Tuesday, November 21, 2006


My voice has almost returned. My bloodshot eyes are starting to return to a healthy white. I have been sleeping like the dead, and all because of the most amazing week in Spain. I don’t believe that words can describe it . . . further, some of it was so rich with inside jokes (the you-had-to-be-there thing) that you may find this a boring read. But I will describe it briefly, and add some additional adventures I had, and I hope I make you laugh at least once.

Basically, what I have just returned from is a program designed to help Spaniards improve their English. They all had a reasonable level of English, but this program was an immersion experience for them. The company that organized it, Vaughan Systems (http://www.vaughantown.com) imports a variety of Anglos: people who speak English. The Anglos get free room and board in exchange for talking, mostly one-on-one, with the Spaniards for a week. Check out the website for details of the program, but it seems to really work.

The Spaniards were mostly executive types who have been taking classes. They arrived with various levels of fluency, but with a rather solid level of grammar. They got stuck with us . . . for breakfast, then four hours of one-on-one sessions, then for lunch (at 2:00 as this was Spain), then for several more hours of activities and one-on-one sessions, then dinner (at 9:00 as this was Spain), followed by optional evening activities. Those sometimes lasted until the wee small hours of the morning. But there was wine at lunch and dinner, and mini-bars for after the hotel bar closed.

Somehow, the Spaniards always appeared at breakfast clean-shaven, coiffed, accessorized, and glamorous, while we Anglo-types came in dragging ass, muttering about coffee. They truly are a nation of vampires. Although, having spent many summer vacations on uncomfortable Spanish beds, I sometimes wonder if this is not why they stay out so late.

What can I tell you? The weather was stunning: usually clear and bright (which meant damn crisp and cold at night and in the mornings). The night skies were often cloudless and full of stars (which one of the Spaniards could always identify for us). The neighbors included an ostrich farm, beef cattle, ponies, a roaring river, and tragically beautiful landscapes.

What did I learn?
§ That the proper way to dress a salad is salt first (so it can be absorbed by the tomatoes), then oil, then vinegar.
§ How to find the constellation Cassiopeia.
§ How to meditate.
§ That deaf-mutes fart with abandon (since they can’t hear themselves).
§ That bullfighters always wear pink socks in the ring.
§ That I can live on less sleep and food than I thought, but coffee and wine remain vital.
§ The secret recipe for Coca Cola and the difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero.
§ That little boys who spent significant time in what amounted to an orphanage can grow up to be remarkable people.
§ That I can, after the right amount of alcohol, abandon all pride and sing You Can’t Always Get What You Want, complete with Jagger-style enunciation, in front of a group of relative strangers.
§ And, finally, that, from time to time, it is wonderful not to be “Mama” or “Mrs. Surbey,” but just “Amanda.” This was, probably, the most wonderful gift I received from the program: a reunion with myself.

I spent an entire hour talking to one Spanish woman, in great and invasive detail, about how she met her boyfriend without ever learning that he is a bullfighter. I went on and on about “How did you meet him?” “What did you think?” “Did you like him at first?” “Do your parents like him?” “What are you getting him for Christmas?” It wasn’t until later, at dinner, that I saw her share photos from her phone and there he was, in his traje de luces complete with traditional pink socks. Huh. Well, I’ll be.

I learned that one of the Spanish participants, a gregarious, playful man, used to work on an oil tanker and once, while loading crude oil in the Persian Gulf, experienced an air raid. Living through this 45 minute horror is, apparently, what contributes to his carpe diem outlook.

One guy has a parrot.

Another is a film editor and you can find his name, many times, on www.imdb.com. I think he is actually good at what he does.

The hotel (http://www.izanhoteles.es/puerta_de_gredos/puertadegredos.htm) had a nice pool/spa area, and I did manage to get up early three days to swim. That’s a bit inaccurate, actually, as I did not sleep much at all the entire time. We had siesta time every afternoon from 3:00 until 5:00, but I would just lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling, and twitch. Same for bedtime: I would have some wine at night, thinking it would help me relax, but instead twitch and toss and turn for several hours, and certainly be wide wake between 6:00 and 6:30 (well past my normal time to get up). I felt I was always waiting for it to be time to go to breakfast.

So I swam.

There was in the evenings, lots of brave talk from my fellow Anglos about getting up to swim or work out, but only a few of my colleagues actually made it. On Thursday morning, I realized that if I shared the pool during the week, it wasn’t for long, and I rarely saw anyone while I was there. The gym had a sauna, which I wanted to use, but I couldn’t find the control panel until another Anglo explained it to me.

First, let me start by saying that the light in the sauna seemed to be out and I was loathe to reach into the fixture with wet hands just to check if the bulb was loose or not. Second, I think sweating in a bathing suit is gross on so many levels.

So on Thursday, I ventured into the sauna, safe in the thought that no one else would be around. I removed my tankini top, and poured water on the heated rocks, and laid on my towel breathing the steam and hoping my skin would soak up some much needed moisture. I shut my eyes. I don’t know why I opened them, but as I did, I saw a figure walk by the window heading for the pool. I knew it wasn’t one of the gym regulars I normally ran into (another woman, or one of the guys who was like a brother) and thought it was too early in the day to horrify whomever this might be. It’s one thing to know you are going to see someone undressed. It’s another thing NOT to ask for it and have it forced upon you before breakfast. It just seemed inappropriate.

Imagine if you will, a sweaty, 45-year-old woman, trying to wriggle back into a wet tankini top. No, it’s not sexy. It is funny, however.

By now, my head was feeling cooked from the heat, and I thought I would hop under the pool shower, and flee . . . this I did, stopping only to acknowledge the hot, young Julio, who was innocently swimming laps. By now I am barely able to keep from laughing at the thought of the horrified expression on his face if he had only looked LEFT as he walked past the sauna (and had night vision goggles, but this is my early morning amusement, so work with me here). I blast on the shower, ice cold, rinse off, and run off, thinking as I do so that I believe he had set his bags awfully close to the shower and I may have just soaked everything he brought with him to the gym. Turns out I didn’t, but that idea kept me amused through breakfast.

On Friday, the program ended, and we all returned to Madrid (most of us by a chartered bus). I had reserved a nice hotel (http://www.hotelinturpalacio.com/) for Friday and Saturday night so I could see a bit of the city before I returned to Bratislava on Sunday morning. Several of the Anglos had also arranged to stay in Madrid, but in much more youthful and modest accommodations, making me feel both old and bourgeois. But whatever. It was nice.

Now the first amusing thing was that I shared a cab with another Anglo from the drop-off point to our respective hotels. As soon as she hopped out of the cab, my voice failed. Nothing. Zilch. Zip. Nada. An unattractive croaking is all that remains. The sort of sound that causes strangers to flinch at my attempts to speak, as if, perhaps, I am a deaf-mute.

As many of you know, I scorn verbs. Spanish, French, it doesn’t matter. I point behind me to indicate the past and gesture ahead to show I mean a future event. So I was not sure how to say “I LOST my voice.” All I could croak out was “I HAVE no voice.” Now it is almost back to the sexy, whiskey and cigarette purr. But for most of the weekend, I whispered or croaked.

Friday night we went out for tapas. It was about ten of us Anglos and one brave Spaniard. We met at an appointed place and time (9:30 p.m., I think was the meeting time), and he found us a tapas bar and ordered a fabulous array of dishes for us to try. He really worked very hard at it, trying to ensure everyone had something they could eat. I was texting people at the table because I couldn’t speak, until one colleague helpfully pointed out that I could type in the text and then just SHOW it to my friend rather than paying to SEND it across the table. Duh.

But that was just how the evening was going: duh! I had gotten a little confused about how to find the meeting place, but I knew that if I found my way back to the Plaza Mayor, I could retrace my steps, even if they were the long way round. I also understood that one could hail a taxi on the street: they were said to be cheap and convenient.

So when tapas night was over and my friends began strolling through the streets, I wasn’t worried as we passed my landmarks. We finally ended up on the Gran Via, and I figured that, although I was sure my hotel was close, a taxi was in order as I had no idea exactly where it was or where I was.

I hail a cab. I get in. My friends leave. I tell the driver “Plaza San Martin, por favor.” He tells me in Spanish to get the hell out as he is heading in the opposite direction and what am I, insane?

Okay. So I’m an idiot. I cross the street. I flag another taxi. I tell the driver, “Plaza San Martin, por favor.” This one tells me, in Spanish, that there is no such thing as the Plaza San Martin, and, that, in all the years he has driven a taxi in Madrid, no one has been so stupid as to ask for it!

I explain that my hotel is called the Palacio San Martin and that all of the hotel information says Plaza San Martin on it. Unfortunately I have neither a map nor any hotel literature with me (I do have my room key card). No matter: he throws me out.

FINE. I mutter to myself. JUST FINE. I will walk and I will find it.

I find a metro map, and study it, but I’m not really sure where I am in relationship to where I want to go. Further, it has begun to rain. The streets are teeming with people, which makes me think the hour must not be so late. But NO. This is Madrid. Dinner has taken longer that I thought, and it is now after 2:00 in the morning. I walk for a few blocks, but I am so exhausted and hung over and depressed that the program is over, that I am afraid I might start to cry (at least) or have to wander the streets until dawn (at worst).

I elect to hail another taxi, and although by now they all seem occupied, at last I find a free taxi. The plaza is walking distance, the driver tells me. Look, I explain in croaking Spanish. It’s late, I’m lost, it’s raining, I have no voice, I am a tourist, I will pay you. Just please don’t throw me out. He then kindly explains to me that this plaza goes by another name. Ahh! Mystery revealed.

He delivers me safely to the hotel door, where I blast into the lobby and demand, as best I can with no voice, to know WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO TELL A TAXI DRIVER AS NO ONE SEEMS TO HAVE HEARD OF YOUR ADDRESS!”

Oh, yeah, they tell me. You should say “Descalzas.” Oh. Of course.

Saturday morning I realize that texting my dinner mates has left me with no phone credit. I must call The Spouse in Bratislava and beg him to go over to the mall and use the ATM to buy me more credit. This he does, but later in the day as my oldest daughter is sick.

In the meantime, I have to call my buddy, Mark, from the hotel room, and I feel bad about this as he will have to pay to receive my call. But no matter. We had planned to visit the Prado, and now we have the details worked out.

This time I consult my map, and head off armed with more knowledge. As I am striding through the Puerta del Sol, I happen to see the back of Gayle, another Vaughan Town Anglo, disappear into a kids’ clothing store. I chase after and we have a happy reunion, marred only by my mangled voice.

Off I go again towards the Prado. Here’s where the whole day starts to get strange.

While I was waiting for Mark (in the wrong place, as it turns out), a Spaniard stopped and asked me about another museum. I croaked that I didn’t know it, but I had a map, and we both looked for this mysterious museum to no avail. The name sounds to me like “tisane” or the French word for herbal tea. I apologize, and he resigns himself to ask someone else.

I locate Mark, and since I have no preferences, he says he was told to check out The Garden of Earthly Delights by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (look for it here if you don’t know it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights) and the Goyas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goya).

You must know that while I had two years of art history in college, it was a LONG time ago (1978-1979) and while I remember the paintings and the artists, I usually forget what exactly made them special. It frustrated The Spouse to no end the last time he and I were in the Prado together as I kept saying, “Oh! Oh! This is really important . . . but I can’t remember why.” So I thought Mark and I did pretty well figuring out what we were looking at, how the composition was designed, and what symbolism we might have in the painting.

I made a short sidetrack to visit Velasquez’s Las Meninas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Meninas) which has always been one of my favorite paintings because the dog looks like a dog we used to own. So I drag Mark to look at this, and explain, incorrectly as it turns out, that the figure in the doorway is the artist. Oops. Sorry, Mark. But nevermind.

Mark leaves to catch his flight home, and I stroll back towards my hotel. I stop at a pharmacy to see if they can recommend anything for my voice. The guy gives me some lozenges, but they don’t really help. I do a quick run through El Corte Ingles, but every time I open my mouth, the sales staff recoils in horror. I’m becoming depressed.

I return to my hotel, and realize that across the street is a museum with an exhibit about John Singer Sargent (one of my very favorite American painters) and a Spanish painter named Joaquín Sorolla (http://www.museothyssen.org/thyssen/exposiciones/WebExposiciones/2006/SargentSorolla/index_ing.htm). I go to see the exhibit and realize that it is in two locations: here, next to my hotel and down near the Paseo del Prado at a museum called MUSEO THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA. Ahhh! It’s not “tisane.” It’s “Thyssen.” I feel bad I wasn’t able to help that poor man, but now I see why he wanted to find the museum. It is a lovely exhibit.

As if this isn’t enough, the brochure and the audio guide both explain in detail how both of these artists were influenced by Velasquez, especially his painting Las Meninas. Oh, how strange that I stumbled onto this all in one day.

Final adventure: the last time I was in Madrid was 1994. The Spouse and I had toured some sort of royal convent then. I remember that the building was incredible, but that the tour was in Spanish only. At the time I spoke virtually NO Spanish, and The Spouse had only limited skills. I wanted to find the convent again as I was sure I would get more this time. I would scorn any English tour options and measure my progress!

I thought the convent was near the palace, but as I left the art exhibit, I realized that the convent was RIGHT next to my hotel. I had taken a photo of the Court Ingles the last time because it had an unusual tree on the building facade, and here I was with the convent in front of me and the funky tree right there. (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/spain/madrid-monasterio-de-las-descalzas-reales.htm)

So I got in line. Had an interesting talk with a funny older Dutch couple (Her: “Why do Slovak women feel compelled to display their breasts?” She kept going on about the breasts.). Behind us was an older Spanish couple, both elegantly dressed. He was desperate to practice his English, and kept trying to engage me and Dutch Lady, but I could only croak, and his wife keep giving us dirty looks. I vowed to distance myself, which turned out to be a good thing as he had a fairly animated debate with tour guide over some detail of Spanish history just moments after the tour began.

Not that I understood any of it.

The guide came into the waiting area to greet us. In Spanish he announced, “Would you all follow me, please.” And that was the last I understood for the rest of the tour.

Alas. Maybe I will have to review those verbs.


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