A new definition of home

This weekend I took a long-needed trip to Madrid, back “home.” Madrid was decorated in its finest holiday clothes: Enormous lighted Christmas trees, streets with strings of fantastic lights in the shapes of cubes, snowflakes, and other random squiggles and swirls, the people bundled in large jackets and warm black scarves, the faces of stores painted in “Feliz Navidad” and lines after lines behind the stores selling either lottery tickets or roasted chestnuts. Just how Madrid is supposed to be at Christmas time. Continue reading

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The Ups and Downs of Life in Barcelona

It has been a very long time since I’ve written. This is probably the longest break I’ve taken from this blog. I have legitimate reasons for my long absence in the blogosphere. It’s this awful thing called Graduate School.

I came to Barcelona to pursue my career and to take off with an international career. So that’s what I’ve been doing. My studies have been very overwhelming and much more intense than I expected (having worked in the Spanish education realm for two years, I was expecting this to be a cake-walk…boy was I wrong!) But apart from the normal life of studying and taking exams and all of that stuff we hate, there are other elements of my life that are being severely impacted. Continue reading

Barcelona: Week 1

I just finished my first successful week in Barna (street-name for Barcelona.) I have accomplished many of my short terms goals (and a few are still pending, like my visa renewal.) I have gotten one English class so far, but I’m pending on a few others, so that’s good that I’ve got that cog slowly in motion.  Also, I met up with two people to do a language exchange (half Spanish, half English), and they both went really well. In fact, last night, I caught the thirty-minute train from Barcelona center out to Cerdanyola del Valles to go to a house party of one of the girls I met doing the language exchange. She and her boyfriend threw a house party out on this amazing terrace that they have at their house. It’s up towards the mountains, it’s got a swimming pool, and the terrace was big enough to throw even a typical American kegger. Continue reading

Spain: World Champions EuroCup 2012

Spain is good at two things: Partying and football (soccer). And both came in to play as soon as I stepped off the plane from my trip to Brussels.

Upon my arrival to Madrid from Brussels, I barely even got a moment to breathe. I went straight to my flat to drop off my bag and then I went directly to the Bernabéu Stadium (where Real Madrid plays). As I was entering the Metro, you could already see all the people painted red and gold: It was the EuroCup championship and Spain was in the finals. People were screaming, blowing horns, and of course wearing flags, jerseys and t-shirts all decorated in the colors of the Spanish flag.

I finally got to the stadium that was jam-packed with people cheering. I was trying to meet up with Angel, but I’d have to wait until half-time to find him because there were just too many people. They set up three enormous television screens where viewers could watch the match.

Spain versus Italy.

I’d like to say I was a bit torn as to who I was going to root for because I have so many friends from both countries.  But the choice was pretty clear. It had to be Spain, despite all the groans and complaints from my Italian friends.

Within just a few minutes of me arriving at Bernabeu, Spain scored its first goal. The crowd went berserk: People jumping, screaming, blowing horns and whistles, climbing each other, complete and utter chaos.

We’d see this madness repeat three more times. The environment was incredible; you could smell the excitement of victory in the air. Not even the stench of beer and tinto de verano spilling on the streets could over-empower the emotion that flooded the air.  When the match ended, with Italy in silence, and Spain in what seemed like revolution, the people took to the streets. We marched with them as cars flew by honking their horns, people screaming, and police trying to maintain control but there was no hope. The fans stopped every car to yell their excitement at its driver, bus windows were broken in the frenzy of excitement, and of course more and more alcohol was drunk.

Everyone was heading in the same direction: Cibeles, the main glorieta in Madrid, right in front of the town hall.  There we found a chaotic stampede of people drinking and screaming.  Even the police were relaxing and enjoying the victory of their country. Seeing the joy turned chaos in Spain, I can’t even imagine how Spain must have been when the Franco regime collapsed: Every street was chalk-full of people, no one was left indoors, everyone came out to celebrate their success.

It was like war; the noise could silence a bombing.

I flew home Sunday morning from Brussels just to see the party when Spain won and that’s what I got. It’s too bad I was still so exhausted from the long weekend away that I ended up retreating home around two in the morning. But even that was difficult as I had to dodge all of the people running down the streets and sidewalks. Eventually I made it home, safe, sound.  And as the entire country erupted in mass-fiesta, I finally fell asleep dreaming about how no one would give a darn if the United States ever won anything soccer related.

Write more later,

Graham

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Brussels II

Brussels has been the place I’ve given most attention to in the past year because I so desperately wanted to study there for my Master’s. However, after my previous visit, we’ve all seen my great disappointment in the school I found there. I would have looked into other schools but it seems that French is such a fundamental element to their education that I would fall short of understanding.  Regardless, Brussels continues to be a place that I like better and better.

I went out there last week to visit Chloé for three reasons. One was to just pass the time since I’ve finished working. The other was to see Chloé (and Olivia of course). But third, it was also Chloé’s birthday.

I arrived Thursday morning bright and early. I had the entire city to myself. Not even Chloé was there at the moment, she was in Amsterdam visiting family. She left me the keys to her flat at the newspaper stand across the street from her place. She wrote me out a script to tell the man in French. I entered, said, “Bonjour” the best that I could, and I tried to read the note Chloé left me with the most authentic French accent I could muster. The guy looked at me strangely at first, but then understood what I meant. He laughed and handed me the keys and then in a broken English accent said, “There you are.”  I smiled, grabbed the keys, and left, proud that I was already speaking French.

The rest of the day was spent alone, wandering Brussels getting to discover it for myself. I had always been accompanied by Chloé but this time I got to make my own agenda.

After eating lunch, I went to the Atomium. I’m not entirely sure what it is but it’s this giant sculpture in the form of an atom. Chloé told me it was boring and not worth the visit which is why she had never taken me, but I know that it’s an icon of Brussels so I wanted to see it for myself.

Afterwards, I returned to the city center and went to the Modern Art Museum and saw a special photography exhibit by Stanley Kubrick. It was absolutely wonderful. He has always been one of my favorite directors but I didn’t know he was such a talented photographer.

Eventually I made it back to Chloé’s house, pretty tired from having walked so much and having slept only a few hours the night before. I ended up falling asleep on her couch only to be woken by her and Olivia a few hours later.

The rest of my trip was spent meeting all of Chloé’s friends around town. Our first night we went to a small get-together to drink, talk, and watch Italy beat Germany in the EuroCup.  The people at the party were all wonderful, inviting, and seemed to have really gotten a kick out of having an American there.  Most of us were pretty divided by language since my French is so elementary as well as their English. But I ended up getting the attention of all these Belgian guys as we discussed anything from music to politics. I’d see a few of them, including the girl that had the party again at Chloé’s birthday.

The next day we were pretty groggy and I was still overtired from not sleeping the night before, so we took it easy. At night, we went out with some more of Chloé’s friends, had a few delicious Belgian beers and then called it a night. My favorite part was the bike ride home. We rented bikes to get from point A to point B. I dearly miss cruising through cities on bike, especially at night. When I move to Barcelona in August, I am definitely getting one.

On Saturday, we woke up and had a picnic in this gorgeous park. We sat there for several hours just talking, eating and reading. To all of our surprise despite the cloudy day, we all ended up getting pretty sun burnt. Go figure getting burnt in a place famous for having considerably dreadful weather year round.

Eventually we made our way back to Chloé’s flat to prepare for her birthday party. We made food and got cocktails already. Chloé had devised a fun game for her birthday: everyone had to wear a name tag with the name of the first street they lived on. Then, everyone was given a Hawaiian lei and if you called the person by their real name, you had to give it up.  Some people ended up with several lei’s and others with none.

Chloé’s birthday was a blast. There were so many people there and everyone was kind enough to make an effort to speak English so that I could understand. When they did speak in French, I tried so hard to understand but it only resulted in me getting a really bad headache. Once the moment came for us to all go out, we went to a wild karaoke bar until about six in the morning when we went home for me to grab my bag and then head directly to the airport since I had a morning flight.

Brussels, as boring as Chloé says it is, continues to amaze me. It’s always a riot for me. I love the quaintness of the city, but also it’s grandiose internationalness. I felt like a complete loser there, only being capable of speaking two languages. There you meet people who speak several languages, have family all over the world and are just so downright international. I guess I hold my own as being a cien por cien American, but everyone there is just so well educated and interesting.  I really hope to move there after my master’s to attempt to make myself more international. Even just talking to the people, I feel like I’m learning so much. In the few days I was there, I feel like I learned more French, more about other countries, more about my own country and just about things in general than I have in college. Not only was it a trip for pleasure, but for knowledge. And those are always the best kinds of trips.

Missing Chloé and Olivia as always. Hope to see them soon.

Write more later,

Graham

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Amunt Valencia!

Since Britt and I have been in Madrid, all Britt has told me (aside from her wanting to go see some guy charm a snake in Morocco) is that she wants to see a beach. I thought about where to go. Maybe Cádiz? Or Alicante? Or Benidorm? Maybe even a trip to the Canary Islands? But in the end, I figured the best place for us to go would be Valencia because they have the beach but also the Oceanográfic, which is something I’ve always wanted to see.  And it’s a lot cheaper to get to.

I have been to Valencia before but it was only for Las Fallas last year, so I didn’t get to see much of the city since, let’s face it, I went there to party with all of my friends.

I talked to Jeana and her friend Alex beforehand to see if they wanted to come along since they were going to be coming to Madrid around the time that Britt and I wanted to go see Valencia. We all coordinated the trip together. On Thursday morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn and caught the bus out of town to Valencia.

The ride was pretty quick: only 4-hours by bus.

The best part was the arrival. We weren’t sure what to expect of the weather, although Britt thought ahead and all she wanted to do was wear a dress on the beach. And sure enough, the second we stepped off of the bus, the weather was absolutely wonderful! We started stripping off layers it was so hot.

While we waited for the bus to take us to our hostel, we were taking off coats, hoodies, rolling up pants and stripping off our socks, it was that hot. I couldn’t believe that at this time of the year it could be so warm. Britt and I had become so used to the freezing cold in Paris and Madrid that it was almost unfathomable to have enjoyable, sunny, warm weather this time of year. The weather definitely put all of us in a good mood.

We checked into our hostel then wandered around the city a bit to try and go see the Oceanografic, which is Europe’s largest aquarium. The architecture itself is worth seeing: It looks like some futuristic space ship and landing pad. It’s hard to describe, because it’s such an abstract edifice.

Upon arriving, we realized we’d only have about 2 hours to enjoy the place and the entree fee was about 25 euros so we decided we’d put it off for the day. We ended up grabbing some gelatto to take a break and cool off. From there, we grabbed another bus and headed to the beach.

Everyone I talked to (except Agathe, who recommended we go to Valencia) said that the beaches in Valencia were really ugly. I kept this in mind, especially after Britt and I visited my friend Alejandra in El Escorial for an afternoon and she almost yelled at me for taking Britt to see an ugly city and ugly beaches. But everyone was wrong: The beaches were wonderful! We decided that everyone in Spain thinks Valencia’s beaches are ugly is because they are used to actually having beaches. But if you come from landlocked Denver, Colorado or even Madrid, any beach is enjoyable. And we didn’t find anything ugly about the beach or Valencia. We all fell in love!

The beach was very nice. We stuck our feet in the frigid water, collected some seashells, and then once our feet were turning blue and the sky was fading to black, we caught a bus back towards our hostel.

It seems that I cannot escape the parties in Valencia because the instant the bus dropped us off, we saw thousands of people crowding around the street of our hostel for a parade. That’s when I realized that it was January 5 and the following day was the Día de los Reyes Magos, or the Day of the Three Wise Men. January 6 is Spain’s official Christmas. It is becoming more and more popular to celebrate actual Christmas on December 25, but everyone gets their presents on January 6. So all the families were out with their kids to watch the parade. We had to push through hundreds of parade-goers to get to our hostel.

Luckily, we had a terrific view of the parade from above, but it didn’t interest us too much since everything in the parade was religious related. But it was still really interesting to be able to see.

From there, we headed towards the city center for dinner. We stopped by a place that seemed “typical Spanish,” but I’m sure it was designed for tourists. Alex and I shared a big bowl of Paella Valenciana, which after all, Valencia is where Paella originated. Jeana and Britt each got their own meals, and Britt ordered herself a delicious looking membrillo-jamón tapa.

But we didn’t eat in the typical Spanish fashion by taking a few hours to eat, relax, and enjoy. We were a bit pressed for time. Earlier that afternoon, Carlo texted me with some exciting news: That night, Valencia was going to be playing against Sevilla! We all wanted to get tickets but weren’t sure how to go-abouts getting them. Plus, we figured it would be sold out since Sevilla and Valencia are two of the biggest teams in Spain. We asked around all day and the best results we got were: “Nah, it’s probably not sold out,” and “Just go to the stadium an hour before the game and you should be able to get tickets.” So that’s what we did.

We finished our meal and caught the first bus to the stadium. There were people everywhere, and everyone was drinking on the streets. This is typical Spanish.
Afterwards I learned that they don’t sell any alcohol in the stadiums (which would explain why I didn’t see anyone with beer in their hands like you’d see at any sporting event back in the States). I guess the football hooligans get a little too rowdy if they’ve got some drink in them.

After fighting through the crowds, we made it to the Taquilla to buy our tickets. I asked for the four best 10-euro tickets (which were the cheapest) but unfortunately the guy said that all that were left were 30-euro or 40-euro tickets. Dang. That’s killing our budget.

We left the line to think about what we were going to do. We figured we’d just go find a bar and watch the game, but NO! We came all this way, and it was now or never. Let’s go to the game! So we bought 40-euro tickets because that was the only way we could all be seated together. But who cares about the money! This was something they say you have to do. So after living in Spain (on and off) for about 2-years total, I finally made it to my first professional soccer match. Amunt Valencia!

And the best part was, Valencia won! 1 – 0. (Kind of a boring match, really. A bit disappointing.)

Then we went home to sleep.

The next day we went to the Oceanografic, which was very large indeed, but nothing that spectacular. I guess it’s just any old aquarium, but this one is just really big. And again, I can’t put enough emphasis on its incredible architecture, you really have to see it for yourself.

From there, we went back to the hostel to get our things, then headed to the bus station and rode home.

Valencia is a place I could live in, honest. I absolutely loved it. I wish I could have stayed a little bit longer. We all wanted to stay: The weather was perfect, we never got to get day-drunk on the beach, and we really didn’t even get to explore the city center, which was much larger than we realized.  Even the people were incredibly kind to us. I asked for directions, information, etc., and every person I spoke to was very patient and gave us great help. The strange thing to me is that in Valencia they speak Valenciano, which is a dialect of Catalan. But if you go to Catalonia and you ask for help in Spanish, they will respond to you either in Catalan or English regardless of who you are. They are very proud people of their language and despise Spanish (so I’m told.) But the Valenciano’s were all eager to speak to me and there was never an issue with them speaking Valenciano or Spanish. They all treated us the same and were incredibly helpful. I guess that just means that we’ll have to go back. I hope to see Valencia very, very soon.

Write more later,

Graham

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Fútbol Culture

I can’t say it’s any better or any worse than American Football culture, but, Bro, European soccer has taken over the way of the world here. At first you don’t think about it too much, even though Real Madrid scarves are sold on every corner, and every man you walk by is reading the sports section of the 20-minutos newspaper (which is only about soccer, no other sport of course), and then there are the kids in school. This includes elementary, high school, university and everything else in between.  They can’t think about anything but soccer.

This has played into their attire.  They all wear chandal (tracksuit) every moment of the day. Even if they aren’t going to play football that day, it’s some sort of unspoken regulation that chandal must be worn at all times to maintain the social hierarchy of footballism.  I remember last year Alejandra said that Americans dressed poorly. But what about the choni: the kid riding the metro with a monroe piercing, two gold rings on his finger, an Adidas t-shirt, and of course, swishy athletic pants and Cristiano Ronaldo’s model shoes by Nike? How is that any better than Chad Bro from Berkeley repping sweat pants with it’s school name on the side? I don’t see any difference.

The best part about this soccer and trashy-fashion look is that nearly ninety-nine percent of the time, the kids don’t even do sports, or exercise. My friend David said it’s way cooler to wear a tracksuit and NOT play any sports.

A friend asked me if I wore chandal when I gave my PE classes. And I said no, of course not. I ain’t no choni. They laughed.

But now I sort of understand why it’s so important to look like you play soccer. It’s all this image because knowing everything about soccer is a way of life. You have to live it. And this country does, believe me.

But now the chandal look has gone too far.

Yesterday in my P.E. class, we were playing handball. I don’t know if you’ve ever played but since it involves you using your hands (go figure, right?), and a ball (another brain-stumper), you have to have some sort of hand-eye coordination. This is self-explanatory. However, it becomes incredibly difficult to play when these children have only thought about soccer their entire lives and have never actually learned to throw a ball. The teacher had to cover that when you throw with your right hand, you step with your left.

Many kids struggled with this. It was very surprising to me because throwing a ball to me is second nature.

As much as I hate American football culture, everyone in the states can at least throw a ball. Look at the two biggest sports in the US: Baseball and Football. Throwing is a mandatory requirement of both sports. So we are all raised with the simple skill of throwing a ball.

Now here in Spain, the most throwing they do are two-handed, over-the-head throw-ins when the ball pops out of the field and goes out of bounds.

I just found it very interesting to see how strongly the football culture here has modified absolutely everything.  Including primitive skills such as throwing.

Viva Real AC Milan (Carlo will thank me for this later),

Graham