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.

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