Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Visiting Zaragoza and Madrid

Despite the situation with my grandmother, last week and this weekend were nice. I didn't have to work at the high school on Thursday because they were taking exams and Friday I went with the kids to Zaragoza on a field trip. From what I could tell, it was a joint field trip between the science classes and the history classes. I was tipped off by the fact that we went to an environmental science center and a bunch of Roman ruins.

I'm told that the kids at the high school are fairly well-behaved in comparison to other schools in Spain. I suppose they don't get in fights or bring guns to school or anything, but "well-behaved" is not an adjective that I would ever even think of using when describing them. Nonetheless, they are entertaining. They, like the kids in the primary school, assume that I don't understand a word of Spanish. I'm still baffled by how they could believe that, considering I've been living here for several months now. So when I have a grin on my face after they just swore or insulted one of the teachers under their breath, they get red-faced pretty quickly. It's weird because I don't
actually fit into either the group of teachers or the group of students, so I'm not sure how they perceive me. I'm too old to be their friend and I don't have the same responsibilities or authority as the teachers. I think they're just as confused as to how they should interact with me as well. Thankfully, I don't have to interact with any group of students that I teach for more than a week at a time normally, so that awkwardness is never prolonged.

I had been to Zaragoza once before with one of my teacher friends, so I got to see a lot of things for the second time. The weather was much nicer this time and I had a history teacher with me to give me the lowdown on more of the sites, which I appreciated. The environmental science center was basically like a children's museum that teaches kids that they shouldn't litter or waste energy. I didn't really learn anything new but I thought it was a good initiative. They had an impressive touchscreen game set up on three big screens. It was essentially Trivial Pursuit mixed with Mario Party, made by Greenpeace. The kids actually demanded that we play it in English for the sole purpose of accommodating me. I thought it was a nice gesture, but we ended up playing in Spanish because the kids' knowledge of English doesn't extend much further than "Hi, my name is..."

La Basilica del Pilar (rough translation: this is a big church)

The teachers and I had lunch outside, in front of a little bar near the Plaza del Pilar with a few of the students. I ate a sub sandwich the size of my arm with ham, egg, and garlic. Then we had coffee in a fancy building that housed several different restaurants and coffee shops and played opera music. To top it all off, we stopped for ice cream before meeting back up with the rest of the students, who had been permitted to wonder off through the city and find food. I guess Zaragoza didn't seem that dangerous to me or anything, but I don't feel like my teachers would have let us run off like that in a big city when we were 12 or 13. They all came back, so I guess it worked out okay.

Fancy building with coffee shops and such.

After lunch, we had a quick look inside the Basilica del Pilar. More of it was closed off than when I came last time. From what I could tell, it was impossible to go up the elevator and look out the top this time. I checked out the bombs they have on display again. They landed near the basilica during the civil war and didn't explode. The church took it as a sign from the Virgin of the Pillar (Pilar) that they were being protected. It's a strange thing to have on display in a church, but then again so are a lot of things the Catholics have hung up everywhere.

Statue of Goya in the background.

We headed over to the first museum dedicated to showing different parts of the Roman ruins that lie under the city. The boys took a small detour to dump their heads in some fountains, at which point I got to admire a big statue of Goya. We then headed into a small, modern-looking building to look at the ruins of the Roman marketplace. There were stairs that led us down into a James Bond-esque lair where the foundations of the old Roman city once were. We watched a video about Caesar Augustus and his fascination with the River Ebro. Zaragoza is named after him and was an excellent position from which to control the region. Then our attention was turned to a nearby statue of a man, where they projected moving facial features onto the head. I was so distracted by how strangely real it looked that I have no idea what he was talking about. After the fancy effects, the kids had to go on a scavenger hunt of sorts to fill out their homework sheet by looking at different exhibits. I wondered around for a while and found a cool scale model of the Roman marketplace. It was supposedly capable of speaking some informative dialogue in Spanish, English, and French, but refused to speak the first two regardless of how persistent I was. 

High quality camera phone shot of the James Bond lair.

Nearby, we visited a much smaller museum that showed the riverside ports near the main square. I found a video that showed a digital reconstruction of the market and the port. I think this would be an excellent way to marry my love of history and computers. Maybe if I end up working at a museum one day, I can work on something like that.

The final museum we visited was an excavation site of the Roman theater. It may have been the biggest one in Spain at the time. It was later mostly deconstructed and all of the marble was removed. They had some nice visual representations on adjacent buildings to show where the columns and other structures would extend to, had they still been there. 

Model of the theater.

Picture of a digital recreation in front of the stands (taken from the stage).

We got back to Teruel fairly late and I went to bed almost immediately in preparation for my trip on Saturday. I woke up around 6:30 in order to make the 7:30 bus to Madrid. The ride seemed shorter than previous ones, but I'm not sure it was. I then made a short train ride through Madrid to Principe Pío, near the Hotel Florida. It was here that I met up with my former teacher, Matt. I had to wait a while before we actually met up, during which time I was crowded by loud, Italian dudes on some comfy, green couches in the lobby while I tried to read a book. 

Matt had several meetings to attend to, so our excursions were an hour or two at a time, followed by me exploring on my own. I had been to Madrid several times before, but mostly later at night and always in transition to another place. Aside from my initial jet-lagged experiences in September, I had never seen a lot of the important sites and monuments. So Matt, having had a couple of days of experience in Madrid, served as my tour guide. In exchange, I provided shoddy translation in souvenir shops and metro stations. It worked out fairly well, I think.

Matt first showed me a monument to him that they had built in advance for his first trip to Spain:

Puerta de San Vicente

Then we headed to the central city, getting lost in the metro only one stop away from our destination, despite Matt having taken the same route several times before and me knowing how to read Spanish and having navigated the metro several times before). To be fair, the signs weren't properly advertised. At least that's what we agreed upon. Upon arriving in the city center, Matt showed me around the streets and led me to the Royal Palace, which was quite nice.

As he had a limited amount of time before he had to go to another meeting, I opted to wait to go inside until he went to his meeting. Instead, we took a walk around downtown and looked at some kind of Congress building and some cathedrals from afar. I'm not sure I could navigate back to half of those places, but I think I know my way around where the metro dropped us off at this point. While Matt headed off for another meeting, I decided to grab a bite to eat in a hole-in-the-wall bar down some random street that I picked out. There were about five guys sitting around, watching a bicycle tour on television. I grabbed a sandwich and a coffee and listened to them complain and joke about unemployment. I didn't understand everything, of course, but I did get the general idea of the conversation. I would like to go back in time and reassure my past self, who was breaking down in Madrid last September, that I would soon be able to have a relaxing time at a bar and understand the locals, more or less.

After eating, I decided to head back to the palace and have a look around. I found the signs for the entrance, which led me all the way around the side of the palace to another door, which ended up being locked. I guess they close the doors an hour or so before closing time. That gives Beth and I something else to check out in May. I ended up going around the block to a crypt located under this cathedral:

The crypt wasn't very well advertised or organized for tourists. I walked into a room that looked fairly important, with all sorts of fancy old books and wooden desks. Apparently this was forbidden because an angry old lady yelled at me. The door was wide open, so I assumed it was okay. She then told me it was 1 euro to enter the crypt and offered me a brochure in Italian. I told her I preferred English or Spanish. I took the English one, assuming that would be the best choice for making sure I knew what was going on. Whoever translated it probably just copied and pasted some text into Google because I didn't understand half of it. Fortunately, crypts are fairly straight-forward places to understand. There was a lot of typical Catholic decor and the typical awkward silence that accompanies these sorts of places. Many of the "graves" were in the floor, which made it difficult to avoid stepping on them. I'm not sure if that's considered disrespectful or not. If so, they really need to consider better placement.

After taking a tour of the crypt, I headed back to the fountain in front of the palace, where Matt and I were supposed to meet. While waiting on him to finish his meeting, I served as photographer for several different groups of people. Had I foreseen the potential to make money off of this, I might have sat out a little hat for donations. I heard so many American accents while just sitting there for a few minutes. I'm not sure if that's because Americans are just incredibly loud or there really were quite a few of them. I also found out that the fountain served as a popular make-out spot for young people (not through participation, only observation).

Our next excursion was to have a look at the more commercial area of the city center. There wasn't near as much for me to get excited about there. It was like the Times Square of Madrid. We also went to the Plaza Mayor, though I'm not sure if that happened before or at this point in the story. Regardless, we did go there. It was a bit freaky. There were all sorts of Disney characters to take pictures with and we ran into some even stranger creatures that were decked out in glittery streamers and reminded me of a gaudy Anubis.

While Matt headed off for dinner, I went up and down random side streets that shot off from one of the big squares. I didn't want to get too lost. I realized very late in the day that it was St. Patrick's Day, which meant everyone in Madrid would be partying harder than they already do. There were a lot of Americans in giant green top hats that were stumbling around outside of bars. I decided not to engage them because they were at the stage of inebriation where it would have been difficult for them to hold their head up when talking to me. Instead, I went to a coffee shop and got another coffee.

I wandered around for a while and then decided to head back to the big square and have a seat next to a nice fountain. It was surrounded by pretty pink flowers:

I once again had to take pictures for random strangers. I'm surprised people trust me with their cameras. Some of them were nice DSLR's of decent value. I watched a group of young men start doing tricks on their BMX bikes, which was fairly interesting. The group welcomed a unicyclist and a kid on a scooter as well. They gathered quite the crowd. They even started doing jumps over volunteers, which was super impressive for the unicyclist.

Once Matt came back, we headed around to some souvenir shops in search of things to take back to Kentucky. I ended up buying a poster of a picture of Madrid. I have no idea where I'll put it but it was pretty. You can only go in so many souvenir shops before you convince yourself that it's okay to buy something useless.

We went back to the hotel after a long day of walking around and I helped Matt write a postcard in Spanish for the classes at the school. I hope the grammar was right. I assume someone can understand Spanish well enough to interpret it. I'm actually trying to practice more writing and reading in Spanish now because I've seriously neglected it in favor of learning vocabulary and general conversation. I hope the postcard makes it to Kentucky. The last five or so I sent from Austria a couple of years ago still haven't made it there. I think someone is flagging the cards I send just to screw with me.

On Sunday, Matt got me into the hotel breakfast for free. I felt like such a rebel. After that, we said our goodbyes and I headed for the bus station as he took off for the airport. I figured out upon arrival at the bus station that there was an easier way for me to access the metro than I had previously thought. It makes a ton of sense for there to be a connector between the bus station and the metro, I just hadn't found it. I feel kind of dumb for walking a few blocks to the next metro stop all of those times I came to Madrid last year.

It was nice being able to speak English without having to worry about proper pronunciation or using words that foreign speakers wouldn't know, even if only for a day or so. I'm still surprised at how different the British English and American English phrases seem to be and how much I have to be aware of what I'm saying to my students. If I say the word trash or truck or cookie, they're confused. I have to remind them that Americans don't use rubbish or lorry or biscuit. Well, we use biscuit, but not for cookies. Seriously, who in England thought that was a good idea? 

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