Saturday, November 24, 2012

Culture Collide

Maya Angelou had a story in her collection "Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now" about traveling abroad and how the experience broadens one's mind. Americans don't know what it's like to travel half a day in either direction and experience new language, new food or new customs. Maya Angelou had said there's such a beauty when the cultures and languages collide (Sorry for lack of direct reference - I had the audiocassette version of this book and can't look it up.). I'm a strong advocate of study abroad programs and even for adults to work and/or live abroad. My husband was regularly traveling to Germany years ago and for every opportunity he had, he would drive to Switzerland or France or another city inside of Germany. On the other hand, there were colleagues who stayed in the hotel over the weekend and didn't bother venturing anywhere. Even when I travel for work, I try to allow a few hours freedom to see the local area at some point. I had a very exciting year traveling for work, but I had time to spend in Toronto and few evening hours in Los Angeles.


During my Madrid experience, I was challenged by the language barrier with my 6th grade Spanish skills. I studied French all through high school and college, and it only comes in handy to watch foreign films. My sister had studied Spanish and then proceeded to use it at various employments and situations. Therefore, she has a strong foundation and experience with it. Guess which language my daughter is going to learn?

In Spain, I could navigate sometimes when the French and Spanish overlapped (e.g., "tirar" in Spanish is to pull while "tirer" in French). Then other times it was quite a challenge to order a cup of coffee or ask someone for directions. We were quite surprised that a lot of people we interacted with did not speak English (e.g., random waitress, ticket vendors, traffic officers). On the other hand, the native Spanish speakers were really appreciative if you tried to piece a sentence together,  no matter how badly. They would help you along to complete your thoughts. 

There's something about that mental challenge of learning new languages. The minute I knew I had to talk to someone, my brain started churning. It was embarrassing that a bunch of us often threw in other languages when stressed. Our brains could recognized it as a foreign word - but just the wrong language!

I've been in this situation before in my life, and it could be frustrating and exhausting when communication fails. I've married into a family that doesn't speak the same language as mine, and it was hard to learn a new language. However, I tried the same systematic technique I learned French, as well as constant interruptions to discussions to make sure I understood the flow.  I actually believe I have strong comprehension skills for languages, while my speaking skills are rough. So by the end of the week, I could understand a speaker  better than I did earlier.

People Magnet
Had we stayed in a sleepy suburban town, I might not have much to say here. However, being in Madrid, we had the opportunity to meet people from different places. There was a replanted Swiss gentleman with his two boys who helped us navigate the Metro. A neighbor who came onto the hotel balcony during the protests was a Swede on business.Then there was the lovely English couple - senior citizens with back packs who had just arrived in Madrid - who recommended restaurants from their guide to us and we felt old friends when we met them at one of them. My absolutely favorite multicultural moment was dancing to "Gangnam Style" with 2 Londoners, 3 Russian girls and Spaniards at an Irish pub!

What I find most fascinating as an American meeting foreigners on different soil is their perception of the US. We were in Europe one week after the re-election of Barack Obama. So, generally upon hearing we were American, their first comments where how pleased they were that Obama won. The Swedish neighbor said 95% of country wanted this. Some people had met other Americans who were Romney supporters and were stunned. This is so important because this is an example of what US role is in the world stage. People in the US tend gaze at their belly button and not realizing everyone is waiting for action.

Occupy Europe
We were also there on November 14th, when anti-austerity demonstrations were taking place all over Europe. Our hotel was on Gran Via, which we referred to as the "Fifth Avenue of Madrid." From our hotel room, we could see all the activity on the main street, which usually picked up in the evening and it became an exciting area.

On the 14th, we found ourselves on a main artery of the demonstration path as people marched toward the government buildings.These are photos from our balcony as thousands of people gathered. It was a 24 hour strike, so it literally started at 1am. We had hundreds of people chanting and marching in the streets, police vehicles and helicopters flying overhead (this was when we met the Swedish neighbor). They started again in the morning by 8a.m and I've got lots of photos and videos of the activity. It's surprising how loud a thousand people can get!

We said this was a once in a lifetime experience and after seeing the museums, cathedrals and palaces, this is modern Europe. People wanting their voices heard, whether they are in Madrid or Rome or Paris.

After the protests, we walked down the main street and saw that the protestors had defaced a lot of the private property. There were stickers plastered and spray painted messages on windows and doors.

These are pictures of the La Caixa bank and the Loewe store,which represent the 1% (in US terms). You could feel the anger the people have towards the banks that profited, while the people had to pay.

That day, we took advantage of the closed train stations and shops and staying out of the museum district, by spending the afternoon in El Retiro (the "Central Park of Madrid", but more palatial). We ran into the 1000's again in the evening by Plaza Cibeles, but fortunately followed some other folks through the back streets to the hotel.

In the evening, we had gone out for post-dinner drink and we meandered through the prostitutes and night tourism. We saw crowds on one street towards Puerto Del Sol, and then we heard police firing. At that point, people started running. We decided to run the other way, towards the Guinness beer sign on a pub!

When I returned home and told my colleagues and others about this, about 99% gave me blank stares. These are your average Americans who listen to local news station and that's their main source. The 1% who did know where actually immigrants who listen to NPR and BBC world news. Don't get me started on this.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Trip to Madrid - Recap, Tips and Comments!

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to go to Madrid, Spain for 8 days this month. This was our first trip to Spain and I haven't been to Europe since 2000. We made this a true family vacation with my husband, daughter, sister and friend coming together.

Where do I begin?!


First tip for travelers to Madrid - check the hours for free entry to the museums. Reina Sofia is free on Sundays and the Prado is in free 2 hours in the evening.We also went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, which did not offer free entry. 

For Reina Sofia, we spent about 3 hours there and saw about 90% of what was open. I loved modern art, so this was like a feast for me! Unfortunately, we missed getting the audio guides and relied only on the description on the placards. My daughter liked the abstract work and we had fun guessing different things. However, some of the surreal films were too graphic and we had to usher her out. This was the first museum that I've seen that had an extensive collection of films for specific artistic movements. What impressed me the most were the variety of Spanish artists. I hadn't known about some of these, and made some notes to research them further.

We went to the Museo de Prado on 2 evenings. Just because it's centrally located, it wasn't hard to find ourselves in that area. Now that I mentioned how I love modern art, I was extremely turned off in the Prado. How many portraits of Spanish royalty do you need to see? On the other hand, my sister loved the portraits and the color. I did fall for El Greco though - maybe because he has the non-comformist edge to his work. This online image is quite weak. In person, this painting (Adoracion Pastores) is electric! He just takes the red cloth on Mary and then dabs pure white on top. Also, this painting is quite large so it's also very commanding in that sense. 

The third museum is the Thyssen and we spent around 3-4 hours there. I think I could've done it in less than 3 since I'm not interested in the Dutch paintings, which my sister enjoys. On the other hand, I discovered German and Russian expressionist painters that I might have missed. Again, I wrote their names to research later. Also, saw a sedate Lucien Freud portrait of the museum's benefactor, Baron Thyssen Bornemisza. My daughter enjoyed the modern art, and I was pleased to see groups of young school children (under 7). The tour guide would ask them to use their imagination to view these great works.

Where to Eat

Yeah, you really can't stay hungry for long in Madrid. There's a tapas cafe or bar every few feet.
Here are our favorites that we discovered:

Public - behind our hotel on Gran Via. This was absolutely fabulous and delightful. The ambiance is chic, the staff was accomodating and the food was divine. The ravioli was paper thin, and felt like comfort food.Tuna with rosemary was heavenly and people liked the beef carpaccio. We went there twice. The most exciting part was the price on the entrees. 

La Gloria de Montera - this the same owner as Public and we had received recommendations for this restaurant for being affordable and chic. The starters were wonderful - gazpacho, pumpkin soup, calamari. However, the entrees were a bit off. I had a giltfish out of sense of adventure and it was a bony mess.The paella was fishy. Dessert made up for it though. And, yes, if you ask they will give you a plate for your bread; otherwise it is is placed directly on the table.

The owner also has Ginger, La Finca de Susana and Bazaar, which we did not try. 

100 Montaditas - we found this chain and loved it for its casual atmosphere and cheap eats. A salad for 4 euros? A sangria for 3 euros? My only problem was that the descriptions sound wonderful, but they're all little sandwiches - carb overload alert!

After a while, you're done with the jamon and the manchego cheese. We found a little India neighborhood (mostly run by Bangladeshis) and a random Indian restaurant behind our  hotel. We also found a Chinese restaurant that was fairly decent, though everything tasted the same. We had some great pizza and some bad pizza depending on the restaurant.

For First Timers

1. Go to the Plaza Mayor Tourist office and sign up for the walking tour. We took one that started at 6pm and were worried it might be too dark. Yes it was dark, but who knew this city lit up so beautifully! All of the old buildings and fountains were hauntingly beautiful. We all got headphones and the guide had a microphone. So, if you fell behind a bit, you didn't miss out on the discussion. We took the tour on Day 3 in Spain (Day 2 in Madrid), and it helped so much. We understood the culture and history so much better. I took some notes, so we were able to see a painting at the Prado and understand which royal dynasty it represented.

2. Pick  up art work in Plaza Mayor - bull fighters and flamenco dancers are most popular, so you have choices and see which one calls to you. 

3. Take the metro and enjoy the musicians. Just be careful on the elevators - they move very quickly!

4.  Street performers in Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol. Take photos, but watch your wallet. 

5. Be ready to walk a lot, have plenty of foot lotion, powder and socks for end of the day massages

6. Bring extra film cards for your camera.You may end up taking videos of old men with accordions, birds nibbling at a cafe or the general strike demonstrations happening outside your hotel balcony.

7. Get a pocket Spanish guide. I wished I had one because not many people spoke English as I expected. So ordering a coffee or looking for directions was challenging.

Best Part of Madrid is Getting Out of Madrid

We took a day trip to Segovia - a 10:30 bus from Atocha Renfe for about 13 Euros. The trick is that train and bus tickets are booked to a specific timeslot so you may not assume you are welcomed onboard when you show up.

From the bus stop, we took a map from the Info stand there,but did not get much info from the attendant since obviously a busload of tourists just showed up. Instead, the tourist office by the Aqueduct had a more agreeable representative. He pointed how we could go off the beaten path - if the tourists are headed to the main sites, we should go through the quieter backstreets and get to the same place.

The three big things in Segovia are the Roman Aqueduct, the Alcazar (castle) and the Cathedral.

  • The Alcazar was beautiful from the outside and it started to rain, so we dived inside for a quick cafe. We had the audio guide, which was helpful since there weren't descriptions inside.
  • The cathedral looks like a buttercream cake! It was gorgeous and you could almost hear music from its outdoor architecture, when you see it from any angle in the city. Inside it's huge and beautiful as well.
  • The Roman aqueduct was mindblowing when you realize they're perfectly cut stones on top of each other without mortar. There is a point you can walk to where the aqueduct ends so you could touch the top of the arch!
We ended our day with Doner Kabab Nemrut where we had fabulous pizza, falafels and fresh squeezed juice. Jumped back on the bus to Madrid by 6pm.

If we had more time, we definitely would've visited the other museums and churches. It has a wonderful, ancient, small town feel. 


This is another UNESCO World Heritage site and it's a must see. It's larger than Segovia so the one day - actually 7 hours - we had set aside for this was not enough. Our original intention was to stay 1 night here, and that option is still open for the future.

We took the AVE train from Madrid for 12 Euros and it's about 30 minute ride. From the train station, we took one of the tour buses. We had option to book tickets and tour from the Madrid office, but chose to try our luck there. We did well. For 20 Euros, we got a tour bus, a (good looking) Spanish guide who translated into English and Spanish on the bus and walking tour through the city and the Cathedral. I thought Segovia was tough on the cobblestones, but this town has a lot of uphill and downhill paths. There's a river surrounding the city, so the view is outstanding.

The architecture in this city is delightful and you could always find small alleyways that need to be photographed. The Cathedral is beautiful and the guide explained a lot of the history and motivation. The beauty of Toledo was the history of Arabs, Christians and Jews living together in one tiny town, and it was the capital of Spain at one time. The main square was called Plaza de Zocodover, which comes from the Arab word "sook" for market. As you walk through the Jewish quarter, there are small 3" tiles in blue and white with either Hebrew letters or Menorah embedded into the cobblestones.

The guide had suggested we take a quick bus back to the train station. However, he neglected to tell us to ring the buzzer or tell the driver where we wanted to get off. The driver kept going passed the station and we got a tour of the local streets. We panicked and harassed him to get us back to the station to get our 7:20 train (remember, we're all reserved now!). We made the train with barely 7 minutes to spare.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

"After a Hurricane, there's a rainbow" - Katy Perry

What a week it has been! I keep thinking of how normal life was one week ago. Yes, there were news of impending storm, but we had Irene last year and made out ok. I can easily say, this was unexpected beyond imagination!

We are in PA so our area suffered slightly compared to others in NY and NJ. We have uprooted trees and power outages throughout the area. The uprooted trees that always stun me are the thick trunk ones with the roots that have gone deep into the earth.We were fortunate to have electricity (even though there was a tree branch precariously on a wire), and we could host friends seeking warmth, phone chargers and homemade corn soup.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning and just cried with relief that we were all safe. Monday night was rough listening to the winds and we woke up all night to make sure our power was still on. If we lost power, we'd lose our sump pump, which was running all day to extract water from our basement. With the howling high winds, we decided to stay away from windows and get blankets to sleep in the basement together. For me, social media was important - I kept checking all day to see updates from friends on weather conditions as well as their own power situations. A friend's husband was stuck out of state and she had to managing a midnight power outage and starting up the generator on her own. She and I were texting at wee hours of the morning.

Everyone has stories and this week has changed people. Before and during the storm, we ended good byes to friends with "Stay safe" message. Afterwards, when we meet each other, the first thing we say is "How did you make out from the storm? Is everyone ok?"

I have colleagues in NY & NJ who were hit pretty hard and we haven't heard too much except due to their limited power. Yesterday, a colleague in Staten Island was emailing me while waiting in line for gas. He said my emails kept up the spirits of "tired and frustrated man". He sent a note at 6pm saying that 8 hours waiting for gas and nothing. He has to try again tomorrow.

I'm reaching out to my network today to see how we could help (donate supplies or food). I'm in PA, but I'm a New Yorker and a Jersey Girl at heart. The fact that my FB news feed still has posts from friends without electricity and hot water and are displaced is disheartening.