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Lovely Lisbon August 13, 2008

Posted by Emily in Andalucía, blog, photography, rants, teaching, Travel.
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This post has been long in coming, both for the typical blogger excuses as well as the fact that I have thought a lot, one might even say struggled a bit, to try and explain (even to myself) just why I enjoyed Portugal, especially Lisbon, as I did.

Part of it was timing. After a month of partying in Córdoba but not going anywhere, I was ready to break out. It had started to get hot, most of the other foreigners there had returned home while all of my Spanish friends were still working. There was also foot fetish weirdo in my elevator, but he can be considered little more than a footnote.

Arriving in Lisbon, I was pleasantly shocked by the hostel, a renovated mansion with hardwood floors and IKEA styling. (read my Everywhere magazine “place” blurb here). My room was on the top floor, with skylights, high ceilings, and small patios overlooking the river. For 20 euros, I felt like I was staying in some sort of resort (although I guess sleeping in a bunk bed and sharing a room with 9 strangers could pull the plug on that fantasy..I just went with it).

I walked all of two minutes up the hill to Noobai Café, where I experienced the first of many international menus, a real treat after living in the very Spanish south for so long. Although everyone told me Portugal isn’t as cheap as it used to be, it remains Western Europe’s bargain spot, cheap even as compared to Andalucía. If I wanted to, I could have eaten really cheaply (and well) throughout my stay, but instead chose the “more bang for my buck” approach, paying what I might normally but feeling like I was eating the best thing on the menu, over and over again. Back to the resort mentality.

For some contrast to the trendy Santa Catalina-Bairro Alto area, I spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the Alfama district, the only part of Lisbon spared from the 1755 earthquake that rocked the city. (get it?) Everyone was gearing up for the Festa do Santo António, hanging papier-mâché fish and colorful paper streamers as part of the celebration honoring Lisbon’s patron saint. It occurred the day I left Portugal, sadly, but I did catch a bit of the Festas de Lisboa while I was there. I capped off the night at A Tasco do Chico, a fado bar close to the hostel. After seeing Carlos Saura’s amazing film “Fados” at Córdoba’s Filmoteca, I had been really curious to hear the traditional Portugese music sung in person…and not at an overpriced, strictly for tourists place in the Alfama, either. Amateur night at A Tasco do Chico was perfect–one of many examples of old fashioned Lisbon mixing comfortably with Lisbon as Europe’s new hot spot. The people at the next table were eating traditional sausage, which is lit on fire at the table, while the singers were wearing sweatshirts and Members Only jackets. The young Portugese guy across the table from me was a fado fan, a genre so rooted in the past, but then spoke perfect English, was there with a friend from one of Portugal’s former colonies, and offered to translate for me as the songs were just beginning. (For a Spanish speaker, written Portugese is easy to understand, but seeing as how it has nine vowels and everything seems to have a strong “shhh” sound, it’s really difficult to understand spoken, and even worse sung.)

See the scene from the movie here:

The next couple of days were spent wandering, eating, and taking pictures at my own pace, enjoying the people watching and the perfect weather. I made the trek to Belém, as much for the famous pastéis de Belém pastries as for the Torre de Belém, a center of Portugese nautical pride that just happened to be all dolled up in what appeared to be a huge necklace, I assume for Santo António. I rode the Elevador de Santa Justa for the chance to see Lisbon’s terracotta colored roofs from a good vantage point. I whizzed through all of the ancient art at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian museum in favor of some of the rugs and Arabic art on loan. I skipped the Convento do Carmo at the last minute, instead rooting through second hand book stores in a fruitless search to find English or Spanish books.

The next morning, the French giant FNAC offered a huge selection of English books, more than I had seen at one time in eight months or so, and then I made a pit stop at Swedish H&M without having to feel guilty for missing any key Lisbon spot in the meantime. One of the greatest parts about Lisbon is that it somehow all felt like it fit–from trendy boutiques and international menus to dusty old bookshops, tile front houses with laundry out to dry, and streetside stands selling bifana sandwiches. It managed to be one of the cities most stuck in time one minute and most up to date the next. How all of these people peacefully share Lisbon’s seven hills is really beyond me.

On my last night in town, I experienced the cool community feel of Bica, a pedestrian-only hill where students gather at night to chat and drink the 1 euro beers on offer from state fair-like stands along the way. One of the random Aussies I was with bought a veggie burger from a guy toting an Eliza Doolittle looking basket on his arm. After a little while in Bairro Alto, we took a taxi to the waterfront and hit some discos there, managing to get in despite inadequate footwear on my part.

One of the highlights among a number of highlight days: Quinta da Regaleira. Once again ditching the mainstays for something a little different, I passed up the most famous sites in Sintra, a charming, albeit touristy, city outside Lisbon in favor of the Quinta da Regaleira. As I wrote here, it was like something out of a fairy tale. Since I already wrote about the treasure hunt feel of tracking down sites A through X, I’ll just plan to post some photos in the next week or so. I’ve gone on long enough. Next up: Porto.


Commercial break May 28, 2008

Posted by Emily in blog, Spain, teaching, working.
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Two commercials have really caught my eye in the last week or so during the painfully long breaks while I watch the afternoon news. For whatever reason, they are both from energy companies. Sort of ironic that energy companies are talking about the future and saving the globe while encouraging people to use more of their products, natural gas and electricity? Perhaps. But these are just so purdy…

The gist of this one is, “We invented the wheel, we explored space, we invented immunizations, we have constructed cathedrals and pyramids, and even created Peter Pan. If we are capable of doing all of this, how are we going to be capable of saving what’s most important to us? (cue tattoo of the Earth) Invent the future.”

The next one is from Endesa and begins with the kid at the breakfast table telling his parents, “Mom, Dad, I am going to have a kid.” The idea is that this company is thinking of the kids of your kids–the kids say “I want to be a parent like you guys.” “It’s time to start thinking about how we are going to raise our kids.” I especially like the little boy with the megaphone at 0:24 who adds “Without exaggerating that all of the times that came before were better. I don’t believe it!” Kind of funny that their idea of raising kids is saying yes to everything. “Yes to riding an elephant. Yes to sending me postcards from Saturn. I want my kids to live with nature like it was their roommate” (hence the kid with the monkey). Anyway, it’s cute and pretty clever.

Today is my last day of school and we have reached the mid-week point of the fería, so more posts are on the way.

Coming to a close May 13, 2008

Posted by Emily in moving, rants, Spain, teaching, working.

In my last post, I mentioned that my job is done at the end of May. For those not quite doing the math, that means I have about ten days of classes left, and the last three days I won’t even be in class, as it will be Culture Week at the school and I’ll be attempting to teach American culture to kids from 3-12 years old. Hello, Duck Duck Goose. Hello, Around the World. I might make paper snowflakes with some new classes as they were a big hit with my students. And yes, there may even be some line dancing mixed in there somewhere. Visions of middle school awkwardness in gym class spring to mind now. The question is, will I, like my middle school gym teachers, repeat “Achy Breaky Heart” over and over, apparently the only song worth line dancing to? Tempting. Oh, Billy Ray, how I loved your mullet.

When all is said and done, I’ll almost certainly write more about my experience, especially since I am given the idea I won’t be asked for any feedback on my experience from the authorities here. At the same time that we are entrusted with teaching Spanish kids without any training other than the ability to speak English, we auxiliares are never really treated like we have opinions that could enrich this still fairly new and very discombobulated program, despite having lived it for at least a year.

When the Erasmus girl who worked at the school for something like eight hours a week left at the end of February, she sobbed. She had been there only a few months and had no classes with the kids (she spent almost all of her time laminating. Good use of her language skills, right?) The other British auxiliar and I laughed, saying we’ll leave singing and dancing. But we both know now, even if we didn’t know then, that it won’t be true.

I’ve discovered that I like teaching, that it’s something I think I could be good at and enjoy for the long term. As before, I am fairly sure elementary school isn’t for me (too much “she hit me” “he pushed me” and nose picking). But I realized last week that if given the chance of being in another city, maybe lucking out with a school where more teachers seem to give a damn, I could do this another year. Like any job involving funcionarios (infamous Spanish government workers), it pays pretty well for working relatively few hours. Although I supposedly work 12 hours a week, I’m at the school about 18 hours a week, sometimes more, and the full timers are only there another 6 or 8. Some of the teachers have at least 7 hours a week of prep time, in which they sit in the teachers’ lounge, read the paper, play on their iPhones, and generally do little related to prepping for teaching. One guy leaves work an hour early a couple days a week, before the school day is even over, because his class is in art or music or something. Of course, he’s paid for this hour when he’s heading home, not to mention the half an hour he and everyone else are supposed to be there after the bell rings. At 2:10, the halls are dead and the doors are locked.

I should take a minute to repeat that I am personally lucky to teach with a couple teachers who actually seem to care if the kids learn. They are younger and hipper and more passionate and don’t yet have one foot on the shuffleboard court of retirement. (Here, domino table might be more appropriate for the metaphor.) There are some other teachers who do what they are supposed to do as far as obligations, who come on some Monday afternoons for their required class hours, often meeting with the mothers of their students. Some mothers here feel like parent-teacher conferences need to be a semi-weekly occurence. (another reason elementary school is not for me…) But there’s a certain old guard with their hands in their pockets (and the principal’s) who do the bare minimum in any given situation. If they can get out of it, they will. If they can pass off some of their classes on one of the younger substitute teachers, they will. If they can let their kids out to the playground and do Sudoku and call it P.E., they will. I realize this is how the working world works to some extent, people doing the minumum to get by, especially in Spain where there’s virtually no risk of ever getting fired. But then there are the kids.

There are the kids who are from a pretty poor working class neighborhood, the eight year old kids who spend their afternoons and evenings playing alone in the street. There are the kids whose parents are too busy or too lazy to send them to school with a breakfast/snack that isn’t chocolate and wrapped in plastic, if they have a merienda at all. We have money to tear out and completely renovate all of the bathrooms in the school over the course of months and months, we have a mirror that required three people to choose its style, we change the hallway decorations every ten days, and yet the gym floor, a patchwork of cement and peeling linoleum, sprouts serious puddles when it rains. Their parents don’t seem to teach them much–some of my third years don’t know how to tie their shoes, almost none know their phone numbers or addresses. It’s May and some of my students haven’t had certain books during the entire school year. They deserve better.

So although it will be really hard to say goodbye to some of my workmates, people with whom I’ve shared lots of classroom hours, lots of teachers’ lounge hours, some good times and some not so great times (the pencil tip a kid shoved into the back of my hand today comes to mind…), more than anything I will miss the kids. I will miss how they try to show me some new t-shirt or book or trinket or English word they looked up online every morning when I walk into class. I will miss how excited they always seem to see me and how often they tell me “You look nice today.” I will miss their misunderstandings of the rules in P.E., when one of them just takes off running to third base without considering first or second. I will miss the rare classes where everyone is sitting quietly and working and not having to be told to sit down. Hell, I will miss when they are hyper and giggling. I will miss the sense of achievement that comes when I ask a question and five or eight hands shoot up. A Sally Field moment: “They’re learning. They’re really learning!”

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.

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)!

At long last: Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes! November 30, 2007

Posted by Emily in Spain, teaching, working.

Perhaps my only real success thus far (although a few kids are very confused, namely kid right in the front, but this is nothing new.) On Thursday I got to teach the kids a number of words, among them “ambidextrous!”

So I’ll take my successes as they come. For your viewing enjoyment: