Archive for January, 2008

Jan 30 2008

One Morning in Seville

Published by under Andalucia,Spain

Look, we ALWAYS buy tickets for the metro/bus/tram in every city we visit, no matter how many people we see successfully jumping turnstiles, or how few officials we see actually checking passengers’ tickets. But on the morning we were to catch a bus from Seville to Arcos de la Frontera, we found ourselves running late getting out of our hostel. Rolling luggage in tow, we booked it for the nearest tram stop, where we could catch a ride across the city to the bus station. We hurried through several city blocks, and as the tram stop came into view, we could see a yellow tram pulling up to the boarding platform. There wasn’t time to fumble with the platform’s ticket machine AND catch this tram before it took off again, and it had been something like two months since we’d even seen a transportation controller checking tickets on a ride like this. So we made the quick decision to go ahead and board the tram without buying a ticket, for ONCE in our law-abiding, goody-two-shoes lives.

The Seville tram has only four stops. We boarded at Stop 1, and were bound for the bus station, located at Stop 4. With so few stops, riding the length of the journey takes only a few minutes. Common sense said: “Waste time buying a tram ticket, and you’ll miss your bus to Arcos! You’re only going to be on the tram for five minutes anyway; what could possibly go wrong?” Or maybe it was the wee devil on my shoulder who said that, because wouldn’t you know it? At Stop 2, for the first time in MONTHS I TELL YOU, controllers boarded our tram to check tickets.

To my own credit, I spotted the controllers before they boarded the tram. But to my eternal discredit, I hesitated. I wasn’t 100% sure that these men in green coats were actually Seville’s public transportation officials, and sitting around considering it wasted valuable escape time. I got my confirmation when they boarded the tram, clipboards in hand, but by now it was too late. I whispered to Brittany, “We need to GO!”, and pulled her behind me as I sprang for the door. Smashing fellow passengers’ knees with our awkward suitcases, we managed to reach the door JUST IN TIME for it to close in my face. Desperately, I tugged at the door handle in hopes of springing us, but my thrashing efforts only succeeded in catching the eye of the nearest controller, who hustled over to rebuke me in Spanish for trying to pry open the closed door. He forced me to back away from the exit, and I watched freedom pass us by at the speed of the accelerating tram.

There was a moment or two here, in between the closing of the doors and the inevitable ticket check from this controller, which would be my only chance to evaluate the specifics of our predicament, and try to formulate any sort of plan, escapade or caper. I said to myself: OK, old boy, it’s time to think fast. I said this quietly so the controller couldn’t hear. As best I can recall, my thoughts happened like this:

From where I stand, I can see that there are two controllers on board. One is already checking tickets at the other end of our tram car, and the other is now, rather inconveniently, focused squarely on us. We have no ticket, and there is really no getting around this fact. Based on prior close calls (see Italy) I know that the fine for riding without a ticket is in the lofty realm of 50 euros. And I also know that these men in green are trained to not accept ignorance of the rules as an excuse for disobedience. And finally, I know that there’s no getting off this tram before it reaches Stop 3 in two minutes. All visual evidence indicates that the tram windows are shatter-proof, but even if they aren’t, there’s the issue of getting these heavy suitcases out of here too. Probably not viable. In conclusion, it’s just us and this controller for the next two minutes, and he’s got me right where we wants any dirty no-ticket-buying tram-hopping lowlife. All evidence considered, things aren’t really looking good for my hopes of a successful caper. Instead, I can really only think of one possible approach to this scenario: stall like crazy, in an effort to hold out until these doors open again at Stop 3.

I’ve mentioned before that I studied a little bit of Spanish in school. I believe I learned just enough to make myself more of a nuisance in Spain than a tourist who speaks no Spanish at all. Nonetheless, if there were ever a time for the hours spent in those classes to pay off, this would be it. Please note: in the following account of my conversation with the controller, I apologize for the lack of proper Spanish punctuation. This English keyboard lacks fun things like upside-down question marks.

Ben (our hero): Por favor, senor! Hay estacion numero dos? Please, sir! is this station number two?

Evil Controller: Si, Hay estacion dos. Yes, this is station two.

B: No! Dios mio! Necesitamos estacion numero dos, pero las puertas! Cerrado! No! My God! We need station number two, but the doors! Closed!

EC: Por que? Adonde quiere ir? Why? Where do you want to go?

B: Este tram, es a estacion de autobuses y regresar? Es posible a (here I motion getting off the tram) en estacio tres y regresar con un otro tram? This tram, is to the bus station and to return? Is it possible to (here I motion getting off the tram) in station three and to return with another tram?

EC: Hmm, si, es posible. No es una problema, senor, pero adonde quiere ir? Hmm, yes, it’s possible. It’s not a problem, sir, but where do you want to go?

B: Es bueno, es la verdad. Ai! Pero mi carta! Is good, is the truth. Ahh! But my map!

EC: Su carta? No comprendo… Your map? I don’t understand…

B: Mi carta dice que nosotros hostel esta de estacion numero dos! My map speaks that we hostel is from station number two!

EC: Creo que comprendo, pero… I think I understand, but…

(Here he rattles off a string of upper-level Spanish, clearly oblivious to the fact that I only made it through 202. And what little hope I do have of understanding him is shot due to my concentration on the current speed of the tram. Is it slowing down yet? How much longer until it starts slowing down? Also, I’m running out of things that I know how to say. Is he still talking?)

B: Ayudame! Donde esta la biblioteca? Help me! Where is the library?

EC: Como? La biblioteca publica? What? The library? The public library?

B: Si! Nosotros hostel esta en la proxima de la biblioteca publica! Donde esta, por favor? Yes! We hostel is in the near of the public library! Where is, please?

EC: La biblioteca publica. No es dificile del estacion tres. Se va a la izquierda del estacion, y… The public library. It is not difficult from station three. Go to the left from the station, and…

(Another indecipherable monologue ensues. But suddenly, I feel something. The tram… it’s starting to slow down! Just a little longer, old bean…)

B: Es perfecto! De aqui, la biblioteca a la izquierda y vamos a el hostel con la carta! Is perfect! From here, the library to the left and we go to the hostel with the map!

(Pulling up to the tram station now…)

B: Muchas gracias, senor! Muchas gracias por todos! Thank you very much, sir! Thank you very much for everything!

I’ll never know if he heard my last words of thanks, because the doors opened while I was mid-sentence, and I sprang from the tram faster than the words from my mouth.* Feeling the controller’s eyes behind us, we headed to the left from the station, in accordance with his directions to the library. We hid behind a building for a while, and when we felt assured he had gone, we re-emerged and headed right, along the tram tracks, to the bus station and Arcos de la Frontera. And perhaps most importantly, to a future where we always wake up early in order to have ample time to buy required tram tickets.

Although, if you think about it, that’s really only ONE controller in two-plus months. What are the chances of actually running into another one?

*No small feat, if you ask those who have had to endure a lifetime of me.

7 responses so far

Jan 26 2008

The other side of long-term travel

Published by under Andalucia,Spain,Travel

Last week Ben got an email from a friend back home asking him how our vacation was going. We were both momentarily confused. Vacation? Who’s on vacation??

Because here’s the thing no one tells before you leave: this sort of travel is exhausting. It is, by far, the most mentally, physically and emotionally draining experience I’ve ever undertaken.

But in all my hours of blog-reading and message-board-surfing to prepare for this trip, not a single backpacker mentioned the toll long-term travel takes on your mind and body. So that’s why I feel inclined to dedicate one entry to the not-so-perfect facet of travel.

Of course, everyone knows that this sort of travel is tiring. How could it not be? Enduring 24-hour international bus rides. Hiking several miles every day. Switching hostel bunk beds every night. Struggling to communicate your every basic need through an ever-changing language barrier. The daily battle to plan the next leg of your journey, with no knowledge of your next destination, no information on how to get there, and no internet access.

Yes, you’ll experience the happiest moments of your life while traveling. But along with the emotional highs come equally severe emotional lows – days when you just want to scrap the entire trip and go home where life is easy and people love you.

Which brings up the most emotionally draining factor of traveling: homesickness. I suspect this is highly personal and different for everyone. For me, after the initial pangs of homesickness wore off, I grew sort of numb to it. We were seeing and doing so many amazing things I almost didn’t have time to be homesick.

But along came Christmas (having never missed a holiday at home in all my 25 years). It also happened to be the halfway mark of our trip, which brought with it many conflicting emotions: I can’t believe our trip is halfway done! Wait, we’re only halfway through? So just when you think you’ve got a handle on the whole homesickness thing, you find yourself weeping profusely in a Prague metro station, clinging to your boyfriend, being eyed nervously by old Czech men, all because you’re not going to be there on Christmas morning to see what Santa brings your brother and sister. Your 18- and 23-year-old brother and sister. The exhaustion of traveling manifests itself in unexpected ways.

Compared to most backpackers, Ben and I take it easy. We never spend less than five days in one destination. We take time to maintain this blog to keep up with people at home. Many fellow travelers we meet scoff at our modus operandi (there are always a few travel elitists in hostels who think that they travel “better,” know more, and understand the world more than you ever will). “You’re spending how long in Prague??” they say. “But what will you do?”

I swallow the urge to snap, “see a little more than the museum, jackass.” But then I look at these people, who sleep most nights on trains, stumbling into the hostel, barely aware of where they are, smelling kind of funky, dark purple bags under their eyes, and can’t help but scoff at them when they insist they’re “having the time of my life, dude!”

It’s hard not to get sucked into the GO! GO! GO! mentality of these people – if you don’t see ____ then your whole trip was WASTED. Wake up at dawn! Visit the sites! Party in Euro-clubs until 4 am! Repeat!

I crashed in Barcelona. I think it was after our tenth straight night of sleeping on the floor. I had a bad cold I hadn’t been able to shake for a month. We were walking down Las Ramblas discussing the next leg of our journey: our tour of Andalucia. I was confused – why wasn’t I looking forward to this more?

It dawned on me suddenly: I just can’t do this anymore. So I stopped abruptly in the street, turned to Ben, and told him so. I don’t care if I don’t see all the “must-sees”; I don’t care what our guidebook says, or what other travelers say. All I want to do is chose a small town in Andalucia – one that isn’t mentioned in any book – rent a tiny apartment and do nothing for two weeks. I saw the relief in Ben’s eyes and almost instantaneously, at the mere suggestion, we felt better.

And so that’s exactly what we did.

I don’t know why travelers don’t discuss these aspects of long-term travel more. And I certainly don’t mean to speak for everyone (although it’s safe to say that I’ve never seen anyone more exhausted than a backpacker on month number six). I think it isn’t mentioned because when someone makes this decision – to drop everything, put life on hold, risk money and career – that person feels a need to convince themselves and everyone else that every single moment is THE BEST EVER.

But, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling or worthwhile. Because don’t all meaningful experiences in life require a little work? Do you think going on a life-changing, soul-searching adventure to places unknown comes without challenge? To ignore the hardships and disappointments seems to be ignoring an important part of the journey.

Okay, I’m done my proselytizing for the day. Ben and I put our self-discovery on hold in the small town of Arcos de la Frontera, where 70 degree weather and daily siestas made Operation: Rejuvenation a huge success!

6 responses so far

Jan 23 2008

Granada: Gypsy Flight and Flamenco Night

Published by under Andalucia,Spain

Because we’re masochists, we decided to make the eleven-hour journey from Barcelona to Granada by way of overnight train. Because we’re cheap and stubborn, we opted for airplane-style seats versus the sleeper couchettes. So, once again, we found ourselves on mass public transit, faced with the challenge of sleeping through the night upright and next to strangers.

The train is a vastly preferable form of transportation to the bus, with seats that actually recline, leg room, and the ability to walk around (and dining cars! hooray for dining cars!).

What I dread most about train travel is the trip to the bathroom, which is inescapably a dramatic, humiliating affair for me. The first challenges are 1. finding the bathroom, 2. determining if it is occupied, and 3. figuring out how to open the inexplicable contraption they call a door. But I can generally accomplish those tasks with minimal embarrassment. What I truly dread – what haunts my dreams at night – are the toilets. Because I swear they are OUT TO GET ME.

When it comes time to flush, I turn and warily face my opponent. I slowly reach down, press the button above the toilet and brace myself for the flush. Just when I think I must not have pressed the button correctly, I’ll shakily reach down to push it again. And then, no matter how long I’ve waited – the very moment I determine that it’s simply been too long between push and flush to be functioning properly and bend over the toilet to flush it again – the water is violently sucked out of the bowl, spraying me with blue toilet water and scaring the bejesus out of me. I yelp, spring back, hitting a limb or my head against the mirror or sink, and crash against the door.

I’ll emerge from these battles, bruised and bespeckled, to face a small crowd of inevitably ultra-hip Europeans, who have heard my screams and bangs and curses, and who look at me while they puff away at their cigarettes like I am the least cool person alive.

(And, by the way, if anyone has any tips on how to squat over a toilet on a moving train without peeing all over your pants, I’d appreciate it.)

We arrived in Granada the next morning like we arrive in all cities – tired, hungry and confused. Once we fumbled our way to a hostel, we promptly crashed in our assigned bunk beds, only to sleep through the entire day. Which of course meant that we couldn’t sleep that night. Which of course meant that we had to nap all day the next day. So we successfully spent two entire days in Granada without leaving the hostel at all, except to get food from a nearby mercado. The hostel staff/our roommates were confused by this behavior, and began to eye us suspiciously whenever we ventured out of bed.

Granada overlookWe finally did emerge from the hostel on day three to walk around Granada’s traditional silk market, on the border of the old town’s Arab quarter. Granada is in Andalucia, the southernmost region of Spain and a hop, skip and jump away from Morocco. The African Moors dominated the region for hundreds of years; hence the Muslim influence here is prevalent. The art and architecture is Arabian in style. The street vendors sell hookahs, exotic teas and traditional Muslim attire. The silk market, which I can only assume at one point actually sold silk, has cornered the market on cheap tourist souvenirs. So if you want a Don Quixote statuette or giant poster of a matador, visit Granada’s silk market!

Granada is strikingly different from Barcelona, and it’s incredible that these two places are in the same country (random side note: if it were up to Catalonia, the region that includes Barcelona, they wouldn’t be. The Catalonian and Basque regions of Spain, each with their own distinct languages and customs, have been lobbying for independence from Spain since … well, forever).

After the silk market, we visited a teteria, or teahouse, in the Arab quarter. We’ve seen all sorts of ___erias (pastisseria, baguetteria, fruteria, ferreteria…) in Europe, but never a teteria, which happen to be ubiquitous in Granada. We spent the better part of an afternoon sipping tea and eating Arabian pastries.

gypsy caves of sacramonteWe also visited the infamous gypsy caves of Sacramonte with a tour guide from our hostel. The caves are actually small dwellings carved into the side of a mountain. They are surprisingly modern, with electricity and appliances and even a few windows. Our guide informed us that mostly hippies live in the caves now, as the gypsies have moved on to the suburbs of Granada. This of course prompted many jokes from Ben and me about “gypsy flight” and gypsies driving Dodge Stratuses.

The next day we decided it was time: today is the day we’ll visit the Alhambra! The Alhambra is the reason most people come to Granada, and one of the most celebrated attractions in all of Spain. Originally built as a fortress, the castle was occupied by numerous Moorish princes and their harems, each prince adding to the compound’s lavishness. Some author (Washington Irving?) wrote that you HAVE NOT LIVED if you haven’t seen the Alhambra. It’s true that the Alhambra is fascinating – it is incredibly well preserved and so different than most anything we’ve seen in Western Europe, with its rounded arches, intricate Arabic script, and elaborate fountain structure.

inside the alhambraIt helps your enjoyment if you can ignore certain disturbing tidbits of history such as: “this is the room in which the king kept his favorite girl (or boy) of the moment” and “this is the room in which the king slaughtered 36 princes because he suspected one of them had been intimate with his favorite.” Ben said such tidbits are the best part. I want to imagine every place we visit in its heyday as a magical fairy princess castle. To each his/her own.

But my favorite part about Granada was flamenco night! The hostel receptionist had recommended a good place to watch flamenco dancing, and on our last night in the city, we ventured forth to see the show. Having never seen flamenco, I had no preconceptions about it beyond the dancers’ attire, which I expected to be red, polka-dotted and frilly.

Upon entering the bar, we were directed towards a room near the back. The small, cave-like room had a rocky, low, curved ceiling, and a slightly raised platform at one end. We worked our way through the bibulous throng to two unoccupied stools off to one side. A few moments later, two women and a man cut through the hushed crowd and sat on the stage. The man picked up his guitar and began to play. He was the most amazing guitarist I’ve ever seen perform. He didn’t strum the guitar, but plucked. Each finger moved rapidly over the strings as if independent from his hand, but completely in harmony, like the legs of a spider scampering up a wall.

And then the woman next to him began to sing. She sang with intense passion, her whole body and face reflecting the words of her song. I could understand maybe one of every 12 words she sang, and yet found myself nearly moved to tears, or joyfully cheering, as she told her story through music.

Finally, the young senorita stood up, moved to one side of the stage and started to dance. Her feet moved rhythmically and swiftly, pounding the stage as she swished her skirt and clapped her hands. She gave a deeply emotional performance, using her fists and facial expressions to convey the mood of the dance – from woeful to fierce.

The crowd was riveted. But soon after they began, when the performers were drenched with sweat, they broke the trance, stopped and bowed. The trio exited to cries of “olé!” and roaring applause.

I am writing this from a tiny town near the coast of Spain called Arcos de la Frontera, where we’ve been for over a week. The story of how and why we ended up in this town is for another entry. The good news is: we are almost (finally!) caught up on our blog.

9 responses so far

Jan 20 2008

Barcelona Finale

Published by under Barcelona,Spain

After everything that had happened during their stay in Bacelona, when it finally came time for my family to head back home, I wasn’t sure if they were sorry to go, or simply relieved to be departing in one piece. Well, I can say with some certainty that my sister would have remained longer if possible, having fallen in love with 1. the metro system (she hates to drive), 2. Barcelona’s flirtatious waiters, and 3. a culture that encourages her to focus most of her day’s energies on a multi-hour meal. I think my mom may have even liked the excitement surrounding our misadventures, but I can say with confidence that my dad is happy to have his brood back out of the reach of un-instigated police brutality. (On a happier side note: two weeks have passed since my beating, and I’m almost able to walk again.)

We saw my family off in an airport-bound taxi, and then decided it was probably time to think about what we should do next. We had no place to stay, very little cash, and now, no debit card with which to withdraw more (see Brittany’s previous entry). With no alternative in sight, we spent all our cash on booze, slept in the street because we couldn’t afford a hostel, and got robbed killed abducted by gypsies. Or we WOULD have, if it weren’t for Couch Surfing coming to our rescue once more. Although, gypsy abduction/lifestyle indoctrination seems to happen a lot in my stories – maybe I have some strange fascination with them? I blame it on watching too much Follow That Bird as a child. The vagrants who stole Big Bird and painted him blue might not have been gypsies in the ethnic sense of the word, but they do have something in common with the scourge of Europe, which is that I want both to stay far away from me. So why am I about to head into southern Spain, the very heart of gypsy territory? And more importantly, what does this stream of consciousness have to do with Couch Surfing?

Eating the best tapas in BarcelonaBack to the point. Through the Couch Surfing network, we were lucky enough to find a couple willing to host us for a few nights in the heart of Barcelona. Two musicians from Long Island, Jackie and Michael are in Barcelona to study Spanish and teach English. We arrived at their apartment to find that they were also hosting two more musicians from Minnesota. Which made us, officially, the un-cool kids. But despite our insufferable nerdiness, Jackie and Michael told us we could stay at their place as long as we needed. This was actually a huge windfall for us, since it gave us an address we could have our replacement debit card mailed, without having to spend our limited cash on hostel stays in the meantime. We ended up staying with Jackie and Michael for five nights or so, and during that time, met a parade of characters through Jackie and Michael’s revolving door of traveler hospitality.

James – hipster street musician from Minnesota
Ana – accompanying hipster street musician from Minnesota/Russia
Sven – gigantic viking, who specializes in IT, and lives in Germany. Also, he snores. Loudly.
Nisa – Indonesian girl who probably gets annoyed when people she meets fail to realize that her name isn’t “Lisa” until after she’s already gone back home. Sorry!
2 French Canadian snowboarders whose names I never did understand, but who gave us some of their camp soap, which I still use as shampoo. Thanks dudes!

We had originally planned on leaving Barcelona right after my parents, but since we now had time on our hands while we waited for our new debit card to arrive, we spent our days indulging in some Barcelona activities that we otherwise might not have had time for…

  • He spits waterExploring Gaudi’s Parc Guell. Just as tripped out as Gaudi’s buildings throughout the city center. Maybe even more so, since this time, he had a whole public park to work with. A favorite for local families on Sunday afternoons, and giant, ceramically tiled lizards.
  • Finding the best tapas in Barcelona. Jackie and Michael introduced us to a tapas restaurant near the harbor that’s packed with the in-the-know locals. Why? Easy: fried scallops, fried zucchini, fried eggplant, fried potatoes with spicy brava sauce. Oh, and it’s super cheap. I almost feel guilty not keeping this place a secret, but since my instructions for finding it are terrible, and nobody reads this blog anyway, what’s the harm? Its name is BAR JAJ-CA TAPES, and it’s in the neighborhood called Barceloneta. That’s all I know, but if you accept the quest for amazing tapas, your stomach will thank you.
  • Barcelona Magic Fountain from afarWitnessing the Magic Fountain. Said fountain, atop the hill known as Montjuic, truly deserves its given name. Verily, the fountain must be under some mystical enchantment, for ev’ry evening at sundown, it begins to spray water into the air, though it be under the influence of neither man nor beast. What unseen power compels it thusly? No mortal may say, but I bear witness to the fact that if one arrives on the night of the Jewish or Christian Sabbath, he shall see a display of sorcery that incorporates lights, colors, and music. Such magics my eye hath never ere beheld! Fountain operates daily, weekend showings throughout winter begin at 7:00PM.
  • Outside the Dali MuseumVisiting the Salvador Dali Museum. Dali’s personal museum isn’t even in Barcelona, but Jackie and Michael insisted that it’s worth the 2 hour train ride to the town of Figueres. It’s obvious upon your arrival in Figueres that the Dali Museum is just about all they’ve got going for themselves in this town. From the moment you exit the train station, signs posted every few steps lead you all the way to the museum’s front door. As part of his carefully coordinated lifelong effort to propagate his own fame, Dali designed the museum himself, and saw it completed in his own lifetime. Which explains why you find yourself passing through giant mouths between museum hallways, and why the roof of the building is covered with eggs. The museum proclaims itself to be the largest surrealist object in the world, and the journey through Dali’s art is a fantastically disorientating experience. Also, Dali may have been a little too obsessed with his own fame, which thankfully allows for additional patron entertainment. To get the most bang for your buck, be sure to stop and read the signs Dali placed throughout the museum, which convey such modest messages as, “My art is taught as a prophecy in the United States.”
  • Eating the best ham sandwich IN THE WORLD. Or so proclaimed the New York Times, when they visited Barcelona’s Café Vienna in 2006. It’s certainly not the cheapest ham sandwich IN THE WORLD – after the dollar-euro conversion, a rather small sandwich set me back $9.00. But this is due to the ham being purely of the esteemed “Iberico” variety, which means that it comes from special pigs, notable for being raised somewhere in rural Spain on a diet of nothing but acorns. The sandwich is indeed a thing of wonder when compared the type of ham we get in the United States (and I’m from Virginia!), but when compared to the regular old non-acorn ham eaten across the rest of Europe on a daily basis, it’s really not that different. Crap, now I sound like one of those jerks who’s all like, “Well, when I was in Europe…” I take it all back! Fried chicken and apple pie forever!*
  • Getting revenge. Dear d-bag who stole our debit card number: you think this is over? Maybe you think you’re slick with your fake name and address, but you picked on two people who like only one thing more than hoarding our money: sweet, sweet revenge. Your e-mails lie, but your IP address doesn’t, and when the investigators come knocking on your door, I’ll be paying them extra to bring along a couple of the super-sized mutant cops, outfitted with webcams so we can watch the whole thing live from Portugal. Oh yeah, and before I forget: no one do business with ALEXANDER NAVA, with the SOUTH STAR REALTY COMPANY, who is a GIANT THIEF and probably [censored by Brittany].

Eventually, our new debit card did arrive, which meant it was finally time to leave Barcelona. The only requirement for our next destination was that it needed to be westward, if we had any hope of ever making it to Portugal. During our time in Barcelona, we kept hearing from travelers that we needed to see Granada, and after consulting a map, it turns out that Granada is indeed west of Barcelona. That was enough for us, so the same day we got our debit card in the mail, we bought tickets on the overnight train to Granada. Onward to warmer weather and flamenco dancing! Oh yeah, and in terms of gypsy population concentration, the veritable heart of the beast. But who ever thinks about things like that?

*P.S. The bread on the best ham sandwich IN THE WORLD shreds the roof of your mouth. U.S.A.!

7 responses so far

Jan 18 2008

The Aftermath: New Year´s Day in Barcelona

Published by under Barcelona,Spain

The unwelcome turn of events on New Year’s Eve was the first (and hopefully last) moment on this trip that I’ve genuinely feared for our safety. It was surreal: imagine riot footage you’ve seen on television, with protesters desperately scattering while being chased by cops wielding weapons. Not a scene I ever saw myself being a part of.

When we’d safely made it back to the apartment, our fear turned into bewilderment: why in the world would a cop attack an innocent, trapped tourist?

So we did what every person of our generation does when confronted with the unknown: we googled it. Turns out the Spanish police tend towards violence — a vestige of Franco’s time when the police were less like police and more like the personal security force of politically extremist factions. Since the Spanish political front has calmed, we assumed such violence was anomalous in contemporary Spain. But upon consulting the next day’s newspaper, we realized that no one considered the event newsworthy. Nor were any locals surprised when we explained the incident.

We decided to occupy our New Year’s Day with family-friendly and hopefully police-brutality-free activities. The Barcelona aquarium was noted in our guidebook as being one of the best in Europe. Of course, every tourist attraction touts itself as the best something. It seems that public relations reps simply fill in the following statement: “the best/most ____ in all of _____!” and have it printed on every brochure and in every guidebook. The best (worst) example of this was a museum on Crete that claimed it was the best naval museum in the eastern Mediterranean. What geographical region does that even encompass??

If the Barcelona aquarium is one of the best in Europe, that doesn’t say much for European aquariums. First, it was insanely expensive. Second, it was tiny. Verdict: skip it.

clown anemone fish!However, I did make a discovery at the Barcelona aquarium that may have justified the price for me. The aquarium had a tank full of clown anemone fish a la Finding Nemo. Maybe I’m an idiot for not knowing that Nemos actually exist – this could be just another tidbit of common knowledge that I’ve been completely oblivious to. I’ve decided that I will own clown anemone fish upon my return. They are the cutest, eensiest fish I’ve ever seen (in fact, the only fish I’ve ever seen that could be called “cute” at all), and I stood with my nose pressed against the glass cooing at them until I realized families behind me were staring.

It was kind of disturbing that we chose to eat another giant seafood menu del dia after visiting an aquarium, but this did not occur to us at the time. And it was really great calamari! What was less impressive about this menu was the dessert Abby and I chose to get, which turned out to be a plastic container of unflavored and unsweetened yogurt standing on a saucer. Oh, with the exotic side of packet of sugar.

IMG_3370After lunch, we took the funicular (isn’t that a great word?) up to Montjuic, a giant mountain on the edge of Barcelona proper that affords great views of the city. We visited an old castle atop the mountain and took pictures of the spectacular harbor view. Montjuic is a huge place that boasts many museums and attractions, but to visit them would have required a lot of walking, and that’s not really our style. So we decided to get hot chocolate instead.

Spanish hot chocolate is rich and thick, whipped up in giant pots by ancient Spanish women. Although as a general rule, the Spaniards don’t really do sweet stuff, so don’t be surprised when your dessert isn’t as sweet as your palette is accustomed to. In fact, most restaurants only offer a bowl of fruit as dessert. Flan if you’re lucky. And if you’re really lucky, the delicacy known as cup-of-plain-yogurt.

The next day had been declared shopping day by Janet (Ben’s mom), Abby and I. I was giddy – there are girls here! And I can go shopping with them! I might even get new things!

The day started out on a high note with Abby and I bargaining at a shop near a local market for two pairs of shoes for ten euros. As the day wore on, and we moved on the mall (yes, we found a mall!), we realized that our luck had ended: the crushing value of the euro made budget shopping with our measly dollars nearly impossible.

I was not going to let my day of shopping go wasted, though, and at our last stop I was easily convinced to splurge on a dress for the price of 17 euros. And this is when the fun began (because for some reason, no day in Barcelona could pass without something traumatic happening). It started when my debit card was denied at the shop. Strange, I thought, because I am certain Ben and I just deposited money into our European checking account. I chalked it up to faulty machines at the store and went to the ATM to get some cash. There, I was informed that I had zero dollars in my account. Interesting.

Upon returning home and checking our online statement, my worst fears were confirmed: Ben and I were victims of credit card fraud. There were charges on our statement that we physically could not have made, as they were made in Spain while we were in Prague. The thief had cleaned us out, taking nearly $2000 from our account (of course, that’s only like 15 euros).

Turns out that one of the apartment companies Ben and I had contacted in order to reserve a place in Barcelona (a place that turned out to be “double booked”), had decided to take all of our money instead. THANKS “ALEXANDER NAVA” of “SOUTH STAR COMPANIES.” You can blame it on an errant employee all you want but I KNOW THE TRUTH. His email address is Please send him hate mail.

And now I will write an overwhelmingly positive review of our bank, HSBC. We opened an account with them because their ATMs are all over Europe, and all along we’ve been consistently impressed with their customer service. When I called them from Barcelona, nearly in tears, they could not have been kinder – they gave us all our money back, promised to investigate the bad guy, and overnight-ed us new debit cards. HSBC rocks my world!

Unfortunately, since our new debit cards had to be sent to America first, our current situation was not good: we had no cash and no means by which we could get cash. We put on our best we’re-starving-and-penniless faces and Ben’s dad bought us dinner. Thanks Craig! In fact, if Ben’s family hadn’t been visiting, the situation would’ve been immensely worse.

Not wanting to risk any more drama, we decided to stay in that night and play cards. I don’t even want to know what would’ve happened had we left the house – flood? famine? plague of locusts?

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Jan 14 2008

Barcelona Beatdown!

Published by under Barcelona,Spain

The plan was simple enough: spend the daytime hours of New Year’s Eve taking in the architectural accomplishments of Antonio Gaudi, and celebrate the ringing of midnight in Barcelona’s version of Times Square, Placa Catalunya. In the city that some call the best place in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve, this was a can’t-miss recipe for holiday success. But by the end of the night, my family would be questioning if they ever should have boarded the plane from Virginia. How could this happen?

IMG_3279First things first, let’s not blame Gaudi. From apartment buildings to public parks to the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, his nature-inspired architecture is unbelievable, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Which reminds me: why haven’t I ever seen this stuff before? All of my days, I’ve been under the impression that architecture need conform to one of several chronological movements, all of which seemingly adhere to the guiding design principle that buildings should bore me. But Gaudi’s buildings aren’t just not boring; they’re mesmerizing, evocative, and most importantly, FUN. Why make a middle-class urban home look like a middle-class urban home, when it can look like a floral mystery cave?

IMG_3284And in the case of the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia, why make a cathedral look like a cathedral, when it can look like a redwood forest? My favorite detail here had to be the bases of some of the outdoor columns, which look not like the interchangeable column bases of any classical order, but like load-bearing turtles. Amazingly, the Sagrada Familia is still years from being completed, and construction was begun back in 1882! Current official estimates put the completion date at 2026, but our cathedral tour guide confided that many insiders believe there’s no way the project will be finished in the first half of this century. Gaudi’s final design plans look mighty impressive, but will we live to see them realized? Stay tuned, because I’ll be implementing a betting pool here in the very near future. And they said this blog would never make me a dime!

For my mother, the highlight of this day was probably losing my father to the merciless grip of the Barcelona metro system. I guess we took a little too long to get off the metro at one particular stop, because my dad, being the last one of us in line to disembark, ended up on the wrong side of the metro doors when they slid shut. Heroically, he gave Brittany a “save yourself!” type of push through the closing doors, and we all turned back to watch, through the metro window, as he wiggled his hands free from the closed doors just in time to give us a goodbye wave before the metro sped him off to its next stop. This, of course, induced riotous laughter in not only our party, but in every passenger who was around to notice what had happened. In a stroke of good fortune, Brittany and I had been telling my family that very morning about our long-standing plan for reunification if such an unlikely event were ever to separate us. The person who gets unwillingly carried away should simply get off at the next metro stop, and the other will board the next metro to meet them there. My dad must have been listening, because when the four of us arrived at the next metro stop several minutes later, we found him, all alone, patiently waiting on a nearby bench.

That night was going to be one of the highlights of our stay in Barcelona, and, in an uncharacteristic turn, we’d done enough research to be prepared for everything. We knew the place to be at midnight was Placa Catalunya, where everyone in town would be gathered for the midnight countdown. We knew the pre-midnight tradition of eating 12 grapes during the final 12 seconds of the old year in order to guarantee 12 months of good luck, and we knew the post-midnight tradition of toasting the new year with a proper bottle of cava (think Spanish champagne). What we didn’t know, was the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.

En route to Catalunya Square that night, we picked up a craftily overpriced bottle of cava from a market on Las Ramblas, and sought pre-party sustenance in the form of chocolate covered waffles. Good Luck Grapes were looking like the most difficult necessity to procure in the (literal) eleventh hour, especially after Brittany was screamed at for climbing on furniture in a nearby restaurant, in an effort to grab some grapes that lay tantalizingly out of reach. Turns out they were placed out of reach for a reason, being that they were reserved for the wait staff´s own midnight celebration. I could see the owner kicking himself for placing the grapes in sight of this climbing American tourist, and I tried to comfort him with my knowledge that even if he´d buried the things underground, Brittany would have sniffed them out. But I didn´t know how to say that in Spanish, so I just ushered her out the door, while explaining for her behavior by her pointing to her head and loudly whispering, “loco.”

Grapes seemed a lost cause until Brittany smelled an enterprising youth selling plastic cups of grapes on the street for two euros a pop. Any hope of negotiating the price down was lost when he heard her ear-piercing squeal of delight, but Brittany is never one to get any less than her money´s worth: she actually made the salesman pour the contents of one of the cups onto a plate, and count out proof that there were indeed twelve grapes inside. My pride runneth over.

As midnight approached, Placa Catalunya became a scene of free-flowing cava, amateur fireworks, and scattered tribes of young European men, segregated by nationality, competing to see who could sing their country’s beloved football songs with the most fervor. It´s hard to say for sure, but from where we stood, I think the Italians won.

I want to tell you what the last few moments of 2007 were like in a Barcelona, but in a curious twist, there was no countdown to midnight in Catalunya Square. There WAS a clock on one of the department buildings in the square, but it seemed to lack a second hand, which made the prospect of identifying the exact stroke of midnight a dubious one. Without a common concept of time, different sections of the crowd celebrated the new year at different moments, as determined by the first beeps you heard from someone´s nearby watch.

IMG_3313I suppose it is possible, but highly unlikely, that we ate our twelve grapes during the actual last twelve seconds of 2007. Come to think of it, I was the only one of our group to finish my grapes at all. Abby spewed the first one with the accompanying warning, “the grapes have seeds!” and if this wasn´t enough to deter my parents and Brittany from eating theirs, then the lack of a true crescendo to midnight killed off what remained of their spirit. Which was fine with me, because I had been feeling hungry anyway, and now I got to eat many more grapes than expected. While most people in Catalunya Square that night are now in line for 12 months of good luck, I am looking forward to 38 or so.

Shortly after the last stubborn holdouts in the crowd conceded that it was probably midnight, the amateur fireworks grew more frequent, and my confidence in our safety quickly flew. Across the square, we could see the glow from a fire that looked neither intentional nor contained, and the final straw fell when one poorly aimed firework ricocheted off a building, and its radiant core began to parachute down in a trajectory that looked to end at, disturbingly, our position in the street. Fireballs raining from the sky was an unforeseen development, and I´m not ashamed to say that I was leading the charge of shouting party-goers forced into mortal flight.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire. We chose poorly when selecting our escape route, a fact that should have been evident when we noticed that some terrified looking Italians were running past us, coming from the very direction that we were headed. But all I could see ahead were police, and as all white people from America know, the police are our friends. So I marched confidently ahead, leading my family into whatever situation was developing down the street, because, hey, what could be worse than fireballs from the sky?

The answer, my friends, is the Spanish police. Now let me be clear: most Spanish police you see are the friendly variety, and can be easily distinguished by the same harmless neon vests that we Americans associate with the neighborhood crossing guard. But when the crap hits the fan, I´m sorry to be the one to tell you that there will be no smiling faces to hold your hand. Some sort of riot had erupted in the Barcelona streets that night, and the cuddly neon vests had run for the hills. In front of us, a vocal group of men with questionable intent surrounded a parked car in the street, and although we didn’t know exactly what they wanted, we knew we didn’t want any part of it. But by the time we got close enough to the action to figure this out, we had unwittingly become part of a crowd that was prevented from orderly dispersement by a series of temporary fences, presumably erected for purposes of crowd control. Surprisingly, angry mobs don´t like being fenced in against their will, and as the crowd surged against the fences, carrying us unwillingly along, I found myself unable to keep my thoughts off of the deaths by crowd stampede that seem to befall European soccer matches.

As the throbbing of the crowd grew more intense, we quickly found ourselves being pressed, with growing force, against the yellow fence gates. But then, suddenly, at the hand of some unseen benefactor, the fence gates were flung open! As the pressure was mercifully released from our pen, we were among the first to spill out of its confines. Was the horror over? Were our neon-vested friends here to save us? Naive hopes. Distracted by thoughts of how I hoped my obituary would read, I had failed to notice that during our period of confinement, the streets had been seized by Barcelona´s finest. And not the shiny, happy police we knew and loved, but a terrible new breed of Spanish cop. Genetically engineered to be taller, stronger, and crueler than any law enforcement specimen that has come before, these ultracops sport full black riot gear, battle batons, and a meticulously bred hatred of logic and reason.

The crowd continued to spill violently out of the fence gates, and the wave carried me, unknowingly, directly into one of the ubercops´s line of sight. When I noticed the black boots approaching me with aggressive speed, I quickly looked up to find the face of their owner. At first I could see only a tinted face shield, but as my predator moved closer, I squinted into the darkness of his visor, and saw the reason for the mask. His eyes, if you can call them eyes, did not possess the spark of humanity we all display, and that I urge you to never again take for granted. For when this spark is absent, there is in its stead a terrible void, which is not a thing that you gaze upon, but a place that you go. A place where I will always regret that I have now been, and can only describe to you as a black hole for hope, and the place that love goes to die. It was here that I spent the longest moment of my life.

When I snapped out of this evil trance, I immediately knew I should have taken my chances inside the pen of endless crushing. I tried to back-pedal, but with a crowd of thousands directly behind me, I found that there was nowhere to run. With his prey now trapped by a human fence, the villain pulled his riot stick from its sheath, and quickly advanced. I surrendered both hands into the air, with pleas of “Si! Si!”, in hope of conveying a promise of compliance in exchange for the ability to walk away from the encounter under my own volition. As the Italians who we´d originally seen running from this scene had known, such hope is grossly misplaced. The demon shoved me in the chest, and as I stumbled backward, delivered a crushing blow with his riot stick to my left leg.

Reeling in disbelief, I signaled to my family that they needed to RUN. But since they´d witnessed my encounter with Super Shredder with their own eyes, I think the message was redundant. As we struggled to push our way back through the mob, one unlucky fellow attempted to escape the massacre by ducking between me and my mother. Cowering on the ground must be an even worse crime than trying to reason or plead with these police, because the same cop that attempted to cripple me now grapped this guy by the hood of his sweatshirt, and, riot stick in hand, began raining down blow after blow on his back. I would have liked to intervene on his behalf, but I like my spinal column more, so I continued to push my family through the mob, and as far away as possible from the terrible consequences of irresponsible biogenetics.

Since you´re reading what is quite obviously a retrospective account of our Barcelona adventure, I find it impossible to infuse with any drama the announcement that we survived our New Year´s Eve. All things considered, I would still consider recommending Barcelona as a New Year´s Eve destination (now who´s loco?). But to ensure a successful evening, make sure you do as the Italians do: travel in herds, sing for your beloved sports team at the top of your lungs, and in the event that you become faced with the Spanish police, run like hell.

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