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19 posts categorized "Penny Savryn"

I Left My Heart in Andalucía: Pueblos Blancos (and one blue town!)

I had a incredible puente.  Rented a car.  Drove on tiny streets of stone.  Saw a blue town.  Ate paella.  Caught a flamenco show.  Stood on the stage…  “Stood,” no, not “danced.”  Posed on it, too.  981 miles and a week of school later, I miss the trip.

It all began a Tuesday evening at an airport Enterprise office with a white car.  Every story at a car-rental office for me begins with a white car!  This time, though, I wouldn’t be driving/riding in Fletcher from Texas.  No.  In Spain?  Júzcar from Madrid--a name dedicated to one special stop on the trip.  

“Where is the parking brake?”  After being shown the car, I knew we needed to know the answer to that question.  Images of the car drifting down a mountain in Andalucía flashed through my mind.  All ready to go, I was hesitant to delay our trip even more.  We had to get 4 hours south to Córdoba for the night.  But this was worthy of delay.  A button with “P” on it next to the driver’s seat.  Great!  Let’s go.

Intimidated as I was by Spain’s highways, everything went rather smoothly.  We stopped once on the way to Córdoba at a Repsol gas station.  There we found cheese samples and cheese blocks for purchase.  We left empty-handed and empty-bladdered.  It was probably best that it was dark, we weren’t missing out on anything by hustling past everything in between Madrid and Córdoba.

The hotel in Cordoba was great.  It had lots of artwork around, a chandelier, grand old pieces of furniture, and tons of hot water.  And another free breakfast!  The breakfast was in a beautiful room with decorated bowls and plates all over the walls.  We sat by the window while enjoying una tostada con tomate, an assortment of meats and pastries, and most importantly, un cafe con leche.  We needed to fuel up for the rest of the day’s travels.  Next stop:  Arcos de la Frontera.

BUT, because I was doing research on the spot, I saw that Medina-Sidonia was south of Arcos and suggested we go there first and then make our way back up north to Arcos.  I read the GPS wrong when we were 20 minutes away and we ended up en route to the southern end of Spain--the ocean.  In an effort to turn error into impromptu exploration, we said “why not go down and see the ocean if we’re only another 15 minutes away!”  So we saw the ocean.  How wonderful it was to breathe in the open, blue air.

In Medina-Sidonia an odd and brusquely-speaking man came over to us upon parking and we gathered he was saying we had to pay 2 euros to park there.  And for a guidebook.  I tried to give back the book but he said it’s 2 euros anyways.  That raised some flags.  What raised them even higher was spotting him walking outside of a bar with a beer 10 minutes later.  Oh well.  I had to get over this betrayal, this person who had taken advantage of our tourist-selves.  Angry as I was, it was only 2 euros and considering the horror scam stories you hear of…  We left unscathed.  Not to mention the views from Medina-Sidonia are beautiful.

We headed north to Arcos de la Frontera with the intention of arriving in time for sunset.  Luckily we got there just in time.  After a gas station purchase of...gas...and jamón-flavored chips, we parked the car in an underground lot and walked up the hill to the old town.  By chance we were walking on a road along the edge of town with breathtaking views of Spanish landscapes at sunset.

We stayed in a family-owned home and were greeted with sangria on the roof.  The prime owner is an artist and her work is all over the entrance.  We were well-located and wandered the streets coming across white walls with potted plants hanging on them and many souvenir shops chock-full of trinkets.  

The next day we had a perfect breakfast of toast and jamón and headed out to our next stay in Zahara de la Sierra.  This drive would take us directly into the mountains.  Stops along the way included El Bosque, Benaocaz, Villaluenga del Rosario, and Grazalema.  We just drove through some towns, but stopped in Villaluenga del Rosario where there’s an award-winning cheese factory.  The local cheese is queso payoyo and it is delicious.  Walking through the town we also saw their small bullfighting ring.  The town was so small and so quiet and the door to the ring was open.  We were not in Kansas anymore (but for us Kansas = cosmopolitan city).  I wondered about local law enforcement.  Where was it?  Did it exist?  Did everyone coexist peacefully?  Questions left unanswered.  

Next stop Grazalema.  By this time, I was fairly knocked out.  We hadn’t eaten much and so deciding on a place was tough.  How does one choose what to finally consume after consuming nothing for so long?  We had wandered into a place with the door open only to be told they weren’t serving anymore.  Then why was the door open?!  At this point I started to feel like such an outsider.  That feeling weighs on you.  Everyone stares at you, everyone waits to see how you are going to speak when you are about to open your mouth, some speak abruptly to you indicating they have no patience for the tourist-thing.  I must say overall I’ve encountered nothing but kindness.  But the amount of driving had taken a toll and so had the stares of people in the small towns.  We saw the main square, purchased some souvenirs, and had some tapas at a family-owned restaurant.  

The next day, after being barked at for parking in a spot designated for taxis, we managed to get up the tiny streets of Zahara de la Sierra to a parking lot at the bottom of the lookout point.  We hiked up to the top for an incredible view of a turquoise lake and the surrounding mountains.  It was quite something to imagine this spot in the time it was created.  It was a lookout point to watch for invaders and was particularly important during the war for Granada.  What good vision older generations must have had!  No phones!  Distance a requirement for survival!  

After the great photo-op we headed to an olive mill I had found out was open.  The man on the phone said we could stop by and it just so happened a tour arrived at that moment.  We joined the tour in the room where the olive oil is produced.  What timing.  Juan, the owner of the mill, looks like a movie-star.  He gave us a taste of the olive oil and we couldn’t believe he lived on this small road in a mountain with very little to no traffic.

Setenil de las Bodegas was next.  WHAT a sight.  The main street is directly under a large rock.  This is the image of the town--streets with homes and restaurants below a giant rock jutting out of the mountain.  Here we had a great success:  sitting on a terraza overlooking the main street.

Júzcar and Ronda were our last two stops.  Júzcar is painted blue for a Smurfs film that either was to be filmed there or just advertised there.  When I asked a local shop-owner if everyone wanted the town to be painted, she replied, “yes, more or less.”  I can’t imagine living in a town of white homes and deciding along with my neighbors to paint it blue.  What a place!  Smurfs references are everywhere, in stores and on homes.  Some pitufos (Smurfs) are painted onto buildings and there also seem to be rides and attractions for children such as a small zipline and trampolines.  They were deserted, however, and contributed to an eerie, empty feeling on some of the streets.  It was most interesting to see a group of young kids clearly getting ready to do something for their weekend evening.  What do they do?  What’s it like to grow up here?  More questions unanswered…  There are a few giant statues of Smurfs for photoshoots.  Did I mention the town is on the edge of a mountain and to get there, one must drive along the edge on a small two-way road?  The town is on the edge of a mountain and to get there we had to drive along the edge on a small two-way road.

Ronda was where we spent two nights.  They have the biggest bullfighting ring in Spain, I believe.  It was quite something to walk in it and see the different collections they have.  They have weapons and toreador suits and all sorts of visual art.  There's more to say about Ronda, but this post is too long. 

It is also so listy!  But I really wanted to simply post some descriptions.  This was a trip to remember.

Hoy lo mejor: Blog Post #8

When I went to title this blog post, I could not believe that it’s number eight.  EIGHT.  That means I’ve been here for 8+ weeks.  Two months.  Wow.  It feels simultaneously like I’ve been here for forever and for no time at all.

I’m pushing myself to write weekly, and so sometimes substance suffers for the sake of (hello alliteration!!!!!) timeliness.  A good learning experience nonetheless--routine writing, time management, all those lessons that one never really stops learning.  I had a really nice class with my 2nd Bachillerato Advanced English students this week, so I will write about it.  

Their teacher warned me that they were not thrilled with their grades for the first trimester, but noted that because of this, they would all be quiet and attentive.  Ecstatic to report that they were!  I also handpicked the group of students I would have, assuring a quiet and attentive bunch.  Last week I had a student hang around and tell me about poems she had written in a class the year before.  This was after I introduced the short story project they would all be doing for me (written about in a previous post).  She was obviously excited and I realized in that moment that this had been another one of my dreams.  I always wanted to be the teacher whose students hung around after class to talk to.  I used to do that with teachers/professors that I loved and wanted to experience the other end of the exchange.  It’s almost always a sign the students are enjoying the class.

I told this student to bring in her poems so I could read them.  Needless to say she brought them in and is one of the most engaged students I have.  This past week the bachillerato classes had to turn in the first drafts of their stories to me.  While the turnout wasn’t wonderful, I’m happy there was a turnout at all.  I have about 6 drafts and while I could focus on the fact that I have only 6, I’ve chosen instead to focus on the fact that I have 6!  I am very excited to read them and write notes to the students about my experience reading them and also thoughts on how they could improve their writing/English.

That lovely class though…  I prepared a lesson on the NFL players who are protesting violence against and oppression of Blacks by kneeling or raising a fist during the national anthem.  I thought they’d welcome insight into some major topics of conversation in American culture right now.  I also know some are interested in politics, history, law, etc. and so I figured they’d be intrigued by the “controversial” topic.

I had copies made of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Washington Post article, “Insulting Colin Kaepernick says more about our patriotism than his” from summer 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/08/30/insulting-colin-kaepernick-says-more-about-our-patriotism-than-his/?utm_term=.add82fddfdca).  I instructed the students to each read aloud one of the paragraphs of the article so they could practice pronunciation/speaking, etc.  Then I told them to take a few minutes to circle or underline words or phrases they don’t understand, and also to familiarize themselves with the article, summarize it and determine Abdul-Jabbar’s argument.

I had initially intended on preparing two articles for them, one by an author who doesn’t agree with or like the NFL players’ protest and one by an author who supports the players’ protest.  But due to time constraints and typical teaching-improv, I decided to just focus on the WaPo article.  To bring in the other stance, I found a page on the New York Times website where they have listed comments sent in by readers on the NFL situation.  So after I clarified the meaning of some words and phrases, we had a discussion.  I asked them to tell me what the article is about, their thoughts etc.  They all agreed with Abdul-Jabbar, and so to spark thought and play that advocate game that academia loves so much, I showed them a comment by a reader who says the players shouldn’t be invoking their right to free speech on the field.  I could hear their brains moving, as cliche as that is, and as cliche as it is to say “as cliche as that is.”  

Lastly, I showed them Trevor Noah’s segment on The Daily Show, “When Is the Right Time for Black People to Protest?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-Gx23vH0CE).  They LOVED it.  How do I know?  Because the bell rang signaling class was over and NO ONE, NO. ONE., moved.  They all stayed put until the end of the video.

THEN I even had a couple of students who stayed behind to chat about various things.  To the student interested in poetry I recommended she look up Adrienne Rich.  Another student wanted to ask me if he could write on our class blog about the Barcelona soccer matches.  I told him he could.  Then he told me he likes these sorts of videos and he watches similar shows here in Spain.  He also helped me put the desks back in rows (I have them in a circle for the class and then usually am putting them back into place by myself, barring the help of some thoughtful students).

Later in the day, the 2nd Bachillerato teacher told me that the students came back to her after our class and said “hoy lo mejor, lo mejor.”  That means “today was the best” : )

From Salamanca, With Love


This past weekend I found myself in a beautiful place -- Salamanca.  Where to even begin?  


My birthday trip was initially supposed to be to Granada.  But when Granada felt like too much for just a weekend, we had to regroup.  Where to go that was not too far and could be accomplished in a weekend?  Enter Rick Steves, or Ricky S, as I like to call him.  I’ve never been one to search through travel guides.  I’m not opposed to them, I think they’re quite fun actually.  And my dad usually manages to slip an Eyewitness sights-to-see book in my bag upon departure.  I guess I just rely on the internet.  This time I chanced upon Ricky S’ pages on Salamanca.  After “university town,” “Art Deco museum in a building from the same period,” and “perfect for a weekend,” I was sold.  Salamanca, ahoy!

There is a train to Salamanca that only takes 1 hour and 30 minutes from Madrid, but none of those train times worked with our schedules.  Instead we booked the train that takes just about 3 hours.  En route during sunset, outside the window we could see large, beautiful fields turning orange and purple as the sun descended.  Arriving in the dark in the US would probably bring people anxiety and empty streets.  In Spain?  No way.  We got off the train at around 9 and as we walked the streets towards our hotel, bars were packed, stores were open, and children were playing outside.  I love Spain.

We stayed at Microtel Placentinos, another Ricky S recommendation.  It was perfect: perfect location, perfect decor, perfect people.  It is behind the university and in a peaceful spot.  The breakfast included was also muy bueno: meats, cheeses, breads, croissants, yogurts, coffee, etc. etc.  I’ve grown to be slightly obsessed with these “free” breakfasts.  They save stress and money and take two seconds to get to!  Though one day I learned of Croissanteria Paris, and upon reading that one should go first thing in the morning to get the freshest croissants, I fled.  I returned with one croissant filled with spinach and cheese, one with milk chocolate, and another with raspberry jam and queso fresco.  This was pre-breakfast breakfast of course. 


I digress!  I skipped to the croissants on Saturday morning.  Let’s go back to Friday night.  At check-in, the concierge cheerfully showed us a map of town and recommended a few places to go for tapas.  We dropped our stuff and trotted over to Bambú--apparently this is also a Ricky S recommendation, but I didn’t know it at the time!!!

No no no wow I’ve gone too far.  Let me go back to the walk from the train station to the hotel.  About 15 minutes in we hit one of the most amazing spots: the Plaza Mayor.  I was speechless at the time and I’m speechless now.  At night it is quite something, brightly lit and filled with people.  It feels like the place to be.  Will stop here and insert a photo below. 


So, check-in, luggage left, Bambú.  The restaurant was crowded and everyone behind the counter was moving fast.  I felt we had two options: 1) we could take a seat, as most tourists might, to avoid the scary situation of having to stick out in the crowd of standing locals and fumble through asking what the display dishes are, or 2) we could conquer our fears, dive into the crowd of standing locals and own our tourist-selves.  I’m excited to say that we chose option 2.  And it wasn’t that bad!  In fact, it was wonderful.  We tried 7 various tapas and had 6 cañas (claras con limón).  The most delicious was an hojaldre of bacon and cheese.  Photos below.  Feast your eyes.

IMG_4719 IMG_4722


Everyone was nice to us and we left feeling great.  We decided to walk on over to Cafe Novelty, a 1920s joint where I read they have special ice cream.  “We finished with the ice cream,” said the waiter.  Oops.  We left.  No problem!  Bambú had been a perfect first night adventure.

The next day we went first thing (after the Croissanteria Paris event and hotel breakfast) to the Oficina del Turismo in Plaza Mayor to collect our 4€ passes to both the Museo de Historia de la Automoción and Casa Lis--the Art Deco/Art Nouveau museum.  Easy peezy.  At this point I was feeling energized by my ability to go to a city in Spain and deal with tourist office things in Spanish.  We set off for the museums.

The car museum was fun--3 floors of automobiles from the late 19th century up until present day.  The Hispano Suizas were fun to see, as were the classic Rolls Royce, Ford Model-T, and Cadillac.  This museum is nice because the labels are simple, if you want to read them, and the point is really just to walk around and look at the cars.  After, we headed over to Casa Lis.

IMG_4808Casa Lis really is something to see.  Perched above the burnt orange rocks of Salamanca lies a facade of an Art Deco building, red flowers lining the multicolored stained glass windows.  Inside there are more stained glass windows that are fun to see.  The rooms hold everything from glass objects to mini-figurines to dolls to paintings.  It’s a mish-mash of things to explore.  I found the room with dolls fairly terrifying, but still interesting!  One of the nicest parts of the museum, though, is the cafe.  I sat in the cafe with a Viennese coffee while the sun shone through the windows and highlighted all of the vibrant colors of the room.  Surrounded by reproductions of paintings and objects in the museum, I sipped my coffee in what felt like a 1920s cafe.  I highly recommend this spot to anyone who finds their self in Salamanca.  Like, literally, not figuratively.  If figuratively, that’s awesome too!


In an effort to not make this post into a novel, I’ll move on to some other Salamanca moments.  We took a 30-minute mini tourist train through the city and saw the Puente Romano from afar.  We searched for the frog and astronaut on the outside relief of the University building and Cathedral (upon renovation, fun images were added to the facades including an astronaut, a dragon eating ice cream, and more).  The frog is the symbol of the city, every type of frog is sold as every type of souvenir: snowglobes, shot glasses, figurines, fans, t-shirts, plates, this list could go on forever.  The university is from 1230, by the way.  The year 1230.  There’s something magical about the commitment to education that’s been there for so long.  And they hammer this point home for sure.  At the Convento de San Esteban, religious words are mixed with quotes that express a commitment to learning.  It’s cool, though kind of hard to accept, considering how many were excluded from educational opportunities over the centuries.  Or how many were thought to be “civilized” by this learning.  As a woman it can often be hard to see lines constantly talking of “a man’s spirit,” “a man’s this,” “a man’s that.”  But this certainly did not dull the magic of Salamanca the city.


One highlight was taking funny photos with statues of the architects of Plaza Mayor.  Another was a band of students with horns playing Beatles tunes.  Just like these two moments the city is an amalgamation of old and new, history and present.  One minute you see Zara and Carrefour, the next you see a Gothic Cathedral built between 1513 and 1733 hovering high over the city.  Walking through the old, small streets of Salamanca, I felt alive.  It was a great place to spend the anniversary of another year of life.    


Blog For Birthday Week


This post will be the written manifestation of what my daily life is like here: the first half devoted to life at school, the second half to life outside of school. It will include the same emotional swings as a day in the life here does. And I don't mean that dramatically!

In my Advanced English Bachillerato classes I gave them yet another assignment.  I’m really enjoying creating these assignment sheets.  Probably also am taking some pleasure in knowing I’m not on the receiving end for a change.  For the rest of the year--2017--they're going to develop short stories! My lesson plan (adapted from a creative writing teacher in the US): bring in about 10-12 books, preferably fiction, have each student look through a book to find a word, preferably one they don't know too well, write it down, pass the book to the next person.  In the first group, they wrote 10 words down. The rest of the groups progressively diminished their word count. I felt 10 was a bit much, a bit too difficult, so 5 sufficed.

After writing their words down, they had to stand up (keep them energized however I can) and pick the opening sentence of one of the books. They had to take a picture of it or write it down (some students actually did not have their phones! miracles can happen).  I didn't specify preface, introduction, first chapter, didn't matter. I then asked them what think is a story. Then what they think is a short story. Did not do the genre-explaining justice oops. I'm learning. Then I told them that the opening sentence they chose is the opening sentence of their story and they have to incorporate the 10 (or 5 or 4 or 7) words they have written down into their story. To soften the blow I said “those of you who wrote about wanting to expand your vocabulary on the blog, here you go, take this opportunity to not only learn new words, but also work on incorporating them into sentences.”    

I think they found the task a bit daunting, but I stressed that this isn't "write a story in a week, go!" In one week they have to just have ideas for their stories or some sort of plan. In another week they should have a first draft (they thought this meant a chart or storyboard maybe? That was interesting.  I gave them my definition of a first draft and said it means it can be rough, very rough). In two weeks (another vacation) they'll turn in their revised story. On the assignment sheet I emphasized that what they're practicing is revision: writing, revising, writing revising, etc. I wrote the words over and over so that they'd get the point. At the bottom of the assignment sheet I included my definition of revision: going over something with the intention of making it better. That definition certainly needs revision (I crack myself up!!!!).  

When two students were laughing I asked them what was funny, not as a challenge. They said they'll have trouble STOPPING themselves when writing. Another student stayed after the bell rang to tell me her ideas and chat a bit. I'm pretty lucky with this group of students.

Week after week it becomes more and more clear to me that effusing passion is the most engaging way to teach. When I'm excited, they perk up; if I'm just plowing ahead, trekking through the mud, and avoiding quicksand, they feel the tense, rough road ahead. What a performance teaching is. Very funny to experience as someone who never liked the spotlight, kind of :)

As for the second half here, it was my birthday this week.  Did I give that away already?  I had a wonderful birthday even though I'm far away from most people I love.

I went to see Cyrille Aimee as part of the Madrid Jazz Festival. Aimee is a French jazz vocalist who won a Montreal vocal competition that put her on the map. Her set was awesome and the venue was awesome. Sala Clamores felt just like a jazz nightclub should: dark lighting, red lighting, a bar with overpriced cocktails that take a long time to make, the logo of the place in bright lights behind the stage, a middle-aged male owner running around in a t-shirt that says "give all" or something motivational like that.


I went to the bar to order cocktails and they were delicious. Aimee's set was a lot of fun. It was the first stop of this tour for her and this band (a female pianist!).  They started with a great rumba version of “I Could've Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady.  Perfect opening number for a set. Later on, Aimee showed some serious vocal and arranging chops on a solo number where she looped her voice using that machine that I don't know the name of. Ed Sheeran uses it too... You sing or play a phrase of music that the machine records and can play aloud while you record the next part you want to play with that first part.  Even more people took out their phones for this number; everyone perked up and realized they were witnessing something special.


Other fairly well-known songs performed: “Whatever Lola Wants,” “Off The Wall” (Michael Jackson), and “Oye Como Va.”

I also, on my birthday, went to one of my favorite cafes. This is part of wonderful life in Madrid: I get home with enough time to turn the day into something totally different if I so choose. On the Monday of Birthday Week, the second half of my day involved cappuccino, truffle mortadella, manchego cheese, churros y chocolate (birthday week, bear with me here).


Only in Madrid.

An Assortment

I have no idea what to write this week.  A lot has been happening.  I’m getting into the swing of teaching, realizing how important it is to be organized (laughing), etc.   I felt good after I paper-clipped sheets of paper together -- that’s me getting organized (still laughing).

It’s been a lot of fun reading the students’ posts on the blogs I created for them.  They all seem to be very open to learning and they all sincerely desire to speak and know English “better.”  I push them by assigning them articles to read that could be read in a US college course, I think.  For this week, they can choose between two articles in The New York Times to read and respond to.  One is about the recent race for Governor of Virginia.  One is about First Amendment rights.  So far the students who have read and completed the assignment have all chosen the second article about a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay male couple.  They also had to pick out 5-10 words they didn't recognize and define them, as well as pick out two sentences they enjoyed reading and write why.  In this way I hope I'm helping them to expand their vocabulary and take ownership over their thoughts and feelings about writing/reading.  Feel empowered, if I may go that far...

One student in particular let loose and wrote that it’s not okay to discriminate against anyone period.  They wrote that anyone who discriminates, according to their standards, should not be allowed to talk, essentially.  I felt like this was a perfect opportunity for me to engage as a teacher and impart the knowledge I have on this particular subject, thanks in large part to my astute, legal-minded lawyer of a father.  I asked this student where to draw the line on free speech.  I wrote that if we suppress one kind of protest, that same argument can be used to suppress a different protest, one that they may support.  I included in my comment links where they could read briefly about the Nazi rally planned for Skokie, Illinois in the late 1970s.  One link led to an essay in a 1986 issue of the California Law Review, in case this student would like some background information or insight into legal-speak (wouldn't we all).  I should have also included a link to an article about students who stopped a university president from speaking because they felt the university was not acting the way they wanted it to.  The university president -- who wrote the article -- pointed out the irony of the students’ protesting to block his (free) speech.  Anyways, I hope this student finds this topic interesting as I do.  Makes one wonder, what’s the root of it all anyway?

In other classes, some lessons have gone over better than others.  My presentation on Neoclassicism was a lot of fun because at the end, I showed a picture of Beyoncé that related to my college thesis and it sparked an interesting discussion.  It was awesome to hear the perspectives of young students in Spain on the subject.  This past week, because the class was about to study the American Revolution, I decided to tell them about Hamilton (the musical), Lin-Manuel Miranda, and In The Heights.  I thought they would enjoy In The Heights because of the Spanish that is spoken throughout and the setting of Washington Heights.  I thought it’d be cool for them to see an important aspect of my New York culture too.  When I played a clip of the Hamilton performance at the Tony Awards, they seemed a bit bewildered by lots of people on stage dressed in old-timey costumes dancing around and singing.  I don’t know, it was hard to gauge how that one went over.  I saw some lit up faces, others laughing (perhaps making fun of it), and others half asleep yadda yadda.  Always a mixture, I guess.

Now I’m going to write about some of the many wonderful things in Madrid.  I saw some very interesting films thanks to LesGaiCine Madrid taking place this past month.  Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? is about a gay Israeli man who flees his family kibbutz to go to London where he contracts HIV.  The movie moved a bit slowly, but was both upsetting and enjoyable to watch.  The main character is resilient and thoughtful and admirable.  The director (in attendance) afterwards explained that Saar, the main character, was the first person he’d ever met with HIV who didn’t blame anyone for it.  He said usually other men he had met with HIV were angry with the person they had gotten it from, but that Saar wasn’t because he knew why and knew he was responsible.  Haven’t fully processed the takeaways of that film yet, but I recommend other people see it too.

And for the cherry on top of this post:  I went to the Prado for the first time since returning to Madrid.  I was struck by the Velázquez room with Las Meninas, as usual.  I’m not sure if these two other paintings in particular were in that room the last time I went, but they were remarkable: women on horseback with long, sparkly, beautiful garments laying over the horse’s side.  The detail with which Velázquez painted is truly something.  Remarkable.  I’m always struck by his work.  I think it has something to do with knowing I’m in the place where he created.  And because he’s such an art historian’s artist, so to speak.  He clearly loves and is obsessed with art (yes, present tense), and that passion just jumps out of the artwork and into my soul.  As cliché as that sounds.  I love it.

The Nickelodeon Express

Last weekend I went to Parque de Atracciones in Madrid! It is so unbelievably easy to get to. Back home it’d be at least an hour drive to the nearest theme park. The metro ride was about 30 minutes long and an easy waltz over to the park’s entrance.


The first thing we saw upon entering was the Nickelodeon Express! I was enchanted. And frankly my day was already made. The ride was a small train of about 6 or 7 cars that went around the Nickelodeon Zone of the park. Each car had a different Nickelodeon character on it: Tommy Pickles from Rugrats, Jimmy Neutron, SpongeBob, Dora the Explorer, Wanda from Fairly OddParents. It was my childhood-self’s heaven. Who am I kidding, I’m still obsessed! I could hardly contain my excitement choosing which car would carry me off to a far-away land that SpongeBob and many others call home. His pineapple under the sea was in sight. We were off.

The Nickelodeon Express!


The Nickelodeon Express comin' round the bend!

I was intrigued by this Nickelodeon Express for a myriad of reasons, first and foremost being its design. The departure station, if you will, was designed with Taj Mahal-like arches and orange or desert-like color. It felt simultaneously fantastical and arabesque. And Greek? There were lyres at the apex of the arches. The mish-mash of styles signaled something awesome. Second, I was struck by the emphasis on Nickelodeon. The “Toon Town” of the Madrid park is sponsored by Nickelodeon! I had no idea that world of my youth existed in present-day Spain. It was interesting to see a conglomerate other than Disney command attention. Thirdly, the characters. I can’t remember the last time I watched an episode of Jimmy Neutron let alone seen that show referenced literally anywhere. What a blast from the past. And I mean that in the best way. It was comforting. Here the entertainment of my childhood was alive! In America, it’s as though some of it never happened. Though I must give a shout-out to Target for its recent Nickelodeon-inspired t-shirt and to SpongeBob. Because, SpongeBob.

So, we were not the oldest people on line for the Nickelodeon Express. Come on, there were so many parents older than us. But I was definitely relating most to the 2-feet-tall toddlers sandwiching us in line. I definitely smiled as much as they did on the ride too. The train took us above and around the Nickelodeon Zone. We didn’t just see SpongeBob’s home, we also saw the Nickelodeon Shop, the SpongeBob-themed sprinkler playground (Juegos de Agua), the Magneto de Jimmy Neutron, a replica of the Holland Tunnel that is part of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ride—Licencia para conducir de las tortugas ninja—(the tunnel wasn’t real, I know for sure because there was no traffic in sight), and a “New York” street. I was simply fascinated by this park’s construction. Five minutes later we were dropped off at the Arrival Station, which is also the Departure Station, and ready to go deeper into the park.


As we walked further in there were podiums with pictures of Nickelodeon characters, primetime spots for photographs. Snapped a few, of course. With Patrick Starr. The food stations throughout the park are worth nothing here. They were clearly influenced by all things American culture. One cafeteria, La Posta Burger, was decorated with the black and white tiles typical of a 1950s American diner. The color scheme also recalled these diners with the sea-foam green and dulled yellow. Another cafeteria highlight: Ford-T. Nothing about Ford-T, however, resembles the Model Ford-T. As I write this I’m thinking that the photographs inside could have been from the 1920s, so perhaps that’s where they connect the theme to the restaurant. The place reminded me more of Disney’s Animal Kingdom with a wooden, this-is-fake-order-your-food-using-a-number interior, bamboo poles, and plant-life.


Major highlight: the Raffaello Photo Booth. We put one of two euros in, the machine kept spitting the second euro out, and we never got back the first one. So, we left the park without the beautifully crafted canvas of ourselves by Rafael that we deserved.


We waited two hours to go on the El tren de la mina rollercoaster. I thought I was crazy for waiting that long, but there wasn’t much else I wanted to ride. The coaster lasted about a minute, but it was worth it. I could not stop laughing hysterically because of the girls behind us screaming the entire time. It may be the craziest rollercoaster I’ve ever been on (note: I refuse to ride ones that go upside down, too high, etc.). I’m still proud of myself for doing it. If you like being dropped from high altitudes, flying high above Madrid, hanging upside down from a cart, and going around and around on a ride called Vertigo, you’ll find things you like here! And if you like objects and wandering, you’ll be pleased as well. The gift shops did not disappoint: SpongeBob t-shirts, mugs, pencils, towels, stuffed animals, plates, bowls, cutlery, magnets………….. Minions abounded! Minion everything. And they had a bunch of Star Wars things.




All in all, Parque de Atracciones is quite similar to amusement parks in the USA. You are inundated with capitalism. I haven’t fully gotten over the euros I spent on the games trying to win prizes. But the day ended perfectly. On line at the Casa de Bob Esponja, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was going to go inside of SpongeBob’s pineapple house and meet him! He was dressed as Frankenstein for Halloween. I gave him a hug, we took a photo, and went right on into the gift shop to purchase the photo. You’d think I was right at home.

Had to include this wonderful part of the Nickelodeon Zone


And THIS incredible part.

A ride you will never find me on.

Actually Teaching

That is what I’m doing. Actually Teaching, with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for “Penny”! [I hope my parents are proud of me right now for that Music Man reference…] Anyways, I was rereading my first two posts and becoming annoyed with my writing style. Last week I had trouble with content. This week I have a ton of things to write, but I’m bothered by how I’ll probably write them. You could say this process is interesting. I’m having a lot of thoughts.

On Monday I had my first small group of students. I was alone with them in a classroom. I felt fairly out of place. Aren’t I the student? Where are the people I’ll sit next to? Should I make it look like I’m doing something while I stand as opposed to waiting awkwardly for the students to arrive? The students entered and I asked them to help me put the desks in a circle.

The English teacher said she will always have something prepared for me, but I can do whatever I want. If I prepare something else, that’s totally fine. She is very laid back. Which is nice for me, someone who likes to be in control. She gave me a worksheet for the students, and as it was the first day and I had no idea what I would be doing, I used it. First, though, I would lay down the law of my classroom: Be Respectful, If You Misbehave I’ll Send You Back To Class, Find Something You Enjoy About What We’re Doing. I got the most pleasure from telling them this last one. The line I rattled off with all of my groups: “I know you all have lists of a bajillion things you don’t like about school,”—here I listed some things to connect with them, to show them I was a student once too (I still am)—“but my challenge for you is to find something you enjoy.” Sometimes I pleaded with them: ANYthing! But I kept it cool. I think it worked. Unclear with this class because they are not in the bilingual program. The difference between them and the students in the bilingual program is striking.

We went around talking about which words on the handout refer to appearance and which refer to personality: tall, balding, intelligent, moody, to name a few. They eventually wrote down sentences describing themselves. I had them swap papers with the person next to them and introduce each other. This way they would read “I am tall” but have to alter the sentence to say aloud “she is tall.” Improvising seems to be crucial in the classroom. When I mentioned the Be Respectful “rule” to this class, one student rolled her eyes. That alarmed me. I didn’t expect to encounter resistance so soon. I didn’t expect to have to put aside my personal feelings so soon. Luckily that was the only obvious instance of disinterest. The teacher told me the students were “very happy” after class. I was surprised. Pleasantly.

In my Bachillerato Advanced English courses, I decided to make a TON of work for myself and create a blog for each of my two classes. I cannot pinpoint exactly when this thought occurred to me or when I began to make the blog, but I worked hard on it and felt amazing when I showed my creation to the students. First I announced the idea to the class as a whole. “We’re going to have a class blog!” I said that with a lot of enthusiasm, I promise. Most reacted with excitement. I think there was maybe one student I remember looking a bit apprehensive. But I plowed ahead and voila! A blog was born. Without Judy Garland, unfortunately.

This past Wednesday was the day to show the students the site. I planned to see all of the students in mini groups as opposed to explaining the blog to the entire class. The blog has guidelines and questions to prompt the different kinds of posts they can write. I had students read aloud the homepage, but sped through everything in order to see the whole class in 55 minutes. The day before it occurred to me that maybe I should bring them some candy. I always loved when my teachers did that and I won’t see them the week of Halloween for a school holiday so…chocolate come to me! I theorized that I could classically condition them. After debating when to give the chocolate—at the beginning, in the middle, at the end—I decided that the end made perfect sense. After I virtually walked them through the blog and told them they would have to post aka write at least once a week, I gave them candy! Now they know: blog = candy, right? Pavlov would approve for certain.

I felt incredible. I was excited about it, so the students were excited about it. When they entered I told them energetically to take a seat quickly because I had to kick them out in “literally 5 minutes.” They fed off my enthusiasm and were focused and quiet and excited which I know I said already but I could sense it. I want to hold on to that feeling. It will be hard to achieve it all the time, but I will try, because there’s nothing like it. I asserted myself as an enthusiastic, caring, cool (I hope) teacher. The head teacher of the class told me after that they too were all very happy. She told me one of the students said I’m “very prepared” and “we are very lucky to have her as our assistant this year.”  The kid who said that apparently always acts like he knows everything and has no interest in classwork. He was wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers sweatshirt and so I took that as my opportunity to engage with him. “I can’t believe you’re wearing that! You know I’m a Warriors fan!” [this was in my Intro to Penny PowerPoint]. He just smiled and then I did too.

Here are some photos that have nothing to do with the content of this post and everything to do with my current life in Madrid.

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Una calle de Madrid


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Surprise hot air balloons over the Palacio Real de Aranjuez


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Musings on the First Week(s) of School Redux

Wow, I have had an extremely hard time with this next post. The first draft was titled “Musings on the First Week(s) of School,” and it included a bunch of tidbits about…my first weeks of school. It just never felt quite right. As one reader said, “sometimes you’re connected, and other times you’re disconnected, so I think you need to choose one and go with it.” The day after this comment, which of course made me sulk, I realized I’d been pushing myself too hard. This blog isn’t academic. It’s not being graded. I should feel freer and write as though it’s my personal journal, which it is. Kind of. The theme here is still the first weeks of school, but I think I may have been tripped up by the lack of denouement. I’m realizing as I write this sentence that of course there is no denouement, for I just started this job.

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A slide from my PowerPoint presentation.

I created a PowerPoint presentation to introduce myself in class. I’m still not sure if it was too long, or who understood what, but I’m happy with the slides I made—as tacky as they may have been. The “I’m from New York City!” slide is a picture of the Imagine Circle in Central Park. And there are 3 whole slides devoted to pictures of restaurants and food {I’m sure no one who knows me is surprised to read this}. A highlight is one slide with four photos of the following stars (thanks, Google) overlapping each other in the center: Adele, a Jason Aldean album cover, Jay Z, and Beyoncé. Maybe 5% of the students know who Jay Z is. And that number may be pushing it. Is this what getting older is like?!

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More slides from my PowerPoint presentation.

The most significant part, or, the part I can’t get over just yet, of starting school has been the classroom atmosphere. I’ve felt confident, disheartened, defeated, and inspired all at once. This Kingda Ka of emotions (https://www.sixflags.com/greatadventure/attractions/kingda-ka, “You’ll be shooting up that impossible height so fast, you won’t even have time to think, so just hang on. It’s 90° straight up. And once you get to the top you’ll be plummeting right back down in a 270-degree spiral…There is very little that can prepare you for a drop of this intensity”) is, I presume, what teaching ages 11 through 18 entails most of the time. But to be honest, I think I was a bit naïve going into this experience.

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Even more slides from my PowerPoint presentation.

I envisioned the perfect classroom, students attentive and participating, filled with thoughts and curiosities. But I have been experiencing the opposite. I guess I was slightly spoiled by my community college students earlier this year. Most of my students are talking. Nonstop. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. There is always at least one student turned around at their desk with their back to the front, talking to the students behind them while simultaneously nudging the one next to them. And then there are the groups in the back corners of the room that are cracking jokes and commenting on everything. Or an individual comments on something which prompts a student nearby to laugh which prompts another student nearby to laugh and that’s it, it’s over. Oh and there are the students in the front and middle rows doing the same thing. So yeah, the talking is contagious. It’s more of a chat-room than a classroom.

Some teachers have the classrooms under control—this still means there is chatter—others don’t seem to care that much. Some know that they can’t possibly do much with a class of 30-35 students. One teacher will say “a ver, chicos” to get their attention a couple of times. He’ll trek onward, though, with discussion of the Visigoths and Justinian I. “In a class with this many students,” another teacher said to me, “I’m at my wits’ end.”  

In relaying my first-hand account of the classroom to a fellow assistant teacher, I decided to compare the talking to the plague. Ultra contagious. Rapid. It’s over. Dark, yes, but fitting. I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard other assistant teachers say the same thing about their classes. Systemic commentary. And beyond the chatting, every student always has a snarky response to something the teacher says. If the teacher asks a student to be the first to present their assignment, they react with disapproval or just flat out say no. This would’ve been heresy in my schools. I’m not saying that was a “better” way to handle a classroom, it was just the opposite. Apparently all of the kids in one class of 34 students get “high marks,” are “competitive,” and most of them passed a high-level English exam. So, the talking doesn’t indicate lack of interest or caring. And actually I have had their full attention. In those rare moments I try to make sure what I’m saying is worth it. Oh well, when the class is split into smaller groups I’ll be able to accomplish more.

I’ve started to go into class expecting the talking, and I think it’s helping. I can’t and won’t take it personally. It’s not malicious, either. It’s simply talking. I do perceive it as a total lack of respect for the teacher and classroom/learning, but at least they come to school? Idk. Maybe this is a horrible lowering of standards, and maybe I would rather students on their phones so at least they’re not distracting each other talking and joking around, but I know I went school with some gross and awful kids. I’m sure all schools have their fair share, but this will be a learning experience for me. I’ll have to work hard to make lessons interesting enough to hold their attention. I’ll have to suppress the urge to get angry and frustrated and retreat and give up. And I’ll have to stretch/alter my expectations for the classroom. I guess the personal growth has begun…

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Did you think I'd forget the food slides?!

Blake Shelton and My Spanish Bank Account

Hello, blog.  He vuelto.  My first post (this one) will be a tale of failure and triumph.  I’m sorry I haven’t written sooner, but I arrived two weeks ago and hit the ground running.  I wanted to wait until I had some spark of inspiration.  I don’t want to write solely informational posts, or solely soul-searching ones either.  What pushed me to finally begin this word-focused journey was an encounter between a Spanish banker and myself.

At first I wasn’t sure if she was friendly, if I was annoying her, if she understood a word I said.  As I translated word after word in my head, she looked at me with a straight face.  I had no idea how I seemed: does it sound like I know any Spanish at all?  Does it sound like I’m crazy?  But in the middle of trying to open a bank account, I realized exactly what I was doing.  I was opening a bank account in another language in another country.  Me.  Opening a bank account in Spanish in Spain.  I felt as though I had conquered…something.  Not sure what.  But I realized after I struggled to say “I have a placement letter from the government” and “my program gave us a packet about the Expansion Account at this bank” that I had arrived.  I was experiencing the precise moments I had been thinking would solidify my experience living in Spain.  What defines living more than opening a bank account?  A lot of things.  But I hope you get the point.

Amparo and I spent a while together, or what seemed like a while.  I don’t have a Spanish cell number so I couldn’t receive a message to open online banking.  Amparo tried a few different things, made a few calls, but I could not receive the message.  As I felt defeated, I overheard Amparo say on the phone “extranjera.”  “That’s me,” I thought, “extranjera” (foreigner).  Ugh.  I am “extra,” not integral.

I said to Amparo, “Mi español es mejor que suena,” which hopefully means “my Spanish is better than it sounds.”  In a quick string of sentences she said that I speak well and that her level of English is low.  I looked at the stacks of papers across her desk, Spanish words floating everywhere, and felt comforted.  For the first time I stopped beating myself up about my Spanish ability.  “Wow,” I thought, “I am living my dream.  And even if my language level is not where I hope it’d be, I have enough to open a bank account, and that seems like a darn lot.”

Enter Blake Shelton.  On the bus ride back from the bank, Shelton’s 2013 hit song “Boys ‘Round Here” fittingly came on my shuffling music.  It’s a song about culture and place.  “Well the boys ‘round here don’t listen to the Beatles, [they] run Ol’ Bocephus (a nickname for Hank Williams Jr.) through a jukebox needle at the honky tonk, where their boots stomp all night.”  The boys ‘round Blake Shelton’s parts do X, but they don’t do Y.  Specific cultural activities take place while others, according to the song’s narrator, most certainly do not.  “The boys ‘round here, they’re keepin’ it country.  Ain’t...one know how to do the Dougie.”  The “Dougie” is a popular dance routine used in Cali Swag District’s 2010 song “Teach Me How to Dougie.”  The song repeats, “teach me how to Dougie, teach me, teach me how to Dougie” and directs listeners in its movements.  Every party at every university, every high school house party in the U.S. heard the Dougie at some point during the weekend.  Shelton’s lyrics, however, assert [yes, it’s been a while since I wrote creatively] that his group does not know how to do the Dougie.  “You don’t do the Dougie?” a female voice asks in the song.  “Naw, not in Kentucky,” Shelton replies.  

Cut to the music video for “Boys ‘Round Here” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXAgv665J14).  White men and women in denim and cowboy hats drink beer and dance in a barn.  Suddenly the doors open and a group of Black men look in at the party.  The partying people stop dancing and look at the men at the door.  After they look to each other, the men walk in towards Shelton at the center of the dance floor.  At first, the relationship between them is unclear.  But then, they hug and say hello.  Suddenly everyone at the party is dancing together and the Black men are teaching the white partygoers how to Dougie.  The music video shows that in his lyrics Shelton makes fun of the idea that one place includes all the same people doing all the same things and excludes anything or anyone different.

At my bank account opening I couldn’t have felt more like an outsider.  The account they were opening for me even includes the word “extranjera.”  But during the conversing about account numbers and my American telephone number, I felt proud of myself.  I felt as though I kind of fit into Spanish society.  If the Spanish language includes the word “extranjera,” then perhaps there is a place for me ‘round here.  


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