We have arrived!

Spain journal (E1)  July 1, 2010

These journals chronicle my experiences and reflections on my trip to Spain with my husband as part of a group of 15 students and professors.

The flight didn’t seem horribly long. I spent part of the time reading, part of the time trying to sleep (which was mostly unsuccessful). I had one of those blow up pillows behind my neck and I sat on the pillow the airline provides to minimize the pain of sitting for so long.  We were served two meals – mediocre.

Upon our arrival, it was smooth sailing through customs and out the door to a waiting bus, which took us to the street where our residencia, Barradas is. We had to walk downhill hauling our luggage about half a block.

This view is looking out from the little balcony of our 2nd floor room.

Barradas, a sort of dorm for a variety of international students, as one of our professors says, is “Labyrinthine”. There are various stairways and passageways, but I took her advice and quickly memorized the route to our room. We squeezed into the tiny elevator with all our luggage to go up to the 2nd floor. In future, we will use the stairs!

On the virtual tour I took of Barradas back home, the rooms looked more spacious than they are. The rooms are actually quite small, but there is plenty of storage space for everything and the best part is that the shared bathroom is right outside our door! We share a bathroom with two other rooms in our “pod.” I had been imagining long walks down a dark hallway carrying a flashlight in the middle of the night so this is very convenient!

Just across the hallway from us is the dining room. This is the meeting place for our group as well as, of course, the place we are served 3 meals a day. We arrived at around 10:30 local time, and were given a half hour to get ready to meet in the dining room for a walking tour of the old part of the city that we are in. We put all our stuff away and I changed my clothes.

At about 11:15 we set out. The first place we went to was Enforex, the language school where we will be taking Spanish classes starting on Monday. It was very crowded, but an employee gave us a little tour.  There are classrooms on the first and second floors, there is a small cafeteria where you can buy coffee and snacks, and there is a fairly large computer room, which is where I am now. This is where I’ll be sending my emails, since surprisingly there are few Internet cafes here – mostly places that offer WiFi hookups. But the great thing is that the school is only a 15 minute walk from the residencia and the computer room is open until 10 pm.
Our classes will meet from 9:30-1:30 M-F. Before our first class on Monday, we will take a placement test, consisting of some multiple choice questions and a short interview.

After we left Enforex, we walked back toward Barradas. There is a street near the school that we take as a “short cut”. It has modern apartment buildings with beautiful plants hanging from the balconies and trailing down the outside walls. It is shady and cool to walk here, as opposed to the busy street nearby. Prof told us this neighborhood is inhabited by very conservative upper class people. It is a holdover from the Franco era when many of the privileged class lived in the expensive and exclusive apartment buildings built here.

We continued on our trip in the opposite direction, passing Barradas on the way to the Plaza Mayor. On our street, San Bernardo, we were shown a Vodaphone store, where my husband and I had hoped to get temporary phones, but we would have to buy the phones at 40 euros (about $50) or more. Then we would have to get a “pay as you go” plan which would only be local calls, not international. I began to wish I brought my Blackberry, but oh well. We decided not to get the phones and instead will rely on public phones or email.

Next we stopped at a Chinese run store, which came to be known as the “Chinese bazaar”. This is actually a store sort of like the dollar stores in the States where you can buy all kinds of stuff cheap. There didn’t seem to be any logical order to it, but through employee help we were able to purchase a few things we needed – a basket, soap, and mesh bags for our delicate washables. They seem to sell a little of everything, crammed onto shelves in narrow aisles.

We continued on our way, and were told about the landmarks along the way. People stopped to take pictures, especially of the iron wrought balconies on many of the old buildings, and pictures of various members of the group standing in front of giant lobsters or whatever else we found interesting!

Finally we came to a street where Hemingway used to hang out and had written about it in some of his books. On this narrow little pedestrian street is the most famous chocolate shop in Madrid, open all day and night, called San Gines. For 3.50 euros you can get a cup of thick dark chocolate and a plate of churros (deep fried sticks of sweetened dough – excellent!) to dip in the chocolate. Hubby and I shared one. The professors noticed that we didst get as many churros as people usually get – they said it was probably the waiter. Anyway, it was good but we only managed to eat half the chocolate because we ran out of churros!

The famous San Gines in Madrid, which offers the best fried churros and dipping chocolate!

It is not necessary to tip here. In restaurants, sometimes the tip will be included in the price, which they will note on the menu. Otherwise, if people tip at all, itś just a few coins left on the table. Those of you who have ever worked as waiters perhaps remember European customers that didn’t tip the 15% or so that you are used to! This is why!

The Plaza Mayor is a very large square, also closed to traffic, surrounded by official looking buildings on all sides, of uniform style and color – reddish with wrought iron balconies. There are a few towers on one side. Looking closer at these, you see that the walls are actually covered with paintings in a classical style.  There are shops and restaurants all around, especially philatelic shops. The restaurants are distinguished by the white umbrellaed tables in the courtyard. At the center of the Plaza Mayor is a statue of King Felipe IV (?) on a horse.

Author’s husband at Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

We stopped at a place to pick up maps of Madrid. The professors got maps for everyone and passed them around. We also picked up pamphlets for various cultural events going on.

July is the month of store sales -everywhere are signs saying REBAJA (discount). It’s also a month of festivals and celebrations. One square we passed through was setting up for a show, which we inquired about. It’s the opening of a 5-day Gay Pride celebration. There will be concerts and events, and a parade on Saturday, which is supposed to be spectacular because it is international (I was told the Brazilian transvestite contingent is quite impressive!).

This Gay Pride extravaganza is an example of how Spain has changed and liberalized in a relatively short time, since the end of Franco’s regime in the 1970s. There is a lot of sexual tolerance now, women have freedoms unavailable to them then (during Franco they could not even vote or own property!), and people are much more open in their manner, dress, etc.

Itś very hot here – around 90 degrees, and while not as humid as the Midwest, it definitely contributed to the total exhaustion I felt when we got back. I managed to drag myself to the dining room to eat some salad and beef for lunch, then passed out on the bed for 2 and a half hours!

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