Friday, October 31, 2008

Two Month Update

Today marks my two month anniversary in Spain. It is quite fitting that today I picked up my residency card and I am now a legal resident for the next year. For the most part, I feel very well adjusted to living in Madrid. I know my way around the metro and I am beginning to connect different parts of the city in my head. I have learned which grocery stores have the best prices, the location of the best bakery in my neighborhood, and have discovered a new clothing store called lefties that similar clothes and prices to H & M.
Below is a list of my goals I created before leaving for Spain, and the ones in italics I have completed. Others, I am still in the process of completing such as trying new foods and learning to be more laid back about being on time.

1. Find an apartment!
2. Become fluent in Spanish
3. Try lots of new foods and learn how to cook some authentic Spanish dishes
4. Visit at least six countries and go to Africa once, get lots of passport stamps
5. Learn to navigate the metro system in Madrid
6. Become familiar with the neighborhood I live in and explore other neighborhoods in Madrid
7. Become a better teacher and teach my students to be better people
8. Stay in contact with friends and family
9. Take lots of photos or learn a new craft/art form
10. Volunteer and get my students involved as well
11. Go to a concert, theater, and flamenco performance
12. Learn to be more laid back and not have everything planned ahead of time
13. Visit a temple, mosque, and church

14. Make friends with Spaniards
15. Do something natury like rafting, zip lining, hiking
16. Host a dinner party
17. Enjoy reading an entire book in Spanish - I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but I am hoping to move on to adult books in the near future
18. Buy a piece of art from my travels
19. Find intercambio partner
20. Have no regrets

In addition to the initial goals that I set, I have added a couple more now that I have been here for a little bit.
1. Rent a rowboat at retiro
2. Go to Bilbao and see the Guggenheim Museum
3. Have someone stop me on the street and ask for directions, and for me to be able to understand the question, know the location they want to go to, and provide proper directions

Some of my highlights of my time in Spain including spending two beautiful afternoons in Retiro park loosing complete track of time and falling asleep while reading, sharing a delicious Rosh Hashanah dinner with friends, seeing an amazing free flamenco performance in the metro, teaching an entire lesson by myself, and traveling to Seville and Cordoba.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Acting Like an American

Today, I acted like an American, but not in the bad way that makes me cringe when I see obnoxious tourists around Madrid. First, I went to the American embassy so I could vote. I have yet to receive my actual ballot so I filled out a write in ballot. I doubt my vote will actually matter but after discussing the election with my students and going to a democrats abroad meeting, I felt obligated to voice my opinion. The embassy was actually quite helpful. After showing my US passport, I was given a write in ballot and a ticket number. Luckily, there is a separate line for US citizens trying to vote which is quite short and is not the same line as everyone else who is applying for visas and green cards. After filling out my ballot, I talked with the representative who provided the address of where to send my ballot and was able to tell me whether I needed a witness to sign my ballot.
After the embassy, I walked to Taste of America, an American grocery store. I was expecting some over the top grocery with an overabundance of products from the states. The store was actually pretty small and mainly had baking supplies (many kitchens in Spain do not have ovens, hence the lack of baking supplies in normal grocery stores), Halloween candy, Pop tarts, oatmeal, pasta sauce, and BAGELS! I initially went to the store to see what products they had related to Halloween because my school informed on Friday we are celebrating it in our classes. The Halloween candy was too overpriced, close to seven euros for a small bag of candy but I did buy four bagels for three euro at the store. I had the first bagel today and it was actually pretty good. While the price is high, I am willing to pay it once and a while.
My third and final stop today was at Al Campo, the Spanish equivalent of Walmart. At Al Campo, I found more reasonably priced Halloween candy (ie fun size bars of candy), decorations, and a costume. I am going to be witch this year. I was able to buy a hat and face paint for pretty cheap and I have enough black clothes to complete the outfit.
On a side note, the other American thing I did this weekend was watch NFL football. One of my friends paid to watch the NFL games live on his computer and we had an American Football party. It was so much fun to get into the games and talk football with people who actually understand the game and have intelligent things to say. The only bad thing about the football was that we had some trouble connecting to the site and at times it would replay parts of the game that we had already seen, and because we could not get the full screen option to work we were unable to see the game clock without looking closely. As a result, we watched the same three minute section three or four times before we noticed anything was wrong. During this time, we thought Cassel, the New England quarter back was playing horribly because it kept showing him getting intercepted. Once we realized the problem, we paid closer attention to the game clock and enjoyed the rest of the game.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Indian Embassy

Yesterday I went to the Indian Embassy to apply for a tourist visa to India because my family and I have decided to go to India during my winter break. I am super excited to see a completely different culture, travel around the country and most importantly visit my friend Emily is volunteering in an orphanage in Mumbai.
After reading the Indian embassy website multiple times, it appeared that the application was simple enough. Anyone going into India needs a visa, even if one is just stopping over on layover. In order to apply for the visa, you need to fill out the simple two page application, provide three passport photos, have your passport and pay the corresponding fee. This seemed simple enough. I did not need additional documentation, no appointment was required, and I did not encounter any horror stories on the web about transactions with the Indian embassy in Spain.
When applying for a visa, you must relinquish your passport for one week and because I will need my passport for travel and to finalize my paperwork to get a residency card I wanted to get the visa application over. You must apply between the hours of 9-12:30 so I can only apply on Mondays when I have my day off. I got to the embassy at 9 am and figured I may have to stand in line for a while but that the process couldn’t be too difficult. Boy was I was wrong!
When you arrive, you must take a number. There are two separate numbering systems: one for Indian nationals and one for everyone else. The problem is that there is only one person who helps all non-Indians so if someone holds up the line with a complicated application no one moves forward. Twice while I was waiting, an individual took over forty minutes to file their application.
The nice thing about taking a number is that you don’t have to stand in a strict line, instead you are able to mingle and wait inside or outside which is key because I think some people would start a riot if they were not able to smoke while waiting for their number to be called.
After waiting about an hour and realizing the only seven people had been seen I began to get nervous and realize my number would probably never be called. I had number 78 and they were only on number 14 by 10:30. Furthermore, posted on all the walls are signs saying they stop taking applications at 12:30 and that the numbers are not good for the following day which means you can wait all day and never be seen and have to start all over the next day. At this point, I started talking and listening to other people’s conversations. Multiple people informed me that the consulate only sees about 40 people a day and that they realize the process is inefficient but they do not care because the Spanish consulate in India is so bad they are trying to get back at the Spanish government by running a horrible embassy in Spain.
When I asked what time one needs to arrive at the embassy to get a “good” number and to be assured one will be seen, I was told to arrive by 4 am and that the person with number 1 had arrived at 6 pm the previous night. While I have heard crazy stories about people having to camp out at embassies in order to get their visas, I was shocked and not looking forward to coming back a second time.
To make matters more complicated, there are companies that will apply for the visa for you. They charge a large fee but you don’t have to deal with the hassle of going to the embassy. This complicates things because with each number a person can bring up one visa application for themselves or he/she can bring up 100 applications for others. This means that one person can hold up the line for a long time and it also leads to a lot of side business being conducted at the embassy.
While waiting in line, I met 5 different people who worked for companies that helped individuals get their visas. While these employees had been given a set number of applications to apply for, the employees also conduct side business in which they inform those who are waiting what number they have and that they are willing to take their application up with them if they pay an extra fifty euros. Because all of these transactions are conducted in Spanish and I did not know any of these employees, I did not want to pay someone some extra money and give them my passport. While I knew what was going on, I was nervous about losing my passport and I didn’t want to pay any extra money.
The employees who take on the extra applications pocket the money but they also ask for the ticket number of the individual. This leads to black market for the numbers. Because no one is standing in line, it is hard to tell if anyone cuts and no one enforces any rules stating the person who takes the ticket must be the person to use it. Thus, I saw one man walk in around 10 am but he either knew someone or paid someone to get a low number ticket.
By 10:30 I realized my number was never going to be called but I didn’t know whether I should leave. I had nothing else to do all day and I was not sure when I could come back to the embassy. I decided to stick around to see if maybe someone would give up and leave and possibly give me their ticket.
At 12:30 the embassy was still packed and there no way they could close without having a riot on their hands. Each person who was seen after 12:30 breathed a sigh of relief that they had been helped. By this time they were serving number 50 but still very far away from my number 78. At this point, I had waited almost half a day and decided that I was going to stand and wait until someone would help me or until I was removed from the building. This strategy paid off. A nice lady with number 55 told me I could go up with her. Luckily the agent at the window did not care that this lady was applying for a work visa and I was applying for a tourist visa and that we were clearly not connected. Thus, at 1:30 an hour after closing, I submitted my application. Now all I have to do is go back next Monday to pick it up in the afternoon. I have been told the pick up process is a lot smoother and that you do not have to wait long but I am not holding my breath.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Smoking, Siesta, and Sunrise

In Spain, three of the things that bother me the most are smoking, siesta, and the sunrise.

1) Smoking - Almost everyone here smokes. It is almost impossible to find a bar or restaurant that is smoke free. Last weekend I had to leave a bar because it was so smoky my eyes started watering. I have cordoned off a section in my closet for smoky clothes so that they do not contaminate the rest of my clothes. Every time I come back from a smoky place, I douse my clothing in Febreeze and hope the smell will go away. Worst of all, when I leave my school, I have to walk through a cloud of smoke from students and standing next to my students are the teachers smoking. I just want to remind everyone how bad smoking is for their health.
On a brighter note, I am feeling even better about my decision to live with American Fulbrighters because multiple Fulbrighters have been placed in difficult situations because they have been told their Spanish roommates do not smoke when in fact they do, thus forcing them to confront their roommates or possibly move to a smoke free environment.

2) Siesta - I love the concept of siesta and taking a break in the midday. However, the reason it drives me crazy is because there are no standard hours businesses are open. Some places such as banks open at 8:30 while others tend to open around 10. Some places close at two and remain closed all day while others reopen at five and stay open until eight and those that remain open for seista close at five or six. This makes it difficult to know when anything will be open and because I am teaching most of the day and have to run most of my errands during siesta or the early evening I end up wasting time going to closed shops.
Also, because everyone has different work schedules, I have found the best time to ride the metro on weekdays is between 10-12 in the morning. Any other time, the metro is somewhat crowded because people are constantly going to and from work and almost any hour can be considered the rush hour.

3) Sunrise - Sunrise is really late in Madrid. Right now, the sun does not rise until close 8:30. Therefore, when I get up, it is really dark and hard to get out of bed. I am nervous that I will not want to get out of bed in winter when the sunrise is even later. The reason the sunrise is so late is that Spain is on the same time zone as France, Germany, Italy, Hungry, Austria, Sweden, and Norway. However, Great Britain is one hour behind Spain even though it is more east than Spain.

As the map shows, it would make more sense for Spain to be on the same time zone of Great Britain. Although because the sunrises so late, sunset is really late as well which works with the Spanish time schedule. It does not feel like you are eating dinner that late (around 9)when the sun does not set until 8 pm.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Zoo photos

I am a sucker for zoos and went two weeks ago. Below are some pictures I took when I went with my friend Stephanie. Overall, the zoo was pretty good. It had lions, tigers, panda bears, elephants, camels, zebras, and giraffes. Some of the enclosures seemed smalled but all were well maintained and clean. Surprisingly there were not a lot of high fences or moats around the exhibits and the whole time I was there I kept thinking about the tiger incident in San Francisco. Luckily, there were no issues the day I went to the zoo.

One of the signs explaining the penguin exhibit cracked me up.

Elephant - I heart elephants!

Stephanie and I went inside the gorilla exhibit to escape the rain and we found a momma gorilla holding her baby. How cute!

Taking Care of Business

Last week I was very effective. This is a phrase that is rarely uttered in Spain because Spaniards do not seem to value efficiency and getting things done quickly. Last Monday, I had to go to the bank to request a bank a new bank card because after activating my bank card when I tried to use it, the ATM would not spit it out. This made quite nervous and upset. During our Fulbright orientation, we had been warned about various ATM scams in which criminals jam the machines or try to record your PIN number. Therefore, I feared that someone had purposely jammed the machine and was going to try to steal all my money. After returning home to cancel my ATM card, I was told I could not order a new card because I was not given an ATM phone PIN. So while I was able to cancel the card, I was not able to request a new one over the phone or be told any information about the activity on the account. As a result I had to wait one week until my day off in order to go to the bank to order my new ATM card and to confirm that there was no unauthorized activity on my account. Luckily, everything on my account was in order and now I am hopping that my new card comes without any issue.
As you are reading this, I am sure some are wondering why I am choosing to use Citibank Spain. Aren’t all my troubles an indication that I should open an account elsewhere? Well, it turns out Citibank is one of the better banks here in Spain. Other banks charge foreigners 20-30 to open an account and some charge fees for depositing checks that are not from the bank they belong to. Thus despite all the issues that I have had, I did not have to pay to open an account, I can deposit any check (ie my paycheck) written within the Communidad de Madrid without any fees, and if I use my American account, I do not get charged conversion fees.
In addition to taking care of my banking issues, I was finger printed as part of the second step in applying for a residency card. Luckily, the Fulbright commission is helping us with this process by filing our initial paper work and setting up our appointments to be finger printed. This is a major help because it saved us a trip to the police station and often times the customer service representatives are not helpful and just tell you to talk with someone else who is not responsible for the problem you have. The concept of asking to speak to a manager does not exist and most likely if one asked to speak with an employee’s boss one would be told the boss was not there or the boss would not listen nor be helpful.
As I reread this, I want to clarify I am impressed how smoothly everything went this week and do not want to sound like I am complaining too much. Rather I have come to expect the worse (ie it taking 3 days and over 8 ATMs to get the money to pay my landlord) and I have been pleasantly surprised when things go as planned.
While the first part of my week was spent doing official business yesterday was very effective on a personal level. I was walking to my Spanish class and had time to kill so I decided to stop in Corte Ingles grocery store. My roommate, Liz, loves to bake and had gone to over 5 grocery stores looking for vanilla extract but could not find it. Most stores only sell vanilla beans which cost close to three euros for just one bean which is quite expensive. On a whim, I decided to go into the Corte Ingles grocery store and not only did they have a large bottle of vanilla extract they also had spice mixes. All other grocery stores sold individual spices but I just wanted to buy a premixed jar of spices for either chicken or something comparable to Italian seasoning instead of having to buy five or six jars of individual spices. To my amazement, I was able to buy an all around seasoning and a chicken one as well.
To make my day even better, I stopped in FNAC which sells similar merchandise to Amazon, that is books, cds, dvds, and electronics. In addition to these items, they also sell Moleskine notebooks. I have recently become a Moleskine fan after seeing one of my friends using one. If you are unfamiliar with them, google moleskine notebooks. Moleskine makes traditional notebooks for jotting down notes but also has a line called Citiseries. These notebooks are very compact about 3 in x 5 in and ½ inch thick. Inside they have great detailed maps of the city and when you look at them you don’t look like a tourist because the book is so small and it looks like you are just looking at notebook. After seeing my friend use her Moleskine on a daily basis, I decided to get my own. However, most of the stores in Madrid don’t carry the Madrid Moleskine but rather other European, Asian, or American cities. As a result, when I found my Madrid Moleskine I was quite excited because this was probably the fifth time I had checked in FNAC to see if they had the Madrid edition.
This week I also started Spanish classes. I have them every week night from 7:15-8:15. My teacher is little boring but it is good to be hearing more Spanish and to review grammar rules.
At my school, things are going well. I am getting to know more of the students. So far, I prefer working with the younger students because they are less inhibited and concerned with what their peers think. Most of the 1st and 2nd students genuinely want to learn and are excited to have an American in their classes. The 3rd and 4th year students are harder to control and there are often side conversations in Spanish that are taking place. In the English classes, my main role is working with the reading groups. Most classes have around 25 students and the teacher and I will split the class in half. I will take one half of the class, and the teacher will take the other half. We read between 3-6 pages a period having the students practice pronunciation by reading out loud and going slowly to explain the vocabulary. Each page usually has 4-7 vocab words or expressions that the students have to learn for their exams. The books we read are used mainly to teach vocabulary, and the students are not used to discussing, summarizing, or predicting about the novels. I enjoy working with the reading groups because I have total control over my section of the class and I feel like the activity is useful for the students.
On the other hand, I am not being utilized very well by one of the social science teachers. She thinks that my job is to translate a Spanish textbook into English. Last week she had me translate a chapter from the book because the students were taking diagnostic tests. However this week, the social science teacher gave me four more chapters to translate and told me I should not come to her classes but should spend the time translating. This is quite frustrating because my job is to interact with students, to help with pronunciation, to be an ambassador of American culture, and actually assist in the classroom. After spending all of Wednesday translating in the teacher’s room and not speaking with a single student, I was quite upset and have decided to talk with my coordinator about this situation and I hoping we can come to an agreement about how to use me more effectively.