I went on Thursday to visit Juli, a Moratinos girl who´s helped us mightily through our resettlement in Spain. She, in her turn, struggled mightily to become a certified English teacher for Spanish public primary schools. This year she landed her first real full-time gig, in a shiny new school out on the edge of Burgos province. She has her own apartment now, and a classroom and a gang of students she clearly adores... it´s the life she´s dreamed of for a long, long time. Our Juli, Happy At Last!
She asked me to come and see it all, and to have a talk (in American English) with her 5th and 6th level English classes – the 10- and 11-year-olds who might just understand some spoken English. I said “sure.” So, in the fullness of time, with approval from the Head Teacher, I was written into the curriculum.
It was wild and fun and educational for all of us, I think. The kids learned that not all Americans are good-looking, gun-wielding, or glamorous. (One boy was rather let-down to learn that I am not black, nor do I personally know gangsta rapper Fifty Cent.) They were happy to learn that yes, I can speak in Spanish... and they know more Spanish than I do!
So, by the end of Thursday, 50 young Spaniards knew me by my first name. They now know my favorite color (green), favorite food (pizza), and that I like to ride and race horses. (They also now know the difference between “ride” and “race.” I even used the blackboard. Kids love it when I draw pictures.)
At the end of the day they shouted “Bye-bye, Rebekah!” from the windows as their buses pulled away from the curb. I think this is as popular as I have ever been in any schoolyard, anywhere, any time.
The following day I went along on a school field trip. Who am I to say no to such a cultural exchange? I asked myself. How many foreign tourists get such a full-immersion learning experience? (The part of me that is addicted to silence and solitude was shoved into silence and solitude.)
It was a structured day. We fist went to Hacinas, where we climbed up a sandstone cliff, visited a stonecarver in his studio, climbed another cliff (this one with a cave in it – once home to a Christian hermit, later a Moorish booty stash, or some such.) There was once a castle up there, too, but now it is only home to a life-size concrete Jesus with a mighty iron lightning rod sticking out the top of his head.
Maybe due to all those caves, this region is full of fossil creatures, dinosaur bones, even a set of celebrated dinosaur tracks. Hacinas proudly hosts a unique collection of petrified trees. Because it´s a charming but little-visited town, the Junta invested many thousands into a museum to showcase Hacinas´ stone oaks. Busloads of children each year dutifully make their way through its displays and mock-ups of just how a smiling cartoon tree is slain by hurricanes, sealed away without oxygen for a few million years, and somehow, using salt and pressure, it´s tranformed into a grinning tree made of rock. The kids then don special spectacles and watch a breakneck-action 3-D movie populated by English-speaking cartoon dinosaurs and turtles, but not a single fossil tree. The kids then step into the blinding bright light of the plaza, where the fossil trees lie scattered like so many big rocks.
The museum is clean and shiny and high-tech. It easily slid into my Top Five List of boring-est museums, right up there with Cervantes´ House in Valladolid and the Texas Energy Museum in Beaumont, Texas. I bought the t-shirt.
We climbed another hillside. We went on to visit a cement factory (I am not making this up) and then Pinella de las Barruecos, another little town with steep sandstone cliffs along one side. There we feasted on local treats: roasted tripe, stewed tongue, a clay pot full of chicken fillets and wild mushrooms. The mayor, (also head man at the cement factory) gave an elaborate speech on Our Culture and The Future, while the ladies opened up great trays of tiny dessert pastries. The children showed amazing restraint. The mayor cut things short, narrowly avoiding a feeding frenzy.
The tongue was delicious, the best I ever had.
Everyone raved about the mushrooms, which are at their peak in October. I am afraid they were wasted on me. By the time we climbed up the Pinellas, and patted Roque the Donkey, and tried out the giant bellows at the recreated old forge, I was exhausted. The ride back was not a long one, and we were, thankfully, spared the first 58 verses of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer On the Wall.” (It seems some of the finer points of American school-bus culture were not imported wholesale, after all.)
That evening, in agreement with my appeal for Monastic Silence, Juli and I drove the 15 km. To Santo Domingo de Silos, a monastery where the monks have won Grammy awards for recordings of their Gregorian chant. There were 30 of them up front for Vespers, and a good few people in the audience of the great stone church also knew their way around the music. It was honey in the rock, sweet and beautiful and dark. Later, outside under the walnut trees we gathered windfall nuts and cracked them open with a stone. I don´t much like walnuts, but these were utterly delicious, eaten with cold fingers under the streetlamps, shared with a fine friend.
Having climbed multiple hillsides all day, I slept that night like a petrified tree.
(coming up next... Villages of the Dead!)