Saturday, January 29, 2011

Friday Escapes: El Escorial

Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial
(picture borrowed from Wikipedia)
As I've said before, I have a tough life - work 16 hours a week, take Fridays off... difficult, isn't it?  Nevertheless, an obvious (but unexpected) side effect is the boredom that comes from so much disposable time.  Because I haven't picked up any private pupils or hobbies yet, days stretch out before me like a giant boa constrictor.  Don't get me wrong, I find great stuff to occupy my time, but it's not as easy to do here as at home. Thankfully, though, this week has been busier than normal between an excruciating long meeting and Pub Quiz on Monday, Fusión on Tuesday, and something else on Wednesday - can't remember.  Thursday evening I stayed home.

Therefore, when 11:00 on Thursday night rolled around, I was mildly alarmed at having yet another whole day to occupy.  Going into the Center (a favorite pastime of mine) to wander around, sight-see, and shop was out of the question as I'd gone the past two weeks and was sick of it.  (Besides, carrying around a camera attracts unwanted attention - mostly from older men who just happen to be hanging around where they can offer to take your picture for you, and then start up an uncomfortable, unending conversation.)  Art museums were also a possibility, but I just wasn't feeling it.

Aha!  Day trips!  Google day trips!  Hmmm... Segovia - been there, done that.  Toledo, been there, done that, taken the tour.  Avila... yes, but later on.  Barcelona, not enough time - had to be back in Madrid at 9 for a party.

And then, inspiration!  El Escorial, the King's monastery and retreat. I'd been when I was 11 with my grandparents and it seemed pretty cool back then. Besides, it was only an hour's train ride away, and having just mastered the train system (learn by failure...), I was eager to test my skills.

So, I looked up train times and off I went!  Yes, my friends, that was the extent of my planning.  I did manage to grab an umbrella in case of rain, though the skies in Madrid were pretty clear.

It was a bit of a surprise, then, when I arrived and found several inches of snow on the ground!  Oops!  Didn't see that one coming!  Snow definitely changes plans to wander around town trying to find this place, or whatever other picturesque opportunity there might be.  Oh yes, did I mention I didn't have a map of any sort?  El Escorial, it seems, isn't hip enough for Lonely Planet.

As there was a cafe right outside the train station, it seemed like a good place to warm up with coffee and ask directions.  There were a few people at the bar, most notably two older men enjoying an animated conversation.  I sipped my coffee solemnly and ate my tortilla española, trying to process my predicament.  Not that I was worried at all, just inconvenienced, and I hate inconvenience more than anything else so... paltry.

Anyway, there was a pause in the men's conversation, but when I asked them how to get to the monastery, they commenced on a new debate as to whether I should walk or not, and even the barista joined in.  On the one hand, it was a pretty walk, but qué no!  It was snowing!  Yes, but still, I was young, so I wouldn't mind the snow as much... but the bus would take her there just as well... At length, they decided that I would surely fall and break a leg in the snow, and that it was better to wait for the bus.  Even better, they said, wait ten minutes, and if it doesn't come, walk on up.

It was decided then.  One of the gentlemen went out for a smoke while I waited inside, and they began the usual interrogation.  Where was I from? How did I speak such good Spanish?  What was I doing here and for how long?  Etc.  By this time, the other fellow had come back in and was preparing to leave.  What!  his friend cried. Why don't you just take her with you!

Oh... oh, lovely.  And I thought I had a predicament earlier!!  This time, the matter was decided amongst the three in a matter of seconds,  but seeing my hesitation, they laughed.  Look, said the first.  She's worried!  The barista laughed.  Don't worry, she said.  Te confianza.  Y si no, si no regresas, llamamos el Guardia Civil.  I'll vouch for him. And if you don't return, we'll call out the Civil Guard.

It was at this point I felt myself to be having an out-of-body experience, looking down on the scene and laughing, wondering the mothers of the world would say about talking to strangers and accepting car rides from strange men, but realizing that it would make quite a story later on... assuming I came back alive!  If I hadn't just learned the phrase "te confianza" two days earlier, I might have refused.  But... it was snowing, after all... so of course I agreed.

It was a quick ride up - literally straight up a hill about a mile. I was glad I wasn't walking.  We chatted amiably, but I didn't catch much of what he said, feeling it was more important to focus on worst-case-scenario survival instead... the snow would cushion my fall, if necessary.  But at the top, he showed me where to go, extended his hand and asked my name.  Ah, my name is difficult for you English-speakers, he said.  You don't understand it.  I braced myself for a multi-syllabic torrent.  Oh?  What is it?  I asked.  Jesus, he said.  Of course it is, I thought.  The cherry on top, right?  I'm not sure irony is the right word, but I enjoyed the moment quite a bit.

As for El Monasterio de El Escorial, it was not as cool as I remembered (perhaps I was thinking of The Valley of the Fallen, where Franco is buried, which is closed for renovations) but still worthwhile.  Built to rival the Vatican, it boasts a prestigious art collection and a library that really did rival Rome in its earlier days and survived two fires.

It struck me, though, how cold the past must have been.  There is simply no good way to heat up 75 acres of stone, no matter how important you are.  No amount of fresco, artisan marble, and priceless artwork can make up for constantly stiff joints and clammy fingers.

Additionally, the monastery is also a basilica, hosting over 66 tombs of past royals.  Now, call me crazy, but if I'm going to retreat from the affairs of the State for a while, I'd rather not be reminded of my own eventual demise.  It's just not something I tend to include in my itineraries.  On the other hand, maybe it provides a good outlet on reflection and humility.  Still, many of the caskets were for children - mostly from the distant past, but that would be difficult, I think.  Not a recommendation for Camp David, that's for sure.

Anyway, that was the adventure.  Other than soggy socks and frozen pant legs, the rest of the day passed without incident, and I got back into Madrid just in time to leave again.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Project of the Week

Art Class - Re-desining Les Sabines

See the resemblance??

I'm not sure such levels of chaos will be repeated soon... or ever...
The art teacher was a wonderful sport :)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spanish, Modified

Given the content of that last post and my mood today, I think I should probably clarify the limits of my language. Today, I'm tired of Spanish, I'm tired of the animation, I'm tired of... you get it, I'm sure.

Living between two languages is exhausting. Literally exhausting. Last night I listened to a whole bunch of presentations by ex-Fulbrighters from Spain, who had studied in the United States. The presentations were long and in (unreasonably) rapid Spanish. Fascinating as it was, at a certain point, the will to live becomes... optional... not to mention the will to pay attention and make sense of the torrent of verbal whatever-you-call-it raining down on you.

If only it had been a conversation instead! You see, in most conversations, it is possible to interact effectively by relying on inferences. The animation I mentioned above? It's a blessed thing. I can usually guess what my compadre is talking about and how s/he feels about it, or what a word means, and respond accordingly. And when that fails, context! (Dear Students, if you happen to be reading this, may I recommend polishing these two techniques for life? They will take you far... especially on, say, EOI TESTS.... relevance and real-world application, right here).

But then there are days like today. (Again, if you're one of my students, ignore the fact that that sentence began with 'but.' You are NOT allowed to do that until you have a high school diploma!) Days like today render my best efforts nearly futile. I rarely shake my head and declare, "No entiendo," because I can usually ask about a word instead and figure the rest out, but that was a lost cause today. But, bless those Spaniards, they started all over again for me and explained the basic ideas again, and we were off and rolling... mostly. But mostly it was just sloughing through and wondering vaguely which idiot Babylonian decided it was a good idea to build a skyscraper, and then realizing I had lost the conversation again. Alas, the best of intentions... foiled.

Monday, January 17, 2011

As They Say

A strange thing happened this evening.

It had been a somewhat tedious day, and I was curled up on the couch, entirely absorbed in a novel, Little Bee, which I picked up on a whim at Washington Dulles. (It's quite good, by the way - haven't finished but I'm pretty sure I'd recommend it.) As an English major, I overdosed on reading, and it has only recently returned to be the escape I used to know. So there I sat, oblivious to the world around me.

Suddenly, a shriek from Encarna (mother) broke into my reverie, and startled, I paused to listen in. Apparently, the Italian prime minister got busted for some philandering. I shook my head, vowed to figure out a formula for predicting such outbursts (for example, volume = drama + age x number of bystanders), and went back to my book.

And then it hit me. I had just crossed seamlessly from English to Spanish and back again without even noticing the difference. Somewhere along the way, I had departed from my customary three-step translation tango (cumbersome and inefficient at best), and was now co-existing in a strange world somewhere in between my sweet, beloved English and my new, amorous Spanish (which, if you care to know, I equate with a big bad biker man). Husband and lover, perhaps?

It is a strange place to be, that is certain, and it is treacherous to be sure, for I'm finding that words dessert me at random -- in both languages. As in bad football, lots of fumbles. The analogies are endless... and patience is limited. Besides, it isn't that impressive, just strange. Most of my students at home cross these lines hundreds of times a day. But it's a new one for me and presents a question with no answer as of yet: what in the world do you do with so many words (temperamental words, at that!)? That is my question.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Job

IES Juana de Castilla
My job has two titles: English Teaching Assistant and Auxiliar de Conversacíon.

What do I do, you ask?

That, my friends, is an excellent question... I have no idea!

I'm a week in and have only a vague notion of what I'm supposed to be doing. There are several reasons for this, first being that no one has explicitly explained what an English Teaching Assistant does, except assist with teaching English. Perfectly clear, right? But that brings me to the second obstacle, which is the English classes themselves. I work with at least six different groups of kids, new each day, and with five different teachers. I was warned ahead of time that Spanish teachers pride themselves on improvising. How true that is!

Here's an honest-to-goodness conversation I had on Friday:
Me: "So, what are we doing today?"
Teacher: "Oh, I don't know. Book stuff. The students will know where we are."
Me: "Well, what can I do?"
Teacher: "Oh, just talk to them. You know. They have to pronounce things correctly."
Me: "Great!" (privately rolls eyes)
(PS This should be mildly horrifying to you.)

The teacher then proceeded to rule the rest of the class like a tyrant, leaving little room for me to interact and, you know, assist. And after class, I was informed I should do more! Go through their exercises with them! They need to hear my accent!


In all fairness, that was, without a doubt, the most difficult teacher at the school (openly acknowledged among faculty), and the others at least try to give me a heads up a few minutes before class as to what I can be doing. I, too, can improvise when necessary, you see.

But, as near as I can figure it, I provide interactive learning time by talking with my wonderful American pronunciation, asking kids questions, listening to their replies, and making the necessary adjustments. At least, that's what I've been doing so far.

Now then, my favorite part of all of this is that this conversational style of learning means 100% personal attention. Believe it or not, this is a largely unknown phenomenon in the Spanish school system. Classrooms are largely teacher-centered, and students are expected to take care of their own learning. This is changing, though, and the teachers lament the change on a daily basis. One class, the lowest, is particularly rowdy and apathetic. (Does this sound familiar? Give it some thought and you'll realize why I felt right at home.)

So back to the personal attention aspect. This class, 1A, gives teachers fits. I had been warned about them ahead of time. But... kids are kids are kids, I figured. So I decided to experiment*. It took a few minutes for them to figure out what was going on, but after a bit of conversation about FIFA and videogames, I pretty much had the troublemakers in the palm of my hand in short work. Am I just that great of teacher? Pfft, no. Am I a celebrity at the moment? Definitely. But more than that, I gave them some attention. Some value. Some esteem. With a high gypsy population, this is a new sensation for some of them. The rest... suddenly, they're worth talking to, worth teaching.

It got their attention, at least.

All this takes place independently of lesson planning and last-minute preparations. Job description or no, it's the best job in the world.

... and it's only 16 hours a week. Just sayin' :)

*However, I only see each class one or two times a week... we'll see how well this experiment actually holds out. I have high hopes but realistic expectations.*

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Madrid, a buzzing metropolis, has 6.000.000 inhabitants.

Pause right there. Did you register that, or did you skim over it and keep reading?

Six million, in case you missed it.

Six million people. That's a lot of lives. A lot of stories. Realistically, it's a lot of misery, too, as well as some triumphs here and there.

Honestly, I have no idea what to do with this number.

I suppose it's the Oklahoman in me, but even the endless apartment buildings that I drive by every day, walk underneath and between and alongside, blow my mind. Most are at least 8 or 9 stories of sheer brick and uniform windows. While some are spacious, others - like the one I visited tonight, available for 375E/month - are smaller than your living room. No joke. Now then, eight or nine stories of such living rooms, at least eight wide... multiplied by thousands of such buildings... the number seems more accessible but is still incomprehensible.

There's no room for much of anything except disaster of epic proportions. With so many lives dependent on the system, there's a huge capacity for upheaval.

It's a miracle, then, that Madrid functions as well as it does. Buses and subways connect the whole city - bien comunicado is the technical term, I believe. It takes time, of course, but few places in the American Southwest can boast the same success with transportation. Think what you will about socialism, but it's working - more or less - for six million people. (There are certainly horror stories, yes, but by and large it functions as well as can be expected in such a situation; indeed few -isms can provide so much for so many people...) The majority have jobs and families and live buzzes on for them in a comfortable, predictable manner. Again, this is more than a lot of places can boast.

At the moment, Spain is facing an economic crisis of enormous proportions. Inundated with overenthusiastic Spanish news reports, most people at least have an opinion if asked, but usually they will just shrug and carry on with their normal lives. They only comment when one of their soccer teams, kneeling on the field, forfeits a match because they haven't been paid. "¡Hasta el fútbol, que crisis!" Juan Pedro cried. Even soccer... what a crisis! That said, the economic repercussions haven't seemed to affect his taxi business that much. Life goes on; after all, not too long ago, much of the country was without indoor plumbing, thanks for the Franco regime. They are, therefore, resourceful people, and so a few little news stories create a temporary, dramatic stir (for Spaniards, like Italians, are nothing if not dramatic!), but not much else.

Perhaps it is this resilience that keeps Madrid afloat, soccer or not. If that is the case, six million becomes infinitely more impressive.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Foreign countries: new food, exciting adventures in mass transit, gregarious natives... and the communication skills of a four-year-old.

And I'm one of those annoying English people who constantly has words buzzing around in the brain.

This, as you can imagine, creates an problem. High verbal ability and no outlet.

So, dear friends, if you're reading this and it seems a little... shall we say, circuitous... that is why. To have a captive audience and endless space for expression is irresistible, and I find it difficult to limit myself to clear, concise writing.


If you want direct information, go buy a guidebook to Madrid :) Otherwise... you have been warned.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ai, Mi Spaniards

It is possible to walk through several countries in the space of five minutes. Europe, as you know, is much more compacted than the U.S. Actually though, I was referring to the international flight phenomenon. I've noticed that you generally have two categories of travelers on these flights. Natives returning home, and tourists/businessmen. The natives are animated, excited to be on the home stretch and at last surrounded by their fellow countrymen. The tourists are generally more reserved, ready to get their show on the road, secretly double-checking to make sure they have their passport several times. In general, airports tend to be cold, disinterested places in which everyone has his own destination. But listen carefully, and you can catch an uncensored glimpse of the country you're about to spring upon.

I recently realized that, as wonderful as it is to be suspended 5 miles above the ground, soaring toward some unknown adventure, cram-packed with 100 fellow travelers in a tiny seat, I really dislike flying in general and airports in particular. Having been a tenacious traveler in my younger years, this was a surprising realization, and mulling it over, I was perhaps a little less excited than usual to fly into Washington Dulles to await a 7-hour international flight.

Enter Spaniards. Natives, going home. They are, by nature, animated people (imagine the Spanish mother stereotype and you're not far off), and the airport only made them more so. I collapsed in my chair, tired of traveling and prepackaged sandwich in hand, and just listened.

The lilt of the words caught me, and the lisp, for which my students continually laughed at me, enveloped me in a bilingual fog of ecstasy. The men were as expressive as the women, making much of little. Children ran freely. Parents doted on children. The area was relaxed and light hearted.

Ah, Spain, I thought. It's good to be back!

Fifty-four Square Inches: A Word on Packing

A quick glance through any newspaper will likely inform you that obesity in America is on the rise. We love our food as much as we love our BBQ. (Indeed, The Economist just ran a long article about our BBQ pride; no region is exempt.) Now then, follow my logic: bigger people equals bigger clothes, and that equals bigger suitcases, right? Wouldn't it stand to reason that airlines, astute and well-informed on their customers as they are, would increase baggage allowances to accommodate our recent changes in... stature? (Please note, I say this as a disinterested patron of 5'8".)

But no! It would appear that the reverse has happened! Because of teaching, I didn't even start thinking about packing until two weeks before I left. Two weeks to transplant my entire existence. (By the way, if you've never tried this, you should. It's enlightening.) That is two weeks to decide which over-the-counter drugs are indispensable when you don't have the energy to explain what you need in a foreign language. Two weeks to plan your reading for the next 6 months. Two weeks to decide how to navigate the change of seasons, as well as to realize what items you're missing. (In my case, that would be a good winter coat and jeans, two items extremely hard to come by at short notice.) Finally, that is two weeks to find out what Spanish teachers wear, how that fits with your wardrobe, and to what extent you are going to conform... or not conform... and then arrange your suitcase accordingly.

Preparing the suitcase is a task in and of itself. There is, as everyone knows, a 50-pound limit for every suitcase you check. However, there is a very good chance that your suitcase will hold more than 50 pounds, and that there will be a good three inches left over on top, so it's important to distribute weight around your baggage well. If you do this, though, the extra space is maddening. Clearly, Samsonite and Delsey have acclimated to our enlarged population quite well.

It came as a bit of surprise, then, when at the airport check-in, they charged me extra money for my second bag. What, you say?! One bag! That's right, my friends. American Airlines has generously allowed you one bag for your international trip. But, you say, doesn't 'international' imply that it will most likely be a long trip? Why would they take away your second bag? Surely no other airline does this!

Alas, such is the sad state of things. Last time I checked, Lufthansa and Iberica allow two bags. Foreign airlines, whose citizens are decidedly smaller than ours, not to mention less materialistic (that is to say, more minimalist). Go figure.

Is there, in fact, a correlation between a person's weight and the baggage allowance? Probably not. But I maintain that there is a decided gap in marketing strategies somewhere along the line. In a nation that caters to our every whim and vanity, you would think that something as extravagant as air travel would follow suite. But to charge for an additional bag... that is extravagant.