Hola, hola, ¡todos! Espero que estéis bien. Es decir/That is to say, hey everyone! I hope you all (informal; sorry if you prefer ustedes) are doing well. This past week was a special one both at the Fundación José Ortega y Gasset – Gregorio Marañón, the program through which I am studying in Spain, and in the city of Toledo and the wider Hispanic world in general.
The same word can signify different things, of course. Regarding my week at the Fund, “special” means a bit stressful (yet somehow also relaxing?) due to midterms, while “special” in relation to Toledo means celebratory, fun, and a bit crazy due to Carnaval. Let’s start with the less fun “special” first. (Just to clarify, I mean the midterms. Even I don’t consider them as or more fun than a holiday.)
Like I wrote last week, I had three exams and one essay for my midterms week, nothing much different than the other students at the Fund. During my weekend in Belgium, I focused on writing and revising my essay for Politics and Society of Latin America – in between traveling and eating, of course! Once that was finished, I dedicated the rest of my work time during the weekend and week to studying for my art, history, and theology exams. I turned in my essay on Tuesday, took my theology exam Wednesday evening, and finished the week with my art and history exams Thursday afternoon through evening.
As I mentioned above, midterms produced a strange mix of tranquility and anxiety in me. To be honest, the tasks set before me were not incredibly daunting or agonizing. The hardest parts of the exams and essay were communicating in and comprehending Spanish (as I believe it should be if you’re studying in a country in a second language), as well as, regarding my essay, actually writing words and sentences that met my perfectionistic standards – and that’s a problem I perennially encounter. Moreover, the faculty and administration of the Fundación understand the difficulty of taking exams in one´s second (or third, fourth, etc.) language and do not purposefully set out to stump or fail us. Exams in Spain, at least at this level, seem a bit more relaxed in general than those of the United States, even though they usually count for more of one’s grade.
I only have to earn grades of C or above in order for my credits here to transfer back to St. Norbert College. However, I also plan to attend graduate school after graduating from SNC, and graduate schools are able to look at the actual grades of students from terms abroad. In the end, though I’ll make (almost) every effort to earn top grades while here, I will not worry about them as much as I do in the United States. That being said, I am a chronic worrier, so I have already and will in the remainder of my semester have moments where I stress out much more than necessary or healthy over my academic performance.
It was one of these moments that motivated me to go on a walk Thursday afternoon before my art exam. A lot of students at the Fund, including me, regularly go on walks to familiarize ourselves more with the city, find new points of interest, and simply relax. Moreover, it was a great week weather-wise in Toledo. This day, I walked on the road that winds around the walls of the city; with its relatively flat and wide sidewalks, it makes for an easier passage than much of the Casco (old city). Just below the road in the southwest corner of Toledo lie the ruins of Arab baths from the period of Moorish rule over the city. Being the history nut I am, I went on the trail that circles them and then made my way down to the Río Tajo (Tagus River) that flows below them. As I’ve mentioned before, Toledo has an excellent system of trails and paths that circle the city on both sides of the river, and I am so glad and grateful to have easy access to them for the Fund. My walk helped me take my art exam (and, later, history exam) with more tranquility and focus, for which I thank God.
After finishing my last exam at 7:30 p.m., I returned home and gratefully accepted both the glass of wine and the arroz con leche (rice pudding) that my host family offered me. What a wonderful way to relax after midterms! As I tucked in for an early night, I was grateful to be staying in Toledo for the weekend for the first time in a month. Traveling is fantastic, of course, and I love it, but going somewhere different every week and having to coordinate transportation, lodging, and food along with it takes its toll on you.
On Friday morning, I took advantage of one of the free tours Toledo offers through the organization Patrimonio Desconocido (Unknown Heritage; it sounds more impressive in Spanish, right?). The group has access to numerous historical sites across the city and provides guided tours of them at different times between Tuesday and Sunday every week, as well as keeping some sites open for tourists for a few hours on certain days (like the Roman baths and Caves of Hercules I visited a few weeks ago). At 11 a.m. on Fridays, the site is El Convento de Las Concepcionistas, or the Convent of the Conceptionists Order, just to the east of (behind) the Museo de Santa Cruz, itself just east of (behind) the Zocodover, Toledo’s main plaza.
Two older couples, at least one of them from Toledo, joined me as we followed our guide into a corridor behind and under the convent. According to our guide, its purpose was to ventilate and cool down the buildings, an important use in the hot summers of the Spanish meseta. We also saw the crypt of the convent (after our guide turned on the lights; it was a bit scary before that!) and its small courtyard just above that. We learned that in 1484, one Beatriz de Silva, a noblewoman from Portugal, moved into the convent with twelve other woman. Apparently, the mother of Queen Isabella I of Castile, Isabella of Portugal, Queen of Castile (I know, confusing), had attempted to have Beatriz killed for what I think was a petty reason – something with a lover, if I heard correctly. As an apology of sorts, Isabella (the daughter) gave Beatriz the convent, in which she remained safely the rest of her life. She founded the Order of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as part of the Franciscan Order; it was approved in 1489 by Pope Innocent VIII.
After the courtyard, we walked around and into a chapel that borders it. The chapel had been forgotten for years by the time of its rediscovery in the late 1800s, when it was given the name of La Capilla de San Jerónimo, or the Chapel of Saint Jerome, due to the figure that appears in its central panel. The mural actually portrays Saint Gregory, as discovered in the twentieth century, but the name has stuck. To either side of the central mural are depictions of Mary, while above the room is an amazing tiled cupola. Once we had gone through the chapel, the tour ended. I was so glad to go on this small adventure and explore a lesser-known corner of Toledo.
After the tour of the convent, I walked up to the Museo de Santa Cruz and visited its free exhibit on Cervantes, perhaps the nation’s most famous author. Before entering the exhibit, however, I took the time to explore the courtyard of the museum and appreciate its collection of funerary items (from the Roman, Visigothic, Muslim, and post-Reconquest eras; perfect for a morbid person like me!), its examples of tile from Portugal (for which the country became famous in the eighteenth century), and simply its pleasant garden.
Once inside the exhibit, I got to see artwork, furniture, books, and maps (my favorite!) from or representing the Spain, Europe, and world that Cervantes lived in, as well as some letters written by him. It was a very guay (cool) way of learning more about the author of Don Quijote and many other works. The exhibit on Cervantes goes beyond the Museo de Santa Cruz to the Museo de Ejército, just a block away. In this museum, the exhibit focuses on Cervantes’ experience as a soldier. I haven’t visited that section yet, but I hope to do so soon!
Later on Friday, I met up in the Zocodover with some friends I’ve made from the University of Minnesota, or rather several campuses of the University of Minnesota, since the program is available through all of them. We made our way across the Tajo (stopping to take pictures like the one you see below since 1) it was a beautiful afternoon/evening and 2) we’re still tourists) to Santa Barbara, one of the Toledoan neighborhoods celebrating Carnaval with its own parade Friday night.
Carnaval is, to put it very basically, a series of parties or celebrations held the week or weekend before Ash Wednesday, the start of the penitential (and thus non-partying) season of Lent. Carnaval has not historically found much expression in the United States other than the Mardi Gras celebrations of New Orleans due to the much weaker presence of Catholicism in the country. Spain, Portugal, and their colonies (as well as, to a lesser extent, France), however, have held parades and festivities for centuries to live it up before sobering up in Lent. Carnaval in Spain is not exactly like the Carnaval you see or hear about in Rio de Janeiro each year or like the Carnaval celebrations in other Latin American countries. Each has its own traditions and peculiarities. While Spain’s celebrations may be termed tamer than those of Rio, they still have plenty of vibrancy and fun to offer their participants.
The parade in Santa Barbara was scheduled for 6:30, so when we showed up around 6:50 we were worried that we had missed most or all of it. Thankfully for us, the Spanish laxity with time meant that the parade actually started around 7, allowing us to see and follow it as it made its way down and up two streets in the neighborhood. A fantastic drum line composed of players dressed up as pirates led the procession, followed by people of all ages supporting and maneuvering what I can only describe as stilt-walker or giant costumes and, finally, little children dressed up in adorable Kinder Surprise costumes. (Kinder is a very popular continental European chocolate company, similar to Hershey’s here or Cadbury in the UK. “Kinder” literally means “children” in German, so the children in the parade were wearing children costumes. Isn’t language great?) The parade was a fantastic way to start the Carnaval weekend, especially in the company of friends and surrounded by so many kids (and adults!) in fun costumes. It was very similar to Halloween with parades but without, unfortunately, the free candy.
Coming back from Zocodover after returning from the parade, I also had the chance to snap a photo of Toledo at night (always impressive) and the Iglesia Santiago de Arrabal, a mudéjar (Muslim architecture employed on a Christian building) church that I pass every day on my way to and from the Fund but have not captured photographically until now. All in all, it was a marvelous and relaxing day.
On Saturday, I attended the grand Carnaval parade of the city, but that didn’t happen until 5:30 (actually, again due to the Spanish flow of time as well as our position on the route, more like 7). I mainly worked on homework, but around noon I went on a walk around the northwest of the city on a level between the Casco and the busy thoroughfare below. This level had a road, but very few cars drove on it. With a park on one side and the buildings of the old city looming above the other, it was a very peaceful walk, and I got some great photos of the city and the natural features I encountered.
I met up with my UM friends and my friend Amanda from SNC around 5:20. I was glad in the end that we ended up being quite early for the parade, because we got some great seats on the wall bordering the park just outside the Puerta de Bisagra that I pass each day on my to classes. Just like parades in the United States, this parade attracted a lot of people. Many of these people, especially children and young adults (teens through twenties, in this case), were in costumes, with everything from unicorns to Pikachu to superheroes to Harry Potter characters. It made for a very fun atmosphere, and the fun only increased once the parade started. Like U.S. parades, a series of floats which would be judged by a panel passed by the people on the route. Unlike U.S. parades, though, the floats (las carrozas) themselves were not so much the focus as were the people who accompanied them. Dressed in costumes, they didn’t just march with the floats; they danced with them, stepping in time with music and with each other with small breaks. It was extremely impressive! I wish we had more dancing involved with floats and parades in the United States. Having them in the evening instead of late morning or early afternoon would be an interesting change, too. My personal favorite float was the Harry Potter-themed one, complete with a Dumbledore, Professor Trelawney, and two Hagrids (for some reason). My favorite part of the parade in general, though, was the reappearance of our drum line friends from Santa Barbara: their performance and their music were both superb.
Once we thought the parade was tailing off, we tried to head to Zocodover in order to get the free chocolate (the drink) we had read was being handed out to all the parade-goers at its end. We found our way completely blocked by none other than the parade itself. To our surprise (as well as that of many of our host parents), the route changed this year from ending in Zocodover to ending at the other end of the park where we had sat. Since we were still on the end near the Puerta de Bisagra, where there is a churrería (eatery specializing in churros and chocolate) famous in all of Toledo, we decided to share some churros y chocolate. Both were extremely delicious, and they were made more enjoyable by watching still more floats pass by the restaurant. We had been very wrong: at least ten more carrozas with their troops of dancers had made their way down the street by the time we finished eating. After the churros, we each headed back to our host families’ houses to have dinner before preparing ourselves to meet again at 12:30.
Spaniards do most everything later than Americans, and that includes going out on the weekends. People usually don’t leave their houses until 11 p.m. at the earliest and then stay out until 2 or 3 a.m. (or sometimes until dawn). For me, staying awake past 11 is a struggle, so going out at 12:30 was a bit of a challenge. Even with the immense crowds and loud music (and perhaps, actually, also because of them), I had a great time with my friends. I even had my very own (very bad) costume: an American tourist, complete with map of Toledo, camera case, and jacket tied around my waste. There was not just one band playing in the Casco but rather several throughout its plazas. My favorite was probably the hippie band in the Plaza de Cuatro Calles between the Plaza de Zocodover and the Cathedral. The theme for this plaza apparently changes every year, so I was very grateful to be in Toledo the year it had songs like “The Age of Aquarius,” “Obladi – Oblada,” and “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” I’m an oldies fan, after all!
We stayed out until the end of the festivities in Zocodover around 3 a.m. I was quite tired but very happy to have spent a night with friends taking part in a cultural tradition of my host country.
On Sunday, I surprised myself by getting up at 9:30 a.m. and getting ready in plenty of time for Mass with my host family at 11:30. Mass felt easier and more nurturing this time, for which I was very grateful. Just as with my first Mass weeks earlier, the priest – a friend of my host family – talked with me and my host family afterward while giving us multiple snacks, this time honey-roasted peanuts and fried beans from Peru.
After the Mass, I paid a very quick visit to the Museo del Ejército, where admission is free on Sundays. Housed in the Alcázar, the upper levels of which houses the library where I have my internship, the museum takes up a lot of space and has quite a lot to see. Even entering the main body of the museum is a learning experience: the escalators up to the permanent exhibits show the ruins of previous buildings on the site, from the pre-Roman through the Roman, Visigothic, Muslim, and Reconquest periods.
The museum, as its name suggests, focuses on military history in Spain, with two main permanent exhibits: one exploring particular themes of the military such as uniforms, armor, and army figurines and the other going through the history of the Spanish armed forces. I only made my way through one floor of the thematic exhibition and didn’t even bother trying to go to the temporary exhibition on Cervantes. I know I’ll be coming back ot this museum before I leave Spain, but I’m glad to have seen some of it already.
After the museum, I returned home and sat down for la comida with my host family, including one of my older host brothers. We had a fantastic meal of paella, one of the most well-known Spanish foods. Paella consists of rice mixed and cooked with saffron (turning it yellow) and then other ingredients, usually seafood, but chicken, red meat, and vegetables are also options. Our paella on Sunday had pork and chicken in addition to mussels and shrimp. Now, I had never eaten shrimp in my life up to that point: I just couldn’t handle the eyes…and the legs…and really just the whole body being present on the plate. However, after watching how my family ate them and telling myself I (most likely) wouldn’t die, I dived in, ate the shrimp, and found it not half-bad. I’m still not a huge fan of seafood, but I do not despise it anymore, either.
Later in the day, I watched a movie for one of my classes with a group; we would have to recreate a scene from it in our session next week. If you enjoy confusing but also funny movies about family and the pressure to be a “normal” family in Spanish, you may like the 1996 film Familia. I’ll leave it at that.
After the movie, a few members of the group, including me, went south of the Fundación and down to the Tajo, where we awaited the arrival of the sardina (sardine). Why were we waiting for a fish, you ask? The traditional closing of the Carnaval celebrations in Toledo is el entierro de la sardina, or the burial of the sardine. Citizens make a large sardine, parade it down to the river, set it on fire, and then bury it. As with the other Carnaval events, the parade reached us a bit later than we thought it would and there were a lot of people in attendance. I made my way back up to a higher level of the city to see the festivities from above. An impressive fireworks show started around 7:45 p.m. and lasted until 8, after which I waited for the burial to begin…and waited…and waited. By 8:25, cold and a bit annoyed, I decided to leave. I’m sure the burial was fantastic, but I had had a long day and was happy to at least have seen the fireworks before it.
Once I got home, I got to video chat with both my family and with my friends from SNC who are either there or studying abroad, too. I was very grateful and joyful to have the chance to talk with them before heading to bed.
All in all, this was yet another exceptional week abroad, perhaps even more so because of the unordinary structure of it between midterms and Carnaval. I am so happy to have stayed in the city over the weekend, not just because of Carnaval but because I had the chance to relax by myself, with friends, and with my host family and to get to know the city even more. God has given me many blessings in life and certainly during my time abroad; I hope that I am showing my gratitude for them by passing them on to the people around me. Until the next update, readers, thank you, and a belated ¡feliz Carnaval!
*To explain the title: Ash Wednesday marks the end of the first period of Ordinary Time in the Catholic liturgical year, so Carnaval is both a part of and an exception to this church season, as we would call it. This is also another example of my unhealthy affection for bad wordplay.