Spaniards love their holidays-- it seems that almost every day is a Saint's Day (or recently, All Saints Day.) Perhaps the only thing they love more, besides ham, is Columbus, who is something of a national hero. There are streets named after him in most cities, statues in town squares, museums, and even a national holiday. It takes place around the same time as the American Columbus Day, and to celebrate I decided to go check out Valladolid, the medium-sized (population 350,000) city to the southwest of Palencia. Valladolid also happens to be the place where Columbus lived his last years, and where he died, so it made the visit's timing especially apropos.
It's not a city with a good reputation: the people are said to be cold and closed, and someone once told me it was the "ugliest city in Spain." But at the same time, people say the same about Bostonians--who I adore--and about Parisians--who I had no problems with in the course of an eight-day visit. And no one could call Allston, my beloved former Bostonian neighborhood, anything but homely. So, I approached with both trepidation and skepticism, and after several months of hanging out virtually in the couchsurfing group there, watching a close-knit and welcoming community getting together for dinner or to go camping, I felt encouraged to meet them and their city.
In Valladolid, I stayed with Carlos, an enthusiastic host and beer connoisseur/collector with a very impressive collection from all over the world. The first day we walked all around the city, which I found to be quite lovely, although scrappy and unsightly on the edges (but no more than any other Spanish cities I've seen). It has a stunning main plaza, a pretty zone in the center full of old architecture, a university feel (it houses one of Spain's oldest universities), and a lovely big park full of (strangely enough) peacocks. The second day I stayed with Elizabeth, a fellow teacher in the Language Assistant program, and she showed me around further, leading me on a stroll through the city's shady riverside walk, its "beach" (of sorts), and a few old neighborhoods.
Valladolid Plaza Mayor, the model for the Plaza Mayor in Madrid
Twilight in the park by the river
I spent the first evening acquainting myself with the Valladolid couchsurfing crew, who were just as warm and friendly as I expected. We had a small party at Carlos' house, a beer tasting, sampling beers from Carlos' collection (Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, USA, etc). The tasting was fun and low key, and we spent several hours chatting and sipping.
I was impressed with the way my Spanish held up over the course of the evening. But I've also found that after a certain period, it's like a thick plate of glass goes up between me and whoever I'm talking with. I can see the other person speaking on the other side, but it's all hitting the glass and sliding off, and I can only look at him or her with blinking incomprehension and give that universal "I can't understand you but I am trying to pretend I can" smile.
Nevertheless, it was a very pleasant time. I met a lot of kind, interesting people; they asked me about American politics and culture, we talked about couchsurfing, they made sushi and ordered pizza. Along with the beer, I felt like I was tasting a bit of What Could Be. Uprooting your life is hard in any circumstances and is perhaps hardest in a new country with a new culture and language. I had been feeling lonely and frustrated with the pace of my friendship development. (It's one thing to understand that building relationships takes time, and it's another thing entirely to live it.) But this was one night to have a built-in group of friends, ready-made and waiting. It was heartening, and I took that strength home with me to Palencia to keep on with the work of life-making.
But when they finished their party at 2:30 AM and got ready to go out into the city, I couldn't say yes. Spaniards have amazing party endurance, the kind that an American girl has to train for the way she would a marathon, little by little. They got home at 7:30 in the morning; I slept soundly.
Carlos' collection, including beer from the Congo and a Pilsner from 1960 Czechoslovakia
Valladolid Plaza Mayor by night
(More thoughts on life-building, language frustrations, and a return to Valladolid for a ballet-flamenco performance of 'Carmen' coming soon....)