Archive for the ‘Culture’ 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

Amsterdam – Venice of the North

April 10, 2011 1 comment

After returning from Cuenca and Segóbriga, I went to visit Amsterdam on that Thursday. I unfortunately booked the wrong flight into Amsterdam, so I ended up getting there before Thea (who made the trip with me). The airport I flew into, Schiphol, is super nice, with tons to eat and many shops to peruse, and also has a train and bus station. I asked an official looking lady for the best way to get into the city (literally every single person I talked to in this country knew English) and kind of wandered around for a while. Eventually I sat down on a bench to figure out where I was. While I browsed Google Maps, I opened up Skype and talked to my sister and my friend Jacob while seated on a bench. It was pretty cool to just turn my computer around and point the camera towards a busy Amsterdam street.

The first night, when Thea arrived, I met her in the hotel (which was around 30 to 40 minutes outside of the city by train and bus) where she came in needing help, as the cab driver screwed her over–she was charged 40 euros for a 25 euro taxi ride. We then went into the city and kind of wandered–something that we did a lot while there.

The city itself is really visually attractive (yeah, I personified it). I am realizing that cities with some sort of charm are the ones that I find to be the most pretty. Amsterdam certainly had that historic, established, and dignified feel. It just looked very Dutch. Something I wasn’t aware of before going was just how much water flows through the city (including the Red Light District). There are little canals everywhere, and little bridges to overcome them. It’s very cool.

Some of the things that we did while there:

  • Visited the Torture Museum. The Torture Museum was exactly that, a museum that showed medieval forms of torture. It had a real-life example tons of artifacts, including a guillotine and an iron maiden. It was cool, but I was expecting it to be more of a chronological evolution of torture as opposed to examples thrown pell-mell into a set of rooms.
  • Saw the Red Light District, as indicated above. We happened to stumble upon it during the day. I was amazed at how normal the street looked. It really was just like any other street, but there were buildings with big glass windows with hookers in underwear. I don’t understand how that intrigues people, but to each his own. Someone told me that there’s a possibility of a new school opening up nearby, and that the proximity of the District to the school would force most of it to close or relocate.
  • Went to Keukenhof, a giant tulip garden in Holland that’s only open during the Spring and Summer. It has, as you can imagine, a TON of tulips and other flowers. We went on a beautiful day, and I enjoyed myself quite a bit. This is in spite of the fact that I spent the entire day with a bunch of flowers.
  • Visited a brewery! This was probably the highlight of the whole trip for me, getting to go to a small microbrewery in Amsterdam called Brouwerij ‘t IJ (don’t ask me to pronounce that). While trying to find it, we kept asking directions to “the brewery”, not realizing that we were being led to the old Heineken brewery (which no longer actually produces beer). Eventually we found it in time to take a tour. I loved it, and was actually quite surprised at how similar their brewing procedure is to mine for the MireBeer. While on the tour, I learned that the original owner was a former musician who had a passion for homebrewing, and decided to open up his own brewery. He picked this particular location as it was originally a bath house, making it ideal for the transformation as beer making can get messy and requires water as an ingredient anyway. Very interesting experience. I picked up some coasters to bring back home for my father, as well.
  • Saw the Anne Frank house. From the outside, at least. It was rather expensive to enter, so we elected not to. Nevertheless, it’s cool to see a place that is so infamous.

Holland thoughts:

  • I liked it, but not as much as I thought I would. I like Madrid much better–the weather, the people, and the abundance of activities. Maybe someday I’ll go back, but I was a bit underwhelmed.
  • Upon first contact with anybody in the country, they always started speaking to me in Dutch. I had no idea that I look Dutch until now. Two nights ago, I was participating in a Botellón near the Templo de Debod, and I met a few Dutch people studying in Spain. I asked her, and she told me I did look like I was from the Netherlands. Especially with a shaved head, which she says is very common there. I never knew.

Next blog post will just be some more thoughts and observations. I still hope to get it done tonight. As always, thanks for reading!

Link to panorama

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Categories: Culture

Cuenca and Segóbriga

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Finally, finally, FINALLY, I’m writing more. Hopefully I won’t have forgotten too much in the meantime, considering it’s taken me a metric year to finally write this. In this blog post I’m going to write about the one-day trip we all took to Cuenca and Segóbriga, in the next post about my trip with Thea to Amsterdam, and then finally I hope to round everything out with a third with just random stuff. If all goes well, it’s going to be a monster day.

On the 25th of March (yeah, I’m really bad at being punctual about writing), the DiM crew went to Cuenca. The glorious Cuenca is a small town in Castilla-La Mancha, the autonomous community to the south and east of Madrid. Yes, Castilla-La Mancha is where Cervantes’s character Don Quixote de la Mancha hails from. In all seriousness, this is one of the most well-known pieces of information about the autonomy. And not just among ignorant Americans, but the world over.

The bus ride there was about two hours long, and most of us slept since we left at 9 AM. I wasn’t able to sleep (I can never sleep in vehicles) so I stole Mónica’s crossword puzzles and started doing those. She brought with her a set of crossword puzzles from the New York Times in book format, and we’ve all been working at it since we got to Spain. I think we’re on number 80 or so out of 100 now.


Panorama from the rackety bride that I jumped around on (to the chagrin of my friends) - Click to Enlarge

Upon arrival, the first impression you get is that Cuenca looks very similar to Toledo. It is old, rocky, hilly, and in the same antique architectural style that I love about old Spain. It also is a very vertical city, in both an architectural, building-stacking sense and a “crap that’s a big hill” sense. As such, we had to climb flights and flights of stone steps to reach the top of the city where our activities were scheduled to take place. We started at the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, which had a number of really cool pieces of art. I wanted to take more pictures of the art (which was permissible there if I recall correctly, so long as flash was off), but my camera was acting up. As it turned out, I only captured a photo of one painting, but rest assurred that there was a ton of nifty pieces within the museum.

While still in Cuenca, we all had a rather nice lunch on Duke’s tab. Good wine, good food, and a fun afternoon. Not much else to say.

Eating lunch - Click to Enlarge

General impressions of Cuenca: positive. It’s a very calm and gentle place with a stunning view. It’s the type of city you stereotypically think of when you think of Spain–that is to say, unlike Madrid, which has a very universally-metropolitan atmosphere, this city felt Spanish. However, I don’t think it’s worth bending over backwards to see. Toledo, with its similar architecture and tranquility (as well as its leveler terrain and closer proximity to Madrid) would be my recommendation for this type of experience.

Upon leaving Cuenca, we stopped at the Roman excavation site of Segóbriga, a place I found to be beyond interesting. An ancient city in ruins, Segóbriga is full of history. Originally occupied by Celtiberians, the Romans captured the city in around 200 BC. During this time, the Roman Empire was rapidly expanding. The city continued to grow, eventually building a theater and an ampitheater (which was used for gladiator fights). Pictures of this place are in the slideshow.

Interestingly enough, there’s now a very small Christian church on top of the hill that the city is buried beneath. I find it oddly appropriate that you can see the Christian influence in Spain in yet another place–mosques in the South were converted into Christian places of worship, and this Roman city was no exception. It’s extremely fitting, as eventually Christianity triumphed throughout the continent.

Oh, and I managed to leave without saying “When in Rome” a single time.

That’s all for this post, I’m going to start working on the next one immediately. Thanks for reading!

Also: here’s the link for the other panorama (since they don’t show up well in the slideshow)

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Categories: Culture

Walking the Halls

April 7, 2011 1 comment

So I’ve been really bad about updating the blog, and I’m sorry. I still intend to write two more blog posts: one about Cuenca and the other about Amsterdam. Oh blog posts, I meant to write you sooner, but I just been busy. Anyway, to sort of hold everything over until I get a bit more time (this weekend I think), I decided to photograph my walk to school this morning. I’ll just put it in a slideshow below with a bit of commentary. Look back again this weekend!

Here’s the route on Google Maps

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Categories: Culture

Extra, Extra, Read All About It!

March 20, 2011 2 comments

Now, I’m only speaking from my experience, but let me tell you: sometimes when you’re visiting a foreign country, the stars align and you get to do something really freakin’ cool. I’ve got to do and see some pretty cool things in Spain so far, but yesterday I did something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life: I got to be an extra in a music video for Luis Ramiro.

The process of becoming an extra in the music video started when I was still at Duke. Jacob was showing me some Spanish music, and Luis Ramiro was one of the artists that he played for me. I really liked the album Jacob had, particularly the songs Esdrújulo and Relocos y Recuerdos, and I became somthing of an addict to his music. I started listening to his first two albums a lot, even memorizing a lot of the songs. I added him as a friend on Facebook to keep up with him, and from there I learned that he was planning to release his new album. The day of its release, I downloaded it from the Zune Marketplace (I support him enough that I actually bought the album), and sent him a Facebook message that told him how much I liked it. He and I talked for a few short messages, and he was interested in my opinions, particularly as my first language isn’t Spanish.

About a week later, Luis sent out a Facebook message saying that he was looking for extras for a music video. I discovered that the location was in Madrid, and immediately RSVP’d. The day arrived, and I started the long Metro ride to San Cristóbal (it took me something like 40 minutes to get there on Line 3). In the same metro car as me were two 20-something year old women, and from their conversation I could tell that they were going to the same place as me. I decided to follow them to make sure I didn’t get lost.

The "Set" - Click to Enlarge

An official-ish looking person met us at the exit of the Metro station, and the small crowd materialized within the next ten minutes. He had a list of expected arrivals, around 60 people. Once he was satisfied that everyone was present, he led us to a nearby park. The park was quite pretty, and had lots of trees and nature–something that most of Madrid lacks. As we walked in, we saw Luis being photographed and he waved to us.

The Picnic Table - Click to Enlarge

The extras were corralled around a picnic table (with free Coke, water, and chips) and greeted by the director. The director was an absolutely hysterical man, constantly making jokes and goofing around–I’m surprised we got anything done. He started explaining what exactly we were going to do in the video. The extras would appear in the last 40 seconds or so of the music clip of his song “Un Amor Sin Estrenar”, which translates roughly to “A New Love”, but it’s a bit more… poetic than that. The director asked the people who had come as couples in relationships to come with him to help “demonstrate” what he wanted. He positioned them next to the trees and asked them to kiss, with the woman’s back against the tree. At that point we all understood–our roles in the music video were as lovers making out while Luis sang. And to those who didn’t bring a partner? Well, you were going to find one.

Luis directing his troops - Click to Enlarge

Though most of the crowd was in their mid-twenties, we all still giggled uncomfortably like we were in middle school. I think we were just generally a bit shellshocked–not in the sense that we were offended, but just that we weren’t sure how to react or how to break the ice. The director anticipated this, and he started a game to kind of loosen the mood and get people used to kissing strangers. He pulled a few stag members of the crowd out among the trees, and explained a game of tag that he wanted them to play. One person would be “it” and when he tagged someone, that person was frozen. The only way that person could be unfrozen was if he or she was given a kiss to start moving again. Of course, the game was kind of childish, but I think it did help cure some of the jitters a bit–alleviate some of the shyness.

I, however, decided I didn’t particularly want to play the game. For the spectators, it was quite amusing, and I didn’t want to be laughter fodder. The only way it could be avoided was to be in a “couple,” so I turned to the group of girls to my right (around 6 of them, including the two who had been on the Metro with me) and grabbed the hand of one of the girls and something between a suggestion and a plea, said, “¿Somos una pareja?” She laughed and agreed, as I don’t think she was wild about playing the game either, and I joined their group in conversation as we waited for more instructions.

The conversation I normally have with Spaniards I’m just meeting is sort of becoming a routine. How long have you been here? Where and what are you studying? What do you study in the US? Do you like it here? Where do you live in Madrid? How long have you known Spanish? I answer the questions, but then try to break the pseudo-monotony by responding with more questions to them. I found out that the girl I was partnered with was in her mid-twenties, a music teacher, and was really interested in visiting the USA someday. She’s not unique in that regard, as almost everyone I talk to tells me about their past trips to the USA, or of their future hopes to visit. Some of them, like Roberto, are really passionate about American culture, and kind of view the USA as a dream vacation. I feel like most Americans are constantly dying to vacation in Europe. I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side…

The funny director is in the blue, walking awkwardly - Click to Enlarge

Eventually, we were all placed in the forest and told to “act.” The director continued to keep it interesting, getting us mentally prepared before each take, shouting “Don’t get tired!” and “With the same passion as the first take!” and “Concepto primavera!” which means, “With the idea of Spring!” One time, he even screamed maniacally, “Love is in the air!” in English with a very thick accent, and I burst out in uncontrollable laughter. As the takes occurred, Luis walked among the couples singing in time with his song. At times, crowds of interested people walking through the park would gather and watch the takes.

The experience truly was fun, for multiple reasons. I got to see how a music video is made, for one. And of course, I got to make out with a pretty Spanish girl for a few hours. My brother, Jeff, tells me that this one event alone makes him feel inferior to me, and that what I got to do yesterday was legendary. I think he’s right. The only problem is, I think my life has now reached a climax. It is simply not possible to do anything cooler in the future. I’m already over the hill. 🙂

I’m not sure exactly when the video will be released, but I’ll be sure to link to it on here when it is. Additionally, there should be a big group photo that Luis took that I can link to as well. Luis plays a concert in Madrid on April 30th (it was originally scheduled in be in March), and there is no doubt in my mind that I’m going to attend.

I want to include a few more observations about Spain in this post as well:

  • Pedro, my Spanish intercambio, is improving a LOT with his English. I went to his house the other day where we played a bit of Playstation and then he taught me how to play padel. During these activities, we had our normal bilingual conversations, and it struck me that the boy is like a sponge. If I say an idiom just once, he remembers them and integrates them directly into the conversation when he’s speaking. For example, he’s noted that when I approve of some sort of plan to meet, I normally say, “Sounds good.” He says it all the time now. I suppose I’ve done something similar in Spanish, as I now say “pues” and “o sea” all the time as involuntary space-fillers in my speech. Maybe it’s one step closer to fluency? I don’t know…
  • Through teaching Pedro, I’ve learned a lot about the fundamental differences between Spanish and English. One of the best things about Spanish is that it is spelled phoenetically, meaning that you can read a word and know instantly how it’s pronounced. This is absolutely not the case with English. “Rough”, “dough” and “bough” all look like they should have the same sound–this would be logical, as they all end in the same sequence of letters. However, as we know, they sound entirely different. This is a huge problem for ESL students, as it’s something that must be memorized, not figured out. Additionally, English many more actual sounds. Spanish has 5 or 6 vowel sounds, whereas English has 20. Some of those 20 are extremely difficult for the Spanish to figure out how to create. Some of our consonants are difficult, too. For instance, the difference between the “a” in “cat” and the “e” in “edge” are virtually indistinguishable for his ear, and since that “a” sound doesn’t exist in Spanish. These are things I just simply never would have thought of previously.
  • I’ve noticed that even the sidewalks in Madrid are very different than home. Madrid is an old city, and I suppose this is evident everywhere. My home town has poured cement sidewalks, very gray and bland. Madrid, as well as everywhere else I’ve been here, has tiled bricks for their sidewalks. It’s the little things…
  • There is WiFi on the buses here. On the rare occasion that I need to be on the bus for a long amount of time, this is a nice little luxury to have. Honestly, the public transportation system here is incredibly nice. Much better than DC’s, for instance.
  • Everyone here smokes cigarettes. Literally, it’s everywhere. Somewhere around 40% of the population here habitually smokes, and I think that number might be higher among kids my age. I see a ton of people with packs, or with rolling paper and tobacco pouches, especially directly in front of the entrance to CEU. Heck, even Luis Ramiro smokes, and his future relies on the health of his throat and lungs! It’s rather unavoidable, and coming from a non-smoking household, this was actually a bit hard to get used to.
  • I think I’m losing my English. When I was talking with Agata and Nicole the other day, I accidentally switched to Spanish in the middle of a sentence and didn’t even realize it. I also misused words, malapropism-style. Lately, in general, I’ve found it hard to think of the words that I want to use. Writing this blog, for instance, is a tricky affair at times. It’ll come back when I get to America, but it’s kind of funny in my opinion.

The weekend of April 2nd, I shall be going to Amsterdam, which will be pretty awesome I hope! Spring break, I’m planning on going to Germany and Sweden, to visit Felipe Gaitain and the Wibergh family, respectively. I also still intend to walk through Madrid with a camera and just make that a blog post, as I think that could be pretty interesting to see.

All in all, things are going well here. I miss everyone at home of course, as well. It’s strange to think that my time here is about half over. I’m torn, as I miss America, but am finally starting to feel as though I have a life and a routine here. Oh well, what happens happens.

Until next time!

Categories: Culture, Language


March 20, 2011 1 comment

Hi everybody. Last weekend I went to Barcelona, and now I’m finally getting around to writing my little recap. I am going to try to write two blog posts over the next two days, one about Barça, and the other with more observations and the story of my participation of the filming of a music video. It’s definitely been an interesting week.

My trip to Barça didn’t really start out too well. The DiM crew had scheduled an 8 AM train ride on the Renfe Ave. The Ave is a pretty cool, modern train that shows movies during the trip and gives you free headphones. It’s also a high-speed train, traveling at 300 km/hr, or 187 mph. However, unlike everything else is this country, the trains are punctual–if they are scheduled to leave at 8 AM, they’re leaving at 8 AM. You’ve probably guessed, but I was about 30 seconds late, and had to pay to have my ticket changed: not a great start.

When I got there, I recall being really surprised that nothing was in Spanish. As you all may know, in Barça (as well as Cataluña in general and a lot of the surrounding area), the language Catalán is very prominent. It is something like a half and half mix between Spanish and French, and while it isn’t particularly difficult to figure out what the street signs and ticket booths said, I suppose I just didn’t expect there to be such a strong presence of a language other than Spanish in a Spanish city. Their usage of Catalán is actually somewhat political, with the nationalist movement that remains reasonably strong in Cataluña. This is a problem for students who study abroad in Barcelona, as oftentimes students will ask questions during class in Catalán and receive responses in Catalán, leaving the poor American student clueless.

The Sagrada Familia

After getting off the train, I went directly to the Sagrada Familia to meet up with the group. I’d like to point out that practically everything we did in Barcelona somehow involved the architect Gaudí. The Sagrada Familia was among his first projects, and also his last. He continued working on it his whole career, spending practically every day at the end of his life on site, overseeing the project. It remained incomplete for many, many years, but with the spike in tourism, starting with the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, tourism has provided the necessary funds for construction to continue. They say that the building should be finished in around 10 or 15 years.

Casa Batlló - Hideous

Speaking of Gaudí, we also saw other famous pieces of architecture by him, including the Casa Batlló and Casa Milà (AKA La Pedrera). The story behind the Batlló’s strange façade is that it is meant to tell the story of Saint George slaying a dragon. The top part is supposed to be the dragon’s skin, the cross to represent Christianity, and the columns and balconies in the shapes of bones and skulls represent, well, bones and skulls. I personally think it’s a hideous building, regardless of its architectural importance. The Milà isn’t particularly pretty either, but inside in the attic was rather impressive, as it used parabolic arches, and also housed a model of the building. Gaudí wasn’t much for blueprints, so he made models. As can be seen in the gallery, he actually made the plans for the arches with inverted chains that were viewed through a mirror. He utilized a similar technique to design the Sagrada Familia.

While with the teachers, we also visited the Mercat St. Josep (a big market like el Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid) and the Temple D’August. The Temple was pretty cool, as this old Roman temple (from the age of the Roman Empire, when the Romans had control of Cataluña–1 B.C. or so, I think) was essentially found inside the walls of the apartment buildings, then excavated. They’re relatively sure that more columns remain within the surrounding apartments, but they are unwilling to tear down all the apartment buildings to find them.

I ought to mention that it monsooned the whole time we were touring the above places with DiM profs Eva and Marcos, but the next day when we were on our own, the weather was far more agreeable. We went to the Parc Güell, another of Gaudí’s creations. Without visiting this park, I would have had a rather sour impression of Barça, but this place changed my perception immensely. The park was stunning, both in its views of the city and the sea, as well as the beauty of nature and the Gaudí-designed structures within the park itself. One famous area of the park is the plaza, where lots of people gather to watch street acts and to buy souvenirs. For example, we saw a very entertaining band, as well as a Flamenco dancer. You can also go underneath that plaza, among a forest of columns and trencadís artwork. We ate lunch there in the park–bread, fruit and wine from the Mercat–and generally relaxed in a beautiful place.

Umm, you mean bi-WINNING

Barcelona, on the whole, was an interesting experience. I think I expected it to be much more, and I am pretty sure I like Madrid better. To be fair, the weather was God awful for a lot of my trip, and I didn’t get to go to the beach, both of which surely skewed my perception, but I will say that I did enjoy the Parc Güell immensely. Furthermore, I would like to go back to the Sagrada Familia again someday. If nothing else, one could definitely say that visiting Cataluña was certainly culturally valuable, as one can’t truly experience Spain without experiencing Barça.

It’s around 2:00 AM right now, so I don’t think I’m going to try to start my second blog post tonight. Hopefully I’ll get it written tomorrow, because I’m really excited to write about it while it’s still fresh in my mind. I’ve also decided, this time around for this post, to throw all the pictures into a slideshow instead of a gallery. This prevents you from needing to scroll for a metric year, and I think it’ll work and look better. Anyway, hope to get the next post up soon, and I look forward to feedback.

Hasta pronto.

EDIT: Decided to include direct links to the panoramas, since they are rather small in the slideshow widget.


EDIT 2: Thea posted a YouTube video that chronicled our time in Barça, namely the Gaudí stuff. You can watch it here.

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Categories: Culture

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