Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

País Vasco, Aúnque Sea Francia January 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 4:27 pm

Map of the País Vasco, which extends into France as well

This weekend I am heading back to the Basque Country to the north. But this time, rather than visit San Sebastian and its southwestern neighbor Bilbao, I’m heading across the border to Biarritz in France for a night! Part of an elaborate and slightly ridiculous plan to spend about 30 hours with my friend from Deerfield doing SYA France this year, I’ll get to spend an afternoon alone in France before she arrives. Exciting, but one problem: je ne parle pas français! However, seeing as Spain is so close, I’m hoping that between Spanish and English I’ll be able to get by until my French-fluent companion arrives.
After violin today, I’ll head straight to bed in order to get a good night’s sleep before my early-morning bus (Friday is San Valero’s Day, the patron saint of Zaragoza, so we have the day off – although I’ll miss all the festivities, it will be so worth it!) and then catch another bus from San Sebastian to Biarritz.
Wish me luck – au revoir!


Just Another Weekend Continued January 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 7:51 am

Two Spanish purchases thanks to "rebajas" (annual January sales): purple and green plaid shirt, plus a belt from Stradivarious.

The next morning, I set out to continue working on my journalism report on the nuns of Zaragoza, this time visiting the Missionaries of the Eucharist, who live in a small monastery attached to a church next to Pilar.

What a history (deserving of another post, although if I’m lazy I might just copy and paste from my journalism article, which is in Spanish, so I’m not sure how the comprehension on your end will go)! In any case, I left after a wonderful interview, and headed to the center to mail my letter and see if my friends had finished the SAT yet. They hadn’t, and I headed back home for lunch and to work on some homework. Around 6, I went to my trademark haunt, the bank-run fair trade café about 5 minutes from my house, to Skype with my parents.

There is always background music playing in the café, but today there was a documentary projected onto a screen I’d never noticed before. It was about 4 years old and covered the American involvement in Iraq…very interesting to see it from a foreign point of view. I bantered a bit with the man behind the counter: “Soy estadounidense,” I told him, “y me encanta mi país. Pero por supuesto hay algunas cosas con las que no estoy de acuerdo. Pero me gusta muchísimo.” He laughed.

As usual, my computer died, but I had brought some homework to put in time out of the house.

Upon arriving home, I called a few friends to try to set up a nighttime coffee soiree – with success. We agreed to meet after dinner. My host mother was still captivated by my potato of the night anterior, so I made the sauce and enjoyed the Canarian dish yet again (not at all bothered – I’ve already decided to add this to my imaginary café menu of the future).

Another image of the epic cake, showing off the candied oranges on top of the chocolate ganache.

Our coffee meeting ended up turning into a chocolate-and-churros meeting, but lots of fun all the same. We chatted about topics from the SAT to Atlas Shrugged (which inevitably involves economics, love, and how we imagine Hank and Dagny and John Galt), our host families (mostly complaining that they wouldn’t let us have more than one or two friends over at a time when they are home, despite the fact that we know it isn’t what Spaniards do: when they want to spend time together, they don’t get together and cook or watch a movie while sitting on the couch, they go out to a café or the cinema), the quality of the churros (not overly impressive), and my new purple and green plaid shirt (true to my only-used-as-a-joke-nickname which comes from the plum-tree man in Candy Land).

I arrived home right before our midnight curfew (which may be moved to 1:30 in the near future…) and slept well to prepare for my weekly host mother outing the next day: bicis.

After finishing up the roscos for breakfast, we drove out to my host aunt and uncles apartment, where the bicycles are stored. We took about an hour’s ride around the Parque de Agua, designed as part of the 2008 Expo, down to the river, and back up to the apartment again, arriving home in time to prepare not only lunch but a loaf of zucchini bread – we were having guests for coffee, and I wanted to prepare something unique for them.

After my host mother recovered from the fact that I was using zucchini in a sweet quick bread, she had another shock when I measured out the chocolate chips. “They come already cut up?!!” she exclaimed.

That’s right. Carmen had never seen or used chocolate chips before. I’m sure she has eaten things containing with them, but surely she hadn’t seen a bag like those that are a staple in my house in the states (we keep at least two bags of Trader Joes’ Semi- or Bittersweet Chips on hand, always). There is some sort of problem with her oven, so even though the top was cooked, I discovered when the bread collapsed that the bottom was not (but I did the toothpick test!). I quickly put the pans back into the oven to try to redeem what I could, and after another half hour of baking at a higher temperature, the bottoms were no longer raw and we could serve the cake to our guests, two former medical students who had interned under Carmen.

Chocolate chips were also new to them. “How did you get the chocolate all throughout the cake like this?!” one exclaimed. Not quite sure what she was asking, I explained that I mixed in the chocolate chips before baking the batter…but Carmen intervened and explained that the chocolate came already in small pieces.

Now, I am equally ignorant when it comes to the employment of pine nuts in pastries…but I never imagined I’d encounter the scarcity of chocolate chips as a major cultural difference!


Just Another Weekend January 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:02 am

Showing off some of my new Spanish purchases and gifts! The shoes were for tango class, which has ended. The sweater and bag were Christmas gifts from my host family. Thank you!!!

To give you a vague idea of an average weekend here in Zaragoza…

On Friday, we headed straight to Montessori for lunch. Montessori is a Spanish private school whose cafeteria we dine in…well, dine might be too sophisticated a word. More aptly, we satisfy our hunger there, and then have a large merienda when we arrive home. Due to the lack of quality vegetarian food, I generally subsist on bread, salad, yogurt, fruit, and a bean or potato soup if I’m lucky. Fortunately we have a long break at 10:45, perfect for a mid-morning snack.

After lounging around the cafeteria for a while, I accompanied my junior friends to Eroski to pick up some snacks for the SAT which they were all taking tomorrow. We then departed, and I headed home to say hello to my host mother before going off to the Escuela Popular de Música to practice the violin.

Not only have I begun to take lessons, but I have also joined a recently initiated band composed of a seemingly random blend of musicians and wannabes like myself. My lesson began at 7:30 and for some reason those from the lesson before, which is a group lesson of 3, stayed for a while longer. Having a different teacher than the week prior had already made me nervous, but having an audience of three other violinists, two of which are way superior, made me downright anxious! As would be predictable under the circumstances – the teacher with her hand on my wrist to correct my posture, then moving my fingers, all while playing, and the onlookers crowding the already-small room – I played horribly the piece which the day before I’d nailed. After a few tips on better sound from the instructor and the exit of my audience, I improved greatly and crossed the hall to the rehearsal room content.

My newly found confidence quickly dissipated, however, when I walked into the chaos of about 10 different instrumentalists playing as many pieces completely out of sync. I walked over to the oldest person there, a flutist, assuming he was in charge. He wasn’t, but I discovered this too late to avoid a full explanation of the “colegio Americano” – the vast majority of Zaragozanos have no idea that more than 60 Americans annually invade their territory for nine months. He sent me over to where the other three violins were seated, and I began to join in the pandemonium by reading off the stand of the violinist next to me, since I was without music and she seemed to know what she was doing.

After a sustained period of confusion on my part, the man who actually was in charge came in and handed out music. Our repertoire consists of a song titled “Go West”, a bluesy piece called “Watermelon Man” (try saying that in a Spanish accent), the Beatles’ “Let it Be”, and a lovely little medley from “Pirates of the Caribbean”, whose soundtrack is so good that I’d already downloaded the CD onto my computer.

I think I played reasonably well considering that I’d only been playing for one week, the horrendous flat-filled keys, that I was sight-reading, and that the room was a bit more crowded than it should have been. Or, rather, I played horrendously, but gave myself plenty of excuses to alleviate the feelings of shame.

Less-than-par playing or not, though, I had tons of fun – I hadn’t realized how much I missed playing in a group until I started again. So much was I enjoying myself that the next time I looked at the clock it read 9:45 – 15 minutes after curfew! I had told my host mother where I’d be, but I still felt bad, since we usually eat dinner around 8:30 and I hadn’t told her not to wait for me. I excused myself as soon as we finished that song, sent my host mom a quick text message on my way out, and rushed home.

Luckily, Carmen had remembered that I had violin and hadn’t worried – and she’d even held dinner for me!

The other day, I had a group of friends over to cook lunch. Dessert: American-style cheesecake with lemon topping. However, the cheesecake wasn't cooling off quickly we put it out on the terrace in the cold!

But I seem to have gotten set back by a day. I was outlining Friday…after a quick run-through of all the pieces I’d gotten the night before, I had to leave the Escuela and meet my friend in the Plaza de España. She was going to join my vegetarian cooking class at the Casa de Juventud (Youth Center) in Miralbueno, a distant neighborhood of Zaragoza.

We boarded the bus for the long, thirty-minute bus ride. The class that day had scarce attendance: the two of us and another girl, plus the teacher. We made a rightful feast: roscos, a fried and sugar-coated donut-type sweet, and papas arrugadas con mojo verde picón, wrinkled potatoes with green spicy sauce, a typical dish of the Canary Islands.

We made the smallest batch possible of the rosco recipe, using just one egg, but the yield was still monumental: the little doughnuts kept piling up, and I ended up bringing home a tinful despite our best efforts to eat as many as we could there!

The potatoes were wonderful and rather healthier. The “wrinkled” effect is achieved by cooking the potatoes in an inch or two of water with coarse salt until the liquid evaporates, and then lowering the heat, adding some fine salt, and shaking the pot every once in a while until the potatoes dry out more and the skins look, well, wrinkled. The people who run the Casa de Juventud buy the ingredients, not the teacher, and they had bought thin-skinned potatoes instead of thick-skinned ones, but the tubers still came out wonderfully delicious, especially with the sauce: stir-fried green onions, whole cumin, fresh parsley and cilantro, garlic, vinegar, and the ever-present olive oil, all pounded together in a mortar and pestle. Delicious and with a delightful kick, I ate a couple when we all sat down after class and brought another home.

Unable to resist its spicy-fresh aroma, I heated up the potato as soon as I got home and sat down to watch the telediaro (nightly news) at 9. My host mother walked in and commented on the lovely meal I was having, and joined me. We decided to watch a classic Spanish movie, Los Santos Inocentes, from 1983. Slightly disturbing but good, we bid goodnight and I showered and headed to my room, with the best intentions of sleep.

However, a blank envelope on my desk called to be filled, and I wrote a letter to Becca until the clock hit far past 1 a.m. (A post-dinner snack on the chocolate-covered espresso beans my parents sent me also fueled this postal evening.)


Luces de Bohemia y Violin January 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:40 am

The cast of "Luces de Bohemia", a Teatro del Templo produccion

What a crazy couple of days! I’m finally getting almost as busy as I was at Deerfield.
On Wednesday, I had a normal school day until 5:15. I stayed after for a little bit to chat with my English teacher about my Altas Shrugged essay, but then hurried to the Escuela Popular de Música where I’m taking violins. I’m using the school’s violin (the music school – SYA doesn’t have one) so I have to go there to practice, but it is literally 5 minutes walking from my house, so there is no hassle. After a half-hour of practicing (I had to vacate the room for a flute lesson), I headed home and hit the elbows (literal translation of a Spanish phrase which means “get to studying”).
Just as I read the last line of my political science handout, the doorbell rang. Jenny and I were both going with the school to a play that night, Luces de Bohemia. Her literature class had read the script, and that was their motive for attending, but the literature teacher knew I enjoyed the theatre and invited me along. The play was at 9, and Jenny wouldn’t have had time to go home and eat, so I invited her to my house (hoping my host mother wouldn’t mind).
It turned out that Carmen called saying she wouldn’t make it home for dinner anyhow, so Jenny and I had free range of the kitchen. We baked mini chocolate-banana muffins as a birthday present for another friend (and permitted ourselves the luxury of using real American chocolate chips, which I’d been sent in a package – trust me, there is a huge difference, and the USA ones are a million times better), then our meal: “ants on a log salad” (celery, apples, peanuts, raisins, and a yogurt dressing) and alubias (red beans) with peppers, onions, and tomato. It was so delicious that we completely lost track of time and suddenly realized it was quarter to nine as we were just taking our second helpings! We threw the dishes in the sink, feeling incredibly bad that we didn’t have time to wash them, I forwent the heels, and we literally ran to the theatre, which is about 10 minutes from my house at a normal pace. Taking the little side roads I’ve gotten to know, we arrived in probably 3 minutes flat – a little out of breath, but not a hair out of place.

A scene from "Luces de Bohemia"

Seeing as the school had bought the tickets, we had first floor, front and center seats – a wonderful break from my usual 5th-floor balcony nosebleed position! I really enjoyed the play (although those who had read it found it rather boring), and arrived home a bit after 11.
The next day was just as packed. After school, I met up with a student from Málaga getting his doctorate in Arabic at the University of Zaragoza. We trade languages: he teaches me Arabic for a while, then we chat in English. After saying goodbye (he is leaving to study abroad in Morocco), I rushed to my violin lesson. I didn’t end up leaving the Escuela until 9:45, since I am joining (if they don’t kick me out for my low talent level!) the school’s (once again, the music school, not SYA) newly-formed band. There are 13 of us, with a nice woodwinds section, a brass section, a drummer, and 4 violinists (including me). And although it is hard to believe, I am not the worst, which is always a relief! However, I definitely need to practice a lot…I miss the vibraphone, where I didn’t have to worry about playing the wrong note because of moving my finger half a centimeter! The teacher was constantly correcting my playing posture and bow hold…even after a 4 year period of not playing, old (bad!) habits die hard!


The Nuns Near the Corte Inglés January 18, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 4:09 pm

I had never seen a nun before arriving in Zaragoza. The extent of my knowledge was gleaned from the blasphemous Almodóvar movie Dark Habits and the ever-classic Sound of Music. When I went to interview the Siervas de María for my journalism class, I didn’t expect the nuns to burst into song in response to my questions, but I didn’t really have any idea of what would happen.
I had worked up the courage to knock on the door the day before, urged on by my reportaje deadline. It was about 1 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I explained to the woman who opened the door that I was a student in the American high school writing an article about the nuns of Zaragoza. She responded that they took care of sick people, that they were sleeping, and to come back the next day at 11.
Thoroughly confused (who was sleeping, the nuns or the patients?), I nevertheless returned on Sunday to gather some more information. The woman who opened the door this time was much more welcoming, greeting me with the Spanish cheek kisses and inviting me in even before I’d said who I was. We walked down a long dark hallway and she led me into a room outfitted with chairs and a table, flicked on the light, and invited me to sit down. I’d told her my story on the way, and she was intrigued by the “American-high-school-in-Zaragoza” thing (most Zaragozanos have no idea we exist).
“We’re talking right now,” she said, explaining the voices reverberating down the hall. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. In the meantime, here is some information about our founder, Santa María Soledad, and a booklet we published to celebrate 125 years in Zaragoza. Here,” she said, flipping to a page, “this is my testament.”She bustled out, and I started to read.
I read about a woman who had heard “the call” at about 14, but didn’t want to follow it. She went out with friends, and even got engaged, before she was finally able to come to terms with the fact that the life she was living was false. She decided to join the Siervas de María, the name of the order I visited.
She and another nun came back, and we all sat down.
“So, what is a typical day like for you all?” I asked.
“Well, we get back at 6 or 7 from taking care of the sick,” said Mercedes, adding, “I’ll start in the morning.”
That’s right, she was talking about 6 or 7 a.m. The Siervas de María dedicate their lives to nighttime house calls. Trained as nurses, they take care of the sick so that their families can rest. The rest of their day is filled with prayer, oration, meals, taking care of the house, and sleep.
Although I could never imagine being a nun myself, I left filled with respect for these women who decide to dedicate their lives to helping others. And they were so…nice. And happy. Truly happy. Mercedes told me, “Yes, you have to leave things behind, but for better things. You have a love of God that fills you up.”


MACBA January 14, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 2:06 pm

"Sense Títol", Pablo Palazuelo

While in Barcelona, we visited the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. I wasn’t a huge fan, but there were some good works…

"100 boots", Eleanor Antin

"Hypergraphies Polylogue", Isidore Isou

"Gagarine se tue en avion", Gil J Wolman

"El número y las aguas", Pablo Palazuelo


Parc Güell January 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 11:05 am

I realized that I never posted photos of the gorgeous Parc Güell, designed by Gaudí, in Barcelona, nor from our walk along the beach. Although they are now a bit old, I don’t think that the Parc Güell could ever become outdated!

The fish sculpture designed by Frank Gehry along the Mediterranean coast of Barcelona.

Another sculpture along the beach.

One of the many sand sculptures we encountered along the beach.

The first image of Park Güell! Comissioned as a private park, Gaudí took all the liberty he wanted in its design. It was later acquired by the city.

The curvy bench with its broken tile decor is the quintessential image of Parc Güell. It is indeed perhaps the most impressive of the park's features. Located on a hill, you can look out over the benches and see the Mediterranean in the distance.

The designs are composed entirely of a mosaic of broken tiles.

One could spend all day admiring the designs of the little tiles up close, and the patterns they make from far away.

The entrance is flanked by two buildings which look like gingerbread houses. This is the tower of one of them, also decorated with broken tiles, reaching into the blue Barcelona sky.