Friday, August 29, 2014

Culture Shock in a Spanish Elementary School

Continuing my series about culture shock in Spain (I’ve talked about supermarkets and Spanish homes so far), today I’d like to talk about things that have surprised me or that are quite different from American elementary schools. I’ve worked at a big school down south and a tiny rural one up north now, so I hope that my observations are more than just one place’s idiosyncrasies.

Regarding teachers

Culture shock at Spanish school
View from the school’s window
* When I first started working as a language assistant in Andalucía, I was shocked when the teachers would show up five minutes before school started and then leave as soon as the last class of the day was over. My mom teaches kindergarten and she always arrives an hour early in the morning and leaves an hour after the day is over to lesson plan, make copies, grade papers, attend meetings, etc., and she still has schoolwork to do at home! However, teachers at my schools do stay late for several hours one day of the week for meetings and whatnot and they somehow manage to do all their planning and grading during off hours, too.

* Unless somebody has to take an extended leave of absence (recovery from surgery, honeymoon, new baby, etc.), there aren’t any substitute teachers. Instead, other teachers fill in for their colleagues as needed during their off-periods. The jefe de estudios is continually scribbling in substitute duties on a dry-erase board in the teachers’ lounge: a sixth-grade teacher might substitute for a preschool one, the secretary might cover a third-grade class, and so on.

* Teachers wear literally whatever because there’s no set dress code. While tracksuits are usually restricted to P.E. teachers, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for people to show up in jeans and a t-shirt. Nevertheless, most teachers—being classy Spaniards and all—come to work professional, be it sharp button-down shirts and dark, slim jeans or leggings, a skirt, and a nice blouse.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Las Médulas, the Most Unique Roman Ruins in Spain

Usually when you think of Roman ruins—in Spain or elswhere—usually things like crumbling arches, faded mosaics, and fallen-in house walls come to mind. Sometimes there’s a grand aqueduct, and maybe even an amphitheater, but all the sculptures, gravestones, and artifacts are on display in a nearby museum. In any case, you’ll most often see memorials to important dead guys or monumental ruins.

Las Médulas, Spain
Las Médulas
That’s why I was so surprised when I visited Las Médulas: all that is left of the largest gold mine in the Roman Empire. Although the modern Spanish word médula can mean “bone marrow” or “spinal cord,” the name for these mining ruins probably comes from the Latin metula, the diminutive form of the word meta, which meant “cone” or “pyramid”—which makes sense given the other-worldly rock formations that make up the ruins.

Las Médulas, Spain
Close-up shot
Hidden away in the rugged Bierzo region in northwesterly León province, the open-pit mine has sliced through whole mountainsides, leaving the stark orange clay faces we see today. From the mirador (lookout point), you can almost trace the former swoops and curves of the original hills and mounts as they were before full-scale mining was introduced in antiquity. Once Augustus had incorporated northwestern Hispania into the empire (read: waged wars of conquest), the Romans used Las Médulas as their main source of gold for the next 250 years. Approximately five million Roman pounds were extracted from the area during that time, or 1.6 million kg of raw gold ore.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Photo Post: Pinchos & Castles in Ponferrada, Spain

Knights Templar Castle, Ponferrada, Spain
Tucked away in a mountainous corner of northwestern Spain lies the tiny sub-region of El Bierzo. Pronounced “bee-AIR-thoe” [ˈbjer.θo], this cultural area takes up the western third of the province of León and is a kind of “mini-Galicia” amidst the dominant northern Castilian region. Unique meats like cecina (cured beef) and botillo (chunky sausage) are popular here, the French Way of the Camino de Santiago passes through here, many folks speak the Galician language, and everything is generally greener (and rainier, too).

Knights Templar Castle, Ponferrada, Spain
The Sil River
Ponferrada is El Bierzo’s main city, a bustling metropolis 70,000-strong in a sea of sleepy mountain villages. On my way back from León in March, I came here to visit my friend Laura who I met while working down south two years ago; she was one of the many auxiliares that the bigger city of Linares was home to, and we coincidentally both got placed in the northwestern part of the country this past school year.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What to Do on a Daytrip to Astorga, Spain

With my backpack’s sternum strap fastened snugly across my chest, I sped-walked down León’s main avenue at 6:45 in the morning. Although the city still slept, darkness had given way to dawn—albeit a gray dawn, as rain was forecast for the region. I hopped on a glossy-white Regional Express train and had only biking enthusiasts for seatmates, and their bikes. Half an hour passed by and the rain and the train picked up speed. Soon the ruddy twin towers of Astorga’s cathedral came into view as we went through a curve: decorated blocks topped with pointy, slate pyramids.

Astorga, Spain
Astorga Cathedral
I left the train station at the bottom of the hill and set off to find breakfast on this drizzly, quiet Saturday morning. Almost no one was out and about, not even party-till-the-sun-comes-up types; however, this was a town whose population barely reached 11,000. Rain pitter-pattered on my polyester backpack cover, my meager umbrella, and my canvas shoes. I arrived at Astorga’s grand religious square only to find it deserted at eight in the morning. Avoiding puddles with little success, I leaned back, umbrella still open, and sighed at the cathedral’s locked, wooden doors.

In an empty bar nearby, I woke up over a warm café con leche and toasted bread served with olive oil and half a whole tomato, an awkward departure from the traditional grated pulp. A gregarious coterie of nurses came in and gave the café some atmospheric caffeine to accompany our coffees. They left for work after scarfing down a pastry here, a short shot of espresso there, but the rain continued to fall.

It was almost nine, so I scooped up the change from paying for breakfast, suited up my backpack, and decided to check out the cathedral.


Astorga, Spain
The Baroque west façade
It seemed a bit overkill for a small pueblo like Astorga to have a cathedral, but that hasn’t stopped church authorities in Spain before (see: Albarracin, Baeza, etc.). The town’s bishopric, though, dates back to the 300s, so with age comes prestige. The current cathedral’s westwork shows off those bell towers so very typical of Spain’s meseta or central plateau: tall, square towers whose slate-shingled roofs in the form of geometric pyramids are capped with diamond-shaped spears or belfries. The cathedral’s interior, however, is decidedly Late Gothic, styled more with soaring walls and fancy ceiling tracery in mind than with maximizing stained glass, as in the cathedral of León.

After slipping past heavy, ancient doors and making sure the wind didn’t slam them shut, I entered into a sanctuary in the true meaning of the word: a peaceful place that truly felt holy. As the cathedral had just opened, there were no other tourists shuffling their feet from side-chapel to side-chapel or grannies whispering prayers in the pews; I was alone with these towering Gothic arches and the soft basso continuo of the endless rain.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Architecture of León, Spain

It’s a little-known fact that the Spanish city of León’s name coincidentally means “lion” in modern Spanish; kind of like how Cork, Ireland, sounds like the word for the woody bottle stopper we put in wine bottles. Although this bustling provincial capital was founded as an encampment for Roman legions, the Latin name for this legionary town (Legio) converged with the word for lion (leo) over the centuries as Latin grew up and became Spanish. Apparently this distinction was also lost on the locals and a purple lion is now the city’s heraldic symbol. Cool!

León Cathedral, Spain
León Cathedral
I was excited to finally get the chance to explore this city on a cold, drizzly long weekend back in March. Following the Camino de Santiago, but in reverse, I left my apartment in Santiago and caught the train east out toward the broad Castilian meseta, or central plateau. The last major stop along the French Way pilgrimage that ends in Santiago, León is rightly famous for its French-inspired Gothic cathedral.

León is also a major university town—I know several American friends who studied abroad here—and a big center for getting free tapas with your drink order (read more at the blogs Gee, Cassandra and Restless Fork). Those bloggers have got the tapas action covered, so I’ll move on to other things (it’s worth mentioning, though, that my inner Texan did go wild over El Rebote’s jalapeño croquetas).

My inner architecture and history nerds also enjoyed León for its rich heritage of buildings and churches that span half a millennium of styles. Read on to learn what this city has to offer.


León Cathedral, Spain
Built during the 1200s, León’s cathedral is surprisingly French in style. A huge rose window dominates the west façade, and the star of the show is the literal wall-to-wall stained glass that covers the entire upper story of the church. Massive panes span from the pointed arches up to the ceiling, giving the impression that the walls simply vanish into glorious light. The whole atmosphere is truly dazzling; when I first walked in, I was stopped in my tracks, smiling and taking it all in. The windows transform the usual gloomy gray stone interior into a reddish-purplish wonderland, refracting the pure sunlight into thousands of colors. The whole church felt like Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle but on a much, much larger scale.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in…Galicia

Last May, when I was telling everyone in southern Spain that I was moving up north to work in the region of Galicia, all the Andalusians I talked to would reply something along the lines of “OOOOOOOH it’s SOOOOOO rainy there!!! It rains SOOO MUCH in Galicia!!!” Not “watch out, they speak a different language there” or “the food is really delicious”—it was always something about the rain.

Rain in Galicia, Spain
So over the course of the school year I diligently recorded whether it rained or not in Galicia—a simple “yes” or “no” tally of days with and without rain. People made things sound like it was perpetually raining in this northwestern-most region of Spain, so I set out to prove them wrong (or right).

I kept this tally from September 24th, 2013 through the day I moved out, May 29th, 2014. I didn’t check anything for the days I was outside the region while traveling, but during those eight or so months, it rained in Galicia 108 days and it was sunny, overcast, or not raining for 102 days. It’s hard to compare, for example, with Málaga’s advertised 350 days of sunshine each year, but it’s definitely a far cry from the exaggerated 100% raininess that my Andalusian compadres made things out to be.

Monday, August 11, 2014

An Afternoon Coffee in Huesca, Spain

It was a sunny afternoon and I had just gotten back to Zaragoza’s train station after a few days spent down south exploring Mudéjar-style Teruel and the medieval village of Albarracín. My night train back to Santiago de Compostela wasn’t leaving until later that evening, so I decided to make the most of this layover and spend the afternoon and early evening exploring Huesca, an off-the-beaten-track provincial capital to the north. As I rode in the single-car diesel train, the Aragonese Pyrenees mountains came into view, the natural border separating Spain from France and beyond.

Huesca (pronounced “WEHS-kah” [ˈwes.ka]) holds a commanding position on the plains just outside the foothills of the Pyrenees—the historic core of the medieval kingdom of Aragón. In the surrounding region outposts like Loarre, Sos del Rey Católico, and Jaca whisper memories of a time when “Spain” was merely a collection of ragtag lordships based in the mountains.

Huesca, Spain
A café bombón or espresso + sweetened condensed milk
Heading out from the train station along a warm, straight avenue, I stopped in a snobby restaurant, sat down at the bar, and ordered a pick-me-up cafe bombón: a shot of espresso poured over sweetened condensed milk. Declining the provided bag of sugar, I stirred the contrasting layers of white milk, dark coffee, and brown espresso foam together and engaged in this most Spanish of habits, the afternoon coffee break. Having slurped down this thick, sweet caffeine boost, I headed out to explore the city.

Huesca, Spain
Romanesque sculpted column capitals, Monastery of San Pedro el Viejo
After heading down one of the side streets that leads out from the main plaza, I came across the nondescript façade of the medieval-era Church of San Pedro el Viejo. Entering inside, I found a plain, gloomy barrel-vaulted Romanesque-style church—nothing to write home about. As I stepped back out in the open air through the opposite door, however, I entered into a cloister filled with immaculately-preserved sculpture from the Middle Ages.