23 April 2008

The Rain in Spain


I glided into this large coastal city on a Sunday afternoon, and caught the entire town enjoying siesta. It is not a bad way to enter a new place, especially a large new place. I walked the sunny streets from the bus station to my hostel, which was a bit of a curiosity. Situated on one of the main streets, it’s perfectly located and unbelievably classy. When you arrive, your backpack singling you out as a student traveler, you cannot believe that the chic-linen-napkin-two-wine-glasses restaurant at 33 Passeig de Gracia hides a backpackers’ haven. Then you breathe easy, because it doesn’t—there are two number 33s. I never expect that much from a hostel, but between location, marble staircase, view of Passeig de Gracia, and cleanliness, I was stuck again in unbelief that anyone had ever thought to turn this into a hostel…but mostly thankful that they had!

Traveling alone was certainly never lonely. That first night I met up with Manchester student Melissa, who has been studying in Barcelona for the year. She walked me down Las Ramblas to the port and beach, and I wiggled my toes in the Mediterranean. Though the weather was comfortable, the water was cold, and I sheepishly lamented packing my swimsuit. But you just never know!

“And you’re traveling alone?” people at the hostel would ask. I wasn’t sure if it implied I should be embarrassed or afraid to do so, so I tried to make my affirmative response as noncommittal as possible. Then we would become friends, though I hesitate between attributing that to pity or genuine like. I met two British girls backpacking during their “gap year” (a year between high school and university which many European students decide to take off to work and/or travel); a hard-core Canadian girl backpacking on a two-month tour of Europe; another, softer Canadian taking time off from his job to see Spain and southern France; and a New Zealander teaching PE classes in England, whom no one understood half the time because of the difference in accents. A strange group, to be sure, but somehow cohesive and relaxed and fun. We spent a few days sight-seeing all together: the Cathedral, the Sagrada Familia and other works of Gaudi, the Arc de Triomfe, the arena, a few parks, and the Gothic Quarter. The most impressive, of course, was the Sagrada Familia, which has been in construction for about a hundred years and will continue for at least the next twenty. According to Gaudi’s wish, the “temple” (as it’s not yet been blessed by the Pope) is being built only on private donation, and the architecture is already demanding enough. Looking at Gaudi’s houses and structures, I just couldn’t help wondering why in the bland world of 19th and 20th century architecture, no one stood up and told him “YOU are MENTAL”; imagine Gaudi building his modernist, non-standard creations in YOUR gray-and-beige-please-keep-the-grass-at-half-an-inch suburb! I did enjoy his work, though, as did my fellow travelers. We’ve tentatively planned a reunion in Barcelona in 2030 to see the finished product; for this time, though, we finished off with a group-cooked meal at the hostel. I was sad to leave this place behind.

But before I left, I visited the Cataluña Regional History Museum, which tells the story of this (reluctant?) part of Spain. From autonomy to integration in everything from language to administration, this region displays a fiery independence difficult to miss. I can’t comment on the extent to which Cataluña should or should not, will or will not, be part of Spain, but between talking to Melissa, visiting the museum, and having an encounter in which the man at the tourist desk informed me that I had better to use my English than try Spanish, because Spanish was NOT his second language (an extreme example, I hear)—between all this, I began to feel the tension surrounding Catalan identity.


A night bus took me to my next stop, and I woke up in the early morning to the hilly olive country of southern Spain. I slept surprisingly well, in two-hour spurts between stops, panicking at each one though I knew I wouldn’t arrive at Cordoba until noon. I wrote this in my travel journal: “I’m grateful for the Spanish I have, I hope I don’t miss my transfer stop, and I can’t believe I’m doing this alone. It must be frightening for parents to have a daughter who travels worlds away to places they’ve never been, alone. I feel confident; they probably feel uncomfortable. I try to mollify them, but I really have no way of knowing.” Of course, at the end of the trip, I can say that everything went smoothly and I had no reason to worry, but why the heck was I so confident about that at the beginning?! It pays to be aware, attentive, to have alternatives, to always know where your important belongings are. Just in case. It even pays, I believe, to wake up every two hours through the night on the bus to be sure you don’t miss your transfer at 9am (for which, of course, you’ve set your alarm).

In Cordoba, the weather was mostly rainy and cold, which gave me great occasion to read and journal and talk with the people staying in my “hostel” (more a hotel that had been renamed to allow it to stuff 8 beds in a 2-bed room). This time, I met an Iranian-British family: two sisters and their sons, about my age. What pleasant company they were! We dined, walked, and visited together, and now I’ve been invited to visit them in Manchester (or feel “the wrath of an Iranian mother,” as one of the sons put it).

I visited the Mezquita, a very clearly-termed cathedral in what was formerly a mosque which was formerly half-cathedral half-mosque. The gardens at the alcazar (palace) caught my attention, as they were filled with orange trees in bloom. After all, that’s what I went to Cordoba for.


Time in Cordoba included a day-trip (a LONG day-trip) to see the April Fair in Sevilla. It started out lazily enough, with a visit to the art museum (the collection of Zurburan I’d gone to see less-than-impressed me), a walk along the Guadalquivir River, sitting in the sun to journal and listen to the accordion at the café on the other bank and the clippety-clop of horse carriages carrying festively-dressed Sevillanos. I would much rather celebrate Fair than Halloween! Though I didn’t spent much time at the fair grounds (which consisted of rows and rows of public and family tents, in which people ate, drank, and danced flamenco—sort of an awkward place to be when you’re not with anyone), the atmosphere all over town entices you to join. I couldn’t even avoid it at the cathedral (with its mind-blowingly intricate altar and tomb of Christopher Columbus) or the alcazar and its gardens. I’ve always been fond of Moorish architecture, but I was never more disappointed in “Western” architecture than in Sevilla, where the alcazar is half outstanding Moorish palace and half bland Gothic palace.


My residence in Granada qualifies as my favorite hostel EVER. I mean, I suppose every hostel has a chalkboard welcoming all the new arrivals; down polka-dot comforters on wooden beds; doors opening onto little balconies letting in the afternoon sunshine; a roof-top terrace with a view of the city, the Sierra Nevada, and the cathedral; and an in-house cook who makes fresh paella, soups, and his own sangria every day. I thought I was staying in a five-star hotel; actually, compared to the hotels I’ve been in, I prefer this: the “Funky Backpackers’ Hostel.” Ok, so it’s not much of a name, it’s not easy to find, and the façade turns you off a bit, but everything and everyone on the inside made it the best hostel yet!

On Monday I got up early to get in line for one of the 2000 day-of-public-issued tickets to the Alhambra, choosing the afternoon visit time, which allowed me to go back to the hostel, nap, and sit in the sun on the terrace reading. The Alhambra (Nasride Palaces, alcazar—the oldest part of the fort, and Generalife—the summer residence) was amazing beyond words, again stunning me with the detail so fundamental to Moorish architecture. I hardly know which picture to post! I did my best to use my six-hour allotment, including a short nap on a garden bench.

This is a view of the Albaycin as seen from the Alhambra; it’s a neighborhood where all the Moors were chased to when the Catholics took over Granada (did you know that the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, are in the Royal Chapel in Granada?!). It’s windy streets gave me a perfect morning’s worth of wandering, ultimately reaching Plaza San Nicholas, was boasts an amazing across-the-valley view of the Alhambra.

I liked Granada well enough, but not so much as the other towns I visited. Perhaps it was a ¾ trip lull, in which I thought about all that I had done and all that lay ahead, and just wanted to sit on the terrace of my very nice hostel.


So I got on a bus to my last stop, the capital of Spain. What an amazing, beautiful city! The night I arrived I took a long evening stroll from my hostel down Gran Via, in front of the Prado Art Museum, over to the Royal Palace, and through the shopping district of Puerta del Sol. I like walkable cities; it gives me a good sense of where I am when I first arrive. I’m well aware that I did not see nearly all of Madrid; that in fact, I remained in a very small central section. But at the end of the trip, that scope was wide enough for me. I liked Madrid’s wide, tulip-planted boulevards and spent most of my time in monuments (like the Royal Palace, very beautiful), museums (the Prado and the Reina Sofia), and the huge park behind the Prado.

Yes, I saw all the “biggies”: Zurburan, Velasquez, El Greco, Bosch, Breughel, Titian, and special exhibits on Goya and Picasso. I like standing in front of paintings I have studied…I like walking into a room and zapping each subject of Christian iconography with its appropriate name (“Ecce homo, St. Stephen, Adoration of the Magi, YES!”). To the professor I have to thank for that: you know who you are.

In Madrid on my last day I met up with Adlyn, the Puerto Rican I met with the Quebecoises in Rome and whom I visited in Lille (got that?), who was in town for a view days visiting her friends. We had a wonderful tapas meal together, then were sucked into shoe stores (Madrid is a big black hole for shoe-lovers). The tapas meal was good, as it was the first real meal I’d had in a while. I made the mistake of bringing along Barbara Eirehnreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America as reading material. It’s the report that came out of months living on minimum wage in different places in the US and trying to make ends meet. It’s a story of scrimping, and scrimp I did under the influence of this book. By the time I got to Madrid, I was spending 3 euros a day on food—without cooking for myself. It wasn’t exactly a balanced diet (hostel breakfast, hostel-scavanged roll/fruit plus 40 cent yogurt for lunch, some sort of cheap sandwich for dinner), but it was most certainly a diet! When have eaten almost nothing but vegetables since I’ve been back.

And back I am. It was a good plan, to come back Friday. It allowed me to leave again Saturday!

About noon on Saturday I headed to a village called Ste. Marie-aux-Mines, close to Selestat, where one of my friends lives and where he was directing a play this weekend. The play raised money for an association he belongs to, which is renovating a house in town and turning it into a tea room and venue. Everything started at 2pm with skits, mimes, songs, dance; continued at 6pm with a marionette story; then at 7:30 with dinner and entertainment; then the music and dancing about 10:00. FANTASTIC! We didn’t return home (I stayed with my friend’s family in their mountain house: nothing to hear but birds, nothing to see but trees, and *gasp* no cell phone reception) until 3am. Then all started (or at least a shortened version of it) again Sunday afternoon. Sunday I helped in the kitchen and taking tickets at the entrance, then stayed on after for the cast meeting. I have seldom been so exhausted and have certainly not felt so involved for a long time. It was a happy place to be and I enjoyed it very much. Except getting up at 7am on Monday to come back to Strasbourg for a full day of classes.

I’m still recuperating.

And that’s the story, folks.

19 April 2008

A Smattering

...Of photos from the trip whilst I'm working on the written entry:
Barcelona skyline
Proof: smelling orange blossoms

The April Fair in Sevilla and some very well-dressed ladies nice enough to let me take a picture with them
The Alhambra (Moorish castle in Granada)

Plaza Mayor in Madrid, at the end of the trip when I was tired of taking very many pictures

Flying home!
More to come!

05 April 2008


Make new friends and keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold

It’s been…interesting…making friends here. So many dynamics combine to form, on the one hand, a charged social environment, and on the other, a bunch of independent human bubbles. Not mastering the language: strike 1; having a cell phone: point; being a foreign student on a short stay: strike 2; joining a dance class: point. No dorm life: strike; taking classes within a single department: point. When I first arrived, I looked for the picture-perfect French and foreign friendships. Then I forewent friendships on-site to maintain familiar ones. I was telling someone a couple months ago that I felt I had friends I would see if I came back to France, but not friends I would come back to France to see. Now, as my thoughts turn towards home, I sense another change. Bad timing, huh? We are a motley lot: an Australian, a half-Greek, a Breton-French and an Alsatian-French, a United-Stater (kudos to my Quebecoises who insist that, technically, they are AMERICAN too). I sometimes wonder just what stuff these friendships are made of. Then I stop wondering and just enjoy them.

It’s been even more…interesting…keeping track of friends back home. God bless Skype. And even Facebook, to some extent (never thought I’d say that!). I find it difficult to let things be, to let life happen, and that can be stated in either a positive manner (I act with intention and let others know I think about them) or a negative one (I am guilt-ridden and full of “shoulds” and lists). Paradoxically, I also find it difficult to maintain regular contact with people in two different worlds. I just wrote a letter to a high school friend with whom I visited shortly before I left, whom I hadn’t talk with at all the previous year and whom I haven’t contacted since. Meanwhile, a stack of letters and emails from home wait to be responded to. And there are plenty more people I like very well back State-side who I’m sure are existing and who I hope are doing well. My intention is to pick up where we left off, but deep down I am not content to think fond thoughts of them living their lives. A friendship takes commitment, intention, investment, right?

What do you think about a friendship quotient? The idea that one can only maintain so many genuine contacts at any given time?

At this time, all I can clarify are some goals of mine: to give a very special friend of mine some very special attention, to respond whenever I am written to, and to continue investing myself where I can and where I feel it returned. And to remember that friends don’t let friends get burned out on being friends!

The Spring Break of your Dreams

Little by little, I’m figuring out how to travel. My latest discover relates to time frame, because even though I’m prone to attempt to squeeze every moment of adventuring out of the last day/afternoon/hour of break, I’ve realized it’s not a very healthy practice. It lacks in…sanity. And my aim is really not to run myself ragged, you see. So, my latest trick is to figure out the earliest date I can possibly leave, and leave two days later; calculate the latest I can possibly be back; and return two days earlier*.

Classes finished yesterday and we have yet another two-week break before us. I get the impression that most French students use these weeks to finish projects and prepare for the upcoming exams, and that most foreign students travel. I know others going to Norway, Brittany, Scotland, Morocco, Italy, Poland, the States, Sweden… I will be traveling in Spain. The weeks look a bit like this:

6-9 April: Barcelona: seeing Gaudi architecture, enjoying the Mediterranean at one of the beaches (It will be 70 degrees!), and visiting a Manchester BCA student (Melissa)

10-13 April: Cordoba: smelling orange blossoms, visiting the Mezquite mosque, and a day trip to the big fair in Sevilla

14-15 April: Granada: seeing the Alhambra

16-18 April: Madrid: paying homage to a particularly persistent art professor in visiting the Prado Museum, enjoying the city parks, and tour around with a Porto Rican I met in Italy with the Quebecoises and whom I visited on the trip to Lille (Adlyn)

18 April: Strasbourg: returning by way of night bus, shuttle bus, plane, another shuttle bus, and two more trains, and technically, my bike (not as complicated as it sounds—I leave at 10:45 one night and get back at 3 o’clock in the afternoon the next day)

So, you’ll have all this and more to look forward to the next time I post! Please do keep checking up, and thank you for all the letters and emails that have come my way lately!

*This is, of course, all subject to plane/train/bus ticket prices, available lodging, and the length of the break. I have two weeks to play with this time around, so my pragmatist guilt (the one that bleeps in phrases like *once in a lifetime*take advantage*travel expenses to get here*) has subsided and allowed me to try traveling with this perspective. I make no promises.