Sunday, 22 January: Churros and Chocolate and Classes, Oh My!


Bienvenido, reader! Whether or not this is your first time reading my blog, I hope you find it informative, interesting, and perhaps even enjoyable.

This past week, the students attending the Fundación Ortega-Marañon went through orientation on Monday and started their classes on Tuesday. First on Monday was an exam to gauge our comprehension of Spanish grammar. My scores certainly were not perfect or even close to it, but the Fund doesn’t expect perfection from students. The exams do not affect our subsequent grades but rather aid the program in determining which classes for which we may be best suited. For example, a student with a relatively low score may be encouraged to enroll in a grammar or a conversation class.

Classes at the Fund run from Monday through Thursday, with Fridays conveniently free for travel. Orientation basically consisted of interviews with professors to go over our schedules and, for those of us who had applied for internships, a meeting with the internship director.

My schedule turned out pretty well, a mi ver (in my opinion). I have one class each on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, each with two sessions—one in the morning (mañana) and one in the afternoon (tarde). These classes are Política y Sociedad en América Latina on Tuesdays and Teología de la Mística Española on Wednesdays. I am particularly excited for the latter, because mysticism in and outside of Catholicism greatly interests me. I have two classes with the same setup on Thursdays—España desde 1936 and Arte Cristiano, Muselmán y Judío—and one class related to my internship in the morning of that day.

Speaking of my internship, ¡tengo ganas de empezarlo (I am really excited to start it)! I will work at La Biblioteca de Castilla—La Mancha, the central library for the Spanish province (Castile—La Mancha) of which Toledo is the capital. I would be ecstatic to work in a library in general, but this library in particular is a workplace dream come true because it is located in Toledo’s former royal palace, the Alcázar.

One photo cannot capture the magnificence (or, in this case, the size) of the Alcázar.

This magnificent building also houses the Museo del Ejército (Museum of the Army) and, at the top of one of its towers, a small restaurant that offers spectacular views of the city—and free entrance to them!

The Cathedral of Toledo (left) and the Church of San Idelfonso (I think; right) tower over Toledo.
The Alcázar from its tower containing a restaurant.

So what will I be doing in this royally magnificent library? The quotidian work that keeps every library running: shelving library material and checking it in and out for library patrons. I’ll also be working with adolescent students, holding discussions with them in English (two years of which are required in the educational system, I believe) to improve their speaking, listening, and comprehension skills. I have my orientation at the library this upcoming Thursday; let’s hope it goes well!

Our Monday concluded with an introduction to and overview of the program as a whole, in which we received a handy handbook and went through its information. All of this happened around 7 p.m. and after a day full of new information, so what really kept me going through the meeting was the thought of our welcome dinner at 8:30. It did not disappoint: there was a montón (a lot) of food, as well as live music!

The band at the opening dinner of the Toledo program.

Tuesday was rather relaxed compared to Monday. I stayed at the Fund between the two sessions of my Politics and Society class and ate la comida there. Students who live with families can sign up for the midday meal at the Fund if they would rather stay there than go back to their host home, a useful option for students who live farther away from the city center or who simply feel a little lazy (I’m in the latter category).

Tuesday evening, one of my host sisters took me to a youth mass at one of Toledo’s (many, many) churches. This one, like the one at which my host family attends mass, was a chapel inside of another building, in this case a university. The “chapel” was the size of a small church in the Neo-Gothic style and quite impressive, but, unfortunately, unheated, like most churches in Spain and Europe in general.

At the church, we prayed the rosary before celebrating Mass. I am very glad to have brought a Spanish missal with me: even if I don’t have the readings for every single daily Mass, I at least have the order of it in Spanish and common prayers like those used in the rosary.

After the Mass, my host sister took me to a local bar with some of her friends, where we had tapas (appetizer-like food common with drinks in Spain). Now, most of the conversation went right through my head without any comprehension occurring, but everyone was very nice to me, and it was interesting and fun to see how people near my age interact with each other as friends. Surprise: it’s basically the same as in the United States, with the main difference probably being that drinking is more a social activity than anything else and almost always done with food and over long periods of time.

On Wednesday, there was a meeting for extracurricular activities offered through the program. The Fund has quite a few options for students, ranging from a gym at which it has specified hours for Fund students to flamenco classes to intercambios, conversations with Spaniards around our ages that take place in English and Spanish to improve each person’s skills with their non-native language.

On Thursday evening, we had a cena de rompehielos (ice-breaking dinner) at 8:30 at which we could meet potential partners for an intercambio. All the conversation at this event took place in Spanish, however, so I was even more socially awkward than usual as I worried about understanding and responding correctly in Spanish. The cena actually went pretty well, however: though I did not find an intercambio partner, I had good conversations with other Fund students and with Spanish students at different schools in or near Toledo. Fund students can also put their name down for an intercambio in the offices of the Fund with their likes, dislikes, and interests, and the program will try to match them up with a suitable partner. I may do this in the future: vamos a ver (we’ll see)!

Thursday also marked the first sessions of what I think will be my favorite class: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Art. The professor is easygoing and made it explicit that he cares most about helping us understand what we’re learning, not giving us a grade. (For those of you reading who attend SNC, he reminds me a lot of Fr. Neilson!) In the morning session of the class, we’ll head to a different building in Toledo and learn about the architectural style (Muslim, Mudéjar, Gothic, Baroque, etc.) in which it was constructed. Then, in the afternoon session, we’ll return and learn more about that specific style. I consider myself very lucky to not only be in Toledo but to have the opportunity to visit many of its famous historical sites for free through this class. ¡Que suerte!

The Mezquita Cristo de la Luz, the first site my Art class will be visiting. Credit: Wikipedia.

Overall, though, I must say that I am eager to learn in all of my classes. The professors seem to understand our limited knowledge of Spanish and to regard us as people, not problems. The administrative staff of the Fund is also extremely friendly and—even with the total ban on English in their conversations with us—excellent at understanding and communicating with us.

On Friday, the Fundación gave a visita guida (guided visit/tour) in Toledo, the first of several such visitas to different locations in Spain over the course of the semester. We first got on a bus and traveled to the other side of the Río Tajo to view the Casco of Toledo from some scenic points. Though the sky was overcast and the weather a bit chilly, the city still proved a majestic sight.

One of the grand vistas of Toledo that presented itself on our guided tour this past Friday.

After getting off the bus on the northwest side of the city, we went up one of the city’s two large sets of escaleras mecánicas (escalators) and commenced a walking tour of the city with professional guides.

One of Toledo’s numerous churches, this one belonging to a functioning convent.
Our tour ended at the Cathedral of Toledo. 

Thanks to my host mother’s tour of the city with me on Saturday and Sunday, as well as my own walks through Toledo during breaks between classes, I had already seen much of what our tour contained. This did not make it any less interesting or engaging, however.

About an hour after our tour ended, we had a comida de integración, basically another ice-breaking meal but this time with other students in the program with whom we were randomly assigned to a certain table and whom we probably did not know before. As usual, the food was spectacular, and the people with whom I talked very friendly. (We may have conversed in English instead of Spanish; whoops!)

After the meal, we had a special sorpresa (surprise): we were given slips of a paper with one name of a famous pair and told to find our partner (through Spanish, of course) in order to get our café and postre (coffee and dessert). I was lucky enough to receive Victoria Beckham, so I went around asking people, “¿Juegas al fútbol?” (“Do you play football/soccer?”). After a number of unsuccessful interactions, I finally found someone who responded yes and asked me in return, “¿Eres una chica de especia?” (“Are you a Spice Girl?”). I gleefully responded yes, and we got our treats.

Friday night, the same host sister that took me to Mass on Tuesday took me to a Family Night in Old Toledo. People gathered at 10 p.m. to offer praise to God for about an hour. Then, from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., pairs of people went into the streets of the city to invite those milling about (these are prime hours for going out on the weekend in Spain) into the church to pray, light a candle, and enjoy some free coffee, tea, and/or sweets.

Spain, like much of Europe, underwent a thorough secularization in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though 68% identified as Catholic in a 2016 study, only 15% of the 68% attend Mass every Sunday or more. 27% of Spaniards identify as atheists or non-believers. The United States is an anomaly among Western post-industrialized nations in that religion or spirituality have great influence on or play large roles in the lives of a large segment of the population.

Anyway, back to the Mass: this church was also unheated. The time passed relatively quickly, but by 1 a.m. when my host sister asked if I wanted to go with her friends to a bar or to get a ride home with two of her friends, I did not hesitate in saying, “Quiero regresar a casa, por favor.”

Saturday gave me the opportunity to “sleep in” (8 a.m.). I went to my youngest host brother’s basketball game at 10:30 a.m. in the Polígono district of Toledo. I’m not much of a sports person (shocker to those of you who know me, I’m sure), but I enjoyed watching the game and remembering all the basketball games I attended in high school as a member of the band. Later on Saturday, I went to Mass, since on Sunday I would be traveling to Madrid.

One of the assignments for my Politics and Society of Latin America class is visiting the Museo de América (Museum of the Americas) in Madrid twice, once before midterms and once after. Even though the Fund is visiting Madrid this Friday and I am staying there for the weekend, I decided to travel Sunday to check the museum off of my to-do list. A high-speed train (AVE) runs between Toledo and Madrid, so I got my tickets for a departure of 9:25 and a return of 6:20 and set out from my house around 8:50 Sunday morning. It was a brisk but beautiful morning, and I actually felt pretty calm as I set out to Spain’s largest city, even after I couldn’t find the entrance door into Toledo’s beautiful train station until a local helped me. Facepalm no. 1 for the day, folks.

The tower of Toledo’s train station.
The station imitates the color and architectural style of Toledo’s historic city center. This structure was built at the beginning of the twentieth century.

On arriving to Madrid, I headed past the Botanical Gardens and then to the Museo del Prado, probably the most famous of the city’s many art museums. Since it opens at 10 a.m. on Sundays, there was hardly a line when I arrived, and I got free entrance as a student. Que suerte, ¿no?

I spent nearly three hours in El Prado, and it was not enough. One could spend days, even a month, in that museum, contemplating works from numerous esteemed artists such as Velázquez, Goya, Titian, Rubens, Hieronymus Bosch, and El Greco (a Toledo resident who has his own museum in the city). Though not an aficionado or a huge enthusiast of art, I was awestruck by the Prado. I hope to visit it again this weekend and see more, if not all, of its holdings.

El Museo del Prado. Credit: Nattivus. 
The main gallery of the Prado Museum (where photography is not allowed but I broke the rules for a photo of the building and not the artwork, so there). 

After the Prado, I made about an hour’s trek to the Museo de América, almost all of it on Madrid’s Gran Vía, full of stores, people, and enchanting architecture.

The south end of La Gran Vía.

On arrival to the museum just after 2 p.m., I found out that it closed at 3 p.m. Whoops! I got free entrance (regular is only 3€) but only made it through the first two exhibits before having to leave. I don’t mind having to return to the museum this upcoming weekend: it seems like a fascinating but overlooked cultural and historical site of Madrid. The Museum of the Americas is the only museum on American (in the broad sense) history in Spain, and, from what I saw, it offered a unique take on the European encounter with and treatment of the New World.

The Museo de América, on the north end of the Gran Vía.

After the museum, I took a break to enjoy a chicken bocadillo (sandwich on a long loaf of bread) and make my way back to the train station. I did some window shopping along the way and actually made a purchase, since many items are on sale due to it being the season of rebajas, an extended period of one to two months on clothing and other objects that occurs twice a year in Spain.

In my perusal of stores, I unfortunately lost track of time and ended up running to the train station in order to make my train by its departure at 5:50. The important information I learned: make sure you are at least 20 minutes early (and ideally 30 minutes early) for your train. By the time I located my platform and got through security, the train had left. Thankfully, one more train was leaving at 7:50 and the ticket for a seat on it only cost $15, but I still felt rather foolish. I was glad this was a relatively minor incident of mindlessness and its consequences, and I hope what I learned from it prevents any reprisal of such an experience.

I arrived home safe and sound, if quite tired and a bit peckish after my at-turns relaxed and frantic day. Overall, I cannot help but be grateful for my time in Madrid; gratitude is an attitude both humbling and uplifting that I am glad to adopt on the advice of my good friend and fellow travel enthusiast, Alex.

That’s about it for this week, everyone. Thanks for keeping up with me, and buenas noches!



  1. People in Europe generally dress up a bit more than Americans. This is not to say that sweatpants or jeans are unknown here; it’s just that people seem to incorporate them into coordinated outfits (or at least throw a nice coat on). One thing that is quite rare to see here: sweatshirts, hoodies, and the like. The outwear I have seen has always come with buttons or zippers and looked dressier.
  2. Continuing with the theme of fashion, people—men and women—more often than not wear tighter pants. As in, tight as in skinny-jeans tight or tighter. As in, so tight I sometimes worry about the circulation getting cut off in these people’s legs.
  3. Observations have long been made on the differences in light between regions, and I must say they seem true to me. Whereas the light in Mondaye and Belgium seemed softer and somewhat watery (when it wasn’t cloudy) compared to the “normal” light in Wisconsin, the light on the meseta in Spain is abundant and brilliant. I can imagine that it gets quite harsh in the summer months, but right now I greatly appreciate its warming qualities in the cooler mornings.
  4. I cannot get over how short Mass is in Spain! Parishioners seem to almost trip over their words as they recite their responses. Also, kneelers are pretty common here as compared to France or Belgium. They’re always set down onto the floor, however, for what reason I do not know.
  5. Spaniards are generally very direct in asking questions and making comments. It may come across as rude to the Midwestern tendency to beat around the bush and always pursue politeness, but the approach is almost always taken in sincerity and not in malice. I have already been asked five times about my opinions on the U.S. election and President Trump, who makes at least one appearance each day in Spanish news.

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