Week 1: Aprovechar: to take full advantage of (posted by Kati in Spain)

An announcement over the plane’s loudspeaker wakes me from my comatose state, “…flying south to Santiago. We will arrive in approximately one hour. The temperature at our destination is 27 degrees.”

Flying south? Santiago de Compostela is north of Madrid. I look out the window and see tan hills dotted with little green bushes, not the rolling green hills of Galicia that I was hoping to see. Panicking, I yank my overstuffed backpack free from under the seat in front of me and begin to excavate for one – any – of my three guidebooks. I find maps of Spain in all of them, but none of them have Santiago labeled. I open the airplane magazine to find a flight map, and my panic subsides as I see that Santiago de Compostela is the only Santiago that Iberia Airlines flies to from Madrid. I am on the right flight; the pilot must have misspoken. Whew.

A short hour later we descend through fluffy white clouds, soaring over the greenest countryside I have ever seen. After collecting my bags, I push my trolley out into the soft, fresh Galician air. After hours of travel, I am finally here.

PIcture out of window flying over Santiago de Compostela

Flying into Santiago de Compostela

A cabbie rolls his little white car forward to meet me. He is rocking a plaid flannel shirt, black Ray Bans, black skinny jeans, a graying mustache and matching hair, and a cigarette, which he promptly puts out. His accent rolls and lilts like the road we drive towards Santiago. His pronunciation reminds me of an Irish brogue just as the Galician song on the radio reminds me of Celtic music I have heard at home.

The cabbie drops me off outside of a heavy glass and iron door squeezed between an oriental clothing shop and what looks like a garage entrance. I ring the bell, and after a minute an older woman with brownish-red hair and a sweater draped over her shoulders carefully makes her way down a flight of stairs into the apartment lobby. With a big smile that crinkles her eyes, Pepita opens the heavy door and bustles me and my bags inside.

The apartment is spacious and filled with natural light. The floors are beautifully constructed from cherry wood, and although upon first inspection the kitchen appears to be in disarray, I quickly learn that everything has its place and its purpose. I am shown from my bedroom to the kitchen where Pepita has prepared a Spanish tortilla. It’s a solid disk the size of a frying pan created from eggs, milk, potatoes, and onions. Without pausing for breath in her story about an adventure she had in an airport, Pepita flips the whole tortilla onto a plate and sets it in front of me. Forty-five minutes later when I have only managed to eat half of it, she cuts me another quarter and insists that I finish.

Pepita reminds me a lot of my own grandmother. She is kind and gentle beyond words, but she is a force to be reckoned with. She is a teacher/administrator at a local high school, and she is full of stories and life lessons. Five minutes after welcoming me into her home, Pepita quizzed me on my beliefs about abortion, dating, and children, and she proceeded to tell me that no one, absolutely no one, should have children before they are thirty years old. In the mornings, Pepita serves me “English” tea: I am of British descent, and so I should, therefore, prefer English tea. She is always finding ways to make me more comfortable and more at home.

Colleen, a fellow Richmonder and my roommate for our two-week orientation period, arrived on Sunday. She is lovely and just as excited to be in Spain as I am. We are extremely similar, which makes living together an absolute pleasure. Our adventures are always full of laughs, and no day is complete without a somewhat uncomfortable cultural learning experience.

We have the best teacher, Juan, for our intensive Spanish immersion class. In class we practice grammar with exercises such as interviewing fictional characters, solving murder mysteries, writing fake roommate adds, completing TV scripts, and debating current events. We also learn how to imitate Spanish spoken with a thick French accent, the difference between tortas and pasteles, the best beaches in Galicia, and what not to miss in Santiago.

Traditional Santiago almond cake, the Torta de Santiago

Smiles all around after two big bites into the Torta de Santiago

In addition to our academic orientation, Colleen and I are orienting ourselves to daily life in Santiago. We spend part of every afternoon and every evening after dinner wandering the stone streets of the city, and we discover little treasures during our walks. We have fallen in love with the Torta de Santiago, which is essentially almond pound cake with powdered sugar. We have compared prices, quality, and quantity of food in supermarkets around the city. We have investigated the rates of different mobile phone companies and compared packages. We have spent time in bookshops, bakeries, little corner stores, oriental markets, parks, culture centers, and art museums. We have gone to mass, attempted Galician dancing, and toured the buildings of the university (University of Santiago de Compostela (USC)). We have experienced Santiago nightlife (until 5:30am, which is considered early!) under the protective wing of Antonio, Pepita’s son and father of two. We have become friends with students from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Italy, and South Korea, and we cannot wait for the 40,000 full-time university students to arrive on campus.

Dressed in traditional wear for a Galician dance and music class

Kati dressed in traditional wear for a Galician dance and music class

The past seven days have been a wonderful introduction to life in Spain, and I am so happy to be here.

Quote of the Week: “The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.” ~Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture)

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