Wednesday, March 25, 2009

No Spice, No Dice

Saturday, 03/21/09
A couple more notes from this week:
Thursday was Father's Day here in Spain (el dia de padre). However unlike the US the day passed pretty normally. My family didn't go out to any restaurants or prepare anything special for dinner. I talked with Fran and he said that's pretty normal. However there were sales at all the shopping centers leading up to the day so my guess is that they give gifts at the very least.
Tuesday was St. Paddy's Day. Not celebrated but I was able to drag one friend out to an irish pub with me to celebrate. Not a terrible amount of people out and about to celebrate here. But that's to be expected I guess when they don't celebrate St. Paddy's Day (and it was a Tuesday). The section of town with the majority of bars (for students at least), known as old town here (centro antiguo in Spanish) had some celebrations going on. For example, The Asturiano, a popular bar in old town was offering green beer but compared to a normal Friday/Saturday night, not a big turnout.

On Thursday I also visited el Naranco, a small subsystem of mountains just north of Oviedo with Fran. You can hike to the top, but to get there and back it takes a full afternoon. So we drove there. At the top they have a statue of el Cristo (Christ) that was a public initiative involving a public collection of funds. It's pretty tall, but not nearly as tall or massive as el Cristo in Rio de Janeiro. From the top there is a great view of all of Oviedo, and of course the surrounding area. I didn't take any pictures because it was rather cloudy and our view was limited. However on a nice day there is a great view of the sea, and most of the port town Gijon from the top. I'll have to go back on a nicer day in order to take some pictures.
On the way up you can also visit an old royal summer house and a church built in the 9th century for the royalty Spain. I believe it was constructed for Ramiro I if you care to wikipedia... No pictures of these either, maybe next time!
Also I learned that here in northern Spain they have a problem with car accidents involving wild pigs. Fran told me that if you hit a pig by accident, it is best to kill it with the first impact. Sounds strange but he said if you have proof that the pig caused damage to your car, you can get all the damages reimbursed by the government. So, if you hit a pig and it gets away, you have to pay for all the damages yourself. Fran says they are built like tanks and therefore are rather hard to kill on the first impact especially if your natural reaction is to slam on the brakes.

For Marcy, I asked my host mom about spices she uses but she didn't name anything special (she said salt and pepper, haha). I haven't had any spicy food since I got here (with the exception of one dish called Picadillo which I don't think is native to this Asturias), so I think they prefer to eat without spice more or less. I'll try asking Fran my conversation buddy and maybe a couple of other Spanish friends but my guess is, like me, they don't know much about spices and cooking.
There's saffron, but I think that's more southern Spain because I haven't had anything with saffron (although I think the Picadillo may have had some, not sure).
I also got to try Torta de Queso recently, which translates almost literally to cheesecake but the composition and taste of torta de queso is much much different. It's very sweet, with a taste of caramel and I guess, cheese?. It's not as firm as cheesecake either. I'm a big fan.

Also since arriving here I have dropped soda from my diet, which I thought to be impossible but it seems I have been proven otherwise. I also switched from green tea to coffee. I know it seems strange especially for me but I really have no problem living without soda. Woohoo maybe now I'll be spared of late onset diabetes! :) Now we'll have to see if I can return to the US without regressing.

Next weekend I'm going to Galicia, the "state" just West of Asturias. I think here they call their states principalities (principados) but I don't know. I forget the exact word. We're going primarily to visit the port city of A Coruña and, of course, the famous Santiago de Compostela. It´s a popular pilgrimage destination, but we´re not walking the entire pilgrimage, just the last couple kilometers I hope.

My intensive Spanish class just finished up and I got a 9,5 out of 10,0. Like I said, easy class, but very helpful with learning useful phrases, practicing, in the first month.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Party-On Wayne

This weekend I´m going to Gijón (25 minutes away or so) because there are some major parties going down--sponsored by the Engineering Department of Oviedo. It´s awesome because every department here has its own party every year, and they last a couple days or so. For example in chemistry, they have a 9 day long ¨fiesta¨ where the first day you drink 1 glass of wine with the department, the second 2, etc until the last day you drink 9. Sponsored by the school too. Go figure!
The Engineering Department´s party is taking place in the biggest Discotech (Club, essentially) in Gijón, which is the biggest city in Asturias. So that´ll be good times for sure.
However keep in mind that population-wise, Gijón does not even get close to Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, and the like. Asturias is a rural state in comparison to the rest and it´s population isn´t terribly immense. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, Asturias has just over a million residents, whereas Madrid alone has 3.2 Million. Also the city of Oviedo has about 225K residents, Gíjon about 275K and Aviles 83K. Those are the three biggest cities in Asturias. Also I think Valencia has about 800K residents (just a note for comparison for mom!)

Back to fiestas: All the patron saints have fiestas too. so pretty much they are always trying to find reasons to fiesta here in Spain. Today is the patron saint José´s fiesta. and San Mateo´s fiesta is September 21st. That´s a really big fiesta in Oviedo. However San Mateo is not the patron saint of Oviedo, that is San Salvador. Also, there´s added value to a patron saint´s fiesta if you share the name of that saint I might have to come back in September --we´ll see on that.

Next weekend I´m going west to Galicia to visit A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela. I paid 55€ for the trip and it´s a weekend affair, everything included pretty much EF Tours style where they herd you along during the day. Not a problem though because I don´t feel like planning the trip myself. and I don´t have a car.

And the following weekend is Spring break (la Semana Santa)

Classes are going well-- my modern history of asturias class is a drag because I have to write a term paper (science major writing term paper = no dice) in spanish of course. And it needs to be about 20 pages long or so. The upside is there is no final exam... just the paper. Organic chem is becoming easier to understand and Physics is starting to pick up in dificulty finally. Population Geography is getting interesting finally too. We were learning about censuses and stats like that but now we´ve moved on to population density, and the reasons why certain areas of the world are populated the way they are (Like why Europe´s population is primarily urban and areas like Asia, India are typically more heavily populated rural/suburban).

Still haven´t gotten my University ID card... but apparently this isnt a problem. I went and talked with the Chemistry Admin yesterday and they weren´t concerned and told me to check back every couple days. So technically im still not ¨Registered¨ for my classes but once again, not really a problem with the Spaniards. It´s becoming a problem though because I do not have access to the Spanish equivalent of blackboard (online program with course information) and I can´t download things I need for my classes.

-Matt (or Mateo, Matthew, Mathieu, Mateos, Mathias, I currently respond to all of the above)
The English sound -th like in Matthew is foreign to every language, so those who can´t say Matthew typically say Mathieu which is french and is pronounced more like Ma-chew. Mateo is spanish, Mateos is portuguese and Mathias (Ma-tee-us) is german.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Más y más

Friday, 03/13/09
Friday the 13th: Not recognized in Spain sorry. For the Spaniards it's all about Tuesday the 13th. Here they say, "Nunca casarse ni embarcarse martes el 13" - Never get married or embark (on a cruise or voyage) on Tuesday the 13th. So now you know! However I learned they do share the other superstitions like crossing a black cat, walking under a ladder, etc.
Along the same lines of superstition saying the word "snake" (serpiente) brings years of bad luck. I learned that in the south of Spain they say "la bicha" instead of serpiente in order to avoid the bad luck. For Harry Potter fans it's probably similar to saying, "He who must not be named" instead of Voldemort.
I met with my conversation buddy here in Spain. His name is Fran and we're going to meet once or twice a week to practice Spanish (for me) and English (for him). He is a mechanical engineering student in his final year. He studied English in Chicago for 3 months at the Institute of Technology there. We discussed many of the cultural differences between here and the US and one that he found really interesting how drivers/pedestrians treat the crosswalk. His first week in Chicago he was trying to cross a side-street in the crosswalk and he was more or less ran over by an oncoming car. Here in Spain (or Oviedo at the very least), the cars will stop no matter what. I think crosswalks are a bit more sacred here. So he told me he was surprised that the cars aren't obligated to yield to pedestrians. I told him technically they're supposed to but either way you're supposed to make sure the driver waves you on first. It was entertaining though because we decided to walk into town, and at every crosswalk I slowed up a bit and looked at the traffic whereas Fran just began crossing with no concern. He told me not to worry but I told him it's a hard habit to break because I'd rather not be run over like he was :). I'll have to check but I'm pretty sure here crosswalks are called cruces de cebra (literally Zebra crossings). The official name is cruce peatonal (pedestrian crossing).
He's also part of a "mountain group" that goes out on weekends climbing mountains, being outdoor-sy and all that. He invited me to come along with him so I'll probably be going next weekend. It's a good way to see the smaller towns around Oviedo and also to meet many Spanish students.

Some other foods I've had/tried recently:
Frejoles (spelling may be a bit off). It's a dish they make with giant green beans basically and some type of meat that they pull into small pieces. It's really good and I highly recommend!
Also: Bizcocho. It's a type of sweet bread they make that is known as bread "twice baked". I tried some that had the taste of lemon bread with cinammon. Also very good.
Tortilla is very typical too. It's potatoes and cheese and eggs (I think) baked together to make a sort of pie you can cut into slices. Not to be confused with the tortilla we know from Central america that is ground-up corn with flour. This is much better!
Also typical is Fabadas. They're basically lima beans but a bit bigger. I haven't tried it yet.
Also Bocadillos and Churros. These are typical all over Spain though. A bocadillo is basically a sandwich made on the typical long bread you would buy at a panaderia (bakery). Then you add meat, cheese, and lettuce/tomato if you want. It's different than a sandwich in that it's not square and condiments are not involved.
Churros is essentially fried bread sticks coated in sugar. It's often served with the Spanish version of hot chocolate. In this case it is called Chocolate con churros. This is typically a dessert.
Also another culture note: If you order food and it comes in a bowl with some type of broth, it is not automatically considered a soup. My conversation partner Fran found it comical that in America we can put anything in a bowl and call it soup. Here if it looks like a soup, it may be by American standards but it is not by any means called a soup! For example Frejoles comes as a "soup" more or less (not a lot of broth) but is not a soup by Spanish standards.
Also unique: Entremesas (spelling may be off). Basically during sobre mesa (the time you spend at the dinner table with your family) there is always a dish in the center of the table that has slices of meat, chorizo (a Spanish type of sausage) and slices of cheese. So while you are waiting for dinner to be prepared you can snack on these while conversing with the familiy. It's perfect if you are extra hungry one day--you can take the edge off while waiting for the main course.
So throw all of those in with Sidra, Spanish wines and Torrija and you'll have a pretty good feel (or taste, in this case) of how Asturians eat. Oh and also a lot of bread. all the time. Although I think this is pretty typical of Spain/ a lot of Europe. Bread with every meal.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Photos / Futbol

Sunday, 03/08/09

I just uploaded a bunch of photos. You can access them from the slideshow on the righthand panel or you can go to this link. I added some commentary but if you have any questions about the pictures let me know for sure.

Today I went to a Real Oviedo Football game (soccer). They're third division and not too good at that but they used to be first division in the early nineties. For this reason, they have a stadium that seats about 30K and it fills up maybe 15%-20% or so. They played Nalón (another team from Asturias) and tied 0-0.
I went with my friends from Belgium and Germany and they proceeded to inform me about futbol in their countries. They know it's not very popular in the States and were surprised to find out that I know all the rules. They say most americans can't even spot offsides but I told them I used to referee kids soccer.

One of my friends really likes the Barcelona football club so we´re probably going to go to Barcelona one weekend here soon to see them play. Most people here in Spain choose sides over whether they like Real Madrid or Barca (Barcelona) more. Real Madrid is better I think in the standings and as far as I also am looking forward to seeing Gijón play because they´re division one and not too far from Oviedo. They´re the only Div. 1 team in Asturias I think...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Covadonga, Carnaval, and Sleet.

Sunday, 3/1/09
This weekend I went with the international students to Covadonga. Here they are called the Erasmus students, it's a program for Europeans who want to study abroad somewhere else in Europe usually to learn a language. Technically I am not "Erasmus" because I am not European but I can still attend all the Erasmus events because I am doing pretty much the same thing as the Erasmus students. The difference is the European Union has an agreement to send students to other European countries to learn languages, study etc. If a student has good grades and all that then they are eligible to apply. I think it's pretty cheap and many of the students looking to find international jobs like to apply. For non-European students, an agreement between the sending and receiving universities has to be reached so the terms of the contract are a bit different. Anyway, I went to Covadonga with the International students.
I hadn't read too much on Covadonga before going there but I probably should have. From what my host family here told me it's a famous Cathedral and also the site where the first King of Asturias (King Pelayo I think) fought back the Africans (los morros) that had been living in Asturias. The group leaders didn't give us a background of the place we visited but if you wikipedia Covadonga or battle of covadonga you´ll get a pretty good feel for it. The spaniards consider it the beginning of la Reconquista (The retaking of Spain from los morros). It was a pretty nice place and I took a bunch of pictures so no worries. I met a good part of the international students. The group consisted of primarily French, Belgians, Brazilians, Germans, and Americans (Pretty much the same consistency as my Spanish class). Not very many Italians and there were a couple Brits too. There are two big groups of Americans here. They came in groups with leaders explicitly to learn Spanish. They are on a different schedule which runs January to May (it's the American adjusted schedule because it coordinates with how colleges run in the US). One group is from UMass in Boston and the other is from Temple in Philly. There are also a couple other students I met from the "U" in Miami and UNC as well. There's also a student here from Virginia Tech and I didn't know she existed until pretty much last Thursday. Go figure. However, I am not surprised--the international relations staff at Tech isn't really the best when it comes to communication.
I really wasn't interested in becoming friends with the Americans too much. A) I can do that when I go back to the states and B) they weren't really 100% committed to learning Spanish. They arrived in a group here in January and they pretty much just stay as a cluster and speak English all the time. When they had to use their Spanish I thought it was pretty weak but then again I don't really know their level of practice yet either.
However! I made really good friends with 3 Belgian students and one French student. Three of them are in my intensive spanish class and the fourth I met on the Covadonga trip. We're all pretty good friends now. They tend to speak french with each other but if I'm around they'll usually switch to Spanish. Two of my Belgian friends also speak decent English but we don't talk much in English. I also met a very nice Brazilian girl named Angelica. She's here with a bunch of Brazilians and she is also in my intensive spanish class.
Also this weekend was Oviedo's Carnaval. I found out that Carnaval (Carneval maybe, not too sure) is celebrated in many places in Spain and this weekend it was celebrated here in Oviedo. Apparently earlier this week was Carneval for the kids but this weekend it was for all of Oviedo. Starting around 6pm or so pretty much all of the younger crowd (and some older too) dressed up in their disfraces (costumes) a lot like Halloween. I think the Spanish here way out-do the costumes I have seen on Halloween in the US. They do a lot of themed costumes with friends and they put a lot of time (and sometimes money) into their outfits. Much better quality by far. They also are much more creative in their ideas--less ghosts, vampires, and more costumes like the cookie monster, pac man, and characters from popular shows.
It was also interesting to see all these characters packed into bars and "discotechs" as they're called in Europe. Not sure if Dan is allowed in these or not...
The unique drink here in Asturias (although I think it is served in el pais basco, the basque(sp?) country, too but it's a bit different) is called Sidra. There are "Sidrerias", places where one goes for Sidra pretty much on every corner. Sometimes you pass by 3 or 4 in a row too. The manner in which it is served is also very unique and if you get the chance, look it up. Basically it comes in green bottles and the bartender will hold the bottle high over his head and pour without looking at the bottle into a glass that he holds below his waist. I think this is to add additional bubbles etc. into the Sidra to add to the taste. It also looks pretty sweet too. They only fill up the glass about 1/3 or less and you're supposed to drink it all at once and then the last bit you're supposed spill onto the floor with a flick of the wrist. It's common that the floors in Sidrerias are wet with Sidra.
From what the bartender told me they have Sidra in the basque country too (basque country is more or less the land on the Spain-France border--There are two "basque countries" basically one section which is on the french side and the other on the spanish side). On the Spanish side the Sidra is fermented a bit differently and they put more carbonation into the it. Because of the carbonation they don't pour from above their heads and it can be served regularly. I think the bartender also said that the basque Sidra is a bit sweeter. I'll have to check on that.
A lot of the time Sidra comes with tapas. Tapas is pretty much just a snack food (or finger food if you want to call it that) that consists of a thin small slice bread, some type of meat and some cheese with a toothpick holding it altogether. Tapas comes with a vast variety of toppings but typical here is thin bread, chorizo (sausage) and some type of white cheese (I don't know the name).
So now I am learning a bunch about Brazil, France and Belgium. My friends have a lot to tell me of their countries but I can't really offer much in return as they know a bunch about the US already. It's surprising to me how much they know about US politics, policies, and other US current events. I feel bad because I don't know nearly as much about their countries. But I guess when your country is the center of the world's attention, that's just kind of the way things are. So I try here and there to tell them something interesting about the US but usually I end up listening which is ok. Their countries are quite interesting. One of my Belgian friends, Francois(although he goes by "Fix"), thinks that Washington DC has 40 million people which I found pretty entertaining. I told him it was definitely not even near that number and I would look up how many are in DC when I get the chance. I haven't met too many Spanish students yet. I met one Spaniard named Fran and he's my conversation partner for the Tandem program. Another student, Pablo is more or less the student in the department of chemistry who is going to help me adjust to life here although I haven´t met with him yet (somewhat ironic I guess). However I haven't had very many classes yet and so I think over time I'll meet a bunch more Spaniards.
One thing I find pretty interesting living with my host family is how they treat electricity especially lights in the apartment. Basically the rule is, if you are not in the room or you don't need the extra light, turn out the light. At night, if you leave a room, you turn out the light, and then as you walk through the hall you turn on the light and once you enter another room, even if just for a second, you turn out the hallway light. It's very strange and if I forget my host family is always sure to remind me. The only exception to this rule is the TV, which can really be on at all times even with no one in the room. I don't really know how much electricity is used by a 18" TV in comparison to a lightbulb but I have a feeling that this may be a discrepancy in their system. Also interesting is that the only trash can in the apartment is under the sink and is about the size of bathroom wastebasket. and a small one at that.

Dan: Here they say Nike like Mike with a N instead of like Mikey with an N. Not sure why but I tried my best to correct my host family.
Dad: In Oviedo there is the king of all roundabouts: It is 2 roundabouts that are connected like a figure 8. It's pretty intense.
Mom: My host family had no idea what Burritos or Quesadillas are. I haven't asked about Tacos but I have a feeling they'll blank on that too.
Mike: My host mom cooks 3 meals a day for me (then cleans afterwards too), does my laundry, makes my bed, and dries my towel. And she won't allow me to help her with any of these (although I usually try to make the bed)-- Jealous? :)
iPhone: I miss you.

Currently (as in March 5th at 1:30 PM) it is sleeting here. I am not sure why I was told that this winter has been strange with the weather. Usually they never get snow-- just rain. There´s been plenty of rain and yesterday it snowed a bit around 3pm. It´s not snowing like it did in VA earlier this week but for the people of Oviedo I think this is kind of a big deal.

Also! This week I had a chance to check out the Oviedo medical system! I got sick (again) with pretty much the same thing. The doctor I visited just classified it as tonsilitis and prescribed some version of penicillin. It´s a pretty good system I thought (although my family isn´t too happy with it, then again, not very many people are happy with their healthcare systems). There was no co-pay and the medicine I bought was 50% regular price because the other half is covered by social security here. So I got sick more or less on Monday and today everything cleared up. I missed a couple classes but other than that nothing bad came of it. So that makes twice in 3 weeks I´ve been sick with pretty much the same thing... :) :) :) :) That bottle of Advil has come in handy.

Also sorry I haven´t put any pictures up yet... but I will soon. maybe.