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!