May 07, 2007

When in Spain, be sure to bring your credit card

Hola, amigos y familia! As many of you know, we are now in Spain. We finished our teaching adventures in Mexico, and decided we wanted to try something new, so we are attending language classes at the University of Salamanca, one of the oldest in Europe.
We are enjoying Spain a lot, especially the stores. We live in the shopping district, it appears, which is dangerous. Thank the goddess for credit cards, and the rapidly rising value of D.C. property, which will help pay off what is quickly becoming the highest credit card bill we have ever experienced. But you only live once, and we probably won´t be back in Spain for... I dunno... years at least.

We don´t have any personal pictures yet to post to the blog, because we did not bring our own computer and are instead using public computers. But here is a picture of the inside of the Old Cathedral. La Catedral Vieja took 220 years to build. They laid the first stone in 1102. So it has medieval architectural elements outside, like the very tall, narrow windows and simply adorned exterior walls. But then, over the years, as architecture began moving toward the gothic, the inside of the cathedral incorporated gothic elements, as seen in the picture here. Salamanca´s old cathedral contains the oldest organ in Europe. Also, the end of this picture contains a work of art that many consider to be the most important piece of religious art outside Italy. It has 53 scenes showing the life of Christ.
In 1513 (or 1523... can´t remember exactly), Salamanca began building a "new" cathedral attached to the old cathedral, which is even more gothic, inside and out. It took nearly 300 years to build that one as well. Upon entering the old cathedral, which was recently restored as half of it was in ruins, one can climb to the top and be right next to the beginning parts of the roof of the new cathedral, getting an up close view of the lower towers, small rooftop statues, and flying buttresses. We did this on Saturday. Quote of the day: "I´ve never been this close to a flying buttress," said Natalie. (We will post the picture that goes along with that quote on as soon as we can).
The next day was a beautiful, sunny day, which have been less than abundant here. It has been a lot colder here than we expected in May. And somewhat rainy. So the sun was welcome, and we went to a large park here, Parque de los Jesuitas, that is popular with the native Salamancans for walking and laying in the grass to soak up the sun. So, after lunch, we walked around, then laid down and read and napped for 3 hours. It was nice, and we felt very 'Spanish.'
That was our weekend. Our weekdays tend to go something like this: Wake up around 7:30. Shower. Natalie goes down the hall to borrow the electric adaptor from these 17-year-old Irish girls who were smart enough to bring their own adaptors for their hair dryers (like an American, Natalie thought she could probably buy anything she needed while in Salamanca, so she deferred that purchase until she arrived in Salamanca, only to find out that nobody sells them in this friggin´town). Eat breakfast in our host family´s kitchen (our host family consists of an older lady and her adult daughter, and they rent out three rooms in their large apartment to students). Class from 9-2:15 (we are in different classes: Brady is ├╝ber advanced, and Natalie is intermediate). Then back to our house for lunch. The sometimes siesta, but we´re realizing that siestas make it harder for us to sleep at night because we´re still jet lagged. So instead of siesta, we might go for a walk, or buy things we don´t need, or get on the Internet. Then dinner around 8, and then home. There´s an active nightlife here, but the bars are so darn smoky (seems every single Spaniard smokes to some degree or another) that they make us kind of feel like s#*t.
Okay, got to run. Hugs to all of you.


Also, here is the email we sent out to family and friends about why we left Mexico:

In late March in Mexico, we got a crash course on the Mexican legal system -- or at least parts of it -- and how it compares to the U.S. system.

Comparison #1: In the U.S., one can only be guilty of defamation if you are saying something false. In Mexico, if what you say "hurts" a person or a business, you can be guilty of defamation even if you speak the truth.

In December, we told the owner of the school we would not be finishing the school year and our last day was March 30, the last day before Spring Break. So we gave her four months notice. On March 15, two weeks before our last day, Natalie sent a letter home with her students, to their parents, saying that she was leaving in two weeks, and the it was not because of the children or parents, who have been great, but because she was "unhappy with the way the school is run, and after experiencing many frustrations, decided to take advantage of an opportunity to go to language school."

Hindsight is 20/20, and in hindsight, Natalie should not have written those words. But at the time, given her frustrations with the way employees are treated (exploited) at the school, it seemed that the only people who would ever check the owner's power or have any oversight were the parents, and Natalie wanted the parents to know that at least one employee was leaving in part because she was unhappy. And, as a new friend told her recently, Natalie spoke her truth, and there is no shame in that.

The next day, a Friday, the owner called us into her office and was flaming pissed and threatened us with laws she said we had broken (she did not say which laws, just, "There are laws in this country!") and said she had a parent who was so mad he said he was going to file a complaint against us with Mexican Immigration, which is where he worked (we learned later this Immigration Officer works in the airport and is not exactly in a position to make trouble for us). So we had a long meeting, where we apologized and expained our frustrations in detail, but she was defensive every step of the way, which is understandable. When we left, Brady asked if we have reason to be worried about a lawsuit or Immigration, because she made a lot of threats in the meeting. She said, "No, I'm not going to do anything." She had lied to our faces so many times in the past, we should have known she was lying again.

Comparison #2: In the U.S., defamation is a civil offense. In Mexico, it is a criminal offense. The Mexican authorities put a lot of people in jail unfairly, including journalists who write the truth about shady business deals, including drug deals, and then get thrown in jail for defamation, even if what they wrote is true. The defamation laws are designed to protect the powers that be, the rich Mexican aristocracy. The Mexican Congress passed a law this year to reform the defamation laws, making them a civil offense with much lighter penalities, but so far they only apply wihin Mexico City and have yet to be ratified by the rest of the states.

When we returned to school the next week, the owner's husband was waiting for us with his lawyer. Turns out the husband is the legal owner of the school. He fired us, and gave us a subpoena to appear that evening at 7 p.m. before the local magistrate because they were filing charges against us for defamation. However, he said, if we wrote a letter of apology and retraction, we would not need to go to the meeting. Natalie said, "Give me a pen." We wrote a letter, then revised it upon learning that the owner wanted certain phrases put in, which we added, but the charges were not dropped and we still had to appear before the magistrate that evening. We called the U.S. Consulate, and they said yes, we should go to the meeting.

We went, and waited two hours for the meeting. Eventually, we met the magistrate and he told us to come back the next day with a translator because it was clear we needed one to ensure we understood everything.

Comparison #3: In Mexico, you are guilty until proven innocent. The local magistrate's job was to assume we were guilty, and find out whether it's possible we could be innocent.

This is when we started really freaking out. And packing.

The next day, we found a lawyer – a friend of Brady's from the adult soccer team he was playing on in Guaymas – and his brother served as a translator for us. The lawyer told us the case was very weak, and he expected our letter of apology and retraction would be plenty to get the charges dropped.

Long story short, we spent the next 48 hours packing and deciding whether to flee the country or not, because the owner is part of one of the richest families in the state, she's pathological, and she has a history of going to extreme lengths to get vindication, including threatening a former teacher's life (we learned most of this after Natalie sent the letter). She has a reputation in town for lying, making other people lie for her, and bribing people to get whatever she wants. We thought, "Maybe she'll bribe someone to put us in jail?" We didn't know. In the end, we went to the meeting with our lawyer and the translator, and all went well. The magistrate didn't even meet with us, but just told our lawyer to have us write a statement and sign it. We did, and then immediately left town to let the lawyer finish the rest. We have been in Tucson with Brady's parents for the last month. Natalie is working, and Brady is nursing himself back to health after catching to norovirus, which was going around Tucson. The school's owner did not drop the case for several weeks, but apparently it's over now.

And in the meantime…

We are now in Spain for six weeks. Pricier than Mexico , but ahh… so clean. And amazingly old. We´re taking language classes for four weeks at the University of Salamanca , built in 1218. So our classes take place in a building constructed during the Middle Ages. We´ll write more about Spain soon.


Christie said...

Good thing you brought your rain coats;-) It's a bummer about the adaptors; Salamanca probably isn't touristy enough to warrent having them in stores. If you have time try to find a Spanish hardware store, perhaps you could find one there. Regardless, it sounds like you are having a great time! Take care of each other, Love Christie

michael said...

London or Ireland on the way back? Greenland? I LOVE it. You are living the life. Bravississimo!