My daughter Sarah and I took the slow Euskatren from Bilbao to San Sebastian…lots of gritty industrial scenery but also some beautiful farms with red-tile-roofed houses and grazing animals. San Sebastian, or Donostia in Euskaren, is a charming beach town that is a favorite for vacationers. When we were there, the weather was gray and cloudy, but the beach was still lovely. After getting settled in our hotel, we took the funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo for an incredible view of the city, then took a bus from the base of the mountain to Parte Vieja, or Old Town. This part of town is about 1,000 years old, but was burned down during the war with the French, and was rebuilt in neoclassical style. The claim to fame here are the pintxos (peen-chohs) bars, where people stop in for a drink and a tapa. We chose a more restful restaurant where I bravely tried–yes–squid in its own black ink! We were able to get in a good morning walk on the beach and also ran into a parade the next day before we headed back to Valencia and Sarah headed home.
This past weekend all but a few students were off to Rome on an excursion planned by the school, and my daughter Sarah was visiting, so it seemed like a good time for an adventure. I didn’t want to leave Spain without seeing Pais Vasco, or Basque Country, in the north. We flew to Bilbao and spent the night, then took the slow Euskatren to San Sebastian for the second night. The region lived up to its reputation: green hills, inviting seaside, and wonderful food. The Basque culture is very old and very interesting. Euskara, the Basque language, was forbidden during Franco’s time, but has re-emerged as one of the four official languages of Spain. Most of the signs were printed in both Euskara and Spanish.
Of course, visiting Bilbao would not be complete without visiting the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry (if the photos look familiar, he also designed the EMP in Seattle). We first spotted it coming over a bridge from the airport—fantastico! Fortunately, both the Guggenheim and the old town were within a 10-minute walk from our hotel (thank you, travel agent Miguel), but there is also a handy tram that moves people easily around the town. After spending hours at the museum admiring the structure as much as the art within it, we rested and then walked to the old town for some famous Basque cuisine, especially pintxos (tapas). Once again, we were not disappointed. Not only did we feast on peppers stuffed with prawns and cod pil-pil, but we were serenaded by a group of middle-aged men who seemed to be just hanging out around the tapas bar, waiting for an opportunity to perform. More soon on the second leg of this journey.
Thanks to our assistant director Fernando, this week we went on an excursion to the Marni School, about a thirty minute walk from our language school. This is a school that is “half and half:” half supported by public funds and half supported by the parents. According to Fernando, in terms of resources this school is literally midway between the public schools, which are in dire straits in Spain, and the private schools. We were greeted by the director and the three psychologists (!) assigned to the school, which includes a preschool from age two through the primary grades and secondary grades. Students finish this level of school at age 16. We were impressed with what the psychologists had to say: each child is repeatedly assessed for learning challenges and progress in school, the psychologists meet frequently with the teachers and the parents, and the children are followed all the way through the system. I personally was interested to hear that the psychologists use the DSM (the same diagnostic manual we use in the states) to make diagnoses like autism and attention deficit disorder here (by the way, only a handful of children out of the thousand or so attending the school are on any kind of medication).
We had the most fun touring the school, from the classrooms for toddlers through the preschool, primary school, and the equivalent to our high school. We all marveled at how well-behaved the children were; they continued to do their work, pay attention to their teachers, and follow instructions, even with visitors in the room (we couldn’t picture the same thing happening in an American school). The children were adorable–many said “hi, how are you, I am fine” as a demonstration of their English, while we attempted to communicate in Spanish. I took dozens of photos, but out of respect for the director’s wishes that we not show faces on the internet, I will only post those where the children are not recognizable. It was a treat to see another educational system at work.
Sunday was a pretty amazing day. On my way to visit several museums, which generally have free admission on the weekends (why don’t we do more of that?), I happened upon a festival of Spanish dancing–folkdancing, I think, with castanets aplenty. Wonderful! I made it back to the Silk Exchange (Lonja de la Seda), the 15th Century Gothic structure named as a UNESCO heritage building, and wandered around the halls and gardens. Then I headed to L’Almoina, a museum which allows you to walk over glass to see excavated structures from as far back as the Roman origins of Valencia (138 BC). Finally I made my way to the Museo de Belles Artes, a huge fine arts museum housed in what was once a seminary. This month, the museum is highlighting the works of Joaquin Sorolla, a hometown boy known for his Valencian beach scenes and paintings of the fishermen and farmers of Valencia. The students were either in Lanzarote or hiking to a castle on Sunday, so I plan to encourage them to visit these places.
As I walked around the city, I couldn’t help but notice how many people were out on a Sunday afternoon, walking (more like strolling), playing with their children, talking to friends, having something to drink, or just hanging out (why don’t we do more of that?).
After we took our midterm Spanish exam this week, we were all ready for a break. Many of the students took off for the island of Lanzarote, and the rest of us took part in the Wine and Sausage Festival in the town of Requena. We took a bus to the town, about an hour from Valencia, and spent the day there. First, we went to the Vareda Real Bodega (which I learned means wine cellar), a family winery, to see how wine is stored and aged, after which we went upstairs for a wine tasting. Then we were treated to a tour of the underground caves in Requena, where wine was stored but also grains, food, religious relics, and dead bodies! After that we went to the Festival, where local vintners and food producers put out a spread. We purchased tickets we could exchange for meats, bread, wine, and dessert. The place was packed, but we had fun trying new and local foods…Spaniards do love their meat. It was great to get out of town and just spend time sitting in the sun.
This was a relatively quiet weekend, so I think I’ll take the opportunity to add some photos of my “walk-arounds” and other miscellaneous activities in town. I found and toured the Ceramics Museum, housed in a 16th century palace, and took the metro to the beach to explore. Madrid played Valencia this week, so a bunch of us met at a local watering hole to watch the game with the locals. Several of the students dropped by my apartment with snacks, and I actually played soccer in our weekly game. The students convinced me to buy an 8 euro pair of tennis shoes for the occasion. I muffed a lot of balls, but did get one assist! My secret weapon: no one wants to mow the teacher down!
Hola! This has been a good week. My cross-cultural psychology students reported on investigations they made of neighborhoods (barrios) in Valencia this week, and we took a walking tour of one of the oldest neighborhoods, Benimaclet. In the psychology of adjustment class, students turned in papers on culture shock/managing stress as a sojourner. Everyone is coming to class and coming through with assignments–muy bueno! Two of the students and I toured the Botanical Gardens and a photography exhibit from Madagascar, which was interesting.
By far, the highlight of the week was a group excursion to the Bioparc, the “anti-zoo” zoo. The park is based on the concept of zoo-immersion, or completely immersing the visitor in wild habitats, and leaving the animals in as natural a setting as possible. The main goal of the park is to protect the welfare of the animals. It’s a wonderful place…there were monkeys and lemurs over our heads in the tree tops, there were no cages, and we were able to get much closer to the animals than in the typical zoo. Muy divertido!