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.