November 28, 2004

Living in Spain - Late November 2004 Update

Dear Friends,

¡Hola! How are you? You probably haven’t heard from me for a while and were wondering, ‘I wonder how Ruby is doing in Barcelona?’ So, let me fill you in a little about what has been going on over here in the crazy, culture-filled city of Barcelona.

First, for those the might not know, I am a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar studying European and Middle Eastern studies at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. I arrived in late August and will stay until July to return to the US for graduate/law school.

The goal of the scholarship is not just studying, but building goodwill and better understanding between countries. Since that goal is very broad, my job is full-time. I am constantly representing the US and Texas throughout my daily life while living in my apartment, going to school, working, speaking at events, coordinating projects, having language exchange partners, and conversations at parties. It is a fun job actually and really love it.

It might help you understand my life a little if you rent, ‘L’Auberge Espagnole,’ (The Spanish Apartment) which is a French film that came out about a year ago about a French Erasmus (European exchange program) student who lives in Barcelona for a year and lives in a shared apartment with people from all over. It is translated as ‘Una Casa de Locos’ in Spanish. I watched the movie about 7 times before I came to help encourage me through all the paperwork and transition I was going to go through to make it to Barcelona for a year.

I live in a shared 6-bedroom apartment with 5 other flat mates with two bathrooms, only one of which works. I share a room with my husband, and then we have 3 Italians, one Spanish guy, and a German girl. It is quite interesting because you know how when you have ever had a roommate or flat mate before, there is always room for confusion/frustration, etc. Well, these people all speak another language other than English as a first language, so that is one place for added confusion and tension. I usually speak either Spanish or English with each one depending on their abilities. Plus, we all have different culture norms which might conflict.

Not to be stereotypical, but it appears I relate most with the German and her efficiency and organization. The Italians are great as well. I love their influence on the coffee I drink every morning (Italian espresso), and how I learn some new Italian recipes. On most occasions though, they can be loud and sometimes have very strong personalities. So basically everyday is like working at the UN.

My flat is on the Entresuelo, which in American terms means the first floor. Luckily, we have a lift/elevator.

In my immediate neighborhood, I have two grocery stores, two video stores, a Tabac shop (which sells stamps), a copy/fax store, and an Internet shop, all just less than a block from my flat.

I basically go to one of the two grocery stores everyday stocking up on whatever we ran out of the day before. Living here is not like living in America when you load up your car with a week or two of groceries at anytime of the day. Everyone lives in a flat (in the city), with small storage facilities (I have only 2.5 shelves in the fridge), and many people don’t use cars. You use a grocery tote cart. Everyone has them, so Burak bought us one.
Plus, the stores are open from 8/9am to 2pm then 5pm to 8/9pm, Monday through Saturday. So, I have to coordinate in my schedule when I can shop because some days I am at school until 9pm. Also, on the holidays everything is closed as well. So I constantly have to look ahead at the calendar and see if we need to stock up for a long weekend. We have one coming up soon! Because I go to the stores everyday, I basically know all the employees and when they work. I have the client (discount) card for three stores in town. I sort of like go to the stores because no one can buy too much, so the lines stay small and also I get to be amongst the community.

My university is a 50-minute commute one way every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. The campus is really large and sits surrounded by a forest. It is always about 5 degrees colder than Barcelona, but full of fresh air. I have four classes; International Organizations, History of the European Government, Conflicts in the Middle East, and Demography. I have Catalan, Spanish, and international friends in all my classes. There are not a lot of Americans at my school, and I hang out with only one of them and the rest are non-American.

After a couple of months, I feel really comfortable there. I know how to check out a book, where to eat, which computer labs are the best, how to buy a print card, how to print a sheet at the computer lab, how to turn something into a teacher, where the teachers’ offices are, how to matriculate, how to pay for matriculation, where the movie theatre on campus is, etc. It takes a while to figure this stuff out. It is like being a freshman all over again, but in a different language.

I honestly think I haven’t written a nice, full update since maybe September (sorry about that). I think I need to go back and catch you up on all of that then.

We arrived in Barcelona on August 29, 2004.

In September, Burak and I were taking Spanish classes at a language school. Then we moved into our new apartment that was going to be our place for the next year. We spent a couple of weekends preparing it from shopping at IKEA to painting the room blue to reinforcing the L’s that keep our closet from falling from all the weight. This took about all the weekends of September. At the same time, I was studying for the LSAT to take in Madrid on October 2nd.

I also used this month to start up a Texas Exes (University of Texas) alumni chapter in Barcelona. I somehow bumped into several alumni in town so I have organized meetings once a month at different ethnic restaurants. We have done Mexican and Cuban and in December we are going to a Tex-Mex restaurant. It is really fun to meet up with other Texans once a month and see how their lives are here. I always learn something or gain a new perspective. It is also a nice little home-sickness treatment to be able to talk about streets, places, or restaurants in Austin, and this person you met in Spain knows what you are talking about.

In late September, Barcelona celebrated their patron saint with a long weekend of festivities. I spent the Friday running around to parades, human castle-building competitions, and the Picasso museum (which was free because of the holiday). I also went out that night into the center of town and I couldn’t believe that at 1am the entire Plaza Catalunya was filled with locals. I seriously had not seen that many Catalans/Spaniards in my entire life all together like I did in the early morning for this festival.

That same weekend, I attended a Rotary Scholar conference in Madrid and met a lot of the scholars in Spain. I continue to keep in touch with them and have planned out some trips to other parts of Spain while many have visited me in Barcelona.

I started school the very next week after the conference and took the first month to find good classes in Castellano that I wanted to take. Also, I used this month to find good friends, start an English-Spanish language exchange, and get adjusted to my university.

The first weekend of school, I went back to Madrid to take the 4 hour LSAT. It went alright and used the night after the test to celebrate that it was over with Burak and another girl I met in the test that day!

The rest of October was about adjusting to my school, apartment, new gym, new friends, attending my Rotary club, keeping up with my language exchange, and applying to law school. I found time to organize a 27th birthday party for Burak with a good group of people we had met in the last month and a half. A friend of a friend came to the party and said, ‘You have all these friends, and how long have you been in Spain?’ It made appreciate that we had found a nice group of people to enjoy our time here in a short time. Later in the month, I also took a 24-hour trip (couldn’t find a hostel) to Zaragoza for a festival with other exchange students. Somehow, I turned in seven law school applications before November 1st early submission deadline.

In October, I learned about my Rotary club and met my counselor for the first time. My club is located 50km from my city so this poses some logistical problems. My counselor picked me up for the 2-hour Wednesday lunch meeting and returned me back afterwards. During the ride, I learned that my counselor’s daughter is ‘Beth’, a famous Spanish singer from a hit TV talent show (similar to American Idol) a couple of years ago. She represented Spain in the Eurovision competition that same year.

When we arrived for the meeting, it was full of members because they heard I was coming. They all were very interested in this young, female Texan scholar. The meeting started late because the restaurant had to set up more tables and chairs for the full attendance. They were very welcoming, and presented me with beautiful flowers. I spoke briefly about myself in Spanish even though their meetings are conducted in Catalan.

Later in October, I was contacted by my scholarship coordinator in Chicago about a project to find housing for a family with a son that has a metabolic disease that was coming to Barcelona within a week to visit a special doctor. The family comes to Barcelona every 6 months to meet Dr. Manuela Martinez (Manuela Martinez Foundation). She is the only doctor in the world that has been successful in helping children with metabolic diseases.

The family had just learned that the Ronald McDonald House was full and they didn’t have a place to stay. I quickly went to a Rotary meeting to find a place we could open up to the family and also had an email sent out to all the Rotarians in Barcelona. I found a place and soon welcomed the family to the apartment showing them the grocery store and metro station. We also attended a Rotary meeting that same week where they told the club about this wonderful doctor and her foundation.

After learning about the doctor’s unique work, I am planning on making it my project of the year to help her out since she is running a clinic with very little funding and many families with sick children are flying in from all over the world to see her. The families must stay at a place with a kitchen available to prepare the special food for their children. They often can’t find cheap housing, because as a tourist town, all the places found on the internet are all marketed to those that can pay 500 euros for a week or something similar. If needed, a project of mine would be to find reliable, inexpensive housing with kitchens and elevator access for the families.

In early November, we had an Austin AIESEC friend visit us from London. We went out almost every night and I took her to Montserrat. This is a mountain about 50km from Barcelona that has an odd appearance and also holds a monastery and the patron Virgin Mary of Barcelona.

Also in November, I had two work opportunities open up. I currently teach twice a week (3 hours a week) for a language teaching company at a place of business. I teach two students English after their work. It is a great chance to learn about Catalan culture from my students. I also teach twice a week at a little elementary school. I teach 4 and 5 year olds English. They speak Catalan at home, learn Castellano at school, and now take an elective of English with me. They now know their colors, numbers, and a few body parts. I received no training for either job and mostly have to make up all my material on my own. Over all, it is very encouraging to watch all of my students progress over time and build a relationship with them. I had never been a teacher like this before over a consistent amount of time so I am really enjoying this. Also, I am forced to speak Spanish with my employers and am learning about working in a foreign country.

The second weekend of November, Burak and I flew to Lisbon, Portugal. My host sister from Belgium hosted us at her place that she shares with her director-boyfriend. Burak had an interview that weekend with an alumnus from Northwestern b-school. I used the opportunity to meet up with a Rotary Scholar in Lisbon. She showed us around most of the weekend and we had a great time with her visiting a castle, monastery, and running around the small, hilly streets. We also drank porto and ginja, ate the cream tart with its famous recipe only the monks know, and also some cod specialties. We used our English and Spanish to get around. I could read the Portuguese fairly well but the accent is so different from Spanish it was hard for them to understand me if I just spoke Spanish to get around. We even had time to watch my sister and her boyfriend’s play, all of it in Portuguese of course.

The last two weeks of November, have also been busy. Burak got a call from a school he had interviewed with in September. The school’s academic counselor had pneumonia and was returning the States. He had an interview on the 19th, started the job and replaced the old academic counselor at an American school in town on the 22nd, and was invited to several Thanksgiving parties later that week.

At the dinner on Thursday, I was talking to a spouse of teacher about my project with Dr. Martinez. I learned that he is a science writer for a group of newspapers in the US and after our conversation, is currently researching to write an article about the Foundation for publication in the US. In the end, Burak found a job in a tight economy, in a foreign country, where he is not only qualified for the position but he doesn’t need to speak Spanish. It is such a blessing!

On a somber note, Burak also got a call from his mom in Turkey this week. His dad has advanced cancer and it is in the final stages. He has already started chemotherapy and seen some improvement, but it sounds like it is just a matter of time. Burak’s sister has already returned to spend her 3 month summer vacation (Australian university) with her family. Burak plans to return next weekend during the 5-day weekend holiday. This really comes as a shock to us. I am so thankful that we are close enough to Turkey Burak can fly home and that we had two wonderful months with them this summer. Our prayers are with them.

This week, also in attempt to keep Burak’s morale up, I had organized a Thanksgiving meal/party at our place inviting all my flat mates and other friends in the city. We had about 13 people or so with all the fixings. I had pumpkin pie mix imported from Texas and received a can of cranberry sauce at the American dinner I went to on Thursday. I was so happy to have all these exotic foods that I can’t find here easily. I made pumpkin pie using a crust I made from scratch. We had amazing traditional American Thanksgiving food made by Americans, Germans, Swedes, and Italians. We even went around, after I explained the tradition, and said what we were thankful for in our lives. A German friend was so happy to have her first American Thanksgiving and another German was so excited to celebrate an American holiday in Spain (she had lived in the US and was going to tell her host family she made sweet potato casserole).

Now, I am sitting at my living room table with my mp3 collection running familiar music with the sounds of the Italian’s TV seeping from his room in the background while Burak tries to sleep. It is cold here (well that is relative to what cold means to you) so we use a space heater to keep our room warm. The electricity went out a couple of minutes ago because our heater, the washer, the TV, my laptop, the electric oven, and a couple of lights were all on at the same time. Another example of the UN-type of work I conduct on a daily basis (J), we have to negotiate which appliance is the least needed and how we can keep the electricity running for the entire apartment. I turned off my living room light and our heater. Now, the clothes can be washed, the tart can be cooked, and my flat mate can continue to keep the volume high on his TV.

I am not sure where to put this in my update but I wanted to say that I have learned many things and that will probably be the topic of my next update. One of those many things is that a cockroach can survive being inside a working microwave oven. This is something I learned accidentally while I was trying to heat up some soup. For the next week, I didn’t use the microwave and started eating less. I cleaned the microwave recently and took out this useless piece that the cockroaches employ as hiding device. Now, I still check for critters before using the micro. When they say cockroaches could withstand nuclear war, I think they are right.

I seriously have been having such a great time. I know that I am not being fair with not sharing regular updates but I get so caught up in running around seeing new things, meeting new people, etc. that I can’t keep up. Today I slept 10 hours and it was such a refreshing needed break.

This weekend, I had a scholar from Seville visit me. We went to the Magic Fountain in Plaza España where the fountain has lights and music coordinated to create a amazing 15 minute show. Last night, I went to a good friend’s going away party. I met a lot of her friends that she always raves about and also a girl that wants to do a language exchange. Someone I had just met introduced me to another person and said that I spoke/understood Spanish very well. I was so happy. My work is paying off!

This coming weekend, I have to go to Madrid again. This time, for a law school interview with an alumni from Northwestern. I then will return to Barcelona for a nice long weekend to catch up on everything I haven’t had time to do. I might even update my website! Also, there might even be three scholars in town using the break to travel to my cool city.

On December 8th, I am flying with a scholar to Berlin to be a group leader at a conference aimed at Americans to discuss world opinion about the US and to bring back this discussion to campuses when they return from their time abroad. I just created plans to take advantage of my week in Berlin to go to Poland. I am still working on this idea. I know another girl from my school here that is going to the same conference and we are planning to take a train to Poland after the conference on Sunday.

I then return to Barcelona for one week before going to Belgium for a 2.5 week vacation. Since I will need to speak French during the break, I started a French-English exchange to prepare me. Burak and I will stay with my host families in Verviers and plan to do short trips to friends’ places in Holland, Germany, and around Belgium. Also, we plan to attend a Rotaract Conference New Years party. This will be the third New Years I have spent in Belgium!

On December 22nd of this year, Burak and I will celebrate 2.5 years of marriage. So, because of the occasion, the opportunity, and price, we bought tickets to have a romantic weekend in Paris for Valentine’s Day next year. Now, I just need to find someone that lives there that we can stay with! J

We will probably learn about the law and business school results between mid-December and early spring. We try not to think about it now. I still need to finish my Northwestern application and additional scholarship applications to a couple of schools.

Next spring, I am going to take a course on making documentaries at a school very close to my house. At the end of the course, from February to April, I have to produce a 12-minute documentary. I am so excited because I have always been interested in film and documentaries but haven’t really had a chance to pursue this interest until now. I brought my video camera and also have that feature on my digital camera, so I am prepared!

Everything is going well over here. It is always great to hear from friends and how things are going around the world so keep in touch!

Un beso,

November 25, 2004

Another case of a little culture shock: Caganer

Ok, I was teaching class last night to my Catalan student of 31 yrs of age. Because the class consists of a lot of English conversation and since it is almost Christmas, we started talking about local traditions.

I was truly surprised when he explained to me the Catalan tradition of the Caganer. Cagar literally means 'to defecate' so you can imagine what Caganer means. I told my student I almost didn't believe him and wanted to research this on my own to make sure since I actually haven't seen any Caganers yet.

Basically, they are squatting figurines in the process of defecating that people locate in a position hidden from the Nativity Scene. It is now popular to buy figurines of politicians and famous people in this position. But it is true, and I found some info if you want to read about and go to the website for a picture of one.

These texts are excerpts from the book "El Caganer", by Jordi Arruga and Josep Mañà.
Also, see

We can define the caganer as an element of popular imagery which represents an individual, squatting with buttocks exposed, satisfying his physiological needs in the open air. The best-known version of this personality is, without a doubt, the genuine and unique figure that is found forming a part of our homemade Nativity scenes. He also has been called "the shitter", "the defecating man", or "the man doing his duty". He is sometimes accompanied by a pig which has eagerly sniffed out the perpetrator. The caganer is traditionally placed under a bridge, behind a haystack, or otherwise discretely hidden, since it would show a lack of respect if this figure were situated in the landscape where he would be visible from the crib of the Nativity or to those who come to adore the Christchild. It is customary for children, when contemplating the scene, to ask, "Where is the caganer?", then entertain themselves by looking for him.

The caganer does not appear exclusively in Nativity scenes, but also in other popular imagery. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, with a preponderance of craftsmen’s unions, we find our caganer appearing as a motif among typical tiles depicting various trades. There are also 19th century ballads in Spanish and Catalan which make mention of the caganer and the action he performs. It is possible that the caganer was first incorporated into the Nativity scene during the Barroque period – at the end of the 17th or beginning of the 18th centuries. This was a time characterized by extreme realism, above all in still-lifes and local liturature, all of which relied heavily on descriptions of local life and customs. Here, working conditions and homelife were used as artistic themes. In this manner, aspects of actual daily life which previously went unappreciated, acquired a more dignified standing. Within the momentum of Barroque and the realistic themes of written works, the caganer takes on all of his significance, crude, ironic and scatologic all at once, representing the human condition and its obligations to nature. It is a figure which is very identifiable with and appropriate to the rural environment of his origins.

The Nativity scene, an artificial representation of the mystery of Christmas, originally could only be found in churches and convents – following the example of Saint Francis of Asisi, who constructed a living crèche on Christmas night in the year 1223. Little by little, idea took shape in private homes. The aristocratic homes of the 18th century were the first to erect monumental crèches, visited by many local people. Later the custom extended to the villages, and its enormous popularity endured so that, even today, it remainsone of the most vibrant elements in our popular art.

The washerwoman, the shepherd boy, the woman feeding chickens, the Magi, the caganer and other figures, along with an assortment of fowl, cork houses and silver-paper rivers, placed on bits of moss and cork in a corner of the dining room, give the illusion of a happy world and add a bit of nature to our homes.

The traditional caganer figure depicts a squatting farmer topped with a barretina, the traditional Catalan cap. He often smokes a cigarrette or pipe as he answers nature’s call. Sometimes his props include an open newspaper, reading to pass the time while completing his task, which will later be put to use in “cleaning up”. In reference to the feminine variation of this popular figure we must mention that 30 years ago or so, these caganera figures also began to be produced. These were first created by Lluís Vidal, a well-known figure-making craftsman in Barcelona. These first caganeras coincided with the time when miniskirts made their appearance on the streets. Among these more personalized types there are also figures dressed in traditional Hebrew apparel.

Each year some craftsmen create unusual caganers in the forms of novelties or caricatures, provoked by some particular current event or just to satisfy collectors. Among these unique models we can include caganers dressed in the colors of the local Barça or Espanyol football teams, the “Olympic caganer”, by Godia at Christmas 1986, the year Barcelona received its nomination as an Olympic city, and the caganer paying homatge to the pilgrims of the “Camino de Santiago” (Santiago Trail in Galicia), presented in 1999 by Anna Mª Pla in recgognition of an anniversary of the route. As with the “giants” which embellish processions during local festivals, some villages and towns have their own caganer figures which represent a special characteristic of the area. The towns of Ripoll, Bagà, Centelles and Anglès are examples of this.

Although Catalunya is where the caganer is the most poular and established and has the most tradition, by no means is it exclusive to this area. We have also found them in créches in Múrcia (Spain), Portugal, Naples (Italy),to name a few other locations. They go by the names “cagones”, “cagöes” and “cacone”, or more simply, “the pooping shepherd”.

November 18, 2004

Muslim/non-muslim divide growing in Europe

Excerpt from an article from the AP:

Death threats are taken a lot more seriously since the slaying in the Netherlands two weeks ago of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a suspected Islamic radical. Van Gogh had produced a brief television movie highly critical of the treatment of women in Muslim families.

Ruby's comments:
This event has caused a domino effect of chaos between Muslims and non-Muslims in Holland and appears to be spreading to nearby countries. There is already the cultural, sometimes language, and religious differences that can divide the groups that usually co-exist around Europe like in Holland, Belgium, Germany, and France. It could have been seen like a bomb waiting to explode and now it appears that it has. Hopefully peace can be returned soon.

Threats push Belgian politician into hiding

Extra precautions taken to protect critic of Islamists
The Associated Press
Updated: 2:40 p.m. ET Nov. 17, 2004
BRUSSELS, Belgium - A Belgian senator of Moroccan origin, known for her criticism of conservative traits within immigrant Muslim communities, has gone into hiding after receiving death threats, officials said Wednesday.
advertisementMimount Bousakla, 32, contacted police after receiving threatening telephone calls last weekend, said a Socialist party official who asked not to be identified. Bousakla showed up for work at Parliament on Wednesday, but now lives at a secret location.
“She again received threats and now has round-the-clock police protection and has gone into hiding,” the official said.
Death threats are taken a lot more seriously since the slaying in the Netherlands two weeks ago of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a suspected Islamic radical. Van Gogh had produced a brief television movie highly critical of the treatment of women in Muslim families.
Bousakla last week criticized the Muslim executive, an umbrella group for Muslims in Belgium, for not condemning the attack. “Because of the murder of Theo van Gogh, the executive should have protested and called on the Muslims to criticize the attack. Instead it did nothing,” she was quoted as saying on her web site.
Over the weekend, an unknown caller threatened “to ritually slaughter her” and she took the threat seriously enough to warn police, the official said.
Two years ago, Bousakla wrote a book “Couscous with Belgian Fries” about the problems of being raised in between the Moroccan and Belgian cultures. She criticized forced marriages, the place of women in society and the role of men within the family.
The Socialist politician also has openly opposed perceived radical and fundamentalist influences in Belgian mosques.

© 2004 The Associated Press.

November 16, 2004

The problem with living in an exciting city..

..You never have enough time to sit in front of a computer and write about your experiences!

I apparently have not unpdated my blog for one month. In the last month, I have started teaching English 5 hours a week, going to Rotary meetings, had a friend visit from London, went to Portugal for a weekend and saw my Belgian host sister, watched movies, eaten a lot of guacamole, and gone to school.

I shall write more......