Friday, February 1, 2013

January Monthly Update: Time Flies, I Take the Train Edition

Okay, so January was definitely the shortest month I’ve lived through in Spain so far, despite having 31 days. I guess having the first week off for Christmas vacation and then going to Toledo near the end of the month really pushed things together. Weird.

Windmills of La Mancha, Spain
Windmills in Campo de Criptana near Alcázar de San Juan

Celebrating Epiphany

Epiphany parade, Alcázar de San Juan, Spain
Epiphany parade
On my way back home to Úbeda from traveling across France and northern Spain, I stopped off for two nights in Alcázar de San Juan, a medium-sized town in the plains of La Mancha, because the family of one of my private English class students graciously invited me to stay with them. I was so, so grateful not only that they let me stay at their house over the holidays but also that they shared with me the important Spanish holiday of Epiphany.

This festival, which commemorates the arrival of the Magi/Wise Men to Jesus shortly after his infancy, is celebrated 12 days after Christmas (i.e., January 6) and involves parades, gift-giving, and food. Every Spanish town will probably have a huge parade through its center of groups representing all the local organizations, with people dressed up in costumes throwing confetti and candy everywhere. Spaced between the marching bands and revelers, floats go by carrying men dressed up as one of the three Magi.

Epiphany is also a day kids get really excited for; instead of Santa bringing them presents on Christmas Eve, the Reyes Magos (“Magi”) bring kids gifts—they even have the same do-you-believe-in-Santa drama that older elementary kids go through, but with the Wise Men instead. It’s kind of awkward since the holiday falls at the end of Christmas vacation (less time to play with toys!) but at the same time is a great bookend to the holiday season and a good excuse to spend time with family and eat lots of Spanish food. It’s traditional to share a roscón de reyes (kings’ cake)—a sweet, bread-like cake filled with cream and candies and, most importantly, a figurine of the baby Jesus. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the baby has to buy the cake for next year’s Epiphany.

Renewing the program

A few days after school started back up again, Spain opened up the application website for the North American Language and Culture Assistant program that I’m in this year, a website which allows interested people back home apply for the first time and current language assistants renew for another year. However, they turned on the website at midnight…Spain time…and the server soon slowed to a crawl (and ended up crashing over the weekend). None of us current assistants knew what we were doing, but at least we had Facebook to bounce ideas off each other’s heads. Thankfully, renewing language assistants get priority in regional placements, so there wasn’t too much pressure. After waiting on unresponsive servers, I finally got in at 1:30am with number 43 (much better compared with #1429 last year). I haven’t completed my application just yet, but the hardest part is done. I asked to be placed in a high school in Galicia, the northwest corner of the country.

Toledo trip
Toledo, Spain
View of Toledo
Last weekend, I hopped on the train to the capital, Madrid, and from there went half an hour south to Toledo (after which, yes, the Toledo in Ohio is named). I really, really enjoyed this city: it had the winding, narrow streets of Granada; the beautiful churches, mosques, and synagogues of Córdoba; but had views like no other place in the country. The old town sits on a hill almost completely surrounded by the Tajo River, and from the vantage point of the fancy parador hotel across the river, I enjoyed seeing the city change colors (and lights) as the sun set. I’ll get pictures and a blog post up…eventually.

Field trip to an olive factory

Olives at Cooperativa Ntra. Sra. del Pilar, Villacarrillo, Spain
Harvested olives
Yesterday, one of the teachers I carpool with invited me to go with the sixth graders on a field trip to the world’s biggest olive oil factory in the village ten minutes down the road. It was a very cool and very educational experience. The manager/tour guide showed us all the steps of oil production, from dumping harvested olives down a chute, to mashing them into a paste and squeezing the juices out, to storing the oil in huge metal silos. We got to try oil made from two different varieties of olives: picual, which had that familiar, almost-bitter bite to it; and arbequino, which tasted surprisingly like almonds.

February doesn’t have much in store apart from Carnaval (Mardi Gras) and a weekend trip to Barcelona to see Icelandic band Sigur Rós in concert. I’ll try to post more regularly this month, I promise!
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