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Sunday, March 20, 2011

The United Kingdom, and why I like it.

So I hopped off the plane at Gatwick, and immediately felt oddly at home. Even in the airport, there was a vibe of "this is where I'm meant to be." At home, my friends poke fun at me for liking the United Kingdom, most likely for the reason that they don't understand my reasoning behind it.

With the exception of public transportation, Spain is a logistical nightmare. England is the opposite. Everything make perfect sense, and everything I think very logically, and England is conducive to this.
Example: All of the signs have reasons on them, instead of simple "no not do this" messages.
Example: Instead of "do not climb," there was a sign that said "Warning: Anti-climb paint." The former would make me think about climbing such a fence, and the latter would make me think "okay, not worth it." It just makes sense.

In Boston, I feel like most everyone from the policemen, to the professors, to the postmen, to the high level office bros has a personality. It kind of comes off as that "No shit sonny, how ah ya?" vibe, and it's anything but bland. Even if these Boston guys don't do anything but work, watch sports, and drink beer, it seems like they're always passionate about something, even if that something is just being from Massachusetts, or just not giving a damn (which are not mutually inclusive).

In the UK, there was definitely a similar vibe. Absolutely everyone I talked to, from the Underground workers whom I asked for directions to the students at LSE, spoke clearly and articulately. There were very few "likes," "ums," and other fluid yet unnecessary conversational fillers. A lot of Americans speak's as if there's an obstruction between our brains and our mouths that scrambles what we want to say. In my Lit class last spring, I tallied the daily number of "likes." One class, it came out to well of 200. One girl had more than 75. At one point she had a triple "like." On the train to Luton airport, I talked with a construction worker/student about England, and it was like talking to a book. I'll call it "efficient conversation." I then spoke for a while to a girl from the U.S., and it was back to the word vomit.

In Spain, house and techno music are common. I hate house and techno music. Right up there with country, it lacks personality. In the U.S., we like party music. Lil Wayne, Ke$ha & Co. rap about getting plastered and being the best, when in fact they're really not saying anything interesting. Friday night, with Laura's friends, we went to the student center/bar at ULU. I heard Eminem, The Killers, Blink, and the Chili Peppers, and yet the best part was that everyone danced and sang to it all, so much more so than when the DJ (who was the man) played house music.

In Madrid, people are very concerned with their appearance. I've talked about this ad nauseam, but here's another extension on it: because there is a "way to dress," people are afraid to go outside the Spanish fashion bubble, and hence, every looks the same. Everyone also acts the same, because fitting in is paramount. I don't know how people deal with it.

For many of the UK youth, sticking out a bit is fitting in. Everyone dresses normally to an extent, or just do so when they want to play it safe, but there's so often something special about which wavelength everyone's individual vibe is broadcasting. I saw a girl with bright purple hair, a guy in a ninja turtle suit, and another girl with one side of her head shaved. The most striking thing is not what these people are wearing, or what they look like, but it's rather than they're pulling it off, and no one seems to care. This is what we call individuality, and if you know anything about me, you know I'm all about that. As Dr. Seuss said, "
Those who mind don't matter, and those to matter don't mind."

Tying this all into the real world, and not just rambling on with my social commentary, I'd go as far as to say that English and American Individuality breeds innovation, and the desire to challenge the norms, particularly if they don't make sense. We live in an ever-changing world (deep, I know), and if we don't keep up, we fall behind. Spain is super far behind on the social, logistical, and political fronts, and their economy demonstrates that.

For choosing to study abroad in Spain, it must seem like I put it down a lot. This is true, I do frequently complain about Spain, but in all sincerity, I love it a lot more than I dislike it. If you read all of my posts, you'll definitely find that I'm having an amazing time, and soaking in the rich Spanish culture. Green energy is huge here, the food is unreal, transport is almost German, the people are good hearted.

British wit is also a great's outspoken, yet tactful social commentary. I feel like Mick Jagger or the like could tell you that you have three weeks to live, and make you laugh at the same time. Again if you've spent time with me, you know I'm big on wit. Sometimes it gets the better of me when I continuously fire out entertaining remarks, and forget that I'm having a serious conversation, but in the end I'm okay with it.

I bought Union Jack Chuck Taylors this past weekend. Very little consumer surplus in regard to price, but nonetheless I'm pleased. More to come on London.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

¿Feo, guapo, o humilde?

These are the pants I found at the Rastro (flea market). When I saw them, I couldn't control my excitement, bought them, and turned them into the ugliest pair of shorts I have ever owned. For this reason, they are amazing. The zebra belt and the dragon just make them so...bad.

So I was wearing them the other day with fivefingers (feel free to judge, it was awful). My friends Bea, Nisrin, and Genesis came over and asked me about my horrendous outfit. They proceed to tell me repeatedly that it was truly ugly, and that no girls would ever talk to me if I wore it out. I was going to the pool, so I didn't really mind. Most of the time, they see me in the dorms, in normal t shirts, and jeans, and even though they know me, they are Spanish, and had made ridiculous preconceptions about the way I view my image. Madrid is very nouveau riche, and dressing well is super important. Again, they repeated, "Harry, son feos. ¿por que los llevas?" "Harry, your outfit is ugly, what are you wearing?"

So when I went to dinner with the IES dean, I of course dressed appropriately. Nice polo blue button down, nice black jeans, leather belt, and sleek black dress shoes. I looked pretty dec.

When I got back to San Agustin, everyone was chilling in the lounge. Needless to say, they're not used to seeing me look more presentable than the average UVM student. I dressed up a little too much in high school, UVM isn't really conducive to polos and seersucker anyway, and all things considered, I'd much rather dress like a vagabond. I sat down to talk to Bea, Genesis, and Nisrin, without thinking anything of what I was wearing, and it turned out that they didn't know what to do about my attire. In stead of the repeated "feo" (ugly), it was "Harry, eres muy guapo." I told them that I'm not actually a scrub, and when dressing nicely is appropriate and necessary, it's a good thing. They understood. Nisrin told me that she had realized that I wasn't actually fashion-inept. She called me "humilde" (humble). What's up with that? I might be going too deep here, but it seems as though I helped them realize that anyone can dress well, but not anyone can be a nice guy.

I feel like I almost wear ugly clothing to force people to think "why the hell is he wearing that...why would anyone wear that...he can't be serious." Indeed, I am not serious. The world is too serious. Laughter is a great medicine (running is the best...sorry expresion), and a light heart is a great thing.

Dinner with IES Dean & Exams

Last night, about ten of us were invited to have dinner with Leeland, one of the IES deans, who was visiting from Chicago.

I skipped fencing for the night, which was difficult, but I figured it was a good opportunity to talk about the program. Leeland was generally interested in how every aspect of living in Madrid was, from the academics to the living situation. To be honest, I only had good things to say to him. My experience so far has been amazing, and last night I was told my the Spanish kids that I don't speak spanish with a clear American accent. From hanging out with Carlos, I've actually picked up a Canarian accent, which doesn't consist of pronouncing consonents. We'll see how that works out when I get back into classes in the U.S..

After either having the two options of either eating in the dining hall or paying for dinner, it was also nice to have to option of eating good food for free. I've taken a new liking for putting olive oil on my salads as opposed to salad dressing. It's good stuff, and is good for you.

Last thursday I had my grammar exam. I feel like I´m really learning the finer points of the Spanish language, and my grades reflect that.

Yesterday was an Econ exam, which wasn't difficult at all, but only because I've read and reviewed everything he's given us. Same deal with my Latin American Literature exam today. Borges is a great guy.

Tomorrow is my Spanish Language usage for business exam, for which I'm 95% sure that I´m 100% prepared. Thursday is another Econ exam, for which I've read everything he's given us, and from speaking with everyone else in the class, I think I'll be fine.

So yes, to my wonderful parents, I am both getting good grades and getting a ton better at Spanish. The difference in spoken language competence between that of other IES students, who live in apartments, and my own, from living in the Colegio Mayor is all too apparent now. So even though I only have to get C's to get credit for the classes, I'm generally interested in everything I'm learning, so there's no plausible way it would come to that.

Street Performing

So when I was about five years old, my mother bought me a pair of devil sticks at L.L. Bean. Over 15 more years of occasionally picking them up and having some fun, I´ve gotten pretty good. In Puerta del Sol, an open pedestrian area about 2 miles from where I live, there are a good amount of street performers. Whenever I saw them, I would always think about how I could make a few dollars with the stupid things I know how to do. I decided to give it a whirl. I found a juggling shop, and bought a pair of sticks for 30€. These sticks aren´t just any pair of devil can light the ends on fire with lighter fluid. So last saturday I went to the hardware store, bought some lighter fluid, and headed down to Sol. In 90 mins, I made 11€. The lighter fluid cost 7€, so I'm still at -26, but the sticks are a fixed cost, so I'm not too bummed. While I was juggling, and avoiding getting burned, up walks Carlos, and asks me what the hell I'm doing. To be honest, I didn't have a great answer, other than the fact that I was having a good amount of fun, and "making money" at the same time. I might give this another go on Church Street if I feel so inclined, but as of now, there are definitely much more important things in my life.

With the four euros, I went out to dinner at 100 Montaditos, which is a really great tapas bar. There, I met some English teachers from Indiana, and chatted it up with them for about an hour. Good times.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Monday night, I had another lesson with Hugo...good stuff we worked on. Beat a bunch of people tonight that killed me in the past. To improve my point control, I hit a golfball on a string in my room for ~15 mins each morning. It helps. A lot.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Housing next fall

I'm applying to live in the Spanish House, the Wilderness House, and if they let me apply without an interview, Slade. I didn't sign a lease for next fall, because I have no idea what I'm doing next spring, it's more expensive that living on campus, subletting is a pain, and in general I'm cool with living on campus (except for the whole having to eat in the dining halls thing).

C.M. San Agustin Nonviolent Protest

A few weeks ago, someone from outside Colegio Mayor San Agustin climbed in through a second story open window, and stole a laptop. As a result, the administration has decided to put cameras in the hallways next year. The residents are highly opposed to such an idea. In a recent discussion in the auditorium, the residents absolutely shut down the four administrators. The director was literally babbling and talking in circles about how in the end, he thinks it's a good idea to put cameras in the hallways even though every single resident is opposed to it.

To send a message to the direction, several times per week, no one eats in the dining hall. Each meal, the company that supplies the food to the college counts how many people eat in the dining hall, and if there is a recurring theme that no one is eating, they will apparently have a discussion with the direction. To be honest, I don't think this is at all productive, but I'm going along with it. For it to be productive, we'd have to not eat at least one meal every day, as opposed to skipping dinner three times per week. If anything, it's showing the unity of the residents toward a situation that violates their rights of privacy.

Anyway... This past sunday, we all pitched in 2 euros to buy food for everyone, and we ate lunch in the park across the street. Bocadillos (subs) with Jamon Serrano (raw spanish's awesome) and cheese, tortilla (thick potato omelettes), and sangria made in a big tub that I of course avoided made up lunch. I brought the deer sausage that I bought in Toledo, and it gone pretty quickly. Great stuff. After lunch, we all played soccer and rugby in the park. In the end, our nonviolent, noneffective protest was a great bonding experience for the college...UVM reslife would be super jealous.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Today, everyone from IES went to Toledo, which is a considerably old city just outside Madrid.

Pictures are worth between 861 and 1000 words, so I´ll let people check them out before I write a book. I didn´t take any (couldn´t find camera this morning), but I should be tagged in quite a few.

Even though I don´t love cathedrals and old paintings, the cathedral in Toledo was beyond impressive. It´s surrounded by other buildings, so you can´t really get a great picture of it, but:

Most of the city is World Heritage. It´s been around since the broze age. The streets are all tiny, because they were built long before cars existed. Toledo is particularly interesting because of the historical coexistence of Christians, Jews, and Muslims that that chilled there for quite a while.

I haven´t been buying too many things in Spain (just plain tickets, food, and fencing lessons), so I decided to by a useful souvenir in form of a Magnum knife that says Toledo on it. We then went to a shop that sold marzipan (not a huge fan), meat, and cheese. After talking with the owner about Spanish Ham for a while, he gave us about six different samples of sausage to try. Unreal. I bought a large link of wild deer sausage, that I will cut and eat with my new knife. The deer are hunted in the Mountains of Toledo, and packaged by a local sausage man. Love it. Back to pigs for a second: Spanish pigs are fed acorns before they are slaughtered, which is why they taste like heaven. It´s very possible that I will bring back a leg to share with my family. I don´t know if it will go through customs, but it´s worth a try (or a google search).

Training Update

I haven´t run for a right calf is angry at me. Swimming has been decent, and fencing is a ball.

I´m now officially not allowed to use my swim snorkel at the pool, for fear of bumping into other people with the hard object that is on my face (fins and paddles aren´t allowed either). It is a nice part of my warmup, useful when I´m doing balance drill things, and just working on technique in general, but I´ll get over it.

Whenever I´m debating whether I should swim or not, if I´m feeling dead etc., I´ve decided that the answer is always yes. Sometimes, when I´m just warming up, cooling down, or doing easy sets, I figure out really important things in regard to my stroke.

I´ve been trying for a while to consistently have really, really good turns involving good acceleration into the wall, super tight streamline off of it and aimed down a bit, and 4-5 good dolphin kicks followed by a good transition into my free kick. If instead of pushing off diagonally (in between on my back and on my side), I push of completely facing my left, it´s a lot easier to get those good DKs in and surface really fluidly. This is probably obvious to some, but since I don´t have a coach, I have to figure out everything by myself.

Also, for a while when my hands entered the water, I would let them drag a bit underwater on the way forward, apparently just so I could feel the water more.
My calf scolds me when I kick, so I pull. A lot. The whole debate between completely resting vs. trying to train through something is very difficult,.

Fencing is going really well. I´ve been taking lessons at Sala de Armas, and beating people who I wasn´t beating two weeks ago. I also can´t decide which blades like better. BF vs. Veniti (sp?).

On Sunday, I did Circuit 1. Circuit 1 is painful. If anyone can complete all of the stations without failure in the pushup category or form breaks in the abs, I will buy them a very nice dinner. It´s killer, and awesome for pain tolerance. This is what happens when I write circuits when I feel entirely too good:

All out, CCXC style:

Set 1

40 Pushups
1 min russian twists
43 seconds suitcases.
1 min chair dips.
43 seconds 2 inch crunches
20 bear pushups
1 min bicycles
43 seconds russian twists & suitcases simultaneously.
1 min plank with ab contractions
43 seconds diamond pushups
30 second side plank right with dips
30 second side plank left with dips
43 seconds sky crunches

1 min break

Set 2

30 sec right figure 4
30 sec left
43 second suitcases
20 diamonds, 10 wides
1 min sky crunches
14 spiderman pushups
43 seconds Bicycles
30 second side crunches
30 second other side.
43 seconds pushups
25 Dips
1 min russian twists
43 seconds 2 inch crunches

This summer I´m most likely leasing a horse, keeping him at camp, and taking lessons with Lauren again. This is a good thing. Things are coming together.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thoughts while I'm here, involving comments on my generation in Spain:

I've decided that Spanish people don't have a lot of body heat. I'll be walking down the street in shorts and t-shirt, sweating, and everyone else will be wearing a winter coat. I mean...I'm also an abnormality in terms of temperature tolerance in the U.S., but still. I guess I also eat a lot, and move a lot, and thus release a great deal of heat, but the amount of clothing people wear is still astonishing.

Someone from outside C.M. San Agustin went through a second story open window and stole a laptop. In response, the administration has locked the door to the inside rooms, and is trying to put cameras in the hallways. Does this make sense? Not really? The residents have joined together to oppose the cameras being placed in the hallways. Last night, there was a House meeting about the situation, and the director was put to shame by the students. Even though I of course didn´t say anything because even though it´s a ridiculous violation of privacy and I´m not familiar with Spanish laws, I listened intently. After the director couldn´t give anyone a straight answer or good reason for the cameras, and just talked in circles about nothing, everyone got up and left. If the cameras are installed, the residents are going to stop eating in the cafeteria. I don´t know how productive that is, but it is something.

What I like is that the students aren´t just accepting this ridiculous bureaucratic decision, and are calling out the administration on something that needs to be addressed. Even though Spain is full of senseless procedures, kids my age GET IT. They understand that things don´t make sense here, and that there´s no reason for life not to make sense here. They ask "Why?" and "Why not?" Even though the Spanish Economy is suffering right now, partially as a result of Spanish Culture, things are changing for the better (see my "Spanish Culture" post for clarification on that, especially if that statement offended you). I´ve met a lot of great people here, and even though this statement is neither deep by any means, nor intended to be, the youth of Spain are the future.

Culture in Spain

This is a pretty important post if you read "Things I don't like about Madrid."

So a few days ago I wrote a post (rant) about things I didn't like about Madrid. The whole environmental issue is still valid, but I'd like to go back to the whole physical appearance is paramount concept.

There's a reason for everything, and if something is so culturally engrained in a society that everyone adheres to it even though it isn't a law, such a reason is probably valid.

In Madrid, people judge you based on what you wear, and how you physically present yourself. In New England, we call this "being shallow." At first, I was totally bullheadedly against it, but after thinking/asking/googling, I'm a bit more accepting.

Many Americans think of Europe as very first-world, well off, and prosperous, which by global standards, it is. Even so, within the first world exist poorer countries. Quite a few years ago in Spain, people were hard working, but not super well-off. The way you could tell if someone was well off was by his or her appearance. Think "How nice is your 'Sunday Best?'" Church was what was important in peoples' lives, and going to church involved looking (very) presentable.

Frequently, when people are financially less fortunate, they feel the need to show that they are well-off, and have made a name for themselves, even if they haven't. It's the whole Southern Californian (generalizing) "I'm going to spend all of my money on a HUGE house and a corvette, but not have any money saved in the bank" concept. To New-Englanders, it doesn't make sense. To people who feel that it's important to show that they have money, it makes perfect sense. In Spanish culture, people feel the need to show that they have money, and to do so, they dress nicely. If you dress poorly or differently, and don't really care about your appearance because you think that your personality is more important, this is looked down upon.

Looking nice in Spain is parallel to kids in Lowell wearing pristine white shirts and cold chains. These things look "fresh," and show that they are able to afford new clothing and jewelry.

This whole fashion thing is a cultural difference rather than a culturally induced failure. I'm cool with it now. However, I still don't really mind if people think I'm a vagabond.

Spanish cultural aspect number 2: Bureaucracy.

bureaucracy |byoŏˈräkrəsē|
noun ( pl. -cies)
a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.
• a state or organization governed or managed according to such a system.
• the officials in such a system, considered as a group or hierarchy.
• excessively complicated administrative procedure, seen as characteristic of such a system : the unnecessary bureaucracy in local government.

Under Franco (fascist dictator of Spain 1939-1975), employment was very hierarchical. Everyone had their position, they stuck to it, and the even thinking about change was frowned down upon. You did what you were told, and you did not ask questions.

Today in Spain:
-one's boss is the enemy, because he has absolute power over those of lower ranking. Suggestions are not welcome. Mid-level employees do not get stock in a company as they do not deserve it, and therefore care less about the success of the company. Like in China (though not as extreme, of course), there are fewer ties between hard work and success, because promotions are rare, and people work because people work. This lack of drive to get ahead is one of the reason's Spain's economy isn't so hot at the moment.

-In university classes, professors arrive 10-20 minutes late to class, and lecture about whatever they want. Students neither raise their hands to ask questions nor do they contribute to the class. The professor essentially pretends that they do not exist. There is no set schedule or syllabus, and students have no idea what will be asked on the exam. Success or failure in a class is decided by one or two exams, and because students do not know what to expect, 60-70% of the class will fail the course. That is not an exaggeration.

If you think logically, these two concepts are almost comical. It's what we would do if you wanted failure in school and the work place. In Spain, it is how it is, and no one thinks they can do anything to change it.

Out of 183 countires, Spain is:
#147 for ease of starting a Business
#19 for closing a Business
#49 for ease of doing business with
#54 for trading across borders
#93 for protecting investors

For a first world country, this isn't great.


So yes, I'm in a foreign country, and yes, things are different. Is this culture, or is it a stretch to claim that bureaucracy is "culture?"

Cultural differences between countries that are harmless, and just plain different:

1. In Spain, interrupting someone shows that you're interested in what they're talking about.
2. Popular tattoos locations differ depending on the country.
3. In UK, people drive on the left.
4. In the UK, using your fork as a "shovel" is extremely rude.
5. In India, women wear the bindi (forehead dot).
6. In Korea, you should never write names in red.
7. In England, black cats are lucky.

Can you seriously argue against any one of these things? Not really.

"Cultural differences" that are straight up bad:

1. Burkas
2. Blood letting/leeches
3. Chinese foot binding
4. Tanning excessively because having brown skin is attractive
5. Encouraging drinking to excess
6. Encouraging smoking cigarettes
7. Polygamy

Can you dismiss these things as "Oh, it's just what they do, let it be." Sure, but is that correct? Not in my opinion. I'm neither a fan of oppressing women nor cancer-causing activities.

What I'm trying to say is that there are cultural differences that deserve respect, and cultural differences that are ridiculous. Should it both you that Indian people wear different clothing? Of course not. Should we be okay with women having to wear burkas against their will? I'm not cool with it. This is an extreme example, but I think the concept stands for Spanish culture. If their are unambiguously negative consequences of tradition, people shouldn't just accept it.

In Spain, people feel the need to establish (frequently long-term) personal relationships with others before doing business with them. Even if someone has a brilliant business proposal, a Spaniard may not be inclined to listen to them if they do not first talk about their personal lives. Result in my mind: "Spanish people neglect the opportunity cost of time." In the business world, this is apparent. Again: In addition, in Spain, competence and control are important elements of the work ethos and crucial for saving face. As a result, Spaniards will often insist that everything is in order, even if it isn't. Again, bad for financial decisions.

So is there a "cultural" difference here? Yes. Is it hurting Spain's Economy? Yes. Is unemployment a huge problem in Spain? Yes.

Are some cultural differences detrimental to the societies they reside in? I think so. The same goes for America. Unregulated capitalism gives us cheap food and a good deal of societal inequality, so no, I'm not a one-sided culturally ignorant person.

I apologize if my writing jumps around a lot, but I had to clarify my discontent with Bureaucracy. The fashion thing isn't a big deal. The food is amazing here. More to come.