Monday, March 27, 2006

The Many Charms of Segovia

A bit over a week ago, my novio* Daniel came to visit me and we spent a couple of days in the nearby and ever so charming town of Segovia. It is a medieval city, complete with a Roman aqueduct right in the center of town. We could actually see the aqueduct from our hotel (appropriate since it was called the Hotel Acueducto) and anytime people would give us directions, they would use the aqueduct as a reference. It's really interesting how a fairly bustling, though still quaint, town has grown up right around such an old, historic landmark. You can actually go up on top of the city wall, which puts you on a level with the top of the aqueduct, which is where I took this picture. It was very exciting.

Another of Segovia's main tourist stops is the Cathedral, which is huge. I took this picture from the Alcazar (which I will talk about in a second). The big building sticking up from everything is the Cathedral. I have to admit that I have been known to complain a bit about having to visit a cathedral in every European city I visit, and often having to listen to a long spiel about how significant and special it is even though it looks exactly like all the other ones I have seen. BUT this cathedral is quite impressive, even to my eyes, jaded so tragically early. When we were there, a wedding had just finished (I assume it had been held in a side chapel) and all the wedding party was coming out. It was kinda cool to remember that these cathedrals, which sometimes seem more like museums, are still places of worship.

My favorite part of Segovia, aside from the general beauty and charm of the place, is the Alcázar, which is the Arabic name for castle. This one was actually built by Christians (under Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic monarchs, I think), but with tons of Muslim influence in the architecture and ornamentation - a lovely example of mudéjar art! Anyway, they say that this castle inspired Disney in his design of Cinderella's castle. Up close, it is certainly rougher than the fairy tale version, but the resemblance is strong enough that I am willing to believe the story. The tour of the inside is absolutely amazing. My favorite room is this one that has around the tops of the walls statues of like every monarch of the different parts of Spain for, like, hundreds of years. Each one has a description and the seal of their kingdom. It is very interesting, and the artwork is amazing.

One of the most important parts of the Spain experience is, of course, the food. Daniel and I spent quite a bit of time sampling the fine culinary offerings of Segovia, though we were unable to bring ourselves to try the cochinillo (suckling pig) for which Segovia is known. One of the trademark Spanish treats that are not to be missed is, as I have previously stressed, churros con chocolate. They make a great dinner! The coffee here is also, shall we say, distinctive. Though I don't drink coffee, I think it is basically a tiny bit of espresso, to which most people add like twice as much milk. For the extra brave (or stupid) you can drink it straight, from these tiny cups which look ridiculous when held by a normal-sized person.

Our stay in Segovia was made extra authentic by the "macro-botellón" that was supposedly held there on the night of St. Patrick's Day. Botellón is a popular pastime among Spanish young people which basically consists of buying cheap wine and soft drinks in bulk from supermarkets or wherever, then gathering in outdoor parks or plazas to drink in groups. There are specific anti-botellón laws because these gatherings tend to be noisy and messy, and they also often involve underage kids. Anyway, young people in several cities in Spain had apparently arranged a macro-botellón for that night. That evening we saw a bunch of people with plastic bags of drinks, as well as extra police presence, but unfortunately we didn't catch any real botellón action. And I had my camera ready in case there were arrests : )

Anyway, it was a fun trip to Segovia, and I would recommend it to anybody who happens to be in the area!

*completely unrelated sidenote about the word novio: it translates to boyfriend, but I think that it is actually more like the word sweetheart, in that it has all wrapped up in its meaning the concept of romance as well as gender. It is not merely the expression of gender and "friend" which we understand to also convey a "special" relationship. Also it doesn't necessarily indicate youth, as with "boy" or "girl." Interesting example of its usage: my familia informed me that Spaniards often refer to Julia Roberts (who is much less popular here) as "la novia de America" : America's sweetheart.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

An Eventful Day

Today, March 11, 2006, I did nothing. I mean, I didn't even go outside. Well, okay, actually I did do some stuff. I wrote a scholarship essay, cleaned out my desk drawers, stuff for which I would generally applaud myself. I was too ridiculously bored, however, to do much applauding.

It was not until this evening, during dinner, that I realized the significant things that had been going on in the world while I was sitting in my room going crazy. In fact, two post-worthy things happened.

First of all, today is the second anniversary of the terrorist bombing of two Madrid metro trains. It was during morning rush hour, and everybody uses the metro to get to work or school or whatever. Both trains were headed towards one of the large stations, Atocha, but both were running late, so the bombs exploded before they got to the station. This meant that fewer people died, but the toll was still tragic (i don't at the moment know the exact number). I can't imagine the fear that everyone in Madrid must have felt - the metro is one of those things, that everyone uses, that is completely a part of life. I think the feeling of vulnerability must have been overwhelming. One of my professors told us that she knows someone who was involved in the rescue effort that day, and that he said one of the most striking things was the sound, coming from the dead bodies, of cell phones ringing. Everybody in the city was calling their loved ones to find out if they were okay. The people died but the cell phones made it.

Though this would have been a tradedy on any day, it was made even worse by the fact that it happened three days before the 2004 general elections. The party that was then in power, the conservative Partido Popular, was expected to win the election hands down. During the days after the attack, they were very vocal in their accusation of ETA, the Basque separatist terrorist group. According to my señora (who is admittedly a supporter of the PP), they had recently apprehended a van belonging to ETA that contained explosives, and so had reason to believe that they were responsible. However, as more evidence surfaced, it began to look like it was a Muslim extremist group, not ETA. Due to the perceived mishandling of the situation and false accusation of ETA, the Partido Popular lost the election to the PSOE, which is the Spanish socialist party.

Now, the true explanation has yet to be uncovered. Again according to my señora's summary (I can't understand the news very well so I have to depend on subjective simplifications), the further evidence that was uncovered only served to confuse things, rather than resolve them. She says there has been evidence linked to both ETA and a Muslim extremist group. To my señora's chagrin, the PSOE government has closed the investigation. (A couple of weeks ago she went to a demonstration in support of victims of terrorism. I am not sure if that is specifically related to this or not.) Anyway, it is obviously a national tragedy, felt particularly deeply here in Madrid. They refer to it as 11-M, in the same manner as Americans refer to 9/11. There were commemorative events all over the city today. So anyway, that is the first important thing about today.

The second important thing that happend today is that Michelle Bachelet was inaugurated as president in Chile. She is the first female president of a conservative Catholic country that has a history of machismo, and she also happens to be agnostic, and separated, with two children who she raises on her own. Talk about unexpected. I would like to remind everyone now that we have NEVER had a female president in the US, nor an openly non-Christian one (ok I didn't look that one up so if I am wrong don't shoot me). Bachelet was also tortured and exiled under Pinochet after her father, a general who was not in on the whole coup d'etats, was tortured and killed. So now that she is President of the country over which he once ruled, I would say that it is a more than symbolic victory over his cruel regime and its aftereffects.

So, despite my personally uneventful day, things did actually happen in the world. Nice to keep things in perspective that way.

Friday, March 10, 2006


Starting about a month ago, I have been volunteering with a Spanish organization called Solidarios. It organizes volunteers to work with lots of different marginalized groups, like the elderly, homeless, immigrants, etc. I am working with a program where I go, one night week, with a group of five other volunteers, around Madrid talking to various homeless people. We bring sandwiches and coffee, but the main point is to talk to them. We go at night, when it is cold and people probably are most in need of visitors, and the idea is to give people who are usually ignored an opportunity to have a normal conversation with friendly people, hopefully mitigating some of the isolation and marginalization usually suffered by homeless people.

This has been a really productive experience for me. Aside from the fact that I like to be able to contribute something to society when I can, it is a great way for me to practice my conversational skills. My group (all Spaniards) is good about explaining stuff that I didn't understand, and they also answer my gajillion questions about grammar, culture, Solidarios, Madrid, or whatever.

It is so interesting just to talk to the homeless people, too. One woman that we visit every time looks and acts just like your average grandmother, except that she lives on a set of concrete steps behind an apartment building. She hit her eye with a corner of one of the boxes in which she keeps her few possessions, and she has had a bruise for a couple of weeks. Thanks to Spain's universal healthcare, though, she has been to see a doctor about it a couple of times, and she has drops to put in her eye until it gets better. Another of our regulars lives on a park bench, where he runs in place for a good part of the night just to keep warm. We visit one older woman in a homeless shelter. They usually limit the amount of time you can stay there, but she is so sick they are letting her stay indefinitely. The last two times we have visited her she has slept (sitting up) basically the whole time we were there, rousing only to ensure we are all seated near her, and to kiss us goodbye.

Some of the people we encounter we don't really know; they just gather at one overnight shelter, and we talk to them for a bit. Last time we went out, we gave some hot chocolate to a man who could barely walk (much less hold the cup without spilling its contents) because he was so intoxicated. At the same time, we were approached by another man only slightly more sober, who went off on some spiel about women which I am pretty sure would have offended me had I been able to understand all of it. In that area there is also a group of young men from Cameroon who live in a sort of old storage area in a park. Many of them speak only French, picking up Spanish on the street. The other volunteers told me that those men spent two years trying to get to Spain from Cameroon, which is pretty far away. They walked from one city to another, stopping to work for a bit. After all that, they live in a park here, unable to get any kind of steady work without immigration papers. I can't imagine the life they had before, that they would rather take their chances in Spain.

The person who most intrigues me also lives in that area. He has a mattress under a large bridge - his "palace." He is from India, and his English is better than my Spanish. His Spanish is pretty good too. He has recently gotten a job as a guard, I think, though I don't know exactly what it is he does. His only friend is another woman who lives under the bridge, who spends most of the night dancing energetically to Michael Jackson music on her walkman. He seems quite educated and relatively healthy. What stands out to me, though, is his attitude. He is constantly optimistic. If I were living under a bridge, I think I would be bitter, especially if I spoke three languages and were qualified to hold any number of jobs. He's not, though. I don't know whether to be saddened at his predicament or inspired by his approach to it. I suppose questioning the stereotypes is what this experience is supposed to make me do.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

País Vasco

Last weekend (please note I am only a week behind now!) we went on an excursion to País Vasco, which I think we refer to as the Basque Country in English. It is a nacionalidad, which basically means that it is a state (in Spain they are called autonomies) with special political status because it historically has its own language and culture and such. I can't actually figure out what special privileges it gets, but it at least has a different name. (Galicia and Cataluña are also nacionalidades.) Anyway, in el País Vasco a lot of people speak vasco, or euskera, and it is taught in schools along with castellano (which is the official language of Spain - regular Spanish). Euskera is not a romance language, like all the other languages in Spain, and its origins are pretty much unknown. I hear it is basically impossible to learn unless you grow up learning it in school. Also, it used to be kind of like a rural language that had tons of different dialects, so when the current constitution was instated in 1978, they came up with a unified form of the language that they would teach in schools, but needless to say that causes some problems. Anyway, the point of all that is that not a whole lot of people actually speak euskera (less than 25% of the Basque population as of 1995). Nonetheless, all the signs are in euskera and government stuff is done in both it and Spanish, so it is weird to travel there, because all of the sudden it's like you're in another country, except that the people can speak Spanish if they are so inclined. Oh, and Basque chefs are famous for innovation and generally good food. So that's the background, now here is what we actually did...

On the drive there, we ran into some snow. There are some mountains north of Madrid where this tends to happen. Two years ago, this excursion got cancelled because of snow, so while those of us from the South were excited to see all the snow, we were a tad worried too. Also, it was COLD! I took this picture at some café thing we stopped at. See the boy in the left corner wearing a black jacket? That's Jaime, and the snow on his back is because, yes, he did lie down on the ground and make a snow angel. ha.

Our first stop was in Torres del Rio, which is actually in Navarra, I think, and is one of the important stops on the Road to Santiago, which is a really long trail thingy that leads to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. People do religious pilgrimages along it. (Santiago = Saint James, the patron saint of Spain, who is known alternately as a pilgrim, and as "Santiago Matamoros" - Saint James the killer of moors. Even now the battlecry of Spanish armies is "Santiago y cierra España" which translates literally to "Saint James and close Spain" but apparently refers to something like closing Spain against invaders.) Anyway, the church that we saw there, in the picture, is called la Iglesia del Santo Sepulcro and it is octagonal, which is strange since most cathedrals are shaped like a cross. There is a lot of Muslim influence in the arquitecture; this is so common in Spain that there is actually a word for it: mudéjar, which refers to the influence of Muslims living in Christian territory. Anyway, for those of you who have read The DaVinci Code, I have been told that this church is talked about a lot in it. My friend who had read it recently was über psyched that we were going there.

We spent the night in Pamplona, which is famous for the running of the bulls, which takes place in August or something - no I did not see even a single bull while I was there. In fact, it is kind of unremarkable, in my opinion. Oh, Hemingway also spent some time in Pamplona. It is also in Navarra, not País Vasco, kind of making the title of this post seem irrelevant... but they do speak euskera there, because it is close to País Vasco. We spent about a gajillion years in the Cathedral in Pamplona, which apparently is extremely important (more so than all the other cathedrals we have seen) for reasons that I failed to comprehend. This picture was my favorite from Pamplona, just because it is pretty.

My favorite city by far of this excursion was San Sebastián, which is right on the Cantabrian Sea (on the northern border). It actually is in País Vasco, and apparently is the intellectual/cultural center of the state. It is absolutely gorgeous, and we were there during Carnaval (which is during the same time as Mardi Gras, leading up to Ash Wednesday, and takes place in various parts of Spain). It is kind of a weird cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween; there was a parade where different school and community groups did like themed dance routines, and all the young people who weren't in the parade dressed up too, like in Halloween costumes. It was interesting at least. In the picture above is a group of kids from the parade, whose theme seemed to be stopping smoking. This one cracked me up - talk about a public service announcement!

This picture is of the Cathedral in San Sebastián, which we did not go in or talk about (for once) but was quite impressive, despite the fact that I have less appreciation for Cathedrals in general than I probably should. Don't ask me what style it is or I may be forced to hurt you.

We stayed in an absolutely fabulous hotel in San Sebastián, right by the beach. The rooms were HUGE and we had a great view from the balconies, as you can see from this photo.

This is a picture I took at night in San Sebastián of a really pretty building, which I think had something to do with the government and kinda looked like a palace, and in the background up on the hill is a statue of Jesus called la Sagrada Corazón (Sacred Heart).

This is a picture of a road sign in San Sebastián, which is in Euskera on the left and Castillian Spanish on the right. You can't read it very well, but you can kind of tell how different the words are.

We also made the obligatory trip to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Made primarily of titanium, some kind of light-colored rock, and glass, it was designed by American arquitect Frank Gehry to kind of fit the town, which is very industrial (and fairly ugly) and used to be home to lots of ship-building. It is funded by the Guggenheim foundation, which has modern art museums all over the world, and is more famous for the building than the art it houses. It has become a symbol of Bilbao and País Vasco, though it is controversial because it was designed by a foreigner and made of mostly foreign materials, and some say it has very little to do with the actual people of the area. I personally don't care that much for the building, but I will admit that it is stunning. You can see in the picture that there is a refecting pool around it, which adds to the effect of the building. It also is made to change in different lights (the sun reflects off the titanium) and with the weather, as well (rain darkens the color of the stone). There was a rather interesting display called "Hablando con los Manos" (Talking with Hands) while we were there. It was a collection of pictures by different artists, all having something to do with hands. Some were strictly of hands (Mother Theresa's hands, the Dalai Lama's hand) and others had more to do with what the people in the pictures were doing with their hands. Anyway, it was very interesting.

Finally, we went to the town of Guernika. This was the historic seat of the Basque government, and they had a tree that symbolized their democracy or something, and they used it as a meeting place. Anyway, during the Spanish Civil War, the Germans needed someplace to practice their bombing skills, so Franco sent them to Guernika. They bombed the town (proving their skills, I suppose), ruined the tree, and made a deep symbolic wound. This is what Picasso titled his really famous painting after. In the picture you can see what is left of the tree, preserved as a reminder of the damage that was done, but that the defeat was not permanent, and democracy lives again in País Vasco and the rest of Spain.

Finally, we went to a FABULOUS restaurant. I mean, it was great. We all ate a TON, so this was supposed to be the "we are really full after this great meal" picture, but they look happy instead of full. ::sigh:: Nobody ever follows my instructions!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

In support of mujeres

Spain is known as a country that has problems with machismo, a word for which the best English equivalent my dictionary can offer is "male chauvinism." We have talked about it in my classes, as part of both Spain's historical and current culture. I can't say that I have personally seen much of it (but then my señora is divorced, so it's not like I see a lot of couples interacting) but certainly traditional gender roles are fairly common here. During Franco's dictatorship, there was a whole section of the government devoted to women, which among other things encouraged them to be "angeles del hogar" (angels of the home). To be fair, my señora told me that the Sección Femenina did some good things too, like educating women about how to cook inexpensive, simple, nutritious meals for their families, and increasing the literacy rate among rural women. Nonetheless, until three decades ago it strongly encouraged a supporting role for women, the effects of which continue into today's society.

In the most extreme cases of machismo, women are killed by their husbands at a rather alarming rate compared to Spain's overall violent crimes. For the most part, however, the historical machismo manifests itself in the lifestyles of Spanish women and families. A lot of women do not work outside the home or only work part-time, and surveys have shown that women, even those who work, spend on average far more time working in the home than their male counterparts. However, the cost of living here is extremely high, at least in Madrid, and so the number of women who work full-time is increasing with the need for two incomes. This has resulted in a sharp decrease in the birthrate, as well as increasing stress-related health problems for women in general, as many of them take on a career while keeping household responsibilities.

Despite the progress that has been made, I read in the paper yesterday that Spanish men earn 40% more than Spanish women. Forty percent more!! That is a lot. Of course there are lots of factors that go into that, and there are some areas where there is much less disparity. What it comes down to, however, is that even with the same level of education and training, women earn less than men in every field they measured. I took it as a good sign that this study made the front page of El País - it is at least recognized as an issue that concerns the Spanish population - but obviously Spain, like many other countries, has a long way to go toward true equality between men and women.

In light of that, I thought I'd write this post as a tiny tribute to the mujeres (women) of Spain. Here's hoping progress toward equality is as swift as has been Spain's astounding advancement in the economic and political arenas.
**edited because I realized that "mujer" doesn't sound the same as "woman." Thanks Daniel!

Thursday, March 02, 2006


A couple of weeks ago I went to Lisboa with my friend Victoria, with an organization that does cheap weekend trips for international students. (FYI, no I am not spelling it wrong, that is how it is spelled in Spanish and Portuguese.) Most of the people were estadounidenses (I love that word!) but some were from Brazil and other places. It was cool to get to travel with a whole group of students.

It was a long drive to Portugal, with a stop in Salamanca to pick up a few more people. We stopped at this like truck stop thingy to eat, and Victoria and I had brought food, so we attempted to sit outside at the picnic tables to eat, which would have worked really well had it not been freezing cold, windy, and starting to rain. Needless to say we wimped out and went inside with everyone else after like five minutes. Not before we got a picture, though!

On Saturday we did a walking tour with a Portuguese guide who spoke Spanish with (surprisingly enough!) a Portuguese accent. It was interesting - Lisboa is a beautiful city, also with lots of history, though I must confess that I didn't quite understand all of that... mostly I got that Spain kept trying to take it over but obviously did not succeed in the end. Also I think there might have been something about terremotos (earthquakes) but I can't promise that...

We rode this tram thingy up to the Alto Barrio (or something like that), which was literally a neighborhood up on a hill. We had so many people on this thing that I was pretty sure we were going to fall back down to the bottom of the hill, but apparently fate was on our side, because we all made it safely. This area was cool, with lots of apartments over bars and clubs, so that during the day it is just plain residential, with dogs running around and clothes hanging on lines outside the windows, but at night it is like full of people. I think I would be annoyed if I lived there, but I guess it works out...

We went up on some tower thingy that provided an excellent view from the top, and this is a picture of the plaza next to our hotel seen from the tower.

We also did an excursion to several of the surrounding towns, most of which are closer to the coast than Lisboa (which is pretty close itself). This pic is from one called Sintra (I think). It was pretty and all, and there was a palace that we visited, but my favorite part is pictured here. Why do I like it, you ask? Well, I will tell you... first of all, it has a sign pointing to Lisboa. This is a good thing to have when one has trouble placing the random buildings of which one has pictures. Secondly, it is a pink building! These seemed to be inordinately common in Portugal, along with the tile roofs you can see in the picture above. I am quite partial to the color and think that we in the US should take a lesson from our less drab friends across the ocean and paint our houses pink!

We also went to the most western point of Portugal, which also happens to be the westernmost point of Europe. This is the obligatory picture of me by the sign, to prove, you know, that I was there. I refused to pay the 6 euro to get an official certificate authenticating my visit!! (yep, they sell them and people buy them...) It was really pretty there though; as you can see in the little picture, there were these huge cliffs and big waves and green on the mountains... it looked like what I imagine Ireland looks like, though that is probably completely misguided since I have never been to Ireland, or even really paid much attention to pictures of Ireland. Anyway, the moral of the story is that I really liked this place (even though I didn't splurge for the certificate). There was even a white and red lighthouse!!!

We also went to this place called La Boca del Infierno (the mouth of hell). It is a rock formation that creates kind of an inner cove that the waves splash into really hard, spraying all over the place. You can stand just above the cove and watch, and the wind there is so strong it was literally hard to stand up. There was a really tiny girl next to me and I thought she might actually fall over. It was too dark to get a good picture of the actual water, so I took a picture of this sign, which was swinging wildly in the wind and has the name of the place (along with a soda advertisement).

This is a picture of me with this really cool airplane display thingy. I don't really know what was special about it - the sign was in Portuguese, OK?? Speaking of which, it is really strange to be in a country where basically everyone is speaking a language you don't understand. I mean, in Spain there's a lot I can't understand, but for the most part I can make myself understood. When we went to Portugal, we didn't even know how to say thank you in portuguese (obrigada, by the way, it's the one word we learned). Oh, and all that stuff they say about it being nearly the same as Spanish - that may be true when it is written, but it is super different when spoken. The good news is that pretty much everyone in a service position spoke English (and usually several other languages) but I sure did feel like a stupid American tourist while I was there...

Anyway, one of the monuments we went to is called (in Spanish) El Monumento de los Descubridores (Discoverers). It is kind of cool - remember that Portugal has a proud history of, well, discoverers, such as Vasco de Gama and Prince Henry the Navigator (ok as I am writing those I am filled with doubt as to whether they are actually correct... but they did have some discoverers!!!). Anyway it is right on the water and the back, the part you can see in the picture, is a cross, and the front looks like the front of a boat, and there are a ton of people (discoverers, I presume) along both sides.

Lisboa also has a bridge that looks remarkably similar to the Golden Gate Bridge. It used to be named for their dictator (Salazar maybe?) but when they got rid of him they renamed for their independence day (sometime in April). Kinda nice, I think, although surely they don't refer to it with the whole date all the time...

One of the prettiest things we saw was el Monasterio de los Jeronimos, aka el Palacio de Belem. It is a quite impressive building (I think they said it is one of the biggest monasteries in Europe, if not the biggest) and absolutely beautiful inside. The part we saw, which has been refurbished recently, is the cloister. Oh, I think it may actually be a convent (the word for "nun" in spanish is just a feminine form of the word for "monk" so it is not really clear sometimes). Either way, it was absolutely gorgeous.

Well that about sums up my whirlwind trip to Lisboa. All in all I would conclude that it is a lovely city ("preciosa," as the Spanish would say) but that one should consider buying a Portuguese phrase book before taking off to Portugal : )