Monday, March 30, 2009

Musings from across the pond...

(Yes, I realize that is usually used in relation to England, but I still find it applicable here...)

Some things I've been thinking on recently:

1. No matter what the weather is doing, the Madrileños are complaining about it. I seriously thought that this was just a cold weather thing, as it truly was colder than the average winter when we arrived. Yet they continued to complain about the cold when it got to be 40 degrees...50 degrees...55 degrees...and then when it hit around 60 or 65, they started complaining that it was too hot. I also thought for a while that this was just a Carmen thing, but it appears that it is fairly widespread.

I would like to point out, however, that when they are complaining about the heat, most of them are still dressed in long pants, layered long sleeves, and perhaps a scarf and boots to top it off. Seriously, put on some sandals and a t-shirt. It truly does wonders for the heat factor.

2. Spanish has taken over my brain. Clearly this is more of a me thing than a Spain thing, but recently it has come to my attention that I no longer know how to spell a variety of words in English - I can only seem to come up with their Spanish spellings. This isn´t too bad until I try to message my poor mother and she has to continually tell me how to spell things correctly...

3. While Spanish drivers are crazy, they actually do give pedestrians the right-of-way. Any time there is a cross walk but no light, the pedestrian always has the right-of-way. Randomly cross in front of a car in Peoria, even at a cross walk, and prepare to be road-kill.

4. Though the drivers can be trusted, the motorcyclists cannot. You know in those movies about big cities how they´ll show some motorcyclist weaving his way through traffic, not staying in any real lane, or driving up on the sidewalk like a crazy-person? Turns out, that actually happens.

5. The dogs here are better behaved than the children back home. I may have mentioned this before, but there are lots of dogs in Madrid, most of which are tiny, wear sweaters when it is cold, and frequently get walked without leashes, yet never stray from their owners. What is more, the owners will go into a store or restaurant and leave their dogs waiting for them on the sidewalk outside, where they sit patiently, without moving. This continues to blow my mind.

Momma and Daddy countdown: 4 days!!!!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Canterbury Tales

Sorry, couldn't resist the obvious title.

This weekend brought a nice long break for us students: Thursday was a national holiday celebrating some saint (please do not ask me to remember which one) and, simultaneously, father's day. Thus, no classes. And for whatever marvelous reason, we did not have classes on Monday either, giving us all a 5-day break. Woot! So I took this opportunity to fly up to England and visit my friend Sam (we went to middle and high school together, he now goes to ISU) in Canterbury, where he is studying for the semester.

I have to say that it is a testament to our friendship that I made the trek to Canterbury to visit him. Not only did this trip require a flight to London, but once at the airport I had to hop on a train to the train station, then from there take an 1 1/2 hour train ride to Canterbury. Exhausting.

The weekend gave me the chance to recover though. Apart from seeing the Canterbury Cathedral, we spent the majority of the time relaxing and simply seeing a bit of the city. On Sunday, Sam, myself, and his friend Jessica (also an ISU student studying there) decided to take the bus to Whitstable, a little town on the coast. Now normally this would have been a 20-30 minute bus ride, but because it was Sunday, there was only one bus that had to go to every bus stop in England, thereby making the trip last over an hour. Once there, we walked along the beach, ate some traditional English food (and some ice cream...) and generally lazied around. It was when we decided to catch the bus home that things got interesting. We got to the bus stop about 10 minutes before the Sunday bus was scheduled to come. As we are sitting there waiting, this bus drives by us without stopping. We didn't think too much about it until this English couple came up all distressed that the bus had driven by without stopping...and it was then that we realized that it had been the bus we needed and that the next bus would not come for another hour. When we finally got the next bus (and all of us with full bladders, though we could not find any open public bathrooms, darn Europe), it ended up being the longest, bumpiest ride in the history of the world. We literally crawled off the bus over an hour later, all of us with headaches and feeling rather sick. The other passengers did not appear to be faring any better.

Yet despite the worst bus ride of any of our lives, I had quite a nice time in Canterbury. It was great getting to catch up with Sam and just spend a weekend relaxing and not worrying about a schedule or homework or anything else.

Momma and Daddy countdown: 9 days!!!!!!!!!! =)

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Vente conmigo a vivir..."

Short geography/history lesson: The southernmost tip of Spain is only about 2 feet (ok, really around 2 miles, I believe) from the northernmost part of what is now Morocco. This means that in the year 711, it was extremely easy for a decent-sized contingent of Muslims to cross over to Spain and take over fairly quickly, with the exception to this being the northernmost sections of the peninsula. In 718 the Christians started fighting to take back power in the peninsula, though it took them until 1492 to actually succeed fully at this. During this time the Muslims centered themselves in the south of Spain, specifically in the part that we now know as Andalucía, with their capital being Córdoba. Though the Catholic Kings and the Inquisition did a pretty good job of getting rid of anyone who was not a Christian, Muslim influences remained - and still remain - throughout Spain and are strongest in Andalucía...

...which is where I just spent the past week! We (our program) set out early Tuesday morning and after a nearly 6-hour bus ride (gag) we arrived in Córdoba. After a lunch at which we were served salmorejo, a variation on gazpacho and a specialty of Andalucía (I was one of about 2 people who actually ate and enjoyed all of it), we visited the Mezquita-Catedral: the Mosque-Cathedral. This building was a mosque that was built in 785 and enlarged a variety of times by several Muslim kings. When Córdoba was reconquered by the Christians they consecrated the building as a catholic church and in 1523 they idiotically began covering up some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen and made the center section into a Baroque-style cathedral. They should have been shot. Luckily, they only did this in the very center, so the majority of the Arabic architecture remains and oh, boy is it something to behold. I decided at that moment (and throughout the rest of the trip) that I definitely prefer the old Muslim architecture and art to the overwhelming gaudiness of the Christian/Baroque stuff.

After visiting the Mezquita-Catedral, we hopped back on the bus and drove another couple of hours down to Sevilla, where we stayed for the next two evenings. We spent a lot of time walking around the city, both with the whole group and then later with our art teacher. The weather was absolutely perfect the entire time we were down there - perfectly sunny and high 60´s/low 70´s. Sevilla is full of orange trees (which you cannot eat - they are incredibly bitter and are actually used for cosmetics) and beautiful gardens...I was so excited to see some vegetation! Wednesday evening we got to go to a traditional Flamenco show...I tell you, I have no idea how they move their feet so fast and with such passion. It is exhausting just to watch! By far the coolest thing we did while there, though Cassie accidentally ordering fried sardines was a close second. You eat the little suckers whole (head and all); I did try one and they actually aren´t too bad so long as you don´t think too much on what you are actually eating. Mmm fish eyes...delish...

Another favorite Sevilla moment: Wednesday morning we visited the cathedral, which is the biggest cathedral in the world. Now, when we go on these trips we are accompanied by Fundación professors who act as our tour guides. Cassie and I (as well as several other girls) are particularly fond of Andrés, who has gone on several of these trips with us, and we always try to be in his group (not only is he incredibly interesting, but he has this very soothing voice that almost purrs when he says any word with an R in it...). At any rate, apparently in Spain the ¨official tour guides¨ are overly territorial about all of these historic places, thinking that they are the only ones who should be allowed to give tours of them. While at the cathedral, we had one particular woman, one of these ¨official tour guides¨, seek Andrés out and interrupt our tour twice to try to tell him that he should not be allowed to give a tour. The second time she literally tried to tell him that we could not be in a certain part of the cathedral (though we clearly could), and his response was (roughly translated), ¨This is a cathedral. It is not anyone´s territory. I am a professor with my students; now leave us alone!¨ When she stomped off like a 3-year-old, he sarcastically called after her, ¨¡Aw, pobrecita!¨ (Oh, you poor little thing...) We felt he deserved a round of applause because we just wanted to drop-kick her, crazy woman.

Thursday morning we headed to Granada. Thursday we mostly had free time to wander about the city and take in some of the glorious sun by the river. Friday we visited La Alhambra before heading home to Madrid. La Alhambra is apparently the most visited place in Spain. It is more than just a Muslim palace - it is a mini-city within Granada. It is also one of the best preserved Arab palaces anywhere, especially when you consider how old it is. For example, in one of the rooms the original tile was replaced when the Christians took over, yet Chuck pointed out that even though it was replaced hundreds of years after the palace was built, it was still two and a half times older than our own country. That kind of stuff blows my mind.

In conclusion, when I am Queen of the World, I am going to have my winter home in Sevilla. Woudn´t want my summer home there because it gets far too hot, but I´m sure it would be about perfect in winter. You are all invited to visit.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"In my next life, I'm going to be a Fado singer"

This weekend brought about a trip to Lisbon, Portugal with my friends Cassie, Amy and Jamie. We left dark and early on Friday morning - our flight left at 6:50 so Cassie and I had to catch a taxi to the airport around 4:45...gaaah - and arrived in Lisbon a little after 7 am their time. Despite a flight full of obnoxious Spanish teenagers and a bus ride full of the same teenagers and a *major* creeper (poor Cassie was stuck sitting next to him), it became apparent upon arriving at our hostel that we were going to have an amazing time. This was mostly because the hostel was absolutely amazing: clean, quiet, really nice, helpful people, *and* it included a full breakfast, including crepes! I have rarely been happier.

Lisbon is apparently one of those cities that tourists either love or, more frequently, very much dislike - mostly, I believe, because it is not really known for anything spectacular. Frankly, I think this is exactly why we all loved it so much. We did not feel remotely compelled to do or see anything specific, which allowed us to spend our two days there casually exploring and simply taking in the atmosphere of the city. We started out our adventures by taking a short train ride to Belem, an area just outside of the main section of the city, and locating a very famous bakery that is known for their custard tarts. I don't know how I keep ending up in cities with famous pastries, but it turns out that I have no problem with that. These little tarts were AH-mazing...we had some from other bakeries which were quite delicious as well, but these were warm and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar...yes, you should be jealous.

From there we decided to actually see something, so we checked out the local monastery and Belem Tower, which apparently used to be a political prison. We then had lunch at a pita place we had passed earlier (friggin' amazing pitas) and hit up the Royal Coach Museum. Yes, royal coaches as in Cinderella - only not made from a pumpkin. I really don't see why we don't still use coaches at least when it is sunny and nice outside...I sure would.

That afternoon brought a visit to the Oceanarium and a nap, then it was time for dinner! For this I was particularly excited (yes, more than usual) because we had gotten reservations at a little restaurant called Fado Maior where we were supposed to be able to hear some very good, traditional Fado music (best to just look it up online). Turns out this restaurant is owned by this little couple who has been married for over 50 years - he used to be the president of the National Fado Association and she was once considered one of the best Fado voices in the country. She was completely delighted when we all ordered traditional Portuguese dishes (so delicious) and he was tickled pink to teach us about Fado...they only spoke Portuguese, by the way, so all conversation was conducted with them speaking Portuguese and us speaking Spanish, yet we could still understand each other. It was a beautiful thing.

In fact, the only thing more beautiful was the music itself. I've inserted a video of one of the women who sang. The picture is terrible (it was quite dark while they were performing), but you don't need to be able to see her - just listen to her sing. It was like I discovered a part of me that I didn't know was missing. In my next life, I'm coming back as a Fado singer - it moved me that much. By far the coolest thing I've done in Europe, perhaps in my entire life. I wish I could go back and take you all with me.

Day two mostly brought a lot of wandering around the city and getting a little bit lost several times - though we never really had much of a destination, so that was alright. We spent quite a while exploring Saint George's Castle and searching for a tile museum that we never found, but did encounter a great antique shop where I was able to buy some really authentic 18th and 19th century tiles (Lisbon is known for it's tiled facades. They are really beautiful). That evening was spent at the hostel's kitchen table drinking tea and talking and laughing for hours...basically a perfect end to a fantastic weekend.

This week we are going with the Fundación to Andalucia (we will hit up Córdoba, Sevilla and Granada), the portion of Spain most known for the stereotypical ¨Spanish¨ culture. I am very excited, particularly to see some traditional Flamenco! Another lengthy post to come soon...