Weekend in Spain This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

   Last fall I was looking for a place to break in my brand-new passport without breakingthe bank. My high school's foreign language department was offering a two-weektrip to Spain and France in July for $3,000, but dios mio! If only I had twoweeks in July and $3,000. I began searching for something sooner, shorter andmore affordable.

A weekend in Spain for $399 plus tax proved to be justright. The price included round-trip airfare and two nights at a hotel withbreakfast. Not included were a herd of teenagers, one or more teacher-chaperonesand a fixed itinerary that, together, could make a two-week trip seem like onevery long fourth-period Spanish class.

Instead, our group numbered four:my brother, sister, our dad and me. We kids were eager to test the Spanish we hadstudied in school, and since Dad's Spanish comes from the phonetic side of thephrase book, he may have been the chaperone, but we were the teachers.Olé!

It is entirely possible to have a great cultural experience inSpain in three days. Pick a city and stick close to it. We chose Madrid, andplanned to make a day trip to Toledo. We left on Thursday night, slept on theplane, and woke up the next morning over the coast of Spain. A surge ofadrenaline took us off the plane and in search of customs and a place to changeour dollars into pesetas.

The acid test of our Spanish-speaking abilitybegan with the customs agent. He talked as quickly as a tape from a Spanishlistening comprehension test on fast forward. Fortunately, all the otherSpaniards we met - clerks, waiters and bus drivers - were happy to slow down andenunciate.

We chose the subway over buses and taxis, keeping with thetheme of a fast cultural experience. The subway in Madrid rivals the Washington,D.C. Metro for cleanliness. We bought a ticket with eight rides on it. Everyonecould use this ticket, a feature unlike the Metro's one card/one person policy.But, just like the Metro, no one talks to anyone on the subway. Unlike the Metro,public displays of affection were the norm. I remember looking at a couple whoappeared to be trying to suck each other's lips off before reaching their stop.Well, I thought, we're definitely learning things about Spanish culture thatdon't get much exposure in the textbooks.

To our relief, our hotelrooms were spacious and warm, beds comfortable and the toilet paper as soft ashome. There was also a balcony that provided hours of street-watching.

Our first stop was El Retiro, the former summer palace of Spanish royalty turnedinto Madrid's Central Park. My sister and I had long gazed at pictures of ElRetiro in our textbooks, and had been especially interested in the pictures oftourists rowing around El Estanque, a manmade lake. Now was our chance to be oneof those tourists! For 45 minutes of easy rowing, we paid about $2.50. Weexpected a huge line for boats, but we were one of only three on the lake.

The gardens, a major feature of the park, weren't too spectacularin the middle of November.

If you don't visit El Prado, Spain's premierart museum, it's like going to Washington and not visiting the Air and SpaceMuseum. I finally saw the subject of my Spanish culture report - the blackpaintings of Francisco Goya. There were no crowds separating the paintings fromthe people. I got to linger in front of "Saturn Devouring One of HisChildren" for as long as I could stand upright, which wasn't long, as jetlag suddenly set in. The intoxicating grip of a six-hour time differenceencouraged me to slide to the floor in front of an El Greco. As I closed my eyes,I heard the museum guard's rubber-soled shoes approach. "Levantase, porfavor," she said, politely but firmly. At least she had addressed me inSpanish. After just two hours in Madrid, was I beginning to look like a native? Igot up as she had requested.

As we left the museum, my younger brothergazed wistfully at the McDonald's near El Prado. We reminded ourselves of ourpledge to immerse ourselves in Spanish culture, including its cuisine, for thesefew days and trudged on to find a tapas bar. I'd also done a report on tapas barsand wanted to experience the real deal.

Tapas are little snacks, forexample, slices of bread topped with cheese and meat, a fried potato and eggcombination called a tortilla española, and olives. Spaniards eat dinneraround 10 p.m., so tapas are eaten with friends after work as a way to relax andstave off hunger.

Finding a good tapas bar in the United States proveddifficult, mainly because I said "topless bar" when asking anunsuspecting Hispanic couple where good tapas could be found. I will never forgettheir response - a long pause, a sideways glance, then "Crystal City - butwhat kind of teacher would give you an assignment like that?"

Theplace to go for tapas in Madrid is the Plaza de Santa Ana. The square is linedwith tapas bars, so just browse and then choose where to eat. The tapas are notdinner, necessarily, but for a timid traveler they provide sustenance without acommitment to eating lots of food your travel-weary stomach might not get alongwith well.

The tapas bars were a crash course in how Spain differs fromthe United States. I was surprised to have the bartender look me straight in theeye and ask "Queria una cereza o un vino?" (Would you like a beer orwine?) I found no Spanish equivalents for the usual signs declaring "We willcard anyone who appears younger than 32 years of age" in bars or groceries.Also, many people smoke. I saw almost no "Se prohibe fumar" (Nosmoking) signs, and buying cigarettes was as easy as purchasing a pack of gum. Ifyou're tall enough to push the money over the counter, you can buy a carton ofsmokes, no questions asked.

Watching the young professionals munch tapas,drink wine and smoke cigarettes also taught me about their fashion. Madrid issimilar to New York City: everyone wears black. My pink skijacket and Birkenstocks screamed "Turista" to all the passersby. Theonly people I saw with ski jackets were homeless people. Our American attire was,to put it mildly, out of place. If you want to blend in - or at least not clash -a black, knee-length coat, black boots and a skirt in the color of the seasonwill go a long way toward making you look cooler than you really are.

Mysister and I took advantage of our room's balcony to watch the the bustlingnight-life in full swing at 1 a.m. We also took quality time to replicateVelasquez's famous painting, "Las Meninas" we'd seen earlier at ElPrado.

Getting to Toledo turned out to be easier than we thought. Thefront desk helped us get tickets for a half-day tour. We crossed our fingershoping it wouldn't be too boring, but it turned out to be a great choice. Therewere only six in our group (another benefit of traveling off-season). The guidespoke in English (great for my non-Spanish-speaking dad) and Spanish for the restof us. There was a brief stop for souvenirs and restrooms on the way - therearen't many public toilets to be found in the medieval city.

Theeducational portion of the tour started when we arrived in Toledo. Beginning withthe second-oldest cathedral in Spain, we visited the Santo Tomé churchwhere El Greco's "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz" is located, asynagogue curiously named "Synagogue of Mary the White" and concludedwith San Juan de los Reyes monastery. The fusion of Islamic, Judaic and Christiancultures in the architecture made me feel like I was back in World History class.As other visitors craned their necks looking at the gargoyles on top of thecathedral, I scanned the crowd for school groups. It appeared that my sister,brother and I were the only people under the age of 25 touring Toledo thatSaturday.

We got back to Madrid in time to mail postcards. As the oldestSpanish speaker in the family, I volunteered to purchase the postage while therest of my family wrote their cards. This simple exercise proved an excellentlearning experience. First, stamps are sold at tobacco shops, not grocery stores.Second, stamps are called sellos, not estampas. Third, ask the clerk who sellsyou the stamps how to arrange them to ensure delivery to the United States. Ididn't ask and ended up with too much postage on some, and too little on others.Fourth, the tobacco stands close on Saturday evening and are closed all daySunday so those cards you put too little postage on will have to wait and bemailed from the United States, which is not cool. It's the little things thatmean the most.

Churros are a sugary, fried pastry eaten with rich,pudding-like hot chocolate. Most people eat them for breakfast, but my youngersister would not sleep until we had churros and hot chocolate. That is how wefound ourselves, at eight o'clock on Saturday night, eating reheated churros in acafe near our hotel. Reflecting on our excursion into Spanish culture, we gringosrealized we had spoken more Spanish in two days than we would have during twoweeks of Spanish class. We survived without the buffer of a Spanish teacher totranslate where our Spanish ability and sign language failed. Best of all, eachof us had a faint imprint of that fast-talking Customs Agent's stamp on the firstpage of our passports.

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This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the May 2002 Teen Ink Travel Contest.

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