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!

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,

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wild But True Iberian Tales Part I: Saga of the Sexy Beer

It's been 2 weeks since I've written, and it feels so good to be writing again. I just got back to London last night from Barcelona, and I have so much to say about my trip I've decided to divide it up into several installments. Here is the first:

I departed London on February 16th, just after my weekend trip to Oxford and a surprisingly lovely Valentine's day. The bouquet of paperwhites that I got for Valentine's from mein süß Deutsche ended up in a glass of water on the table of an Oxford pub, as well as woven into my hair as I wandered the city. It's a pretty neat place, that medieval braintrust, with beige cigarette buts twined between the cobblestones. It's so neurotic, but in a distinctly British way, closed up, walled in and cravated, with little patches of green garden, and a big green mound set randomly beside Oxford Castle. It seems like a good place to bury yourself in a giant tome of analytic philosophy.Seeing as I don't plan to do that anytime soon, I'm glad I chose to study in London instead. I love it here. I must admit, I was a bit anxious about going to Spain. I was afraid of leaving London and never finding it again. Just to be safe, I collected a few more crazy street names on the busride to the airport: Knightrider Street, Bread Street, and Little Britain (presaging the bad TV shows of the future, as my theatre prof told us).

Ryanair is amazing. It got me to Spain earlier than expected. And the flight only cost 2 pounds 67p.
Immediately after stepping off the plane and into the line for passport control, I was Spain-ified. I said hi to the man at the desk and he responded "hola." Ah, I exclaimed, tengo que recordar que debo hablar español ahora. (I have to remember that I must speak Spanish now). The other people in line chuckled at me.

My first impressions of Barcelona were thus (transcribed from my notebook): sand-colored, palm trees, lots of dreadlocks, Catalan written before Spanish. The Spaniards are helpful, and the English-speaking tourists can't speak any Spanish for their lives. So many dogs, so many tiny dogs! I saw one man jogging with his Yorkshire terrier, who is about the size of his foot.

I arrived Monday night, so the first real touristing I did was on Tuesday. I went to the Park Güell, a paradise on earth. Even the pigeons there purr. There's graffiti on the trees, as if nature can't contain its joy and must struggle to express it in words. I'd love to live there, in the temple of so many columns, listening to the buskers playing Spanish guitar and smelling the unreal perfume of flowers and sun-drenched air and the street mime's joint. Gaudí was such a genius.

That evening I discovered that Absinthe tastes awful. I also convinced a few Spaniards that I had directed the Blair Witch Project. And Cloverfield. While walking back across La Rambla, a guy on the street corner held out a partially consumed six pack of beer to us, and tried to interest us in buying one. Strange, I thought, but surely an anomaly. Several dozen beer sellers later, I realized that it was a transparent front for selling drugs. And yet, some of the men seemed genuinely interested in pushing their beer on me. One of them, deducing that I spoke English, mustered all the linguistic skills at his disposal and exclaiming "Sexy beer! Beer sexy beer!"

The next day I slept in and wandered through the Gràcia district surrounding my hostel, waiting for my friend Beth to get out of class. I found two amazing cafés on the same street, one for breakfast and another for being intellectual over a cup of coffee. I also had some Mexican food, huevos rancheros in a surprisingly beautiful Frida Kahlo-themed restaurant with worn turquoise wooden tables, painted tiles set into the stucco walls and colored paper hangings everywhere. The waiter said qué pena that I was alone, and tried to offer me a free shot of tequila, but seeing as it was only 3 pm I declined.

The best thing ever happened to me that day. I actually got recognized in some way for my writing. I was nominated for a scholarship at the New York State Summer Writer's Institute, a sort of writing retreat on the campus of Skidmore college that lasts for 4 weeks over the summer. I was quite pleased.

That's the end of Part I, mis amigos.
Hasta Luego,

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blue Mondays, Orange Wednesdays, Freaky Fridays and Everything in Between

This week was a week of shopping (sorry mom!). I bought myself everything from a wallet to a friend (Mr. Winkworth, see below):Mr. Winkworth only cost 3 pounds at a shop on Brick Lane. But to me, he's priceless. He's taken up permanent residence in my bed, head resting on the pillow, smiling that devious neon grin.

I also bought a second-hand Marc Jacobs coat, two sun dresses for Spain, a 2 pound wallet, and an amazing leather bag from the landmark vintage store "One of a Kind."
I love all of my purchases, so I have no buyer's remorse. Maybe guiltless living is a European thing?

I went to two markets, Portobello Road and Brick Lane (which is actually several markets all collected around the heavily Bengali Brick Lane neighborhood). Both places were delightful, but I must say Brick Lane is the best place to shop in the world. Not only do they have acres of unique designer boutique/stands, vintage and second-hand stalls, and fascinatingly fashionable people walking the streets, they also have the Sunday-Up Market, which has the most fantastic food court EVER. It's got every ethnicity represented, even those tiny countries on Africa's west coast that nobody remembers the names of. When I was there I went Japanese, eating a curious vegetable pancake with soy-soaked rice cake wrapped in seaweed. They make it right in front of you:It was very tasty. I also had some tiny sugared banana donuts for desert.

Despite my relatively carefree and easy life here, I was exhausted for class on Monday, and ended up falling asleep during our five-minute break. Perhaps I no longer have the energy to sit still?

The reference to Orange Wednesdays is the half-priced movie tickets that I get through my cell phone plan. I saw Frost/Nixon today for less than 3 pounds.

This weekend will be another whirlwind. I'm celebrating Friday the 13th with another Royal Shakespeare Company show, the Taming of the Shrew this time. On Valentine's, I'm visiting Oxford and staying through Sunday, then I'm off to Spain for 8 days, leaving me just Monday to pack and prepare. I probably won't write until I get back, but once I do, expect some proper travel writing.

Now I'm off to a dinner party with all of my favorite people (except the ones who couldn't come).
Cheerio mates,

Friday, February 6, 2009

Laundry Night = Blog Entry Night

I love the familiar use of "love" and "darling" from lower class British men when addressing women here. It might be sexist but it sounds sweet to me. Some other peculiar verbal ticks include saying "inn'it" after every sentence, in place of "oh really?" or "yeah?"; and saying "bless her" to express pleasure at one of my utterances.

I had another great creative writing class today, in which all of us sat reciting our work and admiring each other. We had to write a story in 15 minutes based on a series of pictures, a sort of silent comic strip. We all got the same set of pictures, but all of the stories came out completely differently, especially mine - in which I ignored all the pictures but one and just wrote 2 paragraphs about it. Here it is:

"He's moving in today. Taking the second floor. A small man with yellow skin and a shiny bald pate. Behind his glasses are the most exquisitely turned Oriental eyes. Almonds in milk. He stands outside the flat, and I watch him. We are both stroking our chins right now, him in a solitary contemplation of the cusp of change, me in a contemplation of him.

He must be 60 years old at the very least, I think, as I play with the frayed tie on my bathrobe. His English is probably not very good. It never is, when you move here that late in life. They say there's a threshold age. They say that after a certain age, you can never really become fluent in another language. I sip my coffee, lean further into the window. I wonder, is that true for love as well?

I wonder if he's missed that threshold too."

I got really nice feedback from my brilliant classmates, many of whom wrote lovely pieces of their own. A few of my favorite bits from the class were the phrase "that dense awkwardness," and a cactus named 'Prickly Pete.' Most had to be enjoyed in context. One girl has severe dyslexia; she struggled to read her piece aloud - a very spare, excellently detailed and matter-of-fact story about a working class woman having a nervous breakdown in the bath.

Afterward we talked for a bit about how much we all feel a communal aura of magic emanating from the class and the professor. I'm not exaggerating when I say this class is changing my worldview. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little.

Here's some more street names (I've been slacking off in my collection of them) : Swallow Street, Air Street, and Man in the Moon Passage are all right next to each other, off Regent Street near Piccadilly Circus.

Going to fetch clothes from the dryer now. Peace out,


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I Finally Found A Gangsta!

This post should be subtitled "Ministry of Sound: Only Fun When You're Drunk," or alternately, "Around the World in 80 Guys," or perhaps "More Things Ali Will Never Do Again." Or, if I wanted to go for the big bucks, I would just call it "I Kissed Coolio!"

So, here's how it happened. My friends and I went to the Ministry of Sound at 10.30 pm, or 22.30 as the say hereabouts, and the club was packed with Indian schoolchildren. It was so lame, we decided to get some booze, or as I like to call it, "instant fun juice."

Ministry has 4 rooms, but only two of them were open for most of the night. Then I ran into a fellow American study abroader, and he said "Hey, did you know that Coolio is performing live in the other room?" At this point I was heavily enthusiastic about almost everything, and images of the Keenan and Kel intro were flashing through my mind. I suddenly loved Coolio! All I wanted was to get close to him!

I ran bouncing into the performance room, and lo and behold, there he was. In a white t-shirt and matching dewrag, dripping with sweat, making everyone shout "Fuck yeah!" I immediately joined in, dancing with the first guy who crossed my path. This guy took a liking to me, and he happened to be part of the film crew for the show. "You're a big Coolio fan?" he asked. And at that moment, I was the biggest. So he took me backstage, bought me a drink, and after Coolio finished his performance with a stirring rendition of Gangsta's Paradise, he brought me to the VIP room to meet him. I kissed him, on the cheek (some bathos there for ya), and sat down, asking if I could interview him for my blog. The end of the story is I was escorted out of the room by several burly bouncers.

I ran off, leaving the film-crew guy to eat my dust, while I rejoined my friends. A lovely night was had by all.

If you think I'm leaving a few things out, you have no idea.

Cheers playas,

Monday, February 2, 2009

I Really Wasn't Expecting This

Today London was paralyzed by snow. The city had the biggest snowfall of the past 20 years, half a foot of this wonderfully powdery, glittering soap-flake downpour that lasted the better part of 36 hours. Classes were cancelled, public transport shut down, and people built snowmen in the streets. With a day off from uni, students built snow forts in which to smoke hookah until the roof caved in. Then they took pictures and posted them on facebook.
Kids ran around throwing snowballs at anyone who passed by, and grown-ups joined in their massive snowball wars. The snow is really excellent for packing. I may have flung some of it at a 12-year-old myself.

Londoners everywhere were super-enthusiastic about the weather, since many of them have only seen snow a few times in their lives. I've never seen snow this beautiful before. Due to a massive lack of snow plows, and a salt shortage, there was apparently a 1.2 billion pound loss of work hours. I suspect the city's snow equipment consists of a single shovel locked in a vault in the Tower of London. The newspapers describe the situation as chaos, and one transport spokesman was quoted as saying "We're not in Russia here!" In the words of a friend of mine, snow is more disastrous to daily life in London than the war ever was.

By now, the streets have become wet slush, and buses have started running again (very slowly) but I'm hoping class will be off tomorrow as well. And considering the facts, it probably will.

Last night, when the snow had just begun to accumulate, I was watching the Super Bowl with a bunch of Americans at a pub. By the time we got out, at 2 am, there were absolutely no cabs on the street (buses and trains had already stopped running by then). I sprinted down possibly the only cab left in the entire city, which my friends and I ended up sharing with a prickly couple from Buenos Aires on a very very long ride.

Cheerio from the snowiest city in the WORLD,

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Of Funky Snow

It's snowing in London today, in big pure flakes that perform balletic twirls and shuffles across the windswept pavement. Snow here is rare, and it doesn't stick. It just gets on your eyelashes and freezes your hands off.

Next weekend I'm going to Cambridge, and the week after that to Barcelona. Until then, my time will be spent bent over Shakespeare's plays and Fielding's travel diary (if I ever actually get to my reading). More likely than not, I will end up at the Ministry of Sound, or the pub, or the Superbowl party tonight being thrown by some study abroad group for all of us football-worshiping Americans (don't they just know us inside out?).

Friday night, a friend and I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's showing of A Midsummer Night's Dream (one of my favorites) for only 5 pounds each. The student deals here are amazing. This morning I had a full English breakfast with a banana blueberry smoothie, walked around Camden Market and bought a vintage dress and a pair of boots.

And right now, I'm so tired (insert White Album lyrics here).