Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A List of Things Stolen From Me in Europe

1. my digital camera
2. my blackberry
3. my inhibitions
4. my cigarettes
5. my desire to come home
6. any tendency to be academic
7. my heart
8. my aversion to gray skies
9. my naïvité
10. my heart, my heart, my heart

Friday, March 27, 2009

European Laziness

Hey,

So, I've become rather lackadaisical about these blog posts. This is probably due to the fact that a) my classes have ended, leaving me utterly free from all pseudo-responsibilities I once possessed, and b) I've been busy.

What have I been doing? Well, I went to Dans le Noir on Monday night with a group of friends. We all agreed that the eating-in-complete-darkness concept was fun and nifty but not worth the 40 pounds a head. It was quite risky, as we kept taking swigs of wine when we were reaching for our water glasses. And we all ended up eating with our hands.

The rest of the week has been spent frolicking in Regent's park among the daffodils, eating pork buns and ice cream and generally being young and frivolous. Not doing the dishes. Sleeping until late in the afternoon. Growing a beard. Letting laundry accumulate on the floor.

In all fairness, I do manage to keep my room very tidy. And I continue with my sporadic German learning. But I haven't been writing. This I must admit. Right now I should be packing for Dublin.

I think I'll eat some soup for breakfast.

Cheers and such,
Ali

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Life Takes You Strange Places... And You Can't Always Talk About It

Yes, that title is a quote from Watchmen. For anyone who hasn't seen the film or read the graphic novel, I highly recommend both.

I've discovered that England has no shortage of self-involved narcissists and mixed-signal senders, and dirty bearded men in camo jackets who eat sandwiches out of rubbish bins. Despite all this, I've still managed to make some meaningful connections while I've been here. Friends fo' life. It's a nice feeling, to be so far away from everything I know and still to gouge a few trenches of familiarity in the streets of this foreign city. The corner pub and the tube stops that echo with my name. Etching myself into civic memory.

Sometimes I try to etch against surfaces too hard for my chisel. Helas, I need to learn to quit while I'm ahead. A London word I picked up recently is 'long.' It means not worth the effort. As in "longshot." In America we preach the value of persistence. In England they think that most things aren't worth the bother; it's better to leave well enough alone.

I'm not sure which philosophy I prescribe to more at the moment. But I think the passive British mindsit doesn't sit well with my natural boldness. Perhaps I don't quite feel American all the time, but I've soaked up the pioneering spirit somehow, in my two decades of residence in the USA. Sure, Americans are forward, but is there anything wrong with that?

Cheers peeps,
Ali

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

World-Traveler-Am-I

Classes are winding down, and spring is winding up. So naturally I don't plan to spend much time standing still in the next few months. Here's my itinerary:

- This weekend I'm going to Paris with the two most fabulous gay men ever invented.

- Next week classes end, and on Friday I'm heading off to Dublin with Anne, my pseudo-Irish friend from Idaho.

- For April I'm trying to organize a trip through Germany and Austria, with a stop in Amsterdam along the way

- My creative writing final is due at the end of April

- In May, I'm heading to Portugal and southern Spain (Seville, Granada and Alicante)

- My final exams take place May 11-June 12, don't know exactly when yet.

- I'm currently applying for a teaching position at an English summer camp in Italy, which would start in the middle of June

And that's that.

Talk soon,
Ali

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spring Is Here: La Primavera Trompetera Ya Llegó

Spring has come to foggy depressive overcast London, and the sun is too damn bright. Where did you go, lovely cloud cover? It's like the sky took off its sunglasses.

I've ditched my down coat for the light trench I bought in Spain. Otherwise, my winter habits persist. Coffee, markets, cider, & AJ, the hyper-stylish man in my life.

We go to either Portobello market, or Brick Lane market, or both, every weekend.

I sleep over his flat and he cooks for me. When we go out, people ask permission to photograph him. And he sometimes photographs me. He's been cited by vogue twice for his blog: http://www.stitchsociety.blogspot.com/
Someday he will be a fashion icon (if he's not one already.)

For his birthday on March 16th we've decided to stage a public engagement party, with a scandalous conclusion in which I catch him making out with our future best man.

In other news
I read a book,saw a film,started a writing group, and began learning German (Das Mädchen isst ein belegtes Brot = the girl is eating a sandwich.)

I chipped my front tooth biting down too hard in my sleep.

As you can see, I'm growing and changing as a person.

The other day I saw a man walking down the street eating a cup of custard. Straight custard. A big cup.

Walking home on Portobello Road, I get a strong whiff of arugula coming from someone's ciabatta sandwich. I spot lots of skinny ankles sprouting from vintage boots. Watch yellow-red paella swirling around a giant pan. Watch people trying on fedoras. Watch tourism and home-bred style sharing the same space. On the tube, a pink-clad baby plays with a stranger's oyster card and reaches hungrily for her iphone.

There's no place like London.

Cheerz palz,
Ali

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rafael, Portrait of the Artist

Rafael is from Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He lives in the same building as me. He's here in London on his summer vacation (which happens in winter!) to study English at the EC School in the West End. Back home he's a second year law student. But what he really wants to do is write poetry.

He reads lots of poetry, in Portuguese, French and English. He bought so many books while he was here that he'll have to ship them home. Another thing he did while in London: he got a tattoo on his arm in Russian. It says "the Death of Ivan Ilyich."
In his last few days here, he worked furiously on a leatherbound book of poetry for a girl back home named Julia. He painstakingly illustrated every other page, while listening to Wagner. (And Vampire Weekend, at my insistence). The book was 100 pages long when he finished.


I found his work ethic rather beautiful, so I asked permission to take some photos.

Rafa, there's a girl on your bed... But he's too busy to notice. Now that's dedication.

I'm going to miss him now that he's leaving. He was a good friend.

Adeus, mi brasileiro
Ali

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Quarterly Review: The Weird American Girl Takes Europe By Storm

I've been abroad for two entire months now (January and February), so I feel like it's about time for a review of the things I've seen and what I've learned about myself thus far. I have four months left. Perhaps I can apply the lessons I garner from this review to my remaining time in London and elsewhere.

I've learned not to try to drink a diet coke while running up the stairs (it's a disaster waiting to happen.)

I've discovered a fire escape crushed up between my building and the one next to it, giving it the allure of a secret passageway. It leads into a small private courtyard littered with cigarette butts and empty beer cans (so I guess it's not that secret, but still. I like it.)I love Lily Allen. She is London to me. She's just so damn cool. Sometimes life here feels just like a nouvelle vague French film. I won't elaborate how.

According to my friend Andrea: alcohol is the ultimate time machine.

According to a girl from my writing class: if you kiss someone when they're sleeping, they always kiss you back.

I've been called weird American girl, strange American girl, unique American girl, more times and by more people than I'd care to admit. Am I really so weird, strange and unique? Given, sometimes people just call me "the American girl." And I am - that is, American.

My friends here tell me "I can't believe your life" and even "I love your life" and more rarely still (but most preciously) "I love you." They call me crazy just as often as they call me weird.

I've discovered I'm not neurotic after all. I'm actually a genuine "free spirit," excusing the stupidity of that phrase. I do what feels right at the time. I make opportunities for myself, or rather, I recognize them when I see them and I take full advantage. I guess that makes me weird, and strange, and crazy, and unique. But it doesn't make me American. I was just born that way.
Cheers, amantes
*Ali, the Weird American Girl*

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Spain Part IV: Don't Forget About the Duck

This is where I talk about the miscellany of my trip, which I couldn't fit into my more coherent posts about Spain.

The streets in Barcelona’s older districts are about the width of almost one car. Sometimes the narrowness can make you do crazy things.

One night I bought a duckling on La Rambla. His name was Pascal. Beth tried to convince the vendor not to sell him to me, saying that I didn't live in Spain and I had no place to put him. But money talks, and the man took my 5 euros without listening to Beth's objections.

He put Pascal in a little cardboard box. I patted his head and gently slid him out into my hand. He immediately ran up my sleeve and hid in my right armpit for most of our time together.

Beth and I walked into the fruit and vegetable market, with Pascal tucked snugly into my upper arm. He was tickling me. We bought some fresh-squeezed juice, and I informed those around me that I had a patito in my coat. One person offered to help me extract him, and together we managed to get him into the palm of my left hand without any injuries. He then ran up my other sleeve. And peed on me.

I returned Pascal to the vendor about 45 minutes later. He didn't give refunds, but he agreed to let the duckling return to his friends nesting in the wood shavings of their cage. Now he has probably sold the same duck twice.

La Rambla also has bunnies and songbirds and fish for sale. If there had been puppies, I'd be a goner by now.

While shopping in Tudela, I ran into one of my former students from teaching English over the summer. Aranzazu (another Basque name), the beautiful blonde, the smartest girl in the class, the one who cried for a week straight and felt homesick even though she lived 5 minutes away. She smiled at me but was too shy to talk. When I asked her in Spanish if she remembered me, she nodded sheepishly, and I remembered the time when she grabbed my hand in her little tan fingers and asked podemos dar una vuelta a Tudela? Por favor? with tears streaming down her face. She wanted me to take her home, but I had 10 other fourth graders to take care of. Her mother asked if I was coming back to teach again. I told her "Um... not exactly" and explained that it was very expensive for me to travel between my home in New York, and Spain.

In only a few days with Edurne and her brother, I learned lots of new Spanish colloquialisms. Hostia, en plan, botellón, cojonudo, joder. The last two are the easiest to translate. They mean "fucking awesome" and "fuck," respectively.

Edurne and my ability to speak English together sometimes felt like a secret power, in a country where most people don't understand my native tongue. The day after the Carnaval festivities, when we met up with gorilla suit and Moroccan soldier for tapas and decided we wanted to go home early, Edurne told me rather blatantly in English “lean against this wall and act like you’re really sick.” I followed her instructions, but couldn't help laughing a bit. The gorilla (now in human form) sympathized, saying "she must be ill from last night. But at least she's smiling." We successfully avoided going to the movies with them without any hurt feelings.

The last tourist attraction I visited before my plane flight was Casa Milà. It's where I want to live. Instead of describing that amazing place, I'll just post some photos. And let me say, when you can design buildings like that, why does anyone build normal things?When I got back, I noticed how odd it felt to be speaking only English. A foreign city in which no foreign language is required? How bizarre. The orderly queues of London were a stark contrast to the airport in Spain. Taxis light up yellow again, instead of green, and the cabbies really know where they're going here (in Barcelona they just use a GPS). Good ol’ gray skies greeted me on my return. I love London.

Cheerio, y saludos. x
Ali

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Spain part III: Churros and a Train Ride

In Barcelona, I get churros con chocolate for breakfast. They serve sugar with the chocolate. The churros are laid out in rings, like stylized flower petals on the plate. Crisp with a chewy center.

One street vendor sells fat churros filled with cream. Beth gets one covered in chocolate as well, while I stick with the simpler version. Both are unforgettable.

At the Café del Teatre, on Calle de Torrijos, a shaggy dog walks around the tables, under the ancient mirror that hangs across the entire length of the wall. There are a few fresh croissants on display at the bar, bought three at a time from the bakery across the street, still warm and crispy with a subtle glaze on the top.

On Friday of my Spanish week (viernes) I hop on the train to visit dear Edurne, my amiga Española who goes to university in San Sebastián and lives in the town of Tudela, at the southern edge of Navarra. She goes back home almost every weekend (she's only a freshman, and very close to her family), so that is where I visit her.

Riding across the countryside in a Renfe train, tourist class, I see green hills and yellow fields, occasional crumbling stone farmhouses with tile rooves, wiry cypress trees, snow white wind turbines. Sheep and cows.

The train goes right beside the Costa Brava. You can see the ocean hitting the rocks. Sometimes it’s as if you’re suspended over the sea. The train ride is much longer than the plane flight. I eat a bocadillo in the café car, read my book, and arrive.

Edurne runs across the train tracks to hug me hello. We are both thrilled to see each other after 7 months apart. We met teaching English in Pamplona last summer. Edurne (her Basque name is pronounced with a short initial "e," a deep "u" and a softly rolled "r") looks just the same, dark feathery hair, angular eyes, tawny face. She is perhaps the sweetest saintliest girl in the world.

Her father drives me and my bags to their apartment, near the Plaza Nueva right in the center of town. It's a modern building, and the apartment is spare in size, with just a small entry hall, living room, office and kitchen along with the three bedrooms and two bathrooms. But it is perfect, extremely comfortable and clean and homey. No space is wasted. The furniture is as harmonious as the family that uses it.

It is late at night by the time I arrive, so Edurne and I go to sleep, me in a cot set up beside her bed and draped with quilts. Well, we update each other on our lives for a few hours, and finally drift off around three in the morning, waking up close to noon the next day. It is the first day of Carnaval.

Edurne's parents seem happily married. They spent all their free time together while I was there. Her mother is a teacher of Euskera (Basque language). I forget what her father does. She has a 16-year-old brother named Aitor (another Basque name). He plays tennis obsessively, eats Colacao and chocolate bars for breakfast, and in Edurne's words is "too cute for his own good." Her father and brother both wear Barça team slippers around the house. Her mom makes me wear socks inside for the whole time I am there, so I won't catch a chill.

Every day her family cooks a three course comida for the mid-day meal, and eat it all together around their small expandable dining table in the living room. Aitor sets the table, Edurne makes the salad, and both of the parents cook together. We have paella and fried fish one day, tortilla de patata and lamb chops another. I only stay long enough to have two of these wonderful meals, leaving on Monday before I can partake in a third. For dinner later in the day, they just eat a small sandwich, and breakfast is usually some form of hot milk and pastry, but for lunch they go all out.

Her mother is surprised that I eat her food (don’t Americans just eat ketchup?) but thinks I don’t eat enough. Ali, you are eating very well, but you eat poquito.

And during the mid-day almuerzo, the family talks. Over one afternoon meal, Edurne makes a comment about the silly clichés people associate with Spain, and her mother shoots back with an impassioned speech about how every stereotype of Spanish culture is true (flamenco, tortilla, torros). At one point she even gets up and dances around to demonstrate the ubiquity of flamenco in Andalucia. They also argue about the governmental position of Catalan vs Basque in public schools. Edurne's mother asks me all sorts of questions about my family, my life, the US. She asks about the availability of university scholarships for the underprivileged, and the intimacy between parents and children in the states versus in Spain.

The apartment is littered with English novels in translation (Paul Auster's Brooklyn Follies, William Styron's Sophie's Choice) and their bookshelves are stocked with classics, essay collections, and modern Spanish literature. Neither of her parents, nor her brother, speak any English, but they read American writers. It's an educated family, with good taste.

Besides eating the food her family cooked, Edurne and I walked around Tudela, went shopping (I bought an utterly white coat) and celebrated Carnaval on Saturday night. As we canvassed the town, Edurne kept asking me "why do you walk so fast? What's the rush?" All I could say was "I’m from New York!" Despacio, despacio, she instructed. "You're in Spain now."

We buy matching red masks and wear them to the Carnaval parade. It is a bit make-shift compared to the larger, more polished and touristy Carnaval celebrations in Barcelona and Venice, but it is an incredibly exuberant crowd. There are three different bands with drumlines and dancers, a line of women dressed in white tinsel wedding dresses holding cardboard husbands with celebrity faces pasted onto them, several twirling giants, a chiquita banana lady girating on a truckbed. There are Mexicans in ponchos and Chinamen in Mao jackets, pregnant cheerleaders and garage mechanics, giant ants and a tiny toddler elephant. I start to think that this is Spain's impression of every other country, with a special focus on America. There are a few fallen stockbrokers, with fake stubble and hobo bindles, plenty of cowboys and Indians and surfer dudes and many other quintessential American types. There is one little burger king. My favorite is the homeless beggar with a sign that says "I have 17 kids."

We go out at 1 am to El Tubo, the old neighborhood in Tudela where all the bars are crowded together. Edurne insists that 1 am is the absolute earliest we can go, since nothing will be happening before then. When we get there, the streets are filled with costumed kids, and I mean kids - some are not more than twelve years old. Edurne says "it's like a nursery." They are running amok. Lots of boys are dressed as girls - french maids, snow white, goldilocks. A few are dressed as Scotsmen. One extremely tall pink panther is charging down the street holding a bottle of Absinthe aloft.

No one cares about the carousing children. At one point, I spot a group of policia standing on the edge of the street with their arms crossed, but Edurne informs me that they are just people dressed up like them. For Carnaval.

We go into a bar and order a few chupitos (shots). They are flavored like strawberries and go down easy. One is called the Rafa Nadal, another "Que duro es ser vasco" (how hard it is to be basque).

At 2:30 Edurne decides it is finally late enough to go to a club, though we will still have to wait for it to fill up. The people there are in costume as well. I dance with a gorilla, and one of the Scotsmen, while E occupies herself with a Moroccan training for the civil guard. At one point a sinister looking clown offers to buy me a drink, but I say no because evil clowns are scary.

We get back at 6:30 am on the last bus, and I collapse onto my cot.

On my final day, her mother packs me a bocadillo de tortilla de jamón and a natillas chocolate pudding for the train ride back.

Edurne, I miss you!
Besos,
Ali

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spain Part II: Feeling Barcelonely, aka Haciendo Amigos


Seeing as I travelled to Barcelona by myself, I was alone for a lot of my trip, despite the presence of Beth, my friend from Barnard who is studying abroad at the IES program there. With all of my time spent wandering about leisurely seeing the sights, walking down whatever street looked most interesting, I had plenty of opportunity to make some amigos. And I did.

First, I made friends with Cesar Alegre Can you believe that name? Cesar Cheerful, in Spanish. He’s the director of Beth’s IES program. We bonded over his “installation art piece,” a box marked Found + Lost.
“You do know that it’s supposed to be the other way around, right?” I asked.
“Yes, but this way it makes you think. How can something be found before it is lost? It also means that the box will always be empty.”
“Oh you crazy Barcelonians, with your silly pretensions at art!” I said. And we were friends. I even let him read the creative writing assignment I had to do over reading week, which I had scribbled in my notebook a few hours before, while eating paella.

I also did some shopping. Feeling chilly one day, I stopped into a Chinese store (as bargain stores here are called), which looks like an overstuffed storage unit, and bought myself a 12 euro beige trench coat, which I was later told made me look like Humphrey Bogart. Not too shabby, eh?

My second friend was the barman of a really good Basque-style tapas restaurant that I went to twice. The second time, I went by myself, since I had a bit of time to kill before Beth finally finished with her class, and what better way to kill time than to eat? He recognized me from the other day and treated me to a free café con leche (god I love the stuff), inviting me out for a drink after his shift was over. He took me to the Spanish equivalent of TGI Fridays, which I found very amusing, even more so after I had finished off a double malt Voll Damm. His name was José Rubian, and he made me guess what country he was from (I guessed right – Colombia). As usual when I meet anyone slightly older than me, he gave me a lecture about life and such, topped off with the sage advice “La vida es un periódico. Hay que pasar página” (Life is a newspaper. You have to turn the page). He was adorably small and rotund, leading me to dub him my roly-poly Colombian friend.

Later on, when I met up with Beth, I told the roly-poly Colombian that we were going to the Ovella Negra (the black sheep), a historic old drinking hole in Barcelona. He said he was going out with his friends to a bar around the corner from his restaurant, wouldn’t we like to join him there instead? No, we wouldn’t, so we left him at the corner, essentially forever. “Have a nice life,” I shouted as we walked away.

Beth and I wandered around for about 20 minutes, trying to find L’Ovella Negra, when someone grabs me by the shoulders. I turn, and it’s José Rubian, the little Colombian! “He’s a leprechaun!” I cried at Beth, who was laughing hysterically along with me. “It was magic!” she shouted. “How did he find us?”

From then on, I’ve always believed there was gold at the end of the rainbow. (He bought us lots of sangria.)

On the topic of new friends, I should mention my stay at the Ciutat Hostel. I got there the first night around 2 am, after meeting Beth under the Arc de Triomf and walking along Passeig de Gràcia, seeing the Gaudi buildings by night, and eating a bocadillo de tortilla washed down with some cerveza con limón. Being late, I was tired, but my night wasn’t over just yet. The night manager of the hostel, a gray-haired middle-aged man, took down my information, but instead of just leading me to my room he got confused at the fact that I was only one person, when I had reserved space for two. I had booked it that way because I made my reservation online, and it was the only way the website had allowed me to reserve a private room. But the manager wasn’t satisfied with this explanation, and refused to charge me a 2-person rate. Instead he changed all my bookings by hand, and put me in an en-suite single. This took a LONG time.

Finally, he showed me to my room and gave me my key. I dropped my bags, which by then had worn a groove into my shoulders, and went downstairs to buy a cup of coffee from the vending machine. The night manager was there as well. He asked me if, being American, I knew of Johns Hopkins University. When I said yes, he began telling me about his multi-talented son who turned down a scholarship to go there, who played the flute and won awards and was studying to be an engineer. By the end of this story, he insisted on taking me back to the office to show me pictures of his pride and joy. I became convinced that he wanted me to marry his son.

After that, whenever I got back to the hostel late at night we exchanged a few words. He called me “Alexandra” with affection and tried recommending old Western films to me, saying that they were how he had learned to love and admire the US. He was a nice man.

The hostel was more like a low budget dorm than a bunker of student travelers. It had a defunct boarding school attached to it, and I barely saw anyone else there during my stay, except for a rambunctious group of French 4th graders who decided to befriend me one night while I was checking my email. They ran around unsupervised and the precocious boys all tried flirting with me.

In Barcelona there are no leash laws for pets. None for children either. I came just before the start of Carnaval, and there were children running around everywhere dressed as little zebras, little princesses, little chicken men and little ice cream cones. They screamed and flailed through the streets, always ahead of their parents, always just about to be hit by a moped. It was adorable, and slightly disconcerting.

One of the last things I did in Barcelona before heading to my friend’s house in Tudela for the weekend was to see La Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia. As if the traditional Gothic Cathedral in the center of the city weren’t interesting enough. That one is composed of intricate Mediterranean trellis work, punctuated by gardens, covered in saintly statues plunging out of the façade and into the world, suffering, some wrapped in snakes. Outside there’s a little flea market where I bought some used postcards.

On the other hand, Sagrada Familia looks like it just grew there. Columns like trees, honeycomb windows that seem to intensify the light that pass through them, a cavelike coolness to it all. It’s perpetually under construction, but that doesn’t undercut the power of simply being inside such an incredible, supernatural space.










Entonces, te dejo.
Cheers, pals,
Ali