Today, Friday January 14th, marked the end of orientation and the start of my first “real” and only class at the IES Center, Advanced Intensive Spanish 350. It would be 3 hours a day, 3 days a week, but I decided to take this intensive section for several reasons: first, it permitted me to have a course load of only four actual courses (17 “credits” by some other normal standard that Haverford doesn’t use) which was good because I don’t like keeping track of more assignments than I have to; second, I figured if Haverford was worried about the “academic quality” of IES and/or its students, an Intensive language would help me in a credit battle in the future; three, I actually wanted to learn Spanish; and four, Barcelona has a reputation for being a “party” city, and I am not that much of a partier. Hopefully only the liberal arts nerds would take the Intensive course, and I wanted to be sure I met the nerds. I had already met everyone in my class – since the orientation sessions were with your language class – and I was so far pleased with my decision.
At the positively luxurious hour of 10:00ish, I headed out to catch the Ferrocarriles to the IES Center and found our room on the 2nd (really 3rd – tricky!) floor. Our professor, Laura Vasquez, introduced herself and the fact that our class would be all-Spanish from the first second. I was starting to understand that this would be a theme with all our class’s dealings with IES. Judging by the eye-rolls and groans from the rest of the room, my classmates shared the same sentiment of dreaded challenge I had. I took this to mean that I was placed at just the right level.
Laura is originally from Madrid, and is working on her PhD in Spanish Film Studies, for which she studied for a few years at some university in Virginia. Like any good Spaniard, she also loves to use vosotros, the third person plural informal pronoun and verb conjugation that they don’t use in Latin America, and, therefore, don’t teach us in the States. Makes for a confusing adjustment.
The good news, however, is that Laura’s Madrileno accent is easy enough to understand (always a concern when dealing with foreign professors, or so I’ve heard), she’s very enthusiastic and bright (certainly makes class more fun), and – after having several classes with her by now – she would prove to have a decently lenient and understanding attitude (in stark contrast to our orientation instructor…humorless bleh!).
Part of my evidence for this is that she announced she would be giving us a half hour break in the middle of every class period, so we could go get lunch/coffee and wouldn’t pass out in our seats. Another piece of evidence was, for the first several days of class, we had the most fun playing games and other engaging educational activities. It was great; it was like I was in 10th grade Spanish class again, almost as good as freshman year at Haverford with Roberto Castillo-Sandoval. Plus, we had no homework for the first week; something neither of my roommates or anyone else I talked to could brag about.
During today’s 30 minute break, I set out to discover just what was around the IES center to eat. I was beginning to discover that eating in Europe, and particularly Spain, is difficult. Or rather, not what I’m used to.
First of all, it’s expensive. Even aside from the Euro exchange rate, staple lunches like Coca Cola and sandwiches or salads will regularly push you up close to 10 euro. Its actually cheaper in a lot of circumstances to drink beer – which dehydrates, and is not particularly my favorite flavor, and therefore not ideal. Second, you have to remember the right time to go. If you get hungry before noon or after 4:00pm, you’ll be hunting for a while for any place that’s open, be out of luck, and likely find yourself at an American shrine-to-capitalistic-globalization like Burger King. Third, you don’t get all that much for your money. A small-ish panini, miniature plates of “tapas,” et cetera – so its difficult to feel completely satiated on a budget. And fourth, it takes a long time depending on which restaurant you go to. The Spanish – probably mostly for the better – treat eating as a social activity, so you sit down with friends, talk for a bit, the waiter comes by and maybe you order something, talk some more, your food comes out, and you talk for however long you want until you specifically ask for la cuenta, the check. There’s no rush for anything, and a regular lunch at a standard street cafe will regularly take you over an hour’s time when done right. The lone, cheap, student traveler who’s got things to see and a break schedule to keep isn’t catered to very well in this system. Particularly compared to America, when I can walk into anywhere at any time of day, get a rather cheap meal that’s fulfilling for a full half day, and that is served quick enough that I can be in and out within a 30 minute lunch break.
Today, I walked around the corner of the IES block on Ronda Sant Pere, and found a close-as-I’m-gonna-get answer to my prayers: a local Spanish-inspired all you can eat buffet for 8 Euro / 10 on weekends. This still doesn’t solve the price problem, but seeing as its all you can eat, “Lactuca” is just about perfect: you walk in, have the most diverse smorgasbord of a salad bar I’ve ever seen, get a drink (unlimited non-alcoholic included in the price!), pay the cashier (no waiting for the check!), and choose from a variety of hot dishes, paella, and pizza. You can sit down anywhere in the three-floor cafeteria and enjoy your meal in as quick or long a time as you have. If you choose the upper floor, the lonely traveler is presented with a captivating view of Plaza Urquinaona. I already love ogling all the unseen-in-the-US makes and unique puny European hatchback models when they’re parked on the side of the street, so watching them navigate a 5-ish way intersection with a forested plaza in the middle is great entertainment.
After class, I still had a free afternoon. IES requires us to have an up to date cell phone for the entire trip, and I had had Verizon enable my US number for international use, but to call anybody cost an arm and a leg, and Blackberry internet cost a first born child. I knew I would be meeting more Spanish friends at the UPF, so I wanted a local number to give them, and I was beginning to realize just how useful access to Google Maps from the Blackberry in the palm of my hand would be in a foreign city and country.
Vodafone, one of the main European carriers, had released a prepaid, 3.50 Euro a week Blackberry plan just a few months ago that I had heard about. This was big news, because normally Blackberry’s require a permanent year or two long contract. I walked down the street to the Vodafone store to try my hand at buying a cell phone SIM card in Catalan and Spanish.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. I told the guy at the front door, “Yo hablo castellano, pero mi ingles es mucho mejor.” He said that was OK, and directed me to a guy named Jesus that spoke pretty good English. Within 10 minutes, I had paid 30 Euros and had a penny-sized plastic SIM card that, when slotted in to the back of my Blackberry, gave me a Spanish number and access to the internet like Verizon didn’t even exist. Hooray technology.
Now it was decently late in the afternoon, and today was the day that our RA Tatianna had invited us to the UB dorm to meet her friends and some more IES Americans, so I dashed home, stopped momentarily to re-learn where the address was from the map she gave us, and walked the 10 minutes to Sant Jordi.
There, in the dorm’s full-service basement bar – This is your cue, all the Haverfordians and other US college kids reading this now, to let your jaw drop and exclaim “WHAT?” at your computer screen – was a gathering of about 20 students, half American and half Spanish. As a late comer, I sat down at the far end of the table and started talking with Tatianna, Jeff (my roommate), and a few of Tati’s friends. One of them, Sara, took classes at the Pompeu as well, and was thoroughly welcoming and excited when I said I was taking three of my classes there as well. I was starting to discover that the UPF might have the most ardent school spirit in the city.
On the table were a few print outs of the key dance clubs in Barcelona, and Tati and her friends were explaining to us where and when were the best nights to go out. Discotecas aren’t particularly my thing even back in the states, since I actually prefer to talk and meet people rather than spend a few hours in a hot and sweaty room with more decibels than a 747 takeoff. But, going out late and partying is a part of, shall we say, the cultural experience in Spain, and since I was here for total immersion, I was interested in attending a club or two soon for the experience and just to say I did. It was nice to have Tati spell everything out for the folks like me (perhaps I was the only one) who had researched every aspect of Spain before coming here (universities, cell phones, metro maps, Renfe trains, airports, cuisine, tourist attractions, history, etc) except this particular element.
Tati’s friends were in the middle of finals (in January? The Spanish university schedule makes no sense), and at 6:00 they told us they had to go back to their rooms and study. Jeff and I headed back home for dinner, talking along the way about how neither of us had been out to see the nightlife yet, and how we had been hearing these over-the-top stories from pretty much everyone else in IES. In the way an anthropologist gets excited and (with a bit of trepidation) looks forward to heading out to the Andes mountains to conduct a new field study, to experience a culture and “way of life” completely unknown to oneself, I was excited about what might happen to us when we went out with the other guys from the dorm tonight.
After dinner, Fernanda was much more flexible and understanding about us having plans to head out than I thought she would be. “Chicos, you are free to do what you want, I remember when [my children] went out on Fridays and came back at 4:00 in the morning. Call if you run into any problems, and keep an eye on your pockets!”
We walked back down to the Sant Jordi dorm, with Jeff leading the way and my other roommate Scott accompanying us this time (he wasn’t able to make it to the afternoon get together because of a class). We hung out in the room of two other IES guys, from Minneapolis and White Plains for about an hour or two while sipping beers. When it was “time,” as decided by some arbitrary standard that I didn’t seem privy to, we headed downstairs to another room with IES guys, and stayed there for yet another 30 minutes or so. Then, again by some signal I couldn’t figure out, the 10 of us came down en masse to the grassy park in front of the dorm. A few of the guys had bought 2 Euro litre jugs of Sangria, which, I have to admit, tasted pretty good despite the cheapness. Of course, sangria always tastes good. I’m sure the “I’m actually in Spain right now” effect added something as well.
There was some conversation about where the group wanted to go. We started walking down towards the Avenida Diagonal, many of them still arguing (loudly) among competing agendas and the rest of us walking along and observing. Three guys were dead-set on some bar downtown called Sumum, the apparent draw of which was shots (chupitos) for one Euro. A few more wanted to go straight to Club Shoko, apparently in the Port Olimpic area by the ocean. Still others had heard about a no-cover-charge offer for Club Oshum, in the Zona Universitaria area. Once a plan coalesced – that we would go to Sumum for the cheaper drinks, and then Oshum, since we could get in for free – there was yet more loud arguing over how exactly to get there. Since I have an excellent sense of direction (I’m not boasting – it has rarely led me astray) and had studied the metro map to a T, I knew exactly how to go about finding each place (they’re in opposite directions on the Green line). I was thoroughly enjoying the entertaining spectacle unfolding before me of 6 slightly-buzzed American 20 year old “bros” fight over who was right, so I wasn’t about to interject.
We finally got on the right subway, and after first passing the bar by 2 blocks, walked in the door to discover a packed and happening Sumum, with bright burnt orange lighting. I walked around in what little room there was for a few minutes, watched how other patrons walked up to the bar and ordered, and walked up to follow the same motions. Then it hit me just how strange this felt: I had never in my life been to an establishment and ordered a drink before. In fact, given my age, this was still impossible for me to even do legally in my home country. I might be spoiling myself right now of a significant rite of passage back in the States. I thought of maybe waiting until I got back to the US to try this – for precisely the amount of time it takes a highly radioactive atom of an element with an atomic weight over 100 to decay. Dear Fox News, if you want to talk about somebody circumnavigating the Constitution, the lobbying job Mothers Against Drunk Driving did in 1984 to withhold highway funds from all states that didn’t set the drinking age at 21, might be a great place to start. Want to stop drunk driving? Don’t try and stop the drinking. Stop the driving. Barcelona did it: ye olde smashed college students have subways and busses to take home here.
After talking with my roommate Scott, and one of the American guys, and a close Spanish friend of his, and even a few other people, I was starting to like this whole concept of being at a bar. Its social, open, festive. You meet people you never would otherwise, and even the friends you came with tell the best stories you never knew to ask them about. After awhile, I began drawing parallels between where I was now and the English and French coffeehouses of the 1700s I had learned about in my mass media classes. Bars and coffeehouses were where society was formed. People talking about what’s going on in the world, this was Habermas’s “public sphere”. The first sparks of revolutions, both French and American, had ignited in humble watering holes on the street like the one I was in now. And back home in America we deny these activities to everyone under 21, and instead force feed our youth television, internet, and television on the internet. I don’t know about you, MADD, but it seems like a crying shame to me.
After 1am, momentum started shifting again among us students. It was time to hail taxis over to Club Oshum. I said a silent goodbye to the public sphere that had graciously accepted me as a member for 2 hours (something tells me I was the only one of us to think of it that way), and in my best, tipsy Spanish, told Scott, Jeff and I’s cab driver where to go.
We arrived in short time. There was no neon sign or anything indicating that this was the correct nightclub, but a nightclub it most definitely was. The three of us agreed if we had to pay any sort of cover charge, we were leaving. We learned from the guys from the dorm, a club promoter had sent out an invitation on Facebook to get in for free until 2am. Theoretically, if we told the bouncers “Kike” (pronounced key-kay) had sent us, that would be enough.
I – since my Spanish was best of the three of us so far – walked up to the bouncer, a grizzly bear of a man in a dark sportcoat. “Somos los amigos de Kike, usted conoce?” The bouncer paused for a second, said nothing, and then waved us through. “Well that was easy,” Jeff said later. My thoughts exactly.
You could hear the music emanating from the basement from two floors up. As we descended down the stairs the adrenaline pumped faster and faster, until we rounded the last corner and…holy cow.
Multicolored swirling spotlights and ultraviolet area lighting were the first things I noticed. When my eyes adjusted, I began to realize how huge the fully-black basement was. It could easily do double duty as a hangar for a medium size jet airliner. There were easily a few hundred people dancing on the floor, on the stage, on raised platforms, everywhere. Having experienced how disgustingly perspired and humid the air gets at a Haverford dance in Founders, a building with no air conditioning, I was even more amazed at how cool I felt in the room. But beyond the visual and the tactile, what I could not wrap my head around was the sound: the 1.21 gigawatts (bonus points if you get that reference!) of eardrum throttling techno bass. And it had fidelity, you could hear every note even still!
We had made a pact at the front door to come back and find each other at 3am, because none of us wanted to stay out later. Knowing there was a definitive end time allowed me to enjoy myself a lot more. I may be at a discoteca, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have a bit of Haverboy in me. I was enjoying being at the discotheque for the experience of it, for observation and to expand my horizons. It is not particularly the atmosphere I’m comfortable in on a regular basis. I prefer to actually talk and have conversations with people to get to know them, and appreciate music for music’s sake. If I want to dance, I want to at least dance with a large group of friends I already know. You can do none of these things with much success in a pumping discotheque.
So while the time flew by and you bet I got my groove on, I was relieved when I looked at my watch and it was 2:55. Jeff later convinced us to stay for an additional 15 minutes so he could say goodbye to his friends. We walked outside, found a cab, and headed home happy, still slightly buzzed, and totally exhausted from our first real night-on-the-town in Barcelona.