Madrid Redux

I did not expect to be back to this blog. After I left Madrid last June I had thought we had parted ways. But like lost lovers who find their way back into each others life I am here. And I am here in Madrid. This time as a visiting lectured. No longer am I the expatriate find his way in a foreign land trying to grasp a foreign language. Now, I know the town and can reasonably speak the language. Also, when I first came here I did not know anyone, now people see me who remember me and did not know where I went: “¿Dónde has estado? Hace mucho tempo no verte!”.

SInce here is not much employment turnover here (people trying to hold on to the one good job they have) the people at my favorite Starbucks in Principe Pio, or other eateries, are still there and they remember the Black American who spoke Spanish with much gusto, even if not correctly. And the faculty and students at SLU Madrid have been incredible. Old and new alumni seem to know who I am and have made me regret I only have 4 days on the ground here.

I will give one final lecture tonight and then go out for tapas. Something I could not do when Dominique was hear with me. I will eat, talk and laugh and be Spanish for tonight and tomorrow I catch the flight back to my world in the US. With a smile and melancholy sadness that comes from seeing an old friend that you have had to leave much sooner then you wanted to.

Published in: on March 10, 2011 at 12:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Tengo dos amores (with apologies to Josephine Baker)

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When I first heard “J’ai deux amours” by Josephine Baker I understood the song as an abstraction: a song expressing the feelings of an incredible entertainer from the US who had to move to Paris to come into her own. Now, the song has a much more personal meeting.

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I never expected to become so attached to a city and its people. I did not expect the intoxication that comes from being able to communicate in another language other than your mother tongue (no matter how many mistakes you make in grammar and pronunciation). And like Josephine, often times, I was treated better here as a stranger then I was in my country of origin.

So in my final blog for this site I will let pictures take the place of words and I will let Josephine Baker express more fully what I wish I could.

Published in: on June 24, 2010 at 1:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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Mirando el Mundial

The teacher had an emergency for the 1 o’clock class and the Netherlands was playing Denmark at 1:30.  We decided to honor our Spanish class by watching and discussing the game in Spanish.  The Students from Saudi Arabia, Italy and the U.S. (me) moved from watching the game on my MacBook to the cafeteria where it did not take much convincing of the Argentinean controller of the remote to turn off the hockey game.  This is the world of Mundial! We came from different countries, spoke different languages, but shared a love for “the beautiful game.”US goal

Soccer (fútbol) is the most popular sport in the world and the World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world. None of us had a team playing, but we “ooohhh” and “aaahhhh” with every on-goal or blocked shot. We called the fouls the referees seemed to miss. We shared “Akti”, “café”, and “te” since SLU does not serve “cerveza” on campus (only a university from the US would engage in this oversight).

The Super bowl is the closest thing the US has to the World Cup.  But, the Super bowl does not offer the opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds to come together to share in the camaraderie that is possible with international fútbol. I am going to enjoy this brief moment of unity and bask in the glow that comes from being in contact with follow human beings that share an interest and love of the sport…at least until the US plays their team, then all bets are off.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Escuelas privadas frente a las Escuelas Públicas

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The debate in Spain over public versus private education is only on the surface about the quality of the educational experience. In fact, by measurable outcomes there is no difference in level of achievement, entrance into university, or job placement between those who attend public schools versus those who attend private schools. The real issue appears to be about social standing and fear/dislike of the “other”.

The names of schools children attend are used as a badge of honor confirming distinction on both the parent and the child.  “My child goes to the German School”; “My child goes to the British School”; “My child goes to St. ….”. And “Miles (pronounced mee-les), where does your child go to school?” And when I mention that Dominique is attending a public school at first I get that look of bewilderment and then that look that comes into people’s eyes when they feel sorry for you or think that you are an imbecile but don’t want to say anything.

As I have scratched beneath the surface about this and inquired why those who disapproved of public school education did so, at first I heard statements about quality of instruction.  But, this did not stand up to close scrutiny.  The government mandates the curriculum, books and lessons for both public and private schools.  All the kids are learning the same things, more or less. Class size is about the same (sometimes smaller in the public schools). So what is the difference?  The answer appears to be about bragging rights and making sure your child is not exposed to the immigrants in public school…like me.

The focus of most of the fear/dislike is Moroccans, followed closely by South Americans. The belief is that these children do not have the same “values”, or as “well behaved” as Spanish children (see my previous post about the behavior of Spanish children). It is my turn to look at them with pity and as if they are “tonto”.

For the record, I think Colegio Publico Portugal, where Dominique is going to school was a perfect choice for her.  The teachers are caring and made her transition as painless as it can be when you come to a school in the middle of the school year and don’t speak the language.  Do I think the academics are up to par with what she was studying in the States, no. But, as I said earlier, the curriculum would be no different at a private school. And I suspect less caring. So, this whole thing has me thinking about public and private school education in the States.

In Virginia a lot of the private school education (as well as home schooling) is based on religious separation; meaning people want their kids raised with a certain religious doctrine and not exposed to behaviors and beliefs that run counter to theirs. Of course, it is crass in the US to engage in behavior that sets you too far apart socio-economically.  But, everyone knows how expensive it is to go to certain private schools.  Now, my question is do kids who attend private schools in the US fair better than their public school counter parts (asked by someone who attended public school and has not done too bad)? The argument is made on the face that this is why parents send kids to private schools. And of course there are those who argue for “school choice” based on “failing” public schools.

I am just wondering how different we are in the States from the Spaniards.

Published in: on June 1, 2010 at 3:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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El tiempo pasa muy rápido!

Where did the time go?! One day I arrived a stranger in a strange city and the next day I turn around and soon I will depart what has become familiar.

I don’t know exactly when the transformation occurred. Somewhere over the past 17 weeks I went from being the person who asked where everything was and was barely understood and even less understood the answer; to being a person that people ask where things are. The other day a woman asked me: ¿Dónde puedo coger la línea 10? The shock to me was I understood her and even more shocking to me I told her where to go to catch the train and she did not look at me like I had just spoken Greek. I helped a tourist who could not figure out how to pay for the Cercania line (a suburban train system) and told him where to wait on the platform. Random people speak to me, as well as the bus drivers I see every day on my way to SLU or Pozuelo. I know people’s names and the regulars on the bus sit and “charla” with me for our 20 minutes together. I read “20 minutos” every weekday and weekends we visit with friends in the park.

I have not gone half the places I wanted to or accomplished as many goals as I have set out for myself. My book has languished, but I have presented research in Spanish and next week I present a research paper in English in Valencia related to my book project. I am not fluent in Spanish, but I feel confident in my ability to handle situations in the language and I have even debated emotional topics like Gay Marriage, Plastic Surgery, Taxes on the Rich, Religion and Private versus Public Education (more about this one in a future blog) in Spanish.

Most importantly, I have made a few friends. The pictures of the places will be there for the viewing. But holding people in your heart who have helped you navigate the system; invited you to lunch to extend your contacts; shown kindness to your child; made sure that you had something to do on a weekend when you had no idea what to do; shared a box of grits (if you don’t know, don’t ask); allowed you and your child to hang out and watch some TV in English, provided an emergency number “just in case” and patiently conversed with you in Spanish as you developed your communication skills; these are the things that have made my time here special.

And yes, quite frankly, I am ready to come back to the States: to family, to the familiar. But, as I look ahead to the things I want to do in my time that has passed to quickly here I know that there are things and people who I will miss in Madrid.

Published in: on May 28, 2010 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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San Isidro y 100 anos de Gran Via

San Isidro is the patron saint of Madrid and the public holiday, which coincides with this festival, was on 15th of May. The festivities started the week before and ended on Sunday, 16th of May with the cooking of an enormous Cocido Madrileño (Madrid’s most traditional dish). Additionally, San Isidro marks the start of the bullfighting season in Madrid.

On the day of May 15th many Madrileños dressed in traditional gear head for Plaza Mayor where there is traditional dancing and open air concerts. Casa de Campo, the large park to the south west of the centre hosts rock concerts during the fiestas and there are varied events throughout the city.

A interesting anecdote regarding Madrid’s traditional dress; In Spanish if someone is described as “chulo” it’s quite a derogatory term meaning that they’re full of themselves. Madrileños are often described as “chulo” by people from other parts of Spain. The name of the traditional Madrileño costume is a “chulapo” which comes from the word “chulo”. Unfortunately, I did not capture pictures of this typical dress with the men wearing a flat check cap, waistcoat and handkerchief around their necks and the women wearing elegant dresses, a head scarf and a shawl, although you can see some in the attached video.

This year, San Isdro coincided with the 100 year anniversary of Gran Via, a large theatre and shopping district that connects Plaza de Espana with Calle de Alcalá.  The street is always busy, any time of day or night. In honor of the 100 year celebration they closed the street down, put down blue carpet and turned the entire district into one big party.  I have been in New York’s Time Square and I believe there where as many people or more on Gran Via the 15th.

The videos shows a concert taking place at Plaza de Espana and the official birthday cake and Broadway show excerpts that honored the theaters on Gran Via. All is was caped off by fireworks at midnight, when most Madrileños just begin to come out to party.

Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Los niños en España son mimados

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The children in Spain are spoiled!!! I know this broad statement is going to get me flack in Spain and the US, but I have overwhelming empirical evidence (I am a professor after all) that children in Spain are indulged to the extreme.  Know let me be clear, “overindulgence” of children’s behavior is tied into all sort of socio-cultural-economic assumptions regarding what is “proper” behavior for a child and parent to engage in, especially in pubic spaces.

I being a Black American of a certain age come from the perspective of “spare the rod, spoil the child”–otherwise known as child abuse in the US now. But, I also understand that the way Black Americans born during the era of enforced segregation and pre-Civil Rights legislation engaged in child rearing practices designed to keep their children alive when they left the house and encountered White people in social situations.  Because incorrect behavior around White people could get you slapped at best and killed at worst (see:  This reality resides in my DNA, my wife’s DNA, and the DNA of all Black parents I know over 40.

It is a little different for White people in the US, who Blacks often look upon as being “overindulgent” with their children (see the comedy routines of most Black comedians, especially Bernie Mac—may he rest in peace).  In fact, their was one incident when my wife and I were coming back from the Tom Joyner cruise several years ago and the child of a White parent was engaging in loud obnoxious behavior on a morning we had all stayed up the night before enjoying the festivities.  Finally, the mother swatted the child on his rear and the entire line (several hundred strong) broke out in applause!

But, even by normal US White people standards, whom believe in “timeouts” and maintaining children’s “self-esteem”, Spanish kids are spoiled.  On the metro, at a restaurant, in the supermarket children can be seen “wilding” and the most they will receive is a smile not only from the parent, but too from the adult the kid almost knocked over.  I see parents walking their kids to school in the morning and THE PARENTS ARE CARRYING THE KIDS BACKPACKS! Dominique asked me once why I did not carry her backpack and I gave her one of those looks that quickly told her “don’t even think about trying to go there with me”.

I have noticed an extreme patience with children and Spaniards seem attracted to children, even when they are not thier own.  Countless people (strangers) have reached down and touched Dominique’s cheek, looked in her eyes and said; “¡Qué guapa!” Yes, as a person from the US I wondered where their hands had been and why they where touching my child. But, I have adjusted and come to understand unless I want to invest a fortune in hand sanitizer and cause an international incident that I needed to let it go.

Also, I have noticed that children in Spain feel “safe”.  They routinely walk up to strangers and have no fear of exploring their world.  I set on the train and starting with the 6 year old on my left and spreading to her 8 year old sister and eventually involving the 12 year old friend who was being cool in a seat across the aisle, we began playing peek-a-boo for 6 train stops.  When the seat on the other side of me opened up one 8 year old came and set on the other side of me.  And the 12 year old began to mimic every move I made.  The whole time we where giggling and laughing the mothers did not raise an eyebrow; there was no pulling the beautiful “fair skinned” girls away from the “scary brown man”. There were no looks of disapproval.  Not once were they told to sit in their seats and behave; even when they began to sing songs for me in Spanish that I was suppose to follow along with.

OK, just for minute I want you to engage in a “thought exercise”.  Try to imagine three beautiful White girls playing with a 50 year old Black man who they do not know and is obviously some sort of immigrant on a public train and everyone acting like this is the most normal thing in the world.  Exactly!

So maybe this is a result of  “spoiling” children in a country where children do not fear for their safety, nor are they afraid of “the other”.  They have come to trust themselves and adults.  They have real self-esteem, not the artificial one induced when we give trophies at soccer games for just being on the team.  These kids here feel loved and that the world is theirs—and they act like it.

Maybe, I will carry Dominique’s backpack to school Monday.

Published in: on May 9, 2010 at 4:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“Najwa no podrá usar el velo”

Why does this headline have me so worked up? I am angry.  But, I also understand that anger is a secondary emotion.  It is how we express hurt and disappointment and my temporary home has just disappointed me.  How can a country that allows the legal consumption of marijuana, heroin and cocaine; that allows legal prostitution; where women wear jeans so tight they cannot zip them and blouses so low cut a nursing child would have no problem being fed—how can this same society now decide that a 16 year old girl cannot wear a veil to school???

Why do people assume that being undressed is more liberating then being covered? Since when is living in a society where women are routinely verbally assaulted by men who holler out statements that objectify women more acceptable then a woman choosing not to display her beauty? I do not understand the European, and sometimes US, response to the veil and the desire to “liberate” Muslim women. Let’s face it, women are oppressed and treated badly all over the world.  And the veil is not the cause of it and in fact offers some protection in societies that recognize the wearing of the veil like Spain recognizes a nun’s habit. It is a sign of religious devotion.  Should we know require nun’s to wear mini-skirts?

I am going to stop writing now as I see my arguments are more about the emotions I am feeling then the reasoning I try to bring to these types of discussions.  But, Spain—me ha roto el corazón:-(

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 3:56 pm  Comments (2)  

Mi conferencia en español

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Last Friday I have joined the very small ranks of native English speakers from the U.S., whom have given a lecture in a language other then English.  And all the anxiety I experienced leading up to the event help me to understand why.  You do not realize how challenging it is to convey thoughts, especially complex ones, until you try to convert them into another language. Also, a lot of our vocabulary is culturally linked and have different meanings when translated. So, you have to figure out how to convey the ideas and do so in a manner the audience understands.

My Spanish colleagues were amazed that as an American I was even trying to do this.  Apparently the norm is to speak in English and have someone else translate what you are saying.  But, I have watched to many U.S. movies in Spain translated from English that had me saying “that is not what he said!”.  It is really interesting to see the translations for Will Smith’s wisecracks in “I Robot” translated into Spanish.  To put it succinctly, something gets lost in the translation.  No, I wanted to come across as me, as much as possible, in Spanish.

The standing room only crowd (over 120 people) greeted me warmly and was very patient with my pronunciation.  The audience of students, faculty and a few curious visitors (I am the first Black American to deliver a lecture at the Law School of UCM) laughed at the right moment and looked surprised when they were suppose to.  This let me know for the most part they understood what I was saying.  Things went better then I had any right to expect. I asked a few students a que se entienda mi español.  They told me that there where some words they could not understand, but felt that they understood about 60% of what I said.  I was elated.  This is the same level of understanding people have my lectures in the States.

Before closing this blog entry I want to acknowledge all the “foreign” born students at SU who have had to give presentations in my class.  I have a better appreciation of what you go through and the anxiety you feel when I have you stand up there in front of a group of people and try to translate your thoughts from Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian or Spanish into English.  And then take questions from the audience.  My head hurt when I was down and I needed a nap badly. So my heart goes out to those who stretch themselves to be not only understood, but to understand in a language other then their native one.

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 12:48 am  Comments (1)  

Sevilla – Semana Santa Pasos

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You can look up the history of Semana Santa in Sevilla and its elaborate processions. I will not address that in this blog and when I am back online I will post some of the hundreds (yes hundreds) of pictures I have taken here. No, this blog is an on the ground response from my perspective as a Black American being surrounded by what at first felt like the world’s largest KKK gathering.

Let me be clear, in my entire time in Spain I have not felt any hostility and negativity directed at me because of my pigmentation (sadly I cannot not make the same statement about my life back in the States). And that statement holds true in Sevilla. But, we often live in our historical memories and it took me awhile to get used to seeing people, un monton de gentes, in robes and pointy hats that looked exactly like those of the KKK. Now, I must admit, this being Europen some of the robes were more fashionable and included colours not normally seen on the KKK. There was, purple, brown, beige, yellow and green to name a few. But, it was the all white ones, with the big cross in the center that caused the collective DNA in my body to stand on edge and prepare for fight or flight. It took all my conscious mind to allow my daughter to accept the piece of candy handed out to children during this time–for the record I still have not let her eat it.

The all black robes are just creepy. Shades of the Spanish Inquisition abounded in my mind. But, as I traveled to the different churches and experienced the faith of the true believers I have began to feel more at ease in the crowds and I less openly practice my karate moves done to ward off any one who may be here literally undercover and want to relive their “southern heritage”.

The processions are indeed magnificent and music from the bands cannot be captured in a picture or a small screen. Also, I must confess (this is a Catholic country after all) that when a woman, an older woman, a true believer on the patio of her piso (apartment) broke out in spontaneous song as the procession emerged from the church carrying a display of the Christ (pbuh) baring his cross; this woman singing with the voice of an angel on high touched my spirit and caused an upswell of emotion that one would not expect from such as I.

The spirit that exist within those who truely come from a place of love and worship of their God can reach out and touch those who do not share the same traditions; but indeed share the same love. A feeling so powerful that it can smooth the sensitivities of collective memories and allow for one of a different faith tradition to share in the transcendent experience of another people.

Feliz Semana Santa
Wishing you Prosperity

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 10:16 pm  Comments (1)  
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