Do Catholics have more fun? By Catholics I don’t so much mean practising Catholics as lapsed Catholics living in countries with a culture that is heavily dominated by its Catholic heritage. Spain, for instance.
Take this example, what do we do in Australia to mark the beginning of Lent? We eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day for the less religious), if you’re more devout maybe go to church for Ash Wednesday and decide on something to give up for Lent. But that’s it. In Spain (and, of course, other countries such as Italy and Brazil) the weekend before the beginning of Lent means Carnaval. Read: street parades, costumes, massive parties till dawn.
Taking these celebrations even further, in Asturias, there are two weekends of Carnaval. The first is on the actual weekend before Lent, and it is celebrated all over the region but the biggest parties are in Gijón and Avilés. Apparently everyone started leaving Oviedo for the weekend to go to the other two cities for Carnaval, resulting in a rather boring, quiet Carnaval. But this is Spain and there couldn’t possibly be a boring fiesta somewhere! So, Oviedo decided to move its Carnaval to the following weekend. Yes, the excessive partying and merriment (and in some quarters, drinking) now fall during Lent, the period of reflection, sobriety and preparation for Easter. See what I mean about lapsed Catholics?
Now that you’ve had an introduction to the idea of Carnaval I’ll be writing up my stories from the two weekends of fiestas this week. Look out for stories of all-night dancing, costume competitions and pouring rain in the next few days!
Plaza de la Catedral - the end of the parade
Today marked an important halfway point for me. I have finished my first tube of Vegemite. I brought two with me and at breakfast this morning I finished one of them. So, I am halfway through my Vegemite supplies.
I am also now about halfway through my stay here (if you can believe it!) so really, it all lines up quite nicely.
I have to admit it: two and a half weeks in and I’m really enjoying myself. (The first thing I thought when I saw that sentence was, “Ah, must check that they know the “l” in “half” is silent.” That is something I came across in a private lesson last week.) Yet, if I had written this blog last Tuesday after school, I would have said how terrible I thought I was doing and how the teachers must all be thinking that I’m hopeless. What a difference having two great lessons at the end of the day, as opposed to one mediocre lesson and one shambles of a lesson, can make to your general mood and opinion.
You will have worked out, then, that it hasn’t all been entirely smooth sailing at school so far. There have been times when I have felt very unqualified for the work I am doing, and have actually wondered if some of the staff think I have some teaching experience. I don’t. I have been a mentor/tutor to some small groups of girls at a high school, but I have never, ever stood up in front of a class to teach. (Unless you count teaching a few ballet classes about 6 years ago..!)
A few times since arriving here, I have felt totally thrown into the deep end when asked to occupy the class for the entire lesson with a worksheet given to me about 10 minutes beforehand, while the teacher sits at the back of the classroom marking work. Fortunately, most of the time I am acting only in my stated role of “language assistant.” This means that the teacher runs the class and I help them and answer student questions. Or, I am given an activity to do with the kids a day before or a few hours before and I can prepare myself. Or, in one year level, I have been presenting Australia to them for the past three lessons. When I can prepare myself, I feel like I can actually pretend to know what I’m doing. When trying to make it up as I go along, I fear I fail miserably!
My life as a language assistant.
These bumps in the road are normal, and I’m sure I will only gain confidence as I go along and work out my role in the classroom and how I can best help these kids. I work with the bilingual classes, the students who have elected to do a number of their subjects in English, rather than just taking English as a second language subject. So far I have been impressed by the general level of English and by the confidence of many students. I still have days where I say something and all I get in response is a look of utter incomprehension but I don’t doubt they’re still becoming accustomed to the Australian accent!
With that, Happy Australia Day! I will be going to work, it is freezing cold and the only Australian food I have here is Vegemite. Ah well, it is a year of firsts.
Oviedo is a strange, contradictory place I am beginning to suspect. On the one hand, everyone lives in town in an apartment so that they can walk to and from work. And they also love the social aspect of walking everywhere, so that they can bump into their friends, see people and be seen. But then, they all have cars (even though no apartments come with parking) and drive to big shopping centres in the middle of town, centres similar to those we have in the suburbs, such as Marion or Castle Plaza. And at 6pm you can often be stuck in a very unpleasant traffic jam.
Similarly, for a “pedestrianised” people they can be appallingly bad at taking care when pedestrians are on the road. I carry the details of all three of my travel and health insurance policies on my person anytime I step out onto the house. There are zebra crossings at nearly every single intersection but I still haven’t quite got the courage to trust the drivers will give way to me. (This is also partly because I am only just this week getting the hang of looking to my left for oncoming traffic when I cross the road.)
Asturias is also a region known for its cows and dairy products. Yet, milk here comes as UHT and cheese is made from a mix of cow and sheep milk (it has a strong flavour but fortunately it is no match for my Vegemite which overpowers it completely!)
Since coming here I have also found that any native English speaker is in demand for giving private English lessons. So why, one must ask, do they insist on dubbing every single English-language television program and film into Spanish? They could instead use subtitles and give the many, many English students a chance to listen to genuine accents, and in the process improve their own.
So far Spain still seems a contrary country (for instance, I know they have great food and like eating it, but when, oh when, do they eat it?!) But I love it. I love having to buy fresh bread every two days because my “barra” (like a baguette) is starting to go stale and no self-respecting household in Spain can be without bread. I love that even though my milk is UHT it proudly says it is “leche asturiana” (Asturian milk) on the carton. I love going out for a walk and seeing half of the city’s population out doing the same thing.
On that positive note, I hope you all enjoy your Monday mornings, while in Spain we cling a little longer to Sunday night.
So, it is a Friday night and I have decided I am staying in this evening with my computer, some books and my heater and blankets for company. As you may have already deduced, it is very cold here at the moment. By my standards at least. And with similar conditions predicted for the rest of the weekend, there will be no new stories of gallivanting about the region this weekend I fear.
This morning I was most cruelly dragged out of bed at the hour of 7.45 AM in order to be at a 9 AM appointment. I was not pleased to be forced out of bed so early on a Friday, a day off, and even less pleased to get outside to find it was about 4 degrees Celsius. And I still had wet hair. But this is the price one pays for moving to the Northern Hemisphere in mid-winter and I survived. I suppose it must be considered a bonus that the sun was shining, even though it didn’t bring a shred of warmth but rather a very crisp feel to the air. Still, nice to see the sun considering how often it is cloudy and rainy here.
This offending appointment this morning was with the Oficina de Extranjería (essentially an Immigration Office) to be registered as a foreign resident in Spain and assigned my Número de Identificación de Extranjero (Foreigner Identification Number). This NIE is apparently essential for all things in Spain such as being paid and purchasing a SIM card for my phone. Welcome to Spain, please hand over your identity in exchange for a number!
Fortunately, the meeting was brief. However the process towards finalising my residency status is only half completed. I now have my NIE but I have to go back in one month to apply for a card that will show my status as a foreign student in the country, entitled to stay for one year. And then, all of the paperwork should be finished and I will be nearly halfway through my stay.
I decided to make the most of my early start by using the rest of my morning to walk around a bit of Oviedo I had not previously explored. I should say to walk very very fast around Oviedo, as it remained about 7 degrees and as clear-skied and bitingly fresh as the morning all day. Fortunately (?), Oviedo is very hilly so I warmed up quite quickly, but not enough to remove my gloves or scarf or to wish I had not worn so many layers of thermals!
At this stage my plans for the weekend are exceedingly dull – hating, as I do, the cold weather – but I will take the opportunity to add a few new stories for you and to upload some photos, as I know that’s what you really all care about!!
More than anything, what struck me the most flying over the coast into Asturias and then driving to Oviedo from the airport was how different it all was. I was truly struck by the fact that I was in a completely different country, on a different continent, in a different hemisphere. There was almost nothing I could point out and say: “That looks like Australia”. (Those notable exceptions include the highway, although naturally we were driving on the other side of the road, and the Ikea store.)
The view from my window: Oviedo's apartment blocks and hills
The coastline of tiny villages clinging to cliff tops above the ocean, all with red roofed houses against a green grass background. The hilly, even mountainous, terrain with many hillsides and valleys covered with pine trees. In the distance snow-capped mountains (I am not making this up; I was so very excited when I saw them from the plane and then the car!). The city; full of beautiful old buildings and apartment blocks 10 storeys high everywhere. All of it was new and exciting and even astounding at times.
When I got out of the car and looked around, I could still see in the distance the great big hills, as they ring the city. There are houses up there and even a statue of Jesus Christ, although I believe it is somewhat smaller than that it Rio de Janiero, and I can see this from my window.
The Jesus Christ Statue as seen from my window
I was so pleased when I got on the plane from Paris to Oviedo to feel my excitement at last outweighing any sadness or trepidation (in spite of the miniature, rubber-band-engine plane I was in) and once I arrived it was justified a hundred times.
I am so thankful to be here and after two days I can quite confidently say I love my job too (not so much that I want to be a teacher forever mind you, just enough to thoroughly enjoy myself for five months). So far, everything is coming up roses.