It’s the Great Sardine Charlie Brown!

Every year since I’ve been teaching at Ohio University, students will ask me if I am going to celebrate Halloween with them on Court Street.  The answer is always “No!”.  “No way, not a chance, are you kidding me?, when monkeys fly out of my…”, you get the picture.  Invariably there are hurt feelings because I have such a low opinion of what for many will be the culminating social event of their life.  I try to explain, they always insist that I explain, and to soften the blow I say something to the effect of “I have been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans…, I have been to the World Championship Chili Cookoff in Terlingua, (¡Viva Terlingua!, by the way), …AND I have been to the State Fair of Texas, the largest State Fair on the planet.”  I just never thought that wading through hundreds of drunk students puking and being arrested had much appeal.  No matter how good an answer I think mine is, it is never enough.  Well, NEXT YEAR, I get to say, I’ve done Carnaval in Toledo!  This ought to shut anybody up.  Until you have been part of a parade of hundreds of people squeezed into narrow streets along with marching bands, drum corps, people wearing mourning clothes wailing at the top of their lungs and everybody, EVERYBODY, following a big sardine for two hours and several miles until reaching the river and laying the sardine to its eternal rest, accompanied by one of the best fireworks shows I’ve seen and immediately followed by a live merengue band, free roasted sardines for everybody (regular sized ones) and cheap beer, well, you just haven’t lived. Sorry Athens: Halloween, Palmer Fest,  etc. just can’t compete (and that’s okay).  I could fill a book on what I like about Athens but the various alcohol-fueled adolescent rites of passage won’t be in it.

img_5837

img_5888

Just as an aside, I’ve injured my wrist and forearm and have been unable to write and type.  It will still be a few days before my fingers are back in full swing so please accept this very short installment on the tons of things which have been going on since last I wrote.  In addition to the picture above, I will post some more galleries to the right in the next little while.

John Wayne Smoked Here

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.                                                            Saint Augustine, 4th-5th century

Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.                    Francis Bacon, 15th-16th century

Travel is merely a strategy for accumulating photographs.                                                                     Susan Sontag, 20th century

Bull****!!                                                                                                                                                                   Me, right now, reading Susan Sontag who thinks she is so clever.

So, John Wayne, yes, THE John Wayne, was standing outside the Hotel Carlos V in Toledo smoking a cigarette back in 1964 when my buen compañero, Andrés, asked him for an autograph.  Andrés was 15 or 16 at the time, if my math is right, and John Wayne was in town filming the movie “Circus World” with Rita Hayworth, Claudia Cardinale and a bunch of other people my students have never heard of.  So, when Andrés asks him for his autograph, John Wayne said, “Sure kid, hold my cigarette.”  So he did!

About once a week, Andrés, comes by and takes me to see what he calls either “hidden Toledo” or “secret Toledo” and it is always interesting.  I’ve had a great time going down into basements of restaurants and old monasteries where street level is 16th century, down one floor is Moorish, and the bottom was built by the Romans.  I can now date buildings I see by the type of bricks and stones used in their construction and the patterns of how they are laid.  Andrés apparently knows everybody in town and nobody has said “no” when we show up and he says that he wants to show the American something down in the basement.  We’ve poked around some pretty cool places and I’ve been very impressed by Andrés’ circle of friends and the stories he tells, but, that was before he told me the John Wayne thing!  Seriously!  I’ve been hanging out with a guy who held John Wayne’s cigarette!

The picture above is something that Andrés showed me one rainy night.  It is just around the corner from my apartment and I had walked by it many times without paying it too much attention.  In Spanish speaking countries one gets used to seeing these small monuments, either roadside or built into some wall, with a depiction of a Saint or the Virgin Mary.  I’m sure they all have a story but this one involves a young seamstress in the 19th century who, because she was always working, had little hope of ever meeting someone to marry.  So she prayed and prayed to this picture of the Holy Mother and, guess how this ends, …yep, …she meets someone, falls in love, marries, AND lives happily ever after.  Bet you didn’t see that one coming!  So now, the picture to which she prayed is displayed inside the wall of this building. It is lighted at night and protected by a glass cover with a few small holes drilled through so that any woman who wishes to find a husband can come by and pray and then seal the deal with an offering of a sewing pin which is poked through the hole.  I showed this to a group of students I ran into the other week and one had some bobby pins.  I told her “No dice, not the deal” but she pointed out that, among the sewing needles, there were already some bobby pins lying about.  No doubt she is now on the short list to wedded bliss but I hope that it all happens after we get back.  Not on my watch!

When Andrés was in college, he walked around Spain, France, Germany and a few other places between semesters, playing his guitar and singing, earning just enough to eat and walk to the next town.  He’s got some cool stories now.  He’s bringing me the guitar he traveled with so that I can plunk around with it in my spare time.  Last night he told me that he played mostly folk music, some blue grass, and Johnny Cash.  Not what I pictured but, hey, it was 1969.  Crazy times!

THIS is why spending a semester abroad is so cool.  The accumulation of stories, friendships, and a million little things that the tourists will never know about Toledo and how life is lived here.  The way everything shines at night after a light rain.  The rhythm of work and play and the insane times that people here consider appropriate for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  How every morning, delivery trucks are allowed just a few hours to restock the cafes, stores and restaurants and then are made to clear the narrow streets so that people can walk around in relative peace.  The way that, each morning, overnight tourists, dragging their suitcases and sleepy children, all head downhill from their hotels to where their tour buses wait while older, retired people, stand patiently in the cold while their dog circles some patch of grass until the moment is just right to, you know, do what dogs do.  THIS IS WHY we came all this way to study!  They don’t make refrigerator magnets and post cards to commemorate these important things. We will just have to bring them home in our memories.  What it all means in the greater scheme of our lives is something for each person to decide for him or herself in the fullness of time and lives lived.  We take lots of pictures of cool stuff but, in the end, the best “pictures” are all stories and they live in our memories.  Some can be shared but others are beyond explanation.  In my experience, these are usually the best.

Not My First Rodeo

What an awesome walk to “work” this morning!  Up and down narrow, cobble-stoned streets with the Cathedral’s bells ringing and all the doves cooing from the balconies and rooftops.  I’m pretty sure they are pigeons but after a long discussion with the ESTO director, well, she used the Spanish word for dove and I explained about my ideas of pigeons versus doves but she wouldn’t be swayed.  Why is it there is never a good ornithologist around when you need one?  Whatever the heck they are, they really added to the morning.  The sun was just coming up and golden against all the stone buildings and, …and I don’t know.  The morning just seemed custom made for a great beginning.

Being “not my first rodeo”, I understood a little better than some of the students that I was only half-sure of where I was supposed to be and left early enough to feel my way around the buildings where the majority of classrooms are.  The University bought up several blocks of centuries-old churches, a monastery and a convent and restored them into a beautiful, interconnected complex of patios, classrooms, the main library and I don’t know what else.  The photo above is of all of us with Dr. Juana María Blanco Fernandez, the Director of Academics, in front of my very first classroom in Spain (the door on the right).  A couple of people got there late this morning, I guess this WAS their first rodeo, and someone would get an “I’m lost” text and someone would go out and find them.  It all worked out just fine.  I have grilled a lot of the students and have been told some stories.  Yesterday had many thinking themselves lost at some point in their wanderings, a couple of people were “locked-out” of their homes (really just one of those tricky-lock things) and, I don’t know if one student even knows this, but his “mom” got worried that he hadn’t made it home at some point and was already calling Leticia at home before sending out the cavalry to find him.  Leticia says it really wasn’t that late but the host families sometimes over-worry, especially on the first day.  I’m not going to rat out the offenders.  Nobody did anything that isn’t expected as we get settled.  When I studied abroad in Mexico a hundred years ago, I had one of those tricky-lock moments.  It was aggravated by the fact that across the street was a bus stop full of waiting people having a good time watching the gringo who couldn’t even open his own front door.  It’s hard to preserve one’s Joe Cool image in these situations.

I think we’re off to a good start!

The best laid plans…

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley – Robert Burns 1785

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – Charles Dickens 1859

I’ve got a little black book with my poems in.
Got a bag with a toothbrush and a comb in.
When I’m a good dog, they sometimes throw me a bone in. – Pink Floyd 1979

So while I was last writing about metaphorical storms, real storms were headed for the same airports as the students.  It was a long day but now everyone is where they’re supposed to be and classes begin in a few hours.  The flight I most expected to be delayed, Chicago, got here right on time.  Almost everyone else got here late.  There was nothing to do but sit or stand next to the exit and scan every face that came through the door.  Finally, after almost four hours of waiting, Mara, Emma and Helena came rolling through with their big luggage and tired smiles.  It was, for me, a lot of fun to see my people finally begin to arrive and describe their ordeals in Spanish.  Maggie, from the Chicago flight, slipped through while we were yukking it up and, according to her, looked at a hundred bald guys before she finally saw my bald head walking by.  She cracks me up!  How she knows that I won’t freak out and give her an F on everything, I don’t know.  I need to start wearing ties or something.

After collecting everybody from Terminal 4 that was going to be there for a while, we went to Terminal 1 and found that bunch standing under a big “Lost and Found” sign.  You just can’t plan something so perfect!  Someone in the group has a good sense of irony.  I hope someone got a picture.

Somewhere around 10 or 11 we had all but two.  Chris was on the plane with the longest delay and Kylie got to Lisbon too late for her connection and spent the day waiting in line for a different flight to Madrid.  She did a good job of it but I had to cut the bus loose to get everybody else to Toledo, to their families, and something to eat.  So I wandered around, slept some and read some for a few more hours until finally Kylie came through the door grinning and we took the train back.  It was a really long and anxious day until we got to Toledo and, consulting a list I had, we took a taxi from the train station to her family’s house.  There was a typo in the address and we had to guess at which button to push and while I was having a strange conversation with some poor woman who answered her intercom, “dad” and “sis” came walking up behind us.  They were waiting for us at the train station but we didn’t know that and they didn’t know what we looked like.

But anyways, what a great family!  They were super nice to Kylie and invited me to have dinner with them.  While mom was preparing dinner, dad took us in his car on a tour of Toledo where you get some really nice views like the one attached to this article.  I think that Toledo at night is the prettiest city I’ve ever seen.  No exaggeration.  Beautiful!  He took us to an old restored inn, a tapas bar now, with a roaring fire and really, really good olives.  We had something to drink, nice conversation and then went home to a real meal and more getting to know each other.  Good people!  Good food!  A really nice way to end a pretty stressful day.  It was great watching Kylie use her Spanish in her new home and I also enjoyed spending time with her all the way back to Toledo.

I hope that circumstances allow me to get to know my students better than I usually do on campus.  Months ago when I was interviewing candidates for the program, I allowed time for each student to ask me anything they wanted.  One of my questions to each of them had been “What one thing about the program interests you most?”  When I asked Mara if she had any questions for me, she returned my own question and caught me by surprise.  It is a complicated answer about wanting to work on something important to my sense of why I became a teacher in the first place.  In short, it is something personal and hard to explain in a few words.  As frustrating, tiring, and just plain long as today was, it is days like today that I’m looking for from the program.  Not the waiting part but the being in the right place at the right time when, out of the blue, something really special happens part.

We’ll see what happens today when classes begin.

The Calm Before the Storm

I’m done with airports and trains for a while. I have a few things in the fridge, my clothes are in the closet and Willie is singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (from my laptop, I’m pretty sure he is nowhere near here). This has been one long day getting settled into my apartment in Toledo (the one in Spain) and right now is one of those moments that never last long enough. Thirteen months of ups and downs, 600+ hours of work, writing and answering 1500 e-mails, filling out forms and going to workshops and attending meetings on this, that and the other. Indulge me patting myself on the back and feeling pretty good right now. Tonight I sleep with a sense of satisfaction and peace that is way too rare. I can sleep-in tomorrow, go down the block to one of a dozen cafes and read the paper, drink a very good coffee and watch a Saturday morning unfold in a very special place.
The calm before the storm.
Tomorrow night I go back to Madrid and find a hotel near the airport so that I can get up with before the chickens to be standing at the gate when the first of twenty eight of my students comes off the planes.  They will be arriving on nine different airplanes arriving at three different terminals from 6:00 a.m until 8:45. Somehow I’ll get all of them and their luggage on the same bus with Hannah Grace and Leticia from the University here.  From there we will all go to Toledo, passing into the walled city through gates built centuries ago to keep out some very determined armies. In a medieval building on a narrow, cobble-stoned street, everyone will be met by their families and taken to their new home away from home to begin what should be the one semester of their academic career that they will most remember for the rest of their lives.

I like my apartment.  It has everything I need and many modern renovations.  I am fascinated that the structure was built in the 16th century.  I have exposed ceiling beams that were hand-carved and placed there some 500 years ago by people who could have never conceived  of some guy from across the ocean sitting beneath their work and communicating to potentially anyone on the planet with a little machine. I doubt they understood much about the idea of a planet (or an ocean).  I’ve read that in medieval times most Europeans never wandered more than five miles from their home.  I wonder though, when they were done with their work, if they had the time to pause for a moment and feel this good about all they had built.  If so, what was the storm after their calm?  There’s always more work to be done, the next step to be taken.  I doubt that they were as excited as I am about the next day’s labors.  And the next, and the next…
The calm of this evening is really, really nice but, by tomorrow evening, I will be ready for the real work to begin!  Let’s see what develops.

To begin:

Hi!  I’m Keith Woodall and I am a Lecturer of Spanish at Ohio University and in a little over a month I have the privilege of leading a very special group of 28 Ohio University students to Toledo, Spain where I will teach and direct the program with the help of our Teaching Assistant, Hannah Grace Morrison, who is a student in our Master’s program.

Among our students we have several Business majors, Journalists, Photojournalists, one Pre-Dental School, one Pre-Medical School, one who is studying to be a Midwife, various people from Visual Communications, Speech Pathology, Psychology majors, one accountant and one studying Actuarial Science.  Several are enrolled in the Honors Tutorial College and all are either minoring or double-majoring in Spanish.  We are from all parts of Ohio but also have three connected to Alabama.  We come from as far east as Boston and as far west as Texas. There are eight musicians, four athletes, and twelve who have done a lot of great volunteer work in their spare time.  All are nervous and excited for the opportunity to travel to such a beautiful, historic and exotic place to study for a semester.  I am proud to be directing such a group, the best, I believe, that our University has to offer.  If Ohio University had a Seal Team Six, this would be it!

Hannah Grace and I will be arriving a couple of days early to make sure that all is ready for the most intensive, academic and cultural, life-enriching experience that any university could offer.  If this isn’t the best study-abroad program ever, I would like to see the one that is!  Big words, I know, but this group is going to accomplish a lot and I’ll be posting our achievements for the world to see.

Some of the students are also blogging and I have them linked on the right margin of this page so that everyone will have the opportunity to get a variety of perspectives on what is going on.  Stay tuned…!