Archive for August, 2008

Three impossible things before bedtime

Saturday, August 30th, 2008
On the beach in Sitges, Spain with 800 of my closest friends

On the beach in Sitges, Spain with 800 of my closest friends

Okay, so I owe a better update than this, but it’s super late, and I’ve decided to take the early train route to Lourdes, and I’ll have about a kajillion hours tomorrow to compose some lengthy thoughts for you.

That stated, let me share three key points:

1. Looking at the Sagrada Familia today, I cannot believe no one has built a casino based on this – yet – in Vegas. Better yet, Barcelona, The Casino. It would SO TOTALLY work. Gaudi’s works alone would springboard the Strip to the next level. Screw all these homages to Italy, where’s the phantasmagoria???

2. In researching Lourdes, I happened to discover that the Catholic Church is in the process of declaring the same Gaudi a saint. From this very interesting (and timely) article that popped up in the sidebar of a priest’s or nun’s or pilgrim’s Lourdes journal, “

A statue of Antonio Gaudi y Cornet in front of his Sagrada Familia Cathedral.When in 1926 God’s architect was run over by a No. 30 tram on his way to evening prayer, he was mistaken for a beggar and taken to Barcelona’s pauper hospital. His friends found him there the next day. But Antoni Gaudí refused to leave. “Here is where I belong”, he told them. He had always wanted to leave this world poor and did, two days later, aged 74, honoured by a city which universally acknowledged him to be both an artistic genius and a saint.

If it went through, he’d be the first professional anything to be made a saint. Also, note to self: Be very careful around the Barcelona trams.

3. I had this totally crazy dream last night that I was hanging out with Barack Obama and George Bush. I was egging them on to arm wrestle, and I guess Bush liked the abuse, because he came up to me afterward and was hitting on me something fierce. It was so out of line and in your face, but it was also so ridiculous and so ludicrous that I was trying to memorize every word, as I could not WAIT to tell my friends.

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Now I know how it feels to be the village idiot

Friday, August 29th, 2008
Beautiful Barcelona

Beautiful Barcelona

Spain has it in for me. There is some weird trend starting up here wherein every time I check out at a grocery store, something explodes. Today is was a bottle of sparkling water (oh, how I love my agua con gaseo). I don’t know how or why, but as the woman reached for it to run it over the scanner, it busted a leak like Old Faithful and shot a powerful stream all over me. I do prefer the wet t-shirt contests where I’m the only contestant. Ups the odds that I might win (which are usually pretty slim).

Yesterday, it was my little four-pack of ‘Danone’ yogurt in “Macedonia” flavor (no idea what that means). As the woman (different city, different cashier at least) sat it down for me to bag, a giant glob of it launched all over my shirt and shorts.

These things are really no big deal and even kind of funny (especially because I cannot recall a single instance in my whole life where this has happened, and now it’s happened twice in a row). The issue is that it causes a major stream of dialog that I can’t comprehend a word of. So basically I try to fake like I understand what they’re saying with lots of nodding and smiling and “Dios Mio!” (kidding on the “Dios mio.’ I’m not sure anyone says that. Kind of like ‘my stars!” or “good golly, Miss Molly!”). Anyway, usually I figure if I were in their shoes, I’d be saying something like, “Holy crap! I’m so sorry! Go grab a new one.” So I leave to get a new one. The problem usually kicks in when I come back with the new one and they ask me something.

It’s at that point that I have to formulate and speak a grammatically tragic sentence in Spanish that likely translates to, “Here is new one. Me go now.” It’s like Arnold Schwarzanegger (sp?) before he was the Terminator or governor. Those monotone adverb and article-less sentences aren’t so cute when you’re just a ‘roided-out, orgy-loving Austrian weight lifter. Does that sentence mean I can never live in California again?

Anyway, back to my story of one-woman food fights, it’s at this point that everyone invariably gives me the sad, sorry look that you would to a parent with an obviously very, very slow (eight sandwiches and a red checkered blanket short of a picnic) child. A look that says, “Oh. You’re deficient. I didn’t realize. I pity you.”

In the same vein, I realized this morning that there is no way to look sophisticated while running down the street with a giant backpack bouncing behind you. I don’t care if you’re Jackie O. It cannot be done. Even Jackie O. would look like a lumbering jackass in the situation. Even with the big round sunglasses and the head scarf. Even with John John in tow. She would. Trust me.

I had this realization, naturally, while running down Calle Atocha in Madrid. I hate it when stupid events (like the lazy woman never waking up to allow me to check out at 9am) conspire against me, and I realize I’ve got to run – and about 40 pounds heavier than usual – if I’m going to make my plane/train/bus/starship. At this point I’m pretty well acclimated to the physical element of lugging the bag, it’s the fact that it renders me bulky and gigantic that I can’t seem to get through my head. I’m like a cat with clipped whiskers. I head into a space and get in so far…and realize I’m stuck. This is a clever and allegorical way of saying that this morning I was late, so I had to run down a busy metropolitan street during rush hour with a giant backpack strapped onto me, and I more or less bonked, bumped, jostled and plain old knocked over a dozen or so people en route. Sorry about that, slow moving people of Madrid.

In other news, it could just be a coincidence, but i saw no less than 5 shops selling kittens yesterday. It did occur to me that traveling with a trained cat (maybe i could get it to sit on my shoulder like a parrot?) would liven things up. I could name it Wanderlust and together we could cross the continent, sharing cans of tuna and performing stupid cat tricks. A lesser version of that seemed to be the thing to do in Portugal: Get a huge dog (Mastiffs were usually employed for the purpose) and then go from table to table at the outdoor dining spots in all the alleys, begging for money to feed the giant dog. Invariably these were healthy-looking men in their 20s and 30s, and all I could think was, “Why did you have to drag some poor dog into your mess?” The dogs were always laying on their sides looking exhausted from all the heat and panhandling. Or maybe they were just embarrassed to be associated with that guy? The guy ruining everyone’s lunch. I’m sure dogs know if their owner is a loser just as much as kids know when their parents aren’t cool.

Meanwhile, I’m out of that awful little room in Barcelona. Barcelona rocks and makes me realize how much I didn’t really like Madrid. It kind of reminded me of Boston. Not to pick on Boston (too much), and not in terms of specific looks, but in vibe. Both are large cities with a lot of history, and both have some cool old stuff and crazy roads that lead to seriously confusing floor plans. But in both I find the people kind of standoffish and the town inaccessible. I walked a solid seven or eight miles of Madrid, and could never find it’s ‘pulse.” I guess it’s safe to say that I just didn’t really vibe with Madrid.

Barcelona, however, is fantastico. It’s lively, it’s got history, it’s funky, it’s tropical, it’s gorgeous, and it has a nice rack. There are beaches and palm trees and little shops where you can get the biggest falafel pita on earth (and possibly the best) for 4.20 Euro. The metro system is delightful, and I am no longer sleeping in a prison cell. Who could ask for anything more???

Viva Barcelona!!!

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If anyone is looking to film an updated version of Midnight Express, I’ve found your set

Thursday, August 28th, 2008
The view from a prone position on the bed - breathtaking...or maybe just depressing

The view from a prone position on the bed - breathtaking...or maybe just depressing

Greetings from my little prison cell here in Madrid. After an hour and a half-long wait (don’t even get me started on the Spanish train system, Renfe. Let me just say it’s like your worst DMV nightmare, times five in cost, aggravation, and wait time, and NO ONE speaks English). Anyway, I persevered and was eventually able to secure a seat on the morning train to Barcelona. The hassle was worth it. I think it’s a good thing to be getting out of this place: It’s the kind of room you’d hang out in if you were part of a terrorist cell awaiting orders or maybe slowly going crazy and planning an assassination. I imagine it’s a room where Mark David Chapman or John Hinckley, Jr. would have felt comfortable and maybe even at home. If only I could get my hands on some pictures of Jodie Foster…

Anyway, it’s this strange little fluorescent green concrete room with a bare light on the ceiling and 18” x 24” bar-covered window about 14 feet up. The window effectively lets in street noise and the myriad sounds and smells of the various apartments in the area (doors slamming, people yelling, loud TV until 2am, gross cooking odors, and what could only be the sound of someone vigorously scrubbing a floor at about 7am). At the same time, it does not let in one iota of fresh air (and of course there is no A/C or fan or anything) or natural light. That would defeat the purpose.

This morning woke up at 9am and it was so dark, I thought it was still nighttime. For the rest of Madrid it was a sunny morning, but not here in my concrete box.

Anyway, and as you can tell, it’s kind of a soul crushing little pad, and I think it’s making me morbid. For stays of over a week they should throw in a fistful of antidepressants.

Plaza Mayor in Madrid

Plaza Mayor in Madrid

I did try to spend as much time as humanly possible outside of it. Madrid is referred to as a ‘walking city,’ and I walked my ass off today. Actually, I would assert that the reason it’s a walking city is because pretty much everything worth seeing is off one street – Paseo del Prado (which turns into Paseo de Recoletos). This is very convenient, until you’ve done the whole street. Then, it’s just a maddening labyrinthine of identical streets filled with tiny markets, shops with some seriously ugly clothes that reek of moth balls, and tapas joints. I have been incredibly lost at least five times today, and each time I was almost positive I’d been on the exact same doppleganger of a street once before. Anyway, if you keep walking long enough, you run into one of the ‘big’ roads, and you can straighten yourself out…just in time to take a break from the abusive sun and 90-degree heat by hanging out in your 88-degree lime green palace.

The Spaniards really dig on potato chips (patatas fritas)

The Spaniards really dig on potato chips (patatas fritas)

So, unrelated, but last night, while trying to find the latest episodes of Project Runway on YouTube, Spanish Google directed me to some lady’s video recording of herself talking about the episode. I got as far as, “Hi Everyone. It’s time for my weekly critique of Project Runway. This week…” and was able to stop it. One, because I didn’t want any surprises ruined, Two, because who the hell is this 50-something woman and why should I care? Then I started wondering, does anyone actually WATCH this? I mean, is there a weekly audience of dozens or even hundreds of people who tune in with bated breath wanting to know what Carol or Barbara or Diane thinks? I also have a weird impression that she was in a strange, dank room. Like a creepy Silence of the Lambs basement or perhaps this very pensione. Awkward.

Admittedly, the same could be said for my blog. Why am I typing all this up day and after day and does anyone give a sh!t and why??? But at least I have something original to say beyond regurgitating the contents of a show I just watched. (Although if you guys would prefer that, I could just go home and be a hell of a lot more comfortable.)

Living large in the pensione

Living large in the pensione

Meanwhile, I have found one good thing about not understanding the language: When men make what are obviously vulgar comments (usually identified by a mix of the tone of delivery and the look on their face), I have no idea what they’re saying. Thus, I find – for me, anyway – it’s almost impossible to feel offended when you don’t really know what’s going on. I’ve been responding to all comments with a chipper “Muchas gracias!” both out of personal amusement, and just to keep them guessing…

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I’m beginning to see the light

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008
In front of some graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal

In front of some graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal

I’ve been feeling a little bit shagged, having spent last night on the night train from Lisbon to Madrid. After a brief snooze on the early morning flight from Dublin, I realized that saving a few euro was NOT worth the lost sleep and neck pain, so I went ahead and booked a couchette (one small step above a regular seat, but at least you get to lay down). Sadly, I was in the top bunk. (Seriously, how do I put an end to that!?!?)

Even more sadly, I did not get to pick my roommates. It was me and three girls who texted and made phone calls at full ‘middle of the day’ volume (I would have paid good money to learn the Portuguese word for whisper) – and received them in turn – all night long. What a tragedy that Portugal can’t produce a phone with a ‘vibrate’ or ‘silent’ mode. Or that its youth is too rude to use them or know how to SHUT THE F**K UP AT 3AM.

Either way, combine that with the rocking and rolling circa 1960 train (with the fluorescent light that would flicker half on with the worst of the turns and bumps like some kind of deranged northern light), and I had one of those sleeps where you would look at your watch and it would be 1am, and 2:30a.m. and 4:00 a.m., and you’re amazed that it’s that late and perhaps you’ve slept at all.

So it followed that around 2am, something (so many options to choose from) woke me, and I realized I had to pee like a race horse. I lay there and shifted in my tiny horrible bed and tried to find a position where I could forget about it or fall back asleep…but it just wasn’t happening. So I had to give up and leave the room and use the horrific train toilet. Is that just dumping out onto the track or ???

Anyway, the whole thing – and so much of my travel – is completely size discriminatory. Normally, I am something of a small person. However, on this trip – because of the backpack – I am not. And it makes me super aware of how the world is not very friendly in that regard. Today I could barely fit into the lift with my backpack on, let alone through the Madrid subway turnstiles. In the same vein, as I was wandering back to the couchette in a completely bleary-eyed stupor, a very large man was heading down the hallway toward me. I already know that

  1. The odds that he speaks English are next to nothing

  2. There is no freaking way we are both fitting down this hall

  3. I don’t even know that he can fit down this hall

At the sight of his approach, I started backing up. He kept coming toward me and sending me way out of the way, and eventually I had to try to pantomime that my room was just up the hall. He seemed to understand and backed up so that I could get to it (this is a lot like the dance in the aisle on the airplane if you ever get in the way of the beverage cart). So I get there, gone just a minute or two, and with the intent to quietly climb back up into my top bunk like the Spider Monkey I have become and no one the wiser, when…what do you know but…MY ROOMMATES HAVE LOCKED ME OUT.

I keep twisting and turning the knob and looking up at the number two on the door. “Are you f-ing KIDDING me!?” I think to myself, as I size up the situation. Just then, not wanting to miss an opportunity, my rotund hallmate charges down the hall, plasters himself up against me (now banging on the door), and starts trying to grope me. I heard the bolt click just as he was moving into areas that would get him knocked out cold. Douchebag.

Needless to say, I’m feeling a little tired and pissed off today.

On a totally unrelated topic, I‘ve been running into a lot of quotes lately that strike me, and I usually stop where I am – even if that involves an awkward moment to relocate the oversized bag on my back and dig out some paper and a pen – and write them down. The other day I was reading something in an old collection of articles that referenced Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor. She wrote: “To paraphrase a parable of Brother Kierkegaard’s, if you put a bunch of people in a lobby and give them two doors to choose between – one that says ‘transformation’ and another that says ‘lecture on transformation’, most of them are going to line up for the lecture.”

A year ago, I might have done the same. However, here I am, most definitely through the door of transformation. At least I hope so.

You see, when this idea occurred to me – to recreate the trip I took when I was 19 years old – it felt urgent, even involuntary. It seemed like something I had to do, that there were lessons I needed to learn and things I needed to give up and struggles I needed to have in order to push myself past my boundaries and grow into who I am meant to be. But in the back of my mind I remembered how hard this was the first time and knew it wouldn’t be easy.

So not to bitch and moan – because I know this is something I elected to do, and although it’s a trip conducted very much on the cheap and at times it feels a little torturous, it’s still a luxury.- but some days this sh!t is just plain old hard, and it about makes you want to cry.

It is incredibly humbling to haul your every possession on your back and be alone and adrift – an alien unable to communicate with anyone around you. Portions of the Madrid metro are closed right now, which rendered my trip to the opposite side of town (where my squalid concrete block room is located) grueling. It was as hard as I’ve been pushed thus far.

I am starting to think some of what I need to learn is about humility and patience. And being real. And being kind to myself in the moment, even when the moment totally sucks. These are hard lessons in their own stupid way. It’s much, much easier to check out or blame other people or attend the lecture instead of the full-immersion course.

However, despite it all, I can see the little blessings. Like how people are kind and they try to help. As I was wandering aimlessly trying to find the Madrid Metro station earlier today, I stopped a man for help. Once we confirmed that he didn’t speak a word of English (no one here seems to, oddly), and I didn’t know much Spanish, he began an intricate pantomime to explain to me how to get to the Metro. It involved Putting his thumb to his lips and waving the remaining fingers in front of his face while dancing around and making a strange sound. I don’t know how, but eventually I realized this was to symbolize the train station. Then, he went into a violent shoving motion to his left, and it became clear that I must go through the train station and to the left. Voila, a half a kilometer later and there it was. I had to laugh.

A friend asked me what the best part has been, and the best parts are – for me, anyway – the simple little moments where the world seems so small and so beautiful: Running along a lonely road in England or watching birds dive into the ocean in Iceland. Yesterday, for example, I was walking to the train station in Portugal, and the last street vendors were packing up for the night. It was dark out and everyone was long gone from the avenues. The street lights provided the only life. A s a man was packing up his paintings he noticed me trudging past. “Come or go?” he asked, as I had my bag on my back. “Go,” I said to him, “Boa noite.”

“Bye bye, Girl!” he called after me with a wave, “Have a nice day!”

Across the plaza another man was playing a radio, and an old American song from the 1940s – “I’m beginning to see the light” – was drifting across the uneven cobblestone, and everything seemed strangely warm and embracing and perfect for a split second. And that’s what’s keeps me going.

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Slipping into the Twilight Zone

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008
Cascais, Portugal

Cascais, Portugal

It’s been a long couple days, but in a good way. I went to the beach (Cascais), and got back later than anticipated. Then I took a shower and got roped into a lengthy conversation while drying my hair (it is such a weird experience to be doing things like that – blow drying your hair – in public). As it was my last night in Lisbon, I was begged, pleaded with, and cajoled until I gave in and went out with some of the fellow hostelers. Going out seems to entail not even leaving until about 11pm.

The cutest guy on the beach in Cascais

The cutest guy on the beach in Cascais

Regardless, two particularly friendly North African guys (just finishing up architecture master’s degrees in France) were staying in the same room, and after hearing ‘last night in Lisbon’ forty-five times, I finally gave in. In my opinion, every other night is my last night somewhere, but there’s something to be said for going with the flow.

That stated, I can accurately report to you that bars in Lisbon Portugal are every bit as boring as the ones in the United States – particularly if you have a headache from all the cigarette smoke and no desire to get drunk in a complicated city full of unfriendly and steep cobblestone streets. Despite being a wildly international group (1 Australian, 1 Algerian, 1 Moroccan, 2 Swedes, 1 Korean, 1 Tunisian, 1 Romanian, and me, the American), conversations seem to center around tales of previous episodes of extreme drinking, including a harrowing story from a Swedish guy about some kind of 99% alcohol intended for medical use. He seemed to find it a funny memory, but it struck me as more of a brush with death warning that should be used in a ‘Scared Straight’ film. Not that I’m any abolitionist, but It is a little alarming to me how much alcohol seems to be a focus of everyone’s life, and this seems to extend across all borders. Almost every person I’ve met in a hostel has mentioned that their travel budget is roughly 50% for alcohol. Good thing I didn’t have to factor that in, or I’d be headed home in the next couple weeks.

Me with all of Lisbon at my feet

Me with all of Lisbon at my feet

Meanwhile, to any of you out there with young children, in addition to keeping an eye out for any growing fascination with booze, please consider raising them bi-lingual, even if it’s a Neanderthal language of grunts and groans that you make up yourself. In fact, all the better. If you and your family are fluent in Cavemanch, then you, too, can go out in public and talk about people who are standing right there because they won’t understand you. That’s right all you fluent Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Russian, etc. etc. speakers. The Aussies and I are onto you. When you look at us and talk at a feverish low tone and then erupt into laughter, we know something is going on and we may be the punchline.

Moreover, it truly is kind of embarrassing to only speak English fluently. Last night someone said something to the effect of English being ‘the international language’ and so ‘everyone has to learn it.’ All I could think was, “THANK GOD,” because it’s hard enough having to start every single solitary conversation with “English?” or “Do you speak English?” Particularly being in a country where the only word you know is ‘thank you’. By the way, it’s obrogado/a, and I say it with flourish every chance I get!

In the same vein, last night I got roped into conjuring up my high school French. Needless to say, I provided quite a few guffaws at my own expense. Especially because all I could remember were weird textbook sentences like “the pencil is on the table” and “they are friends.” Also, because high school was a really long time ago. Really long. But no one believes me on that one.

I suspect it’s due to the hard partying life most of the youth of the world seem to be living and that I somehow never partook in along the way. If all you do from the time you’re 15 or 16 is smoke, drink and stay up all night, I’m thinking the key to my eternal youth lies in my general abstinence (minus the alcohol under different circumstances. Here – partially because of budget, but mostly because I’m on my own – I’m crazy conservative) from all three.

Other people may have their multilingual flag to wave. They may be able to carry on conversations in four or five languages on as many continents…but I look damn young. I can infiltrate your youthful scene and you are none the wiser. In fact, you start looking out for me in my apparent youth. This is my super power. Forget out running locomotives and leaping tall buildings in a single bound? Who needs all that, when you could re-enroll in high school?

Seriously though, it’s absolutely bizarre to me. Last night someone suggested that I was 25 and another man said, “No! I would have thought…”

I readied myself, “Here it comes…busted!”

Until he followed it up with, “I would have thought younger than that. More like 21.” Wha…????

On the other hand, the few times I have stated my true age, no one believes me. I honestly think I’d have an easier time telling people I’m a vampire, I never age, and I’m 412 years old. It would not surprise me if that were accepted as fact more readily than the truth of my advancing years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered for sure – just a little baffled.

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

Meanwhile, Lisbon is a really interesting city of contrasts. It’s got a lot of old architecture and charm, and then two blocks away looks like a bomb just went off. The weather has been superb, and it’s a mere 25 minute train ride from the beach…and the world’s coldest ocean. Seriously, it was FREEZING. It wasn’t the coldest ever, I think the ocean off Washington state in the spring is about the same, but considering how warm it is, and it’s August, I was totally shocked. Anyway, minus having very little (no) grasp on the language, I like it here just fine. In fact, in a mere two days I’ve become an expert at getting around on the subways and throughout the Alfama (as long as you’re not in a rush, it’s easy to get out of there, just head downhill). The Alfama is the old “Moorish district” which has these insane and super-steep switchback streets. Apparently they were built that way in case anyone attacked the city: The soldiers would get lost in the street and were easy to fight back from the castle at the top.

In the Alfama district

In the Alfama district

At the moment, I’m sitting here in the hostel kitchen, and someone just handed me a shrimp with the head and arms and legs and wings and horns and beak still attached. Ick. I love shrimp, but if I had to look at them like this all the time, I’m pretty sure I’d eat them a lot less frequently! I ended up munching down a pretty good portion of shell, but I’m pretty sure it added to the flavor (it really was damn flavorful) and I probably got some extra calcium out of it or something.

Lastly, I’m going to make a real effort to get a bunch of pictures up on Flickr in the next few days. Space is allotted by month, so i intend to use everything I’ve got before August ends. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to figure out how to get the link to work from WordPress. They say to paste in the RSS feed from Flickr…but (obviously, if you look to the lower left) it isn’t working. My Flickr account shares the same name as this blog, and if anyone can figure out the exact url I should plug in to get the link going please send me an e-mail or post a comment. Otherwise, boa noite, and tomorrow it will be be buenos dias from Madrid!

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