. From the airport, the clerks checked our boarding passes and then sent us down the ramp to what we thought was going to be a plane. But, instead, we were herded onto a bus that took us to an airplane randomly positioned on the tarmac some distance away from our gate. Outside of the plane were two pilots, four flight attendants, and several maintenance men. No one was really doing anything, no one was moving, and while this struck me as odd, I paid no real mind. Normally, the pilot and crew operate from the INSIDE of the plane, but I'm in Spain, maybe they do it differently here. The bus parked, and the driver exited, leaving the forty or so people inside to sweat it out in an airtight death box on wheels. After about 15 minutes of standing on this bus with no knowledge of what was going on, I watched as the bus driver got back on the bus, made some announcement in mumbled Spanish of which I understood not a single word, and then drove us to another plane somewhere else on the tarmac. Now at the correct aircraft, we boarded the plane hoping all the while that the pilot's knowledge of aviation was more advanced than the bus driver's sense of direction.

The flight was bumpy, and while it was only thirty five minutes long, I'm pretty sure that I almost died twelve times. My coveted window seat overlooked the right wing of the plane, which for the duration of the flight appeared to be bouncing up and down so violently that I am convinced it was actively trying to snap itself off of the fuselage so that we could go plummeting back to the Iberian Peninsula at terminal velocity. When we finally landed, the pilot steered the plane toward the earth like a drunken high schooler and then slammed the wheels to the ground like he was in the middle of a domestic dispute with the runway. Upon exiting the plane, my friend noticed a big sign that said "BUS," and since we needed to catch the bus, we were thoroughly convinced that this was the place at which we should stand to wait. Wrong. Instead, the bus zoomed past us at about 40 miles an hour and stopped about one hundred yards away at the actual bus stop. Turns out, we were standing at the entrance to the bus lane which is the spot at which the busses veer to the right in order to stop at the real bus stop just down the way. Eventually, we were able to catch the bus and make it into town, but not before making complete fools of ourselves in the process. I mean, the sign said "BUS" in all caps. Who wouldn't have thought to stand there? (In retrospect, we probably should have noticed that there was no one else waiting for the bus with us. But, we just thought we were somehow the only ones who were taking the bus into town. Stupid Americans.)

Once settled in our hostel, my friend and I were able to explore a bit, and I must say, the beaches here are incredibly beautiful. While they are not populated with scantily clad coeds or frisbee throwing jocks this time of year, the scenery is still amazing. The water is so pure, and the coast line, in some places, is completely unmolested by human engineering. The waves smash against the rock facings spewing plumes of white foam that decorate the air at almost synchronized intervals. The sand is thick and compact, the beaches narrow and long. Small food vendors, selling mostly ice cream and drinks, can be seen in various locations along the adjacent road. A few restaurants sit just off of the beachfront, providing fresh, delectable seafood and a view thats worth more than anything on your plate. The summer home of King Alfonso XIII, the king of Spain at the turn of the 20th century, sits on a peninsula to the south of the most popular stretch of beach. On the peninsula, surrounding the royal summer getaway is an incredibly picturesque park filled with dense woods and engulfed by a mesmerizing view of the ocean. The entrance of the peninsula is home to sea lions, seals, and penguins who are more than willing to oblige your want for photo opportunities.

Merluza Refrito con Gambas
In the center of town, there are a few government buildings that are impressive, but the city itself does not offer much more. There are some nice restaurants and a few good tapas bars, but that is the extent of notable amenities. I am used to Madrid, the city with more bars and restaurants (per capita) than any other city on the planet. In Madrid, you can walk down one street and pass thirty or more restaurants and bars in less than two minutes. Madrid boasts dozens of movie theatres, parks, museums and neighborhoods that make it a seemingly never ending landscape of activity awaiting your exploration. In Santander, the pickings are a bit more slim; however, following the advice of a local, we did end up at a delicious seafood restaurant on Saturday afternoon. Not only did the fish melt in my mouth, but the garnish of peppers sprinkled with chopped walnuts and drizzled with olive oil and sweet vinegar rendered me speechless. The atmosphere in the small, dingy establishment was that of a local spot, a hangout for those in town who know where to go when they want to eat well. Unlike many other restaurants in the area, this place was not overrun by tourists and foreigners, and my friend and I were the only people in the place who were not speaking Spanish. The food was incredible and most definitely authentic, and Saturday afternoon was a success because of lunch alone. (An important travel tip is to look for the places where locals are swarming because if the locals like it, its real.)

Today, our last day in Santander, it has been rainy, and we have been confined to our hostel except for lunch. Tonight, we hope to head out to a local establishment, grab some good food and make some friends. We fly out tomorrow, back to Madrid to enjoy the remaining two days of our long weekend. I cannot say that Santander will be my favorite place that I will visit in Spain, but it will definitely have its place in the archives. With good food, breathtaking views, and only a thirty five minute flight from Madrid, I am willing to call this weekend a success.

Click here to see the rest of the photos that I took during my trip to Santander.

30 September 2010

Segovia and the Roman Aqueducts

Two days ago, two friends and I ventured to Segovia, a small town of about 55,000 inhabitants that is 92km north/northwest of Madrid capital. Nestled in the region of Castilla y León, Segovia is home to a few very important historical sites in the history of this peninsula.

The process of arriving in Segovia was actually, and surprisingly, quite easy. From the north of the Madrid city center, we took a commuter train that rode very comfortably for very cheap. For 18€ roundtrip, we were whisked away at over 230 km/h through the Spanish countryside. The train was very modern, very smooth, and incredibly quiet as it sped through the plains, and then through the mountains, and then through the plains again, passing small villages, herds of cattle, and a picturesque landscape of which I have no pictures due to the aforementioned rapidity of the ride. After 30 minutes and 92 km, we got off of the train and caught a bus that took us 15 minutes into the center of town. And, from there, our day trip to Segovia officially began.

Alcázar, the castle once home to Fernando and Isabel
The history of Segovia is pretty interesting, well, of course, if you like history...

During the height of the Roman empire, Segovia was ruled by the Romans, evidence of which can be seen in many of the still-standing structures, most notably the aqueducts that tower over the center of town. During the invasion by the Moors in the 8th century, the town was abandoned but was eventually inhabited again by the Spanish and rose to prominence. Segovia is where Isabel I was declared Queen of Castille (note that Spain was not yet unified at this point, so for all intents and purposes, "Queen of Castille" was the same thing as "Queen of Spain"). Isabel and Fernando reigned from Alcázar, a beautiful castle on the edge of Segovia that overlooks the city and the surrounding countryside, and from here, the famed commission of Columbus' exploration of the West Indies took place, which subsequently became the "discovery" of America when Columbus' West Indies actually turned out to be the Caribbean. (Who knew?) Also, the first military academy in Spain was established in Segovia, and while it does not occupy the same building, it is still in operation today. Today, Segovia is a tourist attraction in and of itself. Hundreds of people come everyday to see Alcázar, the Roman Aqueducts, and the cathedral in the central plaza where Isabel was proclaimed Queen. While much of Segovia has been modernized, like much of Spain, there are still reminders around every corner of what used to be.

The Roman Aqueducts
My trip to Segovia was the first that I have taken outside of Madrid, and I think that it was a good first choice. First of all, I love history, and having learned about Ferdinand and Isabella growing up, I found it fascinating to go to their castle, stand in their throne room, and see the landscape over which they ruled during one of the great eras in Spanish history. The site of the aqueducts looming over the town, predating anything Spanish and representing the oldest structure that I have ever seen was also quite incredible. The narrow cobblestone streets were very reminiscent of old Madrid, yet they were slightly different, slightly more quaint, slightly more welcoming. Life in Segovia seemed to be a bit more relaxed, less pressure than in the metropolis of Madrid. Some businesses didn't even open until after noon, and restaurants began to fill up for lunch around 1. The people seemed happy, relaxed, and to my recollection, I did not see a single person rushing anywhere...to do, well, anything.

In Segovia lives the same romantic entanglement of antiquity and modernity that is seen in Madrid and ostensibly all over Spain and Europe. I am not surprised by this, as I expect to see the same sort of thing through all of my travels, but, for some reason, I feel like mentioning it again. I just like the constant contrasts that can be seen everywhere you look. I enjoy seeing a society in which history is not forgotten but, instead, is embraced and lived in. While the people of Segovia in no way interact with the Roman Aqueducts, they allow them to remain standing as a symbol of how things were. While the Alcázar castle serves no real purpose in today's society, there is still a need for it in Segovia; there is still a connection to it. Segovia just isn't Segovia without those things.

Click here to see the rest of the pictures that I took on my trip.

25 September 2010

A Little More Than I Thought

After two long days of orientation, I know a little bit more about my program, and I must say that I am pleased with some of the things that I learned. On the surface, the program in which I am taking part is one that is designed to give young English speakers the chance to travel and experience the world while the government of Spain borrows their voice boxes for a few hours a day. But, as I learned in orientation, this is only part of the story...

Dating back to even before the Franco era (refer to my previous post if you are not sure what "Franco era" means), bilingual education has been a luxury for the rich in Spain. While there have been bilingual schools here for decades, they have all been private and followed the general rule of social mobility in the world, money. Now, with a liberal, socialist government in charge, that in all honesty isn't even really that socialist, there is a movement here in Spain to close that mobility gap. This means that the Spanish government is pushing to make public schools provide bilingual services. This movement does involve French and German, too, but the focus is on English language programming. English is the official language of the European Union, and while it is not the official language of international relations, it might as well be. In this day in age, knowing English increases your world access by exponential leaps and bounds, and it qualifies you to do jobs from which you would otherwise be precluded. So, with all of this in mind, Spain is moving toward teaching their children English.

This stood out to me because nonprofit and human services is one of my big passions. While I came here with the intention of doing little work while having lots of fun, as most people in my program do, I am glad to know that the bit of work that I will be doing is part of a movement to help those that cannot always help themselves. I feel even more motivated to go into my classroom(s) with energy and enthusiasm so as to facilitate the acquisition of English among my students. I guess, up to this point, I didn't realize the weight of what I was doing. While I have known for some time that English is important and that learning it is a huge "door-opener," I never really thought of this experience in that context; however, after orientation, I now see that there is definitely some solid importance to what I am doing over here. Hopefully, my students will learn from me and I from them.

It is quite funny how all of this seems to work out for me. Except for when I worked at a pharmacy in high school, I have always worked in the nonprofit sector, and sometimes just by accident. My first job in college was as a ticket rep and stadium clerk at a minor league baseball team that turned out to be a nonprofit. I joined a fraternity in college that was very philanthropically minded and that worked very closely with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Through my involvement in my fraternity, I had the privilege of spending hundreds of hours volunteering for St. Jude and even spent the better part of two years as an intern in their National Program Marketing department raising money through the development of large scale fundraising programs. After college, I taught high school for two years on the south side of Chicago by way of the Teach for America program, a large, nonprofit educational training and support organization that trains and places teachers in areas within the US that are overwhelmed by poverty, crime, and educational inequality. And, after all of this, I came to Spain to take a little vacation while working a few hours a day, not knowing that the job I was taking was a cause for the people.

Maybe this just reaffirms what it is that I think I want to do with my life one day. My dream is to open up my own nonprofit in the US, and I while I will write an extensive blog post on that topic at some point in the future, I will leave it at that for now. Somehow, and sometimes by accident, I always end up working in nonprofit programs, and I always love it. Obviously, I have not found the one particular job that I love, else I would still be doing it. But, so far, its not the specific jobs that have called me, its the purpose and the cause that are behind those jobs that have garnered my attention. So, perhaps my dreams and passions have somehow aligned with my life's path, a rarity in today's age. My hope is that they will always remain aligned and that I will be one of the few who will have the privilege of waking up everyday to do something that they love...who knows?

20 September 2010

New Madrid and Old Madrid

Madrid is a city that has been around for most of human history. Ever changing, Madrid is a place that has been occupied by nomads, the Romans, the Moors, and various others groups and empires. Madrid has been under the guidance of famous leaders such as Charles V, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Francisco Franco. All the while, throughout these various transitions, Madrid has managed to remain true to itself while expanding and coping with modernization.

The southern sectors of Madrid are what can be described as "old Madrid." This area, which includes El Palacio Real, El Parque del Buen Retiro, and three of the best art museums in the world, is very much a blast from the past in many aspects. The streets are narrow and compact with sidewalks made of cobblestones, lined with buildings reminiscent of 15th to 17th century Spanish rule, some even calling back further to the days of Moorish dominance. Restaurants in this area pride themselves on the quality of their food and the authentic ambiance of their location. Small stores and cafés make up most of these neighborhoods, with the rather frequently seen tributaries of side streets that are home to the residential buildings of southern Madrid. El Palacio Real still reigns over this area with its historical presence and beautiful gardens. During the day, people, both locals and tourists alike, can be seen lounging by the fountain, taking pictures of the scenery, or giving change to one of the street performers. On Sundays, "old Madrid" is flooded with people eager to find a bargain at El Rastro, a massive street market that runs through the La Latina neighborhood. "Old Madrid" is just that, old, antique, historic, a reminder of what used to be infused with a realization of what is. There are still cell phone shops, electronics stores, modern coffee shops, and those sorts of things, but they are hidden in the walls of architectural phenomena that date back to before the US was even born.

"New Madrid" is northern Madrid. As you move more north of the city center, the antiquity of it all begins to fade a bit albeit not entirely. This area is part of the spread that has taken place over centuries of growth and development, and this is where I live. In "new Madrid," the streets are wider, many of the buildings are newer, and life is a bit more Western. Therein lies Madrid's large universities, beautifully modern parks, and contrasting architectural styles that require a bit of a history lesson to understand...

From 1936 to 1975, Spain was under the control of a powerful authoritarian/semi-fascist dictator named Francisco Franco. After the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, Franco took the reigns of the government and ruled until his death. During this time, the citizens of Spain were stripped of many rights, underwent economic oppression, and lived in fear of being killed for not overtly agreeing with Franco's political agenda.

...How does all of this play into the understanding of "new Madrid" architecture? Well, many of the buildings that comprise "new Madrid" were built during the Franco era. In true fascist form, creativity was limited and the architecture is blaring evidence of this. There are fewer carvings, fewer terraces and balconies, and less lattice work than in "old Madrid." Many of the buildings are rather plain and don't evoke much emotion from the passersby. After Franco's death and the subsequent end of his reign, there was a bit of an explosion of creativity that can be seen in various parts of the "new Madrid." Historically and creatively relevant building faces are sprinkled throughout, and some rebellious architectural statements are made by way of a few outlandish looking modern structures that call "new Madrid" home. "New Madrid" looks and feels much more like a city, at least in the generally understood sense of a modernized, Western-influenced city.

This contrast is just one of the many lures of madrileño life. While I live in "new Madrid," a few minutes' Metro ride south and I am in the middle of a much more quaint, much more compact, much more endearing "town" of sorts. It is as if the Metro acts as a time machine that weaves throughout the city, depositing its patrons throughout various parts of Spanish history all depending on the stop at which they choose to depart. Each part of the city offers its own unique perspective on madrileño existence, and neither can be definitively proclaimed as better than the other. To live in one is to visit the other, and vice versa. The citizens definitely share the city, no matter in which part they choose to lay their head. There is an oozing of the various aspects of Madrid's cultures that takes place throughout allowing that parts of "new Madrid" be old and "old Madrid" new. Old or new, north or south, both sides of the city are most assuredly one Madrid, and there is not and need not be an official delineation between the two. But just a few hours spent in each, and anyone can see that walking through the streets of Madrid is not about continuity, but instead, it is about an ebb and flow of history and present day that dances along the sidewalks and tells its story of years passed...if only you take the time to listen.

17 September 2010

A Dichotomous Juxtaposition

After only a little more than 48 hours in this great city, I believe that I am beginning to understand the majesty of it all. When people speak of Europe, there is almost always a childlike adoration within their speech, and rarely, if ever, do you hear a gloomy tail of European travels. And now, in just the infancy of my stay, moments after my European birth, I think I get it...or at least part of it.

The inherent beauty of it all lies in the infinite dichotomy that is Spain, and to my understanding, Europe in general. It is the juxtaposition of the old with the new, the ancient with the modern that uniquely sets this place apart. On the same street, most often in the same building, there is a marriage of antiquity and modernity that is almost inexplainable. Cars, buses, motorcycles, and taxis race around the city, often dodging centuries-old statues and architectural masterpieces that are almost as ubiquitous as cell phones and laptops. Shopping malls are housed in buildings that have lived through the invasion of the Moors, the reign of Charles V, and the exploration of the Americas while selling the latest in technology and fashion to a people who are as modern as they come. The fast pace of the madrileño metropolis is countered by the relaxed attitude of a culture that has even gone so far as to institute a designated nap time as part of its daily routine. The food is cheap, very cheap. But, somehow, this doesn't surprise me. Spain is about enjoying life, and food is a staple of human enjoyment. And, since you can't enjoy what you can't afford, food is purposefully less expensive.

This romantic dance of history with the present day is something that the United States just doesn't offer. The youth of America itself does not allow for this type of contrast, and while I do not hold the U.S. responsible for its lack of historical presence, I would be lying if I were to say that it is not immediately noticeable once you cross the Atlantic. In America, we tend to replace what little history we do have with the offerings of modern design and discovery, and this, I am learning, is a mistake. Modernity does not have to replace history. In fact, to replace history with modernity is a blasphemous move of 1st world arrogance that slaps the faces of the institutions that have allowed these progressions toward modern day life to happen. Here in Madrid, modern life simply intertwines itself with the days of yore. Like japanese ivy on a deserted brick wall, present day advancements slowly make themselves at home in and around what was already there. Of course, too much ivy, and the wall looks like a disgusting mess of an unwanted weed that has rendered the wall useless and stripped it of its beauty. But, with the right amount of ivy, you have a spectacular blend of red and green, brick and foliage, antiquity and modernity that cannot not be replicated but that should appreciated for its enchantment.

With ivy throughout, yet with enough brick showing through so as to allow one to appreciate the history that birthed the present, the image of this wall, my friends, is the essence of Spain.

16 September 2010

Que las fotos les digan el cuento...

To see the rest of the photos that I took today, click this link.

15 September 2010


Madrid, one of the most magnificent cities in the world to which millions of people flock each year to experience its majestic ambiance, the home to the cultural heartbeat of one of the most passionate cultures in the world...

this is where the adventure begins. As I sit writing, I have been in this strange new land for 12 hours now, running around town attempting to purchase a cell phone, find a bank, locate my new apartment, and orient myself with the general pace and temperament of the people. I have met my new roommates, a few fellow auxiliares, and two Belgian girls who are staying in my apartment for the next few days. I have had tapas. I have been to Sol. I have sauntered through what will be my new neighborhood with hopes of finding some familiarity within. The neighborhood is nice, quaint yet busy. Cafes, markets, restaurants, bars, and other establishments dot the landscape and are within close walking distance to where I will be hanging my hat. Public transportation, both train and bus, are within seconds of my apartment, shrinking the daunting sprawl of the city from a massive metropolis to an approachable series of closely situated train and bus stations, the farthest of which is only minutes away.

While I have enjoyed my first 12 hours in this new place, I do feel a sense of homesickness that, perhaps, I was not expecting. Moving to a new continent and a new country is a big deal that involves a lot of guts and even more stupidity. I am nervous, anxious, a bit uneasy for no particular reason other than I know that I am not in my element. Everything that I know is operating 7 hours behind me, slowly repeating the day that I have just finished, enjoying the sun that has since left my sky overhead. I now know that it will take a bit to really get settled. Even when I am fully entrenched in my new job and with my new friends, I will still think about my friends back in the states, wondering what they are doing, wondering what they are thinking. To say that you are moving across the globe for a year is one thing. Moving across the globe and realizing the reality of your travels is a whole other beast. I am quite confident, though, that all of these thoughts are healthy and natural. I should miss my family, my friends, my home. I should feel a bit uneasy and out of place because, well, I am. So, I am not worried or upset by my feelings of longing, I am just conscious of them, something that is quite strange for me, a person who normally does not entertain his emotions.

Tomorrow, I will explore the city and shall return with pictures. I have a few things to take care of in order to get settled here, but those few things will only take an hour or so. The rest of the day will be mine to explore and to find out just where I have decided to plant myself for the next year or so. I imagine I will even have some tales of awkward interactions and stupid-American flubs to tell you about.

Highlight of the day: I walked into a tapas bar with a girl that I met in the airport who is participating in the same program as I. As we sat down at the bar, which is the only seating in an establishment such as this, he asked what we would like, and I said "acabamos de llegar acá y no entendemos cómo funcionan las tapas...¿qué nos recomienda?" With that, the bar tender placed in front us of three plates of food and two very small glasses of a beer. Not only was the food delicious, but it was directly from the heart of a Spaniard. As he served us, he smiled with a sense of pride to be able to introduce us to his country's tradition.

08 September 2010

My new apartment

I now have a place to live when I arrive in Madrid. That's right, I have not even left yet, never seen the city, never even been to the continent of Europe, but I have agreed to live in an apartment on the north side of Madrid, an apartment that I have never seen in a neighborhood I have never visited with people I have never met. If it sounds crazy to you, don't worry, it sounds crazy to me, too, and I'm the one doing it.

This came about during my search for a couch to sleep on for my first few days in the city. There is a very cool social networking site called couchsurfing.org that connects travelers from around the world. You sign up, create a profile, and then you can either offer your couch, request to stay on someone's couch, or both. The idea is that you can stay with a local, learn about the culture, get shown around the city, and you don't have to pay for a hotel or a hostel. Anyway, I was on this site, emailing various people to see if they would mind me hanging my hat in their living room for a few days. As I looked at people's profiles, I did my best to filter out the serial killers and overt weirdos while trying not to pick any "cool guys." I wanted to connect with the more laid back, young, chill crowd as that is more my style. After several "no"s and a few "I wish I could but..."s, someone sent me a surprising message. An American expat whose couch I had requested sent me a message letting me know that he had a room available for rent. When I read this message, a sort of psychological warfare began raging in my head. What should I say? How do I respond? If this turns out to be good, would I really accept it without ever having been there? (...the battle was much more extensive, but not worth describing in any great detail). So, I decided to email the guy back and ask some questions. Very quickly and energetically, he responded to my questions with some logistical information concerning the apartment, and here is what I found out...

- 4 bedroom, 2 bath
- Currently, 1 American (23 yrs old) and 1 Spaniard (24 yrs old) looking for 2 new roommates
- Lingua franca of the house = Spanish
- Rent = 335€ (+ utilities...comes out to about 365€ a month) (keep in mind that average for this area would be 400€+)
- Central heating/air, doorman, trash pick up, internet, furnished bedrooms, furnished kitchen, modern living space
- VERY close to two train stations and several bus lines
- In the university district (young population, lots of things to do)

Well, congratulations! At this point, you know as much about the place as I do. Like you, I have never seen it, but unlike you, I will be living there in about 6 days. As with everything else concerning this excursion, only time will tell if I have made the right decision. I will let you know in a few days...

11 August 2010

Visa and Plane Ticket!

The FedEx man brought me my visa today. So, I am officially allowed to go to Spain and apply for my temporary resident status!

I was hesitant to buy my plane ticket until I got my visa, because you just never know. Although it was pretty much 99% certain before, not having a visa in my hand meant that something could still go wrong. But, now that I have the visa, I have bought my plane ticket, too. I will be leaving Nashville at noon on September 14th, and I will arrive in Madrid at 10am on September 15th.

Once I get to Spain, I will be there for 9 months with little possibility of coming home before my term is up. While I will have breaks from time to time, I will more than likely be using those breaks for travel and other activities. Of course, I will miss my family and friends, but living in Europe is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I want to take full advantage of. With occasional holidays and a 17 day Christmas break, I will use my free days to travel around Spain and around Europe to see as much as I can while I am there. 9 months will go much more quickly than you might think, so I want to do all that I can so as not to leave myself wanting.

Truth be told, I have no idea what it is that I will actually do while I am there, but I am quite confident that it will be amazing. I have visions of traveling around Europe, staying in hostels, eating weird foods and chatting with locals. But, the reality is that I don't know what will happen. I have never been to Europe, and while I know all of the major things that are there (the ones that everyone knows about) I don't know of everything that Europe has to offer. While I do want to see those major things, I would also like to venture off the beaten path and see some less famous sites. Usually, it is the small, quaint, less known places that really show the character of any given place. I want to see the history, the heart, the soul of Europe. I want to really feel the places that I go. Waiting in line at the Eiffel Tower for 4 hours and then trekking to the top for 15 minutes with 100 other people is not really the situation most conducive to feeling France. Of course, I will make that trek to the top of the Eiffel Tower with all of the other camera-toting tourists, but it is my goal to not just do those types of things. I want to go to small towns, old castles, remote prairies and secluded beaches. I want to see the real Europe.

Perhaps my goals are a bit grandiose, but I am convinced that that is part of the beauty of this whole experience. I am allowed to be a bit grandiose, a bit naive. This trip to Europe is my chance to just be. I am allowed to have ridiculous ideas and plans. It is ok for me think and act like a kid in a candy store. In fact, Europe is pretty much the candy store of the world, and well, I am still a kid as far as I'm concerned. No other place in the world has so much diversity and so much accessibility, and I want to take advantage of those things while I'm there.