Blog,  Travel

España: Bridges

Spain Weeks 10, 11, 12 & 13

December 2017

In America, the weeks after Thanksgiving are the beginning of the holiday festivities. And in Spain it’s only slightly different. My December was framed around their puente break. The first week of December there is the Spanish constitution day (December 6) and then the Immaculate Conception (December 8). So in true Spanish fashion, most people and businesses take off on December 7. Puente, meaning bridge, is the appropriate nickname for bridging the two holidays with some extra RnR.

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My original plan was to go to Germany and see their cool Kringle markets but alas, I was short any traveling companions and short on planning time. When the idea of Portugal got tossed around I was intrigued. Being really close to my area of Spain, it was ideal. But more importantly I had someone to accompany me. Ana was keen to go too so with a little research we booked a rental car and hit the road. I will write a journal of our four day roundabout rapid road trip (we hit two cities and four towns!). Almost all of week 11 was spent tasting port wine and walking cobble stone streets– not to mention taking way too many pictures.

With that in the forefront of my mind during the last week of November, I planned only to buckle down and breath. I knew I wanted to see a shit ton of Portugal, so I went to school, froze my ass off in my piso, and thought about what to pack.

After missing Thanksgiving in the states, I was surprised to get a package in the mail from home. One of my dearest and closest friends sent me the most thoughtful care package: a parcel of cards and letters. Anastasia talked to all my friends and family back home (and from around the US) and got them to write me notes for my birthday. This gesture was one of the kindest things I’ve ever known. And everyone’s well wishes were perfect. The cards and letters gave me a boost and some much needed encouragement. I cried. It’s amazing to know how many people care about me and my life. And everything was so personal! To all my friends and family- you know me too well! Books, jokes, photos, hand written messages, and thoughtfully chosen cards. I am still overwhelmed with their generosity. Plus whenever I’m low I can revisit and reread them. Having a piece of home with me in my new home.

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Madinat al-Zahra

Medina Azahara

Before the December puente, Ana, Andres, and I had a mini day trip to Córdoba. There is an agency in my town that coordinates excursions and Ana signed us up. It only cost ten euros and that included transportation and the entrance ticket. Ana described it as a museum tour and hike to the castle. Well, that was all wrong. I blame the translation. They use excursionismo which roughly translates to hiking but is more like walking and site seeing. What I understand as hiking is what they call trekking or senderismo.

When I showed up at eight in the morning to find an older crowd, I was surprised. I came ready to “hike” with sporty clothes and sneakers on. Some of the women were wearing heels! I should have known that this was one-of-those-kind of tours aka the kind I detest. An annoying tour group: a big group together, herded onto the bus, squished through the museum in a pack, and delivered at the “castle.” Plus it was hella early for a Sunday morning. In the end it turned out alright, but our start did not bode well for my later mood.

The bus was supposed to pick us at the bus station and we are all waiting there in the cold shifting our weight from foot to foot. It turns out the bus had a flat tire. So instead of waiting for the bus to pick us up, we went to it. Like a flock of birds, we flew across town through the early morning streets. Fog and frost lay on the ground and our breath made mini clouds in the chilly air. And the bus tire really was flat. When we made it to the mechanic that fixes tractors, and buses luckily for us, the huge tire laid on the sidewalk in a deflated state.

Forty five minutes after our initial departure time, we were off speeding down the free way. There was a guide on our trip too. He spoke through the microphone explaining the itinerary of the day. The museum for the “castle” was first. And it wasn’t a castle we were seeing but an Arabic palace and city. I’m a sucker for museums so it was interesting to learn all about the history. It was an ancient medieval Arabic city that was the capital of Muslim Spain. It was used for less than a hundred years before it was abandoned.

The site sits on top of a hill with an amazing view of the valley and farmland below. Our tour guide from the bus was giving a guided tour of the palace but I just wandered off… I think Ana probably wanted to stay and listen but it was hard to hear and like I said before, I hate being like baby ducks waddling after its mother. The structure is absolutely enormous and they are still excavating parts of it. The restoration is slow but steady. It’s maybe not as impressive as some of the other sights throughout Spain but amazing all the same.

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I casually said this to Andrés as we were overlooking this tenth century palace, “It’s ironic that Muslim history is so rich here yet everything is ham.” He gave me a funny look and I told him my observations: the marvelous Moorish architecture and prominent Arabic culture, yet this country is all about ham. Spaniards eat nothing but pork. He laughed his deep bellied laugh and said I should put that in my blog. I have been known to be funny on occasion yet many of my bromas (and definitely my sarcasm) get lost in translation.

We walked through the complex and what is left of the grand halls, servant quarters, baths, houses, and gardens. We finished exploring before the residents of our town. I suggested we walk back down to our bus (we never did get to hike after all). Farms and residences encroach on the edges of the site.

But our day was not over yet. We piled into the bus and made our way to central Córdoba. Ana got her wish this time and we followed the tour guide as he took us across the Puente Romano. I’m still not sure why but we followed him into the weeds to see an old mill (which you can see from the park above). At this point in the day I was tired and hungry, a dangerous combination. Good thing lunch cured that. Beer and tapas next to the river improved my sour mood.

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There wasn’t much time after a Spanish lunch (minimum two hours). We drove away from Córdoba with a signature sunset, painting the sky with pastels. I fell asleep before I knew it.

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Feliz Navidad

Only two days of school kept me from my next great adventure: Portugal. Ana and I left for our puente holiday break right after school on Tuesday afternoon. And when we returned I did nothing but sit and freeze. While in Portugal with Ana, I was always so surprised how nice each hostel was. But I think the major draw was the fact that they had heat! I went to bed warm each night. I didn’t have to wear two pairs of socks, sweat pants, a shirt AND a sweatshirt to bed. It was a glorious five days.

December made me realize how antiquated my lifestyle really is in a small pueblo. I boil water to wash dishes to save gas, get up early to turn the heater on in my bathroom, and hang dry my clothes which takes a minimum of 48 hours to dry in the winter. In school is not much better. The electricity goes out in school every week. Technology is completely unreliable. There is heat but it’s not the best. One of my students wore five layers to school! She was proud to show off her hidden layers to a fellow classmate.

A perk of being in a small town is that my students love seeing me around town. They wave at me with a tilted head, waving like they’re unsure if I’m actually there. Then at school they tell me they saw me! Whether on the street, at the supermarket, or the bus station. I tell them I saw them too. It wasn’t a ghost they saw but a real person. There is often this perception (especially in elementary school) that teachers are just always teachers, dwelling in school for eternity without other lives. It’s sweet to think that students think we are so dedicated that we only exist for education.

The students know I have absolutely no power. The are familiar with my role and I have no way to punish them. (Although I’m not a huge fan of discipline anyway.) But there is not even a way for me to at least threaten them with no recess. And still they surprise me every day with their affection. For example, I was given the most precious gift any elementary school kid can give, a marble. I have received some cute notes and things but marbles are the real deal in school. Every student has a collection and is obsessed with playing any chance they can. The distinctive sound of a glass marble hitting the hard floor makes everyone look at the student now crawling on the floor chasing after the clink, clink, clink of their clumsiness. Like it wasn’t them. I once caught students playing marbles with an eraser. Quieter but not so subtle when four boys are staring at a weird corner in the back of the room.

There is not so much communication with my coordinator and co-teacher Isabel. With Sandra, we had the luxury of planning together after school in our shared piso. But now, many days I showed up and wasn’t sure what the material was. Mostly, I got by knowing what unit they were learning. But when they started a new unit, I was at a loss and I had to come up with a lesson on the fly. Let me tell you, it’s really hard to come up with a lesson about the modern monarchs of Spain in English. I can tell you about the American revolution but I know nothing about the Spanish civil war.

Luckily for me, in the weeks after the puente, the holiday volume was turned up: let the Christmas activities begin! Watching Frosty the Snowman, writing letters to Santa, and having snowball fights (by far the funnest activity ever). Yet the snowballs betrayed me. As I was carrying paper snowballs –made from the recycle bin of course– down the stairs, I slipped and fell down the stairs in front of all my fourth grade students. Talk about embarrassing! Plus it left a nice bruise on my lower back for the next week.

In my last post I wrote about my sixth grade students singing along to every word of Wham’s “Last Christmas,” and no wonder they knew the lyrics a year later. They do nothing but practice for their holiday concert in the weeks before. In the secondary school, they have exams for two weeks straight. In primary they do have some exams. But the last week before navidad is spent singing and/or dancing. To be honest, it’s the most precious thing you’ll ever see. There is a limit of course. The first five or so times it’s adorable. But having listened to and mimed the movements to “Decorate the Christmas Tree” 20 times, the cuteness wears away. With each practice the cuteness factor decelerated.

My town of Hinojosa del Duque was getting into the Christmas spirit too. The streets are decorated with beautiful lights. The central plaza had a huge nativity scene– almost life sized. On my last Friday night, my town had a ‘white night.’ Like black Friday, many of the stores had discounts and they were open until midnight. I listened to the small traveling band trumpet through the streets and browsed the shops. I had one mission: get a gift for a white elephant gift exchange for Saturday.

Because on Saturday, I headed to Córdoba. My friends Devinne and Sam were kind enough to let me crash on their couch again. We got breakfast, did a little more shopping, and then got ready for the party. Sam and Devinne were hosting a Christmas party for all their friends (including secluded ol’ me stuck in my pueblo). I had such a true Spanish night. I think it’s safe to say it was by far my best night in Spain in 2017.

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The party was LIT. We drank lots of cheap wine, had an intense yet hilarious gift exchange, and played drinking Jenga. I met so many amazing people too! If you don’t know about Spanish night life, no one goes out until at least one in the morning. And that’s what we did. First, some of us went to a gay bar and we danced our asses off to 90’s pop music. Then I met the other party goers at the club! Sam came out to meet me and pressed her stamped hand on mine. With a smudged green mark, I got into the club for free! And in the club I continued to dance my ass off until 5:30 in the morning. In college I would go out but I was always asleep by three am. But here, it’s like there is some time vortex that tricks your body into not getting tired all night long.

After that weekend, I only had three days of school before heading home. Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays, I was headin’ for Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie. Homemade food = infinite number of heart eyed emojis. I like Spanish food but I also don’t like Spanish food. I just think it can get very repeatative and everything seems to be fried. Not to mention their insane amount of ham.

Ana wanted to have a Christmas dinner before we all left. This time she was making it (since I made Thanksgiving). I hosted at my flat because it has more space. Tuesday night Ana and a teacher from my school come laden with bags fill of food. (The amount of packaging made me cringe. I try to minimize the amount of waste I produce. See zero waste recipes and tips on this blog.) Everything was packaged and Ana got catered chicken for the main meal.

For the Spanish, meat is at the center of every meal. We had ham, jumbo shrimp, sausage, sardines, salmon, mussels, and then the chicken. Madre mía. We said our goals for next year. Mine is to go vegetarian.

We enjoyed an enormous amount of food and great conversation. And for dessert we had a rosca de reyes. This is a traditional Spanish cake usually eaten on Kings’ Day on January 6th. The outside is decorated with candies and small toys and on the inside is hidden a baby Jesus. Whomever finds the baby Jesus (sometimes a bean is used) has good luck for the year! Rocio got it on the first slice. Good thing too because we were all too full to have more than one piece each!

In a whirl I packed my bad Wednesday night. And off I went on the 7:30 morning bus from Hinojosa to start my journey home. It takes two full days to travel home in a ridiculous process of public transportation. This trip I had an overnight in layover in Lisbon. I loved it though! I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried. By happy coincidence, my hotel was in the perfect location. I took the metro from the airport and it dumped me right at my lodging for the night. The hotel was also only a short metro ride into central Lisbon. Having been there only two weeks before, I was familiar with this part of the city and I got to explore a bit more. I saw some of the things I didn’t get to do when there. I ate their signature cheesy fish dish and bought some last minute Christmas gifts.

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I had a really hard time coming up with a title for this post. So many things happened in December and it was all over the place. The month went quick with all the days off and fun activities. Yet at the same time, I felt like being back home couldn’t come quick enough. I was stuck in a limbo of fast and slow days waiting for this year to complete. Returning home was the perfect way to round out a year of highs. My year was a mountain range full of peaks: some with steep hikes and some gentle bridges. To a new year and new mountains to climb.

Happy Travels-

Signature with Gray


5_My Expat Files_ Bridges, Cordoba Spain

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