Roadblock

Panic. Heart pumping, breath shallow, quick. The bag was gone. With it, a passport, credit and ATM cards, laptop, iPod, Eurail ticket.

I was gone two minutes, buying a snack in a cafe while we waited for a connection from Madrid to Valencia. My bag and Michael’s lay under our small table. A woman told us she had seen the man with the yellow tshirt bend over to tie his shoe and slip the strap of Michael’s small bag over his wrist before he quickly stood up and walked off with it and his own bag over his other shoulder. Michael had been sitting right there. Not eating, not listening to music, no distractions. He had simply been sitting with his back to the man at the table behind us. The bag was resting against the table instead of against his leg. I was just lucky that my bag had been out of his reach.

Lesson learned.

The next two days were surprisingly stress-free for me. Michael took care of getting a temporary replacement passport and cancelling his cards, and put his Spanish to good use while filing a police report. I would play bank for the following weeks, until the cards came. The whole thing went smoothly — Madrid was the best place for it to happen. Our trusty friend Don came to the rescue and hosted us for two extra nights.

I even got to see a friend and ex-coworker of mine who was also teaching English in Europe. Jordan, another Wisconsinite, took me to see the play Los Miserables, the Spanish version of the wonderful musical Les Miserables. The passion, strife, and intensity of the story was much better suited to the telenovella-like acting qualities that the Spanish actors imposed on the characters they played. Regardless of the slight language barrier, I had a fantastic time seeing a completely different version of a theatrical production I’ve known since childhood.

While regrouping from the roadblock, a night out in Madrid and an afternoon in Jordan’s pool made the whole thing seem like a vacation again. It was easy to stay optimistic with a couple good friends around to help us out, and before we knew it, we were on the road again to Valencia and Gandia beach…

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I met no barber.

I always find it sad saying good-bye to friends when I don’t have the slightest idea of when we’ll meet again. It does, however, help me keep thinking optimistically about the next time our paths might cross and automatically nixes the possibility of taking any of friends for granted. With that in mind, Michael and I left Brett, Don and the bustling heat of Madrid and exchanged them for Mauricio and the stifling heat of Sevilla.

Lucky for us, our Couchsurfing host Mauricio let us have free reign of his apartment and we came and went as we pleased. Twenty minutes into the center on Sevilla’s impeccably clean metro system, we soon found ourselves in the midst of Dia europeo de la música, and enjoyed a free outdoor concert of Moroccan-influenced Spanish music. We had a quick walk around to preview some of the sights we’d visit the next day and made our way to a flamenco show at Los Gallos. Despite the fact that it was clearly designed for tourists (30€ for the two-hour show, including one drink – we chose sangria), the actual quality of dancing – and live music, of course – was excellent. My mind wandered to fill in the female dancers’ inner monologues with tales of strife to match their passionate grimaces and wondered at the male dancers’ machismo.

After the show let out after midnight, the temperatures had finally dropped to a comfortable warmth and the city was still alive. A closed metro meant splitting an overpriced taxi ride home (the driver tried to charge us even more when he got lost, but I wasn’t about to let that happen). We slept in without thinking that we’d awake to the hottest part of the day; sunscreen slathered on, water bottles loaded, the day brought us to the heights of la Giralda, to the cool respite of Sevilla’s cathedral, and to the exquisite Moorish palace Real Alcázar. Having gone a little picture-crazy, I took a break with a Spanish newspaper and the freshest mojito I’ve ever had until I decided it was time to buy some stamps.

Up until this point, my Spanish had taken me as far as buying tickets and food (para llevar and para tomar – “to take out” and “to eat in” were the first verbs I learned in Madrid). But the hour had come. Postcards had to be sent. I didn’t really  know the word for stamps, though I had seen it before. I approached the tabac counter and confidently stated, “I need 1 chair for the United States and 2 chairs for Germany”. Whoops.

You see, sillas is the word my brain decided to use instead of the correct word sellos. Damn vowels. Tricksy little phonemes, they are. In any case, it was a nice reminder of the early days of learning a language when it’s still funny to make mistakes. I laughed it off, corrected myself and got what I needed.

Mauricio was at home that night, so Michael and I taught him the basics of salsa while he patiently listened to my Spanitalianglish mixed instructions. He was a quick learner and it was lovely to finally get to know the person whose casa had been our casa for the previous two days. (Side note: I’m always amused when I have the chance to introduce a person to something foreign to my own cultural upbringing – a very WASP-y one, albeit nowadays minus the P – and closer to theirs. Back in Gießen, for example, I cooked the first sweet potatoes that my language tandem partner from a pueblo near Puerta Vallarta had ever eaten. Funny how the world works).

Sevilla’s andalusian atmosphere of forced relaxation imposed by the sweltering heat dominated my impression of the city, and at first glance I liked it more than Madrid. Not a place I could live, but definitely good for a holiday or two, Sevilla’s vibrant arts scene and wealth of beautiful city scenery could have kept my attention for much longer than two days. Rolling on to the next destination – Valencia – we headed back to Madrid for a train connection that turned our rough itinerary thoroughly upside down. Look for some seriously useful travel advice in the next post on Madrid, otra vez!

Madrid: primera vez

I flew to Madrid on Sunday night to meet up with Michael, a fellow Madtown Ballroom dancer from university. We had a Couchsurfing host lined up, a chill ex-Marine named Brett who has seen 81 of these 100 Wonders of the World and was consequently infinitely better traveled than the both of us combined. He took us out for tapas at La sureña, a small place overflowing with Spaniards where you could barely hear yourself talk over the volume of rapid-fire conversation. The gambas (shrimp) and pulpo (octopus) were delicious, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the tiny beer bottles they accompanied…they were like fun-sized beers for training your ten-year-old. The bottles triggered a comparison of Germany to Spain which continued throughout the entire trip.

Lucky for us, another dancer friend of ours was living in Madrid for the semester and so we had a touristy day with Don, who led us around to the must-see spots – Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Parque del Retiro (we danced a bit by the pond), and the Reina Sofia to get up close and personal with Picasso and Dalí. A trip to the nearest heladería for some gelato ended up turning into a few hours of catch-up conversation as I hadn’t seen Don in six months. Little did we know that Michael and I would be back in Madrid and seeing Don again sooner than we thought…I’ll save that (un)fortunate adventure for after I write a bit about Sevilla though.

Another great Couchsurfing experience awaited us; Brett had grilled steaks and fresh asparagus in preparation for a grill-off competition he had signed up for, and we spent the evening enjoying the food and talking in the balmy night air on his balcony. I loved Madrid’s metro, but I only had a day and a half to get to know a small part of the city (which had been spent primarily with friendly Americans), so couldn’t decisively say if I liked the city itself or simply the experience of being there.

Spain’s high-speed trains impressed me even more than its fantastic metro system – Deutsche Bahn trains were comparable, but the Renfe AVE trains were more like taking a flight between cities, complete with “flight attendants”. Going through security and two checkpoints before boarding the train and the on-board comforts made the trip from Madrid to Sevilla a breeze! More on the Andalusian vibes in the next post…

¡Un beso!

(W)rapping up

I have to say, I absolutely love my coworkers at the Gesamtschule. I now have a sort of “Ode to Ginger” to remember forever, as they wrote and performed a song for me as a good-bye present at the last teachers’ conference of the semester. I’ll post the lyrics eventually as they’re really quite clever, but I’m in Madrid now with limited time to write — lots of things to do and see!

I’ve had a hard time processing the whole end of the Fulbright “experience”, simply because of how fast the end came. It helped that I took the time to write a brief speech in German which I presented to my coworkers as a heartfelt thank-you for their support. Last August I was definitely dreading being placed in such a small town, but I’m absolutely happy with the way things turned out. I’m so thankful for the cooperative and passionate teachers I’ve been able to learn from and work with, and for the lively, passionate, intelligent students I grew close to throughout the year.

Side note: I feel obligated to mention that my 9th grade students asked me to choreograph a hip hop routine for their graduation ceremony performance, which I somehow whipped up in an hour in the staff room. They were tough to teach, but I ended up getting them to look passably “gangsta” (well, as thug as 15-year-old Germans from a small country town can look, having been taught by a ballroom dancer from the suburbs) and had them rapping to The Black Eyed Peas’ “Time of Your Life – Dirty Bit” in front of their parents. It was a success.

The odd thing was that, aside from a day of doldrums when I finally realized all of the great stuff about to come to an end, I wasn’t sad at all during the whole process of saying good-bye to everyone. I’ll admit, I shed a few tears when I bid adieu to Elke, the effervescent bundle of energy who is our choir director, but for the most part I have it in my head that I’ll see all of the important people again soon…whether it’s during the summer in Frankfurt or after being in Asia for a bit. Honestly, it was the happiest round of good-byes I’ve ever experienced – I’m optimistic about keeping in contact with the fantastic connections I’ve made here.

I feel peculiar writing this post because I’m already sitting on the balcony of my CouchSurfing host’s apartment in Madrid. I barely had time to tie up loose ends in Gießen before I was boarding a cramped RyanAir flight to meet up with Michael, a close friend from my time at UW-Madison.  Life rolls on…

To wrap everything up — probably too quickly to do the program justice — I guess that more than anything, the experience as a Fulbright  ETA has allowed me to grow as a traveler and (as completely corny and cliché as it sounds) as a global citizen. Yes, I learned the useful lesson that I don’t want to be a teacher…at least not full time, nor with pubescent children…but the simple ability to sustain a life where I took so much time for myself and did whatever I wanted, when I wanted to…how many people ever get that chance!? Truly, in every sense, I’m so grateful for each experience of these last ten months.

Ahora, on to the proxima aventura!