Wednesday, May 31, 2006

NO GRACIAS

This afternoon, working at home, I was startled by a loud knock at the door. Thinking it might be the super--the electricity was strangely sporadic yesterday--and failing to see anyone clearly through our scratched-up peephole, I opened the door, only to be faced with a grim Jehovah's Witness, offering me a flier that would, presumably, save my soul. Remembering my mistake last time, when I inadvertantly propositioned the Witness by telling him my boyfriend wasn't home, this time I said loudly "NO GRACIAS" and closed the door in his face. I lacked the language skills to even make a pretense of being polite.

It's Better Than Crackers

Tonight, feeling a bit ambitious, I decided to make a fusilli-with-wild-mushroom recipe that I made several times in New York and loved. Going in, there were obstacles. I don’t actually have the recipe here in Spain, but I was sure I could remember the important parts, and improvise the rest. I don’t know the translations for any of the types of mushrooms I like to put in, but I rounded up a few that looked similar: dark, dried mushrooms in a small box, sliced white mushrooms in a Styrofoam tray, and a can of what seemed to resemble shitake mushrooms (which, I know, don’t ordinarily come in a can, but I was improvising). And our grocery store had no fusilli, so I chose regular penne instead.

I soaked the dried mushrooms, boiled the pasta, and cooked everything up with olive oil and thyme. It smelled delicious. When we began eating, Andrew praised the meal, claiming he loved it. However, I soon noticed that he was covertly pushing all the mushrooms to one side of his plate and eating just the pasta. “Do you not like it?” I asked. “Of course I do,” he said. “It’s delicious.”

It became increasingly clear, however, that Andrew did not, in fact, like the meal. I may have doomed it from the start when I called Andrew into the kitchen to show him the box that held the dried mushrooms. “These are edible, right?” I’d asked. They were small and much more mushroom-like than the dried porcinis I was used to. “Um, yes,” he said. I should have known then that I’d made a mistake.

“You can tell me if you don’t like it,” I said, as Andrew continued his resolute separation of the mushrooms. I admitted that it wasn’t my best effort, that the recipe was much better when it was followed the right way, that I wasn’t crazy about it either. But Andrew persisted in claiming he liked the meal. He looked seriously and kindly into my eyes. “You remember what I used to eat for dinner, before you arrived?” he asked. “Crackers.” He put a warm, reassuring hand on my arm, giving me a moment to imagine him, alone and hungry, eating crackers for dinner. But I could tell he was struggling to figure out his point. He knew what he’d said wasn’t much of an answer, and, after a second or two, he continued. “Compared to crackers,” he said, still smiling warmly, “this is pretty good.”

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

London Fog

After over a month of living in Spain and regularly lurching through my repertoire of ten or so vocabulary words, it was somewhat of a relief to be in London for the weekend, where I could once again request a glass of water and eavesdrop on the Tube. Andrew and I flew to London on Thursday night. My favorite part of EasyJet—and there aren’t many, it truly being bare bones, without even a cup of water available fee-free on board—is the small sign on the back of each seat reading “Seatbelts must remain fastened whilst seated.” It’s the “whilst” I love, such urbanity among the garish orange-clad flight attendants and the crumbs falling on my skirt from my airport-purchased sandwich. There’s also the somewhat shocking safety lecture, easily ignored on most flights but rather captivating here since it’s punctuated with copious instructions on what position to assume if we suddenly hear someone yell “BRACE! BRACE!” Brace, brace, is repeated several times.

This would be a meet-the-parents’-friends weekend for me, which was only fair after the large meet-and-greet we subjected Andrew to when he last visited Connellsville. We stayed with the friends in their lovely house near Abbey Road, steps away from the crosswalk where the Beatles photographed their Abbey Road album cover. The crosswalk traverses a busy street, but this doesn’t stop large groups of tourists (ourselves included) from darting out into traffic to have themselves photographed as they walk across the road.

On Friday we walked by the Thames and through the Tate Modern, where I saw old friends: lots of Rothkos, several Cindy Sherman prints, skinny Giacommetti figures standing together like fence posts. Things I’ve seen in New York, wandering around the MoMA on Friday evenings when admission is free. I always have a sense of dislocation when I see familiar artworks or works by familiar artists in unfamiliar places, as though I’m trespassing, or they are. But it’s also a kind of comfort: a bit of home. I saw a Diane Arbus retrospective in New York at the Met several months ago—then saw the same exhibition in Barcelona in February, at the museum we look out on from our balcony. I had an unexpected second look at an exhibition that had left New York for good.

London was dim and chilly, which fit the London I’ve had in my head thanks to recently reading Bleak House. On Saturday, it rained hard as we walked around Portobello Market, raindrops streaming from tarp-covered stalls. But it cleared enough for us to walk up Primrose Hill and around the shops nearby. We only scratched the surface of London during our weekend, but it was thrilling to be able to travel there so easily—it’s just a two hour flight—not for a whirlwind tour but for a stolen few days with Andrew’s family and friends.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Fan Dancers

This weekend, on both Friday and Saturday night, Andrew and I found ourselves getting home around the time the sun started coming up. This is not necessarily an unusual thing when we decide to have a night out, since Spanish nightlife doesn’t get going until around 2 or 3 in the morning. It was, however, unusual for us to have such a night two nights in a row.

On Friday night, we went to Bikini, a huge club with several rooms, many bars, and an abundance of go-go dancers, both male and female. The male dancers were ridiculously chiseled; they looked like they were wearing sculpted plastic suits. At regular intervals, the scantily-clad dancers would leave the elevated platform, and a single male dancer would make his entrance. He had long black hair and wore a long, black, cassock-like garment with a brooch of sorts at the collar, which, in the strobe light, looked like the visible inch of a priest’s white collar. He began dancing dramatically, interpretively, not in the style you’d imagine would be appropriate for songs like “Funky Cole Medina” (apparently a club favorite) and a slew of Madonna.

By this point it was very late. I wasn’t prepared for the dancing man to suddenly whip out two gigantic fans and begin doing an elaborate, excessively dramatic fan dance, which closely resembled a Gob Bluth magic show on Arrested Development—replete with flashing pink and green lights, strobes, and broad gestures. What the fan dance lacked was camp and irony. It was serious. It was indescribable. He took the stage several times that night and was still writhing with his fans when we finally went home.

On Saturday night, I told one of Andrew’s Barcelona-born friends about the fan dancer; he assured me this was not normal. So I was surprised when, later, at a snug two-story club called Universal, I suddenly found myself being entertained by another fan dancer. This guy was also on an elevated, dramatically lit platform, and he wore a bizarre outfit that consisted of no shirt, what looked like a black tuxedo jacket, and some kind of billowy cravat. He, too, danced interpretively and dramatically with two large fans. Eventually he took his shirt off, but he somehow maintained the seriousness of the dance.

Though these pictures fail to clearly show the fans, they do show two interesting things: first, the dramatic lighting that actually—cleverly!—resembles a fan; and second, the strange incongruity of the single fan-dancer in the corner of this crowded, smoky club.

Andrew tried to get an explanation from another Spanish friend, who was not surprised or confused by the presence of the fan dancer. “It is difficult,” he said, meaning the intricate splaying and unsplaying of the fans. He explained that it is a traditional dance. He also told us some juicy fan-dancing gossip: this fan dancer used to dance at Bikini but was replaced by the dancer we’d seen the night before. It was all just a little too strange. By this point in the night/morning, my tender, smoke-free New Yorker’s eyes were spasming in the sea of cigarettes, and we soon went home.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Platters of Sizzling Meat

A few weeks ago, we ate at Canota, near our apartment, intent on having a meat-focused meal. We’d both been quite tired and I suspected we both needed some iron and protein after several weeks of crackers, cheese, and salad (this was pre-big-pot purchase).

We’d eaten at Canota once before, months ago, and had a revolting meal. Andrew had unwittingly ordered blood sausage and lima beans, mistranslating the menu, and I’d unwisely ordered sodden cod that was drowning in butter and salt. The food was virtually inedible. Meanwhile, the restaurant was crowded, and everyone seemed to be ordering the same thing: platters of sizzling meat. We heard it sizzling throughout the restaurant as waiters delivered the platters to table after table. It looked ridiculously good. We chalked up the terrible meal to our own failure to do as the locals were very obviously doing.

This time, the meal was a success. We weren’t sure what on the menu would lead to a delivery of a platter of sizzling meat, so Andrew told the waiter about our last experience and said we wanted what those people, months ago, had been eating. The waiter knew instantly what we meant, and soon a platter of sizzling meat was on the table before us.

The platter of sizzling meat was raw. Not rare, but raw—sliced raw steak. The earthenware platter was fire-hot, and we cooked each slice, quickly on both sides, and ate it immediately, like eating steak directly from a grill. The meat fully lived up to the promise of the sizzle. Just like last time, everyone around us was ordering the sizzling meat. The rest of the menu—for good reason—seems to have been forgotten.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Vamos a Canaletes


Last night was a big night for soccer: the night of the European championship. Barcelona was playing Arsenal, a team from London, and the match took place in Paris. Andrew and I went to a small bar in a weird shopping mall near the beach, which friends of his from school had rented out for the evening. Because the bar was full only of Andrew’s classmates, there were approximately 60 men and around 7 women, a typical ratio.

London scored early on, and as the first half ended and the clock in the second half steadily ticked away, the Barcelona team—and I’ll attempt to make a critical comment about a sporting event here—panicked and started playing desperately, missing all their shots. There was a lot of drama on both sides, with players who were barely bumped making sweeping, dramatic falls to the ground, often punctuated with rolling, writhing, and grimacing. I gasped each time, thinking the player looks to be in genuine pain, while everyone in the bar yells things along the lines of “Faker!” at the TV.

With only minutes to go in the match, Barcelona scored. Everyone in the bar leapt to their feet—so violently and ecstatically that the projector shooting the game onto the large screen was knocked down and broken, along with a hanging lamp. A mall security guard appeared, but not out of alarm: he stood at the doorway of the bar to watch the rest of the match. We watched the remainder of the match—which saw another goal for Barcelona, clinching the victory—on the small TV in the corner of the bar.

A waiter came to our table to clear some plates and beer bottles, and I leaned around him to keep watching. Andrew looked at me, eyes wide, disbelieving. “I’ve never seen you do that,” he said. “You’re really watching! You really like it!” He pointed out that it took four sports to find one I can actually get into—he’s taken me to a hockey game, a basketball game, and countless baseball games (which I do enjoy, in my way), and I’ve watched football on TV; but I’m always doing something else that occupies most of my attention, like talking (at the games) or crocheting (when watching on TV). This genuine engagement was a landmark event.

After the second goal was scored, the Spanish men in the room began chanting “Vamos a Canaletes!”—“We go to the Canaletes fountain!” The Canaletes fountain is at one end of La Rambla, near Placa Catalunya, and legend holds that drinking from the fountain ensures you’ll return to Barcelona. The fountain is tiny, like a small, ornate water fountain. But this was to be the gathering place for thousands and thousands of people.

Rather than take the Metro to Canaletes, Andrew and I got in a car with three of his friends. This turned out to be a scary decision. The city had gone completely crazy; people were leaning out of windows, screaming and weaving all over the place; revelers on the sidewalks were running everywhere; and two other friends on motos were swarming around our car. At one point, one nearly fell off his moto, under our tires, and our driver slammed on his brakes to stop from crushing him. “Put your seatbelt on,” Andrew whispered to me. I began groping and prodding around near the guy sitting next to me, trying to find the belt. “I’m sorry,” I said. “This is very American, but I need to put my seatbelt on.”

Once we made it to La Rambla, along with hordes of other people making their way to Canaletes, we let the group go. They were headed into the heart of the crowd, and Andrew and I were content to keep a healthy distance. Flares, fireworks, and explosions were increasing in intensity, and the crowd was growing fast. The scaling of lampposts and newspaper kiosks had begun in earnest. The tall trees and the wrought-iron balcony railings on the buildings lining La Rambla made dancing, smoky shadows in the bright pink light from the flares.




We took it all in, then headed home. We walked back to Placa Espanya, amidst happy but much less crazy crowds, hearing more explosions in the distance. Suddenly, we heard a small crack very close to us, and Andrew stopped, horrified. “Oh no,” he said. “My collar stay!” He had been carrying my bag for me, and the strap, resting on the edge of his collar, had broken his “collar stay” in half. It was a small casualty of the evening.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Laundry: A Personal History



No matter what the lore of the laundromat—soulmates found and so forth—I never liked doing laundry in New York. A basket of clean, dry, folded clothes was satisfying, but getting to that point was never fun.

In my first apartment, near Columbia, there were washers and dryers in the basement of the building—but there were also gigantic, slow-moving cockroaches, so going to the basement was a horror.

In my second apartment, near Columbia but actually in Harlem, I had to walk one block and one avenue to the laundromat, pulling my laundry along in a wheeled suitcase. The laundromat there was filthy—the clothes always seemed dirtier after being there, not cleaner—and there were always several wild children running around, screaming and knocking things over. Once, a child hurtling through the laundromat knocked over my open bottle of laundry detergent, which I’d (unwisely, I see now) balanced on top of my suitcase while I arranged the clothes in their washers. Detergent poured into the suitcase, soaking and pooling at the bottom. Without any paper towels to mop up the mess, I had to wait till my laundry was done; I stuffed it all into pillow cases and pulled my empty, soapy suitcase home. Wiping it out with towels was hopeless—the soap seemed to get sudsier no matter what I did. So I got into the shower with my suitcase and let the water rush through it until it was finally clean. A friend in Ohio who heard this story told me it convinced her she could never live in New York.

In my third apartment, in Brooklyn, the laundromat was just down the block, and it was pretty calm and quiet. If I went at the right times—any weekday evening, before noon or after four on Sunday—I never had to wait for a washer or dryer. And because it was so close, I didn’t have to wheel my laundry in a suitcase (though I sometimes did if I had a lot to wash). As far as laundry and laundromats go, there wasn’t much to complain about in Brooklyn. It was almost peaceful, reading The New Yorker while standing outside the laundromat, watching the Park Slope people walk by.

But doing laundry in Barcelona is different. We have a washer right in the apartment, so there’s no hauling of any kind. And outside the living room, on the edge of the balcony, are several lines for drying. It’s all very romantic and European, the neighbors’ laundry drying in the sun, wafting in the breeze. Hanging our laundry during the hot afternoons is a small pleasure, a quiet domestic task that feels pleasingly Spanish. I may not be able to say “laundry,” but I can hang it out to dry right along with everyone else.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Parsley. We've Got Your Back.

I've finally procured a large cooking pot. I had a frustrating afternoon of running around Barcelona trying to find a pot, thwarted in my efforts first by the stunningly high prices at El Corte Ingles, a department store, and then by the closing of all possible cooking-pot shops for siesta. I had a less-than-enamoured-with-Spain moment. But I finally found a pot in a home-accoutrements store near our apartment, for a reasonable price. The pot is not glamourous, not nearly as nice as my heavy, heirloom-quality pot I have packed up in a box in Connellsville. "Are you sure this pot is okay?" Andrew asked, dubiously pinging the bottom with his knuckles. "Are you sure it won't catch on fire?" I was pretty sure. So we bought it.

Yesterday afternoon, we went to the grocery store to buy some things to cook in the pot, including some vegetables. Buying vegetables in a Spanish grocery store is a fairly daunting task, since after putting the chosen vegetable in a plastic bag you have to go to an electronic scale, find the vegetable on a long list, and type in the accompanying number. The price sticker pops out from a little slot, and you put it on the bag. Fortunately, at our grocery store, the number is right there on the sign next to the vegetable--you have to remember the number, but you don't have to know the Spanish word. Everything is clearly marked.

Except the parsley. Near the lettuce, on top of a stack of plastic-wrapped water bottles, was a huge hank of parsley, as large as my two wrists put together. There was no sign identifying it, and no number. It looked like it had been left there by mistake. I didn't want that much parsley, so Andrew asked a salesperson if there were any smaller bunches. "Just take out as much as you want," the salesperson said. "What's the number?" Andrew asked. "There is no number," the salesperson said. "Just take as much as you want."

Confused, we took out some parsley from the bunch and put it in a plastic bag. We brought it to the register with our other purchases, and Andrew told the cashier, "There was no number for the parsley." The cashier shook his head and waved the parsley through. "There is no number," he said. "You just take as much as you want."

Apparently, at our grocery store, Condis, parsley is provided free of charge. That should be the store's motto: Parsley. We've Got Your Back.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Leaving-Brooklyn Story

The day I left New York was so hectic, with packing last boxes and loading the Uhaul and carrying armloads of things to the curb, that when I finally locked my apartment door—the crazy landlord waiting right behind me, his hand outstretched for the key—it was a shock to suddenly find myself on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, essentially homeless. No longer a New Yorker but someone about to begin a long journey away from it.

Barbra and Chris had helped us pack all morning, but they were gone now. The crazy landlord had disappeared—back to the Queens, back to the Keys, who knew?—as soon as he pocketed the key. It was just me and Andrew and the Uhaul...and the microwave sitting between us on the sidewalk.

I’d sold almost all my furniture, and it had trickled out of my apartment in the days and weeks before the move; the rest I’d put by the curb, hardly blinking before someone scooped each item up. The only thing that remained was the microwave. A man had called me several times that morning, asking eagerly if I still had it. I’d had other buyers lined up, but when they backed out, I told the man it was his.

He told me after the fact that he was coming from Queens. “Thirty minutes,” he said. Thirty minutes later, he called and said he was stuck in traffic on the BQE. I told him we couldn’t wait for him, that we had to get going. When it’s time to leave a place, I like to leave it—I don’t like to linger after I’ve said my goodbyes. I told him I’d leave the microwave by the curb; if it was still there when he arrived, he could have it. But he called when we were loading the final bits into the Uhaul and said he was five minutes away. So Andrew and I stood and waited, standing idly on the sidewalk between my locked-up apartment and the Uhaul.

He finally arrived, gave me $20, and put the microwave in the back of his car. But before he left, I asked him to take a picture of us in front of my apartment. It’s our last New York City picture. For now.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mistake. Big Mistake.

In a desperate attempt to add variety to our dismal dinner options, tonight at the grocery store we found attractive a can of tapas-style meatballs with peas. On the can, they looked tasty, which suggests how bored we really are with our usual selections.

I had assumed we'd make pasta as usual, with our usual tomato sauce, and eat the tapas-style meatballs with peas on the side. Once the pasta was done cooking, however, and the tapas-style meatballs with peas were done simmering in their own small pot, I reached for the jar of tomato sauce--but Andrew stopped me. "Just mix it in," he said, indicating that I should just pour the tapas-style meatballs with peas in their sauce over the pasta. "Mix it in?" I said. "Just mix it," he said. So I mixed the spaghetti with the tapas-style meatballs and peas.

There are two points to this story. First, there is something inherently disgusting about canned meatballs--there's just no getting around that, no matter how enticing they might look or how desperately one might want to spice up dinner. Second, we are both now sick to our stomachs from the tapas-style meatballs with peas. Andrew's nausea is no surprise, food poisoning being somewhat par for the course with him, but my own usually-steely stomach has been conquered by the sheer psychological horror of what I've just consumed.

I Don't Speak Spanish Either

I went for a long walk today to the top of Montjuic, all the way up to the Olympic Stadium. There are some nice gardens and beautiful views along the way, and the ornate National Palace is visible the whole climb up. For the past couple of days there has been abundant sunshine, but the air is still cool, even chilly when the wind blows. It was a lovely day for a long walk.

When I neared the top of the hill, a man standing by a bus stop addressed me in Spanish as I passed by. He held a map in one hand and a cigar in the other, and he was gesturing at the map with the cigar. He was struggling to ask me a question. It seemed like he didn't really speak Spanish, but I didn't know for sure. "No hablo espanol," I said, holding my hands up to ward off further speech. He looked at me, and I looked at him. It was a strange, awkward moment. He had addressed me in halting Spanish, to which I responded "I don't speak Spanish," also in halting Spanish. What now?

I was reminded of an experience I once had in Paris. I went into an internet cafe one afternoon, intent on printing something out from a disk. I didn't know how to do it, so I needed to find an English-speaking employee to help. But when I walked in, instead of asking in French, "Do you speak English?" I asked, "Do you speak French?"--in French. It made no sense, and I was flustered and embarrassed. This language problem has always been and continues to be a vexing, almost phobia-inducing obstacle.

"I speak English," the man on Montjuic said finally. "Then I can help you," I said. He introduced himself--Luke--and said he was from Chicago; we shook hands. I pointed out the Palace as well as the Poble Espanol on his map, and we chatted briefly about what we were doing in Barcelona. "It's nice to find someone to speak English to," he said. We wished each other well.

Cooking Challenge of a Lifetime

Dinner is proving to be a challenge. Not willing to eat cereal or crackers and cheese for dinner every night, as my dear novio was before I arrived, I'm trying to expand our dinner options beyond pasta but have, I'm afraid, reached an impasse. We have a kitchen, but we don't know how to use the weird oven, which you have to light--somehow, somewhere--with a match. We have no measuring cups, measuring spoons, sharp knives, or mixing bowls. We don't have a large pot, or glass Pyrex pans (not that we can use the oven anyway). No blender or food chopper. Andrew said we didn't have a can opener, but there was, thankfully, one in the drawer. Only yesterday did I finally find salt and pepper at the grocery store.

Besides pasta, omelettes and other egg-related dishes, salads, and toasted-cheese sandwiches, we have few selections, unless we start buying frozen food items, which seems to be an unnecessary, college-type last resort. I suppose you could argue that there are an infinite variety of pasta dishes and an infinite variety of egg-related meals and an infinite variety of salads. This is true. But now that pasta, eggs, and salads are all I can have, I don't want them. I want a nice big pot of soup that requires a blender, huge pot, several pans, measuring cups, lots of kitchen utensils, and obscure ingredients I don't know the Spanish names for to prepare.

Perhaps my resistance to just cooking more eggs is actually a hint to myself that it's time to turn my learn-Spanish plans into action. And also to go back to Ikea. And to figure out this oven.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The End-of-the-Road Bookshop

I went to a crazy English-language-used-bookstore today and saw my first kooky ex-pat. He runs the bookstore, I'm assuming, which is basically just a decrepit little shop with piles of books in absolutely no order on tables. There was a strange, cluttered kitchen in one corner, the counters overflowing with what looked to be stale bags of pastries and dirty coffee mugs. He directed me to the back room when I asked about travel guides, and part of the back room looked like basement storage--part of the ceiling was even open to the outside. There were a couple of broken, low-to-the-ground armchairs and a small table supporting a beer bottle and more dirty mugs. Not quite the cozy place it could be, the shop instead felt like the inside of someone's attic or a haphazard flea market stall. Or just a big room where boxes of books were dumped out and forgotten. It had an end-of-the-road look, like the grizzled backpackers on the Ramblas.

The bookshop owner was listening to something called "Stupid Videos" on his computer, very loudly. "That IS stupid," he said after each video finished. "They're right, that's really stupid." The only other person in the shop asked him what he was watching, and he offered to write down the website for her. She declined.

Among water-worn guidebooks from the early 90s, stacks of mysteries and romance novels, and a huge shelf full of old textbooks and academic materials, I found three Muriel Spark novels, which I brought with me to the counter. "A fan of Spark," he observed. "Your first time here?" I said yes, that I lived nearby and would likely see him again.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Conejo


A very large conejo (rabbit) lives in the courtyard below our apartment, and during the day I sometimes see it peeking around the corner of its little basement area. It is a timid, slow-moving conejo, and I've seen it move from its corner spot only a couple of times. I took this picture from our balcony last August, zooming in on the conejo.

When Andrew first moved into this apartment, he swore the conejo was actually a cat, not a conejo. It's really difficult to tell the difference, since the conejo has a sleek, long body and sits very still, with its paws in front of it, much like a cat. However, during the contract-signing with the landlord, Jordi, before Andrew moved in, Jordi informed us that we couldn't use the apartment for any commercial activity--"Like raising rabbits," he said. I am the only one who heard Jordi say this. However, it makes sense, since there is indeed a rabbit in the apartment below.

Eventually, Andrew saw the conejo hop, so he conceded that it's a conejo. During the fall, long stretches would go by when Andrew would not see the conejo, and I feared he'd been eaten. Every time I see the little conejo I'm relieved that, for now, he is still just a pet.

A Languid Trip Home

More on Valencia...

With our own car and our own schedule, we weren’t in too much of a hurry to get back to Barcelona when we left Valencia on Monday morning. We had café con leche and madelenas at our hotel, and, the sky cloudy and the air cool, headed up the coast, intending to find a small beach town to stop in for lunch. According to our wholly inadequate map, in the fully inadequate Valencia section of our Lonely Planet Spain guidebook, we’d reach a small town called Sagunto right at lunchtime.

As usual, we got lost immediately upon leaving the hotel. This had proven to be a theme of our weekend away. We had decided to take this road trip to Valencia somewhat at the last minute; we’d planned to take a train, but the return trains were sold out, so we rented a car instead. We didn’t really think about buying a road map, figuring we’d easily find Valencia if we just headed south on the main highway, autopisto 7. Indeed, we got to Valencia without much trouble, but we were hopelessly lost as soon as we were inside the city limits. We hadn’t accounted for Valencia not being a driver’s city. With five lanes of cars coalescing in a large, laneless, lawless group as they drove at high speeds around roundabouts; miniscule, unreadable road signs hidden on the sides of buildings; and the crazy, haphazard parking where any corner seemed to be fair game, we were helpless. Wrong turns were compounded and intensified by an overabundance of one-way streets that seemed to lead us deeper in the wrong direction once we were unfortunate enough to get trapped within them.

A few times, Andrew asked for directions at our hotel’s front desk; each time, the person nodding and helping would reach under the counter, take out a fresh copy of the Valencia map published in partnership with the superstore El Corte Ingles, which showed, along with a few roads and attractions, the exact location of every El Corte Ingles throughout the city, and circle the location of our hotel. The directions he relayed after the circling always seemed easy—one road, then another road to Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, for example; one road, then a roundabout until we’d be back on AP-7—but never were.

So we spent some time wandering through the area around our hotel until we found AP-7 and headed north. We were surprised to reach Sagunto in about thirty minutes, well before lunchtime. Unsure what any of the road signs meant, we got off the highway at an exit that we hoped would take us into Sagunto. We followed signs that seemed to point to the city center, then improvised when those signs mysteriously disappeared.

It didn’t take us long to reach Sagunto’s one main square, and it didn’t take us long to realize that, although Lonely Planet said Sagunto was good for a half-day or one-day trip, there really wasn’t all that much to see. We idly walked across the square. Andrew spontaneously stuck his hand in the open mouth of a stone lion and adopted a pained, horrified expression. By the time I’d snapped a picture, he was laughing, and in the picture his expression appears to be one of devilish mischief. We walked up a hill to the ruins of a Roman theatre, which had been “restored”—quotation marks are LP’s—in a questionable fashion. Once we reached the theatre, we agreed with the quotation marks. Rather than restore the theatre in a way that complemented the dark, heavy stone ruins, large expanses of pale-yellow bricks had been stuck on top of them. Here and there, ruins stuck out, but the overall effect was of a piecemeal, hasty construction project.

We pushed on. Our terrible map showed Castellon as a possible next stop up the coast, and we followed road signs for an hour or two. It’d been too early for lunch in Sagunto, but by the time the exit for Castellon appeared, we were famished. As usual, we got lost once we got off the highway. We found ourselves in a desolate, industrial wasteland, with large factories and enormous car dealerships lining the road strip-mall-style. “Spain’s not supposed to look like this,” I said. We saw signs for the city center, but we were intent on finding the beach, which only took us deeper into the strange outskirts of the city.

Eventually, we found Grau, which evidently is the beach section of Castellon, and spotted a restaurant with a view of the sparkling blue water. The fried fish platter and gazpacho we wanted weren’t available—not the season yet for gazpacho, the harried waiter told us—but we had a tasty lunch of fresh mussels, patatas bravas, salad, fried calamari, and croquettas bacalao. The restaurant, Mar y Mar, had only an outdoor dining area, the tables covered by a large tent. It was packed with Spanish-speaking families, everyone enjoying bowls of the mussels and large, cast-iron skillets of paella. Reluctant to leave, we ordered café con leche and lemon helado, which turned out to be lemon sorbet inside a hollowed-out, frozen lemon.

Finally, the afternoon long past waning, we hit the road again, our eyes on Barcelona. We’d had a lovely trip. But it was when we were back on the highway, sated and tired, that the full bliss of the weekend soaked in. The bright afternoons on the Placa de la Virgen, the seafood, the warm sun, and the leisurely exploring were fun, but now we were going home—and home was Barcelona. Eight days into my new Spanish life, it finally hit me that I’m really here.

The Brides of Valencia


Finally getting around to writing some things about my trip to Valencia...

The brides appeared as soon as we exited the Metro onto the sunny streets of Valencia, meandering through the town on our way to lunch at Pizzeria La Vita e Bella. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and even that was just a café con leche and a croissant inhaled at the bar of the small café inside the metro stop at Espanya, near home. It was getting on toward four p.m., late for lunch even by Southern Spain standards. We were so hungry that neither of us noticed much of the walk on the way to the restaurants. But the brides in store windows were hard to miss. In window after window, beautiful wedding dresses were modeled on headless mannequins, each dress more unique and more wonderful than the last. We turned down a side street and finally found some lunch.

We arrived at the centre of the old city in late afternoon and peeked inside a church called Nuestra Senora de los Desamparados. A wedding was underway, the bride and groom standing before an ornate, flower-laden altar among a sea of packed pews, with tourists gawking and whispering to each other and taking pictures along the sides of the church. We then went next door into the huge cathedral to see the Holy Grail, housed in a small, somber chapel near the cathedral’s main entrance. High on the altar, in a lit glass case, was the golden chalice many people believe is the real Holy Grail.

Andrew and I sat on a stone bench along the side of the church, taking it in. I snapped a few pictures, which I wasn’t sure was acceptable; it seemed slightly taboo, like photographing a corpse. I imagined going up to the altar and posing beside the chalice for a picture, hard-pressed to imagine a more obnoxious tourist transgression.

An old lady nudged her way onto the bench beside us. Then, very quickly, people began streaming into the chapel, each one of them dressed up like it was prom time. Women wore long, fancy dresses, shawls, and strappy sandals; all of them had their hair sprayed and styled, obviously fresh from a salon. The older women wore mantillas. Men were in suits and ties. Two young girls came in, dressed identically in frilly white gowns. We had the distinct sense that we were about to interrupt something, so we moved to leave.

At the doorway, however, we walked right into a wedding party, arranged firmly in their processional line-up, a photographer snapping pictures. Andrew and I found ourselves right beside what seemed to be the bride’s or groom’s parents, and there was nowhere to go—we had to duck in front of the photographer or join the procession. We ducked and dashed, and the group filed into the church. A wedding ceremony in front of the Holy Grail—“Now that’s a commitment,” Andrew said.

Back outside, we paused for a café con leche on the Plaza de la Virgen. As we sipped our coffee and people-watched, brides began filing onto the Plaza with grooms and photographers in tow. For nearly an hour, each bride—and sometimes the bride with her groom—posed for pictures around the Plaza: sitting on the fountain, standing in front of the cathedral doors, arranged attractively with the cathedral and church as backdrop. The brides all wore the same shade of ivory, and each took her turn in the prime location on the edge of the fountain. “What if the brides started fighting?” Andrew speculated, imagining, I guess, a white-clad catfight over whose dress was prettiest or who got to sit on the fountain next. But the brides seemed placid and patient as the photographers arranged them in increasingly silly poses—holding the groom’s hand in a very staged ascent up the short flight of cathedral stairs; placing her hands on the stone façade of the cathedral as though holding it up with her brideness; sitting on the fountain while the groom sat beside her with one leg bent cockily, his dirty shoe precariously close to the ivory of her skirt.

Finally, the light fading, the brides left the Plaza--all but one, who sat with her groom and a few others at a café table at the edge of the sea of tables, drinking a beer.

Best Perk Ever

Andrew and I have chosen the destination for a weekend trip in June: Santiago de Compostela, a small town in the northwestern part of Spain, in the Galicia region, and the final destination of many pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a pilgram trail. It's the kind of town where museum discounts are offered to senior citizens, students, and pilgrims. It looks beautiful.

As we looked through stacks of Santiago hotel brochures we'd picked up at the Tourism Expo this weekend, trying to choose a place to stay, we noticed that many of the nicer hotels listed "piped music" as one of the room amenities, along with linens, mini bar, private bathroom, and so forth. Piped music? Like Musak? This is apparently some kind of widely-accepted nonsensical translation of something, but we're not sure what. Radio? CD player? The hotel we chose doesn't offer piped music, so I'll have to do some outside investigation to find out what this is.

Friday, May 05, 2006

An Amendment

I found out yesterday that the celebratory soccer riot that seemed so harmless and happy did, eventually, turn a bit violent. Twelve people were arrested for breaking windows and streetlamps. One of Andrew's friends had been there; he denied that things had been too crazy. Then he held out his palm--there was a hideous burn mark the size of a quarter. He dismissed it as nothing; he'd simply grabbed onto something that had been on fire.

A Fine Line Between Business and Acting

I met Andrew at IESE today after his classes to watch a series of four short plays put on by his MBA classmates who are in the drama club. The idea of a drama club at an internationally renowned business school gave me pause. First, among team meetings, classes, enormous reading assignments, exams, and so forth, I couldn't imagine any IESE student having time to write, cast, rehearse, and perform a play. Second, and perhaps more troubling, is the idea that a large group of MBA students who are racking up debts in excess of $100,000 are still struggling with a Love of Acting that generally seems to afflict only high school kids and anyone unfortunate enough to major in Musical Theatre in college. Andrew suggested that these MBAers wanted to try their hand at acting to improve their management styles.

In any case, these four short plays turned out to be a really big deal on campus. Tons of students went to see them--so many that they were divided up into two groups, so each short play was performed twice. There were elaborate directions for where each play would be performed on campus, and there were several "stage managers" who took the audience from one place to the next. Of course, there was no getting around the fact that this was an MBA production. On the email Andrew got confirming his tickets, there was a request to follow all the directions of the stage managers to ensure that "all the logistics run smoothly" and that our "time and enjoyment were optimized." Yikes. A bit Stepford-like.

Surprisingly, the plays were really funny and well-put-on. One was a less-funny piece about regret, change, and revenge that drew heavily from a poem by Pushkin. The second was styled as a gameshow called "Sane or Sick?" that involved one guy dressed in a toga, as Oedipus Rex. The third was a funny blend of Romeo and Juliet and Casanova--the Casanova guy entered the play area in his very European tighty-boxers. Finally, there was a spoof on Monty Python, with a lot of business-speak thrown in about free enterprise and so forth.

Despite the great success of the plays, the obvious fun the actors were having, and everyone's genuine enjoyment of them, I can't get my mind around the fact that there's a drama club at IESE. I just don't get it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Easy Spending of Time

Among the many (minor) concerns I had about moving to Spain, how I'd manage to spend my days while Andrew is in class was not one of them. However, this is the first question people ask Andrew when they ask how I'm doing. Sometimes they gasp when they find out I don't have a job. "She's home alone all day?" they ask, amazed and concerned. "What does she do?" They think I'm bored and lonely.

They're wrong, of course. Days are never long enough for all the things I'd like to do. How do I spend my days? I get up early, shower, have coffee. I work on freelance stuff, do my own writing, read. I walk in the city and stop for a cafe con leche at a sidewalk cafe. I email and write my blog postings. Once I have less freelance work to do, I'll go to the beach and to museums, linger longer in the cafes, write more. I want to get yarn to do more crocheting. One of these days I'll be taking Spanish classes, and my learning of Spanish will involve studying, watching Spanish TV, reading Spanish newspapers. If I were alone all day I might get lonely, but I have email and the phone, and Andrew comes home by six. But spending my time is simply not an issue.

Riot on the Ramblas

Last night, Andrew and I went down to the Barri Gotic to an Irish bar to watch a soccer game. Barcelona (FC Barcelona--there are two Barcelona teams; I'm still trying to figure out the whole thing) was playing against Celta, another Spanish team from, we believe, somewhere in the north. It was my first-ever soccer game, and I liked it quite a bit. I found it much more interesting (don't tell Andrew) than baseball or football. And the players all looked really fun and happy. Barcelona won the game, which meant that they'd clinched a championship of some kind--the Spanish championship. They were now the "campiones."

This was a big, big deal. When we left the bar, masses of people wrapped in FC Barcelona scarves and flags were parading down the narrow Calle Ferran, singing soccer songs (there are a surprising number of them), chanting, and cheering. Huge bottles of beer were being waved around (no public drinking laws here). Sometimes one group would start a song and it would be picked up by other groups further down the street, or one group would start a chant and another would finish it.

When we exited Calle Ferran onto the Ramblas, we entered a growing riot. More and more people were streaming onto the Ramblas, all of us heading toward Placa Catalunya. As we got closer, we could see smoke and the bright pink light from flares. There were blasts from fireworks and other explosions. At the end of the Ramblas was an enormous group of revelers--growing larger every second as more people arrived. Men had scaled lampposts and newspaper kiosks. More flares were lit. Other things may have been burning, but we're not sure what they were.

In all of this madness, there wasn't one policeman--not one. Well before Placa Catalunya, we'd seen one or two police vans, but they seemed idle and unconcerned. In New York, the NYPD would have been out in full force, setting up their blue barricades and blocking the subway. Not here. This was a happy riot. Even small children and dogs were joining in.

Andrew and I stood on a bench outside the fray and looked on. We had watched the game and cheered for the win, but we were very obviously not part of the riot. Andrew was wearing a corduroy blazer and carrying an umbrella. I was wearing my glasses and boots with heels. We eventually got on the metro to go home. When the train arrived, more hordes of people got off to join the riot. The whole way home, songs and chants would occasionally break out. Even at home, in quiet Montjuic, cars were honking, and someone here and there would begin a song.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

It's Official

It's official: I live in Spain. When we got back from Valencia on Monday, I logged on to the Northwest website and cancelled my return ticket, which had been scheduled for yesterday. I'd booked the round-trip because it was cheaper than the one-way and would raise fewer questions at passport control, but that return ticket is now gone. I'm here and I'm staying!

Come On In

Yesterday, someone knocked on my door while I was home alone, working on Bleak House. I knew I'd be unable to speak to whoever it was but thought it might be a mail delivery of some sort, an interaction that can be easily mimed. I opened the door a few inches to find a black-suit-clad Jehovah's Witness, holding out a booklet and saying things in Spanish. Shaking my head, I shrugged and said, "No hablo espanol." He said, "Ah," then continued to speak to me in Spanish. He seemed to be asking me some questions, like if this was my apartment. "Si," I said. As he continued to speak, I said, "Mi novio no aqui"--"My boyfriend no here."

I assumed this would be easily understood to mean "My boyfriend, who speaks Spanish, isn't here right now." Later, however, Andrew pointed out that I'd actually given this Jehovah's Witness a provocative invitation, akin to a winking, bathrobe-wearing housegirlfriend greeting the electrician with the news, "My boyfriend isn't here right now. Come on in."