Saturday, October 08, 2005

Excursion to Sierra de Francia

October 7/8 : Fri/Sat First week of lessons now done – more fragments of conversation are starting to make sense, but it is tiring living in the present tense all the time. I eat, I sleep, but I have not eaten and not slept, and will neither eat nor sleep.

At the end of one teacher’s lesson we were asked to comment on their teaching for the week. Unfortunately it’s hard to make any constructive criticism when your vocabulary is limited to simple introductions, telling the time and stating the name and relative position of objects in the home or classroom. So everyone nods “si”, “muy bien”, and I try a racier “fenomenal”. Still, it all ends very upbeat, especially the promise of “mucho difícil irregular verbos” next week.

I still haven’t found a café open prior to class. There’s one in the bottom of the Mester building, but it fails to capitalise on the rush of students every morning, who mainly rely on vending machine muck until lunchtime. I have seen some ferreterías open in the distance and wonder if the locals get a morning jolt from a rodent down the pants. I learn later that it’s actually ferre-terría i.e. sellers of ironware. Unfortunately a pre-class Dutch oven doesn’t inspire me either.

I’ve noticed how the Spanish adapt foreign names for local usage. I have to think carefully before saying
Calle Van Dyck as I expect, and re-work it as Ban Deek. Foreign personages are also transformed: Elizabeth II and Prince Charles are now, respectively Isobel and Carlos.

Gonzalez tells me of a dogwash a few blocks away. It’s attached to a veterinary surgery and petfood supplier. The latter was open but I was not able to ascertain the opening time of the dogwash. Later in the park, I tried to ascertain the medication of Debby the malamute from her owner. Unfortunately all she would do is shout/mime the number of pills in a bottle, bottle size and price. Then she enlisted two other dog owners to repeat the same information so that finally I had all three of them shouting the same thing – in the form of a round – until my addled brain could take it no longer and I fled the scene. I’m noticing that once you have told someone here that you don’t speak much of the language, there is a tendency amongst many of them to shout polysyllabic words faster and faster at you, instead of speaking slowly and with simpler words. Shades of Mme -------- in Nice! I haven’t encountered this before my recent experiences.

Relaxed outside my fave café, El Corrillo in the evening. No homework tonight! On the way back home I’m a approached by a young woman, probably a student, who starts to gush over Bondi in hesitant Spanish. As soon as I inform her that I speak English, she nearly embraces me with relief: after only a few weeks here (from the US), she is desperate for daily conversation in her mother tongue. After a brief chat, we promise to watch out for each other in the neighbourhood.

Saturday morning. Bondi signalled the necessity of an early walk, and then I returned to bed briefly in advance of today’s excursion.

The bus was shared evenly between about 15 students from Mester, and 15 from another language school, with a guide that I guess to be a teacher from the other school. For a little over an hour we drive south through dry undulating countryside, with olive trees spaced as closely as water-needs dictated. Here and there we saw cattle, with bulls on special diets being prepped for the ring. Up into the mountains we stopped briefly to walk up a path and from there view a distant peak La Pena, the tallest in the region, and crowned with a Dominican monastery.

A short ride further in the bus and we arrive at La Alberca, a historically listed town (pueblo?). Our guide delivers a long list of instructions before we leave the bus, and I catch only the detail that we’re leaving at tres y media (3.30). A fellow student exclaims sarcastically “I understood all of that!”, snickers and leaps out. We’re not sure what there will be to do here for that length of time other than allow ourselves to be devoured by the souvenir sellers visible along the main entry road.

The village is a combination of Tudor-like buildings with the narrow irregular streets of Snowdonian Dolgellau – with lots of shops selling jamón (ham) or similar combinations of T-shirts and souvenirs (usually made elsewhere). I wander through the main plaza and out the other side to peek in the parish church. It’s certainly larger and more ornate than I expected (roll slides!).

Back in the plaza I discover our guide is actually giving a talk on something but I can only get the ghost of the gist of the talk. Then we’re led back to the church (which was more appealing before there were 30-odd people taking photos) – and then around to a museum house , preserving life as it was for a local family up to the middle of the last century.

After an hour-long tour of the house, including a short amateurish film, it was back to the serious business of lunch and coffee in the plaza. Our school director had said a packed lunch would be necessary but there was no shortage of cafes, pubs and upscale-seeming restaurants. While the village may be ancient in guidebook hyperbole, you can see that newer buildings have modern construction materials and are essentially plastered over to harmonise with the streetscape. A modern sound-system and a python-thickness of wiring is hidden under the balcony of a store fronting the plaza, and the museum house is replete with closed-circuit TV, a touch-screen console and multimedia delivery facilities.

At 3.30 we piled into the bus again and headed along a winding mountain road for half an hour. I was expecting some more outdoorsy site, but we found ourselves at a smaller town, San Martin, where we were to be for an hour and a half. Being siesta time, it seemed fairly quiet, and I walked on ahead again, through nearly deserted streets, to the town’s small bullring and the remains of a fort, now a cemetery. I had a chance to inspect both before the throng caught up. I walked back through and around the town for a short time, and then stretched out on the walled perimeter of a hotel with Gore Vidal and an ice-cream.

That was to be the last stopping point before returning to Salamanca: all really interesting but not quite what the wilds I had expected. Next week’s excursion, to the Sierra de Gredos may supply that…

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