Catch up time!

Early last week as I was leafing through my where-I-write-down-everything notebook on my cercanias (regional-rail) ride to work, I came across a list of goals I’d written just after arriving in Madrid (five months ago!), while sitting in a plaza, sun on my back, watching four year olds chase each other in circles (Oh, the marvelous-ness of life before temperatures hit below 0). # 3 keep my blog updated. OOOPS! I’ve certainly failed at that one. But the fact that I haven’t updated this blog is testament (excuse?) to the fact that 1) I always put it at the bottom of my to-do list, and 2) I have been very busy.

Over the next few weeks I’ll try to give some posts in detail about the interesting (or so, I think) things happening in my life. And below I’ll give the run-through of my life over the past two and a half months:

December started with a week-long  trip to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.  Maybe it was because I stayed at a great hostel and met wonderful people, or maybe it was because I felt like I learned a huge amount about the history and culture of a society I had never really studied, but either way I absolutely loved Budapest. The city which is split along the Danube River into Buda and Pest has a great mix of architectural beauty and modern-alternative style. The view along the Danube and the Dohany Street Synagogue (biggest in the world!) were both beautiful. At the same time, the city is full of innovative, locally run restaurants, cafes, and bars. The old apartment buildings in the Jewish quarter were all turned into bars, each full of extravagantly decorated rooms and courtyards to get lost in.

I ended up only spending a day in Vienna and probably didn’t do the city justice (although the icy wind didn’t do me justice, either). One of the best parts about visiting Vienna was going to the Christmas markets. After work all of the locals would congregate in the Christmas markets singing and talking loudly as they sipped mulled wine and ate doughy pastries. Little kids would play in the hay stack or listen to concerts. And all of the stalls selling homemade crafts were covered in lights. It was this sense of Christmas cheer that I had never experienced before.

And Prague. Despite going in December, Prague was still very touristy, a little too much so for my liking. On my last day in the city, I got up early and walked across the normally packed Charles Bridge to watch the sunrise. It was just me, the pigeons, and a few other photographers and early-morning joggers. From the bridge you can see the (huge!) Prague castle and at that time the sky had started to brighten, but the full moon was still shining strong behind the castle. It was beautiful. I walked a little along the water and through an outdoor contemporary sculpture exhibit, whose highlight was huge babies with barcodes instead of faces. They were a little scary to see, but I dug the critique on consumerism.

The day I got back from Eastern Europe a friend came to visit and between my friends/family and my roomates’ friends, there have continuously been visitors at our apartment from then up until two weeks ago. Yep, that means a month and a half (told you I’ve been busy!). But I love exploring the city with different people, so although I was busy, it was quite enjoyable.

Celebrating Hanukah in the country where jamon (ham) reigns king (AKA where barely anyone has ever met a Jew, let alone heard of Hanukah) was such a mind-opening experience that it warrants its own post. (Coming soon!)

I spent all of December break in Spain. The first week of break was a really nice chance to relax and catch up with friends (a surprisingly large amount of my American friends stayed in Madrid).  Spain doesn’t have the same Christmas-cheer of Eastern Europe, but the city throughout December and January was covered in beautiful Christmas lights! I made a big Christmas-Eve dinner (here everyone has the biggest dinner on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas) with my roomate and some of her friends who were visiting. And right after Christmas my family came to visit for a week!

Despite that fact that we took turns being sick for the entire week, it was (obviously) wonderful to see them. We ate at my favorite restaurants and I finally visited the Prado and Reina Sophia. They rented an apartment in the center of the city and we spent the entire week exploring all of Madrid’s neighborhoods. I fulfilled my lack of board game playing, by playing endless games of set with Rachel and Eileen. And on New Year’s Eve all of us, donning flourescent colored wigs, gathered in Sol (the center of the city) and ate 12 grapes at midnight, as the Madrileños do. (Afterwards we loudly sang aude lang syne and shouted a bunch of other things in English…not so Madrileño. But, obviously, we were just excited about the new year!)

Most of the family left on the 2nd of January, but Rachel stayed for another three weeks. We took a week long trip down to Granada and had a fabulous time. We stayed in a (wonderful!) hostel in the historic albaicin district on a hill full of windy, narrow street. The Alhambra (the moorish palace that Granada is known for) was as beautiful as everyone says and we spent a full day exploring it. During the rest of our time there we ate falafel, and shwarma, and couscous from Selma, our friend at the best (or so we think) Moroccan to-go restaurant in Granada. Whereas in Madrid (and many parts of Spain) you have to pay for tapas, in Granada they normally come free with your drink, which is a very nice perk. Overall Granada had a relaxed energy that we really loved. And the city was (or at least felt) so small that even though we were only there for four days, on the street we constantly ran into people we had met.

The past few weeks I’ve been focusing a lot on work. I started volunteering at an after school community center program that works with immigrants, mostly from Latin America. Once a week I hang out with the teenagers and I teach them English (well, mostly we play games in English).

I am still teaching private classes to kids who live in my building. I have a one hour class a day, which keeps my afternoons busy. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about their private classes, but I love mine. I especially enjoy one of my classes with a few high school kids who are constantly excited to learn. We’ve started playing apples to apples during class and although they take it very seriously and don’t get that you can sometimes play words ironically, they are really into the game.

At school I’ve been very busy recently. The Madrid Model UN conference that my kids participate in is coming up in two weeks (details coming in a post soon!) and I’ve taken over doing the full-time teaching in one of the geography classes (I’ll write about this in more detail, too). Both are really exciting things, but mean I have barely any free time at work.

And it seems that my life in general has picked up a lot more now that we’ve gone into 2012. I’m working with a group of girls to put on the Vagina Monologues in March. A few weeks ago I went to a free crocheting class and have been spending my free time working on a scarf. And I went to a consumo de alimentos ecologicos (eating ecological foods!) meeting in my neighborhood and with my roomates am signing up to recieve fresh veggies straight from a local farm!

More updates (and photos!) coming soon…



Día de acción de gracias (Thanksgiving Madrid style)

5 Americans. 4 Mexicans. 2 Spaniards. An Italian and a German. What could be more American than a multicultural Thanksgiving dinner? Even though we were hours from home  and in a country where pecans, canned pumpkin, cranberries, and marshmallows are impossible to find, we pulled off a pretty epic Thanksgiving dinner complete with 13 people squished at our tiny dining room (actually it is a hallway) table, lots of drinking (my dad’s Wednesday night advice “Hannah, how can you have Thanksgiving without champagne? What kind of daughter have I raised?” Don’t worry dad, we got the champagne), way too much food, and even a top-quality theatrical production about the first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving dinner!

It took us weeks to plan, but for me, the excitement leading up to a big event is always the best part. And that was lots to plan ahead. After visiting three grocery stores, we decided to give up on trying to find pecans (but we made delicious pumpkin pie and plum crumble instead!). One store said they were out of stock, but they normally sell a small bag for 12 euros. Yep, 17 dollars. I took my first trip to the Taste of America store to buy canned cranberry sauce (real cranberries were way too much of a hassle). Even finding ice cream took a trip to two grocery stores.

Here is how it all went down: Monday I ordered a 15 pound turkey from my favorite local butcher Manolo. Tuesday Emily came over to buy the drinks and bake the pumpkin pies with me. One thing Spain does have over America: One Euro bottles of wine! And they taste good, too. Take that Trader Joe’s Three Buck Chuck. Wednesday Lauren came to my house to make apple kugel (having a thanksgiving dinner when two of the main chefs don’t have ovens at their houses gets a little tricky).

Creativity at its best: Basting the turkey with an ice cream scooper

And Thursday. Let me tell you, I’ve never cooked a turkey before. Especially not a 15 pound turkey. In an oven with unreliable settings. Without a thermometer nor a turkey baster. But don’t worry, ice cream scoopers make fabulous basters. And after getting my roomates to help me baste it every 30 minutes and skype phone calls to multiple people in the US about how to know when the turkey is ready (yes, when I touch the leg it moves. But how much is it supposed to move? It’s supposed to be falling off??) it actually turned out pretty damn delicious. Manolo would be so proud.

The Americans re-enacting the first thanksgiving dinner

After somehow finding a way to reheat the sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, kugel, stuffing, gravy, and honey glazed carrots, our meal finally began. It was really nice, since the majority of people had never had a Thanksgiving meal before, nor had ever heard of most of the foods we ate. We talked about what we are thankful for in the past year. And after finishing the 8 bottles of wine (wait, that only took about 30 minutes) the Americans put on a riveting production of the first thanksgiving, written by Lauren (Ok, she wrote it for her kids at school. We aren’t that dorky to make a skit just for dinner).

After dinner seven more friends came over to eat our delish desserts. And have a sweet dance party. In true American style, since Thanksgiving was now over, we brought out the Christmas tunes. (And Hanukah ones, too!). Three days later we still have way too much turkey and frozen pumpkin pie. yummmmm. As my roomate Guillermo reflected on the night “Hannah, it was all really great. Really delicious. But there was just too much cinnamon.” At least these Spaniards now understand the tastes of Thanksgiving 🙂

Other things in Madrid have been great! On Friday I left for a weekend backpacking trip with a friend. It was so wonderful to get out of the city, sing disney songs in Spanish, and see the countryside (and stars at night!). I’m looking forward to a more relaxed week, since all of last week was spent busily planning for Thanksgiving. And I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Thanksgiving photos…

unveiling the turkey! (and you can see some of the TONS of food we had)

I think this means we're having fun (Emily and me)

Some of my beautiful roomates! (Rachele, me, Paola, and Diana)


November 1st and 2nd are holidays in Spain, so my normal three day weekend (since I always get Fridays off) turned into a five day weekend. Although we have lots of vacations here, we don’t normally have such long ones so I wanted to aprovechar (my favorite Spanish word. There isn’t a good definition in English. It means to take advantage of, but is only ever used in a positive way) the break and visit Barcelona. All of my friends had other travel plans, so I went solo, although at the same time as other people, which was the best of both worlds: I had lots of friends to hang out with, but everyday I got to do exactly what I wanted (selfish? probably). I flew up with Steph (fulbright friend) and Caitlin (Penn friend studying abroad here) and saw them at different times throughout the weekend. Stayed at the apartment of Becca (fulbright friend) and spent my time hanging out with those three, other fulbrighters in Madrid and one of my sister’s Spanish friends now studying in Barca.

Check out the incredible diversity of architectural styles!!

Everyone says the architecture in Barcelona is amazing.  And it really is true. But more importantly, the architecture is accessible to the people. Often architectural feats are clumped together in one section of the city or are solitary buildings that tourists trek across town to see. In Barcelona the amazing architecture is seen in lone-standing houses or buildings on the middle of crowded streets. Walking home on Passeig de Gracia (a main avenue) after a night out, we passed by two of Gaudi’s most famous houses. Houses that people travel the world to come visit.

Even the sidewalk pattern was designed by Gaudi! This is the sidewalk on Passeig de Gracia.

This is partially because much of the interesting/crazy/thought-provoking architecture was built by Gaudi on private contracts. Also, it’s because the city has an acceptance of pushing the limit and trying out new styles. My architect friend explained to me that while most cities have strict regulations to make sure that new buildings fit into the decor of their surroundings, Barcelona does no such thing. They are perfectly happy to build a modern building right next to a Gothic church right next to a brick house. It adds a sense of eclectic-ness to the city.

Outside of the Sagrada Familia

And talking about architecture, the most famous is Barcelona’s marvel the Sagrada Familia, the basilica that Gaudi designed starting in 1883. I have to say, I was expected to be disappointed. From the outside, the Sagrada Familia looks interesting, but is surrounded by a cloud of cranes (construction won’t be finished until 2030, yes that is 150 years after it began). And people talk so much about it, how amazing could it be? I was completely wrong.

This will maybe pay a little bit of justice to the beautiful interior of the Sagrada Familia

Walking inside was absolutely majestical. The mix of light, colors, depth, designs, it is really difficult to capture in words (or even in pictures!) without being there. Not only is it beautiful (and huge!), it also uses some of the most innovative architectural designs. You can see in different parts of the building how Gaudi’s design changed over time from Gothic to Art Nouveau, as he learned and grew. Gaudi was the first to use the catenary curve. If you take a a piece of string, put a weight at the bottom, and let it hang, it models a perfect catenary curve. Instead of making arches like they are in Gothic cathedral, which need lots of side support (flying buttresses), Gaudi created arches based on the catenary curve. Imagine the reflection of that piece of string, with the weight as the topmost part. That is the model of the arches in the Sagrada Familia. Since they use perfect gravitational forces, they don’t need any extra support and revolutionized the construction of buildings.

And Barcelona was eclectic is many ways besides just the architecture. The city is surrounded on one side by the sea and on the other by the mountains. There is a slight slope running across the entire city, so you always know which direction you are walking in. People actually refer to sidewalks as “sea side” or “mountain side” of the street.  I didn’t make it to the mountains and I couldn’t swim in the water, but walking along the beach after a tapas dinner was really wonderful.

And Catalan. Barcelona is in the heart of Catalunya in the Northeast of Spain, bordering France. There is a lot of political tension surrounding the language and culture in Catalunya. During Franco’s reign speaking Catalan (the local language which is a mix of Spanish and French) was prohibited. Nowadays, Catalan is taught in all public schools as the main language. All classes are taught in Catalan and there is one Spanish class each day. Most signs are in Catalan, restaurant menus are in Catalan, Spanish and English, and walking around the streets you hear a mix of Catalan, Spanish, and tons of other languages–this city has a huge international presence.

One day you're at a Gothic Cathedral (here with Becca and Caitlin)...

While the majority of people who live in Catalunya speak Catalan, everyone who lives there also speaks Spanish. If the main purpose were only for communication, Spanish would obviously be the best way, but the question is so much deeper than that: it is about how to maintain this culture/language, despite the fact that outside of this region it isn’t useful. It is about how to be a Spaniard, but also a Catalan. My friend Steph who studied abroad in Barcelona explained to me that in the Universities professors and students have the right to speak and write in whichever language. For example, sometimes she would be in a Catalan speaking class and a student would ask a question in Spanish and the teacher would sometimes respond in Spanish or sometimes in Catalan. Similarly, students could turn in their papers in either of the two languages.

And the next you're exploring crazy designs at Gaudi's Park Guell

Overall: I had an amazing weekend of eating great food. The fruit juices were absolutely delicious. Exploring quaint neighborhoods (I didn’t even begin to describe the old city full of tiny winding streets). Visiting ruins of the Roman city Barcino, which are below the streets of modern-day Barcelona. Taking in the relaxed, one might say hippy, vibe that everyone loves about the city.

Escuela pública de tod@s para tod@s

Here’s a little (or a lot?) about what I’ve been up to. AKA the long overdue post of what the heck I’m doing here:

I have a Fulbright grant for nine months between September and June to be an English Teaching Assistant (ETA). Fulbright provides grants to ETAs around the world, but in Spain the situation is a little different because la comunidad de Madrid (the Madrid province government) also hires native English speakers to be assistants (Auxiliares de Conversación) in public schools in Madrid. The Fulbright ETAs (not to be confused with the Basque nationalist group who has made news recently for their major steps toward a peace agreement with the Spanish government), including myself, are 40 of 1, 400 auxiliares who are working in the province of Madrid. As a Fulbright I’m paid a little more money and I have the opportunity to teach slightly different classes, but basically the positions are the exact same.

I work Monday through Thursday in a bilingual secondary school, Instituto Jose Luis Sampedro,  in Tres Cantos, one of the wealthiest suburbs of Madrid. When students enter secondary school they can choose between the bilingual program (all classes except for math and Spanish are taught in English) or the non-bilingual program (English and music/art/PE are taught in English). The secundary school comprises four years of ESO (equivalent of 7th-10th grade) and two years of Bachillerato (11th and 12th grade) which you only attend if you’re planning on going to a University. Almost all of my classes are with students in the bilingual program between 1st to 3rd year of ESO (7th to 9th grade).

Whereas in the states teachers each have a room and students switch classrooms for each period, in Spain each class of students has a room and the teachers switch classes for every period. This creates a compeltely different dynamic in the classroom. Instead of students entering a teacher’s space, the teacher is the visitor in the students’ space. In the ten minutes between classes students run around and wrestle with each other in the classroom, which makes it much more difficult for the teacher to regain control of the class.  There is no longer a barrier between quiet classroom space and more free hallway space. This system also means that students have every class with the same people. Sampedro has about 150 students per grade who are broken into five different classes by their ability to speak English. 1A is the best English speakers (all students who went to a bilingual primary school) and 1E is the worst. Unless special arrangements are made, students stick with this same group until they graduate. The whole system seems a little strange to me. If you want to seperate students based on their skill level, relying only on their level of English leaves a lot out of the equation. Strong students with weak English will be placed in “lower level” classes. While it is important to group students by skill level in an English class where they learn skills in a chronological order, geography or science classes should have a mix of students. Finally, this system means that students are learning with the exact same 30 students from at least four years.

Each day is a different schedules, but mostly I start at 9:20am for second period (which means leaving my house at 8:10am) and work through sixth period, which ends at 2:10. Home by 3:15, 3:30 if I buy groceries at Mercadona on the way home. The students have class straight through sixth or seventh period with a 10 min and 25 min break and then go home at 2:30 or 3pm to eat lunch. Despite going against the norms to eat a substantial amount of leftovers at noon in the English dept room (since teachers don’t have their own classrooms, their desks are in their department’s room), I am usually straving by the time I get home. Figuring out how to manage the eating schedule here is still one of the biggest obstacles I’m getting used to.

As an assistant, I work with 6 teachers, 7 groups of students, and in 8 different subjects. For example, on Wednesdays I work with Beatriz’s (yep, all teachers are called by their first names) 2C geography/history class, then I have a hueco (break), then Beatriz’s 3E geography class, Rachel’s 1A English class, and I end with Monica’s 1B English class. I only work with each class once or twice a week. For example, Rachel’s 1A English class has English every day, but I am only there Mondays and Wednesdays.

I have a really great schedule with classes that I love. I’m helping in English, geography/histroy, and global classrooms (model UN). All of the classes are taught in English, but since all the teachers are Spanish, we native English speakers are there to help with pronunciation, grammar, any English question. Because, really, if you weren’t a native speaker, would you have any idea how to pronounce Appalacia or what a bunson burner is?!?

In each class I do different things. Some days I’ll be a literal assistant, walking around the room, answering grammar questions, double checking student work, adding comments to the teacher’s explanation. Some days I’ll spend the class period in the office preparing a lesson for a future day. And some days I’ll be teaching the class while the teacher sits in the back with the students. Each teacher uses me in a different way- it’s been really interesting observing and learning from all the different styles. Especially Rachel (an English teacher and head of the bilingual program, since all administrators are also teachers!) is an incredible teacher and I’ve loved watching her ability to adjust lessons on the spot based on the students’ responses.

I’m really enjoying all of my classes (especially 3rdESO geography where unit four is “urban areas”. Beatriz already told me I’ll be planning and teaching that unit!), but my baby of all classes is Global Classrooms. Whereas most classses have 30 students, GC (model UN) is an elective, so we have 13 students. There is another “real” teacher, but this is the one class where the assistant is expected to teach the class. And the curriculum is unplanned: completely free for as many creative and fun lessons as I can think of! So far we’ve had debates on uniform policy and done a lot of group work learning about different aspects of the UN and their work, such as the millennium development goals. In about a month we’ll get the topics and country assignments to start preparing for the Madrid Global Classroom conference in the Spring!

Not only is Sampedro one of the top five best schools in Madrid, all three of the secondary schools in Tres Cantos are in the top five. Discipline isn’t an issue in most of the classrooms and the 13 year olds were learning words like bellowing, jagged, and crackling in English class.  Of course there is a lot of variation throughout the school, but the general is still true: kids in Tres Cantos are very hard workers and come from successful families.  The advanced levels of the students, along with the fact that the teachers/administrators provide incredible support, allows me to create creative lessons, have meaningful discussions with them in English, and really have a lot of fun in the classroom. Talking to my friends at other schools who have practically no role in the classroom or have issues with incompetent administrators, I realize how very thankful I am to be placed at Sampedro.

But still at times I feel torn. My love of education stems from my interest in education as a means for social mobility. I found my work in impoverished schools in Philly incredibly rewarding and was excited to continue that work with marginalized students in Madrid.  Even though I love working at Sampedro, there is a part of me nagging to help the kids without these resources. I’m spending my time here helping the kids who don’t need as much help. Almost all of their parents have the means to send them to London over the summer (as many have) to learn English. (Of course there are kids at Sampedro who aren’t as wealthy and there are kids who need lots of other, non-monetary, support). But what Sampedro has really taught me is how to appreciate education for the sake of imparting knowledge. The joy of watching students understand a new concept. Improve throughout the year. Work hard and accomplish something. Maybe I could be making a bigger difference in the life of a student in a marginalized school, but should “where am I making the biggest difference?” even be the question? I’m learning how to look at a wealthy, suburban kid and remember that they, too, are going to be impacted greatly by what they learn in school and I can have a small, but hopefully existent role in that formation.

And why I’ve only been working three days a week for the past two months…

This school year has seen some major changes to education, especially secondary education in Madrid. The controversy is more complex, but in short, the Comunidad de Madrid has made major budget cuts and is requiring that each teacher (in secondary schools) work two more hours a week. Even though these teachers already work way too many hours, two hours a week isn’t the issue. The issue is that by adding two hours to each teacher’s salary, schools were forced to let a lot of teacher’s go. In the past year 13 of Sampedro’s 76 teachers were fired.  Many of the schools have lost teachers in critical areas, such as counselors, and art/music teachers.

At this demonstration a few weeks ago, everyone sat down at the same time and then let hundreds of green balloons go into the sky.

Teachers, parents, and students are incredibly frustrated by the situation and have launched the movement “Escuela pública de tod@s para tod@s” * (Public school of everyone, for everyone).  As part of this movement, there have been huge demonstrations and teacher strikes. So far teachers have been striking with a 2-0-2-0 strategy, meaning that every other week they strike for two days, but despite the fact that there have been over 8 strikes since the school year began, the comunidad has not made any attempts at negotiating with the schools. It is a frustrating situation and many teachers don’t know what to do. Almost every single teacher energetically attended the first meeting about the strikes, but after weeks of no change, many are disheartened.

The green Escuela pública de tod@s para tod@s shirts have become the face of this movement. You can see them being worn by thousands of people all over Madrid.

Each teacher’s pay is docked about 150 euros every time they strike and many of their classes are falling behind in material, so teachers are put in a really difficult place trying to figure out how best to support their students, the school, and themselves.  They are discussing new strategies on how to get a response from the comunidad. Should they strike for a week straight right before the presidential elections (November 20th)? Should they strike once every week instead of twice every two weeks? Even though fewer and fewer teachers are continuing to strike, the strikes and demonstrations are continuing and hopefully will make a difference.

* The @ is the newest in equalitarian symbols. It is used to represent -as and -os, the female and male ending to a word. In Spanish if there is at least one male present in a group of people, you use the male -os ending, but with the -@s ending, it is clear that the males and females are being recognized. I’m a big fan.

Sunshine in the city!

I distinctly remember that day in mid-September when I, sweaty strands of hair matted to my face, got home from work, tore off my jeans for a pair of shorts and saw that everyone back home’s facebook updates said the same thing: “time to get out the sweaters” “fall has hit DC/Philly/NY”. Here in Madrid, three weeks after fall weather descended upon the US east coast, I wore a sweater for the first time this weekend, but, of course, that was only at night. Needless to say, the weather here is gorgeous. I have forgotten what rain sounds like. And in the past month here there has only been one (really, one half of a) cloudy day. As fall is slowly catching up to Madrid, this post is dedicated to all of my favorite things I’ve been doing outside:

1. Eating on Terrazzas:

Eating delicious food, chatting with friends, basking in the beautiful weather, and people watching gorgeous madrileños, really, I can do that all at the same time? Whether it’s lunch (at 2pm), dinner (at 10pm), or some form of snack-because-these-eating-schedules-are-impossible-to-deal-with inbetween, eating outside on terrazzas is one of my favorite things to do in Madrid. Last Wednesday, after an entertainingly unsuccessful attempt to watch the changing on the guard at Palacio Real, Diana, Paola, and I went for lunch at 100 montaditos in Plaza Santa Ana (above).

Diana enjoying a montadito and tinto de verano!

As the name implies, the restaurant sells 100 different types of montaditos (mini sandwichs), we always buy them to share and always alongside a (or multiple) jarras of tinto de verano (red wine mixed with lemon fanta. You won’t understand how refreshing it tastes until you try it. And I won’t realize how much I love it until the cold weather hits and restaurants stop selling it). The prices are normally cheap, but on Wednesdays they are even cheaper: each sandwich and drink cost only one euro. Our goal is to try all 100 sandwichs before we leave Madrid. My favorite of the 22 we’ve had so far, #73: sandwich of a chinese spring roll with sweet and sour sauce.

2. Picnics in Retiro: I have taken 246 photos since I arrived in Madrid. Close to half of those are in the picturesque Parque Retiro. The huge open park in the middle of Madrid that is filled every afternoon with bikers and rollerbladers, runners and walkers, picnicers and suntanners.Parque Retiro The views of the sunset are magnificent and the park is full of windy paths to get lost down. A few weekends ago us Fulbrighters planned a picnic on the grass near the Crystal Palace (this place sonds magical, doesn’t it?!). Munching on baguettes and lemon squares, we discussed our first impressions of the schools and upcoming travel plans. My roomates met us at the park (becuase they, too, like everyone in the city, were planning on spending the day at Retiro) and after the picnic we rented a boat and paddled around the central lake.

Miguel shot the photo of us strong girls paddling away!

3. Hiking in the Mountains:

Beautiful Landscape

Our group on the hike

Every day during my hour and twenty minute commute to the northern suburbs of Madrid (hasta la chingata, as my Mexican roomates taught me to say), I look longlingly at the landscape of mountains that surround Madrid (I bet you didn’t even know Madrid was next to a mountain range!). And two weekends ago I got to explore them! The timing was perfect: I was itching to take a day trip out of the city and the mid-September weather was beautiful for our 15 kilometer (yep, that’s 10 miles!) hike. We were a group of 30 organized by an expat who made us pb&j sandwiches. Spending the day with my fellow hikers representing six or seven different countries fully convinced me that those who like to hike are (almost) always interesting and fun people.

Lauren and me at lunchtime

It is always tough to carry out interesting and complex conversations in your non-native language, and it has been especially hard in Madrid since many of the people I hang out with I don’t know very well. But on the hike, our conversations (with people I had met only hours before) seemless flowed between Spanish and English, discussing everything from organic gardens to meditation to playing the piano. I taught my (new!) Spanish friends the difference between a ropes course and a zip line, and they explained to me what agujetas are (the specific type of soarness you get after exercising). We saw some beautiful views (see above) and it was really nice for me to get out of the busy city life for a day. At one part during the hike, I was taking some photos and had fallen behind the group. For about fifteen minutes I walked solo, reflecting on the major changes that have been happening in my life recently and processing everything. The feeling of fresh mountain air and soar legs the next day was absolutely exhilarating.

Things continue to run smoothly and wonderfully here in Madrid! There have been multiple days of teacher strikes (more details to come in a post soon), so I’ve barely been working. And tomorrow is Columbus Day (no, Spain doesn’t do the American push-the-holiday-to-the-closest-Monday style of celebration) so it will be a day of watching parades and going to the park. I found a wonderful community to celebrate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with. I started teaching private english classes to make some extra money. And I’m started to form a regular schedule for my life.

Roomies during our Mexican dinner!

September in Spain

Later this week marks one month since I arrived in Madrid, the city of plazas, tinto de verano, siestas, and exquisite public transportation. It’s been a month of many firsts: First time opening a bank account in Spanish, first day of work as a real person in a full time job, first time getting paid in Euros (the exchange rate is on my side now!), first time getting into a fight (maybe it was just a very heated argument) in Spanish,  and now I have officially started my first blog.

For the next nine months I’ll be working as an auxiliar de conversación (English teaching assistant) in Instituto José Luis Sampedro, a middle/high school in the suburbs of Madrid.  More details on that to come, for now, here is a little glimpse of my life in Madrid:

Apartment searching is always difficult and stressful. But, searching for a piso in a new city, in a different language, with people from a different culture, and at a time when thousands of Erasmus students have descended upon Spain and are also searching for apartments, brings it to an extreme. In the US you rarely have to worry about whether the apartment always smells like smoke (the reason why I rejected the first apartment I liked), nor do I ever think about what language my roommates speak (living with Spanish speakers is my number one priority). After a week of furious searches on the internet, hundreds of emails, and visits to many mediocre apartments, I signed the forms and paid the deposit on my new home for the next nine months!

I’m really happy here, mostly because I live with absolutely incredible roommates (and I’m not just saying that because I know they will read this!).  We live a little north of barrio Salamanca, on the east side of the city, and within a 7 minute walk to 5 different subway lines, which makes transportation around the city super easy.  The neighborhood is nice, but I’m not in love with it. It is residential, but Madrid residential is different than in the US. Everyone lives in low-rise apartment buildings and all of the first floors are shops, restaurants, and bars. Our immediate neighborhood doesn’t have cute cafes or idyllic streets, but it does have plenty of parks and a great market. In terms of walking (and this is a city where you walk!), I’m far from most places, which is difficult at times. At 3am, after a night on the town, and after the metro has closed, when I say bye to my friends who have a short fifteen minute walk home and I have to catch the ever-confusing night bus, I get a little frustrated.

But then, after my thirty plus minute night bus ride, when I walk into our apartment-building complex (six buildings with a open courtyard area in the middle), and up the two flights of stairs, I find my roommates drinking tinto de verano in the kitchen or watching Eurotrip in our small (but cozy!) living room, and I remember how very happy I am to live here. There are seven bedrooms in the apartment, which sounds like a lot, but I thrive when people are around (and, hey, living with six other people in the manor last year was perfect!).  The apartment, especially my room, is full of sunlight and the walls are brightly painted in different colors. Mine: lime green.

Diana and Paola (both Mexican and completing masters in Madrid), Mariana (Peruvian and working as a semi-manager in a Peruvian restaurant here) and I make up the fab-four. Guillermo (a Spanish lawyer getting a masters) and Rachele (Italian Erasmus student) moved in yesterday. And David, from Valencia, Spain, moved out yesterday, but he has been on vacation for most of the last month, so we haven’t spent as much time with him.  Diana, Paola and I spend tons of time together (Mariana works all the time, but when she is off work and not sleeping, she always joins in). Often along with other Mexicans, Miguel, and sometimes Alonso, we eat dinner together, have picnics in Parque Retiro and explore Madrid by nighttime.  I’ve been named the cocinera (cook) of the apartment and have been practicing my skills cooking for everyone, and been learning how to deal with the lack of ingredients in Spain.  Vanilla, really it can’t exist –for a reasonable price- anywhere in the city? And no ricotta cheese?!? Miguel loves to cook, as well, so we teach each other new tricks and make a fantastic cooking team.

And the city itself! From an urban studies point of view, Madrid is magnificent.  First, the public transportation system is incredibly accessible. Everywhere in the center of the city is within a five minute walk to a metro station. I live within five minutes of three. Because the public transportation is so accessible (and for other reasons due to the lay out and culture of the city), everyone walks everywhere. Every few blocks there are plazas with benches to sit on, small playgrounds, or terrazas (outdoor seating in a restaurant) to grab a drink. I, too, as a Madrileña, have been walking everywhere, and I’m sure I’ll be spending the next year walking From Plaza to Plaza.

The closest comparison I have, is to compare the walking culture in Madrid to that of New York City. Think of the masses of people that walk the streets of NYC, but, there is one huge difference: in NY, you walk on huge avenues, but in Madrid the entire center of the city is full of small, one lane streets. Walking around between tapas bars at night, even during weekdays, you get to people-watch huge numbers of other young people, wearing wedges and holding cañas (small cups of beer), as they speak rapidly to each other in slurred Spanish.  This weekend I went to dinner with my fantastic co-workers at Sampedro (Janel, James and Sean—I’ll explain more about them soon).  Exploring a city with three people who have already lived there for a year is exactly as fantastic as it sounds. After eating a delicious dinner of tender duck with dates, pears, and couscous, we made appearances at some of the best bars and ended our night botellón-ing* on a small sidewalk in the middle of Malasaña. Every time a car tried to weave it’s way through the hundreds of people sprawled throughout the narrow street, I needed to tuck in my legs so as not to get run over. *(Drinking in the street. In Spain it takes place in Plazas, on sidewalks, everywhere. You can buy a beer for one euro- unless you can negotiate your way cheaper- from any of the, normally Chinese, men or women that appear on every block).

But people aren’t just out and about during the nighttime. Definitely the most popular time to see people outside is in the “afternoon”, aka from 6 to 8:30pm, but there doesn’t seem to be an hour of the day when the city is empty.  Since everyone lives in apartment buildings, all of the neighborhood kids hang out and play in the plazas or parks. Yesterday I went running in a park near my house. Next to the table of grandparents squished together playing cards, was a table of teenagers, equally squished together, their back packs spread out around the table and ground. One group of ten year olds was playing tag, chasing each other through the paths and fenced-off grass, while another group was kicking around a fútbol, trying to avoid running into the dog walkers or the two year olds, who were entertaining themselves with the sheer novelty of walking.

Madrid is a city of life. And now it is becoming my life, as well. I have so much more to tell. The siestas. Drinking wine outside while the weather is still warm. My adventures to museums and to the old school Spanish movie theater. Joining a gym. Meeting up with friends at adorable cafes. Spending Rosh Hashana at a local synagogue where all the Jews are actually Argentine. Trips to my local market where the butcher knows how I like my chicken cut (cut off the fat and slice it finely).  Meeting people from all over the world and consistently insisting, “yes, I know you want to practice your English, but we’re in Spain, we’re going to be talking in Spanish!”

More details and photos (iphoto is not getting along with me at the moment…) to come soon!