Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hanging 10 on couch-surfing

Maybe a year or so ago, Joseba and I got started on and I wrote a little blog about it.  Anyone remember?  Couchsurfing is that website that is a social network where people travelling can connect, meet up and sleep over at people's homes where they are visiting.  But it's more than just crashing on someone's couch, the website community seeks to bring people all over the world together while sharing different ideas and finding similarities.

Having finally settled into our home in San Sebastian, we decided to get back into the couchsurfing action and updated our profile.  Here we were able to convey what kind of hosts we would be and what kind of people we are as well as who we are looking to host.  With photos of our seperate travels and trips together along with this blog's quote ''One day your life will flash before your eyes, make sure that it is worth watching'' along with some other info, we basically showed the world that we are a happy-go-lucky couple hoping to meet new people and share experiences with people from all around the world who are equally openminded.  With that done, we just waited and sha-bammmm then came the requests.

Possibly because we live in a goregeous little beach town or maybe because our improved profile was so awesome, we got a lot of requests.  Couchsurfing doesn't require you to accept all the people who request to stay with you, of course.  They recommend reading each request well and checking out the person's profile and seeing thier feedback other people have left about them.  A few requests were just 'hey, I'm coming to San Sebastian and need a place to stay for 3 nights, can I stay with you?'  To these we normally responded no, because we didn't sign up for this site to be somebody's free hotel.  We signed up because we like Couchsurfing's vision: A world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with people and places they encounter.  Then came a request from a French girl from Bordeaux.

Geraldine introduced herself and explained that her and her best friend had always heard great things about Donostia and wanted to explore it themselves, seeing as it is quite close.  They had read our profile well and even my blog and requested a weekend that we had free, so after reading her profile and seeing her gusto for life, we decided to say yes.  The clencher for me was the quote on her profile by Mark Twain that I just love:  Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed with the things you didn't do than the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.  And that was that - we started planning for their arrival excitedley.

They arrived via train and had already told us some great news - that 1) they would be arriving with a surprise and 2) they were going to cook us lunch.  We couldn't have been happier.  We headed off to the grocery store where they did thier shopping and told us they would be making...crepes!  So French!  At home they gave us the surprise - handmade cinnamoon pastries (Les Cannelés Bordelais) that are very typical from the Brittany region of France, where the friend, Fanny, was from.  Delicious!  With dessert before lunch we soon enjoyed our crepes with ham, cheese, tomato and egg.  Mmm mmm.

Excited to show them our little city we headed out to see the town and weren't a bit impeded by the heavy snowfall!  Both of them were so happy to see the city - the old part, the pintxos, the beach, the buildings - everything.  We wandered around for a bit until we decided that it was just too cold to be touristy and headed to a chill bar where we talked about everything from our travel's to love.  Hours passed in the cafe and we all just clicked, talking away and enjoying each other's company.  Geraldine had lived in India for a year teaching French and had many amazing experiences to share.  Joseba has also travelled to quite exotic places and happily told us about his trips.  We learned about them and them about us - it's exactly what couchsurfing was set up to create!

The rest of the trip was equally as nice.  With lots of laughing as well as tasty treats, we were delighted that they had requested our couch for a weekend.  We spoke mostly in English, but from time to time, Joseba would bust out some French - he actually speaks some.  Whereas, from time to time I would bust out some of my French which consists of ballet words and phrases like fli fly flew. This garnered quite a bit of laughter and lead them to ask me where I learned such an accent?  Beauty and the Beast, but of course mademoiselle!  We even watched a couple clips of the film, and they were shocked with Lumiere's accent.  Apparently in the French version, he obviously cant have a silly French voice, but instead has a Spanish one.

They gave us a mix tape of French music they like and in return we made one for them - not just exchanging stories but music too!  We even made plans to head up to Bordeaux one weekend and visit them - which will be our first time 'surfing' and not hosting - woo hoo!

So thank you couchsurfing, for creating a place to meet people from all over the world and enjoy new experiences.  We definitley enjoyed our weekend getting to know two new friends and showing them our version of Donostia.  And in 20 years, I agree with Mark Twain and I can surely say we won't be disappointed by having hosted these two nice girls!


Friday, February 17, 2012

Sea-faring folk

As a kid I remember memorizing the year America was 'discovered' by reciting the following:  1492, the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  However, as history unravels, many Americans are coming to find out that maybe someone else discovered thier land before the daring Italian.  From the Chinese to the Vikings, there are many who claim to have been to the Americas long before ol' Chris.  While there is no proof, the Basques are also in the running for having visited the continent of North America in the early 14th century.

In Mark Kurlansky's The Basque History of the World, he points out that the Basques probably were in pre-Columbian America based on two main reasons - thier fishing catches along with the fact that they were known as the best sailors in the world.  He explains that the amount of cod and whale meat that they brought to market was far too much to be caught in the nearby areas and that they would have had to had ventured farther and farther into the Atlantic.  The fact that they were the best sailors makes it seem unlikely that the people famous for sailing the furthest and crossing oceans to catch massive whales would just happen to miss an entire continent.  Either way, we will never know.  The Basques, if they had discovered the continent kept it a secret, as most fishermen do about a good spot.

A side note about Christopher Columbus and his famous expedition that is rarely noted is that although the Capitan was Chris himself, that many of the moving hands on deck were Basques in fact.  The ships were most likely even made by Basques, seeing as they had a reputation for building the strongest and best sea-faring transport at the time.  The Pinta even had two sailors from the county, Gipuzkoa, that I live in according to Kurlansky's book.  The second and third voyages made were manned by Basques and even set off from Basque Countryfishing villages - Bermeo and Getaria. 

With Basques maintaining thier reputation as the best seamen in the world, it is not strange that we also learn that the famous Magellan had a crew of Basques aboard his ship that circumnavigated the world.  The surprising and not-often-mentioned fact is that Magellan himself did NOT go around the world in said ship, because he died partway through the trip.  Who pulled the ship into port after that?  Juan Sebastián de Elcano, a Basque.

Magellan and Elcano hated each other, but after Magellan was killed in the Phillippines, the experienced sailor took lead of the fleet and safely guided two remaining ships back to Spain.  Three years after having set off, Elcano steered his ship, the Victoria (built in Gipuzkoa, my county) in port.  Elcano is a very well-known name here and statues can been seen not only in San Sebastian but also his hometown, about 20 minutes from here.  While his name might not be as recognizable as Ferdinand's, here it is known what he did.

Known in the past as the best sailors and whale-hunters around, Basques still hold onto thier sea-influenced past.  From the regattas (rowing races) that started as races between different fishing towns to see who could race out to sea the fastest to catch a whale, to high towers in the hills on the coast that were used as lookout towers for a whale's air spurt as it came to surface, the Basque coastal towns are rich with history.  Standing near the main church in Getaria, it is possible to think that Juan Elcano,  man who circumnavigated the Earth, once stood there as well.  Or visiting the port town of Pasaia, it is possible to think that the ship Columbus sailed in was built by strong Basque hands here.  While not an attention-grabbing people, the Basques have made many contributions to the discovery of new lands and advancements in sea-faring customs and these were a few I thought you should know about!


Monday, February 13, 2012

Falling in love again

To celebrate Saint Valentine, most people shower thier loved one with red roses, champagne and chocolates.  This year, while happily in love, I would like to dedicate my day of love to the city I now call home, Donostia, because it is true, you can fall just as easily in love with a city.

I arrived on my first day here kind of in shock.  After NYC this little beach town was a massive change for me, but I think more than the drasticness of the change was the fact that I was enthralled by its beauty.  From the crashing waves dotted with surfers washing up against the soft sandy beaches to the rolling green hills with traditional Basque farmhouses in the distance, the landscape was like a postcard - picturesque to a T.  The Old Part's hundreds of pintxos bars, each decorated with wooden tables and bar stools and pig legs hanging from the cieling were inviting with thier tasty treats out on display.  The Basque music sometimes accompanied by dancers or musicians filled the street and seeped its way into my apartment on the edge of the Old Quarter each day.  Even the iconic white railing that runs the whole walkway of the famous Concha Beach is gorgeous and fitting of a Queen, which it once was.  This Belle Epoque city makes perfect sense as the vacation destination for Queen Isabella and her summer palace, Miramar (Sea view in Spanish) still sits atop a sloping hill right on the coast with a view of the church spires and tiled rooftops.
 As I got to know the city better, I only liked it more and more.  Each pintxo bar had a different delectible bite to eat.  Each café con leche tasted better than the last.  My daily walks of exploring the city took me to parks, random quarters of the city and into massive churches.  Every time I got lost I was happy to see something different - a door from the Art Nouveau era, a fountain that lit up, a shop with puppets and a moving one out front, an art exhibit in what looked like a shop.  And to finish up the week, each Sunday as the bells rang at the Iglesia de San Vicente out front of my house, I would watch a happy couple walk out hand-in-hand newly married. 

I was happy to be discovering this beautiful gem on my own, but was also delighted to make friends that I could share and explore more with.  With friends I discovered that nightlife in San Sebastian doesn't even really start until 1am and doesn't finish until 7am or later; that get-togethers on the beach with beers, friends, guitars and sometimes even Spanish homework is a perfect way to pass the day; that random hikes open you up to even more breath-taking views of the Basque coast; that youth discounts are available for concerts, ballets and even the Film Festival.

As one year turned into another, my love for the city didn't fade, although it did get more comfortable, as most loves do.  After moving away from the hustle and bustle of the Old Part, I no longer ventured every day to see the morning vegetable market, or to the beach to see the eldery men taking the morning dip no matter what the weather.  I didn't catch the random street demonstrations or pop in for an ice cream on my way home from work (better for my waist anyways!).  As I lived in a calmer neighborhood, I picked up new habits with my love, Donostia.  I religiously drank coffee at a bar on my corner as I read the local newspaper.  I began to buy my groceries from the same supermarket and my bread from a smiling-faced old lady who taught me how to ask for the bread cut in half and cut into two pieces.  I began to see my  neighbors in the steet and bow my head or say 'Agur' (bye in Basque) as we passed.  I started to make it more my home.

When I went 'home' to the USA for a summer, I had a very strange feeling during the hot months.  While I was essentially at home, I had this strange longing for San Sebastian.  It's like I missed it like one misses a loved one.  I had a tugging in my heart and I could picture her beaches and buildings like one remembers a loved one's facial features.  Upon coming back for my second year I felt like I was where I was supposed to be again.  This feeling persisted as I continued travelling, always relieved when I got back to Basque Country - as if it were my real home.  A place where I didn't speak the language perfectly, where I couldn't understand half of the signs since they were written in Basque, a place where the idea of sea snakes and octopus tentacles disgusted me but were regularly eaten meals, where wine is cheaper than water - this was the place I felt at home at.  I had fallen, and I had fallen hard.

With Joseba I saw a new face of the city - the romantic side.  I finally walked hand-in-hand on the beach barefoot, took the city in at the wee hours with a cute boy by my side, drank wine while looking into his eyes like no one else was in the bar, tried meals in restaurants I never would have imagined myself eating and more.  And while Joseba is Basque, he is not from this city, so in turn, when he came to Donostia, it was as if he were coming to 'my city'.  All of a sudden I become the one who knew how to get places, the one who knew a wine bar nearby, a place to buy dessert, where to park.  All of these things in a place that I guess I could finally call my own city.
Now that it is both our city, I am falling in love all over again.  We have recently got into the couchsurfing stuff where we host travellers from around the world who are passing through Donostia.  We let them sleep on our couch and basically agree with gusto to give them an insider's view into this beautiful place.  Walking along the streets with someone who has never seen the elaborate pink marble bridges, seen the modern Kurssal Convention Center juxtaposed against the traditional architecture, the Basques dressed in traditional peasant dress on a festival day - these things I am able to see again through the eyes of a first-timer and it is amazing.  It's like falling in love all over again.

 I still to this day normally walk around with my camera in my purse.  While I am going on my 4th year (this is a long-term relationship we have), sometimes things still catch my eye.  Maybe instead of the beach or a church, now it is a painting on the street or a lovely windowbox full of flowers.  Either way, I can tell I am still head over heels for this place called home because each day she makes me smile in some way or another.

So, although I have an amazingly handsome boy right by my side, today I raise my delicious glass of Rioja wine to toast to my city - may we have many more happy years together.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Come again?

As an English teacher, I think one of the most difficult things for students to master in the English language is the pronounciation.  I ran across a clip from The Ellen Show where she talks about one of the many websites that offers help to foreigners learning the language.  A lot of websites will allow you to type in a word and then hear the correct pronounciation.  However, she highlights a website that is set up to look just the same but actually is telling people wrong pronunciations.  It's mean I know, but please, just watch, it's quite funny at the same time.

There are some very common mistakes that I see here in people pronouncing incorrectly.  The first main hurdle is the TH sound.  It doesn't exist in Spanish, so as a result it is quite difficult for them to master.  So, for example, if you ask a Spanish person another word for Dad, and they want to say Father, it will more come out like Fader.

Another quirky Spanish thing is their inability to pronounce a word starting with S.  I would say it is almost virtually impossible for a Spanish speaker to say Spain, because they in thier language they always stick an 'e' before that consonant.  So, Spain becomes Espain.  Special becomes Especial (which is the actual word for special in Spanish).

With our plethora of silent vowels and consonants, it's easily understandable why some words just leave people speechless.  Take some of the following words that are not pronounced how they are spelled whatsoever:  clothes (we practially don't even say the TH) or February (although I can't really say it without the first R myself), and don't even mention American cities or States - Illinois, Phoenix, Arkansas...impossible for any learner!

On a similar note, there are a lot of words that ARE pronounced the same but screw learners up with thier spellings.  Honestly, how can 'through' and 'threw' be pronounced alike?  'Bye' and 'buy', 'weight' and 'way, 'hear' and 'here' or 'write' and 'right' - the list goes on and on.

Tricky and hard to ever pronounce like a local are words that to us completely different but to a Spanish are homophones (they sound alike).  Some examples are 'feel' & 'fill', 'bitch' & 'beach', 'desert' & 'dessert', and my favorite 'beach' & 'bitch' which could get you in a lot of trouble!

When you start talking about differences in accents between us and other English speaking countries, the difficulties for learners multiplies, but thankfully there are websites out there that help them learn - obviously not the one Ellen found though!

Amanda (a-man-duh)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sick Day

With the cold front we are having in Europe (today its 32º here) and a weekend with friends, I guess I was bound to get sick - I wouldn't be Amanda if I didn't.  Working with the kids this year, it seems my immune system is just way off.  I guess with atleast one kid being sick everyday, germs are all around and my little body doesn't like it much.  So, today here I am in bed with no voice and a super swollen and sore throat.

Being sick though made me think about telling you about being ill here, since it is not something I would wish upon anyone visiting of course!  That's one of those things you want to read about, not experience firsthand on vacation.  From the doctor to the pharmacy to sick days, it's quite a great system that is set up for Spanish residents in my opinion (as a sicko today).  The World Health Organization even ranks the Spanish system as the 7th best healthcare system in the world according to NPR.

Spain has a public healthcare system, meaning anyone who pays social security has access to all health benefits.  Employers do not provide insurance policies or anything of the sort for thier employers, and instead each employee pays a sort of social security tax each month that includes health care.  A person in my similar employment level pays about 5% of thier monthly wage towards social security.  While that may seem steep, there are absolutely zero out-of-pocket costs to the patient besides medicine (we will get to that soon). 

Each neighborhood has an 'ambulatorio' or health center that is open weekdays from morning until mid-evening.  With tons of doctors, you are assigned just one and normally can get an appointment with said doctor in a day or two.  To make an appointment you can either go in, call or make the appointment online (which is normally my go-to).  You can see your doctor as often as you deem neccesary and if you have questions about your treatment or just want to ask a question you can also set up a phone appointment with a nurse.  If need be, a doctor will even come to your home to give you medical attention.  No co-payments, no insurance slips, nothing.

When you go to see your doctor, it's normally quick and to the point, which is fine with me.  My doctor in my old neighborhood was always so excited to see me, mostly because of my name.  Apparentley, there is a famous Spanish song by a Chilean singer called 'Amanda' and he normally sang it to me when I came in.  When you explain your symptoms, the doctor will either give you a prescription right away, order more tests or send you to a specialist. 

If you are sent to do some more tests they usually take place the next day.  Blood tests right in the same ambulatorio right along with pee tests.  The results are passed onto your doctor and they call you as soon as they are in with the results.  You can pass your ambulatorio any time after that to obtain a copy for yourself.  As for X-rays, you take the photos, they print out your X-rays and you take them (yes you just carry them around town) to your next appointment, which is usually the day after your screening.

As for prescriptions, there are about as many pharmacies here as fast food restaurants in the States.  One block can have 3 pharmacies! Each is well-spotted with a flashin green cross out front signalling that it is open.  You take your prescription and a couple seconds later they bring your meds out.  Because of the universal healthcare, the prices of prescriptions are incredibly low.  My last cough syrup cost less than 2€.  You can also get 'the pill' for something like 3€ per month!  Another surprise to me are the doses that the medicine comes in.  In the States I have never seen Ibeprofuen of more than 200mg for sale.  Here you can't find smaller than 600mg, and you don't even need a prescription to buy it.

The downside of the system a lot of people say, and I can agree, is if you do have to see a specialist.  With so many people to serve, there are not even close to as many specialists as doctors - so they are overwhelmed with cases.  To see a dermatologist, gynocologist, etc, your average wait time is atleast 3 months.  For someone who has an urgent problem you might be able to be squeezed in early, but a lot of people then decide to turn to the 'private' healthcare system in the country.  Some doctors in the public health system moonlight as private doctors after thier shifts - where they probably make quadruple the money.  With quicker specialist appointments, the private system works much like our system.  You can pay yourself or with the use of an insurance carrier.

Something drastically different from here to home is the care of elder and ill relatives.  There are practically no rest homes or hospice centers here.  The Spanish are very family-oriented and more often than not, take after thier own relatives.  In fact, if your parents get sick, as thier child it becomes your responsibility in the eyes of the State, to take care of them.  Very few people are put into nursing homes and those who are are only there normally because their cases are so severe they cannot be cared for in a home.  But, family and friends regularly stream in and out to visit them.

With the highest life expectancy in the EU (80 for women and 74 for me), Spain seems like it has it all together when it comes to caring for thier own.  Or caring for anyone for that matter.  No one is ever turned away from immediate healthcare - tourists, illegal immigrants, etc.  As tourist from another EU country, you have free healthcare just like a Spaniard and some people use this to thier advantage and come to the country for special operations and such.

So, while I am sick, I can relax knowing that if this little cold turns out to be something much worse, I am covered on all sides.  Healthcare is a constitutional right in this country, and after having it as part of my life, I wouldn't like to imagine othewise.

Off to take some super strong ibeprofuen and onto a speedy recovery!


Thursday, February 2, 2012

A quick flurry

While the average temperature for February is between 49º and 57º, yesterday it dropped to 32º and snowed.  As I left the house, bundled up with 3 sweaters, gloves, a scarf and furry boots, I didn't feel the cold but saw small flakes casually falling from the sky as I headed to work.  Entering my classroom I was even more excited about the little flurries and found out that more was to come.  By 10am it was a small blizzard - well, I lie, it was basically just normal snowfall haha.  The kids were so confused but interested in seeing this white stuff falling and covering thier playground and my workmate, Begoña, brought in a little handful for them to touch it.  What reactions!  Even better were the reactions of the 2 year olds whose eyes opened WIDE and exclaimed 'que nevazo!' (what a snow!).  It made me realize that for most of these kids, while they see snow on the mountains or on TV or something, this was probably the first time they had ever had it so close - and boy were they pumped.  Half hardly slept, so excited to wake up from the nap to see more snow, but sadly by mid-day the snow had melted and my snow dreams were gone. 

While only on the ground for about 3 hours, the city managed to take advantage of it.  When there is snow on the beach people flock to take photos.  They also just must have a pic of the mind-boggling snow-covered palm trees!  Here is a link to the local newspaper's photos of the few hours there were snow (Diario Vasco).  Some are boring - the highway, trainmen sweeping snow off the platform, etc, but then there are some gems like one of some old people swimming, yes swimming in that icy water!

Although the temps won't go above 32º (0ºC) today, the roads are clear and the buses are running, so I am off to work.  Thanks Siberian Cold Front for a few hours of white fun!