Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Moscow To Madrid: Katie's Here!

     As most of you know, my girlfriend Katie was teaching in Moscow from October to December. And when she left to go home for a couple weeks in December, she was planning on returning. But an email she had sent weeks before to the Auxiliar de Conversación program here in Spain was finally replied to, offering her a position in Madrid. And so began the frustrating process of dealing with Spanish bureaucracy.
     To come to Spain for longer than three months, you need a visa. To get a visa, you need a letter from the institution which has invited you to stay for longer than three months. To get the letter in a timely fashion, you need to hound this organization daily and treat it like a child and hold its hand. The most striking difference between Spain and America is each one's perception of time. From this difference stems a variety of cultural contrasts, which I will be writing about soon. Needless to say, it took us bending over backwards to get the letter so that Katie could spend hundreds of dollars to get to Spain.
     After a sworn handshake from one of the program's coordinators, assuring me that Katie would have her letter Monday morning (because he just couldn't send it on Friday because, although he was in charge of printing it, he had to have someone else sign it, and that person wasn't in the office), I told Katie she could book her flight to Houston. Why did she have to go to Houston? Because the Spanish Consulate absolutely requires that in order to get a visa, you must hand in the required documents in person. No exceptions, ever. What this means is that you have to spend hundreds of dollars on a flight to get to the consulate (there are only a handful of consulates in the U.S.), and many hours, so that you can spend thirty seconds giving them the documents in person.
     After boarding the flight without yet receiving her invitation letter as promised (which is crucial for the visa), Katie flew to Houston. She received the letter while in transit, after the program had emailed me telling me it was urgent and they needed her passport information, which of course I didn't have, and so I had to email her, and she had to email them, and then I had to call them after she called me telling me they still hadn't sent her letter after she had sent them her information, at which point they told me they handn't received an email, after which I said that was silly because she emailed them three minutes after they had emailed me and I had called them the first time, at which point they actually looked at their emails and saw her email and told me they had received it after all. Very efficient.
     Katie arrived at the consulate with her letter on her laptop, not printed. She had called the consulate before she had left and asked whether she could print the letter at the office. They said of course she could. She waited in line to hand in her information. She handed it in, and asked to print the letter. They said no way they could do that. She told the lady (the same one she had asked on the phone), that she had been told she could print the letter there. The lady told her she didn't know why she had told Katie she could, but she couldn't. So off Katie went in search of a printer. After finding one at a salon, she returned and handed in her information and flew back to Nashville.
     A visa should take a few days. Maybe a week. A Spanish visa takes a month, with no option to expedite the process. There is no reason for this other than that the U.S. makes it difficult for other nationalities to get visas, so Spain decided they would do the same thing with Americans. I had gone into the Auxiliar program's office twice, begging them to do something to get the visa sped up, because we had a long-planned vacation coming up with non-changeable, non-refundable flights, and also because Katie already had a non-refundable ticket back to Madrid. They pretty much told me they couldn't do anything, which by then I knew was malarky but that I couldn't fight. The lady at the consulate had "flagged" her visa application in an "attempt" to speed it up, which meant it did nothing whatsoever.
     There are more trivialities to this story but it just isn't worth talking about, because after several missed flights and more purchased, Katie arrived in Madrid on January 1st! She was just in time to hang out with Alex and Derek, who were here visiting during a few days to celebrate the new year. Since then, everything has been going very well: she really likes her school (she works with six and seven year olds at a bilingual school), she's taking Russian classes at the Russian Center, she's starting Spanish classes next week, and we've been to Toledo and to Salamanca. Posts on those great cities are coming shortly.
     At the end of the day, dealing with Spanish bureaucracy is maddening but because of it Katie was able to move here, and to help Spanish kids become bilingual, so I can't say anything too terrible about the process. And I can't say anything bad about the program— it's really wonderful and is an incredibly progressive step in bilingual education. So here we are, in Madrid, teaching English and learning about a different culture through traveling, the language, customs, and bureaucracy. I couldn't be happier.

(In Salamanca, Spain)

P.S.— Katie still has a suitcase in Moscow. Looks like I might get to experience that great country.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Budapest & Prague

     I took a bus from Vienna to Budapest and arrived before noon. The day was overcast and spitting rain but the hostel was warm and I was recommended a restaurant a few doors down that had authentic Hungarian food. After Vienna, I was definitely hungry for a good meal. I ordered the chicken goulash and was extremely pleased with the result. Four euro in Budapest goes a lot further than in Vienna.

(Chicken Goulash) 

     Afterwards, stopped by St. Stephen's Basilica, which was okay, and then I crossed Chain Bridge and walked up to Buda castle on the other side of the river. There were very nice views of the famous Parliament building (the biggest in Continental Europe). 

(Budapest's Parliament Building)

     I walked around the old town for a while in the cold, light rain and then was ready for another meal. 

This time I had some good old goulash, which was steaming and spicy, just what I needed to brave the cold again. 

(Hungarian Goulash)

     Warmed up, I took a stroll to the largest synagogue in Europe. I would've liked to go inside, but I got there as services were finishing instead of beginning. So I walked back to the hostel and then took the long walk to the Szechenyi Baths, one of the famous Turkish baths in Budapest. On my way I saw some nice statues and a nice ice rink backdropped by a nearly full moon. 

When I arrived at the baths I was pretty cold, and looking forward to the hot water. The baths are outside and made for a freezing walk to the pool. When I got in I was a little disappointed with the temperature. It was hot, sure, but not really hot. Nothing close to the natural hot springs in the mountains of New Mexico, and the number of people with whom I was sharing the water was a bit off-putting. You just know there is a lot more than water in that water. Nevertheless, it was relaxing. 

(Szechenyi Baths)

After around two hours, I headed back to the hostel and in the morning took a long bus ride to Prague. The bus arrived at sunset and I went to the hostel and then walked around old town for a while. I went to a recommended restaurant that I was told had good, reasonably priced Czech food. I tried to order the three dishes the receptionist had told me to try, but the restaurant didn't have any of them, and the waiter just said, "I will bring you something good. Do you like meat?"

It was very tasty and filling. So much so that I returned the next night with a friend I met up with from the Spanish class I'm taking. 

(Too many moon pictures? Prague)

     In the morning I walked around and then met up with my Spanish class friend and his friend. We went to Prague Castle, which dates back to the 9th century, although it has been largely modified and rebuilt along the way. It had great views of the city below, and a pretty good looking church. 

(A View From Prague Castle)
     Later, we went to the cafe frequented by the likes of Einstein and Kafka. It was as expected, surely devoid of any of its originality (in part due to its closure for almost 45 years), yet pleasant enough. I got a great hot chocolate with vanilla ice cream. 
     The rest of the day mostly consisted of walking around and eating dinner. The city was pretty but was unbelievably touristy because it was the end of the year and Prague is known as being one of the best places to celebrate New Year's Eve. I, however, would be flying back to Madrid to celebrate in the Time's Square of Spain, Puerta del Sol. But that is a story for another post. I had a very nice time on my holiday, despite Katie's not being able to accompany me. But no matter, she arrived New Year's day, and is here to stay! Stay tuned for my next post: The Saga of Katie and The Missing Visa.

(A Car On A Street In Prague)

Sunday, January 13, 2013


     On Christmas Eve I flew to Vienna and thus began a week long vacation. Originally, Katie was supposed to go too, but she was stuck in the U.S. waiting on her Spanish visa (more on that later). I arrived in the evening and the next morning I went to the Belvedere museum and saw an amazing exhibit on Gustav Klimt, a unique early 20th century painter, whose famous works include Judith I and The Kiss. Some people think he's kitschy, but I like him a lot. For me, his art evokes a level of feeling that few other artists accomplish. He isn't one of those artists who I 'appreciate' but don't really care for; he is one whose art I look at to provoke feeling and inspiration.
     That night I went to the famous Vienna State Opera house to see The Nutcracker. I have to admit, I have never enjoyed this ballet. But I had heard that you could buy cheap standing room tickets and that the performances were some of the best in the world. So I waited to buy a ticket, a grand total of 3 euro, and watched the ballet comfortably from the 4th deck.

(The State Opera house)

I was really impressed with the performance— dare I say I enjoyed it? Yes, I enjoyed The Nutcracker. I suppose until then I had only seen it put on by 12 year olds or on small television screens. Everything, from the orchestra, to the dancing, to the set changes, was impeccable.

     The next morning I went to Schönbrunn Palace, the Habsburg's summer home only a few kilometers from the city center. It was impressive in stature, to say the least. Built in the 17th century, it not only housed the Habsburgs but later, for a few years in the early 1800s, Napoleon lived there. At the gates, two pillars topped with golden eagles remain from his time there.

(The front of the palace)

(Inside the palace— the room where Kennedy and Khrushchev met in 1961)

(The back of the palace)

     Next, I went to Freud's house of 47 years. It has been turned into a museum, and is devoid of almost all original possessions, thanks to his having to flee Austria at the start of WWII. There is one room that still has some original furniture and things, but things are mostly left to one's imagination. 
     Later I went to St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna's most famous cathedral, located in the center of town. Begun in the 1100s and not finished for centuries, it represents different architectural periods, and inside are multi-colored lights that shine on the pillars and make for nice pictures. 

(Interior of St. Stephen's)

     Vienna is famous for its elaborate coffeehouses, and the most famous one is Café Central. It boasts a large list of famous historical clientele, including Freud and Leon Trotsky. 

I don't think a local has been in there in twenty years. The place is aesthetically pleasing, the food is okay, and the atmosphere is nonexistent. 

     In search of some real culture, I went back to the opera house to see Richard Strauss' opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. Thankfully, there were little screens in the standing room section that had English subtitles of the German operatic singing. Knowing what was being said and sung made the opera almost enjoyable. I really don't know how people listen to operas without knowing what is being sung. The singer can be singing the saddest sounding song, yet the words are hilarious or nonsensical [at least in this opera, where the plot had to do with putting on an opera (high art) and a comedic play (low art) simultaneously]. Anyways, not my cup of tea but I certainly can appreciate the talent it takes to sing opera. 

(The State Opera house)

The next morning I went to the Central Cemetery (not centrally located), an enormous cemetery which includes residents such as Beethoven, Brahms, the Strauss family, and famous atonal composer Arnold Schönberg. I think listening to their music is probably a better way to pay homage to them than visiting their graves, but you don't have the opportunity every day...

     Back in town, I went to the Secession building, home to the famous Vienna art movement of the same name, which began in 1897 and in which Klimt played a major role. The movement's credo, which is displayed on the building itself, is "To every age its art. To art, its freedom." 

(The Secession Building)

     Of the many art exhibitions that were held and are still held in the building, the one dedicated to Beethoven was the most famous. Held in 1902, it included a frieze painted by Klimt, which was intended to be only a temporary work of art but which was saved and is now on display in the museum today. According to the pamphlet I picked up, "The frieze takes its theme from Richard Wagner's interpretation of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and depicts humankind's search for happiness." It is a wonderful, diverse work of art and I was lucky enough to catch the exhibition which let observers climb stairs to be at eye level with the frieze, which is displayed high above the ground. The frieze covers four walls, but the most famous image is titled "The Kiss To The Whole World." 
     That evening I tackled the Kunsthistorisches Museum, an enormous museum, the main attraction being the picture gallery but also home to significant Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artifacts. The museum is famous for its collection of Bruegel paintings, the largest in the world. It has many of his famous paintings (such as The Tower of Babel and The Peasant Wedding), although I favor the few that the Prado has here in Madrid. One thing I liked about the museum is that there were several instances of artists painting side by side the paintings. 

(The Hunters in the Snow, Bruegel 1565)

Another nice touch was that all of the paintings had good descriptions below to explain the historical and artistic context of the paintings. It is enjoyable to learn history through paintings, and the aid of a few sentences helps one appreciate the more mundane royal portraits of queens, kings, dukes, duchesses, palaces, and such. Though as everyone knows, spending hours and hours looking at paintings and reading descriptions is tiring, and after a while one becomes somewhat desensitized. Museums like the Kunsthistorisches need repeated visits with fresh eyes to fully appreciate the enormity and significance of the collection. I did my best, however, and took a few needed breaks in the four or five hours I was there to sit on the nice couches they have in the large rooms. 
     Vienna was a nice city, although I found it quite expensive, with pitifully small student discounts to the popular attractions and a certain stale air of living in the past. I didn't get a good meal while I was there, but the Opera house and the art museums were definitely worthwhile. 
     Stay tuned for posts on Budapest and Prague coming soon.