Wednesday, December 7, 2011

¡Viva la Suiza!

So I successfully traveled to Switzerland without too many difficulties. I made it through the airport on time but they stole my deodorant because I had a few more milliliters than protocol would allow. See what the terrorists have done? This is why we can't have small conveniences, like moderate amounts of hygiene products, on airplanes. At least they prevented me from making everyone smell funny. That would have been terrifying. I waited for a while in the airport but it was different than my experiences with American airports. It may have been because I was using the cheap airline flight but I had to stand up in line for a while instead of just waiting in a little lobby area in order to get on the plane. I felt like people were scared that there weren't going to be enough seats for everyone, so they had to jump in line and reserve a spot. After the waiting in line, we waited in the plane for a while. We ended up taking off an hour later than was advertised on my boarding pass. At least the ticket was cheap.

My Swiss friend Ramona picked me up in Basel in her dad's fancy new BMW. We drove into town and then got out for a walk. Switzerland decided that five o'clock was a good time to be dark, which was bad and good; bad because I wanted to see more of the city but good because the city was decked out in beautiful Christmas decorations and lights. We even found Samichlaus, the Swiss Christmas figure that isn't quite as generous as Santa. He also has a sidekick/slave of some kind that is decked out in black (and sometimes black face apparently) that deals out beatings to the bad kids and traps them in his bag to be taken away. Though he is not without his own faults, I think I like Santa Claus better. Which is why I was delighted when a parade of Santa Claus figures on motorcycles rolled through the streets before we left.

We went to Dietwil afterwards and I got to hang out with Ramona's family again. They are super hospitable. Her dad had some friends over for a monthly night of games and wine. They have a game where they have to drink different unlabeled wines and try to figure out the year and country of origin. They weren't very good at it, especially as they went on. They played lots of card and board games during which they kept track of who won. Ramona's dad has at least twenty years of statistics on the games they play on these special nights. He even has graphs. It's actually quite impressive. Ramona, her sister, and I decided to play a series of memory-based games on our own, so as not to screw with the meticulously-kept statistics of her father's games. One game involved building hamburgers. Needless to say, the American won every time.

The next day Ramona and I went to Lucern to make candles. I had never done it myself before, so I figured it would be an interesting activity. It turns out that candle-making is a bit more difficult than I had anticipated. That's not saying much, as I had few expectations, but we had more difficulties than most of the kids there. There are few things more frustrating in life than a kid beating you at making candles. And not just beating you at adding layers of wax to a string but absolutely devastating your self esteem by putting twists and twirls and swirls and all kinds of creative embellishments on their candles. Ours eventually turned out okay but I felt a bit traumatized by the children and their freakishly impressive skills. Thankfully, I got to go to the Christmas Market in Lucern afterward. I got to try different Swiss treats, including Magenbrot or "stomach bread." I'm not sure why it's called that, unless it's because it helps your stomach. I don't think it was made of stomach. That would be interesting. 

Later on, we returned to Dietwil and had more of Ramona's mom's delicious Swiss cuisine. The best part was that I got to eat chocolate mousse for dessert. I need some way to combine the cooking powers of my mom, Beth Anne's mom, and Ramona's mom into one supreme cooker. And then hire them to be my personal chef. After dinner, we went down into Sandro's lair (one of Ramona's brothers), which is a newly-renovated pad that is after my own heart. The color scheme is red, white, and black (good), there is a Blu-Ray player and media server with tons of movies (better), and a projector with a giant screen that comes out and retracts automatically (awesome). We watched a movie about Wall Street with Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf, as it was the first movie we chose that was in English.

The next day Ramona's mom took us to St. Gallen to Ramona's university town. Ramona showed me the monastery, which had a gorgeous library and church. I think the original library was founded in the 6-700s but has since been rebuilt within the past few hundred years. We had to wear over-sized slippers over our shoes in order to avoid damaging the old, wooden floor. The library collection sported all kinds of old books about German language, medicine, religion and, for some strange reason, a mummy. The mummy was hanging out in the corner with some sarcophagi. It was an odd contrast to the rest of the library.

Afterward, we walked toward Ramona's university, which is predominantly composed of a modern-looking building. By modern-looking, I mean the unappealing, parking-garage-style building that doesn't strike me as appropriate for a university. It's too industrial. On the bright side, it started snowing a little while we were walking. I was super excited for the snow because Spain has been disappointing in the precipitation department so far. It has been too warm to snow there, unfortunately. 

We decided to have dinner at an American restaurant that Ramona wanted to try. The little courtyard in front of the restaurant had a miniature Statue of Liberty and a bunch of Christmas decorations. They were trying really hard to convince me that they were the real deal when it comes to trying to act American. However, they screwed up when I found a series of books they had for sale at the front of the building. I'm not sure who missed the memo but Ontario is not part of the good ol' U. S. of A. They managed to make up for their shortcomings with a delicious BBQ cheeseburger, though. It's the first burger I've had outside the States that was worthy of being called "authentic American food." Granted, I've only had a couple of others, but the others were simply not American hamburgers. We had vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup for dessert, which was just enough to push me past that point in a typical American dinner where you feel guilty about how much you just ate and you realize that you've done your duty as an American. You can't let all that food go to waste, you have to think of the starving kids.

The next day, we planned to go to a mountain. We even went so far as the base of the mountain before we decided it was a bad idea. Apparently you can either have snow or climb mountains, not both.

We took a train to a small town and watched the snow get progressively deeper and more intense. It wasn't until the bus/van we were taking up to the base of the mountain started sliding around that we got worried. By the time we made it to the base, the snow was in excess of six inches and the wind was punching us unreservedly in the face. I think it was Mother Nature's way of telling us that being on a mountain in this weather is just stupid. We agreed with her. We had a hot chocolate in a little restaurant instead of heading to the top to freeze to death. There was a regiment of Swiss army men in the restaurant, doing what they do best, according to Ramona (absolutely nothing). They were smelly and loud. If only I hadn't had my deodorant stolen...but I did buy some upon my arrival in Switzerland, don't worry. Look how good I smell (but most importantly, look at the beautiful snow):

Last night, we took the train to Rorschach, a small town near St. Gallen, to go to a Christmas party that Ramona's friend invited us to. Ramona and I bought Santa Claus hats and wore them. On the train, we read a newspaper that was talking about how some of the Swiss people were claiming Santa Claus was an imperialist, trashing the Swiss traditions and essentially signalling the end of the world. I became uncomfortable with wearing my hat for fear of being beaten by old, Swiss conservatives. Then I giggled at the prospect of that actually happening. The party was really nice. They prepared all sorts of traditional sweets that are associated with Samichlaus. And this is yet another reason I dislike him: nearly every food item contained, or was, a nut. I ended up eating some bread and mandarin oranges. All of Ramona's friends talked in English in order to accommodate me, which was convenient. I don't know many words in German and I have no idea how the grammar works. We ended up playing a game that involved memorizing little cards with common objects on them and being able to recall which was which. The Swiss people had to recall them in English and I had to do it in German. I think I can still recall a few of them, though I never learned how to spell them. Maybe I'll give German a try one day too.

This morning, Ramona took me for coffee and then to the train station to see me off. She made me an itinerary because I had a lot of changes in my trip today, from trains to buses to planes, but they were fairly painless and simple. I made it to and through the airport with over an hour to spare. They were a bit confused by the candle in my bag. I'm not sure what they thought it was, perhaps a stick of dynamite. I had to take it out and let them admire its craftsmanship before they let it go through. I suppose it was adequately impressive.

I met a man whom I would consider one of the most interesting men in Europe on my flight. He refused to speak in Spanish, despite being a Spanish native and being fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and German. He talked to me about everything from the Colombian cocaine trade to family values in Spain and Germany. He knew entirely too much about the former to not have been directly involved in it. Though that would hardly be surprising. He was a sixty-five year old cameraman that does news stories in war zones. And to top it all off, he bought me dinner on the plane. Upon our departure, he wished me luck in my endeavors and hoped that we would meet each other in another life. I hope so, he was a character.

Now I'm stuck in Madrid for another night because the buses to Teruel are all earlier in the day. Tomorrow I'm heading back to Teruel and planning my lessons for Friday and next week. My short vacation to the land of delicious chocolate and cheese is over. I'll be heading back to Kentucky soon, though, so more vacation is to come.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Off to the land of chocolaty goodness

I'm heading to Switzerland this weekend to visit Ramona. I managed to catch the two o'clock bus to Madrid instead of the later one, which worked out quite well. The bus ride was just as unpleasant as I remember. For some reason the seats, despite being cushy-looking and having the ability to recline, are less satisfying than the stiff, wooden chair I'm sitting in now. Perhaps it's because I'm prepared for the stiff, wooden chair to be uncomfortable so there is less disappointment involved. It took around five hours to go from Teruel to Madrid by bus because the bus driver was determined to check every little village along the way for more passengers. They need a radio system to check these things instead of making the bus get on and off the highway to check for people who, 90% of the time, aren't there. Instead, a trip that would normally take around three hours by car is increased by two hours in a bus. Once I made it to Madrid, I worked my way from the bus station to the metro by memory. My traumatic first experience in Madrid came in handy; vivid mental imagery makes for a great navigation tool. The metro ride was long but I managed to figure out all of the right stops and changes with some planning. I suppose Madrid isn't as horrible as I recalled once you have a decent amount of rest and you're not rolling around a hundred pounds of luggage on a broken wheel. It was actually more difficult to find the hostel that I was staying at than anything else. It is located on the second floor of a building that has a storefront at the bottom and apartments on all the other floors. I like it better than the hotel I stayed at for the seminar in September, especially considering it's only 30 euros and has free internet. Sure, I have to walk to the other side of the building to use the toilet but that's a price I'm willing to pay. The downside to staying in this hostel is that I could hear every door slam, pin drop, bell ring, and cough in a radius of what had to be ten miles or so. So now I'm going to find my way to the airport and get some breakfast at some point. It's nice to not have to worry about planning lessons for classes for a few days (until next Friday, in fact). Hopefully all goes well and I can enjoy some delicious chocolate this afternoon.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

6 Spaniards, 3 Germans, 3 Turks, a Swede, and an American walk into a bar...

Last weekend I signed up for a library card at the public library here in Teruel. One of my teacher friends helped me pick out several films to watch in order to familiarize myself with some of the best Spanish films. I watched four out of the five films in the first two days, partially out of boredom but also because they were good films:

Los Girasoles Ciegos
Silencio Roto
La Lengua de las Mariposas
Mar Adentro

I also have Salvador, a film about the last man in Spain to be executed by Franco. I haven't watched it yet because I've been too busy.

The school in Albarracin is working on an international project with teachers from Sweden, Germany, and Turkey. Their aim is to encourage students to be more interested in science and technology and to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to actual projects of their own. The kids will eventually invent their own machine of some sort. That's about as much as I got from what they are doing. I was more interested in hanging out with the other teachers. There are three sarcastic German women who speak English fairly well, three Turkish men, only one of which speaks any English, and then there is the Swedish man, who showed up almost two days late. His English seems to be excellent, though I don't know for sure because I only talked to him for a few seconds before I had to leave. In conjunction with the Spaniards, they make for an interesting bunch. I've been hanging out with them outside of their meetings to help translate and to learn a bit about their respective cultures. I can now say "thank you" in a ridiculous amount of languages. Don't ask me how to spell them.

We went to some of the local sites in Albarracin to show the foreign teachers around. We got to meet the mayor of the town and he gave us a personal tour of the town hall, which I'm pretty sure was older than time. The Turkish men sat in the old-timey mayor's desk upstairs and took pictures. So many pictures. After lunch, we had a tour of the bishop's palace and the cathedral. I got to explain some of the things I learned in Austria last year in Spanish about Baroque architecture. One of the teachers didn't believe me when I told them most of the pretty Catholic decor was probably just wood painted to look nicer. I asked the tour guide how old the decorations were and he confirmed my suspicions. I told the teacher to go knock on the decorations and, sure enough, it was wooden. Though I was proud that I could recognize it, it's sad that that is one of the few architectural tricks I know.

I also found the coat of arms interesting. I took the following with my phone because I didn't have my camera with me:

Last night we had an awesome international dinner with food from all of the different countries. My favorite food is still from Teruel, though. You can't beat their ham. I ate some kind of rice wrapped in grape leaves from Turkey. I couldn't eat the Germans' dessert because, as always, they fill it with nuts. I don't understand peoples' obsession with putting nuts in everything. Either they don't want me to enjoy chocolate or they want me to die. I'm not sure there is much of a difference between those two options. That dinner is probably the closest I will get to a Thanksgiving dinner this year. I suppose it was a decent replacement, though not nearly as warm and fuzzy as a meal at home in ol' Cantuck. It was fun to speak in two different languages and learn some words in two or three more, though. I don't think my grandparents are capable of teaching me Turkish or carrying on a conversation in Spanish. I suppose I can make Christmas dinner in Kentucky a lot more interesting now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

This week in Teruel

I'm currently without internet on my computer until I find a service worth paying for next week. So I'm going to try typing this on a phone. I'm not sure if that would be impressive or just sad.
Last Saturday I went with my roommate and his lady friend to a bar called "Route 66". It was aptly named for its excessive display of Harley Davidson memorabilia and several maps of the road in case you got too drink to figure out where you were pretending to be. It amuses me that this bar is considered exotic here, but it really is. I got to play pool there, where I performed better than expected (my expectations were incredibly low).
On Sunday I went with Marta to Mora de Rubiellos and Rubiellos de Mora, two villages not too far off from Teruel. I'll never figure out which town was which, nor am I pleased with whoever decided their names. Maybe they were founded simultaneously, each unconscious of the other, but even then they should have battled for the name or something once they discovered each other. Regardless, I got to see a castle and a beautiful village with medieval relics. The weather was quite possibly the worst I've experienced thus far in Spain but there was a castle, so I'm not complaining.
This week I started private lessons with two girls, thirteen and fourteen years old, who are easily better at English than half of the students in the language school where I work. They're not old enough to have lessons there but their dad is rich enough to get me to teach them once a week. I think it would be easy for a native English speaker to make a living just giving conversation lessons in private here. English is growing fast here and people are crazy about having their kids learn it. I'm okay with it.
At the language school I've been having the advanced students debate about current events in the US. They are not happy about being forced to take a side they don't support but it ends up being great for their conversation and I think for their mind in general. I get to teach English and mini-philosophy classes at the same time. I've had plenty of practice with my delinquent friends, I suppose.
Friday I went out with my roommate and his lady friend to a bar for dinner. I tried lamb and pig ear. The former was delicious. The latter was wE just really salty, greasy pig fat with a crispy crust. I didn't like it as much.
Yesterday I spent the morning wandering around town, window shopping and enjoying the weather. I ended up buying some delicious desserts filled with chocolate cream and then taking a stroll through the park. I spent the afternoon watching The Pianist and Agora. Both were excellent films. I ate with David and Pilar again, at night, outside a tapas bar. There was an outdoor heater setup that made it quite comfortable. I didn't eat anything exotic, though it was all tasty as usual. I finished the night by trying to read a book about anarchism in Spanish. I think I actually spent more time reading the dictionary but I think I understood the first couple of pages. To be fair, the majority of the first page was an embellished quote from some dead anarchist. I like that kind of thing in English but it's so difficult in Spanish.
Hopefully I will have internet soon because typing this took entirely too long on a phone...hopefully the formatting and pictures work out okay.

Friday, November 4, 2011


View from the Basilica de Pilar.

Monday and Tuesday of this week we had a holiday in Teruel, so I decided to take advantage of the free time and go to Zaragoza. It's the largest town in Aragon and, from what I was told, has the fifth largest population in Spain. I had to catch a seven o'clock train, which I was less than happy about but I was surprised to find one of my fellow teachers at the train station, Jose Ramon. He is a big fan of talking, so we sat together and talked for the entirety of the two hour bus ride. Spaniards are very good at three things in particular: eating, drinking, and talking (especially talking).

Another of the English teachers from the language school, Marta, met us in the Zaragoza bus station with her father. Her father was the spitting image of the offspring of Abraham Lincoln and a stout Amish man. I don't know how this magical combination was achieved but the results are impressive. He struck me as a man who didn't belong in the twenty-first century. If he had altered his outfit a bit, he could have very well blended in with nineteenth century Americans. But alas, he was stuck in a futuristic world that he couldn't seem to make sense of - he was unhappy with the cultural importation of American holidays like Halloween, for instance. The first of November is a Catholic holiday called All Saints Day, where people go to the cemetery and pay their respects to the dead. It's a respectful, quiet day that commemorates their ancestors. In stark contrast to this is Halloween, a holiday that celebrates death in a highly commercial way. He wasn't impressed. Despite his cynicism, many children could be found Monday night dressed up as witches and skeletons. I even saw one guy dressed up as Dead Gaddafi, complete with a bullet wound to the forehead.

The bearded anachronism served as our chauffeur to the university in Zaragoza where both of the aforementioned English teachers studied. We parted ways with Marta's father and Jose Ramon and set out to explore Marta's alma mater. We looked around some of the rooms of the linguistics building and then decided to find her old Greek professor to have a coffee and chat. Marta instated a rule that I was to speak only in Spanish for the duration of my stay in Zaragoza. This proved difficult but I think I learned more in these two days than in quite some time. I told Manuel, the Greek professor, that I was struggling with Spanish. I admitted that I didn't know the future (tense). He assured me that that was quite all right because he didn't know the future either.

This isn't the same university but this one has famous scientists.

We decided to have lunch later that afternoon with Manuel and one of Marta's old classmates and then left the coffee shop in search of some interesting sites in the city. The first such site was a bookstore. Perhaps that's not the typical attraction for tourists but I am in need of a book in English over the Spanish Civil War. I expected a shop in a larger town might carry some English books. They had quite the collection of Spanish Civil War books but none were in English, unfortunately. There was a man standing nearby who overheard us rummaging around for books and decided to suggest to me several British authors who wrote about the civil war. I had already read several of them but I was appreciative of the gesture. We struck up a conversation with the man and after a few moments it became apparent that he wasn't Spanish. It turns out he was an Argentinean history professor who couldn't get a job as a professor in Spain. He had settled for a job as a security guard while working on another Master's degree in contemporary history. He found me strange for having such an interest in the Spanish Civil War and anarchists. I found him strange in general but I liked his passion for history. We invited him to have lunch with us too.

We left the Argentinian history buff in the bookstore and went across town to the Basilica de Pilar. It was such an impressive structure. I believe it was a Baroque style cathedral. Whatever style it was, someone did an excellent job of making a big church.

This organ is easily bigger than my house.

After we looked around the main part of the church, we took a glass elevator up a tower. This afforded us an excellent view of the city, save the smudgy windows they had installed in the very top. There was a nice fog over the landscape but, according to Marta, it blocked out a great view of the Pyrenees.

Marta decided to introduce me to some of the stranger tapas in Spain. We went to a bar in the neighborhood called "El Tubo" (The Tube), aptly named for its narrow streets. The bar was named "Texas" and it had on display several license plates from southern states in the U.S. I would have felt somewhat at home had it not been for the appetizers to which Marta chose to expose me. I tried some sort of fried pig skin, which was actually not so bad. It tasted like very hard, chewy bacon. Then I had a go at some cow intestines. They were sliced into nice little rings and heavily seasoned with garlic. Despite the initial shock I had at the idea of eating intestines, they turned out to be quite delicious.

We looked around at some Roman ruins as well, including a gate that had been well-guarded during the invasion from France in the nineteenth century. The Spanish fought long and hard to preserve the gate and for good reason: it now serves as a nice monument in the middle of a roundabout in town.

We also found a statue of none other than Caesar Augustus, for whom the town was named. It was originally called Caesaraugusta, but over time it changed hands to different factions and the name was modified each time. Now it's called Zaragoza, which resembles the original name if you squint a bit when you read it.

Eventually we returned to the El Tubo area for lunch with the aforementioned fellowship. We turned out to be quite the ragtag group. Manuel had invited one of his Greek professor friends, so the dinner party consisted of two Spaniards, two Greeks, an Argentinian, an American, and a waiter who would not disclose his nationality but who most certainly came from somewhere in Northern Europe. Manuel's companion was anxious to discuss the economic issues of Europe and especially Greece. He seemed quite intelligent, though I didn't understand half of what he was saying. I'm not sure knowing more Spanish would have helped either. After lunch we had coffee in a nearby cafe where the Argentinian attempted to practice his English with me. He wasn't so bad but he made me feel really confident about my progress in Spanish. The people here claim that English is easier to learn than Spanish. I'm not sure if I believe them but, at times, I'm very tempted to do so.

In the evening, Marta took me to two different anarchist outposts in the "alternative district" in town (as she called it). It was a haven for the social outcasts, I suppose. I didn't see anything too out-of-the-ordinary, outside a few anarchy symbols spray-painted on the walls (and those aren't really that shocking at this point).  I decided to join the CNT for a couple of months in order to access their library of anarchist propaganda for my personal research. I was also entertained by the irony of being an official member of an anarchist organization. To my dismay, the people at the headquarters were all volunteers with very calm attitudes and a severe lack of Molotov cocktails. Seriously, how do they plan on raping nuns and burning down government buildings when all they do is promote social programs that help abused women and fight against discrimination?

On the way back to Marta's parents' house, we stopped outside a church to join in a 15-M meeting (read more here: Someone should put me on a Homeland Security watch list, I'm just downright out of control. We discussed radical topics like people not being able to afford rent and getting kicked out on the streets. They are planning a peaceful protest in front of the Basilica around election day this year to make a statement. And by they I mean the group of hippies, businessmen, grandmas, teenagers, punks, preps, and chain smokers. Talk about a dangerous bunch! In all seriousness, though, they were a compassionate group of people that I'm glad to have met. And the beauty of it all is that they don't identify themselves with a particular party or philosophy, they are just a bunch of random people that are concerned about social issues and are fed up with the current corrupted political system.

The next morning Marta took me to the outside of town where the Expo 2008 was held. It was a sort of World Fair that focused on water issues (conservation and the like). Part of the Expo raised money providing water to some cities in Africa. Zaragoza received a lot of financial support from the government to install a high speed railway connection from Madrid, a new bus and train station, many new roads and bridges, several new parks, and a bike rental system with new bike paths throughout the city (among other things, I'm sure). This was all built right before the financial crisis really hit hard, so Zaragoza got lucky. We walked around and saw some of the new installations and the infrastructure upgrades before heading across town to one of my favorite places on the trip - Aljaferia.

Aljaferia is an Islamic medieval palace that has been added onto a bit by some of the Christian rulers after their conquest of the region. Thus, it serves as an excellent example of Mudejar architecture (mixture of Islamic and Christian designs, you can read about it here: and about the designated Mudejar sites in Aragon here: I had difficulty following the tour guide because she spoke in a manner very similar to that of a machine gun. However, Marta served as my alternative tour guide, only commenting on the things in which I was most interested. The architecture is very beautiful and quite unique:

Marta and I returned to her parents' home for lunch. I was extremely hungry, so I was prepared to eat what I may have turned down had I been in a less hungry condition. The first course contained a typical Spanish dish and a French dish. The Spanish one was toasted bread with red peppers and sardines. The texture of the sardines made me gag a bit but I tried to finish it off out of courtesy for Marta's mom, who seemed anxious for my approval. I then had to wash it down with a gallon of water because sardines are entirely too salty. The French dish was snail. I was not happy about trying it but I'm glad I did. It had been cooked and seasoned and had some kind of juicy broth in the shell that was absolutely delicious. I'm thinking about starting my own Food Network show for this kind of thing. The other courses were less shocking, including paella, which I had already eaten on several other occasions. Marta's mom makes a mean seafood paella. For dessert we had some little sweet bread balls that were topped with cinnamon and filled with chocolate cream. I'm not sure what they were called but it doesn't matter. Just rest assured that they were tasty and satisfying.

After dinner, Marta showed me a documentary on the life of Lucio, a famous Spanish anarchist who screwed over a lot of banks and produced a lot of counterfeit money and passports during the 70s and 80s. He was a crazy man but I kind of liked him. You can watch the documentary here and even understand it if you know Spanish:

The rest of the week I have been ridiculously busy with teaching. I had been meaning to write up this account of my adventures in Zaragoza earlier but I simply have not had the time. Fortunately, the weekend is here and I plan on taking it easy for a couple of days. Here's to hoping I don't get lured into too many more crazy antics before I rest a bit.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jazz music and undead drunkards.

I went out to listen to jazz music Friday night. I ended up carrying a drunken, undead man home.

The live music was in an upscale bar that catered to a much wealthier and older audience than myself. I believe I was the only person there under 30. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the music. The band looked like an older, Italian version of the Jonas Brothers with Dave Grohl on drums and a woman on cello for whom I can't think of a doppleganger. They did a lot of improvisation, especially the drummer, and even incorporated "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" into one of their songs.

I went with Louis and Ana. Louis and I enjoyed the jazz music thoroughly while Ana complained about the lack of dancing. We told her to dance if she wanted but I don't think anyone was going to join her. I had a conversation in Spanish with Louis about most music being stolen by white guys and eventually being turned into a spectacle for old white people to enjoy. It's a good thing I have patient and helpful Spanish friends to listen when I'm trying to explain more difficult concepts. Usually they get the gist of what I'm saying despite some grammar errors.

After listening to jazz for a while, we headed over to the other popular concert of the night in Teruel in a modern-looking bar called "The Place" (yes, in English). It was 15 euros to even enter, so we decided to go somewhere else. And from the sound of the place, the music would not have appealed to me anyway. We ended up going to Louis' favorite bar. It was obvious upon entering it why he liked it so much - the walls were decorated by a hardcore heavy metal fan. There were flaming skulls and long-haired demon people painted everywhere. I'll admit it was equal parts impressive and creepy. There's nothing like listening to Metallica and Slayer playlists in a basement bar that could have been designed by a Dungeon Master.

After having my face sufficiently melted, we went to another bar. This one was picked by Ana. The music was folky and the bartenders could have easily been Starbucks baristas by day. I tried to explain the term "hipster" to Ana and Louis but they kept thinking I was referring to hippies. It's not necessarily difficult to explain it in Spanish so much as it is difficult to define a hipster. Our tranquil tea time in hipsterland was interrupted by Ana's alcoholic cousin, George, who stumbled in, drunk as a skunk, in what I'm sure was the best Halloween costume in Teruel that night. In fact, it may have been the only Halloween costume in Teruel because Halloween is a fairly new, imported holiday here.

I wish I had brought my camera because his outfit truly was impressive and his inebriated state made his undead look all the more convincing. His face was painted pale white and he had a thin beard that traced his jawline and connected to a mustache, leaving the chin cleanly shaved. It was similar to a mutton chop style but very clean-looking. He had a nice bowler hat and a white a black striped suit with a red bow tie. Talk about classy. At first, his drunkenness was a bit entertaining but it soon became apparent that he was not feeling well. Ana tried to give him water and coffee but he opted to vomit on the floor instead. One of the bartenders mopped it up with what I thought was an entirely too satisfied look on his face. Either he really liked mopping up vomit or he had no idea where he was either.

Ana went for her car and Louis and I carried George out of the bar and laid him down on a bench outside. He immediately went to sleep. If it weren't for his snoring, I would have thought he was dead. The police pulled up eventually and made sure he was okay. They offered to take him home but Louis told them we had a car on the way. George would have been arrested if he had been in the States. Here, the police offer to give him a ride home. Spain is different.

Ana didn't know where George lived exactly, so we drove around for quite some time looking for his house. George made himself comfortable by laying his head on my shoulder. I was terrified that he was going to expel zombie puke on me at any moment. Thankfully, we found his house before he had the opportunity. His mom seemed thankful that we brought him home but irritated that we had showed up at three in the morning and rang the doorbell. Ana offered to go back to the city center after this fiasco but I declined. Spaniards are crazy.

Last night I went to the movies with my roommate and his lady friend. We watched The Adventures of Tintin, based on the Belgian comic series and the cartoons. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson and has all kinds of popular actors in it (including Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Andy Serkis). The bad part was that none of the voices were from these actors because I watched it with Spanish voice actors. However, the voices weren't just sloppily dubbed as they usually are for movies here. They actually sounded quite natural for the characters. It was surprisingly enjoyable and the visuals (especially during action sequences) were well done. I think it's one of the few 3-D movies I've seen that actually benefits from being in 3-D.

Tomorrow I'm heading to Zaragoza with one of the teachers at the foreign language school. Her parents are going to let me stay at their house and feed me free food. I'm excited.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Meeting some personal goals and working a bit much

I spoke too soon when I claimed it wasn't fall yet. It has been cold and rainy all week.

I'm starting to reap some of the benefits of being a teacher now, especially with the number of students I have (several hundred). I often see my students out and about in Teruel and they are always friendly. Many of them have invited me to go out to eat with them or have a coffee (and usually when I accept, they pay!). I think I could get used to this. But outside of getting free food, I have noticed that my presence in the classroom, both in the primary school and the foreign language school, has made some impact on the students' learning. While I don't consider myself all that qualified to be a teacher, I think I'm at least doing something right. The kids in the primary school go from being outright hostile to the idea of learning English to exclaiming "hello, how are you?" (or as Spaniards pronounce it, "how are jew?") every chance they get. It's a transformation that happens in just a couple of days because the kids are only there for one week and then a new set of them arrives. Perhaps it's merely the novelty of having a strange American around, though hopefully it's more than that.

At the foreign language school in Teruel (where I teach in the evenings), I have been giving a similar lecture to every class for two weeks now. There are three different levels of English classes, two classes per level, and several groups of classes in each one. So I will be in each class roughly once every two weeks or so. Thus far, I have been introducing some general information about Kentucky and about myself and then allowing the students to ask me questions in order to practice their English and to get them used to hearing a native speaker. Depending on the level, this is much more difficult than I had anticipated. My accent is somewhat neutral compared to what it could be, so the students usually have an easy time understanding me, assuming they know the vocabulary. However, I often find myself using turns of phrase and slang that they are not familiar with and speaking too quickly for them to follow me. I have also realized that they learn British English from their Spanish teachers, so some of my pronunciation (especially the T in words like Italy or twenty being pronounced as Idully or twinny) is hard for them to understand. Overall, however, the students at this school have expressed great interest in not only improving their English but exchanging cultural ideas as well. This is great for me because I often learn just as much as they do.

I have also noticed an improvement in my Spanish. I have picked up a lot more vocabulary, through independent study, association with all of the words I see on buildings and signs, and in everyday conversations with people. I especially enjoy learning the colloquial words and phrases. I believe my speech is becoming more coherent and I can do more than convey simple ideas now. But perhaps the most considerable change has occurred in my comprehension. I attribute this in part to having settled down and gotten used to the language and the people speaking it, though I have also managed to increase the amount of things I can understand and the range of people I can understand as well. At first, it was primarily slow-talking women that I could understand because their voices and pronunciation are typically better in my experience so far. However, I can now understand the low, muffled voices of some of the old men as well.

This week I have been ridiculously busy in the two schools but I have managed to accomplish several of my goals for the week. First of all, I set out to learn how to use my fancy camera in full manual mode. I've owned the camera for quite some time now and made pitiful efforts towards using it manually on entirely too many occasions. I decided it was high time that I learned. I found an online "class" by Alexandre Buisse and read almost every lesson in two days, all the while practicing with my camera. The result is that I now know what every part of my camera is for and how it works and I have way more control over the shots I take. To test out my progress, I decided to take pictures in the one situation I've never been able to get a decent shot in - at night. Despite a few flaws, I think some of the pictures turned out quite well (and none of them have been doctored up):

This last picture is of a hotel that sits atop a Medieval passageway. They also have some excellent tea that you can drink underground in a cozy room with walls made of stone. It may be one of my new favorite places in Teruel, as it combines two amazing things: history and tea.

My second goal for the week was to open a bank account so that I could get paid for this month's work. I managed to do so by myself. This is the first difficult thing I've done on my own. Usually one of my mentors is there to make sure I don't screw something up. I even had a nice conversation with the banker about Kentucky and about the popularity of his surname in this region. The fact that I managed to do that on top of the technical stuff makes me proud.

In addition to the things I had planned to do this week, I also spontaneously decided to go to a volleyball game and go out to have tapas with some of the teachers at the foreign language school. Apparently Teruel has the best volleyball team in Spain. Unfortunately, they weren't playing a Spanish team when I went. They lost (though it was a close match) to a Polish team. One of the teachers at the foreign language school took me along and I enjoyed it quite thoroughly. The fans were exactly like any other sports event in any other country I've been in - they are loud and they always make what they believe to be better calls than the referee. My favorite part of the whole event was that the best player on Teruel's team was an American. I wanted to go talk to him after the game but we couldn't get to him. Perhaps next time we can have a chat. It would be interesting to know how he ended up in Teruel and how he's getting along here.

Last night I went to a bar called Torico Gourmet, home of the number one tapa in some contest from 2009. It lived up to its reputation. The tapa had ingredients that were all grown or raised in villages around Teruel. It was absolutely delicious. Then again, I don't think I've tried much food in Spain that I haven't enjoyed. The teacher that invited me out paid for all of the tapas as well. Then we had to go to another bar for coffee (or in my case, tea). What I thought was going to be a short dinner ended up turning into several hours of learning about different foods, slang, and Spanish television. I enjoyed it but I paid for it today, as I had to get up early for work.

That's what siestas are for, I suppose. It's almost 10:30 and I'm about to go out to a bar to listen to jazz music. Hopefully I can get home at a decent hour, though that's never the case with the Spaniards.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

And then suddenly...hiking

They tell me it's fall here in Teruel but I'm highly suspect. It's true there are a few trees shedding their yellowing leaves, yet that is the only resemblance to any fall I've ever seen. It should not be possible for me to be hiking through the countryside in a t-shirt, sweating profusely and getting dehydrated, in what is supposed to be fall. Fall means I should be wearing a light jacket and enjoying the cool breeze, perhaps even getting rained upon. I don't mean to complain about the weather here, but they should call it what it is - summer.

I had planned on going to the park today. I accidentally hiked nine miles instead. David (my roommate) told me about a nice park about a thirty minute walk from our apartment. It sounded easy enough to find. He told me to head in a certain direction and look for a dirt road to follow. I found a gravel one that seemed to match his description roughly, so I followed it. I met a few cyclists along the road, so I figured I was heading in the right direction. People with bikes like to ride in the park, right? It was a mile or two later when I realized that I was most certainly not heading to the park. I was passing through the countryside looking at some beautiful scenery though, so I decided to keep going. I found several farms and even saw a tractor stirring up dirt in a field near the road.

Teruel has some gorgeous countryside. I was constantly stopping to take pictures of the scenery. I had no idea where I was going but I wanted to document it well. And that I did.

After hiking up quite a few steep hills and through rows of trees, I found a giant clearing where there were several farms and hunting zones. I wasn't aware of the hunting zone part until I looked up what the sign said later. I might not have trespassed onto this farmland to get a picture of the ruined building had I known that...

Don't worry though, most Spaniards don't have guns. I escaped unscathed and snagged a few pictures of the building. I couldn't tell what it might have been. I might ask David later to see if he knows.

Once I had advanced well into dehydration, I spotted a city in the distance, less than a mile or so off. I decided to head that way since I knew I was at the point of no return in regards to Teruel. I crossed a bridge that went over a highway and headed up into town. It was incredibly small and quiet, aside from the annoying rooster that someone must have been kicking in their backyard. I followed the sound of laughter to a small bar in the middle of town and went in for some water and food. I had to settle for chips because they were only serving those and green olives. I despise olives. It's a shame really, the Spaniards are absolutely nuts for them. I had a bit of trouble getting the young, mohawk-sporting bartender to understand "agua". I'm not sure if my accent is that bad or he just couldn't understand the difference between agua and cerveza. 

After a rest in the little town I bought another water and headed back towards Teruel. I managed to take a self portrait using my backpack as a tripod and the 10 second delay on my camera. It's a bit lopsided, but not too bad.

I made it back the same way I came. I looked up my path on Google Maps once I made it to the apartment. It turns out I had traveled around nine miles if I include my detour onto the random farm. Perhaps tomorrow I can have another go at getting to the park. That is if I'm not too sunburned from my stroll through the countryside in the "fall". 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Another job and Spanish barbecue

(Albarracin - I work in this town)

The downside to meeting so many new people in such a short period of time is that I can't hardly remember any of their names or form very deep relationships with any of them. The upside is that they are all eager to take the American boy to all of their favorite places and treat him to free food.

I've started teaching at yet another school in Teruel at night. This will effectively increase my income by 1.5x, so I'm happy about it. There are almost a thousand students at the school, most of which are older than me (some twice my age). They are all there of their own volition, which makes teaching them all the more easy and enjoyable. And a lot of them are surprisingly good at English. I've had some of my deepest conversations in Spain in the classrooms there. Language isn't just for simple utility when both parties have a decent grasp of it.

Last weekend I was invited to join David (my roommate) at Pilar's (his lady friend) lake house near Teruel. It's one of the "artificial" lakes that Franco created, from what I understood. This didn't detract from its beauty a bit. The water was a deep jade color and it was surrounded by some of the nicest scenery I've seen in Spain thus far. It was nice to just sit around and enjoy the breeze and relax for a while, until it was interrupted by people tossing rocks at their friend in the water. I'm not sure Pilar's friends are very bright. They are entertaining, if that counts for anything. After narrowly avoiding any casualties, we had the Spanish equivalent of a barbecue for lunch. It was a giant pan full of seafood that was sauteed in a sauce of some kind and then combined with rice. It was delicious. 

Afterwards, a bunch of us played Uno. They were confused that the game wasn't called "One" in the States. I was confused because their rules were much different than any I had ever played. It made the game much quicker and quite mean. I think I learned some swear words I had never heard before. 

This week I applied for the last of my residency papers. I think everything went okay. If nothing else, they got fifteen euros out of me. Now I have to wait thirty days to get my ID card. Hopefully I can still get a bank account in the meantime. I'd like to get paid eventually.

Unfortunately I've been sick the past couple of days and haven't done much outside of teaching and reading. I'm convinced children have a sixth sense about when you aren't feeling well. Some psychological switch is triggered which tells them that this is the most opportune time to be loud and annoying while you're trying to teach. Thankfully I'm not the official teacher, so I can just let her handle the discipline. Maybe teachers should all have their own personal therapist.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Traditional Spanish garb is kind of awesome.

Last weekend I agreed to attend a banquet for my mentor's dance group in Teruel. I showed up after the dinner (as it was 30 euros per plate) and had some dessert. Most of the dancers were sufficiently inebriated at this point, which was entertaining for me. They repeatedly sang a song that would call out a person in the room to dance like a jellyfish. I'm not sure why this was done, but eventually even I was called out to wiggle my arms around. The dessert was some kind of delicious mousse with raspberries. After that we headed downstairs for a picture slideshow of the dance group and to watch some dances and hear the Spanish folk songs being played by their band. They dance/play the jota, which is a traditional Spanish style. The singing isn't all that appealing to me, but it is fun to experience the cultural aspect of it.

I mistakenly thought that this was the extent of the night. Afterwards, the dancers went to a pub nearby and continued to dance and increase their level of drunkenness. At least they were entertaining. The worst part of it all was having to listen to a talkative, cocky Argentinean bartender with a microphone. I wasn't a fan of the music being played, but I couldn't really hear it over his incessant boasts that he could get any girl in the bar. More power to him.

After the bar, my mentor's brother led us to a "disco movil" (I believe that's how it is spelled). It was essentially a discoteca or dance club set up temporarily in a big warehouse. It was not the least bit enjoyable. The music was horrible and loud and the people were all high on something besides alcohol. One guy was throwing small amounts of change at a pizza vendor and demanding food, despite the vendor telling him it wasn't enough money. Needless to say, we didn't stay there long.

The next day I watched two of Almodovar's films, "La Mala Educacion" and his new one, "La piel que habito". The first was lent to me by a new friend who works at the Foreign Language School in Teruel. The second I watched with my roommate David and his lady friend Pilar. Both films were very intense and provocative, as is Almodovar's style. I really liked the concept of the new film, though. And I believe I understood most of the story despite it being entirely in Spanish with no subtitles. I watched the movie in the cinema in Teruel. It is over one hundred years old and was converted from a stage to a movie screen. It still has the balcony seating on the sides.

This week I started at the secondary school in Albarracin. Though the kids behaved entirely different than the 10-12 year-olds, most of them didn't know much more English. I have been somewhat impressed by the upper-level students, though. They managed to ask me some fairly coherent questions and I taught them vocabulary for facial expressions, clothing, pattern styles, etc. They managed to successfully apply the new vocabulary when describing pictures of my friends that I dug up from my external hard drive. Jac was especially popular for his many different hairstyles/colors and his variety of dress. One of the other classes prepared questions to ask me in English, which I thought was a decent exercise because it allowed them to form questions and ask them orally without the pressure involved with creating ideas on the fly. Given their level of English, it was probably a good thing. However, they came up with some of the weirdest questions, such as "when did you first kiss a girl?" and "if you had kids, what would you name them?"

Last night I followed the dance group through the streets of Teruel while they danced and sang. It was quite enjoyable. Afterwards, Ana and Louis took me to their apartment for dinner. I got to play Louis' bass for a while and listen to some of their music. They bought me a Spanish Civil War book about the Battle of Teruel in a bookstore and gave it to me last night as a gift. They are so helpful and friendly. Louis prepared pizza, omelets, mushrooms, some kind of sardines, and of course bread. I skipped out on the sardines.

As usual, Ana and Louis led me to a bar after dinner. They have a tendency to say something in Spanish that I don't quite understand and then they get up and expect me to be ready to follow them. We went to a really old pub that is apparently notorious for attracting strange people. It was entertaining. Louis had to explain a lot of the conversations because they were full of slang and cursing that I wasn't familiar with, but watching a drunk man force another drunk man to dance with him is enjoyable without understanding a word of what they are saying. Louis shared a tea with me, which is uncommon for Spaniards. They are strict coffee drinkers and they denounce American coffee as too watered-down.

Today I woke up early and headed across town to meet up with Ana's family to participate in the Catholic fiesta honoring St. Pilar. I didn't get much about what the festival was supposed to be about other than putting flowers on a pyramid-shaped wire structure. I don't think there are many religious people in Spain, at least not among the younger generation, but they all go along with the traditions. So no one clearly explained what was going on, only that it was some sort of mass. The dancers danced for the mass and the band played as well. I got to dance with a baby too. They abandoned her in the back room while they went to perform, so I babysat. And by abandoned I mean they all just walked off without securing a babysitter or anything. Anyway, the baby enjoyed the sounds of the dancers and the music and started bouncing about. It was adorable.

The best part of the day, however, was that I got to dress up in traditional Spanish garb. I had lacy socks, velvet shorts, a corduroy vest, and a pirate-like headpiece. I think a picture will describe this better than I can in words:

After a dance in the nearby park, I was invited to lunch by Ana's parents. We met up with their family at a fancy restaurant. It was 20 euros per plate. Her family paid for everything. The helpfulness must run in the family. Ana's father has a great sense of humor when I actually understand what he is saying, which made dinner fun for me. I ordered what I understood to be pork steak, though I didn't receive it until much later. We had I think five or six rounds of appetizers prior to the main course (salad, rice, mussels, bread, a couple different kinds of pork with bread, etc.). By the time I got the pork steak, which was a huge hunk of meat, I was about to burst. Then I had ice cream in the shape of the star of Teruel with hot chocolate poured over it. Absolutely delicious, though my stomach hated me later.

I seem to be comprehending more Spanish conversations and picking up on quite a few colloquial phrases. I'm not sure how fluent I will be after all is said and done, but I think this is an excellent way to learn a language after you have the basics. And I'm not just learning a language, I'm absorbing so much culture. I have so many opportunities to learn here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Moving to Teruel

I seem to have been really lucky to have ended up in Teruel. I didn't know it before I arrived, but this area was apparently the site of some of the most gruesome battles of La Guerra Civil. At some point, not long ago, you could still find helmets and bullet casings and the like while hiking in the mountains not far from here. I'm sure there are more to be found as well.

Yesterday I tried to get my residency card. Of course, there would be as much bureaucratic nonsense involved here as in the States. No one at the immigration office knew how to process my visa, so now I have to wait a week while they figure that out. Because of this, I can't open a Spanish bank account, which means I can't get paid for my job until all of this is sorted out. I did manage to buy a phone without any problems (that I'm aware of).

Yolanda, one of my mentors here, helped translate all of the bureaucracy and drive me around Teruel. Afterward, she invited me to her house for lunch. It's not common for people around here to live in a house and hers is absolutely beautiful. I met her husband and two kids and we had eggs over sausage and rice with bread on the side. My options for dessert were yogurt, bananas, or apples. It seems that health consciousness is not limited to the CRIET here. I should be much healthier by the time I return to the States.

I met Yolanda's husband, Javier, who has been one of the most enjoyable people I have met in Spain. He is excellent at English, so I was able to carry on deeper conversations with him about philosophy and politics and so forth. Most of the time I struggle to express a simple idea in Spanish, but talking with Javier was a nice break from that. He lost his right hand in a fireworks accident when he was very young, but he is an extremely capable man. He does all sorts of heavy duty house projects, rides bikes, drives his car, cooks, you name it. He is especially fond of darts.

Javier and I took their golden retriever for a walk to the river near Teruel. The dog's name is Sopas, which is "soups" in Spanish. I asked Javier if it was typical to name their dogs after food. Apparently Sopas is a very regional word for messy or disheveled. It turned out to be an excellent name for her. She took a bath in the stream and then promptly rolled around in the dirt afterward. The hike around Teruel was delightful. The scenery here is astounding and the weather has been sunny and clear almost every day.

Javier let me borrow a Spanish film and a British comedy series to watch in my spare time. He has also invited me to come over for dinner any time I like. He is such a kind man.

Today I helped see the kids at the CRIET off. Though a great number of them had misbehaved all week, it was still a bit sad to see them go. I think at least a few of them learned some English and were pronouncing words much better than when we started.

I moved into my apartment today with a guy named David. He is the youngest forty-two year old I have ever met. He is a bit of a hippie I think. Most importantly however, he owns five bikes. He has offered to let me ride one when it has been repaired. I'm excited.

My room is nice, save the Tweety Bird wallpaper border. Most of the apartments here are pre-furnished. David seemed to be using this room for storage, so I don't think he minded the childish decor. Now that I live in Teruel, I may get a library card and start doing some research on Teruel and the Civil War here. David finds history boring, which I must admit is a bit disappointing.

David and his friend, Pilar, took me out to a Chinese restaurant tonight. I think I have adjusted to eating at 9 or 10 at night at this point. I'm not sure how this will affect me when I come back to the States. The food was absolutely delicious - we had rice, some kind of mystery fried substance, and duck with sliced orange and peppers. They paid for all of the food with the understanding that I must buy them dinner before I leave Spain.

Tonight I will sleep well knowing that I don't have to be up early for the first time in a while.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My adventures so far...

I have been keeping a daily journal by hand of my travels thus far in Spain and, believe it or not, I've written quite a few pages in the short while I've been gone. I haven't had as much time to update this blog as well, but now is better than later, I suppose.

I arrived in Madrid last Wednesday morning, having slept hardly at all, and sluggishly struggled through the airport. It wasn't my first time in a foreign airport where I couldn't understand anyone, but it was my first time doing it alone, which made things a bit more difficult. I picked up my luggage and managed to get it to the front lobby of the airport before I decided to have a seat. My big suitcase has a broken wheel, which at this point is now more like a shredded and absolutely destroyed wheel, having wheeled it through Madrid, Teruel, and now Albarracin.

I found a bus that was supposed to take me to Calle O'Donnell, which should stand out given its Irish name. However, I missed my bus stop and ended up going to the end of the route. I thought it made sense to stay on the bus and try to catch my stop on the next round, but apparently Spanish buses don't go in circles. An official-looking woman came and yelled at me for a bit until I understood that I needed to get off the bus and take the metro. She at least gave me some directions. The metro was just like any other subway transport, but the lack of escalators meant I had to carry all of my luggage up and down stairs half the time. I know I'm emphasizing the pain of carrying this luggage around to an almost pathetic degree, but it was the only thing on my mind as I poured sweat and strained muscles trying to get to my hotel.

Long story short, I did manage to make it to the hotel. In all, it took around four hours to get from the airport to the comfort of my room in the Hotel Convencion. I paid a premium price for a day's worth of Internet and contacted some people via email before promptly dying in my bed for a couple hours. The rest of the day was spent enjoying Spanish television, including The Simpsons and Bones. Voice-overs are so terrible.

The next day was the start of the orientation, which brought along with it a roommate for me. This turned out to be a great thing because he was British. He was also good company, I suppose. He has been studying Spanish for far longer than I have, as was the case with the majority of the other Auxiliares that I met in Madrid. He proved to be super helpful in getting a Spanish SIM card and we went out for lunch too. The orientation as a whole was fairly useless in preparing me for my job, as most of the information was common sense, but it gave me a place to stay and good food for a couple of days. Having Samuel, my new British friend, help me out was a good transition into living in Spain, though, so I'm glad I went. I also met a Scottish lady and a half-Basque, half-Irish lad from Britain who both shared tea with me at a little cafe.

I had to leave Madrid early Saturday morning to catch a bus to Teruel. I was too tired to really enjoy the five hour trek to Teruel, but what I did see of the landscape was really beautiful. There was a lot of brown in the scenery, similar to the Italian countryside that I saw last year, but it has its own appeal. I'm not sure it beats Appalachia's abundantly green countryside, but it is a sight to see. As we went further into the Aragon region, I saw more and more old-style buildings. Many of them were in disrepair, with their roofs falling in and the walls collapsing.

Thankfully, Teruel has been fairly well preserved, both as an historical landmark and as far as renovations to the older buildings. I found the office of tourism in Teruel after wandering around town for a while with my luggage (yes, it was still heavy and the wheel was getting progressively worse). A woman there was very patient with my poor Spanish and she provided me with a directory of hotels in Teruel and their prices. I had tried to Couchsurf, but I couldn't do so on such short notice, so I was forced to find a hotel. I ended up at the Hotel Oriente, whose name I cannot understand given the decor and the location of the hotel. It seemed a bit overpriced for the size of the room, but it worked out fairly well.

I wandered around town some more and got some food at a little cafe/bar. I met a Peruvian bartender who took pity on me for traveling alone so far from the States and decided to give me a free bottle of water with my meal. That's fairly gracious, considering the price of a bottle of water averages around $2 here, from what I can tell. I'm going to have to go back and pay him a visit when I get settled in Teruel.

On Sunday, I called Ana, one of my English mentors at the schools I am teaching at. She met me later that day and showed me around Teruel with her boyfriend, Louis. They are both really enjoyable people and are really excited about what they do. Ana teaches English at a school called the CRIET, which as far as I can understand is a primary school for rural children that takes a bit of an alternative approach to learning. The kids come and stay at the CRIET for a week at a time and take classes and go on field trips and so forth. Since I have to teach at a primary school for half the time I'm in Spain, I'm glad I got to be in one of the weird ones.

Louis turned out to be a history buff, especially when it comes to la guerra civil espanola (The Spanish Civil War). I was constantly prodding him for more stories as we walked around Teruel. He has apparently found quite a few artifacts from the war while hiking through the countryside, including a lot of bullet shells and helmets and things. But his appeal doesn't end there - he is also a geologist and a bassist in an American rock cover band. He is essentially a Spanish Indiana Jones that can rock out.

I got to meet Louis' band at dinner outside a little cafe in Teruel. They were a varied bunch, both in age and personality. I didn't understand most of the conversations that took place that night because of the rapidity of their speech and their propensity for yelling over each other at the same time. Thankfully, Ana was able to interpret some of the funnier things for me and explain my duties at the school for Monday.

The last two days, I have been at the CRIET. I am allowed to live here during the weeks that I'm teaching here, which includes an individual room, Internet, and three meals a day. I'm currently looking for cheap apartment housing as well, because I can't stay at the CRIET all the time. So far I have struggled quite a bit with understanding Spanish, but I have met all of the teachers, the director, and the cooks, and have gotten along with all of them. A few of them have helped me out quite a bit with my Spanish and in return I have helped them with their English.

The kids at the CRIET are just like kids at any other primary school I've been to. There are a few really intelligent ones who know a bit of English and geography and there those who refuse to even attempt to learn any of it. Overall, it has been enjoyable and I think I have helped a few of them improve their pronunciation a bit. They have trouble with some of the "S" and "SH" sounds. Tomorrow we are going on a field trip of sorts to the Parque Europa, where I believe there are a bunch of replicas of famous European monuments. It should be interesting.

I will try to update this more frequently in the future, but this is an idea of what I have done so far. Of course, there is much more to say and I have a lot of personal reflections on my struggles with the Spanish language and my reflections on the culture here that I will hopefully address later at some point.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mission accomplished

Boone and I successfully completed our mission in Chicago last week and made it back safely (surprisingly). I didn't realize Labor Day was actually that big of a “thing” until we were traveling through ridiculous traffic on two-lane interstates back to Kentucky. We came upon no less than four or five wrecks, some of which had just happened. One unfortunate fellow was climbing out of the passenger's side of his overturned semi truck on the side of the road as we were leaving Chicago. But we're back, safe and sound, with visa in hand.

We drove to Indianapolis and stayed with Uncle Bill Kincaid and his family on the way to Chicago. Their hospitality was much appreciated. Despite their air conditioning not working on one of the hottest days of the year, we had a good time and had a place to sleep for the night. It was like couch surfing in Europe all over again, minus the taboo around the whole practice of staying with strangers. The drive to Chicago from Indianapolis was a relatively uneventful one, save a slight detour off the interstate due to a cleanup of some kind. This gave Boone and I the opportunity to see some local towns and more corn fields. It was not unlike driving through a flat version of Kentucky. It became even more eerily similar when we ran into street signs and towns that shared the same names as many of the places around where we live.

One of my favorite parts of the drive are the fields of windmills that line the interstate. It's such a surreal sight, hundreds and hundreds of gargantuan white columns, towering over the miles of corn field on the sides of the road. It is almost alien. Eventually I want to draw or paint some kind of futuristic Don Quixote scenario in which a crazed man is shooting lasers at a windmill. Maybe one of the windmills can be a white dragon. It's not original, but it looks really cool in my head.

 We arrived in Chicago via the Lakeshore Parkway. If you ever find yourself heading that way, it's superior to whatever interstate entrance Don Kincaid took on our previous trip there. The view is beautiful and the traffic was minimal by comparison. The city was still fresh and familiar to us, so we had little trouble navigating it. Unfortunately, we ended up in a parking garage that charged $25 per day but offered no hourly rates. There are few first world problems as frustrating as paying $25 for an hour or two of parking.

Getting my visa was no ordeal, surprisingly. My only obstacle was a particularly flustered young woman who thought I was trying to cut her in line. I wasn't aware that being in line involved sitting down, fifteen feet from the line, but I let her have her tantrum and let her know I was in no hurry. I was kind of disappointed when I actually got the visa. I believe I had the impression that it would be akin to a passport in its appearance. Instead, it's just a sticker that they paste on the inside of your passport. I guess that's convenient enough, but for $140 and a world of issues, you would think you'd at least get a t-shirt or something.

Boone and I stopped by “Potbelly's” sub sandwich store and got something to eat before leaving town. It was delicious, but took a toll on Boone's sensitive digestive system. As we left the parking garage, he decided it was a serious emergency. At the next stop light, Boone bailed and ran across at least six lanes of traffic into a port-a-potty at a jazz festival in one of the parks. I had to circle around the park a few times before he had had enough of the 120 degree poop cubicle and returned to the car. Good times.

We saw several wrecks on the opposite side of the interstate on the way home. Some of the wrecks had wrecks going on behind them. I can't imagine how angry it would make me if I was stuck in hours of traffic and then got involved in a fender-bender. Boone prophesied our eventual bad luck. There was no way we could pass all of that and not eventually run into some of it ourselves. It didn't come until we reached Northern Kentucky, but Boone's premonition was true. We had just missed the exit ramp when we had to come to a dead stop with no end to the cars in sight. After much deliberation, we followed several other cars and motorcycles in an illegal maneuver up the entrance ramp. I don't normally conduct myself in such a manner, but I was tired and had been driving for quite some time. At least I was careful when I did it.

Our illegal detour led us down an old road that paralleled the interstate for a few miles. When we decided to head back to the interstate, we found the fire trucks, police, and trucks that had just come from the wreck. It looked pretty bad, judging from the debris the trucks were hauling. Thankfully, we avoided any other wrecks after this and made it home safely.

Now that I have the visa and am sure that I'll be going, I'm looking for a cheap plane ticket. I'm having a harder time of it than I care to have. It's too bad Boone doesn't have his pilots license yet...or a commercial jet.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Reflections on the application process

I received the call a couple of mornings ago that my visa is ready. I suppose that implies that everything is a go for Spain (I reserve judgment for now). Boone and I will be traveling to Chicago to pick it up this week. This provides a decent segue into talking about all of the problems I have had with getting into this program and getting all of the paperwork together.

I have a history of procrastinating when it comes to getting things accomplished. This was primarily limited to essays and shorter papers early in college, but mostly eradicated entirely with my decision to become a history major. It is difficult to put off a twenty page research paper, not because of the length but more so because research is time-consuming. I got in the habit of doing my work over time and getting it finished with some time to spare. This was no different when it came to applying to the Spain program. The way the program is set up, you reserve a spot upon completing your application on a first come, first serve basis. So getting my application in early allowed me to secure a number in the first three hundred or so applicants. Once my paperwork went through, I would be one of the first to be considered for placement.

This tactic worked well, though the problems would follow shortly afterward. The program took several months to offer me an assigned region, leaving me anxious that I would even get to go or have time to finish the rest of the process. Finally, I was offered a placement in the region of Aragón. I accepted within a few hours and eagerly awaited my specific school and town placement so that I could get the ball rolling on my visa application.

What was initially eager anticipation turned gradually into worry, worry into desperation, and finally desperation into anger and frustration. Sometime around the beginning of June, I got in contact with my consulate, who referred me to a representative from Aragón, who quickly replied that they had been unable to mail out my letter due to “external circumstances.” They sent me a digital copy of the letter, which allowed me to start the process of my visa application and informed me that I would be stationed in the quaint little medieval mountain town of Albarracín.

Thinking I was finished with the complications, I started my visa application, which turned out to be a nightmare. The FBI background check that I had applied for was sufficient for my application to the program, but not for the visa because it was missing an authentication stamp and authorized signature. Apparently these are optional and must be requested upon application for the background check. It turns out that this is easily remedied if the background check was less than 90 days old. This is where the part about not procrastinating bit me in the rear.

So I was forced to apply for a new background check in early July. I paid $45 in postal fees to ensure that it would get there and back in the shortest amount of time possible. I then learned that the FBI was backed up with background checks and it would probably take at least two months to process. Which was hilarious, considering it would take another month or more afterward to get an Apostille, also required for the visa.

In the meantime, I had to get another physical (the one that had worked for the application did not work for the visa either). So I waited patiently for news of whether or not I would get to go at all. Eventually, the program informed me that a state background check and Apostille would be sufficient in my case for a visa. So I went to Frankfort and bought a background check for $15. I took it to the capitol for an Apostille and found that the one I had bought wasn't the right one (despite it being on the list of acceptable documents given to me by the Spain program). So I spent $20 at the State Police Headquarters (after accidentally driving to a State Police museum of some sort), $5 for an authentication, and finally another $5 for an Apostille.

So I had all of my documents secured, including my second medical certificate and the $140 money-order only visa fee. The Spanish Consulate that is in charge of my region required that I drive to Chicago to apply for and pick up the visa, no exceptions. Fortunately, the Kincaids were going to Chicago on vacation and invited me to tag along. So I applied for my visa on the fifteenth of August, finally.

They told me my medical certificate was insufficient because it didn't include a single specific sentence that included some health regulation's name. Thankfully, the Consulate agreed to process the visa and give it to me if I bring the medical certificate back with me. When I got home, my now-useless FBI background check was waiting for me.

So now I'm heading back to Chicago to pick up my visa, hoping this complicated nonsense is over, though I refuse to believe that they won't do something else just to spite me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

And so it begins...

The announcement of my decision to travel to Spain garnered fewer responses of "why?" than my previous destination of Austria, though it has not come without its own fair share of incredulous comments. Spain is not as easily confused with Australia as Austria so frequently is; its name elicits talk of beautiful scenery, though sometimes only vague recognition, from my relatives. Yet for the most part, to them, it remains a mysterious, foreign entity, far from the safety and security of the cozy hills of the bluegrass.

And to some extent, I share their sentiments. I have never been so far away from the nest for such a long period of time. I love to travel and I have done a considerable amount of it in my lifetime, yet I have never taken up permanent residence in a place more than thirty miles from home, much less five thousand. I have spent my entire life learning, practicing, rejecting, and modifying customs from Kentucky and the United States. I have learned to do all of this in English. Now I am to ship off to an alien realm where some of the most basic ideas will be difficult for me to express. I may be ahead of my sister (she wasn't aware of which language Spaniards speak), but my Spanish is far from proficient.

Whereas many of my hometown friends and relatives may stop there and refuse to take part in such a fiasco, I have persisted. I'm not sure what it is about the world and its strange inhabitants that intrigues me, but it has made me spend an awful lot of money on plane tickets and gasoline to go out and get a good look at it. There are so many people to disagree with and listen to and appreciate and respect and love. There are so many pieces of history at which to marvel and to detest and to study. There are lakes, rivers, streams, mountain ranges, waterfalls, volcanoes, swamps, ditches, dirt, mud, and snow. It's really something. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but it's really something.

This particular piece of something that I have decided to spend the better part of the next year in is called Albarracín. It's a little medieval town, hiding in the mountains somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid, more or less, in the region of Aragón (and before my brother asks, yes, it is where Tolkien's ranger lives). Its inhabitants number about a thousand and it looks to be a pretty dry place. It remains intriguing to me, though. I'm interested in the small town dynamic of a place like Spain. I wonder how many similarities it might have to a place like Owingsville. In many ways, I hope those similarities are few. It's not that I despise Owingsville's quaint charm, friendly people, and over-abundance of pill addictions, it's that I want a different experience. For the same reasons Tennessee isn't my number one vacation destination, I want Albarracín to be unlike our city on the hill.

Whatever adventures await me in Spain, I will greet them with excitement and a tiny bit of apprehension. I plan to take ridiculous amounts of pictures and log my experiences in detail in my travel journal and, with some frequency, on this blog.

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