About Me

My photo
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.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Castilian Culture

In Spain, there is a New Year's tradition that as the last twelve seconds of the old year tick away, you must eat twelve grapes, one with each second. The success of this difficult task will present the victor with good luck for all twelve months. Television commercials advertise tins full of twelve grapes. I did not participate in this tradition, but I was in Italy for New Year's and the tradition does not exist there. I think this makes me exempt.

On the Thursday before classes started again I went to Madrid and visited the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of Madrid's three major art museums. While the Prado focuses on art from the Renaissance to the 19th century and Reina Sofia, on modern art, the Thyssen has an interesting layout which starts on the fourth floor. The entire museum is a private collection of a baron and baroness and it is dedicated to the history of Western art. The top floor includes late medieval paintings and early Renaissance paintings with works by Caravaggio and Raphael being the primary exhibits. The third floor features late Renaissance Spanish art (especially Zurbarán) and the painters of the Low Countries, like Rembrandt and Rubens. The next floor down feautres art from 1700-1900 with paintings by several famous artists including Van Gogh, Goya, Degas, Winslow Homer, Gauguin, James Ensor, Caspar David Friedrich, and the strange landscapes of the American painter Thomas Cole. The ground floor included art from the twentieth century starting with Picasso, Dalí, and Miró, then moving on to later artists like Jackson Pollock, Balthus, Lucian Freud, and the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein. The newest painting was a portrait painted in 1998 by the American artist John Currin.

After the Thyssen, I got on the metro, deciding to visit the Madrid bullring, or Plaza de Toros de las Ventas. The ring was closed as the season does not open until March. A circus had instead opened up in front of the ring. The building was completed in 1931 and is built in the Mudejar style of architecture which evokes the Muslim architecture from Spain's past. A few monuments to slain matadors stood in front of the bullring. The origins of bullfighting are not entirely evident, but it is an ancient event from the south of Spain (Andalusia) which may have roots as a sacrificial religious ritual.
The first day back at school was accompanied by two or three inches of snow in the whole Madrid region. School was closed, but we still showed up and acted as a day care for the children whose parents had to work. It was a slow transition back to school mode for the kids as many of them had not spoken English for the entire break. The kids have been working on various projects for their classes such as posters of various ecosystems. One kid drew a giant penguin on his poster of the arctic and told me, "Look! It's very big. It's Guiness record."

Last Saturday a group of us got together to go to a soccer match in which James and Kevin's new roommate, Jeff, was playing. It was played in a Madrid suburban neighborhood called Vallecas. Emma, James, Cody, and two Minnesotan girls who live in Alcalá whom we just met, Katie and Kelsey, went to the match. In this first picture from left to right is Emma, Kelsey, and Katie. The next picture from left to right is me, Cody, and James.
After the soccer match, we all took the metro to the old part of Madrid and got drinks at a strange tapas bar near Plaza Mayor which I hope to return to many times because of its odd ambiance. It was called Rey de los Pimientos (King of the Peppers) and was covered with metal objects. A piece of paper taped to the building showed a photo of a snail and read, "Hay caracoles" or "We have snails." Inside, the bar was dimly lit and the walls were covered with decorations which reminded me of some American roadside collector's garage. A naked Barbie doll, spray-painted gold, was wired to the wall. Several dried gourds hung from the ceiling. A mounted goats head which had seen better days guarded the bar with an extra horn affixed to a wire dangling from its neck. Either a glamour shot or a missing persons photo of a young blond girl from what looked like the 1990s was taped behind the bar. And, yes, they did have snails. Lots of snails. All dead and covered in a thin, grey gravy behind glass among the other tapas (which included the titular peppers which the owner of this estasblishment reigns over). The woman who served us our drinks was equally odd. She was in her thirties, had red hair, and wore a pink t-shirt which had a wide enough neck to expose one shoulder (a la 1980s) and was emblazoned with a glittery picture of a kitten swatting at butterflies. She seemed to have a face like a doll, in that it was unblinking and unmoving with her head tilted to one side and her eyes constantly looking slightly downward and a strangely inert smirk. She never said a word as she gave us our drinks and free tapa (microwaved baked potato). We left after one drink, but the whole experience made me want to come back soon.

After the weird bar, we took the metro to Gran Vía and ate at a pizza place there which was quite fancy, but reasonably priced. I had a hamburger pizza which had an entire hamburger patty (whole), a fried egg, ham, and carmelized onions. After eating we were joined by Becky and Gavin, Emma's British and Irish friends who had joined us at the English tea room in Madrid months ago. We all then spent the majority of the night visiting different clubs. It was a traditional Spanish night, which we had all been planning on having. The Spanish stay out all night most nights, eating, drinking, dancing, and socializing and then get on the bus to go to work. The only difference for us was that we didn't have to work the next day. No wonder the Spanish invented the siesta. This first picture is, from left to right, Gavin, Emma, and Becky:

Here is a picture of "dancing." Left to right: Becky, me, and Kelsey:

And a rare picture of Cody on a dancefloor:

It was a fun night, but I was very tired the next day when Cody, James, Emma, and I met for lunch in Alcalá. I had a cold seafood salad called salpicón de mariscos for my first course. It contained onions, crab meat, shrimp, and squid with a vinaigrette. For my main course I had honey-basted pork ribs and for dessert rice pudding. It was all delicious.
This week the weather has started to warm up and the sun has come out, which is typical of late-January in Spain. I'm settled back in to teaching and tutoring. I'll post more soon.


  1. The brickwork at the Plaza de Toros was very cool. The masons were true artists. Great pics! Looked like everyone had a fun night.