Friday, Apr 12th

The Spain Exchange

On a sunny afternoon in April 2008, I spotted a tall, dark-haired girl sporting a tutu, high top Converse sneakers, and a large nose ring walking toward me at JFK where as she had just gotten off the plane. “Eres Adrienne?” she inquired tentatively. When I nodded, she kissed me on both cheeks. Two weeks ago, on February 5th, it was my turn to get off the plane in the Barajas airport in Madrid. Ines spotted me as I was sporting a more typical American outfit of a college sweatshirt, leggings, and a pair of Uggs. Next to me were 13 SHS Juniors and Seniors along with chaperones Psychologist Ernie Collabolletta and Spanish teacher Mr. DiDomenico. As I made my way to Ines, the rest of the students approached their respective Spanish students who had visited them a year ago. The Spaniards knew our parents, our homes, our school, and all about Scarsdale. Finally, it was our turn to experience their lives in Madrid.

The SHS students left with their hosts to unpack and rest up after the overnight flight. Later that evening, all the exchange students met up before dinner. We soon discovered that dinner would be served at our usual bedtime of 11:00. As Arielle exclaimed when presented in the late hours of the night, with a plate of chorizo, a bowl of garbanzo beans, and tortilla de patatas, “We’re not in Kansas anymore!”

The following day was spent exploring Madrid with our respective host families as guides. I was taken to Chocolateria San Gines, which quickly became my favorite spot. Plates of hot churros, strips of fried dough in the shape of thick french fries, were brought out along with cups of pure melted chocolate in which to dip them. I was in heaven.

On Monday, we enjoyed our first day at Instituto San Isidro, the Spanish school of our hosts. We were given a tour of the school and were in shock. Constructed in the 1600’s, San Isidro is the oldest education building in all of Spain. As we toured famous sites such as the ornate Palacio Real and the Plaza Mayor we quickly realized that the school was an attraction itself. Within the school, there was a church with frescoes of Jesus and religious scenes on the ceiling.
We switched off days, sometimes going to school, and other days going on trips with the SHS students. At San Isidro, students choose their paths for their high school career. Ines chose the humanities track so I attended classes in English, Latin, Greek, Spanish Literature, French, Psychology, Philosophy, and Art History. Other American students went to classes in Biology, Math, Chemistry, and Physics. All students were required to take English. I led a few English classes along with Arielle Shemesh and Naintara Aditya where we answered questions about the United States and discussed the differences between SHS and San Isidro.

On our first trip day we toured the incomparable Palacio Real. Though it is now vacant, at one time the palace housed up to 6,000 families. The palace was magnificent and the long dining room included a table that seated 200. All the chairs appeared to be exactly the same, but if you looked closely, you could see that one seat on each side of the table was a little higher than the rest. These chairs, I was told, were reserved for the king and queen. The musical instrument room also impressed me. The only way to preserve the expensive collection of violins was to plya them frequently, so the palace held concerts not only to entertain but to keep the instruments in top form.

We took a trip to the Prado museum and rented headphones that guided us in Spanish. Among the most memorable were those by Goya, especially La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida, which are paintings of the same woman clothed and naked. The message I took from these paintings was that you don't need to be stick skinny to be beautiful, since the subject was a healthy, fleshy girl. Artists had set up easels and canvases in the museum and were painting their own versions of the works in the Prado. Some of them were so good that they looked exactly like the originals.

Another trip we took was to Avila, a medieval town in the mountains that is one of the coldest towns surrounding Madrid. It happened to snow that day so it was a very chilly outing to this walled hill town. We also visited Toledo, known as “the city of three cultures” since it is a place where historically Jews, Christians and Arabs could live together. The group's favorite trip was to Segovia, The impressive ancient aqueduct in Segovia is known as the eighth wonder of the world. Also in Segovia is a castle that Walt Disney used as inspiration for the well-known Cinderella Castle. We climbed up 152 steps in a narrow tower to get to see the view from the top. Sunshine and warmer temperatures enhanced our perception of the city and made for a very pleasant day.

Reflectin' for a Second: Stream of Consciousness

Traveling to Madrid in February was not ideal due to the temperature. To our dismay, many of us found that the apartments did not have central heating and were quite cold, especially at night. Furthermore, bathrooms only contained hand showers, making it impossible to submerge oneself in warm water. One day, cold and frustrated after walking in frigid temperature, I was determined to take a hot shower. I attempted to hang the hand shower up in its bracket only to have the entire faucet come crashing down, just missing my head. Worse, the faucet landed face up and sprayed the entire bathroom with water.

On another day, my host mother offered to do my laundry. As I had already been in Spain for a week, I was looking forward to receiving clean, warm, dry clothes to wear. The washing machine turned out to be a tiny appliance in the kitchen and there was no dryer to be found. My wet clothes were hung around the apartment to dry, but since the weather was cold and damp, five days later my one sweatshirt was still damp too.

Teh San Isidro environment was not comparable to our school experience.  We learned that the large iron gate to the school was locked as soon as the school day started. If students did not arrive on time, they could simply not get in. There was no recourse. For many students, the locked gate was the perfect excuse for skipping class. In fact, some deliberately got to school at 8:36 and were happy to be locked out, and spend most of their day at San Bruno, the bar across the street.

In class, the teacher took attendance but sometimes casually remarked, “Oh, 11 absent students today,” as if this was a normal occurrence. When the students got back their exams, I noticed that many barely passed but laughed at the results. I did not know if they laughed because they did not care or if it was cool to appear to be indifferent to grades. Many of the students in the high school were older than 17, in fact some were as old as 20. I asked why and was told that if kids failed classes, they could keep repeating senior year.

We were also surprised to find that lunch and dinner in Spain bore no similarity to meals at home. During the schooldays, we would often go out for coffee several times but return home around 2 pm each for a large prepared lunch. The menus included rice with tuna, lentil soup, chorizo, lamb, garbanzo beans, and veal. Following lunch we would go to sleep until around 6:00 and then go out to Puerta del Sol to meet friends, stroll, shop or sit in cafes. Around 9:30 we would return home for dinner with the parents. During my stay, dinner included fish, mashed potatoes, tortilla de patatas, and tuna omelets. On weekends, we could sleep until three in the afternoon and have a big lunch in the afternoon or visit my favorite hangout, the Chocolateria San Gines.

Our Spanish hosts dressed differently than Americans. Girls wore big, baggy jeans and huge Nike sneakers, almost looking like boys. Most of the Spanish students had body piercings, and wore nose and lip rings. Boys were more conservatively dressed and wore jeans, nice sweaters and collared shirts to school.

All the American students found that their Spanish improved dramatically as the parents in the host families for the most part spoke no English. We learned to navigate the streets of Madrid, order in restaurants and converse with teachers and shop owners, completely in Spanish. It was a wonderful learning experience to be surrounded by Spaniards all day every day. We found our hosts and everyone we encountered to be nice and friendly and people were generally laid back and relaxed.

Without cars we walked everywhere – to and from school, touring the streets, museums and surrounding towns. Though many of us had never been alone in New York City, we learned our way around Madrid and gained a sense of confidence and independence.

Now back at home I see how fortunate we are. Our homes are stocked with modern conveniences like dishwashers, washing machines, dryers and central heat. There’s never an issue with getting a hot shower or having clean clothes to wear. In the winter our homes are toasty and in the summer they’re cool. For most of us, cars are readily available to take us where we want to go.

The experience at the school in Madrid also gave me an appreciation for the excellent teachers we have at Scarsdale High School and the community’s attitude about education. I now understand the effort our teachers put into planning lessons and preparing us for a successful future. While Scarsdale High School is often criticized for being stressful and competitive, I now see that some stress and competition can be motivating. In Madrid, as students were virtually guaranteed a spot in the university upon graduation, they had no reason to work hard or achieve in high school. Without the drive to do well, I do not think many of our students would have become the tenacious, resilient people they are by the end of their senior year.

The trip to Spain was a terrific adventure for the small group who was lucky to go. In addition to improving our Spanish we were exposed to another culture and learned to appreciate Spain as well as what we have at home. I would encourage all students at the high school to take advantage of the opportunities to travel offered by the language department. music department and through Senior Options.

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