Tuesday, February 15, 2011


After another long absence, I'm back. I'm just about halfway through my second year as a teacher in Madrid, and I've done quite a bit more traveling and had some great adventures. In this entry, I'm going to update you all about my Christmas vacation trip to Lebanon and Israel.

First, you may ask, why Lebanon and Israel? Well, after studying in Egypt I've always wanted to return to the Middle East and do some more traveling. Israel has always been a country that's intrigued me, and I had heard fabulous things from friends about Lebanon. So, after some flight-wrangling, a failed attempt to obtain a visa to visit Syria from the embassy here in Spain, Katie and I decided on 11 days in Beirut, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv.

We arrived in Beirut at night, after about an hour of flight delays, and were met by 2 guys from our youth hostel. We start chatting with the driver on the way to the hostel, and it turns out that he speaks Spanish fluently. Immediately he jumps into saying "I don't like America." Fantastic. Then he clarifies, "I have no problem with American people, I just don't like the government." OK, I can live with that. We arrive at our hostel, a dingy multi-story building quite close to the ocean, right next to downtown Beirut. We collapse into bed, trying not to disturb the other 10 girls in our dorm. The next morning, we awoke to a spectacular, warm, sunny day in bustling Beirut.

Over the next few days, we explored Beirut. I won't give a blow-by-blow account, but rather will share some of the highlights. Several things really caught my attention in Beirut. First, it doesn't take too much imagination to see Beirut as a war zone. Although there has obviously been a huge reconstruction effort in the past few years, the damage done by the 2006 war with Israel is still very visible. While wandering Downtown the first day, we stumbled across the bombed-out shells of several buildings, most notably, the former Hilton Hotel. It's indescribably strange to see the concrete skeleton of a building with gaping holes on one side of the street, then turn around and see a new high-rise of luxury apartments glimmering in the sunlight on the other.

Beirut is also a much more diverse city than I was expecting. I already knew that Lebanon was home to Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, Armenians, and several sects of Christians, and that their government posts are designated for specific religions, in a strange, affirmative-action-type power-sharing arrangement. But Beirut truly is a city shared by Muslims and Christians. The Mohamed al-Amin mosque sits right next to St. George's Cathedral, a Maronite church. I got the impression that Muslims and Christians live side-by-side, work together, are friends, and there's generally little ill-will. Obviously, things aren't perfect, and memories of the Civil Wars still sting, but compared to Egypt or Morocco, Beirut was a much more accepting and diverse place.

Another unexpected thing about Beirut was the high degree of Western influence. I had been told by friends before going that Beirut was once known as the "Paris of the Mediterranean," and that it was the most cosmopolitan city in the Middle East. This was definitely true. For example, the first day, as we were walking through Downtown, I saw a sign for the "Souks of Beirut." Immediately, my mind conjured up images of the teeming, colorful, sweltering souks of Alexandria or Cairo, with local vendors shouting out anything to get you into their shops, and donkeys passing by carting their goods. Finally, I thought! A break from the new skyscrapers, and a little local flavor. Alas, the "Souk" ended up being a new open-air shopping mall featuring top-end designer shops like Gucci, Valentino, and Cartier. Beiruti women strutted around debris-cluttered sidewalks in impossibly high-heels, and if they wore head-scarves, the scarf matched their Fendi purse perfectly. These were some high-fashion women. In my comfortable tourist clothes I felt like an utter slob. Beirut was cosmopolitan and modern in so many ways - the American University of Beirut campus could have easily been a private college on the California coast. The hip bars and clubs of Gemmayzeh and Achrafiye could belong in Madrid, Paris, or New York. I barely got to dust off my rusty Arabic, because nearly everyone we talked with spoke English extremely well. Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, McDonalds, and Hardee's were everywhere. Beirutis, like Madrileños, eat dinner late (10pm), and go out partying until the wee hours of the morning.

That being said, there were definitely more conservative elements to be seen in Beirut and Lebanon as a whole. Within Beirut, on our last day there, we stumbled upon a much more conservative Muslim neighborhood, where every woman on the street was wearing the hijab, and little boys gawked at the small group of foreigners wandering the streets. This neighborhood also clearly had not seen the same amount of investment into rebuilding after Lebanon's various wars as Downtown had, and was full of beautiful old buildings partially destroyed by mortars and stray bullets. We also took a couple of day trips outside of the capital, and that made it pretty clear that the Lebanese countryside was very different from liberal Beirut. We traveled to Harissa, Byblos, and Baalbeck. Baalbeck might have been my favorite part of the trip; it is a small town east of Beirut, quite close to the Syrian border. It is a popular tourist destination because of its spectacular Roman ruins, but it is also smack-dab in the middle of Hezbollah country. During our minibus ride to Baalbeck, we were stopped at various security checkpoints, and at one point were asked to present our passports. We arrived in Baalbeck on Friday around noon, right as the main Muslim prayer of the week was being read out over the mosque's loudspeaker. At the entrance to the Roman ruins, beside the usual "Palestinian" scarves and tourist trinkets, were Hezbollah t-shirts in all sizes! A very nice Lebanese vendor tried to sell me one after he caught me staring at them, even after I told him I was American and didn't think it was a great idea. Hezbollah, although seen as a terrorist organization by the US, is quite popular in this part of Lebanon because they provide many basic services for the people living in rural areas, like education, health care, etc. After a couple of hours romping around Roman temples dedicated to Jupiter and Bacchus, we picked up some sfeeha baalbeki (a tasty meat-filled pastry typical of the region), and headed back to Beirut.

Finally, the two best things about Lebanon had to be the people and the food. The people were unendingly helpful and kind, and most put up with (and some even complimented) my Arabic. One episode stands out in particular: on the return trip from Baalbeck, a Lebanese soldier sat down next to our Dutch travel companions (a nice couple we had met at the hostel) on the minibus. They struck up a conversation, and when he found out which part of the city we were staying in, he told us that he was also headed there, and that rather than take the minibus all the way back to the bus depot, we should get off with him and take a city bus, which would be much cheaper than a taxi. He chatted with us for a while, and showed us exactly how to get back to our hostel - without us even asking him for any help at all. This is just one example of many of the wonderful treatment we received from the Lebanese at every turn. And lastly, the food. Ahhh the food. I have often been mocked by Arab friends for saying that I thought the food when I lived in Egypt was quite good, and was consistently told that Lebanese food was the best in the Arab world. And they were all right. Everywhere we ate, I was delighted by the fresh flavors and simplicity of Lebanese food. Lebanese hummus is the most flavorful and creamiest I've ever had. Lebanese fuul blew the Egyptian version out of the water. Katie and I (with the strong recommendation of Anthony Bourdain) even tried raw kibbeh (ground lamb meat with spices). It was quite tasty, although I couldn't quite get around the idea of eating raw meat and fully enjoy it. One night, we splurged on a bottle of Lebanese white wine, which was delicious and perfectly complemented our fattouch (Lebanese salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, and sumac). Here's a photo of a particularly nice meal at Abdel Wahab al-Inglizi

Overall, Lebanon, and especially Beirut, was a colorful, flavorful, vibrant mix of East and West. The kindness of the people and the breathtaking countryside left me wanting more.

Next update: the second part of our trip - a brief stint in Jordan, a long border crossing, and Israel!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Blogging fail

Hello everyone! So - VERY long time since my last update. I really don't have an excuse - I'm always either tired after work, or out and about, but I could have written now and again! So I apologize. This is going to be a very compact update about what I've been up to for the past 5 months! So here it goes:

First and foremost, I've decided to extend my contract and stay another year in Spain. I'll be teaching at the same school, and at their "sister school." Basically, they have another conversation assistant coming next year, and one of us is going to teach primary school at both schools, and the other one will do secondary school. The downside is that I'll have to commute between the two schools, which are kind of far apart, but it's good in that I'll have fewer lessons to plan, and won't literally be running from a class of 8-year-olds to a class of 16-year-olds. I told my school I would prefer to work with the older kids, so I'm hoping they'll try to work that out...but we shall see! I'm excited to live in Spain another year, and to get to travel a bit more. I'm still enjoying teaching, although I still don't think it's my life's calling. So I'm not exactly staying because I'm head-over-heals in love with the job, but more because I don't mind it, and most days I like it, and it pays the bills for me to live in Madrid! One of my roommates is also staying next year, and she and I are planning on living together again - hopefully with a Spaniard this time, so we can speak more Spanish at home.

Alright, now the fun part, where I've traveled!

New Year's in Istanbul: About as amazing as it sounds. We spent 7 days just in Istanbul, which was the perfect amount of time - there is a ton to see there. Really is the cliche mix of east and west - sometimes I felt like I was back in Egypt, and other times I felt like I was in Spain. AMAZING mosques and architecture - the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace were all incredibly beautiful. Intricate Arabic calligraphy, delicate arches, and bright colors contrasting with white stone everywhere. The Grand Bazaar was overwhelming, but in a good way - there was too much to look at, too many ridiculous vendors trying various ploys to get you into their shop. I bought some killer jewelery inscribed with Arabic among other touristy trinkets. We rang in the new year watching fireworks from the Galata Brige over the Bosporus - something I'll never forget. We then followed Katie's Spanish coworker's new Turkish friend to a slightly Euro-trash club for a little New Year's party and had a blast. We visited the Asian side (my first time in Asia!) of the Bosporus, and bought some spices in a local market from an adorable Turkish man who spoke no English. I ate the most delicious (and cheapest) kebab of my life - and didn't get sick at all! Finally, we drank lots of tea. All in all, it was a great trip.

Long weekend in Paris: At the end of January, we took advantage of a long weekend to visit Paris and my French friend, Benoit. I met Benoit while I was studying in Madrid (he was doing an Erasmus exchange year), and he visited Madrid earlier in the year and told us that if we ever wanted to visit Paris, we could stay with him. We gladly took him up on his offer. We (my roommate Katie and our friend Todd, who also went to Tufts) stayed at his apartment in the city (which his parents own and he lives in by himself now that they're living in their country home in Normandy - tough life). He was an excellent host - he had his friend Guillaume pick us up at the airport in his car, and then he pretty much dedicated his weekend to showing us the sights in Paris! We saw the highlights - the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, Notre Dame, the Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, the Tuilleries, the Champs de Elysee, Arc de Triomphe and did a LOT of walking around the various neighborhoods of Paris. It was cold, but it was so gorgeous. Madrid is still my favorite, but Paris is the most beautiful city I've ever been to. At night, Benoit took us out to his favorite restaurants and bars, so we avoided touristy places, which was nice. We also got to meet some of his friends, which was fun. And, of course, the food was out-of-this world good. I tried escargot, which was surprisingly delicious, and feasted on a number of butter-soaked dishes. Yum! It was pretty rough going back to the reality of my job in Madrid after such a magical weekend in Paris. But Benoit has left us an open invitation to his summer house in Normandy, and I might just be headed there at the end of June after school gets out...!

Weekend in Bilbao and San Sebastián, Spain: In March, we took another long weekend to go to Basque Country in northern Spain. I had been hoping to go here for a while, as I had heard that San Sebastián was beautiful and that the food was amazing. I went with my friends Greg and Todd, and then 3 new British friends we had just recently met at one of our program meetings (more about them later). Basque country lived up to it's billing - we stopped in to Bilbao first and had lunch and went to the Guggenheim museum. The building itself was crazy cool, and the art inside even crazier. I really enjoyed it, though. Then we continued on to San Sebastián. I LOVED it. If I am ever rich, this will be my summer getaway spot for sure. It's a small city curled up on this gorgeous white sandy beach with these dramatic mountains rising off in the distance. Breathtaking, even in the misty rain, which is what we got most of the weekend. We mainly did a lot of walking around and eating and drinking. San Sebastián is a foodie town, with the most Michelin-rated restaurants per-capita. So we pigged out on their specialty, pintxos, or small tapas-sized portions. Basically, you walk into a bar, and on the bar, they have a bunch of pintxos laid out and you pick out what you want. It can get dangerous, because they all look delicious, and everything is usually about 3-4 euro. It adds up fast! It was a really relaxing trip, and it made me realize how much I miss the ocean living in Madrid.

Spring Break (Semana Santa) in Berlin and Prague: My first time in Germany and in Eastern Europe! Berlin was (there's no other word to describe it) cool. Just straight up cool. There was so much incredible history everywhere you looked - bullet holes from WWII in the Reichstag and other buildings, the Berlin Wall, war memorials, etc. The weirdest/craziest thing was the site of Hitler's bunker (where he committed suicide as Soviet troops rolled into Berlin), which is now a gross parking lot in East Berlin. History has a sense of karma after all. Besides the history, there's a lot of cool art, music, and Berlin is a pretty happening place. The beer was delicious and the food was good, too! Prague was also amazing - really beautiful - set out along the Vltava River, slowly rising green hillsides, and a gorgeous stone castle set into one of the hillsides. Drank lots of Pilsner, ate some gulash, did a walking tour, randomly ran into a girl I went to Tufts with in a bagel store (ate bagels for the first time in months!), drank some more Pilsner, and really enjoyed touring the Jewish section. Again, a city with some really cool history (defenestrations of Prague - look it up), WWII, and Cold War. In all, a great, but exhausting, week-long trip.

Throw in some day-trips to Toledo, Segovia, and Aranjuez and that's been my winter/spring! Other highlights have been meeting three new British friends - (blond) Dan, (skinny) Dan, and Michelle. They're all a lot of fun, and we've been spending a lot of time with them, and I traveled with them to San Sebastian, and went with them on a little day trip to Toledo. We've really gotten to be close and it's been really nice to meet new people here in Madrid. I still would like to make more Spanish friends, and that's definitely my goal for the end of the year and heading into next year. But blond Dan and possibly Michelle are staying next year as well, so it's nice to know there will be more friends around! Also had a visit from my good friend and next-door neighbor Alexis - it was wonderful to have someone from home here, and we had a fantastic time!

Finally, my summer plans! School ends the 23rd of June. I'm staying in Spain after that and am going to work for the month of July at an English immersion camp. It's kids aged 6-14, and it should be really fun to get to interact with kids in a little more of a relaxed, fun environment. Also, there are a bunch of Spaniards working at the camp, so hopefully I'll meet some people that I'll be able to stay in touch with next year, too. Today, we had a meeting for the camp, and actually went up to the camp (which is on a farm) and got to see the set up and meet our co-workers. The camp is absolutely gorgeous, and my co-workers (all Spaniards, except for myself and Katie, and 3 other Americans who are arriving later in the summer) seem really nice. So I'm looking forward to "Farm Camp."

After camp, I'll be headed HOME! My mom's one condition when I told her I wanted to stay in Spain was that I come home for part of the summer. So for the whole month of August I will be back in the good ole' US of A. I can't wait to go home and just relax in Maine for a bit, see some family and friends, and gear up for another year in Spain!

Well, that's all for now - if I don't get too lazy/too caught up in looking for an apartment for next year/finishing school/packing, hopefully I'll update a couple more times before the end of the year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas in Madrid

I wanted to dedicate this blog entry to experiencing Christmastime in Madrid.  I’ve spent the last week or so talking with my students about the similarities and differences between Christmas in the US and here in Spain, and so I figured I’d share some of what I’ve learned, and some of what I’ve been doing in preparation for my first Christmas away from Maine and my family.

First and foremost: the lottery.  Spaniards are nuts about the “lotería de la Navidad” – or the Christmas lottery.  Walking through Sol last week (in the center of the city), there were lines out the door of every stand selling lottery tickets.  Apparently the lottery is a tradition that dates back to the 1800s, and the Spanish take it seriously.  Many coworkers go in on group lottery tickets, and don’t worry, I got in on the action at my school, almost by accident.  One of the English teachers asked me if I was interested in getting one of the school lottery tickets, and I said yes, figuring it would be 5 or maybe 10 euro at the most.  The next thing I know, she’s saying she’ll give my name to María Teresa and asking me to fork over 20 euro. That’s about $30!  But oh well, I was sucked in and now I’ll be waiting tomorrow afternoon for the announcement of the winners with everyone else.  I also get the impression that the announcement of the lottery winners is sort of like the unofficial kick-off of winter vacation – like we’ll be hanging around at school, listening to the announcement, and then we’re toasting to Christmas and vacation, and we’ll be outta there!

Another important thing to note is that while Santa Claus has gained some fame over here in Spain, he’s not a native concept.  Mainly brought by Coca Cola to sell soft drinks, Santa plays a secondary role to “los Reyes Magos,” or the Three Wisemen.  Just as the Three Wisemen brought gifts to the newly born baby Jesus, so the Reyes Magos bring lots of presents to the good boys and girls of Spain.  Another big difference is that the Reyes don’t pay their visit on December 25th, but rather on the day of the Epiphany, the night of the 5th of January.  So in some families, there are two days of gifts: Santa Claus comes on Christmas day, and then the Reyes Magos make their appearance in January.  But only about half of my students said they celebrate with both Santa and the Reyes, and of those, most said Santa only brought a gift or two, with the big stash being brought by the Wisemen.  Also, apparently in cities throughout Spain there are parades where the Reyes march through and throw out candy to the kids in the crowd.  I might try to catch the one in Madrid if it doesn’t coincide with travel plans.

The city is all decked out for the holidays as well. Huge light displays have gone up in the center of the city, with each neighborhood getting its own distinct style of display.  There’s a huge Christmas tree in Sol (not an actual tree, but rather a stylized plastic-light tree), and smaller ones in other major plazas around the city.  There’s also a series of nativity scenes.  My roommates and I are planning on doing a nighttime walking tour of the city once school finishes in order to see all the decorations – be on the lookout for pictures on my Picasa page!

And winter has arrived in Madrid just in time for Christmas.  In the past couple of weeks the temperature has dropped significantly, and we’ve even received some snow! (Less than an inch, and melted away a couple hours after it fell…pero bueno, still some snow).  As I write this, I’m sitting in my school watching a lovely mix of sleet and freezing rain come down.  The Spaniards complain about the cold incessantly (ay, qué frío…hace un frío que no puedes imaginar!)– and I have to say, most of the time I’m agreeing with them (even though I know in Maine it’s so much worse).  I think I’ve lost some of my resistance to cold since being here…probably a good thing I’m not headed back home for the holidays in that respect!

It will definitely be a little strange to spend Christmas and New Year’s away from my family and friends from home for the first time in my life.  I tried to bring some traditions from home to Madrid – on Saturday, my roommates and I hosted a little cookie-making party in our apartment.  I made my family’s traditional sugar cookies, and although I couldn’t find almond extract or cream of tartar, they came out pretty damn good.  Katie Rizzolo made some delicious peanut blossom cookies, and Katie Cóspito made her family’s “delicious cookies” – which are essentially Russian tea cakes, and were great.  Our friend Victoria brought over some very festive chocolate gingerbread cookie dough.  All in all, a very good time that made me feel a little closer to home.

But! Don’t despair, I’m looking forward to a relaxing Christmas in Madrid, and then December 30th, we’re off to Istanbul for New Year’s! We’re going to spend about 7 days in Turkey (mostly in Istanbul, with the possibility of doing a side trip).  I have almost three weeks off from work (school starts again Jan. 11th), and I’m looking forward to a break from work, getting to explore Madrid, and overall, our trip to Turkey!  So, Merry Christmas from Madrid, and check back soon for updates about vacation and Turkey.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Check out my pictures from Cordoba and Granada (and Milan to come soon!) here:


Trips to Córdoba and Granada and Milan

So I'm definitely ashamed as I look at the last posting date on my blog: over a month without a post! I apologize, and resort to the same old excuse: I've been really busy!

First, a brief run-down on my trip to Cordoba and Granada.  During a long weekend at the beginning of November, my roommates, Greg, Jordan, and I took a 3-day trip to southern Spain to the cities of Cordoba and Granada.  My main interest in visiting both cities was to see the remnants of the Muslim era of rule in Spain, as both were centers of Moorish power in the middle ages. Our trip started in Cordoba.  We arrived in the city after dark, and after asking directions from a very helpful Spanish man (who wanted to know if Greg liked to ride horses because he was from California...), arrived at our hostel.  The hostel was gorgeous - including an Arab-style courtyard with Arabic calligraphy all over the walls.  The next day, we explored the city, spending most of our time at the famous Mezquita.  The Mezquita was gorgeous, if a bit strange.  It's an old mosque that was turned into a Catholic cathedral when the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand re-conquered Spain, and still serves as a Cathedral today.  So on one side, you've got the mithrab, which indicated the direction to Mecca, and then a few hundred feet away, you've got a Baroque altar, crucifix and all. Bizarre, but beautiful.  After the Mezquita, we wandered around the old part of the city a bit, saw one of the three Synagogues remaining from Spain's middle ages, and stopped off at an authentic Arab tea shop, where I enjoyed mint tea and Arab pastries! Yum!  That night, we caught a bus to Granada.

We arrived in Granada, and started the long trek to our hostel.  Greg had already been to Granada, and had recommended this hostel, saying that it had an amazing view of the Alhambra and the city.  So after catching two buses, and walking up a steep hill, Greg was trying to pacify us, saying it would be worth it.  It definitely was.  This place was a steal at 15 euro a night, with a view that was easily worth more. It was also run by the biggest hippies I've ever met, and the guests were cut from the same cloth.  Most people seemed to be sort of passing through, with no particular destination or schedule..."yeah man...like, I was only going to stay in Granada for a few days...but like, I've been here for a couple weeks now.  I might be headed to Croatia next...not really sure, you know."  Turns out Granada is a bit of a hippie town - which was a nice break from the faster-paced life in Madrid.  The next day, we got up and had a relaxed breakfast on a terraza situated in the shadow of the Alhambra.  Then, it was off to see the Alhambra! Words really can't describe how incredible this place is.  Built in the mid-14th century by the Moorish rulers of southern Spain, it's an elaborately decorated palace complex.  The main palace was breathtaking - Arabic calligraphy and geometric tile designs covered every wall.  One of the rooms (where Ferdinand and Isabel signed the treaty that effectively turned Granada and the rest of Andalucia over to their power, AND where Columbus allegedly met with the Spanish monarchs while planning his trip to America) had a ceiling that depicted the seven Islamic heavens.  After several hours exploring the Alhambra, we headed over to the Albaicin, or Arab quarter of Granada. We wandered around and shopped a bit, and I spoke Arabic with some of the shopkeepers (most of whom were from Morocco and Tunisia)! Most of them were pretty impressed/surprised that I could speak Arabic, and I even got a one euro discount on some earrings for Katie.  That night, we went out for tapas.  Granada is well-known in Spain for the healthy portions of tapas that you get free with every drink you order! We bar-hopped, filling up on cerveza, tinto del verano, and free tapas!  The free tapas weren't necessarily the best Spanish food I've ever had, but we had dinner and drinks for around 8 euro a piece.  Not bad.  The next day we did a little more walking around the city, and stopped off at the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), which is the final resting place of los Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabel.  We had a nice lunch before catching our bus back to Madrid.  It was tough to return to the reality of teaching at 8:30 the next morning, especially after such a magical trip.

My next trip was this past weekend, to Milan, Italy! After a 3-hour delay getting out of the Madrid airport, we finally arrived in the Bergamo airport (about an hour outside of Milan) around 11:30.  We hopped the shuttle bus to Milan, and then took the city bus to our hostel.  We were greeted at the hostel by a very friendly woman who had waited up for us, and then we went out in search of food.  We were starving after sitting on the plane waiting to take off for 3 hours and then the 2-hour flight and one-hour bus ride.  So we walked down the street to this bar where they said they would still serve us food.  After eating our ham and cheese paninis and wine, we went back to the hostel and crashed.  The next morning, we got up fairly early and took a train to Como.  Como was absolutely beautiful - a glassy lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains (the Alps - we were right on the border with Switzerland). We walked down to the lake, and took some photos.  Katie's tour guide had suggested taking the "funiculare" up the side of the hill, so we hopped on that.  It was a small half-train, half-cable car that took you from the town up the surrounding hillside and dropped you in a small town about halfway up the mountain.  From there, we decided to walk to a lighthouse at the top of the mountain.  It was pretty cold, and it had obviously snowed the night before, as there was still some left on the ground.  It was weird seeing snow, since it hasn't been cold enough yet in Madrid!  The walk was nice, but long, and we were pretty cold by the time we reached the top.  Luckily, there was a tiny town at the top of the hill, and there were a few restaurants up there.  We decided to eat lunch at a cute polenteria.  The place was really cozy, and we all split a polenta with goat cheese (delicious!), and I got gnocchi with sausage and some sort of yellow sauce.  It was very tasty, and we had a much-needed rest and chance to warm up.  After lunch, we climbed the last few feet to the lighthouse, where we had a spectacular view of the lake and Alps. We walked back down in time to walk around the town of Como a little bit, see the main cathedral, and grab a hot chocolate.  Then we caught our train back to Milan. We had dinner at a pizza restaurant right near our hostel.  I got a pizza with prosciutto, arugula, tomato, and cheese.  It was really big, and the crust was thin and delicious.  We also shared a carafe of wine, and then split some desserts - tiramisu, torrocino, panacotta.  YUM.  By then we were all pretty tired, and decided to head back to the hostel for the night.

When we arrived back at the hostel, there were a couple of guys working there instead of the woman from the night before.  I realized they were speaking Arabic, and so after a couple of minutes, I asked them where they were from (in Arabic).  The guy just stared at me for a second, and then goes, "you speak Arabic?!" So it turns out the owners of the hostel were a couple - the husband from Lebanon, and the wife from Egypt.  And the other guy there was the woman's cousin, and also from Egypt.  So I chatted them up for a while.  It was great to hear the Egyptian dialect again!  And they were all pretty amused that I spoke Arabic, and especially some Egyptian dialect.  The real compliment was when Sara, the owner of the hostel, was really surprised that I didn't have any Arab parents, because my pronunciation sounded natural.

So back to Milan! We had been thinking about doing another day trip to Cinque Terre or Bologna, but Cinque Terre was too far to do in a day, and we thought that we'd be better off sleeping in a bit and just exploring Milan for two days.  So the next day we woke up a little later, and set off to see the Sforzesco Castle and the Duomo.  We hit up the Duomo first.  The Duomo was pretty impressive - it's the third-largest Cathedral in the world, after St. Peter's in the Vatican and St. Paul's in London.  And the architecture is beautiful - the outside is all white marble and looks almost like a drip-sand castle, as Katie put it.  After that, we walked through the area with all of the high-fashion shops.  We stopped in at Prada, where we received a nasty look from the woman there after we told her we were just looking around, and then we swung by Gucci as well.  Beautiful stuff, but insanely expensive. Oh well.  Then we ran across this free museum exhibit of Leondardo DaVinci's painting of St. John the Baptist.  So we waited in line a bit, got in to see that, and then headed over to La Scala theater.  La Scala is apparently one of the most famous opera houses in the world.  Since Greg, who was traveling with us, is an opera singer, he decided to pay for the tour of the theater and museum.  The rest of us opted for some gelato.  This was probably the best gelato I've ever had - the cafe participates in the slow food movement, and so all of the ingredients were fresh.  I got chocolate and baci flavored, and they were both amazing - the chocolate was intense.  After that, we had lunch at this panini place that had been recommended by Katie's travel guide.  We ordered a side of french fries, which were so delicious we immediately ordered another.    I think the secret was frying them in olive oil.  My panini was also very good - it had prosciutto, brie, arugula, and truffle oil.  After lunch, we headed toward the castle, but were sidetracked by a huge open market, selling everything from Christmas decorations and jewelery to cheese and cannoli.  The food looked out of this world, and I was cursing baggage restrictions and Ryanair.  It's probably a good thing I only had a carry-on - I could have easily spent my month's paycheck on parmigiana cheese, cannoli, wine, and olive oil.  I took some good pictures, and bought a cannolo from a place called "El padrino" (The Godfather).  Delicious. We continued on, hurrying a bit now, because we realized we were cutting it close to make it to the castle before the museum closed.  Unfortunately, we didn't make it, and it was closed the next day, so we didn't get to see the museum.  But we still could walk around the castle grounds.  The castle was all decked out for Christmas, and we spent some time hanging out in front, watching the Christmas light show.  We then noticed that there was another huge market going on around the castle, and so we wandered around there for a while, and I bought some earrings.  Katie and I also split a warm, fresh-from-the-oven macaroon. We started to get really cold, so we headed back towards the Duomo and ducked into a cafe for a coffee.  Then, we walked around a bit longer, and stopped off for dinner before heading back to the hostel.  This dinner was also great - we split a bruschetta of tomatoes, fresh basil, and garlic.  I ordered risotto milanese, which was good, but was a lot of rice (I probably should have ordered that plus something else to share with someone...oh well.) But Greg let me have a bite of his beef dish, which was delicious.  And I had bites of Katie's pasta and other Katie's pizza, both of which were amazing as well. (If you hadn't noticed by now, food was one of the highlights of the trip, and also what I probably spent the most money on while there.)

The next day we devoted mainly to outlet shopping.  We walked down the Corsica de Buenos Aires, which is known in Milan for the discount and outlet shops.  I didn't buy anything, but Greg bought a very chic sweater. We grabbed lunch, and headed back towards the center of the city.  We walked to the Basilica di San Ambrogio, which dates back to the Byzantine empire, and still has some of the original tile mosaics.  It was beautiful, and the tiling was gorgeous - I think I even remember talking about it in humanities with Mr. Day.  By then, it was raining, freezing cold, and I had a pretty bad stomach ache, so unfortunately, I wasn't enjoying our last few hours there.  After seeing the church, we walked around a bit, got one last gelato, did a little souvenir shopping, and headed back to the hostel to grab our stuff.  Then we made the same long trip back to the airport, where we had yet another delay.  We arrived back in Madrid around 1am, caught the last metro home, and crashed.

So there you have it: my travels from the last month or so!  Overall, two great trips.  Somewhere in between the two and my last blog post, I celebrated my birthday and Thanksgiving, but I'll save that stuff for another blog.  Hopefully it won't be another month before then.  But for now, buenas noches.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Long time, no update!

So, I haven't been as good at updating my blog this time around as I thought I would be. It seems I'm either too exhausted after school to feel like writing, or I'm too busy out and about during the weekends to want to sit down and write.  That means this entry is going to be a run-down of the highlights of the past couple of weeks - and there have been a lot! I'll try to keep it to a manageable length.

Day-trip to Alcalá de Henares and medieval festival.  Two weekends ago we had a "puente" - or a long weekend - and we decided to take a day trip to Alcalá, a small town outside of Madrid founded during Spain´s Muslim era (Alcalá means "the castle" in Arabic).  Alcalá is also home to the 4th oldest university in Spain, which was founded by Cisneros in 1499.  We got a tour of the University, and our visit also happened to coincide with their Festival de Cervantes (Cervantes was born in Alcalá), which was essentially a medieval festival with a bunch of stalls selling food, jewelry, spices and tea, etc.  There was also an Arab section of the festival, where we enjoyed an authentic kebab for lunch, and where there was a guy doing people's names in Arabic calligraphy. Katie and I each bought our name in Arabic, and I talked to the guy a little bit in Arabic, so that was fun!  Alcalá was also one of two sites for the Tufts in Madrid program, and we met up with Sergio and Miguel Ángel, two of the guys who work for the program.  It was great to see them again and to catch up a bit.

The next weekend, I was invited out by some of the teachers at my school for dinner.  We went to a Greek restaurant in Tribunal, where part of the draw was the after-dinner Greek dance show.  It was me and four women who also teach at my school, all of whom have to be at least 35. But I had a great time - it was definitely a challenge to follow their rapid Spanish conversation in a loud, crowded restaurant with Greek music playing in the background.  And one woman, Guadalupe, was particularly difficult to understand, because of her Extremaduran (region in Western Spain) accent and because she spoke so fast!  It was a little disheartening to only understand about 50% of what she was saying after having spent over 4 months in Spain and studying Spanish for over 10 years.  It just goes to show how much work it really takes to be fluent in a language.  But we ate a ton of Greek food, and got to watch our waiters dance after dinner. Mariluz, one of my coworkers, got dragged up to dance with the waiters, and did a great job!  Then whoever wanted could go up and learn a traditional Greek dance and get to break a plate at the end (a lá "My Big Fat Greek Wedding").  All in all, a really fun night.

The day after my big fat Greek dinner, the Katies, Greg and I set out to do some exploring in Madrid.  We wandered around a market in Plaza de España for a while, and then walked to the Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple in Madrid that was a gift from Egypt for Spain's help in the construction of the Aswan Dam.  We took some photos, meandered, and finally settled down in the adjacent park to relax, chat, and soak up the Spanish sun. It was a nice, relaxing afternoon, and it was great to be out in the city and enjoying the beautiful weather (it's been in the high 70s almost the entire time I've been here - better than this summer in Maine). 

Later that night (actually, early the next morning), Katie Rizzolo became a true Madrileña and enjoyed her first chocolate y churros after a night out in the city before we caught the metro home.  It was also my first chocolate y churros since returning to Madrid, and it was as good as I had remembered.

That brings us up to this week! At school, in my high school classes, I taught them about baseball, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and English expressions that come from baseball (cover your bases, bat 1000, out in left field, etc.).  I think they had a good time with it, and I know I did. This next week, I'm going to be doing a lot of lessons about Halloween - any suggestions welcome!

Last night, Katie invited me to an outing with some of the teachers with her school.  We met up in Noviciado and had dinner (Argentinian pizza...is that a thing?), then went to a soul concert at this funky club called "El perro de la parte atrás del coche" - roughly translated as "the dog of the back part of the car."  The band was excellent, and the music was great - covers of Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, the Jackson Five, Diana Ross, and more.  The Spaniards loved that Katie and I knew almost all of the words to all of the songs.  And a lot of the teachers from Katie's school are in their 20s, so it was fun to meet them.  They were all really nice, and we had a great time - and they invited me to come out with them another day, so hopefully I'll see them again!  The best part of the night, though, was the mix of people there - while a lot of the teachers that came were in their 20s, there were also a couple of older women who came out with us, and who were rocking out in this club with us until midnight or so.  This is something I really love about Madrid - it's not unusual for people my parents' age, for example, to go out to a late dinner, or to a concert, and stay out until the wee hours of the morning.  Madrid is a hoppin' city for anyone.

Finally, today, Katie, Todd, and I decided to try out Madrid's teleférico, or cable-car.  It was a gondola-type thing that takes you from Argüelles over the Manzanares River to Casa de Campo, the enormous royal hunting ground-turned park in the western part of the city.  There were some pretty great views of the city and the sierra beyond.  I also had never been to Casa de Campo, which was an interesting place.  It's huge, and covered in bike and running paths, but not as cared-for as the better-known Retiro, and apparently frequented by prostitutes at night.  After getting off the teleférico, we walked around the park a bit, and found our way to the lake, which was actually pretty nice, and surrounded by little cafes.  We sat down, enjoyed a tinto del verano, and had a couple of tapas.  Then, we walked back toward the city, back over the river, and finally through La Latina. Another lovely Saturday afternoon out in Madrid!  I'm hoping to explore a different part of the city each weekend - and so far, so good. 

Well, that's it for now - I think my next update will be about some of the people I've met here, and my classes and students. So stay tuned!  Also, check out my photos from my various weekend excursions on my Picasa page: http://picasaweb.google.com/home?hl=en&tab=wq.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The first day of school, and just another reason to love Madrid

First off, you may notice that I've changed the name of my blog. I thought that "My Travels" wasn't really appropriate for this year, since it's more about me living and working in Madrid this time around. (Although I still do hope to do some traveling!)

Now to the good stuff: my first couple of days at school....

Overwhelming! But overall, good. I'll be working 25 hours a week (24 class hours and 1 hour of prep time). While this may not sound like a ton, because of the Spanish school schedule (which includes a roughly 2-hour break for lunch from 1-3), I actually end up being at my school for 8 hours on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thurs day. Monday and Friday are a little easier - I'm only there in the morning. So the first couple of days have pretty much been me introducing myself to the students and having them ask me questions about myself, about the US, etc. I'm working with kids aged 8-16, though, so there is quite a range of English speaking ability. Overall, the kids were really enthusiastic, and actually participated a lot more than I had expected. They seemed pretty excited to have me there. And the teachers were also really welcoming. One of the English teachers is also new to the school, so he was really nice and kept assuring me that he was just as lost as I was (although I think he might have the advantage, being Spanish and all...). Overall, I think teaching is going to be more work than I might have anticipated, but I'm hoping I'll settle into a routine and start to figure out how to handle the different grade levels.

This weekend was a mix of relaxation and work. We finally got internet in our apartment on Saturday morning (yay!), so we've all been pretty much online constantly since then. The highlight of the weekend, however, was definitely Saturday night. Our friend Greg had told us that there was an opera playing at the Teatro Real (Royal Theater) that he really wanted to see, and that tickets were only 4 euro. I had never been to the opera, or the Teatro Real, so Katie R and I decided to go, and convinced Katie C to come with us. We met up with Greg down at the theater and bought our tickets (apparently you can buy last-minute discounted tickets at this theater if you're 26 years old and younger - the discount is 90%, so you only pay 10% of the original price). So we bought 43-euro tickets for 4.30 - just another reason to love Madrid.

Now, unfortunately for Greg, he got the date wrong on the opera performance - so the "opera" tickets we had bought were actually tickets to a flamenco dance performance, which we only realized when we took our seats and looked at the program. Also unfortunately for us, the male principle dancer had broken his ankle at a rehearsal the day before. Luckily, neither of those factors ruined the performance for us - it was absolutely amazing! I've seen flamenco shows before, but this was pretty different. About half of the numbers were the female principle dancer (María Pagés) dancing alone, accompanied by 2 guitarists, a male and female singer, and a couple of guys doing percussion/rhythm. The dancing was beautiful, and I was especially impressed by the two vocalists. The other half of the numbers were a group of 8 dancers, 4 male and 4 female, doing choreographed flamenco dances. The fact that all the dances were choreographed was interesting, because for me, I think a big part of flamenco is the spontaneity, and the freedom that allows the dancer to express what they're feeling right at that moment. And yet, that passion still came across, especially in the solo dances. So, even though we were expecting the opera, we were all blown away, and incredibly happy about our lucky mistake.