July 1 - A Dream Come True
For three years I’d dreamed of going to Spain with Magellan Study Abroad. My high school Spanish teacher Sra. Garcia had introduced the program to her Spanish classes when I was a sophomore, but regrettably, I had not been able to attend that summer. At long last, this summer I was among a collection of precocious American high school students hailing from the West Coast to the East Coast and everywhere in between. Together we crossed over the Atlantic to embark on a month-long adventure to deepen our knowledge of Spain’s rich language and culture. Once my flight arrived in Madrid, I was introduced to all of the other participants who I would join on our mutual adventure. En route we sped past endless olive tree groves and freshly cropped wheat fields dotted with rolls of hay stretching to mountains crowned with massive gray-white clouds that promised rainfall. We were all thrilled to have arrived in Spain. Some of us were chatting in small groups while some others were resting in preparation for an exciting afternoon.
After we entered Salamanca we arrived to see our homestay families waiting for us. I was able to meet my host mom, Carmen, for the first time. To say it was a dream match is an understatement. I rapidly developed an attachment to both her and her immaculately kept home. She is a professor of philosophy and an avid painter, and despite being 60 years old, she had the spirit of someone half her age. It was easily evident with her appearance; she wore dark eye makeup, dressed in vivid floral silks and had her short, dyed chestnut-brown hair styled into sleek layers. She carried within herself a buoyant sense of enthusiasm and assured me multiple times that her home was my home and I was to make myself as comfortable as possible.
Carmen’s home spoke volumes about her vibrant personality. White Chinese lanterns decorated with pink flowers hung in the main hallway, which was decorated with her impressionist paintings and CDs she had hand-painted. In the living room, she showed me her main art project, Alborada, which symbolizes the dawn of optimism.
It was painted onto a dark wood sitting table in graffiti style and surrounded by splashes of color. My bedroom featured another Alborada artwork and looked like something straight out of a magazine catalogue with its pink pull-out beds and private balcony lined with flowers that Carmen loved tending to.
Sanya, who lives in Texas, was sharing the home with me. She was quite mature and we got along well right away. I went with her and several Magellan students to the city’s Plaza Mayor to meet the other participants and our chaperone teacher Roxanna. Everyone was very friendly and made me feel right at home.
The Plaza Mayor was simply stunning. I’d heard that it rivaled Madrid’s in beauty and now I understood why as I gazed at the statues and arches along the top of the Plaza’s three-tiered buildings, which glowed brightly under the gold midafternoon light. People of all ages strolled along the plaza perimeter, where stores sold artisan ice cream and churros with chocolate.
When our enjoyable first day had come to a close, I lay within the cozy confines of my pink, velvety blankets and slumbered like a baby with dreams of Spain.
July 2 – Mind-Opening Classes
With a radiant smile, Carmen served us a delicious breakfast. Before walking out the door, she gave each of us a giant hug and we kissed one another on each cheek in typical European fashion. As Sanya and I walked to our language school where we were to take three weeks of college-accredited classes, we were refreshed by startlingly blue skies, puffy white clouds and a crisp breeze. I could sense the richness of nearly a thousand years of history oozing out of every corner and doorframe.
After walking for twenty minutes, we got a little lost. We decided to practice our Spanish by walking into a quintessentially Spanish carnicería, or meat store, to ask for directions. It was filled with desiccated, browning pork legs hanging from the ceiling and the pungent odor of aged cheeses and jamón serrano. Each of the shopkeepers inside the store pointed us in different directions and frequently interrupted each other trying to convince us they were correct. We finally arrived at school at 9:45 just in time for classes to begin at 10 and conclude at 2.
Tucked into a corner of a plaza overlooking a park, the school sat directly across from the famed Catedral de San Esteban and presented an appealingly modern contrast to the rich historical setting. I saw nearly a hundred students from all parts of the world milling about, talking excitedly to one another in Spanish.
I was instantly charmed with the way classes were designed. I was in Clase B2, which like other classes offered by the school, is comprised of three parts split across grammar, culture, and “action”, a conversation and debate class. Being accustomed to an average public high school class size of 25-30, I was pleasantly surprised that my class only had seven other students who were all either current or graduated university students from countries such as England, Wales, Italy, France, Germany, and Taiwan. Many had a keen interest in perfecting their Spanish, some with the goal of ultimately working in Spain.
My teachers Carlos and Rosa had vibrant personalities and genuine enthusiasm in covering subjects ranging from complex grammar to off-topic but thoroughly informative discussions on cultural customs and regionalisms. Carlos was a lanky, middle-aged man with a wry smile and an endearing tendency to punctuate his lectures with wild gestures and odd sound effects. He opened our lecture by speaking about a key societal issue within Spain, that of the hueco, or gap, between Spain’s wealthy and the many living at or below the poverty line. I found it enlightening to be able to compare such issues with similar situations within the nations that the rest of the students hailed from.
Carlos was one of the best teachers I’d ever had because of his contagious passion for the language and genuine belief that no subject was too difficult to cover or understand. Rosa was one of the strongest “people persons” I’d ever met. The ultra-toned and outgoing Rosa effortlessly facilitated our debates and made sure everyone had more than enough opportunities to practice speaking Spanish and constructing fleshed out oral arguments regarding the social issues of the day.
After squeezing in a quick Spanish siesta after lunch, we all reunited for flamenco class. Our instructor Montse performs all over Spain as a solo flamenco dancer. We were incredibly lucky to see her star in her Azabache flamenco show the next night. She was a woman of very strong character; her small black eyes flashed with a sense of ferocity even under a smile sweet with unbridled happiness. Her equally inky black hair was parted in down the middle in a rather severe ponytail. She was wearing all long sleeved black, with a red sash tied in a large knot around her waist. We were taught the basic hand movements, which reminded me very strongly of Xinjiang dance movements I had learned at my Chinese ethnic dance studio back home in California. Both hands and fingers curled inwards and outwards like flowers, with the index finger poised above the others as in ballet, and hands alternated as they rose to the top with arms raised in a circle overhead.
We were taught the steps of left foot down hard, right foot crossed back, and forward back to starting position. After alternating this six times while keeping our hands on our waists, we followed with a vuelta, or a complete spin on our feet. My partner Hannah and I then did the same footwork towards and away from one another before doing another vuelta, this time involving placing my hand on Hannah’s waist and my left hand high above my head. After learning the final steps of the dance, which was to do the six steps in a complete circle while maintaining face to face contact with your partner, we learned a high-energy dance to Gipsy Kings’ “Volare”, which involved speedy kicks and plenty of opportunity to show off our newly learned wrist choreography. After class, my muscles felt satisfyingly more toned and the melodious sounds of Spanish guitar thrummed in my ears all night long.
July 3 – From 2 to 100% of Her Talent
Once returning to school, I dove into another thoroughly enjoyable day of class. Carlos continued heading our exploration into our current unit on cinema, “Cine, cine, cine”. We delved into the differences between cursi, or cheesy, and kitsch while he expertly tied in uses of the imperfect subjunctive, our grammar subject of the week, to describe films that pertained to each genre. Two new phrases we learned in particular were Me da corte, meaning to feel shame, and resaca, meaning hangover. Hopefully no one would be experiencing that the following morning, when we were to have our end of the week exam!
Our 15 minute walk home always proved to be interesting because of all the political graffiti, which mostly consisted of diatribes against capitalists and fascists. Once home, we would see that Carmen was not only an artist through her paintings but also in the way she crafted her food. Our lunch of fresh bread, penne pasta and ensalada mixta was beautifully laid out with artfully placed green and black olives, which Sanya and I tried to enjoy as much as possible despite our natural disinclination to eating them. As someone who rarely ate dessert at home, I was now finding it hard to resist Carmen’s choices for dessert-- flan, rice pudding, or my personal favorite- nata, or cream, vanilla, and chocolate ice cream topped with Spain’s world-famous honeydew melons.
It was time to make our way to the Palacio de Congresos for Azabache’s nighttime flamenco show starring our flamenco teacher. Along the way, we passed by the Universidad de Salamanca, one of the three oldest universities in Europe, the Catedral Vieja and Catedral Nueva. Their ornate facades crusted with stone leaves, statuettes, or shells and massive bell towers were sights you simply didn’t find in America.
Onstage, a band forming a semicircle around her comprised of flamenco’s traditional musical elements of cante (singing), toque (guitar), and palmas (clapping) struck up an energetic tune the moment Montse made her flamboyant entrance wearing a heavy black dress accented with bright embroidered flowers that fell to her feet in velvety tiers. Stomping and whooping, she came center-stage and smiled dazzingly at the crowd, her black eyes sparkling underneath her dark stage makeup. She flung her skirts energetically, dipping and stomping forcefully as the singers shouted “Ole!” and crooned melancholy tunes. At times they would rise and stand on either side of Montse, clapping and singing as if in dialogue with one another. Montse went through an impressive number of wardrobe switches to complement the change in dancing style. My personal favorites were when she wore a dress of pure white and used a white abanico, or fan, and an olive green layered dress with a long white shawl that appeared to be like angel wings spread in flight when she spun and turned her wrists.
In yesterday afternoon’s class, we’d only witnessed 2 percent of her talent. I’d never witnessed such a performance before back home in America and absolutely could not wait for our next flamenco class.
July 4 – Barro and Newfound Creativity
Thankfully, no one stumbled into the classroom under the spell of a terrible resaca. The hour-long exam featured numerous conjugations and several essays of varying lengths in which we were free to discuss themes in our favorite movies to test our understanding of the unit. I opted for Japanese animators Studio Ghibli to discuss films “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”.
In our debate class, Rosa led us in one of our most intriguing discussions yet on unjustified laws. The German and British students brought up hilariously ludicrous ones. For instance, on public buses, Germans are required to purchase bus tickets for their bikes, while Englishmen are required to purchase tickets with the image of a dog superimposed upon them for their canine friends. The English are also loosely bound to a law requiring men to practice archery every two weeks. What was most ridiculous, however, was a Salamanca law prohibiting rolling baby carriages onto buses. Rosa mimed a woman folding up the carriage, trying to manuever her way up the stairs, hurriedly tucking the baby under one arm, all the while trying to balance groceries on each arm and free up a hand to count out spare change.
That afternoon we were introduced to one of Spain’s most treasured art forms- ceramics. We crossed a bridge spanning the Rio Tormes, which held a special significance to me as I’d read one of Spain’s most famed works of literature- Lazarillo de Tormes- that began here in Salamanca. Atop a sloping hill our instructor Gerardo lived in a quintessentially Mediterranean style home. Gerardo and his wife Reyes answered the door warmly and made us feel right at home. Gerardo’s assistant, Miguel was elated to the extreme that he could help us learn his trade, and often bounded in and out of the storage room while shouting advice in a boyishly happy voice.
Gerardo first showed us the art of using the pottery wheel. After slapping a mound of red clay, or barro rojo, onto the wheel, he quickly and efficiently used his palms to shape the clay into a vase, and constantly reworked the clay so that it would increase or decrease in height and width. Once the sides had become completely smooth, he would delicately carve designs into the sides before moving on to make olive oil vessels or salad bowls.
Once we moved outside, Gerardo taught us how to make necklaces. We pressed bottle caps into fresh, moist clay, carved our designs, and punctured holes for the necklace string. We continually used sponges to moisten these clay pieces in order to prevent dessication before creating a brooch with a shape of our choice.
This entire time, Gerardo and Miguel circled our table endlessly to ensure that we were on the right path. Gerardo was, like our teachers, one of the most encouraging teachers I’d ever had. His passion and belief that everyone, whether artistically inclined or not, was capable of creating masterpieces was genuinely infectious.
Unknown to us, Reyes was busy in the kitchen preparing a merienda, or snack, for our entire group. A feast would be a more proper way to describe it. Some students helped her bring out bowls filled with freshly made bread, her homemade garbanzo bean, egg white, and red pepper dish, and zumo that she’d made with the freshest watermelons and summer fruits. We all ate to our heart’s content despite knowing that actual dinner at home was to follow less than an hour later. Nothing made me more content than knowing I was filling my body with ultra-nutritious Mediterranean food made with the ingredients fresher than many you’d find at typical American supermarkets.
July 5 – A Trip Back in Time
Our journey three hours to the east to the city of Segovia took us 2000 years back in time. At the Alcázar of Segovia, we came to the home to Isabella of Castile, the queen who financed Columbus’ journey to the New World. Situated strategically on a sloping hill that overlooked the rivers Eresma and Clamores as they wound through wheat fields and olive groves, the Castle was a sight to behold with its grand, Disneyland-esque towers and high walls fortified by four rounded turrets. Indeed, I’d heard that its design, shaped like a ship’s bow, inspired Disney World’s Cinderella Castle.
Inside, we were greeted by displays of knights’ full-body armor. Upon closer inspection, the armor was almost comical in its design. Every last crevice of the human body was covered in overly bulkly metal, to the point where vision had been reduced to mere slits. A spiked plate had been placed above each armpit, the weakest part of the armor, to prevent knights from bleeding out should they be pierced by a well-aimed arrow. The feet resembled ridiculously massive elf shoes with their deadly spike at least a foot long at the toes. This foot weaponry was designed to ward away attackers closer to the ground. For all the flair in its design, there were more flaws than perks. Those who fell from their horses could only hope for a speedy death, as the crushing weight of the armor meant they could never fully rise to their feet again.
As someone with a particular interest in Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych, I was intrigued to see the triptych in one of the main halls…but I discovered it was completely absent of all people. I learned that they had all been removed as part of a Photoshop project. Another point of interest was the Queen’s secret listening chamber. When services were conducted, she could sit within this chamber and, while she could view everyone inside the ceremony, no one could see her. Within the chapel itself, I was taken aback by the amount of gore portrayed- a painting depicting a king beheading all his enemies and all their severed heads rolling about the floor was placed behind the pews so that all who entered would have to look upon this fearsome display of might.
Perhaps even more stunning than the castle was the aqueduct of Segovia, which was built around 50 CE and held the distinction of being one of the last aqueducts of the Roman Empire that still stands in its entirety today and is technically still functional. It had two massive arcades and 128 pillars supporting a seemingly endless number of arches that stretched across the valley past to where the eye could see. I’d never seen an architectural work more awe-inspiring and one that was such a testament to the architectural genius of the Romans.
In the nearby city of Ávila, our exploration took us past the city’s Plaza to the Ávila Cathedral, a Romanesque and Gothic cathedral-fortress where a wedding was currently in full swing with its church bells pealing joyously. At the city walls, we were treated to a stunning vista of rolling valleys and yet another marriage ceremony. These amazing sights could not be found in my World or Art History textbooks.
July 6 – Two Milestone Birthdays
Two of Magellan’s students reached milestones today. And that’s including me! Participating in the celebrations, I could feel the sense of shared affection and will always look back on this time fondly as one of the brightest points of my summer.
Carmen cooked paella mixta and chicken cordon bleu for the occasion. The heaping helping of saffron delight bursted with the flavors of succulent chicken, shrimp, and clams. For dessert there was a long, rectangular pastry consisting of delicious layers of frozen vanilla and topped with a thin pumpkin colored layer of whiskey.
Despite being scheduled for ceramics class at Gerardo’s later that afternoon, the ensuing food coma made the thought of taking a siesta irresistible. In the meantime, my roommate couldn’t resist the temptation to peruse the current summer fashion rebajas, or sales, that were ongoing at El Corte Inglés, one of Spain’s biggest department stores. Evidently, both of us overindulged, as suddenly, Sanya was frantically shaking me awake and telling me it was 45 minutes past the time we were supposed to leave for our scheduled activity! Not only had I slept through my alarm, Sanya had gotten somewhat lost with her friends on her way home.
We flew downstairs, where fellow student Zuzka was waiting to take us on a “shortcut” through nearby Parque de los Jesuitas. Running through the oppressively hot and dry Salamanca afternoon turned my lungs paper-dry. My legs felt leaden by the time we met up with the group, which immediately hastened to Gerardo’s house across the Río Tormes. We met up with a newly arrived group of Puerto Rican high school students who were going to join our activity. I practiced my Spanish with them and struck up a particularly interesting conversation with one of them regarding the issues of Puerto Rican public and private high school education.
Once arriving at Gerardo’s, he announced apologetically that there’d been a problem with the firing of the necklaces we’d made and that a redo might be necessary. None too ruffled by this fact, we all greeted Reyes and Miguel cheerily before filing into the main room to await further instruction.
Suddenly, the sounds of “Cumpleaños Feliz” filled the room. Realizing we’d actually fallen for Gerardo and Reyes’ little ruse, I whirled around to see them carrying in two homemade cakes and large gift-wrapped presents. A big grin broke across my face when I saw one cake with little red candles that spelled out “Feliz” and “16” and “Cumpleaños” and “18” on another. When everyone had finished singing, Andrea and myself leaned forward and blew out their candles amid the sounds of applause all around, then we excitedly began opening our presents, which included a beautiful necklace of Puerto Rican beads from Gerardo and one of Gerardo’s lime-green ceramic cups, painted expertly by Reyes with intertwining trees. Reyes gave me a bright pink journal entitled “Mi Diario Español” with Reyes’ cardboard cutout of Don Quixote, which I found interesting as I’d loved reading Don Quixote in the original Spanish while taking AP Spanish Literature. Inside were her own paintings inside of trees, clowns, and flowers followed by her own words of advice. My favorite one said “La vida es como una flor delicada. Mirarla, amarla cada segundo”, which means “Life is like a delicate flower. Look upon it and love every second of it.”
July 7 - Fallen in Love With Spain
A week in and virtually all traces of homesickness within the group had dwindled away as we began to love our host families as much as our own. The thought of going to school every morning energized me as much as it did the first day and still provides an endless series of fresh challenges, which thanks to Carlos and Rosa, were never insurmountable.
Carlos handed my exam back to me with his classic wry smile. Written in his large hand at the top was the word “Sobresaliente”, or the word for “A+” in Spain, with an added upwards arrow. We were given the opportunity to review our answers and ask Carlos for extra reinforcing help before turning our exams back in and quickly diving into the next unit, “De viaje”, or Travel.
One aspect of the textbook I appreciated most was the listening portions; for example, listening to exchanges between ticket seller and buyer, or two friends who were running late to catch a train. I appreciated it not only because they got us accustomed with different kinds of accents, but also because they taught us to identify tones and grammar forms such as the preterite versus the imperfect that were associated with such tones.
We all returned to flamenco class later that afternoon with a buoyant sense of excitement after witnessing Montse’s dazzling Azabache show performance. After providing a quick but thorough review of the previous lesson’s steps, Montse moved us into more solo work that involved more hipwork interspersed with more vueltas. My favorite part of the lesson was when Montse let us perform the entire sequence we learned over the course of our two lessons before joining all of us in a dance in which stood in a circle and snapped our fingers and lifted our crossed over arms high above our heads as we moved closer together. This was again followed by our concluding dance to “Volare”.
July 8 – Anything Can Be A Box
Our prolonged, mind-spinning discussion with Carlos about the dark side of the passive voice gave way to Rosa’s refreshing class discussion on personality traits. We determined whether or not someone “tiene escrúpulos”, or if they acted in a altruistic manner or in bad faith.
The afternoon brought us once more across the Río Tormes to Gerardo’s. Under the rich, warm glow of the Mediterranean sun and a few lucky spots of tree-shade, we got to work on painting our fired necklaces. Jars of mysteriously colored paint mixed by Reyes were placed on our worktables. Gerardo told us that the cloudy jade green in the jar may turn out to be lime or even forest green once fired. Students then transformed the crescent moons or crosses they’d made into vividly colored masterpieces. I painted with different colors depending on whether the necklace was for my mother, father, or twin sister.
We then fashioned boxes by slicing massive slabs of cooled clay with wooden knives, forming rectangles, circles, and one giant turtle with several pieces of clay. My slightly irregular polygon was soon folded over at each corner; next to me was a discarded piece of clay I had considered using as a lid. It resembled nothing close to the box I had envisioned. Gerardo, who somehow liked the direction I was going in, came over and smoothed and shaped the folds into more dramatic curves before telling me “Sobresaliente” and that what was most original was most creative. I then shaped the space in between the folds into something that vaguely resembled the front of a clog or an elf’s shoe. The sides were shaped upwards into something that could actually be called a box.
Our merienda of homemade tortilla de patatas once again didn’t disappoint. Covered in strips of red bell pepper, the egg and potato within was more tender than any tortilla I’d tried thus far in Spain and was bursting with flavor. It was gone in an instant and quickly washed down with more delicious homemade zumo. Overall, looking back on the work I’d created today, it could be said that I’d chosen form over function. After all, anything could be a box, right?
July 9 – Birds and Carbajosa
Another reason I loved the way Carlos taught was that even his impromptu digressions never failed to be thoroughly informative. One of the post-university students in my class, the Welshman Russ, walked in a bit late sporting a tee shirt covered with stencils of various birds. Carlos did one of his typical flailing movements of excitement upon seeing this shirt and immediately launched into a lecture on the Spanish words for all the birds on his shirt. No bird wasn’t unnamed- turkey, peacock, vulture, flamingo, penguin, toucan, parrot, or crow. New terms fired up my mind, like fruto seco, which meant nuts, not the literal translation of “dried fruits” as I’d previously thought. Finally, the mystery of seeing fruto seco on so many kiosco, or convenience store, signs and wondering why stores valued dried fruits so highly had been cleared up. I learned new words for butterfly; the Galicians call it volvoreta and Spaniards centuries ago called it pinpilinpauxa.
Our lecture wound back onto track with the Qué + present subjunctive, in which we learned the key phrase Qué aproveche, or the equivalent to bon appétit, and how to wish someone sweet dreams with Qué sueñes con los angelitos, or to dream with little angels. In Rosa’s class, we picked up the obscure but useful estarmareando, or to see stars, and mujer florero, or trophy wife.
By 6 pm we were at Salamanca’s Gran Vía to catch a bus bound for Carbajosa, a nearby town less than 5 kilometers away, to interact with Spanish teens. In the Carbajosa community center, we played icebreakers with us asking questions in Spanish and them responding in English and vice versa, played card games with each other, or dipped our feet in the pool. Later that night, we enjoyed traditional Spanish croquetas, or potato and meat croquettes, pizza, Fanta that was much more bitter than American Fanta, and tortilla de patatas. This was followed with a karaoke party where even the shyest of singers were called up to sing American pop songs. I was very much looking forward to the following Wednesday when we were to return to Carbajosa.
July 10 – Salsa with the Sassiest
At the strike of noon the convent bells of San Esteban sweetly sung one of Bach’s lullabies as it had for centuries. At school, Carlos was busy teaching us phrases used for comparison such as tan, tanto, más que, mejor, and peor, and taught us how to say fiftieth, seventieth, and eightieth, while digressing into the ridiculous rift caused between fanatics of the virgins Macarena and Triana, with Macarena being the virgin of the rich folk.
The sweltering afternoon heat brought us hurrying to salsa class, taught by Igor, a sassy man with a tiny bun knotted tightly at the top of his head and hips so fluid he could probably be one of Shakira’s backup dancers. Without much preamble he turned on a dazzling smile and the music and started us off with some warmup moves. I learned that the side-to-side crossover foot movements were Cali style salsa, instead of the forwards and backwards steps of LA style street salsa I’d learned from friends before coming to Spain. From time to time, he would smile at himself indulgently in the mirror while dancing and draw his hands up his hips as if showing off for a hidden admirer.
When we got into pairs, our side-to-side movements quickly advanced into more passionate partnered movements, as legs interspersed with thighs. This entire time, Igor would leave no stone unturned by randomly choosing girls and even the lone guy in our class to model the movements and guide them patiently but firmly until everyone had a solid understanding.
After our hour-long class had concluded and gathering rainclouds had caused the day to grow significantly cooler, we all reunited at the Plaza Mayor around 10 for ice cream. One store, Helados Artesanos, had become the group’s particular favorite for its delicious, fresh ice cream boasting flavors like “K-Bueno”, which was a mashup of chocolatey candy bars like Kit Kats, “Nata”, or cream, “Stracciatella”, “Lima”, or lime, and “Mango con Queso”, or Mango with Cheese. Such ice creams, despite having sugary sounding names, did not overload on the sweetness and were a perfect conclusion to a long day.
July 11 – Gone Hunting
Aided with audio exercises and of course, Carlos’ brilliant teaching style, we cruised through learning ways to express disagreement, indifference, or total agreement in conversation and written forms. During our 20 minute break between classes, all us students were treated to our school’s “sorpresa”, or surprise, in the courtyard. There were fresh made pineapple-orange juices, quality coffee, and ice cream sandwiches all made on the spot. While we tried not to dribble ice cream onto our chins, we broke the ice with students from England, Taiwan and Holland and enjoyed the brisk breeze that had followed the night’s heavy rain.
Post siesta we found ourselves back at school ready for Magellan’s citywide scavenger hunt. Once we were mixed evenly into groups of three to four, we immediately set off sprinting towards destinations such as the city’s bus station, located about a 20 minute run away, as well as cathedrals and post offices where we were to take photos in front with our groupmembers and with Spaniards as well. Over the course of three hours, we got to know Salamanca like the backs of our hands. The teams competed feriously and the award ceremony was fun and full of surprises. Each winning team member received gifts to celebrate their accomplishement.
As the sky began showing its first signs of growing dark around 10:30 PM, we made our way back to the Plaza Mayor for another night of ice cream, this time with the Puerto Rican students.
Before I’d even licked the sticky residue of Mojito and Ferrero chocolate flavors from my fingers, Chris and Roxanna announced that our night of fun was far from over- we were to take a short walk to teen-friendly nightclub Camelot. From the outside, Camelot vaguely resembled a castle; inside, medieval banners hung from the walls and American Top 40 and electronic dance music thrummed through the throngs of people doing everything from bobbing gently to dancing wildly and with complete abandon. Reassured of the fact that Chris and Roxanna were still nearby supervising us, we danced
the night away.
July 12 – Country Hopping
With such a thin membrane separating Spain and Portugal, it seemed perfect that Chris would treat us to a day trip there with some of our new Carbajosa friends. A lengthy bus ride took us through winding passageways past forests with billowing gray clouds of smoke rising from fires used to clear brush and stimulate growth. Eventually we arrived at a dam near the border. Our first stop was in Miranda de Duero, a charming city on the slopes lining a wide, cobalt blue river. Before disembarking the bus, we were taught the essentials, “Bom dia” for “Good day” and “Obrigado” instead of “Gracias”. With this in mind I and three of my friends hiked towards a cathedral sitting on the hill’s peak, passing through narrow streets lined with closely crowded white-washed houses with wrought iron balconies filled with bright pink bougainvillea blossoms.
Inside the cathedral we were treated to a light, airy interior in contrast to the darker interiors of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals in Salamanca. White rectangular columns drew our eyes up to high ceilings held aloft by rib vaults; on either side were smaller rooms filled with offerings dedicated to a particular saint. On our journey down the hill we decided to take a different and more daring route by climbing atop the city wall that towered over the ground below and led to a steep descent on jagged stone steps.
We then boarded our bus bound for the city of Bragança. Along the way, we shared a road with a herd of bulls and a cloaked herdsman. Once arriving, we went to the city’s old castle, which was surrounded by an intact outer wall complete with strategically placed turrets, and picnicked under oily-leaved trees on bocadillos that our moms had made us. It is hard to imagine that the noble family who lived in this castle had become the dynasty who ruled at one time the kingdoms of Portugal and Brasil.
After lunch, we ascended the wall and followed it up to the highest point. Along the way we passed sunflowers and dense green fields of vegetables dotted with small red-roofed houses; the pungent aroma of cooking fish wafted into our noses. Back at the castle, we were greeted by a plump and cheery old man with a crown of white hair. Initially he pretended not to understand our cautiously spoken Spanish (we weren’t looking to offend anyone with our extremely basic Portuguese) before bursting into hearty laughter and guiding us in Spanish to the part of the museum with the best lookout. Before we left, he, like other Portuguese we’d met, made sure to gently and amiably correct each of those who said “Gracias” to “Obrigado”. At the lookout, the valley below revealed the city center with its airy white houses and narrow streets. Our treacherous descent from the lookout brought us past the castle curator, who was watering plants wilting under the heat. He made the motion to spray us with his water hose before averting it at the last second and breaking off into peals of laughter.
Once leaving Portugal, we stopped at a lake for a refreshing swim. The deep blue and surprisingly cold waters stretched outwards like a endless bolt of silk towards the mountains. We played and splashed about and suntanned for a couple hours before heading home for Salamanca, content with the day’s adventures country hopping.
July 13 – The Infinity Shoe, Mirrors, Casa Lis and Sabiduría
The next day at Gerardo’s, we immediately got to work painting our boxes. Traveling down the same path of bizarre inspiration I’d followed last class, I decided to paint my box as wildly as possible. The front of the shoe was painted with jade green and blue squiggles and spiky lines interspersed with randomly placed yellow dots. As I turned to the lid, sides, and sole of the shoe, I alternated between jade, blue, pink, and multi-colored stripes. The infinity sign I’d carved into the lid was then painted pink and lined with yellow. Comparing it to fellow students’ more practically shaped boxes topped with clay birds and even the turtle, my “box” looked like someone had had an existential crisis while creating it. When we later moved onto making mirror frames, students carved leaves, flowers, and impressed bottle caps to create circular patterns. I carved a lotus crocus before shaping petals around it and adding a triangle, circle and crescent moon. We all very much looked forward to painting it next class.
We’d been gifted a free afternoon, so I took the opportunity to spend quality time with my host mom Carmen. I strolled with her and Sanya along a grassy park that lined the Río Tormes to Museo Casa Lis, a place I’d wanted to see for several years. Because Carmen and I shared an appreciation for candid photos, we took many of each other as we walked past weeping willows and teens boating in the river shallows. We then met up with a few other students at the Casa.
Casa Lis, one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco ever done, was designed by Miguel de Lis in the 19th century and served as the home for the University of Salamanca director and his family. It is not only well known for its stunning use of stained glass walls on the southern side but also for its use of industrial architecture in a residential area with glass and iron elements.
Unexpectedly, the Casa had closed just 15 minutes prior, so Sanya, Carmen, fellow student Zuzka and I decided to explore the huertos, or gardens, outside the Casa. These gardens were overflowing with blossoms of all kinds, be it snapdragons, roses or daisies. A well in the middle of the garden was covered in love lockets. At the edge of the garden was a fountain with papyrus growing out of the rectangular basin. Here, Carmen and I scooped the water into our hands before flinging it away. At the tree next to the fountain, Carmen asked us to name it. I suggested two names, Esperanza, meaning hope, and Sabiduría, meaning wisdom. Carmen was enthralled with the second and adopted it right away.
While Sanya decided to meet up with a few others at the Plaza, I decided to spend some more time with Carmen. On the way home, she shared her impression of me. I was both surprised and deeply humbled by her saying I had a special form of charisma and a questioning mind coupled with sharp observational skills. I in turn shared with her my thoughts on how it felt to be a young adult in a foreign country, to which she supported my desires to have more independence and provided invaluable guidance for keeping a childlike sense of wonder and happiness close at heart. By the time we got home, we’d talked about everything from deeply personal matters to the state of the European Union. She then took me up to the roof of the apartment complex, where a garden of tomatoes was growing and laundry hung along lines strung wall to wall. This place, as Carmen pointed out, was her granddaughter Andrea’s quiet space where she liked to read.
Sitting with Carmen later on the couch and watching the World Cup final, I truly realized I appreciated Carmen as much as my own mom. Such conversations were ones I would never forget, and such life lessons were ones I would always use to continue growing each and every day.
July 14 – Salsa Part II and Tuna Music
Carlos segued from teaching comparative phrases to lessons on traffic conditions. In particular, I found the phrases rentable, meaning something that produces benefits, dentera, or the sensation caused by nails on chalkboard, and embotellamiento, meaning bottleneck, to be of interest. These were related to the future perfect and the compound conditional grammar forms. In Rosa’s class, I was intrigued by the phrases ser un tiquismiquis, or to be nitpicky, and most ridiculous of all, montar el pollo, which literally means to mount the chicken and figuratively means to get loud and angry when displeased with someone.
Come afternoon we were back in Igor’s classroom for afternoon salsa, grateful for shelter from the 37 degree Celsius heat. Once reviewing simple crossover moves, Igor quickly began exploring more partner moves that involved more complex turns and interlinked arm movements that transformed a seemingly simple dance into something much more graceful and pleasing to the eye.
By nighttime we found ourselves at Plaza Mayor and pleasantly surprised at the appearance of the University of Salamanca’s tuna band. With absolutely no relation to the fish, the tuna started out in the 13th century for students to obtain money and at times food. Tunantes, or members of the Salamanca tuna, were dressed in rich red velvet tops with puffy sleeves and dark brown drawstring pants, treated us to a impromptu concert featuring singing and instruments such as the lute, Spanish guitar, tambourine, and accordion. At one point, members pulled over two foreign girls and had them stand on chairs while they serenaded them; as an expression of thanks the girls were to kiss each member on the cheek in European fashion. As a big fan of street music, I loved hearing the sometimes energetic, sometimes melancholy tunes spun out by the tuna. It was the perfect way to wind down at the end of the night.
July 15 – Terrorizing the Tunante
In Carlos’ class we continued our lessons on expressions of agreement and the subjunctive forms of the pluscuamperfecto, preterite, and imperfect to express suppositions. The eye-catching phrases I learned were A mal tiempo, buena cara, (optimism on a bad day), Con las manos en la masa, (the American equivalent to hands in the cookie jar), and dar un besito, (literally meaning to give a kiss), to signify the lightest of car crashes. Rosa’s action class had shifted from heavier political debates to discussing pet peeves. Students were irritated by everything from dust to stray hairs to spitting on the streets. I picked up Qué mosca les habrá picado?, which means What do you find so interesting?, and learned the distinction between crimen and delito- the former could refer only to felonies, while the second referred to misdemeanors. In addition, atracar referred to violent robberies conducted with weapons.
By late afternoon we were once again back at Carbajosa to spend time with our Spanish friends. To beat the heat, which had just reached its height, we all dove into the community center pool or stayed in the shade playing cards.
Several hours quickly passed in this manner until we had to make it home in time for dinner with our families. Seated comfortably in the back row, we were suddenly elated to see one of Salamanca’s very own tunantes, or tuna band members, climb on at the last second carrying a Spanish guitar. All manner of acting like adults or adults-to-be was out the window. The only sound that came from the bus was hysterical giggling, “tuna, tuna, tuna”, “let’s go find out tuna man’s life story!” and even from one of the most reserved of us, “puedes firmar mi brazo”, or “can you sign my arm”. The tunante, who was a slight man with a weak brown mustache and wide doe eyes, was visibly startled at this sudden shower of attention and kept turning around nervously every 10 seconds or so or clutching his guitar closer to his chest. Such “good-humored” terrorizing continued nearly the entire bus ride home. By the time we reached Gran Vía, he was out the bus door the second it opened and shuffle-jogging away as fast as his burdensome guitar could permit without breaking out into a full run. By the time we’d gotten off the bus and made only half-serious plans to go find him again that night at the Plaza, he’d already turned the corner and vanished.
July 16 – Casa Lis Round Two and the Virgen Carmen
Despite a full afternoon and night planned today, I squeezed time to return to Casa Lis to explore its otherworldly stained glass interior and Antonio Gaudi exhibit. Arching high above our heads, the stained glass ceiling dome was a kaleidoscope of red constellations and gold stars rising from the surface of the glass like starfish and swimming in a baby blue sea and pearly clouds. The sunlight pouring through from above reflected the image upon all the glass panes lining the upper terrace, creating a three-dimensional, panoramic portrait.
The Gaudi exhibit, which was located under the dome, allowed me to vicariously experience my dream city Barcelona with full explanations for each of Gaudi’s works such as Parque Guell, La Sagrada Familia, and my very favorite, Casa Batlló. Beyond the exhibit were whole galleries dedicated to blown-glass pottery, painted fans, and small bronze sculptures of dancing gypsy women, their voluminous skirts flowing wildly in each frozen moment.
Undoubtedly most intriguing and spine-chilling of all was the doll exhibit, which Carlos once described as a place you definitely wouldn’t want to be alone at night. Dolls of all ethnicities and sizes stared at us, eerily motionless from behind the glass. Many had bulbous glass eyes that seemed to follow you wherever you walked; this was especially true of the blue-eyed dolls. The Asian and black dolls were particularly creepy and almost disrespectful in their portrayal, with the Asian dolls having angry, borderline murderous expressions and pointed eyebrows and the black dolls with skin of the deepest brown and massive, bright red lips that made me think of the “thick-lips” slur used often in Othello.
Although I would have loved to spend more time studying each work in the Casa, it was time to go to ceramics. I’d hoped I could up the creativity factor on my mirror when painting it, and here everyone really got the chance to get their hands dirty. One turned her mirror into intricate geometric patterns while another used sponges to help her create a sunset at the beach with a darkening sky spreading out overhead. I splashed my clay with random strokes, dots, and Chinese characters and painted each shape in with chaotically different colors. What I didn't like I painted over and finally stopped just short of making it a catastrophic mess.
On our next project, incense holders, I took a rectangular strip of clay, folded one corner inward and punctured a hole that allowed a stick of incense to be slid inside and held firmly in place. Along the base I carved in Chinese “Live every day happily”, a lesson I’d learned from Carmen.
That night we witnessed the regal procession of the Virgin del Carmen. Every 16th of July since 1587 her statue has been paraded around the streets in her honor. On this Salamanca evening, clergymen and several men bearing silk banners with her image preceded her statue. Behind them followed a litter borne by five women on each side. The litter was richly decorated with candles, the image of an anchor, white lilies and roses, and on top, the statue of Carmen sitting atop a cloud and cradling a child figure in her lap. Behind the litter were monks in dark habits and a band composed of trumpets, tubas, and drums singing out a somber, melancholy tune. Above our heads and adding to the heavy significance of the religious event, a massive swarm of bats had gathered in the sky and began dipping low enough to touch our heads. We continued following the procession along the river until the sun had sunk below the Río Tormes.
July 17 – Last Days at School
As our graduation date at school approached, Rosa introduced the subject of memories as our daily topic of discussion. These included the happiest days of our lives, a day we had either good or bad luck, a strange experience we had abroad, a special day from our childhood, and many others.
With no activities planned for the afternoon, I took the opportunity to slowly amble through more of Parque de los Jesuitas on the way home. It was lush with fruit trees and its pathways were shaded by lattices interlaced with white and red roses. Fountains were spread out liberally over the entire park and plenty of benches were available for elderly people to shoot the breeze. Once returning home and enjoying Carmen’s scrumptious dish of albondigas, or meatballs, with rice pudding to finish, we headed out once again to Camelot for the night.
Camelot was laid out a bit differently this time around, with the images of Roman emperors such as Augustus and the word ROMA superimposed on banners and draped behind the speakers. We got to spend more time there this time around and were happily tired out by the time our 12:30 a.m. curfew rolled around.
July 18 – We Graduated! Spanish BBQ to Celebrate
The bittersweet last day of classes had arrived. Along with myself, several other university students who had spent a longer time at school were also graduating and soon leaving the city they’d called home. During our first break, everyone was reunited to take a B2 class photo. I will cherish this photo, bright with everyone’s radiant smiles, for years to come. I will also remember Russ, whose bird shirt prompted one of Carlos’s offbeat lectures, proudly showing me a video of him shearing a sheep of its wool and saying that’s what he’d be doing back home in Wales.
Here in an environment steeped in unconditional positivity, we’d learned to “banish being bashful”, as one of our school’s signs declared outside our classroom, and improve our Spanish more quickly than we ever could back home. I raced through my last exam so Carlos could grade it; nodding satisfactorily as he quickly ticked off each page, he soon passed it back with a Sobresaliente and a bright happy face. Standing and calling me Dali, or his pet name for me, he gave me a big hug, kissed me on each cheek, and wished me well for Berkeley. I slipped out early before everyone else had finished their exams so all us Magellan students could get our diplomas from Amanda, our school’s director. She praised us highly for being one of the brightest groups of Magellan students she’d ever had the pleasure of knowing and gave us a pep talk on the advantage we had knowing Spanish in today’s world.
On each of our vividly colored pink and purple diplomas were curly-scripted statements of proof that we’d completed 80 hours of intensive language courses, with grades listed for each of the three courses we’d taken. All of us did remarkably well in receiving Sobresalientes and Notables. I was overjoyed to see that I’d gotten Sobresalientes in both Carlos’s two classes and Rosa’s action class.
After putting on Magellan’s beautiful 100% Immersion, 100% Magellan shirts and heading outside to take one last picture in front of the school with Amanda and some of the teachers, I found my fellow peers one last time to give them goodbye hugs. Although we’d be parting ways, we’d always have the opportunity to constantly stay in touch on Facebook or via email as pen pals.
The afternoon brought us again to Montse’s flamenco studio for one last lesson. She helped us tie together movements learned from the previous two classes and then explored movements that involved more flair. There were fast-paced hand movements that looked like we were striking the air with our palms. In the end, we gathered into a wide circle and Montse led the way in starting a freestyle danceoff. Each of us entered the middle of the circle and danced for ten seconds before allowing the next person to enter. Many of us showed off our knowledge of vueltas, wrist movements, or simple kicks as the dancing came full circle and Montse led us in doing a round two. No movement was too ridiculous in the eyes of Montse, who clapped and often shouted “Bravo!” to amp up good spirits.
Stomachs growling from the lesson, we headed to Carbajosa for a goodbye barbeque, which was to be celebrated Spanish style late into the night. Classic rock music was blaring from the speakers when we walked in and a black-aproned Spaniard was busy at work at the massive grill turning a literal mountain of meat and sausage into culinary delights. When each of us got to the front of the line, we were given a heaping helping of fresh bread and five kinds of meat, including morcilla, or Spanish blood sausage, made of pig’s blood, rice, onions, and other spices. I’d been wanting to try the morcilla for ages. While it had a rather frightening deep black appearance, it turned out to have a intriguing gelatinous texture and the spices nicely evened out any strong taste or smell of blood. All the meat was cooked very thoroughly- no medium rare this time around- and was cushioned by thin layers of fat that we all delicately ate around.
Following our feast we all let our bulging bellies relax a bit, then it was onto dancing. A DJ had set up his booth by the barbeque and was spinning out tunes we’d never heard before that were popular in Spain as well as electronic dance tracks. What I appreciated about Spanish dance music was that there was more side-to-side footwork instead of just jumping up and down and throwing a hand repetitively into the air.
What I loved most about this dance party was that both adults and teenagers participated, and at many times, the adults danced with even more energy than those our age. When one particular song came on, the 90s hit “Saturday Night” by Dutch singer Whigfield, everyone broke out into a dance that could only be described as a more adorable version of the Cha Cha Slide, with back and forth hops and Macarena-like grabbing of the hips. We all followed along with the adults, who were pretty much pro at the dance, and by song’s end we were dancing with as much energy as they were.
By 1 am we were blissfully partied out and ready to go home. We all fell asleep with bellies full and good music thrumming in our ears.
July 19 – Raku Born out of Flames
On our last day with Gerardo we were given first row seats to witness one of the most rare and awe-inspiring artistic processes in the world- raku. A Japanese art form that predates the 16th century, raku was used in Japanese tea ceremonies and later adapted by American Warren Gilbertson while he was stationed in pre WWII Japan. Raku is known for its unpredictability and unearthly beauty.
As raku pieces are fired at a temperature that can soar above 1,000 degrees Celsius, or over 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit, many preventive measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of the ceramicists. Today was Miguel’s first time handling kiln duties. His nose was coated in thick bandages and his face and chest covered with a towel that was pinned tightly with a clothespin at the nape of his neck. A baseball cap, sunglasses, apron, and heat resistant gloves provided extra essential protection. As we watched from behind the safety of the workshop’s glass door, Miguel cautiously pushed open the kiln, which glowed an otherworldly orange and sent heat blasting full force into Miguel’s face.
Undaunted, he expertly plucked up each raku piece with his tongs and set them down into a nearby vat filled with sawdust, to which each piece would instantly catch on fire. Setting blazing hot raku pieces onto combustible materials is a newer Western adaptation that allows the unglazed portions to turn black. At times, Miguel’s muffled cries of “It’s so hot!” and his mad dancing would cause all of us to laugh good-naturedly. This entire time, Gerardo stood nearby, not shielded by any protective gear, reaching into the burning vat to readjust pieces and to pour water onto each piece. This would release a cloud of grayish smoke that smelled like a smores bonfire on steroids. Ultimately, this water would stop the glaze’s chemical reactions from changing any more in color.
We then took turns packing our necklaces, box, and mirrors into layers of newspaper while others went outside to scrub the raku pieces. Once choosing a bowl for ourselves, we began removing the outside layers of soot with dishwashing fluid and rough dish sponges; the more we scrubbed, the more the glaze would begin to sparkle. Once they’d been scrubbed for 20 minutes or so, these pieces proved to be truly extraordinary. Depending on the time it was doused in water, there was either baby blue or emerald green or both colors of glaze sparkling along the sides. Each bowl was shaped to have wavy, irregular sides. The interior was perhaps the most intriguing of all, with iridescent bronze and green in mine and complete blue in another’s. Once turned under the light, it seemed to change from bronze to purple and from green to indigo.
Our incense holders had been fired raku style as well. Some were completely bronze and blue, while some, like mine, were pearly white and blue with only hints of bronze along the sides. The raku bowls, despite having the potential to be sold at handsome prices, were given as parting gifts to each of us. After having the chance to be treated to Reyes’ last feast, we hugged all three of them tightly and kissed them on the cheek. Gerardo and Reyes’ passion had affected us all, and gave us an ever stronger appreciation for the arts that we weren’t soon to forget.
July 20 - A Tearful Goodbye to Salamanca
There’s no such thing as a happy goodbye, and in no case was this more true than our goodbye from Salamanca. All of us had grown to love the city and our families as much as our own. Quite a few of us wished to return one day to Salamanca to revisit our host families and to perhaps even settle down here as adults.
Our last lunch with Carmen was one where a sense of longing hung heavily in the air- we didn’t want to think that our packed up suitcases were waiting down the hallway and she didn’t want to see us walk out her door that one last time. As we ate and tried to keep our mind off the inevitable, we quietly listened to her giving us last words of advice. She said the most important thing of all is to love unconditionally, or as she liked to put it, in mayúsculas, capital letters. She reiterated what she’d said the day the two of us had returned from Casa Lis on always maintaining a child’s sense of wonder close at heart, especially once reaching adulthood and middle age and finding the world to be a much bleaker place than expected, while seeking not to grow up too fast in the meantime. By using the example of when she unknowingly dropped 80 euros from her purse and didn’t beat herself up about it, she taught us the importance of not crying over spilt milk.
Carmen then switched to a more light-hearted subject and asked us what our favorite colors were. While we answered, she smiled satisfactorily and nodded as if in self-congratulation. Rising, she left the room and returned with two gifts, wooden incense holders she’d painted that filled with incense sticks. She must’ve sensed some sort of aura from each of us, as each one was indeed impressionistically painted the colors we’d just mentioned not 30 seconds prior. On the back she’d inscribed personal messages, to me, she said to always believe in love in capitals and in the power of Alborada. Showering her with thanks, we in turn presented her with our gifts, a ceramic bowl, the box Sanya had made in class, and artisan soap. Carmen was elated and instantly put these on her altar of mementos by the dining room table where they’d always be visible.
Growing quiet after this, Carmen brought out her small notebook with gilded pages and asked us to write her a “report card” to leave comments. I gave her a “sobre, sobresaliente” and talked of the unconditionally positive environment her home provided, the lessons I would never forget, and then told her out loud that I was beginning to love her like my own mother. Carmen abruptly covered her face and bent her head down towards her chest, and when she finally lifted her head, I saw her eyes were filled with tears. She choked out a half muffled sob before squeezing her eyes shut tightly and willing the tears to go away.
Not long after the taxi arrived to take us to the Salamanca bus station. We bid her house goodbye with a soft “bye bye, casita” and tried our hardest not to look back. On the ride over, Carmen chatted amiably with the taxi driver, but at times she would look over at me and I would see her eyes were filled with an indescribable look of sorrow. Although we were the first family to arrive, Carmen was one of the last ones to leave. Even when she saw other parents hugging and kissing students goodbye, she remained seated. When it finally came time to say goodbye, we brought her outside and clutched her tightly, saying we were going to miss her so dearly and that one day we would surely return. As she began to walk away, with shoulders bowed and a hand covering the tears now flowing down her face, I felt a great bubble of tension rise in my chest; when Carmen turned around one last time, I had a hand covering the silent sob trying to escape from my mouth. As soon as she turned around, I quickly walked back into the station, knowing full well that despite having a rather large audience there was no stopping the tears now. I held nothing back as the tears began running quickly and easily down my cheeks. My roommate, seeing me in such a state and still in denial that Carmen was actually gone, began tearing up and, like Carmen had earlier at lunch, tried hard to will the tears away.
After I was all cried out, it was time for us to get on board for the next leg of our journey. With a heart no longer racked with bitter emotions, I sat back and eagerly awaited the beginning of our next adventure - to Santiago de Compostela.
July 21 – A Pilgrim’s Paradise
I was quickly taken with the city of Santiago. Tall buildings with panels of eight windows each with 10 panes lining the top of each structure gave the city a refreshingly open and airy feel. We were staying in the historic hostel, which was typically reserved for peregrinos, or pilgrims, who had reached the end of the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. James was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus who voyaged across much of Spain spreading the Christian faith after the crucifixion of Christ. Legend has it a shepherd was directed to the Saint’s remains by a mysterious glow from a star in 813, and it was here that the cathedral was built in his honor. This world-famous pilgrimage route began in the 12th century amongst Galicians and soon spread to Europe as a voyage to the remains of Santiago, or St. James, at the Catedral de Santiago. Nearby the Hostal, I constantly saw pilgrims with massive calf muscles dressed in traditional pilgrim gear- large knapsack or backpack, bedroll, scuffed hiking shoes, and walking stick sometimes equipped with the hourglass shaped drinking gourd. Some sported shirts that said “Sin dolor, no hay gloria” meaning “Without pain there is no glory” and had a cartoon image of a foot covered in blisters and bandages.
By mid-morning we were on our way to the old town district of Santiago, heralded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to meet our pen pals. The Magellan staff put us in touch via email with Santiago teens a month prior to our depature to Spain. While some had one pen pal, many of us, including myself, were lucky enough to have two. Martina was 16 and Nuria was 17. Over our email correspondences, I found out that Martina was fascinated with the very places I was most familiar with, Hollywood, Santa Monica, and the Greater Los Angeles area. Nuria and I both shared a passion for Sherlock Holmes; I was an avid fan of the BBC show and had read about 12 of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, Nuria hadn’t yet watched the show but was a ACD superfan and had read all his works. Reading his stories had actually inspired her to consider pursuing a career in criminology, medicine, or psychology.
We met a group of about 10 penpals in one of the city’s main thoroughfares. All were incredibly friendly and excited to meet us. To my joy, I got to meet both Martina and Nuria, and instantly struck up a conversation with Nuria about Sherlock while we went exploring around the city with everyone. Although I got along with everyone, I quickly formed a close bond with both Nuria, her good friend Mar, and my friend’s pen pal Valerie. Nuria remembered everything I told her over email and was evidently an extremely intelligent girl who knew both French and Japanese and possessed deep knowledge of Spanish politics and laws. Mar was a talented violinist and pianist, and Valerie was one of the cheeriest, happiest people I’d ever met who always had a bright smile lighting up her face.
While exploring I noticed something that you’d never see in Salamanca. Whenever walking through busy passageways, I’d always see men and women covered in face and at times body paint positioned on pedestals and standing stock still, to the point where they’d achieve the effect of looking like stone statues. The first man I came across doing this was emulating Gandi. At first I wasn’t even aware that I wasn’t admiring a statue. He was holding a staff, gazing serenely at the bright morning sun, and was dressed head to toe in milky layers of white clothing. Other women I saw were painted blue, dressed in vibrant gypsy robes, and tranquilly looking down at the ground while balancing a hand curled like a flower in the air. Even with the hustle bustle around them, none of these artists so much twitched a muscle or blinked an eye. Nuria told me this was their way of earning extra money and was a popular art form in many cities, especially Madrid and Barcelona.
Seeing we were in Santiago it was essential that we enter the main Cathedral. Although it was built in the more dark-interiored Romanesque style, it seemed to be more airy than most Romanesque cathedrals that one reads about in AP Art History class. It had soaring ceilings, dim crystal chandeliers, Corinthian columns and florid gold columns made entirely of intertwined leaves and and fruits. While waiting in line to see St. James’ tomb and hug the statue of Saint James, as tradition called for us to do, our conversations were abruptly hushed by a woman’s voice over the intercom firmly telling us that silence was golden here, followed by several prolonged “Shhhh”’s.
Once passing through the tunnel containing James’ tomb, we ascended a flight of stairs leading to massive cherubs holding up the ceiling above the saint’s head. He was crowned with a white halo encrusted with small colored circles and the image of the scallop shell, which points pilgrims in the right direction. Many threw their arms around him and hugged him tightly from behind, while others like myself gently patted him on the shoulders as a way to receive good luck.
Upon leaving the cathedral we took a long and relaxing walk down to a lake framed by weeping willows and filled with graceful swans. One swan, however, decided to be not so graceful and instead hopped out of the water and waddled across the street without any regard for oncoming traffic.
By the time we returned from the lake we were starving and eager for Galicia’s speciality- pulpo, or octopus. As the Santiago kids knew best, they led us to Bierzo Enxebre, a somewhat pricey restaurant known for its octopus. Served on round wooden platters for four, both the heavily suction cupped portions and the cuts that resembled chicken breasts were served. Stuffed with sea salt and coated in red spices, they proved to be surprisingly delicious and not overly fishy. The suction cups slid smoothly down my throat rather than grabbing at my insides like I’d imagined they would. Following the octopus was potato croquetas and jamón con melón, or proscuitto ham with Spanish honeydew melons. Such a combination of salty and sweet satisfied both the dessert and main course.
We continued spending time with our new friends buying artisan teas, spending time in Santiago’s many parks, and enjoying street music late into the afternoon. By the night’s end, we couldn’t bear to part with them and couldn’t wait til Wednesday when we would meet again.
July 22 – A Voyage to the Islands of the Gods
Before the sun had squeezed in its first morning stretch, we were already making our way down darkened streets. Once arriving at the Santiago station we caught a high-speed train that soon brought us to Vigo, a city on the northwest coast of Pontevedra province facing the Atlantic. For the first time in three weeks those of us from the coast were able to smell the familiar and comforting fragrance of sea salt mixed with a slight fishiness. After arriving at a marina lined with sailboats and small ships, we boarded a cruiser bound for the Islas Cíes, an archipelago protected by the Islas Atlánticas National Park and heralded by The Guardian as the best beach in the world and by the Romans as islands fit for gods.
Because of its status as a protected park, our group was lucky enough to be amongst the 2,000 people permitted to set foot on the Islands that day. After over an hour of cruising smoothly through cobalt blue waters, we slid into Rodas, the gateway beach of the Cíes. It boasted ultra-clear turquoise and jade green waters and pure white sands; it seemed like a snapshot straight from the Caribbean. Unlike all beaches I’d ever been to, this one was completely undisturbed by the modern world save for one low-lying restaurant. Directly behind the beach was a winding boardwalk that led into slopes covered luxuriantly with pine trees and eucalyptus trees. Crossing the boardwalk, we made a right into the hills and ascended up hardened dirt paths that constantly allowed views of the water around us. After about 30 minutes of interrupted hiking, the cliffs we were hiking towards broke through the tree line and revealed a breathtaking view of jagged cliffs that alternated between lush green and stony. Waves gently swirled and eddied around the base of these cliffs a sheer drop of 200 feet below us and threw up sprays of white foam.
Once returning the way we came it was time to head down to the water. Heading away from the more frequented beaches, we wound through the forests until we reached a quiet beach sandwiched in between curving cliffs. The water was so clear you could see every silver flash of fish, every moss-covered rock, and every crab carcass or shell that floated by your feet. The water proved to be refreshingly cold and a good respite from the sun’s intensely powerful death rays. Here we splashed and played games of who could stand longest on the barnacle and moss coated rocks without losing our balance. Once tired out we would return to the sand and either fill up on sandwiches or tan ourselves, assured by the fact that we’d reapplied sunscreen multiple times. Once overly baked, we’d return to the water. In this manner a blissful several hours passed until it was time to beach hop to a larger and more frequented beach. After pausing to refuel on delicious, saucer-shaped peaches and ice cream purchased at the local market, we soon arrived at Figueiras beach on the other side of the island. Two others and I floated on our backs for minutes on end without opening our eyes. Such an act put me in a state of mind I simply couldn’t find by living a city slicker lifestyle. With all thoughts drained from our minds we were all able to enter a state of serene relaxation and get a full recharge. After returning to Vigo to enjoy a picnic dinner, we all agreed that our voyage that day to the Cíes’ pristine paradise had undoubtedly been our favorite day yet.
July 23 – Our Inner Chefs Come to Light
Our morning walk through Santiago brought us to its large open air market, where we picked up some ingredients for our upcoming cooking lesson. We passed by tarps brimming with baby clothing and pajamas; crates of ultra-fresh produce beckoned to us, along with displays of smoked fish to golden rounds of aged cheeses, lomo (pork back), and chorizo gallego (Galician sausage). Inside a high ceilinged stone building we walked by poultry sections boasting glossy livers, crabs, and whole plucked chickens with head and feet still intact. Outside, we stopped by a stand to personally pick out organic Roma tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, limes, and cucumbers bursting with freshness, then swung by a old grandmother’s stand to purchase kilos of golden-orange homemade honey made from a medley of ingredients such as frutas del bosque, or fruits of the forest, among other blossoms. Near this woman’s stand a man was plucking whole octopi from a crate and lowering them into a massive steel vat to boil.
With jars of honey in hand we made our way to the beautifully maintained cooking school located in the same neighborhood. The school was run by Maria, a bright and cheery woman who instantly led us into the kitchen. This had more than 12 ovens and was dominated by a massive metal table in the center with electric stovetops, tall cups with spatulas and whisks, yellow and green cutting boards, and various cutting knives sheathed in plastic. Half of us got started on making empanadas, or meat-stuffed bread that resembles calzones, while the other half was to make the famous tarta de Santiago, which we’d sampled two nights prior at the Casa Manolo pilgrim restaurant.
Our side of the huge table began on the empanadas by first chopping up the onions and bell peppers while trying not to cry a river from the onions antagonizing our tear ducts. We then heated up golden pools of olive oil and set to sauteeing both vegetables until they’d caramelized. In the meantime, the other group was whisking lime zest and eggs for the tart. Once removing the vegetables and placing them into a bowl, we added large chunks of Bonito, a fish that resembles tuna in taste. Then we moved onto making gazpacho, a chilled summer soup made of tomatoes and peppers. We first made incisions in the shape of a cross into the tomatoes before boiling them. Once boiled, the incisions had expanded, allowing us to peel the tomato skin off with ease. Maria then pureed these peeled tomatoes while we rolled out dough for the empanadas. We placed the Bonito and vegetable filling into these dough sheets and made extra mini empanadas with the more sticky dough before sticking them into the ovens with the tarta to bake.
While we waited for the ovens to do their work, we treated ourselves to the gazpacho, whose thick consistency and refreshingly light flavor complemented with fresh slices of bread proved to be a great starter. The empanadas came out golden brown and were satisfyingly not too fishy and was the perfect combination of salt and sweetened peppers and onions. We decorated the tarta by placing a paper cutout of the cross of Santiago on top and sprinkling liberally with powdered sugar before removing the cutout to reveal the golden-brown shape of the cross surrounded by white. The tart was genuinely addictive with its moist texture and subtle lime flavor, and although we were already incredibly stuffed, it proved impossible not to resist seconds.
Happily content, we thanked Maria profusely and sadly bid her goodbye. It was time to meet up with our pen pals again to go to the city’s famed Cidade da Cultura museum, located on the city outskirts on a sloping series of hills. Designed by a team of architects from Europe and led by American architect Peter Eisenman, the museum’s objective is to present the best works from all over Galicia, Europe, and Latin America. The Cidade had buildings made of sloping tan and white marble paths that swept upwards like windswept mountain peaks towards the sky and coexisted beautifully with the startlingly blue sky behind them. Our guided tour began outside at a sphere of books and other forms of media swirling tumultuously into a black hole like vortex. As these books and media weren’t catalogued, to me it possibly symbolized society’s loss of information.
Once inside, our guide gave us an overview of each of the buildings and a brief vision statement of each of the architects before taking us to the museum’s library, an airy white structure open to the public as a study space. The soaring ceilings, large glass windowpanes, and minimalist elements blended with the bookshelves and thick rectangular columns that had hidden shelves within their walls. Because the museum was currently featuring water as their main exhibition focus, there was an outdoor exhibit located in a glass tower that resembled a spacious elevator with small baggies of water hanging from the ceiling by thin silver wires. Under the sun’s midafternoon light the bags glowed and sparkled as they lazily turned about like mobiles. Directly adjacent to the glass tower was a pitch dark room with illuminated water baggies hanging from the ceiling from shorter wires so that it was possible to stand underneath and gaze upwards. Every wrinkle in the bag was lit in a way that the bags resembled moon jellyfish. In a building directly across the way were three floors each dedicated to a different aspect of water. One floor was simply a roaring soundtrack of a thunderstorm, while other floors had sculptures of water droplets and paintings of wintry scenes.
Once leaving the Cidade it was time to return to our restaurant of choice, Casa Manolo. For starters we could choose between everything from clam noodles to Galicia’s famous cooked pimientos de padrón, a dish of jalapeño-like peppers that bear the motto “some are spicy, some are not”. The main course favorite was either a sauced steak or lightly fried and breaded squid rings with salad. After creating such a masterful tarta, we all couldn’t resist ordering again for dessert. The lime notes created a sweet ending to our evening.
July 24 – Fiestas Fit For a World Audience
Although fiestas honoring the Apostle last a fortnight, they reach their peak during the 24th and 25th of July. By mid morning the main square was packed with people watching men and women dressed in long cloaks and sailor hats to long blue and white skirts dance with each other and with groups of little Spaniard children. All adults wore overly large heads with exaggerated expressions of surprise or distress. Nearby were about 10 paper giants that would later be paraded around the city. At the base of each giant were small basket seats where performers could sit after climbing inside. These giants, much like the dancers, had intriguing facial expressions. One giant had cherry red lips opened in a O and was wearing a large floral overcoat, while another had a pipe wedged in his frowning, downturned mouth.
While exploring the city’s festivities, we came across several street performers from Celtic bagpipe players to massive bubble blowers who used a long string strung between two poles to release rainbow spheres of color. As the Celts once had a strong presence in Santiago and Galicia as a whole, intricate Celtic symbols were everywhere, their infinite loops symbolizing the cycle of life. Symbols for the Camino like the yellow arrow and the concha, or shell, were present at many street corners to direct pilgrims in the right direction. On our walk home, we ducked into a little psychedelic yoga shop called Lejano Sur, or Far South. Inside the incense filled store was a mish mash of wares ranging from ceiling lights created from petal shaped sheets of music to floor lamps created from plastic cups to little statues of cherubs with saddened faces.
When the sun began to make its descent we made our way to the Obradoiro cathedral square, where thousands were beginning to gather for the nighttime light show. The cathedral façade, which was largely shielded at the moment by scaffolding, had a large false façade in front that was also designed in the Gothic style. To pass the time, our pen pals showed us ascodevida.com, the equivalent to America’s FML.com, to get a sense of Spanish humor. As the hour crept towards 11, people began pouring in from all corners and desperately trying to squeeze in a spot.
All at once, the cathedral was bathed in an otherworldly gold glow as Gary Jules’ “Mad World” began to play. In remembrance of the tragedy that shook the nation last year, in which a high speed train entering Santiago derailed and killed 80, the victims’ gold lettered names began floating across the cathedral front; I remember in particular the name Rosa de la Ascensión. The combination of the slow, somber clapping from the audience and the haunting lyrics of “Mad World” sent chills running all the way down to my toes.
But, being a fiesta, the showrunners smoothly transitioned into a 3D laser-conducted narrative of the history of Santiago, complete with a man’s booming narrative in the Gallego dialect. This then segued into an upbeat soundtrack complete with raging dubstep and the Avengers soundtrack to start off the fireworks show, in which Spain’s pyrotechnic might was shot off directly behind the cathedral walls and exploded in starry bursts of color directly above our heads. Accompanying the heavier bass parts in each song were bright red firecrackers or gold swirls of sparks that were fired off from the false façade in deafeningly loud cracks.
Where I live I can often see firework shows from afar or be treated to a slew of illegal fireworks on the 4th of July, but I’d never been an audience member in a professional fireworks show. As the fantastic showers of color dazzled and danced before my eyes, I tilted my head all the way back and gazed up with an open-mouthed expression of wonder. This demonstration of pyrotechnical might was a fantastic way to honor the Apostle and struck awe in the global audience that had gathered to share in the fiestas.
As it was our last night in Santiago, my pen pals and I hugged one another for a long time with great reluctance to part from each other. Like my host mom Carmen, I will miss them all so dearly. I’ll miss Nuria’s sharp wit, Mar’s steadfast kindness, Martina’s outgoing nature, and Valeria’s sunny disposition. Not constantly staying in touch is out of the question. I know that the day I return to Spain, they will be among the first I go to see again. I will never forget these lifelong friends I was honored enough to make while overseas.
July 25 – Back in Time Along the Costa de Morte
Today was an early rise to take the scenic route from Santiago to La Coruña via Spain’s Costa de Morte, which is infamous for its treacherous, rocky shores and high number of shipwrecks. Although the coast is typically plagued with high speed winds and heavy rains, come summertime and all clouds are whisked away to reveal light blue skies that complement the sea’s Caribbean color palette of jade green and cobalt blue. During our winding journey along the coast, we stopped several times at pristine white sand beaches dotted with seaweed and algae coated boulders, multicolored shells, and smaller pools of water home to baby crabs. Many of us swam or walked knee-deep in the numbingly cold water, played ping pong, or simply tanned.
I appreciated that we stopped for lunch at the family-run O’Pinxo restaurant which was more well-known among locals than tourists. In the modern but cozy interior we feasted on Galician soup, ensalada rusa and paella that was bursting with succulent shrimps, clams, and chunks of chicken, veal, and local fish. For dessert we were treated to delightful house-made tiramisu, cheesecake topped with strawberry jam, and chocolate flan.
As the clouds and mist the coast is so famed for rolled back in, we arrived at a Galician castle with turrets and walls that must’ve been designed by a sadistic architect- in between wall and floor were large gaps that would act as easy traps for someone not paying attention to slip and fall in up to the hips. Scrapes for the lucky, broken bones for the unfortunate. In the gift shop were inexpensive but beautifully made owl ceramic good luck charms and glazed bowls and incense holders decorated with the Celtic signs representing the cycle of life.
La Coruña was a much larger city than Salamanca and Santiago combined and was packed with people attending the city’s medieval fair. During the fall, our residencia is home to the city’s female Colegio Mayor students studying to be part of the sisterhood. During the summer they open their doors to the Magellan groups and appreciate to interact with groups of American teens. Fortunately, these pristinely maintained individual dorm rooms were situated directly above all the festivities. Several blocks were full of stands richly draped with tapestries and Celtic banners selling wares from delicious crepes to kebabs, pizzas, falafels, artisan nuts and cheeses, and gluten free gummy sweets with flavors such as Irish cream, mojito, and honey. The sellers were dressed in long medieval style robes with embroidered headbands; women all wore alluring eye makeup. Banners with Celtic signs hung high over our heads and fluttered lightly in the night breeze. Certain stores selled more intriguing wares, such as yarn dolls of pop culture figures such as Iron Man, the Simpsons, Jigsaw from the Saw movies, Ronald McDonald, minions from Despicable Me, and Mario from Super Mario Bros, or necklaces of polished stone that promised to bring luck, protection from envy, or love. Right before midnight, the fair was spiced up further when a devil clothed in deep black and red drapes and wearing a ornate, pointed mask came rushing into the crowd on stilts. He dipped and swooped suddenly into people’s faces and caused a complete commotion with people scattering in all directions.
Medieval culture has always fascinated me and no fair I’ve ever been to has boasted such a stunning variety of wares from so many different nations. My night journey back in time will certainly be one I will remember long after my return from Spain.
July 26 – Little Explorers in La Coruña
With an entire day free to explore what one of the jewels of Galicia had to offer, nine of us headed out through the city’s main Plaza de María Pita. Pita is La Coruña’s most legendary figure, as she was the inspiration for the city to gather itself and defend La Coruña from destruction by Francis Drake’s English armada. In a time when even women and children were needed to fight and serve as nurses, she acted courageously and defied English authority by killing an English soldier when he tried to plant a standard onto Spanish soil. Her leadership inspired the Spanish to successfully push out the English in the 16th century. Her statue graces the middle of the plaza and forever stands as testimony to her courage.
While passing through a series of streets sandwiched by shoe stores and butter colored houses, we encountered a street performer who mesmerized us almost instantly. Bald and dressed sleekly in all black, he was dancing elegantly to classical music with a crystal ball by sliding it over and under his hands smoothly as if were lighter than silk. The ball itself seemed to slide as if it were suspended on a cushion of air. Combined with his graceful, flower-like hand movements and choreography punctuated with sudden swoops in time with the soaring vocals in the song, his routine kept us rooted to the spot for quite a good while.
After that we soon arrived at the beach. The waters were jewel blue and were flanked by white sands so smooth they appeared to be ironed; brightly hued high rises on one side and a massive sports stadium flanked the beach. We paused at an outlook with a memorial shaped like several curls of white ribbon dedicated to the Héroes del Orzán. Built just last year, this memorial honored several people: three policemen who’d given their lives to save a man in January 2012, a carpenter who drowned saving a woman in August 1897, and a boy who passed away during the rescue of a woman in August 1896.
On our loop back towards our residencia we stopped by a fountain filled with metal works of birds in flight to check out a small amusement park called Paraíso de los Niños, or the Paradise for Children, with a swing set and merry go round with more eclectic elements like swans, alligators, sidecars, safari Jeeps, and giant fish. Here we let our inner children loose and played about here like little imps until time constraints called for us to return home to prepare for our departure to Madrid.
July 27 – In the Heart of Spain
When our overnight bus arrived in Madrid at 6 am, we were quite groggy from only two or three hours of sleep. Disembarking into the balmy pre-dawn, we descended into a Metro subway station and wound our way down several tunnels and flights of stairs before reaching our train. Luckily it didn’t get much time to reach our modern and stylish hotel where we would be staying for the next two nights. It featured comfortable furnishings with gilded cushions and dark wood panels. It was conveniently close to the Puerta del Sol and the city’s Gran Vía, two of the most frequented places in Madrid. The hotel’s ample buffet breakfast had watermelon slices, various chocolatey cereals, fresh bread, and a mini cheese and meat bar. With these last three ingredients we were able to make open-faced bocadillos, or pan con tomate by smothering bread in olive oil and a thick tomato sauce made with peeled tomatoes and crushed garlic.
After clocking out for a few hours to get some quality rest in our rooms, we made our way over to the Museo del Prado, one of the most famed museums in Europe and arguably the entire world. It’s known for its rich collections of 12th to early 19th century artworks and has the biggest Spanish art collection in the world with more than 4,800 paintings from Spain’s most beloved artists from Velázquez to El Greco to Goya. In addition to its massive Spanish collection, there are galleries dedicated to Italian, Flemish, British, Dutch, French and German paintings as well as sections devoted to sculptures dating from the Greco-Roman period.
Along the way, we passed Madrid’s famous lizard artwork, which was painstakingly assembled out of 4,200 CD’s and superimposed upon the Vincci Soho hotel. The lizard was sprawled across three floors and seemed to be quickly making its descent down towards the ground, with splayed legs and tail curled tightly behind him. As I walked along I wondered who was lucky enough to be staying in the room directly behind the lizard’s head.
We continued through avenues lined with spacious gold-tan buildings, one of which was the house of Lope de Vega, one of Spain’s most beloved poets that I fondly remembered from my adventures in AP Spanish Literature this past year. As we neared the Prado, busy avenues merged onto serene, tree-lined boulevards where artists painted caricatures and sold floral scarves.
We were fortunate enough to have tickets secured half a year in advance, as the line outside stretched into the hundreds and disappeared around the bend. Once inside, we split into smaller groups to go get a taste of what the Prado had to offer. A few of us immediately headed to the Spanish gallery to explore Goya, who served as painter to King Charles III and royal court painter to King Charles IV. He was known for portraying them in a more realistic sense and didn’t gloss over physical imperfections. While walking through the gallery I was able to see Goya’s transition from painting much more cheerful subjects while in his youth to much darker subjects by the time he had narrowly survived an illness that rendered him deaf. Monsters and nightmares and witches were at the forefront of his paintings and etchings as well as violence and death. Although he did paint the famous The Family of Charles IV during this time, which features the royal family standing at the forefront with Goya himself at the back with an easel, he also created The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, which depicted Spain’s uprising against the French in dark tones.
While searching for one of the paintings that intrigues me most, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, I came across Peter Paul Rubens’ rendition of the same subject. More idealized in its depiction, Saturn’s long gray hair flowed gracefully behind him as he seized a piece of his son’s chest with his bared teeth; his son wore the same expression as a surrounding figure you’d see crying out during the crucifixion of Christ in a religious painting. In a neighboring room was Velázquez’s famed Las Meninas, which features the young crown princess being attended to by several ladies-in-waiting.
In another room I encountered my favorite painting of all time, Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. On the left panel is Paradise, with a pink fountain of life and the birth of Eve, and in the middle, the Garden of Earthly Delights itself, with throngs of people partaking in sinful, lustful activities. Because of their sins, their afterlives are spent in Hell, which is depicted in the third panel with men and women being tortured and a man being crucified on a harp while all burns around him. I was delighted to have finally found the original after seeing the intriguing Photoshop project in Segovia that had removed all people figures from the triptych.
And at last, I found Goya’s Saturn. It was tucked away in an eerily dark room to match the mood of Goya’s Black Paintings period and seemed to fill the entire room with invisible shouts and screams. There was nothing idealized about this Saturn, with coarse brushstrokes forming grizzled gray hair and eyes widened intensely with pure insanity. His mouth was a black cave poised to take another bite out of the carcass of his son, which was headless and reduced to a bloody pulp with the back, buttocks and legs dangling lifelessly from his hands. This horrifying depiction followed well with Goya’s fear of being forgotten and the numbing feeling of losing power towards the end of his life.
We had spent most of the afternoon here, and I could have spent hours more exploring the Prado, but time called for us to continue onto the Atocha train station, Madrid’s oldest station featuring a massive domed front made of iron and glass and an interior with a lush jungle island complete with hordes of turtles basking in the humidity. We spent a good chunk of time here before devouring a savory dinner and heading off to dreamland.
July 28 – Exploring the Reina Sofía
Our final full day in Madrid opened with us taking on Madrid’s Calle Preciados, one of Europe’s busiest shopping districts directly off the Gran Vía. We split into two groups; I led the group of casual shoppers while my friend led the heavy shoppers. Preciados was a wide avenue where shoppers were sheltered from the heat beneath large, sail shaped awnings in sheer blue, white, and orange. We first ducked into tourist shops to complete gift shopping for family and loved ones. Everything from I Love Madrid magnets to Real Madrid football jerseys to Madrid condoms was sold here. As it was one of the last weeks of Spain’s major summer sale season, we popped into more obscure stores with large red letters pronouncing Rebajas on it to try on cocktail dresses, but being shoppers on a budget, we would usually prefer to leave empty-handed. When we arrived at Bershka, the equivalent of America’s Forever 21, we were taken with the chic yet affordable options it offered on more than four floors. It was here that each of us decided to buy several items of clothing ranging from tops to skirts to dresses.
Our stomachs told us the lunch hour was fast approaching. I’d always wanted to try authentic Madrid tapas, or a series of appetizer snacks that compose a full meal, and so I found our group a tapas bar off the Calle Arenal called Cañas y Tapas. This was a cozy space created in 1999 that advertised a meal for 2 euros. I first entered because I was curious as to what cañas were, only to find that this was a small sized beer and that cañas referred to the glass they were served in. Obviously, if all of us were to be held to American standards of “legal”, cañas could not come to pass, so we each ordered water or soda and one to two tapas ranging from mini empanadas to ensalada rusa to croquetas. Each of these arrived in small, dark green earthenware dishes that vaguely resembled ashtrays and although small in size, two tapas proved to be incredibly filling.
Once reuniting with the heavy duty shoppers, it was time to make our way over to Spain’s famed Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. It was named for the Queen Sofia and is the 12th most visited museum in the world. It boasts a large collection of 20th century Spanish art, most notably Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. Its main building was originally a four story, austere 18th century hospital that was later converted into the Reina Sofía starting in 1980. On both sides of the old hospital were large glass elevator towers with sheer white letters declaring “Reina Sofía” down the sides. In between these towers stood a replica of Alberto Sanchez Perez’s The Spanish People Have a Path That Leads to a Star sculpture, a white cacti-like object that stretched upwards to a point with a red star on top. The original sculpture once stood outside the 1937 Spanish Pavilion in the Paris World Exhibition but was later destroyed.
The main entrance on the other side was a strikingly modern in comparison, with dark glass walls and deep red and black iron stripes lining the bottom walls and a dark black and white sculpture that rose and fell to the ground like a hastily drawn ribbon. Inside, we were given audio guides and set loose to explore the Sofía. Five of us set off down a long corridor buttressed by barrel vaults and lined with oxidized sculptures of deformed heads until we found ourselves at the exhibits that began with Goya’s antiwar etchings titled Los Desastres de la Guerra. Out of these I found Murió la Verdad, or Truly Dead, to be most intriguing. Under a charcoal sky, a group of men watched somberly over a woman figure dressed in white lying on the ground and radiating white beams of light from her dead body.
My next stop was the museum’s treasure, Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Surrounding the piece was a detailed collection of Picasso’s paintings of La Llorona, or The Weeping Woman, with her mouth stretched open in an anguished cry and a crumpled handkerchief clenched in one hand. Guernica itself was an arresting, gargantuan work taking up an entire room, with 10 paces needed to walk from one end to the other. Its muted gray, black and white tones provided a stark contrast to the vibrant Picassos directly outside and seemed to fill the room with silent shrieks.
When gazing upon the chaotic Guernica, it’s nearly impossible to tell what inspired its creation. When the German Luftwaffe bombed the Basque town of Guernica, it was the first time a civilian town had been bombed from the air. Picasso decided to make a statement against the Spanish Civil War after this, and finished this work for the Spanish Pavilion in the 1937 Paris Expo in a matter of months. Hanging at the forefront of the pavilion’s main room, its figures, be it the woman in flames at the right, the desperately neighing horse in the middle with a spear through its side, the woman at left clutching her dead child and screaming in anguish towards the sky, or the armless solider lying prone on the ground, all spoke not only about the horrors of Guernica, but the universal horrors of war.
Its monochrome colors, as the audio guide explained, were chosen by Picasso in the belief that bright colors would ruin the effect he was trying to create. Once completing Guernica, a group of trusted fellow artists came by to study the work. They helped him choose colored sheets of paper and then watched silently as he cut them into suitable shapes and covered the entire work with them. And then, one by one, he began removing them all until all that remained was a single tear shaped drop of blood. This was when Picasso decided that the only color that was to remain while at the pavilion was this teardrop.
After 20 minutes of listening to the guide and gazing at Guernica, my mind was swimming with images of gruesome war and the silent screams of Guernica’s figures. Newly enriched on Guernica’s full history, I headed off to the Dalí gallery to bend my mind in a different direction. I saw The Architectural Angelus of Millet, The Invisible Man, and the sculpture Portrait of Joella, in which the face of an orange hair and skinned Joella was split halfway between blue skies and brick walls. The Endless Enigma and The Enigma of Hitler both featured cloudy subjects, with a half-invisible cherub in one and a tiny photograph of Hitler in a large white plate scattered with white beans.
After briefly exploring the post-war exhibition, which featured mobiles and pop art, we made our way back to our hotel. While passing through the Calle de Preciados, we encountered a street performer unlike any we’d ever seen. Atop a mud covered pedestal was a motorcycle with one wheel raised in the air. A man wearing a heavy leather jacket had only his hands planted onto the seat to support his entire body, which was floating behind him effortlessly as if he were in space. Every time someone gave him a money donation, he would slowly raise one hand off the seat and raise it to make a peace sign, and remain supporting his body with one hand for nearly half a minute before replacing both hands.
Our last dinner in Spain was easily one of the most lavish meals I’d ever had. Instead of the two tapas I had for lunch, there were five or six tapas for us to gorge ourselves on, ranging from fried squid rings to prosciutto ham to gouda cheese to croquetas. This was then followed by a heaping plateful of paella that was irresistible even though we were already getting quite full. By the time ice cream came around, we could hardly get down a single bite. Half in a state of post food bliss and half in a state of complete food coma, we ambled over to Madrid’s Palacio Real, where the new king and queen of Spain had recently been crowned. Although this Classical and Baroque grand white beauty is their official residence, it is now only used for state ceremonies; the royal family instead currently resides in the modest Palacio de la Zarzuela outside Madrid.
By the time we returned to our rooms it was already the wee hours of the next morning. We hurriedly packed and all squeezed in a few precious bits of sleep before our early rise the next morning.
July 29 – Goodbye Spain
The day that we all never wished to come finally rolled around the corner. As we made our way to the Madrid Barajas airport, we all tried to keep conversation on light-hearted topics, but once arriving the terminal we could no longer skirt around the inevitable. As little groups and then Roxanna’s larger group peeled off to their own flights, with nearly tearful goodbyes we embraced one another and promised to keep in touch. I was very glad my experience slid into a less abrupt conclusion, as I was able to reflect on my month abroad with fellow student Andrew for over an hour as we waited for our respective flights.
It was while I was waiting in the terminal after Andrew departed that I wished to jot down a few last thoughts on my month-long adventure. There are an infinite number of bright memories that I will replay in my mind long after the summer has passed. When thinking of all these memories it is difficult not to associate them with the countless benefits the program provided. A full immersion of this sort does not merely gloss over the surface of a country with a culture and history as rich as Spain’s, but instead incorporates you as one of Spain’s own, a Spanish citizen in training, if you will.
August 23 – Looking Back On An Incredible Adventure
Spain now resides within us as a new, integral part of our identities after slowly taking root and blossoming over the course of the last month. Previously, growing up we'd picked up smaller cultural aspects that we integrated into our own identities as a result of living in the world’s ultimate melting pot. However, living in a country like America, with an abundance of disparate cultures doesn't classify one as a world citizen. With so many meshing cultures fighting for attention here in the States, ultimately each culture becomes altered to the point where it can’t provide a pure picture.
Our Magellan experience provided endless chances to purely immerse ourselves in the subcultures that make up Spain. We deepened our understanding of Spain’s golden, turbulent history through viewing Spain’s artistic masters — be it Dalí, Goya, Velázquez or Picasso — in two of the world’s most beloved museums. Our visits to World Heritage Sites allowed us to see how Roman works continue to live on today thousands of years later. Getting our hands dirty with ceramics and cooking, learning flamenco’s wild steps from a true expert, and witnessing achingly romantic flamenco and tuna performances gave us a masterful understanding of Spain’s soul.
There’s a famous Chinese proverb that says traveling a thousand miles is the equivalent to reading a thousand books. In no way does this fit better than in the case of our Magellan immersion. Back home, our exposure to Spain and the Spanish language was limited at best. In Spain, we were given the chance to truly grasp what it means to be quintessentially Spanish. As our classes were largely composed of European students, our classroom debates exposed us to the European way of lifestyle beyond just Spain. I became close friends with many of my European peers and continue to stay in touch over the web; in this sense we are truly creating a intimate, transnational community.
Once in Spain many doors were opened to us. With the homestay family, we were given the rare chance to be accepted into the fold of complete strangers. While learning to build a home away from home, we ultimately came to love our homestay families as much as our own. During the first week, conversations conducted in rapid-fire Spanish made many of us completely bewildered and left us feeling capable only of saying “sí” repeatedly. Within the next two weeks this quickly shifted into maintaining more complex means of communication. Watching our moms prepare culinary masterpieces, being gently corrected when misusing vocabulary, or even learning profound life lessons on how to better yourself as a young adult served as the most instrumental tool in learning Spain’s key customs.
Everyone agrees that learning at our language school in Salamanca was the real highlight of our month-long stay. There, we were taught by some of the most inspiring teachers we’d ever had in our academic careers, and shared classes with students from nations such as Italy, England, Finland, France, Germany,, and the Netherlands. Our teachers’ vibrant personalities and genuine enthusiasm uncovered our passion for the language and culture far beyond what could be unearthed simply by learning Spanish at home in the US.
Our weekend adventures to places from Segovia to Bragança to La Coruña ultimately brought us all closer by allowing us to explore the cities in independent groups as if we were adults and also gave us the opportunity to interact with students from different regions of Spain. Touring Santiago de Compostela with pen pals so knowledgeable about the city’s rich historical significance and so willing to discuss deeper political and cultural issues regarding Spain made conversation genuinely enjoyable and memorable.
Last but certainly not least, one of the greatest aspects of the program is the chance it gave students to transform completely thanks to the unconditional support of the dedicated Program Director and their staff who were on-hand for the entire month. Certain students came in very shy and with only a basic understanding of Spanish and left more fully fledged, outgoing individuals with impressive conversational capabilities.
As someone who has always had a keen interest in diplomacy and international relations, I am now completely set on a future career that involves strengthening relationships between nations such as the US, Spain, and China. I was given a priceless gift and genuinely life-changing opportunity to study abroad less than two months before heading off to college to build my career path. Thanks to Magellan Study Abroad, Spain has made an indelible impression upon all our young minds. For now, we bid you hasta luego, beautiful Spain. Know that as our second home, you will never be far away in our hearts.