Saturday, January 30, 2010

Spandex, Spandex, Spandex

Classes at the University don’t start until February 15th and I was a little disappointed in how few Spaniards I knew (Official count = 2. Chencha and her 45 year old son, Juan).

I started to think about how I could get out and about in a place that won’t be jam packed with Americans.

So I joined a gym.

There happens to be a gym right across the street from our apartment complex and despite it’s pretty bad rankings on the google search website, the first comment said, “Run by two Sevillans…,” so I was sold.

My first day was Wednesday.

Well, wait. Back up. What I forgot to tell you is that ever since our first day here, Lyndsay and I have been seeing runners (all men) in spandex. Every runner from the 12-year old to the grandpa run in tight spandex. And I honestly can’t tell you which is more disturbing and awkward.

So flashback to Wednesday and Rafa, gym owner, clad in black spandex with red racing stripes down the sides, takes my money and lets me into the gym.

I walk in and begin to run on the treadmill and with the looks I got you would have thought I sprouted a third eye or was running without legs.

I was one of four women in the complex, the only woman under sixty. To add to that, all the women wore spandex as well. In fact, the only person I could see wearing running shorts similar to mine was the Cheech Marin-looking grandpa in the corner.

I guess women just don’t workout here. And not only am I a woman, I am a woman whose skin (in a country of tanned Mediterranean folk) is as dark as Casper’s was (Read: transparent).

Needless to say, my time at the gym has proved interesting in the least. Two people have introduced themselves to me, so I guess that’s progress. And every day I come home having an interesting story to tell. I attended a cardio class, understood nothing and managed not to laugh at the woman screaming Spanish phrases in the front of the room.

But our cultural class and grammar intensive end in a week and then we begin our classes at the center, where I’ll be taking a creative writing class with a few other American students at the program center. And once the 15th rolls around I’ll be taking my Spanish skills to the University to learn about journalism (who’d have thought? Michigan doesn’t offer any journalism classes, but U of Sevilla does!) and education.

On top of that I’ll be starting my intercambio, which is an language exchange program where I’ll be set up with a Spanish student and we’ll be speaking Spanish and English for an hour each week together.

So with a gym membership in my pocket and classes at the University on the horizon, I’m hoping my Spanish friends count will grow.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Limbo-ing the Atlantic

(View of Sevilla from the top of the Giralda)

I don’t know at what point a new place becomes home. But I do know that as I was on the train coming back to Sevilla from Madrid this past weekend I did feel as though I was coming back to something.

I just haven’t figured out if that’s home or not.

There are plenty of aspects of this culture that I don’t understand yet and there are moments when I desperately crave American culture in all it’s bizarre glory; I have to read the New York Times, Boston Globe, Michigan Daily (some days all three) to feel connected again to a culture that seems so distant.

But I’ve only been here two weeks. I have to keep reminding myself that.

Two weeks ago I was sleeping in Dexter, eating comfort foods and complaining about the snow to my parents.

Today, I live in a 3-bedroom apartment that looks out onto the Guadalquivir River. Most days, I eat something I’ve never eaten in my life (normally of the fish variety). Some days I take photos, other days I choose to take in the scenery without a lens between my eye and the world.

But every night I’ve sat at the dinner table with Lyndsay and Chencha. We tell Chencha about our day after we compliment her food and once we’ve finished eating our weight in pasta or soup we continue to talk. Some nights we sit at the table for an hour after the food has gone cold and the dishes have been put in the sink.

It’s just different.

But I still sort of feel in limbo at this point. I’ve left America and with this exit, I feel a disconnect. Because this culture that I’m a part of now seems more unintentional than anything. As if I threw a dart to a map and decided to come to this little city in Southern Spain where the mix of Arabic and Catholic culture creates something incredibly unique.

But each day seems brings more ease to this life. I’ve found a coffee shop I like and I know where the cheapest ice cream is. I figured out which doors in the house stick and how to get warm water in the shower. I know a few short cuts in the city, but have enjoyed the long walks (read: getting lost only to get un-lost) that have led to these discoveries.

But I have enjoyed living in the midst of a city so full of history and beauty.

Today we visited the Cathedral of Sevilla and I climbed the Giralda and looked out past Sevilla’s city limits. An old Asian man climbed onto the platform with me and said something that I couldn’t understand. I looked at him and he repeated himself. I smiled and he knew that I didn’t understand what he was saying, so we just stood there together for a moment and finally he said: Boo-Tea-Full, while pointing to the city.

I nodded. This, I could understand. The disconnect wasn’t there and for a moment the old man and I enjoyed the city view before I jumped down to allow someone else up.

I guess that has been my favorite part of this trip so far, when I see how similar these two parts of my life really are and how for just a second it all seems like one.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

No pasa nada, just candy corn and unicorns

I think a defining moment in any relationship comes when all of a sudden it isn’t unicorns and candy canes. One could say, when suddenly the light ain’t so bright; when you face confrontation.

Well, Lyndsay and I had our first defining moment in our relationship with Chencha, our host mom, this morning.

It all started around 8:30 am when I trudged to the shower. I turned on the water and stepped into the refreshingly warm water. (Sevillan apartments don’t have central heating, so the house in the morning is freezing) Shortly after putting the shampoo in my hair all the lights went out.

“Okay,” I thought. “Either our apartment building is having a blackout or I’m about to die.”

I slowly stepped out of the shower, found my footing on the cold floor, grabbed a towel and cautiously walked towards Lyndsay and my room.

“Chantel?” a voice came from our room. “I think I just broke the electricity.”

Okay. Not a murder.

Possibly a blackout in our entire apartment building. Thanks for that Lynds.

Lyndsay explained to me how she had accidentally tripped over a power strip in our bedroom. Her trip set of a chain of reactions that eventually caused all the electricity in the apartment to stop working. Don’t ask me how, it doesn’t make sense.

I grabbed my flashlight and Lyndsay and I went to check around the house for other power strips to put in place of the ramshackled power strip. I don’t know why we did this. In the back of my mind I knew we had to go to the power box and flip some switch. (which really meant we needed to wake our sleeping Chencha and have her fix it). But Lyndsay was scared. This would be a defining moment in our relationship.

Finally, Lyndsay gave in and we stood at Chencha’s door. I slowly knocked and she said to come in.

Literally translated, Lyndsay said: I’m sorry Chencha. I broke the electricity in the whole house.

“No pasa nada/(No big deal),” Chencha said. And all five feet of Chencha got on a very tall chair and flipped a few switches in the power box.

Ten minutes later, Lyndsay and I were enjoying our breakfast (toast with fresh garlic and olive oil, surprisingly tasty) with a fully lit kitchen.

The power strip has been replaced, light has been restored, chaos has been subdued and we got over our first confrontation with Chencha, albeit small. Yes, we’re back to unicorns and candy canes.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Winning the battle

There are some moments in life when you feel yourself becoming an adult, living a life full of new experiences and taking those experiences, good or bad, in stride. Yesterday will forever be a day that will mark one step towards adulthood for Chantel.

I bought my first phone, all by myself.

Well, that’s not completely true. Lyndsay was there too. And we purchased said phones together, at a Vodafone store in Sevilla.

Phone plans in English are difficult to understand. Trying to figure out a phone plan in Spanish is like studying Japanese for a year and then realizing your final exam is in Turkish. It really just makes you want to throw the towel in.

Not to mention, it didn’t help that the woman who was helping us at the store was new. Every time we asked her a question, she had to call someone else over for us to talk to. But once person #2 left, person #1 would just sort of stare at us. Not that helpful.

But after an hour we victoriously walked out of the store carrying our two new phones. False, they’re models from the late 90’s. But we thought we had won the war, later to realize that was only our first battle.

After coming home, Lyndsay and I sat on our beds trying to figure out how to put the SIM card in the phone. Upon discovering that, we then struggled to put new contacts into our phones. And you can only imagine how difficult texting in Spanish is.

In retrospect, I should have never felt so accomplished to have put just three contacts into my phone. Because my three contacts were Lyndsay (my roommate), Chencha (my madre here), and Chencha casa (home number here). But I felt triumphant to see the fruit of my labors.

In closing, I would like to apologize to any adult that I have ever poked fun at for not understanding technology. I understand where you’re coming from now, and it’s not fun. Technology for ya’ll is a foreign language, and now I see it your way. (But only because it really IS in a foreign language).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A second madre for Lyndsay and me

For a week I’ve been living out of my suitcase in a hotel in the middle of Sevilla. Today, Lyndsay and I moved in with a woman named Chencha. She has a lovely apartment in a neighborhood called ‘Los Remedios’ and it’s about a block away from the Guadalquivir River.

Chencha is the kind of woman that just radiates happiness. Even in three-inch heels she doesn’t come up to my shoulder, but she still hugs me despite her head’s placement being directly in my chest. That’s something I’ve learned about the Sevillanos. They don’t fear physical contact or discussion of topics most families in the US wouldn’t consider kosher. For example, tonight after dinner the three of us sat around the table snacking on cheese while Chencha told us about dirty things that boys may say to us while we’re here.

But Chencha didn’t even wait that long to get personal with us. Not long after unpacking, Lyndsay and I walked into the kitchen to bring Chencha her gifts that we had brought her from America. I had gotten her a vase and Lyndsay brought her a calendar, soap and chocolates. Upon seeing the chocolates Chencha (who is a widow) exclaimed, “Ay Dios mio (Oh my God), chocolate is my substitute for sex!”

At lunch today she made us a phenomenal rice and chicken dish. Along with that we had a Spanish salad. Salads here aren’t like the salads in the US, they’re more like a vegetable medley, rather than mostly lettuce with a few vegetables. In our salad we had just as many pieces of corn as lettuce, and just as many pieces of tomato as onion. And instead of dressing, Spaniards put olive oil/vinegar/spices on their vegetables.

After trying to consume half of what she put in front of me I had to tell her I was stuffed. (At dinner we explained the term 'food baby' to her, which she greatly enjoyed) She then asked if I would like to have an orange. I consented only because the oranges here are fantastic. Orange trees line every street and in just a few weeks, I’m told, the whole city will smell like citrus fruits.

The biggest struggle of the next five months will be keeping my part of the room clean. At home, I constantly live in a state of structured chaos, with the notion that life is much more orderly when I can see everything I own. Chencha lives by the ideals that there can’t be anything on our floor. Perhaps she can break me of my ways.

But I think I’m settling into this lifestyle quite well. It’s 10:15 and I’ve just finished dinner, I’m wearing a bathrobe given to me by Chencha (since they don’t have central heating, the houses are quite cold right now), and Lyndsay and I are recanting our day in Spanish.

This week, we’ve been attending culture and grammar classes. It’s only a ten minute walk from our classroom to our apartment complex and tonight as I walked home I saw: city lights reflected in the Guadalquivir, tons of couples in love (in a country where PDA isn’t seen as a problem), lots of men running in spandex shorts and several women hanging their colorful laundry to dry outside of their balconies.

Yes, this is Sevilla. And yes, I actually live here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lost in Translation

Eating tapas in Spain serves a dual purpose. One, to eat lunch before the siesta. Two, to converse with friends in a casual setting.

But today’s tapa experience will go down in history as one of the worst lunches ever. I went with four friends to a tapas bar and we decided to order six different tapas. We thought it was slightly less touristy since it was off the beaten path, but needless to say, all the dishes had English translations printed beneath them.

So we ordered a few, two of which had the word huevas. The first dish had the word egg in the English description, so we just figured that they had misspelled the Spanish word huevo (egg). The next one was a fish tapa with hake and we all assumed that hueva was the translation for hake.

All the dishes came out and I decided to be brave and try the hake dish. It was pretty tasteless but the food crumbled into a million little pieces in my mouth. The little parts got stuck between my teeth and I spent the rest of lunch trying to get them out with my tongue. (Gosh, I’m attractive)

And then six words came out of my friend’s mouth:

“I think those were fish eggs.”

Before coming to Spain, I hadn’t eaten fish in 13 years and I never expected to go as far to eat fish eggs. Fearing Haley was correct, I did something else I never thought I’d do in a public place, I grabbed my Spanish-English dictionary.

But the dictionary didn’t give me any more peace of mind. So we called our waiter over and asked him, “What exactly is the hueva? Is it fish eggs?”

“No,” he responded. The relief washed over my body and for just a moment my blood pressure returning into a healthy zone that it hadn’t felt since Haley brought up the words ‘fish eggs.’

“It’s the ovaries of the fish,” our waiter said.

So no, I didn’t eat fish eggs. I ate an entire freaking ovary, filled with little fish eggs.

I thought of Nemo and all his little siblings swimming around in my stomach. I thought of God laughing at me and my fish aversion. Oh, how the non-fish eater has fallen at the feet of baby fish and their reproductive organs.

But I decided to take it in stride. It’s the vida sevillano. And besides, it’s always great to learn new vocabulary words.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Soap, ham and Soup

My college Spanish classes have been very different from my Spanish classes in high school. High school classes focused on grammar while my college courses have put an emphasis on culture and literature.

But in high school we ignored a verb tense called ‘vos.’ And for four years my teachers told me, “A very small group of Spaniards use this tense, you’ll never need it. Don’t worry about it.”

False. Because that very small group of Spaniards just happen to live in Andalucia and now I happen to live in Andalucia and I must use this tense during the next five months. It’s a tense used to speak about a group of people (they) or when you, personally, are speaking to several people but referring to them all as you (ya’ll). It has been very interesting trying to pick up on this and luckily I brought a Spanish grammar book that I’ve been using to study every night.

So the grammar has been a struggle but seeing as my past two and a half years of Spanish have been aimed towards culture and literature, my vocabulary here is lacking as well.

Today I was looking for my soap and I said to my friend (in Spanish), “I can’t find my … sopa.” I had good intentions, but sopa means soup despite it being an almost-cognate-ness for soap. She looked at me and said, “For what?” (Thinking I meant I was rummaging through my bag for a can of Campbells) “For the shower,” I replied. “Oh you want jabon,” she said. (Jabon is the actual translation of soap)

Oh right. I would want soap for the shower.

Later I was telling another friend about my Spanish mix up and I was laughing at myself and said, “So then I realized I wanted the jamon for the shower.”

Wrong again.

While jabon and jamon may sound similar, jamon is ham. So no, I didn’t want my soup or ham for the shower. But each day I’ve been learning more and more and although my days of cramming for high school vocabulary tests hasn’t helped me much right now, I am learning the differences between soup, ham and soap.

I suppose it’s the little lessons that I learn here every day that are going to make the biggest difference. Mark Twain said, “Education consists mostly of what we have unlearned.” And I have to agree. So far, my education here has been a lot of what I unlearned in my previous Spanish classes because I found it unimportant then. But now, I sit here and hunt for my soap and the word evades me because I unlearned it so long ago. So now, my real education begins as I’m thrust into a world where soap, ham and soup seem interchangeable to me.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Finally, in a place for more than 12 hours

Our adventures across Spain continued today. We left the hostel very early. I had never stayed in a hostel before but it was, more or less, an enjoyable experience. That being said, it’s enjoyable for the 25 and under crowd. There was one older Australian fellow who seemed quite out of place. When we booked our room it was the only room that was left — a public six-bed room, meaning if you can’t fill all the beds, they will. We assumed the five of us would enjoy a quiet night, which we did. But the asian girl that stayed with us enjoyed a much earlier morning than she may have expected. Our taxis came at 8:30am. So we began repacking our things at 7:45. The hallway light was motion sensored so we tried to keep that light on instead of turning our room light on (mind you, our room was about eight feet wide). So we kept having to run out into the hallway in order to keep our light. Running to the hallway was difficult, because if we were running there it meant there was no light, and on top of that you had to hurdle four other people and 12 bags. We got to the train station and said adios to Madrid only to begin our voyage to the great city we’d be living in for the next five and a half months.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Sevilla, we were about as close to delirious as you can get. All I could think about was the video I had to watch for psych last semester where a man tried to stay up for a week straight. Eventually, he suffered lasting mental problems, but I remembered the video saying that after 40 hours of sleeplessness you begin seeing things. At this point I’d slept four hours in the past 48, so when asked if we would enjoy getting tapas at a local restaurant, I went along thinking that if I suffer illusions and pass out, I could possibly be saved by an attractive Spaniard (which this country is full of).

Tapas are a traditional plate of Southern Spain (Andalucia) and they were phenomenal. Between the five of us we ordered seven small plates and ate everything from curried pork to ham that was as thin as notebook paper to salted prawns. And after almost ten years of not eating any seafood, I decided it was only right to have my first seafood experience involve eating a creature that had to have both its head and tail ripped off before I could eat it. I watched as a fellow student, Nate, ripped apart this stringy, white, cold sea creature and put it on my plate. It was both fascinating and made me want to run away screaming bloody murder. But I ate it. Be proud dad.

We then meandered around the city before finding our way back to the hotel. By this time all 40 students had arrived at the hotel. Our program is a conjunction of students from Cornell, U-Penn and Michigan and so we had a little meet and greet. We’ll only stay in the hotel until Thursday when we’re placed with our host families. My roommate, Lyndsay and I have decided to only speak Spanish to one another, so we have had an interesting night throwing the dictionary back and forth as we have long awkward pauses in our conversations. Most times I forget what she had been talking about by the time she finds the word she needed and she has normally moved onto something else before I’m able to put together a cohesive sentence. But it’s moving along. We have learned that there is no translation for the words ‘baller’ and ‘crunk.’ Surprising.

But I rest happily tonight knowing that I have five and a half months to explore this beautiful city that has given me insane taxi drivers, terrifyingly alright seafood and a beautiful rainstorm, all in the first day.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

From Detroit to Frankfurt to Madrid

I should have known they were going to lose all of my luggage when the attendant in Detroit was nice enough to offer to send my third checked bag for free. Some things are just too good to be true. But with a smile on my face, I waved goodbye to my little rolly bag and change of clothes for my overnight stay in Madrid and stupidly allowed my carry on to become a checked bag.

I’m traveling with four friends who will all be studying in Sevilla with me this semester. We all took the same red eye flight from Detroit to Frankfurt, Germany. Lyndsay and I were lucky enough to be able to sit together for both flights. We were in the last row of the plane sitting next to an incredibly large Spainard, whom we kindly referred to as Pablo. The flight was uneventful save for the fact that the world’s fattest baby was sitting ten rows up from us. The baby girl (although I must admit Lyndsay and I are still debating the gender of the child — I hold firm to the fact it’s a girl) and her mother made frequent trips to the rest room, which was directly behind us, so that provided entertainment when our movies and iPods did not.

Our layover was more reminiscent of my high school days as I hurriedly carried my backpack, lunchbox and vase for my host family (the only thing I actually took out of my carry on turned checked bag). Gayle would not be traveling with us for the second flight, she had a slightly longer layover in Germany and so we had agreed to meet in baggage claim when she finally arrived in Madrid. We jumped on the flight and slept the entire way.

This is when it got crazy. We got to baggage claim and collected three luggage carts for our combined nine bags. Bag after bag passed by, none of which even slightly resembled mine. The carousel stopped after most people had happily left with their successful luggage experience. The only thing that was left were the four pathetic looking American girls.

So we reported our missing bags. They told us they had no information as to where they were or are. Fantastic. So we wait for Gayle. No flights come. We check the map. Madrid has five terminals — Gayle is in another one. We run to her terminal. Her flight is delayed six hours. We slowly walk back to talk to our luggage claim people. They have found our bags. Great. They just won’t be coming to Madrid until midnight. It is 5pm. Awesome. So we made our way to our cute hostel in downtown Madrid run by two young friends. It’s quite the experience. The walls are painted a brick red color and there are risqué chalk drawn murals everywhere. It’s a funky place.

So now, I write this from a kitchen amidst student from Germany, Korea, Spain, China and England. Languages are flying back and forth like games of ping pong and I’m trying to pick up the Spanish where I can.

Even with the stress at the airport I must say the only bad part of the day is that I’m wearing sweatpants and sweatshirts in a country full of people that look like they belong on the cover of a fashion magazine. There are children in diapers that look more put together than I do.


We used to say that it wasn’t a Jennings family road trip unless the van broke down. It’s starting to seem to me now, that it isn’t an international flight unless they loose your luggage.