Sunday, December 30, 2012

A pause

Hello there! I'm just checking in from the coast of Northern Ireland to wish you and yours a Merry Something and a Happy New Year! I'm on a crazy-fun four-country tear (Spain-Portugal-Northern Ireland-Ireland) for the holidays, and will have lots of great updates for you-- from delayed thoughts on expat Thanksgiving, to an Andalucian Christmas, to the power and immediacy of Belfast's recent history--in the new year.

See you in 2013!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Palencia-Linares: A comparison

I am unabashedly a child of the internet generation, so when I was assigned to live in Linares last spring my first reaction was to do some online digging about my new Andalucia-home-to-be. First, I found the basics: the area's background as a mining center, some photos of the town hall and Paseo de Linarejos, a schedule from the World Chess Championship that is held here every year. But I also discovered some strange parallels between my new and old stomping grounds, and now that I've introduced you to both of them, I can present my findings.


Population: Between 65,000 and 75,000, depending on your data source
Closest large city: Valladolid, population 300,000
Distance to said city: 45 minutes by train or 1 hour by bus
Distance from Madrid: 3 hours by bus to the north
Distance from ocean: 2 hours by car to Santander, on the Cantabrian Sea
Thus: Effectively half way between Madrid and the north coast
Distance from famous university city: 2 hours by train to Salamanca
Tourist status: Virtually unvisited by tourists (despite a beautiful cathedral, Roman bridge, and 19th century main street); surrounded by famous Spanish destinations such as Salamanca, Leon, Burgos, and Avila.

Population: Between 60,000 and 65,000, depending on your data source
Closest large city: Jaen, population 150, 000 (okay, I admit that I thought this number was closer to Valladolid's before looking into it)
Distance to said closest city: 45 minutes by train or 1 hour by bus
Distance from Madrid: 3 hours by bus to the south
Distance from ocean: 2 hours by car to Velez-Malaga, on the Mediterranean Sea
Thus: Effectively half way between Madrid and the south coast
Distance from famous university city: 2 hours by train to Granada
Tourist status: Virtually unvisited by tourists (despite vibrant tapas and flamenco traditions and a cute downtown); surrounded by famous Spanish destinations such as Cordoba, Sevilla, Granada, and Malaga.

You tell me: coincidence, or something stranger?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A walk through Linares

For a while now, I've been promising a description of my new home, Linares, a small city of 65,000 in northern Andalucia. In fact, I've had that very sentence written in a "draft" version of this blog for a few weeks, but if I'm following the 'open and honest blogging' policy I've begun this year, I have to explain that the "coffee conundrum" from the last true update here turned into a full-blown depression. I've had a few great recent adventures which kept me mostly sane (a wonderful weekend in Sevilla; an adventure in a nearby UNESCO Renaissance town), but for about a month I was seriously considering ending my European adventure, flying home, and seeing what the universe might offer elsewhere. I've had delays in blogging before, but none came from such a dark place. I'm happy to report that I seem to be getting past it, however, and I'm feeling ready to share Linares with you.

(Unfortunately, part of that Sevilla adventure involved the loss of my beloved camera, which means that for now this will have to be a tour solely in words. Photos to follow, however. I hope.)

When I first arrived in Linares, I was disappointed, I'll admit it. In an ironic twist, I spent last year having strangers tell me that Palencia was ugly when I thought it lovely; this time, I'd had people tell me Linares was pretty, and I found it initially the kind of boxy, utilitarian eyesore that represents the Franco- and post-Franco era building booms throughout this country. I had looked forward to the tangle of streets in the downtown area that google maps showed me (I've always loved getting lost in winding alleys) but found them actually TOO confusing-- for whatever reason, it's the standard here to only mark streets at the beginning and end, meaning that even the locals don't know the name of the streets (and confused apartment hunters from foreign lands are out of luck.) At first arrival, I was told that there was little in the way of live music--a perennial favorite activity for me--and was brought several days in a row by different people to the same "only cool bar in town" (Elviris, which does have a funky charm in its cheap drinks, old-school Americana decorations, and classic rock soundtrack.) For the first several weeks, I didn't see any posters advertising events, my tried-and-true method for finding out what's going on in a small town. Things were looking decidedly dark.

My outlook started to improve with a trip to Jaen, which I wrote about in the Spain Scoop post linked here last week. The city, which is the county seat of our province, has a reputation as ugly and isolated-- however, I found it lively, agreeable, and actually quite pretty. After that trip, I began to accept the possibility that things might not be exactly what they seemed. It's been a struggle, but in the past few weeks I've climbed out of that disappointment, and this is the good in what I found:

It's true that most of Linares is not an old place-- it launched from a tiny village to a successful mining town in the 1800s (and was thus one of the richest places in southern Spain for a time.) The settlement itself dates back to Roman times, in the form of Castulo, an ancient town whose ruins lie a few kilometers outside Linares. Still, there is a small "casco antiguo" or old town--a kilometer-square patch of grey-brick roads lined with orange trees and 200-year-old houses in various degrees of romantically crumbling disrepair--which still holds onto some charm. My own apartment lies on the edge of this area, next to an empty 19th century palace. A small statue of a rooster (which gives this 'Plaza del Gallo' its name) looks out onto the larger Plaza Nueva, a raised brick triangle lined with trees and set with benches, surrounded by ornate plasterwork buildings. I pass the plaza several times a day and catch glimpses of many an older couple chatting on the benches, furious mini-soccer game studiously avoiding the statue in the center, or teenage couple looking for somewhere to canoodle in peace.

In the opposite direction, a long, narrow street lined with old-style brick houses runs along the crest of a hill. It's customary to leave entryway doors slightly ajar, and the observant visitor can occasionally catch glimpses of beautifully-kept courtyards within. After a few hundred yards, the street runs through the postage-stamp size Plaza Siete Esquinas, with its arcing brickwork and elegant wrought iron fountain. Most mornings I take a right down a small hill here, toward the elementary school where I teach.

During the day, I can sometimes here the chiming bells of Iglesia Santa Maria between lessons on telling time or the castles of the United Kingdom. The church is one of the oldest in the city, and its tall, brown, octagonal steeple hints at its history as a mosque once upon a time. I always take a moment to appreciate the church's austere beauty before stopping at the small, family-run grocery across from the school to buy fresh pears, pomegranates, and whatever butchery product the owner can up-sell to me that particular day.

Following the alley around the Iglesia Santa Maria Plaza, one finds the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (city hall) spread out down wide, sweeping stairs. To one side, that bastion of Spanish urbanity Corte Ingles (the kind of department store that no longer exists in the US) takes up almost an entire block, and past this a long boulevard pauses at a plaza with fountains and statues of miners before dissolving into industrial blocks and, later, stands of olive trees. Across the street, the old city hall, another 19th century brownstone confection under constant renovation, sits waiting to be inhabited again. And in between, the brick plaza is lined with palm trees and discreetly arcing fountains. This weekend it was the site of a craft market, where I bought multiple pairs of 2-euro earrings and a beautiful, handmade stool made out of the stump of an old olive tree. In good weather, coffee and tapas bars put out tin tables to take advantage of the sunshine.

A smaller street out of the plaza leads to the heart of town, an area called "Ocho Puertas" (eight doors) that is the only approximation of "main street" in a town with no real center. It's a bustling shopping area with Madrid-style old buildings topped with icing flourishes and lined with balconies, and people come from all over the countryside to shop here. The diversity of stores calls to mind Palencia's Calle Mayor-- tasteful  cafes, bakeries, an art supply shop, a household appliance store, the requisite Zara (an extraordinarily popular European low-cost clothing store), and a seemingly unending supply of shoe-and-boot outlets. The streets here are lined with stylish streetlights, and for good reason-- at sunset, Linarenses turn out in droves for the "paseo" I grew to know and love in Palencia. It seems that it doesn't matter where you go in Spain, the people love their nightly strolls. Here one also finds the promised tangle of streets, replete with more shoe stores, a lovely coffee shop, and a produce market.

Another popular strolling spot lies just beyond Ocho Puertas: the Paseo de Linarejos is a wide boulevard lined with intricately tiled benches and the tallest, stateliest palms in the city. It starts from the beautiful (and, depending on your perspective, sadly or happily little-used) yellow-and-white art deco bullring and finishes at a confection of a church about a mile away. The paseo is popular with dog walkers, old couples, mothers with strollers, teenage skateboarders, and the occasional wayward underage drinker. Its sides are crowded with sweet shops, bars, and an old-style churro cafe. On Tuesdays and Saturdays a gypsy market sells all manner of clothing and fresh vegetables.

As for live music-- it's harder to find than I expected, but I've been happy with what I've found. Andre Segovia, who I recently heard described as 'one of the most important artists in the history of guitar', was from Linares, and the museum devoted to his life sits on Plaza Nueva, a two minute walk from my apartment. The museum hosts piano and classical guitar concerts fairly frequently, and they are almost always free and definitely always beautiful. Linares is also home to a variety of peñas, social clubs based around a topic, from sports to bullfighting to flamenco, and the flamenco peñas periodically host small free concerts with local artists and tapas at hand. The taranta, a particularly powerful and mournful genre of flamenco, has its origins in Linares and other mining towns in Jaen and the neighboring region of Almeria, and I'm growing to appreciate the pure emotion and vocal power singers of taranta display. On the other side stylistically, I've even attend a rock show, at a great theme bar on Paseo de Linarejos (Pub Fiction, with Pulp Fiction decorations, obviously.)

Lastly, but certanly not least, the great and mighty tapa deserves more than a mere mention in a passage on flamenco. Jaen (and the region directly south, Granada) is famous as Tapa Country: not only are the tapas here often generous, but by law they must come free with every drink. (Notice I say tapas and not pintxos-- see last summer's posts on Basque Country for discussion on that subject.) A night out in Linares is not complete without a stop for tapas, which can take the form of a big plate of jamon serrano, a homemade empanada, a small portion of meatballs in savory sauce, or a half kebab. On Thursday, Friday, or Saturday nights the bars overflow with Linarenses eating, drinking, and making merry until well past midnight, making slow circuits around the city to eat a bite here and a morsel there. Catholicism is one thing here, but tapas are a religion, too, and one I certainly can get behind as I settle into my new Andalucian life.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Spain Scoop--Jaen

I'm happy to announce that I have a piece up today at "The Spain Scoop," definitely one of my favorite English-language online publications covering Spain. Check it out!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Coffee and confidence

Okay, I'll admit it. Things still aren't improving all that much. While I am open to the possibility that memories of the beginning of my year in Palencia are at this point pretty rose-colored, it still seems to me that this time around is proving a lot tougher to start out. The stress of working at two very different schools simultaneously, the complications of living in an old apartment, the seeming scarcity of students in need of private tutors, the always-challenging process of making real friendships (as opposed to social connections of convenience; "Hey, I'm here, you're here, we might as well...")-- it's all adding up to mean my first month in Andalucia has been rather a challenge.

It's improving little by little, however. I've started feeling out Linares (watch for a more detailed description of my new town in the coming days), discovering the theater, some local flamenco social clubs (called "peñas"), and a mountain of delicious--and free!-- tapas. I'm gathering acquaintances, including the son of the principal of my elementary school, that school's gym teacher, a handful of other American teachers, a group of women who want to do a language exchange. I've ventured out to see the nearest big city, Jaen (verdict: Prettier and more engaging than I had hoped and than its reputation suggested) and a nearby smaller Renaissance town, Baeza, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. So, the hope is that things will start looking up soon.

In fact, I met for the second time with the exchange group this week. We had coffee together at Rosario Cafe in the "old town" of Linares, a compact web of grey-brick streets lined with a strange combination of crumbling palaces and formidable 19th century homes passed generation-to-generation. We talked about our cultures, our jobs, and our hobbies over coffee and hot chocolate, and as we drank I was reminded of a tiny frustration--one of the mountain of minute culture clashes that crop up in the daily life of an expat--from last summer.

One of the women ordered a "cafe con hielo"-- coffee with ice. This is a typical summer drink in Spain, although some people enjoy it year round. However, unlike American "iced coffee," the waitress brings the usual tiny cup of piping-hot lava, accompanied by a glass of ice. It is up to the drinker to combine the two as he or she wishes.

Therein lies the problem: for the longest time last summer, I couldn't get the hang of it. I would lose my nerve half way or incorrectly estimate the necessary angle and somehow there would suddenly be coffee all over the table or ice cubes in my lap.

I brought up the topic with the group at Rosario, and they showed me the trick again-- a deft, quick flick of the wrist and a smooth, unhalting pouring action. "It's all about confidence." They told me. "You have to decide to do it, boldly, without stopping. If you doubt, that's when you get into trouble."

As I note the passing of my first month here, I can't help thinking about this "coffee confidence." When things aren't going perfectly at the beginning this way, it's hard to know the best approach toward improvement. Is it better to flick my wrist and pour, diving headlong into whatever opportunities await me in Linares, feigning confidence and happiness where I lack it and waiting for reality to catch up? Or is that approach naive, and I should try something more pragmatic and proactive, looking for activities and friends more aggressively? To bring the metaphor to its slightly nonsensical extreme, at what point is the coffee so bad that it's worth spilling all over the floor and going back to buy something else; maybe tea this time?

A week or so ago I was talking to a friend on Skype in the afternoon. "I don't think you have to worry. I'm sure that in 20 years you'll look back on this time positively, without regrets" she told me.

A pause.

"Well, or maybe at that point you'll know that it was the worst choice you could have made," she said, then laughed. I did, too, perhaps a bit uneasily. In the next room, I could hear my afternoon coffee start to boil.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Sunflower Finish

As the weeks go by here in Andalucia, the relevance of the following anecdote fades faster and faster. Be that as it may, I still want to share it with you all, as a way to sew up my Castilla y Leon experience and make way for more Andalucian thoughts and hijinks.

We return to the scene of the crime, as it were, in late July. After finishing a seemingly-cursed-but-ultimately-beautiful trip across the north coast, I spent a week at Vaughan Town, a volunteer English immersion camp where they did not pay me the 500 euros I would have earned at the camp-to-be of the summer but did supply room and board. It was a lovely five days filled with new friends, deep in the ruggedly empty mountains of Soria.

Before arriving in Soria, I spent quite a bit of time on public transport-- first a train from Bilbao to Palencia to collect my things, then a bus from Palencia to Madrid, and then another from Madrid to Soria. I've always enjoyed the looking-out-the-window aspect of overland travel (especially trains, which offer such interesting slice-of-life glimpses of small-town life), and there was a particularly rich, specific satisfaction to the view during these trips.

When I first arrived in Spain in September 2011, the endless fields of Castilla y Leon were dull and dead, almost burnt looking, after the brutal heat of August. I remember watching expanses of past-peak sunflower fields race by on my first bus ride up to Palencia and during my trip back down to Madrid for orientation at the beginning of October. The stalks in those fields were bent and broken, browned to a crisp, and they made me wish for the fresh green beauty I was sure had preceded the present circumstances. I think I even mentioned it here in my first entries.

In any case, as my year wound to a close, I got that wish. July was the height of sunflower season in north-central Spain, and it seemed like nearly every field was covered completely in a carpet of velvety green plants and accompanying plate-sized flowers, startling in their sunny hue. The image was especially affecting with the speed of train travel. Mile after mile, we raced past flowers by the acre, faces all turned at the same angle toward the sun (in Spanish sunflower is "girasol," which literally means "spinning with the sun.") The fields blurred into green green and gold streaks as we passed, the colors so much more intense, so much richer, than the wheat and corn that was already blanching gold in the long, dry summer.

The greater metaphor was not lost on me: here I was, at once speeding toward my departure and managing to enjoy, albeit fleetingly, the very real flowering of a year's labor and adventures.

A few days later, I was back in the US.

A photo I did not take (not easy to get good images from aboard a train) that almost manages to capture the beauty and technicolor of Spanish sunflower fields

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Bad Times

The last you heard of me was mid-July, en route home for a much-needed vacation. Really, you hadn't heard much of me before that, either. The last true update came from the end of June, a lovely span of time for teaching, relaxation, exploration, and enjoyment of a Palencia summer just starting to show its most beautiful blossom.

Except that then it all went to hell.

There are very few travel blogs (or at least very few I've read) that address the darker side of travel. It makes sense, of course. Unpleasant travel experiences are negative enough the first time around for the people living through them-- why would a traveler want to subject him or herself, or his/her audience, to a review?

But bad experiences, and even bad streaks, are of course a very real part of traveling. Buses are delayed, plans fall through, weather changes for the worse, important items are stolen, sickness pounces. Hell, just off the top of my head, drawing from my own experiences I can think of, I've: dropped my camera in the English Channel off the coast of Cornwall, got dysentery in Nujiang (Yunnan) during my thesis research, accidentally offended the Muslim sensibilities of my Palestinian host in Jordan, showed up late at night in a tiny Normandy town in the pouring rain and no host in sight for more than an hour, and (most infamously) spent four hideously cramped, hot days shuttling around the hellish North Indian bus system, from one incorrect town to the next.

So: July 2012. I had been hired to work in a summer camp in Cantabria, in the Spanish northern interior, for the last two weeks of July. I decided to give up my Palencia apartment on the first of the month in order to use my rent money to travel. I planned a beach-and-culture vacation across Asturias, Cantabria, and Basque Country (Pais Vasco). I spent a desperate several days packing up my apartment and departed for Oviedo, where I had exactly one day to enjoy my new Asturian surroundings when the proverbial first shoe dropped: the director called me bright on Sunday morning, while I picked through antiques and cheap clothing at the market, and told me that the camp had been suddenly and unceremoniously cancelled. I found myself suddenly out 500 euros (more, really, given how much extra I'd paid for a flight home that coincided with the camp schedule) and homeless for the next month.

I spent the next day panicking, then decided to plow ahead with my couchsurfing adventure along the Cantabrian Sea/Bay of Biscay. Unfortunately, the sudden implosion of my summer plans was just a preview of the way things would go until my departure for the US. Just within the ensuing 2.5 weeks I suffered through bad weather (unseasonably cold and wet even for usually cold and wet Asturias), suddenly unavailable hotels or hosts, a brief bout with fleas or bedbugs in the hostels I shared with pilgrims on the northern Camino de Santiago, a sprained ankle, a stolen credit card, and general loneliness and increasing discouragement.

It was an incredibly stressful period that sometimes felt unending-- just when I was recovering from one physical or emotional setback, another seemed to be on the way. But despite all that the bright spots were intensely bright. I slipped in a peaceful beach weekend in tiny Luanco (just before I slipped again, this time on rain-slicked cobbles and suffered the aforementioned ankle injury.) I marveled at the stunning Llanes cliff-and-ocean vistas (before fog descended and obscured them completely.) On July 4, I purchased digestive cookies, chocolate, and a bag of the weirdly-chewy-pink-and-white creation that pass for a Spanish marshmallows and taught my couchsurfing host to make s'mores using tea light candles. I used some of my extra time in Basque Country to eat my weight in delicious Basque pintxos (incredibly intricate mini-meals) and hike an unbelievably scenic seaside monastery, balanced precariously on top of dramatic sea cliffs. I was determined to surmount my itching legs, lost money, illness, and anxiety. It got a lot easier to do that after one evening in particular, which changed my perspective on "the bad times" of travel.

I didn't mean to spend as long in Ribadesella as long as I eventually stayed. I'd traveled through with my parents during their Easter visit-- we'd wanted to visit the 25, 000 year old cave paintings there but, due to bad weather and timing miscalculations, missed our appointment. I had resolved to return, and return I did. But, as sometimes happens with nomadic travel, I seemed to be caught in some strange magnetic storm around the town, and I couldn't seem to leave. I saw the paintings (which were breathtaking, especially one particular 10, 000 year old horse's head that looked like it had been scrawled the day before), then went to the previously discussed July 4th celebration in a nearby town.  I came back, then left again to go to a cider festival (where it rained all day, I missed the major festivities due to train schedules, and my host had to suddenly cancel on me). Another return-- this time to attempt a canoe trip which was unpleasantly rained out. An ill-fated hostel misadventure later, I decided it was worth it to stay around for the town's Patron Saint celebrations.

I was feeling decidedly fed up, I'll admit it. The rain was unremitting, and I was disappointed about my cancelled canoeing trip and stressed about finding somewhere to stay in my next stop and how to stretch the money I had left to fill the time until my flight home. Tempted to pout in my hostel, I instead walked across the narrow bridge over the mouth of the river and joined in the festivities. The rain slowed to a trickle, and the statue of the Saint, Maria Magdalena, was carried out of its shrine on the shoulders of priests, follow by a line of solemn musicians playing an Asturian instrument heavily reminiscent of bagpipes.

Most patron saint festivals include a parade through town, but Ribadesella is a fishing port, and the citizens choose to honor their saint in their own way. I watched in the watery twilight as Maria Magdalena was placed carefully in a fishing boat, festooned with flags and flowers and filled with adoring locals. A second boat held the bagpipers, and the two led a solemn parade of at least 60 boats (pleasurecraft, fishing rigs, and local police/navy alike) out into the open ocean, where a bouquet of flowers was tossed into the water in honor of fishermen lost over the year.

Santa Maria Magdalena starts her voyage into the Cantabrian Sea outside Ribadesella

The maritime parade ended with a brief terrestrial procession to the saint's shrine, where the crowd paused to sing a hymn to her. The shrine was at the edge of the carnival portion of the festival, so the harmonies of voices raised in song mingled with the beeps and booms of the spinning tea cups and bumper cars, while the saint's halo was set aglow by the oranges and greens of neon lights from the Ferris wheel. I wiped the fog from my glasses and took a moment to appreciate this beautiful intermingling of old and new traditions, writ small in the few moments the Saint spent raised against the sky. A string of bad luck and a bad attitude couldn't take that away from me, and that knowledge carried me through the bad times to come, all the way back to the US.

You might ask why I've waited until now to tell you about this. It's mid-October now, and Maria Magdalena has been resting in her shrine for almost 3 months. In between, I spent almost seven weeks recharging my batteries and reconnecting with my family, friends, and beloved city, then returned to Spain for my second year on the Iberian peninsula.

Well, the Bad Times come in many forms-- that's the short answer to "Why now?" Of course I remember having a difficult time getting used to Palencia last year, but I'm willing to entertain the possibility that 8 months of subsequent happiness have colored those initial times a bit rosier than than they really were.

I'm living in Andalucia this year, in a small town called Linares--more on that soon--and I'll be honest with you: my first few weeks here have been pretty difficult. The language is spoken differently here, and everything is even newer and more overwhelming than I anticipated. New friends are hard to come by, the apartment hunting process was much more difficult than I had hoped, my new apartment is presenting several stubborn issues, and I am struggling with my expectations and hopes for this year and the D word (disappointment. More on that later, too.)

But last night one of my first Linares friends, a gym teacher at the elementary school where I am working, took me to a local "feria" (what patron saint festivals are called here in the south.) In a small, out-of-the-way plaza crowned by palm trees, an enthusiastic rock band pumped out covers by the likes of KISS and The Cranberries, while under a white tent neighbors drank beer and ate tapas together. The lead singer launched into an impressive version of "Zombie," and I watched grandmothers and grandfathers nod along in rhythm with a group of faux-bored teenagers perched on the fence off to the side. The tang of roasting meat and fresh beer floated on the breeze, and a motley crew of parents and children and twenty-somethings swayed with their hands in the air, caught up in the music.

For a minute I forgot my anxieties and remembered, instead, that night in Ribadesella and the potential for the bad times to be... not so bad after all.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

All good things must come to an end

... including a lovely year teaching in central Spain and an eventful but beautiful trip along the north coast. At the moment I'm en route to Soria, where I'll spend the next week volunteering at an English camp. I hope to find time then to update you all on my most recent adventures, as well as more thoughts on endings.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The (language of) rain in Spain-- Fun with Spanish, 2

(This entry is the second in an occasional series on fun/interesting discoveries I've made while blundering my way through Castilian Spanish.)

The school year is over, and I'm taking advantage of a block of free time before my flight home to do some traveling through northern Spain. This area--which includes the provinces of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and Basque Country (Pais Vasco)-- is famous for its beautiful, wild coast; fantastic seafood; rich regional cultures; and spectacular, spectacularly green mountainous scenery.

Emphasis on the green and on the way it gets that way. Much like its Celtic and British cousins, northern Spain is impossibly green, thanks to copious amounts of rain.

It follows, then, that there is plenty of wordplay in the language when it comes to wet weather.

1) Pouring
As a language nerd, I always love to teach my students English idioms. I think idioms in general are pretty fascinating. One that has always been popular with my classes is "It's raining cats and dogs." I guess I can't blame them for enjoying it-- it's a pretty silly image.

The Spanish equivalent is "Está lloviendo a cántaros," which means literally, "It's raining vases" (the closest translation in this case would be, I guess, "It's raining buckets.")  In this case a cántaro is a large clay vase or pot, usually terra cotta and with two handles. In years past cántaros were used to collect drinking water, which makes the meaning of the phrase clear and gives it an optimistic tone ("Hooray, we'll have water to drink!") that's absent in any of our commentary about pets.

2) The silliest rain
Legend has it that the Inuit have 200 words for snow; it follows that the perpetually moist Asturians would have a number of words for rain. My favorite so far (which applies here in Asturias but which I have heard used in other parts of the country, as well) is mojabobos.

To understand this term, we need to split it into two parts. The first, moja, comes from the verb mojarse, which means "to get wet." The word bobo is a slang term that means something like "foolish person," "idiot," or (to reach for a term in yet another language) schlemiel.

Mojabobos is a fine rain, really a mist-- the sort that foolish people think doesn't call for an umbrella or a jacket. The way a friend described it to me, the bobo gets ready to go out to a bar, sees it's raining ever so slightly, and decides he can't feel the rain enough for it to merit any kind of protective gear. So he walks down the street, whistling or humming a tune... but by the time he reaches the bar, he has paid the mojabobos price and is completely soaked. Silly bobo, next time bring an umbrella.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The trilingual's dilemma, part 1.5: One little letter

I'm currently in the course of moving out of my apartment (a process which for me is usually accompanied by a period in which my room appears to be the epicenter of a disastrous earthquake), and therefore I don't have a lot of time for blogging. I can, however, offer this tasty morsel, a cautionary tale about the quirks of living in a second language.

The scene:  I am hurrying down Calle Mayor to take a train to a nearby town. The train station is at the far end of the street, so I always enjoy the scenery, even though I am usually near-running to get the train on time. This particular recent day is no different, and as I power-walk past the entrance to Plaza Mayor I am accosted by a GreenPeace volunteer. I try my best to smile politely. "Lo siento, tengo prisa." I say-- Sorry, I'm in a hurry.

The volunteer clearly doesn't buy it. He starts to launch into a patented "I'm sure you're really not in too much of a hurry to save the earth, right?" guilt trip schpiel, but I cut in, looking at my watch distractedly.

In my distraction, my tongue gets twisted up. What I want to say is, "Tengo que coger un tren"-- I have to catch a train.
Instead what I say is, "Tengo que comer un tren." I have to eat a train.

I don't blame him for giving me a little bit of a strange look as I hurry away.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Use Your Words

One of the most well-loved stories of me as a baby finds me in the kitchen with my mother. She is at the counter fixing me some kind of soft baby something for dinner; I am in my high chair babbling away--I've just started talking. Of course I don't remember any of this, but in my mind's eye my mother spoons out the soft what-ever-it-is and fixes me juice in a plastic sippy-cup. I start to fuss, waving my arms and crying in that nasal toddler whine. My mother can't figure out what's wrong -- are the high chair straps too tight? Do I need changing? But she remembers what I don't, that I now have tools to express what it is that is so upsetting me.

"Alissa, use your words!" she implores. I stop crying almost immediately.
"Oh," I say. "I want the orange cup."

Of course, that was almost a quarter of a century ago, but I've been thinking about it a lot recently. Gaining fluency in a language feels a lot to me like that Orange Cup moment. There were moments of extraordinary frustration when I first arrived in Spain in September, of course, but I don't think I realized exactly what I was missing out on until I found it again. It's been a long time since my Chinese was at the level my Spanish is now.

Two weeks ago I took a long-weekend trip to Basque Country in the north. It was a fantastic trip-- the weather cooperated as much as almost-constant-rain can cooperate, the countryside was gorgeous and green. Friday brought me to Bilbao, vivid and gritty; Saturday through Monday to San Sebastian, equally as exquisitely delicious and cultured. And through it all ran a ribbon of newly-discovered communication.

Friday night I stayed with Thomas, a fellow American teaching at the city language school. After a night roaming the city, we went on Saturday morning to an event called Arrozes del Mundo-- Rices of the World. It was a paella cook-off in the immensely diverse neighborhood of San Francisco, where virtually all of the immigrants that flock to Bilbao for its industry settle. Thus, the "del Mundo" portion came from the twist each entrant was supposed to add to the paella, a little something from his or her own country.

Thomas and I arrived via a long, straight street lined with Caribbean grocery stores, halal butchers, and African produce stands to find a crowded plaza filled with the most amazing smells. We threaded our way through rickety tables piled high with chopped ingredients ready for the flame-- everything from couscous to mango to pomegranate--and watched as a group of Moroccans danced and sang in the space between the swings and trapeze in the plaza's small plaground. We'd brought breakfast with us, but there didn't seem to be anywhere to eat. Finally, we found a seemingly empty table to one side of the festivities-- there was only one man sitting toward the end. After some inquiry, it became clear that the man was waiting for his group, but we could sit and eat our pastries and drink our coffee in peace for just a little while. And so we did, savoring the colorful chaos in the plaza. Finally, Thomas turned to me. "It's pretty amazing that we can do that," he said.

"Do what?" I asked.

"That we can ask him if we can sit down. That he can explain to us the situation. That we understand each other." It seemed small at the time, but so did the cup color I preferred so many years ago. He was right-- the ability to understand and communicate with people in another country improves and enriches one's traveling experience to an extraordinary extent.

The next day, I took the bus to San Sebastian. Feeling disoriented, I took a walk in the post-lunch quiet through the narrow streets of the old town. In the distance, I could hear singing, and I walked toward it. In front of a tavern, a group of some 15 men stood in a semi-clump-circle as two others performed some kind of rollicking song and dance, circling around each other, patting each other on the back, and gesturing exaggeratedly. I arrived for the tail end of their song-- after perhaps thirty seconds the crowd broke into applause and started to hug and kiss their goodbyes.

I smiled to myself. walked a few steps away, and pulled out my map to check where to find a nearby hiking path that would take me up to a famous lookout point over the harbor... but then I stopped. There's something about talking to strangers in a foreign language that is both terrifying and freeing. What did I have to lose?

I turned back and, practicing my most polite, formal Spanish, tapped one of the men on the shoulder. "Excuse me," I asked, "Can you explain to me why those men were dancing? What was that about?"

The man I'd accosted interrupted his dancer friend, who was chatting nearby. "This pretty young girl wants to know what you were doing!" he said.

The dancing man smiled broadly. "We were in the army together around 1939 or 1940, and every year since then we get together in the first weekend of June and have lunch at this restaurant. And you know, we've had something to drink now. And when we Basque men drink, well, it starts here [he pointed to his mouth] and travels up to here [then to the top of his head] and ends up here [finally he gestured to his throat.] And we have to sing! So when I saw this other gentleman there, who I hadn't seen for years and years and years... well, we decided to sing an old song together."

We spent some minutes talking before the group broke up for Saturday siesta. At the end of my subsequent hike,  watching the waves far below, I reflected on just how my language skills had served me. Without them, my memory would have held an interesting, exotic interlude of dancing and music,  brief and mysterious and without depth. Instead, the story I took home was so much more nuanced, so much richer-- a piece of these men's lives instead of a one-dimensional tableau.

A week later I found myself in a different part of the country, exploring the ancient university city of Salamanca. The city is known for its stunning architecture, including a beautiful, enormous 500-year-old main square and the gorgeous facades of the university buildings themselves. There's a legend that goes along with those facades: the architect hid a tiny frog among the many elaborate carvings, and it's said that those who can find it are guaranteed luck in love and scholarship.

One evening at dusk I walked to the Plaza Mayor, filled with students sitting on the still-warm flagstones eating and chatting, with tourists snapping photos and old people out for their paseos or watching the world go by. I chose a seat next to an older man who immediately struck up a conversation with me. When I told him I was American, he explained he had lived some years in Germany and so always tried to help tourists and visitors in Salamanca because he knew what it meant to be a stranger in a foreign land. After the initial pleasantries, he started to ask me what I'd seen so far in Salamanca, and I was forced to confess that although I'd stood for some minutes in front of the university facade, I hadn't been able to find the frog.

"You couldn't find it!?" he said horrified. "Coming to Salamanca without seeing the frog is like not coming to Salamanca at all!... Okay, come with me. We're going to find the frog right now." And so it was that I found myself taken firmly by the arm, weaving my way through the crowd following this insistent old man. I chatted with him about his childhood in the city ("Everything is so much bigger and spread out now!") as we walked. When we finally arrived in front of the university, the stone was pink-tinted from sunset. With my new friend's help, I was able to spot the frog within a few minutes, perched precariously on a well-hidden carved skull.

Of course, not every experience is enriched by language skills. Rewinding to that same weekend in San Sebastian, I had intended to finish my trip with a blues/jazz concert at a bar near my hostel. Unfortunately, the actual concert schedule was different than the one the bar had published, so when I arrived the music had already finished. Disappointed, I consoled myself with an expensive cocktail and the paperback book in my bag.

As I read, I became aware of a man to my left-- he sat down at the heretofore empty grand piano and started to play around with scales and glissandos. There were people sitting around me in groups chatting, but as the man's musical doodles started to become something more, I noticed a change in the bar. The jazz riffs grew, strengthened, and eventually became a full, gorgeously harmonic improvisation-- and the energy in the room changed, as well. Now, as the music subtly transitioned from one genre to another, I closed my book and noticed conversations all around the bar dropping off into silence.

After a few minutes, a particularly powerful crescendo marked the end of the impromptu performance. The man got up and left without so much as a bow, but it didn't matter. We all burst into spontaneous applause-- the English-speaking businessmen in the corner, the Spanish tourists at the table behind, the Basque teenagers next to them, and me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Palabras para Julia

A few days ago I posted the following informal poll to my friends on Facebook:

"So I would say that at least once every two days I have an "Oh God what am I doing with my life where am I going who am I?" moment.
Survey: would you guys say that is above or below average?"

The responses I got were encouraging-- an assortment of friends of different ages and from different parts of my life assuring me that they felt the same way, that it was a condition of being in one's 20s, or even just a condition of being human. One friend currently living in Korea wrote, "The thoughts still occur in your 30's, even more so because of being an expat I think." 

I'm inclined to agree. Of course, being in one's 20s encourages feelings of being unsure, unmoored, and afraid, but I think those feelings are magnified by stepping so far away, metaphorically and physically, from what society says we are "supposed" to be doing. I admit that as I watch friends and acquaintances from afar--as they work 9-5 office jobs, whether fascinating or mundane; decorate apartments; get engaged; buy houses-- I find that all that is not without its magnetism. Even days like today, walking down Calle Mayor on a warm evening during paseo, listening to Ace of Base and trying not to burst into a dance party for one in public just for the familiar and exotic and beloved beauty of it all...I still feel that pull, to go home to the familiar, to stop missing out on that world turning at home without me, to start my "real" life (hell, to figure out what that "real life" entails.) It's what I've been taught to want, and the part of me that really wants it is terrified by my choice to stay. (More on that soon.)

...Which brings me to my Spanish final exam last Friday. I am confident enough to say I passed it, although the listening comprehension was much more difficult for me this time around. I am happy to report as well that I wrote my first opinion essay in Spanish, and it felt completely badass. The exam included something I never expected, however. Our second reading comprehension assignment included a very sweet letter from a fictional father to a daughter having a difficult time living abroad. "It's hard, I know, but you will see how these moments of solitude can also teach you many important things. It's something no one can learn for you," he writes. Who knew I'd ever find myself sniffing away tears during a language exam?

This fictional father goes on to quote a poem from a very real Spanish poet, Jose Agustin Goytisolo, a poem which spoke to me, as well. I want to include it here, although I've cut portions (as the version that so touched me was edited as well, although I didn't know it then.) I'll include the Spanish first, and then my own translation.

Tú no puedes volver atrás
porque la vida ya te empuja
como un aullido interminable.
Hija mía es mejor vivir
con la alegría de los hombres
que llorar ante el muro ciego.
Te sentirás acorralada
te sentirás perdida o sola
tal vez querrás no haber nacido...
Nunca te entregues ni te apartes
junto al camino, nunca digas
no puedo más y aquí me quedo.
La vida es bella, tú verás
como a pesar de los pesares
tendrás amor, tendrás amigos...
Y siempre siempre acuérdate
de lo que un día yo escribí
pensando en ti como ahora pienso

Now, my poor translation:

You cannot go back
because life already pushes you
as an endless wail.
My daughter, it is better to live with the joy of men
then to mourn behind the blind wall.
You will feel cornered,
you will feel lost or alone.
Maybe you will wish you were never born.
Never give in or swerve
away from the road, never say
I can't anymore, I stay here.
Life is beautiful, you will see
how in spite of everything 
you will have love, you will have friends...
 and always, always remember
what I wrote to you one day
thinking of you the way I think now.

I don't now what it is about this poem. The words are plain, the rhythm is basic, there's no rhyme or imagery. But for me the message, sweet and powerful, is enough-- like one more voice in my informal poll encouraging me to keep searching for what's next.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Did you know? Spain tidbits, pt 1

It's hard to believe that I've now been living in Spain almost nine months. If we lived in a world where countries and people could create life, I would be giving birth any moment now. And every day has brought a surprise, a new vocabulary word, and interesting culture observation. While some of them have been (and will be) worth their own blog entries, others are worth a passing mention. I've compiled a few noteworthy tidbits here; you can expect more in other entries of this type in the future.

1) Punk rock grandmas
In the United States, dying one's hair is certainly not an uncommon practice, but most people limit their chosen hue to shades naturally found on heads around the world (if not their own particular strands.) Those individuals choosing more dramatic blues, greens, or pinks are generally understood to be making a Statement. Sure, those statements may vary, but the general message is the same: defiance and exclamation. Look at me-- see that I am different than you are.

It was thus with some confusion that I noticed women, mostly older women, walking around Palencia with magenta hair. Some of them had dyed their entire heads; others merely had a few vivid streaks--but it all seemed to be the same shade, almost as if they were sharing the bottle. This was something different than the "blue tint" effect occasionally seen in the US among senior citizens. It was clearly a purposeful, bold (in both senses of the word) choice.

Later on, I'd travel to northern Spain, to Basque country, and see many older women with similarly dyed hair, although this time with aqua/turquoise/blue hues. Nobody gives them a second look, neither in Palencia nor up north. Here it seems to be just another way to deal with graying hair and the aging process in general-- and I've decided I like it a lot.

2) Hellogoodbye
Like English (or, I imagine, most languages), Spanish has a cornucopia of various expressions for use in greetings. They differ based on the intimacy or mood of the speakers, the time of day, and the country (or in this case part of Spain) where they're greeting each other. This in itself is not remarkable.

However, after a month in Palencia, once I had moved into my own apartment, I started to notice something odd. Whenever my roommate came in to the apartment she said, "Hola." Without fail, when she left she called out, "Hasta luego!" even if we hadn't spoken in between. [A note on "Hasta luego" (which means "see you later) in Castilla y Leon: This phrase is constantly used, but the syllables rarely all appear together. The Palentino 'Hasta luego' is slurred together so quickly that you almost don't hear the first word at all. Try as I might, I haven't been able to successfully recreate it.]

But I digress. After I noticed my roommate's behavior, I started to see parallels in the behavior of others in my apartment building. Often when we crossed paths at the mailbox or in the doorway they would greet me with a friendly "Buenos dias" or "Muy buenas." They always followed this up with the famous Palentino "Ha-luego." Even in the elevator, I would be greeted, thirty seconds of elevator silence would ensue--and then, there it was again, the departing greeting. In the end, I remain puzzled but have concluded that greetings are a more important part of etiquette here than in the US, even among strangers.

3) Out for a walk
I've mentioned the "paseo" in this blog before, but it's worth revisiting. Palencia's Calle Mayor is a scenic pedestrianized mile lined with stores and 19th century buildings. In the winter the wind can be wicked, but the summer finds tin tables and umbrellas set out to enjoy the atmosphere. The street is a strange animal, a chameleon of sorts-- on Sunday afternoons and evenings after 11:30 pm it's virtually a movie set, complete empty and eerily clean (the sanitation department here is admirably diligent.) But there is a period of time every day before dinner (between the hours of 6 and 8, I would say) when Palentinos (and, I think, many northern Spaniards) like to go out for a stroll.

During that time Calle Mayor is teeming, sometimes even choked, with pedestrians. Some walk faster, some saunter. Many older couples hobble arm in arm, some adult children push their parents in wheelchairs, and there are always young kids weaving in and out of the chaos chasing a soccer ball. Everywhere there are clumps of people stopping to chat, young mothers showing off new babies, teenagers flirting and joking, people window shopping and chatting about the day's news. Sometimes there are balloon sellers; in the winter a series of wooden shacks appeared selling hot fresh mini-donuts and roasted chestnuts. It's Palentino life in a two-hour nutshell, and although I dread the thought of biking anywhere during that time (an experience like nothing more than a first-person video game), the feeling of walking the street during paseo--idly watching people, catching snatches of conversation, and feeling the energy of so many people ricocheting off the high pastel buildings--remains one of my favorites from my time here.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Habeis ganado? Que si, hombre

Almost nine months ago, we auxiliars-to-be sat in an airless, windowless room in Madrid talking to one of the American consuls. She was speaking about safety, urging us to be careful of muggings and pickpockets. "But," she added, almost as an afterthought, "there's something you have to understand about Spanish people. To them, the street is an extension of the living room, and they treat it as such. You need to be careful, of course, and sensible. But help is never far away on the Spanish streets."

When I first arrived here almost nine months ago, I think I was too busy in my head to really see the miracle that is Spanish summer. By the time I had adjusted and settled in, the days were ending earlier and the trees bending over the Rio Carrion were tinting yellow. Outdoor tables at cafes were stacked and put away; the fog of winter (both bone-chillingly literal and metaphorical) obscured what had come before.

And then, to be honest, the weather this spring hasn't been ideal, either. After the driest winter in 70 years, we had several weeks straight of cold, raw, rainy unpleasantness. We powered through a wet Semana Santa and still managed to enjoy it (posts forthcoming), but I admit it put a damper on this last month or so.

And then suddenly this week--summer, and I understood finally what she had meant.

The heat arrived a few days ago, without any real warning or transition, and it happened to coincide with a very important soccer game, the championship of the European League. I've never been much for soccer, but the electric atmosphere combined with the sudden warmth of the air to create something remarkable. Tin tables and chairs sprouted like mushrooms and the streets were choked with the chatting and strolling multitudes. At game time, children chased soccer balls of their own in the main square while muffled roars sounded from the surrounding bars. I sat with friends and savored the first outdoor beer of the season, then walked down the deserted main street listening to the game's aftermath. We passed a couple of celebrating fans in striped red-and-white jerseys. "Habeis ganado?" we asked them-- "Did you guys win?" "Que si, hombre," the taller one yelled over his shoulder. "Obviously!"

We turned the corner and passed a similarly exuberant bar, festooned with red and white cloth and team flags, spilling warm yellow light into the street. Through the window I could see a cluster of men packing food into plastic containers to bring home. Outside, by the window, three grandmother types played cards and sipped beer. I looked at my watch: 12:30 am. The week before, the streets had been empty, reflecting moonlight in freezing puddles. Now it was like these women had always been here; like they had never been cold in their lives.

The heat continues as I write this, and our sudden summer is calling for a shift in schedule. Already things feel lazier, more relaxed... and they are definitely pushed later. It's this change (along with the retaking of the streets) that's made me feel in the last few days that everything is falling into place. Chatting with my roommate over lunch, greeting acquaintances in the grocery store or at the park, enjoying the late night warmth--I feel like I've finally found my rhythm.  I'm a notorious night owl, and it's thrilling to sit in air as warm as bathwater with a group of friends drinking a beer, surrounded by a crowd so robust that the waiter has to tell us any food we order will take an hour to arrive. The night is dark, thick, hot, ringing with the clink of glasses and jostling cutlery. There are sleepy children eating ice cream and older couples walking arm-in-arm. In the United States any of these people would be snug, safe and sound in their beds. But here in Palencia, it's 1 AM and summer has arrived.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tastes of Africa

After a long radio silence, I am attempting to get back in the blogging spirit. It's harder than I expected to make room in my life for regular writing and reflection, especially when I've been moving around so much. In the past 6 weeks, I've had a good friend visit from the UK, gotten the stomach flu, showed my parents around northern Spain and savored the power of Easter celebrations here, and journeyed to Africa for the first time on a seven-day sojourn to Morocco. There hasn't been much time to catch my breath (and what time I've had has gone to... well, doing just that.) I'm so behind that it will be awhile until a post on Morocco appears on here for real, so I thought I'd post a small taste of two particularly powerful sensory experiences to tide you over.

1) We stopped in the small northern-Morocco town of Meknes for a few days but were disappointed by an initial 48 hours filled with torrential rain. Although we enjoyed walking the winding backstreets of the city's medina and visiting the remains of a Roman town in the Atlas foothills, for me the highlight was the last night.

The rain had finally cleared, filling the Meknes main square with people celebrating the end of holy Friday. A snake charmer half-heartedly piped his flute, a lazy-looking viper draped across his arm; children played a carnival-like game fishing for soda bottles with oversized rods; nearby, a crowd of men seemed to be cheering on a street performer who was teaching two pint-sized boys to box (?) But my favorite was the band.

Walking the square, I happened to catch a street band playing traditional Moroccan gnawa music to a rapt crowd. The last rays of sun reflected on the tattooed faces of old Berber women, young guys in skinny jeans, women in hijab and out. Above, a cloud of swallows swooped over the ornate gate to the Imperial palace. The music was rhythmic and emotive, and the men's voices wove in and out of the drum beat, occasionally uniting with a power that soared higher than the swallows. What drugs could ever replicate such a high?

2) A few days later in Meknes, my father and I spent a very lovely evening eating Syrian food and bonding with a diverse community of couchsurfers in Rabat (A Somalian-American studying Arabic poetry; a French-Brazilian working with refugees; a Moroccan physicist seeking to break the glass ceiling in her Ph.D program; a Korean doing his country's equivalent of the Peace Corps.)

After tea on their balcony overlooking Rabat's estuary, we returned to the hotel to check on my mother, who was having stomach problems. She reported that she was feeling better and that she had been hearing "some kind of wonderful live music, and very close by." We found out just how close by a few moments later, when the musicians took up their posts after a break, and we discovered that they were playing in the courtyard of the neighboring building. As our room was essentially a cabana on the roof of the hotel, we were able to look directly down at the proceedings.

There, a very exuberant, and exuberantly loud celebration was taking place, with the resonant drums, powerful voices, and complex rhythms that evoke images of West Africa. For a time, I stood in the chill watching, wanting desperately to run next door and knock on the door--but it seemed like perhaps this was a religious rite. Instead, I let the very foreign sounds wash over me, watched the women moving their legs and arms in sinuous rhythm, drummers pounding a seemingly endless and powerful tattoo.

Luckily, the main part of the ritual seemed to end at midnight, and the revelers retired to the inside of their building to continue the party. Even so, my dreams were still tinted with African voices. When I woke, hours later, and went out onto the cold balcony to use the detached bathroom, they were still at it-- though the sky to the east was just beginning to lighten.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday the 13th

Did you know that the concept of "Friday the 13th" doesn't exist in Spain? Instead, the unlucky day is Tuesday the 13th (also known as today.) I'm told the Friday-Tuesday switch has to do with Tuesday's association in many languages with Ares/Mars, the god of war (in Spanish, Tuesday is Martes.) Also, the fall of Constantinople happened on a Tuesday, which explains why the Greeks aren't so wild about it, either.

Anyway, despite the anxieties of various Spanish friends, I am happy to report that nothing untoward happened to me today (and it's 11:42 PM, so I'm hoping I can get off scot-free saying that. If no one hears from me in the next 48 hours, send out a search party armed with four leaf clovers and pennies picked up from the sidewalk.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Fun with Spanish, 1: At the beach

While I've focused generally on cultural adventures in this blog, the truth is that language is culture. There's a great deal to be learned about a country or a people through its language. It's true that I go to Spanish classes two to three times a week at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (Official Language School), but my real classroom is in Calle Mayor, in the bars and theaters of this city, in the grocery stores and train stations and in the new friendships I've made. So, my thought is to add a new language feature here, mini blog posts to teach you some small Spanish somethings I'm picking up here in my daily life.

Today's iteration has to do with the ocean--well, sort of.

1) Scrambled sea
Let's say you're at the beach on a blazing hot day. Your sailboat-owning friend invites you on a tour around the bay. That sounds good, you say-- but just as you are preparing to depart, a couple of threatening black thunderheads roll in, and a stiff breeze kicks up. You hear peals of thunder, and even the water in the marina is roiling. Going on this boat ride would be a one-way ticket to seasick central. You turn to your friend and say sadly, "El mar está revuelto."

Strictly speaking, you're calling the water "choppy" the way we would in English, unsettled or uneven. The interesting thing here is that the direct translation is "The sea is scrambled"--the same sort of "scrambled" that shows up to describe eggs on bar menus all over Spain, usually accompanied by an assortment of cheeses, chorizo, or mushrooms. No "choppy" equivalents here-- Spaniards prefer a different kitchen metaphor for their seas.

2) Hangover or undertow?
I first learned the word "hangover" from a couple of Columbian students who attended the school where I taught in Boston. "Una resaca" was an all-purpose excuse for them, explaining lateness, distraction, or exhaustion. Las resacas are topics of much discussion here in Spain as well--mostly as a point of pride if one can survive a particularly difficult morning after last night's festivities, or else if one never gets a hangover at all. (These individuals are particularly to be envied by those of us who hangover after half a glass of wine.)

The concept gets linguistically more interesting when you find out that the word for an undertow at a beach is also "una resaca." Not only does it make the age-old admonition not to swim when there's an undertow doubly wise-- it also creates a much more evocative description of the experience of a-morning-after. Who among us hasn't felt like he or she was being sucked into a deep, dark void after a night getting especially friendly with tequila or rum?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

What makes Madrid?

A few weekends ago, I found myself sitting with my friend Dani, a Madrid native, in a bar in the grungy-trendy neighborhood of Malasaña. It was early on a cool late-winter Saturday night, and we were drinking cañas (mini servings of beer, ranging from 6 to 10 oz-- a common sight in any Spanish bar.) It was exactly my kind of place, with relaxed, warm atmosphere; colorful and funky decorations; and a pleasant variety of people clustered around tables and at the bar, all celebrating the weekend. My friend ordered another beer, and he took a moment to kibbitz with the pretty bartender. And then he turned to me and said,

"See? For me, that's Madrid. This bar is Madrid." Of course, I pressed him to explain himself-- and he did his best.

"I think Madrid is about life, ultimately. It's a city with everything-- beauty, history, museums. But people really savor life here. They know how to live, and they don't take things too seriously. Take that interchange I had just now with the waitress. I wanted to pay, she gave me a hard time-- that special light tone is very Madrid."

It was a theme I had noticed before, although Dani elucidated it better than I could have hoped. In my handful of visits to the city, I had picked up on that certain "vivaciousness"-- a feeling of energy and life, a New York-like joie de vivre but without some of the sweaty, crowded squirming discomfort. Even in the busiest times, it still felt like there was some personal space left on the Metro platforms. And yet that feeling...

Over three or four visits in the last months, Madrid has taught me about the many forms in which one can encounter this special zest-for-life. In the bustle of morning commutes, certainly. And the weekend buzz of bars in Malasaña or nearby trendy, gritty Lavapies--to be sure. But it's not just about movement.

I found that Madrid Something at the Casa Museo Sorolla, the museum dedicated to the lesser-known Spanish impressionist which I visited in early fall. Sorolla was a Spanish impressionist for his depictions of life in southern Spain and especially his generous splashes of the famous Valencian light. An ordinary museum experience can be sterile, but this one was full of warmth and life--the paintings crowded together, keeping each other company in tiled, richly-decorated rooms where Sorolla himself once painted. The images were full of that same dynamism, fully-realized characters who seemed dying to jump off the canvas. They may have been frozen, but they exuded a familiar energy.

View at the casa-museo

After that museum visit, another friend and I spent a lazy lunch in a beautiful plaza in a forgotten corner of the city. Warm-weather Madrid is chockablock with those kinds of nooks and crannies, full of sun-dappled cafes with people chatting, drinking coffee or beer, smoking. This Saturday-afternoon-cafe version of Madrid isn't in a hurry; it doesn't have anywhere special to be. Instead, it is simply thrilled to be out on this particular day, in this city of all the cities. And yet there is more potency to this lazy contentness than in the heights of some cities' most exciting evenings.

As good a place as any for an early-fall Saturday lunch

Further into the weekend, El Rastro beckons-- one of the best examples of Madrid's specal dynamism. One of the busiest flea markets in Europe, El Rastro floods the streets and alleys of the La Latina neighborhood weekly with leather workers; jewelers; junk food hawkers; vendors of rude t-shirts, key chains, bras, socks; curious shoppers; and (inevitably) pickpockets. It is nothing short of a seething, slow-moving mass of humanity, spreading slowly into the afternoon-- laughing, arguing, bargaining, chatting, drinking in the sunshine and the energy of the city.

El Rastro

Friday, February 17, 2012


I had big plans to post a Madrid-centric essay before I left, but packing always gets in the way. It's all drafted, so maybe I'll have a chance to get it finished while I'm gone. Because gone I'll be-- I'm about to spend 5.5 days celebrating Carnaval in Lisbon and Porto, Portugal. Should be crazy. I feel nervous and excited-- just the way you should before a fabulous trip. Catch you later!

Monday, February 13, 2012


The Lemon Society is one of my favorite nightlife spots in Palencia (see its listing my "things to do in Palencia when you're (not) dead" entry). The inexplicably English-named watering hole, with its colored lights, sleek bar, and menu scrawled in crayon on the wall, is funky enough to appeal to me but trendy enough to attract a crowd of late-20s-to-late-30s Palentinos on almost any night of the week. It is a lovely size for cozy conversation; I enjoy its reasonably-priced local wine selection, served in oversized glasses; and (perhaps most importantly) it is one of the foremost venues for live music in the city.

At least once a week, The Lemon Society plays host to one of the many small-time rock, pop, folk, or blues bands currently touring around Castilla y Leon. I've seen classic-rock tinged duos, punk-pop outfits, and even once a Louisiana-style-blues band imported from Tennessee. Often these bands are only stopping in a few places in Castilla y Leon-- Burgos, Salamanca, Leon, or Valladolid (all much bigger cities), and Palencia. I'm convinced that the Lemon Society has something to do with that, and I'm grateful.

This past weekend's concert lived up to my Lemon Society standards. The artist was the lead-singer of a much-loved pop-rock band from the 80s and 90s called The Lemons (strange name coincidence.) Everything seemed to be well-balanced that night: I went to the show with a group of friends, a mix of Spaniards and foreigners (which I find is often hard to maintain in a ceaselessly foreign environment where spending time with other visitors can be almost too easy.) On other nights the bar had been suffocatingly full, but tonight the crowd level was perfect--large enough to transmit excitement and energy but still with room to breathe. The green and purple lights threw shadows on excited faces as we waited for the show to begin.

It was during that waiting period that I noticed that the atmosphere in the bar differed from what I'd experienced at other shows I'd seen there. Unlike me, it didn't feel like these were people who had just popped in to see who might be performing tonight. They were there with purpose, with expectation. When, a few minutes later, the singer appeared and began to work his way through a lush acoustic guitar-and-harmonica set, they all seemed to stand up a little straighter. And then something happened that I'd certainly not encountered before: as he reached the chorus of his first song, I heard voices joining in all over the bar. Quiet voices and rough voices, from the perfectly-coiffed fashionistas to the boisterous drunk in flannel at the front. I'm always a fan of a sing-a-long, so I closed my eyes and let the sound wash over me.

The set continued: a quiet ballad segued into something more fast-paced and rollicking, and the crowd went along for the ride, clapping and swaying. The energy in the room was palpable. Looking around, it seemed like an awful lot of people were smiling. I couldn't figure it out-- how did everyone in this bar know the lyrics to all these songs? I finished my wine and leaned over to teach one of my Spanish friends the word "sing-a-long." In return, she offered something of an explanation. These songs, she said, were beloved covers from the 1980s.

"In the 80s, after Franco, pop was one of the first arts to recover. Everyone was crazy for music in those days. Those songs brought people together. A lot of people still remember the words." She smiled. I noticed she was tapping her toes to the beat.

The concert was winding down, and I had an early train to catch the next morning. But for a few moments more I sat bathing in the sound of voices raised in unison, now seeing the proceedings from a new perspective. People here are loathe to discuss that part of their history, but (or perhaps thus) I am often surprised by how the specter of Franco still lurks. He's still here, in more than just bad memories-- he's present in the way people think of themselves, their religion and their country; in the absence of nationalistic fervor or even flags (an attitude which for me is reminiscent of Japan) -- and even in something as small as a singalong in a crowded bar.

More thoughts on this to come, I expect.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dia de la Matanza--Preview

Last Thursday was a magical day for me-- a double holiday in Palencia, the Dia de la Matanza (Day of the Sacrifice) and Dia de la Virgin de la Calle (Day of the Virgin of the Street.) The former is an elaborate feast of all kinds of pork products (in past years they killed the pigs right there in Plaza Mayor, while this year the dead specimens were merely displayed.) The latter is a festival celebrating the patron saint of the city, complete with processions through the old town, Castellano costume, and traditional dancing by tiny adorable children (as well as much more adept older adults.)

Overly romantic as it may be, when I stopped to think about what life could be like in Spain last year, this is one of the ideals I imagined: an untouristed town celebrating local festivals, eating traditional food, wearing beautiful clothes-- and myself, camera in hand, happy to see familiar landmarks decorated with time-honored ceremony. And so as I made my way through the crowded cathedral, amidst an eerie susurrus of the Lord's prayer on 300 pairs of lips; and as the dancing girls at the head of the procession stopped to twirl and click their castanets to welcome the Saint back to its home in the church on Calle Cestilla-- I admit to getting misty-eyed. I was here. I saw this. I made it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

¿No estás aburrida? (part 3)

In the beginning of this series (before the new year), I wrote about the differences I've found between what I called "nomadic" travel (in which one moves around without putting down roots) and the type of travel where one makes a new life in a foreign place. Specifically, I wrote first about the difference between the ecstatic highs of nomadic travel versus the slow-burn warmth of finding the small things one loves about a foreign place day-to-day. Later, I wrote about battling my fear of boredom as I've settled into Palencia. I didn't think the two were particularly related at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that they are connected in some important way.

Nomadic travel is by definition without routine or everyday responsibilities. One is subject to an entirely new set of stresses, of course, but there are no meetings to go to, electric bills to pay, or trash bags to take out. One need never do the same thing two days in a row, and every week brings a new barrage of challenges-- a new metro system, language, currency, or set of customs to adapt to. To a certain kind of traveler (namely, me), adapting successfully and rising to those challenges affords a unique and intense satisfaction, a kind of happiness rarely encountered, and so my year of nomadic travel was perhaps the ideal adventure. Never have I felt so fully or consistently challenged. It was occasionally overwhelming, scary, and lonely, but it was always filled with thrilling newness-- whether I was at a Hindu wedding, sitting in on a Viet luck ceremony, dancing at a Turkish coming of age ritual, or singing Tibetan drinking songs.

Making a new life in a foreign country in many ways presents an opposite experience. Yes, there are many exhilarating new things--neighborhoods to explore, bars to sample, people to meet, customs to learn-- but after the first weeks they arrive within the framework of a routine. Except in the most metaphorical sense, a Spanish life is not the same as a Spanish trip, and there are bills to pay, dentist appointments to keep, dishes to wash, and classes to teach--whether one feels like it this morning or not. Making a new life requires developing a cycle of tasks that repeat--get up, make coffee, go to work, meet friends at that one bar, grocery shop at that one store-- in a way that tasks do not repeat when one is participating in nomadic travel. And I am starting to think that it is from that repetition that the boredom I so fear develops. Somewhere along the line, a life of cyclical routine loses its charm at the price of looming monotony.

Except, here's the thing: when I first started thinking about moving to Spain to teach, it was exactly that cycle, that familiarity, that appealed to me. I spoke (and wrote) about a desire to "get under the skin" of a place--to be a regular at a cafe, to pinpoint the best places for live music, to know where to get the best or cheapest produce, to become more than a passer-through, more than a dilettante of foreign life. Even now, writing those words, that prospect is appealing to me, and it's something I believe I'm achieving. If I weren't, how could I have made the list that preceded this entry about things to do in Palencia? How could I have found people to wave to when I pass the cafe on the corner of the Parque Salon? How would I know about the fruteria near the old gun factory, where I can buy all of my week's fresh fruits and vegetables for E15?

So, I've started thinking that maybe it's the word I fear, rather than the action of boredom--and the most powerful thing about language is its mutability: a word can always be reframed. So yes, there are mundane tasks that must be done, and they do not always seem glamorous or exotic. of them I will have to do week in, week out until I leave this place in six months. And yes, I will go to some of the same bars and restaurants many times over in my time here. But I've come to the conclusion that boredom in this sense, as repetition, is an inherent part of the kind of travel in which you make a life. It is this repetition that will help me to get "under the skin," as I've said, to try new tapas at that bar or go back to the park by the cathedral to see how it looks in winter instead of fall. That repetition means depth instead of breadth--and if depth is boredom then perhaps that boredom is something to be embraced.

It's up to me, then, to destigmatize for myself the idea of repetition. I need to work toward rethinking the concept of mundane tasks and familiar actions in an un-mundane setting as not something to run away from, but instead as marks of victory.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

And we're back

I offer my extended apologies to you and yours. After a lengthy time away (including a wonderful three-week holiday to England, stories of which to come), I am back in Spain and at this blog. And I am sad to report that technology is to blame for part of my absence.

During a couple of quiet, slow, lovely days holed up at my friend Gareth's house just outside Canterbury, Kent, England, I wrote a follow up to my now long-ago series on boredom and my life in Spain. I was quite happy with it, and I put the finishing touches on it in a hurry as I prepared to go out for a rollicking night of bowling and Indian food with Gareth and his family. When I returned here the next day to re-check everything for typos, I was horrified to find that my carefully-elucidated thoughts had been turned into a smattering of symbols and numbers--just another in a long line of blog entries eaten by the Internet. I am not the first, nor will I be the last to let out that special "But-where-did-it-gooooo" wail.

I admit I was a bit shell-shocked after that, and between my trauma, the whirlwind of last UK days, and the brisk business of getting established for a new term and a new year, I haven't been back. But! I shall endeavor to recreate the glory (or, well, the... something) of my poor lost entry, as well as post some lovely photos and recount anecdotes from my life and travels and the end of 2011 and beyond.

Feliz Año Nuevo!