Avila is a medieval town in the center of Spain, north of Madrid. It's the highest city in Spain, actually. It has about 50,000 people, and is surrounded by open spaces all around. The historic center of town is enclosed by a MASSIVE stone wall that has its roots from the Roman era, and the city is a UNESCO heritage site (so is Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky, for those of you keeping score at home on what-in-the-heck-has-the-U.N.-done-for-you-lately), which means everything there is protected from over-modernization and over-development.
Avila is about as Spanish a town as you can get. THIS is Spain of legend -- the massive, ornate gray stone Catholic churches every few meters, the narrow, ever-winding cobble-stone streets, the old-world buildings, the plazas filled with outdoor cafes, the high desert floral and fauna... one look and you totally understand why the Spanish fell in love with California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico -- they are all so similar in landscape to this area. Barcelona and the rest of Catalunya are beautiful and wonderful (and I really hope to go back someday) but now I understand that Catalunya is, truly, its own unique country, about as like this part of Spain as France is.
The food in Avila... MARVILLOSA!! The first day, I had this incredible gazpacho, followed by these peppers stuffed with crab meat and hake and I don't know what else, all smothered in this orgasm-inducing orange-colored cheese cream sauce that was so incredible that my lunch companion, Melissa of Colorado, wiped my plate clean with pieces of bread. The next day, I had this soup with these sweat white beans, I guess the same ones that had me doing back flips in Barcelona. And the wine... the cheap local house wine, about a dollar a glass, puts most red wine you have ever tasted to SHAME.
Have I told you lately how much I love food outside of Germany?
The language school I'm attending, I.E.M.A. is tucked away just off the medieval "Plaza de la Victoria." If someone didn't tell you the school was there, you might never find it. The entrance is at the bottom of a series of stone steps, behind a huge, thick, dark wooden medieval door. You go through the door, then through a wide cobble-stone arched corridor, and you come into a tiny, cute-as-a-postcard open courtyard. The building is a former medieval hotel, dating from the 13th century -- and as hotels back then were tiny tiny tiny, the school is not big. The second floor has just three or four small classrooms; the first floor has a large classroom, a kind of living room, a traditional and tiny Spanish kitchen, and the offices. There's another small courtyard/patio in the back of the school as well. The open areas are decorated with lovely Spanish ceramics.
It's ultra casual at the school as far as dress goes: shorts, t-shirts, halter tops, whatever you could find in the morning... they want you relaxed and comfortable for learning, because what the school lacks in formality it makes up for in instructional intensiveness. We go from 9 until 1:30 or 2, with two breaks. My first week of class had only three other people in it, all young college students -- a guy from Germany, another from France and Melissa from Colorado. The teacher, Marian, is great, with a style similar to my teacher in Germany, mixing the class time with really basic stuff and really complicated stuff: one hour I'm smart, the next hour I'm an idiot. And she makes us talk ALOT. There's not a moment to slack. Not one. Plus, Marian is a big fan of Gary Cooper and Rock Hudson (yowza), so I think she's all that.
From 2 - 6 p.m., you are supposed to eat lunch, sight-see, and/or take a siesta (most of the stores close for siesta; they open back up much later). However, I never figured out how to do this AND complete my two-three hours of homework. So, I spend most of my afternoons, after having a little bite to eat, sitting in some incredibly historic and beautiful place, filling out my work sheets and wishing I had studied more before I came.
Melissa spent the month before this in France and the Basque Country, and three of those weeks in a school for French. She said IEMA blows the school out of the water -- her class in France had more than 20 people in it. She said it was a blast, but that she didn't really learn any more France than she already knew, and spent way more time talking to Americans than she should have. I think small language schools in out-of-the-way places are definitely the way to go.
Who in the HECK spends their vacation going to SCHOOL?! Jayne.
On Mondays and Wednesday at 6 this week, I have a private one-on-one class at I.E.M.A. with José Luis, one of the main dudes at the school. He is an amazing instructor. Our first conversation was easy -- where you are from, if you are married, how many siblings you have, etc. Once all that basic stuff is covered, I totally flounder. My second night, José Luis taught an optional culture class -- it was a lecture on the Spanish Civil War. And I understood it! He talks slowly, with great animation, and makes you want to listen, even if you only really understand every fifth word. And, heck, history lecture -- I was so there. There was another optional culture class the first week, on Thursday, this one on Spanish culture. I did not understand this one nearly as much as I understood the other, but I got the general idea. I could tell that other people in the class were understanding much more.
What kind of IDIOT actually goes to the optional lecture on history while on vacation, instead of going to a pub? Jayne.
The Castilian that is spoken here is supposedly the model for all of the Spanish-speaking world. It's called "dialect-free" Spanish by the school. Many people prefer that the language be called "Castilian", not Spanish. Why? Because -- as I've only found out in the last nine months or so -- there are many languages spoken in Spain by the natives here, NONE of which are dialects of what we call "Spanish" but, rather, distinct languages that evolved from different roots (and not always Latin) -- Catalán, in the Northeast (as well as parts of the South of France. It's what they speak in Barcelona. It sounds like a mixture of French and Italian); Basque, in the North Central of Spain and parts of France; and Galician, which is spoken in the North Western part of Spain, north of Portugal (some consider it a dialect of Portuguese); the area of Galicia is very Celtic and reminds some people of Ireland). The right wing Christian fanatic dictator General Franco (oops, political leanings are showing...) would not allow those other languages to be spoken in schools, in performances, in public AT ALL in Spain (nor any religion to be practiced except Catholicism, which was mandatory to practice); when he died in 1975, those languages began to flourish again. Many people in Spain refuse to call Spanish anything but "Castilian," as a sign that Galician, Catalán and Basque are all "Spanish" as well.
Cultural lesson over.
What an AMAZINGLY beautiful part of the world this is. The wall that encircles Avila is fascinating. By the end of the first week, I was pretty good at finding the stones that were in the original wall built by the Romans -- they have large, very simple symbols carved deep into them. It's not obvious at first, but once it's pointed out, you can start finding them everywhere. The Spanish reused those stones to build the wall as it exists now. And around part of the wall, there is a major archeological excavation going on to find other artifacts can be found deeper in the ground.
Really, go look up Avila on Google -- it's beautiful. I first heard of this place watching "Holiday" on the BBC. It really stuck with me, so when I found out there was a language school here, and saw that I got more value for my money than any other language school I could find in Spain, I jumped at the chance to come.
My arrival in Avila was ultra traumatic -- the only things that didn't go wrong that day was that I wasn't robbed, my plane wasn't late and my bags all arrived. I got off the plane, walked out into the sea of people outside the baggage area, and there was no one holding a sign with my name on it, as promised. I kept walking around and looking, and after 30 minutes, decided to start calling. I called the emergency number for the school, and got a message in Castilian I could not understand, but I think it was telling me that the cell phone I was calling was out of range. I called the school and left a message -- knowing full well that, on a Sunday, no one would get it until Monday. I called Carmen's parents house, and could not understand what her mother was telling me about where Carmen was. I called the number for my family, and the mother said the school had told her that I had not made arrangements to be picked up at the airport. I was on the brink of panic, but kept telling myself it would do absolutely NO good...
I went to the information desk and deeply disturbed the two girls working there, who did not feel like dealing with anyone. I was a person obviously in need of help, and they were not in the mood to offer such. When I asked, in Spanish, if either spoke English, one of them rolled her eyes and muttered, "Of course." I tried to find out if there was a bus or a train to Avila. She said there was only a bus. I asked where to catch it, and she pointed down to the ground. I stared at her. Moment of complete and confused silence. She finally muttered, "The Metro." I asked -- still nice, not upset -- if she could tell me which station I would find the bus station. And she rattled off something long and complicated as quickly as possible. I told her I didn't understand, and did she have a map she could give me and mark the stop on? She sighed heavily, got out a map, hurriedly marked the two places, and abruptly handed it to me. I was too shocked to be mad. I took it and humbly walked off, wondering when the day would get better, and if everyone in Spain was going to be this way.
I thought of calling Carmen's house again, but I had obviously upset her Mom -- I had managed to communicate that I was at the airport and had no transportation to Avila. But I had not understood where Carmen was, and thought, well, if Carmen and her husband are off somewhere for the evening, there's no use in calling again and upsetting her parents further. I went outside and took a taxi to the nearest station the woman had marked for me to take. I got out of the taxi, lugging all my luggage (and the taxi driver tacked on 3 more Euros to the bill than were on the meter, and I was REALLY pissed, but had no idea how to argue with him).
It took about three full minutes for me to find the buses -- the station is entirely underground. I managed to get to a window, asked for the bus to Avila (in Castilian -- asking where the bus is to somewhere is the classic language class exercise) and they guy explained that there is NO bus to Avila from that station. I showed him the map, I showed him the circle the airport information woman had made -- but that did not change that there was no bus to Avila, ever, from that station. I made sure, DOUBLE sure, that the second station did have bus to Avila, and wobbled off with all my luggage to the Metro. Yes, I took the subway with all my luggage. I had a look on my face of do NOT fucking mess with me right now I will beat the holy hell out of you. And no one did. I made it to the bus station fine, I bought the ticket to Avila, I maneuvered in the disgusting bus station bathroom, and I sat in the station for TWO HOURS waiting for that bus.
Thank goodness, the bus was really easy to find, and very, very comfortable. And thank goodness Kendra sent me those sea bands and I was wearing them, and that I got a front seat in the bus - I am little Miss Motion Sickness otherwise. I got to Avila an hour and a half later, and tried to call for a taxi. In Germany, this is really easy -- you call the number, you give the address, they say "Okay," and the taxi arrives. In Spain, you give the address where you are and where you want to go, and the person on the other end of the phone says a tremendously long sentence that ends in a question and you have no idea what any of it means. I just kept saying the same thing over and over again, "Necesito taxi. Estoy estacion de autobus in Avila," and then, "No entiendo Usted" (I don't understand you). Finally, we both hung up and I walked outside and hoped against hope that she somehow understood. And she did -- five minutes later, the taxi showed up. I handed him my address, I got to the home, and I walked in the door -- eight hours after I had first arrived in Spain.
Why did I just share that horrid story? NOT to make the school look bad -- it was an honest mistake, and the first time it's ever happened to them. No, I posted it because this is the kind of thing that does, indeed, happen if you travel. Travel is not all wine and roses, as I sometimes make it out to be. I accept these kinds of annoying events as part of the adventure. During these moments, it's important to keep in mind that there are ALWAYS options. Always. Plus, I try to remember it may make a great story later, or I may end up finding something really great I never would have found otherwise. While the temptation at the moment was strong to just get a return ticket back, I did not do it. It's not the first time I've been tempted to turn back.
My family Spanish family welcomed me in that first night, made me feel quite comfortable, and the next day, the Dad walked me to I.E.M.A. for my first day of class.
I was really glad I brought my laptop - there was no Internet access for it, but it allowed me to show the family I am staying with pictures of my friends and the dogs. They had a dog which died not too long ago. Every time I would show them a photo of my dogs, they ooooooooooh and aaaaaaaaaaah and start talking fast. The mother, Gloria, has six parakeets, two of which are nesting -- she doesn't know how many eggs they have, because the nests are in little birdie enclosed condos inside the cages. One of the males is the child of one of the couples -- she's very proud of that.
One of the daughters of my family got a puppy a few days after I arrived. It's a tiny, very young cocker spaniel. It doesn't even know how to bark yet. It is ADORABLE. I have let her crawl all over me, chew on my hair, and chew on my shoes, just like a bad/good mom. I've taken way too many photos of her... she's precious. Almost every morning, the mother, Gloria, would knock on my door to tell me that my toast and tea was ready; I'd open the door, and she'd hand me the puppy. I am so glad I'm with a family that loves dogs as much as I do -- it's been a real bonding experience for us, and has helped me cope with missing the boys in a bad, bad way. Gloria really misses her dog. From what I understand, he had the same problems as Wiley, to the point that they had to carry him to go outside.
The Spanish love their dogs a lot -- they are not as "everywhere" as is in Germany, but much more than you see in the U.S. I did not see a cat -- not once -- until my trip was almost over, and then only late at night, as I walked home from a pub my last Friday there.
We speak Castilian most of the time here at the home, but there have been many times when I just don't know what to say, and the mom whips out some English. Thank goodness! It was fun to stay with a family, although a little intimidating. I could never figure out if I should help out with dishes or not. I did anyway, until they would tell me to stop. One night, Gloria had the kitchen filled with fresh, dead sea creatures, including a very large squid -- later, we had paella for dinner. I was a happy girl.
One day my first week, I helped the people across the landing from my family's flat break open a coconut. My family lives in an apartment building, and I was standing outside because my family wasn't home right then and I didn't have a key. The people across the open-air landing brought out a butcher's block, a coconut, and a big butcher knife. After several attempts, I finally intervened, and showed them that they needed to attack the coconut at the seam, and with a hammer instead of a knife. How do I know this? I have no idea... watching Discover channel?
The first week, I hurt all over. My feet, my legs, my hips, my back and my shoulders are all sore, from the trauma and stress of getting from the airport in Madrid to Avila, and from the 15 - 20 minute uphill walk from here to the school, plus walking a lot in between group classes and whatever evening event the school is having. While mentally and emotionally it's better to do trips to foreign countries when you are in your 30s, because you appreciate so much much more -- physically, it's much harder. My family is shocked that, almost every night, I'm home for dinner, and ready to go to bed soon after. I'm not the typical studying-abroad adventurer for Spain.
I feel like things I only kinda sorta knew before in Castilian are solidifying now, although I'm still a horrible speaker. Here's what I sound like, translated into English:
"Me go to bed at 11 in last night. I was much tired. For the weekend, what things needed to saw? I need finded a place to ate now."
I have always been patient with people who don't speak English well (unless they are actually from the U.S. -- then I'm a bitch); but I'm going to be even more patient now.
Midway through my first week, I found the perfect place to study each afternoon: there are many places where there are steps leading up to the top of the wall, but most are closed off by large stone gates and archways. One of these now-closed entrances is across from the convent of Santa Teresa. The bottom of the entrance makes a great study place -- it's about four steps off the sidewalk, it's in the shade of the wall by 2 o'clock, and the bottom step makes a terrific desk. I sit there, drinking bottled water or a coke, doing my home work and watching tourists go in and out of the chapel for the convent -- a chapel that is probably larger than most churches in the U.S.
I went inside after my second day of class. It's neat to see so many images of a woman in a church; there's more of Santa Teresa than Jesus in that place (though not by many). There's a special alter to Santa Teresa off in a side chapel, and it's smothered in gold. It's so.... well, tribal, kinda pagan. My theory is that the Catholic Church adopted the pagan sites and practices of pre-Christian people and "Christianized" them, hence all these idols. That's not a criticism really; so long as a religion is not used to dominate people, persecute people or destroy other cultures, I have no problem with it. While Catholics did, indeed, do all that in the name of Christianity in their history, it's not the case now, and I really do believe that more people find comfort and goodness in such than otherwise now.
The museum underneath the church is really only for those who are really into Santa Teresa. The gift shop next door has the best postcards in town, in my opinion, and, just as Lonely Planet promised, Santa Teresa's finger, complete with ring, encased in an ornate glass thingy.
I took a tour of the top of the Wall one Thursday afternoon, instead of doing my homework (I had to get up the next morning at six to do it before class -- it felt so much like when I was in college). The wall gives you a breath-taking view of the land around the city, plus some really interesting perspectives on the historic buildings below. One of my favorite parts is an exhibit called The Hands, Los Manos, a group of small but sturdy iron sculptures. Each hand represents a culture that contributed to the heritage of Avila -- the Romans, the Catholics, the Jews, the Muslims, etc. It's a fantastic idea. Every city should do something like this, particularly in the U.S.A. I also took many pictures of the storks in their MASSIVE nests all around the city. They are so amazing. They all begin flocking back to the nests at sunset, and it's hypnotic to watch them float on the air currents over the city.
The sobering thought that comes back to me again and again is that this city was a major center for the Inquisition. This is where so many, many people were tortured and killed, or where orders were issued for such in other places. All in the name of Christianity. For people who say that Islam is a religion of cruelty and murder, but that Christianity is all about love and goodness, I want to bring them here and show them the facts. It's heart-wrenching.
Both Judaism and Islam left their marks on the city -- you can see it in the architecture, and, in my opinion, you can see in the faces and hair of the locals. Many foods eaten in Spain were brought here by Muslims. There's even a synagogue in the center of town that was converted into a church and then, recently, into a pension.
People here are beautiful, and they dress sooooo well. When the men wear suits, they look so incredibly handsome, whether they are in their 20s or their 80s -- they really carry themselves well. The girls could all be models, the women are all well-groomed. Like Germany, Spain is a place where, even if you are just running to a store, you dress up. I probably freak my family out when I walk out the door in the same clothes I wore while lounging around the house...
My first Friday, I went out with two German guys from the school to a couple of bars and a club, since I didn't have to study the next day. The club was rather awful -- I was old enough to be the mother of everyone there -- but I had a good time anyway, just blabbling and drinking. Even got the DJ to play an R.E.M. song. I came home at 2 a.m. -- I found out the next day that the guys stayed out until 5. I was soooo hungover... I'm talking Nashvegas House of Twang Halloween 1998 hungover. It was baaaaad. So I slept late, then took a nap, and didn't get out of the house until five. Basically, I wasted this whole dang day.
A problem with being completely immersed in Castilian: I get things wrong a lot . I missed so many social meetings because I didn't quite understand the time and place we were supposed to meet...
Saturday night, my "mom" here told me that Ana, who is an office manager at the school, would be by at 11:30 Sunday for me to go with her... somewhere. I could not understand where. Ana did, indeed, arrive (she lives in the same building as my family here). We walked to the center of Avila and there was Carmen and her husband waiting for us, so I guessed that they had been part of this plan, whatever this plan was. We all went for coffee and looked over a Spanish celebrity magazine that had a several-page spread of exclusive photos from a wedding of a matador recently -- it's fun to learn catty comments in Spanish. We came to a page with photos of various stars and, among them, agreed that Carmen could have the Prince (her husband, sitting next to me, said that was fine with him), Ana can have George Clooney, and I get Mr. Duchovny, ofcourse. Then we went to a typical Spanish bar/restaurant near the cathedral for beer... but I had coke, because I was still not well from Friday night.
Then we went to the other part of the Wall of Avila (I have now seen all views open to the public), and then on to another typical bar/restaurant and had AMAZING tapas. The bar was really messy, with a lot of trash on the floor around the bar, and they told me that that's how you tell if it's a good bar or not -- if it's clean and doesn't have a lot of people, then it's a place for tourists and has bland food. In the course of an avalanche of Spanish conversation, I thought that I had heard that I was going to Salamanca that afternoon with Carmen and Henrique, but I wasn't entirely sure...
We did, indeed, go to Salamanca, by car, sans Ana. Leaving Avila, the land is covered in MASSIVE rocks everywhere -- I wonder if this area used to be volcanic? Some looked like they had been stacked; many small onces outlined various plots of land. Then, suddenly, the rocks were gone and the terrain turned into fields for hay, sun flowers, corn and livestock. Further along the road there was one of the famous black silhouette bulls, at least three stories high and, according to Lonely Planet, weighing 50 tons. These massive bulls started off as advertisements along highways for a sherry and brandy company -- I'm not sure where the words for the advertisement used to be. But the bulls have transcended that role and become symbols of Spain -- you can buy t-shirts, mugs, shot glasses, stickers and just about everything else with the image on it. It's an AMAZING site.
Salamanca is much more famous than Avila. It's a university town with an enormous student population. It's known as a place to study Spanish and to party party party. It's really beautiful, with similar cobblestone-covered ever-winding streets to Avila, gorgeous cathedrals, historic old palaces and buildings, and a lovely old university buildings dating from the time of Isabel and Ferdinand. I didn't know I was going to Salamanca Sunday, so I didn't have my Lonely Planet book with me, which meant I forgot to look for the regularly-defaced bust of Franco in the Plaza Mayor (I would be happy to join in the regular defacing...). But I did find the astronaut and the devil eating an ice cream cone without the help of the book -- they are among the many small figurines chiseled into the new archway for the historic Catedral Nueva. As I've said many times, when you visit an old historic church, it's very important to look up, and examine closely the details in the rock, because stone masons have a really interesting sense of humor, whether it's recent or 700 or so years ago.
It was fun to spend the day in Salamanca, and I enjoyed it very much. All in all, however, I much prefer Avila. I'm just not much of a par-tay gal anymore, and that's a place for such. Also, the temptation to hang out with the hundreds of English speakers -- as I do in Germany -- would be too great. And I was really not in the mood to deal with addicts begging for money or selling junk, or seeing a guy blatently stake out a group of Asian students' purses to rob (Carmen's husband saw him too -- we were going to say something to them but then the guy abruptly walked away). Not that the city is crime-ridden by any means -- no more so than San Francisco or Chicago or New York in the U.S. But it's a big city, a big college town, and just not what I'm looking for right now -- which is probably why I was in no particular hurry to go to Madrid.
Spanish activity swings into gear starting at about 9 or 10 at night, and doesn't stop until the early morning. Doorbells ring, people chatter, basketballs bounce, car engines roar, all those sounds you hear in Germany after 9 a.m. (except for the basketballs) but, here, it starts after 9 PM. I love how, in the evenings and into the night, the parks here are full of people -- children, teens, parents, grandparents. The Spanish love to socialize, and they like to be out in the parks and the streets in the evening -- and very, very late in the summer when there's no school. It was the same in Barcelona; there's a real sense of community here, and I like it very much. I'm in my comfortable bed, dozing off, at about the time things start getting lively outside. In the morning, the streets are almost empty, and here in Avila, it's an incredible time, with cool mountain air, clear skies and no people.
What I don't like is the hours things are open. Saturdays, no shops are open, other than places to buy cokes and chewing gum. Geesh, even in Germany shops are open on Saturdays (even if it is only until noon or 2). And if you are hungry between 5 and 8 or 9, any day, you are completely out of luck -- all the restaurants are closed, because people eat lunch between 2 and 4, and then take siesta. There's no street vendors selling food -- no crepes, no pomme frites (French Fries), no brats, as in Germany.
They sell "the shitter" figurine here in the stores. You remember my telling you all about "the shitter" when I was in Barcelona? I kept meaning to buy one and then never did.
I was so oh-so out of it as far as current events or U.S. news while I was in Avila. I bought International Herald Tribunes on a couple of different days, but that's mostly international news. I logged into the Internet briefly in an Internet café on my way home and saw that Nicolas Cage and Lisa Marie married. I gasped and the woman next to me heard me and looked over.
I'm glad I brought my computer, except that I wish I could have it with me during the day -- I would love to whip it out and write whenever I have a free moment. But even this light laptop is too dang heavy for that. Plus, I really hate the idea of lugging it around for fear of it being stolen or broken. I so long for the day that we live in a world where you can get wireless access to the Internet via a laptop no matter where you are -- you won't be able to read this until I'm back in Germany...
Another week would have done WONDERS for my Spanish, as well as given me time to see a lot more. I realize at some point every day how awful my Spanish is. I've got to study more, or I'm never going to understand more than a few words here and there -- and it's fine to be able to conjugate verbs correctly on work sheets, but I would really like to understand it when people speak.
Sunday night, at about 1 in the morning, I heard Lua (the puppy) crying. I waited a few minutes and, when no one went in the kitchen to her, I went. She was lonely. She really is too young to have been taken away from her Mom and family. I played with her a little and, 15 minutes later, she fell asleep. So I put her back to bed in the kitchen. Same thing at 4. Same thing at 6:30. I could not understand why, despite her little puppy howls, no one was getting up for her. Monday night, the Mom apologized -- when she heard someone getting up, she thought it was her daughter, and vice versa. They had figured out it was me in the course of conversing during the day. I am now, officially, "Tia Jayne." (Aunt Jayne). I think my Mom here is as happy to have a dog lover staying with her as I am to be in a dog-loving family.
As my second week began, I realized that, while I was no longer hungover, I was getting some kind of weird cold/flu thing. I started drinking orange juice twice a day and ordering food with tomatoes and drinking way too many cokes -- I just could not afford to get sick. At class on my second Monday, we got a new student, Julia, from Germany (the school is actually run by a German guy, actually). Melissa and I really try to speak Spanish at all times on our breaks, but as we walked to the cafe, I told Julia, in English, all the things I wish someone had told me my first day: don't be scared, we didn't understand anything either and still don't understand much, ask lots of questions and don't be afraid to ask for help, confirm all dates and times for meetings and classes, etc.
That Monday class was the toughest yet for me; I just could not, for the life of me, understand the user rules for the two different kinds of past tense verb forms (and found out later that there's another verb tense we haven't even learned yet -- ARGH!!). The timing of the private class later that day couldn't have been better -- José Luis spent an hour pulling out various exercises so I would finally understand (we also spent 30 minutes talking about the Spanish royal family; they don't care what you talk about, so long as you TALK).
I keep saying German words. I am so used to saying "Excuse me" and "thank you" and "goodbye" and "good morning" in German that they just come out. It makes everyone here at the school laugh, because they know I don't actually speak German -- José Luis told me I've lived there for too long (ha ha).
And then, one day the second week, the storks were gone! They went back to Africa!
Thursday was a nation-wide holiday, and my family assured me that EVERYTHING would be closed. We didn't have class that day and, after much debate with myself the night before, I decided to go to Madrid. I had really wanted to go to Segovia more than Madrid, but with the holiday, there was no bus to Segovia from Avila after 9 a.m., and no train at all that I could find. Unlike Germany, mass transit here is not so great. It is really difficult to find more than one train -- and maybe not even that -- to any nearby city other than Madrid. It's quite disappointing in that respect. Germany has totally spoiled me on the mass transit/bikes everywhere thing.
I also didn't like the idea of my "mom" here getting up so early on a holiday to feed me breakfast (she won't hear of me fixing my own). At least in Madrid, a few shops would be open -- it's a big city, after all. In addition, I could sleep late -- I was still sick with this cold/allergies/whatever thing, and sleeping past 7 would sure feel great. So, I decided Madrid was the better choice. I slept until 9:45 -- heaven. I got to the train station, which is very near my home here, in time for the 11:20 train... which I found was delayed until 12:21. Argh. I heard my name as I was walking away from the counter and there sat Julia, my new classmate from Germany. She was going to Madrid as well. We chatted for a while, I went to the cafeteria for a coke twice, etc. At about 12:10, we wandered out to the platform with everyone else.
The train station in Avila is nice - clean, pretty art work up on the ceiling, and all that -- but there's no signs at each platform, as there are in Germany, telling you when the next train arrives, what the train's official number is, and all of the major places it is stopping during its route. Therefore, you have to totally rely on the pre-recorded message playing overhead, in Spanish. A train arrived, but we figured out it wasn't ours -- I was watching some back packers who I knew had bought the same ticket as me, and they weren't trying to get on. That train left, and there were still dozens of us out on the platform. And we waited. And we waited. For almost an hour more...
Julia is the first person I've ever known who won an MTV contest, by the way. She won a trip to Egypt last year! We had a good time talking about our experiences there.
The train finally arrived, and we were off to Madrid. I found the ride lovely -- lots of canyons and landscape that look so much like Northern California that I started to get really, really homesick for such. Julia wasn't sure what to see what to see in Madrid, so I looked through Lonely Planet and picked our first destination -- Campo Del Moro, which, according to the book, are quite lovely. We got to Madrid at 3, and after food and a bathroom break in the airport-like train station (it's HUGE), we went looking for an entrance to the Metro. We found a couple, but both were completely closed up. Finally, with a large group of Spainards also looking for such, we figured out the station was closed, and we had to take a special bus to the nearest other Metro stop. Finding the special bus was relatively easy, but it was quite a hike to it. We dashed into the bus when it arrived in front of a sea of backpackers, because I knew we'd never get on otherwise. We got to Puerta de Europa (also known as the Plaza Castilla), which is marked by two huge office buildings that look as though they are tilting towards each other.
We made our way down to the metro, and I figured out which lines we needed. The nearest station to our ultimate destination seemed to me to require a lot of walking on our part, but Julia said she would like that, so we came up out of said station and, along the way to wherever it was we were going, we got ice cream, bottled water, another coke (for me), and enjoyed the Parque de Montaña. As we walked through, we came to the Templo de Debot, a temple from Egypt that was given to Spain as a gift for giving money to help preserve other artifacts (I think). It was, unfortunately, being renovated, and was therefore covered in scaffolding, so I didn't post a picture (I'm sure it's easy to find on the Web elsewhere).
The city was virtually deserted until we reached the Palacio Real. It's the official residence of the King, though he and his family rarely stay there. The Royal Family in Spain seem really different from that of England. The former seems more down to Earth and accessible, and not nearly as wealthy as the Windsors. There were lots of statues outside in the surrounding gardens of the palace, including, ofcourse, one of Isabel the Catholic. I think of her and Ferdinand as a kind of Catholic Taliban -- they were ruthless in their efforts to drive out or kill non-believers and to force all people to practice their version of the faith, and what the Spanish did to native Americans, beginning with efforts started under the reign of Isabel and Ferdinand, is a holocaust in and of itself. Have I mentioned lately how much I hate religious fundamentalists, regardless of which religion they are so fundamental about?
Anyway... we walked around the palace, admired the many statues around, and got freaked out by all the junkies and drunks in the park across from the Palace, so we decided to skip Campo Del Moro and head to the Plaza Mayor. There were now lots of people everywhere, though it's probably nothing compared to what it's like when all shops and museums are open. We even saw a few women dressed in the traditional outfits of the Fiesta Day. It would have been great to have known where the parade(s) were, but no one knew in Avila, all of the tourist information booths were closed, and my Lonely Planet book didn't even mention this Fiesta Day.
We found an open touristy shop, and I bought a few touristy-items. Then we found an open Pharmacy, and I bought the European version of Nyquil. The Plaza Mayor is interesting for about five minutes, but as there wasn't really anything going on -- no music, no street performers -- I wasn't interested in staying long. Maybe if it hadn't been so hot...
We headed down another street and ended up at some major shopping area -- it's where the statue of the Madrid bear is (interesting to me that both Berlin and Madrid have a bear as their city symbols). One of the CD stores was open, and I was stunned at the variety of music available there! They even had a country music section featuring three Austin folks -- Slaid Cleaves, Tish Hinajosa, and Ray Wylie Hubbard (I had dinner at his house once!). It was a pleasure to, at last, be in a well-stocked CD store in Europe. Watching a Spanish music video channel a couple of times while I was eating lunch after school, I heard a lot of really lively guitar-based rock songs, very R.E.M.-esque (except that it is in Castilian, ofcourse). I tried to write down the titles, but couldn't see the TV screen from that far away. Even the songs from the U.S. they play on radio stations here are much better than what I hear in Germany -- in Spain, it's Springsteen, Bob Dylan and even Willie Nelson, instead of Journey and Eddie Money and Brittney.
We kept walking, took pictures, and ended up at the Plaza Español, because I wanted to see the monument to Cervantes, with its statues of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza (I identify with Quijote). Then we just sat and people watched for a while.
Madrid is a huge city that really doesn't do anything before 10 p.m; most of the postcards of Madrid that I saw depict the city at night. It's other claim to fame are its museums, which were all closed while I was there. So I didn't get a very good impression of the city -- I certainly didn't see it at its best. The architecture is much more interesting than I thought it would be -- at times, it's even outstanding. I like Madrid more than Geneva. I'm sure there's a lot more to do there than Bonn. I'm glad I went. But, for me, it just does not even begin to compare with Barcelona as far as beauty and vibe. Madrid a young person's party-all-night town, or a middle-aged person's corporate-climbing town. I'm sure I would have just died over the art museums if I could have seen them. Even without the museums, I was reminded in Madrid of just how artful the Spanish are. Art -- or the art of presentation -- permeates their life, whether it's the way a building is designed or the flyer for an upcoming special event. This is a country of designers, of people with a lot of flair and style -- they are quite overshadowed by France and Italy as far as reputation in those departments and I don't understand why. Anyway, I have no plans to return to Madrid, unless I can spend a full day at the Prado Museum and at least one other Museum as well.
I was home by 12:40, and Gloria and one of her daughters were still up (thank goodness). Actually, quite a few people were still up -- I heard singing from a large group out on the street at about 1:30. They were singing Spanish folk songs. It sounded so nice, and it didn't bother me to lay there and listen to those voices floating up from the street.
The next day was my last class at I.E.M.A.. I was quite sad when it was over. Yes, it has been intense, and at times, overwhelming. But it felt so good to learn so much, in such a fun way. I really liked this language before. Now, I think I'm in love with it.
I took a few pictures around town, and made the long hike out to Los Cuatros Postes, to take a picture of the viewpoint that is represented on most of the postcards I sent out to everyone. It was really hot, but the sun was behind some clouds, so it wasn't as horrible as it could have been. Plus, I was in tourist pilgrim mode -- I get in this mode where I am quietly, methodically determined to get wherever it is I want to go, no matter the heat or the pain. This mode has served me well, from my first back packing trip in Ventana wilderness to taking a tour of the pyramids in Egypt. The walk over to Los Cuatros Postes was interesting -- there's an ancient Roman footbridge on the way, over the trickle of a stagnant river (this is not an area known for its water outside of the snow thaws in the Spring), and I was all by myself on that walk. I stopped on the bridge and watched some large ducks diving under the water, into the mud, for food, their butts sticking straight up in the air out of the water. It was a nice moment. The kind of moment that doesn't get written about in guidebooks, the kind of moment you can't plan for nor expect -- just take the time to enjoy when it happens.
After the dusty hot hike up another hill, I sat looking at the city of Avila up on the hill far across from me for a long while, drinking from a massive bottle of water that I'd bought earlier. I thought about all of the traveling I've done recently, all of the great places I've visited, how much I miss my dogs, how silly it is that people spend so much time behind the lense of their digital or video camera in places like this instead of actually being there and experiencing it themselves... I realized while sitting there that I'm ready for a break in traveling for a few months. I'd like to just be home with the boys -- all three of them -- for a long while. No packing, no airports, no trains, no planning. Just me, my boyfriend, and my dogs. I miss the dogs baaaaaad. I have almost cried a couple of times over it -- I've never missed them so much.
I walked back to the city, and as it was just after 4, the museum of Avila had re-opened for the rest of the day, so I walked over and had a look. It's small, but well-done. Not a lot of stuff in there, because most of what's old and interesting is still out in the city, in its original location. What I found most interesting were the pre-historic stuff, the Roman stuff, and everything between those two eras. There are several ancient sites around Avila, but they are only accessible by car, and you have to know exactly where they are to visit -- there's no visitor's center near any of them. I would love to do a tour of ancient sites in Spain.
I walked back to the flat and I took a little siesta. Then I tried to decide what to do my last full day, Saturday -- go to Segovia, or shop. Segovia was totally possible -- take the 9 a.m. bus, the only one all day, spend the day in Segovia, then take the train back to Madrid and another train back up to Avila. Totally doable. I'd been wanting to go to Segovia all along... But I didn't do it. I decided to go out with Melissa, Julia and Stefan (not THE Stefan, another student at the school) at around 10:30 that night, stay out late for only the second time on this trip, sleep late, and figure something out. The four of us had a splendid night out -- we just sat in an outside cafe across from the wall, on a lovely night, drinking cheap but delicious Spanish red wine and making awful jokes about the U.S. and Germany. The most hysterical moment came when we were trying to explain the differences in England English (which is what most Germans learn) and American English. I got the bright idea to introduce Julia and Stefan to the word "Skank." After Melissa and I explained its meaning, I decided that, really, it could be a new Spanish verb -- Skankar -- and we promptly conjugated it into all the present forms:
It was a terrific evening, and I got home at 2:15 a.m. I slept until 10, had breakfast, and then tried to figure out what to do. And a few hours later, I figured out that I really should have gone to Segovia. Basically, I wasted my last full day in Spain, and it bothered me the whole day -- if I couldn't be in Segovia, if I was just going to hang around and wander around in a city I had already completely explored, I would so much have rather been at HOME with my dogs... I tried to shop. This city is filled with so many beautiful, beautiful clothes. But I wasn't ready to admit how much weight I'd gained until I had a traumatic experience in a dressing room. This contributed as well to my last full day being not so great. For more than seven hours, I wandered around trying to find something to look at or somewhere to go to the bathroom. I bought a couple of children's books in Spanish and then tried to read one of them. After an hour, I was on page 3 of one of them. But it didn't frustrate me too much, as I couldn't have read any of it before I came to Avila. I wandered around outside the walls of the city and found a park that was made from the remains of yet another old stone church; they left parts of the wall up, including an entire wall of arched doorways, and added benches around the empty grounds here and there. Great idea. Then I went to the Internet cafe and read some emails from Stefan in Iceland.
I spent my last night watching a movie the school loans out to its students -- it was adorable. In English, it's called "Welcome, Mr. Marshall." It's about a typical, very small Spanish pueblo in Castilla, just after WWII, that thinks a really important delegation of Americans is going to visit their city, as part of the Marshall Plan, and give them all sorts of stuff -- money, tractors, etc. There's a scene where various town people dream of life in the U.S., and I was rolling. I didn't understand much of the Spanish, but I totally understood the story. I also looked over my Lonely Planet book with Gloria; she was impressed with the paella recipe in the book. And we talked about dogs, ofcourse.
I do really, really hope to come back to Spain next year, to I.E.M.A.. I would like to come back to this school in June, July or September. On that trip, I'd like to rent a car and go to some of the archeological sites outside of Avila, and go to Segovia and some other cities. And on some future trip to Spain, I definitely want to see Galicia. And ofcourse I want to go back to Barcelona... I really can't believe that so many Americans are clamoring to move to Germany more than Spain. Lemme tell ya, if the my company said that it was moving UNV to Spain, I'd stay for another 10 years.
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