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.

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