Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hola Barcelona! : Paradisical City, Delicious Food, Spanish Slowness & Setting up My New Life

Hola, Barcelona!  It's been almost a month since Kiara and I left Oxford, England and made the move to Barcelona, Spain, so I can pursue my PhD here. Getting an internet connection in Spain is ridiculously slow (surprise...), so I'm living off the my generous neighbour's Wifi connection until Vodafone decides what day "mañana" actually is.

Remember my Hiya, Oxford! post from 2012? Here is the Barcelona version, in which I describe my first impressions, obstacles, and waves of culture shock arising from moving to a new country. Despite the fact that I'm incredibly grateful to call this city home, there have been quite a few challenges:
    Barceloneta Beach
  • Moving somewhere where you do not speak the language is an immense challenge. Thank goodness for intensive study abroad language schools! I've paid for 8 weeks of 20 hours a week of Spanish class. That should get me (supposedly) through the B1 level (lower intermediate). At the moment, although I can understand bits, once they start speaking at me rapidly, I'm just lost. Especially if they're speaking Catalan. I'm even going to put up mini sticky notes in my house labeling items in Spanish (and in French so I don't lose my vocabulary)
  • Misinformation is the norm.  This is my biggest annoyance here yet.  "Go to this office". "Fill in this form".  "Oh, wait, no, that one".  "Why did they tell you to come here? You should go there (all the way across town). Tomorrow. Because everything only opens between 10 am and 1pm." Even the information the consulate gave me in Toronto was not correct - To anyone getting their NIE card - go to the National Police (Comisario) and book your appointment online here. The other two police divisions (Guardia and Mossos d'Esquadra) will have no clue what you are talking about 
  • Slowness- It's not just a stereotype! The amount of time I have spend the last four weeks in government and university offices (and queues for the same) is ridiculous. Just on Monday, I waited 3 hours for my 1:30 "appointment" to hand in documents for my residency card. I pick that up in a month (at a different office).  I am not even officially enrolled in the university. The "doctoral stamp" just came on Friday, so now I have to have my supervisor fill out one more form. Applying for grants the last couple weeks has been quite a similar experience....*breathe*....

So, what about all the great stuff? 

  • Opening hours - Yes, most things close for siesta (2pm to 5pm), but that means they are open late! I live in a very safe neighbourhood and people are always up at 11pm or midnight.
  • The People! -  They are SO friendly. Even though I'm speaking a very beginner level of Spanish to them
  • The Food! Even as a vegetarian, I have been enjoying the tapas! Pimientos padron, tortillas (omelettes) and patatas bravas are a must try!
  • The Beach! - I live in a city with a beach!!!! 
  • The Second Language Acquisition environment!  (That's what I study in Applied linguistics, so it's amazing to me that I am here in that position myself)
  • My Home! I live very close to the part of the city (La Bordeta) that turns into suburbia (L'Hospitalet). This means that I'm 7 metro stops from the centre of the city, but also a 10 minute walk (the other direction) to a massive shopping mall and IKEA
  • Kiara will be allowed on the metro next week! (It's official .... Barcelona transport has decided dogs are allowed on metros from October 1st! Yay!!!!) They are not allowed on intercity trains though. Now, if only I can find a way to get here to Can Jan Resort's Aquapark with her!

Check out my slideshow of my lovely new apartment (all furnished and decorated when I arrived), and a couple snaps of the city. (Remember to click "Show Info" if you want to see the descriptions). Hola, Barcelona!!! I can't wait for our 3 year adventure together!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Festes de la Mercè - Barcelona's Biggest Annual Cultural Festival

As this is an unorthodox month of blogging, I'm going to skip past my first couple weeks here (coming in my next post!) and proceed to tell you about the past two days of the fiesta (La Merce)!  Howard, who I met in Singapore, happened to be in town with his friend Maurice, and so we had a mini-Singapore reunion and hung out at the festival.

Festes de la Mercè is Barcelona's biggest annual cultural festival. Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia, a region in Spain that was once its own sovereign state.  They speak Catalan (and Spanish, but they are very regionalistic and prefer Catalan. At the moment, to my naive eyes,  it seems like a linguistic mix of French, Spanish and Italian...). According to (the oh-so-credible) Wikipedia, the festival originally celebrated the Virgin Mary and according to the city's website, is now the official transition from summer into autumn. (Autumn at 25 degrees celsius and 85% humidity? Great!) 

Oh, and remember when they say "fiesta" in Spain, they mean all night. Literally. 

Here are a few highlights of the events we chose to attend:

  • The fire-breathing dragons parade (SO cool) on Saturday night. Most of the dragons had little kids riding on them 
Merce Dragon!

  • Fireworks that were honestly the best I've ever seen   - including palm tree shaped ones!
  • Late night (1 am) salsa concert in Placa Cataluyna (locals watching the concert started to salsa in the streets!)They looked SO good, it makes me want to learn!
  • Tapas, of course (these are pimientos padròn...more on food in my Hola, Barcelona! post coming up this week!
pimientos de padron
  • Human pyramids this afternoon (Sunday from 11:30 am until 2:30 pm --it was incredible!)  The pictures here just don't do it justice, as Howard, Maurice and I were way at the back to begin with. We advanced forward every time people left the square, but only had our cell phone cameras with us (mine is awful). 
  •  Basically, the premise of the tower is that they start with a small human pyramid and get taller and taller, eventually having small children (5 year olds) with helmets on scale 4 to 8 metre high human towers to stand at the top.  It is incredible. We saw one pyramid/tower topple and the whole crowd screamed (eeeek!) 
Human Pyramid!
Human Tower
La Merce Instrumentalists
  • Oh, and there were anti-abortion demonstrators that were making a big fuss before and during the first part of the show. Tons of us were booing them for trying to ruin such an amazing event. The police had to kick them out! So random!
Demonstrators at La Marce

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The History of the University of Oxford - My Oxford Farewell/Did You Know...? Post

So, this post is quite delayed (getting internet in Spain is sloooow), but I thought it appropriate to have a final post to commemorate my time both at the University of Oxford (as a student and employee) and my life in the UK before moving on to the next stage of my life (my PhD in Spain). 

A few months ago, I took a seminar at the Oxford Learning Institute on the history of the university I had spent the last two years at (one as a student, four months as a frantic international graduate searching for work, and six months as an employee of the university). Here are some interesting facts I found out:

  • The first remains of Oxford date back to the 8th century. The town development followed the foundation of a monastery
  • The university operates on a "federal" system (with Oxford University being the central hub and the colleges operating within it)
  • Oxford was very much a completely private institution until 1919, at which point the British government gave it 30 000 British pounds
  • For 100 years, it was the UK's only university

Oxford in the 1100s

  • Followed the Paris model of education (run by teachers), not the Bologna model (run by students)
  • The University itself has never been wealthy; its colleges, which came later, were
  • The Vaults & Gardens Cafe was previously the site of the "Pledge Chest", where university professors would need to leave a "pledge" (a valuable item) in the chest in order to borrow an original version book
  • Until recently, university employee paychecks came addressed from "The University Chest"
  • The first professors rented rooms in houses 
  • Colleges were originally set up to support a small number of graduate students (small, privileged institutions) 
  • Oxford was a major commerce town (wine, clothmaking, etc.) It took 400 years to switch its focus from industry to university

The Invention of Cambridge

  • There were often clashes between the "town" (industry people) and "gown" (educated university people)
  • In the year 1200, there was violence in the streets of Oxford, and a townswoman was murdered. The ringleader fled and a few students were hung for supposed participation in the murder. 
  • A group of students fled the town in fear and went to hide at one student's family home, which was a rich estate. 
  • There, they founded Cambridge in 1209
  • Several townspeople vs. scholar riots occurred over the next 300 years; Oxford was even the Royalist Capital of England in 1642 and Oliver Cromwell was the University's Chancellor

The Church, the University's Organisation and Colleges

  • The town won a row against the industry supporters and with the backing of the church, established an organised structure 
  • This is when the Chancellor, Vice Chancellors and Pro Vice Chancellors were implemented
  • New College was the first college to admit undergraduate students
  • The colleges were set up through endowments by England's wealthy elite
  • Colleges administer academic, financial, pastoral and social aspects of the college
  • Women were allowed to join the university from 1920, but were only awarded degrees in 1948 (28 years later!)  St. Anne's, St. Hilda's and Lady Margaret Hall (my college!) were the first three to admit women and for a time, were women's only colleges

The Role of Education...theoretical or practical?

  • Students did not all go to university to get a degree
  • Many were admitted to a Guild of their trade and used the oratory skills they learned in university (Think: Aristotle's Rhetoric) to get themselves a job
  • Is the role of university to gain a broad education or technical training to prepare you for the job market?  (the age old question...)

Modern Oxford

  • After WWI, the growth of car factories in Oxfordshire expanded the industrial areas of the town
  • Tourism and publishing have become two main industries
  • Oxford Brookes was established (the other university in Oxford) and Oxford is, of course, host to many language schools and tutorial colleges
  • Many science and technology companies begin as spin-outs from University of Oxford's research
Okay, so it was a BRIEF history...but hopefully some of it was interesting! I'd definitely recommend taking an hour to attend OLI's History of Oxford seminar lectured by an Oxford Emeritus history professor (book in advance!)

Farewell Oxford....and stay tuned for my upcoming posts on life in Barcelona, Spain!