06 October 2011

Barcelona, Take 2

Ask me what I’ve done in the last month in Barcelona, and I’ll tell you about four things I haven’t. I haven’t gotten a tan, or sunburn for that matter. I haven’t stayed up and out all night. I haven’t been to the main tourist attractions. And I haven’t worn pants or long sleeves.

The last one highlights the fact that it is still hotter than blazes here, and the sun pays no attention to my hankering for colorful fall leaves, aromatic fall soups, and cuddly fall sweaters. No, midday is still tanktop-time here in sunny Spain.

The other comments should relay to you that Barcelona is not just a vacation destination: many people, including foreigners, rise early every morning, commute to work, pause for lunch, finish the day late and save the housework for evenings. I have joined their ranks. For the next three months especially, my posts will be sporadic but entertaining as I relate the ironies of daily life in Busy Barcelona. Let’s start with stories of settling in.


I arrived the 29th of August, on a lovely flight with Scandinavian Airlines that allowed me an 8-hour layover to visit Stockholm before flying on to Barcelona. I stayed with friends and proceeded to exercise all my might to bend fate and the great Spanish bureaucracy to my will. That is, by Day 2 I had my padrón, which registers me at my new address as an official city resident. That involved some pre-game paperwork from my new flatmates, Roger and Elena (and there is another girl, Judith). Foreigners spend a lot of time waiting at government offices, but I think more time and energy are required to assemble this pre-game paperwork.

On Day 3 I moved. I happened to snag a friend of a friend with a car to help me retrieve my belongings from storage in my old apartment and transfer them to my new one. I live in the same neighborhood, just 15 minutes from the old apartment, but this room is bigger, the apartment more spacious and homey, and all of it has beautiful views of the city and the port. I live with some other adults now, instead of students, and so life seems calmer and everyone does their part to take care of our home together. It’s a good place to be and good people to be with. I still visit occasionally with last year’s flatmates; they have often felt like little sisters, and so I check in on them. But when I walk into their creative mess and listen to their growing pains, I can still leave in the end.

The University offices all opened on 1 September, and so on Day 3 (don’t worry, I’ll soon stop counting days) I also waited in line at my Departmental Secretary’s office and then at the Residency Card Renewal office. My residency card (or NIE) was set to expire on the 15th, and so I couldn’t waste any time in filing for a renewal. I naively thought that process would be easier than obtaining the NIE the first time around. Nope! It has already required five office visits. The second meeting only lasted five minutes but required a lot of preparation (and a first meeting), and in the end I was short one official stamp from my Departmental Secretary. (Not my fault.) I took it back to her (third meeting) and asked if she would pretty please stamp, scan and email or mail this paper. She coolly told me it was beyond her capabilities.

You see, paperwork is like a great duel, you versus the bureaucrat. From the first en garde! the bureaucrat will use various ploys to fool you, lull you into submission, and distract you to then turn and touché! belittle you, send you on a wild goose chase, and whisk you away like a bothersome fly. Your task is to befriend her, ease the way for her, affirm her narcissism, and then lie, cheat, and steal necessary papers, stamps, or signatures. Anything to foil a bureaucrat. Anything for God, glory, and a valid residency card!

But victory is slow and arduous. The average this time around has been roughly six hours of waiting for half an hour of meeting time, spread over three offices and a government website I had to keep checking randomly to see if my dossier had been accepted. And now my card is being made using a very meticulous process, and I can go wait to pick it up in about a month. In the meantime, I have to keep explaining to everyone that my NIE “is being processed.”

A brief history of September:

I began work again at the University with one of my professors. Continuing this work while at home in July proved nearly impossible with the beautiful Michigan summer lazing by, and so there is some redeeming value in the Blind Crows’ Nest, as I like to call our top-floor-office-with-no-windows.

I spent one week in the middle of the month at the Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism, hosted by one of the newest universities in the city. The attendees were all students and some of us presented our current work on the last day of the conference. This being my first graduate-level conference presentation, to faculty of international renown in linguistics (from New York, Montréal, Belgium and the Basque Country), I was brimming with excitement. This first glimpse into my professional career has me hooked!

At the end of that week I flew to Paris to see Antoine. We spent a day visiting nearby Chartres, a small town famous for its cathedral, built in the thirteenth century and apparently one of the best-preserved. Almost all of the incredible stained glass windows are original, in spite of or thanks to the effort during World War II that led to their complete removal, storage, and replacement after the threat of bombing ended.

Over the weekend I celebrated Antoine’s birthday with his family: I like to consider it part of my diplomatic duty as an American abroad to engage in such festivities and make a good impression, but these have gone overboard and could probably be converted into treasonous spies. They were happy to see me. But they did call me gourmand, which as far as I can tell means something akin to glutinous; maybe I’m taking my American duties a bit too literally.

Am I having two desserts?

This one's for you, Dad.

While I was in Paris, I went for the first time to the Comédie Française, the Paris theater established in 1680 and still performing plays from that century. For example, I went to see L’Avare by Molière, a very classic piece about an old miser. Watching that play, surrounded by red velvet seats and gold accents, using theater binoculars…was the experience of a lifetime.

I returned to Barcelona under the influence of this Parisian glow, and realized I was living in a rather scatter-brained way. So I unpacked the last of my things, got some better sheets and a rug, and started settling in. Now I’m working, studying, writing, cooking, cleaning, planting, Rotaract-ing (you’ll remember that from my scholarship last year), and teaching. Or at least should be teaching.

I did my best to begin my English teaching assistantship this week, but sickness got the best of me. Despite the redness of my smarting eye, on Tuesday I went to La Roca del Vallès, a village about half an hour by train from Barcelona, to the primary school Mogent where I will be teaching this year. After signing a few papers, I was led unsuspectingly into the school gym, where ALL my students greeted me with a big HELLO and WELCOME! Each class presented me with a gift: a poster, a bouquet of hand-made tissue paper flowers, a clay US flag, a short song, and a large Statue of Liberty with—can you believe it—my face on it! I was so grateful but slightly embarrassed, and all the kids thought I was crying because my eye kept watering. I thanked them all personally as they left the gym and went promptly to a pharmacy to get antibiotics for pink eye. Sent home on the first day of school!

And here I sit, my eye already better but still contagious, everyone telling me to rest it but leaving me nothing but computer work, and feelings of regret for failing (already!) my new Lady Liberty image!

I wouldn’t say this month has been smooth sailing, but while the sun has shone fiercely, the breezes have been gentle and constant. Next week I’m sure to pass beyond the horizon.

08 June 2011

A Few Points of Interest

In the post-birthday euphoria, I allowed the last weeks of May to slip away and now find myself in June—halfway through 2011—with a few new projects on my hands. The end of the academic year may seem an odd time for new beginnings, but timing is everything and nobody consults me. First, after several months of miring myself in the university crowd, I have finally found some young ones to brighten my days. Or rather, just one day, Wednesdays at 5:10pm. This family sought me out through a mutual contact and now employs me to play with their kids in English for a little while after school. Their ages are nine, seven, and four, and they will henceforth be called my little darlings. They are delightful and we have great fun playing games, a good break in my new schedule.

The new schedule is determined by the weightier new project: my work as a research assistant for the University of Barcelona! The professor of my course on advances in Second Language Acquisition research was looking for a couple people to help in her strain of the English Department’s communal research project on foreign language study in Catalunya. I didn’t exactly have the required level of Spanish, and certainly not the preferred level of Catalan, but I eagerly applied anyway. (Since I am still on the waiting list for the English teaching assistantship in Catalunya, I figured I better look elsewhere for a way to make ends meet next year.) And what luck! Only two of us applied for two spots! Although the professor assured me she is pleased with the selection.

I immediately started working in the fifth-story windowless assistants’ office of my university’s historic building: I like to call it the Blind Crow’s Nest. I work with four other assistants on the same team, and there are a couple others who use the office. It is quite a mix of nationalities but all women. My current projects include transcribing, or typing up with some notes what is recorded in student oral interviews; checking over other assistants’ transcriptions; organizing the transcription files based on themes in response to the question, “Was there a turning point in your learning of English? A moment when you thought oh, I got it, I can really speak this language!”; and looking through linguistics articles to see what research has been done on parents’ role in their students’ foreign language achievement. Mom, Dad, comments? This is not technically a job but rather a grant requiring twenty hours of work per week, and it will cover my basic expenses through December.

A few other things have happened since I last wrote. I attended two Rotary meetings, one with the club Les Corts where I had been before with my parents, and another with Barcelona 92. The latter is a group of about twenty, all men, and meets in the city’s premier hotel. The dinner was divine, the company better, and we were lucky enough to visit on the same day as David, a Rotary World Peace Scholar who has studied at the program centers in Japan and Australia and is currently interning with the Barcelona soccer team’s foundation working with kids and sports.

I also attended a conference called “How Terrorism Ends” at the Institute where Natalie is doing her masters in international relations. It was enlightening to say the least, with presentations by top US and European researchers working on de-radicalization programs (to change how terrorists think) and disengagement initiatives (to change the terrorist tactics they use), with several case studies on Hamas in Palestine, the IRA in Northern Ireland, and ETA here in Spain. I could go on and on about what I learned, but for now the one point I want to make is that the assassination of Osama bin Laden is likely not a deadly blow to Al-Qaeda, which like most terrorist groups is organized more like a web than a pyramid. “Decapitation” is just one debatable way of ending a group’s terrorist actions.

And that’s the news from Barcelona—but wait! Before I sign off, a correction: I have just gotten news that I was accepted into the Teaching Assistant Program and placed in Catalunya. What a stroke of luck! It makes me want to buy a lottery ticket!

24 May 2011

Family Tradition

First, a word of gratitude to those who have given me life: to my mom, who carried me and bore me; to my dad, who taught me through play and who has always missed me fiercely; to both my parents, who raised me and love me; to my sisters and wide generous family, who have grown with me and looked after me; especially to my grandmothers, who encircle me and give me a strong foundation; and to all the friends who have passed through my life and stayed or left their mark.

Now, it’s possible our family tradition of celebrating birthdays to abandon has become a bit exaggerated over the years. Maybe the day is worth remembering, but whoever decided that a birthday includes the weekend before, the week of, and the weekend after…should be properly thanked. The celebration of my 24th vintage was a roaring success and I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to gather my dear ones around me.

It all began the night of Thursday the twelfth, when I took a long overnight bus to Madrid. I had been once before to the Spanish capital, but with three more years under my belt and a couple good friends in the area, I decided to be more ambassador than tourist. Luckily, a new acquaintance from my Catalan class is originally from Madrid, and as I was asking her logistical transport questions, she graciously offered to host me for my first day. This is more than token: she was home visiting friends and family and celebrating her birthday, and in the midst of it, she managed to find time to meet my 8am bus, feed me breakfast, provide amenities for freshening up, and guide me around downtown. We returned home at midday (remember, 3pm Spanish time) and ate a fantastic lunch with her parents who are originally from Galicia in northwest Spain. Thus lunch included octopus and hake, a very popular and succulent fish. The meal was incredible and the company better, and throughout the day I got to visit the historic center, the main Plaza del Sol, the Royal Palace and Cathedral, a free exposition on women in painting, and the rooftop of the Royal Academy of Fine Art. On top of it all, it was the Madrid city festival, La Fiesta de San Isidro, and there were many special events and people dressed in traditional Madrileño outfits eating churros (think elephant ears but in ropes) and chocolate.

In the evening I collected my bag and went to stay with Alberto, a techie friend who I know through my roommate from last year, Victoria. We spent the weekend visiting: the Thyssen Museum, which is right across from the famous Prado Museum and is a fine and varied collection; the large Retiro Park; the Telecommunications Palace, where all mail used to be sorted; the Rastro street market; and not to miss the late Madrid nightlife. It was exhausting and fun, a great visit to a great city. It’s true what they say: the downtown feels like a small town.

I returned from Madrid on Monday just in time to ready myself for a presentation at my host Rotary club, Condal. The meeting was jovial, and I added some of my own Catalan-Spanish jokes to win over my table of businessmen. I had been a bit intimidated by the prospect of this meeting, because at the Christmas dinner with this club it seemed there were nearly a hundred members. However, at the dinner last Monday we filled three tables and there was a friendly family atmosphere that put me and David, the other scholar, at ease. Here we are with Club President Casajuana.

During the week I also had the chance to visit Vic, a small town in the mountains north of Barcelona.

I went with a colleague from my masters program, and the visit was part professional part leisure. Back in January, we attended a presentation on Catalan sociolinguistics by two professors teaching at SUNY-Buffalo, and there we made contact with a couple researchers in the area. The one teaching in Vic—who has written about the motivations of foreigners learning Catalan, my proposed thesis topic—invited us to come visit the campus, the town, and have a coffee. After about four months now, we finally took advantage of the offer! We also managed to visit on the same day as an English doctoral student, and so we were allowed to tag along on her scheduled visits. This included a presentation about the Catalan educational system and a visit to the local center for Catalan classes. It was all interesting, and what a stroke of luck! The first presentation helped put many things in perspective. For example, you might have the impression that Catalan is a minority language; while technically true, it should not be considered a small language, as there are more Catalan speakers (13.5 million) than Greeks (11.8), Portuguese (10.5), or Swedish (9.3). As I’ve referenced before, the population of immigrants in Catalunya has soared in the last 10 years, increasing from 2% in 2000 to 15% in 2008. Surprisingly and likely thanks to the all-Catalan educational system, children of immigrants use Catalan (over Spanish) up to 86% of the time when interacting with friends, watching TV, or reading books. This is quite an amazing recovery and regeneration for a language that, only a generation ago, was banned.

So, a weekend in Madrid, a Rotary presentation, an enlightening visit to Vic, and then with the B-day approaching, the week culminated in a Southern belle-themed dinner Saturday night. Although I as a Midwesterner perhaps cannot create an authentic evening in the old South, I certainly gave it my best shot. On the menu we had: biscuits, sweet potato fries, chicken salad, delicate cucumber sandwiches, zucchini fritters, peach crumble, apple pie, and sweet tea. I had pearls, white gloves, and a parasol just for the occasion. Friends came from all the diverse groups I know and we had plenty to eat, a birthday cake at midnight, and drinks on the upstairs terrace with a view of Barcelona by night. It was the perfect ending to an excellent birthday week. As I began with thanks I will end: to all those who have made this year successful, entertaining, bearable, and lovely.

03 May 2011

A Few More Reasons About Why I'm Here

At times, when I happen upon an unplanned weekend, with no roommates in sight and no ideas in mind…I take it. Because even though it may seem dreary, at the ripe age of twenty-three, in the lively city where I live, to stay in Friday and Saturday night, I know it’s only a rest, and that I need it.

The call of schoolwork is relentless, that much you know. Now, as people inaugurate springtime and prepare for the end of classes, invitations come raining down as well. My Friday commitments included a Royal Wedding Brunch to celebrate the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Although I am not in the least a royalist, I played along with a classmate and wedding enthusiast who hosted the brunch. It gave me a good excuse to bake muffins and scones, sit around a pot of tea with friends, and toast mimosas. We were also accompanied by our token Brit, also a classmate, who added class and accent to our light-hearted gathering.

Saturday was a business day: I attended my host Rotaract’s meeting in the afternoon, which was followed by a short special-topics conference. The issue at hand was protocol and was lead by the president-elect of Rotary Condal, my host club this year. We covered scenarios from within Rotary, but mainly discussed points of business, international, and social protocol as a means of welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable. I can empathize with that: sometimes when I’ve arrived late to presentations because of my afternoon classes, I’m relieved to know that someone has already explained and apologized on my behalf. Some concepts were new, and overall the conference was a good refresher on what I can expect in my interactions and what others are expecting from me. Here, on the left is Luz, president of Rotaract Condal; and in the middle Señor Riquelme, president-elect of Rotary Condal.

Sunday was primarily dedicated to reading, but in the middle of the sunny afternoon, with hints of barbecue wafting up to my window, I gave in for a bike break. I just signed up for bicing, the municipal bike share program that complements bus and metro. It costs 35 euros for the year, and allows me to essentially rent a bike from point A to point B for free (for a half hour, but you can have it up to two hours total). It’s extremely easy to use: there is a bicing station just down the street from me, where I scan my card and pick up a bike. Then I ride down the bike line over to the beach, where I can pedal around for a few hours. Whenever my time is up, I return the bike to any of the numerous stations, sit on the beach for ten minutes, and return to check out another one. It is a nice escape from walking, which seems inefficient, and the metro, which can be very tiring.

In the evening I was invited to the Spring Festival of Hospitalet, one of the Barcelona bedroom communities, by one of my classmates who is from the area. We went to the tabalada, where groups of drum players march through the town square, and then watched the correfoc. The word means “the running of the fire” in Catalan and involves groups of people, dressed up as devils, lighting and spinning around with firecrackers. Kids, covered from head to toe with hats, hoods, scarves, and gloves, rush in and dance with the fire-devils, a bit like Fourth of July with devilry. The devils take off, group by group, to run through the center of town, and the drum players follow them. The whole scene is vivifying, and you can only imagine how it is for all the Catalan children that grow up dancing and running with fire.

This week I have an intensive course in Psycholinguistics taught by a visiting professor from Concordia University, Montreal. The class and his teaching have already proven excellent, and even though I’m not taking the course for credit, I’m glad to attend. What I find so inspiring about linguistics research is the continual discovery that every question I have ever pondered about language has actually been explored and expanded. Why don’t I remember things as well in Spanish? Why am I plagued by these weird switches between languages, when a French word will come out in the middle of a Spanish sentence, pronounced with a Spanish accent or formatted like a Spanish word? Why is it difficult to feel genuine in French when expressing emotions or opinions? Language is, in a phrase, so much more than a tool. Use it wisely and playfully!