Friday, November 24, 2006
For my suitcase, packed carefully with my favorite clothes and all the postcards and mementos I’ve accumulated from my travels over the past few months, not to mention Andrew’s soon-to-be-fixed laptop and my favorite perfume, it was a total miss. At Newark, waiting at baggage claim for my suitcase, I had a sinking feeling that it may not have made it from Paris. I waited and waited until I was the last person waiting, and then the conveyor belt stopped. After all these trips, all these flights, I’d never lost a bag; it had to happen eventually. I went to the baggage office; my suitcase was entered into the system; and I ran to catch my next flight. I was too jet-lagged and rushed to even be too upset.
For Thanksgiving, I wore an outfit I cobbled together from clothes I found in my parents’ attic.
The story of my “delayed baggage” (the airline never refers to a bag as “lost”) has a happy ending: my bag arrived home tonight, hand-delivered to my front door. It was a welcome sight, and an amazing one. Somehow, my intrepid suitcase made it home from Paris—all on its own, from the chaos of Charles de Gaulle to the chaos of Newark to Pittsburgh and right on to Connellsville, two hours away.
So now I and all my belongings are home for a while. It feels more than a little strange to be sitting at my desk in my old bedroom, with my clothes in drawers instead of a suitcase; but there are trips to break up the away-from-Spain time, to NYC and Rochester and DC and Jacksonville, and then trips to Ireland and Scotland and southern Spain and Paris to look forward to as soon as I return. My bag and I will now begin to settle in.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Our hotel, like so much else in Cadaques, was full of Salvador Dali memorabilia: photographs, prints, and Dali-esque artworks in the lobby. Cadaques was Dali’s home for many years, and it was where he met his wife, Gala—who had traveled to Cadaques from Paris with her husband, only to subsequently leave him for Dali.
Cadaques is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Spain or elsewhere. The hillside homes and buildings arranged around the sparkling blue bay are blindingly whitewashed, and the bay itself is dotted with small rowboats and sailboats. As we walked near the water, we saw what at first looked like a large seal or dolphin near the surface of the water; it was actually a snorkeling spearfisherman, who emerged from the water with his long spear (but no fish) in hand. The village is tiny, with one large church (with a stunningly ornate altar), several boutiques, and a handful of restaurants around the water. It is a place of absolute peace—quiet and tranquil, with water lapping soothingly on the shore and large-bowed pine trees rustling in the breeze.
Besides simply enjoying Cadaques, we had a goal in mind for the weekend: to complete the Dali Triangle, a collection of three places that constitute a significant portion of Dali’s life. On Saturday, after a lovely lunch at Casa Nun, we went home: to Dali and Gala’s home, that is, in Port Llegat, just outside of Cadaques. Dali and Gala lived in a large house they created from a series of abandoned fishing cottages. They added to the house piece by piece over the years, forming a mazelike home full of odd-shaped rooms and surprising windows. A stuffed polar bear stands as sentry just inside the front door—not a toy polar bear but the taxidermied kind. Stuffed animals populate the entire house, from large swans atop the bookshelves in a living room to two small white goats in the bedroom to a series of heads and other creatures peering out from almost every corner. There is also an unsettling number of mannequins in various states of undress, and Dali’s sun-flooded studio, with gigantic windows overlooking the water and the mountains that surround it.
Our first leg of the Triangle completed, we detoured to Cap de Creus to visit a lighthouse before heading back to Cadaques. The sun was setting as we inched up the mountain, and when we reached the top, the sky was pink and orange and gray. We joined a quiet crowd sitting in almost meditative peacefulness at small tables outside the lighthouse café, sipping cold beers in the cold air as the sky finally grew dark. Around us, people talked quietly, smoking, the whole night still ahead. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to actually live in a place like this—but in such stillness, when the entire world seems not only far away but nonexistent, it’s really tempting to try.
On Sunday, we began the drive to Figueres, a not-so-small town about an hour away from Cadaques. Dali was born in Figueres in 1904, and in 1974 he designed a museum to be built there. This museum—the Teatre-Museu Dali—is a breathtakingly bizarre structure in bright salmon pink, dotted with large gold loaves of bread and capped by several enormous eggs. The museum stands out absurdly in the very normal, not-so-charming city center, among very regular buildings and traffic-clogged streets. The museum itself is both what you’d expect and beyond all expectations: a temple of weirdness, full of mannequins, dolls’ heads, and those crazy melting clocks, with some quite beautiful paintings here and there. The fact that Dali once wore a large round loaf of bread on his head as a hat should come as no surprise, and bread-hats appear now and then in sculptures and drawings as well.
Dali lived and worked in the museum for several years, until he died in 1989. He’s buried in the museum—in a room filled with glass cases full of goblets draped with golden snakes.
The final stop in the Triangle proved a bit difficult to find. Pubol, a tiny village just east of Girona, wasn’t on any road signs, and the only map we had was in a brochure from the Dali museum—hardly detailed. But we were determined to find it, since Pubol is far off the tourist track and we were set on completing the Triangle. Our destination this time: a castle that Dali bought for Gala for her exclusive use, and which Dali himself could visit only by her invitation. The castle dates from the eleventh century, and it was in ruins when Dali bought it; he and Gala renovated it in the 1970s. Dali is clearly there, in the spindly elephant sculptures in the garden, in the paintings, in the egg-shaped fireplace, but it’s calmer, less weird than the house and the museum. And the gardens are beautiful, full of tall sycamores and hidden enclaves, a secluded pool (now a pond), and, since we were there in autumn, many red and gold leaves.
Gala died in 1982, and she’s buried in a crypt in the basement of the castle. Dali lived at the castle for several years after she died, so she wouldn't be alone.
Like Cadaques and the Cap de Creus, the castle and garden were peaceful and calm, set far apart from the outside world. Returning to Barcelona early that evening was jarring; we’d been only two hours away, but it seemed much further. I don’t know much about Dali beyond what I read this weekend in museum brochures and texts, but now I’m anxious to read a biography. All that silence, and all that strangeness—it’s hard to see how his vision took root in the places we saw. He found an alternate universe, a surreal landscape with no reality in sight, in what seemed to me like places where a mind could do little but rest, undisturbed.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
This weekend, I decided to make chili, since Barcelona is—finally—a normal fall temperature, crisp and chilly (at least in the evenings; the afternoons are still warm enough for short sleeves). Recipe in hand, Andrew and I went to the supermarket at El Corte Ingles, since our small, local Condis market has a very limited selection of ingredients—if I would find chili powder in Barcelona, I knew, I’d find it at the Corte. Some of the ingredients proved easy—onions, garlic, green pepper; others, not so. I found what I thought was a can of crushed tomatoes; but neither of us knew for sure. I found what appeared to be chili powder, though there was no way to taste it to find out. And when Andrew went to the meat counter to get the two pounds of ground beef, it proved elusive, for two reasons: he didn’t know how to say ground, and he didn’t know the kilo equivalent.
Ultimately, the chili wasn’t bad. What I thought was chili powder wasn’t—it was, I think, cayenne pepper instead. But aside from being a bit spicier (though, oddly, both spicier and blander) than usual, it was a good first effort.
The same can’t be said for our dinner experiment on Monday, when we tried to make Catalonia-style cannelloni. We’ve had this in a restaurant we like, and it’s delicious: meat-filled cannelloni in a kind of white sauce. Apparently very traditional. We found frozen cannelloni at the grocery store, the béchamel sauce nearby; it seemed promising. It wasn’t. Though we have a toaster oven, we don’t have a sheet to cook anything on, or any tin foil, or any kind of casserole dish; so the cannelloni were kind of toasted rather than baked. And the béchamel sauce was revolting. Just thinking about this dinner makes me feel a bit sick, and even though it’s been two days, my stomach (my strong stomach!) hasn’t fully recovered.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
When I got back to Barcelona, I felt like I’d been away for weeks—Marrakech required the entirety of my attention, and I hardly thought of Spain at all while we were there. My mind was monopolized by other concerns: crossing the streets without getting hit by a motorbike; trying not to inadvertently see a skinned, dead animal hanging from a food stall; worrying whether the mint tea we’d ordered without consulting a menu would cost 500 dirhams; avoiding the snake charmers and their snake-wielding emissary who’d approach a tourist and drape a live snake around their neck, requesting a few dirhams for the ensuing photo. And it was difficult to navigate the city without knowing Arabic or French. Apart from a British tourist here and there, we heard little English aside from “Please, come to my shop” and “What is your best price?” and “You are welcome in my country.”
Furthermore, we stood out—there was no way around it, no matter how conservative my long sleeves, no matter how long my pants. One of my favorite pictures from the trip is of Andrew in a small square in the souqs: around him are several sandaled, black-robed Moroccan men, while Andrew is wearing sneakers and a bright blue J. Crew sweater. There’s something exhausting about standing out and being looked at, even when the glances are nothing but cursory and not in any way threatening or hostile.
My attention was also absorbed by things that were much less insane and much more beautiful, but no less overwhelming: the elaborate, tiered trays of Moroccan pastries in bakery windows; the mounds of spices and olives and dried fruits in the souqs; the abundance of intricately painted pottery, pointed leather slippers, and colored lanterns; the breathtaking mosaics and stone carvings and Arabic calligraphy covering every possible surface; the endless silver teapots on café tables; the small tea glasses full of mint leaves.
We took the trip to celebrate my thirtieth birthday, and we packed as much as we could into our three days. We did some of the Marrakech highlights: took a horse-and-carriage ride through the Ville Nouvelle; walked through the Jardin Majorelle, the tropical garden owned by Yves Saint Laurent; visited the Musee de Marrakech, the Ali ben Youssef Medersa (a former Quranic school), and the Saadian tombs. On Sunday, the big day, we had an orange-flower bath strewn with rose petals (in twin tubs) and a massage at a Moroccan spa—a ridiculously relaxing retreat in the midst of crazy Marrakech. We had a delicious lunch of omelettes du fromage and kefta sandwiches at Nid’Cigogne, a terrace restaurant overlooking storks’ nests in the kasbah. We walked in the souqs, then had mint tea and plates of Moroccan pastries at a café in lieu of a birthday cake.
But mostly we walked, and walked some more, and tried our best to take it all in. It was a perfect way to turn thirty, in an exotic new place, overcome with a feeling of being all eyes and instincts.
We saw the woman in the street on our last night, as Simon loaded our suitcase into our airport-bound taxi. She wished us a good journey; we wished her a good stay. “I just have to tell you how much you look like an actress from Amelie,” I said. She nodded. “It’s me,” she said. It was a suitably strange ending to our trip. Of all the riads in the city…an actress from Amelie was staying in ours.
Besides foods, the souqs also sell all manner of Moroccan home furnishings, clothing, and leather goods. Elaborately painted pottery is piled floor to ceiling in some stalls, while others have traditional robes, scarves, and fabrics slung from the ceiling and hanging on the walls. Handbags, briefcases, large valises, wallets, and embroidered ottomans fill the leather stalls; other stalls sell nothing but leather slippers; still others are mysteriously lit by hundreds of glass-and-metal lanterns.
The “streets” of the souqs aren’t named or marked in any way, and each time we entered the souqs, we were lost completely after one or two turns. Andrew is usually excellent with navigation, but a normally good sense of direction is useless in the souqs—even superfluous, since the real pleasure is just wandering and looking. At times, however, we did need to find a museum or simply find our way out—and there is virtually no way to find your way out of the souqs once you’ve gotten turned around and have drifted deeper and deeper into them. But without fail, whenever we found ourselves hopelessly lost, staring pointlessly at our map, someone would appear at our elbow, offering (for a few dirhams, of course) to guide us where we needed to go. It was always a welcome solution, a simple, common, and friendly exchange that benefited everyone involved.
Andrew and I spent a lot of time in the souqs, but we went to absorb the intensity and take it all in rather than do any serious shopping. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the vendors’ part: they called to us, greeted us in several languages to find out what we spoke, sometimes grabbed our arms, sometimes followed us—and always promised us a good price. “What will you pay?” was their first question whenever we showed a hint of interest in something. Then they reacted with dramatic shock and disbelief at the price we named, pointing out the quality of the leather, the craftsmanship, the time involved. We did come away with a few purchases: a camel-bone mirror, a square leather ottoman, and (I can never resist at least one small souvenir for my Christmas tree) a tiny leather camel.
Djemaa el-Fna is the main square of Marrakech, the throbbing heart of the city for both tourists and locals. Calling it a “square” is wholly inadequate and inaccurate: it suggests a certain familiarity, a certain refinement, and Djemaa el-Fna is anything but refined and familiar. Around the edges of Djemaa el-Fna are shops, cafes, restaurants, and small newspaper stands. In the heart of the square are donkey-drawn carts piled with dried fruits and nuts—dates, apricots, figs, almonds—and buzzing with flies. Interspersed among the dried fruit carts are glass-encased carts full of oranges, where you can buy fresh-squeezed orange juice (unless you’re a tourist with a wary Western stomach). At night, these carts multiply a hundredfold with the food stalls, some selling steamed snails, others boiled lambs’ heads with teeth intact, and smoke fills the air.
If you need dried chameleons or spare human teeth, you’ll find them in Djemaa el-Fna. Around the square, wrinkled apothecaries have their wares spread out on rough blankets: dried and live chameleons, turtles, skins of all kinds, powders, potions, herbs, and barks. Piles of human teeth and discarded dentures are displayed on small tables. Water sellers circle the square with tin scoops and heavy leather bags of water. Fortune tellers sit with clients; storytellers draw huge crowds of rapt robed men around them. You have to be constantly on guard against the veiled women offering henna tattoos, who will grab your hand and squirt henna onto it—“Just a flower, for luck”—if you don’t refuse aggressively enough (I had to jerk my hand away so roughly it actually hurt). Snake charmers face off with black cobras; and their lilting, ominous, discordant music mingles with the rhythms of drum circles and, five times a day, the wailing call to prayer blasting from the Koutoubia minaret.
We ate several meals at cafes and restaurants overlooking Djemaa el-Fna—places where we were careful to order specifically from a menu; we’d learned our Marrakech lesson the hard way at the food stalls on our first night. At Le Marrakechi, I had chicken, olive, and lemon tagine; Andrew had lamb brochettes. At Café Argana, we had chicken and pigeon pastillas, flat pastries stuffed with meat and dried fruits and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. We had lovely food away from the square as well, at Restaurant 33 in the “new city”: eggplant caviar and vegetable couscous for me; a cheese omelette and lamb tagine for Andrew. And everywhere, sweet, nutty, honey-drenched Moroccan pastries, and endless pots of sugary mint tea.
The streets of the kasbah were too narrow and twisty for cars, so the driver let us out some distance from our riad. We hurried to keep up with Simon as he led us through masses of people and guided us through many twists and turns. Just walking to the riad was an adventure. We wove through crowds and stalls selling boiled lambs’ heads; huge bloody cuts of meat hanging from hooks; live and not live chickens; boxes of live chicks, some dyed purple and green and pink; piles of hooves from an unidentifiable animal, being cleaned in a bucket of water; fresh whole fish swarming with flies. We dodged motorbikes and donkeys. When we finally reached our riad, we were hopelessly turned around.
Michel, the riad owner, welcomed us in French; Simon served us mint tea on the rooftop terrace. The night was chilly, and the tea was sweet and hot. It was getting very late, but we were excited to really be in Marrakech, antsy to see some of the city. Our requests for directions to the main square, where we hoped to have dinner, were met with incomprehension and a map without any street names, but nonetheless we left the comfort of the riad and set off alone for the square.
Somehow, we found Djemaa el-Fna, the throbbing main square of Marrakech. Even from some distance away, we could hear the square: the whiny discord of snake charmers’ oboes, the shouts of the crowds, the sizzle and bustle of hundreds of food stalls. Smoke rose into the night sky; we smelled grilled meats. And then we were there, overcome: Marrakech. Veiled women and tunic-clad men mixed with westerners hopelessly clutching maps and cameras. We walked quickly, only to find ourselves facing snake charmers’ coiled black cobras; we veered away and found ourselves in the sea of food stalls, our arms pulled from every direction. “Francais? Ingles? Espanol? Come, eat here. Sit. You are welcome. Francais? Ingles?” We pulled away and pushed past, saying no amiably and then forcefully. But we were hungry, and a menu—one of many—being waved in our faces looked cheap and good; so we eventually gave in and sat down at a long communal table, Moroccans and tourists eating around us.
Suddenly, food appeared—bread, then bowls of potatoes and plates of eggplant and peppers. Bowls of hot pepper sauce. A bowl of couscous and vegetables. We’re in Marrakech, we said, satisfied and amazed, eating hungrily. The food was delicious. But then more food appeared—a plate of brochettes (meat and vegetable kebabs); plates of fries; plates of sausages. Finally we waved our hands and said No more.
As we sat, satisfied, and waited for our plates to be cleared, it began raining—a downpour. People crowded under the tarp-covered food stalls, pressed close against us. A small child’s hand reached over my shoulder and grabbed my uneaten fries. Then a hooded and robed old woman appeared and began gesturing at the other uneaten food. We had no idea what to do—we were happy to give away the food, but was it okay to do so? We’d been in Morocco for only a few hours, and we were already at sea. Then one of the stall workers hollowed out a round flat bread, gestured for our permission, and filled the bread with our uneaten eggplant and sausages.
While we were eating and being given plate upon plate of food, we hadn’t worried about the fact that we hadn’t ordered anything specifically from the menu; surely, food at the food stalls of Djemaa el-Fna couldn’t cost much, and the menu prices we’d seen—briefly—on the menu looked incredibly cheap, the equivalent of a euro or less per dish. We’d only brought with us a couple hundred dirhams and a few euros, figuring we’d be eating cheaply at the food stalls. But then the couple next to us—Germans, who had far fewer plates spread out before them—began gesturing confusedly about their bill. A few of the stall workers hovered around them, pointing out the prices and the corresponding plates. The couple shook their heads, shocked and resigned. We saw them hand over two hundred dirhams. We knew then we were in trouble.
Sure enough, when we asked for our bill, it was 450 dirhams—about 45 euros. We threw up our hands, gesturing for explanations. Obviously, there were explanations for each. We hadn’t been given the cheap dishes; we’d been given the 5 and 6 euro dishes, and two of each to boot. We couldn’t argue—we hadn’t refused the food, after all—but we didn’t have enough dirhams to pay for it. For a scary moment, we thought Andrew would have to leave me as collateral at the food stall while he ran back to the riad—wherever it was—to get his ATM card and then found an ATM—wherever one might be. We’d heard from a friend in Barcelona that euros are sometimes accepted in Morocco, and this was our only hope. “Euros? Euros?” we asked desperately, and the man shrugged and agreed. We had exactly enough dirhams and euros to cover the bill.
We walked home in the rain, clutching our useless map, nervously retracing our steps down dark, deserted streets to our hidden riad; and once we made it back and closed the door to our room, we collapsed and just laughed and laughed. We figured paying 45 euros for food at the Djemaa el-Fna food stalls was the equivalent of paying $45 for a hot dog from a New York City hot dog cart. We’d been officially welcomed to Marrakech.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Thankfully, I was wearing shoes. But I had no cell phone, no money, no glasses, no reading material. Andrew, the only other person with keys, was at school. The woman who serves as a doorperson a few hours each day had already left. I had things to pack for Marrakech; I had things I had to do.
I went to a cafe next door and explained--in Spanish!--that my keys were in my apartment and I had no phone or money. I asked to use their phone. They didn't seem amused or charmed by an American girl in minor distress, but at least they let me make a call. However, Andrew was on his way into class and wouldn't be home for 3 hours. "Just have a coffee and wait for me," he said. We hung up, and I looked around. The only possible thing to read for those 3 hours was a Spanish yellow pages. The afternoon stretched before me.
Before I left my building, I'd jammed another phone book into the front door so I could at least get back into the lobby. I milled around the lobby for a while, wondering what to do next. Then the elevator opened, and it was Teri, the doorwoman. "Hola, hola!" I said, accosting her. I explained--in Spanish!--that my keys were in my apartment (I have no idea how to say "I'm locked out") and asked if she had keys to all the apartments. She did not. But she was very concerned, and she seemed to know what to do. She buzzed the apartment across the hall from mine, the apartment whose terrace is next to ours, and brought me upstairs. She explained my plight to the girl who answered the door, and I was led through the apartment to the terrace. There, beyond the tall spiked barrier, was my own terrace, and the open door to my living room. I understood what was happening when the girl dragged over a small ladder. I threw my Birkenstocks over the fence, hiked up my skirt, and scaled the barrier, leaping home.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Friday, October 20, 2006
To survive, we’ve made ourselves regulars at Hotel Omm, a cushy hotel just around the corner from our apartment. The lobby of Hotel Omm is full of plush couches, ambient lighting, and a bar; more importantly, there’s free wi-fi. We don’t have a computer that is wi-fi capable (Andrew’s computer crashed irreparably several months ago, and mine is too old), but Andrew has borrowed a computer from a friend (and we’ve learned to work around the Norwegian characters on the keyboard). Every day, and sometimes twice a day, we go to Hotel Omm with the computer, sit down on a velvety couch, order a beer or a café con leche, and do all of our internet business. Sometimes—usually—we stay for an hour or more.
So far, the staff at Omm haven’t seemed to mind, even though we’ve clearly made the hotel lobby our second home. We spread our things around us—lists, guidebooks, articles, cell phone—and never order more than one drink each; but if they’re displeased, they haven’t shown it, or at least not enough to make us stop going. I’m starting to feel that Omm really is our second living room. It is a tranquil, comfortable place. But I will be very glad when I’ll be able to check my email without putting on shoes, packing a bag, and ordering a €3.50 café con leche.
Monday, October 16, 2006
On Sunday, we wandered around the city a bit more, and even saw some of the marathon (our purpose for being there—but an injury forced Andrew to forgo the running). The day was cold—not the crisp fall temperature we’d been enjoying, but actually cold—and we took refuge in the Heineken Experience, a tour/marketing extravaganza in what used to be the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam. The history of the company was interesting; more interesting was when we filed into a room with other visitors and a voice announced, “You know what goes into a Heineken beer bottle. But what does it feel like to be a beer bottle?” We then watched what happens to bottles in a bottling plant from the perspective of a beer bottle. The tour ended with beer. Then we went to get more bittenballen. And then—sadly—it was time to go home.
But the days that followed were, happily, more charming and fun than those first few hours seemed to promise. We went to the Rijksmuseum, which is mostly closed for renovations but has its most famous works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others on view in one section. We took a canal tour by boat and floated under bridges and past canal houses. We walked for miles, exploring the Jordaan neighborhood and the canal belt. And everywhere, we dodged bicycles—everyone rides a bicycle in Amsterdam—and spied in Amsterdammers’ huge, uncurtained windows, where the lives taking place inside seemed immensely charming and happy.
Besides the canal house windows, we got two additional inside looks at Amsterdam. We went to the Van Loon museum, which is a 17th-century canal house that’s been restored to its original style. A strange little video, narrated by the eighty-plus-year-old Van Loon heir, introduced us to the museum; then we were free to wander around by ourselves. The house was gigantic, with twenty-foot ceilings, intricate moldings, wide wooden-planked floors, and floor-to-ceiling windows gazing out onto a canal. There were hidden doors leading to the guestroom, which an ancestor once used to visit his mistress, and fake doors that had been installed to keep the “symmetry” of a room intact. There were also some immensely powerful allergens in the house, and I could barely see for all my sneezing and horrifically itchy eyes. But that’s neither here nor there.
Our second inside look at Amsterdam was at the houseboat museum. There are over 2000 houseboats in use in Amsterdam, lining the canals. Some are truly boats, while others look like floating ranch houses. We toured a boatlike house that had been occupied until 1997. It was surprisingly large, and quite cozy; apparently the first thought most people have when they visit is I want to live on a houseboat! and the brochure stated plainly that no houseboat mooring spots were available in Amsterdam, and even if a houseboat goes up for sale, it’s nearly as expensive as buying an apartment anyway. Nonetheless, there were a few “houseboat for sale” photos in the museum. The houseboat, though cozy, was also ever-so-slightly swaying, so I’m afraid living on a houseboat isn’t really an option for my seasickness-prone self.
But the cozy fall weather, the almost complete absence of tourists, and the general charm of Amsterdam made us think it could be a viable place to live, if the opportunity arose. It’s the kind of city that feels instantly like home (as long as you don’t arrive in the middle of the night). I read in a guidebook that this cozy comfortableness is called gezelligheid, a Dutch word that has no exact English translation. Our few days in Amsterdam were undoubtedly gezellig.
We emerged back onto the main street and were confronted by two things: a large Japanese tour group, led by a guide holding a large flag, winding their way into the narrow streets; and a brass band playing rallying songs more suited to a parade than the red light district. This part of Amsterdam is like a carnival gone wrong—a confluence of all things normal and strange, shocking and ridiculous, a normal-seeming tourist quarter with not-normal-at-all around every corner.
We detoured around the band down another narrow lane, ready to leave the red light district and find a place for dinner. Around us, again, prostitutes stood and waited. One woman held a whip. As we walked past, she stuck her arm through the open doorway of her quarters and put the whip on Andrew’s neck, beckoning him inside. “No—no—“ Andrew said. He was wearing a brown corduroy blazer and a navy blue v-neck sweater. We escaped unfazed.
Not many tourists make their way to Aalsmeer, but the auction complex has a catwalk system set up so the tourists that do come can watch the action from above. Below us were millions of flowers, arranged by type and color on carts. It’s all very industrial—the flowers are held in plastic containers; the carts that hold the containers are metal; the floors are concrete. The carts hitch together and are pulled around the complex—the size of 160 football fields—by powerful scooter devices. The complex is so large that employees ride bicycles to get from one place to another. But amidst the commercial sprawl and the mechanical equipment were roses and gerbera daisies, mums and lilies, strange orange Japanese lantern-type flowers, even pumpkins and gourds in keeping with the season. The flowers are all evaluated for quality so each plastic bucket was filled with perfect, vital blooms.
Speed is everything in the flower trade, and the auctions move fast—the flower auction if a Dutch auction, which means the price starts high and quickly descends. The auctioneer, rather than call out increasing bids, sets the starting price. Bidders, arranged in stadium-style seating, hit a button when they want to stop the price and buy the lot. If they wait too long, hoping for a lower price, they’ll lose the flowers to another bidder. If they hit the button too soon, they could pay more than necessary. It’s a nerve-wracking system, and it moved so fast I could barely follow what was happening. Each lot of flowers, with copious details about origin, grower, flaws, type, and price per stem, is shown on a large screen while the flowers themselves, in plastic buckets, slide into the room on large carts moving on mechanized tracks. The flowers never stop moving—they’re bid on as they zip from the room, while another lot of flowers follows fast on their heels. Thousands upon thousands of carts wind through the room each day.
We hoped to find some fresh flowers in the gift shop before we left, but the gift shop plainly showed the dearth of Aalsmeer tourists: the shop contained only a few faded postcards and some dusty trinkets. But later, back in Amsterdam, we looked at the flowers in the many bloemenmarkets with new eyes, knowing where they may have begun their journeys to that particular corner of the world.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Despite my developing confidence in trying my Spanish in the real world, my brain still short-circuits regularly. Leaving my apartment building last week, I ran into a neighbor coming into the building. Amiably and boldly, I said, “Hasta manana!” which, since it means “See you tomorrow!”, makes no sense whatsoever. “I mean, hola,” I said. “Hola. Buenas dias.” She gave me a pitying, though indulgent, smile.
In class, predictably, my textbook Spanish is quite a bit ahead of my marble-mouthed American pronunciation. My teacher told me on Friday that my vocabulary and grammar are good, but that I need to work on my pronunciation. Sometimes I wonder if I’m even physically able to ever pronounce Spanish correctly, while the French and Italian and Swedish people in my class seem to have no problem.
This week Andrew and I go to Amsterdam, so I’m not taking classes. Next week, back to it. Poco a poco, all the Spanish teachers say—little by little.
This weekend, we went with Matt to a bar to meet a friend of his who is studying in Barcelona, though Matt couldn’t remember at what school. It turned out that this woman is a first-year student at Andrew’s school—Andrew had actually met her once—so the bar was filled with a strange mix of first-year students invited by Matt’s friend and a few second-year students Andrew had invited to meet us there. A couple from New York were there as well, visiting Matt’s friend. A collision of worlds.
One of the interesting things about Matt’s visit is that he’s one of the only people to have truly seen the then and now: he was friends with both Andrew and me before we began dating; he worked with us for nearly a year after that; and now he’s visiting us in Spain. It’s not a usual sequence of events.
In a few days, we’ll all be on to other places—Matt to Lisbon, Andrew and I to Amsterdam. For now, there’s Gaudi to see (Matt); Spanish to learn (me); business cases to read (Andrew). And one-euro turbio to drink as a nice evening reward.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Most of the tourists are gone now, though the Bus Turistic still sails around the city with sun-glassed travelers on the open top and La Rambla is still (always) bustling. However, it’s a slower bustle than summer, and there’s an impending sense of the city settling in, shoring up for the coming fall and winter. I feel settled: unpacked and getting my bearings in a new apartment and neighborhood (a stroll brought pleasant surprises, including a Nine West store, a beautiful church with a tranquil courtyard just off a busy street, and a dry-cleaner’s); plowing through increasingly difficult Spanish (and feeling like a mainstay, knowing I’ll still be around next month, the month after that, while my classmates are in the city for only a week or two); planning for trips and visits (the first of our autumn visitors arrives tomorrow; next week, Andrew and I go to Amsterdam); and spending pleasant days and evenings reading, crocheting, eating meals on the terrace.
Last year, I visited Barcelona at the end of October. The day I left, I walked on La Rambla before catching the bus to the airport; it was a cool, bright day, and most of the leaves on the sycamores that line the street had changed to faded green or yellow. I had the sense of being in a strange half-state, getting ready to leave the city but at the same time trying to imagine what it would feel like to be there permanently, to call it home. The city felt familiar—it was my third visit in three months—but I felt very much outside of it, with my backpack heavy on my back and euros for the bus fare jangling in my pocket. Within hours I’d be far away, tucked into the undefinable spaces of airport and airplane, between time zones and languages. There was a solar eclipse that day, and up and down La Rambla people stood and stared through dark foil lenses at the sky. That was how I left Barcelona: city cool and blinding-bright, crowds craning their necks to the sky, foil glinting, in the air the frisson of something unusual about to happen. That was October.
It was an exhausting few days, but things are finding their way to their rightful places, and we have a real bed now rather than a mattress on wooden pallets on the floor. Sunlight is streaming onto the terrace. The place is feeling like home, even though there are a few small problems. We won’t have internet access or a landline phone for several weeks; we don’t know where to take our garbage and recycling; there is a dearth of electrical outlets where we need them to be; and our small shower stall makes showering undeniably difficult, with an unsteady shower head that won’t stay up, no place to put shampoo and soap, and the tendency for water to get absolutely everywhere. But it is a charming, cozy space, and we’ll work out these small problems one by one.
For now, I’ll enjoy my lunch on the terrace, sitting at the heavy stone table, surrounded by plants. A black cat peers at me through the wrought-iron railing that separates our terrace from the next; perhaps I’ll find her in the apartment one day. This is the kind of apartment one imagines when thinking about living in Spain.
Friday, September 29, 2006
Andrew hasn’t been here for that short a time—over a year—and I’ve been here, for the most part, for five months; but the amount of stuff we have is surprising considering that the rest of our stuff—indeed, most of our stuff—is still in the U.S. We’ve accumulated several boxes of books, buying them, receiving them, bringing them over en masse every chance we have; we have (okay, I have) tons of clothes, many of which I’d like to divest myself of but don’t yet know where to donate them; and we have a few boxes of kitchenware. Not to mention a few lamps, a desk, a shelf, pillows, towels, and a random assortment of iPods and hard drives and cell phones and endless wires and cords. How is it possible that we’re nearly at moving-van-stage, when I feel like we have, really, only the basics?
Anyway. Moving is almost always sad for me, leaving a place behind forever, even when the move is exciting and good, the next apartment charming and cozy. I dislike these dislocated states—at this moment, we’re between homes, not quite of either one. I’ll be glad when we’re settled in our lovely new place. But it is strange to know this is the last time I’ll sit at my desk with this particular view over the back-balconies and courtyards of the neighboring buildings; the last few washes I’ll hang out on these particular taut lines; the last evening we’ll hear the Font, and see the fanned spotlights behind the Palau, and walk past the eerie blue glow of the Caixa Forum’s entranceway on our way home from dinner.
This is the home I had in mind during all those months of buying endless plane tickets for visits and watching the clock for flights, and, eventually, the home I envisioned during those final few months when I was waiting to move to Spain. It’s the apartment I left and came back to, again and again. It’s been a good apartment. It’s served us well. Now, on to the next.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
This week will be the last week that we call the Font Magica our neighbor. The Font has been a loyal friend these past twelve months (the first half of which I was only a visitor to the Font rather than a true neighbor), its music thundering into our apartment at exactly 9:30pm every weekend night during the spring, summer, and fall. It shines and dances even now, when the summer crowds have thinned and fewer tour buses clog the curbs. It’s no less grand, no less elaborate, than it is during the height of tourist season. Last Thursday, I watched the Font from high up near the Palau Nacional, sitting with a glass of wine on hard cracked stones. The music is quieter there, the Font a more manageable basin of colored lights on water. But from there it looks even more a part of the city, dominating Plaza Espanya swallowing the headlights from the traffic that flows in front of and towards it.
It’s been nice living near the Font, always a happy sight as we walk to dinner or drive in a taxi home. But it struck me last week how nice it is also to walk out the front door of our apartment building and melt into an ambling, chattering crowd of tourists—to weave through them and their maps and cameras and find a quiet(er) place to sit in the dark Barcelona night. It’s pure anonymity. The only permanent faces at the Font are the workers behind the counters of the small open-air cafes; all the others will swiftly go, back to their buses and hotels. For all anyone knows, I’m part of this tour group, or that one, thinking about a long flight home. No one knows I’m here, for now, to stay, that after the Font’s show I’ll actually be home again in seconds, still hearing the Font’s music as I crawl into bed.
When we move, we’ll still visit the Font, but we won’t be neighbors anymore. Seeing the Font will be something we plan, decide, to do. And afterwards, we’ll take the metro or a taxi home. The Font’s music will follow us only so far before disappearing.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Group activities aside, the classes are really fun, and even though four hours is a long time to sit there saying things like "Me, yet I have not ridden a camel" and "No, me I have not never ridden in a hot air balloon," and hearing the other six students declare similarly ridiculous things, I look forward to starting the day this way. I feel like I'm doing something excellent for myself, something whose purpose is simply to make my life easier, better, more interesting, more fun.
And the people who show up each week as new students are always good motivation to keep studying: almost always Europeans, they speak handfuls of languages and seem unfazed at the prospect of learning another. This week, my classmates come from Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Australia, Germany, and Ireland. In other weeks they'd come from Sweden, South Africa, Norway. Among such a group, it's almost (almost) exotic to be an American.
Monday, September 18, 2006
According to the hours on the Ikea website, and the hours printed on Ikea's front door, Ikea is open every day, including Sunday and holidays, with the exception of one or two specific festivals. However, yesterday, Ikea chose to be closed. We don't know why. A few other people trickled to the door as well, staring at the sign and at the dark interior, puzzled. This is the second random closing we've fallen victim to, and it is infuriating--and more evidence that trying to get anything accomplished in Spain on a Sunday is simply pointless. We wasted an hour without being able to cross the errand off our list.
On the way home from this unsuccessful trip, our bus stopped at a stoplight. Suddenly, there were loud crashes outside on the street--strange unidentifiable crashes, as though tree branches were cracking off. People on the sidewalk stopped and looked up, and we craned our necks to look out the bus window. We saw a bag fall, spewing clothes; then a suitcase crashed down on an awning. A domestic fight had obviously reached epidemic proportions, and someone (she?) was throwing someone else's (his?) belongings to the curb. People on the bus tittered, then shrugged, and the bus moved on when the light turned green.
Friday, September 15, 2006
It’s sunny today. Blue skies are back. Laundry is hanging on lines again; fingers are crossed that the weather holds, at least as long as it will take for the clothes to dry. The city has a rinsed-off feeling, clean and cool. Fall is, suddenly, here. It’s warm in the sun but there’s an edge to the warmth; the nights have been cold enough for jackets and jeans. It’s nice to be in Spain as the season changes. Soon I’ll be adding layers, repositioning sweaters from the backs of drawers, pulling on socks and boots to go outside. So much is in store for these next few fall months: A move. More classes. More travel. More lucky time.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
However, the loss was meant to be, because yesterday our apartment search yielded two fabulous apartments that led to several hours of agonized debate over which one we wanted most. The first, in Eixample, we loved immediately. Unbelievably high ceilings, old, interesting moldings, beautiful mosaic floors, and a large, private terrace—a terrace that shares an interior courtyard with La Pedrera, one of the most famous Gaudi buildings in the city. Both the living room and bedroom have tall, large-windowed French doors that open onto the terrace, giving the whole apartment a sunny, airy feeling. There's a separate dining room with a half-wall that opens onto the living room. The kitchen and bathroom are less nice, old and awkwardly fitted. Still, when we walked in, we both felt instantly at home.
Certain this was it, we promised to call the broker to confirm after visiting just one more place. (“I’ll hold it for you until tomorrow,” he promised, with no money changing hands—so different from NYC!) I told Andrew that the only way I could possibly love an apartment more than that one was if it came with daily—hourly—maid service.
The next apartment was in the Barri Gothic, on a small, charming stone street like we’ve always wanted to live on. Six steep flights up, the apartment’s owner let us in—into a newly renovated, two-bedroom apartment that had never been lived in. The owner’s husband is an architect, she told us, and it showed: everything was tastefully designed and chosen, from the original dark wood beams in the ceiling to the black-slate floors to the stark glass tables and black leather couch. It had very small windows and not much light, but it was air-conditioned, with brand-new kitchen and bathroom, all glass and steel. The roof terrace was right across the hallway, dirty but with a spectacular view of the Barcelona Cathedral from one side.
The two apartments couldn’t have been more different: the first was Anthropologie; the second, Calvin Klein. The first felt like being inside an old library, with stories and ghosts in every corner; the second was like being inside a stylish hotel. The first, with its wide doors and courtyard, was cozily nestled within the city; the second, cool and modern, was a soothing escape from it. In New York terms, the first was brownstone; the second was high-rise. We faced a choice: charm or comfort. Which, really, was more us?
We chose charm. It felt like home, and we put down a deposit this afternoon. In two weeks our life in Eixample will begin.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
When Andrew and I arrived at the Munich airport on Friday afternoon, we were immediately struck by the utter lack of chaos—as well as noise. The airport was bright, new-looking, and clean, and no one was talking. People left the plane quietly; families and other travelers walked through the airport corridors with their bags, quietly; we all gathered at baggage claim, quietly, watching the extremely quiet conveyor belts carry the luggage by.
We ran into more quietness later, as we headed to Herrsching, an hour outside of Munich, in our rental car with three other people we know from Barcelona who were also attending the wedding. We moved fast on the autostrade, but, sadly, we moved fast in the wrong direction; when we finally left the highway to ask directions, we found ourselves in a quiet, seemingly uninhabited village. Fortunately we found a gas station, with someone who could help.
We spent the weekend in and near Herrsching. Friday night was a dinner at our hotel, where most of the guests, including us, were staying. It was a charming, very Bavarian place, with lots of dark wood beams and rustic wooden furniture. We had some hearty German food and huge glasses of locally brewed beer. The next day, the wedding took place at a small church; the reception, later, was at a beautiful monastery/brewery, Klostergasthof Andechs, about thirty minutes away. There, too, the rooms were cozy, the food hearty; we had celery root and venison for dinner. Andrew and I were two of the only three Americans there.
The highlight of the reception was the “program,” a staple, we were told, of German weddings, which took place after dinner and consisted of numerous skits and songs performed by friends and family of the bride and groom. According to other German guests, this was one of the most extensive programs they’d ever experienced: it lasted for almost three hours, ending around midnight, when the dancing began. Andrew and I left around 3 a.m.; the party didn’t wind down until 5. When Andrew explained that American weddings almost always end before midnight, no one could believe it—they were actually horrified.
Our flight left in the early afternoon on Sunday, so we didn’t see any of Munich; we’ll have to return to see Germany in a touristy way. This time, it was wholly a cultural immersion.
Friday, September 08, 2006
Inside, young, hip-looking Barcelonins wandered around the galleries. Andrew and I walked through the rooms with Catalonian art from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. So much of the style from that time is distinctive: firmly outlined figures; lots of black, gold, ash-green, and gray; a general aura of hardness or defiance among the street scenes and portraits. Much of it is strange but compelling, like Barcelona itself.
I always like museums at night—like going to the Met on Friday evenings, when the crowds are sparser and you can find an empty chamber here and there. There’s a sense of secrecy, of trespassing, like walking through someone else’s house when the owners aren’t home. Seeing objects and paintings in their natural, unviewed state—unposed.
There weren’t many people at the MNAC—it was near closing when we left—and I had the eerie sense of how the art would remain there, even when we move from the neighborhood, even when we move from Spain; just like this, just as it always had been, with the Font Magica leaping and singing outside, the city sparkling beyond it, and the mountain of Tibidabo a distant glitter.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
In the meantime, there’s jet lag to get over. My trip yesterday couldn’t have been easier: Pittsburgh—Philadelphia—Barcelona. I’ve never flown directly from the US to Barcelona; it made the trip incredibly fast. Even better, the flight was sparsely booked, so after takeoff I moved to a new seat—actually, three empty seats in a row, providing a business-class-type flat “bed.” It was hard to sleep since the flight left at 5:45pm, but at least I felt rested and uncramped when we landed.
That said, the strange hours of the flight—when we landed in Barcelona, it wasn’t so far past my regular bedtime in the US—are making me feel particularly slothlike now. To stay awake yesterday, I went across the street to the Caixa Forum for a café con leche, then meandered through the galleries for a couple of hours. Today, we’re viewing two apartments. I’d really, really like to go back to bed right now, but I will not. I will resist! I will make another cup of coffee and I will resist.
Friday, September 01, 2006
All of these, as well as stacks of mail from family and friends, have been stored in shoeboxes in the attic for years--twenty, approximately. Tonight, a swift triage whittled the letters and cards down to one large boot-box that can be slid easily under my bed. Ancient history, all of it; some well worth saving, most not. I can't come home without feeling compelled to do at least a bit of excavation; and more remains.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
When Andrew moved to Barcelona last August, finding an apartment was a different story. Neither of us knew the city, and Andrew didn't yet know what the neighborhood around his school was like. And we felt rushed to get settled; we were staying in hotels and spending hours in the EasyInternet cafe, looking at apartment listings online. We saw so many apartments, and Andrew found one he loved; but the broker wanted six months' rent, in cash, up front, as a security deposit. Heartbreakingly impossible. The apartment he finally chose is the one that's now ours. On moving day (suitcases lugged from hotel to apartment), Andrew got food poisoning. We had no sheets for the bed, not even a glass to drink from; we made a desperate trip to Ikea to buy the essentials. And I went back to the U.S. two days later, a difficult departure to say the least. Ah, memories.
Last week, Andrew looked at a place in the Barri Gotic--in the same building, strangely, as an apartment we looked at and liked last year. Last year, the apartment's flaws were a too-high price and overly girly decor; in this year's apartment, the ceiling of the very cute apartment was four inches from Andrew's head. We both want to live in this building--it's charming and old, in a lively, cafe-filled part of the city--but perhaps it's not meant to be. Our home, this time, will be elsewhere.
We'll miss our apartment. Today Andrew found it on a listings site, a description and photos right there for anyone to see. One of the photos is the view from our bedroom window, the view that always makes me feel like I'm really in Spain. Both of us felt very sad.
Then there's Lynn's, a (very) local bar/restaurant where I had dinner last night. Unlike other local places, where heads turn whenever a non-local (or a non-regular) walks in, Lynn's was pleasingly dismissive of our small family group; everyone's eyes were on the baseball game, not us. It was 25-cent wing night, but even on a non-wing night, the prices are ridiculously low: the four of us each had a dozen wings; we ordered three pints of beer and one iced tea; and we shared a gigantic order of Lynn's homemade potato chips--and our bill was $21. That's just over $5/person. Amazing (and the food was good, too).
Funnily enough, Lynn's is about two minutes from our house here, and we never even knew it existed. It's tucked away on Wine Street, in the middle of a quiet residential street. You'd think we were living in our own twisty, medieval city, with unexpected finds around every corner.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Jamon iberico—Iberian ham—is a regional specialty, ridiculously expensive and ubiquitous in Barcelona and beyond. It’s basically a type of cured ham, expensive because of the elaborate and lengthy curing process and the luxurious, indulgent way the pigs who become the ham are treated before they’re killed. Cured meats, I realize, are delicious but just not that interesting. What’s interesting about the jamon, however, is the way it’s stored, sold, and served: in leg form, hoof intact, hanging in large groups of other legs from shop ceilings or secured to café bars to be carved-to-order. There's no mistaking what it is: it's a pig’s leg, hoof through haunch, sometimes sheathed in a net, sometimes hung simply from a rope.
They’re everywhere in Barcelona, from the smallest local butcher shops to the largest market on La Rambla. And now they’re even in the New York Times Magazine, featured this Sunday in an article by Rob Walker about buying jamon iberico online—jamon’s first foray into the American market (at a price of around $1,000 per leg). The illustration with the article featured a jamon in a carving vice, sitting on a table alongside what looked like Jell-o molds and pasta salads—just another picnic snack.
The detail that works—that makes jamon a perfect symbol of Barcelona’s quirkiness—is that hoof. You don’t see too many hooves in an American grocery store. And you definitely don’t see this, featured prominently—sassily—at a little café near our apartment:
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Barcelona had won the hosting over cities including Paris and Amsterdam, and the 1992 Games proved to be remarkable. For the first time in thirty years, no countries boycotted or were banned from the Games. Germany competed as a unified country for the first time; South Africa, having been banned from competition since 1964, participated; the break-up of the Soviet Union led to the inclusion of newly independent nations, including Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; baseball counted as an official sport for the first time; and the Dream Team debuted, impressing everyone and trouncing every other team that crossed its path.
Each Olympic city offers its own charms as a backdrop to the Games, but Barcelona seems to have been particularly remarkable. The Olympic Stadium and pools were constructed on the top of Montjuic, one of the highest points in Barcelona, with amazing views of the city spread beneath it. The diving pool, in particular, is breath-taking: it’s set on the side of the mountain, and being in the pool feels like you’re floating over the streets below. The diving pool and the swimming pool next to it are now open to the public—the shadow of the Olympic rings is still visible on the side of the entry building—and Andrew and I swam there one afternoon. Our apartment is on Montjuic, quite close to the Olympic constructions, and Andrew spotted the pools on a run one night.
I remember watching the Olympics in 1992, but I remember nothing about Barcelona. Fifteen years ago, to me, Barcelona may as well have been the moon. Where it was, what it was like, what made it different from other cities, why I should care; none of it registered. Little did I know I’d one day live within sight of the Olympic buildings, that I’d soon personally appreciate the revitalization the Games brought about in the city. That one day I’d be swimming in the very pools shown on TV.
Besides the Olympics, Barcelona holds another hosting distinction: it was home to the World’s Fair in both 1888 and 1929. In 1929, the Fair saw the construction of the amazingly grand Palau Nacional on Montjuic—an immense, turreted palace situated at the top of hundreds of steps and flanked by countless fountains, including the Font Magica. A notable aspect of all World’s Fairs is that the “pavilions” created for the event must be brand-new. After the Fairs, most pavilions are destroyed; less often, the new structures become a true part of the city. (The Eiffel Tower is one of these exceptions: after the Paris World Fair in 1889, the city kept it up, despite calls for it to be destroyed.) The Palau remained, but it fell into disrepair. When Barcelona won the Olympic hosting for the 92 Games, the Palau found new life as a museum of Catalonian art. It’s now one of the grandest structures and one of the best museums in Barcelona. (And Andrew and I can see it from our bedroom balcony.) The Olympic Stadium, too, was actually created by refurbishing a pavilion that had been built for the 1929 World’s Fair.
Two grand, global events, one Spanish city—in the past month or so, a question has come up: What other cities in the world have held both the Olympics (summer or winter) and a major World’s Fair? Surprisingly few, we discovered. In fact, only six: Barcelona, London, Paris, St. Louis, Melbourne, and Montreal. It’s an interesting distinction, one it seems more cities should hold. The fact that Barcelona is one of the select few adds to the unique, often strange nature of the place, suggesting—as does the crazy architecture, as do the bizarre sights on La Rambla, as does the sense that this is, for a lot of backpackers, the end of the road—that there’s a hidden layer to Barcelona, more than meets the eye.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Notably, there are former Queens and Queen-hopefuls in the family. One aunt was a contestant in the Coal Queen pageant in 1971. Another aunt was the Scottdale Centennial Queen in the mid-1970s. And Molly herself was Queen: Homecoming Queen. (But she’ll almost certainly deny it.)
Little did I know how big a deal the Coal Queen pageant actually is to other girls in other towns. This weekend, we went to a screening of a new documentary called The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania, directed by David Hunt and distributed through a new Netflix film series, which gives independent filmmakers a chance to bring their films to the Netflix audience. Bituminous Coal Queens focuses on a former Coal Queen who now lives in L.A. but who returns to Carmichaels (a small town near Connellsville, population in the low 500s), along with other former Queens, for the 50th anniversary of the Coal Queen pageant. Interspersed with their reminiscences, as well as very interesting interviews with coal miners and footage of the work they do, is the drama of the 2003 Coal Queen pageant—the preparations, the nerves, the rehearsals, the costumes, the angst, and the intense desire to be Queen.
The film was pure southwestern PA. Misty, rolling hills and hearty farmland juxtaposed with sequined, Vegas-worthy dance costumes; festive parades consisting of a few sparse marching bands; a formal banquet held in a fire hall. Pork-and-kraut sandwiches at a street fair. The reluctance or ambivalence of anyone to leave the area and make a life someplace new. The portrait Hunt painted was in no way negative (amusing, yes). Instead, he documented one of the stranger traditions of southwestern PA and put it in context: the deeply-rooted coal-mining history that defines the area.
Not many people pay attention to southwestern PA’s people or way of living, and we were thrilled with the film. You can read more about it online (http://www.coalqueens.com/) or—better yet—rent it from Netflix.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
The Boqueria is on my mind today for a reason: In this week's New York magazine, there's a restaurant review of a new restaurant in New York City named, yes, Boqueria. The menu, explains the review, reflects the offerings of the Boqueria market in Barcelona. The restaurant follows an array of new dining options that reflect New Yorkers' "appetite for all things Spanish." The thought of this restaurant slightly unsettles me, blurs the lines between where I live now and where I used to live, and which place I miss when. When I'm here in Connellsville, I miss New York and Barcelona both--New York because it feels closer here; Barcelona, of course, because Andrew is currently sleeping in our apartment there. If we one day wind up back in New York, we could go to the Boqueria restaurant--but we'll have a fresh memory of the real Boqueria; we don't need a spinoff to indulge our love of Spain. And going to the Boqueria restaurant will hardly help any sad feelings we might have about having left Barcelona, just as the Hard Rock Cafe and the one small bagel shop in Barcelona fail to help our occasional pangs of missing New York.
Seeing the Boqueria mentioned in the magazine reminded me of how unusual it is to know a city intimately, a city that others may only visit. I feel this way about New York, of course, but New York was a part of my life for so long I got used to being inside of it. Seeing it in movies or ads--the Brooklyn Bridge was recently featured in an ad for a Spanish bank--makes me homesick, not awestruck. Barcelona, on the other hand, is new. Just last year, it was just a name on a map; now, I know the sights and streets, the food and markets, even some of the language. When I catch sight of it someplace--in a magazine, in the Times--it startles me. Hey, I realize, I know that place. And not only know it--my shampoo and sandals, a stack of my books, and a heap of my clothes are there right now.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
We're between seasons, and there's a nervy first-day-of-school feeling in the air, even though, for me, the only school starting up again will be my Spanish classes when I return to Spain. And we're between stages in our Barcelona life, Andrew's work and my travel-craziness winding down, with our normal life soon to be on its way back. Job interviews, new trips, and the next round of visitors will mark this fall; all of that's to come. Right now we're between things, finishing things up, making tentative new plans. It's not wasted time by any means. But I feel like I, at least, have stepped outside of my regular life and disappeared for a while, here in the Pennsylvania mountains, quiet and dark, a place so familiar that it's somehow unsettling to actually be back.
Shopping with a luggage limit is difficult, to say the least. I need to stock up: on shoes, on beauty products, on household goods we can't find (or can't afford, oddly) in Spain. But how can I pack a set of towels in an already-full suitcase? How can I bring back picture frames without shattering the glass? If or when I buy new boots for fall, I'll need to fit them in alongside the boots I already have here, which I haven't yet moved over to Spain. The high cost of shipping things over renders any intention of saving money pointless.
But all this is beside the point. Home again, with much shopping ahead, I'll worry about the packing later.
Friday, August 11, 2006
It was strange to come back, to see the abundance of products in the grocery store and other quintessentially American sights, and, now, to be back in Connellsville among the boxes I left here when I moved to Spain in April. It's a transient period, but an exciting one. For now, I'm among familiar things--touching base before heading back to Spain, and happily getting ready for whatever new places and experiences are in store for us in the months ahead.
Monday, July 31, 2006
I am tired. July has called my wanderlust bluff. You want to travel? July sneered. Fine—let’s see you travel. I went to Paris for three days; London for two days; Krakow for five days; and Rome for three days. That’s four countries, not counting Spain, where I’m based, or the U.S., where I am right now. Counting those, July has seen me in six countries, maneuvering in four different currencies and saying “hello” and “thank-you” in five different languages (six, if you count Catalan). The day I returned to Barcelona from Krakow, I had three different currencies in my wallet: euro, zloty, and pound. Buying a pack of gum at the airport proved to be an awkward juggling of coins.
Writing this, I see that it’s a bit insane.
Now, I’ve skipped town again—but this time, back to the United States. It’s my first trip home since coming to Barcelona, and I’m undeniably excited to be here. For the next two weeks, I’ll be in Jacksonville, FL, with Andrew’s family; then on to Connellsville to my family. In all, I’ll be Stateside for just over five weeks.
During these five weeks, my big plans include sitting in air-conditioning, shopping at Target, ordering books from Amazon, cooking meals in a fully-stocked, functioning kitchen, and renting and watching DVDs. These are not exciting things, but I am excited about them, because they are the essence of the American-y things we cannot do here. First, Andrew’s computer crashed several weeks ago, rendering useless our only means of watching DVDs. We have a TV here, but European DVD players won’t play American DVDs, so it’s pointless to buy one since all we really want to do is watch recorded episodes of 24 and seasons of Arrested Development. Buying English-language books here is incredibly expensive, and buying from Amazon.uk—an option—means we have to pay for everything in pounds—doubling the price in dollars. And we do not have a Target, or air-conditioning. The closest thing to Target is El Corte Ingles, where I nearly paid 7 euros for nail-polish remover last time I shopped there. The best place for AC is the metro.
These are all small things; but they are comfortable things, which, perhaps surprisingly, we do miss. We have nothing to complain about, living in Europe, traveling frequently (perhaps too much so), living, for the most part, outside of arduous responsibilities. We have it pretty good here, to understate things a bit. Rather, this is a kind of reverse-vacation-planning: these are the things I want to do when I’m no longer away from home, when I take a short leave from this extended vacation, my own Grand Tour.
Nonetheless, an exhausted man walked wearily up to the trolley and inserted three dollar bills into the slots, just as the instructions stated: “1. Insert money.” When he moved on to the next instruction, however—“2. Remove cart”—he waited, puzzled, seemingly confused at why no cart had appeared. Andrew and I watched him curiously. Did he think a small inflatable cart would pop out from the change slot? The man eventually realized his mistake, and, disgusted, walked away.
On Friday, Andrew and I sent Mom and Dad off to the airport for their early-morning flight back to the United States; a few hours later, we went to the airport to catch our own afternoon flight to Philadelphia, where we’d connect to Jacksonville. When we arrived, we walked into a mob scene. The Barcelona airport often has long, chaotic lines at its check-in counters, but this was a new kind of chaos. Even stranger, there were no airline employees at any of the check-in desks, and on the departures board, we saw that every single flight was marked as delayed. “Is everyone on strike or something?” Andrew joked, marveling at the ghost-town-like expanse of counters.
Indeed, we found out quickly, there was a strike—a strike by the Iberia baggage handlers who handle all the baggage for all the airlines. As announcements were made over the loudspeakers announcing the strike, a wail of despair went through the crowd. In Spain, striking workers have an unreasonable amount of power, and it’s illegal for law enforcement to order them back to work. We heard that they’d stormed the runway, preventing any flights from landing. Taxis and airport shuttle buses were prohibited from delivering anymore passengers to the already-packed airport.
Cancelled flights began to be announced. The departures board stubbornly pushed the times for remaining flights back by hour upon hour. Around five, an announcement was made: the airport had officially closed. Thanks to the strike, 544 flights were cancelled. A US Airways person held up a sheet of paper on which he’d written a phone number. “Call this number at 7 tomorrow morning,” he shouted at our chaotic group in Spanish. “Your plane will be here. You will have a plane tomorrow if the strike has ended.”
After we jotted down the number, Andrew and I bolted, knowing that the masses of other passengers would soon be trying to leave the airport as well. We managed to get onto an airport shuttle, and soon we found ourselves right back where we started: with our baggage, back at Plaza Espana. We’d never even gotten a boarding pass. We felt like intruders when we returned to our shut-up apartment, which seemed even stuffier and hotter than usual because we were so (non)travel-weary and exhausted.
In what was perhaps our most indulgent decision to date, we decided to book a room at a trendy hotel about two blocks from our apartment so we could spend the evening swimming in the rooftop pool and sitting in air-conditioning rather than brooding in our weirdly ghostlike home. Within an hour, we’d shed our luggage and clothes in the excellent room and were swimming on the roof. We could see our apartment building from the pool. Later, we had a lovely dinner and a cold bottle of turbio at our favorite neighborhood restaurant. It had been a terrible, stressful day—and we still weren’t home—but we managed to redeem it as best we could.
(Until late that night, we had no idea if Mom and Dad had made it home, or if they were still at the airport, unable to reach us. Through a series of phone calls, I finally found out from Molly that Mom and Dad had made it to Newark. They’d gotten out just thirty minutes before the strikers walked off the job.)
On Saturday, we woke early and called the US Airways number as instructed—a number that would up being nonworking. We called all kinds of other numbers for US Airways in Spain and the United States; no one knew anything about us, our flight, or even the strike. We found no information on the website or in the newspaper or on the news (though the Spanish newspaper El Periodico had a front-page article about the strike and a half-page photograph of the mob scene—in which Andrew stands out clearly). At eight, we resigned ourselves to just heading back to the airport to see if our plane was still there.
The airport was even more chaotic than it had been the night before. Planes were—finally—taking off, but delays were in excess of four or more hours. Many of the passengers from the day before had slept at the airport, which was now overcrowded with new passengers with flights scheduled for Saturday. Andrew and I found the US Airways counter, which was thronged with the group from yesterday as well as a new group heading to Philadelphia today. There were no lines to speak of—not unusual in Spain, but maddening for all the Americans who treat lines as sacred and who couldn’t understand why, exactly, this was all taking so long. Tempers began rising; the US Airways manager pleaded with one angry man to refrain from hitting another passenger, telling him what we all knew: that if this turned ugly, there would be no going back. Some flights were boarding; some, we knew, were taking off. But the US Airways flights to Philadelphia hadn’t even shown up on the departures board.
Among all this chaos, there was absolutely no police presence. Thousands of angry passengers; no air-conditioning; people with babies who were hungry and thirsty; so little room in the airport that you couldn’t walk at all without stepping on and over luggage; and there was no one taking any kind of control. Andrew and I marveled. If this had happened in NYC, we knew, there’d be NYPD barriers, clearly marked lines, and plenty of National Guardsmen. Here, we were on our own.
At four—after we’d been at the airport for eight hours, the second day in a row—we got a boarding pass and shoved our way onto our plane. When the wheels left the runway, the passengers applauded wildly. “Miracle of miracles,” the pilot announced, “we are on our way.”
We made it to Philadelphia, and we even made it onto a connection to Jacksonville that someone—somewhere—had managed to book us on. We’re finally home, back in the States, having been given a frustrating, exhausting, ridiculous, but somehow quintessentially European goodbye.