Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ornament Party

I am moderately bummed that I wasn't able to see my ugly sweater drunken family commit Christmas crime this season. I hope all went well anyway!


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where The Sidewalk Ends

The other day I started taking long walks around the neighborhood, and the first thing I noticed was that there were no sidewalks! Instead, I have to plod along on the grass, which of course is mildly sideways, as the area is hilly, and the grass, of course, is dead because it is summer and Australians are significantly less preoccupied with their garden aesthetics than we are. (They are also in an eternal drought).

Then, suddenly there was sidewalk! So I crossed the street, carefully as there are no crosswalks (can't expect those if there aren't even places to walk on the side of the road), and took the newly paved footpath. Then, suddenly, there was no sidewalk. It simply ended. So I crossed the road again. And again, the sidewalk ended. What kind of crackpot city planning is this?

You know what I say?
Can't stop progress.

I was ecstatic to eventually find a delightful auto mall road (complete with sidewalks that somehow didn't end) that led me to a big, comforting red sign: The Salvation Army. I knew that where there was Salvation Army, there was thrift store shopping, and sure enough, there was a giant "Salvos" hiding around the corner. I went to town, or should I say, browsed for a very long time without buying much. It was all I could do to keep away from the thirty year old bagged tinsel and souvenir Australia mugs, but unfortunately I'm on a budget since Australian thieves stole my handbag (true story. They actually stole my purse, but handbag sounds so much better, doesn't it?) Anyway, I walked away with a cake pan and a halter top for the grand expense of $6, and they even kept the store open for me past closing time so I could try things on. The Aussies are so friendly.

You know what other Aussies are friendly? The medical workers. Not only did I have a very successful clinical visit in Ipswich (for reasons that I would love to broadcast, but it's really not necessary) - complete with chat to the NICEST receptionist ever, who recommended I wait to go North to the GBR and Port Douglass until after March, when the "jellies" are out to sea - but I also gave blood. Yes, I gave blood to the Australian Red Cross. Walked right up and offered them my arm, practically, though they were incredibly busy ( I think Australians have a great sense of blood-giving responsibility).

One of the best compliments I have ever received: "Your iron levels are fantastic!"

Have you ever given blood when it's humid as a hot showered bathroom with no windows and nearly 100 degrees? Me either. So after I set off to walk to the train station, newly drained of a liter of my life juice, I had a bit of a hard time. !!! It should be mentioned that one of the snacks on offer by the Red Cross was snack sized Cadbury Hokey Pokey bars. I ate one and was so excited I saved the wrapper. Hokey Pokey is one of my childhood memories indulged by my parents that I haven't seen since I was about ten years old. Taste memories are the best.

The 2k walk from the train station to the house was mild agony. It was hot. I felt woozy. I had also neglected to reapply sunscreen and I wasn't sure if I was going to come out of this experience still healthily pale. I made it back safely, but was still determined to make a birthday cake (because what 25 year old guy doesn't like birthday cake?). This was also agony. I would whisk, whisk, whisk, then walk slowly to the couch and throw my legs up for five minutes, drink a glass of water, hobble back to the whisking, crack and egg, stumble back to the couch, and so on. This was truly a labor of love...and a freaking amazing cake! I used this recipe. You should use it too, for your upcoming birthday, especially the sour cream frosting:

This is all for now. I am currently busy enjoying an early Christmas present of Australia guide books, getting ready for a ROAD TRIP...anywhere. Until soon!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Cheating Winter

Excuse me while I move into a different room, please. It's nearly 12:00PM and this place is convecting like the surface of the sun. Oh yes, and there are only 11 days to Christmas.

I waltzed off the plane last Saturday morning (and I say morning as a relative term, being as the literal time was 1:00AM, my mental time was 2:00PM, and well, neither seemed to describe the way I felt) and was greeted by this sensational wall of hot, thick air. And that's pretty much what Australia is to me: a giant wall of dense heat. Oh yes, with enormous cockroaches. And tropical birds as numerous a pigeons. And I think it is so fantastic.

It is such a mind twist to be in a place the could almost be home, except that you are about as far from home as you could possibly get. I mean, they speak English (though this could be a debated point: I have a very hard time understanding people sometimes). There are billboards and infomercials and SUVs and air conditioned shopping malls.

But I am not home, or at least not in the home I am used to.
Likewise, I am home. I am in a home that I can come and go from as I please. I have a place to hang my hat, so to speak, if I had a hat. And so far, I have done everything I expected to do. I cooked Thanksgiving dinner (took me...10 hours by myself - but I had an amazing time!) This included making pumpkin pie from a real pumpkin. Anyone who knows my fascination with pie making will find this to be one of my greatest accomplishments.

TIME OUT: I am really tired of typing on a keyboard that doesn't even fit my hands. I miss my Mac. This tiny thing seems to compress my words and ideas because I can hardly type any of them out. I am sorry, at home readers, for my lack of insight. I blame the eeePC.

So what did I do my first week here? As you may have already guessed, very little. I was blowing green snot out of my nose from Monday through Saturday, hardly able to breathe out one or the other sides of my face. I took that as a sign that I should probably just take it easy. I mean watching all of those people on the London Tube sneeze all over their hands and then touch the handrails (which I tried SO HARD to avoid) means that I probably picked up over half a dozen European diseases, bacteria and viruses during my two day stay.

I played with the dog, I cooked things, I cleaned things (per feeling guilty about staying in a place with no fees, rents, mortgages required), I simply...grounded myself.

So the big question:

Is it worth it?


This is easily one of the coolest things I have ever done. The prospect of all of the amazing things to come after the New Year (in which we begin the work/or helpx/or travel phase of Australia) is overwhelming. In the meantime, I am simply happy.

Simple. I am happy.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Clairvoyant From Down Under

It is nearly 100 degrees here and I have a residual European cold. Shh - don't tell immigration. I was supposed to turn myself in if I felt ill.

Hopefully the plan is the buy a Christmas tree of the Charlie Brown persuasion on Thursday. For everyone else in the world, that would be Wednesday. That's right, I'm in your future.

And let me tell you:

Tomorrow is going to be a BEAUTIFUL day.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

25 Hours

I am struggling against the will of my eyes to shut, I am struggling against the will of my ass to fall asleep under me, because I have been making a sizeable imprint in the same airplane seat for, oh, about 12 hours so far. This doesn't count my hour and a half on the London Underground, two hours in Heathrow Airport, seven hour flight to Dubai, and half an hour in Singapore. It's incredible how far you can travel in one full 24 hour period. It's even more incredible that I have managed only two hours of sleep.

That makes this whole situation a bit like a middle school sleep over, doesn't it? Except at this sleepover, you have lovely pinstriped flight attendants that like to stuff you full of food and drinks (I've managed to go light on the free booze, maintaining my three week red wine abstinence and my four day coffee quit). It's also like a sleepover except that the seatback in front of me has a screen from which I can choose...oh, about 50 movies, about 30 television shows, and about 100 music mixes. Right now, it's UK Hits of 1984.

Technology is fantastic.

Oops, now its Motown.

I'm not going to lie. Everyone and their mother (including my mother, and my mother's mother) is aware of how scared I was to take these flights to OZ. Curious, isn't it, for a girl who spent so much of her life humming Over The Rainbow to herself, to be landing on a continent with such a cute name.

And speaking of continents, let's talk about global travelers. I'd like to state for the record that by the end of the day, I will have set foot on three separate continents: Europe, Asia, and Australia. And that all depends of what you count Dubai as (Middle East, Africa, Asia, or Where The Hell Is Dubai). No wonder my hair is flat and my face is broken out. It's a complete mindfuck.

Quick apology to my father, who always told me that profanity is for people without a developed vocabulary. I realize that I have turned into somewhat of a typing sailor. For this I am sorry. I also use big words, to balance things out.

My last days is Europe: how did those go? was cold. I have successfully gone through Europe's summer, autumn, and now winter. Nowhere was this more obvious than Belfast.

(Wait, dance break to the Beatles' I Saw Her Standing There.)

Belfast is one of the most confused cities I have visited. It wasn't obvious when I crossed the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, there was no sign, there was no border. But I somehow knew I wasn't there anymore, and I missed the Emerald Isle, even though I was technically still there. Away go the thatched roofs, many of the beautiful colors. It is more industrial. It looks more like the suburbs of London that I only know through the windows of the Tube. It is neither here nor there.

Belfast is a city like Dublin in that it is a city, and the buildings aren't terribly tall. But it is a city's city. Loud, a bit dirty, obviously a bit haggard under the “Crisis” that everyone talks so openly about in Europe – many boarded up shop windows and rent signs.

I made a personal whoopsies that I am not so proud of while in Belfast. I spent a day exploring the city with the intention of walking in West Belfast to find the Peace Murals that I had heard so much about. For those who live in a hole, Belfast is still one of the most turbulent and trouble-ridden cities in Western Europe. A few days before I arrived, there had been several (thankfully) diffused bombing attempts. Not very big news, since nothing went off, but enough to make me steer pretty clear of government buildings.

So off I go, its about 3 degrees Celcius (VERY VERY COLD) and the sun is doing its December in the UK thing, where the sun only rises to about half sky and casts afternoon shadows all day long, giving everything a sleepy look. I head West. West involves crossing a freeway overpass. Then it involves walking about 1km or so along a fairly dodgy wall by the freeway, until you happen upon it: an amazing wall of murals. They are political. They call for an end to the US embargo on Cuba, Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and of course, for Ireland to be reunited.

I am stunned by this enormous wall, but I dare not take out my camera. It was spooky. I wanted to find more, so I cross the street to find that this wall is actually a square of walls. It isn't until I sent out along the square that I realize the area is dark, mostly vacated, covered in barbed wire, sidewalks coated in dog shit, and I am suddenly filled with an urge to get the hell out. The problem: I am lost. the next problem: I have crossed to the British side of Shankhill (the tip off – flags). The only people on the streets seem to be men that look like Billy Elliot's dad. I am not happy about this.

I wish I had a better twist to this story, like I beat up an attempted mugger or something. It's not true. I eventually found my way out. And as I was walking, I felt bad. I felt bad because I was afraid. I felt bad that I had gone on my own. And I felt bad that people lived like that. Walled dogshit barbed wire in a city still dreading some retroactive bomb, in a city that is in Ireland, was Irish, is not Irish, is not in Ireland, and lost. It was -5 C that night.

But I did it. The best of Ireland in 12 days. One and a half days in London. I made it through and here I am, of the coolest airport arrivals of my life. What do I do now? Embrace the hell out of it. One great adventure Down Under awaits.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Isn't 800 Years A Euphemism For "This Has Never Happened Before"?

Sitting on a bus from Dublin to Belfast, about to wet myself because I had a genius idea about an hour ago to warm myself with a nice bus station mocha. Drank the whole damn thing just in time to get on the bus and then realize, oh wait, I just put 12 ounces of diaretic liquid into my system. So if my writing seems erratic, rushed, or just plain crazy, you now know why.

I seem to keep bussing away from cool things in Ireland and bussing towards the really cool things (this is a joke, because I actually keep bussing toward dangerous, hazardous, or bad weathered locations.) For example, last Friday I took a bus from Dublin to Cork. It wasn't until I was checking out of my hostel that morning that this was a bad decision.

“Going to Cork, are you? How are you getting there?” says a random man next to me who neither worked nor was staying at the hostel. I told him by bus.

“Well that might be okay, but the trains aren't even running today. Seems that Cork is completely flooded.”

Well great. I go to the bus station and everything seems to be fine, until I am en route and the news that is playing on the radio announces “DO NOT TRAVEL TODAY UNLESS YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO!” and “CORK CITY IS COMPLETELY UNDER WATER” and “WORST FLOODING IN 40 YEARS!” Just perfect.

I get off the bus in Cork and wonder, where is all of this flooding? I was literally expecting to have to swim off the bus and wade knee deep to my hostel (which luckily was up a bit of a hill, so I figured at least I could sleep dry.) Yes, the river running through Cork was practically spilling over the sides of the quay at Class 5 rapid speed – something I assumed wasn't normal. It was also a disgusting brown color and carrying all sorts of objects a river probably shouldn' soccer balls and umbrellas. So something was amiss.

I met some guys in my hostel who gave me the low down. The night before, the rain had been coming down so hard, people could hardly leave their houses. Being 20-something males, they had been out drinking all night, and passed out in their beds in the university district. They woke up to find themselves wet (hand in the warm bowl of liquid again, boys?), but it turned out to be the apartment...flooded up to about their waists. Apparently they had to swim out in a drunken stupor and find their way to a hostel. I love that story – it gives me such good mental images.

Things just got worse from there. The next day, I took a bus to Blarney (land of the gab stone), which seemed to be a beautiful day – semi-blue sky – which is practically summer to these people. The main path to the castle was under two feet of water. Everything was just wet, wet, wet. After I had taken a beautiful walk around the grounds, walked around in the castle, kissed the stone (I have no proof of this because I didn't want to buy the Splash Mountain-esque photo from the Blarney Co., but it was pretty cool. The guy sprayed the stone down with a disinfectant product pre-kiss, I hear because of H1N1, so my smooch was a bit chemically. Other than that, its a pretty cool experience to have to bend over backwards - literally – to lip lock with a rock that has no real significance except for what lore lends it.)

On the way out of Blarney, the river had risen...oh...another couple feet or so, filling in the paths I had previously taken with a couple feet of water. Let me tell you, wading around on muddy soaking grass is FABULOUS! Too bad I'm not an owner of some moon shoes. Or Jesus.

I picked up a newspaper at lunch (which was an amazing heaping pile of scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and fresh brown bread. Have I raved about fresh brown bread yet? FRESH BROWN BREAD IS THE BEST! Better than that spaghetti carbonara back in Florence...I'm not quite sure, but could you imagine eating them together in ONE MEAL?!?) The newspaper announced that I was privy to the 'Worst flooding in 800 years”, subtext: the worst flooding ever, in the history of Ireland. Lucky me!

I have now grown accostumed to long bus rides through small villages nearly completely submerged in whatever river they thought it was so smart to live by. Portlaoise has a rugby pitch under 5 feet of water. Gort has one main road into town, and let me tell you, its not looking so pretty. I saw a poor guy wading up to his knees to get out of his house the other day on the ride from Galway. It's intense.

But enough about the floods. A bit about Ireland. It is everything I would ever want from a country (except for the rain and wind...) The cities are clean, vibrant, the buildings aren't too tall and are painted the most fantastic colors, pub culture is terrific, buskers are significantly more talented than anywhere else I have been (I actually tipped some yesterday: they were playing “Where Do You Go To My Lovely”, a song from The Darjeeling Limited, and I just loved it so much I dug through my disgustingly disorganized purse to pull out a euro coin).

Going to traditional pub music sessions aren't even too touristy of an activity – plenty of locals go, too – so I get to share one of my favorite activities with a diverse group of people. You get a random combination of guitarists, fiddlers, drummers, flautists, banjo...ists, accordion players, etc. and it is simply magical. Last night I found out that one of my favorite Irish songs, Galway Girl, isn't even an Irish song at all. It was written by a guy from Texas. I guess that explains why part of the verses have a “Kay ai kay ai ay!” in it. Oh well, they still like to play it here.

It's fucking cold here. I'm sorry, ears of the internet. But you would want to use that adjective too, if you only know how fucking cold it is here. Take for instance in Galway. I went walking along the bay in an area known as the Claddagh, towards another area called Salt Hill. It's about...oh...8 degrees Celsius. (COLD, but could be colder) but of course, the wind is so strong that I am actually getting a hand with my walking, being pushed along the path. Laughing, I might add, because what else can you do when you're being shuffled along by freezing cold wind? And THEN, the rain decided to show up. It decided to also join the wind, and if we calculate where this rain would be going (visualize, visualize) yes, that would be completely at my back. I show up back at my hostel with a completely drenched backside and a nearly dry, but very cold front. Bizarre.

I took a day/night trip to Connemara, which is supposed to be the most beautiful nature in Ireland. I will attest to this: it is absolutely beautiful. Let's talk colors: the bogs are red. They are red and gold, literally. And every once in a while, you get these giant groves of pine trees (not indigenous, kind of a disaster, but another story for another day). And all of the time, you get sheep. It's absolutely amazing. Add a couple of rivers, a lot of waterfalls, handmade rock walls, and thatched roof huts, and you've got an absolute feast for the eyes.
I stayed in a hostel out at the Kil...something...Fjord (having fallen in love with fjords in Alaska, I was pleased to discover that is was ALSO a fjord! Thank you Swedes, or whoever, for giving us this funny word for a beautiful thing.) The tour bus drops me off on the side of the road and I'm looking around like..great. I'm in the middle of nowhere. I follow a sign and start walking down the road. It starts raining. I start laughing. No, this is a lie. I start talking to myself like a crazy person, saying things like “JESUS THE RAIN WHY THE RAIN?” I walk about half a mile and I finally see this lovely building, and I walk in, and it is completely vacant except for this really great Canadian guy, who is essentially the Jack Nickelson of Connemara. I literally had this giant hostel to myself. So I settle in, make a batch of popcorn on the stove (!), and watch first a nature VHS about Australia (you know, filling in my knowledge) and then Michael Collins – an Irish history film (the Irish say fil-um) featuring a sexy young Liam Neeson. I find a copy of Julie/Julia and read it. I make curry. I watch the rain fall over the fjord, and I am happy.

My bladder is so full of coffee. Must take a break to eat pita bread to possibly sop up the liquid in my body. Tootles for now.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Bus From Burgos

I just had a rather silly experience at a rest stop in Burgos, en route to Madrid. It must be the fact that I haven't been on a Spanish coach bus in a while, but for whatever reason, I freaked out when I saw the doors close on my bus and I was still inside drinking my cafe con leche and quickly walk/ran for the door, only to discover that my bus was actually sitting behind this bus, hiding, and looked exactly the same as the bus that was pulling away. Oh, the trickery. Too bad a third of my coffee is still sitting lonely on a table inside the bus station.

I plan to take the next three hours of my bus ride like a man, that is to say, awake, and not sleeping with my head bouncing uncomfortably on the window as it has been for the past three hours. This is not a difficult task. For one, I have never been down this road before, physically or metaphysically, and La Mancha is absolutely stunning. I think the silver cloudy sky helps illuminate the surprising redness of the soil and the green of the trees and neatly trimmed fields, preparing themselves for planting in a few months. It is almost perfectly flat in both directions. It reminds me of my train ride from Paris to Stuttgart...oh...a month and a half ago. I was equally impressed and equally drowsy then.

I left San Sebastian before sunrise this morning, though it wasn't nearly as dark as when I was stumbling around Milan at 5:50 AM trying to catch a cable car to the train station to the bus to the airport. It was easy to leave because it is easy to return. Donostia is decidedly one of the places in the world I feel most comfortable. What is it about this place that draws me in, aside from the fact that my “Spanish Family” (this is very difficult to explain to people who haven't known me since about age 14) is more than happy to vacate a bed for me and spoil me rotten with amazing food. They are simply the best and I hope I did my best to assure them that, again, I will be back.

The streets of San Sebastian ebb like the waves in la contxa – the coved beach where year-round surfers do their thing. They move neither quickly nor slowly. The cars seldom honk, people seldom yell, but the cars are always driving, and the people are always chattering. The constant motion doesn't even stop for siesta, as the shops close their doors, people just keep moving. It's natural. Who cares, even. And at night, people flow in and out of bars. I wish I could describe this better. There is simply a fluidity about this city that keeps me so calm.

In the mornings and afternoons I go walking, usually down the same street, and then crossing around new streets. I love to read the shop signs in Basque. I love to look into boutique windows at the clothes I could neither afford nor carry in my backpack. (Just wait until I get to London, when I have no more RyanAir flights and can fill my backpack to an insane 30k!) I am given the simple task of buying a baguette and a newspaper before 2:00, when Isabel returns home for lunch. I try to find the most appealing barra de pan, sometimes failing miserably and buying something that looked good but happened to be the hardest, most tooth breaking bread I have even tried.

On my last visit, when the weather was incredibly warm and summer was still obviously lingering, I stayed out for hours with my “sisters” and their friends, drinking...I think the easiest thing for me to order in Spanish was a Cuba Libre – go figure...and dancing to Spanish club music I had never heard in clubs filled with people and filled with smoke. Taking a taxi home at 4:30 set a new record for me.

This time, the winter has set in. There is still time for pintxos, there is still time for beer. But what sets this time apart was that I got to finally ride on a moto. Oh yes, I got to ride on the back of a motorbike. OK, it wasn't some Spanish hunk who pulled up to the sidewalk and propositioned me to hop on, it was Maider's boyfriend. But let me tell you, I loved it. And I wasn't scared. It was just that good. And the night was completed with yet another culinary conquest – a cheeseburger with a fried egg. You aren't living, my friend, until you've put an egg on your burger. Protein on protein, is all I can say.

I can't tell if this blog is continuing to divulge my spiritual and emotional journey or is turning into a food diary...

Either way, it is November 17th and I have two amazing things to look forward to, although you can guess which one I am possibly more excited for in the long term. Tomorrow morning, I fly to Dublin, of which I have no expectations, and I plan to hoof it, pretty much as thoroughly as I can, around Ireland in 12 days. 12 days, I can do that. So long as I make my flight on the 1st of December from Belfast, and I have no doubt that will happen. Sometimes I think of a video I watched before I left – one of the Last Lecture series. He said “Brick walls are placed in front of us to separate those who really want something from those who don't”. I think of this a lot on public transportation.

The other is Australia. The more I think about it, the excited I am. I am literally an infinitely expanding balloon of excitement. Unfortunately, the more I think about it, the more I think, Damnit Caitlin, you are going to Porpoise Spit, aren't you? I am going to end up in Porpoise Spit. That's the image I have managed to create in my mind, and while I am no Toni Collette, I do love ABBA, and that puts me halfway there. Well, not even that can pop my balloon. Jeez, I'm going to be in the land of the kangaroo, and the wombat, and the cane toad, god bless it. So it can't be all that bad. In fact, I bet it will be wonderful.

In the meantime, I predict green fields, rain and Guinness in my future.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sciopero, Parte Due

I left you in Napoli. Rather, I left my stomach in Napoli, munching on pizza for eternity. And cream puff cake, and sausage sandwiches (the italians have a a huge thing for the salsccica, didn´t you know?) and tiny cafes standing at the bar with a whole paacket of sugar in them, and giant prosciutto and mozzerella sandwiches. All of this am more can be yours for a reasonable price in NAPOLI! If I had stayed in Naples, I would have eaten myself into an absolute stupor, and would therefore have no more energy for writing.

What else did I do in Napoli? I trudged through Herculaneum in the rain, that´s what I did. Herculaneum was one of many places in Italy that literally took my breath away, rounding each new corner quietly uttering, "Holy crap". I did it in the Vatican Museum. I did it on the steps of the train station in Venice. And I did it in Herculaneum because I simply couldn´t believe that things so old, so beautiful, still remained in this world after the world had seemed to move on so quickly.

It seemed to serve as a metaphor for life, maybe. That pieces of what you create in your lifetime find a way to persevere for, well, if you´re lucky like the people of the Roman Empire, for thousands of years. This also continued to remind me of the profound way the ballad The Iliad influenced the way I think about life. The essence of the story: Achilles is given a choice. He can either stay at home, live a happy, tranquil and safe life, have a beautiful wife and many children, and their children will have many children, etc. etc. - but if he choses this path, over time he will be forgotten. And if he goes to battle, he will never return home, never sustain love, never create progeny, but he will be remembered for eternity.

Well, we all probably have an idea of what happened to ol´ Achilles. He chose eternal glory, and all throughout Italy are signs that in turn, the Romans, Venetians, Tuscans, etc. - they also chose glory. They probably also had children and hopefully happy marriages, but what they created so many years ago, they intended to be a testament to their lives so many years later. Enough about eternal hypotheticals, but perhaps this helps me connect to the things I enjoyed seeing so much in Italy.

While in Naples, I received an email from a helpx host that I had put of feelers for, since I had a burning feeling that I should stay in Italy for a while. This family, according to the internet, was working on villa restoration in Tuscany, and had rave reviews by other helpers. I accepted. Though it wasn´t exactly what I had wanted, which was picking olives, it sounded good enough.

So I left Naples (after a long, misdirected walk about 1.5 k past my destination to a funicular, and luckily my vocabulary had extended to being able to ask strangers how to find places - a very kind Venetian woman in a turquoise pantsuit took me all the way to the train station) headed to Florence, a recommendation by my parents, before heading up to Tuscany for a week. I should take a moment for acknowledgement, publically, of the incredible hospitality of my friend, who we are calling Colin, in Naples. Though I don´t want the secret to get out, Colin did his best to extend all of the comforts of his sparcely decorated by gorgeous flat to me, and also allowed me to sleep in on two separate occasions, while taking me to excellent pizza, cream puff cake, etc., and seeing amazing views, and drinking lots of excellent Pieroni beer. It wouldn´t have been nearly as wonderful there without him.

In Florence, I had another "Holy Crap!" moment. I dropped my bags at my hostel (where I accidentally met some international overgrown frat boys drinking excessively on the deck, and by accidentally, I mean it was nice to have company, but not necessarily ideal...) and set out into the city to find the fabled Duomo. This moment needs to bring up another very special person in my life, and by special I mean took up many hours of my sleep time in high school - this one goes out to Mr. Rodrigues. Thank you, Mr. Rodrigues, for forcing us to learn something about European history, because without this knowledge that is completely squashed nto surprising corners of my brain, I would have been completely lost on my trip, wondering what things were.

I turned a corner onto a pedestrian street, distracted by the waffle makers in the doorways of gelato shops (waffles?), and suddenly spotted it: the most beautiful church exterior I had ever seen. Possibly one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. And this was substantiated by a literal gasp. I can´t describe it much better than that. Only a week before I had been at the Vatican and all I could think was, shame on you, Catholic Church. And here I was, not caring who had funded this church - it could have been funded by evicting Romani ie gypsy families and selling their land (yikes, bad joke), and I still wouldn´t have cared. I was literally that impressed. So I stared at it for a long time, and then went inside. Not nearly as cool, so I just looked at it from outside again. Then I went to a locally owned bookstore and bought a copy of Eat, Pray, Love. All in a day´s work.

I would like to mention two other amazing things about Florence. One is Michelangelo´s Prisoner collection at the Accademia. Best art I have seen in practically my whole trip. Not to mention the David, who has these incredible marble back muscles that only a true male body enthusiast could have captured properly. I would also like to take a moment to recognize Za Za´s restaurant for serving me one of the most delicious plates of pasta I have ever eaten: spaghetti carbonara. I realize this is a Roman dish, but once again, I care not, because it was just that good. I will work the rest of my life trying to recreate that dish.

I left Florence in anticipation of something I knew very little about. A train from Florence to Lucca, from Lucca to a place called Garfagnana de Castelnuovo (silent g in Garfagnana), and then someone was going to pick me up. I had no idea that who would pick me up was a perky, headbanded Irishman in a giant red VW bus with two young boys in tow. I had no idea that in a few minutes time, the van wwould be whipping around amazing curves on a road up a mountain covered in trees with colors rivaling the fabled New England autumns. I had no idea I would arrive to find co-workers lounging by the pool (the pool?), a South African and an English guy. I was initiated into the gang the first night at a giant bonfire, complete with several guitars, plenty of red wine, an Irish drum, plenty of singing, lots of sausages...and all men...except me. Life was good. No no. Life was great.

Work wasn´t necessarily a piece of cake. The first week, the weather was beautiful over the Tuscan valley and we worked outside breaking, chopping, stacing and carrying wood up a hill that would probably require some sort of hand rail in the United States. This hill is a killer, let me just say. Soft dirt and rocks and nothing to hold onto but the massive pile of wood in your arms, or perhaps part of a tree trunk, or maybe a machete or two? Oh yes, it was and is a killer. But as long as you ate your porriage in the morning (and oh yes, I love porriage), and took a quick jump in the freezing pool just before lunch, everything was completely perfect.

As the weather turned, the work turned inside, to the second house (nextdoor to the one we all lived in, which had already been completed) - to sanding, varnishing, pointing, cleaning, chipping, etc. Dirty work. I didn´t wash my pants for two weeks. Wait, did I say two weeks? Wasn´t I supposed to stay one week? Well, that plan went to hell after the first few days. Good conversation, amazing food, cool kids (there are three living there), music, vino, comfy bed, and a view that would stop even the most distracted of people in their tracks for hours. I just had to stay. There was no question.

People kept coming and going and were equally as interesting as the rest. A mosaic artist from Israel, a post-high school Canadian girl - all different ages, all from completely different corners of thinking. It as a mesh. and I suppose if we had really hated each other, we still wouldn´t have said anything. It was like three families exisited within the house - the family of the Irish dad and his three sons, the family of workers like myself, and the combination of the two. Two meals a day around a giant table, sharing, laughing, then maybe music, maybe cards, maybe Scrabble (never television? My goodness!) A particularly memorable night included some wine, may games of cards, and a man that looked a bit like Mario the video game character roasting chestnuts for us over the fireplace. That is all I can say about that while still preserving my image as a respectable lady.

The day I left for Milan, I let out a few tears on the platform, which were more than I had even let go back in Termini, watching my Australian travel pal (hah!) run off to the airport. Some parts in your life you just can´t go back to in the same way.

To be continued.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Only A Sciopero Could Keep Me Away From Italia

I left Italy today after what has been nearly one month of wine drinking, pasta eating, friend making, wood hauling, church going, and peace finding.

Though I am relieved to be back in Spain (though not in such grand fashion - I am having bank card issues and therefore transportation issues today), I think fair Italia has a competitive place in my traveling heart.

Have I told you about Cinque Terre? I think I have. In Cinque Terre I hiked 10k faster than Pat Kenney could have ever imagined, by myself, without an ipod hooked in my ears. I did it to the sound of my heavy breathing in what may have been one of the last warm days the Ligure had seen this year. It was empowering. My footsteps pounded out the rhythm "I am in Italy and I am doing it alone. I am traveling and I am happy to be here. Look what I can do". I made a temporary friend and ate squid ink pasta overlooking the Mediterranean sunset. The next night I ended up in a hostel in a renovated elementary school (very, very creepy, and I think I was one of maybe 10 people there) and eating an entire pizza, my first in Italy, in a small pizzeria in a small village above La Spezia. Three italian men (the only other people in the restaurant) watched in awe as I devoured the entire plate, only able to shout "Where did it go?" in English and smile at the end.

Those were my first two days in Italy.
It only got better.

I took the train to Venice and had to catch my breath. It seems like I do that a lot these day, step out of a building, a station, around a corner, around a mountain, and just gasp. Things just appear that good to these old eyes of mine. I walked down steps into a film. The Grand Canal and the taxis zipping past and the flatfronted buildings precariously lining the walkways an the bridges over tiny water passages. I think Indiana Jones said it best when he sighed, "Ah, Venice". Well, maybe someone said it better.

And it just so happened that I wasn't alone in Venice. The first night, I met three Austrians and two Australians, who shared their house wine with me (literally from a a water bottle), and they showed me how to navigate the tricky streets of the city without accidentally walking down one of the ungated sets of stairs that lead directly into the canals. My second day, I had a visitor - a friend I had made in Munich. OK, let's let the cat out of the bag. It's a guy. I met a guy in Munich, who met up with me in Venice. And Paris. And Nice, Marseilles and Rome. This information is important to understanding my perspective today.

So this guy, let's call him James, and I decided to skip a 6.50 euro taxi ticket and to walk to a cheap hotel. So, backpacks in tow (four between the two of us), we navigated the slim streets o one of the best cities I have ever been in. We even managed to cross the Rialto (the big white marble bridge), backpacks and all, watching the sad looking coffee drinkers on either side of the canal with their feet dipped in water, as the water has somehow managed to rise up onto the sidewalks at least two inches on this particular day. We dropped the packs and went to St. Marks Square, at which point we looked around and said, eh, another city, another church, and this particular church had a very long line with people standing on raised platforms, just in case the canals rose.

Honestly, what kind of a design genius thinks, I have a brilliant plan! We will build a city on mushy, disconnected lagoons! It doesn't matter, though. I love it

But the best part of Milan was sunset. Bottle of wine (I know there is a trend going with the wine, but I swear its a cultural thing and I just don't want to go against the culture grain), cheese, those great olive oil crackers like you can get at Trader Joes, and the sunset, watching the taxis and cruise ships pass in their lanes, watching the families walk by with gelato. Venice was all about the sunsets.

Rome was a whirlwind of the unexpected. It was unexpected to show up at a hostel (nearly the cheapest available for two people) and be greeted by nuns, only to realize that the actual hostel was across the hallway in a hallway with many rooms off it, where the owner was a rowdy Sardinian in a wifebeater making free sangria for his guests. This would have been pleasantly unexpected had the bathroom had hot water.

It was unexpected to walk to the Colosseum and think, huh, that's smaller than I thought. Similarly, it was unexpected to walk up the stairs of Caesar's Palace (just like Vegas! but real...) and get yelled at for sitting down. Likewise, it was confusing as to why the Spanish Steps were built where they were when they weren't leading anywhere, and why it was impossible to take a photo of the Treve Fountain without someone's head in your way. Watching sunset (you can safely assume there is always a sunset) from the top of the Spanish Steps was a pleasant surprise, as was the fact that it was warm enough to ditch my sweater at dusk. Rome didn't strike me as home, but then again, it was bittersweet because it was the drop-off point for my friend, let's continue calling him James, who had to go home to resume normal, possibly banal life. But that is a story for another time. This is a story about Italy.

On our last night in Rome, we splurged and took a long stroll to Trastevere, the old, very "Roman" looking bit of the city, and found a tiny trattoria (criteria for choosing: had to have candles) and went menu crazy with...oh...three courses? Four courses? Something ridiculous, except that I ended up with seafood gnocchi and saltimbocca and feeling incredibly happy. I have already told my father: the saltimbocca was not as good as his, but still darn good. That same day we had spent at the Vatican. Oh, the Vatican. Aside from the museum, in which I walked through with my neck bent backward the whole time (suggestion: have people lay down and be moved through the Vatican museum on a conveyor belt) because all of the amazing stuff is on the ceiling. Of course, the lovely Italian guards in the Sistine Chapel shouting "NO TALKING! NO PEECTURES!" was a bit unnecessary, but absolutely fantastic. St. Peter's? I wanted to whisper into the walls, I know who's money built you. The money of guilty Catholics, poor and rich. Guilt money built you, St. Peter's. But this is not a story about religion, this is a story about Italy.

I was left in Termini station with a vague idea of how to feel better about my friend going home: I would catch the next train to Naples to visit a friend from Alameda. It was about time, anyway. I had told him I would be there...mid-September. End of October ended up being perfect. Did I happen to mention my new strategy for train stations? I go to the station and in my best accent "Prossima treno a________, per favore!" I just show up and hope for the best. Its a wonderful feeling, to be honest. And that's just what I did for Naples.

Nevermind I got stranded in the creepy train station for 2.5 hours due to a landlord and metro trains, etc. Nevermind the HUGE trek up the hill to the flat I was staying in with my friend. It was fantastic. The first thing I was taught by my friend, let's call him Colin, was to step out into traffic. If you don't step out into traffic, you will never cross the street. And you will probably get yelled at an honked at, but you just have to give them your best "HEY I'M WALKING HERE!" face and possibly shake your hands at them. (I didn't learn the word vafavanculo until later...)

Nevermind any of this because in Napoli there is pizza. And on this pizza there is cheese and tomatoes an one sprig of basil, and in my mouth it is the most fantastic thing I have ever experienced. And we ate many pizzas, and many coffees standing up at the bar. It was one raining night around dinner time that I came across another Italian word for the first time: sciopero. Now, when a man throws his hands up and smiles "Sciopero!" your reaction should be "Vafavanculo!" because this means there is an impromptu transit strike that you probably weren't aware of and is probably going to inconvenience you.

I love this word.

To be continued...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Catching Up

I'm going to begin this story by answering the question I get asked most frequently, even more so than "What is your name?" and that question is: Where have you been?

I spent four days in London, six in Barcelona, two in Granada, two in Sevilla, four in Lisbon, six working on a farm in Asturias, six in San Sebastian, four hours in Paris, two days in Munich, two in Salzburg, two in Vienna, two hours in Strasbourg, two days in Paris, two days in Nice, two days in Marseilles, one day in Nice, two days in Cinque Terre, two days in Venice, two days in Rome, and now I am hanging my hat, for a few days at least, in Naples.

It doesn't sound like so much, compared to so many people I meet, but I think I have been moving so quickly I can hardly catch my breath. I'm beginning to fall almost too easily into the vagabond lifestyle, living with the neck angled upward at the train departure sign, head cocked at the window watching the country go by. It is an absolute dream.

So how do I begin to describe what I've seen, who I've met, how I've felt, what I've smelled? How will I even begin to remember all of these things? Luckily, I keep a much more comprehensive paper journal than a blog (because internet is far and few between sometimes, and expensive.) But even so, how do I convince everyone that what I'm doing is having a profound effect on me?

A quick, unsatisfactory overview, for now.

Where did I leave off?

Asturias: shoveled donkey poo, nights were warm wind blowing and it smelled like alfalfa and cows, learned that I want to learn to sail a boat as a means to travel, and I love vegetables.

San Sebastian: had a love affair with pintxos, tested my youth with two 5 AM party nights, felt part of a family, lived like a queen.

Paris 4 hours: watched the sun rise over the Louvre, alone, in the Tulleries, had a good cry over my croissant out of profound happiness, scattered a bit of grandma and grandpa on the freshly cut grass. burned a hole in my feet walking to the Eiffel tower with my backpack on.

Munich: ate the best spicy sausage soup of my life and coupled it with a beer twice the size of my face. Did I mention Oktoberfest has rides? Met up with friends from Australia, made a new friend from Australia. Stayed in my first hotel room.

Salzburg: enchanted me with its icy alpine blue river and foot bridges, cobble stoned streets a schnitzel. Saw families eating giant ice cream sundaes for breakfast on Sunday and almost joined them. The daughter of my couchsurfing stay made me an embroidery floss bracelet. I was overwhelmed.

Vienna: big grey buildings underwhelmed me. Saw an opera standing up, and was musically pleased. Walked my hiney off.

Paris: Smells like excitement and calm and expectation. Sat by a small part of the river in the Crimee and watched pre-teens have their first kayak lesson. Met my Munich friend and drank a bottle of 1 euro wine by the Seine, followed by listening to Michael Jackson croon in the distance while watching the Eiffel Tower do a sparkling light show. Saw the most beautiful blue paint in the Louvre. The Mona Lisa was larger than I thought, but not as large as the giant stained glass windows in Notre Dame. It poured rain and we hid in the streets of Montmartre.

Nice: Went to the train station one morning with my Aussie and asked for the next good sounding train ticket. Nice was it. Got off the train to humid heat and nowhere to stay. Ended up in an ol French woman's pension for a lovely cheap price in slanted bunk beds and debatable hygenic standards. I spent one of my best days at the beach, going from swimming to sunning to climbing Nice hills for views, back to the water, back to the sun, then the sunset.

Marseilles: Slept on a floor mattress in the attic of an oddly cool hostel. It smelled like fish, in the best sense. Spent an hour watching yachts leave the old port into the sea from a large grassy hill with a palace on top.

Cinque Terre: was best done alone, and so it was. every step on my 10K hike reminded me that I was completely capable of anything I set my mind to. Met a friend from North Lake Tahoe and ate squid ink pasta over sunset.

Venice: is unreal. Smells like wood and gelato. Went to Murano and watched glass be made. Ate the good smelling Gelato. Made Austrian friends and drank homemade wine. Watched the sun set over the Grand Canal. took a water taxi, not a gondola.

Rome: my last days with my Aussie, so we ate a lot of pizza, watched the sun set over the Spanish steps, spent the day in the Vatican, and somehow even though the cold has certainly snapped, it was warm at night and walking through Travestere was fabulous. Ate saltimbocca, not as good as my father's,but still very good. It was hard to leave.

It seems like my trip has become about sunsets. I can't wait to find new places to see the sun do its daily duty.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nao Falo Portuguese

Recalling Lisbon is only strange because it seems like a dream. After my eighth hour on the bus from Sevilla, we crossed what looked like (in the dark) the San Francisco Bay, and I thought that I had magically bussed home. It was exciting and relieving until we entered the city, and I snapped out of it. At 10:00 PM I took on the Lisbon Metro system (which is incredibly clean, I should mention) and found myself in an incredibly perfect hostel for the night, being as they couldn´t recommend anywhere for me to buy food (Lisbon closes much earlier than Spain) and so they gave me a bowl of paella for free.

This is the hostel where I met the 5 Slovenians, though not so much met as heard. While unpacking in my room, I took a glance around at the remaining 5 beds. Boys, definitely boys. Then one entered in clothing limited to a towel. ¨Are you staying here?¨ I was asked, ¨Because we are five Slovenians.¨ Excellent. And what I learned? Slovenians drink a lot, and then come back to their lodgings singing loud Slovenian tunes at oh, four in the morning. Even theear plugs couldn´t drown out the revelrie. (Which, as a side note, is why I just couldn´t bring myself to book a bed in a 40 bed room in Munich, even if it was the cheapest thing.)

In Lisbon, I walked. I walked up and down the San-Francisco-esque streets (too late discovering that sometimes you could take shortcuts, like ducking into the Metro station to skip some particularly bad hills downtown. I went to a free museum at the top of the city where a man named Gulbenkian had spent his life collecting incredibly diverse pieces of global art (and you can walk end to end in an hour and a half!) I walked from the top of the city to the sea. I walked from the sea to the top of the Moorish district, and back down again.

Portugal is the half-brother of Spain that was unfortunately despised by its parents and locked in a closet for a couple hundred years. It is rustic, and it is ¨behind.¨ The buildings are all marked by a dripping conrete feeling, like the paint just can´t stand to be attached to buildings anymore. It feels just the tiniest bit like Havana, a bit smelly, a bit dirty, and the people cruise the streets oblivious to their slight disadvantage to the rest of the world. At least, this is what I saw.

I also saw a crazy possibly Russian man chase awful American tourist men who had supposedly taken pictures of Portuguese children and the Russian man was chasing them with a giant branch of peppers (?), calling them horrible things that I cannot bring myself to repeat here, eventually swinging his branch/sword at the horrible men and spraying dried peppers eveywhere, including on my lunch table.

There is a distinct type of music in Portugal called Fado, and Fado is about remembering and mourning the loss of the time in the past where prosperity and glory were to be had by the Portuguese peple, thought they will never have it again. I went with a hostel friend to listen to Fado in an incredibly crowded club (its poopular for tourists and locals alike), and though I couldn´t understand what they were saying, it was incredibly beautiful. An old man rose from the crowd and began to tell stories of Fado (in song, of course), and I nearly felt like I could understand, only from intonation and feeling. Portugal is stuck in the past, via their music, their streets, their clothing, their food, their traditions, but my God, do they love to tell the world about it.

In a park in Lisbon, in a part called Belem (the site where the Portuguese explorers set forth to colonize Brazil) another old man decided to piss me off. He told me it wasn´t safe to be alone in the park - in a park full of people, young old, families, groups of college students, etc. In the sunlight, surrounded by tourists. This was apparently not safe. He only spoke Portuguese, so I managed to tell him in Spanish (because he would not leave me alone until I answered his questions) that I was Teresa, from Madrid, I was having lunch alone because I got to have some time away from my family, who was staying in a hotel very close to the park and I would go see very soon. I´m getting better at explaining my fake self to awful old men.

I ate great food at one of my hostels in Lisbon, which had this great idea to serve cheap dinner right there at the hostel, just like being at home. And this is how I met a German girl and two young Australian girls. I say this because my ability to approach people I don´t knwo has greatly improved, especially girls. Exclusively girls. If I can´t speak the language, there is not a chance in Hell I will approach you if you are a man between 15 and 80. That´s just how the world works.

Oh yes, one more thing about Lisbon. They take great pride in a ¨Flea Market¨theyhold twice a week. It´s on the tourist map as a must see, so I set out with my German friend to go find it. The Lisbon flea market is this: a giant garage sale. At this garage sale, the good peddlers of Lisbon bring random crap they have sitting in their homes, like metal pipes, packaged toothbrushes, leather wallets, beaded jewelry, third or fourth hand books, underwear, pins, silverware, half-empty bottles of hairspray, and the like. It was terrific. It was like reading a book about Portugal in one experience. Here´s what we find valuable, here´s what we present to tourists, here´s what we possess as valuable. Here´s what we think of recycling, and so on and so forth. I liked Portugal for this reason: it wasn´t trying to impress anyone, ever, and thus, I didn´t have to either.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Some Gain in Spain, Part II

Free Walking Tours in Granada

"I got off the bus this morning wondering what place I had managed to travel to now. I am so happy I ended up in such a strange place, unlike anywhere I have ever been before."

It was 8:00 AM when I arrived in Granada, a place I decided to go to only because people had thrown the name around and I happened to like its description in my guide book. The train station was dirty. I went to the information counter to ask where to get the No. 3 bus, which would take me near my hostel - apparently, there were no buses. No buses? Yeah, okay. I poked my nose outside and took a good look around. Up the street were at least three buses lined up. No buses.

My room wouldn't be ready until 12:30 PM, said the slightly snippy hostel man, but I didn't care. I was certainly in the coolest spot in the city, up steep stone streets, through alleyways that smelled like incense and leather, so I took a free walking tour led by an Australian hippie with a feathered hat. He took us to gardens,views, told us history, inside an old bathhouse, etc. - though I found out unsurprisingly at the end that it wasn't free...(I only had 4 euros, sorry OZ!) By that time, I was exhausted. I passed out in my bed at 1:30 and didn't live again until 5.

I woke up to find everything amazing. I made a friend just by waking up at an abnormal time in my bed (Have you been sleeping this whole time?!) I walked down the street to a Moroccan restaurant and treated myself to a three course veggie meal (because boy do the Spanish like their meat and bread.)

The restaurant had awful service. I wasn't surprised, because I have been to zero restaurants on my trip so far with good service, except for the pub I ate fish and chips at in London (but besides her cheery attitude, all she did was bring a plate to my table.) You can't even transition from course to course without having to flag someone down and point out verbally and physically that you are hungry and now finished. And of course, water is not free. Its not free and it's expensive. Well shoot. But this restaurant peaked my interest because of an old man sitting in a corner at a RESERVED table. After about an hour, four men ran into the restaurant and carried the old man, who had either had a heart attack or heat stroke or a stroke stroke out into the street. It didn't make sense until I realized that ambulances can't drive in the Albaicin. I hope he's okay.

Two Scandinavians named Hanna and a German named Jutta later, I was conversing in international style. Add several bottles of 1 euro wine and it became even better. Girls are not usually my forte, but apparently I'm not as bad as I thought at making friends.

I spent a day at the Alhambra, the famous (perhaps one of the very most famous) Moorish palace in Granada. It was nearly a tourist trap. I waited 3 hours to get in. I paid 12 euro for my ticket. I walked in and unless you shelled out another 4 euro, you had absolutely no explanation of what anything was, so I made it up. "If this was my garden, I would have had my harem women sit with their legs exposed in this fountain.." etc. and so forth. I did this for two hours until I was finally allowed to go into the real palace (the rest was all military fluff and summer houses), which was okay. But to be honest, the Alhambra is much more beautiful as a view from afar.

It wasn't hard to leave Granada. I'm not exactly sure why I didn't stay longer in a place I loved except that instinct told me not to. This instinct has continued to guide me even to today.

Learning Park Etiquette in Sevilla

Sevilla is a college town. And the college is inside of an old cigar factory, so you know it has to be good. Sevilla also has no known maps that accurately show where streets lead in the old city, so you know there's bound to be trouble. This is why I ended up in a dark unknown plaza with nothing to defend myself but a bag of bread and brie, but also how I got to use some guts and Spanish to ask a nice looking woman to find me on the map.

Getting lost was the fun part, especially in the daylight. Streets wind in and out of plazas filled with people drinking beers in front of their neighborhood church at dusk. Each street has a different tiling/flooring, and all tourists love to peek into open doors leading to gardened courtyards in the middle of these charming apartments. White lofted tents cover the shopping district streets to shade teenage consumers. I (finally) found a bookstore where I could get something English to read - at the end of the day, I do not want to translate my literature for fun. The bookstore was the top floor of a music/movie store, and I bought a Call of the Wild/White Fang combo. Some people will know why that is.

Sevilla didn't do it for me people wise, especially not for old people. One evening I set off to find the Plaza de Espana, which was the MOST impressive building/fountain combo I have seen so far on my trip. I took some photos for some tourists and then went on my way, only to find an equally as impressive park with tropical plants and beautiful fountains. I was having the most wonderful time when an old man asks me for directions to a part of the park. I say, sorry, I don't know, I've never been here before. He proceeds to spend the next five minutes trying to walk with me, hold my hand, and give me a hug. Of course, this old bastard was A) a pervert and B) probably trying to rob me since he kept asking if I was going to take a picture of this or that (like this non-functional waterfall filled with garbage. Beautiful.) Luckily, much scolding in English and Spanish, some physical pushing and some quick walk/running later, I was happily on my way and possessing a whole new set of tools for fending off bad old men. Steer clear of bad old men.

Needless to say, I left Sevilla the next day.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

No Rain in Spain, Part I

I Ate Black Paella in Barcelona

In Barcelona, I learned to spend money. Boy, did I learn to spend money. On food...on paella. Tyler and I managed to eat every paella in sight, as well as buy a lot of beers.

In Barcelona I also remembered that I can speak Spanish. Stepping off the plane in Girona (Thanks RyanAir, for dropping me off in an airport an hour away from Barcelona...) it became immediately necessary to gear up for something different. I needed my language skills to buy a 12 euro bus ticket to the city.

Arriving at my first hostel was incredible. First, it was probably about 90 degrees, and humid. I walked about 6 blocks and navigated two subway lines to get to downtown. But the hostel was in the middle of everything. From the roof you could see nearly everything of tourist importance. From inside, things were a bit chaotic. 6 floors of partying foreigners. In my room was a sterile mix of men and women, including an incredibly benign and hard to shake-off Kiwi named...Jamie...yes, that was it. To ask any questions at the front desk was impossible, because there were just so many people, so Tyler and I just took to walking. I embraced it because I knew I couldn't quite do the wandering-until-lost thing by myself as confidently. We saw the crazy street performers on La Rambla, bar crawled, went to a great underground museum, etc. etc. And of course we ate. We swapped hostels on the third night to a down-to-earth hostel/apartment in a residential neighborhood - still one of my best decisions on this trip.

We took the bus to Parque Guell. Do you ever have moments when you don't think about anything except how happy you are? That was Parque Guell. (Of course, this was after I waited to use a park bathroom for 20 minutes. It was in a cave.) From the top of the park you could see the entire city, and the Mediterranean. You could appreciate the uncreative city planning that made completely straight streets in all directions, cutting the city with knives like urban butter. This is the park that is famous for Gaudi's mosaic lizards. But better than the mosaic lizards was sitting on the stone sidewalk listening to a busker play guitar in a cave for over an hour. And that was when everything was just perfect.

My last day in Barcelona (I spent 5-6) I was on my own. This gave me an opportunity to catch up on my journal writing. It was a bit pathetic though, being as I tried to go to the beach,got to the beach, realized I couldn't leave my backpack on the sand, sat on the hot sand, knew I would get burnt, couldn't find shade, and eventually ended up eating crusty bread in a planter box (not on, in), which was under a tiny tree giving the only free shade I could find. Crazy tourist...

Night Train

I took a night train to get out of Barcelona. I arrived at the station an hour and a half early, like for a flight but of course this was unnecessary. Here I gained the ability to sit for incredibly long periods of time doing absolutely nothing, including looking at the clock. Boarding the train was laughable. My backpack didn't fit through the aisles (I'm guessing obese people don't either) so I had to plow through, dragging on either side. The cabins weren't numbered well, so this created international chaos - to add to this, hardly anyone spoke the same language.

My room was me, an Australian, a Japanese, and an old Spanish woman. It was incredible. I felt like I was in a bad smelling movie. From my top bunk I could almost touch the other wall (across the other bunk). The Spanish woman liked me because I could speak Spanish and therefore was her only company (she spoke no English), so she gave me half her sandwich (which was delicious) and a nectarine, which I somehow lost.

** Yes, this was written in the same day as before. I'm catching up for three weeks of neglect.

The Very Beginning

You probably want to know what I've been doing. Let me begin by saying three things:

1. I am very fortunate to be where I am.
2. My grandma, grandpa and uncle sit in the outer flap of my purse at all times.
3. I have no idea why I'm here.

I've spent more than three weeks now dipping my toes in the water of independence. Independence from what? From papers, from the grips of reality television (Dating in the Dark, I miss you so much...) from bills, from rage. I somehow managed to trade in everything and put the most important bits in two red backpacks.

So far, I haven't managed to lose anything. Two pairs of pants two skirts, 4 sock pairs, 6 underwears (underwears?), four pairs of shoes - at least one of which will not be coming home. An arsenal of over the counter drugs, a makeup case, a charger case, a sleep sack, and I suppose I did bring some shirts...etc. What have I bought? Unfortunately nothing for you so far. I bought a shirt at a Portuguese flea market and two light paperback books. Now you know what I've been up to.

But the very beginning?

I got on a plane. You know all of those times when you sit in your solo plane seat (which I manage to do even when traveling with family) and all of the good looking young people walk straight past you and sit in the seat behind you? Well, the gods of flight spared me, because the best looking British gentleman in the airport plopped down right next to me. This was unfortunately unfortunate because I spent most of the flight running my mouth with nervous chat or sleeping with my mouth open. But I took this as a good sign, that I didn't sit with anyone smelly or with awful teeth picking habits.

In London, the woman at Immigration grilled me about my plans. It just wasn't going to fly with her, to say "I have a one way ticket and I have no idea when I am going to leave." So I made up a story...that I had a flight out of Europe on October 29th (giving myself a month buffer from my real kicked-out date.) I started to worry that I really did have no plan.

On the Tube I took up three human spaces with my backpacks. I arrived at my hostel. My room was eight bunkbeds with funky orange-red curtains and equally funky thin carpet. It was exactly like Girl Scout camp, except I missed my friends, though I did make some new ones.

The following are excerpts from my journaling about London, England:

"One of the best parts of traveling alone is that I have no one to yell at when I get hungry - this leads me to believe that I probably had a choice all along..."

"Already I have had conversations with several people I probably never would have talked to - Iranian woman outside of St. Paul's, awful and angry drunk North Irish guy, and the Canadian/Asian girl who claimed she would eat anything and then said no to Chinese food, fish and chips, vegetarian food, lamb curry, etc." PS - that was hilarious.

I kept walking past things I maybe should have seen. I took a photo of the tower of London and then walked away. I walked around the free parts of the Globe Theatre (ie. the gift shop) and then walked away. Parliament, schmarliament. Buckingham Palace, biggest disappointment ever (you call that a palace?). I did pay to go into Westminster Abbey - best 12 pounds I spent in those four days. I mean, I stood 3 feet from Queen Elizabeth I. The free audio tour wasn't bad either.

What I really did in London was start to figure out how to be alone. How to see a museum alone, how to eat lunch alone, how to approach a new group of people alone. I got a good nose-ring hold on my instincts - like saying no to the white Hawaiian pothead when he asked me to go see a free anarchaistic "cabaret" show in an unknown district of London. No thanks, kid, you give me the creeps. Went to Notting Hill Carnival alone, only to find that it was like Picnic Day on international steroids, being held in a swanky neighborhood where adults with babies in front-carriers jumped up and down to techno music while spraying beer everywhere and then peeing on someone's formally nice porch.

I decided to meet Tyler in Barcelona,and of course, almost missed my flight. Almost had a heart attack on the bus to airport, because the bus driver was so slow I almost missed my flight. Almost had another heart attack running with my backpack to the terminal, and then another one when a man with giant poles slung over his back turned and decked me in the nose (to which his elderly mother said to me "You shouldn't have been standing so close!") And thus, the beginning ended.