Of Birthdays and Elections

Birthdays in other countries can be either pretty great or pretty depressing. Sometimes, birthdays can trigger all sorts of feelings of culture shock and homesickness when you have to celebrate your birthday thousands of miles away from the friends and family you usually celebrate with.  In order to avoid that experience, I planned an epic birthday for myself in Madrid that Austin happily tagged along for. We grabbed a semi-early express bus to Madrid and boy were we riding in style. Nice seats, lots of leg room, wifi, the whole nine yards. We’re going to have to ride the express bus more often, shaves about 45 minutes to an hour off the time the regular busses take to get there and are much more comfortable.

The first order of business, after checking into our hostel, was eating lunch at the oldest restaurant in the world. Restaurant Botin opened its doors in 1725 and has kept them open since then, preserving even the look of the restaurant inside. The seated us in the basement which was really cool, if a little claustrophobic. On the walls we could see where the had built in ledges to put candles back in the day, today they had electric lamps filling those cavities. The food was excellent, I ordered a steak off their menu and when the waiter asked me how I wanted it cooked I panicked and said “medio raro.” I knew that wasn’t the correct way to say that but I wasn’t expecting the question. After he’d left I pieced it together and Austin and I had a good laugh about the fact that I had told that waiter I wanted my steak medium weird. Luckily, the wait staff all spoke english too, so my steak was cooked perfectly medium rare and tasted excellent when they brought it out.


It was a super rainy day in Madrid and, unlike in Trujillo, the leaves were changing color. As we wandered through el Retiro park it actually felt like fall, a feeling I haven’t had on my birthday in years.


We had returned to the park because the new exposition within the Crystal Palace had opened on November 3rd so we went back to go inside and enjoy whatever it was they had put in there. It turned out to be a sound exhibit where they played a recording of ice cracking. It mostly gave you the feeling that the whole palace was going to break and you were about to be shattered with glass while you were in there. After enjoying the ambiance for awhile, we headed back out into the park to stroll through the parts we hadn’t seen before heading back to the hostel.


After taking a break in our hostel and then getting all gussied up, Austin and I headed to a theater a few stops away on the metro to see the Lion King (thanks mom and dad). The show was entirely in Spanish, which was surprisingly okay. Since I know the story really well it wasn’t too hard to translate everything, and even the changes to the storyline were easy to understand. Listening to the songs in Spanish was amusing and because I’ve heard them too many times in English I didn’t like them nearly as much. The most notable difference in the play was the removal of one scene and replacing it with a circle of life add on instead (I assume they just couldn’t figure out how to translate Simba and Mufasa hunting Zazu) and having Timon and Pumba dress up as flamenco dancers to distract the hyenas rather than hula dancers.


The theater itself was really nice, but Austin and I were totally thrown off by everyone buying popcorn and lattes in the lobby and bringing them into the theater. I’ve never been in a theater where you could have food before so I found it a little shocking.

We got out of the theater around 1am so to finish off the evening we headed to the San Gines Chocolateria. It’s famous for its chocolate and the fact that it’s open twenty four hours a day. During the day the line was really long but at 1am there was no line so Austin and I ordered hot chocolate and porras and enjoyed them immensely. Here in Spain churros are really different from what they are in California. The churros are horseshoe shaped breads, and they aren’t covered in sugar or cinnamon or anything. They’re just meant to be dipped in hot chocolate. Porras are the long, straight fried bread shape that I associate with churros in California, but they’re much thicker in diameter and, again, aren’t covered in sugar or anything. The hot chocolate is also made differently, when I first had it I was convinced they had just put a ton of chocolate in the microwave and melted it into a drink. I haven’t totally ruled out that theory, but a more reasonable guess would be that they mix chocolate into heavy cream and heat it up.


So all in all it was a solid birthday.


The next morning, we had time before we took our blablacar home so we headed over to the royal palace to take a tour. While the palace has over 3000 rooms (as previously mentioned) they really only open a small number of those as the museum. It was kind of ridiculous, to wander around the open rooms and see how they were furnished and decorated. The banquet room in the queen’s chamber is still used occasionally for State Banquets and they had it set up for such. Each plate had four different glasses, does each course come with a different wine? In any case, I decided I’ll have to become the ambassador to Spain so I can have dinner in that room and figure out exactly what all that silverware was for.


This is the ceiling of the entryway, every room has incredible paintings on the ceiling but they don’t like it when tourists take photos inside the rest of the palace so you’ll just have to go visit yourself.


Outside the palace was the Royal Gardens which Austin and I couldn’t resist walking through. The different pathways were all named, this one was the Mosquito Path and since we all love mosquitoes SO MUCH I insisted that we walk on this path.


The garden was also full of these peacocks. Tourists feed them pretty often so they’re pretty friendly, I was able to convince one peahen to peck my hand. It felt exactly as if a chicken was pecking my hand. At first I was super afraid (what if it pecked my hand off?) but then I told myself I was being silly, since it wasn’t actually that much bigger than some of my biggest chickens and as long as it wasn’t coming near my eye I’d be fine. I was.


So ends my birthday celebrations, we headed back to Trujillo to prep for classes and went back to our lives in the schools. My fourth graders were learning about body parts this week so I did a few really fun games with them, drew some monsters, a little bit of simon says; we had a good time together.

This weekend there was a medieval festival (also known as the festival of Three Cultures: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) in Caceres and Austin and I had to pick up our residency cards so we grabbed a ride over with one of my teachers after school and explored until we could meet up with one of his teachers, with whom we were staying.


As usual, we wound up wandering through the large park that runs along the edge of Caceres. As we walked through it we came along one of these exercise playgrounds that Austin and I so dearly love (think back to our time in Buenos Aires). This one had a bunch of new toys in it that we hadn’t seen before; like this leg lift machine that I hung out on for ten minutes at the end of which my thighs were aching.

After meeting up with Austin’s teacher, he told us we were a little early to go to the Medieval Festival so he drove us up to the highest point in Caceres so we could enjoy the view and then walk back down to town and the festival.


This statue was at the top outside of the church and the view of Caceres was lovely. It made the whole city look really small, which is surprising since it’s about ten times bigger than Trujillo.


On our walk back to Caceres we saw this dog on guard duty outside his house. He was standing so still that I was convinced he was taxidermies and stuffed before he wagged his tail and became our best friend. He loved us so much that he ran along the fence until he could squirm a little ways under at this point so we could give him a belly rub.


The Medieval Festival was very cool for a lot of different reasons, first of all, there was a lot of information there. They had medieval weapons on display (like this giant trebuchet and the catapult next to it), and a lot of information about which different groups conquered the different areas of Spain and when during the Middle Ages. Aside form the information though, it was a celebration of the three cultures, so there was a Jewish area, as Islamic area (with a lot of booths selling shawarma, that area smelled so good) and a Christian area. The venders were all dressed up in costume and there were even “Medieval” carnival rides for the kids. Now I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of pirate ship swing rides, swings, or ferris wheels in the middle ages, but these contraptions were all present at the fair. The best part of their presence, however, was that all of them were hand powered and built by hand. From what I could tell they were also made mostly (or even only) with materials from the Middle Ages. And let me tell you, you haven’t seen a ferris wheel until you’ve seen a hand crank ferris wheel. I didn’t get any pictures because it was too dark but it was super cool!


And then of course there was the whole section on torture devices used on people accused of witchcraft that made me a little queasy.


They also had a full section on the important birds of the time, as well as their significance then and today. In addition to the vulture, they had hawks and owls. Austin and I never managed to be around that area when they were doing flight displays with the vulture but the information tapestry (yes, tapestry) behind the vulture said that they were still used today to help with pest control at the airports.


The whole old city was dressed up for the festival with colorful flags and coats of arms hanging from all of the buildings. The imagery on them changed depending on which quarter you were in (so the jewish quarter had a banner with the Star of David and hebrew writing, the Islamic quarter had banners with moons on them and arabic). With all my experience of the tension and hate in the Middle East, it was nice to see a festival that was celebrating all three cultures.


In one of our Blablacar rides, Austin and I had a driver who was happy to tell us all about the history of Spain, including it’s interesting stance on timezones. All of Europe, with the exception of the UK and Portugal is in the same time zone. As long as you don’t look too closely at a map that won’t seem problematic to you. But if you look closely at the map, you’ll notice that Spain is below the UK and it would actually make more sense for them to be in the same timezone as the UK. It turns out that when Franco was the dictator and getting all buddy buddy with Germany, they decided that their bond would be stronger if they were all in the same timezone. So Spain is technically an hour ahead of where it should be, and has been since the late 1930s. Some studies say that Spain’s slightly unique daily schedule is caused by the difference in time and Spaniards have debated about whether or not to switch back to their correct time zone.

Spain is one of those countries where if it’s your birthday, you buy people drinks. Which is the opposite of the US, where if it’s your birthday, people buy you drinks. So when it’s a kids birthday, they bring candy to share with the class, which we do in the US so I don’t know why that switches when you grow up. For my birthday I wasn’t thinking about buying candy for anyone, luckily one of the teachers I work with was all over it and brought me a bunch of little cake taster things that I could share with some of my students. Because it was my birthday.

Since the election happened I feel like I can’t really finish off this post without commenting on the Spanish point of view. Most of Spain is also surprised that Trump one, though they don’t view it as horrifically as the Americans do. They mostly just think that that wasn’t the smart thing to do. Most of the girls I play soccer with and my teachers asked me what I thought about Trump and when I said that I wasn’t happy he was elected, they seemed a very relieved that I hadn’t supported him. When they ask who I wanted for president I tell them Bernie Sanders, with a little tear in my eye. Interestingly, I had one teacher tell me that “The American people have chosen,” and it wasn’t until he said that that I realized exactly how untrue that statement was. As the rest of the internet has said, he didn’t win the popular vote, so in that sense they didn’t choose, but also, only half of the American people voted, so they really didn’t choose. Many countries require their citizens to vote and there’s a small fine for not voting (Belgium and Argentina I’m looking at you) which seems like a great idea to me. Ditching the electoral college also seems like a solid idea. Most of the Spaniards I talk to don’t actually understand how someone could get the most votes and still not win. They have all assured me, however, that I can stay in Spain for the next four years if I need to. But if I stay in Spain, how can I join in on the protests?



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