Tres Cantos/José Luis Sampedro First Impressions

29 09 2010

After attempting a few different combinations of walking, metro, and train, I’ve settled on a path involving segments of all three in my daily northward journey towards Tres Cantos. It takes me approximately an hour and ten minutes to get from my piso to the chalkboard, depending heavily on syncing my step with the timing of the trains.

This overcast day isn’t the best for capturing attractive photos, but the gray of the skies isn’t a wholly inaccurate reflection of the swathes of sidewalk. Tres Cantos really is this quiet. It’s a tricky thing to describe without tagging on extra implications – do we call it tranquil or desolate, sleepy or peaceful? – and as such I’ll leave it at some facts:

– Tres Cantos is the newest municipality in all of Spain. It’s a planned township, commissioned by Franco’s folks back in 1971; inhabitants began strolling its streets a decade later.

– Tres Cantos is a sister city to the planned cities of Columbia, Maryland, United States, Cergy-Pontoise, France, and Nejapa, El Salvador. Students can take advantage of international exchange programs between them.

– Tres Cantos is the area with the highest percentage of residents with a university-level education in all of Spain. I’ve been informed that this merited an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, but can’t find any evidence to support the claim.

It’s a healthy 20-minute walk from the Renfe Cercanias train station to el Instituto José Luis Sampedro, which isn’t excessive but does leave something to be desired on the days I opt for heels. Investigations into patinetes are being made.

Schools in Spain differ wildly from the comparatively hyper-decorated American equivalents. They are built for utility, and the students stay in one assigned space with others of their year while the teachers relocate each hour. As such, both classrooms and hallways are strikingly bare to my American eyes, although peacocking in both clothing and behavior of rowdy students during breaks fills the space much more than the above photo might suggest.

Due to difficulty in pinning down a workable schedule for the year – merely considering addressing the cobweb of influencing factors makes my head throb – I currently spend a good chunk of my time looking at doorknobs. No one is quite certain of our role here, least of all us, which does strike me as an odd contrast to the tenacity one has to have in order to be granted a Fulbright in the first place.

I have more gut reactions on this topic (ha, when don’t I have something to say?), but will save them up for a few weeks in order to be able to paint a richer “what-it’s-like” scene.

Laura – my Fulbright co-auxiliar – and I do manage to gain entrance to a select few class sessions. Pictured above is our coordinator, Rachel, and her group of Primer ESO students, which in the American system would translate to 7th grade. These kids have been in a bilingual program their whole lives, and as such have very high levels of comprehension and speaking.

Today, they discuss homework reviewing the parts of speech. Their vocabulary is excellent; Rachel drops in the term “phoneme” without anyone missing a beat.

The final third of the period is dedicated to introducing new vocabulary for a poem the students will learn. Rachel requests that Laura and I depict the underlined terms in picture form on the board, which is not the simplest task in chalk given ideas like “wrestle” and “tickle me pink.” The students are asked to copy down (!) our artists’ renditions of the terms, and then everybody matches drawings with words.

“Tapas” Nite in La Latina – fotopost

19 09 2010

Vespa Fantasies/Cilantro Realizations

19 09 2010

I’m going to guess it traces back to that alluring orange beauty emblematic of imminent success on Piso Day: Em and I have been fantasizing about Vespas.

Lucky us, there is a certified Vespa Store about 10 minutes’ walk from our place. We seek it out and inquire into possibilities.

A new bike runs roughly 2000€; we’re thinking a used one could be found somewhere in Madrid at an even more dangerously affordable price.

Shopkeep José is very helpful, fueling our enthusiasm and offering further information. He recommends we visit the US Embassy to iron out the legal details; we make a note of it as a possible Monday plan.

With no further schedule for the daylight hours, Em and I engage in our most dedicated wanderings to date. Armed with vague aims of “gold heels” and “Mexican ingredients,” we head first to Plaza Angel on a vague recollection of a Latino market.

Paydirt! Black beans are quite the uncommon find in Madrid. I snap up two cans, making a wish known to the universe that I’d like to consume one of them for lunch.

Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this market very highly – not too much else appealed (although I am glad to know of another location for coconut milk). We recall Fausto mentioning the barrio Cuatro Caminos as being home to many Central/South American immigrants, so I call up Charleen in the belief that she lives nearby and make plans to meet at the metro.

While on the surprisingly lengthy metro journey to Cuatro Caminos, Em and I unfold my rapidly deteriorating map to note that Charleen lives nowhere near the area whatsoever, and that I have absolutely zero idea how such a thought got planted in my skull. Ah well, it’s a wandering day for everyone!

Upon our exit from the metro, sugar-encrusted roasted peanuts from a nearby stall smell far too enticing not to devour. We contentedly munch while productively awaiting Charleen’s arrival by browsing a Carrefour, hoping for shelving and instead encountering a perfect yellow robe, plus tortillas and a baguette for later eats.

Just outside the Carrefour is another entrance to the Cuatro Caminos metro station, and something draws me in for a closer look. It’s common in these areas to to see black market vendors of pirated DVDs, knockoff sunglasses, and arrays of very likely pilfered goods, none of which I’m interested in purchasing – but this man has my number.

“Emily. Emily. Look. I think he has cilantro.”
Cilantro.” [runs, not walks, up to shady seller clutching bunches of green] “Es cilantro??”
“Si. Un euro.” [begins packing massive amount into plastic bag]
“Uhh – no necesito tanto -”
“Un euro.”
“Uh. Vale.”

Yesssssss. My only regret is not snapping a quick frame of the sketchy cilantro huckster. There’s no question I’ll be back…

Charleen shows her pretty face and we begin exploring in earnest.

A foray into an Ecuadorian bakery – which are ubiquitous here, by the way – reveals a Jamaican cornmeal flour that Charleen’s been dreaming about, plus various other goodies. No real vanilla, however; Taste of America may have a run on the market.

Lunch plans come together as though divinely mandated; it is blindingly obvious that the tortillas, black beans, and cilantro in our hot little hands were meant to be together as one. A frutería near Charleen’s piso in Principe Pío provides tomatoes, onions, and garlic; a carnicería offers “queso para sandwich” by the slice. Charleen’s kitchen gets a full workout, and we devour the results, unanimously agreeing that the cilantro is the crowning focal point in the mess of burrito glee.

A full kitchen is a happy kitchen.

No Live Music Night – fotopost

19 09 2010

Orientation, Take One/Abono/Lavapiés

7 09 2010

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.