Festival Season

April and May mark the coming of Spring here in Trujillo which means the tourists are coming back, the sun is coming back, and the festivals are coming back. For Austin and I, that means our weekends have gotten a lot more interesting so we tend to stick around Trujillo to enjoy our local festivals and the storks who judgmentally look down on us celebrating in the plaza.

First up was the very small book fair that came to Trujillo much to my delight. About eight stands were set up in our plaza selling books of every type. Austin and I browsed the fair looking for books for ourselves and chatting with the store keepers when we found one who spoke quite good english and was able to recommend some great books for us. He helped me find an interesting book that would be at my reading level that I’m looking forward to starting after I finish my current read. Austin’s eye was caught by this comic book which the storekeeper explained was written by an Extremaduran artist who incorporated all of the Hollywood villains. The premise is that Capitan Extremadura has to partner with his nemesis the Duende Rojo (Red Goblin/Troll/Sprite) to fight all the bad guys from Hollywood who are coming to Extremadura through an inter-dimensional wormhole. The whole thing takes place in cities across Extremadura, in cities that Austin and I have visited, and is full of references to these places and it’s written with an extremeño accent which makes Austin and I laugh. The extremeñan accent is pretty thick but one of its defining characteristics is to just drop the “d” from pretty much any word ever. One example of the book being written with an extremeño accent is that instead of writing “Joder,” which means fuck, the author writes “Joer.”

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Anyways, combining Hollywood villains with Extremadura is pretty much the best thing ever and Austin and I laughed our way through the comic book before proudly putting it on our coffee table. As you can see from the cover, Captain Extremadura was modeled after Captain America with an extremeñan flair. His colors match the Extremaduran flag, his shield has the outline of Extremadura on it, and his helmet has stork wings, because storks. My book also has its own Extremadura flair, it takes place in Merida, so I’m excited to read it.

I finally had a soccer game in Trujillo that Austin and I were present for so I asked him to come along and take a few shots of me playing since it’s been years since I last got action shots of me on the field. We lost the game, but I learned a very important lesson.

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My old ankle injury has been coming back and it was particularly bad that game so about halfway through the first half I asked my coach to pull me out, I figured that I’d stretch it out for a few minutes and then jump back in the game. Our pre-game warm up isn’t ideal so I often don’t get to fully stretch. He pulled me out at my request and then when I asked to go back in I was told that I wasn’t allowed to. Apparently in our division each team only gets three substitutions and once you leave the field you don’t get to go back on. I was furious. My teammates didn’t understand why I didn’t already know that and I didn’t understand why no one had told me that. It was the type of cultural confusion I hadn’t had to deal with since my first couple weeks in Trujillo. Talk about frustrating, so now I know not leave the game unless I sit down on the field and pretend an injury. It certainly makes me understand why Spaniards all go flying and lie on the ground when they get knocked over, their only way to get off the field to stretch it out is if they act like they seriously need it.

After returning from Morocco we spent an evening in Madrid before taking off to Toledo for a day trip and then returning to Trujillo for Easter. For Easter week every city in Spain has processions that march through the street almost nightly carrying crosses and/or big figurines of the Virgin. Austin and I had been told about these for ourselves and were eager to see a procession since we knew we were going to miss the processions in Trujillo.

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Just as we had been warned, the procession was full of folks wearing these hooded outfits that just looked like purple KKK outfits to Austin and I. They marched at the slowest pace I’ve ever seen, so despite the route being less than a mile long, these processions lasted for hours. Austin and I were curious as to why they were wearing these hooded robes and why they were purple and what they were doing and we actually ended up finding our answers to those questions throughout our day in Toledo. Each group has a different color, so this particular group is purple but there are green robes, blue robes, all sorts of different colors and as far as we can tell, the colors don’t really mean anything significant other than what guild they’re part of. The hooded robes, on the other hand, have a very interesting history. While we were in Toldeo there were three temporary exhibitions, one on the templars, one on torture, and one of catapults and other siege weapons. The torture exhibition had plenty of instruments of torture on display as well as the outfits sinners used to wear to publicly shame them and indicate how they would be killed for their heresy. Those outfits looked like a medieval version of what the procession folks above are wearing, the ones on display were made of linen but the tall hood was unmistakeable. They would be painted with flames facing up or down depending on if the sinner was to be hanged and then burned or just burned alive.

Which leads me to my next question of why in the world these folks are walking around dressing in outfits that are based on clothing that sinners on their way to be burned at the stake would wear. I understand catholicism is all about sin, but if these are supposedly the good Catholics walking in the procession, shouldn’t they be wearing the red capes of the inquisition or something (I mean, if they’re going to insist on wearing outfits from that time). After seeing the torture exhibit in Toledo the hoods of processional guild folks and the KKK hoods suddenly seem far, far more sinister.

Toledo is the old capital of Spain and is 100% set up for tourists. It is probably the most touristy place that we’ve visited yet including Barcelona, nonetheless it was beautiful and I see why everyone says you have to visit it at least once. I bought a cheap guide book and that was incredibly helpful for learning about the monuments we were seeing on our self-designed and self-guided tour through Toledo.

One of the first things we saw while walking through Toledo was this store front with elven writing from Lord of the Rings on the window. Intrigued, because we both recognized it immediately, we looked at the display and realized that along with the medieval weaponry (a common tourist item in Toledo), this store sold replica swords from all sorts of fandoms including Lord of the Rings. The elven writing was obviously a sign to all the nerds out there that this was where they could get their replica Aragorn sword and totally a tourist trap.

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Toledo itself is a beautiful city full of old ruins from the arabs, from the romans, and from the Spaniards after the Reconquista, and Austin and I had a blast walking around in the gorgeous weather to see all of it.

Toledo, like Caceres, like Sevilla, like Granada, like much of Spain before the Reconquista, has a history of being a city where three cultures/religious communities came together and lived peacefully under moorish rule. Toledo is particularly proud of this history and calls itself the city of three cultures and highlights synagogues, churches and mosques on its tourist maps so visitors can experience all three. The gigantic churches were incredibly crowded and not as interesting to Austin and I as the mosques, especially as we had just come from Morocco. We stopped by the main mosque and picked up the audioguide to learn about its history which was incredibly interesting and somewhat reminiscent of our travels through Andalusia.

As you can see in the photo of the outside of the mosque below (the mosque is on the right side of the photo) the building has a very abrupt change in architecture about halfway through. Like the mosque in Cordoba, this mosque was converted to a church after Toledo was conquered. Instead of razing the mosque and building over it, they added on the church so if you can’t make it to Cordoba but want to same confusion of seeing both buildings combined in interesting manners, this is a great mosque to visit. One half is very clearly a mosque with the familiar pillars and arches (which were all built on stones placed there by Romans, no big deal) and then you go up a few stairs and you have a very familiar pulpit with Jesus looking down at you. The church part of the mosque was designed by mudejar architects, which the audioguide helpfully explained as moors who had been allowed to stay, so despite the fact that it’s a church the architecture is an interesting combination of arab and christian architecture. In addition the paintings, most of which are gone but you can see tidbits still, are also a mix of the two styles. Arab writing covers the archway that frames Jesus while paintings of cherubs and saints decorate the surrounding walls. In the photo with Austin and I we’re standing across from the mosque on an overlook viewing half of the city and in the background is one of the city gates “The Puerta del Sol.”

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The mosque part of the mosque was inspired by the mosque in Cordoba so it has some of the same colors and design features. The audioguide told Austin and I that this mosque/church represented the “Christian and Muslim religions destined to understand each other,” something that I’m not convinced has come to pass.

Continuing our walk through Toledo to see all of the city gates we went to the Alfonso VI Gate which was the old main gate to the city. It’s interesting partly because of its keyhole arch and variety of stones used which mark it as mudejar work but also because of the giant piece of granite in the top of the keyhole above my head.

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My guidebook says that no one knows why that piece is there. In the keystone at the top of the arch, if you look up at it from underneath there’s a really cool flower carved into the stone which has been dated back to the Visigoth times (600-700 AD).

As I mentioned, Austin and I visited the torture exhibition while in Toledo and the first thing that we read upon entering was this overview which I found particularly interesting due to its bluntness. The last sentence in particular is calling out the Spaniards for their intolerance and seemed like something that would not have been stated so bluntly in the states. I applauded the Spaniards who designed the exhibit for tossing in the forceful reminder that intolerance of the people who wanted to live by a slightly different value set led to the loss of freedom for the whole country and to the persecution of various groups of people.

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In addition to the torture exhibit I made sure we stopped by the Catapults and other Siege Weapons exhibit which brought me back to my high school days when I built a trebuchet for a project. Austin and I learned lots about the siege weapons and the battles they were used in before heading back to Madrid and back to Trujillo.

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On Easter Sunday, after church, the entire town of Trujillo and then some come out to the plaza and dance and drink and celebrate. My students have no idea what they’re celebrating (and Wikipedia just says it’s for Easter), but they all go out to the plaza to join in the fun. The festival generally draws a crowd of around 20,000-25,000 people to Trujillo, which has a total population of 10,000 people. To say that the plaza gets crowded is an understatement. A lot of folks will wear traditional dress, and those who don’t have traditional dress will wear bandanas around their necks. Most of the songs played are traditional carnival songs that have the lyrics slightly adjusted to fit with chiviri.

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This family brought the sheep to the plaza. They brought a SHEEP. Another family brought their goat. You can also see the family is all dressed in traditional outfits. Austin and I got a kick of the goats and sheep that were running around the plaza, although it doesn’t seem all that nice, the music was really loud.

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Almost a year ago Austin and I were placed in Trujillo and he excitedly texted me that Trujillo had a CHEESE FESTIVAL in May. A cheese festival! How great is that? Being in May, the cheese festival would then mark the end of our time in Trujillo, and despite that we both have been looking forward to it immensely. I mean, how could we not? It’s cheese. And now that May is almost upon us, the cheese festival is here, a week earlier than usual. The plaza is filled with booths that have all sorts of cheese from all over the world for us to try. And by all over the world I mean from all over Spain and one booth from Switzerland. Supposedly this is the best cheese festival in the world and the number one cheese festival in Europe. For Austin and I it’s an opportunity to eat as much cheese as possible over the course of four days.

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The set up is quite simple. You buy tickets, 10 tickets for 5 euros and you can use these tickets to get tapa sized samples from the booths, generally 1 tapa is 1 ticket. So Austin and I bought enough tickets to last ourselves all weekend (we had been warned that the line gets obnoxiously long on Saturday and Sunday) and then we go up to the cheese fair for lunch and eat cheese. And then we go back to our apartment for a few hours and hang out and then we go back up to the cheese fair with another ten tickets and eat more cheese for dinner. And from there, repeat until the cheese is gone. At this point I think we’ve tried almost all the booths there. There’s cream cheese, soft cheeses, hard cheeses, cheesecakes, there’s everything. Occasionally we stop and see people we know and chat with them about the cheese or just wave from afar. Our students see us and ask us if we like cheese in english, excited that they know how to talk to us. In some ways it’s shocking for Austin and I to see how far we’ve come in seven months, from knowing no one in town, from not being able to understand a word people are saying, from being to shy to talk to people, to spending three hours walking around the cheese festival with a new friend, greeting old friends, trying cheese, and speaking to everyone in Spanish and understanding everything they say.


When driving to our away games for soccer, the club rents a bus and we all hop on as a team and ride together to the game. One of our trips took us up north to Placencia and the driver decided to drive us through Monfrague, the national park that’s just north of us but so unconnected to public transportation that Austin and I have never been able to go. For me it was a treat to drive through it and see everything and the girls on the soccer team were happy to act as guides and point out the main monuments in the park. The most popular monument is a huge rock cliff jutting out over a river the winds through the park where eagles and storks have nests. The cliff is called the Saltado de Gitano or “Gypsy’s Jump.” The local legend behind it being that a long time ago a gypsy fell in love with a spaniard and wanted to marry her but, because of his love, was persecuted and driven from town and he went to the top of this rock and jumped off in despair.

Awhile ago I had the opportunity to ask one of the teachers I work with about high schools in Spain versus the US. Austin and I had noticed that our students seemed far more stressed out about their classwork than he or I had ever been in the states and my teacher had worked in schools in the US and in Spain so I was wondering if he could explain the difference. He said that Spanish high schools are more rigorous than a lot of American high schools for a couple reasons, one of which is because they have to learn everything in high school, the way we do GEs in college. My high school has a philosophy teacher here in Spain, which wouldn’t even exist in most American high schools, and it’s a tiny high school (I think my high school here has a total of about 300 students grades 7-12). But the thing that causes stress for all of the students here is the university entrance exams. Their high school GPA makes up a percentage of their score and their score on the exam does the rest, their score on these exams determines what they are allowed to study when they go to university. They are allowed to retake the exam, but that takes time and, I suspect, money. This means that if a student wants to have options they need as high a score as possible. No wonder they’re all stressed out.

This also explains to me in part why Spaniards are not nearly as idealistic as Americans are. Spaniards don’t get a second chance at high school, they can only improve that test score so much, they will study what they are able to study. Talk of a fulfilling career isn’t an option here. Combine that with the terrible economy and people in their twenties are just happy when they have a job that pays the bills, whether or not it’s their dream job (most of whom don’t necessarily have dream job) isn’t as important. On the other hand, spaniards don’t define themselves by their career. It’s not often that they ask or care about where someone works as part of that persons identity. More important is where they’ve had the opportunity to go  travel to, what do they do for fun, what are their thoughts on politics, Trump, cheese, etc. Their job isn’t a huge part of their identity. It was a little mind-blowing for me to think that they didn’t have any do overs, that they couldn’t necessarily become a doctor if they wanted to, they don’t have the option of going to community college and retaking the courses they need or may have struggled with in high school.

In the US we’re individualistic and incredibly idealistic (or at least, my generation is), and believe everyone should be able to work hard and they can get where they want to go, at any time. And to me that’s sort of a big part of what the Americans believe, if you decide later to change things up, you can go back to school and do that. If our system weren’t as screwed up and unequal this all might be true in practice as well as in theory. In Spain they’re working under a whole different set of assumptions, and none of those assumptions are that you get to choose where you work based on what you think you want to do. When they say that the United States provides opportunities to immigrants and that’s why the go there. I always thought they were talking about freedom from religious persecution or the freedom of speech we all enjoy, which is definitely why a lot of people go there. But those two things can be found in other countries around the world. I didn’t realize that what they also meant by opportunity was the opportunity to make an active choice in which career path they would go down rather than letting much of that choice be decided by other factors.

When I asked my teacher about giving people the opportunity to try again, he said very straight forwardly, “They should have tried to first time.” I doubt he represents the view of all, or even most Spaniards, but it was nonetheless an interesting, and to me very unforgiving, viewpoint.

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