28 November 2011

My New Blog

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The Ineffable Life

03 May 2011

Bilbao Baggins and the Shire of España

Last weekend, I took a three day trip to Bilbao with my best friend in Madrid. In our eight months here in Spain, she and I have hung out countless times, going to lunch, dinner, ice cream, the movies, for walks. You name it, we have passed the time with it. But, during all of those adventures, we had never traveled together. When she realized that she had a coveted three-day weekend, a rarity for her because she does not have the same job as I, we decided to take advantage of the luxury and go on a little adventure.

A sideview of the Guggenheim Museum
Bilbao is a nice city of about 350,000 inhabitants. It is not a tiny one-horse town nor a sprawling metropolis, but a nice mix of fast paced with casual progression. Bilbao is known for a few things, two of which are not nightlife or excitement. Gastronomy is a big draw for the city, and many tourists come to the city simply to try its cuisine, something that proved to be pretty much out of our financial reach during our weekend visit. The Basque region, the region in which Bilbao is located and one of the most unique and unSpanish-like parts of Spain, is world renowned for its progressive culinary scene, drawing specific attention for its seafood offerings. Besides food, Bilbao is also known as the home of one of the best collections of modern art, housed in the Guggenheim Museum. Opened in 1997, the Guggenheim Bilbao is one of the most famous oddities of architecture in the past few decades. The exterior is likened to a mutilated tin can, and the inside follows the architectural flow of a human heart. Around a million visitors tour the museum each year, and in only 14 years, it has become one of the biggest draws in Europe for arts and culture.

To be honest, I didn't really "get" much of what is in the Guggenheim. I have never been an art aficionado, especially not when it comes to modern art, and while I did enjoy the museum and am glad that I was able to experience it, I did not walk away with my mouth open or my heart palpitating. My friend and I also visited a fine arts museum in Bilbao. I am not sure what classifies art as "fine," but the museum was nice enough, exhibiting some good old paintings and some nice newer stuff, as well. The featured temporary exhibit highlighting the works of Daniel Tamayo was good but weird. His paintings seemed to be like a series of incoherent LSD trips, strung together by the leftovers of his thoughts like a collage of confusing nightmares that were painted in his sleep.

While my friend and I were unable to really "eat" Bilbao like one should when he or she visits the gastronomical hot spot, we did take advantage of a new food culture, one that is different from our usual Madrid. In Madrid, when one orders a drink of any kind (water, beer, wine, coke, etc.), the waiter also provides a small plate of food. Sometimes this plate of food is just some peanuts or potato chips, and sometimes it is a plate full of croquetas, ensaladilla rusa, or jamon, all very traditional and very delicious Spanish tapas. This small plate of food comes with the drink that was previously ordered and is not charged to the customer's bill. In Bilbao, the system is a bit different. When my friend and I walked into the bars of Bilbao (FYI - every food establishment in Spain is a bar), we were surprised to see plates of food, mostly tostas topped with various goodies, covering the glass bar top. Even more surprising was that no one was being handed a tapa with his or her drink.

The pintxos selection at one of the bars that we visited
We ordered a drink at the first bar and sat down, expecting a pintxo to come with our drinks but not exactly sure what was going to happen (in northern Spain, tapas are referred to as pintxos). After a careful waiting and observation period, we figured out that the tostas on top of the bar were there for the taking. Anything that we wanted could be ours; we just had to grab it and eat it. The catch was that each one cost about 1.50€ and none of the tapas in Bilbao were free. My friend and I decided that this was a small price to pay, considering that the quality of the tapas was better than in Madrid and that we got to choose our every bite from a smorgasbord of Spanish goodness. Once we figured this out, we bounced from place to place trying the various foods and sipping on something wet. My friend being a vegetarian (a virtual shackling of the palate in terms of Spanish cuisine), I was left to be the adventurous one, eating the different concoctions of meat, cheese, and vegetables all nestled on top of a small piece of baguette. Bilbao's food scene (the poor man's food scene consisting of bar top delights not the wine and dine scene known around the world for its innovation and creativity) proved to be quite nice. I'm not intrigued by fancy, so our absence from the white clothed tables topped with tiny portions and large bills was fine by me.

Aside from eating and museum going, my friend and I did a lot of walking around the city, new and old, touring the streets of the growing metro center and the centuries-old "Siete Calles" known collectively as the Casco Viejo. We took a funicular to the top of a hill to get a panoramic view of the city, walked across beautiful pedestrian bridges spanning the Nervión River, got lost in the noticeably residential area of northern Bilbao, and saw two movies in Spanish as our nighttime activities.

One of the things that I most learned from my trip to Bilbao is how much I am going to miss my friend when I leave Madrid. If things pan out the way that I am hoping, I will be leaving here in about 2-3 months to restart my life in the States, and that means leaving (at least in the physical sense) my Spanish life behind. I have made several friends and will undoubtedly miss them all, but the friend with whom I shared my Bilbao experience will be the one whom I miss the most. She has become my best friend here and one of the best friends that I have ever had. Perhaps that is a strange development in the course of only eight months of knowing one another, but somehow that is how it has come to be. She is from England and I, America. She plans on going back to London at the end of this year, and I will probably be making my way across the pond to my homeland, as well. We met through mutual friends, and while in Madrid, we have spent an innumerable amount of time traipsing about the city, talking about our cultural differences, jabbering about Spanish life, and laying out our plans for the future. Most of our conversations consist of making fun of our respective accents or just making fun of each other, period. We spend a lot our time together trying to workout our existences here in Spain, often fighting with and dealing with the same quirks and idiosyncrasies that make life abroad both exciting and a constant challenge. We have connected in a way that seems to make little sense to even those with whom we are mutual friends, but somehow, it works. It makes me quite sad to think that in a few months we will not have readily available opportunities to spend time together anymore, but with effort, we will be able to keep in touch using the plethora of technologies that we all now have at our disposal. One of the highlights of my time here in Spain is having gotten to know her as well as I have, and I am glad that we got at least one chance to go off and explore a corner of Spain together.
A bird's eye view of Bilbao from atop a northeastern hill

Bilbao was a nice place for a weekend trip. In all honesty, it is not the most exciting place, and I would not recommend it as a top five "must see" in Spain, but its beautiful scenery and good food, along with the Guggenheim Museum, are reason enough to make the journey if given the chance. You can never go wrong with delicious food, impressive culture, and good company, and my weekend in Bilbao didn't lack any of these essentials.

Click here to see my pictures from Bilbao.

27 April 2011

I Sailed to Africa and Got Bit by a Monkey

A scene from the Semana Santa procession in Málaga

Semana Santa is one of the most important times of year in Spain. It is a time of celebration, family, parades, and, of course, no school. With last week being Semana Santa, I decided to take a bit of a trip and bring along some of my friends. Three of my best friends in the world came to visit me from America and we traveled around Madrid, the south of Spain, and the northern coast of Morocco before my friends left to return home.

It was quite a blessing to have my friends come to visit me. These are guys with whom I spent almost every waking minute of two years fighting in the trenches on the south side of Chicago. We lesson planned together, laughed together, cried together, and tried to have a little fun in the process. When I decided to move to Madrid to pursue my dream of living abroad, I was forced to leave these friends behind, and keeping up with each other has been difficult. By some miracle (supplemented by the fact that they are all teachers at the same school), our spring breaks lined up, and they bought tickets to come visit Spain (and me) for the week. We spent our week traveling around Spain and visiting Morocco. Over the course of ten days, we spent time in Madrid, Málaga, Algeciras, Gibraltar, Tarifa, Tangier, and Segovia. Of course, Gibraltar and Tangier are in England and Morocco, respectively, but most of our travels took place on the Iberian Peninsula.

In Málaga, we watched the Semana Santa procession that wound through the streets for over seven hours. Of course, we did not watch the whole thing, but during our extensive walking tour of the city and its restaurant scene, we ran into the procession several times, often to our disappointment. From Málaga, we took a three hour bus to the border of Gibraltar and Spain, got off the bus, and walked across the border. After going through passport controls and getting our much coveted stamp, we made our way to the Rock of Gibraltar and began climbing our way to the top. The Rock is an absolutely breathtaking site. Once considered to be the end of the known world, this massive natural landmass looms over the Bay of Gibraltar and reminds everyone below of the power of nature and of the story that lurks in our history. The Rock has been a highly contested piece of land due to its naturally strategic location and has been fought over for centuries by Spain, England, Morocco, and various other contenders.

The Rock of Gibraltar
Today, owned by the British, the Rock is a visitable natural wildlife reserve that is home to caves, WWII tunnels and artillery, a Moorish castle, and wild monkeys. Our first move was to hike up the side of the rock to where the monkeys live and observe them for a while. They like to climb on people and jump on cars, so one must be careful and aware while around the monkeys normal living area. They are free to roam as they please, and are the only wild monkey population in all of Europe. Occasionally, they will get into people's backpacks and steal their things or even bite tourists. One of them actually bit me on the shoulder, but no worries, they are very closely monitored and do not harbor diseases. Aside from the monkeys and their antics, we were able to see some pretty amazing sites while on The Rock. We walked through the halls of a castle that is over 700 years old, explored caves that are said to be millions of years in the making, and went through part of a 12km system of defense tunnels that was built during WWII. The Rock of Gibraltar was a seriously impressive place to visit, and I am glad that I was able to make it there during my time here.

After Gibraltar, we took a short bus to Algeciras, a Spanish port town about 30 minutes west of Gibraltar. With only one night in Algeciras, we did a short walking tour and made it to a restaurant to eat. After eating, we ran into another Semana Santa procession and watched for a while, interested to see how it might be different than the one in Málaga. It wasn't. The next day, we took a bus to Tarifa and boarded a boat to take us over to Africa. Once on the boat, I got a little nervous about my sea legs. I have been on boats countless times, but not in recent years. When we started sloshing around, I felt a little queasy, but that quickly subsided and I was able to enjoy the ride. It was a pretty surreal experience to ride on a boat from one continent to another. The Strait of Gibraltar is very small, and on a clear day, you can stand on the shore of one continent and see the shore of the other. Taking the boat across and being in the center of the water, able to look at both continents from an objective point of view, was a very unique experience.

Once we landed in Tangier, Morocco, we made our way to our hostel, doing our best to avoid all of the hustlers that were attempting to "help" us in the process. With little trouble, we found our place, and what a gem it was. This hostel, the Dar Jameel, is quite possibly the nicest place that I have ever stayed. It is absolutely gorgeous with a Moorish-style interior and unbelievable tiling and artwork. There is a rooftop terrace, a rooftop gazebo, multiple sitting rooms, and an incredibly nice and helpful staff. AND, each morning, we had a mind blowingly delicious home cooked breakfast that is included in the price of the hostel.

The food in Tangier was amazing. Lamb, seafood, couscous, and mixed salads among other things. With the exchange rate at 10 to 1, we were able to eat like kings and racked up seemingly astronomical bills, having only to pay a small amount when considered in euros or US dollars. Each day that we were there, we walked around the city exploring the streets and the shops. We toured the American Legation, the first piece of foreign land ever owned by the US (acquired during Washington's presidency). After the Legation, we headed to the former Sultan's palace and admired artifacts and artwork that tell the story and chronological history of Tangier and Morocco. At night, after spending the days out and about in Tangier, we would sit at the top of the roof, looking out over the city and recapping the day. Tangier is interesting because of the clash of cultures that exist there without actually clashing. There are western churches, eastern churches, and mosques that dot the city. Many women wear head scarves, some even wearing full body cover, while others wear jeans and a t-shirt. There is a city wide prayer call five times a day from the speakers of surrounding mosques, but even during the call there are those who do not acknowledge its presence. Tangier seems to be a very beautiful mix of generally thought to be arch enemy cultures. Each person follows his or her own path, respecting others through the process. Of course, Tangier is not a perfect society, as no society is perfect, but its ability to allow the peaceful mix of normally violently opposed cultures is something to be admired.

A Barbary Macaque that lives on The Rock
After our few days in Morocco, we returned to Madrid and spent another night here before heading to Segovia for a Saturday excursion. I had already seen the town of Segovia, but my friends had not. So, we took a train up to the village and explored a bit. Aware of the fact that this served as our last day together, my friends and I cherished the time that we had to talk, joke, and appreciate each other's company before having to return to reality the next day.

Semana Santa was a great week, a week full of friends and new and exciting things. The above description of the week does it no justice, but I do hope that you get some sort of idea of what we experienced. If I were to type out everything that we saw and did, I would be typing for hours and you and I would both end up quite bored. Just suffice it to say that it was one of the greatest weeks of my life, a true adventure shared with real friends in a once in a lifetime kind of place. Perhaps one day I will muster up the patience to sit down and type out the entire euphoric ordeal, but for now, this excerpt from the annals of my brain will have to do.

Click here to see my pictures from Málaga.

Click here to see my pictures of Gibraltar.

Click here to see my pictures of Tangier.

03 April 2011

What I am doing in Spain...

A recent article in the New York Times explains the purpose and importance of what I am doing in Spain. No it does not mention me specifically, but it gives an overview of what is happening with the education system in Spain when it comes to foreign languages, especially English. The program that it mentions is spreading across the country and becoming a priority in Madrid is the program of which I am a part. Check it out...

In Troubled Spain, Boom Times for Foreign Languages

24 March 2011


I have decided to write a bit about the things that have been going on in my life and in my head. I normally only write about major events or trips that I take, but I feel as though I am waiting too long in between posts. So, I intend to fill the void with some of my ramblings...feel free to read it, or not...
The Mediterranean coast of Spain

Nothing much has been happening over the past few months. After the Christmas break, I halted my rigorous travel schedule mainly because my wallet was getting rather thin. I came here with a substantial amount of money saved, but that lasted about as long as you might imagine. After going to Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Geneva, the Alps, and a few spots in Spain, my bank account called me up and told me that I'd better apply the breaks a bit. So, I did. In the past three months, I have only taken one trip, two weekends ago. I went to Valencia on the eastern coast of Spain. While there, I was able to eat some amazing food, meet some great people from all over the world, and sit on the beach looking out over the Mediterranean Sea. Besides those few days in Valencia, I have spent the entirety of the past three months in Madrid, hanging out with friends, doing some touristy stuff here, and just enjoying life.

Life here during the week can get rather boring, but that is not necessarily a terrible thing. Yes, sometimes I sit in my room and think, "goodness gracious I'm a lazy sack," just sitting in my room watching TV online or surfing the interwebz. But, isn't that part of why I came? When I feel obliged enough to get out and about, or when a friend calls and suggests that I accompany him or her (well, its always 'her' seeing as how ALL of my friends here are girls), I almost always go. I am taking advantage of my time here, even if I am not always on the move. On the weekends, I usually spend all three days (yes, my weekend is three days...every...time) relaxing at home, at a park if its nice, or hanging out with friends at their place or some other neutral location. On the train to and from work I read books and stare at the crazy people who talk to themselves. During my two and a half hour lunch break I either go home and take a nap, cook myself some lunch, go to a bar and grab a sandwich, or cruise around the neighborhood investigating streets that I have yet to conquer. Now that the weather is slowly getting nicer, I am spending more time outside, walking downtown instead of taking the metro, sitting in a park instead of in my room, or just roaming around because I can.

I try not to worry too much about the ifs, ands, or buts of my current existence, but sometimes that is easier said than done. I like it here. A lot. But, I have not decided what I want to do with myself next year. For one, it has pretty much been confirmed that virtually all of my friends are leaving after this year. So, if I were to stay, I would have to start over socially. My job is easy, but not very challenging, and I am not used to that sort of thing. I have lots more places that I would like to see, but not much money with which to see them, so although I'm in the perfect position to travel and see amazing things, I'm not willing to sacrifice the guarantee of daily food procurement for a few more weekend vacations. I also miss being in a comfortable place, being able to make small talk with a random Joe (or preferably a Josephine). I miss my friends and family and the "normal" life that I came here to escape. I'm not sure how much I miss it, but I do miss it.

On the other hand, my life here is fun and easy, and that is pretty darn cool. I have a pretty standard 9 to 5 schedule, but the job is easy and fun. I don't work Fridays. When I have the money, I can hop on a plane and fly to any one of about 15 countries in a matter of 2 hours and see something new and exciting. I get to speak Spanish everyday, and my Spanish is getting much better. I have lots of great friends that I enjoy spending time with. I love the food here.

There are tons of things about this life that I am currently living that I really enjoy, which is why it is so odd as to why I can't figure out what I want to do next year. I have been looking at jobs in the States, just to see what is out there, and the answer is, "not much." I have applied for a few things, but they have all pretty much laughed in my face and wiped their you-know-whats what my resume. I did manage to snag a few phone interviews, but I quickly found a way to sophomorically stumble through those and utterly smash any chance of those companies calling me back.

I met a guy when I was in Valencia that gave me some life advice. He is a late-30s, once successful businessman who has been very lucky in his life. After making his cash and living the life, he decided to give it all up and travel the world doing charity work. He said that the key is to live in the moment. Now, of course, I have heard this a million times before from just about everyone I've ever come in contact with, but for some reason, this guy just seemed to mean it more. He said that when someone is talking to me, I should truly surrender myself and listen, consciously fighting the urge to develop my response to what they are saying instead of actually listening to their words. He said that when I am outside walking around that I should just stop sometimes, look around, and try to notice things that I would normally not focus on, the color of the sky, the sound of a distant conversation, the chill of the wind that reminds me that I am one of the lucky ones who is still alive. He said that if I make it a habit to live in the moment, the moments in which I live will be enhanced, intensified. I won't have the desire to think about the past or future because the present will be too captivating.

I have been trying to follow this guy's advice and surprisingly with some success. Of course, I can't completely surrender my future to chance, and I have to consider it on some level, but I don't have to let it dictate my present. I have been working on enjoying my life as I live it, trying not to be too regretful or anticipatory. Applying this logic to my what-to-do-next-year problem, I have been reminding myself that I have plenty of time to decide or to let my life decide it for me. 'Next year' isn't until September, which means I don't have to decide until shortly before. I will figure out what I want to do somehow, and if I don't figure it out, then I will make a choice and deal with it either way. Bottom line is, next year is just that, next year. And, no matter what I choose, I will learn from my experience and be better for it in some capacity.

I recently turned 25 and had a nice tranquil evening to celebrate. I had dinner with 15 or so friends and was surprised by a homemade cake with candles. It was the first time I've blown out birthday cake candles in quite some time.

I am open to any and all comments, so feel free to say something. (Don't feel pressured by that comment to say something. I just know that lots of people read this but usually don't comment. I know people think things as they read, and I would be glad to read your thoughts. Again, no pressure, but feel free.)

Turtles are funny.

Sweet tea is tasty.

I miss delicious chicken wings...American style with crazy sauces and ranch for dipping, not the weird Spanish kind.

Baseball season is starting soon.

I miss Wrigley Field being my next door neighbor.

I drink a lot of apple juice.

I'm drinking apple juice right now.

Out of the carton.

Cups are for sissies.

Since I've been in Spain, I bet I have eaten more spaghetti than you have had in your entire lifetime.

I'm poor.

Spaghetti is cheap.

Life is good.

21 February 2011

"This is NOT the United States"

At the present moment, I have what appears to be the development of my 4th sinus infection in the last 5 months. I am not sure if it is in someway connected with the shock of moving to a new place or perhaps the workings of my severely deviated septum, but either way, I am hoping to knock it out with sleep and orange juice before I have to subject my already confused immune system to another round of antibiotics.

I went to work today, feeling like someone had stuffed Play-Doh in my sinus cavities and driven a nail through my forehead. I sauntered in the door, stuffed my coat in the cabinet in the teachers' lounge, and made my way upstairs to my 5th grade classroom. When I walked in, I went straight to the window and opened it to get some fresh air. The room was a bit stuffy and I was already feeling hot. The teacher asked if I was ok, and I said that I felt sick, a sinus infection. Without missing a beat, without thinking for even a second, he stopped and said to me in a stern but still caring voice, "This is NOT the United States...really, it isn't."

Now, before anyone takes offense to that statement, you should know a little bit about this person. I work with him every day at school. We have become quite close at work, and while we do not hang out outside of school, I still consider him to be a good friend. He is always trying to offer me things, help me adjust to life here, and give me advice whenever I need it. But, the part of his background that is relevant to my story is that he spent the last 2 years teaching in a bilingual school in Austin, Texas before coming back to his home country of Spain. In other words, he has a bit more authority than your average Spaniard when making a comment about something not being the US.

He worked as a teacher in the American public school system, and anyone who knows anything about that system knows that he is lucky to have emerged from that experience with all of his teeth, arms, legs and brain cells still intact. He witnessed first hand the rigors of the American work ethic, and while he loved his experience in America, he could have done without the grind that is the American job. He knows that Americans only get 5-10 sick days and a 30 minute lunch. He is aware of the fact that most Americans spend their nights and weekends doing at least a few things that pertain to their jobs.

His statement stood out to me because he was exactly right. This is NOT the United States, and even in the US coming to work sick because you feel obligated should not be the norm. Americans (the responsible ones, at least) go to work when they are sick unless they are throwing up or doing other things better left untyped. We feel like we should be there no matter what, unless that "what" is out of our general control. In Spain, they feel the same way, but they also have a healthy respect for life. When you're sick, you stay home. On the weekends, you don't work. At night, after you leave work, you left work. Period.

Some people may look at the above paragraph and begin to make arguments about America's GDP, economic dominance, and overall lead in most things business. They would probably point to the fact that Americans are relentless and that fewer sick days, shorter lunches, and less time living and more time working are what has helped lead America to the forefront of the global picture in many ways. And, in many respects, I would tell them that they are exactly right. But, for what? Spain isn't "that far" behind America when it comes to standard of living. Our education systems are rated basically even, and I have no idea what Spain's GDP is, but I do know that whatever it is, in practice it translates into the same general feeling of everyday life that exists in the States.

The point to all of this ranting is to say that I wish that American culture felt the same way about life that other cultures do. The saying goes that "Americans live to work but [insert other culture here] people work to live", and it is sickeningly true. Almost everything that Americans do revolves around their job. Heck, most Americans even identify themselves more by what they do for a living than by who they are on the inside. When someone in the States tells you to go home and get better, it usually feels as thought they are really telling you to go home and figure something out so that you can be back at work as soon as possible or else. Here, it feels a bit different. When my friend and colleague said that this "[wasn't] the US," what he was really trying to say was that I should go home and sleep or go to the doctor and get better and come back to work when I'm ready. The funny (and ostensibly sad) thing is that his original statement actually did say all of those things.

In the end, I stayed at work the rest of the day, only coming home during my lunch break to take a nap. (When you have a 2.5 hr lunch break, you can do things like that.) I have done basically nothing all evening, and I hope that the sleep that I am about to get accompanied by the juice I've been drinking and the tylenol I've been taking will combine their powers to do something for my impending illness. Either way, we all know that I will be at work tomorrow, sick or not, because well, I'm American, and that's what Americans do even when we probably shouldn't.

20 February 2011

Football Match

About a week and a half ago, I went to my first football match. No, not pigskin throwing, helmet wearing, field goal kicking football. Real football. A teacher at my school found out about cheap tickets for the friendly match between the Spanish and Colombian national teams. He decided to take a group of students and asked me to chaperon. Naturally, I obliged.

Me with my students
We took 15 ten year old children to the game, and it was quite the good time. As we walked to the stadium from the metro stop, the adults' duties became serious. There were people everywhere, running around the streets, blowing horns, waving flags, and generally being excitedly obnoxious. As the responsible party for 15 children, we had to all but surround them, making sure that they were together at all times and not wandering off with some stranger with candy. Walking down the street, the kids began making up cheers and chanting in unison, waving their flags and jumping up and down. "España, España, España..." could be heard from prepubescent voices as we made our way to the stadium. Others walking around us looked on smiling and laughing, genuinely entertained by the adorable enthusiasm of a herd of baby fans.

Once at the game, we took our seats in the upper section and settled in for the match. We watched the teams warm up, chatted a bit, and snacked on some things that various kids and adults had brought into the game. The game itself wasn't the most exciting. It was a friendly, which means that in the grand scheme of things, it didn't mean a darn thing for either team. Spain, the defending World Cup champions, played sloppily and slowly, not attacking very much and obviously trying not to break out into a sweat. Colombia played a bit more intensely, and while they had some good scoring chances, Spain would turn it up a bit at the right moments to make sure that their goal stayed empty.

With only 3 minutes left, and the score tied at 0-0, I thought for sure that I was going to attend my first football match without even seeing a goal. Spain had substituted most of its good players, so most of the people on the field were out there as a courtesy, more or less. But, a pass from the corner to the box left the goalie off balance and a one touch shot to the short side put Spain up 1-0. GOOOOAAAAALLLLL!!!!!!!! Everyone in the stadium went crazy. Music played, fans screamed, players celebrated, and the stadium shook. For the last few minutes, Spain played keep away to ensure that their lead stood, and they did, indeed, walk away the victors.

The view of the field from our seats
My first football match was a good time. The children were adorable, well behaved, and enthusiastic throughout the whole game. While the game wasn't the most exciting spectacle I have ever witnessed, I had the privilege of enjoying it in one of the most famous stadiums in the world. Seeing the defending World Cup champions was pretty neat, and seeing the fans' passion for their team was even better.

Now, if I could just find tickets to a Real Madrid game...

18 January 2011

Evolutionary Linguistics

(image courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare via Dr. Orin Percus)
Learning another language is quite the difficult beast. Heck, I have a master's degree that touched heavily on the subject, and I still don't even really get it all that much. Perhaps those are unsettling words coming from someone who has spent the last three years getting paid to teach languages to children, but the truth hurts.

While I have been studying the Spanish language for about ten years now, I have never consciously charted my own progress or even really actively used the language for practical purposes until now. Yes, I spent two years teaching it, and I went to Mexico and Peru on some exciting excursions, but you would be unpleasantly surprised at how little Spanish you have to use in those situations. While a Spanish teacher, I taught a lot of grammar, reading and listening for two reasons. One, teaching speaking is an insanely complicated task that is nearly impossible in a traditional classroom, and my lack of teaching experience led me to stick to the easier-to-teach aspects of language acquisition. And, two, my lack of mastery of improvisational spoken Spanish made it a seemingly wiser decision to avoid having to speak in a spontaneous manner in front of a group of students who expected me to be a master of the art. I had enough trouble in the situation that I was in for two years as a high school teacher on the south side of Chicago; I didn't need my students, most of whom, mind you, could have beaten me to a pulp with their pinky finger, thinking that ole' teach wasn't even knowledgeable of the subject that he was proposing to teach them. So, I stuck to the bread and butter.

Nowadays, I do live in a Spanish speaking country, but you might be surprised at how much Spanish I don't speak. Of course, whenever I have to interact with people in public, whether to conduct my personal business or to meet acquaintances in some form or fashion, I have to whip out my Spanish skills and hope not to embarrass myself...too much, but I work in English and most of my friends are English speakers. While I use Spanish on a semi-regular basis, many of you know that I have been rather disappointed with how much Spanish that I have spoken since I arrived. I expected to be entirely immersed in the language, speaking English only at work and when I was talking to friends at home. Quickly, I learned that this was not to be the case, and I have been weary of eventually leaving Spain without the Spanish tongue that I came here to get.

When I first arrived to Spain, having spontaneous conversations with people, especially when I needed that conversation to result in a service being provided, an item being purchased or a question being answered, made me shake in my proverbial boots. Watching TV in Spanish was a lost cause, and trying to talk to my Spanish roommate was like making a drunk baby discuss politics with James Carville, impossible and downright embarrassing. And, for the better part of my four months here, I have felt as though there has been little change. But, recently, I have had a bit of an epiphany...

Over the past few weeks, I have caught myself speaking without thinking, understanding mumble and even dreaming a bit in my second language. While I am still not perfect and by no means a native speaker, I have all of a sudden perceived a seemingly drastic change in my language. When people stop to ask me directions on the street, I can understand their formerly understood-to-be-jibberish question and answer them without worry. When I meet new Spanish folks in various social settings and encounters, I am able to talk to them about my job, my experiences in Spain and other aspects of my life that were, until recently, locked in a vault in my brain, sealed with an encrypted combination of rolling r's and difficult to pronounce c's, z's and d's. I watch TV shows and movies in Spanish with ease, and reading the paper or listening to a random radio broadcast or other speaker-delivered media is not so bad anymore, either. In a nutshell, my Spanish skills have gotten better. Much better.

This epiphany, of sorts, may come as a surprise to some people who might question how I couldn't have noticed myself getting progressively better as the days painfully passed by, but I would challenge those naysayers to entertain my explanation...

Monitoring the daily progress of language acquisition is like trying to notice the daily growth of a child or of a skyscraper being built. Those who live with or have lived with children know that the "sudden" sprouting of their offspring from baby to young adult is not actually so sudden. It is, however, our recognition of the growth that causes it to be perceived as sudden. Someone who drives by the construction site of a new vertical monstrosity tends to be oblivious to the progress of the building's ascent, but after she has stopped paying attention to the hard hats, beer bellies and cat calls, she looks up one day and is blown away by how far in the sky she has to peer. Well, amigos, this, too, is the story of language acquisition. There are too many factors, too many variables that play into learning a new language to be able to watch it grow in the traditional sense. One must step back and ignore the urge to hurry-up-and-wait, and then one day, when he least expects it, BAM, he is miraculously speaking in another language, never mind how basic or simple his conversations may be. Before he even has time to notice, along come more complicated discussions and the unexplainable entertaining of more spontaneous expression. You see, acquiring a language is like finding your soulmate; it will never happen if you're constantly on the look out, but the moment you forget to look, things magically fall into place.

My language journey is finally starting to come full circle. Teacher is becoming student, and all of those things that I used to tell my students are actually turning out to be true. Listening to the conversations on the metro, the arguments between colleagues and the sweet nothings being whispered in the park by the countless teenagers who seem to be quite curious about what their friend's face, nose and neck taste like has actually paid off. Fighting through countless Spanish TV shows and struggling to converse about even the simplest things has secretly led to a gradual increase in my language abilities, so gradual that I didn´t even notice it. All the while, I thought that I didn't understand what was going on, but my crafty brain has been soaking up language the whole time without me even knowing.

I am, as you might have expected, rather pleased with my recent realization. Of course, even with my aforementioned leap of progress, or better said, my crawl of progress that I have no choice but to perceive as a leap, I still have my issues. I have an obvious accent, a somewhat limited vocabulary and I can't talk about quantum physics or the development of communism in 1950s Cuba, at least, not in Spanish. But, with these ever present limitations, I am getting better, and at this point, better is good. Really good.

14 January 2011

Looking Forward Through a Foggy Window

Today, as I sit and write, the world has been rotating for exactly 4 months since I left the United States and came to Spain. Of course, it took me 9 hours to get here (12 if you count my layover in Dallas), and I didn't actually arrive until the 15th at 10am Madrid time, but you get my point.

When looking back over the past year, I peer with humility and awe, astounded by how much stuff actually went on in my life and how lucky I have been just about every step of the way. In 2010, I graduated with my Master's, traveled to Mexico for the first time, finished my commitment to Teach For America, quit my job as a high school teacher, went to Florida on vacation with my family for the first time since I was 9, lived at home for 6 weeks, moved to Spain, began teaching elementary school English, went to 3 different cities in Spain, went to Rome, went to Paris and went to Amsterdam. I met some amazing people along the way and made some great memories. I left a life I had created in the states to pursue another across the world. The first half of 2010 was spent working hard, and the second half was spent hardly working.

I am very happy with the way that the year turned out. I made some big decisions, made some serious leaps, and I have grown a lot along the way. As 2011 has now begun, I am doing my best to continue to enjoy the present, but it is about "that time" when I should be contemplating the future. What I am going to do next year is entirely up to me, and the phrase "the world is at your fingertips" applies to me now more than ever. I have a few options and even more thoughts, but I really have no idea what I want just yet.

I can stay here in Spain next year if I'd like. I have not been formally offered my job again, but I have been informally told by my coordinator that it would not be a problem if I wanted to stay. My school is great, the teachers that I work with are great and I love my kids. Madrid is a great city with lots to offer. It is the cultural hub of Spain and the travel and business center. I love it here, but I still can't decide if I want to stay. I could reapply for the program next year in another region of Spain, doing my exact same job but in a different city (I get priority for being a renewal, so if I apply, I am guaranteed acceptance). Much like the United States, the various autonomous regions of Spain are very distinct, and while I would be in the same country, I would be in a very different place.

I can try to find work in another country, doing something along the same lines as I am doing here or working in some sort of volunteer capacity. I have already done some research on some projects in Central and South America, but I have not found anything solid to really look into. Finding work in another country is very difficult, and volunteer opportunities are usually expensive. Either way, I am counting this idea as an option.

I could go back to the United States and find work there. I have a Master's in teaching and 3 years of experience. I am also certified in the state of Illinois. So, I think that if I went back to the States, I could find something to occupy my time. I have applied for a job with Teach For America that, if I am offered the position, could land me in Chicago, New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta or Nashville; however, even if I am offered the job, I am not necessarily obligated to take it. I will have to look at everything very carefully and decide what is best for me.

The point is, I am terribly confused about what I want, but the bright side is that I do have options. The job in Spain is all but a guarantee if I want it, either in Madrid or in another region. The job in the States is definitely not a guarantee, but I have just as good a chance as any other person applying. I speak Spanish fluently and have international experience, which means that I am appealing to nonprofit organizations looking for cheap labor in the southern hemisphere. And, I have teaching credentials and could do that pretty much anywhere in the States.

Except for teaching in the States again, all of my options sound quite appealing. I love it here in Spain, and I am having the time of my life traveling around Europe. But, do I want to stay? If yes, in Madrid or in another region? I love the idea of traveling to another country and doing some sort of exotic work. But, will I get lonely? The prospect of going back to the Chicago (or somewhere else in the States) and picking back up with my normal life is also attractive. But, would I just get antsy again and run away to some random country to "find myself"?

These are the thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for some time now, and the clock is rapidly ticking to the time when I actually have to decide. When looking at the timetables of my various options, I have calculated that I have until about mid March, maybe April until I have to make a decision.  I have 3 months-ish before I need to figure out what my next 12 will hold.

I'll figure it out. Either that, or I'll just pick something and go with it. The adventure of it all is exciting and not knowing is part of what makes my current life sexy, but being confused about what you want to do with your life (even if it is only the next year of it) can be a bit unnerving. My only choice is to keep living and learning, and eventually, something will come to me and I will make a choice.

This time next year, will I be in Madrid? Somewhere else in Spain? Somewhere in else in the world? Chicago? The States?

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea.

11 January 2011

Holiday Travels

Over the past few weeks, I have been traveling quite a bit. One of the perks of being a teacher is that you get an extended holiday break, and in Spain that means 17 days of rest and relaxation, or in my case, travel. I spent a long time contemplating how I would spend those 17 days, and in the beginning I had grandiose ideas of hopping from place to place with a confidence and swagger that now seems ridiculous. After settling into my life here, I realized that money was going to be more of an issue than I had once thought, and as a result I pared down my holiday travel plans to just a couple of places, and, now having completed the journies, I´m glad that I took the modest route.

After some consideration and collaboration with friends, I settled on three places for my holiday travels, Amsterdam, the Alps, and Geneva. Amsterdam would be my Christmas destination, while the Alps and Geneva would be a beginning of January treat. In between these trips, I would spend time in Madrid, ringing in the New Year in my new, albeit temporary, home.

A look down one of Amsterdam's
many canals
Amsterdam turned out to be an amazing city and one that I hope to visit more throughout my life. The people were nice, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the city was beautiful. Over 70% of people speak at least two languages in the Netherlands, and most of those 70% speak English as their number two. Dutch and English are actually quite similar, and listening to Dutch is like listening to someone speak jibberish English. The cadence is the same, the inflection is the same, but the words are slightly different. Food in Amsterdam is not anything particularly special, but it is also not particularly expensive, which is a plus. The canals that run through the city, built in the 17th century for residential development and defense purposes, turn the city into a grid of beautiful bridges, boats, and closely knit houses. Bicycles rule Amsterdam, with over 50% of its street traffic comprised of bikers. A light rail runs throughout the city, connecting the various areas of the already small community via a cheap and efficient system. Amsterdam is clean, not over populated, and it doesn´t try to wow you with any sort of ridiculous gimmicks or flashy innovations; its simply a nice place to be.

While in Amsterdam, I walked around taking pictures and eating various foods from street vendors and restauranteurs. The highlights, however, were the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. The Van Gogh Museum is a collection of over 200 of the famous impressionist´s works, displayed in chronological order and narrated with amazingly detailed literary murals. The museum is small, so as not to be overwhelming, and the art is incredible. Van Gogh perfected the art of appearing to have no idea what he was doing. At first glance, one might even think that a child was the artist, but upon studying the brushstrokes and intentions that are imbedded in the works, Van Gogh´s genius quickly becomes evident. Some of his most famous works are housed in this museum, while others spend their days traveling around the world for all to see. Following the halls of the museum and, consequently, the natural progression of Van Gogh´s work, I was able to gain a stronger appreciation for his talents and his niche in the art world.

The front door of the office building
where the Frank family was in hiding
The Anne Frank House was, hands down, my favorite part of Amsterdam. As a history nerd (coincidentally with a history degree), I was quite excited to be able to step into a piece of history as well known and heartwrenching as this. Having read Anne´s diary in middle school (but regrettably having forgotten most of its contents), I am aware of the story of her family and their attempt to hide from the Nazis. Approaching the building which houses the museum and which, at one point, was the office in which the Frank family hid, I was excited and nervous at the same time. I knew that I would have some strange emotions once inside, reading plaques, viewing pictures, and listening to audio about a 13 year old girl and her family who were all but one killed because of their genetic make-up, but I wasn´t quite sure how exactly I would feel. Inside the museum, no one spoke. I found this to be incredible, considering that your average Joe has no idea when to respectfully keep his thoughts to himself. I have walked the halls of the Vatican, stood in the depths of the Sistine Chapel, and peered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and during each of these experiences, silence was nowhere near. At the Anne Frank House, silence reigned, and rightfully so. As I and fellow travelers walked through the secret annex and loft of 267 Prinsengracht, we couldn´t help but feel humbled at what we were witnessing. There, in that very house, in those very rooms, lived one of the most recognized families of the 20th century, a family that, like thousands of others, was subject to the wrath of a regime more evil than most of us can conceive. Standing in the room where Anne slept, where she spent most of her time studying languages, reading books, and, most notably, writing her diary, was the most moving of the entire experience. The 13 year old girl who spoke well beyond her years and whose diary has been read by millions and continues to be a living testament to courage and resilience against all odds, spent two years of her tender life hiding from people whom she had never met because of something that was no fault of her own. Knowing what happened to her at the end of it all, and helplessly recognizing that even if I were alive during that time, I could have done nothing to help, is a hard pill to swallow. To describe my visit to the Anne Frank Museum as fun or entertaining would be to show no respect to the atrocities that took place there and the others that it represents. Rather, my Christmas morning stroll through the secret annex of the Frank family and their friends was very much as I expected it to be, enlightening, upsetting, and most of all, humbling.

At the end of the tour of the museum, I bought a copy of Anne´s diary. I have read it once before, but I was a child and was only able to understand it within particular contexts. Now, as an adult, I am tackling the book again and with great pleasure. I have read about half of it so far, and at times, I have trouble putting it down. As I read, I am delighted, sad, encouraged, and angry all at the same time. Sometimes I laugh at cute things that she says while other times I cringe in anger at the knowledge of how the story ultimately ends. I know that I will be a better person for having read the book and digested it thoroughly, but the process is a bit challenging emotionally, to say the least.

After Amsterdam, I returned to Madrid to rest and relax for 8 days. During that week plus one, I spent the days with friends, exploring the city and just hanging out. We stayed up too late, slept too long, and did nothing of any real consequence, but it was a good respite. In the middle of those 8 days was New Years, and I spent that in La Puerta del Sol, counting down the seconds and eating grapes at the stroke of midnight.

A view of the Alps in Chamonix
After New Years, I headed to Chamonix, France, in the southeast of the country. There, along with another friend of mine, I skiied in the Alps and took in the natural scenery. The Alps were incredibly breathtaking, and while I took several pictures, they do little justice at portraying the true majesty that these mountains possess. Skiing down the mountain and looking out at some of the most beautiful landscapes that the earth has to offer was surreal, to say the least. At the foot of the tallest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc, my hostel was home to several passing travelers, many of whom were quite good company. I met people from Finland, Australia, England, Poland, and France. I cooked my dinners on a camping stove and wore two pairs of pants to stay warm, all worth it in the end. Chamonix is a town much like those in Colorado that serve the same purpose. It is a ski town, full of transient people looking to enjoy the slopes, some for a few days and some for the whole 5 month season. It was a pleasant place to make a quick stop, and skiing at my doorstep was definitely the highlight.

After Chamonix, I headed to Geneva, Switzerland for a day before making the trek back to Madrid. In Geneva, I was able to see the European headquarters of the United Nations, the Red Cross Museum (just the outside, as it was closed when we arrived), and lake Geneva. I ate Swiss chocolate, walked the streets of old Geneva, and strolled across a lighted bridge that spans one of the most famous bodies of inland water in the world. For dinner, my friend and I decided on an Iranian restaurant, which turned out to be an excellent choice. No one there spoke English, and I surely do not speak French, but it was not really a problem. With a few points, grunts, clicks, and whistles, I was able to order and dine with ease. The food was incredible, and while I could not understand a word that they said, the staff seemed to be quite agreeable. After dinner, we headed back to our hostel, and at 4am, we were on our way to the airport to head back to our temporary home. Our vacation was over.

My holiday travels were amazing, and I cherished every moment. I saw some amazing sites, ate some incredible food, did some unforgettable things, and relaxed a bit along the way. I missed Christmas with the family and my little sister´s 16th birthday, but Skype was able to connect us for a bit, which is better than nothing. During these holidays, I was able to take advantage of the longest break that I will have here and perhaps one of the most convenient traveling times of my life. I am quite pleased with my travels and with the memories that I now have of my experiences. And, while I have no trips planned until my Morocco excursion in April, I will be searching for an interim destination with which to fuel my appetite for travel.

Next stop? We´ll see.

To see my pictures of Amsterdam, click here.

To see my pictures of Chamonix and the Alps, click here.

To see my pictures of Geneva, click here.