Friday, November 29, 2013

A Very Different Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has never seemed to be the quintessential American holiday more than right now. There are plenty of other celebrations that have made it to Spain in an Americanized form - last month, Halloween was a pretty big deal. But not Thanksgiving.

Even the concept of "being thankful" for things was difficult to explain, especially to the younger students in my private classes. With the 5 and 9 year old siblings I taught yesterday, I ended up asking them to write down things they liked. So the little boy said the only thing he's thankful for is football.

I actually ended up learning new things about the holiday in preparing a Thanksgiving-themed lesson. For example, some historians believe that the Native Americans showed up at the "First Thanksgiving" feast not because they were invited, but because they heard a ton of gunshots and thought the Pilgrims were being attacked.

And I watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving about 10 times.

This may also have been the Thanksgiving that I ate the most food. The English teachers at my school organized a fantastic Thanksgiving Day lunch. Since I am ovenless, I set aside my dreams of chocolate pecan pie and made a Waldorf Salad - I figured that was something uniquely American and easy to make in a short time. However, it's a lot more difficult when you can't buy seedless grapes.

The Menu:

Appetizers
Shrimp
Ham
Toasted crackers
Salad (mine and a more typical salad, although it had apples and walnuts in it as well)
Bread
Soup
Some kind of soup with pan-fried bread and lemon. I can't remember what it was called, but it was good, and I am the most picky when it comes to soups.
Main course
Chicken
Baked mashed potatoes
Deserts
Coffee flavored flan
Lemon cheesecake (I definitely had two pieces of this and then was given another heaping serving to take home with me)

I raced home from our 4 hour lunch so I could go struggle to explain the holiday for my hour and a half long class, and then had a little time to sit in my apartment before Thanksgiving Round 2. [I also said a quick hello to my new roommate who moved in yesterday! Because there just wasn't enough going on this week already.]

The spread.
So I made up another batch of salad and joined some friends for a late dinner. We ended up eating around the same time as our families at home would have, which I thought was nice except for the waiting to eat part. There are quite a few American teaching assistants, so between us, we were able to put together a very American Thanksgiving feast, with some Spanish and French contributions as well.

The Menu:

Appetizers
Crackers
Dip (the one I tried was cheese and tuna, which was so delicious, I didn't even try the other)
Doritos TexMex
Cucumbers and carrots
Main course
Turkey (some of the best turkey I've ever eaten in my life)
Baked macaroni and cheese
Green bean casserole
Salad
Peas with ham
Cornbread and baguettes
Desert
Apple pie

Several of the teachers have asked me if this was my first Thanksgiving away from family. It was weird to realize that it was. There is no holiday that I associate more with family, so it's strange to think that it passed without me being able to see or talk with them. Nevertheless, I had a terrific day - although now I have a lot of sleep to catch up on.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

At the Moment: November 24

WHAT I'M READING
A Dance with Dragons
Like the last time I posted one of these, I'm reading a Song of Ice and Fire novel. In the past 2 weeks, I've made it all the way to...page 232. I'm hoping to finish before Christmas so that I can send it home with my family, and therefore have extra room in my luggage. Probably for a new pair of boots :)

WHAT I'M WATCHING
La Patrona
This is the Spanish-language [Mexican] telenovela I've been watching consistently. Except for a few stretches where either not much happened, or a lot of really bad things happened to the protagonist, it's been delightful. Bonus: there aren't too many long, drawn out, dramatic stares.

War and Peace
So far, I've watched the first part of this miniseries - like the novel [which I haven't read], it's ridiculously long. But I really enjoyed it. I mean, it's about Russia and the 1800s, I have every reason to like it. Plus the cast is fantastic, full of talented actors from all across Europe, including Brenda Blethlyn and Malcom McDowell and Clemence Posey [Fleur in Harry Potter].

WHAT I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO

Christmas! It's only one month away! I get to see my family, travel in Andalucia, and then spend some time in Istanbul or Morocco as well. I cannot wait to feel warm again.

WHAT I'M DREADING

Sweeping. Mopping. Doing dishes. Laundry. Ugh, so many chores. I get lazy about cleaning my apartment and then accumulate a really long list of things that need to get done. The dishes are the worst, no sooner have I gotten around to cleaning the dirty ones than I need to cook again. And especially since I don't have a roommate, I'm bad about cleaning the floors as often as I probably should. Oh well.

WHAT I DID INSTEAD OF MOPPING

Iglesia Nuestra Se├▒ora del Espino
Went on walks and took pictures! After this weekend, I'm pretty much out of touristy things to do in Soria. I still have plenty of masses to go to in order to see the insides of all the churches, but other than that...I've been to all the "highlights" that are listed on my tourist map.

So that just means that I'm going to start going to all the other cities on my ever-increasing list of Places to See. I'm focusing on Northern Spain for the moment - Barcelona, Burgos, San Sebastian, Segovia, Valladolid and Zaragoza are up first, mostly because they're fairly close to me. [I definitely did not make that alphabetical on purpose...OCD in action.] It'll be a little difficult to travel on weekends, since I only have three days and it takes a while to get anywhere by bus. There is, however, a nice 4 day holiday weekend coming up :)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Yearning for Something Else

It seems almost impossible, but I’ve already gotten used to all the beautiful old European architecture that I dreamed about seeing for so long. I've settled into a routine. I’m not constantly in awe of my surroundings anymore.

Chinchero, Peru
And I find this normalcy quite tragic. 

One of the things I hate about being American is that there is such a dearth of ancient historical sites. Sure, I love the Alamo and Nottoway and the Biltmore [Estate? Manor? Mansion? Giant house] and Independence Hall, to name a few. But my favorite buildings in history are earlier than all these – like the Hagia Sofia and the Alhambra and Petra and Saint Petersburg. A medieval Spanish city really is one of the most perfect places for me to end up.

A similar thing happened while I was in Peru, but then I was living in a newer urban area, so that wasn't too surprising. Besides, the Inka walls and ruins in and around the Sacred Valley never ceased to amaze me. [I think I wrote about the time that ruins and terraces made me cry.]

Here in Soria, every other building looks like it was built 400 years ago. From my living room window, I can see the ruins of a church built even earlier. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love it, and yet, I’m already walking through the streets quickly, not bothering to look at the wonders around me. I already want something different, something else.

Partially, this means I have to quit being lazy on the weekends and go explore other pueblos and cities in the surrounding province. I have a long list of recommendations from both students and teachers on the best places to see – cathedrals, castles, nature areas, etc. Those, I’m sure, will bring me some of the oh-my-goodness-I’m-in-Spain-this-is-amazing moments that I crave.

With my newly connected Internet, I've also been researching and planning trips for my Christmas and Easter breaks. There are so many possibilities - Andalucia, Istanbul, Morocco, Eastern Europe, the U.K. I haven't entirely figured out where I'm going to be going, but I am already super excited about all that traveling!

Secondly, it means that I need to quit being super nostalgic about the past and start finding things to like about the present, a la Midnight in Paris. [If you haven't seen it already, I really recommend it - the casting and script and cinematography were all perfect.]

So many famous actors: Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Alison Pill, Adrian Brody, Michael Sheen, Carla Bruni...and Owen Wilson, who really can act.
Continuing with this pop culture theme, I recently rewatched several episodes of Castle. 

[And Mr. and Mrs. Smith was on so I watched that again too – in Spanish, because I hadn't figured out how to change the language yet. Undoubtedly one of the best Spanish language dubs I have ever come across.] 

[I’m not just watching American stuff though, I promise. Telemundo has a channel with all their ridiculously goofy telenovelas, so I've been watching one of those on weeknights.  And there’s a Spanish hospital show, and plenty of Spanish period dramas.]

But anyway, the Castle episodes were all from last season, which I couldn’t resist, especially because they started with "Still," a.k.a. the best flashback episode ever created. Two episodes later [they were going backwards, apparently] was the Bigfoot one, where once again we see Castle ready to believe in everything imaginable and Beckett being skeptical. I am super realistic and practical about just about everything, so it really hit me when she said she didn’t need to believe in Bigfoot or zombies or ghosts – she believes in the magic of everyday things.
The most perfect incredulous look. Stana Katic is brilliant.
I think that’s why I work so well with little kids - they are still curious. Everything is new and amazing and magical to them. Daily life doesn’t have to be boring. It’s an infectious idea. And yet, I forget so often. It's hard to remind myself to appreciate and enjoy life when that self-critical inner voice starts nagging me.

Today, however, that's been really easy to do. All because it snowed! For at least 30 minutes. Actually, as I've been writing/editing this post, there have been a few more snow flurries. No matter how many times I've seen the same thing in Texas - although I always seem to miss the biggest snowfalls - it's still amazing and magical that it's happening here, in Spain, in the middle of the day, in November.

And I haven't even needed to turn the heat on.
Even though I started writing this post weeks ago, I knew there was something missing. So I waited, and in the meantime I started some more posts, about books and charity and Spain, that also need to wait. But now I feel a perfect clarity about the ending. The day has come, the snow has come, the magic has come. That was the something else I needed.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Everyday Life in Spain

Seven weeks ago today, I was boarding a plane to Madrid (via Miami). Time really has been flying by on me - I feel like I've hardly done anything other than work, sleep, and watch TV (in Spanish, of course). It's been amazing to visit so many ancient ruins, beautiful churches, and lovely parks. But I think now is a good time for me to share a list I've been compiling since day one: the biggest differences I've noticed between small-town-Spain and big-city-Texas.

Now, I wasn't expecting any kind of culture shock on moving here. For one thing, I love love love European culture and history, what I know of it from books and classes and articles, so I think I came pretty well informed (plus I took a class in college just on Cultural Diversity). More importantly, I spent 6 weeks living in Peru. This was useful not just because of the shared language and history between the two countries, but also because I got used to doing things in a different way.

So I'll start with the most obvious differences between Spain and the U.S.

Education. I work at a secondary school, which covers 6 years of schooling, the American equivalent of 7th-12th grades. Classes start at 8:15 in the morning and end at 2:15, with two recess periods - the first is 20 minutes long and the second is 25. Each class lasts for 50 minutes and they have 5 minutes in between classes. There's no designated lunchtime or cafeteria, so most kids bring snacks and sandwiches from home. The older students are allowed to leave the school during their breaks, and the English teachers always go get a cup of cafe con leche at a nearby cafe. (I have a longer post coming about more school-related things I've noticed.)

Food! Always a good topic. I can't imagine anyone comes to Spain not knowing about tapas and super late dinnertimes. I've really just reverted back to my Peru eating schedule - a small breakfast (hot tea and bread), a large lunch, and then a small dinner (bread again!). This works better with my private class schedule; I eat lunch when I get home from morning classes, have a nice siesta, and then have dinner after my private classes.
I'm having tapas this weekend! It's mushroom season in Soria, apparently.
Finally, walking. Walking to school. Walking to the store. Walking to classes. I can literally count on my fingers the number of times I've taken a car or bus somewhere since arriving in Soria. For me, this is the most wonderful thing about living in Spain. As much as I love driving, it is so nice to not have to drive to get somewhere. Also, a lot more healthy.

There have definitely been some surprises, however. These are the things that have most struck me as being "foreign."

People smoke. People smoke in doorways, they smoke walking down the street. I pass by a smoker probably every day. I don't like to begrudge anyone this habit, dangerous as it is, but I cannot stand smelling cigarette smoke. (Perhaps this might considered obvious as well, but people said the same thing about Peru and I rarely had to walk through or behind a cloud of smoke while I was there.)

Also, despite all the walking around, people don't smile at anyone on the street unless they already know them. People don't even smile when someone lets them pass in front of them. This is so strange coming from Texas, where you learn to wave/smile at other drivers when they let you go through an intersection first or if you walk through a crosswalk in front of them.

People walking around the Plaza Mayor.
I once had to go to 3 grocery stores to buy soap. Just regular old liquid hand soap. It was mind-boggling that both of the nearest groceries would be completely sold-out of something like soap.

Speaking of grocery stores: milk here comes from a shelf. Not a refrigerated shelf. A shelf, like next to the cookies and bread. It just sits there. And yes, of course it's been treated and it's perfectly safe to drink, but...I cannot get over the fact that it has been sitting at room temperature for who knows how long. So I walk to a supermarket all the way across town to get my refrigerated milk.

The milk aisle at the supermarket looks pretty much like this.
Instead of no dryer, which I was expecting, I get no oven. You would think this was a good trade, but the dryer takes forever to actually get things dry (I've used it once when I washed my PJs because there is no way I'm going to bed with less than 4 layers on). I'm perfectly happy to use my drying rack and clothespins instead, but recently I've been wishing for all the things I can't bake - banana bread, chocolate pecan pie, etc.

Continuing on the apartment theme, I'm renting my apartment from the owner rather than an actual apartment complex. I don't think apartment complexes even exist here. Everyone just puts up a notice if they've got a room to rent, online or at the university or on a telephone pole. A lot of people don't even sign a lease. I did, but my landlord repeated over and over again that it was a private contract and he'd have to pay a lot of extra taxes if I tried to use it for something public.

Oh, and sofa covers. While we did have a slipcover on our living room couch for a while, they aren't super common at home. Here, they are everywhere. Everywhere. I don't think I've seen a single apartment without sofa covers, since the majority of places are furnished by the owners.

My least favorite difference? The infernal front doors with their center handles. I've gotten the hang of them, but at the beginning I could not figure these things out. The handle is just a knob in the center, so when the door shuts, it's not going to open without a key. You turn the key one way - generally to the left - to unlock the door and then push it open. BUT, if you had unwittingly turned it right to unlock it, you actually threw the deadbolt and need to give it another turn or two to the left before it will open.

It looks nice, but you'd better know which way to turn the key.
I stood outside my hotel room for about 20 minutes on my second day in town because I could not for the life of me unlock the door. Luckily, I had added the hotel's wifi to my phone and, a few Google searches later, understood enough about the locks to get into my room.