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Villanova on tour in Spain

A Concert Cures All
Meghan Welteroth

"Get out of the road!" I exclaimed for the millionth time to my suddenly deaf travel companions. Waiting for our coach bus, we lined the side of a steep Madrid street and the inability to separate caused the 90 Villanova students to block a side street. Despite the several cars that honked through the crowd, the students ignored my directions. Frustrated and embarrassed at my peers’ ignorance, I stomped away to prevent losing my cool.

Planning a trip for three collegiate musical groups—the Villanova Singers, Gospel Ensemble, and the Villanova Voices—proved harder than expected. I saw a logical connection: I love to travel, and our previous trip to Italy was not handled in the most efficient way. It made perfect sense to become the Voices Tour Director, and I embraced the job with enthusiasm—I collected payments and information and planned the cities we would visit. I soon discovered the hassle of planning for so many people, and it paled in comparison to the work upon arrival in Madrid.
After the loss of two checked pieces of luggage that would arrive on the next flight, our tour guide Noberto brought us to Puerta del Sol ("Sun Gate") and allowed free time for a light lunch. As the center of the network of Spanish roads, and usually one of the busiest places in Madrid, the relative silence of the square startled me; the mid-siesta Spaniards’ noticeable absence labeled those present as tourists.
After the frenetic bus ride, I enjoyed the quiet, and my first experience with Tapas, appetizer-like dishes usually ordered to share. Trying to avoid the smoke pouring out of a neighbor patron’s cigarette, I longed for American cities with smoking bans. Attempting to ignore the stench and accept a different culture, I ordered a San Miguel beer, light and refreshing, and a Spanish Tortilla. Expecting a crunchy, salty chip to dip in salsa, the fluffy mixture of potato, egg, cheese, and onion delighted my taste buds.

I longed to sit and enjoy the surroundings, but our driver Jose couldn’t hold the bus long, so I arrived at our meeting place ten minutes early and waited for the rest of the group, trying to ignore the growing fear that not all of my travel companions would meet on time.

After a fifteen minute delay that thoroughly embarrassed me as the leader of the group, we arrived at an almost completely American Holiday Inn Express, and freshened up for dinner. Unsure of the elegance of the restaurant, most of the girls erred on the side of overdressed. Noberto lead the group, walking, across the street. Assured it would be a short trip, I kept my complaints to myself and tried to hide my reddened face.

The way to dinner felt like an obstacle course: over the bridge, along the dirt path that crumbled loosely under our feet, through the brush littered with shoes, tires, and other trash, up a steep slope riddled with rocks, and finally over a standard metal guardrail. As the guide for the trip, each complaint felt personal-- could I have planned this differently?

The situation only worsened with the destination of our troubled travel. Carrefour? A supermarket? Ridiculous!

Thankfully, Noberto led us past the Carrefour to Restaurant Nostros, which looked promising, until the food arrived. Expecting a Spanish dish like Paella-- a saffron rice dish usually served with either meat or seafood-- the meal, like the hotel, also seemed Americanized: penne served with meat sauce, fried chicken, and flan that looked more like vanilla pudding. All my work seemed futile; it was as if we hadn’t left Pennsylvania.

Frustrated and hungry for authentic Spanish experiences, I headed out to see Madrid by night. The March air surprisingly warm, we relaxed by visiting a few Tapas bars and ordering pitchers of Sangria, a red, fruity wine. Though much too early to experience any real Madrid night life, we spied some Spaniards enjoying the weather as well. Because of our early morning departure we decided to forgo the typical Spanish night out, which usually began long after midnight.
Plaza Cibeles

The following morning offered our first official day of touring. After a frustrating breakfast with more late arrivals I concentrated on enjoying the sites. The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial loomed like a fortress instead of a place of contemplation; the bare trees stood like sentinels, and the chilly air added to the powerful impression. In 1563, King Phillip II ordered construction of the monastery to commemorate the victory over France at the Battle of St. Quentin in 1557. Our tour showed King Phillip’s private chambers, which includes doors to view the mass held in the chapel. In the crypt lie the remains of Spanish rulers of the Hapsburg and Bourbon families, including Charles I, Philip II, Ferdinand VII, and Isabel II. The last stop on the tour, the library, wowed my English-major self: rows upon rows of ancient texts lined the room, and at the end, a gold model of the universe with earth at the center. I wished to stay and explore the delicate books, but our tour guide rushed us through, briefly stopping to point out a Qur’an with gold-leaf details.

As the touring came to an end, I fretted over time and head counts. Triple-checking the busses, we departed to prepare for Sunday mass and concert at the Church of Nuestra Senora Reina del Cielo (Queen of the Sky). Our horrid performance in the Vatican two years earlier haunted me; I hoped this year’s would be much better.

Arriving almost two hours early to a small church tucked tightly into a neighborhood, I had my doubts about the performance. The church looked nothing like El Escorial, rather it reminded me of an elementary school: all concrete with wood detailing. Communication and different practices complicated our program for the mass. Unlike church in the United States, Spanish mass did not have regular musical accompaniment, but I planned for the groups to sing at the processional, communion, and recessional and tried to ignore the looks of confusion on the priests’ faces.

By seven o’clock, the church was packed, and my stomach tightened. I soon realized the reason for the priest’s earlier confusion when he walked to the altar from a side door. There was no processional. The priest introduced our three groups and the local choir of "little old ladies" (Noberto’s words) that would also sing during the mass. The plan worked: we sang at the appropriate times and my stomach loosened slightly.
But it wasn’t over yet.

The guides told me that at the end of the mass, some parishioners might leave, but after the final blessing, no one moved. Settling on the steps in front of the altar, I could read the expressions of the crowd: each person sat on the edge of their seats, waiting with bated breath for our performance. Never before had I experienced such an attentive audience, not even during our home concerts. As our last note sounded through the room, the crowd erupted in applause, especially the little old ladies.

Each group performed to the same reaction, and the Spaniards expressed obvious enthusiasm when our director said uno mas (one more) in cheers and applause. Despite our blundered Alma Mater (the three groups had never practiced it together), the applause erased my concerns about the complications of the trip, and my stomach returned to normal. Afterwards, several parishioners thanked us repeatedly; we had delighted a community, and their gratitude made all the work worth it.

© Meghan Welteroth May 2007

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