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We Wish You A Merry Christma(s) December 24, 2007

Posted by Emily in Spain, teaching.
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Live from my third year class, with their cordobés accent showing a bit (they cut off the end of words, esp. the letter s) despite quite a bit of “sssssssssssssss”ing practice,

We Wish You A Merry Christma(s)!


El Gordo, the Royal Postman, and the Spanish holiday season December 23, 2007

Posted by Emily in moving, Spain.
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My plan is to write a couple of posts about the Spanish holidays, seeing as how I’m constantly learning new things and trying to take advantage of my first foreign Christmas.

First of all, yesterday was the drawing for El Gordo, the world’s largest lottery. It’s a complicated system, one I think I more or less understand, but only through asking lots of questions and a little help from Wikipedia. Spanish people are wild for the lottery all year long–kiosks are all over Spanish cities, and people with mental or physical problems roam the streets everyday with a string of colorful tickets clipped to their chests, selling for Once, the lottery that benefits the handicapped. But El Gordo, or the Christmas lottery, is when everyone gets serious–I’ve read that 95+% of Spanish people participate in the Christmas lottery in one form or another. Perhaps they are given tickets, perhaps they participate at work, or they buy from a charitable organization with the hopes of receiving part of the winnings. The odds of winning something are supposedly around 15%. Not so bad. But the odds of winning El Gordo (the name of the highest prize–we’ll get to this in a second) are 1:85,000.

Wait a second–a quick math moment. There are more than 85,000 Spanish people (duh). But the reason why the odds are 1:85,000 is because numbers are sold more than once, in series, and almost no one buys an entire number. They cost 200€. Instead, almost everyone buys a décimo, or a tenth, for 20€. Sometimes even those are split up. Restaurants will sell a single lottery number for the entire season–when people feel lucky (or perhaps just full after a good meal), they are prone to buy a ticket when they pay their bill. Which means that the biggest prize, El Gordo, is split up among many people, but they are often from the same town or even social club. In 2005, 500 million euro (€300,000 per winning décimo), was injected into a town of about 38,000 in Catalonia in NE Spain. Talk about a change of situation.

The drawing is quite a spectacle, lasting about 3 hours and televised. There are two huge rotating gold balls, filled with small wooden balls. The first one is smaller and contains all of the prizes–ranging from 1,000€ (many) to El Gordo, the highest prize (which was 300.000€ per décimo this year, or 15,000€ per euro played). There’s just one of these balls. The other rotating gold orb (I’m getting into the spectacle) is filled with the 85,000 numbers played this year. One by one, balls fall out of the two orbs, and kids from this one specific school in Madrid sing out the numbers–first the amount from one kid, then the five digit lottery number from another. It’s fun to watch for a while, although the “mil euro” (1,000€) repetition gets a little old. When a higher number falls, people get all excited and the kids have to take both balls, held out in front of them like gold, over to the judges table, then walk them across the audience like a Barker Babe. The kids are all giddy, not unlike the person holding that winning ticket. Here’s a chart of the winnings from last year (thanks, Wikipedia):

Prize Winning number(s)
El Gordo
1 × €3,000,000 20297
Second 1 × €1,000,000 37368
Third 1 × €500,000 79735
Fourth 2 × €200,000 47272,60379
Fifth 8 × €50,000 13044, 19151,
27274, 58915,
59236, 60534,
64303, 73199
la Pedrea 1774 × €1,000
  2 × €20,000 20296, 20298
  2 × €12,500 37367, 37369
  2 × €9,600 79734, 79736
  99 × €1,000 20200–20296
20298, 20299
  99 × €1,000 37300–37367
  99 × €1,000 79700–79734
  198 × €1,000 47200–47271
  849 × €1,000 ###97
  849 × €1,000 ###68
  849 × €1,000 ###35
  8499 × €200 ####7
# = any digit
The number of prizes is given per series: in 2006, there were 180 series of numbers, giving a total prize value of €2,142,000,000.
Prize values are given per number (billete): the tickets which are generally sold (décimos) give prizes which are one tenth of the amount quoted here.

You can watch the drawing of El Gordo on the El País website as well. It’s an interesting mix of fate and luck and superstition–one of this year’s Gordo winners was on TV last night, saying he’s played this same number for 30 years, that he always knew it was the number for him. Not sure he said the same in the first 29 years, but it’s kind of a cool sentiment. It’s kind of like being a Red Sox fan.

On to the Royal Postman and the holiday fever that is Reyes Magos, Three Kings Day, mostly just referred to as Reyes. Kids here believe in Santa (I asked around my school) but he’s a secondary figure. He’ll drop off a present or two on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) after dinner, when the kids happen to be in the other room. But that’s about it–they say his bag is only so big. The real greed mongers are the Reyes Magos, who bring presents on the night of January 5th. Apparently Santa’s bag has a limit, but camels can carry serious loads. At any rate, three is too many for a mall visit, so the kids sit on the lap of the Cartero Real (the Royal Postman) in front of El Corte Inglés and give him their letters. The Royal Postman in Córdoba this year was black, and as I was babbling on about how nice it was to see a little diversity, and if a couple of the Three Kings are black, why not the Royal Postman, blah blah blah, Pat interrupted me. “You didn’t hear what the kids were saying, did you?” No, I wasn’t really paying attention. He continued, “They were saying that he looks really different from last year and that he must have spent too much time in the sun.” So much for my “Christmas should be a time for tolerance” ideas. Bah humbug.

On the news on Thursday, they reported that an estimated 70% of Spanish people had yet to do their holiday shopping. This was on the 20th. It wasn’t until Saturday that the streets were really filling with people. They have until the 5th, I guess, but things will get nuts after Christmas. I’ll be glad to be just a spectator.

 I mentioned in my last post that Spanish Christmas songs (villancicos) pretty much suck. I’m trying to keep an open mind (seems like it, right?), listening to as many as I can, but all the recordings seem to be sung by The Chipmunks, or maybe those annoying kids who sing “War is Over” in the background of the John Lennon song. And my thoughts toward the villancicos aren’t improving now that I know they require me to cower. The other night, the doorbell rang and I went to answer it. But then I remember that I had been advised to check the peephole at Christmastime. It was two random kids from my building, maybe 12 years old, and if you open the door, they sing carols and you have to pay them. They were ringing all of the doorbells, but from the vantage point of my peephole, it was clear to see that no one was opening up. I was sort of tempted, but wasn’t convinced of their motives. What ever happened to giving, and not just receiving? Huh? Huh?

All for now. I’ve got some last minute shopping to do today, taking advantage of the rare opening of shops on a Sunday. There are also some cool nativity scenes around the city I’d like to check out. And I still need to check the ticket I bought months ago, from a women’s sport group in Córdoba, good for a 300€ Christmas basket if my number was a winner in the Christmas lottery. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Köln: Christmas Central December 20, 2007

Posted by Emily in blog, photography, Travel.
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We had an amazing, though quick, weekend in Köln. Because people kept speaking to me in German, thinking I was German, I feel like now I can call the city the German name and not Cologne or Colonia. Lots of names for just one city. Also, lots worth writing about.

We got into the city late late on Thursday night, after realizing we had forgotten to call and confirm our Station Hostel reservation. Dumb system in this century–they don’t take credit cards, so if you don’t call before noon on the day of your arrival, they cancel your reservation. We were lucky, as we called once on the ground at the Weeze airport (at midnight) and they had two beds left in a 5-bed room. Maybe not quite as comfortable as the private 2 bed room we’d reserved, but cheaper. Felt badly waking up our anonymous roommates at 3 a.m., but welcome to hostel living.

Generally, I am a bit too ambitious when I travel. Or so I’ve been told. The pace is OK for me, as I love museums, love taking pictures, love trying local foods and doing most of the tourist things (but never those damn open top buses. I draw the line). But since we had such a short time, there was no way we’d see all. So I only scanned Rick Steves through Amazon Reader for a few minutes, only glanced at Lonely Planet, and we didn’t step inside a single museum. Instead, spent almost the entirety of Friday just leisurely strolling, eating, and drinking glühwein. We’ve got the mugs to prove it.

The markets were great–and we didn’t even see all of them! Amazing to see how many traditions we share with the Germans, or how many we’ve inherited, more likely. It finally felt like the Christmas I’m accustomed to.

Within the markets, the stalls were just brimming with cool, old-fashioned metal toys and wooden and glass tree ornaments. It was such a relief to know some form of traditional, mostly plastic-less and PS3-free Christmas still exists, if only in a traditional market bubble. But people seemed to be buying the presents for their kids, and German children were out en masse at the ice skating rink. I was initially quite gung-ho about the whole skating thing, but after watching one young German girl take her first step onto the ice, only to fall and completely soak her pants, I asked Pat just one question. “Did you bring more than one pair of pants?” His “no” pretty much sealed the deal. It’s one thing to ask a Spanish guy to abandon his country for colder climes, but quite another to risk him spending the weekend with wet pants. Spanish people are such cold weather wusses. It just seemed cruel.

So on we proceeded to another market and more food. The markets were lovely, the music nice, but what I will remember are the smells. Oh, the smells! (funny how Cologne smells really good–ha ha) In addition to the traditional German food that found its way to our happy stomachs (bratwurst, spaetzle, brezels/pretzels, currywurst, and don’t forget our favorite drink glühwein), we also were sure to eat some amazing kebab, which one might argue is typical German food now just as tacos are typical American food. At any rate, it was scrumptious and we gave MezzoMix, a Coke/Fanta drink, the thumbs up. I was disappointed to not have any space left in my stomach for the ethnic food options available, both in the streets and in the markets, as Spain is seriously lacking in international cuisine. Chinese food is about it–and the fried rice has chunks of jamón serrano. Next time, I guess.

Friday night we asked the front desk guy at the hostel for bar suggestions and he sent us across the bridge, not far but clearly outside of tourist land. We were the only non-Germans in a small and smoky bar called Durst (German for thirst) and caught the tail end of a live music set–a guy playing guitar and making up a strange Elvis Christmas song. Durst was about as big as the living room of my little house on Arthur Ave, so he was standing on the bar, a few steps away from the taps. Bummed we couldn’t hear more, but have no fear: a No Fear pinball machine was there, circa 1995. I’m not sure I’ve played since then and it showed. Had a couple of pints of local Kölsch, a Czech Budveiser or two, and called it a night.

Saturday morning consisted of a tour of the cathedral, lead by the punk rock, purple haired Yvonne. Never thought I’d see the day when a tour guide in a Catholic church was carrying a bag with “666” pins, but I respected her spunk. She was an excellent guide (ok, Rick Steves moment…) and taught us a lot about the history, both recent and not-so-recent, of the cathedral and the city. We stared for a while at the new Richter window and thought a bit about adding something so modern to such a traditional building. It’s something that Spain does really well–putting a modern, stainless steel sculpture in an 8th century castle and somehow making it work. Personally, I felt it fit quite nicely, perhaps because he took the colors from all of the pre-existing windows, but interesting that the Archbishop said something to the effect of “it looks like it belongs in a mosque.” Something to debate, anyway…

After the hour long tour, we had time to buy some postcards, wolf down a last kebab, and hit the bus, to head to the airport in Weeze, to fly to Sevilla, to take a bus to the train station, to take a train to Córdoba, to catch a taxi home. But I’m young, they tell me, and found it absolutely worth it. If only I can have more weekends like this one in the near future. I’ll be scanning the RyanAir website in the upcoming weeks.

Check out a slideshow of images of the weekend.

And here’s a sort of poor quality video attempting to show how huge the Dom is. I’ve been told that that guy in the lower right corner at 0:08 looks like my dad. Cast your vote in comments.

Christmastime is here (sort of) December 12, 2007

Posted by Emily in blog, photography, Spain, Travel, working.
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Hello all. Even after all of this time, I haven’t entirely mastered the art of the Spanish schedule. As I learned while trying to teach my students about meals and times of the day, here they don’t have a word for evening–it’s either afternoon or it’s night. Night is a time for sleeping or for going out. The day is separated clearly into morning and afternoon. So I work in the mornings–those are out. And then in the afternoon, many things don’t open (aka banks, offices, many stores). Others do, but not until 5, which is sometimes 5:30, which occasionally turns into 6. And then they close between 8 and 9, which sometimes means a bit before that. Despite the fact my list of things to do is pretty paltry here, I manage to not get them done, regardless. Then again, I can’t beat myself up too badly–Spain is not known for its efficiency.

Language has been on my mind lately. Maybe because I’ve been learning some really great phrases from Rosa and some of my other friends and colleagues. (who knew that “ser un trozo de pan,” literally, to be a piece of bread, actually means to be a good person?) Maybe just because I’m prone to notice such things. But they use solo/a (masculine/feminine) to mean both lonely and alone. To me, they are not the same thing. This also reflects the fact that a girl sitting alone in a cafe is a strange sight, one worth commenting on. It doesn’t bother me much anymore, but it does continue to surprise me. I think of Break Espresso, full of people this time of year with books and laptops, studying away. At the university here, sometimes you’ll see people studying alone, but even that is not as common. And clearly, la calle, a word meaning “the street” but also encompassing bars and cafes and most everything NOT home, is a place for socializing.

I touch on this whole alone/lonely bit because, for those who’ve had their noses stuck in books, the holiday season is upon us. Here, it’s considerably more mellow. It was 65 degrees here this weekend, Spanish Christmas music is seriously lacking (one contains the lyrics “but look how the fish drink in the river, look they drink because they see the baby born”) . Papá Noel (Santa) brings one present on Christmas Eve, but the big Christmas present carriers are the Three Kings, on January 6. So the Christmas season really only gets going, as far as shopping, AFTER Christmas. Disclaimer: I am not claiming Christmas=shopping. But no caroling party this year, no Christmas tree, no cookie baking (I don’t have an oven), dinner will consist of seafood–it’s a little different, to say the least. So far, I think I’m dealing pretty well. It’s been fun to see what presents my kids want from the Reyes Magos, to try Christmas candy and see the really lovely lights that now fill the streets–Spanish lights, quite different from the ones I’m accustomed to, but something they do really well. I’m hoping to teach my kids how to make paper snowflakes this week–having never seen snow, this is not a skill they learn in schools. My examples elicited way more excitement and cheering than I might have anticipated.

Tomorrow Pat and I head off for a (short) weekend in Cologne/Koeln/Köln, Germany. In addition to being home to possibly the most amazing cathedral in Europe, it’s also home to six Christmas markets (one of them on a boat!) Check them out here. We’re staying at the Station Hostel close to the Dom (cathedral) and the train station. We’ll be getting in late on Thursday night and will have to leave to come back to Sevilla, and then a train to Córdoba, on Saturday night. But the RyanAir flight was super cheap and I’m looking forward to being in a place, if only for a day and a half, that really feels like Christmas. Real, beautiful, warm, and slightly over the top Christmas. Then I’ve got a couple more days of class and I’m off to Murcia to celebrate a Spanish Christmas. I’ll be in touch before then.

Now go watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and appreciate how great it is. I was psyched to find it on my hard drive last night.