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 For others, the spectacle is a bit outdated, barbaric, even grotesque.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.