Saturday, February 28, 2009

They have a famous dessert?!?

Ahh yes, kiddie beans. I did go somewhere that has a particularly famous dessert. But first...

Thursday night we were given the opportunity to go to the theatre. Now, when I signed up for this I had no idea what I was going to be seeing, but when have I ever turned down going to the theatre? Especially when it was FREE? Yep, I was pretty excited. Turned out that we were at the Teatro de la Zarzuela - Zarzuela is a type of Spanish musical theatre, done mostly in operatic voice but with the spoken lines of a musical. The show we saw was called La Gran Vía...esquina a Chueca, and was a remaking of a traditional zarzuela show called La Gran Vía. In the original show, the residents of Madrid are protesting (in costumes that represent the various streets of Madrid) the construction of Gran Vía, one of the biggest streets in Madrid. In this version, the residents show up (in costume, again) to protest the rumor that Gran Vía is going to be destroyed. It was a lot of fun, and since it was a comedy it was not a huge deal if we missed a few things here and there (which we inevitably did). I approved.

Yesterday (Friday) our program took a day trip to Segovia. We started out visiting El Palacio Real de la Granja de San Ildefonso - a royal palace so named because it was once a big farm that some king - please don´t ask me which, their names get all jumbled in my head - bought as a sort of retreat, then built this palace in somewhat the style of Versailles, minus the immensity and the vast amounts of gold. After the royal palace it was off to see the aqueduct. The aqueduct in Segovia is the best preserved Roman aqueduct remaining in Spain. It is absolutely incredible - they did not use any cement or anything else to hold the stones together, and you can still see the holes from the gripper-dealies used to put the stones in place. During our free time we climbed the stairs up to the rest of the remaining Roman section of the city - great view.

Speaking of free time, I definitely took that opportunity to sample Segovia´s famous dessert - Ponche Segoviano. It basically consists of a layer of custard, topped with a layer of pound cake with a cinnamon-y sort of filling in between, all covered with marzipan. One of the main ingredients is brandy, which gave it this great sort of spice-cake-like spiciness. It was amazing and kind of reminded me of Christmas. I totally need to go back with Momma and Daddy and eat some more in everyone´s name. :-)

It was also during this free time that we had time to eat lunch. Cassie and Jackie decided that they would split their meal in order to save a little money - only then it turned out that the waiters ended up giving them smaller-than-normal portions and were incredibly rude. Not cool. Then, because I still hear my mommy´s voice in my head, we all used the bathroom before we left, only to discover that instead of toilet paper, they had dispensers with what were basically a cross between a napkin, kleenex and a paper towel. This blew our minds.

After free time we headed over to check out El Alcázar - the old castle, used a lot by Queen Isabel in particular. This was seriously one completely legit castle, though I also learned something: all of these years this princess has wanted to live in a castle, when it turns out that they are FREEZING! I´m totally not moving there any time soon.

Next weekend: Lisboa!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Searching for Sardines

This afternoon, after class, a group of us got together to study for our midterm tomorrow. Afterward, one of the girls, Claire, wanted to know if anyone was going to check out the Burial of the Sardine, the traditional ceremony that marks the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent. I wanted to go but neither of us was sure of where this was happening, so Claire called Amy to see if she knew where it was. She said that she thought she did, so we made plans for the three of us to meet at the Puerta del Sol a little bit later. Upon meeting, Amy said that her Spanish teacher had told her that it was going to go through the Plaza Mayor, just a few minutes away. Perfect! So off we headed in the direction of Plaza Mayor.

On our way there, we began to notice quite a few "borrachos" - drunk people. As we approached the plaza, we also began to hear loud, drunken singing. Interesting. We get to the plaza and discover a group of at least 200-300 people, all wearing the jersey and colors of the Liverpool soccer team, all drinking copious amounts of beer and all singing loudly and unintelligibly. The ground of the plaza, normally spotlessly clean (Madrid is an incredibly clean city), was littered with an uncountable number of empty beer cans and broken beer bottles. Small soccer balls were also being tossed about.

At this point we were rather confused, so Claire walks up to this one guy (British, as they all were) and asks him what all of this was.

"What is it?! WHAT IS IT?!?!” he and his friend incredulously replied.

I feared for our lives for a moment or two then. They did explain to us that they were all Liverpool fans (duh) and they were all together before the Liverpool-Real Madrid game later today. Claire then asked how they all knew to come to the Plaza Mayor. At this they looked a bit stumped until I made a crack about them simply following the scent of the beer (rather strong, as you can imagine). At this they brightened considerably and said, “Yeah, yeah!!” Oh, man. We tried asking them what song everyone was singing, but at that point the original guy we were talking to went into a drunken jig, so we decided to leave them to their jigging and beer.

We did conclude that the apparently somber Burial of the Sardine probably wasn’t going to be making its way through all of that, so we tried asking one of the many policemen where it was. He gave us a pretty vague description that included the metro stop Principe Pio, only we were not entirely sure that that he knew what he was talking about. At that point Claire and Amy ended up heading towards Plaza de España for the heck of it and I headed home (I was hungry and needed a snack...). We decided we did not really feel like going on a wild goose-chase when we had gotten our dose of culture – albeit different from what we had originally planned on – about five minutes earlier.

I have to say that it was pretty crazy seeing how worked up and excited some of those people get over their fútbol though. I knew from our class discussions that there were some super-obsessed people – there always are, with every sport and every team – but I did not imagine anything like that. Frankly, as someone who does not do sports, I have a hard time even understanding the way that they get so obsessed. I would never have guessed that so many people would fly down from England to Madrid to see a game – and in the middle of the week! Don´t these people have anything better to do…like work? I suppose not, or if so they just care far more about fútbol. It is just all totally beyond my comprehension. I am glad I got to witness that, though, if only so I can actually know that these people exist (I speak of them as if they are aliens or something).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

This ain't no Putnam Co 4-H Fair parade...

And indeed it wasn't. Now, I make reference to the beloved Putnam Co 4-H Fair parade because up until today it was, believe it or not, the biggest whoop-dee-doo parade I had ever been to. Guess that's just proving how small-town I am when we used to put our lawn chairs out the night before to reserve our spot and know they wouldn't get stolen...

Anyway, so right now, for those of whom, like me, had no idea, is the time for Carnival - think Mardi Gras, only far more tame. In fact, apparently Madrid's Carnival celebrations are really nothing spectacular. Some of my classmates went this weekend to Cadiz to check out what is supposed to be a great Carnival celebration, but believe it or not I was completely content to limit my Carnival celebrating to checking out the parade earlier this evening with Cassie, a much-needed diversion after spending a good portion of the past couple of days studying for our upcoming midterms.

There was quite a crowd of people there to watch the parade. Apparently this is the time for kids to dress up, like Halloween for us, so quite a few kids and some adults were in costume. Cassie and I had a front-row spot until right before the parade started. I lamented this for a bit, and then realized that many of the people in the parade were wearing scary masks and was no longer sad to have a row of people between me and the scary people. Turns out the theme of the parade was "Carnival of Monsters for Monstrous Times", which really explains the scary people right there. At any rate, it was quite interesting to see all of the people in the parade in their various costumes - some of which made sense, most of which didn't. The parade ended with a 20-meter-long dragon ridden by a "royal horsewoman". In all it was a fun and interesting experience, though I do not plan to expand my Carnival experience much beyond that as it would be like going out on Halloween - and frankly, I do not really wish to run into a bunch of freaky people in masks on the streets of Madrid late at night. Cassie and I may check out the Burial of the Sardine on Wednesday evening - apparently it is quite the tradition for ending Carnival. I'll be sure to blog about it if we go. And yes, when I say Burial of the Sardine, I do believe I really mean sardine. As in the fish. There's really no explaining some traditions...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Paris holds the key to my heart?

Eeeeeeeh, wrong. I'm sorry, you are not a winner, please try again.

Ok, so that is not to say that I did not have a good time in Paris this past weekend. Quite the contrary - it was a very fun experience. Yet I just did not feel that Paris was quite all it is always made out to be. Examples follow.

The 6 of us arrived in Paris around 7 pm on Thursday night. Now, we had bought cheap airline tickets, so the airport we arrived at was quite small. In fact, it was far, far smaller than even the Lesser (Greater) Peoria International Airport, if you can believe that. We were still not too phased by this and proceeded into the airport where we were immediately confronted with a ticket booth to buy a 13 euro one-way bus ticket. Now, we thought that this was a big pricey and inquired about the metro or a taxi - turns out, we were over an hour outside of the city and it would have cost over 200 euro to take a taxi! Well, that 13 euro bus ticket suddenly sounded pretty good.

So after a 70-minute bus ride, we arrive in the actual city, found a metro and navigated our way to the hostel where we then found some pizza (I was starving and did not care that pizza is not very French) and crashed. The next morning I awoke and attempted to take a shower. I have to say, I have rarely been less sure of my cleanliness after getting out of the shower. There was practically no water coming out of the shower head and what water there was was spraying in every possible direction but towards me. Also, the water shut off every 30 seconds. Needless to say I opted out of a shower the next day.

So the 7 of us (we had joined up with a friend of two of the girls the night before) headed out in the rainy-snow mixture around 9 towards the Bastille. The Bastille was apparently very significant to the start of the French Revolution, and I don't know what I was expecting but it was not a monument in the middle of a roundabout that you can't even walk up to. What a let down. We then hopped on the metro towards the Pantheon. This is an old basilica that now serves as the final resting place of many of France's significant historical figures: Voltaire, Rousseau, Louis Braille, the Curies, Victor Hugo and my personal favorite, Alexander Dumas. I promised dead-Dumas that I would read the Three Musketeers this summer. I'm sure he cared greatly.

After the Pantheon it was off to Notre Dame. Amy, one of my travel companions, and I decided that we thought it would be bigger. Not to say that it is not impressive and beautiful, but it just has always been portrayed as being overly huge. The inside was much more impressive, if you ask me. Though the crappy weather was a downer the rest of the day, the gloominess really added to the mystery of the inside of the cathedral. I could definitely worship God there (though they would probably be reluctant to let me since I'm not Catholic).

At this point it was time for lunch at a little cafe where I had some pretty decent quiche and had to pay 50 cents to use the bathroom. I was pretty irked by this fact, considering I was not sure when I was going to find a public restroom next (they are not as common in Europe as they are in the States) and I really needed to pee. Jackie and I ended up going in together so as to save a bit of money. I will say that it was the only completely clean, acceptable bathroom that I found the entire time I was in Paris (it actually had a soap dispenser AND soap - imagine that!), so I guess it was worth paying for.

After lunch the majority of the group went to see the catacombs, which is apparently where they dumped all of the beheaded bodies during the Revolution. Jackie and I were not so interested in seeing a bunch of dead people (because you do actually see them), so we opted to go to the Arc of Triumph (another let-down if you ask me, plus it was bitterly cold) and then shopping down the Champs Elysees. Pretty much every store was far out of our price range, but it was fun to look nonetheless. We also took a delicious pastry break where she had a chocolate-banana tart and I had a take on coconut cream pie. Yummmmmmmm.

We had agreed to meet the rest of the group at the Louvre at 5:45, since it is free for students on Fridays from 6-9:45. Emily, who had been there before, told us to meet at this glass pyramid by the entrance where you buy tickets. Jackie and I took the metro, got off, followed the signs and ended up by this glass pyramid that came down into the building and was right next to an entrance where you buy tickets. Great!, we thought. Here we are! So we wait, and wait, and wait, and the rest of the group never appears. After a couple of very confusing phone calls and much frustration on both ends, it turned out that we were at the wrong glass pyramid. Apparently the one we were supposed to be meeting at is the very famous entrance to the museum. Well, this country bumpkin had no idea and neither did Jackie. In retrospect it was all pretty humorous, but then we were also rather sleep deprived.

At any rate, I did get to see the Mona Lisa - she's much smaller than I would have expected and was frankly too far away to get a really good look at her. My favorite painting in the place was one of about two Monets that they had. I was disappointed to learn that every van Gogh ever painted is at a different museum about 5 minutes from the Louvre. In general, the Louvre would have been a much more interesting experience if I had had someone with me who knew anything about art and could have told me about what I was seeing.

At this point we still hadn't seen the Eiffel Tower, but by golly everyone was determined to get it in that day. We ended up getting there around 10:30, bought our tickets to the top and got on the elevator. We got to the first level and I was already higher than I ever wanted to be. I ended up getting separated from the rest of the group on the actual elevator to the top and ended up with these British girls, one of which was as freaked out as I was. We were both about having a heart attack, only her's was with an accent. The top consists of two levels: a lower one surrounded by windows which did not freak me out too much and then you climb the stairs to get to the actual observation level. Yes, is is enclosed with wire mesh but no, I still did not feel particularly secure. I stayed up long enough to take about 5 pictures and then went back to the glassed-in area. That was enough of that. I much preferred the view from the ground, which really was quite impressive.

The next morning we all headed out bright and early (and a little grumpily) to Versailles. Now, this was definitely the one thing that was every bit as cool as everyone always says. I have never seen anything so massive or shiny. It was too bad that it was not warmer and we didn't have more time because I would have liked to have seen the gardens in bloom, but even so it was absolutely amazing.

The flight back, unfortunately, turned out to be a nightmare. The airline we flew (the cheap one) allows you to have one carry on, purses included, that can weigh only 10 kg. The people in Madrid did not care about any of this, but the people in Paris sure did. Jackie and I were just over the 10 kg and the lady, who thought her job was the most important in the world, told us that we would just have to check our bags. Heck no. Not for an extra 20 euro. In the end we did some switching around of some things and a little trickery (Emily, who already had her boarding pass, took my purse to "put into her bag", and then I just put it back into mine once I had my boarding pass) and got through. Then, as we were standing in line to go through security, a different man insisted that three of us (me included, of course) put our bags into the little blue box to make sure they fit. Kristy told him that we had just done this five minutes before, but he didn't care. Turns out that you have to put my bag in upside-down for it to fit. Go figure. So as we are doing this, another lady comes up to us and starts yelling at us in rapid French and when we didn't understand her, she just started yelling louder! Turns out she wanted us to "MAKE A BETTER LINE!!!", though we were really just being pushed along by the crowd and had a few problems accomplishing this task. By the time we got through security, my hair pins had set off the beeper, Jackie's bag had been searched and we all decided that we hated the French. I have never been so glad to be in Spain in my entire life. Sure, I can only passably speak the language but as it turns out, that is far more than I can do in France! Every time someone in Paris spoke to me in French I froze, giving them this deer-in-headlights look. I couldn't remember a single phrase to say to them! Luckily they quickly picked up on the fact that I could not speak one word of French and usually slipped fairly easily into English.

So, in general, here is my impression of France in comparison to Spain: it is dirtier, the people are snottier and the famous monuments are not quite all they are cracked up to be. Perhaps my expectations were just too high, but why not? I was supposed to be in the most romantic city in the world!

I love Madrid.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Jesus speaks Spanish, too

This morning I was finally able to make it to church here in Madrid. My ever-amazing mother had done some emailing and somehow came up with the name of an Assemblies of God church here, so that's where I headed.

Now, on the church's website it said that pre-service prayer started at 11; worship service started at 11:30. I opted for just the worship service, though as it turned out I ended up having my own sort of pre-service prayer on the metro. That is not to say that I thought I was going to be mugged or anything; rather, I was not feeling so secure about the train itself.

Allow me to explain. Various lines have various different types of trains, some being newer, others older. The newest ones come equipped with little television screens proclaiming the wonders of taking the metro, screens to tell you what stop is coming up next and a little lady that comes over the speaker before each stop to tell you what stop it is and what other lines it corresponds with. All quite nice. In order to get to the church, I had to take a line I had never used before. This took me to a portion of my metro station that I had never been in before. Apparently you can get to the platform I needed using an elevator - which does not simply move vertically, but in a diagonal line. Not only in a diagonal line, but slowly, and with lots of creaking. As it was Sunday morning, I was the only one in said elevator, which made me nervous. I later learned that you can reach the platform via escalators as well and will choose this option for obvious reasons next time.

So I get to the platform, wait for the next train, and when it arrives it is older than any I had ridden on before. This would not have worried be the least bit had it not made the world's scariest noises while it was moving and shaken like it was possessed when it went around corners. I think at one point it gave me whiplash.

And I had to ride the thing for 7 stops. Jesus got quite the earful about this.

The church itself was in a slightly sketchy part of the city and is very small, but the people were quite nice. It is pastored by a missionary and his family, originally from Florida. They have a daughter around my age who introduced herself and the pastor insisted on making sure they had my name and contact information so that they could have me over in the next few weeks. The service was led mostly in English, with a little Spanish here and there. They had little audio things for those of whom only speak Spanish so that they could understand better.

Also, there were a couple of cute American boys, one of which is from Naperville. Small world.

All in all, good experience. Despite the scary metro ride, I will most likely return.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Gaudí, fruit markets, and some really great shopping

I´m alive! I´m sure some of you have been thinking that I must have fallen in a well over here, given my lack of posts in the past couple of weeks, but I am indeed alive!

Tuesday through Thursday of this week was our group trip to the beautiful city of Barcelona. We headed out Tuesday morning on a high-speed train, which got us there in just over 3 hours instead of the usual 7. Upon arrival we went to our really nice hotel and had some free time, which my friend Cassie and I took to get some lunch at a tapas bar (I made the mistake of sitting down in front of some tapas that looked like they had come straight from the ocean...), ice cream and do some window shopping. Our hotel was situated in one of the really great shopping areas of town...quite dangerous, but incredibly fun. I ended up having to buy myself a blue leather jacket; I just couldn´t resist.

That afternoon we visited La Sagrada Familia, an enormous church (not cathedral) designed by Gaudí. He spent pretty much his entire life working on it, and got so obsessed with it at the end of his life that he ended up living in the basement and stopped taking care of himself. Because of this, he looked so much like a vagabond that when he was hit by a car and taken to a hospital (I think this is what actually killed him), no one knew it was him for several days. At any rate, they stopped working on the church soon after Gaudí´s death, I believe due to lack of funds, and then a new architect picked up the project in 1988. He spent several years researching what Gaudí wanted for the building, though there is a definite difference between what Gaudí did and what has been done recently. The church is scheduled to be finished in 2025. I went up in one of the towers and about had a heart attack - the view was great but it was incredibly high up. I might have been ok except that we were supposed to take the spiral staircase back down. Unfortunately, I have issues making my feet work on small, tightly wound spiral staircases that are several stories in the air. Luckily, I was able to sneak back onto the elevator that took us up in the first place. Boy was I glad to have my feet on the ground again...

After the Sagrada Familia, we drove over to the Parque Guell, a park also designed by Gaudí. The only downer is that by this time it was almost 7 pm, so it was getting dark and kind of chilly, making the park much less interesting to all of us. It would be a really great place to visit during the spring when it is warm and sunny, however. That night we had dinner at a fairly nice restaurant, where I got the lamb and was severely disappointed to discover that they have no idea how to make lamb like Julie Swope. The dessert, however, was good - Crema Catalana, a cross between pudding and creme brulee and, obviously, a very Catalonian dish.

Wednesday dawned bright and early with a fantastic buffet breakfast provided by our hotel (can anyone tell that I was excited by the food on this trip?). I had a small plate of real breakfast food (eggs, etc) and then had about 2 plates filled with just a variety of pastries. Yum. We then set out for Casa Batlló, a house in Barcelona designed by, you guessed it, Gaudí! Gaudí had this thing for designing everything in his houses, so everything from the ceilings to the doorknobs were very interesting. They gave us these audio guide things to listen to while we toured the house, only I certainly did not have the attention span to listen to it that day and instead took a bunch of pictures. I told Cassie to alert me of anything interesting.

From Casa Batlló, we strolled through the Gothic District, which makes up a large portion of town. Barcelona, unlike Madrid, was an extremely important city in the Middle Ages, so it actually has a large, very important Gothic District. We also strolled down Las Ramblas, one of the biggest, most important streets in the city. There is a very famous market just off of Las Ramblas called the Mercado de la Boquería where I could have lived forever. About half of this market is just rows and rows of various fresh fruit vendors. I had the best fresh pineapple-coconut juice there. I seriously think that is what Heaven may be like. They also had candy, chocolate, dried fruits and was amazing.

Our last stop before lunch was the Picasso Museum. Though Picasso was born in the south of Spain, he lived the majority of his life in Barcelona and this museum is dedicated to his life and early works. Though his most famous works are his cubist stuff, he actually was an extremely talented impressionist and spent most of his career trying to find his niche. Though I have never been a big Picasso fan (outside of the bizarre fascination I have for ¨Guernica¨), I now have a much bigger appreciation for him after having seen his early works.

For lunch we went to a café called 4gats, the café where Picasso used to eat all of the time. Unfortunately I was not only sick but we also had a limited selection of the menu to order from, so I cannot give a full description of the restaurant, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. Our afternoon and evening were free for us to do as we wished, so Cassie and I ended up doing a bit of shopping (what else) and getting some fruit for dinner at the amazing Mercado.

Thursday we drove to a small town about an hour outside of Barcelona to visit Las Cavas Freixenet, a winery that specializes in making Cava, a specific type of sparkling wine. We got to see the old wine cellars and the new part of the winery where everything is now done by machine. We were also given a glass of Cava to try after the tour. Though it was better than any other wine I´ve had, it was at that point that I decided that I just do not like wine. Oh well. At least I tried it so no one can say that I´m an ignorant fool.

Next weekend: Paris!