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.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Greek Αλφα Βετα(Athens: Part Ένα)

Over the weekend of my birthday, I flew to Greece, a place I have wanted to visit for a long while. Greece has been in the news recently because of its poor economic situation and the many protests and riots surrounding it. While I was there, I noticed some of this, but it was not always on the surface. I visited the capital city, Athens, which was once the capital of art, philosophy, and splendour in the ancient Greek world. Athens has had a tumultuous history since its rise to prominence in the 400s BC. The city saw the rise of Alexander the Great to the north, then was later conquered by the Roman Empire. Athens remained a center of learning throughout the period of the Roman Empire. When Rome fell around the fifth century AD, its legacy remained in the east with the wealthy Byzantine Empire, which Greece was a part of. Much of the attention of the Byzantines turned away from Athens to its capital, Constantinople. Athens, and the rest of the Byzantine Empire split from the western world in terms of religion as well. While the west remained under the auspices of the Pope in Rome, the Byzantines followed a more traditional Christianity based on ancient traditions and fewer rituals. This became known as the Orthodox Church. The population of Athens declined, but the city experienced a revitilization in the 1000s and 1100s when most of its medieval Orthodox churches were constructed. As the Byzantine Empire declined, the control of Athens switched between the hands of various merchant companies from Burgundy, Florence, and Catalonia. In 1458, Athens, now sparsely populated, fell to the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. The city and the rest of Greece remained under Turkish rule until the Greek War of Independence in 1833. At this time, Athens had fallen far from glory and consisted of only a few houses around the Acropolis. Nonetheless, the new Greek government chose the city as the capital for its new nation because of its symbolic place in Greek history. Athens grew rapidly over the following decades. It saw the rise of Ioannis Metaxas' dictatorship in the 1930s and was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War. Heavy fighting took place within the city in 1944. A military dictatorship followed briefly after the war and, since then, the city has attempted to revitalize itself as a major European capital.
Many people who visit Athens admire the Acropolis and the surrounding area but complain about the run-down look of the rest of the city. Its true that the outskirts of Athens consist of mostly poured-concrete apartment complexes, but there is still some charm there, as well as a strange sense of familiarity. After a three-hour flight I landed at the Athens airport, which is about twenty minutes outside of the city, and took a little time to orient myself. I found some free maps of the city as well as some information which would direct me to my hotel at Voula, an Athenian suburb. I found the bus I needed and sat in the back. On the way there, the bus passed many familiar sights: billboards, movie theatres, large hardware and appliance retail stores, and weeds growing up alongside highway guardrails. I began to think about all of my travels and how, with each trip, my destinations seemed to feel less foreign. The bus dropped me off right outside my hotel:

The elderly Greek woman at the front desk spoke quite a bit of English. I learned later that she was one of two owners, the other being a British expat. The hotel was nice and had recently been remodeled:

Across the street was the last stop of the tram which traveled straight to the center of Athens. As it was getting late, I decided to stay in the area of Voula and look around. This was a new town, founded in the 1960s and it gave me a good sense of what suburban life is like in Greece. I walked through neighborhoods, spotting several stray cats and dogs (stray dogs are a common theme in Athens) and hearing children yell to their friends, "Yia su!" ("Hello!"). Here are some scenes of the Voula neighborhoods, which seemed far away from the Greek economic crisis forbiddingly headlined on every European newspaper:

I wandered past Voula Beach:

and a relatively new Orthodox church:

I then found a food stall and was able to use the limited Greek I had obtained from a travel book to order some souvlaki:

This contained lamb, lettuce, tomato, carrots, and tzatziki (a cucumber/yogurt sauce) wrapped in pita. All around this food stall were several kiosks (something which the Greeks seem to love more than other Europeans) which sold newspapers, soft drinks, and snacks. I then went back to my hotel for a good night's sleep before my full day in Athens.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Return to Alcalá de Henares

I returned to Spain from my two spring break trips and went straight back to my normal schedule of teaching and tutoring. The kids were excited to hear about my trips, and many of them did not know where Stockholm was. We had two student teachers begin at the school after spring break, Alba and Charo. They were both very nice and hung out with all the language assistants in the breakroom.

In the first week of April, we celebrated Kelsey's birthday. We started the celebration with some wine and food at Parque O'Donnell in Alcalá. This eventually turned into a very disorganized, but fun game of American football followed by my failed attempt to play a game of soccer with Jeff, James, and Kevin:

Afterwards we went to Kevin, Jeff, and James' apartment for a surprise party. We all pitched in for cupcakes and ice cream. Here's Kelsey soon after the surprise:

There were a lot of us at the party and Kelsey's friend, Sarah, who teaches in El Escorial, came to visit. Here Kevin, Sarah, and Lindsay enjoy the birthday cupcakes:

We then spent the night wandering through Alcalá from tapas bar to tapas bar, and then from club to club. The next day I introduced Kelsey and Lindsay to this movie:

The Room is definitely the worst movie ever made, but it is so bad that you cannot look away and find yourself laughing constantly at its misinterpretation of human nature. Both Kelsey and Lindsay were so entranced by the movie that we ended up inviting Jeff, James, and Kevin over to watch it again that night. Several other viewings have followed since then.

We also visited the Henares River on several occasions. On the second weekend of April we visited the river on both Saturday and Sunday. Sarah had come down to visit us again that weekend. We bought Turkish döner kebabs on Saturday and ate them beside the river, taking some time to relax. In this picture Lindsay, Kevin, Sarah, James, and I siesta by the river along with some Spaniards:

After our period of relaxation, James and I crossed the cold river to visit the ruins of the Muslim castle which Cody, Kevin, and I had visited last fall. The next day we returned to the river for another picnic. James and I went across the river again, this time with Jeff and Kelsey. We spent quite a bit of time exploring the ruins and admiring the view of Alcalá.

Swedish Fish (Stockholm: Part Fyra)

The next morning I awoke, planning on going to the airport early and waiting for my flight, but I was surprised when I saw this scene outside:
The snow was a surprise to everyone. I decided to walk around the city for a couple of hours, taking pictures of the snow as I had enough time. Here are some things around Sergels Torg in City:
Here are some photos from Kungsträdgården:

I then walked to Gamla Stan where I got these pictures of the royal palace:

and these of Storkyrkan:

Here is Stortorget:

Here is the area between Gamla Stan and City:

Just as I entered City, I came across this eerie sight. I was unsure whether it was a living person or not as it was very cold and this was not moving:
I took the bus to the airport from the train station at City. I had a little bit of time at the airport, so I ate at a restaurant where I got this crab and caviar sandwich with a beer called Eriksberg:

I also bought some lingonberry and cloudberry jam for myself at the airport; some Swedish chocolate for Kelsey, Katie, and Lindsay; and some moose jerky for Cody. I left Stockholm with the feeling that I was leaving a comfortable place. I saw everything there was to see in the northern city, but I still felt as though I could have stayed longer as the city had a very welcoming atmosphere.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Swedish Fish (Stockholm: Part Tre)

The next morning I ate in the bed and breakfast and spoke with the owners who told me a little about life in Stockholm. They said the Swedish tend to stay indoors during the winter months, but spend most of their time outside in the summer. They spoke of the Midsummer Festival and how, at that time of year, there are only a few hours of night with the sun setting well after midnight. I wandered around the area near my bed and breakfast on Kungsholmen, visiting this church courtyard:
and this police station flying the Swedish and European Union flags:

I was concerned about things being closed this day, because it was Easter Sunday, but this was not the case. All the shops were open and people seemed to be going about their everyday business. There was this Easter-themed display in the shopping center in City:

Also on display in the shopping center were several pictures of the recently married crown prince and his wife which declared 2010 to be the "Year of Love." This didn't seem to distract the Swedes from their daily routines either. I returned to Kungsträdgården in the heart of City and took some pictures of the Karl XII statue:

I also found this interesting doorway at one of the buildings surrounding Kungsträdgården:

From City, I walked through the area of Blasieholmen, past the National Museum and crossed a bridge to the island of Skeppsholmen. I took some photos from the northern coastline of this island:

I walked past the Admiralty House on Skeppsholmen:

and the Moderna Museet which has several sculptures by French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalles outside:

From Skeppsholmen I walked to the tiny island of Kastellholmen named after the castle where four cannons are located to salute visiting naval ships. The first building I came across here was the former Skating Pavillion which was used in the late 1800s by a club which organized skating on the frozen waters between Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen:

Uphill from here was the castle, which was built in the 1840s over the foundation of an older structure:

On my way back, I stopped to admire the view of Gamla Stan from across the waters and to watch the swans swim near the shore:
I returned to Gamla Stan and walked along the shoreline behind the royal palace where I saw this statue of King Gustav III who reigned from 1771-1792:

Gustav III is one of the most colorful figures in Swedish royal history. When he became king, the role of the monarch was essentially that of a figurehead, yet he led a coup which resulted in the capitulation of the Swedish parliament and the return to an absolute monarchy. Gustav was inspired by the French Enlightenment philosophers, maintained an elaborate court, supported the arts, and led a long and costly war against Russia. He gained many enemies among the nobility thanks to his laws which restricted their role in the government. In 1792, Captain Anckarström of the Swedish navy, along with other members of the nobility, conspired against the crown. Gustav attended a masked ball at the Stockholm Opera House along with much of the nobility. During the festivities, the king was surrounded by the masked conspirators and shot to death by Anckarström. Gustav's son claimed the throne and the country was soon dragged into the Napoleonic Wars against France, during which much of the lands of the Swedish Empire were lost (most importantly, Finland). The statue of Gustav III is facing this view of the square beside the royal palace and Storkyrkan (the second image is of the large window on the steeple of Storkyrkan):

I walked through the narrow streets of Gamla Stan where I bought this soda because of its label. Here's a good tip to follow when travelling in Europe: don't buy an unknown soda because you want to try something new. It almost never turns out well. Europe isn't known for tasty local brands of soda (unless it's Fanta). This one was cinnamon flavored:

I came across many mysteries in Gamla Stan:

That cat's face was peering from several places through Gamla Stan. At the south of the island I came across this strange sculpture by Carl Milles:
I walked across the bridge connecting Gamla Stan to the southern part of the city, Södermalm:

I later visited the top of the tower in the first picture for some great views of the city. Södermalm has a much different feel than the rest of Stockholm. It's more like a neighborhood and includes many trendy bars and stores. The Globen sports arena (used primarily for ice hockey) is visible from the highest hill in Södermalm:

These telephone booths could be found throughout Södermalm. This one was near the Mosebacke Theatre:

Here is the back of the Mosebacke Theatre, which doubles as a restaurant, the seating of which is located on a patio above:

I finally came upon the street named Fjällgatan, which was the main reason I had in going to Södermalm. Fjällgatan is an old street, with most of the houses dating back to the mid-1700s. It is a good indication of what Södermalm looked like centuries ago. The area has a dark history, however. Before Södermalm was populated, Fjällgatan was known as Galgberget, or "Gallows Hill." This hilltop overlooking much of the city was where many criminals were hanged. As the population of Stockholm spread south, Gallows Hill moved and the area became a neighborhood inhabited by artisans and fishermen. Here are some pictures of Fjällgatan:

Behind this street is the Katarina Kyrka, which was originally built in 1695, but was recently restored after being severely damaged by fire in 1990. A graveyard surrounded the church with many of the tombs dating back to the time of Gustav III:

I returned to the northern coast of Södermalm where I crossed a platform linking the hill to the tall tower, Katarinahissen. I took several pictures of the city from here (including Södermalm's first electric sign, an advertisement for a now-defunct brand of toothpaste):

As I walked back through Gamla Stan, I came across this strange sight, Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, the narrowest street in Stockholm (three feet wide):

At the top of the stairway at the end of this narrow street was a marker indicating the birthplace of the artist Carl Larsson. On my way back, I came across a strange coincidence. This sticker for a Barcelona hostal I considered staying at earlier in the week was on an informational plaque:

The area that connects Gamla Stan to City offered some nice photos:

I walked to Kungsträdgården and went to the tunnel station for a tour of the different, elaborately-decorated stations. Here are some pictures of that station:
Another tunnel station was dedicated to the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné. The sculptures reminded me of Super Mario Brothers for some reason:
This station let me off in the west of Kungsholmen where my bed and breakfast was located. I decided to explore some of the area. My favorite part was this frozen river and two fairly new buildings at the coast which have been integrated well into the surrounding architecture:

I visited a grocery store near this area and looked around at all the Swedish products. I bought some of the famous Swedish gummies and headed back to the bed and breakfast. On the way, I passed this store specializing in one of Sweden's greatest exports: Swedish design (which is found worldwide in any IKEA):

I sat again in the dark, empty storefront of the bed and breakfast and had tea and gummies left behind by the owners before going to bed and thinking about my return to Madrid the following day: