Buenas días (o noches, dependiente en cuando lees esto), ¡todos! Yep, that was Spanish: I arrived in Madrid this past Friday, 13 January and settled in Toledo the next day.
On Friday, I left Mondaye Abbey with Adam, another SNC student studying in Toledo who accompanied the class at Mondaye for the week. We departed by car around 7:45 a.m. (still dark out, but much warmer than Wisconsin was at the time) for Bayeux, where we caught a train to Caen. From Caen, we took a bus to Orly Airport south of Paris, affording us an opportunity to see once more the countryside, towns, and cities we had passed on our way to Mondaye. (Sidenote: I highly recommend the bus service that transported us: Ouibus. The journey to Orly cost me only €12.50! The only downside was that the free wifi turned out to have a very small allowance per rider.)
After arriving at Orly around 1 p.m., we made our way to the gate for our flight at 4:50. It was delayed a bit, but we ended up safely in Madrid around 7:20 p.m. Naturally, it was dark as we started our descent into the capital of Spain, and this afforded a spectacular view. The city seemed to spread like molten gold below the airplane, shimmering in different pools connected by the thin veins of highways. I could hardly have asked for a better introduction to the city.
Also, it was more of a relief than I imagine it would be to hear Spanish. I can recognize some words in French and intend to learn it (many theological works of note were written in either French or German, so knowledge of one of these languages is usually a requirement for theology students). However, I by no means have a grasp of the language, so my sincere thanks to the French citizens who were kind enough to speak English with me and to my friend Becca for being brilliant at French.
Once in Madrid, Adam and I made our way to the metro station, where, after an initial bout of confusion, we successfully purchased tickets on the Nuevo Ministerios line and then transferred to the Plaza del Sol line (though I’m pretty sure we should have paid for the second line, we just went on the train; whoops!). Lugging our suitcases up the steps to the street, we found our hostel in surprisingly little time. (An explanation: I had [and maybe still have] a tendency to get lost in stores, so cities are almost sure to discombobulate me.) Though I only experienced it for a few minutes before collapsing into bed, Madrid fascinated me with its bustling nightlife and especially its architecture.
The next morning, we checked out of our hostel and went to the Plaza de Colón, one of the main squares of Madrid in which a statue of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón, in Spanish) stands at the center of a large roundabout. A large pedestrian walkway in the middle of the Paseo de Recolectos leads up to the roundabout; the plaza is bordered by the Museo de la Biblioteca Nacional (which I would heartily enjoy visiting!), the Museo de Cera (a Spanish Madame Tussauds; cera literally means wax in English), and the Fernán Gómez Centro Cultural de la Villa, where we met a bus from our program that took us to Toledo.
The drive to Toledo introduced me to the meseta central (central plateau) on which Madrid and Toledo (and about 40% of Spain) lie. It ranges from 400-1000 meters in altitude, has few trees, and is rather arid, making it somewhat comparable with the Great Plains of the United States. At this time of the year, much of the meseta is rather brown and lifeless—I must admit that the word “ugly” came to my mind when first viewing it. How does much of the Midwest look in late fall before the snow has fallen, though? The vistas are comparable; in Spain, one can simply look much farther due to the flat terrain.
We arrived at the main bus plaza in Toledo just outside its impressive muralla (wall) and moved our luggage from the bus to a camión (truck) that would more be able to navigate more of the city center’s narrow streets. We took the bus as close as possible to the building of the Fundación Ortega-Marañon and then proceeded on foot. Old Toledo, or El Casco, has numerous cobbled streets, with many sections dating back all the way to the 1500s and even beyond. The Fund (the nickname for the Fundación) is located in the former convent of San Juan de la Penitencia and sits at the back of an alley at the front of which stands a functioning church. The Fund has classrooms, a library, an auditorium, an eating area, and a reception lobby, in addition to rooms for those students who choose to stay in the building during their time abroad.
After a delicious lunch and a tour of the Fundación, we met our host families. I was placed with a woman named María Carmen, or Mamen for short, and her husband Francisco (known as Paco, which for some reason is a common shortening of the name in Spain). The two have five children: three sons and two daughters, all of whom but one are in their twenties. The youngest child and son, Alonso, lives at home; the other two sons are married; and the daughters attend university and visit home on and off.
Both my host mother and father teach history (or my host mother at least taught history; I may have misunderstood what she told me) and are practicing Catholics very involved in the Church in their neighborhood and interested in theology. Basically, this was a perfect fit! Their house is in the San Antón neighborhood of Toledo a few kilometers north of the city center. Their house has four floors! The bottom contains the entrance, garage, and a room for parties/celebrations; the second contains the kitchen and living and dining rooms; the third has three bedrooms, including mine, two bathrooms, and a study; and the fourth has more bedrooms. I have a relatively small room, but it feels spacious enough because I pull down my bed from a cabinet in the wall each night. Closets and drawers line two of the four walls, so I definitely have enough space for all the items I packed!
My host family let me unpack and organize Saturday evening. After I was done, my host mother took me on a tour of Toledo, showing me the city center from scenic points on the opposite side of the Tagus River/Río Tajo that surrounds much of the city and showing me the church of San Juan de los Reyes and La Judería (Jewish Quarter) of which it is part. Though I definitely did not understand everything she said, it was an amazing experience and a fantastic introduction to the city for which I am extremely grateful.
On Sunday, I accompanied my family to Mass at 11:30. They usually go to a hospital chapel located about 15 minutes (by walking) from their home. Being me, I forgot my Spanish missal, but I was still able to follow the service relatively well. It lasted just 35 minutes; I was astounded!
After Mass, my family made visitas (visits) to los abuelos, the parents of my host mother and my host father, all of whom are still living. A lot of the conversation went over my head (notice a pattern?), but I still got to meet new people and see more of Toledo. Once we returned home, we had la comida, the main meal of the day that takes place around 2-2:30 p.m. One of the older sons and both daughters joined us for the meal; Sundays, and especially la comida on Sundays, are usually reserved for being with family and relaxing.
In the evening, my host mother again took me on a tour of Toledo, this time walking me from the house to the Fundación while also showing me which bus to take at which bus stop. I saw more of Toledo’s impressive muralla, its many enchanting doors, and its numerous examples of Christian and Moorish architecture and the mix between the two (called mudéjar). I also learned more of the history and legends of Toledo and more about my host mother and her family.
This upcoming week, I will begin my classes at the Fundación, learn more about my internship in Toledo, and try even more Spanish food. It will be crazy and disorienting, I am sure, but I am equally confident that it will further connect me with my home for the next three months. Until next time, readers, ¡saludos!
Observaciones: 1. Ham is Spain’s national food and obsession that, for some reason, is not advertised to those of us in the United States. I’m serious: most people here love jamón. It’s a bit different than ham in the U.S. but still quite tasty.
2. Spanish Catholics seem to enjoy efficiency when it comes to Mass, as testified by the 35 minutes Mass took this Sunday and the speed with which the parishioners went through their prayers during it.
3. Toledo has tiles scattered throughout El Casco giving legends that correspond to their location. My host mother shared a few of these numerous tales with me during our tours of the city.
4. Don’t like snow but don’t mind the seasons? Try Toledo: it hardly ever snows here due to the drier air, but the temperature does change notably throughout the year. The differences are certainly not as extreme as in Wisconsin, but it does dip into the low 30s and even high 20s (Fahrenheit, of course) during the winter in Toledo and the meseta of central Spain.
5. You can zipline over the Tagus River in Toledo. No joke.