Monday, March 15, 2010


Two weeks ago I was sitting at my computer (which faces out the window), and very innocently eating breakfast and reading emails. I looked out the window as I took a sip of coffee and saw puffs of smoke floating by... look! gasp!

The smoke was coming from little flames in a glassed-in balcony across the street. It was a breezy day, so even as I grabbed my cell phone and called Spanish 911 (112) I could see the flames getting bigger and bigger. There were some guys working on a roof below my apartment, and they'd stopped to stare at the fire. People began to come out onto balconies and lean out windows; I'm sure I wasn't the only person to call the fire department. I talked to the nice lady, who asked me all these questions I couldn't answer, like what the address of the building was and if there was anyone inside. Finally she told me the firemen were already on their way, and the flames were getting bigger.

(If you look closely you can see a Little Old Spanish Lady peeking out her window in the upper left corner)

In the distance we heard sirens, and the firemen pulled up and went running into the building. At this point the flames were huge and the roof was smoking; glass was cracking in the heat and falling in shards onto the street below. I couldn't believe what I was seeing; mostly I couldn't believe how familiar it smelled. Like a camp fire, or burned popcorn, or our wood stove at home. But that was someone's house, someone's home... Luckily there was no one inside, and no one was hurt. I had a perfect view of the jet of water coming from the inside of the apartment, spraying the flames and extinguishing them. Then the firemen came out looking very official and TV-like in their helmets and reflective suits.

I took a video of it; the pictures are one thing, but to see it in real time makes it seem more real.

The apartment is still charred and black; it seems like no one is living there, the apartment is still wide open to the air, and they haven't made any attempts to fix anything. I still don't know how it started - knowing the Spanish penchant for cigarettes I wouldn't be surprised if there was an errant spark somewhere.

So there you have it, my most recent adventure and first experience as a firefighter. Although by those standards anyone with a cell phone can be billed as a hero.

Rehearsal Videos

Just in case you haven't had enough of me gushing about choir.... here are some rehearsal videos. I like these better than the concert videos - although of course the quality is poor, I love how the voices sound in the empty cathedral.

Dadme albricias, hijos de Eva

Que bonito niño chiquito


Friday, February 26, 2010

The Really Big Show; Or, My Spanish Television Debut

First, let me apologize for talking about Christmas in February and subjecting you all to Christmas carols only two months after the real thing -- but such is the life of the blogger, always a day late and a dollar short...or I just haven't gotten around to it until now...

When I went home for Christmas this year I was leaving the same night as the choir’s Christmas dinner. It’s very common here for groups – the faculty from school, choir, sports teams, offices, etc. – to go to a restaurant to celebrate the holidays. Usually the restaurant will have a special set menu for these occasions, and this year we went out to the very ritzy golf course for ours. I had to catch a bus at midnight to make it to the airport for an 11am flight to New York. I wasn’t sure how I’d make it to the dinner from my apartment with my big suitcase and then make it to the bus station on time. But one member of choir, a tenor and one of about four Fernandos, offered to drive me. Not only did he drive me to the bus, but picked me up at his apartment, advised me when I should start saying my goodbyes at the dinner, carried my suitcase, drove me to the bus station in the pouring freezing rain, and waited with me until the bus left.

I should also mention that the only reason I was at the choir dinner was because I changed my ticket to stay three days later than originally planned. Our big Christmas concert was in the Cathedral downtown this year, and it was televised throughout Spain – kind of a big deal. My first ticket home was for the day of the concert – but upon much insisting from the choir director, Manolo, (who is an infectious disease specialist and had many fears about a cold or the Swine Flu running rampant through the five-member soprano section), I changed my ticket to leave two days later, AT THE CHOIR’S EXPENSE. So they paid over $300 for me to stay three extra days and sing with them. Needless to say, I felt very loved and valued! And I was so, so happy to be able to be there for our major concert.

And the concert! It was amazing! We performed in the Cathedral, which we’ve done before, but this time there was a whole formal fancy shmancy television crew, complete with seven different camera angles, bright lights, and the Cantabran Minister of Culture to introduce us. We sang a variety of Christmas music – some new pieces (one that we debuted, with the composer in the audience), some old classics (Mendholsson), a medley of carols from around Europe (in German, Italian, Spanish, and French) and some newer classics from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, which made it really feel like Christmas to me. We sang another medley of traditional English (and now American) traditional carols, including the hymn version of “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” which is my favorite carol ever.

It was really special to be singing songs that mean so much to me with people I’ve come to love so much, and after we’d worked so hard to sound good. And to top it all off, it was televised both in our tiny province and all over Spain! I didn’t see the footage until a few weeks ago, though, because I was home by the time it aired. We got a DVD of the concert, because one of the tenors works for the national TV/Radio organization, but since my computer is American, I can’t watch it. Luckily he uploaded a lot of videos of the concert to his youtube channel. (See below)

A lot of my friends here came to see me sing, which meant a lot to me. A number of American friends, some Spanish friends, and even the wealthy family of my five-year-old student I talk about in a previous post (mom, grandma, and two adorable kids) came all the way from Torrelavega to see it. In a few of the videos they focus on the kids, I’ll be sure to point it out with the video links. Afterwards, some American and Spanish friends and I all went out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants here, fondly nicknamed “The Sausage Place,” and ate delicious veggies, homemade sausages, calamari, and little baby squids (‘chipirones,’ my faaavorite Spanish food) all piping hot off the grill. Mmmm.

The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about the concert is that the cameras focused on me a LOT. Everyone was telling me how much I’d ‘come out’ on the footage, even the night of the concert, as it was televised live within the Cathedral so people sitting behind pillars could see. Then even when I came back from the US almost a month later, everyone from my students at school to friends of my old roommate told me how often I was featured. It’s embarrassing. I hate watching myself sing (or worse, listening to myself – at least I can’t hear my own voice very clearly on these recordings). But I suppose that’s the way it goes. At least my everyone at home who's been asking can see it now!

Coro de Cámara Acapella de Santander – December 18th, 2009 – Cathedral, Santander, Spain(listed in order of performance)

(Introduced in baby talk by my student's two-year-old brother, Juan)

*          *          *          *  
(The following carols are traditional sixteenth-century Spanish songs, sung by a reduced choir, and with instrumental accompaniment, including two “rabeles” -  traditional Cantabrian violin-like-instruments)

Verbum caro factum est

(The title means “What a beautiful little boy,” and notice at the beginning they very appropriately focus on my five-year-old student, Luis, and his two-year-old brother, Juan)


(The whole choir returns)
 *          *          *          *

(Part of the "European Christmas Journey.")

(Part of the "European Christmas Journey.")

(Closeup of my face looking stupid – did they know I was the token Anglo Saxon??)

I wish I could put the whole concert up here for you to see - I know it's a hassle to click through all the links. Or am I flattering myself?! Maybe you all like the pick-and-choose aspect of it. Not everyone is a choir nerd, after all. I do wish, though, that he'd posted more of the European carols - mostly for my Mama, because we sang her favorite ("Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," or "Est ist ein ros entsprungen" as we sang it in its original German). And "Adeste Fideles" and "Silent Night" (sung in four languages - my friend counted and we sang in a whopping eight languages that night), with the whole congregation standing and singing along. Some Christmas traditions are universal.

Oh, and it would have been funny to see more of the classic Spanish Christmas carols, mostly because I didn't know the words to any of them, nor had I heard them more than about twice. As everyone else in choir could sing them in their sleep (like us with "Jingle Bells," for example), we rehearsed them once and didn't use sheet music. Mostly (I imagine) the shots are avoiding me, but if there is one, I'm sure I'm smiling foolishly at the director and utilizing the oldest choir trick in the book - say "watermelon watermelon" in more or less the right rhythm and hope it looks OK.

Video Postscript: Revelry in Toro

After our concert we were treated to a dinner above the theater with all the other performers - it was a community concert in honor of St Cecilia, so the local guitar orchestra played with a guest flutist, a funny little man sang funny little songs, and afterwards we all ate and drank and everyone sang. It reminded me of music parties at our house, or some of the festivals we went to when I was younger - with alcohol and good times come the traditional songs that everyone knows and spontaneously begins to sing. It was so great! 

(Keep an eye out for the Spanish Old Ladies in their fur coats and full makeup)

Monday, February 22, 2010

I Love Choir (and Our Trip to Zamora)

After singing for my entire life in one form or another, I knew that when I came to Spain I wanted to find a choir to join. I had great choir experiences throughout childhood and high school (yes, I’ll admit it now, even though I complained mightily about NMH Concert Choir and Select Women’s Ensemble), but was disappointed in the offerings in college. Don’t get me wrong – my acapella group, the ConnChords, were (are) my saviors, my sisters, the lights in my life through my four years at Conn. But I missed classical singing, and found that the Chamber Choir left much to be desired. So imagine my excitement when, through simple internet searches, I stumbled upon the blog for a choir right here in Santander. I listened to the videos and it seemed to be exactly what I was looking for – about forty members, with a high level of musicality, a great sense of community and humor, but with a low-pressure, non-competitive feel. I sent an email to the director listing my ‘credentials’ and experience, and was invited to come to a rehearsal. In hindsight I know I needn’t have written so formally and talked myself up so much – I’m sure he laughed to himself when he read how serious I was trying to make myself sound. But I went to that first rehearsal, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Everyone in choir is simply wonderful. They are interested, inclusive, friendly, caring, hilarious, MUSICAL, and take care of me like one of their own. Especially now, in my second year, I feel more comfortable than ever with them and with my Spanish. I can laugh and joke along with them, and I really feel like a part of the community, a part of their ‘musical family’ as the director called it in an email once. They remind me of some of my mom’s kooky (and totally wonderful) music friends at home. The majority have been singing together since college (everyone is in their 50s minus me, the director’s two teenage daughters, and 30-something-year-old Maria), and are all the best of friends. 
Last fall, in November, we went away for a weekend to the province of Zamora, which is to the south and west of us. The town governments of Toro and Urueña invited us to come and sing a few concerts and a mass for them. In Spain, “invited” means that everything was paid for! We took a bus down and stayed overnight in a nice hotel, had good meals at a convent (?), and enjoyed the star treatment for the weekend. I was a little worried at first, not knowing if I’d have anyone to hang out with, if I’d be included, who I’d share a room with, etc. But it turned out to be one of the best times I’ve had in Spain. (I shared a room with Cristina, who is 15 and very sweet)

We visited a lot of the historical stuff in the area, lots of churches with beautiful frescoes… I had planned to make that a list, but mostly what we saw were churches! One of the monasteries/churches had one of the biggest reliquaries in Spain – if you don’t know what a reliquary is…just think dead guys! Pieces and body parts of various saints and religious things, all encased in glass or framed. Very creepy, and very cool. 

The young priest at the church where we sang mass Sunday morning was really candid with us, admitting that most (all) of it was rabbit bones or the remains of some anonymous human beings that had been dug up and sold as religious artifacts. That Sunday was St Cecilia’s day, so we sang a mass in her honor, as she is the patron saint of music and musicians. The church has a cross separated into little compartments full of bone powder from various saints, one of them being St Cecilia. At the end of the mass you could come to the front of the church to kiss the cross and pay your respects. 

Being slightly germaphobic I decided just to touch it and not kiss it. They also had a spine from the crown of thorns Christ was crucified in and the (now) shredded flag that was used to scare away the Turks in some ancient important Spanish battle. 
It was also nice to be back in Castilla y León, which is the province where Salamanca is, where I studied in 2006. It’s amazing how varied the Spanish landscape is – where I live, in Cantabria on the north coast, it’s very green and lush and hilly, and the Picos de Europa mountain range are visible to the south, usually covered with snow. Castilla y León, however, is the famous “plain in Spain,” (although the rain stays up here, and not down in the drought-plagued central parts of the country). It reminds me of the western part of the United States, open and flat and a lovely brown prairie color.  Of course, in the US we don't have amazing castles disrupting our prairies...

The best part of the trip, though, was spending time with everyone in the choir. I know it sounds sappy, but I am so grateful every time I go to rehearsal – not only are they great people who have accepted me into their family, but we make beautiful music together. All you Chords and music-types out there will understand what I mean when I say it makes it so much more special and multi-dimensional when you work hard to create something beautiful with people you love.