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 house...in 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...