Friday, November 26, 2010

Falling in Love with Italy. Again.

Two weekends ago I traveled to Milan, Italy to see the sights and indulge in some amazing Italian food. After a weekend there I couldn’t help but question why I chose Spain over Italy. It was a great weekend. We flew into Bergamo airport, which is about an hour away from the city. We took a shuttle into the city and then attempted to find our hotel. From there we had to take the metro and then a bus or tram. We thought the tram would be more fun, so we hoped on. We couldn’t figure out how to pay for it. There weren’t any sort of machines and they didn’t except money on the tram. We figured it must be free, right? After being on the tram for at least 45 minutes we came to the conclusion that we weren’t going in the right direction. We asked the woman next to us and she confirmed we were going in the wrong direction. I thought we might as well ask her if the tram was free or not. Her reply was, “you don’t have tickets?!” We quickly realized our slip up and jumped off the tram as fast as possible. After our hour and a half free tram ride around the city we made it to the hotel!

We grabbed at quick lunch at this hole-in-the-wall café that ended up being great. Our waiter called it the international café because we were American, he was Egyptian, the other waitress was Italian, and there were two other customers from Peru and Columbia. It was a mix of English, Spanish and Italian. Combined it didn’t get us too far. Either way, it was fun and a lunch to remember. From there we headed into the center of the city to walk around. We knew it’d be cold in Milan, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as cold as it was. We all bought warmer clothing right away.

Earlier in the day I had called Anna to see if we could meet up. Anna was my cousin’s aupair years ago. She’s from a town just outside of Venice and lives in Milan. I had a chance to meet her when I was in Milan last time, so it was great to see her again. I was very impressed with myself because I was able to find Anna’s house without looking at a map, especially since my first visit to Milan was for less than 24 hours. We met Anna just outside her house and drove to another neighborhood to explore and have dinner. It was great to see Milan through her eyes for a second time.

On Saturday we took the train out to Lake Como. Sadly, there weren’t any George Clooney sightings. Nonetheless, it was very enjoyable. Since our time was limited we only went to the town of Como. It’s a really cute little town, but there wasn’t too much to do there. We took the funicular (a tram that goes up the mountain) to see the spectacular views. It was pretty cloudy, which was disappointing, but we could still see the Alps and Switzerland.

On the way up the funicular we met a little girl, Kyla, from Washington. She proudly told us she was four and that Liam, her little brother was there, too. Unfortunately, Kyla and Liam were also on the funicular going down the mountain. We had gotten on really early to ensure we could be in the first car to see the ride down. Kyla and Liam’s mom also insisted on being in the first car because she wanted to get a video on her cell phone of the ride down. Liam’s stroller barely fit, yet alone the rest of his family. Before the funicular even started moving Liam started yelling. After about five minutes later his dad thought he’d try and solve the problem by applying chapstick to Liam’s lips. Way to go, Pops. What a miracle worker. I think the appropriate question is who brings their one- and four-year-olds on a trip to Europe? You might be shocked, but the chapstick didn’t work. The screaming continued and ten minutes later the dad decided to give him an orange slice. These parents should receive the parenting award of the year. The orange slice worked a little better than the chapstick. Needless to say, we were very happy to finally get off the funicular and head back to Milan—not without a stop to a pastry stop to try an authentic Italian cannoli first.

For dinner we headed to Anna’s house. She put out an amazing spread. It’s probably a good thing I don’t live in Italy. Scratch the probably. It’s definitely a good thing I don’t live there. I’d be 400 pounds. She made tortellini with a delicious walnut sauce. Good thing we were only there for a long weekend. On Sunday we hit up the sights. It was rainy out, so that put a damper on things. We went to a castle and the duomo. We were sad to end our long weekend in Milan, but we knew we had to get to bed early. Monday morning we had to wake up at 3:15am to catch the bus to the airport for our 6:25am flight back to Sevilla. It was another successful trip to Italy and I’m already trying to figure out when I can go back.

The past two weeks have been mellow, but fun. Last night a group of us celebrated Thanksgiving. It was the best Thanksgiving away from home that I could ask for. Earlier this week Briana, Julia and I went to Corte Inglés (the largest, and only, Spanish department store) to find some good ol’ American food. We found sweet potatoes, Christmas colored and shaped marshmellows, hard cider, cranberry sauce and a few other things to help us prepare our feast. Since our apartment doesn’t have an oven, we made everything and ate at Julia’s. I was very impressed with our menu and how well everything turned out. We had a crackers, cheese and grape plate for appetizers. A pumpkin soup for a starter and then a gourmet meal consisting of bread, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy, roasted asparagus and roasted chicken, which we did buy. It seems pretty hard to find a turkey, yet alone cook it in the tiny ovens here. Oh, and we had plenty of vino (wine.) For dessert we had a chocolate cake and chocolate peanut butter clusters that I made, both of which we barely touched after our huge meal.

It was a wonderful night spent with new friends. I’m looking forward to our next dinner party.

A few weeks ago practically every Spaniard I know told me that they had to switch out the summer clothes in their closets with their winter clothes. Another silly Spanish tradition that doesn’t make sense, I thought. I just wear the same clothes all year round and I’ve always done that.

Only recently did it hit me as to why Spaniards do this.

They literally need two wardrobes because there’s no heat. Anywhere! Even when you’re inside it’s freezing, so you better have on several layers and a sweater. Looks like I have to go and buy some more warm clothes. It was pretty cold last week, so I wore the coat I brought for the winter all day during school. I’m starting to think I didn’t pack really well. I don’t remember it getting this cold last time. Oops. Well, I guess it’s a good excuse to buy some new clothes!

In a few minutes I’m headed off to the airport to go to Bilbao for the weekend. I’ve never been to northern Spain, so I’m looking forward to it. Unfortunately, it’s supposed to rain the entire weekend. I still need to find some shoes suitable for the rain. Maybe I’ll be able to do so there. Hopefully. Next weekend is a long week and I’m taking advantage of it by going to Liverpool and Edinburgh. I’m going with Briana, Julia and Jan. (Jan is the other American that teaches at my school.) I’m really looking forward to it. Especially all of the Beatles stuff in Liverpool. Lots of fun travel coming up!

(ps pictures to come)

Hasta pronto,

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Fairy Tale Life

As promised, I wanted to talk about the cockroach situation. Let me start with the good news. We haven’t seen one in awhile. Right after I posted my last entry about them I shut down my computer, headed to the bathroom and found a couple. I was able to kill one, but the other sucker got away too fast. They were coming out from under the top of the bathtub. We bought spray and traps and (fingers crossed!) they’re gone.

I know it’s been awhile since my last post, so I’m trying to think of the important things to highlight.

Several weekends ago we went out for a new Spanish friend’s birthday. He’s actually a friend of our roommate’s. He’s half American, so we went to an “American” restaurant for dinner. His girlfriend orchestrated the big surprise. It was fun and interesting to see Spain’s take on an American restaurant. Hate to break it to you Spain, but we don’t eat pork as much as you’d think. Virtually every item on the menu had some type of pork in it. Even though we had to wade through the pork I did enjoy the free refills.

To try and look more Spanish I wore my highest pair of heels. To my surprise, I got several compliments on them. The most surprising was from a Spanish woman saying she wished she could walk as well as I did in them. Little did she know…it was early in the night and my prime form was rapidly fading. We hit a little snafu when we got to the club. Carmen had talked to one of her friends who was going to add all of our names to the list so we could get in free and get a free drink coupon. For some strange reason Briana and I didn’t make the list. Ironic we’re the Americans in the group. Ahhh, what can ya do? In this instance we ended up getting in for free, no free drink though! There have been several other instances however when being American has been more of a hassle. I don’t think it’s necessarily because we’re American, but rather because we’re foreign. In fact, being American gives us a leg up in this somewhat racist country because we’re able to blend in. As soon as we open our mouths to speak it’s pretty obvious we’re not from around here and sadly, the way we’re treated differs from the treatment Spaniards receive. Another part of it has to do with the fact that we have a more difficult time defending ourselves in Spanish. Sometimes instead of putting up a fight (even when I’d probably win) I walk away too nervous to try. That wouldn’t happen at home, but here the language barrier can be overwhelming. Luckily, instances like these are semi rare.

A few weeks ago my cousin Jess and her friend Amanda came to visit. It was so nice to have visitors and see some familiar faces! I think their visit also helped Briana and I get a little more out of our shells. We visited some of the tourist attractions that we loved going to while we were studying abroad. Their visit also prompted us to take advantage of some of the other things Sevilla has to offer for Sevillanos. Every Thursday Sevillanos take over the Plaza de Salvador. We joined in the fun with our visitors and indulged in some tinto (red wine with lemon fanta…much better than it sounds.) On Friday we hit up all of the main tourist attractions. In the evening we went to a fun, but touristy flamenco bar. From there we headed to dinner and a night on the town. Our night on the town didn’t end until 5:15am. Very typical for Spain, however we didn’t plan extremely well considering we had to get up at 8:15 to go to the Arab baths. I was very impressed with how well I functioned with only 3 hours of sleep! It was my second time at the baths, and it was even better than I remembered. I’m hoping to make it a monthly excursion. When in Spain, right?

Jess and Amanda headed to Granada for the weekend, so we were left to celebrate Halloween with new friends. Briana and I go through our fair share of Coca-Cola Light (Diet Coke, or as we call it CCL.) Fair share is probably an understatement. We drink it like water. A last minute decision prompted us to dress up as our favorite beverage. We deemed ourselves as the Coca-Cola Light girls. Another kid on our program was having a Halloween party, so we partook in the fun. It was a nice mix of American, British and Spanish kids. The American host’s mom even brought red party cups from the States! All of the Spaniards were so excited. They kept saying it was like what they saw in the movies.

Two weeks ago something very interesting happened at school. I was called down to the principal’s office to give him my passport info so I could be paid and I found him in the schoolyard instead of his office. With him were two policemen who were looking all around. I asked the principal what happened and he explained that there was someone standing on the other side of the fence, they presume a drug dealer, and that he got spooked and threw a bag of drugs into the schoolyard. The bag hit a child ON THE HEAD and fell to the floor! Not knowing what it was the kid picked it up and threw it back outside. Huge problem, right? Nope. Not at all. The school literally just shrugged it off. Yes, the policemen came to check it out, but that was it. I heard the principal tell the story again later to all of the teachers and he laughed hysterically the whole way through it. As did the teachers. If this had happened at home the school would have shut down, a memo would have gone out to all parents and the kid whose head it fell on would already be in therapy. I really had to laugh at all of the differences.

This nonchalant mentality is carried through most things. There’s no school nurse so kids will come in with all types of problems. Teachers switch off bandaging them up, calling the parents and just consoling them. One day I was sitting in the staffroom/teachers lounge doing some work when a few teachers came in holding the back of a boy’s head. It was gushing blood. They couldn’t hold up clean paper towels fast enough. Another boy had thought it would be a good idea to smash a huge rock into the back of this poor kid’s head. Dios mio. Despite the fact that they couldn’t stop the gushing blood, the teachers still had a no pasa nada (no worries) attitude. I had to excuse myself from the room because I was concerned about passing out. Turns out the kid had to go to the hospital for stitches. Pobrecito.

It seems like their teaching methods also follow this nonchalant attitude. I can’t really figure out the teaching methods…if there are any. I realize I am not a teacher myself, but I do think there are some basics to learning a language. First off, it entails a lot of memorization. Additionally, the key to becoming proficient is being able to conjugate verbs. When I learned Spanish I’d sit down and write out all of the conjugations for one verb in one tense. For example, I go to the store. You go to the store. S/he goes to the store. We go to the store. They went to the store. This method simply isn’t used here. In my opinion, this is vital to learning a language. Instead they do strange activities and learn vocab words for hobbies that one would never actually use. I’m not sure how useful wind boarding is in your average Spaniard’s (or even American’s) vocabulary. All in all, if you ask me, the way these kids are being taught English is virtually useless. They spend all of their time copying word for word dialogues and songs from the book. Great, you know how to write what’s in front of you. If one more child tells me, “I am fine, thank you. And you?” when clearly they are not fine, I might shoot myself in the foot. It’s the only response they know and that translates across the board. Just because Emma, the fictional character from the book, likes egg sandwiches it doesn’t mean it’s also your favorite food. I understand that they don’t know any better because that’s all they’re taught. They read these dialogues over and over again, but they’re not actually learning anything. It’s very frustrating to be sitting in the class and only asked to participate when it’s for pronunciation. On rare occasions I’m even asked what a word in Spanish means in English. Wow! What a great use of my fluency.

To top that off, one of the teachers I work with always tells me, “No, that’s not how we say that here.” I understand there are differences both with vocabulary and also with pronunciation between British English and American English, but lady last time I checked I was the native English speaker. For example, one of the kids asked me how you say demonio in English. I said demon or devil. The teacher said, “No, we say evil here.” I’m sorry, but that just isn’t correct! I’m not interested in stepping on the teachers’ toes, but I am here for a reason. English is my first language and I’m proficient in Spanish, which gives me a leg up with trying to teach these kids. It’s so tough for me to sit back, grin and think to myself that the teacher’s explanation is flat out wrong. As one girl on my program said, there’s a reason we’re in Spain teaching English. I just wish I actually had a chance to teach!

Another thing that has been difficult to get used to is the way teachers conduct their classes. They are much more blunt, aggressive and physical. In front of all of the students they will openly talk about how one student is slow. They also blame a lot of problems on student’s being from other countries. Again, they will openly say (in Spanish) this student is bad in all subjects because they’re from [insert country here.] During my first week that was also how I was introduced to the children. This is Luis, Maria, Carmen, Jose, oh and this is Pablo. He’s from Romania. For some reason it was important to note all of the kids who aren’t Spanish.

I haven’t seen too many kids hit by their teachers, but it happens. It goes along with the no pasa nada attitude. Another thing that’s strange to me is the urgency expressed by the teachers while answering questions. The teachers will call on a student and instead of letting them finish their thought or help them with the answer they’ll call on another student. Basically, it doesn’t help the student who answered it wrong learn. They’re merely skipped.

Briana had a very good example of this. There’s a boy in one of her classes who just moved here from China. The teacher put him in the back of the class and said Luis
(how he got the name Luis, I don’t know) doesn’t speak any English, so just skip over him. Briana had the opportunity to take the kid to another room to work on the workbook. Turns out the kid knows English even better than the Spanish kids in the class. He completed all of the worksheets in one class with Briana that the Spanish kids had been working on all year. As a general rule, if you’re different you’re marginalized and pushed to the back even if you know the information. The sad thing is that the kids pick up on it. There’s a Russian girl in one of my classes. She was born here so she’s spoken Spanish through all of her schooling and learned English at the same time as all of the Spanish kids. The other day I was trying to help her in English and she just kept saying, I don’t know this. I’m Russian. Her English is not as advanced (and I use advanced liberally) as some of the Spanish kids. In this situation I blame the teachers. The poor girl is brushed off to the side because she’s Russian.

Well, this post is getting quite long and it’s getting late. Tomorrow morning I’m headed to Milan with Briana and our new friend Julia. It will be my first trip since getting here. I feel like the travel bug hasn’t bitten me yet, so I’m ready for that to happen this weekend. While the travel virus may not have set in, I have booked a fair amount of trips. In two weeks Briana and I are headed to Bilbao, in Northern Spain. Then Liza is coming to Spain to visit and we’re going to travel together to Switzerland and Ireland. I’m looking so forward to that. We’ve never really traveled by ourselves and it’s been a long time since we’ve even spent more than a week in the same city together. Some sister bonding time is long past due. I can’t wait to be together again. From Ireland I’m headed to Egypt. I never want this fairy tale life to end. Briana and I are going on a guided trip of Egypt through a Spanish travel agency. I think it’s going to be a really interesting experience. We’re going to be in Cairo for a few days and then we’re taking a cruise down the Nile. Even though I don’t work that much at school I’ve loaded my schedule with clases particulars (English lessons) to help pay for this. Goodness knows the next time I’ll have a chance to come to Europe. I’m also fortunate that at this point in my life I don’t absolutely need to do any saving. I’m going to remove that scary word from my vocabulary until I’m stateside again. Until then, I plan on spending every penny on flights, hostels, gelato and the gym.

Hasta pronto,