Friday, September 28, 2012

A Series of Firsts

1. Our First Tapas
       After a week in Spain  we still hadn't tried Tapas. So when our new friend Larissa invited us out for Tapas, we jumped at the chance. And now, we've been back 2 more times. We went to a tapas bar, which is a little different (I think) as they had a menu of about 30 tapas to choose from. So, it was more like a combo menu where for a set price you can pick from a list of items. We were able to order a Coke and a sandwich for only 2.60 euros! The choices ranged from hot dogs to potatoes to fried eggs. It was pretty neat. We have since received some suggestions for other great Tapas restaurants and hope to try them soon.

2. Our First Trip to El Parque Natural de Los Cerros (Natural Park of the Hills)
       About 2 weeks ago, we took our first adventure to Los Cerros. During orientation, they told us that it was very close and within walking distance from the school, so we looked it up, found directions, and set out one Friday morning. And while yes, it was within walking distance, it was a long way that included walking across a narrow bridge, through a tunnel, and alongside the highway. So, not the easiest place to find. Then, the routes at the park can take up to 4 hours, one way, walking. So, we just explored for ourselves, following any path we could find. And I have got to say, “Wow!” The walk was definitely worth it! From the park you could see all of Alcalá stretched out in a grand panoramic picture. It was very impressive and we are eager to return.

3. Our First trip to the Panaderia
     Sibley and I have made it habit to visit the park near our host house most evenings before dinner. What started as a time to stock up on caffeine, traveling to the corner store to buy soda became somewhat regular. Then, one day, we ventured into the Panaderia. A wonderful place very similar to a bakery with lots of fresh pastries and bread. Since then, we have been back many times and are now considered regular customers. The kind woman at the store now has suggestions ready for us for new things to try and will sometimes slip in a few extra treats.

4. Our First Street-side Complement
       Yesterday, Sibley and I received our first street side complement. We had been warned of pinches, pokes, and catcalls from men on the street and were a little concerned. However, this was nothing like that. A middle aged man passed us on the sidewalk and mumbled something along the lines of “chicas tan bonitas!” which translates to “such pretty girls!”. We were shocked and pretty thrilled. It was very flattering.

5. Our First Interaction with a Soccer Team at the Park
The neighborhood park
     So, in our visits to the park we often people watch or walk around the track, talking about the day and practicing our Spanish. Yesterday, we were joined by a young high school soccer team. The group of boys ran counterclockwise while we walked clockwise. The first few laps were nothing interesting as we avoided the boys running towards us. Then, the next time they passed us, they stretched out their arms and “flew” by us making airplane noises as they did so. We smiled and laughed, thinking it was some Spanish thing we didn’t quite understand. Then we noticed they only did that when they passed us. Then, they started to change things up. They choreographed careful routines, dancing or staging a mock battle with us as they rolled to the ground and shot at us with fake lasers from behind a tree. We caught on and began the same, flying around like airplanes (they were really excited when we joined in!) and having fun as we passed them around the track. What a fun night!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Knights in Castles

Yesterday, Amanda and I went on an adventure to a town called Sigüenza, in the Guadalajara province in Castilla La Mancha.  We took the train from Alcalá to Chamartín station in Madrid, where we wandered around for a little while before we found our medieval train to Sigüenza.  The train itself was an utterly average contemporary train, but on the platform we were greeted by minstrels and other medieval characters.

While on board, these characters went up and down the train cars, interacting with each other and with the passengers: at one point, I was enlisted by the beggar on the right to help him steal back his confiscated knapsack from the priest.  I was alarmed when he pulled me out of my seat because their Spanish was so fast that I was worried I wouldn’t understand what he wanted me to do, but he never actually said anything.  Instead, I just followed his lead and we walked the length of the train car arm in arm, whistling casually, and I had to stand and look innocent while blocking the priest’s view so that my accomplice could steal back his belongings.  It was fun!

Upon arrival in Sigüenza, we disembarked and were divided into groups and given a tour guide, also in costume.  She took us throughout the town.  Highlights included the medieval market in Plaza Mayor, the remnants of the old city walls, a museum about the Spanish guitar, and of course, the castle and the cathedral.  Both ancient and impressive, these were the highlights of the day.  The town is built on a hill, and the castle is at the summit, so from there, you could see for miles around (ahem, kilometers around).  The cathedral is massive and ornate.  Inside, it was dimly lit, which only made the high stained glass windows more dramatic.
                After our tour, we were treated to a skit by our medieval amigos from the train.  Amanda and I found it difficult to follow due to the speed of the dialogue, but still entertaining.  During the break at siesta time, we treated ourselves to ice cream cones and wandered around the town, but unfortunately, almost everything was closed for siesta.  At the end of the day, we rode the train back to Madrid and then back to Alcalá.  Overall it was a great day, and we’re already planning our next adventures!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mythbusters Spanish Style!

Myth #1: People dress formally in Spain. They don’t wear shorts or t-shirts and they especially don’t wear sneakers unless they are exercising. BUSTED!
        This is definitely not true. People wear shorts pretty often around here. It gets hot during the day, what do you expect? Also, the sneakers situation is very similar to the United States. When you see sneakers, they are probably worn by a man. However, it is not weird or strange to see a girl wearing sneakers. And as far as dressing more formally, I guess I will concede to that a little bit. I think this part of the myth came from the fact that these people you see walking around in fancy or formal clothes could be going to work. In Florida, you wouldn't see these people because they would drive to work in their car.

Myth #2: Businesses take off 2-3 hours per day for “siesta time” so that they can rest. CONFIRMED              
    In the city of Alcalá, many of the businesses do close between 2 and 5 each day for a siesta. However, don’t think that everyone finds the nearest bed and takes a nap! Siesta time is a break during the day where families and children can return home for lunch, which is the biggest meal of the day. People can nap, watch tv, or do whatever else they want to do. This may have to do with the fact that many businesses stay open until 9 at night and yet they only operate with one shift. So, they give their workers the break during the day instead of closing early.

Myth #3: People are protesting all the time! CONFIRMED

This one is actually true. Both times that we have been to Madrid we have seen a protest. We also saw a protest in Alcalá on Friday. However, they aren’t anything like what we expected. The people do not seem angry or rude. Instead, they are just walking around the plaza or roundabout waving their flags as they go. In fact, it seems to be treated as something like a fun outing. Afterwards, we saw many protestors relaxing in the park, playing with their children, and sharing some ice cream. They would take happy pictures, posing in front of Spanish monuments, for what I’m sure is their newest facebook profile picture! Haha!

Myth #4: The cars are sooo much smaller! PLAUSIBLE

So, yes, the cars are small, but they aren’t as small as I suspected. I had envisioned lots of electric little cars, very compact. I think the main difference to me is the width of the car rather than the overall size. Since the roads are so much narrower here due to their age, the cars must be designed to fit. So, there are bigger cars, they are just narrow. We even saw a pink hummer limo! Whoa!

Myth #5: People don’t drive very often. They walk or take the bus. CONFIRMED

 People are walking all the time. The streets are alive with activity. At any time that you walk you are sure to see people around you. Whether they are sitting outside at the nearest restaurant or walking to their next destination, you will not be alone as you explore the city. We have also ridden the bus many times while we are here and have figured out that part of city living, which could sometimes be entertaining for the bus drivers as we learned the customs.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

¿Vale? Vale.

We’re settling into our routine now.  Daytime feels like daytime, and I get hungry at roughly the appropriate hours.  It took a while to get used to the late lunches and dinners, but they feel pretty normal now.
Anyway, today I thought I’d write about some of the small but interesting differences we’ve noticed, and about a couple of the Spanish words we’re learning.  So here are a few observations…

-It seems as if everyone owns a dog.  The narrow streets, the parks, and even the mall are full of dogs on leashes.  We’ve seen all shapes and sizes, but smaller ones are more numerous.

-Smoking is far more common here than in the United States.

-Drivers respect crosswalks.  If you’re standing at the edge of the street at a crosswalk, cars will brake hard to stop for you, even if they could easily drive past before you reach their lane.

-Serving sizes of beverages and desserts are much smaller than in the U.S, but serving sizes of food are much larger.

Vocabulary time!  The most commonly used new word we’ve heard is “vale.”  Pronounced with that Spanish sound that lies somewhere between “v” and “b,” this word means roughly the equivalent of “okay” in English.  Like “okay,” it’s a versatile word.  It can be a question, as in “meet me here at 7, vale?” and it can also be an affirmative answer to such a question: “Vale, see you then.”  Some people say it a few times in a row.  When we were watching a soccer game at the park, we repeatedly heard players say, “Vale, vale, vale, bien.”  Where ever we go, vale seems to be the word we hear the most.

My other new favorite word is “prórroga.”  It refers to the extra time that takes place in a soccer match if, at the end of regular time, the game is tied.  I like this word so much because it is the quintessential r-rolling word.  These Madrileños here sure can roll their r’s, and when the professor of my futbol class said the word “prórroga” a few times, I was so distracted by how awesome it sounded that I almost missed the definition.  Luckily for me, he repeated it a couple more times.  I love the sound of Spanish.
Vale, that’s all for now.  ¿Vale?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

First Week: Mission Complete!

     Here we are on our first Sunday in Spain! We are lounging around and resting, since most of the stores are closed on Sundays. We walked around this morning and found a park where we watched a soccer game and some adorable children riding around on bikes. We also took a trip to the mall, Alcalá Magna where we treated ourselves to some ice cream. If you can’t tell by the picture above, the portions are somewhat smaller than in the US. The ice cream was  a delicious treat before returning to our nice host home to relax with Pecas, the very loveable dog featured in the picture.

Gran Via, Madrid
      This week was full of introductions: to the school, to the town, and to Madrid. We’ve started classes and taken tours, walked around the town and bought supplies. It is starting to feel normal here. Now, with our minds and bodies more accustomed to the time and the culture, we find ourselves saying, “Is it really only 10 in the morning in Florida?” instead of “Is it really 4 in the afternoon here?” So, we are more firmly planted in reality and accustomed to our life in Alcalá. In fact, we have even begun to make travel plans, creating lists of cities and destinations we hope to visit.

     On the topic of traveling, it is more expensive than I had originally imagined. While there are many options for transportation, such as buses, trains, and airplanes, they aren’t as cheap as I had hoped. For my “Must See” attraction of Barcelona, just the train rides there and back could cost over 200 euros each! So, at first, I was overwhelmed. What happened to the stories of backpackers and college kids who travel Europe on a cheap budget? So, while Barcelona, Granada, and Cordoba could end up being pricy destinations, they are only 3 of many we have found and the others run much more cheaply. So, I am sure that Sibley and I will have no problem finding amazing destinations to fill our weekends with fun and sightseeing.

     First week down, 14 more to go! Operation Spanish Semester has officially begun!  Hahaha!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

We're here!

The flight was long and we didn’t sleep much, but otherwise the trip went smoothly.  Customs was simple and quick, no luggage was lost, and after an hour of waiting at the meeting point, we spotted a representative from Alcalá.  We rode a bus with more than twenty students from Butler University (no wonder my acceptance letter said I was from Butler!) and were met by our host family.

We live with a couple named Belen and Fernando and their son Moises.  They’ve been so kind and helpful to us.  Amanda and I have been a little shy, at first, but we’re working on it, and I'm sure it will grow easier to communicate and be friendly as we adjust and our Spanish improves.   We live in a big, open space on the top floor of their home, with a skylight that opens onto rows of orange tile roofs.

I’d like to take a moment to reassure any students considering this program that you will not go hungry!  Our host family has provided us with plenty of great food.  Most of it has been familiar, such as spaghetti, sandwiches, chicken, rice, but we’ve had the opportunity to try a few new things too.  We had Spanish tortillas, for instance, which we both enjoyed.  We’ve also had lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.  The tomatoes are the best I’ve ever eaten.  Dessert is fresh fruit, but I can still get my sugar fix from breakfast: sweet little cakes that are a lot like muffins.

The university is old and beautiful, but it has all the modern conveniences of a newer school, such as wifi and vending machines.  It is an interesting experience to be going to a school that’s a great deal older than my country.   UCF may be turning 50 this year, but the University of Alcalá de Henares celebrated its 500th anniversary back in 1999.  Inside, everything is so ancient and ornate that I feel like I’m in a museum where I shouldn’t talk loudly or touch things, but instead, it’s our school.  It's where we’re supposed to hang out and study and chat and eat lunch.  It is wonderful and strange.

We had orientation on Tuesday and our classes yesterday and today.  We each have four classes and while all this Spanish is overwhelming, I think I’m in the appropriate classes, and I’m looking forward to learning more.