Sunday, 26 March: Feeling at Home

Qué tal, ¿amigos? I hope this latest post finds you hale and healthy and, if not, that you soon arrive at such a condition!

If you recall from my last post, I spent the weekend of 17-19 March in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. The bus we took from the city left around 9:40 p.m. and, with the extra hour added on crossing into Spain, arrived close to 6 a.m.

Side complaint: time zones in Europe sometimes make as little sense as they do in the United States, or even less. The Iberian Peninsula, the landmass in which Spain and Portugal exist, sits right below and to the sides of the Prime Meridian. You’d think they’d follow Greenwich Mean Time, then, right? Well, Portugal does, but Spain (even Galicia, the northwest province that sits directly above Portugal), sets its clocks like those of France, Germany, and Italy. While this situation makes traveling to any of these countries nice (and perhaps that’s the reason for it), on its face it doesn’t seem very logical to me. I suppose the way we measure time and time zones in itself is a bit arbitrary and sometimes illogical, when it comes down to it. In any case, it’s an annoyance but a pretty small one.

From the Estación Sur bus station, we traveled to the Plaza Elíptica bus station, where buses to Toledo run every thirty minutes (and sometimes more often), some going straight there and others stopping at towns between the two. We quickly got on a direct bus, and by 7:50 I was back en casa (at home).

It was a pretty uneventful Monday, all in all: homework, travel planning, and finances updating—the last punctuated by cringes with every deduction I noted (I am truly a cheapskate). For the English workshops this week, I gave some basic information about the United States (size, population, etc.) and talked about its different geographic and cultural regions (New England, Midwest, Northwest, etc.). For the sessions, I printed off blank maps of the United States so that the group members could fill in the states they knew or select some others to fill in when I showed a detailed map in the presentation. I didn’t expect them to know many or really any of the states; that would be like asking me to identify the provinces of Spain before I had ever traveled there. I was a bit surprised, though, that many of the individuals in the groups didn’t know that there are fifty states in the U.S. and that the capital is Washington, D.C. Again, though, I suppose knowing how many states/provinces/regions there are in a country you do not live in and have never visited is not that important. The people who did know Washington was the capital often were confused between the city in D.C. (District of Columbia) and the actual state. This I completely understood, especially given that many Americans growing up also have trouble remembering the difference!

Tuesday was also a relatively normal day (as normal as it can get when you’re studying abroad, that is—I have to remind myself of the fact each day!). I was able to get a lot of homework done and, even better, enjoy crema de Catalana for dessert at lunch. This postre is much like a vanilla pudding, though a bit runnier and with a distinct taste of cinnamon. I think it or something very much like it is used as the base for natillas, my favorite Spanish dessert consisting of a circular cookie on top of a cinnamon-y vanilla pudding. Between the many sweets in my host family’s house and the many traditional and modern sweets of my host country, Spain is an excellent place for a goloso (sweet tooth) like me, and for that I am extremely grateful!

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Crema catalana
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Una natilla

For the Spanish history class that I have every Thursday, we had a final group project of a presentation on some aspect of Spanish history since 1936. This theme was the same as that we had presented on earlier in the term with current news articles, so my group had to talk about the Catholic Church and Spanish government and society, in particular during the country’s transition to democracy (1975-1981). For these final presentations, we were tasked with interviewing a Spaniard, preferably one 60 years or older, about their life in general and in relation with our particular topic. Both of my host parents’ parents had been profoundly affected by the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and its aftermath, as were most Spaniards their age. I had intended at the beginning of the semester to interview one of them, but in the end I decided to ask my theology professor, given that he taught a subject connected quite clearly to the Catholic Church and Spain and was over 60 years old (at least in my judgment—I didn’t want to explicitly ask!). When I asked him after the morning session of Spanish Mysticism on Wednesday if he would do the interview, he said yes! We scheduled the meeting for after the morning session next Wednesday: I was excited to learn more about both him and his thoughts on the Catholic Church in Spain’s past and present.

On Thursday, I had my final presentation for my curso de prácticas (internship course) with Ben, the other Fund students working in the library for the semester. I was in a rush (as usual) to make class at 8:40, but on the way to the Fund I crossed paths with Lexi, a Fund student also in the curso de prácticas. Since I don’t see Lexi much outside of the course, it was nice to catch up with her as we climbed the hill to the Casco (old city) and the Fund, even if we were a few minutes late! The presentation with Ben went pretty well and, once all the presentations were over, so was the class! We have to continue working at our internships until 18 April, but I was glad to no longer have any classes before 10:05 during the week.

Thursday was even better because I didn’t have either session of my Christian, Muslim, Jewish art class. It was our scheduled day off in exchange for the longer afternoon sessions we had earlier in the semester and would have the next week. As much as I enjoy visiting and learning about new sites in Toledo, I appreciated the extra time to do homework, chat with friends, and actually go home for lunch.

After España desde 1936 ended at 7:35, I headed out with the intention to go home for the night. However, some of my friends were going out for drinks, and one of them, Lauren, was nice enough to invite me to go with them. I’ve never been much of a social butterfly, but it was nice to be with people I knew, talk, laugh, and enjoy a Fanta Limón. (Yep, lemon Fanta and nothing else. 1) I don’t have much of a taste for alcohol, and 2) I want to take advantage of drinking Lemon Fanta as much as I can, because it’s basically unheard of in the United States and is so good.)

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Lemon Fanta: it’s so good!

On Friday, I got up and got ready to travel for the day—not, for once, for the weekend, but rather for a day trip to Madrid. My friend Katie and I were visiting the Museo de América for our class Política y Sociedad de América Latina (Politics and Society of Latin America). We were given a packet of questions to guide our second visit to the building and assigned a three-page essay consisting of our responses to some of these questions as part of the larger query, “What does the museum say about Latin America?”

The answer Katie and I found was, “In reality, not much.” The museum unfortunately focuses on the history of Europe, specifically Spain and Portugal, and the perspectives, items, and cultures these people brought to the New World. Native American peoples are pretty much clumped together as one group or simply separated by their degree of “civilization” despite the numerous distinct cultures that existed before and after the arrival of Europeans. Little to no mention is made of the oppression, discrimination, slavery, or outright slaughter that countless indigenous people of the Americas suffered or of the origin of most of the museum’s objects in theft from these people. Being a white American of European descent, I really cannot speak for any or all Native Americans, but I can at least notice and draw attention to a warping or an omission of their perspective in a museum that is apparently wholly dedicated to the Americas, their people, and their stories.

Before going to the museum, I had stopped at the National Historical Archives of Spain. Fr. Ciferni and Dr. Sands, who led the trip to Mondaye Abbey in which I participated, had generously written me a letter asking for permission to see materials related to the Norbertine Order’s presence in Spain.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten my real passport with me in Toledo. I only had the paper copy approved for use in that city with me. Passports are required to sign up for and receive an investigator’s card for the archives, so, much to my embarrassment and frustration, I left the archives about five minutes after I entered them. It was a lesson in preparation and also in letting things go, that is, accepting mistakes as part of my life as a human and acknowledging the discomfort they cause but also learning from and moving on with life after them. I hope to return to the archives, if only for a few hours, before leaving Europe and to have my bona-fide passport with me then.

Katie and I headed back to Toledo after our visit to the museum was done. Tenía pocas ganas (I was not eager) to do homework, and most of my friends were traveling for the weekend, so I decided to go on a walk to and through the Old City. Thankfully, the weather had improved for such a walk. The whole week had been rather chilly for much of Spain, including Toledo. In fact, both Thursday and Friday it snowed in the city, a rare occurrence even in the middle of winter. It was interesting and a bit funny to see many of the Toledoans and tourists get out their cameras and take photos or videos of the precipitation or stare in marvel at it; for me, it was a bit like being back in Wisconsin!

La nieve ha hecho acto de presencia a escasos kilómetros de la capital castellano-manchega

During my walk, I made three excellent stops. The first was to La Iglesida de Santo Tomé (the Church of Saint Thomas) in the old Jewish neighborhood (Judería) of Toledo. My art class had visited the church, but our focus was on its bell tower, so we stayed outside. Now, I paid a small fee and entered in order to see El entierro del conde de Orgaz, the most famous painting of El Greco, Toledo’s (and one of Spain’s) most famous artists. The painting is towering and, as is usually said, even more impressive in real life than in a photograph. It is also unique in being shown in the same place as it was painted: one can step through a door and into the church as part of the visit to the painting. I did just that and enjoyed a few minutes admiring the sculptures and architecture in the space and a few minutes praying.

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The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, El Greco, 1586-1588, oil on canvas

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After Santo Tomé, I wound my way through Toledo’s streets to the Museo Visigodo (Visigothic Museum), dedicated to the people and culture that moved into and took control of the Iberian Peninsula as the Roman Empire dissolved and that ruled it until the arrival of the Muslims in the eighth century. With a regular fee of 1 euro and a reduce fee of 50 centavos, I was more than willing to enter the museum. To my pleasant surprise, since I had arrived in the last hour of the museum’s hours, my admission was completely gratuita (free)!

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The museum is housed in a former church, la Iglesia de San Román, that was built in the 13th century in the Mudéjar (Muslim-influenced Christian architecture) style. It also has Gothic, Renaissance, and even Byzantine elements. It was amazing simply to be in the building and see the columns, the remnants of ancient paintings on the ceiling, and the centuries-old reredos (retablo). This being the case, it was thus even more of a treat to look at all the artifacts from the Visigoths and learn more about their culture, government, and way of life. None of these are known in as much detail as those of the Muslims or later Christian rulers, but what is known is not as much talked about, either, so I was glad to be in a place wholly dedicated to this group.

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Once I exited the museum, I went to the Plaza Zocodover and, since I had time before my bus came, went into Santo Tomé. This wasn’t the church but rather the confectionary company with its original location on the same street as the church and another location in Zocodover. Santo Tomé is famous for its mazapán (marzipan), a delectable Spanish dessert made with almonds, honey, and sugar. Much to my chagrin, I had actually not tried mazapán yet, even though I had bought it three times for people who had hosted me during weekends of travel. Today, I finally bought a piece for myself. I had a mazapán deliciosa, a crescent-shaped version of the dessert. Let me tell you, reader: it was delicious, and it made my Friday that much better.

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Mazapán!

I did not have much other than homework to do Saturday, so I decided to visit the Mueseo del Ejército for the second time and this time take the historical tour through the building. Because I am that person—you know, the person who has to stop at almost every explanatory plaque in a museum in order to know just what they are looking at, its approximate date of origin, and its significance—this took me about three hours.

Sword!

After dinner that night, my host parents and I watched a movie made by a group of college students about Saints Robert, Stephen Harding, and Alberic, who in a sense “refounded” the Benedictine order in the late eleventh century by returning to the simplicity and poverty of the original Rule. For a movie made by students on a strict budget, it was pretty good, and I understood most of it, to boot! My family actually commented during the week on how much my Spanish had improved since the start of the semester. It may have taken me awhile, but at least I have about a month left to put my improved Spanish to good use!

On Sunday, I attended Mass with my host family. Just like the last two times, my host brother Alonso and sister Edith visited the priest and hospital chaplain, nicknamed Rafa, after the Mass. I joined them, and once again Rafa basically forced me to accept food (not that I am reluctant to eat at almost any time), including a torrija, a typical dessert in Spain during Lent and Holy Week. Torrijas are basically the Spanish equivalent of French toast: pieces of bread are soaked in milk or wine, dipped in an egg batter, fried in oil, and sweetened with honey or sugar. Cinnamon is also usually added to them. Yet another delicious Spanish dessert was offered to me, and I gladly accepted it! My host siblings, other young people gathered near the chapel, and me also prayed an Angelus with Rafa after the Mass, an activity I greatly enjoyed and appreciated.

After Mass and the visit with Rafa, I joined my family as they visited my host mother’s and host father’s parents. It was good to see them after so many weeks and learn even more about them and Spanish culture through them. By my host father’s house, fencing had been set up and excavations started due to the discovery of human remains in the area. Don’t worry: they weren’t recent! These bones and other artifacts were Muslim burial sites from centuries ago and were being recovered and studied by a group of different historical organizations.

After la comida, my host parents made the final preparations for the guests they would be hosting for the next week. Two students around the age of my host brother Alonso (14), one from Poland and one from Portugal, would be arriving that afternoon, attending Alonso’s school (where my host father Paco also teaches), and staying in the house as part of the Erasmus Program. The Erasmus Program, named after the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, is an exchange program for both high-school and university students in Europe and specifically the EU. In high school, a student can travel to another EU country for a week or so, live with a host family, and study there for little to no cost. University students in the Erasmus program stay abroad for about three months. Alonso had already taken part in an Erasmus program; now it was his turn to host students! As my host parents commented, the house would be a mini-United Nations for the week.

English would be the main language used between my host family and the students staying for the week, even though the Portuguese student, as we came to find out, spoke pretty fluent Spanish. Thus, my host mother asked if I could help them with English conversation during the students’ stay. I was more than happy to help, especially since it meant I could break the rules a bit by speaking English at home!

The students arrived around 7 p.m., and Alonso soon after took them out to introduce them to the city. Meanwhile, I went to the Domino’s pizza a few blocks away. I had been invited for pizza there by Rafa, who was going there with young adults and students to socialize and talk about current events in the Catholic Church. I was very grateful for the invitation and excited for the opportunity to try an American restaurant in a foreign country. I had the four-cheese pizza, and I have to say it was pretty good! It was also good to meet and talk with other Spaniards around my age interested in their faith and a priest who was obviously energetic to meet young people where they were in their faith and help them with their questions without self-righteousness. Rafa was also quite generous, paying for not only my pizza but the pizzas of everyone at the table (except his nephew!). I headed back home full and happy.

Home was a big theme this week for me, so much so that I chose it as the title for this blog. Though I’ve felt welcomed in Toledo since the second week or so of being here, I really started to feel comfortable, at ease, at home this week. It takes me awhile to warm up to new places or people, but once I do I form strong attachments to them. I knew in my head when I came to Toledo that I would miss it and its people once I left; now I know that fact in my heart. I’ll especially miss my host family, whose members have so consistently been generous, patient, friendly, and kind with me. I think that I can safely call Toledo a second home now, one to which I know I will be welcomed if I ever return in the future. I’d certainly like to do so!

This was also the first week that I felt strong pangs of homesickness. Of course, I’ve missed my family, friends, and familiar customs since leaving, but I’ve also been happy to meet new people, gain a new family, and adopt a somewhat different lifestyle while living and studying in Toledo and traveling almost every weekend. This week, though, I found myself longing for home, not so much any particular person or thing as much as the simple fact of being back in the United States. I now feel at home in Toledo, but I also now have a strong desire to be at home in Wisconsin.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop all my traveling and sit in my room for the next four weeks. I want to make the most of my time here, to travel, see amazing things, meet people, and broaden my physical and mental horizons. The only difference now is that I’ll do all these things with an internal eye gazing back every now and then at St. Norbert College, at my family, and at Culver’s (specifically the cheese curds and custard—they’re incomparable, reader!). I’m actually glad for this development; I think it is making me more grateful for all my blessings in my first home and more appreciative of the blessings and opportunities here in my second home.

Wherever you are, reader, I hope you feel at home or at least will soon be in a place that gives you such a feeling. In my view, we are at home whenever and wherever we accept God’s love for us and for all creation. A bit cheesy and sentimental, I know! but I really believe it’s true. Hasta luego, amigos, ¡vaya con Dios!

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