Friday, April 27, 2012

Going to Barcelona -- finally!

When I got back to the states July of 2010 after spending nearly a year in Madrid, people couldn't believe that I never made it to Barcelona.  I traveled around nearly everywhere else in Spain, but never to that city.

After living in Madrid for another eight months, I'm finally going.

Today I'm going to Barcelona, and I''ll get back to Madrid Tuesday night.  (We have a puente this weekend; no classes Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday)

I think I'll find that Barcelona was well worth the wait.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

23rd birthday: part 2

My 23rd birthday was feeling like any other day when I blogged about it yesterday.

And then the second half of my day happened.

At my first private lesson yesterday with my two 13-year-olds Ellie and Natalie (or so I'll call them on the blog), I wasn't going to tell them that it was my birthday.  Class started and I asked them both what they did over the weekend.  From this starting point the conversation jumped around: Natalie told me that she's been using her dad's old cell phone without his knowledge (if she passes all her classes this semester, then her parents will give it to her).  Ellie told me about her handball practice last weekend.  Natalie's 29-year-old math teacher is more like a friend than a teacher.  And so on.

And then the girls started talking about birthdays.  They quizzed each other on the dates of each others' birthdays.  Then they were talking about Natalie's younger brother's birthday.  Their parents' birthdays, etc.  Pretty soon I started laughing to myself, and the girls look at me thinking what's so funny?  So I tell them.

After wishing me a happy birthday, they each pulled my ear 23 times!  Apparently that's a Spanish birthday tradition.

Later at Pablo's house, one of my 8-year-old students, again I didn't say anything about my birthday.  We practiced using some of his new vocabulary (countryside, waterpark, town, football match, beach, etc.) while reviewing the first verb he's learned in past tense (was/were).  I would ask him where certain people were last week, or if he was at the waterpark last month, etc.  And then the following conversation took place:

R: Were you at the beach last weekend?

P: No I wasn't.

R: Where were you last Saturday?

P: I was countryside.

R: Ah, you were at the countryside.

P: Yes, I was at the countryside.

R: Where was your brother last Saturday?

P: He was at the countryside.

R: And Pablo, where was I last Saturday?

P: You were at the countryside.

R: I was?  No I wasn't!

P: (laughing) Yes you were, Rebecca!  But you are sleep!  You no remember!

Pablo then grabs a piece of paper and continues the story.  He drew the car in which he, his brother, and his parents drove to the countryside.  Then alongside the car he drew a train.  He said I was running back and forth on the train, as he drew long red lines back and forth inside the train.  I was running back and forth because... monkey were chasing me.  And they were chasing me because I had three bananas!  He took a yellow highlighter to draw three bananas in the train.

He was getting pretty excited, and then flipped the paper over to make another story.  He drew a huge rectangle and asked me how to say "cake" in English.  Then he started drawing candles, wrote the number "21" on top of the cake, and said it was my birthday.  I must have given him a weird look -- because I'm wondering why on earth he goes from monkeys chasing me on a train in the countryside to my birthday on my birthday without knowing it's my birthday.  Phew, okay, where was I.  So when I make this weird look, he hesitates for a minute, then erases the 1 and makes it say "22".  I didn't correct him, and let him continue the story.  He said my parents forced the whole cake into my mouth, then I turned into a one-eyed monster, which he saw at the cinema in the countryside last Saturday.

So the topic of birthdays appeared in both of my private lessons last night, on my birthday, without me saying anything.

When I got home last night, my roommate Alex asked if I was going out or staying in that night.  I told him I was staying in, and he said good, because I'm making you a birthday dinner.


So when Jacqui (his wife, my other roommate) got home from work, we had dinner together: fajitas!

Jacqui and I

Alex and I

We were all full after dinner, chatting at the table.  Then Alex disappeared in the kitchen for a minute.

He came back out with this and they started to sing...

A birthday treat with candles!

The dinner had already been a pleasant surprise for me last night.  Then a birthday cake with candles!  Now it had felt like a birthday.  I was super happy and thankful.  Then while we were eating the cake, they gave me a regalo (present)!

A present to open!

It was a cute, springy wallet from Blanco, and it will always remind me of my 23rd birthday in Madrid.

I am so lucky to live with such great people, and I'm very grateful for my family and friends.

Thanks everyone for the birthday wishes!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

23rd birthday on the 24th

Other than hesitating for a few more seconds now if anyone asks my age, today has been and will continue to be a normal Tuesday.  I've got two private lessons to plan and teach tonight, then a paper to rewrite for one of my teachers.

But it's April 24.

My frisbee friends will be at an extra practice when I finish my private lessons, meaning I won't be seeing them today.  I'll see them tomorrow and Thursday, and I'm going to Barcelona with Hannah this weekend -- those are plenty of occasions to celebrate.  But I wanted to do something today.  So I decided I'd do something a bit different to celebrate my 23rd birthday.

I donated $23 to Ultimate Peace, and another $23 to Secular Student Alliance -- because I couldn't choose between the two.

Two years ago for Christmas my grandma donated money to a different organization for each of her grandchildren instead of spending the money on gifts (well, we might have gotten socks too...).  I really liked the idea, then last month I read a blog post about a 26-year-old giving $26 to SSA on his birthday.  These two experiences meshed together and materialized today.

If you're unfamiliar with either of these organizations, here's a brief  blurb about each:

Ultimate Peace 

Ultimate Peace uses the sport of ultimate frisbee as a tool to "build bridges of friendship, understanding and fun for youth from different social and cultural backgrounds around the world".  The organization hosts Arab, Jewish, and Palestinian youth at ultimate frisbee summer camps in the Middle East.  In November of 2011, Ultimate Peace expanded outside of the Middle East and hosted an ultimate training camp in Colombia.  Ultimate is the perfect sport for uniting people, and I hope this organization continues to grow and expand across the world.

Secular Student Alliance

The mission of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) is "to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics."  I was part of a SSA-supported student group at UW-Madison that let me hear some great speakers and meet new friends.  The summer after my freshman year in college I received a travel grant from the SSA to attend the 17th World Humanist Congress in Washington D.C.  The conference was wonderful; I met other humanists from all over the world, stayed at my first hostel, and found a group of people who shared my values and desire to better the world.

To anyone who would like to, I invite you to donate $23 to an organization you support, to celebrate my 23rd.

And now for some great birthday letters I got from students in a certain second grade class...

Dear Rebecca, I'm going to commuon I can't wait to eat
the yummy bread and drink the delishes wine...

I hope you will have the best 23 birthday.  I think you are nice, buitiful, and hard working.
Did you know my Golden birthday is comming up on July 8th.  Did you know...

This letter has drawings of wands, and much Harry Potter.  Awesome.

And maybe my favorite letter of all:

(Page 1) Dear Rebecca,
Happy B-day!  You are awesome!  I think U are very nice.
Mrs. T. must be the luckiest Mom ever to have such a kind and loving
(Page 2) daughter like U!  And I'm glad I know U!  It's so cool that U are in Spain.

The letters were all so nice!  A great surprise, thanks mother!

By the way, these students' teacher - my mom - was awarded the Relevant Radio Outstanding Educator of the Month Award in March.  Then, she was just awarded The Outstanding Educator of the Year for the Diocese of Madison (one of the six finalists from a pool of over 500 teachers).  Congratulations mom!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Las fallas 2012 - the sculptures

The first item on my list of things I saw at Las Fallas, the festival in Valencia, was "las fallas" -- the sculptures featured in the event.

To summarize what I've already written about las fallas: They're expensive.  There's one in each neighborhood in Valencia.  The people work all year fundraising money, while the artist works on the falla.  There are two sizes: fallas infantiles (smaller fallas for kids) and fallas majores (main falla - the big ones).  Most have a theme, many criticize an aspect of society, and all are burned on the last day of the festival.

But there is much more to be said.

An example of a falla infantil, to get an idea of the size.

La Plantà

The "plantà" is the installation and construction of the fallas in the plazas and streets where they'll be on display during the festival.  Since they're made of styrofoam and wood, one must be careful while transporting and constructing the falla.  By March 15 all of the fallas infantiles need to be finished, and later that night all of the fallas majores must have finished being constructed.  If not, they may be disqualified.

When Gregorio and I arrived in Valencia on Thursday the 15, we saw a falla being installed.  There were some Genies to reach the top of the falla, paint spray guns for final touch ups, and scraps of wood.

Installing a falla in Valencia.  My eye went straight to the man scraping the sculpture's bum.

Spray paint touch-ups on March 15 of Las Fallas


The fallas majores featured large characters/figures relating to some theme, and then had many smaller figures/scenes on the ground surrounding the falla.  These smaller displays would have signs that either helped explain the concept or added satire/humor to the display.  The annoying part was that all of these signs were written in Valencian.  There weren't even Spanish translations  next to the signs, so I feel like I didn't get nearly half as much out of the displays as I should have.  With all of the tourists (including Spaniards) that come to Valencia for Las Fallas, I'm surprised the falla-makers still only write their signs in Valencian.

For example, here's a falla about Africa:
Falla major
And here are some close-ups of the smaller statues/displays at ground-level of the falla:

You can definitely get an idea for what the artist is going for, but being able to read the signs would have been helpful.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Inconsistent service

Servicio limitado
At the end of February, (back when I learned the consequences of missing 8 calls from a number and never returning the call) my phone had started to frequently say "servicio limitado" whenever I was in my apartment or near my neighborhood.  This happened in other places in the city, and had no idea why - since I had had great service with Orange all year up until that point.

With this limited service I couldn't make or receive calls, nor send/receive text messages.  Since we still had our fijo (landline) and internet, not being able to use my cell phone at home didn't affect me much.  In Spain I use my cell phone maybe 5% as much as I did in the states, so I adapted to my servicio limitado quite easily, instead of trying to fix it right away.

And then I moved at the end of March.

Being without internet and a fijo during the first two weeks of April made my no-service cell phone a more pressing issue.  Last Thursday night before our tournament La Abuela, a couple from our team that lives near me said they would call on Friday because they would be driving to the tournament and could give me a ride, too.

I stopped by Orange (my cell phone company) that Friday afternoon and told the woman about my service.  She immediately said, "Oh, we don't deal with that in the store. You need to call 470 for technical service."  So I should just call 470?  Yes.

Alright.  So I went outside and called 470 (I had service next to the store).  Explained to a guy on the phone that all of a sudden a month ago I stopped having service in my neighborhood.  He told me I'd need to go into my phone's redes (networks), select "Manual," and then select "Orange".  After we hung up I did this, and my phone displayed "Orange" on the main screen where it usually said "Servicio limitado".  This was a good sign.

But later when I got home, I was without service again.  I went to the networks menu, but this time it only had "MovistarX" on the list - not Orange.  It was Friday night and I was without cell phone.  No fijo.  No internet.  And the roommates were out, so I couldn't use their phones to call this couple from my team.  In the end, I couldn't reach them, so I got up extra early on Saturday to take the metro, then a bus to the north of Madrid for our tournament.  I didn't mind taking public transportation, but I felt bad because this couple had no idea I was so unreachable, and they'd probably been trying to call me all night.

Since then, during the past week I've missed (due to my servicio limitado) a call from a teacher at one of my schools, and then a call from my students canceling a private lesson on Thursday.  Since I never received these calls, I planned and went to the lesson on Thursday, only to discover they'd tried to call me to cancel it.  That night I decided I'd make one last attempt to see if Orange could fix my service, otherwise I'd change companies and buy a new phone/tarjeta and get a new number.  I browsed online and actually picked out the new phone I'd buy from Yoigo if I changed services.

A final attempt
Yesterday after lunch at Gregorio's with he and Alex, we went to the Orange where I'd originally bought my phone and tarjeta back in September.  I told the woman at the counter the same story I'd told the woman at the Orange near my apartment.  I expected her to tell me to call 470, like the first woman had done, but instead she asked me where I lived.  She said we could look up the address and see how the service was in that spot.

Okay.  We went over to her computer and she looked up my apartment.  Her system showed good signal all around.  Then she suggested I replace the tarjeta with a new one, just in case it somehow got messed up.  It wouldn't cost me anything, and she could do it right there.  Why not.  So she put a replacement tarjeta in the phone, which only changed my phone's pin; all of my contacts and info stayed on the phone.

Since I normally had service around Gregorio's apartment with the old tarjeta, I wouldn't know if it had worked or not until I got back home.  So I came home yesterday afternoon, and was pleasantly surprised to see the word "Orange" on my display.  I received two texts yesterday while I was home!  So it had been the phone card after all.

Customer service in Spain
Other than the grand news that I am now reachable by cell phone again, this story illustrates the type of customer service/company logistics that exist here in Spain.  If you go to one branch of a company and they tell you something isn't possible, or they can't fix it (like at the Orange near my apartment), that doesn't mean anything.  Go to a different branch of that same company, or even a different person in the same branch, and chances are they'll tell you differently.

This is especially true of banks here in Spain.  At the beginning of the year, many branches said I couldn't open an account with just my passport; I'd have to wait two months until I had my TIE (foreign identification card) before I could open an account.  But I found a branch in Guzmán el Bueno that would open the same account with just a passport, no problem.  It completely depends on the person you're talking to, and what branch you're in.

It's hard to understand how businesses can run this way after growing up in the states; but once you accept that this concept exists, it can make getting things done a bit easier in Madrid.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

La Abuela 2012

This past weekend I played in La Abuela, the ultimate tournament that the Quijotes host in Madrid every spring.

We brought two teams: Quijotes (the players that have been here longer and have mad skillz), and Sancho (mix of players, including newbs who are still working on developing some mad skillz).

My team, Sancho, had the first game that Saturday at 9:30am.  I was up earlier than I am on any weekday, in order to arrive at the fields (north of the city) with time to warm-up before the game.

Saturday was a windy, cool day - with some rain.  Due to the wind, our first opponent threw zone on us right away.  We hardly ever play zone; Madrid's generally not windy.  So we were taken off guard and it took a while for us to adjust.  But our three games on Saturday were good opportunities to practice zone, and we learned.  The Quijotes players would cheer for us and give us pointers during our games.  It was a good atmosphere.

We didn't win any games that day, but we had fun and improved.

Those on Quijotes and Sancho also had work shifts throughout the tournament.  Hannah and I kept score for a game on Saturday, then later worked for an hour at the table selling merchandise/drinks and answering questions.  It was fun; it reminded me of my high school extra-curricular activities, and running events at Mechanical Engineering.

Being an attentive, very good score keeper. Right, Hannah?
Some teammates manning the table

When the games finished up by 6:30pm that afternoon, I showered in the residency hall nearby and changed for dinner.  Dinner was at a tennis club in Chamartín, and consisted of the following plates:

First plate

Second plate

The party was also at the tennis club, in a room off of the dining room where we'd eaten dinner.  

Ultimate tournament parties always have a theme (remember the "Zebras and Leopards" theme in Las Palmas?).  That Saturday, it was a stoplight party.  At a stoplight party you wear either green, yellow, or red; the color corresponds to your relationship status.  If you're single and available, you wear green.  If there's something holding you back, you wear yellow; and if you're taken, you wear red.

I didn't stay long at the party after dinner; I was super exhausted.  I got home around 2am and was up at 7:30 on Sunday morning, since Sancho played at 9:00!  Many people only got two or three hours of sleep between the party and our game Sunday morning.  I don't know how ultimate players do it!  This happens every tournament I've been to.

Sunday still had some wind, but it was much sunnier than Saturday.  We lost our first game that day, but won our last game of the tournament!  That put us in 11th place, out of 12 teams.

Meanwhile our big brothers and sisters, the Quijotes, had played their way into the finals.  It was fun to watch and cheer for them.  They lost the finals, taking second place in the tournament.


After the finals, there was an awards ceremony.

After the awards ceremony, we took a team picture of the Quijotes (Q and Sancho) before cleaning up and heading home.  It was an exhausting but fun weekend.
Quijotes and Sancho

Monday, April 16, 2012

Back to the 21st century

We now have internet in my new apartment, folks.  Woo-hoo!  It's been half a month without, and three visits from Jazztel - our internet company.

Between the last time I had internet and now, this is what I've done:

  • Packed up my old bedroom, and watched as the rest of our apartment turned into bags and boxes.

  • Moved up a floor in my apartment building.
My new bedroom

My new bedroom
My new bedroom
My new bedroom
New bathroom


Half of new kitchen

  • Acquired a few left-behind items in my awesome new bedroom from the previous owners:

Some loose change
A pencil
An unmatched pair of socks

  • Played at a day-tournament somewhere between Segovia and Valladolid the Saturday before Semana Santa.

  • Read five books during the rainy Semana Santa.
    • About a Boy, Nick Hornby
    • Make the Impossible Possible, Bill Strickland
    • Carrie, Stephen King
    • Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
    • A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink
  • I also watched some movies while it rained and I was without internet:
    • La Caja 507
    • Lord of The Rings II and III (Gregorio had lent me all three on DVD.  I watched the first earlier in March.)
    • The Help (streamed online at Gregorio's, then watched at home)
    • Blues Brothers
    • Pearl Harbor
  • Spent an afternoon with a friend from college, Emily, who is working in France this year as an English language assistant -- like what I'm doing in Spain.  
Emily and I in Opera
  • Made torrijas, a sweet treat that Spaniards make for Easter.  It's somewhat similar to American french toast.

When is the last time you went 15 days without internet in your home?  Appreciate your connection!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hat tournament in Granada

Two weekends ago I went to Granada for an ultimate hat tournament with Hannah, Hermann, Justin, and Andy -- just happened to be the same crew that I went with to the Canary Islands.

I'm told the BMW that Hannah was given from her car rental company is a sweet car.

Hannah driving the BMW
We drove down Friday afternoon and arrived in Granada that night.  Finding a spot to park was fun.  People were practicing for the Semana Santa processions that are taking place this week, so we got stuck behind them a few times.

Next thing we know, we're driving through these narrow "streets" -- no other cars in sight, up a hill, around some curves, when the walls get even closer together and we're not sure if our rental car will fit.

Tight squeeze - will we make it?
We stop and get out to stretch our legs, but then a taxi pulls up behind us.  We'll call it Taxi A.  He gets out and we tell him that we're not sure if we'll fit up this street.  He tells us just to pull in the mirrors; of course we'll fit.  There's another taxi up the "road" a bit, Taxi B, so driver of Taxi A walks up to talk with the driver of Taxi B for a second, to make sure he'll let us all get through.

Meanwhile, a second taxi pulls up behind us, we'll call it Taxi C, and he's anxious to get through.  Driver of Taxi A walks back down to us and says we can't get through; the police have cut off these roads due to procession practice (for Semana Santa).  (Yet somehow the three taxis and us had gotten into this neighborhood!)  Turning around is out of the question: we'd all have to back out the whole way we'd come in.  (I was super relieved that I wasn't driving this weekend; Hannah was a champ).

So Taxi C started reversing through these tiny passageways, down the hill.  Then Taxi A, followed by Hannah, and then Taxi B which had been farthest up the hill.  The rest of us were out walking alongside the cars, watching the feat.

The video above shows a clip of it.  Finally we Hannah got (us) out of that mess, and found our way back to normal streets with cars and curbs and lanes.  We parked in a ramp that night.

We checked in at our hostel, Maktub, before walking downtown to meet up with the Granada team for some drinks.  There were five of us in a room, but only two bunk beds.  What could that mean?  Rebe's sleeping on a triple bunk-bed!  It was a bit sketch to climb up, because once you get to the top of the ladder there's nothing to grab onto to hoist yourself onto the bunk.  No worries, I made it two nights without falling on my way up/down!  And I enjoyed sleeping in a bunk bed once again, like I have done during the majority of my life.

Triple-bunk bed!
The other er, distinguishing feature of this hostel was what you pull to flush in the bathroom off of the kitchen.  I'll let you have a look for yourself:
Pull the hand to flush
On Saturday we didn't play until 6pm, so we spent the morning walking around Granada and had some tapas.  I had only been to Granada once before, two years earlier, but it all came back to me.  I remembered where I had mailed a postcard, where to find my bank, and where we had eaten the most delicious kebap.

Preparations for Semana Santa

One of the tapas bars we went to that afternoon was called Bar Minotauro (Carrera Darro, 3).  It had a neat ambience because the walls were covered with napkins from the bar that people had written on, and stuck to the walls with the sticky tab of a travel pack of kleenex.  I'd also recommend this bar for its 2 euro cañas that came with great tapas.

On the short stroll back to the hostel, we squeezed up this hidden, tiny stairway:

Which is where we saw the following written on a window.  It warns people not to pee at this spot in the alley-stairway, and dogs not to leave their droppings here.

We spent some time up on the hostel's terrace before we changed and drove down to the fields.  This was a much more informal tournament than others; many of the players were new to the sport, so it was a learning experience.  I wore contacts while I played -- for the first time in years, since I no longer have a backup pair after smashing my normal pair at Juanito's Open.

I barely have any pictures of the playing though... because I was playing!  We left the car out at the fields that night and walked back into town after the games were done.  On our way back to the hostel we picked up some shawarma from one of the many kebap shops along the street.
Digging in to some shawarma in Granada
We all showered, then later headed down the street to that night's tourny gathering at a local bar.   I enjoyed the feel of this bar, too.  It was quite dark, not only because of lights, but because of some gorgeous dark wood around the bar and on some of the walls.  There were candles and small white Christmas-type lights around the place which gave it a calm feel.

Candles on the bar

Small white Christmas lights on ceiling
That night ended up being a late one (plus it was daylight savings time in Spain, so we lost an hour on top of it).  The next day when we finally got ourselves out of bed, we went for some coffee and tea nearby.  I had lost my voice the night before (was sick when we left Madrid on Friday), so I was all whispers today.

Then we were waiting around for the hostel worker to come back so we could pay, get Hermann's passport back, and leave.  The guy's chalkboard in the hostel said he'd be back at 2pm, but that was a lie.

To pass the time while waiting, we went next door for some tea and baklava.

By 3 the hostel guy had returned, so we paid and walked to where we had left our car at the fields on Saturday night.  We packed up and left, stopping for a late-lunch around 5pm near Jaén, returning to Madrid later that night.