About Me

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Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, Spain
I recently earned my Masters in History at NWMSU and am now working as a language assistant in a Spanish elementary school.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas is Just Around la Esquina

This past week we've been preparing the school for Christmas. Much of Spain has been preparing itself for the holiday as well. One of the most popular traditions in Spain is the Christmas lottery. It is difficult to walk down any street or into any workplace and not see some reminder of the lottery. This is not like an ordinary lottery, it is much larger, more complicated, and nearly everyone who enters wins something back. Individuals or businesses can buy a lotto ticket which has a number on the card. If an individual buys a ticket, they are the only one with that number. If a business buys a series of tickets, each person from the workplace who contributes money for a ticket has the same number on their card and will win the same cash prize. The payoff is always different, depending on how many people buy tickets that year, but it is always somewhere in the hundred-millions. On December 22, the numbers are announced on live television. This broadcast lasts two or more hours and consists of children drawing the prizes. One child draws a ticket number, while another draws the corresponding cash prize. To liven up the event, the children sing the number and cash prize rather than speaking them. Our school bought tickets (but the other assistants and I didn't put any money down) at twenty euros a ticket. They each won their money back, plus €100 (roughly $150). I wish I had bought a ticket now...

To get in the Christmas spirit, I bought a nice holiday sweater. I was hoping for something with reindeer and snowmen on it, but as Pilar told me, "You won't find that in Spain."

Most of the other assistants from our school left early. Emma and Carmen went home last week and Tamara left yesterday morning. Cody, Jacqui, and I are the only ones still here. Of our other friends, Kevin went to Morocco for the break, Liz went to Mexico with her family, James went home to England, and Priscilla went to Puerto Rico. This Sunday, we all got together before everyone parted and found a new restaurant in Alcalá. It was more expensive than where we usually eat, but the place was very cozy and the food was great. They gave us some tapas of olives and manchego cheese. For my first course I had Pote Gallego (a soup from the northwest of Spain consisting of potatoes, ham, veal, and spinach). For the second course it was a French dish of pork medallions in a Roquefort sauce with dried currants.

Last Friday we had a Christmas dinner at the school. We followed along with Spanish tradition and went to a bar for tapas before the meal with the teachers (lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Spain). We walked back to the school where the meal started with some tapas of sliced Serrano ham, shrimp in garlic sauce, and caviar on toast. We then had our first course, a bisque made from crab. For the second course I had fish. I'm not sure what kind of fish it was, and none of the teachers knew for sure, but it was very good. It was served whole (head and all, plus a very mean-looking set of teeth which made some assume it was in the piranha family). For dessert was tiramasu. Stangely enough for a school (but not for a Spanish school) beer, wine, cider, and cava were served. Afterwards, we all went to an Irish pub for a few hours.

At school, the children had been preparing for their Christmas Pageant which was held this Monday during school. All week they were practicing songs, they were singing songs in both English and Spanish. Some of the songs were "Good King Wenceslaus," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Merry Christmas (War is Over)," and songs from Spain such as "Los Peces en el Rio" and "Veinticinco de Diciembre."

Yesterday was the last day of school before break. Cody dressed as (Elvis) Santa Clause and visited several classes (third to sixth grades):

The younger kids were visited by the Three Kings (or Reyes Magos), the traditional gift-giving figures of Spain. In recent years, the figure of Santa Clause (or Papa Noel) has entered Spain due to the influence of American culture. Other regions of Spain have some strange gift-bearing figures which are little-known beyond their borders. The Basque Country has the giant, Olentzero, who comes down from the mountains on Christmas Eve. He drinks a magic liquor which makes him shrink to fit down chimneys. In order to keep their kids asleep, parents claim Olentzero will cut their throats if he catches them awake. In Catalonia, the yule log takes a unique form as Caga Tió (Catalan for "poop log"). This is an actual log which is "fed" through the month of December at the dinner table. On Christmas Eve, it is covered with a blanket as the children beat it with sticks and sing for it to "poop them something nice." In the morning hazelnuts and candy will be found under the blanket behind the log. Catalonia has another odd tradition which has spread through Spain recently. This is the "caganer," a squatting figurine placed in the back of Spanish nativity scenes. This is meant to signify the profane in contrast with the holy. I bought one of these figures along with the Three Kings.

Jacqui, Pilar, and I went along with Cody from class to class. The younger kids were more excited and sang their Christmas songs for us. When Cody asked them what they wanted for Christmas, most of them, put on the spot, turned red and said, "No sé" ("I don't know"). One kid asked for peace and others made a safe generalization with the reply, "toys." (The music teacher, Arturo, wrote on the board, "Mr. Santa, I would like second prize in the lottery. As you see, I don't ask for much, only a little.") When asked if naughty or nice, most kids replied, "yes." The older kids weren't as excited and some brought up the school newspaper and pointed to Cody's picture, claiming, "This is you!" One kid asked, "Santa, it is true that boys and girls must be nice to get presents, but have you been nice?"

When we finished the tour of classes, Cody and I helped the gym teachers take down the stage used for both the pageant and a play about the Three Kings put on by a local theater company. The kids were still there when we arrived, getting autographs from the actors. When they saw Cody and I, they asked for our autographs as well.

After school, Cody, Jacqui, and I went to El Baserri and had lunch. I got chorizo in wine and a plate of eggs and blood sausage, seen here:

I have been planning some trips for the break (in addition to the Italian one over New Year's) and beyond. This week, as I have no school or tutoring, I will likely visit Madrid and some other places nearby. More to come soon!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Strange Monuments

Last week was a short week as I only worked two days. The kids are getting excited for Christmas and are practicing for the Christmas recital which will take place next Tuesday during school. They are singing songs in English and Spanish. I have been studying Italian, just to get some phrases down for my upcoming Rome trip.

This week I visited an old hospital in Alcalá de Henares that was in operation in the 1400s until the early twentieth century. It has now been turned into an apartment complex, but there are some interesting things there, such as an old fount in the wall and the courtyard:
On Saturday, Cody and I went back to El Escorial to visit Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a massive monument in the Sierra de Guadarrama built with the superficial intention of being a resting place for those who died in the Spanish Civil War and a memorial to the conflict. It really serves as a tomb for the dictator, Francisco Franco.

We entered the town of El Escorial once again by train. It was a sunny day, so I took some more pictures of the palace of Felipe II:
From here, we walked down a street toward the bus station where we had to wait a short while for the next bus to Valle de los Caídos, which arrives every two hours. We rode a very nice bus there with a small group of Spaniards and a young French couple. Very few Spaniards like to acknowledge the monument as it is a reminder of the Franco Regime. Francisco Franco was the general of the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The Nationalists were a collection of several far-right groups including monarchists, Carlists (who wanted the church to have a strong involvement in the state), and the Falange (the fascist party of Spain). They were aided by Hitler's Germany, while the opposing side (the Republicans) were aided (somewhat) by the Soviet Union of Stalin. (For this reason, many Spaniards have interpreted the Spanish Civil War as the first stage of World War II. Truthfully, they are two distinct conflicts.) Both sides committed horrible atrocities during the war, but the Nationalists won, resulting in the quasi-fascist dictatorship of Franco which governed Spain until 1975. During the dictatorship, many supporters of the Spanish Republic were imprisoned. Many of them were forced into labor during the construction of the monument (in a natural valley) which began in 1940 and lasted eighteen years. Some sources claim that fourteen forced laborers died during the construction. The bodies of most Republican soldiers who were buried in the valley were moved from the site at this time. The body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange (which became the primary political party of Franco's Spain) was moved here. When Franco died in 1975, he was buried alongside Primo de Rivera. Many Spaniards view Valle de los Caídos as a monument to fascism and refuse to visit or discuss it. Despite this, it is an impressive sight (it can be seen from several miles away) and the location offers an amazing view of the mountains:
The site seems to have been more popular in the past, when Franco was alive and many of his supporters (and those afraid to to offer resistance) along with groups of schoolchildren came to see the monument. There was a restaurant, built in the 1950s style, the only other building nearby, which looked as though it had been abandoned for several years:
The inside of the monument is a basilica in which the bodies of the soldiers are entombed. However, there are no markers for them, only for Franco and Primo de Rivera. This part of the monument was closed for restoration, so I will probably return later to see it. I have heard that the chamber is dimly-lit and several giant statues of faceless angels leaning on swords line the path toward Franco's tomb.
Yesterday, our usual group went for lunch in Alcalá. I had a soup made with cuttlefish and potatoes seasoned with saffron for my first course. It was one of the best soups I have had here. My second course was equally delicious, a piece of roast suckling pig. For dessert, I had a prepared orange, which was split open and covered in a strawberry sauce. Later that night, we had planned on having a Christmas dinner for all of us who work at the school. However, everyone couldn't make it, so we decided to have a big dinner when we get back from Christmas break. Instead, Cody, Jacqui, Emma, and I went to the popular tapas bar, Indalo.

I had today off work, because I switched my Monday for Emma's Friday as she is flying back to England for the break on Thursday night. I went to Madrid and visited the Caixa Forum, a postmodernist-styled exhibition hall across from the Prado. It had a temporary exhibit on the Venetian Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio. Here is the entrance to the Caixa Forum:
I also walked down the street on which the Spanish playwright (and contemporary of Cervantes) Lope de Vega lived. It is now called Calle Lope de Vega:
I also passed Cine Dore, an old movie house from the 1920s which still shows old films every night at cheap prices. I would like to go to this sometime:

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Story of the Ham and the Palace

Cody and I made a new purchase this week: a cured ham from the local grocery store. Usually such hams are quite expensive as it is one of Spain's most renowned delicacies. This one was cheap because several of the grocery stores are offering discounts on their hams. Ours came with two types of sausage, cured pork, and some Danish butter cookies. We also bought a stand for the ham and a knife set. We have been eating from it all week, making sandwiches, or just having it plain. Here I am with the new addition:
The students at school are studying for the Trinity exam, an oral test determined to judge their comprehension of the English language. This means I have been studying with the kids for the exam all week. I take them outside the classroom individually and ask them questions. Some of them are very good. I asked one kid where he went on his holiday and he said, "I went to Asturias." "What did you see?" I asked as a follow-up question. "I saw," he said, then paused and shrugged with a confused look on his face, "I saw Asturias."

I had a long weekend this week. I normally have Fridays off and Monday was the Day of the Immaculate Conception while today is Constitution Day. Sunday I had lunch with Cody, Liz, James, and Priscilla. Our group was smaller this week as the others either went home for the break or on trips. I ate paella (a traditional Spanish dish from Valencia made with seafood, rice, and seasoned with saffron), roast lamb, and had something called leche frita for dessert (literally fried milk). I also tried a dish this week of squid and rice, with the squid's ink. I liked it and will probably order it again.

Sunday night a group of us went in to Madrid and walked around. We went to Plaza Mayor, which was extremely crowded and filled with stalls selling Christmas decorations:
We then walked to the Royal Palace and Catedral de la Almudena:
Yesterday, Cody, Jacqui, and I took a train to El Escorial in the northwest corner of the Madrid province. The train took about two hours to get there as we made several stops along the way. It had rained earlier that day, so a thick fog stood over everything. The town is situated in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama and is named after the sixteenth-century palace of King

Felipe II (Philip II), the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Carlos I of Spain). Felipe II ruled Spain through the peak of its imperial power, and the granduer of his palace shows this. It was built between 1563 and 1584 and served as a summer hunting home for Felipe and his family, and also holds a monastery. This symbolized the combined rule of the state and the Catholic Church in Spain (which was evidenced by the Spanish Inquisition). Here are some pictures of the palace, San Lorenzo de El Escorial:
We went inside the palace, which was amazing. We first walked through the basement, where several artifacts from the construction of the palace were on display, including the original blueprints and pieces of the wooden cranes used to lift the stones. The next rooms housed some private art collections of the palace. These were mostly replicas of original artworks, but some were unique, including a large painting by El Greco. After this, we entered the main part of the palace and saw the bedroom of Felipe II. The bed he died in (in the year 1598) was still in its original location and had never been moved. We also walked through a door with ornate wooden carvings and into a long room lined with windows overlooking the gardens. This was "the strolling room" where Felipe II and his children (including future king Felipe III) would take walks during the sunset. We also walked through the mausoleum where many of the royal princes and princesses are buried. In a larger chamber lie the bodies of all the Spanish monarchs from Carlos I (1500-1558, whose body was moved here by his son) to Alfonso XIII (1846-1941, who was ousted from the throne a few years before the Spanish Civil War). The mausoleum included many marble statues and tombs. We walked from this room to the central cathedral of the monastery. This was one of the most impressive cathedrals I have ever been in. It followed the desornamentado architectural style of the outside of the church, which means it was not adorned with many decorative pieces. Instead, it was enormous with what seemed to be limitless space moving upwards to the top of the domed roof. The altar was equally large, reaching nearly to the faraway ceiling and containing several original Renaissance paintings of the life of Christ. From the cathedral, we walked to the courtyard and into the private library of Felipe II. This was a long room with thousands of gold-leafed books lining the walls. Above the bookcases were paintings of several Greek and Roman philosphers and mythological figures. Paintings of the seven muses covered the ceiling, and in the center of the room were lined up several globes and a Ptolemaic sphere of the heavens.

After leaving the palace, we walked around town, looking for a place to eat. The town was quite nice (it appeared to be a wealthy area) and we found a restaurant where I had octopus. Here is a picture of the streets of El Escorial:
Today I wanted to go to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (considered one of the three greatest art museums of Madrid along with the Prado and Reina Sofia). I got there around four o'clock, but decided to go to the Prado instead when I saw the line reached three blocks from the entrance. (The museum was having a special exhibition that day). First, I went to Parque del Retiro and saw the Crystal Palace, a decorative element of the park:

At the Prado, I saw the rest of the Goya paintings I hadn't seen last time, including his black paintings: Saturn Devouring His Son, Fight With Clubs, and The Dog. These were dark-themed portraits of mythology and the Bible with themes of cannibalism, unending battle, and loneliness. These were done when Goya grew older and more reclusive and originally decorated his own dining room. I also saw his paintings, The Second of May and The Third of May, which showed the Spanish uprising against the Mamelukes (Turkish soldiers who fought for France in the Napoleonic Wars) and the equally brutal reaction of the French soldiers the following day. This is the most famous work of Spanish nationalist art. I also saw several paintings by the Italian Renaissance painters Raphael and Bocaccio as well as the German Renaissance painters, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer, including his famous self-portrait with gloves. The bizarre works of the early Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch, were also at the museum, including his most famous painting, the triptych titled, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The painting depicts heaven, an earth full of sin, and hell. It was painted in the early 1500s, but resembles something from the surrealist period of the early 2oth century. There are so many details and strange images that it would take nearly an hour to take everything in. Some examples are a fish eating a man, people carrying giant strawberries on their backs, and an animal somewhere between a kangaroo, a dog, and a rabbit. While I was walking through the museum's room of Spanish historic-themed art, I saw someone I thought looked familiar. I realised after a few minutes that it was Fabrizio Moretti, the drummer for The Strokes. He was talking with a member of his other band about a painting of a woman who refused to kiss her dead husband's body at the funeral. "Sounds familiar," he said. Apparently, he and his side-project, Little Joy, are having a concert in Madrid tomorrow night.
After the museum, I walked around Paseo del Prado and looked at the odd Madrid Christmas lights and Christmas trees. I plan to travel through the city sometime, taking pictures of all the Christmas trees (one is made of several pieces of illuminated smoked glass, another of pink flowers, and another looks like a pyramid with four LED screens displaying a moving game of Pac-Man). After this, I returned to Alcalá, ate at a kebab place, and returned to my apartment.
I have a short week this week, return for a full week in which I work all five days (I told Emma I would work her Friday so she could fly to England early for Christmas break). After that, I am done for three weeks. Cody and I bought plane tickets to Rome for the 29th of December and will be spending nine days there, touring the city over New Year's and visiting nearby places, such as Florence.