This Sunday marks the end of my first month here, and what a month it has been. Since the last time I wrote, I’ve seen so many things that have opened my eyes a little bit more to the world I live in. Of course, there have been a few spotty moments of frustration and a few pangs of homesickness, but a lot of new experiences.
Classes began for me two weeks ago and it was a catastrophe. The classrooms changed at the last minute, professors failed to show up for class, and I was certainly in for a rude awakening with the language. I found myself sitting in a Spanish photography class, struggling to pick out words that I recognized from my professor’s long-winded speech about the supplies we would need and the projects we would be working on. I could get the gist of it, but details like what kind of paper we needed simply eluded me. Terrified about my future in that class, I went to the international office to switch out; I wasn’t taking the class for credit, anyway. After waiting in a line for about an hour to talk to someone, the lady very rudely rushed me to pick another class. When they didn’t have the options I wanted, she simply told me she was going to give me the English version of the photography class. I didn’t argue because I didn’t feel like intensifying my headache. It wasn’t until later that I realized that with the class change, I was taking three classes in English and only one in Spanish. This truly frustrated me. My thought was, How am I suppose to learn if I keep leaning on English as a crutch? What most people don’t realize is how easy it is to go to a foreign country and get by without ever speaking the native language. True, my host family doesn’t speak English, but almost all of my friends and professors do. To practice your Spanish, you truly have to go out of your way to make the effort.
Knowing this, I knew I had to switch to another class to practice. So, I went back to the office later in the day, only to be chewed out my the same lady for, “Making her job harder by changing my mind.” This is a lady who is paid to help ease my transition to life at UEM (Universidad Europea de Madrid), not condemn me for making sure my schedule works for my needs. I calmly talked to her, and in the end, she apologized for being rude, but numerous other people here have claimed to have the same issues with her. Once I switched, I was taking two classes in Spanish and two classes in English, which I think is the perfect balance. However, I later had to deal with the issues that came with ensuring that these classes would count for credit, which was yet another struggle. Thankfully, I worked it out. It still seems like many of these classes haven’t truly gotten started yet, so hopefully my third week will flow a bit more smoothly.
To take my mind off the stress of the first week, I started running again, which was greatly overdue. I’m out-of-shape to put it frankly, but running has given me a chance to take in the community. The more I see of it, the more I realize how opposite El Bosque to my hometown. Houses here are very clustered together and every house is gated with an intercom next to each entrance. The streets are very clean and big gray-and-yellow bins are placed strategically throughout the streets for people to dump their garbage in. La Calle Leizarán is shaped like a horseshoe and from the very middle of the street, there is a clear view of miles and miles of mountains and trees. Residential areas of Madrid are very clustered, but they are separated by huge areas of wilderness. Just off the median of our street is an extensive dirt trail meant to be used as a bike path. It is completely isolated from the rest of the world and is perfect to just relax and take a breather. Apart from that, however, there is one area that I run that I have deemed “Dog Alley.” The second I entered that part of the street, at least twenty dogs start wailing at me from behind the fences: good for the owners, but incredibly distracting. Almost everyone in my community, except for my own host family, owns a dog or three. In addition, there are stray cats everywhere! Not a day goes by where I don’t see a dozen or more cats roaming the streets without any owners. I usually have to fight the urge to pick one up and take it home with me. I’m not sure Conchi would appreciate it if I did.
Beyond running, however, I’ve been exploring different parts of Madrid. Last weekend, we went to one of the most incredible memorials ever, El Valle de Los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen). Essentially, it is a huge cross on top of a mountain, and while it sounds simple and unimpressive, it’s probably one of the most inspirational places that I have ever been. It was constructed by former dictator Francisco Franco to honor those lives lost in the Spanish Civil War. Franco is actually buried inside the basilica that is directly below the monument, as are some of the victims of the war. In front of the entrance to the basilica is a huge plateau that stretches out before you, lined by a wall at the far end. Beyond that wall is unadulterated wilderness for as far as the eyes can see. Mountains roll in the distance, capped by snow and below there is nothing but trees. I cannot stress the enormity of the cross or the incredible detail devoted to the figures of angels around its basin. I cannot stress how small it made me feel in comparison to the vastness of the world. I cannot stress how much I could sense the bloodshed that took place in that area years before. Looking out at the scenery made me feel at peace in this world. I felt closer to heaven than I have ever been before.
The entrance to the basilica resembles a plaza and three archways mark each side of it, with one more in the middle that leads inside. Above the middle one is a statue of an angel cradling a fallen soldier in her arms; symbolism at it’s finest. Inside, you have to pass through a security checkpoint, much like those in airports. Cameras and cellphone use are prohibited. Past that is a grand entrance gate made of metal with angels fashioned from gold at the top and saints lining the panels. The main room is lined with eight tapestries on the walls, each with the heavens fighting against evil on them, though there are different scenes on each one. In front of each is a description of the scene, in both Spanish and English. I read the Spanish for practice. Between the tapestries are six sanctuaries devoted to different saints, and above each one is a statue of an angel doing different things. All of them are stronger and more fierce than what you would picture an angel to look like; the one was crushing a serpent beneath her feet. As I walked through the building, I was constantly forced to look up, and I couldn’t help but be struck at brilliance of that design. By having everything so big and high, it forced me to look toward the heavens, something that I should be doing in everyday life. After the room with the tapestries was a large chapel, with three sections of pews surrounding the altar. In the center of the altar was a log cross with a graphic representation of Jesus nailed to it. It was far more disturbing than any of the other crucifixion statues I’ve seen. On the floor of either side of the altar were tiles with names on them, flowers surrounding each. These are the burial sites of both Francisco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, a fascist leader in Spain. Directly over the altar is a huge dome, painted with a scene of angels and God on it, and angels surround all sides of the altar. Behind the pews are two more sanctuaries on either side, with smaller alters to pray. I lit a candle for my grandpa and my best friend’s dad, in honor of their lives, then knelt down to pray. I was overwhelmed by the spirit of the place and for a few hours after we left, I said very little, not out of sadness, but by pure inner peace and ease; pardon me if I’ve verging on being overtly corny or cliché.
As for this weekend, it is Carnaval in Spain! Carnaval is a very old cultural festival that has its roots in Catholicism. Supposedly, it started as a pagan festival to the god of vine and spirit, Baco and grew into a nationwide celebration of art and identity. For three days out of the year, people dress up in costumes and parade through the city. There are dances, music, and food. People literally come from all over the world. Today was the inauguration, or opening of the festival and to kick it off, people dressed in various costumes, some as horses, others as medieval princesses, and pranced through the streets behind a giant raft with a man sitting on top of it. Crowds of people followed to this one center, where a famous Spanish celebrity talked for a while about the start of Carnaval. From there, there was a concert and the streets were packed to their limit, different languages mushing together. The spirit was intense, and nothing compares to it in the States. Tomorrow there are more things going on, so Crystal and I are going to head in to the city and explore more. ¡Viva la Vida!