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.