Today is the first day of Orientation Proper, and I, being such a health-conscious soul, decide it ought to begin with a series of heavy lifting exercises – you know, to get in a righteous, energetic mindset for the rigor of a series of meetings. However, upon inquiring as to the whereabouts of the weight room at 7 AM, I am informed that any possibility of opening it is far beyond the scope of what The Keybearers are able to consider.
“Pero… nadie hace ejercicio en las mañanas?”
“No. La mayoria hacen el footing.”
So I footed my way up and down the hilly blocks.
A cool rinse, a luscious peach, and a 2,285 euro stipend check later, I enthusiastically join the other ETAs for a welcome speech, which clearly underlines how important of a role Fulbrighters play in the transformation of the Spanish educational system towards true bilingualism. It is stifling in the sala, but the words are welcome – it turns out I am in plentiful company in terms of not being absolutely certain of what I am doing here.
As the day’s meetings progress, the information becomes more specific. All the grantees give a very brief self-introduction to the group, during which I learn that I am not the only Fulbrighter from Arizona!
Our sweaty foreheads seep in rhythm to the rumbling of our tummies. Lunchtime cannot come soon enough. Sam and Charleen and I have decided to scarf lunch, which turns out to be Fried Goo with a side of kiwi, then zip out with the goal of assembling what we need to obtain our Abono – the across-the-board transportation card that allows unlimited access to the metro, bus, and train system in the city. Getting the photocopies is a cinch; identification photos are similarly painless (although mine emerge a bit reminiscent of a UPS delivery guy turned serial killer… will have to take a photo later for evidence).
However, when we seek the Abono itself, we run into timing difficulties. La siesta! Of course! No one should ever do business during the middle of the day, when it might just seem most convenient to run errands.
We even check in a metro station, just in case, but you really need to hit up an estanco first (a.k.a. “Tabacos”) in order to obtain the holder that the Abono goes in. It’s a step-by-step process, see. Abonos are Serious Business.
So, further disheveled by the heat, we shlep back to the Colegio for our final meeting of the day, this one with returning Fulbrighters Linette and Baird. They turn out to be the most charming and informative speakers one could possibly wish for, handily addressing what seems like hundreds of queries as well as “interpreting” the theory of the morning meetings to fit what they experienced on the field.
They also fiercely recommend Lavapiés as an excellent area of town for piso-hunting, which is a huge confidence boost for me – I’d been contemplating the zone since everything I’ve read mentions incredible food, a diverse population, and loads of character alongside strange warnings advising you of vague dangers. L&B’s take is that the unfortunate overt racism in Spain works against the reputation of an area known for its immigrant population, and that they absolutely adored living there and had no issues. I haven’t dedicated myself to piso-hunting just yet, but it sounds like an excellent starting point.
Sam and I aren’t up for another round of dinner at the caf’, so we head out to finalize our Abonos in order to let ourselves loose upon the wild city. We experience a few minor tribulations the result of some extremely poor planning (hint: the estancos do not accept Baht), but eventually encounter massive success in the form of flimsy plastic holders with our unflattering photos stuck in the corner. We puff up with pride. We are now responsible adults.
The underground world can begin considering itself our oyster. Aided by Sam’s expert navigating, we skip over to Sol, the center of central Madrid, home to tourists and pickpockets and el Corte Ingles. Sam needs a phone and ends up with a sleek silver Yoigo beast.
We then hop back on the metro – you gotta love efficient mass transportation, amazing!! – to the Lavapiés stop, where we briefly wander in search of wi-fi and beer. A jazzy bar has both, and we do the caña shuffle, meeting a couple folks also there for the internet and exchanging contacts. I comment that this would never, ever go down this way in Mesa; everyone here simply feels so much more accessible. This could, however, be more of a product of internal rather than external factors. I will keep you posted.
A block down the street is burgeoning with Indian eats. We settle into an outside table at a promising one at the corner of a small plaza, and proceed to delight in food with actual flavor. My lamb vindaloo is divine after attempting to live off cafeteria food for a few days, although it turns out the Spanish “muy picante” isn’t nearly enough to satisfy my Thai-trained tastebuds (“muy muy picante” next time for sure).
On the way back to the Colegio, we note the bar we patronized the night before is overflowing with college students, even more so than yesterday. I suppose that the first day of class is over might be more of a reason to celebrate.
Because the internet signal is too weak to make it up to the rooms, plenty of folk congregate downstairs to e-mail/Facebook/Skype/blog in the hours just before sleepytime. It is all well and good until midnight…
… when they turn out all the lights, and everyone morphs from prestigious scholars to desperate screen-lit geekoids.