Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'm in class with the Terminator - And, Segovia.

An Austrian man named Paul joined my Spanish class this week. For days I have listened to him speak and could not figure out why he sounded so familiar. Then it hit me – He sounds just like Arnold. Imagine trying to understand Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking Spanish. These are the challenges I am facing.

Usually, students will come to Eureka-Madrid for a week, maybe two. Very rarely is a student there for months. In fact, I can think of only one other, Masa, my Japanese friend, and he is gone, but has been replaced by a new friend, Tomas. We swapped business cards last week. Mine says “Jamie Wakefield , a description of what I write about, and then His says "Tom Mason" and under that – “Gentleman at Leisure.” So funny. He’s from California, retired, spent three months in Chili about six months ago and now he’s here for three months. We have a beer after class about once a week. I think he used to work for Microsoft but he won’t actually tell me what it was he used to do. (Now that I've published his name, he'll probobly be killed and what he used to do was work for the mafia and I've just blown his cover in the witness protection program.)

Many of the students that come to Eureka-Madrid have either been there before, or are there for a refresher course from other schooling. Like Tom. He’s had all this before and if he could just stay with it, like he’s doing now, he wouldn’t need to keep repeating. But see, I’m not repeating, so everything we learn in class is brand new to me. Over the last three months I’ve crammed in more knowledge than I learned in a year of college. At night I would come home and do homework and not have time to practice what I had learned in class, learn new vocabulary, or refresh my memory on how to conjugate verbs in the Indefinido, which we learned last week and now I’m in danger of forgetting because everything moves so fast.

Eventually I decided to take a break. I have 300 flashcards that need to be memorized, verb conjugations that I need to get solidified in my mind rather than just be taught them in two days and then move on to something else. But you can’t take a break from speaking Spanish, that’s the whole point of learning the different tenses and practicing them. You have to continually use them. So, I dropped the grammar class in the morning but kept the conversation class in the afternoon.

The results have been very good. A week after I stopped grammar classes Wendy and I were going to look at an apartment for an intern that is coming in from Paris. We meet the landlord at a little bar close to our place and he walks us over to the apartment. Wendy and he start to chat, and for the first time ever, I actually understand 80% of what is said! He even asks me questions out of the blue and I responded in bad Spanish. It was bad, but I was following the thread and knew what they were talking about and could respond! Wonder of wonder, there does come a time when you have a breakthrough. For me, it was a damn long time coming, but it finally got here. (Stay in school kids.)

The days right now are great. Wendy’s business is frantically busy, which is good because it means lots of new important clients. She worked at her desk until nine o’clock last night. I composed at my desk, transcribing voice notes I had taken from our visit to Segovia for almost as long as she worked. (She’s more driven than I am. I had to take a few breaks.) I’m doing great at my writing lately though, transcribing twenty voice notes in the past 5 days. What is here, in very rough form, is the notes that I wrote last night. The book entry will be a bit more detailed and hopefully have a bit more humor, but presented so you have more to read, and can see what we have been up to.


It is November first and we are taking a weekend trip to Segovia. We take the train out of the city and, similar to the last time we left, leaving the city shows nothing but scrub land and then slowly starts to change into more and more vegetation and lush greenery, even this late in the fall. We pass through towns completely enshrouded in trees and then, the sprawl of the towns and the cities fall away and on both sides of the track is some form of farm. Under the trees are small deer or antelope or goat, I’m not sure which because they are indistinct on the ground and in the shadows. We pass through some rough cut mountain passes and things are obscured by the landscape, but on the left is the unmistakable hundred and fifty METER cross rising high above the greenery. Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos or in English - Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen. Built by General Franco to “honor” those who died in the brutal Civil War where he forced his way to power. He is buried in the main chamber, and elsewhere are 40,000 other fallen from both sides. I use the word honor in parenthesis because he used prisoners of war to build the cross over a period of twelve years.

“Yes, this cross is here to honor both sides. Yes, both sides. How magnanimous of me. Now, you on the losing side, get to work bitches or we’ll whip you bloody.”

What an honor.

We check into the beautiful Hotel – “Los Linajes.” Our room looks out over the Spanish countryside. The horizon is covered by beautiful hills with a castle off in the distance. Closer, fields with a tractor plowing, also what appears to be a small Christmas tree farm a short distance a way and two small towns on either side of us. Below us, a square monastery with a tower in the center, a small forest of trees with what looks like dozens of different kinds. When we leave our room we see a sign for “Mirador” which means “view point" or "looking place” and we ascend to the top of the roof and there is a platform. We can see twenty miles in any direction. How better can I describe the Spanish countryside? The rocky mix of scrub land and greenery, the cliffs, rock outcroppings like you would see in Arizona, etc. will need to work on this.

We leave the hotel to get some tapas and do some exploring. The cobblestone paths (calling them roads or streets would be far too generous) barely have enough room for a car and the sidewalks are a foot wide. Not that it matters because you don’t dare walk when a car is passing you. They inch by while you try to make yourself as flat as possible against the wall, hoping not to become macabre graffiti. As is typical of Spain, the Plaza Mayor is at the top of the hill of the town, so if you’re looking for an event, or a place to eat or the Cathedral, just keep walking straight up.

We explore for a bit, just soaking in the atmosphere and local culture. Stopping into a couple of different places for a chat, a wine and some tapas. It’s getting late so we stop into a last bar for a drink and thirty minutes into relaxing at the bar eating tapas, a beautiful woman in a beautiful light blue dress suddenly appears and starts singing. Not on a stage, no announcement and not stationary, but moving through the crowd as two men play guitars for her. The music seems to move her and she sways as she sings, her voice melodic and moving. She flirts playfully with the men as she sings, leans against walls, opens the door to the front of the bar to sing to people passing by. One of the men passing stops walking and sings back to her. Amazing. She sings for an hour and it is so great I want to give her money but there is no collection plate.
She has been hired by the owner of the bar we are in, a man known as “The Golden Nose.” He won this title for his skill in sniffing and tasting wine and identifying them in a competition in New York. He owns two restaurants in Segovia and they both tie for first as our favorite in the town. One is upscale with this late night singer and the other is a smoke filled Spanish Tavern with great food, tons of Segovia townsfolk, few tourists and a beefy lesbian behind the bar who is short and surly with me but quickly warms up to Wendy and wants to practice her English with us. I can tell that’s not all she wants to practice on Wendy…

We have the hotel breakfast. I love the Spanish way of eating, exemplified by tapas. A little here, a little there, a little of this, a little of that. Breakfast continues that tradition with lots of food in tiny portions. I have a few slices of jamon, a tiny little yogurt, a piece of toast, two pieces of cheese, a taste of cereal, a tiny cup of coffee and some orange juice. And then we’re off.

We trudge up the hill to the center of town to see the Cathedral. I say trudge, because I am not feeling it today. I want a glass of wine and I want to sit in the sun, have some light food, watch the people walk by and then, if I’m really ambitious, take a nap. But, instead, we are going to walk around the town and see the sights. Oh yeah, another cathedral. Haven’t seen enough of those yet...

And apparently, I haven’t. Because as soon as we enter the cool interior of the church, I am once again blown away by the magnificence of these places. These cathedrals are grander than anything Tolkien described.. The cathedral was started in the fifteen hundreds and took a century and a half to complete. And it’s easy to see why it took that long to finish. It’s too immense for words. Arched ceilings that disappear into the clouds supported by pillars so massive that if ten men stood hand in hand they couldn't encircle them The outer space of the cathedral is sectioned off into 20x20 rooms that each have a different theme. The first one we enter is like a three dimensional painting. An alter in the front, and behind it, a painting going thirty feet up. Sculpted around and into the paining are statues, wailing over the body of Jesus, six people crying for him, on the left of them, a soldier. On the right, another soldier holding a spear, his arm extended. Above that are cherubs and angels looking down, and at the very top, God watching it all. All of it is perfectly melding into and around the painting so the whole diorama looks like everything is emerging from the painting.

Many of the rooms we enter have three dimensional painting themes as well, but others are like a museum, or an art gallery, containing nothing but paintings that cover the walls all the way to the ceiling. Some of them gigantic, taking up an entire wall and thirty or forty feet high. One of them is of a tree in the center with a multitude of people on top of the tree dancing, singing and drinking. Hanging from the tree is a bell. Jesus is next to the bell, poised to ring it. A skeleton with a huge scythe is chopping at the tree and is almost through. The devil is to the left with a rope tied around the top of the tree ready to pull it down. The message is plain enough. It is judgment hour. It’s about eight feet high by six feet high and dominates the wall it’s on. Even the ceiling is painted with suns and stars and angels and more inlaid gold. In the center of the room, a statue of Mary hands clasped in front of her, a halo over her head, standing on a dragon. Everything painted, everything with gold inlaid.

This is amazing to me. I live in the twenty first century and I’m breathless over this. Wendy reminds me that outside are tiny little hovels of houses and imagine the peasants being told about religion in a place like this in the superstitious bad old days and they don’t even have running water, electricity or toilet paper. They have nothing. No Thing. Here is beauty and gold beyond anything they could ever hope to imagine.

If a priest told them this was a holy place and the priests had tea and crumpets with God every day at four and God told them what to tell the masses, they would probobly believe him.