Lost in La Mancha

A lost year in Spain

So a friend comes to visit…

Recently a friend came to visit. Here is a hypothetical trip plan by Ugarte. Not Fodor’s, Frommer’s, or any other f named travel gurus.

Let’s say your guest arrives in Atocha (the beautiful train station) around 2pm and they’re ready to get a little crazy, you take them home first. Can’t go around Madrid with suitcases, that’s silly. Leave the bags, put on some decent clothing and then sit in your house and chat. It’s the Madrileño way. No one leaves their home until they have wasted time. No one.

After wasting the proper amount of time, you do Madrid:Greatest Hits. It goes as follow.

SOL- the plaza at the heart of Madrid and the Country. The Giant Whale Metro (what it looks like to us), is a feast for the eyes, along with the Oso y Madroño statue. Walk around, be awed. Are you awed? Good. Moving on, you quickly wander through the mammoth shopping areas popping up around Gran Via and the lovely Callao theatre area. Heading north along Gran Via, you’ll run into Plaza España, the giant fountain that houses Don Quixote and Sancho Panza! Take it in before the young hooligans come with their beer and their graffiti! Loop around to the Royal Palace, Plaza Oriente, and of course the Giant Church of Almudena. Bask in Spain’s former glory, then immediately go get drunk with the locals who are trying to forget Spain’s present.

San Miguel is your next stop- it is the most expensive place you’ll encounter, but it is an excellent welcoming mat. Food, Cheese, wine, ham, wine, food, wine-everything you need to begin your Iberian adventure. Once you’ve hit up the tourist hot spot, go join the locals in La Latina, I suggest Txakolina. These tapas bars offer you large portions for low prices and of course they perfectly accompany your wine. Once you have been fed, bee line it across town to the old punk neighborhood of La Malasaña. This is where your night should really heat up. La Ardosa is older than most cities in the States and has some of the best vermut around. Stumble over to La Bicicleta for the largest and most delicious gin and tonics hipsters have ever made. (no joke, one man bemoaned the influx of “jipsters” to the area, the curse of Williamsburg continues).

From here your night blurs. Just stumble around, you’ll find something.

The next day, wake up. This may be the best you can do. Your guest will be hungry, cook them a massive champagne breakfast. Hair of the dog and what not. Lounge around until 4, then head to Retiro the massive park in city center. Wander through and see the people and the pond, the Crystal Palace and the performers. Meander towards the Prado. After 6pm everyday, you can get in for free. This gives you about 2 hours to see the place, not enough time but you can see the highlights like Goya’s dark paintings. You’ll get hungry so head over to Casa Julio’s – some of the best croquetas in the city. This will whet your appetite and make you wander around until you find a place to eat. (We chose Barriga Llena, a mexican restaurant that always fills us up). After dinner, it’s drinking time. Head to the Cuevas de Sesamo for sangria, Plaza Santa Ana for terraza drinking, and end the night at Parsanillo del Principe. Wander into a bad club and then head home…

SUNDAY FUNDAY. Take it easy, you deserve it. Start slow, stroll though the Rastro, Madrid’s giant flea market. Grab some lunch in Lavapies, head over to Casa Granada, a roof top bar overlooking the beautiful city sky line. Stroll over to the Reina Sofia and stare at Picasso’s Guernica. A friend may call to tell you Fuel Fandango is playing later, go, buy some tinto and spend the day in a field drinking with new Spanish friends. The perfect way to end a perfect weekend.

BUT WAIT, there’s Monday! Wake up at your leisure and spend some time resting those legs of yours. Leave in time to get a good menu in. A menu is a prixe fixe type set meal in which you can get an entire bottle of wine and extras for under 10 euros. I highly recommend getting some dessert at La Mallorquina, one of the historical bakeries that serves the BEST napolitanas in the city. Stroll over to El Templo de Debod to catch some last minute sites of the city. You can also head north to the rose gardens of Parque Oeste and finish with a massive dinner at restaurant in a more “hood” like area (i.e. my school). Send your guest on to the plane tired, bloated, and happy.

A funny thing happened on the way home…

Often times, I find my self laughing hysterically at the things that happen to me here. I realized, maybe you, too, anonymous blog reader, will find these encounters amusing and interesting, Maybe you love schadenfreud, and take pleasure in other people’s pain. Maybe this will bore you.

Me da igual.

I joke, I joke. Honestly, between the things my students say and the weird situations I get myself into, I have enough material to write several stand up shows.

Let me begin with a short and, uhm, sweet story about a recent trip home.

The Madrid Metro is probably the best metro in the world. I mean it. I have been a frequent rider of the third circle of hell that is the New York Train System. I fought Big Brother on the Underground in London. I squeezed myself in between chic Frenchies on the Paris metro. I have cursed the T in Boston for closing early. I have stared the MARTA in the face in Atlanta.

In short, I know public transportation.

The trains in Madrid, when not on strike, run every 2-6 minutes. There is cell service in almost every single tunnel and station (it is possible MTA). The buses HAVE FREE WIFI ON THEM. I heart the Madrid Metro.

That being said, sometimes, the train is inexplicably packed and to find a seat is exhilarating and incredibly lucky. On one such day, I was the proud owner of a seat on the train on the long ride home. About a stop in, a sweet old man sat down next to me. I hardly noticed him, except to make sure my bag was far away from him (hey, pick-pockets come in all shapes, sizes, and ages). I was incredibly engrossed in the book I was reading to give him much thought other than ensure my belongings were safe. Read more…

Traveling to: Tangier, Morocco

I’ve been trying to write about Morocco for a while now. By a while, I mean two months. I’ve had hypothetical pen to paper several times and hypothetically tossed the draft each time. Why? Perhaps it is the nature of this blog. I’m not exactly keen on revealing all the things required of a good blog. Instead, I would rather write comically. Humor over intimacy. Morocco is hard because I was deeply upset about leaving my family behind. It was an amazing adventure but my head was not in it. Or rather, my head was in it but my heart was still in Miami.

Now, months removed, I can write a story about Tangier and about two people who went there.
We were feeling very Out of Africa-esque. It was a the first truly foreign country we were going to. Europe, as lovely as it is, is not “foreign.” It’s still very western. Morocco is like a tricycle for nascent travelers. It’s a barometer for how much “foreign” one can take. What do I mean by “foreign?” I mean a place where the language, culture, and traditions are wholly new to you. I mean a place that forces you to think about your comfort zone because you have never felt more uncomfortable. Morocco tests your tolerance of this. If you don’t like your time there, chances are you should probably stick to traveling the Caribbean and Europe. If it’s an adventure, move on to harder to travel to places, like Afghanistan. Ok, maybe not Afghanistan but you get the idea. Travel isn’t all tropical drinks and museums, there is an actual cultural exchange.

Ok enough preaching, here is the dirty on our trip:

Read more…

Update

I have not been completely faithful to this blog. I have been busy, running around, trying to keep myself from sinking into the depths of ennui. Yes, the winter blues have hit hard here at the Manor in Legazpi. After a trip home for the holidays, the grey Madrid winter is really not awe inspiring. I also have a very long Travel To post that has been gestating in my mind grapes. Here’s hoping it’s half as interesting as I think it is.

The return to school was not pleasant- it seems my darling students have forgotten all their english. No worries, my bright American accent shocked them into submission. Much like Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, I have my ways of making them talk. No, this does not involve torture. Yes, this does involve an overabundance of American chutzpah.

Speaking of Oscar movies, Lee and I have already run into the difficulties of keeping up with our movie awards season in the states. Watching the Golden Globes a full 24 hours after they aired was sad and difficult. It’s so hard to live tweet something that is old news in the internet world. (Never has there been a more Generation Internet sentence written- take that Lena Dunham).

As the Oscars are my Superbowl (especially a year where a Manning won’t be playing), I will be attempting to live stream it here. What does that mean? Starting at 2am and staying awake until 6am. Lee and I will also be hosting an Oscars party the night before. WE WILL TAKE PART IN THIS I SWEAR IT.

What’s to come up on Lost in La Mancha? Celebrating Carnival, Finding Oscar, and of course, more Travel To pieces. Eventually their will be a few other pieces on day to day life for those reading this blog who are interested in the Auxiliares program.

Until the writing bug bites me again…

Traveling to: Salamanca

Up until now, I have  only really had time for day trips. What they do not tell you about real life (because this is real life, surprise) is that you’ll have very little time and free cash to pick up and go. This trip was half determination and half desperation. Lee and I couldn’t stay another long weekend in Madrid, so, we packed up our bags, found the cheapest train ticket and found ourselves in Salamanca.

Getting to Salamanca is relatively easy and cheap. You can take a bus or a train, the former being much cheaper than the latter. However, the train offers some crazy views of the Spanish countryside; most notably the view of El Escorial. It is also slightly more comfortable. (But only slightly)

Be prepared, this was our first overnight trip. This will be a very long post- scroll through for the photos!

Read more…

Traveling To: Segovia

I have been on kind of a hiatus, what with the final month of school before break and then the holidays. Get ready for some fast and furious posting.

First up: Segovia. Segovia is smaller than Toledo and is in the province of Castile and León. We took the bus from Principe Pio to Segovia, a 13.75 euro ride that took us straight through El Valle de los Caídos.  This monument honors those who died during the Spanish Civil War and on this foggy morning, the giant cross burst through the fog. It was eerie and beautiful. Te cross itself is worth a visit and I really must come back.

This was a day trip, so much like Toledo, I will let the photos do the talking. But first some notes:

-Segovia has incredibly gorgeous side streets. Some of the more beautiful views and pictures came from wandering down random and interesting roads. They are often less crowded and really give you a sense of the city center. Much like most of the cities one can travel to in Europe, the tourist part isn’t the actual city. In Toledo, Segovia, Salamanca, and Tangier (you’ll be briefed shortly on the last two), there is often way more beyond the historic city centers. That being said, a day or two is perfectly spent wandering the tiniest side streets in these touristy areas.

-Speaking of side streets, please go and visit the old Jewish Necropolis. Just outside of city center but completely within walking distance is a short little hiking hill that is the ancient burial place of the city’s old Jewish population. The views of the surrounding country side are breathtaking. Or that could just be the hike up hill…

-Much like Toledo, the streets are practically perpendicular to the ground. Unlike Toledo, secret hill elves don’t crank the streets so you feel like you’re constantly walking straight uphill. Thighs of steel not required, but recommended.

-The famous Segovian Alcazar is quite interesting and worth every photo. It is free once every third Tuesday when Venus is in the house of Mercury, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, provided that the moon is red and that the sun has lost her daughter. Ok not that particular but the Alcazar is free to EU residents every third Tuesday of the month.

-The Cathedral is free on Sunday. It is cold and very airy and not the prettiest in Spain, but if you have the time, go check it out.

-Segovia is actually known for it’s ancient Roman aqueduct. It truly is a marvel to see something so old that was actually functional up until not too long ago.

-If you can, try the local dish cochinillo. It is a small suckling pig served whole. We did not get the chance to eat there but all we heard about was cochinillo.

Enough from me, here are the pictures:

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The Ancient Roman Aqueduct

The cathedral and Plaza Mayor

The cathedral and Plaza Mayor

El Alcazar

El Alcazar

One of the many side streets

One of the many side streets

Facing back at the city on the way to the Necroppolis

Facing back at the city on the way to the Necropolis

Beautiful gardens on the side road leading to the necropolis

Beautiful gardens on the side road leading to the necropolis

View from the top

View from the top

There is of course more to Segovia. What we saw was basically the Magic Kingdom version of what American’s think Spain should be (the fictitious Spain Pavilion at EPCOT anyone?). It was beautiful and worthy of a day trip.

Holidays in Spain: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the most American holiday I can think of. After spending a week explaining Thanksgiving to Spanish children, I can say, it is hard to translate to non-Americans. It is not just because it is a holiday in which we give thanks for what we have, it is because we show we are thankful through abundance. The holiday is literally about what we are thankful for in the States, something that does not necessarily exist anywhere else- abundance. Think about explaining turkey day to 14 year old Spanish kids- Turkey is only for Christmas, why eat it another time? Isn’t that a lot of food? But why? Peelgrumss? No intiendo, profe.

It became my mission to explain to them the true spirit of Thanksgiving. So, I made them say what they were thankful for (agradecido). Along with the usual thanks for families, friends, and “being lifes,” I received several “I am thankful for being born Spanish” and “that Irene has a huge ass.”

Read more…

Holidays in Spain: Halloween

This week I had another long puente (yay!) because of Todos los SantosIt is a national holiday here celebrated by going to mass and going to your pueblo. For Americans abroad it’s an extended break to drink a lot and not worry about being coherent for work or school. Halloween as we know it is fairly new here. Candy, horror movie maratons, and drunken parties tend to be par for the course in Spain. Halloween as we know it is usually Celebrated in February as part of Carnival, right before lent. Instead, Halloween is usually celebrated more along the lines of Día de los MuertosThis means that most costumes on the above 17 crowd tend to be dark, deadly, and bloody, satisfying all our inner goth 13 year old angst. Skull masks and face paint are the prevailing costumes, along with zombies, varying corpses, witches (with blood), pirates (dead and living), monsters, and one very special dead Sarah Palin. For many Spaniards, they take the chance to live out our inner 5 year old fantasies and dress in costume for the entire weekend. We saw a couple of “Escaped convicts” roaming the park the next day.

If they were ACTUALLY escaped convicts, we got lucky.

My students generally don’t celebrate Halloween. As most of my kids are 14 and up, they are firmly in the anti costume age. They much rather, “throw eggs at cars.” I ma not kidding. They take the trick very seriously here. The younger kids, around 12 and below, still dress up, but do not always trick or treat (truco o trato), instead they have parties at home. The small kids in primary do go out and get candy and dress in more traditional costumes, albeit sometimes a little blooy. One of Alexis’s (my room mate’s) students went as some one who “kill people.” She teaches six year olds.

That being said, we did our best to put together costumes on the cheap. We cycled through varying ideas: the Charmed witches (cropped tops, mom jeans, and bad leather jackets), the Kardashians (tight dresses, stuffed butts, drag make-ups), the Hocus Pocus witches (we didn’t have a vacuum), Lucy and Ethyl (I was going to be Fred) and many others. In the end we went as a Diva Peacock (Lex), a rock-a-billy Parrot (Lee), and a hipster Lion (me). Obviously we were the brightest things on the train. I say things because well, nothing looked vaguely human on that train.

Let me paint a word picture: Imagine hundred of people dressed in black cramming themselves onto a train. It smells vaguely of sweat, perfume and varying types of alcohol. Some girls sit on the floor painting on skull faces. Three zipper faces lurk in the corner. Varying black cats stare you down. Everything is loud and abrasive. Kind of like the Village Halloween parade on steroids. This whirlwind of drunk and stupid can be dangerous. Later that night, four girls lost their lives in a stampede at the Madrid Arena. We luckily did not go. One friend of mine almost went but as she said, “luckily we were too broke to afford a ticket.”

Other than that tragic story and of course my students egging every car in sight, Halloween here was a great night. Not quite the same not wholly different.

Here is a photo of us on the train. Happy belated Halloween!

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Frequently asked Questions…

This is an idea I basically stole from a blog I love. Please read her, she is a delight.

Where are you again?

I am in Spain, specifically Madrid. More specific? I am living in city center near the M30 in a barrio called Legazpi.

Are you there forever?

Not at all. I am here until June, which is when the school year ends. I am teaching English (and now German, surprise!) to Catholic School children ages 12-18. I teach in los barrios de Tetuán and El Pardo.

Why’d you to Madrid?

To kill time between grad aps, because I couldn’t find a great job, and of course because when else would I get a chance to live abroad?

What are you doing there?

Teaching, reading, running along the Madrid Rio, traveling, and once again applying to Grad school. (Hi schools I am applying to! I am an awesome candidate with a wealth of experience in research, writing and teaching. Please take me in and love me).

Why Madrid? Couldn’t this have been done in the States?

Yes and no. I have already lived on my own in the states. Which means I have worked and gone to school but have not been a ¨real¨person. I wanted to truly be an adult, and while this isn’t real life (I spent Saturday playing cards in my pj’s and deciding between Milan or Barcelona for this week’s puente, that’s manic pixie dream girl life, not real life), I am forcing myself to do the best I can on my own. This means finding an apartment, buying a phone and getting a phone plan, paying gastos (utilities), and everything else it entails. For example, a day off is not a day off. No no, when I was in school, a day off was ordering in Chinese and not leaving bed until 5. A day off now is get up at 9, clean the apartment, find the landlord (he magically disappears when the apartment breaks, he has a 6 sense about these things), wading through the knee deep mire of bureaucracy, and doing the laundry. If I have time, I jog and maybe nap. napping is last.

Do you speak Spanish?

Yes, luckily. I get lost on some food (mostly things we don’t have) or regionalisms. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get anything done. Spain has a rich history and as such, is very proud of their language. They are just starting to belive in bilingual education (hence, me) and tolerate regional dialects and languages (there will be a post on the issues with Cataluña  País Vasco, and Galicia). From what I have seen, and this is a lesson in any country, if you cannot speak up for yourself, you’re lost. I got my NIE (residence card) early because I could make myself heard through the herd of wide eyed and confused Americans.

Thanks, Columbia! If nothing else, I learned how to deal with Bureacracy while I was there. Roar, Lions, roar and what not.

How’s the exchange rate?

Meh, a dollar does not go very far.However, groceries, restaurants, and travel are absurdly cheap. Many other things are not. The day I have to pay 4$ again for a beer will be a sad day. They are roughly 1.20€ here.

Did you send in your absentee ballot?

Of course, when the world ends in December, I will be able to say that I voted. That and my students here would probably kick me out for not voting. They put our youth too shame when it comes to political activism. (Getting them to speak English? Different story.)

Is it scary living in a foreign country alone?

Yes. I don’t know how to turn on the heater, in fact my room mate had a moment where she thought we’d all die from carbon monoxide poisoning. I had to figure out how to turn on the dishwasher. There are no dryers. The microwave is weird. The commercials are weirder. It’s hard to find pumpkin. No one watches footbal. Other things are oddly comforting, like the alienness makes them ok and sometimes better.

Ranty bit: We a re supremely priviledged in our country. We have been a super power for so long, we forget that other places don’t function the same way.We have a system, that while flawed, WORKS. Until recently, we were not so wholly divided politically. For my students, it is amazing that a country as big as ours does not have more internal struggle. That we are slowly getting better in this awful economy is also amazing to them. They watch our debates with bated breath-could we say the same? No, and that’s because we are lucky. Whoever becomes president, we will still be that country. It isn’t like we changed completely from Bush to Obama.

Does your apartment contain a lucky, albeit ominous elephant statue?

Yes. His name is Jumanji. He is a loving but vengeful god who watches over 1C. He giveth and he taketh away.

Do you like Madrid?

Yes, a lot. Why? It is Miami and New York combined, sans beach. It has culture, cheap food and wine, and amazing cafe atmosphere, and history. The buildings never stop amazing me. Madridseems to be changing while the landscape morphs and adapts to include the cultural gems. The city is absurdly chic with a hint of that kind of Olsen twin boho aspect.

Also, the rain does not fall mainly in the plain. You lied to me Henry Higgins, you lied. Just you wait.

Can you come visit?

Yes, please do! Just let me know ahead of time.

Traveling to: Toledo

This weekend was Día de la Hispanidad or better known in the States as, Columbus Day. Wait, what’s that you say? That Columbia has made us stop celebrating this day because it marks a dark time of rape, death, and oppression of the Native American peoples? That this marks a pointless government holiday in the states? These are all true. But, for Spaniards, this marks the beginning of their golden age- a time when they ruled the world and the heavens. They had it all and lost it to those silly, pale upstarts in the north. They commemorate their former brilliance by giving us a long weekend. I took this opportunity to take James to Toledo. Or rather he took the opportunity to take me.

Squinting from the fun…

Toledo is the Capital of Castile-La Mancha and a World Heritage site. As such it has beautiful sights and interesting food all steeped in history. I highly recommend going to see it, you can get a good feel in a day, but may need 2 to see everything. Toledo is a city on top of a hill. Rich in history, it boasts a storied past- El Greco  lived here until his death, it was a former capital of Spain, and of course, starred in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

The Alcazar? Or the library?

I also recommend paying the 2 euro and having a map or bringing a guide book. I swear… we walked up hill the whole time we were there. We never went down… just up, up, and up. These weren’t sloping gentle hills, no, they were steep, vertical hills. Forget thighs of steel, I now have calves of granites AND thighs of steel. The roads in Toledo are winding, old, and often have no names. They are a maze of confusion. See for yourself:

Also:
We literally could not find the Alcazar, one of the most famous sights in Toledo. We kept seeing signs for the “National Library.” The national library is a small square building INSIDE the Alcazar. They revamped the old Fortress into a Military Museum. Very interesting but a little sad as they completely gutted the old Alcazar and put in this new museum. However, it is fascinating to see the underground remnants of the old fortress that has been around since before the Romans.

We had lunch at small restaurant called El Pescador.It was a little over priced but quite delicious. They served a specialty called, Cochinillo, which is a small pig. James assures me it is delicious. I opted for different Toledo fare, one of which was a Toledana, a cookie filled with almonds. They are kind of like italian cookies only crunblier. We also bought some local wine to take home. The wine was from a local vineyard that was trying to empty its vaults to bring in all the new wine for christmas. Welcome to Spain!  In lieu of words, I am going to try to show you through photos, words can’t describe it:

There are more photos, but my wifi is iffy. I should have Wifi soon (I don’t want to jinx it). When I do, a longer post.

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