Tangier and Asilah: No Guides Necessary…

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December 31, 2009

Hola a Todos,

After Chicago friend Margaret and I left San Sebastian on December 30, having spent 2 days there with Javier, we set our sights on spending December 31 until January 3 in Tangier, Morocco. Don’t ask me why.

However, we were going to spend one night back in Madrid, and as I was approaching the condo, I realized that maybe my ex-roommate hadn’t yet left for her vacation, as I knew that the airlines had changed her return trip from Argentina, so her flight to Argentina would be after Margaret and I arrived back in Madrid from this trip to San Sebastian. Translation: She’s still at the condo. Life is not perfect, we all realize by now.

So Margaret and I went to a nearby bar and enjoyed a few glasses of Crianza and a big, delicious salad. We returned, and I slept out in the living room on the couch, while Margaret slept in my bedroom. My Spanish roommate had been very frugal about turning on the heat since electricity is so expensive in Spain, so our place was cold most of the time during the winter. And this particular night was very cold, but Oliver the dog, with whom, frankly, I had never slept, jumped on the couch near my stomach and sank into the back of the couch, a pairing which was, I admit, kind of cozy, although he sometimes smells to high heaven. Ugly as sin — even his owner, my ex-roommate’s EX-roommate, says he’s an ugly “creatura” — Oliver is a sweet baby, and I truly love him, though I think his main interest in me revolved around any food I was about to eat or eating — and our taking long walks near the Royal Palace. Since he loved me and my now ex-roommate (the Spanish girl), he obviously wasn’t very discriminating. Had he snubbed her, I would’ve given him much more credit.

The next morning, I woke up early, knowing Margaret and I had to leave by about 9:30 for Barajas Airport. Unsure as to whether my suitcase might be a smidge big for EasyJet, I packed only my backpack, adding sandwiches I had made that morning, oranges, and bottles of water. Margaret packed her small suitcase, which I had hoped would meet EasyJet’s measurement requirements — and did.

At that point, December 31, I still didn’t have my Spanish ID permanent resident card, which meant that if I ever wanted to use a credit card to purchase anything in Spain, I had to carry my passport. So I went out to find a copy machine to copy the important papers to take on my trip, as my work visa had expired in the beginning of December and I wasn’t going to get my permanent resident card until January 18. I didn’t want to wind up stuck in Morocco, all because I had forgotten to copy a few papers that proved my legal status in Spain.

Once Margaret and I arrived at the airport, we went to the checkout counter to get our tickets and ensure that our baggage met EasyJet’s requirements. I asked the reservationist, “Do you speak English?”

He responded, “Of course I speak English. Don’t I look like I speak English?” He wasn’t Spanish, and he wasn’t being funny: he was being snotty.

I responded, “How would I know?” It’s not as if all Spanish speakers have dark hair and all foreigners don’t. He continued his snotty behavior, but I ignored it. He informed us we could take 100 ml of anything liquid, and Margaret had several bottles of all kinds of stuff, which added up to more than all of that, so we were trying to figure out the math, but then decided to forget about it. This was Spain: it wasn’t as if anybody was going to do anything about it, and, in fact, when Margaret passed through Security, nothing happened.

We sat near the gate, awaiting our flight, which ended up departing about 1/2 hour late. We boarded the plane, equipped with all of our EasyJet jokes:

  • If you get sick: QueasyJet
  • If the windows are open: BreezyJet
  • If the flight attendants are lower than low: SleazyJet
  • If the passengers are playing board games: ParcheesiJet
  • If the plane leaves late: Not-so-EasyJet
  • If you’re George Jefferson or have asthma: WheezyJet

And the list went on, with me giggling every time, making desperate attempts to invent more names.

Margaret sat next to the window and I sat in the middle, which I admit I don’t like because I like easy access to the restroom but I’m not big either on being bumped by the flight attendants, who should know better, or the other passengers. The [I soon enough discovered] Moroccan woman in our little row’s aisle seat looked anxious. I was, of course, trying to figure out if she was stuckup or unhappy. Burdening myself with her problem, I was creating all kinds of scenarios for her little life.

I soon found my answer: As we started experiencing turbulence, Ms. Morocco was gripping her armrests and trying to breathe deeply. I asked her if everything was okay, and she said all she wanted was to get off the plane, asking me why the pilot didn’t return to Madrid, because by this time we were hovering for about 20 minutes over the Mediterranean Sea, waiting to land. I have to admit that the hovering situation was a bit disconcerting, even though Margaret and I were telling her flying was the safest form of travel. She asked Margaret, “Are you scared?”

Margaret responded, “No.”

Ms. Morocco said, “I will never fly again. Never!” while holding my arm. She even got up to talk to the flight attendant, who told her to return to her seat.

I couldn’t help wondering, “What if I die like this, right in the middle of the Mediterranean? What if I die? Here I am comforting some Moroccan female stranger in my last seconds of my life…” Like her, I wanted to return to Madrid and forget altogether about visiting Tangier.

Margaret and I spent about 20 minutes encouraging Ms. Morocco, who breathed a big sigh of relief when the plane finally landed safely — and then everybody clapped for the pilot. When we stood up and edged our way into the aisle, I was behind Ms. Morocco, who was now thanking Margaret for her help. She didn’t say a thing to me — and I thought I had been pretty supportive of her flight plight.

Margaret and I walked into the small airport and decided to take a taxi to our hotel. On the plane, I had calculated that 70 dirhams equalled $1. Throw the euro in, and you’ve got a physics equation. Actually, I like math, so I was enjoying the conversion part, but not the constantly holding onto my purse and figuring out if someone was trying to pull the sheep wool over our eyes or the Moroccan rug out from under us. The cab ride was something like 700 dirhams, or about $10, and after Margaret and I got into the cab, I started wondering if this, indeed, was a legitimate cab or just some guy who had come to the airport to pick up foreign women, never to be heard from again. But Margaret wasn’t as nervous about this. I am all for adventure, but with men in foreign countries, I’m not a big risk-taker, especially in foreign countries I know absolutely nothing about, except I dated a Moroccan guy once while I lived in Texas, and he was one of the most handsome men I have ever seen, which was little help to me now.

Fortunately, Margaret and I arrived safely to the hotel, no catastrophes along the way. We checked in and went up the elevator to our room, which was adequate but nothing special. However, our window gave us a nice view of the Mediterranean Sea. I rested my feet for a while and made a great attempt at reading, but trying to flip the bedside table lamp switch involved a lot of finesse: you had to balance the switch in the middle, not let it go to off or on. As I was able to position the switch almost immediately, I was pretty satisfied with my motor skills, until later when I couldn’t easily do it. I played with it for so long, I soon forgot why I had wanted to turn it on.

Margaret and I showered then decided to go to our hotel bar on the ground floor. Even though I live in Spain and nothing has been as convenient as it would have been had I stayed in Chicago, I’m a woman who now likes convenience. Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s because I have done so many things that have not been convenient, like living in Japan for three years and trying to figure out the language and well, everything — or living in Texas, which was, for me, almost like living in a foreign country for nine years — that I appreciate when everything is easy.

For example, I liked that my hotel bar in Morocco was in the same building; I like that my grocery store in Chicago is only 2 blocks away; I love going to the huge gym inside my condo building so I don’t have to walk outside in winter to get to it. (However, since I got laid off, I cancelled the gym membership fees, an even more convenient situation, as now I don’t have to go at all: I can just sit on the couch and criticize Suzanne Somers’ incorrect use of the English language as she talks with Larry King about the latest book she has written.

Oftentimes, I don’t want too many people in the mix: I want to do something that doesn’t involve going to a huge event and bringing all kinds of stuff, getting on the train, and coordinating with everybody in Chicago about where to meet, all to enjoy some music in a venue where everybody is talking: I’d much rather watch the event on TV. The same can be said of my Shaki Shakira. I went to see her at the United Center with my friend Giulia, and Shakira started at 9:30 instead of 8:00, so we were waiting and waiting, and she didn’t sound good because in the U.C., well at least for this concert, all the sounds mix together so that the concert was like one big sound. I’m glad I saw her, and even though she’s one of my favorites, I have no desire to go again: I’ll just stay home and watch her DVD.

Okay, so like the rest of the universe, I’m not all one way: I make things very complicated when, for example, my birthday comes around and I bake about 3 cakes and 5 kinds of cookies from scratch, as well as various other dishes, clean like mad, and run around for items to decorate my place that no one in their right minds, except me, notices. But I’m learning how to make things a little simpler…sometimes.

At the hotel bar, Margaret and I enjoyed music videos on the TV at the top center of the bar wall. Only a few men were seated at this very small bar. I had even brought a scarf along to put over my head, just in case of…well, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was supposed to wear it, but it was kind of like my legal-status papers: I had it just in case. The bartenders were very nice to us and treated us respectfully, and even though we were women, we didn’t cause too much of a disturbance to the men-filled place.

After the relaxing time at the bar, watching music videos, especially Diana Krall — I hardly ever watch TV in Spain and, of course, love music, so this was a treat — we went out for an inexpensive dinner at a nearby restaurant called The Comedia, which the rude front-desk hotel guy had recommended. (That night was New Year’s Eve, and the meal deal at our hotel restaurant was fixed and expensive.)

Our waiter at The Comedia was very nice and smiled at us incessantly. And I love to laugh and found his incessant smiling very amusing, which, of course, egged him on to smile at us even more. We were served at least 2 cups of couscous and chicken tanjine, which was very good. Our happy waiter started talking to us in a mix of Spanish and English and then asked us where we were staying. “Oh boy,” I thought to myself, disgusted. We just said a nearby hotel, and then he pointed to Margaret, to me, and to himself and to the distance, as in “Let’s all get together and go back to your hotel room.” I said, “No, we just want the check.” Everything had been going so well, except for the near plane crash, the questionable cab ride, the barely tolerable hotel room, and the now-icky waiter.

Margaret and I were the only women in this restaurant, save a few men and perhaps a foreign couple who had ventured in later. We decided to play it safe and return to our hotel bar and have a drink there. We were tired from our big day, so we went to bed. As Morocco is one hour behind Spain, we had an extra hour, but I didn’t care if I rang in the New Year or not.

The next morning, we showered and ate breakfast at the hotel restaurant: prunes, a couple of types of bread, cereal, mandarins, coffee, and yogurt. Okay, but not great — but we had a nice view of the Mediterranean Sea.

After breakfast, Margaret and I decided we would venture into town, guide-less and equipped with an illegible hotel map, neither of which would serve us well. I was trying to imagine us two women in the middle of a guy-filled Tangier street, holding a map up to our faces, looking at it perplexed, then desperately looking around to see if where we were on the map was even close to the city of Tangier! So I asked for some basic directions from the now-nice hotel receptionist, a different guy. Some Moroccans not only spoke Arabic and French but also some English and Spanish, but the hard part was when you did speak either of the latter two languages to them, it was hard to understand their pronunciation in either, so it was a partial linguistic nightmare/comedy.

Basically, I understood that we were supposed to walk to the French Embassy, turn right, keep going into town, run into the old market, and then happen upon the new market. We dressed modestly (covered up) and walked toward the market. It seemed as if we were about the only women on the street.

As Margaret and I approached the market, some guy came up to us and kept pestering us to show us around. “Please leave us alone,” I said.

“I’m not a guide, Madam. I’m just trying to help you. I don’t want money, Madam.” I adamantly said that we wanted to be left alone, but he kept following us. We ducked into stores, went this way and that, and he managed to show up at the next winding street corner, popping out of nowhere. I was getting so angry, I wanted to scream, and then another guy was doing the same thing. “I’m not a guide, Madam” both of them kept saying. “I don’t want money.” But of course, they were trying to take us somewhere and would probably be paid off by the place where we showed up. I started to hate both guys, as they wouldn’t let up, and the streets were winding this way and that and we were confused about how to get out of there. We were alone in this annoying city: it was only Margaret and me, our illegible map, and the two or three men who were bothering us. It was becoming very clear that we should have gotten a guide from the hotel, but I have never been pestered so much in a foreign country.

Margaret and I finally returned to the main street, having been exposed to all kinds of animals, people, spices, dirty goods, small and dirty shops, and everything else imaginable. We had clearly been on the wrong side of town and don’t think we ever saw the “new” market, or if we saw it, we didn’t know it. I was glad to have found a nice shop with really good cafe con leche (au lait), so we relaxed there for a while, away from all of the so-called guides ready to pounce on us. I was trying to calm down from being followed: I even hate being followed around by salespeople in, for example, The Gap or The Limited who exclaim, “That would look really cute on!” This vacation was stressing me out.

We went out again, heading toward The Casbah. I didn’t have any idea what the song from the 1980s “Rock the Casbah” meant, as it was a song I hadn’t given much thought, but we had to see The Casbah anyway. We walked uphill on the main street, where we were two of only a handful of women, some foreign, some Muslim, and ventured into shops to look around and to lose any of our “guides,” but doing even that had its price, as the store owner would inevitably follow us around, urging us to buy something, which made me want to exit the shop even sooner. Listen up, all salespeople in The Gap, The Limited, or stores near The Casbah: Leave us shoppers alone, and we’ll want to buy something from you; badger us, and we’ll be out of there faster than I can ask, “Why am I in Tangier?”

Margaret and I finally reached The Casbah and were then accosted in a plaza by a group of boys, one in particular who kept hounding us about taking us to the nearby museum. “I’m from here. I’ve lived here my whole life. I know where everything is,” he said, but I kept telling him that we didn’t want or need his help. This comment had absolutely no visible effect on him. Undeterred, he continued to follow and pester us. I was going to need an institution’s help by the time I was done with this outing.

“We don’t need you,” I responded.

His response was the same: “No problem. No problem. Don’t worry. Be happy.” This 1988 Bobby McFerrin song reference sounded ridiculous to me, especially in a foreign country — but mostly because I was now worried and unhappy — and angry.

I think I’m quite a nice, usually diplomatic, delightful, generous person most of the time, but I have no patience for people who pester me, and although I am very nice to salespeople, waiters, you name it, I’m not terribly nice when they start hounding me about things or want to sit with me while I’m eating, as was my experience with a waiter at Bennigan’s in Chicago. He was one of those overly friendly waiters who wants you to call him by his first name if you ever need anything: “Hey, Casey, can you bring me a fork over here? How ’bout some mustard, Casey? Thanks a lot, man!” No, that’s not me.

One of my good friends always talks to the waiters or waitresses when we go out for a drink or dinner: she chats with them all in good fun, and they always like her a lot, but I’m there to talk to the people I’m with, not chat with the waiters, although I chat with them a little bit, sometimes. My take on it is that I hardly get an opportunity to see my own friends, so why should I spend the little time we have together talking with other people? However, once again, I’m very nice and respectful to them because you can bet I don’t want them spitting into my food, plus I know they have a hard job.

Anyway, I was growing more annoyed with this little scene. I don’t like to have chummy conversations with everybody in the world, including everybody who lives in Morocco or Chicago.

At some point, Margaret and I had some peace on this overly stressful vacation, and then another guy (perhaps one of the first men; they were all starting to look alike) found us. By this time, I was ready to explode, and I did: “Shit!”

“You don’t call my country shit!” was his enraged response. You can bet I had definitely pushed the wrong button and didn’t know what kind of trouble I had gotten us into. On the other hand, who was he to involve himself in our vacation when I had made it clear, several times, that he had never been invited?

I said, “I didn’t say that about you! I said it because I’m tired of you following us!” We quarreled a little more, and then Margaret and I just walked away. Here he had been, continuing to intrude on our time together, an unwelcome stranger who kept badgering us, and he wanted me to be happy about it, when I had made it very clear, several times, that we wanted him to leave. No means no, not yes.

I was trying to calm down, exasperated with our morning in Tangier, but I still took many pictures, and then we happened upon a Moroccan guy and his American girlfriend, both in their mid-20s. The girl, who happened to be in the same program as I in Spain, wasn’t particularly nice, but her boyfriend was, plus he spoke English really well, and they helped us walk back to our hotel.

The boyfriend related he had lived in a few different countries because his father had been a diplomat. He said he felt like a stranger in his native country, his parents having decided to settle in Tangier. He kept telling us that the people we were complaining about wouldn’t do anything to us and that we were safe, but he’s a guy and generally doesn’t have to worry about these things the way we women do. At any rate, I was glad we were in their presence, and told them I didn’t want to interfere in any way in their “romantic” time together, and they said they couldn’t even really easily hold hands in public, so their response was, basically, “What romantic time?” Once we were near our destination, we thanked them, and decided to eat lunch at a restaurant close to our hotel, a good place for people-watching.

That night, we went out to a wonderful restaurant and had a delicious meal, returned and went to the hotel bar, where we felt safe, and talked with a slick Moroccan man who spoke English pretty well. He was educated and seemingly had a very good job working for a cell phone company, which required that he travel. He started to tell us about how he had cheated on his wife with certain woman but that he really respected his wife “a lot…a lot!” Yeah, I bet. No one else could speak English as well, which is why we talked to him, plus he was interesting and we learned more about the culture, but ick. We said our good-byes to him and then just went to bed.

The next day, we went to Asilah, a small town located about an hour away. The hotel found us a taxi driver who would also be our guide in Asilah, or at least that was the plan. The ride was about 45 minutes with not much of a view along the way. Our driver was nice and respectful, and he wasn’t trying to get anything out of us, except our money, and the round-trip cost us the equivalent of $50. Once we arrived in Asilah, a city which the few people we had met in Tangier had raved about, I thought, “Well, everybody has a different idea of what’s pretty, I guess,” but it was certainly better than Tangier.

After we ate lunch, which again involved at least 2 cups of couscous apiece, our driver was waiting and introduced us to our tour guide around Asilah. We flat-out told him that we didn’t want to pay any more and that we had thought he was going to be our guide in Asilah. I suppose he had planned to give our tour guide part of the money he made from us because he assured us that the guide wasn’t asking for money.

The guide, a reed-thin, weathered fisherman, spoke English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Of course, we spoke English with him. I was interested in checking out the buildings and the shops, stopping every now and then to look at the items. I love doing this, and even if it’s a cheesy shop, I still like to look: I don’t want to miss anything. I was somewhat comforted that this particular guide seemed trustworthy and kind and wasn’t badgering us about anything.

I had been casually looking for a rug, so he took us to a big rug shop, and the owner spoke English fairly well and kept throwing down rugs for me to look at. It’s hard for me to shop with anybody looking “over my shoulder,” in this case the owner, so although I indicated that I liked a particular rug, I told him I wanted to come back. The rug itself was actually quite reasonably priced — I am a very cheap shopper (it’s the teacher salary in me; the advertising salary occasionally balances this) most of the time and wasn’t about to carry anything big or expensive back to Madrid or Chicago.

Well, as you can imagine, they wouldn’t let up. I told them I didn’t have any cash with me, which was the truth, and that I had to go to an ATM to get some cash, which I had planned to do. So, in all their brilliance, they sent a boy and the guide with me to ensure that I indeed knew where to get the money and that I indeed would get the money. As I recall, I was to give the boy the money — he had a brown paper bag for it — and return to the shop for the rug. The boy and the guide waited for me while I retrieved my money from the cash machine. Yes, it was all very strange. I was growing tireder of everybody by the second. I did like the rug and didn’t want to barter anymore with the guy. Where were The Gap girls when I needed them? It would have been a greater pleasure to have dealt with them instead.

I returned to the shop, the owner waiting for me, and bought the rug, the little boy standing there with the money in the bag. Okay, it’s done, and everybody is happy. We walked away from the place, and the shopowner called me back. I returned, and he gave me a blue-stone necklace, which I happily took because it was pretty, but it ended up scratching my neck and I can’t wear it. I realized he was pretending to throw in something to sweeten the deal, but I knew that the necklace wasn’t anything fabulous: it was just to make me think he was a great guy.

The next day, Margaret and I had a wonderful dinner at a highly recommended Italian restaurant several blocks from our hotel. Then we returned, and I found a CD shop where I could buy the Moroccan CDs the cheating husband had recommended. (The music turned out to be lousy, so I gave it away.)

Each day, we had breakfast at our hotel, and this was our last breakfast, for which I thanked Allah, and we left for the airport. This time, when we returned to Madrid, my roommate would not be there — she would be in Argentina — for which I thanked Allah once again.

Thanks be to someone I’m in San Sebastian now, enjoying life with Javier, ready to return to my country in about 6 weeks. San Sebastian is a breathtaking city, and we’re enjoying beautiful, sunny days with temperatures in the 70s and low 80s. I had a great appreciation for living in the U.S. before, and not to sound smug, but I feel very lucky I was born and grew up there. It’s the best place for me. And, of course, Barack Mo-ROCCs.

Love,

Your International Girl in Spain
http://www.BeltStyles.com: Buckle up for the perfect look and fit.
Copyright 2014. BeltStyles, LLC. Chicago, Illinois.

MIGHT AS WELL BUY THAT “I LOVE AVILA” T-SHIRT

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February 20, 2010

Hola a Todos,

According to some source I can’t remember, Avila is a medieval walled city that stands about 1,100 metres above sea level. Inside the walls is a city of monasteries, churches, convents, squares, and plazas. Moorish prisoners constructed the wall, at Alfonso VI’s orders and after he conquered the city. The wall, almost 1 1/2 miles long, is still in good condition. Fourteen meters high and 3 meters thick, these walls have 9 entrance gates and 90 towers.

On a cold, sunny February day, I took a train from Chamartin to Avila, a city northwest of Madrid. Once there, I walked around, eventually coming across the tourist office and the famous wall.

I approached one of the entrances and climbed the stairs. At the first level, I found several small and narrow passageways, each with approximately 8 stairs leading to a more elevated place for a better view of the city, and I was very careful because the steps were narrow and because I fell down a flight of steps in 1995 at my apartment building in Chicago: I was walking down the steps at 8 a.m., on my way to the gym, and I tripped over the cuffs of my blue-jean overalls. I fell face forward down the carpeted steps onto my chest and sustained back pain and a rug burn atop my right wrist, which I can admire to this day. I immediately raced to the gym so that I would be around someone, anyone, in case I passed out from whatever falling down the stairs does to a person…For this reason, I am “old lady careful” either ascending or descending stairs, always clutching the rails. When I see stairs, I not only think of this episode but also of my father, who would always run up the stairs, two at a time, even at 79 years old.

Normally, I’m pretty good with maps and had gotten a map from the tourist office, but once inside the wall, I kept getting confused about where I was, with all the winding streets. I like to think I’m smarter than all of this or that I’m just having a bad map day or that it all really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things or that I can find my way out of this maze with or without a map, but sometimes I’m not a good guide for myself.

At times, the problem is that I’m not wearing my reading glasses and the print is exceptionally small so I can’t actually see the street names. Other times, I don’t feel like looking at a map, and having had to figure out so many things since I’ve been in Spain, I just want to walk around and enjoy the city. Still other times, I don’t have a clue about what’s going on or what I’m doing. But I’m sure these illegible maps are for foreign tourists, who wind up staying in whatever Spanish city much longer (and buying more souvenirs) because they can’t figure out how to return to the train or bus station: “Might as well get that I LOVE AVILA t-shirt. I’m going to be here the rest of my life, trying to figure out how to scale the wall.” Anyway, I was able to visit a couple of museums there for free, visit a couple of churches, take about 1,000 pictures of the wall, and see a lot, despite the street-map traffic in my head.

In related news, I went to Chicago for a visit in March of 1996, never having been there, except on college choir tour in the suburbs, where the snow was knee-high — and I was using one of those cartoon-like maps with, maybe, the Amazon River drawn around the Rain Forest Cafe illustration. I like to think that these types of drawings were so distracting or enjoyable that I failed to notice I had been holding the city map with Lake Michigan at the north instead of the east. I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how the lake could possibly be located at my right since it was way at the top of my map. I guess if I had asked someone for directions at the beginning of my trip, I would have gotten oriented much faster.

If you ever visit Spain, you’ll notice that the roads in various cities wind this way and that. For an especially confusing time, visit Toledo. If using a map is way too much trouble, as it was in Toledo, I sometimes tuck the map into my purse and try, mapless, to enjoy the shops and scenes, but then I end up having no idea where I am and passing the same shops and scenes about 40 times and start dwelling on how I can’t believe I can’t figure out something so simple and then start fretting over how I haven’t read up on Spanish history and don’t even know what I’m looking at anyway. Then I wonder how an intelligent woman could be this incompetent, meanwhile hoping no one is following me. (Note: It is truly amazing how many people come up to me in Chicago and even in Spain and ask me for directions or other information. I guess I look I have a vague idea about what’s going on.)

Okay, so I’m being hard on myself. Actually, my sense of direction is pretty good and I’m normally quite competent with maps, and I especially have to give myself lots of credit for reading train maps in cities with which I’m unfamiliar, plus I lived outside of Tokyo for three years and read train signs in Hiragana. I used the train all the time in Madrid, understanding the system pretty well. So if I have lived in two foreign countries and could read the language and am still alive today, I guess my map situation isn’t so bad. And despite what I said, I think I can find almost anything. However, I suppose there are always exceptions to the rule, and Toledo and Avila happen to be two of them, not to mention Sevilla, whose street names on the map were so small I could barely see them, plus I wasn’t wearing my reading glasses at the time.

I don’t have much more to say about Avila. I figure if you or I want to know the history, we can consult the Internet (Wikipedia, if we’re hard up) — or you can just look at the pictures on this blog. They tell a better story than I do, plus I’ve already explored the area, gotten turned around many times, and wasted lots of time, all in an effort to save YOU all of the time and trouble. I hope you enjoy the pictures (located below my blog posts below), and the good news is that to view them, you don’t even need a map.

Besos,

International Girl in Spain
http://www.BeltStyles.com: Buckle up for the perfect look and fit.
Copyright 2014. BeltStyles, LLC. Chicago, Illinois.

MY CARNAVAL RIDE

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August 3, 2010

Hola a Todos,

Our school celebrated Carnaval on Wednesday, February 17, and we teachers were supposed to wear firemen (bomberos) costumes — red hat, red polyester pants and polyester jacket with black straps — which we bought through the school. Imagine: All of this entertainment for only 15 euros. I signed up fast.

Here’s my advice: Don’t ever listen to other people, except me. A couple of female teachers, whose names I won’t divulge here, at least, ruined the day for me because they had said that the firewoman’s dress was “slutty”, which is why I should’ve bought it in the first place. I might as well have had some fun at least one day in Madrid, BUT come the day of the great Carnaval event, these female teachers were wearing the so-called slutty “fireperson” outfit, but the dress was just a nicely styled dress that showed off their legs and was far more attractive than the oversized firemen’s garb the rest of the teachers and I were wearing. I’ve never worn so unflattering an outfit for Carnaval (okay, so I’ve been to a total of one Carnaval event), and the fact that I wore no makeup that day and my uterus was growing, by the second, with tumors didn’t help my look much. (Hyperbole, I thank you.) No one really to impress at school, but I wouldn’t have mind at least impressing myself.

So we teachers and students were supposed to wear aprons over our clothes until lunch or after lunch. I’m not even sure that the Spanish teachers were certain, or else there was no particular rule about it. No one had clarified what the significance of the apron was for Carnaval, so please excuse me if everyone in the world knows its significance but me, as I have not yet researched this fascinating topic on the internet just yet (4 1/2 months later), but I went with the flow and wore a flamenco apron. The Spanish teachers had never seen a Flamenco apron and wondered where I had bought it, with Carlos, the Chief of Studies, asking me to give it to him (yes, your guess about his sexual orientation is correct; I didn’t give it to him, in more ways than one). I bought it in a place where Madrilenos never go in Madrid: a souvenir shop.

After lunch, we teachers changed into our firemen costumes, went to the gym, and messed around there to very loud music. (Call me old, but I don’t want my hearing ruined by loud music, although I will gladly model a slutty outfit, so don’t call me that old.) The students, by grade, circled the inside of the gym, single file, their homeroom teacher leading the line by dancing a dance that the students imitated. Through this display, everyone could see all of the students and their costumes. (See the picture section of this blog.)

I took pictures of a couple of the teachers’ children [at their parents’ request], but there is a rule in Spain about not taking pictures of minors. Even the parents aren’t supposed to take pictures of their own children when they come to school for an event. I’m not clear on what our school’s rules are, because other teachers, including us foreigners, were snapping pictures of the kids, and no one stopped us from doing it, so it’s just something else in Spain that’s a bit murky in my mind. Check out President Obama and Michelle (my nemesis) getting their pictures taken with Spanish President Zapatero, his wife, and their Gothically dressed daughters, whose faces are blurry — but not in real and actual life, I suppose, although in my mind, they are since I wouldn’t know them if I were to see them in real life:

http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/2009/09/29/espana/1254212500.htmlhttp://www.nowpublic.com/world/zapatero-daughters-photo-spains-first-family-pic

http://www.nowpublic.com/world/zapatero-daughters-photo-spains-first-family-pic

Anyway, the kids’ costumes were very cute — I love the kids so much, I can’t stand it — and it was a nice day, even though I felt lousy and needed an operation. (Hyperbole, I thank you again.)

Instead of going to wild Carnaval out in Madrid somewhere, I went to controlled Carnaval at school, and I have pictures to prove it. And I would really appreciate it a whole heck of a lot if you would use Photoshop to blur out my face here in these pictures. Carnaval wasn’t one of my best beauty days. There should be a law against taking pictures of 48-year-olders wearing firemen costumes and no makeup.

Carnavally yours,

International Girl in Spain
http://www.BeltStyles: Buckle up for the perfect look and fit.
Copyright 2014. BeltStyles, LLC. Chicago, Illinois.

BASQUE-ING IN SPAIN

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12/23/09 to 12/26/09

Hola a Todos,

On Wednesday, December 23, the day after our Christmas celebration at school, I traveled on an Alsa bus to San Sebastian, Spain, where Javier lives. (Madrid is the center of Spain, and San Sebastian is about 5 hours north by car, near the border of France.) At about 7:45 a.m., I rode the Metro to Avenida de America, a huge train station and bus stop. Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast, I decided to eat at the enormous train station and found a restaurant offering the bocadillo, a sandwich consisting of a long bun with perhaps, cheese or cheese and Serrano ham. I bought one for breakfast and one for my bus-trip lunch. There was a packed bar filled with smokers, so after I ordered an orange juice, coffee, and 2 bocadillos, I immediately drank the orange juice and carried the rest of the items (no trays to be found), plus my luggage, to a table outside of the glass-enclosed, smoke-filled bar.

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Enjoying my bocadillo and coffee, I sat there watching a tableful of 15 women in their mid-50s, chattering, laughing, and yelling across the table to each other, as if this were their husband-free day to let loose and whoop it up with the girls.

As I had my confirmation number and my passport, having been told over the phone that these were all I needed for this bus trip, I went where the train turnstyle-stander-by guy had directed me. A few of the buses said “San Sebastian,” but to make sure, I asked the train information window woman, who could barely be bothered to look at me but somehow managed to scrape up enough energy to point downstairs. I hurried downstairs, ran over to the ticket office, got my ticket, and asked the ticket seller for the floor and gate number. I arrived at a different place, these buses also saying “San Sebastian.” At 8:50, the bus driver checked our ticket and passport/ID, and we were off exactly at 9:00 a.m., my seat, which I had selected over the phone, being at the very front.

I had barely gotten on the bus, when my “seat partner” was directing me to put my little bag overhead. I don’t know why she was so concerned, as she would in no way be bogged down either by my physical or emotional baggage. I put my small bag behind my feet and held the other bag in my lap, in no way edging over to her seat. She gave me some more advice in Spanish, but I said nothing to her, as I hadn’t asked for her advice. My bag held my laptop, and having already been robbed in Spain, I wasn’t about to take any chances storing my bag somewhere other than in my protective hands.

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Happy that I had once again reached my destination, the comfortable bus seat, and that the bus was filled with nontalkers, except for my little seat partner, I breathed a sigh of relief. The previous week had been filled with activities: the Christmas dinner, shopping for our Invisible Friend, preparing for the Christmas program, packing, making cookies for school and Javier, finalizing details for the three trips Margaret and I were to take. I was tired and wanted to be left alone, but my seat partner would have none of it. I could have actually spent my time talking to her in Spanish and maybe might even have learned something, but sometimes I just need to sit, be quiet, and not learn about my environment or the language, not walk the dog, not tend to students, not try to figure out what the teachers are discussing at lunch, not try to find an address, not try to get along with a roommate, not try to communicate with someone who doesn’t initially understand me, and [now] not try to talk to someone on public transportation. I didn’t feel like accommodating anybody at that moment, so after spending the first half hour looking at me or attempting to talk to me or glancing at my English language crossword puzzle book, my seat partner gave up and went to sleep. Peace. I would’ve talked to her if she hadn’t been annoying, but sometimes it doesn’t matter what language a person speaks: you know they’re annoying. Although I am disgusted by some aspects of American culture (mostly guns and violence) and might not be the most patriotic American on earth, I do love my country and I love the English language basically because it is my language and the language of our handsome, intelligent President. And I’m very happy that I understand the lyrics of famous songs and movies. So, sometimes I just need to be me, an American whose mother tongue is English, who gets jokes in English, who understands what Americans mean by how they say certain words or how they react, who can understand the finer aspects of my fellow Americans’ personalities. However, I can assure you that this smugness doesn’t come in handy when I actually have to communicate in Spanish.

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A movie came on front and center, Dan in Real Life. I wasn’t interested in trying to understand a movie without visual aids and with creepy, dubbed-over Spanish voices, but watching Steve Carell in action was amusing, as he is pretty darned cute and funny, and I could make out what was going on by watching characters’ expressions and actions.

I was spending a little time trying to figure out if the two girls across the aisle from me were lesbians: They were pretty and dressed like girls, but judging from their body language, although they weren’t doing anything overt, seemed together. I always like to think I can figure these things out, but for a variety of reasons, my conclusions are occasionally inaccurate, especially
lately, as people dress any which way now. I worked at ad agencies for 9 years, and I was wrong about a few of my coworkers: I had definitely thought certain guys were gay and then later had to conclude they weren’t, my conclusion affirmed by others. I didn’t care one way or the other: I just needed to know. There was a girl I used to work with who was about 15 years younger than I, and as she would bring me editing work to do every day, and I would ask her, “What did you and your young life do this weekend?” to which she usually responded that she had gone out drinking with some of our coworkers. After I was laid off, I was with an ex-coworker who told me that she was gay. Then toward the end of my time at that company, I remember her mentioning at the mockup table she would be attending the Gay Pride Parade that weekend. I still hadn’t put two and two together because lots of people go to that, as if it’s a spectacle. I guess I don’t find it as interesting as everybody else does. What I do find interesting is my sometimes inability to guess accurately anymore. Again, I resort to the advice of my father, who, as a musician, had spent some time around gay men in his profession: “They show you as much as they want you to know.” I never believed this for a long time, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how accurate and wise that information was.
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In the meantime, I was enjoying the scenery, and midway through the trip, our bus pulled into a rest stop, where I bought cafe con leche and ate the rest of my bocadillo. The rest stop was big and clean, and equipped with expensive gifts, souvenirs, alcohol, and a cafeteria. After 30 minutes, we boarded the bus again and were off.

Another movie was shown, this one starring “The Rock,” an ex-WWE [I think] guy who actually looks like a nice, half-intelligent,
humorous guy in real life, but the movie itself 1779315_10206422234455879_886725537271669441_nlooked stupid, so I worked on my crossword puzzles. (A former coworker had given me two crossword-puzzle books at my going-away party last September, and I have definitely used them.) Soon it was snowing, and we were driving much more slowly, my seat partner now awake and discussing every turn with the bus driver, who was sometimes on the phone discussing the weather and what he should do. From what I could tell, the woman wasn’t annoying him: she was just rambling on about the weather with him and then, when we reached San Sebastian, thanked him for helping us arrive safely to our destination under somewhat treacherous conditions. I, too, thanked the bus driver, and I almost thanked my seat partner for exiting the bus.

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Javier was standing on the sidewalk right in front of where the bus was pulling in. Like its airport, San Sebastian has a very small bus stop, where you would be hard-pressed to miss someone. He and I returned to his apartment, set my stuff down, and went grocery shopping.

On Christmas Day, we went to his mother’s house for dinner, and then she, Javier’s brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew came over to open presents on Christmas Day. I had brought Stroopwaffels (waffle-shaped, syrup-enclosed, Dutch cookies) and Hershey’s kiss cookies for everybody to enjoy. The next day, around 1:30 p.m., Javier and I drove downtown to meet his friend at a bar for pinxtos. Then we ate at a nearby restaurant, and the others took me to the train station. These buses and trains don’t dilly-dally: they leave pretty much on time, and I was off at 4 p.m. sharp.

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Margaret was to arrive Sunday, December 27, around noon, so around 11 a.m., I took the Metro to Madrid’s Barajas airport to meet her. We returned via Metro and took her stuff to my condo and then walked around Madrid Plaza Mayor, a few blocks from my condo, noting the people wearing wigs and the many Christmas kiosks set up there. (I asked a couple of teachers at school why Madrilenos wear wigs around Christmas, and they said that they just like to dress up.) We had a delicious cafe con leche in Plaza Mayor and a wonderful late-afternoon fish dinner in a nearby restaurant.

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My roommate was still at home, as her trip to Argentina had been changed, so she was planning to leave Madrid on New Year’s Eve, the day Margaret and I were to leave for Tangier, Morocco. Margaret went to bed early, not only because she had jet lag but also because our train was to leave by 8 a.m. from Madrid’s Chamartin station. Margaret slept in my bedroom, I slept on the couch in the living room, and Maite slept in her room. As usual, I had set 2 alarms.

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I had been instructed that if we left at a certain time the next morning for Chamartin, we would have plenty of time to arrive, but those instructions were off, and I should’ve listened to my own instructions. I had made the grave mistake of having printed out only my paid itinerary instead of the tickets. I had had so many things to think about and had thought, anyway, that the woman I had talked to on the phone said I needed only my passport and paid itinerary. I had tried to print the tickets out at school, but the printer wasn’t working and then I guess I had forgotten. At Chamartin, I was running ahead of Margaret, asking where the train for San Sebastian was. Directed to a platform, we took the escalator down. I showed my printout and passport to Security, but we were supposed to have the actual tickets, which of course makes sense. I had talked with many people and done so much research for all three trips Margaret and I were to take that I must’ve gotten this part wrong. Unusual for me, as if you know me, you know I’m pretty good about checking on things to make sure, but I guess I needed more panic and stress in my life, and this was my morning to embrace it.

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Margaret and I put our luggage through the screener, which I’ve never done for a train ride, the train woman still directing me to venture back upstairs to get a ticket, but there was no time. She finally acquiesced and I asked her “Which car?” in Spanish. I didn’t understand anything anybody said to me at this point, even if they had spoken to me in English: I was too stressed from having things go wrong after having worked so hard to organize three trips for Margaret and me. I did understand the number of the car, though. Once on the train, I suggested to Margaret that we sit anywhere until Senor Ticket Taker forced us to sit elsewhere.

Mr. Ticket Taker indeed came by and asked that we retrieve our luggage — Margaret’s being overhead, mine being in my greedy hands — and walk several cars to who knows where. I had paid for the ticket. I couldn’t help but ask him in my mind: “What more do you want from me? I’ve paid for the tickets. Go hassle someone else who is actually draining the system. Do I look like I’m trying to cheat the Spanish train system? Do I look like a criminal?”

I wasn’t sure where we were going, but we kept walking through more train cars. Finally, we reached his destination: a Spanish girl who spoke English quite well. She was just a regular passenger he was somehow acquainted with. Margaret and I sat down across the aisle from her, the primary reason his taking us there was that we needed to know that the train would split midway to San Sebastian, the front car heading toward Bilbao, the back car heading toward San Sebastian. As San Sebastian was also her destination, we were to get off the train with her and run to the back train cars. She would help direct us there, as the train guy knew she was going there. How would I have ever known to do that? They don’t tell you any of that over the phone. We thanked Mr. Ticket Taker profusely, and throughout the trip, he brought a few more foreigners over to her, and we couldn’t help but laugh. I told her she needed to be a tour guide.

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When Margaret and I arrived at SS’s train station, we walked across the street to catch a bus. Javier couldn’t pick us up because he was busy, so he had told me which bus to catch to go to his condo. The bus came immediately, so this part of the trip was a breeze. He had texted me that his condo would be 10 stops away. This piece of information was crucial, because even though I’ve been to San Sebastian eight times, I’m familiar only with the downtown area, but the bus didn’t go through downtown to Javier’s condo: instead, it meandered up curvy hills away from downtown. And I wasn’t used to approaching his condo from the opposite direction, but I counted the stops, and we got off exactly where we were supposed to. If I had been by myself, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but now I had company and luggage.

Equipped with Javier’s key, we headed straight for the condo. There were 2 couches in Javier’s living room, plus he had bought a blow-up bed! I took one couch, Margaret the other, and while she slept, I grocery shopped. After I stored the groceries, Margaret was still sleeping, so I treated myself to a manicure/pedicure at a nearby shop, making an appointment for a massage the next morning. For the pedicure, I sat uncomfortably in a chair, both women working on my feet, but they don’t the work they do in the States: I was getting a superficial pedicure. How would I ever explain this to my in-great-need-of-a-real-pedicure feet? There was none of the foot scraping, nail buffing, feet soaking in jet-spraying hot water, lounging in a warm, vibrating seat equipped with a remote control. However, I made the most of the situation by practicing my Spanish with them. One woman asked me: “Are you [pause] comoda?” I laughed at her trying to accommodate me by speaking my language. She laughed, too. I wasn’t really comfortable, but inching myself around in the chair, I grew a little more comfortable and told her I was. I didn’t think they could make me more comfortable anyway.

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The manicure was so-so, so I was wondering how good the following day’s massage would be. However, I had enjoyed their company and returned to Javier’s. He, Margaret, and I drank some Crianza and watched CNN in English. I fixed stir-fry, and we ate that and the vanilla-ice-cream-topped cherry pie I had baked that morning. We decided that CNN’s dramatic anchor Richard Quest really needs to have his own show.

The next day, while the others were sleeping, I enjoyed perhaps my best massage ever at the same place. When I returned, I fixed eggs, toast, and fruit, while Javier prepared us coffee. We drove us to St. Jean de Luz in the south of France, only about 45 minutes away. We walked around, stopped in a dark restaurant for cafe con leche, and watched the rain. Later, we bought a slice of Basque cake and ate that while we walked around in the rain. We also went to Guadalupe and Fuentarribia, where Javier took us to a restaurant to enjoy wine and pintxos. Then we returned to SS.

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The next morning, Javier drove us to Zarautz, Guetaria, and Zumaia. I had seen these places my first year in San Sebastian but had forgotten how wonderfully scenic they are: winding roads, the Cantabric Sea, the mountains. We returned to Javier’s condo, and I fixed lunch: Crianza; spaghetti; spaghetti sauce with garlic, mushrooms, and olives; bread and olive oil; salad; fruit salad; and tiramisu. (I believe in eating all the food groups.) Then Margaret and I packed, and Javier drove us to the train station, this time I had tickets in hand.

A very short but wonderful trip to the Basque Country, thanks to Javier and his incredible generosity. Javier, I’ll be back!

Internationally yours,

Hallie, Your International Girl
http://www.BeltStyles.com, halliebelt@beltstyles.com, 312.285.8429

PREPARING FOR THE HOLIDAYS AT SCHOOL

February 7, 2010

Hola a Todos,

There were many things to do to prepare for Christmas and The Three Kings (January 6). The teachers and students decorated the school corridors, and I volunteered to help my team teacher paint big signs to hang just outside our classrooms, as she doesn’t like arts and crafts and I do, depending on the medium.

Although I don’t excel at drawing or painting, I very much like to try to do both, so I went to the English classroom, poured red paint and green paint into separate plastic cups, got down on the floor with my big sheets of white paper, and wrote Merry Christmas on one and Feliz Navidad on the other. I figured that if the writing wasn’t perfect, I could paint over any mistakes. And if my writing looked like that of a second-grader’s, all the better, so I painted both signs, my team teacher very much impressed not only by my writing but also by my dotting the i’s in Christmas, Feliz and Navidad, with a yellow-painted flame. Genius, I know.

The students colored wreaths, bells, and all sorts of Christmas pictures. During a couple of classes, we helped them make holiday cards to give to their parents: we handed out colored paper to each child, instructing them to fold the paper in half. Then on the board I wrote:

Dear Mom and Dad (if they had both parents),

Merry Christmas

and a

Happy New Year!

Love, [Child’s Name]

The students were to write this message in pencil on the inside of their now-doubled-over colored paper. I was amused that several of them had signed their name on the holiday card as if they were a grown-up signing a credit card: after they had written their name, they scribbled over the signature. I asked the teacher why they did that, and she said, “They love it!”

After my team teacher and I had checked each holiday card for mistakes and legibility, the students traced over their letters with a colored marker of their own choosing. I had set up a desk in the back with three chairs, and two students at a time came to sit with me and view the sample holiday card the teacher had drawn and painted (complete with inside message): snowman, with branches for arms, buttons, eyes, nose, and mouth, a hat, a scarf, and falling snow. Then they were to create their own holiday card, with my help. The children who normally act up in class — about 30% of them — were amazingly good and patient when I was helping them in the back of the classroom with this project. The reason? It was fun, creative, and directly related to them.

To avoid paint-tipping-over chaos, I kept the plastic cups with the paint in a cardboard box and asked each student which color paint he or she wanted to use next. I didn’t initially come up with this brilliant idea: I had to suffer through several near-paint-spills to figure out a way to release myself from the agony of constantly hovering over the plastic cups of paint, ensuring that they didn’t spill because of impatient, attacking, little fingers.

Starting with white, I painted only the top line of the snow-covered ground and, for the snowman, a big circle and a small circle atop the big one — just so that they had some structure and we could get the job done quickly, as I had to work with 25 students in each class. The students painted the rest of the ground and inside the circles. They picked whatever color paint they wanted — black, brown, yellow, white, and red — for the rest of the card, the activity serving as both a creative and English lesson in colors and names: “What color do you want for the arms [eyes, nose, mouth, buttons, scarf, tree, snow, etc.]?” I told each student how wonderful their paintings were, and I meant it, even though a few of them looked kind of scary, with lots of black and brown.

One boy, who only occasionally seems to know what’s going on in English class, surprised me. This boy jokingly and daily makes crazy gestures and faces at me during class, and the girl who used to sit beside him would point to her temple, making circles with her index finger as in “He’s crazy,” but I later found out from the teacher that actually he should be in a special education class but that those schools don’t have enough room. His was the best card in terms of, well, representation. Amazed, I told my team teacher, and she says he’s really very good at art. I was glad he is good at something. I often sit and help him with his English and notice the light only sometimes goes on. All I can do is, while encouraging him, try to ignore his inattentiveness and growling, and wait for him to flip his “on” switch. At least he seems to have a good personality, because after he growls and I growl back at him, he smiles, getting a major kick out of my response. Sometimes he pushes me away, and after a while, I walk away.

I noticed that, the next day, my “Merry Christmas in two languages art” had been hung on the wall outside our second-grade glasses. I taped the student holiday cards to the wall to complete the look. Simple, but cheery. One very sweet student presented me with his family Christmas card, on which was a small picture of his mother, father, brother, and him. I think he gave a card to all of his teachers.

We English teachers had to teach the students six songs, some of whose lyrics they already knew: We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Feliz Navidad. The second graders, at least, didn’t have the lyrics on a piece of paper in front of them because my team teacher said that they would lose them, so I wrote the lyrics on the board. I said a line, and the students repeated it; I sang a line, and they did the same. Although I’m frightened to death of singing at open mike, maybe because it’s much more intimate and personal, I am not in the least bit afraid of standing in front of a class or even the whole school and singing. The team teacher also sang while I walked around the class and sang loudly so that the students could hear my pronunciation.

The week before the Christmas concert, the English teachers and I went to the gym to help the students practice the Christmas songs, us English teachers leading the students, the British English teacher playing the guitar. I noticed that he had a very good voice, and he informed me that one of his parents, like mine, was a classical musician. The students were pointing at me, whispering to their friends, amazed that I could sing Feliz Navidad in Spanish, not realizing that it’s just a few words (if you say “hola” to them, they think you’re bilingual!) and also not knowing that Jose Feliciano had made this song very famous decades earlier.

We also had Secret Santa at school, which the Spanish call “Amig@ Invisible” (“Invisible Friend”) — the @ designating Amigo or Amiga. So I was the Secret Santa for a teacher I had almost never seen. I bought her cranberry soap, chocolates, lavender sachet, lavender votive candles  having heard she loves the color purple — and aqua and dark-blue potholders. Each gift was only 1 euro or less (about $1.50). The main gift, to be put into the Secret Santa box on Tuesday, December 22, was supposed to cost about 15 euros, about $22. Because I didn’t really know a thing about her, I bought her something generic: a bath set of soap, shower gel, lotion, etc. — in the color purple.

The Christmas program — a Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and the Three Kings Spanish-and-English-song combo — was a big deal because the parents came to the school to see their little ones sing in both languages. The rumor was that everybody was to dress up as if it were New Year’s Eve — this meant jammies for me — but before the big day, I had asked a few teachers what we were to wear. A couple of them responded to dress smartly, and one of the male teachers joked that the female teachers get their hair done so that it looks better than usual. Another teacher said she was just going to wear what she usually wears, which I guess would be tight faded jeans, boots and a tee shirt that says “My day!” Another said that some of the teachers wear long dresses. I think I can remember having owned two long dresses in my life: A “Maxi,” a long yellow dress with small flowers I had worn as a 12-year-old sixth grader in 1973. I  had sewed it myself and, along with Maxi-dress wearing Judy Oussoren and Mary Beth Piper (as I recall), wore it to school. (During elementary school, we usually called up our friends to see what they were wearing the following day and, equally importantly, if they were going to “buy” or “carry” their lunch.) Then, for my 20th high school reunion in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — don’t ask me why I got so dressed up — I wore a long, slit-up-the-leg lavender dress. I’ve been a bridesmaid in two friends’ weddings, so I wore long dresses then, but that just about sums up my long-dress-wearing history. And I wasn’t about to go out and purchase a long dress, partly in the face of so many conflicting stories but mostly because I can’t afford to purchase even a shirt. I figured that the focus would be the students, not me, and I would get my first manicure in four months, dress nicely, wear some makeup (some days I don’t even bother with it), and maybe even curl my hair.

During the week before we revealed ourselves to our Invisible Friend, some of the teachers were getting little presents or fun notes from their Secret Santa. (A Mr. Jon C. Lundell told me he had thought that an “Invisible Friend” was a girl’s period. I responded that our period was just our friend, not our invisible friend; maybe it was our visitor: I can’t remember now.) I still had not received a thing, which I joked didn’t bother me, considering I had spent more than half a year in Chicago getting rid of my stuff so that my condo would be cleared out for a potential tenant. However, I was starting to wonder if I had been forgotten or if I really had a Secret Santa — not that this was a critical world problem. On the Thursday before the present-opening day, I hadn’t received even a little note. Then two first-grade girls brought a present up to the science class I team teach, but they gave the present to my Spanish team teacher, who proceed to open it while the students were doing their homework. It was a Hershey’s peanut chocolate bar, with a nice note from the Secret Santa, something about how when you smile, it lights up everybody’s life and makes everybody feel better. I had thought that that was a really nice note and how great it would have been had it been my present, partly because of the beautiful message and partly because of the creative presentation: a surprise from two adorable girls. Still, I enjoyed my team teacher’s happiness and took the wrapping from her so I could recycle it.

Then since my team teacher couldn’t figure out something I had asked her about my cell phone, she suggested I run down to ask a Spanish English teacher who, she said, knew about these things. I found the other teacher and asked her about the cell phone, while commenting on how two cute girls had come up to give my team teacher a big Hershey’s bar. She said, “That present was for you!” while running up to my team teacher’s classroom, entering the room and explaining to her — in front of the class, mind you — that the present was mine. The team teacher apologized to me for taking it: apparently, the little girls had dropped the little name card on their way to bring it to “us.” I ended up giving the Hershey’s chocolate to an American friend of mine. I tell you, I just wanted to be remembered, I guess. The teacher whole told me the present was for me had given the present to the girls because she knew I hadn’t received anything so far and had found it in the later that day and wanted to make sure I had gotten it before I left for the week.

On Friday, December 18, in the morning, I stood in line at the police station to present documents so I could finally get my Spanish ID card on January 18. That night, 14 teachers, including me, met in front of the school to dine together at a restaurant in the area. Our dinner consisted of salad, salmon, bread, wine, champagne, and other food I can’t very well remember, because the meal was just so-so, I thought, but we had a nice time. I was getting concerned about how late the train would actually be running. Having stayed out all night in Tokyo a few times because all the trains stopped running around 1 a.m. and a taxi back to Yokohama was about $100, I am not a fan of being out all night, waiting for a train to start up at 5 a.m. Since almost everybody else lived in the area, no one else had the same dilemma, except one of the 21-year-old American English teachers, who later told me she was glad I had been concerned, as we definitely would have been stuck had we left any later. I decided I needed to go, and a Spanish English teacher was kind enough to drive me and the other American to the closest Metro station.

We took the train to Madrid, our train arriving at the Metro station Principe Pio, which was relatively close to my Metro station, Opera. We ran to make our respective connections, but the last train was pulling into the station for the night, just as I was approaching it. Earlier, the American teacher had told me I could catch a bus, so I walked a couple of blocks with the crowd to a bus stop and queried about the schedule, unsure of how to read it. She directed me to the “N” (“Noche” or “Night”) schedule. I waited for the bus for about 20 minutes, watching all the drunk people, kissing couples, guys peeing behind trees, people yelling to each other. I just wanted to be home in bed, but I figured this would be the only time I would experience very-late-night/early-morning Madrid, and I would at least understand the bus system better. I took the bus to Gran Via, a shop-filled, huge street close to my Metro station, and walked the rest of the way via Sol. I guess the partiers had decided to trash the place because all along my walk, but especially on Calle Arenal, there were huge piles of trash all over the place. Stunned and disgusted, I tried to find a clear path for walking. I have never seen anything like this in the United States, but then again, even though I live only two blocks from Division Street in Chicago, I never hang out there late at night to see what really goes on — and I never plan to. At any rate, the cleaners had their work cut out for them, and they manage to destroy the evidence, as Calle Arenal is always back to normal by daylight.

On Monday, December 21, we teachers practiced the songs with the students, and on Tuesday, we had the Christmas program, which was to start at about 10 a.m. The parents were waiting on the sidewalk, a locked gate to keep them from rushing in to get a front-row view of their child’s performance. The kindergartners, then the first graders, then the second graders, and last, the third graders. The fourth, fifth, and sixth graders were in the auditorium with their parents. The children were all dressed differently: some of the girls were wearing lots of make-up — one American teacher noted that one of my second-graders looked like a child prostitute, and I had to concur — and glittery dresses, while others were dressed in their normal school wear. Some of the boys were wearing suits, some jeans. The concert was held in the gymnasium, and the parents herded in and were roped off. As there were no chairs, they had to stand up. There was a gym ladder on the side walls, and a few of them were climbing the ladder to get a better look at the performance. There were already columns blocking the parents’ view, and I figured since I wasn’t watching my child, I would sit on the floor to avoid blocking their view. Remember my bad knees and feet? Not an easy task for me to get up and down, as well as sit on a gym (or any) floor in a nice skirt. I then sat on the side bench between two of my second-grade boys, one of whom kept trying to pull the curled ribbon, which I had difficulty trying to subdue as it kept springing out of my grip. I was to throw it later when we yelled “Happy New Year!” right there in the gymnasium, almost 10 days early.

After this chaotic, but o so cute, performance, there were message on a screen in Spanish, and then we counted down to the New Year and yelled “Happy New Year!” and some of the teachers, also equipped with the springy ribbon, threw the ribbon and candies up into the air for the children to scramble after. We then returned to the classrooms for our normal break at 11:30 a.m. and the cafeteria “ladies” brought us pitchers of chocolate and plastic bags of churros. I was pouring little plastic cups of the chocolate for the students and handing out the churros. While I actually have pretty healthy eating habits, I think I might have a dangerous addition to churros, as I must have eaten about 7 them, wanting to eat more but hoping they would vanish, my not being the culprit. While we were enjoying our treats, the students, who also had an Invisible Friend (a fellow student), were busy opening presents. One boy looked none too happy that he received a picture frame or something of that ilk, although I tried to make a big deal about it, while another had gotten a Nerf-type basketball set. Then they snatched their note to give to The Three Kings, who were now in the auditorium, with the parents now watching each child go up on stage to sit on the lap of one of The Three Kings. So we hurried back to the gym to watch the students form a line, each approaching one of the Three Kings, sitting on his lap, giving him the note, and telling him how good he or she had been all year. For a couple of students, I wanted to intervene, sorry I wasn’t equipped with a videotape of their behavior during some of our classes, but I didn’t want to give them the big chance to learn how to lie to an authority figure. It might serve them well later in life.

A little after noon, we teachers went to the music classroom, sat in desks set in a big circle, and enjoyed our own Secret Santa, all the gifts being in a big box at the front. The Spanish English teacher in charge of the activity called up the next person to receive his or her gift. I had been starting to think my Secret Santa was the “very-nice-and-doesn’t-know-he’s-funny-but-he-always-cracks-me-up” British English teacher I like very much. First of all, he had written his note to me in Spanish and English that needed no help, plus he had learned I had never eaten a Kinder chocolate, because we had talked about it at break, and one of his little presents to me was a Kinder chocolate. My present, a book in English entitled Winter in Madrid, was indeed from him. Other teachers received such gifts as scarves, a fun (Hello-Kitty-type) top for a teacher that wears this sort of thing, pajamas, chocolates, and alcohol, etc.

Then we all gathered for a nice lunch in the staffroom: shrimp, salmon, fried squid, bread, salad, vegetables, flan, chocolates, a big bowl of fruit, coffee, and tea. At the parallel table, two female teachers kept turning around to listen to our table’s conversation, but also throwing paper wads at other teachers or putting salt in the water glass of the gym teacher sitting across from me. Everybody knew that they were goofing off and were ready for their pranks. I kept watching to see what the gym teacher would do once he returned to his seat. All he did was look at his water glass, commenting that he knew they had done something to it.

Although the day and dinner were pleasant, I was tired and ready to head home. This was another noisy but fun-filled day. And although I didn’t actually receive any presents at Christmas this year, besides my Secret Santa’s present and a present from an American friend here (Note: My stepmother had asked me if I wanted anything and I said “no”), I will always have the gift of participating in and remembering the preholiday festivities in Spain, a gift money can’t buy, a gift I will always cherish.

Internationally yours,

International Girl in Spain

MY BIRTHDAY, THANKSGIVING, AND ASTHMATIC BRONCHITIS

January 24, 2010

Hola a Todos,

November has always flown by for me in the United States, and in Spain, November’s speed was no different. My birthday occurs in the middle of the month, and I am usually very busy pre- and post-celebration, as well as the day of, but this year was different: nothing special happened on my birthday, except that my age changed and I was in Spain. What good could I find in being 48? I found my consolation: the two handsomest men in the world, George Clooney and Barack Obama, are 48. So what if one has a girlfriend and the other is married and I’ll, most likely, never meet either? They’re out there, and they’re my age. That’s what matters.

I know I have my health and my friends, but there is something very dissatisfying (if I were satisfied with everything, this would just be another run-of-the-mill “I did this; I did that” blog now, wouldn’t it?) about being this age and having everything turn out much differently than I had planned for myself. Okay, maybe it’s better in some ways, but it’s definitely worse in others. For example, I don’t have George or Barack — and life would be a lot better if someone would tell Oprah about these blog entries: I’d quickly get my book published and be the last guest on her last show. Think about it, please.

In the morning, my roommate gave me Belgian chocolates and a mug on which was a cartoon-like flamenco dancer and the word “Madrid.” In Spain, or at least at my school, the birthday teacher is supposed to bring his or her own sweets/cake to school. This is probably a very good idea, because then you won’t get angry with anybody but yourself for having forgotten your birthday. So it’s basically, “It’s my birthday. Here are the sweets, and everybody kiss me on both cheeks now.” I made cookies for the other teachers and myself, plus I brought a box of assorted cookies.

The special part of my day? I received “Chocolate a la taza” chocolate — reputedly the best kind — to make a chocolate drink. This gift was from a generous, thoughtful, interesting teacher with whom I have a Spanish-English exchange. She had remembered that I’d never drunk this particular drink or eaten churros, which accompany it, and I had told her I was very curious about trying it and was planning to treat myself to this special drink on my birthday. Her gift saved me from having to go out and spend more money: I ended up making the drink at home (chocolate and milk heated up in a saucepan). Very sweet of her.

I didn’t do anything special that night, as I really didn’t know anybody at that point, except for the teachers and a couple of others, but I don’t think I know anybody at this point either, and it’s almost February. I had Thanksgiving to look forward to — and I knew that Javier’s visit to celebrate both occasions would be guaranteed fun, which I needed.

I decided to make Thanksgiving into a big deal. Neither Javier nor my roommate had ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner, and I was excited about preparing it, although it was a lot of work. I went to Taste of America — a store that sells mostly American items — to get the cans of pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, as well as the Stove Top stuffing. I couldn’t easily find cloves and allspice in the regular grocery stores in Madrid, but this American store had several spices — cinnamon, cloves, allspice — mixed together in one little bottle, so I bought that to make the pumpkin pie. I made sure I had gotten these items at least the week before because I knew that if I waited even 2 days before, the store might run out of everything — and I was right, because I went back to Taste of America 2 days before the big day, and they had no cans of pumpkin pie left.

Appetizers consisted of homemade salmon pate with crackers. I served red or white wine or beer, chicken instead of turkey, real mashed potatoes, gravy (some British brown crystals you add water to and heat up), “Stove Top Stuffing” (added chestnuts and mushrooms), cranberry sauce, canned corn, and homemade pumpkin pie and crust topped with butter-pecan ice cream. I had bought coconut chocolates, and my roommate had bought truffles, so we definitely had enough food.  

Along with Javier, my friend Maria and her boyfriend Derick were my guests — and my roommate had invited her friend Carmen, who lives around the corner from us, so there were six people around a small table. Of course, if you know me well, you know I would’ve wanted to make the meal much more elaborate, but I’m just not equipped with either the time or money here to do that.

The timing for Javier’s visit was perfect in a way because I was home sick from school with a bad case of asthmatic bronchitis, which I had gotten a week before Thanksgiving. I went to the health center a few blocks from my school, and I spoke to everyone, including the doctor, in Spanish. “Bronchitis Asmatica” was the diagnosis, and he prescribed me pantomycin and mucasin, which I got from the pharmacy in Madrid. The pharmacist wasn’t particularly nice, and I apologized to her, saying that I had been in Madrid only a couple of months so I couldn’t speak super well yet. Of course, then she perked up and faked being an understanding person about my Spanish. Yeah, right, as if I’m going to buy that, but I usually get that reaction of understanding if I give them that [true] line. Nothing like dealing with pissy people who can barely be bothered to help you when you are standing at the counter waiting for 10 minutes to be waited on, as they sit there and look in every direction but yours. Yes, I know we have our share of them in Chicago.

Javier left Friday morning, and I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner that Saturday: that of around-the-corner Carmen. So my roommate and I went to her place for dinner. I brought homemade cookies, cranberry sauce, and chestnuts. Carmen had invited about 4 other people: an American-sounding girl who had a Spanish father and a British mother, a freelance professional Spanish musician, two not-with-each-other gay guys (one of whom had lived in Ireland for six years and was very nice to talk to), and an American girl she team-taught with and who had the especially important task of bringing a delicious turkey to the dinner. I spent a nice time there but decided at midnight that my asthmatic bronchitis and I had better go home, which I was thrilled was around the corner.

I had difficulty sleeping for three weeks, not being able to breathe through my nose, but I sounded much worse than I felt. In fact, apart from not being able to breathe (and having problems with my feet, which are unrelated to my asthma but always need mentioning), I felt fine and I thought that my wheezing laughter deserved to be on laugh track and I should be paid handsomely for it. Javier was joking with me that I sounded like a truck revving up. It’s hard to explain just how feminine that comment made me feel.

I called the Chief of Studies from my school to tell him that, again, I wouldn’t be coming to school, and to make me laugh, an activity he revels in, he said, “Oh, no, Hallie. You have a hangover? Okay, don’t come to school.” He knew full well I was sick because I had been at school around him and all of the teachers, and it’s kind of hard to fake that congestion — plus I had given him the note from the doctor so that my absence was official. The Ministry of Education had told us that we would need a doctor’s note if we were sick, but I honestly think our school doesn’t care one way or the other. I gave them the official note, though, because I didn’t want them to think I was taking off because of Javier’s visit and Thanksgiving.

Anyway, I ended up missing about a week of school and had bronchitis for about three weeks, though I was diligent about taking my medicine, which finally worked.

And that was the speedy month of November, which leads me to write about the month of December… in my next blog entry.

Until them, as always, I am…

Internationally yours,
Hallie

International Girl in Spain is my humorous and real take about the year (2009-2010) I spent teaching English in Spain, as well as my travels to different cities and countries while I was there.