Jornada Highlight

3 10 2010

No work on Thursday due to the obligatory, all-day Jornada de Formación de Auxiliares: Orient Harder.

Although a late-afternoon foray into the poetic comes in a close second, my favorite moment of the day is the formation of a fresh-food coalition during a Model Model UN session with my healthy buddies Mango, Papaya, and Avocado. Fried Mars Bars is not invited.

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.

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.

Into a Spanish Dawn

6 09 2010

After a sleepless night of last-minute packing mixed with a large dose of loopy, I head out to Sky Harbor Airport towards destiny itself. I carry with me perfectly calibrated luggage – 50.5 and 49.5 lbs, baby! – a few new toys, several hundred almonds, and a savagely wandering heart, one which always seems to be with those from which my body is furthest. As such, the goodbye is appropriately teary-eyed, but we come to strong consensus not to re-enact a storybook linger.

There’s nothing remarkable to mention about the flights – I am getting very good at zoning for hours on end. Upon arrival, I collect my bags and overhear someone dropping the F-bomb several times in succession behind me. Um, excuse me. Did you say Fulbright?

Bingo! Several of us cab it together to Colegio Mayor Mendel, the orientation station location situated in la Ciudad Universitatia, a student area to the northeast of central Madrid. We check in to single dorm-style rooms spread out over seven floors, each equipped with its own private toilet/shower, plus enormous windows that in my case open to a panorama of Spanish architecture.

Oh my god. I’m in SPAIN!!!!

There’s a fascinating mix of the familiar and the new in this visit for me; my confidence swells when I maneuver in Spanish, but I have very little experience in the big central city. Madrid doesn’t remind me of Bangkok one bit. There’s a calmness here that seems unusual for such a cosmopolitan destination, and it’s, for the most part, quiet. At least, in la Ciudad Universitaria this is the case – I’m planning on looking for housing in much more centrally located neighborhoods, so this impression may shift course.

I take a quick rinse then head down to breakfast in the cafeteria – but it seems I have dallied excessively, and it has been cleaned up and away. I find Alice, platinum blonde biker chick from Florida whose engaging brightness is utterly undermined by my technically true description, and we head out to Cafe Glace for coffee and chitter-chat. She’s snagged a research grant working with a Spanish astrobiology team on a project involving robots on Mars. Go on and read that sentence again, I’ll wait.

This is what’s gotten me most in a tizzy about the coming year; literally every single person I’ve met today has been fascinating, and in an enormous variety of ways. Fulbright wisely didn’t schedule any orientation activities today, so the entire time has been dedicated to meet/greet, a process that works so much better organically than it ever could have during stilted “get-to-know-you” exercises.

Fulbrighters on the whole are incredibly friendly, inviting any newcomer immediately into conversational circles and presenting genuine interest as to how you got there and what you’re all about. Everyone asks whether you’re a teacher or a researcher, where you’ll be based, what you’re thinking about housing. Where are you from, where did you go to school, what did you study, why Spain?

Most Fulbrighters seem to be emerging fresh from the college chrysalis, but there’s a few others who spent some buffer time having non-academic adventures. There are far more women than men; everyone is interested in speculating why that might be.

And thus far I have not met even one stuffed-shirt. I admit to that being a vague concern before I set off – the Fulbright name is wielded with such authority; would grantees puff themselves full of this image, use it as a pedestal? The answer is a resounding ZERO PERCENT – such behavior would probably be giggled at ’round these parts. People are effervescent and down-to-earth, ambitious and accessible.

Several groups coagulate over the course of the evening – one is gung-ho about encountering salsa dancing, but most of us are interested in investing in a solid night’s sleep after perhaps a quick drink. We meander down to the nearest location, a totally deserted bar blasting American pop music. We are enough to fill it with our expansive American-ness, which actually manages to drive off a few potentials who poke in curious heads.

We care not. We sip enormous cups of tinto de verano and are generally overflowing with optimism regarding the coming year.

Lovely ladies Charlene, Sam, Kate, Kelsey, and Libby flash winning smiles for the camera.

Around 11:30, the bar does fill up with non-Fulbrighters, many of them dressed in semi-costume, likely celebrating the final day before university classes begin. We check out soon after, but certainly not before a brief Shakira-fueled dance break.

The carousing collegefolk sing their way across streets.

I love my new camera. Love, love, love. Need to finish reading the manual so I can take outstanding night shots instead of just damn good ones, but it’s all a process…

Tomorrow, the orientating begins. Heather, Fulbrighter who worked at my school last year and is planning on returning as an Auxiliar at the end of this month, laughingly advised through email not to get discouraged at the massive amount of meetings – what’s important is to open a bank account, find a place to live, and, I’d add, revel in the joy of being once again in the glorious world of Spain.