Archive for the ‘Class’ Category

Observations: Episode II

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

As with last time, I’ll just kind of write, with observations first and stories second. Here goes (how’s that for an introduction?).


  • Though I don’t eat out at restaurants often, I have picked up on one thing. In Spain, you don’t tip the waiter, no matter how nice the restaurant. I’m assuming their salaries are higher, more like a regular job. In the USA, the waiter’s salary is generally lower and they depend on tips to make up for the lower pay rate–for this reason, tips are expected. Additionally, if you don’t ask for the bill, it’s not coming. They consider it rude to drop a bill off at a table, as if you’re pushing them out the door. Makes sense–it’s just different.
  • Taking care of its citizens is a major concern of the Spanish government, whether liberal or conservaitve, and it manifests itself in many ways–sometimes small ones. One example is that, at crosswalks, the street posts beep audibly to let you know when it is safe to cross. It’s a GREAT idea, and not only does it make it safer for people who aren’t paying attention, it makes a world of difference to the blind. Spain helps the blind a lot: spoken names of bus stops and Metro stops (as well as talking signs to tell you when the bus you want is coming), different sized paper money, etc. This technology might also exist in America (NYC or Chicago maybe?), but I know it exists in Madrid, Barça, and Amsterdam.
  • I’ve raved about the public transportation system the whole time I’ve been here, and I’m still quite happy with it. It’s cheap, easy to use, and easy to navigate (once you get used to it). The other day I found out you also get free WiFi use on all the buses. They’ve done public transportation the right way–nothing like Facebooking as you’re riding down the Paseo del Prado.
  • Though I’ve been here for three months, I still never hear Spanish music. Going to clubs, eating at restaurants, walking into stores–no matter where you are you almost always hear American music. There is one exception that I can think of: I went to a cheap-o Indian restaurant one time that has included some Spanish songs in its playlist, but the songs they played were by artists Juanes and Julieta Venegas… The songs were Mexican.
  • Though the American economy isn’t as strong as it could be (1.49 dollars to the euro), in some respects, we’re still far better off than Spain right now. They’re sitting at around a 20% unemployment rate right now. That’s not a typo. The Prime Minister, Zapatero, is hated here much like Bush was and is probably blamed more for the crisis than Obama was by the right. The ugliness of politics is universal: nobody’s ever happy, and it’s always the other guy’s fault.
  • Europeans introductions: As a male, if I meet a new guy, I greet him with a handshake. However, introductions with females are made with kisses, one on each cheek. Don’t try to shake a girl’s hand–the resulting situation is just awkward. I think this type of introduction is present in Latin America as well (and maybe in more places), but I’ve still never been there, so I wouldn’t know firsthand.
  • Drinking alcohol here is very much different from the United States–in legality and culture. Obviously I’m allowed to drink here legally, but its societal role here is much more than recreational (which is not the case for people my age in the USA). I generally have a glass or two of wine with every lunch and dinner, and it is incredibly normal. In fact, Pepe (the host dad) drinks wine with me every day. Returning to the States where it is neither culturally nor legally acceptable will be an odd relapse.
  • The Spanish word for buzzkill or party pooper is aguafiestas, which made me laugh endlessly when I learned it. It doesn’t translate well in a literal sense, but a rough translation would be “water to parties”, which to me for some reason is really funny. Along the same silly lines, the word for handcuffs is esposas: “wives”. Languages can be pretty funny at times.
  • I still can’t roll my R’s too well. My intercambio, Pedro, makes fun of me pretty endlessly about it (in good fun). When I try, I either end up doing a uvular trill (back of the tongue and/or in the throat) or a really weak hiss sound with the correct part of my tongue. Oh, I should also mention that I have something between a Spanish and an American accent now. C = th. ‘Nuff said.
  • Smoking–everyone does it. Walking into school every day means walking through a small cloud of smoke from the kids loitering around the building’s entrance. The number of smokers is astronomically high here, particularly among the younger generation. According to this site, 40% of young women smoke here (I will say that it seems that even more women than men smoke here). I have also seen other figures that are higher.


  • For Mythography class the other day, our teacher Patricia took us through the underground scene of Madrid. In Lavapiés, a place known for its diversity, we were taken into a previously abandoned warehouse that had been seized by this sort of hipster young crowd. The entire building was decorated with artistic graffiti (a la Banksy), and full of young people dressed like revolutionaries (almost). We toured it, walking through a coffeeshop among kids with thick-rimmed glasses and plaid shirts. In one room, there was a trade-shop. Clothes were placed pell-mell throughout the room, and if you wanted something you could take it. It was just understood that you’d replace it with something of your own–a trade. Later on, we ended up into a large room where there was strange music playing in the background while a man and woman dressed in metallic clothing were seated, unmoving, on a raised platform in the middle of said room. The man, who looked a bit like he belonged in Daft Punk, was wearing fake glasses with big, bulging eyes, while grasping his hand to his throat and grunting as if struggling for air. Surrounding them were around 100 art students, drawing the scene quickly from different angles. In yet another room, we saw some teenage girls practicing acrobatics on giant ribbons hanging from the ceiling. It was easily the oddest place I’ve been to in Madrid, and perhaps the strangest thing I’ve seen in all my life.
  • The Champions League is in full swing right now, and the most recent match that Real Madrid played was against Tottenham Hotspur, a team from the English Premiere League. The day before the match was the day I came back to Madrid from Amsterdam, and while riding the Metro back home, I heard two folks speaking English. This is relatively rare in the Spanish Metro, so I generally make a point to talk to people when I hear it. Turns out, these two men, Ivan and Joe, were Irishmen who were in town for the game (Tottenham has a large following in Ireland). Additionally, neither spoke a word of Spanish and both were extremely lost. They had simple directions to their hotels and to the stadium (where they had to pick up their tickets), and the Madrid Metro system can be a bit intimidating and unhelpful without experience on it. I took pity on them and chaperoned them to the stadium. At the Bernabéu, all you have to do when you buy a ticket is stick the credit card you used to pay for the ticket into a machine and it prints it for you. However, one of the tickets was incorrectly cut by the machine, cutting it directly in half. I ended up having to go talk to their main office to get the ticket reprinted for them, but I suspect that without me there, Messrs. Joe and Ivan might have been out of luck. I left them with more detailed instructions on how to to get to their hotels and went back home. They were both very grateful, calling me a “good samaritan”. Just doin’ my part to make ‘Murica look good. Tottenham lost 4-0.

Tomorrow, I’ll be in Galicia. On Thursday, I come back to Madrid, but I’m staying in the airport to fly out to Berlin to meet Felipe Gaitan. After that, I’ll go to Stockholm to see Felix Wibergh’s family. Should be a great Spring Break. It’s not that much time until I come back home, which is a strange feeling to be sure. I now have a routine established here–something of a life established. Furthermore, I am going to have a ridiculously difficult schedule upon my return. But alas, little I can do about it except enjoy the time remaining, then work my ass off when I return.

As always, gracias por leer!

Categories: Class, Culture, Language

Observations: Episode I

March 9, 2011 3 comments

Hey! So, this Friday (two days from now), we are going to be heading to Barcelona on a short two-day trip, so I’ll do a post-trip post when I come back. However, I’ve lately been trying to be more meticulous and actually write down my observations when they occur to me. Generally it’s just stuff that pops into my mind while I’m walking around the city, stuff like that, but I hope that these thoughts might be interesting. I think part of living in a place is recognizing the little things, and sharing them gives you all a sense of what it’s like to live in Europe from the point of view of a thoroughbred Yank. I’ll start the blog post with some of these observations, but also I will throw in some brief recaps of some of the things that I’ve been up to here.

The random observations:

  • I’ll start with one that’s really hard for me to get used to as an American. Here, in most areas of your day to day life, tardiness is more or less acceptable. I am still used to Duke (and America in general) where, if class starts at 10:05, you had better be in your seat by 10:00 so that you have everything ready when the professor starts lecturing, or else risk enduring his wrath. That’s not how it works here… If you’re on time, you frankly probably beat the professor to the classroom, and you will have ample time to twiddle your thumbs waiting for the rest of the class to get there, too. Generally speaking, five minutes late is on time. One of my professors put it quite eloquently, saying that “Spaniards don’t let the watch govern their lives.” I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.
  • Another thing I’ve noticed is a very random–something you don’t really think about. When you pass people on the sidewalk, to which side do you need to strafe to avoid bodily contact? Spain can’t make up its mind at all about lanes of traffic in general. Cars drive on the right side of the road, the Metro goes on the left. Sometimes you enter Metro station turnstiles on the left side, other times on the right. Escalators may be going upstairs on the left and down on the right, or vice-versa, with no rhyme nor reason–it’s just odd, like it’s entirely unplanned. When you find yourself in the sometimes inevitable situation where you need to walk around someone, they seem to have no real instinct as to which side to pick. I have sort of turned it into a little game, where I try to predict my opponent’s next move and steer clear in advance in order to avoid that awkward dance that sometimes results just before contact. It’s just an odd thing to have to consciously think about, as in America I think everyone just habitually walks past each other on the right. Am I wrong?
  • Here, the party scene is nuts. You generally can go out any night of the week, but particularly Thursday through Saturday. You generally start consuming at around 10 or 11, but the night can last (I kid you not) until 8 or 9 AM. It’s insane. I’m told it’s a big plus for getting Real Madrid players to live in Madrid. Beckham apparently was quite the addict of the clubs here–it’s common knowledge, I am told, that he cheated on his wife frequently.
  • PDA out in the open is really common. It is almost expected if you’re anywhere near a university that there will be at least one couple aggressively making out. I’ve also seen it in the Metro car and on the bus. After some thought, I believe the comparative openness is because people live with their parents here for so long–I admit that would be more awkward to engage in tongue fencing next to mommy or sissy than next to a rando.
  • The police cars here always keep their top lights on. They’re not flashing, but rather the blue lights are constantly lit. I can’t imagine that speed traps are particularly effective.
  • Everybody here listens to American music. When I ask about Spanish music, invariably they tell me that Spanish music sucks. They also think they know the lyrics, but usually they are comically wrong.

Random thoughts… gotta love them. It’s fun to record them, though. I carry around a little notebook to write down vocabulary words (I’m at around 600 right now), but when I get a little thought I sometimes write it in the margins.

As far as some of the actual things I’ve been doing, here goes:

  • Carnaval was last weekend, and it was a relatively fun experience. It’s a Brazilian tradition, but they also celebrate it here (to a far milder degree). Generally it involves a normal night of partying… plus costumes. Thea and I went with our two Italian friends from school, meeting them at their apartment. Finding the flat sucked, as we got caught in VERY cold rain halfway there. Upon arrival, they were still getting ready with makeup and such, so I just talked to the girls who were already costumed as I dried off. We then went to a club that they knew and liked. Upon arrival, the womenfolk were stormed by men (men here are very forward, even more so than a frat star in the US), but they handled it well. Generally it was a successful, fun night. I intend to hang out with them more, as they’re silly and exciting to be around.

Carnaval with the Italians - Click to Enlarge

  • My intercambio Pedro introduced me to his friend Roberto the other night. Roberto went to a British school in Madrid, learned English, and speaks almost fluently. From watching American TV and such, he has learned a lot of vocabulary and has quite the arsenal of phrases and idioms at his disposal (he said “gut it out” to me. I was stunned). A bit comically, he has essentially adopted an American accent. Spaniards have a lot of trouble pronouncing certain sounds, like the soft “g” in “hug” and the “i” in “igloo”, but Roberto speaks like he’s from the midwest–something he’s picked up from copying the sounds he hears in movies and in music. He’s a really cool guy. The three of us played billiards the other night, something I haven’t done in ages. Another cool thing about Roberto is that he admires American culture very extensively–bordering on being more patriotic than many Americans. I can’t wait till he visits!

Me, Roberto, and Pedro playing billiards at a bar near the Bernabéu - Click to Enlarge

  • I bought a plane ticket to Amsterdam for the weekend of March 31. Of course that will be another blog entry. Additionally, I’m intending to visit Felix’s (my brother’s roommate’s) family in Sweden over Spring Break. If I can make it happen, I’d also like to visit a contact in England and Felipe Gaitan in Germany. We’ll see what happens, but at the very least I’ll get to see the Netherlands and Scandinavia–not a bad deal at all.
  • As a result of having worn braces, I currently have a permanent retainer on my bottom teeth, and about two weeks ago or so, it broke free on three of the six teeth it was connected to (once one breaks, you get a domino effect). I managed to secure an appointment with an orthodontist today, and they fixed it in less than 20 minutes for less than 20 dollars. When I had a similar repair done in the USA in Chapel Hill, it cost me 150 bucks. I was floored that it was so cheap. It was certainly unexpected, because everything else here costs a fortune.


  • I wrote an essay for Art History about the transformation of Velázquez’s style over the course of his lifetime, and the effects that his exposure to Italian art had on his works. If you want to read it (or just look at the pictures) you can read it here. I think the Spanish is relatively well-written, but I’m certain it could be improved to sound more native. Nevertheless, I’m pretty happy with it.

All right, the next time I update this will be post-Barcelona. I’m still ticked that their football club beat Arsenal yesterday. I went with Roberto to an Irish Pub called Shamrocks to watch and left a tiny bit disappointed. They have a frustratingly good team. Anyway, with that, I bid you all adieu.

¡Hasta luego!

Categories: Class, Culture, Language

Class, Toledo, and the Bernabéu

February 21, 2011 2 comments

I’ll mention it early: leave comments! Feedback! What’s cool to read about, what’s less interesting. Surprise me! You shouldn’t even need to create an account to comment…

Back to the blog. Yes, I know, I’ve been really lazy with my updates. I’m sorry! To be honest, keeping a blog is a bit difficult. You have lots of things to keep in mind such as remembering what you did, making sure to keep your camera with you (I’m bad at this one), taking note of where you went, and then (of course) actually taking a few hours to update. Today I shall fill in the past two weeks or so. In the future, I’m going to try to fill the time between my notable adventures with little blurbs of things I’ve learned or found interesting about the country here, since school has now begun and there are fewer excursions. I intend to be more diligent.

I think I’ll start by talking about my class schedule. This will make it very easy for those of you who are less-interested to skip over it, as it is all bulleted and easily ignored 🙂

  • Core Course: Spain in the 21st Century – This is the class that all DiM students have to take, and the only required one. It’s taught by the man in charge of the DiM program, Marcos Canteli, and its focus is to try to catch us Americans up to speed on Spain as it is today. We are learning about their government and recent history: the civil war through the regime of Franco and the re-establishment of democracy. Additionally, we are being learning about culture as well: books, novels, movies. So far it’s been a quality and enjoyable class. One observation that coincides with what I’ve learned: the political parties here are a mess. They have several that are recognized and prominent, such as PSEO (the socialists) and the PP (conservatives), and many other smaller ones. Of course, over time, many of them have changed their names, making following them ever more confusing. Furthermore, there are other parties in the País Vasco and in Cataluña whose sole goal fight for independence for their respective communities. Honestly, their political system is a huge mess–not unlike home.
  • The History of Spanish Art – This class is taught by Blanca Muro. It’s a riveting class where we’re learning about the various aspects of Spanish Art (not much of a mystery). Every other class period, we visit a museum or landmark in Madrid–pretty cool. So far, we’ve talked about El Greco, Diego Velázquez, and the Palacio Real. The cool part about being here is that we talk about their works, their life stories–then we go visit them. It’s probably my favorite class, reminding me of my art history class with Mr. and Mrs. Simpson in high school. I won’t talk too much about it, as I summarize some of the things we talk about below with example.
  • Mythography of Madrid – Taught by Patricia Esteban, the purpose of this course is to focus specifically on the culture of Madrid. This class began with a history of the city itself. Madrid, like much of Spain, was originally Arab territory, originally named Mayrit (meaning place of waters, roughly). It became the capital of Spain in 1561, chosen due to its central location in the country. Watching the city grow (via old maps) into what it is today is really interesting, for example. We also are spending time looking at films and works of literature that depict Madrid, trying to capture the city’s essence.
  • The Psychology of Advertising – This is the only class I’m taking that isn’t run by the DiM office, and it’s turned out to be very interesting. Taught entirely in Spanish (just like the other classes), we are learning the strategies that advertisers employ to compel their audience to buy their product. The class is composed of me, Mónica, Thea, and Gloria, as well as a French girl, a Mexican girl, two Italians, and one Spanish student. Last class, we made short presentations on advertisements that we found interesting, and we talked about the reasons the ads were successful. As one of my examples, I used the Heineken beer closet commercial. It’s a very diverse classroom and a very fun class.

Suffice it to say that classes are generally going reasonably well. For the most part, there’s not too much work so long as you stay on top of it, and I enjoy being in class. The cool part of Spain, however, is not homework, and I was able to manage doing a few cool things during these past two weeks. For me, upon arrival, I knew I had to watch at least one match in Real Madrid’s stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu. While I didn’t watch Real Madrid play, I think I may have done even better: I watched the World Cup champions play against Colombia. For a mere 18 dollars (thirteen euro). The bargain of my life.

Spain: World Cup Champions -

It was rather hectic getting in. Thea went with me, and finding the box office was surprisingly difficult. Here, you can actually buy soccer tickets through the ATM, but the machine trolled me and kept canceling my purchase. Upon arrival, we walked around the stadium in its entirety, weaving through the extremely thick and rowdy crowd, before finally finding the proper booth. Our tickets took us to seats on the third tier, and we actually used an escalator to get up there (pretty cool). The first glimpse of the stadium was unforgettable, and I’m kicking myself still for having forgotten my camera. It was like walking in through the side of a giant’s bowl. It is a very vertical stadium, with the backs of the heads of the row in front of you around shin-level (no complaints there). The stands were full of fans, both Colombian and Spanish, and the bottom (for we were rather high up) was a perfect little rectangle of the prettiest shade of healthy grass. As a soccer fan, I was in heaven. Watching the top names in the game play before my eyes is something I’ll never forget. The game itself turned out to be a bit dull unfortunately, as the Spaniards were reluctant to attack too ferociously, but I was still happy to be witnessing incredible players play an incredible game. To top it off, the Spaniards around us were very jolly. They danced and sang during the songs at the halftime show, waltzing to La Camisa Negra or Que Viva España and just generally being nutty and fun. The only goal of the game came at the end. I have to admit: Colombia should have won. You can see Spain’s goal, from roughly the same point of view I had (but much closer to the ground) here. It occurs to me that I’ve actually seen as many Spanish national games as American ones–this needs to be fixed when I get back home.

A stunning city indeed, Toledo - Click to Enlarge

Later on that week, I had the opportunity to take a day trip to Toledo, Spain’s capital in the thirteenth century (it is around forty minutes south of Madrid in the community of Castilla-La Mancha) and one of the prettiest cities I’ve visited thus far in Spain. Toledo is well-known worldwide for its knives and crafts, and in this area it did not disappoint. The knives and swords made in Toledo can be seen in movies such as the Lord of the Rings, but they also specialize in other beautiful handiwork. They make damascene crafts, a style wherein gold is inlaid into the material to create stunning souvenirs in the form of bracelets, earrings, and other forms of decoration. We actually got to walk into a workshop to see how it’s done–it’s a beautiful process of patience and precision. Of course, the highest quality souvenirs are made by hand. One can actually see the difference between the hand-made and machine-made products–the hand-made is far superior in quality and in grandeur. Hopefully I can return to pick up gifts for family and friends–it’s a mere 10 euros round trip to return by bus.

Façade of the Mosque - Click to Enlarge

Toledo, like much of Spain, is rich in both Arab and Christian history. This can be seen with its Alcázar (which still stands, but which we did not visit), its cathedral, and its mosques. The mosques are perhaps the most historically interesting, as they tend to give a brief history of the Christian take-over. We visited one mosque that fit the bill perfectly. The façade shows Arabic text at the top, which I am told outlines the building’s benefactors. You can see the characteristic Arabic geometric patterns both inside and out, along with the lobed arches typical of Arabic architecture. When you enter, you see this style continue until you get to the back, where the Christian influence can be seen. On the ceiling, a painting of Jesus blesses those who enter, with his hand waving good fortune upon us. The presence of Jesus seems out of place–a painting in this building just looks, well, wrong. However, the mosque serves as a perfect example of one of the MANY mosques converted to Christian use during that era. Pictures are available in the gallery, courtesy of Megan’s facebook (as always).

Aside from Toledo, I also returned a few times to the art museums, largely due to the field trips for the art history class. For instance, we studied a lot of Velázquez‘s paintings in the Prado. Velázquez was an interesting fellow. He was a king’s painter who eventually became a nobleman, and his style actually changes dramatically over time with notable influence of the Italians (Velázquez visited Rome at two different points in his life. Both times marked a change in his style). For example, compare the relatively flat (a relative lack of perspective) and structured Los Borrachos to the perspective-enhanced and free Las Meninas to see what I mean. While both are masterpieces, his shift in style is nevertheless evident. I talked about Las Meninas before in one of my blog posts. That work is truly something special, and absolutely worth your time to read up on in the wiki.

Los Borrachos - - Click to Enlarge


Las Meninas - - Click to Enlarge

We also have been studying El Greco, a Greek painter who earned notoriety and fame in Spain (hence the name). His style is a combination of Mannerism (loose, distorted), and Byzantine style (flat, symbolic). He tried his best to become a court painter for the king, but failed for unknown reasons. Nevertheless, he is one of the most well-known painters of all of Spanish art (though he is not truly a Spaniard, having been born in Crete). The painting below is The Vision of Saint John. Note the surrealism, and the small size of the head in proportion to the rest of the body. Notice also that the figures seemingly have black outlines. These are all common traits of works by El Greco.

The Vision of Saint John -

We also have studied the Palacio Real. The Palacio Real is a beautiful building, constructed in the style of Versailles. The place it inhabits now was once an Arabic alcázar, but the original building burned down in a tragic fire (the original building contained a spired tower where Velázquez painted Las Meninas–hooray trivia!). The Palace is rarely used by the king now except ceremonially, but it has unrivaled beauty (well, except Versailles). My most lasting memory of it is the Throne Room, lined with expensive mirrors and beautiful red felt walls. The room is rather dark in reality, which when combined with the gothic, infinite nature of the room (thank you mirrors) and the statues of the Roman gods makes you feel small and intimidated, as the king would have wanted you to feel. It is, without a doubt, my favorite room in the world.

We also managed to head over to the Reina Sofía, where we managed to glimpse a few works of Goya, Salvador Dalí (notably The Great Masturbator, a painting with an incredible, albeit twisted, back story), and Picasso. As these artists will be covered in art history class in the future, I won’t talk about them too much, but I will say that Guernika, one of the most important paintings in the world, is not let down by its stature: the painting is ginormous, occupying an entire wall by itself.

Besides taking trips, other fun new things have transpired. The DiM program has an intercambio system, where Spanish students who want to practice their English and help the Americans with their Spanish can request a buddy. Essentially, the school helps you find a friend or two, and I was blessed with some pretty cool people.

My first intercambio is named Felix. He is a very international sort of man of the world who speaks Spanish, German, and decent English. We met on a Friday night to go clubbing. I met him and his posse near CEU, where we all chatted in a mini plaza with benches, then proceeded to the club. It was one of many nights where I didn’t actually come home until around 6 or 7 AM–and usually when I leave the clubs, they’re still full. One of his buddies knew English natively, so I had a very bilingual night.

The other intercambio’s name is Pedro, an incredibly impressive 21 year old Spaniard. He works at a law firm, and he actually taught himself English using nothing more than grammar books and novels. I repeat, the man has never taken an English class. He told me that I’m only the fourth person he has ever actually spoken English with, which is incredibly impressive and practically unbelievable given his proficiency. He and I got along impeccably, and I expect us to become really good friends. He’s an incredibly interesting and entertaining guy to be around.

I think I’ve finally gotten caught up. Nowadays I have a pretty solid routine, and most of my time now is spent going to class, going to the gym, reading, browsing the internet, or what have you. I’ve gotten a lot closer to my host family, too–as my Spanish has improved so has my ability to get to know them. I also ventured to try soccer with the CEU kids. They are incredible. I thought I heard from someone that some of these kids are being considered for the national team circuit, and I’d absolutely believe it. They rocked my world the first time I played with them (though I did manage to score a few times). I’m returning this Tuesday to play with them again, but I admit that the impending embarrassment dampens the excitement a little bit… They are, however, very nice gentlemen and I do enjoy playing with them.

Anyway, I hope all the readers are enjoying themselves in the States (or wherever they may be). Miss you all, love you all. I promise I’ll try to be a bit more diligent with updates in the future. Here are some pictures to distract you! ¡Hasta luego!

Categories: Class, Culture