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An unthemed update January 28, 2008

Posted by Emily in blog, moving, photography, Spain, teaching, Travel, working.
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A few people have asked me lately whether I’m happy here, pointing out that my blog entries are not particularly positive as a whole. Personally I find humor in my clueless wanderings, but I can see their point. It’s an overwhelming question to answer, attempting to assess one’s happiness and compress it into a socially acceptable response, one that tells the truth without getting into any real details. The simple answer is “yes, and more all the time.” I like Córdoba’s size and the fact that I run into new and therefore seemingly secretive plazas all the time. I am proud of my ever-improving abilities to express myself in another language and that I am feeling fairly at home here in the city. And I like my job, even on the days when the kids are rambunctious and don’t listen and when the older male teachers are especially weird and/or rude.

Truth be told, the transition took me much longer than I expected, having already lived once in Spain. But living as a student is different than living as a person with colleagues largely nearing retirement. It was hard to meet people here, hard to make initial connections. My living situation has been fairly crappy, for a number of reasons, and I barely ever talk to my roommates. But I am moving in the next month and hope this new place, in addition to being cheaper, with Spanish girls, centrally located, and near both a good grocery store and a sports complex with pool, will actually have hot water and maybe even lack cockroaches. My current apartment is actually quite nice as a box–marble floors, big terrace and another balcony, lots of light, recently renovated–but lacks in charm and is close to my school but far from absolutely everything else I do. And the mixture of the occasional cockroach and the occasional hot water is enough to sour someone to most any place. I’ve had enough of the Russian roulette in the morning, wondering if this might be a day when I’ll get through a shower without the water turning and my teeth chattering. If I ever had patience for cold showers, that time has come and gone. Bye bye Peace Corps.

I came back from holiday vacations excited for a new start…a new year, a new trimester, a third down and two awesome thirds to come. I finally was feeling like things were working out for me here–that I am meeting friends and finding places to call my own and earning respect at work. The weather is already getting nicer and spending a Sunday afternoon in a sunny plaza, eating and chatting and having drinks, surrounded by wrought iron balconies and open windows, the curtains waving in the wind and giving a peek of what kind of life might be found inside, well, surely this is the way Sundays are to be spent.

I’ve started to learn where to look for cultural events, what banks sponsor music and others photography exhibits. I’m looking into taking a photography class here, actually. I finally found a few English lessons (as in teaching, not learning), after having not received a single call for months, and am still on the lookout for a few more. These lessons, along with all the money I am hoping to save by not needing to take taxis and buses to my new apartment, will hopefully make at least a few of my travel dreams into real trips. I just haven’t been able to pull it off in the last little while–plus, I have been trying to focus on getting things in motion with my life here.

I haven’t written much here for a while, because, unlike when I got here, I am actually sort of busy these days. Most afternoons I have something planned, and these plans, however small, make the days and weeks go by so much more quickly than before. I’ll admit that in the first couple of months of being here, making the time go by more quickly was an improvement, but now I find myself trying to appreciate what I have and slow things down. I no longer come home from work at 2pm with the afternoon stretching out ahead of me, empty except for a book and lots of internet time.

I’m lucky that this recent increase in activity still comes nowhere near the pace of life I’d become accustomed to for a long time, racing in and out of the Volvo from one appointment to the next. Never feeling like I can really catch up. When I return to the States and eventually go back to school, assuming things go as I think they will, I will be wicked busy again and that will be alright. But now is my life parenthesis. While I have plans these days, I am also on my fourth book in the last ten days. While some things never seem to get done, lots of others do. I’ve realized that my time here has gained a rhythm in the last few weeks, a rhythm that starts to resemble a life.


On being extranjera (foreign) January 24, 2008

Posted by Emily in moving, rants, Spain.

“I don’t drink coffee I take tea, my dear
I like my toast done on one side
And you can hear it in my accent when I talk
I’m an Englishman in New York…

If, ‘Manners maketh man’ as someone said
Then he’s the hero of the day
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile
Be yourself no matter what they say.”
–Sting, “Englishman in New York”

For some time now, I have been thinking about how to describe what it’s like to be extranjera (foreign) here in Córdoba, or in most places in Spain. No matter how gramatically perfect my Spanish may become (Ojalá…God willing), I will always have a foreign accent. No matter how much I embrace the trends and get serious about fashion, matching head to toe, and start wearing sky-high heels for casual walks (ok, so that might take a while), I will never look Spanish. I have one redheaded student, and one could say she doesn’t look very Spanish…that is, until she talks and you see the ridiculous attitude just oozing out of this nine year old. Then you think, Yep, Spanish for sure. It’s funny, because speaking in Spanish actually brings out a certain attitude in me, kind of a mixture of “oh no you didn’t!” (with snaps) and just general flailing of the hands. But it’s not quite the same.

Despite the fact that Córdoba receives a healthy load of tourists (it’s currently in the running for European Capital of Culture 2016…a source of huge pride around here), they are mostly refined to the old part of the city– within a mile of the Mezquita you see people with big cameras and fanny packs and guidebooks, but then it all stops, somewhat abruptly, and the city starts again. And most of the people who live in Córdoba spend very little time in this tourist-filled maze of little charming streets. Other than the few people living near the University, who get their fair share of foreign exchange students, the only other common foreigner groups people are aware of are Eastern Europeans (almost all Romanian and Bulgarian), and they mostly seem to stick together. Well, Eastern Europan immigration is complicated on too many fronts for this little post.

Often when I start talking, people look at me with some sense of wonder and ask, “But, you’re not from here, are you?” (k’duh) When I said I am from the U.S. (Well, I say “América,” since few people actually say Estados Unidos and no one knows what U.S. means…), the most common response is “What are you doing here?” or “But it’s so far away!” Many of the people I’ve met have not only never traveled outside of Spain, they have never left Córdoba province. Maybe they took the 7€ train once or twice to Sevilla, but that’s about it. And many of these same people are in their twenties or thirties, still living at home with their parents. So you can imagine their dismay, I suppose–I moved thousands of miles from my family and friends and live outside of my mother’s gaze and her ironing skills, currently with three guys (Madre Mía!) But I get tired of telling people that, no, all Americans aren’t packing pistols when walking down the streets. No, we don’t just eat hot dogs and hamburgers. No, my high school didn’t even remotely resemble Harbor High of “The O.C.” fame. When I reply that the media gives the sense that Spain is nothing more than bullfights and flamenco, Spaniards laugh and say, “But everybody knows that’s not true.” Followed shortly thereafter with, “Wait, Americans also eat bread?!” (this was a real question…I am not making this up)

Of course, I have also met some incredibly well traveled and knowledgeable people, not that the two need to be inclusive. I’ve been lucky to be on the receiving end of incredible hospitality and generosity on the part of my friends and many colleagues here. Once I get to know people here, I am always humbled by their concern for me.

But this is another instance where the calle (street)/casa (house) split comes into play. The way one treats strangers, and especially weird looking foreign strangers like me, and the way one treats family, friends, acquaintances–they have nothing in common. Maybe it has to do with the high rates of pickpocketing? That’s a random thought. Who really knows. The streets are really dirty, gross, while people mop their houses like its their job, use bleach like the funny dad with the Windex spray bottle in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” People wear embarrasingly childish and ugly pajamas around the house, but would never step out to put out the trash without running a brush through their hair (and maybe putting on a little lipstick). Heels maybe not required, but highly encouraged. The line has been drawn, casa and calle, and I’ve just got to go with it.

I was amazed by how at home I felt in Germany in December, despite not understanding what people were saying for the most part. I tried to figure it out–part of it had to do with the fact that we Americans celebrate so many Christmas traditions with German origins, part of it had to do with our common heritage in general. People consistently took me for German, asking me all sorts of things in German, including whether or not I had customer cards, coupons and other things only locals have. (of course, I understood these things only when the people translated them into English for me….damn) When I would painfully attempt to use one of my 40 German words, people wouldn’t reply in English. They would reply in German and we’d continue until I told them I didn’t understand. And not understanding was no big deal–no strange looks of confusion, no deep sighs, no treating me like a huge idiot. No one looked at me twice in the street, no one asked me accusingly, “But aren’t you COLD?” It was a relief, if only for a weekend.

Germans and Americans share our interest in efficiency, something I both miss here and have learned to recognize as perhaps a bit life-sucking. We are in such a hurry all the time, our life scheduled away in one-hour increments. Here, people take time to meet friends for coffee, to chat and eat and go out. They also have really busy afternoons, taking classes, going to the gym, learning languages, but with everything closed on Sunday, you have at least one day where you CAN’T run errands, as much as you might want to. The same can basically be said for siesta time everyday–good luck getting anything done, so you might as well take a little nap or at least relax at home. So few Americans seem to have three hours a day where they don’t need to be anywhere, or be doing anything. It’s a shame, really.

Most of the time being foreign here is an interesting challenge to me, a long standing and ever-evolving joke among other foreign friends and a few wise Spaniards. Most days I let the looks I get from cranky old women on the bus roll off my shoulders and I go back to reading my book–I am always the only person on the bus reading. You learn a lot about yourself when you are aware of how you are defined by others. But every once in a while, I would like to call a taxi and, when it arrives, not have the caller on his little machine be listed as chica extranjera. Foreign girl.

Why I Hate El Corte Inglés January 2, 2008

Posted by Emily in rants, Spain.
Tags: , , ,

As an important introductory note, El Corte Inglés is the mother of all Spanish department stores and central to the Spanish existence. Wherever El Corte Inglés can be found in a city, all monuments and plazas aside, that area is known as the city center. Generally, the goods (which range from high-end clothing to toothpaste, groceries to cars and vacations) are spread among a number of nearby buildings, all massive, ensuring that whatever you might need will not be in the building where you happen to be. Therefore, when you ask a salesperson for something, they will inevitably give you their trademark withing look (but only once they stop chatting with other employees) and send you not to another floor of the behemoth, but possibly down the street to another floor of another behemoth, with as little actual direction or assistance as possible.

Why do I hate El Corte Inglés, do you ask? Oh, where to begin?

For starters, because they have most anything you could need, they charge you up the wazoo for this type of convenience (although one could argue that making your way through the aisles this time of year, elbows out, dodging women in 4 inch heels and more baby strollers than seems physically possible for a country this size, is far from convenient). Nearly everything costs more than it would anywhere else. But whereas El Corte Inglés is in the city center, and generally easy to reach, its big box competitors require a drive, or in my case, a long bus ride which will drop me nowhere near the actual store itself. I’m convinced the transportation networks and El Corte Inglés are in cahoots. Smaller stores are also an option, but apparently almost perpetually closed. The drugstore-ish place across the street from my house has been open maybe six times in the three months I’ve lived here.

But actually shopping in El Corte Inglés is not convenient at all. Say you want to buy a new notebook, a pair of socks, a loaf of bread, and a t-shirt. Well, that’s four distinct areas, sucker, so you have to wait in line at the cash register to pay not once, but four times, even if you happen to get lucky and they are all in the same building. You get to deal with the jerks who work there not once, but four times! What should take you 15 minutes, tops, will be an hour. More if you go before siesta or immediately after or on a Saturday or before they close. I don’t even need to mention the time before Christmas until after Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day). Actually, after Reyes Magos, when all stores have their annual sales until the end of January, isn’t recommended either.

Then there are the aforementioned people who work at El Corte Inglés. I’m sure they are perfectly nice and civil in general society, but get them in those polyester uniforms, and the worst of Spanish society comes out. They aren’t available, and when they are, they are rarely helpful. Should they be both available and mildly helpful, as a woman was to me a few weeks ago when shopping for tights, there’s a catch. You see, at least half of the items do not have price tags, requiring you to ask how much every second thing costs. And when you ask, they tell you the price and then immediately say, “Should I ring it up for you?” Should you answer, as I did, that you are browsing, not ready to buy yet, or any variation of these responses, you will be given a dirty look, as I was, and then abandoned for a more willing buyer. Or, more than likely, for the employee’s cell phone, which certainly hasn’t been checked for at least three minutes.

To enter El Corte Inglés, one must fight through the dreaded perfume/makeup section. It’s kind of like those football drills where you have to run the gauntlet, but without any padding and with more plastic-y fembots than should be allowed in the whole of the world. The women stand in the aisles with samples of perfume or pieces of tissue paper/Kleenex formed into flowers and spritzed with perfume. But if you look like me (ie no 4 inch heels, clearly foreign, and apparently not pija enough), then there’s no Kleenex flowers for you! They make no secret of giving me the full body scan, checking me out head to toe, generally followed by a little scowl. “Wha? No makeup? No heels? No horrendous skinny leg jeans? Wha? Who is this creature?” I’ve even tried making eye contact, smiling, not smiling, trying to shame the damn Kleenex flower out of them, but only one woman, bless her heart, relented. However, should I walk through with Pat, or with his parents, people more respectable than me, all the sudden I’m showered with affection and more samples than I could use over the course of the year. They can keep their damn Kleenex.

But let’s say, in a moment of weakness or insanity or a mixture of the two, you decide to actually buy something at El Corte Inglés. You might as well just find the register and wait, even if there’s no one there or even nearby. You can’t pay for whatever it is you foolishly want in any other section. Should you ask an employee about the vacant cash register, I guarantee they’ll say it’s not their area and will give you a heartless shrug of the shoulders. So you wait. When someone finally arrives, expect a brusque hola, money to be exchanged without another word, and that the bag will then be placed on the counter or on top of the register but never in your hands, and I owe you money if the employee actually deigns to look at you at any point during this entire interlude. 

So what exactly DOES El Corte Inglés have going for it, other than a central location and an air of snobbery that people inexplicably seem to buy into? Well, some foreign food which is impossible to find elsewhere, such as peanut butter. (I am proud to say I have yet to buy into that scam, as I packed my own 16 oz. jar of Jif, thank you very much). The same withholding cannot be said for black beans, which I am ashamed to report cost me a whopping 2.50€ a can. Buying is bad for my self respect, but good for my occasional Mexican fix.

Damn you, El Corte Inglés.