Sunday, May 25, 2014

F.U.T.B.O.L.

Frenar: To brake, slow down. With multi-hour lunches, siestas, and 10pm dinners, the Spanish way of life places more importance on taking one's time than on rushing through a tight schedule.  Even the way the city of Alcoy is set up, with densely packed buildings and not much room for cars to park, facilitates a meandering walk through its streets rather than a rushed car ride from one stop to the next. According to our Statistics & Probability professor Elena, the Spanish believe in taking their time during meals to chat because "talking helps the digestion," but this does not mean they do not work hard - it is simply a different style. As my hamstring injury has been limiting my ability to hike and run in this beautiful setting, I have also experienced this week a type of braking, which has come with its challenges and insights.

Universidad Politecnica de Valencia en Alcoy: The "study" part of "study abroad." Though 4 consecutive hours of class a day can be challenging, especially with the sunny weather enticing us to enjoy the outdoors, the university is a beautiful setting with modern classrooms and its own neat plaza. This is the view from our classroom window.



Tapas: Small portions of food; appetizers. We found a great little lunch place that gives 1 euro tapas on Wednesdays and will probably become a weekly tradition. My favorite tapas so far have been bocadillos (sandwiches) with tomatoes, mozzarella, and prosciutto.

Bocairente: Small town with rich Moorish tradition and lots of staircase-roads. On a day-long excursion, we climbed (literally - the network of tunnels and caverns was like a thousand-year-old McDonald's Play Place)  through the old Moorish caves on the outskirts of the town that were used for storing grain. I saw these two boys playing soccer in the streets and had to capture this typical Spanish scene, as we interrupted their game and filed past. As a side note, the topic of this post is futbol, as it is a happily inescapable part of life here. Virtually every park or open lot has a soccer field marked off, often with metal frames as goals. Many of the kids walk around kicking the soccer ball on the streets, and our own dorm has pick-up games on our court at least once a day. I even saw a sign in front of a garden in Xativa stating "no futbol" - not "no sports" or "no play" but specifically "no futbol" because futbol is The Sport here.



Observando: Observing. We visited El Castillo de Xativa, an impressive and imposing centuries-old fortress that overlooks the entire surrounding area. Standing on the battlements and observing the surrounding terrain, filled with mountains, greenery, and civilization, made me think of the millions of people throughout the ages - royalty, soldiers, servants, tourists, travelers - who had stood in that spot and beheld such a view.



Liga de Campeones: The Champions League, the most prestigious soccer tournament in Europe. We went to a joint bar called La Biblioteca (one room was library-themed) and El Autobus  (the other had a giant bus facade) to watch the final match between two Spanish teams, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. Not only was it a very exciting game (Real took it into overtime with Ramos' header goal with 2 minutes left in stoppage time) but the town of Alcoy, as I'm sure was the case in the rest of Spain, was abuzz with chanting, honking, flag-waving, and celebrating in the bars and in the plazas. We will also be lucky enough to be in Spain for 2 World Cup games, which I'm sure will be even more festive.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Paella, Castillas y Montanas... iDios Mio!

Minimal mishaps, intermittent sleep, our first Spanish breakfast (on the plane - complete with a Kit Kat bar! I guess the Spanish enjoy sweets in the morning) and the picturesque rolling hills of the Spanish countryside (see below) characterized the 2-day journey from Pasadena to Alcoy. It was basically Pasadena - car - LAX - plane - O'Hare - plane - Madrid - bus - Alcoy!


The first day, we warded off the jet lag by exploring the city. Alcoy is a small town of about 60,000 people (half the size of South Bend) nestled in a valley ringed by beautiful green mountains. It's filled with historic bridges (puentes) because of the mountain-valley dynamic; the city has expanded since it became the first industrial center in Valencia (perfect for us engineers!). It has rich traditions such as the annual Moors & Christians Festival in April that commemorates the battles during the Reconquista. We unfortunately missed it by a few weeks, but the city is still decorated with overhanging lights, banners, and a large black castle erected in the plaza mayor. Tradition is that St. George, the patron saint of Alcoy, helped the Christians to a victory by jumping on his horse from one mountain to the next, shooting down arrows into the battle. We got to go inside the castle today, which is remarkable as it is built during May and only remains for about a month until they take it down, but it is extremely intricate and richly decorated. This is us at the castle:



We also toured an art museum underground beneath the plaza mayor - we were all quite surprised when we heard loud beeping and a large circular metal grating slowly rose up from the ground, revealing an underground passage! We also had our first real Spanish meal, complete with tapas (appetizers), delicious paella, and fresh fruit for dessert. The meal schedule is quite different from the US - lunch is around 2, followed by a siesta (so awesome!), and dinner around 9:30 or 10, which coincides with a larger, heavier lunch and a lighter dinner. It's definitely something I'm still getting used to! Our next activity of the day (after the siesta - very important) was to hike up to La Cruz, a giant cross on top of the mountain St. George supposedly leapt to. A group of 14 of us ventured out, and we had to ask some of the locals for directions along the way because there are virtually no street or trail signs. The hike was amazingly beautiful with breathtaking views of the city. After 2 hours, we finally reached the top and found the cross! This is me with the view of Alcoy in the background & the view of the cross:


The dining hall food here is also pretty good, and the fish is excellent! Apparently Alcoy is renowned for its food, so we are all very excited to go to lunch tomorrow after the first day of classes. Another cool thing about Alcoy is that it is littered with parks, the perfect place to play, have a picnic, or just sit and enjoy the scenery. The "Dios Mio" part of this post is to reflect the sense of wonder and excitement that has accompanied getting to know this place and my fantastic group of fellow travelers! Can't wait for the next few days, which will be classes in the morning and free time afterwards, then an excursion to nearby Xativa on Saturday followed by the Champions League Final on Saturday night!