At the Kitchen Table

We were all at the kitchen table – four of us, once Ana came in, and four laptops. Ana was looking at silly email forward jokes and cracking up at them, occasionally making us read them and pretend to get them too. Gianfranco was playing soundtrack music – Gladiator and Braveheart, and singing along and quoting his favourite lines (in Italian, of course). Jaime and I were trying to figure out our classes. Jaime’s panic was helping my own subside a bit. We were laughing a lot and it was hard to tell how much was from what. Just another evening in our Auberge Espagnole. 🙂

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Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 17:37  Leave a Comment  
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Accidente de Salsa de Pescado

I’ve been looking for fish sauce for a while. This incredibly basic ingredient in Asian cooking had so far eluded me in Pamplona, so I continued my search by poking into the little Asian owned shops throughout San Sebastian – and found a big bottle of the stuff just as the cannons of the August 31st parade sounded! All the way home on the bus I kept it between my feet and dreamed of cooking a big Thai curry.

As I opened the exterior door to my building, the bottle hit the glass door, a little too hard for comfort. I thought to myself, I swear I did – ‘what a fine thing it would be to break the bottle now, when I’m so close to home!’. Well. On my way up the dark staircase, I slipped, and couldn’t stop  my hands from going out in front of me. The bag swung and the bottle smacked against the next stair up, hard. There was a crack, then a gushing sound, and the terrible smell of fish sauce filled the entire stairwell.

I wanted to cry for my fish sauce. I wanted to run away from the mess. I wanted to die of embarrassment. Trust me, spilling an enormous bottle of fermented fish sauce in your building’s stairwell is not a good way to make friends with your new neighbors. ;_; And I was already so tired from the day at the beach, and just wanted to eat a quick snack and get a good night’s sleep for the first day of classes tomorrow! Ana was great about helping me, though. It took us three buckets worth of mopping, and afterward we sprayed deodorizer everywhere.

Definitely not my finest moment here to date. 😦

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 17:27  Leave a Comment  
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Jornada de Bienvenida

Today was the first day that I did anything pertaining to the University – in short, it was the International Student Orientation. Despite a few misgivings I thought on the whole it was very well done – in the morning mostly information sessions, and in the afternoon more of getting to know each other and the city of Pamplona.

Jaime, Gianfranco, and his two friends Francesco and Francesca all went to the main building with me, and there was a bit of a flurry as we were given name tags, information packets (with maps, Navarra tourism information, general university resources, etc), and asked if we wanted to sign up to go to San Sebastian tomorrow. I definitely signed up – it’s the right time of year to head there, most of my new friends from today are going, and it’s even a good deal, 10$ whereas a round trip on the bus costs 14$. My initial thought looking around the room was that there seemed to be an enormous number of Americans, a lot of English being spoken, and not many communications majors…

We listened to lots of pep talks about the University and about being an International student, and more useful stuff about finding accommodations (at least that’s out of the way now!), volunteer and work opportunities, and extracurricular activities. Figuring out my classes and how much time/energy they will take is my first priority – but afterward I’m going to look into babysitting (either in English or in Spanish), and into the Club de Montaña… the volunteer activities look good too, but I’m only here one semester, so I might not have time for them, especially if I can find a few hours of work a week.

We split into groups by faculty – I felt much better once we were divided into the communication group. There weren’t so many of us, actually a pretty good number, maybe 30 or so? And unless I’m mistaken, I might actually have been the only American, and the median ability/willingness of this group to speak Spanish seemed to be higher than the general average.  I met three students while in this section who seemed quite nice – a Finnish girl, a French/Lebanese girl, and an Italian girl.

Our coordinator kept explaining the system of advisers and coordinators etc etc and explaining what we should do when and how and why. I think she meant to help us but I was actually getting more confused and worried the longer the explanations went on. AFTER all this, however, she handed out folders with almost all the information I’d been wanting in it – class request forms to fill out, some information about different courses (even the schedules!!!), etc… plus our student IDs, which is at least one concern down. I sort of wish she’d given us those at the beginning, but I’m basically just glad to have it.

We went outside for a group picture, but it wasn’t well organized, and I was too short so I’m not even in it a little bit. Ah well.

Then we went for the Paella Gigante, which is fun and quite well advertised. It had snails in it, and it was my first time trying them, but they were really quite tasty! I ate mostly with the Finnish girl, Ida, and started realizing that my first impressions of the group were a bit off. I don’t think there were any people I’d thought were European or Latin, that turned out to be American, but the reverse was definitely true. Some of the people looked like they could be from Joplin or Cape Girardeau and yet came from France or Ecuador. So many came from mixed or complicated backgrounds. One boy was named Toshimi (a Japanese name), but looked and sounded totally, totally Midwestern American – and was from the Dominican Republic! And although there was lots of English being spoken, not all of it was by native speakers – there were lots of people from all over Europe speaking in English together, some of them barely knew a word of Spanish – so its not just Americans who can come to a country ignorant of the language! (It is more embarrassing for us, I feel, since we didn’t even learn English, but in a way it’s not our fault that we don’t need to, that we have it by default.)

So perhaps I judged the group too quickly, but then again I felt that there was a difference in the attitude of the Americans and the Europeans or Asians who didn’t speak Spanish – they looked more shy, more embarrassed, more bashful about the situation – even if they needn’t be ashamed, after all, they’re going to learn a lot, the humility was refreshing compared to the blank or even annoyed stares some of the Americans gave off when addressed in English. (By the way, I need to lump a large percentage of the Australians I’ve met so far in with the majority of the Americans in this regard.)

The worst? One girl, whose situation there I admit I don’t fully understand, but whom I can only assume had the nerve to come there as a student, spoke no Spanish. I mean it. I knew more Spanish at age 5, without even knowing it was Spanish, from nursery rhymes and the like. She couldn’t even ask me where I was from (she did manage to ask my name) – even this would have been one thing, if she’d been a bit nervous about it, really willing to learn, but no. She had the most smug look on her face imaginable, and although she had attached herself to one of the most bilingual members of the welcoming committee and was having her translate the most basic of phrases, she managed to sound incredibly condescending. It was really unbelievable, I mean it – her tone would have been inappropriate even if I was a small Spanish child going around in the U.S. and requiring that she try to use her fragments of Spanish because of my inability to understand English, and in the present situation, it was absolutely ludicrous.

They split us next into random groups for Icebreakers, which I was sort of dreading as Mizzou has just about given me my lifetime dose of those! But it wasn’t too bad in the end. We stayed with the same group throughout a tour of campus and downtown and throughout the scavenger hunt. It was a good group – I spent most of the time with a Chinese-Australian girl and an Icelandic girl, both very nice – pity we did speak English together, but there are worse things as long as I speak Spanish with most of my friends here. Our group actually won the scavenger hunt and I thought I made quite a decent contribution – I knew about Hemingway, Rincon de Caballo Blanco (by chance!), and also, very helpfully, the meaning and pronunciation of the Chinese character for tea.

We were rewarded for winning with free drinks and pintxos (tapas). The pintxos barman was acting funny and I’m pretty sure he was messing/flirting with me, and sort of glad to have so many new friends about! For some reason, although I thought I ordered a simple jamon sandwich thing like the others, mine took much longer to come out of the kitchen, and when it did some I had three little sandwiches, instead of just one! O.O I have no idea if there is any connection between that and the barman’s strange behavior…

After eating I saw Jaime, and the two of us tried to go and get groceries together. We started talking and not paying attention to where we were going, and ended up walking almost in the opposite direction! But in the end it was fine, we even managed to get in and out of the store before it closed at ten, just barely – and we definitely had  good talk!

In the end, there’s a lot of information and new ideas spinning around in my head – it’s a little overwhelming to be honest! But I’m also feeling pretty confident, and very excited about what the next semester will hold, in terms of academics, in terms of travel, in terms of languages, in terms of new friends and new experiences, here so far from home.

Stranded in Puente La Reina!

On Allan’s main day in Pamplona, we took an easy day trip to Puente La Reina. Advertising in the station showed a lovely roman bridge there, and google also told us that it was a prime example of a street-based town, with many other lovely buildings. Like Pamplona, Puente la Reina is situated on the Camino de Santiago, and is in fact an important spot on the way, as it is where multiple routes converge to become a single path leading the rest of the way.

The Bridge of Puente la Reina

Getting to Puente la Reina was easy – we paid 2 euros each at the bus station and caught a bus that left at 1:30 and got in just before 2:00. We enjoyed strolling around and photographing the bridge and even walked a short distance on the Camino de Santiago. For a snack we stopped at a little cafe and ate little toasted open faced sandwiches, mine with goat cheese, peppers, and honey, and Allan’s with Serrano ham and fried egg. If you’re careful, you can climb up into one of the bridge’s arches – we went up and sat there for a while, looking down at the sun moving on the water with every stray breeze and trick of the current.

One of Puente la Reina's lovely streets.

The trouble came when we tried to make our way back to Pamplona. We went over to the bus stop, only to find that there was no bus schedule posted! Not worrying, we made our way to the tourist information office, but it had already closed hours ago. We would probably be okay just waiting at the stop until a bus came – we both remembered there being several in the evening – but I really didn’t like the situation.

We went to the cafe and asked them about the bus schedule – they refused to believe that the schedule wasn’t posted in the station (it must have been torn down recently?), but after some discussion produced one for us to look at, which they had quite ready and even laminated. This showed the next bus at 5:30, so we returned to the station to wait, along with a few Germans. At 5:30 a bus came, and we all queued up to board. When the driver asked me where I was going, I answered, “Pamplona.” He got a bit annoyed and told me that the bus didn’t go to Pamplona, it went to San Sebastian!

I got down and told the others that it wasn’t going to Pamplona, but to San Sebastian. Suddenly one of the women started running back along the street – another bus had stopped immediately after the bus to San Sebastian, and behind it – in our confusion we had very nearly missed the correct bus! To our relief, this bus did take us back to Pamplona Station for another 2 euros each.

Watching the sun on the water...

The trip was cheap and fun, and I’m glad we went. Puente la Reina is definitely worth the short trip from Pamplona. Having adapted to some of the perils of big cities, however, I’d forgotten the vulnerability of travelling in lesser-known places – how dependent one becomes on a single piece of paper that can easily be torn down! Looking back, I could have copied down the schedule from the information computer at the station in Pamplona before I left and saved myself all of the trouble.

L’Auberge Espagnole

It took me an embarrassingly long time to find my new house. I’m not great at following directions even in English, and most of my landlady’s instructions hinged upon me asking random bystanders to point me in x and x direction. In the end, however, I came to the right place, and so far everything has been perfect!

The landlady, Ana is really, really friendly – almost to the point of being scary. I had no idea how she would be, but it seems like she is half a step away from a host-mother. She’s a widow and doesn’t work, so she has a lot of time to be around the house and genuinely seems to enjoy chatting with us and helping us with our Spanish. She has family in the U.S., actually in Florida, so she knows some English, but wants to stick with Spanish, which is more than okay with me! There are going to be four of us living here in the end – Ana, an Italian guy who is already here, me, and another American girl, arriving tomorrow. Ana says the Italian is very nice and the other American seems great too, and hopes we can all be friends. ^^

My room is enormous. Ana asked if I wanted a spare bed for Allan, since he’s staying here for two nights, and there was plenty of room for it in the corner, which was great as Allan is absolutely exhausted after taking the night bus and has basically slept since we arrived. Sans spare bed, the room is basically like a big square with the bed in the middle, and an extra corner, also quite spacious, with a desk in it. I have two big windows looking over a plaza with trees and families laughing, and about 4x as much storage space as I need for all of my things! In the end, even spreading out I’ve fit all of my clothes in the dresser and using some of the hanging space, have my shoes sitting on top of one of the shelving units in the closet, am using a few closet shelves for my empty bags, gifts for family, etc… and two nightstand shelves for toiletries and books. I’ll probably keep technology and school supplies in the desk, meaning I have an entire nightstand and set of drawers in the closet that I won’t even need to touch!

The living room is cluttered right now as Ana is in the middle of cleaning it, but it looks like it will be quite pleasant when that is done – lots of plants, etc. Still, between the kitchen, my own room, and all the lovely outdoor spaces, I’m not sure how much time I’ll need to spend in there. The kitchen is large enough, and very well stocked – and I get a whole two cupboard shelves and a big chunk of the refrigerator for my own use! There is WIFI throughout the house, which I’ve already set up on both my laptops, and even a dishwasher and clothes dryer (for when you’re short on time). Basically, I’ll want for nothing – as Allan’s said, I’ve hit the jackpot.

The only thing I’m not completely enamored with, at least not yet, is the bathroom. The shower has stronger water pressure than I think I’ve ever encountered before, but the problem is that it’s difficult to keep the water in the smallish tub or even to keep the showerhead from flying off, even with the knob barely turned! Even stranger, there appears to be a sink, a toilet, and something else which is a combination between the two. I told Allan this, and he went to investigate… coming back to say, “You silly American, that’s a bidet!” O.O

Published in: Uncategorized on August 27, 2010 at 19:23  Leave a Comment  

Monument to the Encierro

Allan is running with the bulls... and staying ahead of them, so far!

I wasn't so lucky... 😦

They don’t run the bulls daily here in Pamplona, contrary to what you might assume from all the propaganda. Actually, the encierro, as the event is called, only occurs on the mornings of the San Fermines festival, in July. The rest of the year, though, the festival still has a definite presence in the city, as the majority of postcards and souvenirs feature the encierro, there is a museum dedicated to it (with a giant clock counting down the days to the next run), and, my favourite, this enormous sculpture that is popular for photos at any time of the day, with locals and silly tourists alike. Some simply stand in front of it, but it’s much more fun to climb up and pretend to get in on the action – and it’s still much safer than actually running with the bulls!

Published in: on August 27, 2010 at 18:10  Leave a Comment  

Triumphant Arrival and First Observations

This part wasn’t in my years-old study abroad plan. Allan and I cleverly took the overnight bus from Valencia – this saved us a wad of Euros and allowed us to have more time sightseeing with Emily after Tomatina, but also robbed us of a night of sleep and left us in the bus station before five in the morning. Not the proper station, even – that didn’t open until 6:30, so we spent an hour and a half feeling quite homeless on the concrete stairwell that led from our hanger-like, underground platform to the exterior door above.

By the time the main station opened up, I was grateful to be small enough to squeeze under these bars, which try to prevent people from sleeping on the benches. 😛

It was still very dark, and we had nowhere to go until it was a reasonable hour to call my landlady. I’d sent her an email asking how early we could arrive, and she’d said anytime – but somehow I thought this would be a stretch. Anyway, it could have been worse. We didn’t have comfort or bathrooms, but we did have snacks, and security in the form of two guards strolling about the place at intervals.

The town had seemed quite large on the bus ride through, bigger, I admit, than I really expected. Once the proper station opened up, it, too, surprised me with its scale. But I felt super legitimate getting off at the same stop as the old women and the families, instead of continuing to San Sebastian with all the tourists.

We had some time, so I walked around the station a bit. There was a coin operated Mouth of Truth, which cracked me up, and a few more useful things – ATMs which dispensed rolls of coins, and a photo-printing machine. There was an advertisement playing on loop for the region of Navarra. It reminded me of a recent ad for Romania – somewhat over the top music, etc, but still it made me even more excited to be in this region, as did a look at a bulletin board listing day trip offerings to mountains and forests.

The day seems to start slowly here. As seven turned into eight and eight turned into eight thirty, the station was still all but deserted. The few people I have bumped into seem very nice so far. I moved my backpack out of the way of the man who was mopping the floors, and when he turned back around he said to me, “Gracias, eh? Lo he visto.” 🙂 There seem to be an above average number of middle aged and older ladies here, but maybe it’s just that time of the morning.

One more observation: Basque is real. I’ve already heard several people speaking it, and almost everything is written in Basque – not only government run things which may well have to be, but also posters, etc. It’s inspired me. I’m not only in Spain – I’m also in Basque Spain, and I have renewed hope that I may get to take a Basque language or culture course as an elective.

Published in: on August 27, 2010 at 11:48  Leave a Comment  
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ATM Woes

Paying for my housing in cash was almost certainly the easiest way to do it for everyone involved, once I looked into the particulars of wiring the money. But even this wasn’t entirely problem free – I had to plan ahead, since I have a daily withdrawal limit, and I even had quite an adventure trying to get money from the ATM’s in Valencia!

I started off by simply going to an ATM and trying to withdraw money, as per normal. But when I put in my card, it told me that the magnetic strip had deteriorated and the card was unreadable. This was really worrying, as it would take me some time to get another card sent from the United States! It made me realize that, in the event something like this did actually happen, I should probably carry a spare ATM or Debit card – not in case I lose the first one, because then the account needs to be cancelled, but in case it gets damaged. Also, it would probably be a good idea to keep a reserve of cash at home, in case I ended up needing to wait several days before I had access to my bank account.

I went to the train station and tried another ATM with the same result. Then Emily and Allan suggested that it might be the brand of ATM I was using – both had been Bancaja. We asked for the nearest ATM that wasn’t Bancaja, and got sent to one in another area of the station. This one threw us for a loop as the cancel and enter buttons were painted on wrong, meaning you actually had to press an unlabeled button for enter – the green button did nothing!

I was quite stressed out by the time we figured all of this out, but in the end the new machine read my card without issue, and gave me my euros – whew!

Published in: on August 26, 2010 at 22:42  Leave a Comment  
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Tomatina!

This guy rocks.

Tomatina falls on the last Wednesday in August, and this year that was August 25th. The international orientation at the University of Navarra was on the 30th, so as far as I was concerned the universe had given me no choice but to go to the world’s largest tomato fight.

My friend Allan came with me to Spain, and in Valencia we met up with my friend Emily before all heading to Tomatina together. We were at the station early, as the guidebook recommended, and made it onto the second train into Bunyol that morning. We followed the crowds into the plaza where the madness would take place, ate some empanadas we purchased on the side of the road, and then sat down to wait as people kept trickling in for several hours.

This was our big mistake, which probably changed our experience at Tomatina quite a bit. We could see the greased pole that the bravest participants try to climb for a ham, and thought that meant we were as close to the action as we could hope to be. What we didn’t realize was that far more important than being close to the pole (the epicenter of the action) is being along the side of the road. The tomatoes are brought in on trucks and along that route – as it turns out we were not far from the pole, but dozens of people separated us from the trucks – and relatively few tomatoes made it all the way out to us. This was both good and bad – on one hand, we weren’t stained the deepest red as the guidebooks had promised us, but on the other, we didn’t lose our money or our cameras, like many of the people on the bloody front lines did. On the way back home, we happened to run into a guy from our hostel. He had been on the front lines, and had lost all of his money. Luckily for him, he recognized us so we were able to help him get back to Valencia. This is why you don’t want to go alone.

Emily, me, and the two Australian girls we met during Tomatina.

Emily, Allan and I had a good time at Tomatina, mostly just by inhaling the epicness of the event, being there, checking it off our life lists. Our big question for each other, though, was whether we would do it again. I wasn’t sure. It had been fun, and we’d learned where to position ourselves, so I was sure the next time would be better. But there are three things you should probably know before you commit yourself, the first or the second time:

1.) You have to wait a long time before the tomato fight itself arrives. You have to come early to get a good place, and the fight doesn’t start until 12. What do you get while you wait? If you’re tall, and close enough, you can watch people trying to climb the greased pole. This is fun at first, but loses its appeal after the first forty-five minutes or so. The crowd gets rowdy, and starts throwing around water, water bottles, and soaking wet t-shirts. It’s not quite hot enough in the morning that this is refreshing, there’s not much room to get out of the way, and the t-shirts can hurt if they hit you at the wrong angle.

2.) When the tomatoes finally arrive, there aren’t THAT many of them. In fact, I’m not really sure the most popular pictures of the event are 100% genuine, because if you weren’t in the VERY front line, you’re not going to be anywhere near as red and goopy as you’re dreaming of. (I’ve heard, conversely, that if you ARE in the front line, the assault is brutal – you go home with bruises and often lose your money). Worst of all, the residents of Bunyol are all above you, on their rooftops, and they have tons of their own tomatoes, which they hurl down at you. You can’t reach them, but they can sure hit you… and the tomatoes even hurt a little bit after falling several stories. As Allan said, at times “this isn’t a tomato fight, we’re sitting ducks!”

3.) As soon as the fight is over, you have to get out. Fast. No last throw, no bathing in the river of tomato remains that flows down mainstreet, no time even for an orderly evacuation. No one was sure how to get out of the tiny plaza when I was there, and yet the police kept ordering everyone to leave. What resulted was a big bottleneck in which things got a little nasty. Hundreds of bodies, slippery and stinky with tomato pulp, were crowded together so close that we couldn’t see our hands, much less our feet. Groups of friends were violently torn apart. I had my camera on a wrist-strap, and it was pulled apart by the surging of the crowd with such force that I had an angry red welt on my wrist afterwards – I was lucky it didn’t snap. I didn’t see anyone collapse or be trampled, but it was a close thing, definitely the scariest crowd I’ve ever been in.

Published in: on August 26, 2010 at 15:31  Leave a Comment  

¡Hola, Europa!

One of the best things about studying abroad, especially for an American, is the sudden proximity to… well, the rest of the world. It would be a shame to miss the local experience by travelling every weekend, but just the same it’s great to have the opportunity to see other things once you’ve already made it so far from home! As for myself, I flew into Europe a full month before my orientation. I spent the first three weeks of it in the U.K. with my friends Allan and Lucia. After a few days in London, we basically hiked and bussed our way across Scotland, spending a magical day on the Hebrides, climbing Ben Nevis (the U.K.´s highest mountain), experiencing Edinburgh Festival, hunting for Loch Ness, and more.

After Lucia went back home to US to start her own semester, Allan and I continued to Spain for a week-long introduction to the country. We flew into Barcelona and saw Las Ramblas, Montjuic, and the works of Gaudi – then continued on to Valencia, where we met up with my classmate Emily to participate in the world’s largest tomato fight at Tomatina, swim in the Mediterranean, and stroll through the oldest and most super-modern parts of the city. Full stories to come later, but for now I’d just like to say… ¡Hola, Europa!

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 11:39  Leave a Comment