Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Same Topics, New Blog

I guess I lied with that whole "The Last Update" bit.  Turns out there is another piece of news worth including:

I was recently informed of the opportunity to write a blog with a project called "The Global Conversation".  It's a series of blogs by people affiliated with Brown University (that's my school, should someone not know) through a collaboration between the AT&T and the Watson Institute (the international relations think tank at Brown).  I thought it would be an interesting way to write about some of the policy-related things I've been thinking about recently, so I set up a page.  You can read it at:


I'll be talking about some of the things I mentioned on this blog, concentrating on the policy aspect.  My main focus will be on the changing nature of governance, especially in Europe, where power is often shared between regional, national, and European* levels.  I would encourage anyone who enjoyed this blog to take a look at it.

*I actually don't know how to say this in English.  See, in Spanish, one would say "comunitario", which originally referred to the European Community.  Maybe a word like this exists in English, but since I learned this all in Madrid, I have no idea what it would be.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Last Update

Hello from the United States.

I've been home for a week and a half now, and realizing that I never got to the end of my time in Spain, I figured I should get the last bit out.

My last week in Madrid was a bit crazy.  My internship had a conference that we had been preparing for the vast majority of my time there.  It was to discuss responses to alleged biological weapons attacks, as was done in conjunction with the Council of the European Union (that's sort of the EU equivalent of the Senate, but unelected with multiple configurations) and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs in Geneva.  The fact that three different bodies, all with very distinct operating procedures, were working on one project meant that it was absurdly difficult to organize and assign tasks.  Fortunately, we were only in charge of the local logistics, like hotel, food, and venue, but that didn't stop us from having more than a few conflicts, especially with the people in Geneva.  While it was infuriating at the time, it was an interesting experience in cultural differences.  My coworkers were surprisingly laid back about the whole affair, which unnerved me, but ended up being the best choice considering that, at the last minute, the roof of our conference room collapsed at the first restaurant made impossible demands.

My chief role at the conference was to be the lead English speaker for our organization.  Although the director, Vicente, spoke English reasonably well, he was often occupied with other things and did not know the logistical aspect.  The other real employee, Sandra, spoke in partial sentences in what sounded like a Russian accent, though she seemed to understand it well.  The other intern, Dona, made a good effort, but was largely limited to asking people how they were, smiling agreeably, and then promising that the next time they met, she would speak much better.  They left me to sorting out problems and concerns, which was surprisingly enjoyable.

The sessions were somewhat interesting, but tended to have a bit too much disarmament jargon for me.  Unlike other fields, technical diplomatic jargon tends to use common phrases, like "capacity building", but uses them to imply specific scenarios.  To listen it without knowing the context, it sounds like people are purposefully using the vaguest terms possible, but in reality, they are hashing out particular arrangements.  As a result, people tend to have arguments over wordings that seem semantic, put actually convey a great deal of meaning.  For instance, I heard one discussion over whether the conference title should have been "alleged use" or "alleged misuse", since the biological agents could be used potentially in peaceful ways, which was obscured by "use".  "Misuse", however, implied that it was know whether the outbreak was caused by peaceful or non-peaceful uses, which is usually not the case.  No resolution was reached, but all parties agreed that "alleged" was poorly chosen in that it was too accusatory.

Given that biological disarmament isn't my field, one of the best parts for me was the meals.  Given that the conference was supposed to reflect well on the Spanish Presidency of the Council (which rotates every half-year), we were tasked with giving the delegates a favorable impression of Spanish culture, a large part of which is food and wine-based.  All the meals were in places I had never been to, and were quite good, but the best part was that the participants were all very social and usually interesting.  I got to discuss Finnish polka, Nick Clegg, the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles, and host of other things.  It was the most English I has spoken in a long time.  We even gave a short tour of the La Latina neighborhood.  Overall, everyone told me that the host logistics were among the best they had seen.

My last few days in Madrid were a bit of a whirlwind, as though the city wanted to remind me that I had a good time.  After recovering from the conference, I had two more nights to get some final things and see the sights one last time.  On my penultimate night, I decided that I would give the discos in Chueca one last shot.  I hadn't been since shortly after I started my internship, when I realized how much I enjoyed sleeping at night rather than staying out until sunrise, especially on weeknights.  I was afraid I had last contact with the friends I had made there, but one of them called as I was getting off the bus, and by time I left, I had run into three of them.  No one was mad at me for disappearing for two months and demanding a last hurrah.  They didn't even argue when I decided to go back before they turned the lights on.  My last night, one of the American delegates from the conference took me out to Botín, which is supposedly the oldest restaurant in the world.  We had a really good time and when we finished eating a traditional musical group came up to play.  One of the guys was from my econ class, and though we had never talked before, he came over to say hello, talk about the class, and exchange information.  It almost made me feel like I knew a lot of people, even if that is completely untrue.

So, now I'm back in the states.  I've been spending two weeks in New Jersey before I head up to Providence to work on my preliminary thesis reading, begin planning for next year, and try to find something else productive to do.  Being back in the U.S. has been fantastic.  Other than seeing so many people I know, I've missed the convenience, the friendliness, and the informality of American life.  At the risk of sounding like I've become deeply conservative (as many have accused me recently), this is really an extraordinary country.  The fact that many Americans define themselves not by a common history or ethnicity, but by a commitment to shared ideals is really remarkable after a semester in Spain.  On a more practical scale, I love that the waitress is nice to me, that the drug store has hundreds of varieties of men's stick deodorant instead of one or two, and that it is socially acceptable to not just sit and talk in a coffee shop, but also to read or take a cup to drink while walking.  As much as the politics of the early to mid 2000's made "freedom" a polarizing word, it is a concept that is embraced by daily American society in a way is both profound and mundane.

So far, I've had no serious incidents of reintegration shock.  It's a little weird not speaking to service people in Spanish and whenever I walk by someone talking in a Latin American dialect, I always think how strange it sounds.  My dreams have been increasingly in Spanish, though I'm not quite sure why.  Though I've gotten a little wistful at some videos from a Spanish friend on Facebook, I'm not quite up to missing my time abroad.  I'm sure it will happen, but right now I'm just enjoying rediscovering my home.

Given what I've seen on other study abroad blogs, this is the point where I'm supposed to say something profound about how my experience abroad changed me.  This is where I get a bit lost.  In my mind, one of the most profound parts of living in Spain was how banal it could when I wasn't traveling or doing something "cultural".  It sometimes seems like the assumption in going abroad in the U.S. is that it will be exotic: things will be weird and new and exciting and you will gain some sort of insight from living in a strange land.  I think this is largely because we as a society travel so little.  In Erasmus, the European study abroad system, the assumption is that one studies abroad because it's a nice break that looks good on your resume.  You'll meet some cool people, see some interesting places, and go to some good parties.  There's really no underlying assumption of immersion, because it's not seen all that differently from an American going to "immerse" themself in the culture of California.  While it may be easy to say that the Europeans are just more similar to one another, that often isn't the case.

While I've tried, especially in this blog, to focus on new cultural experiences, the truth of the matter is that life in Spain is just a life.  There's nothing magical or romantic about it; it's just different.  In some ways, the experience was really defined by focusing on the cultural aspects, and I could write a similar blog about my life in the States.  In many ways, I think this was the most important note I've taken from my trip.  It taught be to be on guard against exoticism and realize the role that culture plays in everyone's life.

In conclusion, I want to thank whoever has been reading this blog for doing so.  I really enjoyed the experience of writing it, and I hope that you were able to share in some of the fun I was having.  It was a great experience for me (both the trip and writing about it).

Hasta luego.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Things are going well...I swear!!!

I'm heading home in a week.  It feels pretty weird.  Though I realize it's pretty cliche, a lot of things have been happening, but I've been so busy I haven't been able to write.

Firstly, Basque Country:  I had plans to write a long and super interesting post about Basque Country.  It was a fantastic place and probably my favorite trip in Spain.  It actually does feel like being in a different country.  You hit the mountains at the end of the Castillan plain and all of a sudden everything is green, pastoral, and mountainous and the Spanish flag is nowhere in sight.   People are more restrained, things are more closely packed, and if you listen closely, you can hear people speaking in Euskara, a pre-Indo-European language that is still widely used*.

For me, the most interesting part was the Basque nationalist movement, which is the driving force behind ETA, a terrorist group that has killed over 800 people in the past 40 years.  While in Bilbao (the largest city, known for the stunning Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum), I learned that a bit outside of the city, there was a Basque nationalism museum.  I took the bus ride into the countryside, got off at the town I was told it was in, and wandered until I found it.  After eating, I rang the doorbell (a museum had a doorbell!) and a young woman came down.  "Would you like a free guided tour, or should I just open the exhibit," she asked me, not minding that I only spoke the language of her "oppressors".  After I tried for a while to express my confusion over the idea that this barely opened museum in podunk rural Euskadi even existed, she decided that she should give me the tour.  It lasted an hour and a half and was fantastic.  I learned all about the gradual construction of Basque nationalism in a way that was shockingly unbiased, stopping to clarify everything I seemed confused about.  At the end, they gave me a 300 page color book to thank me for stopping by.  Something tells me they don't get many Americans.

After a day in Bilbao, we headed to San Sebastian, a stunningly beautiful and formerly popular beach resort and old fishing town.  It's known for pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, which instead of being free/cheap and plentiful, are shockingly expensive and stingy.  In all fairness, they typically use expensive ingredients in small, elaborate displays instead of piling cheap fried things on a plate, but still, at around €3 a piece, it was impossible to get full on them.  In addition to relaxing and just walking around (too rainy to go to the beach) we found a decrepit but functioning amusement park on the top of a mountain, complete with one of those old bumper car rigs.  Although the sign only gave a price for children, the operator didn't mind letting us have a go.  We also ran into one of the most famous of the nationalist bars, marked by the militaristic murals inside and pictures of terrorists (as martyrs) in the front.  Photos are forbidden and we only walked in for a brief second, but I managed to find one online:

This weekend, I went to a bullfight, which was surprisingly fun.  I even ran into some people I knew - the host family of another student (and the only other one I've met).  We ended up getting some pretty good toreadors and I think we got a bit of the gist of it.  I'm glad I went - I've seen too many videos of it on the news not to go.

Last Thursday was my final exam for Economics of the EU.  My professor had told all the foreigners who showed up in class on a regular basis that he wanted to give us oral exams, both to make up for the additional inherent difficulty, but also to reward us for coming to class.  My exam questions included:
  1. How would you describe the EU to a taxi driver on your way home from the airport when you get back to the United States.
  2. What do you think is the most important EU policy?
  3. Do you think the euro is doomed?  Why?
  4. I'm sure you know (I do, but what if I didn't?) about the division of political and fiscal competencies in the EU.  I don't know much about the American system.  Could you explain it to me?
  5. What do you think about the weather we've been having lately?  Pretty weird, huh?
  6. Let me tell you a little about my spring break trip with my family to New York City...
As could be expected, I passed the exam with flying colors, though I suppose I could have conceivably not know anything about the division of powers between state and federal governments in the U.S.  He told me I got the highest grade, which I suppose is a 10, also known as the "enrollment of honor", given to less than 5% of the class.  I'll probably ask him for a recommendation, given that he told me, after a French girl who had already taken this class in her country, I did the best work in the class.

Thursday and Friday were also the birthdays of two of my coworkers (I only have three).  In Spain, it is tradition for the person with the birthday to take everyone else out, but we just did coffee and pastries at the cafe.  Pilar told me that you are expected to give a gift reciprocal to the amount spent on you when you went out, but this seemed too complicated and I heard conflicting information.  In the end, I got them both cupcakes from the only cupcake shop in Madrid, explaining that it was a very traditional American pastry to eat on your birthday.  They got a kick out of it.

Over the past two weeks, I've been really busy helping to organize my internship's conference, which starts tomorrow and lasts until Friday.  It's on the EU's response to a biological weapons attack, though I haven't dealt with the content at all.  I've just been dealing with the nightmare of organizing hotels and a bit of the transportation.  It has put me in a pretty bad mood when I first get back in the afternoon (not eating anything substantial before 4 PM doesn't help), and I've been really tired.  Pilar (my host mother, if you've forgotten) was worried about me last week.  First she kept asking me if everything was good, then she started to ask pointed questions to figure out what was wrong (were things good with Andrew?  Were my parents alright?  Did I not have friends to hang out with?).  After finding nothing wrong other than my being tired, she started to try to convince me that I was having a good time.  We eventually had an argument over why I would prefer to wear a pair of dirty socks than borrow a pair of her son's when she hadn't done wash for a while (Answer: I'm a college student accustomed to living in my own filth).  Fortunately, she's had a few days off to relax and I felt much better over sleeping last weekend.  We had some nice conversations over lunches on Saturday and Sunday.  Still I'm not getting to see her much this week, since I've been working so late.  I will certainly miss her.

It's sort of a shame that I'm not going to get to really enjoy Spain in my last week, but the conference should be really interesting and I believe there will be some interesting people**.  Also, we get free meals with the delegates.  I picked out one of the menus (the director gave me two options), which as I remember involves duck, foie gras, and tuna steak.  After it's over, I have just one weekend to wrap up loose ends and get ready to leave.

*It should be noted that while Euskara (Euskara is the Basque language, Euskal is "Basque" in Euskara, Euskadi is "Basque Country" in Euskara) has nothing to do with Spanish, it is phonetically almost identical.  As a result, you have to listen really hard to figure out which language people are speaking.  In its written form, Euskara has been intentionally designed to look different.  All the c's have been replaced by k's, many of the s's have been replaced by z's, and all the ch's have been replaced by tx's.  For instance, kalimotxo, a popular combination of wine and coca cola, is rendered as "calimocho" in Castellano, though, a lot of people write it as "kalimocho" because writing things with k's is considered hip.

**One of the UN Disarmament people sent an email in which he commented that he rarely gets a bed when on assignment.  I'm going to make sure to have a conversation with him.  While it's possible that these assignments were otherwise uninteresting, I somehow doubt it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Barcelona: My Annoying, Very Attractive Acquaintance

I warn that this post is boring and whiny.  I promise to do better next time.  I wrote it after an 8 hour overnight bus trip in which we were told at 4:30 AM that we were going to take a 40 minute break at a rest stop and everyone had to get off.  Basque Country will come soon...all in good time.

As my time in Madrid is beginning to rap up (two weeks for me), my program-mates and I have begun to get a little sentimental and do the whole meta-trip conversation thing when we occasionally run into one another while trying to use our printer in the office, since otherwise we're off on our own thing.  Some people definitely talk about being in love with Madrid and being not able to imagine leaving.  I think by and large these were the people who actually fell in love in Madrid, and the "with" part was the side effect, but maybe I'm just cynical.  For me, I would say my feelings are best described by saying Madrid is just a good friend (metaphor stolen).  Our relationship is pretty mundane, and while we enjoy spending time together, I won't be totally heartbroken leaving.  In many ways, my departure seems more like a high school graduation than a breakup - we're both going our own ways, but we'll probably see one another again sometime.

If Madrid is my good friend, my trip this weekend to Barcelona revealed it to be a very attractive, if often annoying acquaintance.  Sometimes I would convince myself into believing I really liked the character of the city, only to realize again that I was just taken with the old neighborhoods, nice beaches, and pretty modernist architecture.  Don't get me wrong - I really liked Barcelona for these features, it's just not a very interesting thing to write about.  The old neighborhoods are really well preserved and very pretty (not to mention the unbelievable Roman remains under the city), the beach was a nice place to spend the evening, and some of the areas (e.g. L'Eixample and Parc Güell) seemed like Gaudi-based fantasy lands.  Also, Plaça d'Espanya is incredible at night.  I wouldn't want to give the impression that I had a bad time; I just have zero desire to describe individual sites, so my overal positive feelings about the trip will just have to be taken at my word.

Perhaps the single most irritating thing about Barcelona is that it knows it's a tourist destination, and exploits that fact.  Generally, tourists want to see one of a few districts that have interesting attractions.  Perhaps there are just more tourists there than in Madrid (though Pilar tells me this is false), but it seems like the locals avoid these areas at all costs.  As a result, they become a sort of Spanish-themed beach-side amusement park, reminiscent of ¡Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall!, a 1950's movie in which a Castillan town tries to become stereotypically Spanish (using mostly Andalusian culture) to impress American representatives who are distributing Marshall Plan funds.  All the popular areas are packed with restaurants offering "Your choice of two authentic Spanish tapas and a sangria for €12" or images of six varieties of paella.  Considering that tapas should in theory come free with drinks, that sangria is not usually consumed in restaurants*, and that those displays of paella indicate that it's probably reheated frozen food, I felt a bit angry at them for taking advantage of the passersby.

However, more than being angry for the other tourists, I found myself increasingly annoyed by them, even though they were in fairness the only people who wanted to talk to me as I was traveling alone (everyone from my program has already gone, and most were studying or getting ready to leave Spain).  They were almost exclusively fratty spring break types or stereotypical people in bucket hats and ugly shirts that they must reserve exclusively for foreign travel.  I couldn't understand why everyone in my hostel seemed to have come to sit on the beach and then go clubbing.  From what I see on Jersey Shore, this can be accomplished for cheaper with much greater convenience in Seaside Heights.  I got some really weird looks in the hostel for saying I didn't want to go out because I was tired from a busy day.

In part, I think, this has to do with what has become for me a near obsession with trying to pass as being either Spanish, or a resident foreigner (as the former ceases to be an option after I open my mouth).  I think it's probably a mix of a bunch of things, including trying to show myself that I'm doing well at cultural immersion and some sort of thrill I get from passing (maybe it's a gay thing), but I get really disappointed when people treat me as an American.  While it's easy in Madrid, the flux of tourists in Barcelona made this really hard to do.  I think my annoyance was, in part because the tourists reminded me that we weren't so different from one another.  In the end, I just spoke better Spanish and had a little more acquired cultural understanding than most of them.  At least I'm hoping this is the case, because otherwise it bodes poorly for how my re-immersion will go.  With any luck, I won't cringe at people speaking English in the streets back in the states.

Anyway, while the sites were lovely, I'm really glad I didn't study in Barcelona, which is the site of the Brown in Spain program.  I'm sure there are better areas to hang out, but between the tourists and Catalan, I wasn't really a fan.  The use of Catalan in public places is really annoying** and not exactly conducive to learning Spanish.  Barcelona also seems to have this weird 90's feel to it that I couldn't shake.  Maybe it was all the Olympic architecture, but it just felt a little past its prime.

*Sangria is known in Spain for being a) cheap and b) a fast way to get drunk.  It is typically sold in 1 liter paper cartons for €1.50, and has the added bonus that one can add additional liquor without changing the taste too much.  I doubt the restaurants in Barcelona are using the cartons (though my hostel did without anyone noticing), but it's not really that expensive to make.  Most self-respecting restaurants only serve tinto de verano, an absolutely delicious mix of wine and lemon soda, since it's less boozy and more classy.

**On a Catalan note, my hotel was off a street called Paral⋅lel, occasionally rendered as Paral.lel or Paral-lel.  The reason is that "LL" makes a "y" sound in Catalan, but for some reason they still insist on using to l's, perhaps to make it look like French.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Quick Story

Due to these three weeks of midterms and finals, it is looking conceivable that I will not be able to update this blog much before I leave.  That's a pity, since I have done enough interesting things to justify several more posts.  I am mulling over the possibility of doing some post-hoc blogging upon my return to the states, or at least on the plane.  In the mean time, I have a very short story of why I will miss Turkey.

I am now leaving in about 10 days, which means that I am mostly taking finals and saying goodbye to people.  The prospect of leaving seems easier in the context of the heat and humidity that have suddenly colored all aspects of life in Ankara (and has made the library entirely unbearable) and the fact that I have been spending most days studying for final exams.

This evening, I decided that even my room was too hot to stay in, so I went outside to see if I could find a place to read my textbook.  I found a globe light to the side of my dorm just sort of sticking out of the grass and some plastic chairs nearby.  I dragged the chair over to the light, and sat down to read.  I heard some people nearby but remained focused on reading, hoping they wouldn't mind that I moved the chair and was doing something so un-Turkish as reading outside alone at night.

Eventually I heard some footsteps approach, and saw an old man (probably a janitor) holding a glass plate full of cookies and a large glass of tea.  He asked, "Would you like some tea?"

I said "Thank you," and put my hand to my chest in a practice that is unfortunately ambiguous, but seemingly the only polite way to say "no" in Turkish.  Either the man believed that I had meant "yes" or refused my refusal (the second is very common) because he proceeded to hand me the entire plate/tea combo.  He then took out a bowl of sugar and started scooping sugar into my cup.  When I indicated that I had enough sugar by hastily stirring my tea, the man went away and came back with a chair.  At first I thought that he wanted to talk, but he then put the tray on the extra chair.  I thanked him and he asked if I was a foreigner.  I told him yes, that I was from America.  He seemed pleased by this and went off.

I finished my tea and all seven or so cookies, and found the man to give him his plate, cup and saucer back.  He asked twice if I wanted more, and each time I politely refused, thanking him again for the tea and telling him it was good for studying.  He then introduced me to his wife, who also wanted to know if I was a foreigner.  I thanked them again and went off to study.

The thing is that that wasn't even the first cup of tea someone had given me that day.  Turkish hospitality is so overwhelming that it can make foreigners feel uncomfortable.  In fact, the other person that bought me tea today told me a story of a Korean in Turkey that couldn't understand why the bus would offer him food, drinks and cologne (I find the last pretty disagreeable, as it makes the entire bus smell like pine-sol).  Here, anything less would be considered rude.  I spent months believing that I had to live up to the wonderful treatment I was getting before I realized that everyone's kindness was only a response to my being there and nothing more.  Having been a perpetual guest for the past six months, I can say that will really miss the world's most hospitable nation.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Spanish Joke My Coworker Couldn't Stop Laughing About

I'm going to hopefully write a post about my trip to the Basque Country soon (it was awesome), perhaps mixed with my professor's claims of cultural universality, but first, this joke email the other intern in my office thought was the funniest thing ever.  I don't get Spanish jokes.  I think they just aren't that funny.  The punch lines are always super blunt and tend to deal with the same five tired themes, most frequently that the government is corrupt and incompetent.  I find it a little disappointing that I understood most of the jokes in a parody song in my second month in Spain, whereas I still don't get all of the cultural references on American TV.  This example follows:

The Spanish Postal Service has released a new stamp with the image of the President of the Government, Mr. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

However, it has been detected that the stamps do not stick well to envelopes and fall off, which has infuriated the President of the Government, who has demanded an immediate and exhaustive investigation

After a month of inquiries and polls, the special commission of the Government presented the results of its investigation.

People spit on the wrong side of the stamp.
Said intern is actually Italian, but married a Spaniard and has been living here for a while.  The other person who works in the office had an Italian parent, so they speak Italian together.  From my experience, it seems like people who speak both languages mix up Italian and Spanish quite frequently, so sometimes they speak to me in a language I only occasionally understand and then wonder why I look confused.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Tale of Two Festivals

First off, I appoligize for not posting in some time.  I'm finally getting work in accordance with the end of the semester.  I have now completed three classes (Seminar on Contemporary Spain,  Politics of the EU, and the academic component of my internship program), the first two of which I did quite well in (still awaiting the third).  I still have one more paper and an oral exam for Economics of the EU and I have to finish a paper for the academic component of my internship.  Other than that, I finish my economics class tomorrow and then I can focus on my internship, my last paper, and my last exam, which I'm told will actually be a low-key conversation as a reward for attending class regularly.

Lately, I've been staying in Madrid on the weekends.  Part of this is that I realize that travel is really tiring.  While I enjoy travelling by bus, not sleeping, and holding all my stuff in my school backpack, it's not really sustainable and I think I've overdone it a little.  The other reason is that there has been a lot to do in Madrid recently.  It's finally getting nice outside (about a month later than expected), which makes the city about twenty times more enjoyable.  Spanish culture just makes more sense in good weather.  People spend a lot of time in the street*, which isn't much fun when it's cold and/or raining.  Now that it's nice, it's worth it just to spend the afternoon having a drink outside or going for a long walk in a neigborhood I haven't seen before.  I took a trip to the mountains this past weekend, which was incredibly beautiful.

Two weekends ago was Europe Day, the official holidy of the European Union, which commemorates the Schuman Declaration of 1950, which outlined French plans to create a de facto political union.  While I have been...uh...observing this holiday since my sophomore year of high school, this was my first year doing so in the EU.  Needless to say, I was quite excited.  I looked online and found all the available information.  There were a few events, but the important ones appeared to be a flag raising in Princípe Pío, a plaza outside a major train station, and music, dance, and theater festival in Lavapiés, the mostly immigrant neighborhood to my north.

It turns out that Europe Day is only slightly more celebrated in Spain than in the United States.  The flag raising was fantastic, though poorly attended.  The vast majority of people there, which was probably around 150, were official invitees, including politicians from all levels of government, civil society representatives, military honor guard, and some students in European flag shirts.  The remaining 40 or so were just average people, who stood around outside the barrier trying to get a view.  A young woman distributed pins and balloons and tried to get everyone excited.  The ceremony itself consisted of some sailors raising the European flag with the band playing Ode to Joy (the European anthem) followed by Marcha Real (the Spanish Anthem)**.  A few officials made speeches about the importance of the EU symbols (flag, anthem, Europe Day, and motto) for solidifying a European identity and discussed the goals of the European movement and the EU.  I found it quite moving, but I'm admittedly strange in that regard.  One amusing event was that I ran into a Spanish friend, Marcos, as everyone was leaving.  He was officially invited and was sort of surprised that I would have bothered to show up.  I was just surprised that out of all the people in Madrid, I would run into one of my few friends (and one who I did not meet in an academic or professional capacity, at that) at an event with such low attendence.

I have more pictures as well.  I'll try to get all my other pictures up now that I have facebook uploader working again.

The afternoon celebration, entitled "Europe in the World of Lavapiés" was actually quite a big deal, though I don't think anyone realized what was being celebrated.  They got performers from all over Europe and put them in the main squares of the neighborhood.  I saw a Bulgarian folk dance group and some Czech jugglers.  There were a ton of balloons (I got one to keep for posterity) and people watching and drinking beer.  Lavapiés isn't exactly a classy place (some of my friends were once scoffed at for asking if there was more than one brand of beer in a bar), which made it a good site for the event.  I didn't stay for long, but it was a good time.

In contrast to the underwhelming observation of Europe Day, the next Saturday was the festival of San Isidro, patron saint of Madrid.  According to Pilar, San Isidro used to be a small affair characterized by a single folk dance event.  It has since grown and this year was a huge celebration in honor of the 100th birthday of Gran Vía, the main street of Madrid.  I checked out the Gran Vía first thing in the morning.  It was covered from end to end in a bright blue carpet that erupted into celebration around 6:00 PM.  What exactly people were doing on the carpet was not exactly clear.  There were performances on either end (at Plaza de España and Red de San Luis), but in the middle there were many, many blocks in which the only excitement was the blue carpet.  This did not phase the Spanish, who turned out in huge numbers to walk back and forth on the carpet, watch people do impromptu traditional dance performances, and sit down and drink.  It's hard to believe that it would be difficult to move because everyone was crowding to see not much of anything.  Other excitements included the traditional folk festival for which the holiday is known, a very avant-garde theater festival in Lavapiés (the immigrant neighborhood to my north), and a giant cake sculpture in Plaza de Callao.  There were also fireworks at night.

Also, the number of men wearing black and white tweed vests, jackets and flat caps was astounding.  This is apparently the traditional Madrileño costume, with women wearing not particularly elaborate white and black/blue/red polka-dotted dresses.  Given how pretty the traditional dress in Valencia was during Las Fallas, it was a bit of a letdown.  I did learn, however, that it represents Madrid's unofficial "chulo" attitude, which means something between cool and cocky.

As an added bonus (it took me weeks to get this post out) I saw a third festival, the "Homonaje a María Auxiliadora", which best I can do translates roughly to "Homage to the Assistant Mary" (according to some websites, it is because she is the "assistant" to God).  The church on my street goes by the same name, so on her saint day, there was a celebration.  After what I can only assume were many masses, a procession was held in my neighborhood, complete with horseback riders, two bands, adorable children, a giant statue of the Virgin on a float being pulled by two people with a ring of supporters around them, widows dressed in black, and a few priests.  Afterward, there was a surprisingly good firework display.  I'm not quite sure the religious significance of fireworks, but then again I don't understand virtually anything about Spanish Catholicism, and since no one I know really believes in it, I don't foresee an end to my confusion anytime soon.

This weekend I'm off to Basque Country!  Nire aerolabangailua aingirez beteta dago!

*As a side note, Paco, my portero, expressed his concern to me this week that it must be very difficult for Americans to meet girls, since they don't spend enough time out in the streets, presumably drinking.  I assured him that college culture makes it quite easy, and after that, there are pleanty of house parties and bars, but it didn't really translate culturally.  Residential colleges seem just as real to many Europeans as cowboys.  I once had an Austrian coworker (in the U.S.) ask me whether fraternities really existed or whether they were just from movies.  Moreover, house parties and going to a bar to meet people make little sense in Spain.  People only invite close friends into their houses and in my experience, going alone to a bar or club is generally viewed poorly.  I once had someone ask if I was feeling okay when I was sitting alone in a lounge, because obviously this meant that I was sick and was taking a break while my friends danced.

**Both don't have lyrics that are used anymore; in the case of Europe because of laguage issues, and for Spain because the words were written by Franco.  Because of this, Marcha Real usually seems silly, but less so when paired with Ode to Joy.  Also, I say "European" rather than "EU", because these symbols were originally used by the Council of Europe, which is an unrelated human rights body.  The Council of Europe also observes Europe Day, but on 5 May to commemorate its founding.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Education in Turkey

I admit that this blog has been pretty Evan-heavy lately.  I apologize.  I had a couple weeks of midterms mixed with weekly traveling, so the blog needed to take a break.  My midterm results have been mixed so far.  I got the high score in Control Systems, which was announced to the class in a very public give-a-chocolate-bar-to-the-high-scorer ceremony.  The chocolate bar had pistachios in it and was rather delicious.  It almost justified the alienation that may come from my classmates for my handing their collective asses* to them.  On the other hand, I got the average score in Advanced Strength of Materials, which between METU’s and Mudd’s high standards means that I am currently failing.

This segues into a trend that I’ve been seeing at METU.  The long of the short of it is that Turkey is educationally screwed and there is very little they can do about it.  Let me explain…

Education is a big deal in Turkey.  Both high school and university have rigorous entrance exams with engineering being one of the most competitive fields.  Only the top 5000 or so students out of over a million every year are allowed to enroll in METU or ITU in mechanical or electrical engineering.  To get in, many METU students spend their after school hours “dershaneler” (class houses) for up to six years before the university admissions test.

All this studying makes students really good at memorizing things.  This isn’t exactly helped by a class structure where the professors see themselves as providers of information rather than educators.  While they lecture for three hours a week, they expect the students to teach themselves the material.  As the students have perfected memorizing, they employ it as study skill #1.
In mechanical engineering, this memorization obsession is thankfully minimal.  Though they sometimes reward speed and perfection more than they should, the tests are pretty problem-solving intensive.  According to Johnny, chemistry is a different story.  There, the professors have seemingly given up on teaching their students to do chemistry.  Labs are pre-planned and tests are pretty exclusively based in rote memorization.

The sad thing is that the professors do not really endorse this type of education.  METU has required its professors to get their Ph.D.s abroad for decades, and many know the importance of critical thinking.  They are either too lazy or afraid to do anything about it though.  The students have been memorizing since early in their careers and no professor in departments like chemistry wants to be the first one to break the cycle.  They know that if they request more of their students, nobody will be able to pass their examinations.  Some professors have tried.

The result is a country of competent students that will do nothing extraordinary with their lives.  Most of the students here are studying so they can have steady work.  Passion is not as highly rated.  One student told me that it was a perfect time to be an engineer in Turkey, since Ford was outsourcing their more tedious engineering tasks there.  This student (who is apparently near the top of his class) might be the ideal candidate for such work, seeing as he said that he could not conceive anything vastly new being engineered in the next hundred or so years.

So why doesn’t anyone do anything?  No matter what happens, these students are going to get METU degrees and they will be set for life.  They can become professors or professionals and live the good life whether or not they actually learn useful information.  This is the Turkish Dream: obtain a high-status position that allows you to live comfortably and put little additional effort into your work.

So relax, America.  We still have a huge educational advantage.  Even though our educational system sometimes eschews learning for “talking about our feelings” and the like, it teaches critical thinking and makes students dream big.

*I apologize to anyone reading this blog that doesn’t know that word.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My Turkish Teacher Wrote this Post for Me

My current Turkish teacher Çiğdem, is the most excitable person I have ever met.  Her voice has a range of four octaves, and she uses all of them to express her (always strong) emotion about whatever we are talking about.  One of the big elements of class is conversation.  About half of every class is just spent talking about whatever Çiğdem or anyone else wants to.  Topics have included everything from UFOs to whether they put stray animals in cheap döner, to why women get cellulite.  So long as the conversation remains in Turkish (or Swahili*), everything is fair game.

Thanks to Çiğdem, I also have an easy blog post.  Who wants to know what noises animals make?  I did.  It turns out Johnny wanted to know the names of just about every organ in the body in Turkish.  Also as an added bonus, Çiğdem wanted to teach us a bunch of similes in Turkish.  So without further adieu, here is a sizable portion of my Turkish notes from a couple of weeks ago

Animal Noises:
Lamb, Goat:       meeeee
Cat:                        miyav
Dog:                       hav
Cow:                      möö
Donkey:               ai ai
Horse:                   iii
Chicken:               gı gı gı gıdak
Rooster:               ü-ürü-ürü
Crow:                    gak
Wolf:                     uuuuuuuuuuuh
Frog:                      vrak

Dangerous like a snake
Timid like a rabbit
Hard working like a cow
Docile like a lamb
Tall like a giraffe
Rude like a bear
Early-rising like a chicken
In love like a dove
Loyal like a dog
Ungrateful like a cat
Sly like a fox
Quiet like a mouse
Hungry like a worm
Fast like a horse
Hot like hell
Cold like ice
Light like a feather
Lazy like a dead donkey
White like cotton
Dark like Night
Spicy/Salty like poison
Smelly like a carcus
Good smelling like musk
Eyes like almonds
Lips like small roses
Teeth like pearls
Rich like a landowner

I would list organs, but I doubt anyone wants to say gallbladder in Turkish.  Comment if you dissagree.

*One day we were playing Taboo and a student asked if they were supposed to call out the word in Turkish (the answer was obviously yes, since the while class is in Turkish).  Çiğdem replied, “No, answer in Swahili” at which point, the student asking the question (British) and another student (American) started chatting in Swahili.  Çiğdem brings this up almost every day now.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Positive Post

A forward:  This weekend, I went with some friends from my program to Galicia, an autonomous community in the northwest of the country, right above Portugal.  We had a really good time.  We couchsurfed with a charming EU translator named Mercedes, who lived out in a development in the countryside.  The first day, we tried to go to Finisterre, the formerly supposed "end of the world", but there weren't any buses for a few hours, so we went to A Coruña to see, among other things, the world's oldest operating lighthouse.  The second day, we went to Santiago de Compostela, a famous pilgrimage site.  The cathedral there contains the supposed remains of St. James (the apostle), and we got a chance to go on the roof.  It was a really nice trip overall, and apparently pretty unusual for Americans to take, because we kept on getting asked where we were from, which never happens in Madrid*, or at least it's unusual for Americans to take buses to little towns of no interest to foreigners.  We also got to see a Spanish bachelor's party, in which a groom's best friends take him out all weekend for drunken shenanigans.  They were still out from the night before at 10 AM.

Anyway, I was going to write a post mocking Spanish multilingual policies, which are responsible for Gallego having a protected status in Galicia, even though it differs from Castellano by only a handful of phonological transformations and a slightly different lexicon.  Meanwhile, other dialects, like Asturian, get no protection because no one bothered writing in them before the Civil War.  It would be a little like if Cockney were considered a different language because someone wrote in it phonetically.  However, on my commute to my internship office, I decided to write something positive instead:

Spanish people are really caring.  I don't give them enough credit for this.  Among foreign students and expats, Spaniards have a reputation for being cold and judgmental.  They don't wish you a nice day in stores, they don't act friendly unless they like you, and they say what they feel even if it isn't very nice or politically correct.  They have the opposite complaint about us - we're too artificial and never act honestly towards others.  Among friends or friends of friends, they're caring and considerate, even if they've never met you.  At times, this can be really frustrating.  It can feel like no one likes you, when in reality, they just don't know you.

This morning brought out the best in Spanish social customs.  On my way out, I said hello to my portero, Paco.  Porteros are sort of like building caretakers - they come in a few hours a day to sort the mail, clean the lobby, and do some simple maintenance.  Paco has always been really nice to me, as he seems to have been to all the students who stay with Pilar.**  I was sort of in a rush, but he stopped to chat with me, even following me as I went towards the door.  His wife gave birth to a son, their third child, on Wednesday.  He was really proud.  He then wanted to know about my weekend and all the places I went to (though he admonished me for not calling A Coruña by its Castellano name, "La Coruña").  Paco isn't a doorman - his job isn't to be nice to the residents - he's just a really nice guy who likes to chat.  He even stopped me once when I ran into him on the street to introduce me to his family and talk for a while.  It's nice that he would take some time from his job to talk to the silly foreigner who can't speak well in the morning.

My metro ride was also a nice reminder of how kind people here are.  I've always found the metro remarkably civil compared to the New York subway, where you spend all your time averting your eyes from everyone else.  The cars are narrow, but everyone is always very courteous.  From time to time, a homeless person will get on and make a brief speech about how they need help.  They aren't demanding or trying to guilt-trip; they just explain their situation and what they need.  They then quietly go through the car and people give them food or a few coins with remarkable generosity.  Homeless people aren't viewed with suspicion, and everyone assumes they really will use the money to get a room for the night.  If an elderly person gets on, people rush to leave their seats for them.  This morning, two younger women argued with and older but healthy woman about how she should take their seats.  It was really sweet.

This follows an experience in A Coruña, where an elderly woman asked us in a cemetery if we could put flowers on a third-tier grave for her.  Although she criticized us jokingly for letting a female friend climb the ladder (she was lightest), she was extremely thankful, gave us all kisses, and kept on wishing us blessings.  When you get down to it, people here can come off as cold, but they really do look out for those they don't know.  In many ways, it's quite a nice and caring society

*So rare, in fact, that it took one of my friends a while to realize what he was being asked.  We almost never hear the informal 2nd person plural permanent "to be" verb "sois", as in "¿De dónde sois?" ("Where are you guys from?").  They don't really teach the informal 2nd person plural (called "vosotros") in the U.S. because it isn't used in Latin America, so it sometimes takes us by surprise.

**If someone has a Sacajawea dollar or two that they wouldn't mind sending to me (I'll pay you back), I think it would be a nice thing to give to him when I leave.  He collects coins and I know he's been looking for some.

Another note:  David had better write something here soon.  This is rapidly becoming my blog and I get the impression that my adventures are less exciting.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I saw a fascist!

On Saturday, I saw a fascist.  I was walking to the side of the train station, and he was coming down the same path in the other direction.  You may ask, as others have asked me: "Evan, how did you know you saw a fascist?  Was he a skinhead?  Maybe he just liked that style and aesthetic!  Why do you have to judge everyone based on how they look!  Why can't you just let people be!  You think you're better than everyone else, don't you?!"

Okay, so no one has actually gotten indignant yet, but many have asked me how I knew.  The short answer was that he wasn't exactly hiding it.  He was about my age, wearing a t-shirt with a Franco-era flag on it and waving a huge falangista* flag.  Other than that, he seemed pretty normal.  He looked a little awkward walking alone without any protest around, especially since it was clear the construction workers on the side of the road were talking disparagingly about him.  I was sort of tempted to go up and befriend him.  I wanted to know why he believed what he did and what his friends and family thought of it.  Also, I didn't understand why he was walking alone and I could use some Spanish friends who like to hang out in places other than night clubs.  Later, I found out that there was a falangista rally one train stop away, so it was probably better that I didn't speak to him
The flangista flag - I personally think this thing is just about the scariest flag I've ever seen

The Franco-era flag - the symbols are largely borrowed from Ferdinand and Isabel, who unified Spain

It's interesting, though, that whenever I tell this event to someone in Spain, they're totally unsurprised.  People with radical political beliefs don't keep silent here.  I regularly see posters advertising Marxism, fascism, communism, anti-fascism, or whatever else.  In the U.S., we've had a liberal democracy for so many years that it is intricately tied to our national identity, and an attempt to subvert it would be like an attempt to destroy the country.  All of this is less clear in Spain.  The current political order was very much a compromise, and no one is really happy with it.  It's democratic, but people don't have much say in their representatives.  It's sort of decentralized, but more so in some regions than others.  There's a royal family, but they spend most of their time trying to convince everyone that they're just ordinary people, and not enjoying any sort of power or riches.  Even the very existence of the country is controversial in some regions, so much so that some Cataluñan politicians avoid the word "Spain".

Also, Spain has seen global political history very differently.  The Spanish Civil War was basically the opposite of World War II.  The democratic countries opted not to enter, leaving the Second Republic, the Soviet Union, and a handful of international volunteers to lose against the Spanish, German, and Italian fascists.  Spain also essentially sat out of the first half of the Cold War.  The ideological struggles that led to the victory of liberal democracy over fascism and socialism were heard in Spain only as distant echoes.  They still haven't quite been resolved here.

As a result, there are strong anti-status quo movements: the republicans (some liberals, some socialists), the falangistas, the secessionists, the anarchists, and the communists - each has littered the streets with their own political graffiti (I recently saw a mailbox painted in the republican colors).  Some are even politically powerful.  It's a pretty striking change from American culture and one of the most interesting parts, in my opinion, of the modern Spanish experience.

Further continuing my weekend of Spanish stereotypes, this Sunday a famous toreador was mauled in a bullfight.  He didn't step to the side in time and the bull pierced his side with its horn.  He needed 8 liters of blood.  Even though the majority Spaniards don't approve of bullfighting, the news took this as an opportunity to show all of this toreador's past maulings over and over again.  There were many.  After the first few minutes, Pilar and Álvaro decided this was a good time to end lunch.  Neither of them had the stomach to watch anymore.  This was apparently also true of many of Pilar's former students, who went to bullfights only to leave in the middle disgusted at the amount of blood.  I'm still planning to go next month during the Festival of San Isidro when there are fights everyday.

*Falange (pronounced fah-lan-ḥeh) is the Spanish political movement to which Franco belonged that supports the idiosyncratic brand of fascism known as falangismo.  It's basically just fascism with some national-syndicalism mixed in it and a strong reliance on Catholicism and Spanish nationalist symbols.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What the European Union Means to Me

A months or so ago, a friend who is also studying abroad (but with significantly less email access) and I had a brief email exchange in which we attempted to summarize the vast breadth and nuance of our respective experiences into a few paragraphs.  I told her that I had been basically just been taking classes having to do with the European Union.  She said that she thought it must be cool being learn about the EU while experiencing its impact on my day-to-day life.  At the time, I didn't really think much of it.  I was mostly learning about the complex treaty-based history of what was and is an extremely non-transparent and sometime deliberately confusing institution*, so it was a bit difficult to see its direct impact on my life.  However, after a few months, I thought about it again and decided that, being that this is my sole academic focus while I'm here, I should take some time to consider that question.  I present you with:

6 Ways the European Union Affects My Everyday Life
By Evan Rolfe

1.  Things cost less now then when I arrived in Spain.  When I got here, one euro was about 1 1/2 dollars.  Now it's about about 1 1/3 dollars.  Why?  The EU (or at least the eurozone) is a complete monetary union, but only partially an economic union.  They sort of halfheartedly put controls on national fiscal policy, in that there are a ton of rules without any enforcement mechanisms.  Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, among others, have massive deficits in direct contradiction these rules, but there's nothing anyone can do about it.  So, when Greece's problems came to the surface, Spain's currency depreciated.  Now, things cost less for me.  In fairness, Spain will face a similar crisis soon, but I'll probably be gone by then.

2.  Everywhere I go, I see a European flag.  It's EVERYWHERE.  On my money.  At my university.  On some of the traffic circles.  It's funny, really, because since the EU doesn't really have a lot of symbols (or even a unified name due to language issues), so they just stick the flag all over the place.  The result is perhaps even more striking because Spanish people (except the most conservative ones) don't like putting up their flag.  I think they're all a little too wary of nationalism.  In the autonomous communities with stronger identities, they just put up the regional flag, but in Madrid, they generally put flags up in groups of two to four (European, Spanish, Madrid community, Madrid municipality) just to show that they aren't trying to make a political statement.  It really just warms the cockles of my heart and it's probably pretty good for instilling a European identity in the next generation.  Soon, we will live in a world of freedom and consolidation!

3.  Everyone under 30 is dating a foreigner.  I'm sure whoever thought up the Erasmus program, the EU-wide study abroad system, had education in mind as the primary purpose.  Today, however, it is a way for Europeans to party for a semester in a foreign country in a manner that looks good on their resumes.  Part of this partying involves varies sorts of romantic contacts.  Whatever it is about the experience, everyone seems to end up dating someone they met during Erasmus even after the semester has ended.  Eventually, it seems, they all get married and/or live together, thanks to the EU guaranteed free movement of workers (or, as the case may be, free movement of systematically unemployed people).  It seems like these relationships are disproportionately between Spaniards and Italians.  I think it has to do with the language similarities.  It's also why my internship office mostly speaks Italian (much to my confusion) when our boss is away.

4.  There are some non-Americans in my economics class.  Officially, my econ of the EU class is full of Spanish kids.  For some reason, they don't show up.  Almost everyone (sometimes everyone, depending on the day) is foreign - half American, half Erasmus.  I guess if it weren't for the EU, it would just be like being in a Spanish class in the U.S.  My EU politics class is probably about half non-Spanish, but has near complete attendance for some reason.

5.  There's a special EU section of the propaganda they put on the metro TVs.  The newer metro cars have little TVs that play a loop of news, mostly showing all the great things the various levels of government have done today to make Madrid a wonderful place.  Every once in a while, a waving European flag briefly flashes across the screen and we are treated to a segment on all the things the EU has poured money into.  It's a good time.  Sometimes, I even see the back of my friend's head.  She works in the Madrid office in Brussels and they don't have a ton of stock footage.

6.  Cell phone calls in other EU countries aren't that expensive.  When I went on the tour of the European Parliament last spring (in Brussels - I'm still hoping to see the seat in Strasbourg), the key accomplishment they pointed to was the mandatory ceiling on roaming charges for cell phones within the EU.  Over spring break, I spent much less than I expected to on cell phone charges thanks to the European Parliament.

In other news, the man who lives above me has started to get loud again.  Two days ago, he started playing bad heavy metal very loudly before repeatedly dropping things and screaming.  He woke me up yesterday morning by dropping things again.  I mentioned this to Pilar, and she said that she regularly complains to the building supervisor about it.  The man is apparently not only involved in drugs, but was also abandoned by his parents at the age of 18 (does that count?) and has some issues.  I told her not to worry about it and that it doesn't really bother me since I sleep with earplugs (this was pre-being woken up).  Pilar then told me how she always tells her friends when they ask about me how tolerant I am.  I was shocked.  I've never been called "tolerant" in my life, though variants of "intolerant" have been used semi-regularly. I guess it just goes to show that social norms are relative.   Since there's no Spanish social norm against complaining too often (actually, it seems the opposite sometimes), I come off as nice and tolerant.

*For example, the EU "Constitution" is called the "Consolidated versions of the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union".  It is about 400 pages long with clauses such as:
Where, pursuant to the Treaties, the Council acts on a proposal from the Commission, it may amend that proposal only by acting unanimously, except in the cases referred to in paragraphs 10 and 13 of Article 294, in Articles 310, 312 and 314 and in the second paragraph of Article 315. (Article 293 TFEU)
By the way, in reading that, you should be realize that "Council" refers to the Council of the European Union (also unofficially referred to as the "Council of Ministers"), not the European Council (a similar EU institution also governed by these treaties) or the Council of Europe (a non-EU body that is still occasionally referenced).

 I am so psyched for Europe Day!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Schwa: My Secret Weapon in the War Against Gramatical Gender

Like many languages, Spanish has grammatical gender.  Words are either masculine or feminine, with no real relation to their function in a sentence.  It's not nearly as bad as other languages.  There are only two genders and words tend to follow certain patterns based on how they end.  Among others, -o words tend to be masculine, while -a, -ad, -ión, and -umbre tend to be feminine.  These rules aren't set in stone, though, and there are a bunch of exceptions.  For instance, it's el monarquista and la monarquista (depending on the monarchist's gender), el problema, el agua (but las aguas), etc.  Even worse, if you forget whether a word ends in a -o or -a, you don't have any hints available, and sometimes this can change the meaning (e.g. política is a policy, while político is a politician).

I get genders wrong pretty regularly.  By and large no one really cares and won't correct you unless there was some sort of semantic issue, but it's pretty embarrassing and worth avoiding when possible.  Anyway, the issue reminded me of a David Sedaris story about learning French.  Having moved to France with his boyfriend Hugh, he was having a difficult time getting genders down.  French genders are much harder than Spanish, at least from what I've heard, as there aren't really many hints.  He soon realized, though, that he could avoid the issue by dealing only in the plurals, since the French plural article is the same for both.  He begins to buy things only in multiples, but Hugh starts to get angry when he realizes the house is filled with unreasonable quantities of everything.  The story ends:
Hugh tells me that the market is off-limits until my French improves. He's pretty steamed, but I think he'll get over it when he sees the CD players I got him for his birthday.
Thinking about how nice it would be to have my own anti-gender cheat, I started to pay more attention my daily conversation.  I realized that when I talk fast or if I'm unsure, I begin to add schwas to words, like in English.  I always thought of it as just a fault in my accent, but I'm beginning to realize that this could be deeply useful.  For instance, if I forget if "tripe" is callos or callas (this is actually a tricky one for me - somehow tripe comes up a lot in my life), there's an easy solution.  Suddenly, I just have to say "Me gustan ləs calləs" and people may think of me as accented (not to mention gastronomically sophisticated), but won't have nearly as much of a reason to question my capacity in Spanish!  Or, they'll think that I am just proclaiming my affection for the streets, or calles, which would not be that out of character for me.


Speaking of genders.  I was once again amazed last week by the continuing strength of traditional gender roles in Spanish society.  With the start of my internship rapidly approaching (I've been there three days - I'll write about it soon), I went to the dry cleaner to get my clothes cleaned.  I was shocked when I was charged only €8.50 for my suit (not cheap, but not that bad) and €3.50 ($4.75) for each shirt.  When I got home, I told Pilar, who agreed that the price was unreasonable:  "If you want, in the future, I can wash your shirts and you can pay Lili (the cleaner) to iron them for you when she comes.  I have an iron and you would just need to pay her my rate for whatever extra time it takes her."
"If you have an iron," I said, "I can iron them myself just as easily, and then I don't have to wait for her."
"You know how to iron?" she asked, as if I had just revealed that I could carve elaborate ice sculptures. "How did you learn how to iron."
"That's how I get my shirts ready for work when I have internships at home," I said, a little indignantly.  "My mother hasn't washed my clothes since I was 14."

For the next 24 hours, every other conversation concerned my immanent plans to iron a single shirt.  You would think I had told her I was planning to launch fireworks in the house or perform minor surgery on myself.  First, I was introduced to the iron and all it's relating items, complete with a lecture on iron safety.  I was then regaled with stories of Pilar ironing her ex-husband's clothes and her friends ironing their husbands' clothes (note: ironing-based stories are as boring as the sound).  I was told about all the starch sprays she could buy to help me, the friends she would ask for helpful tips, and how lucky I was that she had a particularly good iron.  "Evan, when are you planning to iron? Tonight?" she asked me as I came back from an errand.  "I'm just so worried about it."

Finally, the night before my internship, after she went to sleep, I quietly took out the ironing board and iron and made my (unclean) shirt look presentable.  The next morning, I went to my internship and came home.  That evening, after asking how my internship was, she asked, "and did you iron your shirt last night?"  I nodded.  "Oh good," she said.  "Just make sure you let it cool before you put the iron back in the cabinet.  The cabinet is plastic, so I'm afraid it could melt if you put it back right after using it."

I must say I'm a bit confused by the importance of gender roles.  Spanish society has advanced rapidly.  The socialist government has, among other things, created an Orwellian-sounding of Ministry of Equality, put civics classes in schools where children learn about how equal men and women are, and established gender equality as one of its goals as rotating president of the Council of the European Union.  Pilar is a strong, single working woman who raised a son.  She's sufficiently progressive that from her lack of reaction, I wasn't sure for the first few months if she even that she had realized I was gay despite occasional references to a boyfriend (which, in all fairness, differs from the word for "girlfriend" only in that it ends in -o instead of -a, and, as mentioned above, I don't use genders well).  Yet, as soon as I try and do something domestic or even mention that I can do so, like clean dishes, do laundry, or cook food, she either appears amazed or acts as though I am taking away one of her greatest pleasures.  I'm not sure who exactly she thinks does these things for me at college (actually, she asked if my friend were going to hire a cleaner for our next year), or who will do them in my adulthood.  I'm not sure what it says about Spanish society, or if it only has to do with a mother who misses having her son to take care of.  Either way, though, I'm certainly not going to object to my lack of domestic responsibility too much.

Oh, may I live, may I die in the North!

At the time that I started writing this (more than a week ago) I had just came back from a great Spring Break (or Holy Week, as it's known here) trip to Stockholm and Berlin.  Holy Week in Europe is sort of like a giant Chinese fire-drill: everyone leaves there city and goes to another one to hang out.  Madrid was basically empty when I got back on Saturday, mostly to the beach.  My boyfriend, Andrew, and two of our friends, Courtney and Jonathan, met me in Germany and we spent a few days in Stockholm courtesy of Ryanair.  At the risk of writing what would sound like a diary entry, I'll stay to the important points.

Arriving in Germany for my transfer in Dusseldorf was like entering another world.  The airport was clean, modern, and completely silent.  People talked only in hushed voices, quietly nursing a beer or sandwich.  No one was talking loudly enough for the entire room to hear, no one was smoking in blatant violation of signs, and even the Spanish couple that found it necessary to straddle one another to better make out while the plane was taxiing (no joke) learned some restraint.  Most read newspapers, which were, unlike in Spain where free 10-page rags are the norm, complete and varied.  I picked up my free International Herald Tribune (thank you, Lufthansa!) and breathed a sigh of relief that I was going to take a week's break from the most annoying aspects of Spanish culture.  Even the pleasant and considerate manner in which services were provided was a welcome break.  When our plane was delayed in Madrid-Barajas (as they always are), the friendly German flight attendants calmed down my seatmate who was going to miss his connection.  They apologized profusely even though it wasn't their fault, and although they said ground staff would be there to help him in Dusseldorf, they did their best to help him from the air.  It was so much better than Spanish apathy!

Some interesting (and uninteresting) points from Sweden:
  • Sweden is really cold.  When we arrived, the ice was still breaking up in the bay.  Piles of snow were also a common sight, even in almost-April.  Outside of the city, the ground was still completely covered.
  • When Ryanair said they were flying into Stockholm, they actually meant "nowhere near Stockholm".  Stockholm-Skavsta airport is actually 63 miles outside of the city and is not in the city, province, or county of Stockhom.  It takes a 90 minute bus ride - longer than the flight itself - to get into the city.
  • Stockholm has really odd hours of operation.  Things are only open between 10:00 and 4:00, if you're lucky.  English tours are almost universally only once a day, starting between 1:00 and 2:00, meaning that you can only see one thing at a time.  The notable exception to this is Ikea, which is open until 9:00 and has a free bus service.
  • Ikea also differs from the rest of Sweden in that it's quite cheap.  Sweden is not cheap.  Despite our best efforts to save money, we were at times caught completely off-guard.  One cafe even charged $6.25 for a slice of cake!
  • I actually kept forgetting what country I was in.  It feels so much like every other northern European country that I at times thought I was back in the Netherlands.  There's the same hushed sense of efficiency and unintelligible but clearly Germanic language.
  • Our hostel was on a boat.  We sang "I'm on a boat!" not infrequently.  Stockholm is full of hostels in weird places - on a boat, on a larger boat, in a former prison...  The hotel was actually a lot of fun and had a quiet 24 hour bar above it.  Logically, we never saw any Swedes there after 4:00 PM.  I'm not sure what they do with their time.  They only work 40 hour a week (36 if they have kids) and don't seem to go out except to get afternoon cake and coffee.
  • Stockholm is actually a fantastically beautiful city, especially in the sun.  There are a ton of steeples and many traditional buildings, or buildings in a traditional style.  Also, it's built on a bunch of islands, so you're always walking on bridges and it's hard to get lost.  The smallest one contains an institute for research on democracy and elections.
  • The degree of gender equality is startling.  Half of the strollers were being pushed by men and most bathrooms were not divided by sex.  One actually indicated that it was for use by both men and women with a drawing of two people wearing pants, except one had two circles on its chest, representing breasts.  Interestingly enough, though it seemed just as homophobic as the U.S. Eastern seaboard (more so than Berlin or Madrid).
  • Everyone speaks really good English, complete with colloquialisms and slang.  Even the street vendors and grocery store clerks.  I was really impressed. 
By far, the best part of Stockholm was the tour of the Riksdag, or Parliament.  As we came in to get a tour, the man in the front informed us that there were only four tickets left for the English tour.  "We're four people," I said.  "Yes," he said, holding the entrance stickers and if to prove that he was truly regretful, "but I only have four spots left.  I'm so sorry.  The rest will have to come back tomorrow.  I if could I would give out more, but I can't.  I wish I could let you all in.  I really am very sorry."  It was sort of touching.  The tour was let by a tall blonde woman with a meek demeanor and a great sense of humor.  Highlights included:
  • "The parliamentarians who choose to live in public housing have only very small rooms, but the basement of the buildings have swimming pools and laundry machines, for those who are addicted to laundry"
  • "We used to have two chambers of parliament, but it was so inefficient to have to go through the same procedure twice!"
  • (In response to a man criticizing the modern architectural elements to the building) "We think it is quite beautiful.  The Council of Beauty has approved it!"
Berlin was a totally different city in its own right.  Unlike Spain or Sweden, which were technically neutral (Spain, at least, really sided with the Axis and even sent soldiers, but whatever), Berlin was bombed to the ground.  There's really very little old or quaint left in the city, since everything was more or less build from scratch.  As a result, the city is modern and incredibly spread out.  Moreover, there has been a huge amount of reconstruction since the reunification, such that you can't even tell whether you're in the east or west.  The city is still very much under construction.  Not wanting to make an eyesore, though, they cover everything in fake facades that look like what they are trying to construct.  It's not really that successful a substitute.

The effects of the new construction mean that much of the city has a really modern feel.  As an example: monuments.  Germany had a difficult time getting over its role in World War II, and mixing it with modern conceptual art has made interesting effects.  Deciding that a single Holocaust memorial was not sufficiently...uh...memorial-ful, the city decided to create separate memorials for each group involved, plus for anything that happened in a given place, all deeply conceptual. The burned book memorial, for instance, is a relatively small clear tile in the middle of the square where there were book-burnings, which looks down upon an empty white subterranean library.  The Jewish memorial looks somewhat like a graveyard, with passages on a grid between the stones that get deeper and deeper towards the center.  It is a favorite location for tag for German youth, I suppose with the added challenge of running from the police who try to stop them.  The most conceptual was the gay memorial, which featured a single large rectangular stone in a park with a small square hole in one side.  Looking in, one could see a one minute loop of two guys in 1930's dress making out.  This was the only one of the three with any sort of explanation, but it wasn't that close by and didn't really make a lot of sense

The best part of Berlin, in my opinion, were the governmental buildings.  The Reichstag is simply stunning.  Its dome, added in the 90's after reunification, is modern without being gaudy, like the European Parliament in Brussels.  It gives the feeling of being new without detracting from the historical building.  Moreover, it is located in a plaza from which one can see two other incredibly beautiful, super-modern glass government buildings and the super-modern glass train station.  I consider myself a connoisseur of government plazas.  I would say that Empire State Plaza, located in Albany, is still my favorite due to its absurdity, but Berlin is probably the best I have seen in terms of sincere effort.  We went up in the Reichstag one night.  It was a good opportunity to see the city, but I fear it couldn't compare to the tour of the Swedish parliament.

In any case, while I could undoubtedly continue writing this, I fear I lack the interest to do so (hence why it's taken me a week so far) and it wouldn't hold anyone's attention.  While I think I feel obligated to write about trips I've taken, I don't think they're ever as interesting to write about as they were to take, unless something crazy happens.  I think I just prefer to write about negative things (some have commented on my general tone), and fortunately most of my trips don't fit that category.

Why You Can Be Too Polite In Turkey

As one Jessica Blevins reminded me today [ED: at the day of writing, not posting], my posts have become a little less frequent.  I apologize about this to everyone reading this blog and not secretly wishing I didn’t write so damn much.  Between homework, midterms and neurotically applying for jobs (@DGro: great bloggers make great engineering interns – hire yours today!), I seem to have other things to do in my dorm room besides blogging.

So the title of this post, which surely will be overshadowed by tons of superfluous text, requires a bit of back story…

This past weekend, Nick (from Pitzer) and I decided to backpack on the Lycian way (or Likya Yolu).  The Lycian way is probably the most popular hiking trail in Tukey and it is abundantly clear why.  The trail hugs the Mediterranean coast, occasionally diverting to reach a village, ruins or a mountain view.  Our route started in Kaş (which, since our last visit, has become infested with British and German tourists) and ended in Üçağız (if the specialized characters are confusing, it’s pronounced ewchauhz).  The hike was stunning and with the exception of some stinging something-or-other in the bay we swam in, altogether pleasant.

As Nick didn’t bring a sleeping bag to Turkey, we decided we would find a place to stay for the night.  As there were only two small villages along the way, this was actually rather risky, but we figured that we would just sleep with emergency blankets in a worst case scenario.  Fortunately for us, at the end of the first day, we met a man outside of the village of Boğazcık (boazjuhk) eager to have us spend the night in his pension.  That the man was the owner of the pension was a little unclear until we got to the village proper, though I don’t know if this was because we didn’t understand his slurred Turkish or he didn’t tell us.  Either way, the pension was basically just this old couple’s house with two rooms for backpackers.  There were three Germans also staying the night.  They knew no Turkish, and our hosts knew no English and very little German.  This was hilarious for Nick and me, as we finally got to see other people go through a shortened version of our month of home-stay.

Getting to the title…

The highlight of the pension was clearly the meals, which were cooked from things the family grew on their farm.  We were hungry and impressed with the food, so we thanked our hosts profusely and complemented the food.  In America this would have been good manners, but in Turkey it gets a mixed response.  Turks hate to be indebted to someone.  This is the reason, for instance, why Turks secretly leave their hosts gifts.  I am also beginning to conclude that this is why they don’t like to be thanked.  Compounding this, rural Turks especially are super-superstitious, especially when it comes to the evil eye.  Even in the cities, everything is decorated with “blue beads” – eye-shaped charms for warding off the evil eye.  I think my host family had at least 30 blue beads.  They even pinned blue beads to Kaan on occasion.  The evil eye is believed to come through jealousy, so having something worthy of jealousy is a bad thing.  Complementing something makes it worthy of jealousy, thus putting the recipient of the complement at risk for evil-eye-ness.

I don’t think we angered our hosts that much, they just complained/joked about our insistence that everything was delicious.  They seemed much more interested in the fact that Nick could remember the names of all three of their baby goats.  Still, not complementing people or saying thank you is something I am going to have to work on.

To be fair, some Turks appreciate politeness.  My friend Müjgan is going to America for grad school next year, and when I asked her why she wanted to go to America, one of her reasons was that people in America would be as polite as me.  I think this pales in comparison to her other reason: the police or ambulances in America come on demanded and don’t take kickbacks.  Still, it’s nice that someone appreciates well-wishing attempts at politeness, especially since this someone is making sure I don’t accidentally miss my Advanced Strength of Materials midterm (all information about which is given in only Turkish).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tidbits From Turkish Class and Photos

First of all, I now have a link for photos.  Johnny has compiled a whole bunch of them here:


The gallery is still missing pictures from my first month in Turkey (I sort of fell bad taking up space on Johnny's profile with pictures that have nothing to do with him.  I'll probably get over myself soon) but it has a whole bunch.  Feel free to vicariously visit Turkey!

In other news, I saw a movie called "Devrim Arabası" in Turkish class yesterday.  In it, General Cemal Gürsel, having just taken over the government in a coup, declares that Turkey will start an automotive industry.  This is 1961 and apparently not just anyone can build a car, so the public declares the whole thing impossible.  Cemal Paşa orders a small group of railway engineers build a prototype entirely from Turkish parts in 150 days.  Turkey at this time has almost no industrial infrastructure, and the budget and work conditions aren't exactly ideal for the projects.  The engineers toil away, barely sleeping or seeing their wives (in Turkey in 1961, women were not allowed to engineer anything but dinner) and finally construct two working prototypes for a national celebration.  The media, meanwhile reports that the project is doomed to be a failure.

---SPOILER ALERT (not that you're ever going to find this on Netflix)---

At the end of the movie, the engineers load the cars onto the train to bring them to Ankara.  As per safety precautions, they siphon of as much gas a s possible, leaving only enough for the cars to make a trip from parliament to a parade.  Unfortunately, the gas gauge is slow to respond, and they take too much gas out of the tank - a mistake they realize just before the demonstration run.  The car runs out of gas with Cemal Paşa inside, and the whole thing is a public nightmare.  Even though the cars are perfectly good, the project is scrapped as a result of the public humiliation of the event.

This was the best engineering-themed movie I've seen.  In fact, it is one of the only engineering-themed movies I've seen, but it really was quite good.  The engineers were these lovable tragic heroes, doing the impossible just to have the product of their tireless work ruined by clueless higher-ups .  It was like a Dilbert was turned into a sports movie.  If only engineering was popular enough to inspire a similarly stirring movie in America.

In other news, Turkish is a strange language.   The language is almost entirely gender neutral, but the exceptions are ridiculous.  He, she and it are all the same word (O).  There are, however, different names for maternal and paternal relatives.  Your maternal aunt is your teyze, while your paternal aunt is your hala.  The same sort of scheme goes for uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers and (I think) cousins.