Monthly Archives: September 2011

Aladdin is a Feminist


Conversation class was cancelled today and so that means I got at least one and a half extra hours, maybe two. This gives me an opportunity to talk all about Aladdin Pants. Apparently, these are only pants that you can buy on the street or from people who open up their trenches and go, “you like?” Okay, I’m making that last bit up, but all I’m saying is that I’ve never seen them in stores. And women wear them here, these flowy loose pants with vibrant patterns and elastic at the ankles. I can’t quite make sense of them – are they incredibly stylish or the markers of Spain’s granola people? So does that mean that hippies here are addicted to Aladdin? I’m not sure if it’s polite to ask.

Oh – fair warning – I haven’t been taking many pictures lately, so I’m just going to use old ones you haven’t seen yet – as I find that a blog without pictures is not very interesting. I am not going to provide any explanation. Or guarantee the quality of the photos themselves. Don’t say you weren’t warned and

definitley don’t get too excited. (He isn’t.)

And speaking about not getting too excited: let me introduce you to the single worst word in the Spanish language: tranquila (tran-quil-a). It’s not a swear, a cuss, or something that men say to you on the street. It means calm down, cool down, cool your jets, don’t get fluffed up, be tranquil. And it is the one word of the Spanish language that makes me want to get out a machine gun and become a horrible serial killer and break every plate in the house. Which is good, as people usually sick this on me when I’m at school. There’s not much to break there except for the desks and I’m not confident in my abilities to

actually do some serious damage. They are really sturdy. But anyway, this is one of those iconic words in the Spanish language, a bit like ‘like.’ Who has not wanted to scream when someone who couldn’t just stop saying ‘like?’ Well, add some patronization and you’ve got tranquila. I’ll be remembered at the study abroad office as ‘the one that snapped.’

I have discovered that I love soccer – as I’ve written about earlier – but I’ve put my finger on two things that make me wonder about it.

1. There’s a time in the game when players of both sides line up between the goal and a guy that tries to kick the ball in the goal. As the guy kicks the ball, everybody jumps, trying to hit the ball with their heads. The ball never even comes close to their heads and they look like complete idiots. Why? I have no idea. But I get this image in my head of little baby birds flapping their tiny wings and trying to fly, trying desperately to lift off the ground, unsuccessfully.

2. Men are silly (#1), and men are also hopeless whinies (sometimes). Exhibit A is that time when a player gets nocked to the ground and starts

rolling around, in ‘pain,’ always clutching the same part of his leg. This is a ploy to get some more time resting on the ground while potentially earning the other guy a yellow card, which the refs actually fall for sometimes. But why? It’s just bad sportsmanship and makes the guys look bad. I’ve decided that if a soccer player falls hopelessly in love with me, I won’t date him unless he quits getting grass stains on his nice uniform for no reason.

What I do like about futbol is that my Spanish father likes to cuss at the players that disappoint him. Maria will gasp a bit and say, “Jose!,” and grin a bit because I think when I’m not there, she lets him get away with some comments that wouldn’t otherwise fly. Also, did you know that slurs are known as ‘tacos’ in Spanish?

Today I’m going to a pool on top of a library in Bilbao. Confused? I was…especially when they tried to explain it in Spanish. So:

This is the ground floor: there are about 50 columns that all look different – I like the Chinese-inspired on in the foreground the best, though there are so many others that are fantastic, too. That brick part up top was a wine distillery or storage facility or something, but was shelled by the larger building. You can see the corner of the old building, and around that corner there’s a corridor and if you look up:

Yeah. You can see people swimming up there (please, please, no speedos!), but I think that swimming up high will be cool, especially since I think it’s open to the air. So that’s where I’m going this afternoon.

And tomorrow at precisely 8:40 in the morning, I am getting on a bus to go to San Sebastian, staying for the day, staying the night, and then going to France the next day. There will be photos involved, though I will have to fill up the cracks of this fabulous period of time with homework. Siiiiigh. But there is always procrastination!

The Museum of Horrible and Disgusting Art


Today I woke up unwillingly at 8:30 to get to the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao to meet with my art class (five people including me, my classmates, and my professor). This translates to ‘Museum of Beautiful Art’ in Spanish, which made me wonder where they keep the ugly art…for maybe about two seconds. Then I realized that they keep it safe in the Guggenheim (harsh, I know, but still). There’s a lot of nice stuff there – especially to my tastes, because most modern art gets so complicated it makes my head spin: you know where you are with classical art, because it’s all dead people and Bible stuff. That’s how you get to really see technique and figure out who you really like (instead of wondering what paint cans stacked up on top of each other are supposed to ‘mean’). Now, I’m not dishing on ALL modern art…just most of it.

Enough griping. The piece I loved best in there was Repentance of Saint Peter by Murillo. I’ve already mentioned him, but that’s because this guy was freakin’ awesome. The way that he played with light, the way he got the hands right, the wrinkles, the gray hair, the rolled up sleeves – perfection.

We didn’t end up seeing nearly all of the museum – maybe ten rooms – so that’s really just an excuse to head back there and really get to explore, skipping over the crucified Jesuses this time. And here’s what it looks like:

Now, right over to the right of this picture there’s a fountain and pool…WITH FISH!!!

I don’t know why this is such a big deal, but they’re my first live fish since I’ve gotten here. Or maybe fountains with fish will always be cool. And the statue that goes with the fountain:

I don’t know if you can tell,but it looks like the dude with the lyre should take his business to the bathroom, but the water is actually coming out of the lyre itself. No need to be alarmed.

But while we’re on this subject – and what a lovely subject it is – Europeans are freaking crazy. I have gotten into the habit of avoiding any liquids spilled on the street because people (generally men and boys) will just relieve themselves on a wall or in an alleyway…or completely in public. I blame this on the fact that there is a general lack of public bathrooms – or at least, bathrooms that are not liable to give you bubonic plague. Gross.

There’s also loads of trash lying about…

This is a typical amount of trash in a street here. Hear that Europe is clean? That only lasts until about five hours after the street sweepers come through. The streets get this dirty because no one here parties at home – they’re going from bar to bar, dancing in clubs (and no pumping and grinding – they actually dance), or hanging out in  the plazas or side streets (where they are less likely to get run over). I like it because it means that even the teenagers who are drinking illegally (out of one liter soda bottles that are DEFINITELY not all soda), have a bit of a safety net if they get drunk to an unsafe level. Pros and cons, I suppose.

That picture was from last night; I went out with a group of people – not a raging herd: people in my program seem to like to travel in flocks of at least twenty people, which is fun and is in no way conspicuous – out in Areeta, a part of Gexto. We walked around and talked mostly, and saw a band play. I tried to take pictures because I felt that unless you didn’t see it, you wouldn’t believe it…but they came out fuzzy and I gave up. It was a rock band with a really great female vocalist…and a dude playing the accordion. Yes, to clarify: I’m not kidding about it being rock music. There was a corresponding tempo and some head banging going on. And that guy rocked out that accordion like nobody’s business. I’m still undecided about whether the accordion made the band fantastic or a complete train wreck, but I suppose this will supply musings for many an unoccupied moment in the future. (No seriously, it will.)

But despite all the weird and odd things here, there’s still plenty of really beautiful things every where I look:

I see dead people… (What movie is that from?)

Well, okay. How about this?

This is Moyua Plaza, near a metro stop in Bilbao that I see at least once a week, going to classes on Fridays. It feels like Spaniards make more effort with their green spaces in the cities, or maybe I’m just getting used to not living in the country.

Getting a Little Chubby, There?


One thing I am definitely getting myself into is the soccer culture here. I haven’t gone to a game yet, but I’ll definitley get my crap together and go to one at some point. Around here there are three teams to root for (basically): Real Madrid (guess where they’re from?), FC Barcelona (OMG! They’re from Barcelona!), and Club Athletic. The first two are recognized all through Spain, and people are basically in either camp – and they’re pretty fanatical about it: face paint, loud ‘discussions,’ et cetera. Club Athletic sounds very English, and that ain’t no coincidence – the English were heavily invested in heavy industry around here until thirty years ago or so (and dirtied up the area to a massive extent, though most of the evidence of that is gone now, thanks to a lot of work done by the city), and so had the time to start up a soccer team. Now, Athletic (pronounced like ‘Atletic,’ with the stress on the ‘e’) isn’t the best soccer team around, but that’s because each and every player is from the Basque Country – meaning that all the talent is local and that the great players get bought out by larger teams. But I really like the idea of a completely Basque team in the Basque Country.

But ANYWAY…you can tell I’ve assimilated to the soccer culture because I have an awful lot of background on each team I know (which is three, but whatever). My favorite team to watch so far is FC Barcelona – that’s because Athletic is never on television when there’s a bigger game going on – and that’s partially because the players seem to make up the best team and partially because there’s a guy on the team affectionately called CHUBBY. No joke, folks. It sounds like the Spanish people are calling this poor guy fat, tough as it turns out, it’s just a nickname for Javier. Though it strikes me that Chubby for Javier is much like Dick for Richard – it should make sense, but it doesn’t.

And my last word on soccer – why don’t we call it football like everyone else does? It’s also significantly cooler to say futbol and know that you’re saying it in Spanish. You’re welcome.

Every Friday we do an ‘extracurricular activity’ within USAC, and there have been two so far: the Friday before last was jai alai (replace the j with an h), a game special to the Basque country that involves hurling a little ball through a big curved glove at a huge green wall. Turns out, it’s a really great game, when you finally understand it, kind of. I’d want more padding, personally – something approaching a full body suit, as the speeds at which this little ball can fly can exceed 150 miles per hour. All I gotta say is that the players must get some really cool bruises. Big ones. There’s some footage on YouTube that you can watch if you’re so inclined. It’s really cool stuff. (And did you know that ‘cool’ in Spanish is ‘guay’?)

Last Friday’s activity was a trip to a txoko. I’ll let you take a minute to sound that out. (Cue the Jeopardy theme, as if people aren’t sick enough of it as is. You’re welcome.)

That’s the way that it’s spelled in Basque – the Basque, like all of the provinces in Spain, have their own language in addition to Spanish, though this one doesn’t even faintly resemble a romance language: I keep on trying to sound out Basque words when they’re side by side to Spanish ones, and coming up at a complete loss. The way txoko is spelled in Spanish looks less like you want to rip your hair out: choco. It sounds exactly the beginning of the word chocolate (…mmm…). Basically, chocos are man caves, pure and simple. Each choco will have a slightly different theme or sponsorship; the one we went to was one for the youth futbol league of Club Athletic – and within sight of the stadium. Men go to chocos to eat, drink, gossip, and watch games – and there’s more eating going on than you might assume: lots of good food, actually. There’s a long process to get into a choco, and generally people choose to leave when they die, so it’s a really communal feeling, even as someone intruding into their space. Women aren’t allowed to join (pigs), but can visit twice a year or so – but are forbidden to cook on the premises. And it looks like this:

Neat, huh? I must say, I was expecting more of a proper cave with rough stone walls and torches, but these guys keep the crap off of the floor, to say the least. We were served loads of pintxos (Basque spelling, sorry to sick it on you again), or pinchos, the Spanish equivalent (and now you’re wondering what on earth I’m describing to you), or also called tapas (for those of you getting just a bit angry at me for this buildup, tapas are small plates of food, generally served at about four or five in the evening, each with a diminutive glass of wine – for us, these were served on big plates and we ate it like a regular lunch, but whatever. ‘Pintxo’ is just a Basque word for the exact same thing. Because the Basque Country is special, darn it. I do love a nice long set of parentheses).

Let’s see…what did they serve us? (Besides the soda visible on the table, of course…)

  • Toast with tomatoes, sharp cheese, olive oil, and spices
  • Peppers from Guernica – they look like jalapenos, but are mild; they’re fried in oil and salted…like half the things here
  • Little pastry bowls with baby eels, shrimp, and cream (gross)
  • Blood sausage 3,000 ways (and one way that “tastes like eggplant”)
  • Hot dogs with bacon wrapped around them
  • Bread, of course – around here, you have your fork or spoon in one hand and bread in the other, a revelation
  • Spanish tortilla – basically eggs and chunked cooked potato plonked in a frying pan and turned over once or twice

I’d have to say that the peppers are my favorite (you can see remnants on my plate), which is good, as my host mom has served them to me a few times already.

And my last word on the choco:

Now you’re wondering what you’re looking at. Yep, that’s the hoof of a bull. See that thing on top? That’s where you drink WINE OUT OF THE LEG. Now, people who know me well know that I have a thing about feet. Mine are fine, yours are not – don’t even go there. This, my brethren, is FOOT WINE. It’s just hanging out on the wall of the choco, and still mystifies me – that is, until I remind myself that what we’re dealing with is men. And then it makes sense.

And speaking of food – be jealous of my midafternoon snack:

That’s a couple of pastries, peach juice (yuuuum), and molten chocolate. I could write odes to this hot chocolate; it’s the real stuff, folks. It’s thick and creamy and just tastes like it’s been made on a double burner, done the right way. None of your powdered crap. HA.

Mom has been nagging me for construction photos. She’s lucked out because the main view I keep on seeing no matter where I turn at the Leioa campus is a bit construction-y.

In case you aren’t seeing the same thing I’m seeing, those are classified as big-ass cranes. Yup. You’re welcome.


The Poopey


Today is Martes (Tuesday) the 13th…beware, it’s the Spanish Friday the 13th…on steroids  Who knows, something may happen to me after I finish this post (though it’s 8:45 p.m. and therefore pretty late in the day).

Every year I decorate two bags for my mother: one for her birthday in July and one for Christmas. Every year I try to outdo myself with the next one and the next one, and I’ve really done good with the ones for this year. I’ve already finished hers for Christmas – which means she has to stare at it, wrapped and on the piano, for several months before she can get a gander at it, he he he. The bag I CAN tell you about has Maine on one side, with a lighthouse and sunset on the ocean, and Bilbao on the other: it has a bit of the Spanish coastline on it and the outline of a multicolored dog (that does, I’ll admit, look a bit like a cat), which is a copy of something that looks a lot like THIS:


I’ve been hankering to get over to this puppy ever since I set eyes on Bilbao; the people here affectionately call it “The Puppy,” but in their fabulous Spanish accent, it comes out as “The Poopey.” I like it – it’s catchy! But it’s even more beautiful in real life, especially on a sunny day like Saturday was – and I probably ought to have taken several close ups of the flowers for my crazy gardener sister, but after a while of me going, “One more! One more!,” Juliene had had about enough, so we moved on the the Guggenheim, which is right to the right of The Poopey from this angle.

I was less than amazed by the Guggenheim – sure, the architecture is amazing, but the art is too confusing to contemplate. Some pieces were simply stupid: a large canvas covered completely in black but for the bottom left hand corner, where there was a smidge of white. The pieces were simply chaos – notably some yarn pieces that were hung from the ceiling and bits of trash littered about the floor – and I didn’t like them much, EXCEPT for the first thing we saw. It’s called “The Matter of Time,” and in order to understand what follows, just Google-Images it really quickly. You should see a lot of brown metal spirals and stuff, right? Those are huge forms (about three times my height), that are LOADS of fun to walk through. Now, there is a security guard that babysits this room telling people to shut up in polite museum tones (in Spanish, naturally), but be inconsiderate just this once and give out whoops. Practice your bird calls. Speak in whale. You won’t be able to really and truly resist, anyway. For Juliene and I, this was the highlight of the museum, and if you go, you will love it too. It’s guaranteed – unless you are an evil cyborg, in which case you wouldn’t want to go to the exhibit at risk of being found out. That’s the one exception, folks.

My mother is probably having a conniption right now – NO PHOTOS OF THE GUGGENHEIM!!! Well, Bob, don’t you worry, there are loads of pictures on the internet…including this one, my favorite aspect of the big lug:

Happy now, Mom? Right by this view there was a man playing clarinet music; I dropped him a few coins before going on my way. I like that there are so many musicians here: I was in the metro the other day when a couple of guys came to the car and sang, accompanied by guitar. I know it’s partially fueled by desperation: music for money for life, but in a world of auto-tune, I really like being able to hear music that isn’t warped by technology.


Oh look, a bridge!

There’s a lot of cool things to see on the street around here, including the foot bridge (inspired by birds or something), and cool fountains:

The water is slightly less appetizing when you think about it as lion puke, but still. I drank it.

There’s also more confusing art – the Guggenheim does NOT have a monopoly on that:

WHAT IS THAT? And trust me, this is the best angle of this thing I could get. It’s like a five year old got hold of a blow torch.

Dinner is in a couple of minutes – at 8:45 when the game starts (my Spanish parents are very into futbol/soccer), so I must wrap this up. Actually, Maria is worried I’ll leave Spain looking like this (hold up one finger), when I always eat till I’m full: an anorexic girl would be in Hell in this house. It’s all good food though – well, mostly; some of the cheeses are a bit weird, as well as my first slab of fresh tuna – and Maria has discovered my deep and abiding love of chocolate. Chocolate croissants. Mmmmmm.

Classes are going well – I’ve stopped dozing now that I’m taking siestas – though it is a lot of homework. Ahhh, the carefree days of summer (well, as long as I don’t think about having to get five or six girls out of bed and dressed for breakfast, those memories are carefree)…

I am enjoying myself enormously.

As the World Changes, We Change


I wasn’t going to write a post today because of what day it is, but then I decided that was really a reason to write. It’s been ten years and we still have no conception of what really went on September 11th. Last year I watched about three (probably more) hours of news footage covering that day – it’s available on YouTube. When the planes hit, smoke began to billow out of the buildings – both the trade center and the Pentagon – but then through the smoke (which changed from black to dusty tan once the Towers fell), you could see paper floating through the air like birds – or maybe like rain – as they fell, as they floated, to the ground. And you could see people falling, too, because with the dead certainty that they would die anyway, they chose to fly through those last few moments and quit waiting. And then when the Towers collapsed, it was as if they fell a little and then paused, deciding whether or not to move, decided, and fell to the earth. Who lay trapped there, dead, or alive and waiting? Who couldn’t wait that long? Who died, pinned to the buildings that had been brought down? Who still has fiberglass in their lungs? Who still wakes in the night in a dead sweat, remembering?

On the streets, terror, screaming. In the news studios, disbelief. In my heart that day was a reluctance to accept what had happened. While the world is a great and grand beautiful place we must remind ourselves that even out of greatest beauty something slinks, slimy, waiting for its moment. It is our responsibility to reject that darkness with all our power, to love as much and as many things as we can possibly manage. That was the decision made by the passengers on Flight 93: we cannot succumb to the evil that surfaces. We must fight it, and fight it with good.

There is no nobility but that which we forge for ourselves with all of the strength in our hearts. No one can step into the world with a heart half-open. Step forward, and be.

Two Little Words


I’ m impressed by how well the coordinators and teachers in our program speak English – they navigate well through the bluster of our fast, slangy English in a way that I cannot begin to comprehend in Spanish. But. (And there’s always a BUT, isn’t there?) There are two otherwise completely harmless words that native Spanish-speakers should steer clear from: beach and sheet. It’s completely inappropriate to use these words in sentences such as…well, I suppose I shouldn’t go there. You’ll have to use your own imaginations.

Classes have started now, and I’m thrilled with my choices. I’m in an accelerated track to go through Spanish 305, 306, and 401 in one semester. I’ve already gone through the 300-level in college, but I feel like I need to really get the grammar down at that level – and it is still a massive challenge. I’ve also got an Art History course (visiting museums!!!!), as well as a conversation course (talking? I’ll have no problem!).

I’ve visited Bilbao once so far, but am going to explore a lot more tomorrow, after my one Friday class period. It’s luck that I ended up here, based on all of the things I’ve been told about it: Bilbao is the third financial capital of Spain (after Madrid and Barcelona, of course) and is one of the three safest cities in Europe. What I’ve seen has been promising, too – a mere sliver of the Guggenheim Museum has made me anxious to practically sleep there, as well as some other pieces of staggering architecture that litter the city like cigarette butts. But that said, there are loads of public gardens, fountains, and playgrounds that are PACKED after school gets out. The public transportation is the cleanest I’ve ever seen or heard of, partially because the vast majority of people here – of all classes – use it. Let’s face it: I’m in love.

It’s a really beautiful area up here, all green and lush; it’s the one truly rainy area in Spain (and to clear the air: the rain in Spain ISN’T mainly on the plain). The flora and fauna are quite different than I am used to, but I like the change. A recent find has been trees that look like this:

The bark is really cool – with a smooth texture you wouldn’t expect for a maple tree. Now, look at the second picture: do the branches look strange to you? Take a moment.

If you can’t figure it out, they look different because they connect to each other. Isn’t it weird and wonderful how these two completely separate trees find each other in midair and fuse together? This happens over and over, as the tree canopy widens, until you almost go down a tunnel. A part of me wants to know how it happens, but a larger part knows to just let it lie, and to call it poetry.

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I have some interesting neighbors:

Last night I was really trying to sleep – in time for my SIX THIRTY alarm (because the university won’t start for the actual Spanish student body until Monday, and that means that there aren’t so many buses) – and they were really yucking it up. I had to go over to their place – the wine barrel – and ask them to please keep it down. You know what they say about these Spaniards – they party hardy! (They also pee in the streets.)

There’s a cultural festival this weekend that looks like it’s going to be fantastic. There’s already a tent set up in the other end of Gexto from where I am, as well as little booths with artisan jewelry, bags, and crafts. There’s also…pause for anticipation…BAGPIPES!!!

Now, I know that this is a bit of a letdown for some of you who are not fully appreciative of my enthusiasm; you say, “Bagpipes? But aren’t those for NERDS?” If so, yes, I am a total nerd – though this should not be news to most of you, anyway. Bagpipes are perhaps my favorite musical instrument – even over the piano and the violin – because of how powerful they are; it takes a strong set of lungs to master them. Every time I hear their music, my heart leaps and I break out in goosebumps, so when I heard bagpipes playing in the street, I picked up my tired and sore feet and ran (in the most dignified manner as possible, of course) to see the group that was playing. In the Topsham – Brunswick parades, there may be a group of four or five bagpipes, but this group had five drummers (one on a massive drum, four on smaller ones) and what must have been at least fifteen bagpipers. It was GREAT.

Oh, hi, Anne! How’s life? Just thought you’d get into my picture? That’s cool. Thought you’d do the weird mouth-open smile-thing people only do in pictures? Sure! : )

Anyway……you notice the plaid most of them are wearing? It’s the Cameron plaid, which we figured out when we asked one of them (“Do they speak English?”), though I think we kept him talking too long, because he had to gulp down his beer fast before moving on to the next destination. Ah, Scottish accents…

My Sweet Bed


I got to Bilbao yesterday – except it’s not really Bilbao, it’s a town called Getxo (pronounce it like ‘getcho’); I’ll be studying mostly in a town called Leioa. Both of these places are near Bilbao, so I can expect to be there fairly often. My host parents are Maria and Jose: I know more about Maria because Jose so far has the famous Basque ‘stone face,’ but I like them both. I love to see how they live together, because they are so accustomed to each other their relationship has ebb and flow that’s great to watch. Maria is an incredible cook and is very good about me being a vegetarian (apparently she’s had a vegetarian stay in her house before), as well as a great housekeeper, as far as I can tell. All of the rooms are beautifully decorated (it’s color schemes – there’s the bathroom upstairs which is orange-yellow, their bedroom which is purple, the living room which is red, and so on), including mine. It’s small, but it’s all the space I need, as well as….. MY SWEET BED. Nice, right? I know. My reasoning is: Ferdinand can’t be the only one with a great and luxurious place to sleep (note: it is as soft and comfortable as it looks).

Boy, do they love to eat here! Or should I say, they love to FEED people here! I do enjoy it myself, but this is awesome. Each meal has a main dish and a salad that would blow your mind – it’s the balsamic vinegar and the olives that they use. I have discovered a great love of olives since coming here. I think that once I head out of here I will go on olive withdrawal….but only the nice olives. None of that canned stuff. (No offense, Dad!) Maria has made me a potato pancake (eggs+milk+salt+potatoes=YUM), some sort of delicious battered/fried eggplant rounds (who knew eggplant would be this good?), peppers that look like jalapenos but aren’t (they are fried in a little oil and served warm and delicious), amongst many other things. I’m just glad that she’s big on fruit because on the tour I took I couldn’t find fruit anywhere except in the nasty synthetic jelly I ate on my croissants every morning.

Tomorrow morning I’m jonesing for a yellow plum, something I’d never seen before this. Perhaps the only thing I am missing is chocolate – but I am so full that the mere mention of food has my stomach protesting, “No more room in the inn! NO MORE ROOM!” So it’s all good. They also have something called ‘arroz con leche,’ which literally means rice with milk, but is this great rice pudding with cinnamon. The rice is soft and just sweet enough – and the kicker is that I was able to get it in the school cafeteria today after today’s orientation in Leioa and the Spanish aptitude test.

And speaking of that test – GOSH. It was 75 multiple choice questions, and I feel like I didn’t do as well as I’d like, though I do know that I did really well on the oral exam. Tonight I’m praying that I get placed into the right level (there’s four levels, or tracks, and I want to be in the third one).

Tomorrow is the second and final day of orientation; we’ll be going to Bilbao for that, as the business school is there. I’m excited because after orientation (which includes finding the metro when today I couldn’t even figure out what my apartment building looks like), we’ll be going to a beach (there’s loads around here) and eating pizza (provided by the very people encouraging us to sample the local cuisine). I feel myself getting better and better with my Spanish – I feel like the Spanish-speaking girls that came to camp and had to adjust bigtime to speaking English. And they did so well! Now I understand how hard that is for them, experiencing it myself. And we do have our moments: Maria will use a word I have no clue about and we’ll eventually figure it out, but it’s a process, for sure. We spent a few minutes this morning with Maria trying to impress upon me the meaning of the word in Spanish for ‘stuff’ – it’s been interesting, and I’m glad I can laugh about it.

Speaking about being able to laugh about things – and I know I’m rambling a bit, but hang on with me (it’s been a big day) – there was a bit of an incident today that bears a bit of light. After orientation today we were left to fend for ourselves, so a group of us went to a part of Gexto where a couple of us live, because someone wanted to drop off something…or something. I can’t really remember what, but we ended up being guided around by a host-family-daughter. We ended up meeting a friend of hers – I’m not sure if he was her boyfriend, but it’s still mortifying nonetheless – and we did the whole two-pecks-on-the-cheek-hello-thing…only, I miscalculated which side he’d be pecking first and ALMOST FULL-ON KISSED HIM…almost. So, this is a precautionary tale to anyone who goes abroad: research is great, research is fine, but make sure you know EXACTLY what order that they are going to try and kiss you in, because otherwise you could end up ALMOST swapping spit with an 16-year-old. Just saying.

Stormclouds Over the Castle





Let’s just go with the great assumption that Spanish people are crazy (remember: high on ham). I’m not sure what is so important that you’d need a phone in the john for, but okay. All the rooms in this hotel seem different; one of the bathrooms even has a bidet, the first one I’ve ever seen. (Bidet: French thing that looks a little like a toilet but isn’t.)

Today we saw Segovia and the modern art museum here in Madrid…parts of them, anyway. It’s not like I’m going to creep down every alleyway – not with my sense of direction!

The main event in Segovia was seeing the castle. It’s a pretty small castle…

…when you compare it to Jupiter. This thing is intense, as is some of its history: for example, the famed queen Isabella walked out of here one morning a princess and came back a queen – apparently, this is the big byline for the place. It’s wicked awesome. As you walk in, there are loads of suits of armor hanging about. Now, me being me, I immediately go and take pictures of them, with the intent of giving them ridiculous names:

Meet Jim.

Jim Bob.

Jim Bob Bo Diggity. (With Marvin in the corner.)

One major thing I noticed with the knights is that they all have very pointy shoes. Can’t you just imagine one of those guys just drop-kicking someone? (Yuck.)

The other parts of the castle were really cool, too. Case in point: ceilings. I won’t show you any photos of them because I simply can’t choose which I like best; there were loads of Moorish-inspired geometric patterns and fancy gilding (the one time I appreciate gilding), and every one was different. I can imagine the nobles of the castle getting bored over their dinners and their company, looking up, and toning everything else out. That’s what I would do, at least.

I would like to take a moment to appreciate Fernando’s sweet bed. Fernando was the other half of the magical Isabella-and-Ferdinand duo, and stayed at the castle from time to time…in a SWEET BED.

Soooo. Getting back on topic. After the castle they turned us loose for lunch and shopping; a few of us decided that eating immediately just wasn’t our thing and decided to look inside the cathedral of the town – okay, ONE of them – this one was the best-looking, as the Romanesque ones always look a little moldy to me.

Yup. Nice, innit? I don’t show the insides of cathedrals because I feel like taking pictures inside God’s house is disrespectful, but trust me. It was fantastic. I especially like going without a tour guide because it means that I can linger and take a few minutes to myself, let it all wash over and through me. Though I will say that it is difficult to explore through these places without walking on dead people (there are plates of engraved stone on the floor to show where some dessicated body lies).

The last big thing for Segovia is the aqueduct. Here’s the most impressive portion, from a bit of elevation:

This thing is IMMENSE. See those little dots down there? Those are people. It’s really cool to think about how well these are put together that they do not need mortar to hold them together, even after 2,000 years. The Incas and the Romans had this construction thing down PAT.

There’s a famous food in Segovia called ‘ponche segoviano,’ a kind of tiered-cake-thing that has about three times the amount of sugar you’d expect. It’s got marzipan and some sort of cinnamon/pumpkin flavor running through it that makes it scrumdiliumptious.


Now, today I decided to wear khaki shorts. And then when I was told it was going to be nippy in the high altitudes of Segovia, I grabbed my raincoat…which is also tan. So I ended up looking a bit like this:

I was the KHAKI STORMCLOUD!!! (Fear my wrath, et cetera) Now this seems all so frightfully random, I know, but it’s too good a nickname not to share.

After Segovia, we moved on to the museum of modern art in Madrid; we saw Guernica (which moved me more than I thought that it would, though I was still not as fazed as I could be) and some pieces by Dali. I got to see The Enigma of Hitler – one of my favorites – as well as a piece I’d never seen before, Portrait of Joella. It’s a beautiful painted bust with vivid colors – which is what caught my eye at first – but then makes you wonder about Joella. Look it up if you can. It’s an amazing piece.

Tonight I go for dinner, pack, sleep, and wait for tomorrow, when we board the bus to Bilbao, where I’ll meet my host family and move in to the place where I’ll be staying for the next four months. It’s crazy, but it’s wonderful to see that my dreams and plans are finally being realized.

Mission Madrid, Mission Toledo


So I’m sitting here listening to Journey and uploading photos. I’m really not a ‘camera person,’ so it’s interesting to see where and when I’ll take a picture. I’ve been more restrained than a lot of other people on the trip, though – but I think that’s a good thing. I don’t want to see Spain through a camera lens.

The first real day in Madrid (after a dinner the night before where everyone was falling into their plates because they couldn’t keep their heads up) featured a tour of the city; we saw the Prado (parts of it) and the Palacio Real (‘real’ is pronounced more like ‘royal’).

In the Prado,we got a crash-course of Spanish art, which meant that we covered El Greco (like), Velazquez (meh), Murillo (SUPER LIKE), and Goya (ambivalent). There was one piece by Murillo, called Virgin and Child with a Rosary, that particularly captivated me. I wasn’t expecting my favorite to be a religious piece, but there it is. It was the way that Murillo painted her, like there was this something in her eyes that I couldn’t quite figure out, and every time I think about it or return to the image on the internet, I feel like she’s saying something different to me – and that’s the mark of great art, isn’t it? Though I will say that while this painting may feel a little like the Mona Lisa, the fact that the guide didn’t even glance in this painting’s direction makes me more favorable to it than to the Mona – and Virgin is almost challenging you, daring you to make your move.

I also really like El Greco, because he had a completely different style compared to the other people of his time: he elongated the figures in his paintings, messed with the shape of the muscles, and made it work. His paintings are all religious or portraits as far as I can tell – and he finds ways to sneak himself in a few of them, which I like in a painter, a sly way of slipping in something unexpected.

After El Prado (and ‘prado’ means meadow, did you know that? It was built in one, apparently) we went to the Palacio Real, which looks something like this on the outside:

Oh, sorry that’s the MUSEUM OF HAM we saw at one point while walking through the city. People here do love their pig, I can guarantee you that. It’s a miracle no one here is really all that fat.

For real this time:

So yeah. There’s this huge courtyard – on the other side of the courtyard opposite to the palace is a cathedral that they’re finishing up decorating. I didn’t go in, but it looks really beautiful:

The Palacio Real is a scaled-down Versailles-look-alike – loads of gilt, ornate furniture, chandeliers like you wouldn’t believe, more clocks than you could shake a stick at – and all those clocks MEAN something. Personally, I’d choose something different to symbolize things, but they were probably all high on ham at the time, so I can’t really diss them too harshly. My favorite part was all of the ceilings, as they’re all painted or have reliefs on them. There was one Oriental-inspired room that was especially beautiful, with swirls of color, birds, and flowers on the ceiling. Another room was some sort of drinking room – at least, it was a homage to the god of wine – that had grapes rising off of the walls and ceiling that was also gorgeous. After a while, though, I stopped listening to the guide and stopped seeing the rooms in any detail: it was too much at one time to process. I don’t know how anyone could live there and not feel overwhelmed by the busy-ness of the space, how not one square inch was left to its own devices.

The rest of the day we had to ourselves, which means lunch at a market, a nap, dinner, and walking around.

Today was ‘Toledo Day’ – like ‘Lost Sock Day,’ only better (and that is an actual day, sometime in January, I think). Toledo is a Wold Heritage site because of its history and because of how well preserved it is. It was owned by Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Jews (or, at least, Jews lived there), and finally, Christians. The streets are very narrow, something I can’t show you in any of the pictures I have, but in most of them it’s a tight fit for one car, meaning that it’s hard work not to get yourself personally run over by some crazy Spaniard. It’s actually a premeditated design, a choice of the Arabs to make it so that people need not walk through the street in direct sunlight, something I appreciated, though the day was not uncomfortably warm.

And just a note: the spire-like trees are the cyprus trees. Lovely, aren’t they?

We saw the cathedral first; turns out, it’s a cathedral that was built on top of a mosque-turned-church. There’s loads of Muslim influence in the building, in the way that the windows are scalloped and in the way the arches work, something that you apparently can’t find anywhere else in Spain.

The interior of the cathedral was incredible. There was the option to take pictures, but I always feel like cathedrals are just too holy to do the whole tourist thing – Kelsey might remember talking about that in D.C. at the National Cathedral (highly recommended, once they repair the earthquake damage). I can’t really describe it, but all I can adequately say  is that it can leave you breathless if you let yourself be open to it. The one truly remarkable thing in the cathedral that I do feel that I can describe adequately is this enormous mural on one of the walls of Saint Christopher with a little boy – it reaches up at least three stories, and I can remember thinking that cathedrals need more of that and less gilt. He had a wonderful expression on his face – or maybe I like the medieval-ness and bigness of the work – but whatever it is that makes me like it so much, of all of the incredible things in that place, that is my favorite.

Next we saw a mosque-turned-synagogue-turned-Christian church: it was built by Muslims for Jews, so it has a kind of style that you might expect in a mosque. You can tell what was built by Muslims because there are no depictions of faces,either human or animal. There’s loads of geometric patterns and some plant references, but never faces. So you could walk into this place and see who it was built by and perhaps who for, and then you can realize as you get to the back of the church that there were Christians there at some point, as there’s gilt (again…) and loads of cherubic-type faces. It’s great to see how these kinds of spaces can change.

After that, we saw the supposed ‘best-bestest’ masterpiece by El Greco, El Entierro del Conde Orgaz; it’s in Toledo because El Greco lived there for a good portion of his life. It’s to commemorate the miracle that happened at the funeral for Conde Orgaz, a guy that gave to the poor, and did public works with his money. As the folks of the town were burying him, two saints (Augustine and somebody else – I’m not Catholic, so I don’t know, but I know they were biggies) came for his soul and took him up to heaven. How they knew those blokes were those two saints I don’t know, but it’s a nice story. I’m ambivalent about the painting; it’s very well executed, but I’m just not interested in all of it. I do like that El Greco painted himself and his son into the painting: they are the only two that look straight at you. El Greco was good at making people express their personalities in paint, and nailed it with him and his son in this one.

After that we went for lunch, in a basement-level restaurant, a tiny little thing, where I had ‘sopa castellano,’ a soup with disgusting mushy bread in it, ‘pollo asado,’ chicken, because I’ll starve if I stay vegetarian here (I’ve decided that I’ll let one meal with meat can slide each day, under the rug, so to speak), and ‘arroz con leche,’ a fabulous rice pudding. I also got some marzipan, as that’s what Toledo is famous for. It’s a slightly different consistency than I’ve had before and had a tiny amount of lemon filling – and it was DIVINE.

Tada! And a foot picture to boot. Nice shoes, eh?

The rest of the day I’ve spent resting. I went out for a quick dinner, and on the way back saw a protest. It’s a lot larger than I’ve seen before, though probably still pretty small for this city and its unemployment problems. There were maybe a hundred or so people chanting, and enough police to make me want to get our ice cream and move along.

I’ve finished the Journey CD, and It’s time for bed. Buenos noches!