Friday, November 26, 2010

Butterball just doesn't translate directly

I feel sorry for the young woman in the butcher shop.  Not because she pulls the guts out of animals, wraps skinned rabbits in plastic film or because she has to smell pig bones being boiled.  I am sorry for the longhaired employee of Carne Bien because she has to deal with me, the naïve American ordering her first turkey for some holiday this pueblo's never heard of.  And yesterday the butcher-ess learned all the English expletives at once when she heaved my turkey onto the scale:  9 kilos.  Twenty two pounds.
A big turkey, I could’ve dealt with that.  It was the bumpy scaly legs, the gnarled claws, and the course white feathers still sticking from the wings that caused me to curse repetitively.  The panic of having to clean, carry and cook the Doberman sized bird set in as my eyes tried to take it all in. “Y la cabeza?”, she nonchalantly asks, barehandedly hauling it to the other side of the counter. The white and wrinkly limp neck swings around and exposes the club on the end, eyes and beak right where they should be. 


This is one of those ‘cultural differences’ moments I tell myself. The other Spaniards in the shop roll their eyes as I make a scene, describing an American turkey to my Spanish audience, “little bird, comes on ice, no head, no legs, very nice.”  I guess Butterball doesn’t translated directly.
My roommates’ and my panic-painted shock and obvious ignorance helped our case.  The butcher gave us half of a turkey instead, which came in from the less intimidating corner at a calming ten pounds.  We invited the entire staff of the carnecería to our Thanksgiving meal and hurried home to start cooking, a bloody turkey bone protruding from our plastic bag as we walked down main street. 
The humor of the experience carried us through the next couple of hours until basting time.  After ninety minutes in the tried and true oven, Daisy (christened by my roommate) was just barely warm.  Thanksgiving panic resumed!  This time with an American, Canadian, English, and four Spanish friends eating appetizers in our living room.  I quickly recalled the method I’ve seen my mother’s cooking group use when ovens fail:  knock to the neighbors.   
Carmen and Antonio, in all their seventy something years of glory, came to the rescue and cooked the hell out of our Daisy bird.  Bruschetta from my Italian friend from Jersey, mashed potatoes by Irish Rebecca, and the group’s reviewing of Spanish and English cuss words kept us all content until we cheers-ed over a dry but beautiful turkey at 11 o’clock. 

Happy Thanksgiving
I introduced my family tradition of going around the table saying what we are thankful for.  I was so thankful to share my favorite holiday with new cultures (our table had more Thanksgiving virgins than vets).  I think Rachel from New York said it best:  “I am so thankful to feel so at home, so far away from home.”  Laughter, good company, and the sharing of traditions at the expat Thanksgiving in Baza assuaged my holiday homesickness.  I am so thankful for the people I have met.  And for those I have yet to meet.  I am so thankful for the family support.  I’m thankful for this magical time in my life. 

And thankful to you!  for reading my blog, because it keeps me writing, which keeps me sane. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

A bit more of Baza

Yesterday’s fierce winds and cold rain are followed by a jump in temperature and a warm blueskysun kind of day today.  Just like Reno.  Last week I craved soup and movies, to stay in my apartment all the dreary day, and today I am thinking about an afternoon picnic. 

Baza has a bit of a strange personality.  Besides the bus station and Plaza Mayor, the town is made up of either curtain stores or baby buggy stores.  It is quite amusing to see really how many shops with strollers, cribs, baby clothes, and blankets create the corners of the town.  Before and after siesta, families are out walking, strolling, pushing their children in the latest brand’s top high tech baby transporters, some buggies on four wheels, some on three, some with waterproof covers, some with baby surround sound (okay, now I’m exaggerating). 

The second most entertaining spectacle of my town, after the infant parades, is the opposite end of the age spectrum—los viejos. The elderly Spaniards, with their coats and canes, gather about Plaza Mayor, for their daily outing. Some sit, some smoke, some talk, some don’t.  They are scruffy in the face and they are all wear hats—just the kind you’d imagine an old Italian or Spanish abuelo to wear.  Thick mumbles fall from their mouths as they watch townspeople pass.  An Antonio and a Paco play cards, and upon his turn, each smacks the card down on the bench with fuerza.  When I pass it seems they do not even register me as existing, as if I am too far outside anything their 85-year-old eyes have seen.  It has taken me a couple times of watching this daily routine of nothing-much-but-must-be-done to understand what is going on. Apart from the sun, the fresh air, the social aspect and the shuffling of hands and feet, they are getting away from their wives!  

To my dismay, Baza seems to be under perpetual construction.  Dismay also coming from the fact my bedroom window looks upon Calle Jose de Mora’s complete resurfacing which begins promptly at seven each morning.  The labyrinth of construction, however, makes for great adventures and discoveries.  On my way home from the movie store last night we happened upon the cathedral, and pushed the large wooden doors open with a loud creak.  The wonderful thing about being an extranjera (foreigner) is the amount of things you can get away with provided you play dumb and curious.  After a few “Oh I’m so sorry, this church is so beautiful, we are Christian, not Catholic, are we allowed to be inside? We just moved here. Wow, this church is older than my country!”, Amador was giving us a private tour of the cathedral, pointing out the saints, summarizing their stories and introducing us to the priest.  Castles and cathedrals are the telling factors in Europe’s age over America’s.  Even in little Baza, the church is over the top beautiful, ornate, and still so powerful.  Dark and ominous, the Catholic cathedrals instill fear and the feeling of insignificance in their turgid silence.

Dulce de Membrillo

Last week Ricardo, the school’s site and facilities coordinator, brought me a kilo of membrillos from his family’s huerto.  They are a bright yellow fruit that give off a sweet flowery smell.  Many people in the south use them as air fresheners and they are also said to ward off evil spirits. The translations of membrillo is quince, a fruit I’ve never heard of, but can be likened to a tarter, rounder pear.  When they saw me with the bag of membrillos, a couple teachers passionately insisted I make Dulce de Membrillo, a sort of sugary marmalade spread. Half way through my accepted mission that evening, I asked my very old and small neighbor, Carmen, for a batidora (a hand blender) and before I could say muchas gracias Carmen and our other elderly neighbor Antonia had taken over my kitchen, shuffling about in their house shoes, directing Rebecca and I, stirring the pot, heating the water, adding sugar.   Although the recipe is simple (add a mountain of sugar to the boiled fruit) the women took their role in all seriousness, not leaving until they could be sure we had the dessert under control.  Rebecca and I understood nothing the old ladies said, but repeated our best “si, si, entiendo”s while trying not to laugh.  The Dulce de Membrillo turned out nice, much like a sweeter version of applesauce and I was proud my first Spanish cooking conquest involved some crazy Spanish abuelas.     

Friday, October 29, 2010

School Days

I.E.S. El Fuerte is the name of the high school where I teach English. El Fuerte’s bilingual program is new and all the staff is very ambitious to create a bilingual environment.  The teachers are learning English as well, so many of my days at work are spent speaking only English. 

Watching the students and speaking with them is a perfect demonstration of how learning a new language comes more easily to children.  It seems the more years in one’s age, the more difficult to pronounce, remember, and understand a second language.  The younger students learn more quickly and have less trouble recreating the sounds that traditionally give native Spanish speakers trouble (“sh” or “st” for example).   I never realized how difficult English is until I began this job, trying to find ways to explain grammar other than “That’s just the way we say it”.  And reading.  Spanish words are pronounced exactly as they are spelled, there are even accent marks to tell you which syllables to stress.  In English, as we came across in learning to read, words aren’t always what they seem (would, bought, bake).

I am lucky to have such well-behaved students, as most children in Spain are famous for acting like orangutans.  They are very eager to participate and also kind to one another.  The first year students are at the wonderful age where they haven’t yet noticed that boys and girls are too different to be friends, or who has money and who doesn’t—they haven’t learned the cruelties that come with teenage angst.

Every day of the week the first and second year bilingual students have one class in English, with me. For the hour period the lesson and all communication is supposed to be in English.  Many students think I don’t know Spanish. I am an assistant in Math, P.E., and English Language and I have weekly meetings with each teacher to prepare the class. The Physical Education teacher is especially motivated and I love working with him and playing with the kids.  Assisting the English language teachers is also enjoyable. One of my favorite classes was the day I taught the children “Yellow Submarine” and we learned vocabulary like “waves”, “friends”, “sea”, “life”.

This week and today have been exceptionally enjoyable as it was Halloween.  The students were very enthusiastic in their pumpkin carving, classroom decorating, and gory costumes.  I acted as a judge for the contests and it made me remember being in school, so passionate and spirited about things such as classroom decorating.  I think those activities are just as important in education as the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic.  Today’s festivities make me excited for Thanksgiving, where I can teach something to unique to my culture, to Christmas, Valentine’s and Easter too. 

Working with children, always excited and enthusiastic, fills me with energy.  I love the students very much. And I can see there may be a problem because I just want to spoil them all. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The gifts from Nati´s family, my bedroom, and the view from my balcony

Gracias a la Vida que me ha dado tanto

“Mind your head,” Nati tells me as I part the hanging bead curtains and enter her home.  Inside the white kitchen she introduces her family—kisses on both cheeks from her father, her mother Natividad, her brother Prudencio, sister in law and young nephew.  They sit at the kitchen at the table, each with a pruning knife, adding peach slices to a large plastic bowl. 
Preparando preservos.” Preparing preserves, they tell me.  Juice, jams, gifts for the neighbors—Nati’s father laughs—they have more peaches than they know what to do with. 

The Martinez family home is a cave.  As a young couple, Nati´s parents turned the hillside caves into homes in the 1950s, adding amenities like running water and electricity as recently as the 1970s.  The family has been on the land in Andalusia for over five generations, every year harvesting food, pressing olives into oil and stomping the grapes down to wine.   
I can tell Nati is proud of her family’s history—of the cave houses and of the natural way of living.  She leads me through the cave maze that is her family’s home, not missing a room, closet, or bathroom along the way. The many bedrooms, sitting room, patios and gardens have been added to the original small cave as the family has grown.  The white walls hold decorated plates as well as paintings of saints, First Communion photographs, and children’s drawings.  The Andalusian home feels more like haunted and forgotten tunnels, with new rooms dug farther underground for the mere sake of construction, of creation pushing through.    
The Martinez family has lived and worked this land for generations.  I now understand when she refers to her village, she really means it. 

The gifts I have been given thus far on my trip are so great I feel I cannot express my true gratitude.  Irish Rebecca and her mother Margaret last week with the apple struedel, “Feliz Cumpleanos” candles rapidly melting into the pastry.  The daily phone calls fro Nati checking up to make sure I’ve gotten along okay. The “Welcome to our Family” hug from the school principal.  Last night when Nati took me for tapas and then to her family’s home, she gave me a plastic bag filled with almonds, grapes, eggplant, apples, tomatoes, parsley, peaches and melon from the farm’s storeroom.   When she opened the door to the cellar she watched my face—knowing it would be something I’d never seen. The cellar was similar to what we would think of as a workroom or a tool shed, cement floor and walls, no windows and workman’s tools scattered about.   Sinister hooks hung from the ceiling. 
“To hang the ham dry,” Nati noted. 
The room put off a surprisingly pleasant smell of ripe summer fruit and drafty air.  The colors were just as appetizing. Thousands of almonds, still in their festive casings, carpeted half of the cement floor.  Parsley lie drying upon a pink bed sheet in front of the almond sea, and grapes of all colors and sizes lounged on the table.  Pumpkins and melons crowded the far corner of the cellar, while apples, peaches and prickly pears filled the brown sacks around the doorway. 
We stood in the storeroom and cracked the almonds with our teeth.  More than the sound of the nut cracking, I remember the percussion like beat of the almonds as I ran my hands across all the shells.  On the inside of my mouth, the inside of the nut tasted immediately creamy, like a sweet milk, very giving in its chewiness, and very rich. 
Perhaps having to work for the treasure inside—the cracking and picking apart, the brave work of the teeth and nails—makes it in fact more delicious, more rewarding, than dipping your hand in a bag and throwing four salty almonds on your tongue.  These cellar almonds are strong and bold, some bigger than others, each unique in appearance, but not in taste. I want to eat almonds like this forever.   

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Settling In

When you begin to thank God for something and you realize you have yourself to thank as well, well that is something to be proud of. 

I am so thankful to be given this opportunity for such monumental growth and discovery, and I thank myself for taking it. 

Loli and her husband Antonio live across the street from me and when Rebecca and I stand at our balcony, watching the people come and go below us, the older Spanish couple call out, “Hola” and we wave back.  My apartment here in Baza is unbelievable in the fact that it is furnished, beautifully decorated, and amazingly cheap in rent. 

From buying a cell phone to buying groceries, and spending time with my Irish roommate Rebecca and her extremely giving mother, Margaret, I am reminded that people are the same all over the world. In the U.S. I forget to remember that people in Europe travel, use cell phones, read novels and take Christmas vacations just as we do.  I was under some arrogant impression that the U.S. was king, and that Europe, Asia, and South America merely copied everything we did. It is nice to be in a place where I am reminded that humans all over the world really just go about their days, getting up for work, drinking café, spending time with friends, and loving their families.

It has been one week since I left the States and most of my time has been spent settling in.  I ate one night at a Chinese restaurant—which was entertainingly odd to see Chinese women speaking quick, accented Spanish.  The Spanish do not believe much in the way of vegetables, sticking to mostly eggs, meat, and cheese.  For me this will be a challenge.  It has been nice to have Rebecca’s mother here, although she speaks no Spanish, she has done all the mothering—from helping us pick out sheets for our beds, to buying our first month’s supply of groceries.  She is a petite woman with quaint pearl earrings, and says things such as “here ya fellas” and “Oh I wouldn’t...not in a month of Sundays mind you”. 

From Hello to Hola
My Spanish speaking skills have come back more quickly than I imagined, with words like huelga (strike) and mosca (fly) coming out of my mouth before my mind has time to muddle them over.  The accent here is not too thick and I was lucky enough to make a friend on the bus down from Madrid and spend four hours speaking of wine, Franco, bullfights, films, and Disneyland.  Citizens of Baza are excited to use their English with me, although it doesn’t go much past “Yes!” , “Go!” , “Hello.” 

My coordinator, Nati, the woman in charge of the Bilingual Education Program at I.E.S. El Fuerte (where I begin teaching next week), has exceptional English and I enjoy listening to her speak in her formal British accent, selecting each word carefully before using it. Nati is a brilliant woman, who just accepted her PhD on Monday for her studies in South African literature.  Nati calls me daily to make sure I am doing okay, adjusting to the changes in home and in culture.  She is warm, welcoming and accommodating.  Just as I did with my family in Chile, I managed to be connected with the best of the best in Andalucia. 

This weekend I will head to Granada, the bigger city and I'll begin classes on Monday.  My school is clean and nice, not to mention very advanced—each student is given a laptop to take home.  I will assisting the P.E. teacher, the math teacher, and the Geography teacher instruct in English and I will be helping Nati develop her Bilingual Education program at IES El Fuerte.  You can never know for sure, but something tells me I am going to love being back in the classroom.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nine of nine,
what is the time?
here I sit with Banana T,
who really loves me.