2012-13 Fulbrighters to Spain: Hola!

24 04 2012

Fulbrights to Spain for the coming 2012-13 academic year – HOLA QUE HACE?

No but really. I can hear you hovering. Spain’s sent that mystical fat envelope your way at last, hooray and enhorabuena!! However, now that the seemingly endless limbo has graciously come to a close, your inner anxious academic takes over once more, peppering the innocent consciousness with queries.

What I mean is, I see you – I’m a WordPress stats nerd, and I check out what folks search for that guides them in a tomato-y direction – and I know you’re nervous. A handful of you have actually written me emailed queries regarding what’s in store for the coming year, and I figure it’s highly likely there are more who have considered it.

This post is an open invitation to ask questions of me regarding my experience, as well as what you might anticipate from yours. I’m no expert, but I’ll tell you just about anything you’d like to know according to my own time spent in Spain.

Janel Torkington, A Professional Primer:
I graduated from Earlham College with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature in May of 2009.
I spent the following year adventuring around Thailand, then received word of a Fulbright award in April 2011.
I was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant for the 2010-11 academic year.
I was assigned to one of the older bilingual high schools in Madrid, IES José Luis Sampedro.
Along with the other Fulbrighter at IES JLS, I took responsibility for the Global Classrooms (Model UN) project in my school.
I was nominated as one of two Fulbright representatives to accompany the top ten Madrid students to the international Model UN conference that year, which took place in downtown Manhattan in May of 2012.
I had such a positive experience my first year that I renewed at the same high school for a second term.
The second year has continued to be enormously rewarding, and I plan on remaining in Madrid for the time being.

I’d be more than happy to answer questions as I receive them in the comments, as well as through email (contomates [at sign] gmail [dot] com).

quicknote: probably a good time to re-mention the bit they ask you to put on the blogs – I’m in no way an official Fulbright rep, and my views don’t have to do with their official positions on anything whatsoever. That’s a good thing! You can ask me about stuff like the truth about oreja, how much hell finding a piso actually is, and where exactly to get your hands on elusive ground cardamom. Fulbright Inc. doesn’t have a heap to say about any of those.

Vincit qui patitur

31 01 2011

And, at last, the magic auxiliar princess snapped her french-manicured fingers, and – poof!– in a puff of brilliant rainbow smoke, absolutely everything was resolved. Her adoring public was fully aware of the enormity of her slew of trials/tribulations/quests/slaying-of-dragons, and immediately forgave her the brief lapse in verbal communication. For, in their collective heart of hearts, they knew she carried a little bit of each of them with her always, akin to a beautiful golden charm necklace strung thickly with love, gleaming pearls, and bits of coral from all seven seas.

Oh, non-magical-Far-Away-Land audience, how may I placate thee? For amongst your mongering hoards lies one particularly insistent, fastidious clamorer: she goes by the name of Inner Monologue, and she’s a tricky bitch to satisfy. She seems obsessed with motion, specifically, my own through space and time, and never tires of nipping at my heels with the most stinging whelps of questions – “But why? To what end? From whence have you come, and where exactly is it that you think you are going? …… eh, princess?

….. shhhhhhh. If you don’t speak a little more softly, you might miss it.

So I’ve decided to stay in Madrid another year. BAM. My coordinator’s been out the past week on personal leave, but I should be able to catch her tomorrow and declare my intentions to renew my contract. I’ll be staying at José Luis Sampedro – that’s part of the bargain, and I wouldn’t have it any other way – and will be working officially for the Comunidad de Madrid (not Fulbright). I earn just a smidgen less, which I plan on making up through teaching weekly clases particulares, and I plan to continue living with the same folks – Hector and Marta – assuming they too choose to stick around.

I waffled on this decision for a spell, unsure if staying equated to stagnancy. But even my Inner Monologue Mistress knows that one’s time is absolutely dependent on what one makes of it.

Me, I have big plans. Things I’ve wanted to do since coming to Madrid that have yet to be realized (finding a darkroom I can play in), things that are on the cusp of beginning (a massive mural project, studying German), things that come up unexpectedly all the time just waiting for me to sign up for the ride (Florence?). I continue to do freelance projects for InMadrid magazine; the January issue holds a guide I sketched out of my home barrio of Atocha, and up-to-bat is a series of articles regarding Madrid’s international ingredient scene. Fulbright’s offered to pay for a Photoshop course; now I just need to hurry up and find one that appeals.

After a month in a state of limbo, much too far away from the creation process, what I want most now is to delve back into honing my various arts, in valuing production over consumption, in being once again impressed by my own output. I am happiest when I write like a madwoman, when I use photography to play with perspective, when I stretch my technical knowledge to edit my photos into a vision of superreality previously existing only within the realm of my imagination. I find that the more I externalize all the bits and bobbles floating around in my headspace, the more complicated and compelling patterns they form the next time I look.

So, I stay. I like it here. Madrid is an excellent setting for me at this stage of my development, and I’m definitely the one mixing up the chemicals. A light leak or two might cause unexpected distortions in the anticipated image, but the magic of the darkroom lies in the ample opportunities for error. There’s no saying I can’t get back out there and shoot another roll.

País Vasco/La Rioja: Misjudgements and Re-conceptions

13 12 2010

Recently I’ve been remembering the Histories of Spain days with Chris, those endless Friday afternoon classes in Carpenter achingly watching spring come to the Heart through windowpanes. You wouldn’t believe just how many rich and detailed tales weave together the intricate Spanish fable that I managed not to retain whatsoever. I feel it can only be partially attributed to the oh-so-distracting allure of frisbee in the sunshine; the central issue was that the stories lacked tangible context. Even the following semester in Valencia didn’t provide more than a seriously myopic understanding of the country; anyone who has had the pleasure of Jesús’ Historia y Cultura de Valencia lectures will cringe at the very mention of the Riuà.

Despite the inundación innundation, I’ve been exploring bits and bobbles of the Iberian Peninsula for three years now – holy jamón, Batman! Valencia served as intimate introduction, with weekend sneak peeks at Andalucía, Barcelona, and Cuenca. El Camino de Santiago took me through a snippet of Castilla-León followed by a healthy slice of Galicia, which was further augmented by the following year’s summer stint just outside of Lugo. Through Fulbright, I’ve established my own nooks within the sprawling cosmopolitan center of Spain; I now feel I can rightfully call Madrid home.

Yet the more destinations I explore, the more I realize there is to this amalgamation of autonomous communities than meets the average traveler’s eye. The word choice truly suits: the various puzzle pieces of Spain were brought together under one flag chiefly due to historical agreements made by those in power, most recently serious baddie General Francisco Franco. Under the Franciscan dictatorship, all languages apart from Castellano – incidentally, what English speakers often think of as “Spanish” – were forbidden. The fact is, there are plenty of Spanish languages, among them Catalán, Gallego, and Basque, this final one especially intriguing to linguists as it has no known roots in common with any other language on earth.

The first thing Americans tend to learn about El País Vasco – in Basque, Euskadi – is something about terrorism having to do with the Basque separatist movement. (“Didn’t they blow up that Madrid metro train? And they have something to do with Al-Qaeda, I think.“) Even the Jornada de Auxiliares gave ETA a nod; in addition to not getting too tipsy on the cheap delicious wine, we foreigners have got to be ever! cognizant! of the threat of lurking evil where we may least expect to find it (under the bed, maybe? god forbid, 100 Montaditos??).

Like a good liberal arts grad, I keep questioning everything, particularly my own suppositions. When considering where to visit over the long break from work in December, I know I want to stay in Spain for convenience, and I find myself wondering why el País Vasco seems to be shrouded in eerily foreboding mystery. It’s funny what you’ll pick up when you’re not paying attention – most of my mental Spanish map is coated with thick rays of sunshine, but this unassuming little section to the north is marked off as somehow darkly threatening, or, at the least, somewhere you’d probably not choose to go voluntarily (however, the devious Basque separatists, decked out in black bandito masks, might sequester the less vigilant American tourist up there in the night).

After a few hours’ investigation into the area, it is obvious I can await my would-be kidnappers no longer – sequestering must be done through SpanAir, and in cahoots with the loveliest of girlfriends, Sam, Emily, and Leah. What better way to eradicate absurd preconceptions than to walk through a place in your own rainboots? We split into two pairs and seek Couchsurfers with whom to lodge in Bilbao, Donostia-San Sebastián, and Logroño – the last of which is actually in La Rioja, famed for its wine production and unmissable given that we are going to be just a few hours away by bus.

In Bilbao, Emily and I are welcomed by local Oihane; in Logroño we will stay with Polish Erasmus student Justyna. None of us manages to find any leads in Donostia, so we book a shared hotel room slightly out of town but well-connected by train. I still want to kick it with CSers – my experience tells me that you ought to take full advantage of any time you can involve yourself with knowledgeable locals – so I make a post on the boards inviting any and all in town to a Saturday night pintxos crawl. The responses come pouring in, we confirm a time and place to meet, and that’s the extent of the planning we do for the entire trip. Yup, I fall heavily in the “spontaneous” camp, and I arrive at the airport Thursday evening hot on the scent of the promise of possibility.

Continued in:
Nibbling the North
Brushstrokes and Spraypaint


26 09 2010

Remember that English-language publication we were given way back during orientation? I know it’s a stretch to contemplate our lives that far back – three weeks has somehow morphed into a lifetime – but bear with me here.

InMadrid, the city’s (self-proclaimed) number one English-language magazine, is a monthly repository of all sorts of madrileño goodies, of interest in particular to its student, ex-pat, and tourist population. This ranges from the obvious – nightlife hotspots, restaurant reviews, Madrid’s “hidden secrets,” linguistic features – to the intriguingly quirky, such as a recent photo feature of the city’s most noteworthy trees.

And of course I want to write for it.

A few days ago, I spent the precious siesta hours tidying up my dusty CV and drafting a professional-esque letter of inquiry to Jeff, InMadrid’s current Editor in Chief. He responded with interest, and we set a coffee date for this afternoon just outside InMadrid headquarters, near the Sevilla metro station.

Jeff is a British ex-pat, and has spent the previous six years in various parts of Spain. He’s immediately amiable, and we get chatty about Thailand, advertising, the Spanish publishing industry, and what kinds of tactics to take when putting together articles for the magazine. Yessss! My inquiries have scored me a promising freelance connection.

I’m currently putting together a list of article proposals to send Jeff for the November issue – one will certainly be a focus on the Atocha neighborhood, in the style of the Salamanca article from the September edition the Fulbrighters received. Your further ingenious ideas welcomed.

Reception, End of Orientation, Beginning of Beginnings

9 09 2010

Munching breakfast goodies in the Colegio Mayor Mendel caf’.

The lovely catered reception Fulbright threw for us, complete with caviar and champagne (sometimes it pays to work for the government).

Post-champagne, however, it turns out getting Fulbrighters out of the reception hall is much like herding cats.

La voy pasando de maravilla.
“I am passing it like a marvel.”

Okay okay, so I am having a marvelous time! No qualifications, no reservations, no “if-onlys.” This city and I are deeply communing. Each time I pause to check the blocky lights of pisos on the skyline, the soft breeze tickling the trees sprouting everywhere out of the sidewalks, the plazas full of the smoke of sharply-dressed Spaniards, the distinct aromas winding their way out of each and every door (tortilla espanola! indian curry! comida cubana! lebanese pitas! doner kebabbb!!), I find myself filled with the joy of possibilities stretching themselves out before me in this gorgeous, vivacious place.

I realize deeper than ever before that you get out of life exactly what you put into it, both in terms of effort and love. You can work really hard at being angry! I’m in such an excellent place internally that I’m seeing opportunites for excitement and adventure everywhere I look – this year is already AMAZING.

Fulbright ETAs teach approximately 16 hours a week, which is spread out over four days. This leaves us with plenty of time each night to play with as we wish, plus a three-day weekend during which absolutely anything is possible. You can bet that yours truly is bubbling over with glee at the range of possibilities. I’m thinking writing for a local newspaper, picking up a class in German, beginning a mural project, slam poetry, volunteer work, tutoring for some spending money, starting up international cooking classes, visiting el País Vasco, starting work on my first book…

I begin my actual Fulbright work at José Luis Sampedro on the 15th – you can anticipate another outpouring of emotion then. I’ll be working with Global Classrooms, a Model UN program in Spain and beyond. During orientation, we were briefed on what it will end up looking like, and also informed that it will simultaneously be one of the most exhausting and rewarding experiences of our time here. The students apparently ADORE it, and my school should be well-versed in how it goes down since they’ve done it several times in previous years.

On Tuesday, we did a mock debate regarding landmines, complete with country placards and rules of decorum. My old speech-and-debate sensors fired all at once; I ate it up. Point of inquiry! Point of personal privilege! Motion to suspend debate! I am going to have a blast.

I also very briefly met my coordinator, Rachel, whose English has an impeccable British accent. She also looks uncannily like…… me. I am going to have to get a photo to prove it, I know, but I saw her across the room and did a double take, thinking at first that my aunt Janet had somehow snuck her way into my luggage. She even has the short dark hair going on – no fauxhawk, however.

Speaking of which, apparently dress code for teaching in Spain is incredibly informal. I won’t be out of place with a button-down shirt and slacks, but a blazer might be pushing it. I plan to push it! The flexibility will be wonderful, though.

Fulbrighters are slooowly dispersing across the city; I’d give a wild guess that perhaps half of us have found pisos already. I’m really glad I reserved the room at Colegio Mayor Mendel through the 11th; it’s not in a very useful area of town, but the convenience of not having to worry about moving my luggage is absolutely worth it.