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...