Monday, July 31, 2006

My July

(I’m about to write a post that, if I weren’t me, would make me hate me. Nonetheless, I’ll proceed.)

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.

The Strike, an Addendum

In Philadelphia, when we finally arrived, there was an exorbitantly long wait for our bags to come through into baggage claim. Everyone was already travel-weary, and everyone had tight connections to make; yet there we were, waiting together as a group once again, all of us looking like zombies. Andrew and I stood by a cart trolley, one of those where you pay a few dollars in order to get a metal cart to pile your luggage on. The trolley had long since been empty of carts, and Andrew and I and many others idled near the empty rails.

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.

The Strike

This weekend, my flight from Barcelona to Jacksonville was thirty hours late. For sixteen of those hours, I sat on the filthy floor of the Barcelona airport among thousands of other stranded, angry passengers and their thousands of hulking suitcases in the unairconditioned check-in area of the airport.

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.

Rome

We became Tourists in Rome. We should have realized when we planned the trip that Rome in late July was not a good idea. But travel time is limited by Mom and Dad’s school year; and we wanted to take a side trip halfway through their visit to Spain. So the three of us set out for Italy for a whirlwind three-day trip.

Living in Europe, I’ve gotten spoiled by the feeling of not being a tourist. Even when I go someplace new, there’s a sense of having a base, of belonging, of being somehow different from those who travel a long distance with pristine passports and voluminous, unscuffed bags. Rome, however, with its insanely twisting streets and unfamiliar language, rendered it nearly impossible to blend in, especially since tourists basically replace locals entirely in the summer and take over the city with maps and sunhats.

I, too, had a sunhat in Rome. We waited in line for the Vatican museum one morning in scorching sunlight, and when a vendor walked by peddling sunhats, I asked the price. I tried on the hat: tan straw with a scarf tied around the brim. I felt like Daisy Miller. More important, I felt shaded. I felt the possibility of not leaving Rome with a sun-wrinkled face. Mom and I bartered and, ultimately, each bought a hat. We also fanned ourselves with the wooden fans we’d brought with us from Spain. We had sunk to new depths of Tourism. It was not to be stopped.

In our Daisy Miller hats, we saw the lovely (though overcrowded) sights of Rome: the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, St. Peter’s. We explored some churches in Trastevere and had some delicious meals. We ate gelato and bought shoes and bargained for knockoff Prada at Campo de Fiori.

Rome is a ridiculous, amazing city, with its ancient ruins around every corner and shockingly beautiful piazzas at the end of every street. But in July, it is also a hot, crowded, uncomfortable city, and it made Barcelona feel like a secluded island hideaway in comparison. I expected Mom and Dad to like Barcelona much less after seeing Rome—Barcelona is a city that takes some effort to love, while Rome is Rome—but we all breathed a sigh of relief when we got back. We’ll return to Rome, to Italy, but in the fall next time.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Parental Visit

There are two layers to any city—the tourist layer and the real-life layer—and it’s hard, if not impossible, to get a sense of both at once. The first Orlando Parents visit is currently underway, and I’ve realized in the past few days that a ten-day visit isn’t nearly enough time to peel away the layers of this strange city and show what our life here is really like. A visit to a new city must involve exploring the tourist layer, since it’s underneath and around those tourist sights—the museums, the statues, the architecture—that our real life takes place. If we ignore the tourist layer, then we might as well live in Kansas or Iowa or Minnesota; the structure of real life, with its groceries and errands and other everyday tasks, doesn’t look much different from one place to the next. It’s the backdrop that changes.

So, we’ve done our best to see the famous Barcelona, and we’ve done an excellent job so far. On Thursday, when Mom and Dad arrived, we walked down La Rambla—the essential first sight. The living statues with their elaborate costumes, the bird stalls, and the sketchy pickpocket-types were out in full force. We detoured into the Boqueria, the fabulous market off La Rambla, and bought fresh strawberries to snack on. Then we turned onto Calle Ferran and walked into the old part of the city, stopping for lunch at a corner sandwich shop and admiring the small, winding streets. A few attempts at tourism were foiled here: at the Picasso Museum, but the line for tickets was much too long to consider waiting; we tried to go into the Cathedral, but Mom and I, in our sleeveless summer shirts, were apparently too harlot-like to be admitted. We were refused entry, then offered shawls for a few euros, but we declined. Finally, we found success at the Museum of the History of the City, which features an enormous basement area where you walk on pathways over ruins of actual Roman streets that once existed below the Barcelona we know. This former Barcelona was called Barcina, and the eerie lighting and music in the museum gave the sense of truly going back two thousand years.

The eerie lighting and music were also incredibly relaxing, and, not surprisingly, Mom and Dad’s jet lag finally roared to life. Dad nodded off on several benches when we stopped to gaze at the ruins, and I knew it was time to head home. Once Andrew came home from work, we set out for dinner—an unwise decision, since our favorite restaurant had a wait, which extended the evening for the jet lagged, already-exhausted parents. But the food redeemed the wait.

On Friday, we boarded the Bus Turistic—an open-top tourist bus that travels over the whole of Barcelona, stopping at all the major sights. It’s a perfect way to see a lot of the city from the comfort of a nice perch. We traveled up Montjuic; down by the port and the sea; and through L’Exaimple, where we got off the bus to visit two Gaudi structures: the Casa Batllo and La Pedrera. We were all impressed by the undulating walls and windows, and the general Gaudi weirdness. Next, we went to the ultimate Gaudi: the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral that’s beyond strange. Gaudi is one of the reasons I always describe Barcelona as a “weird city” when someone asks me how I like it here, and seeing the structures for a second time did not disappoint.

The Bus Turistic then took us into the northern part of Barcelona, through Gracia, near Tibidabo mountain, then west toward Andrew’s school; and it left us off at Placa Catalunya, after which we walked the length of La Rambla then took the metro home. Nighttime found us watching La Font Magica (also weird) near our apartment then having dinner at a local place that serves reliable, if not exactly Spanish, food.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Krakow: Part III, History

Besides the salt mine, the main market square, and the Wawel castle, Krakow guidebooks and tourist kiosks feature one more excursion: to Auschwitz and Birkenau, which are located approximately an hour outside the city. On Thursday, I took a city bus to the camps. I decided against an organized tour—I wasn’t sure how long I’d want to stay—and had a minor adventure not only finding the city’s main bus station but also finding the bus itself. Nothing was in English, no one spoke English, and like a true tourist I bumbled for a while around what I thought was the bus station, only to finally be informed that it was the train station.

The ride to the camps was deceptively pleasant, and even the town where the camps are located—Oswiecim—is deceptively charming. It’s difficult to imagine living in such close proximity to history—yet there were houses and apartment buildings, cars and shops, within close walking distance. I joined a guided tour when I got to Auschwitz, and suddenly I was standing in front of the famous “Work will set you free” gate—which, in real life, is quite small and, today, surrounded by green grass and leafy trees. Most of the barracks have been converted into museum space, though some original interiors remain—bunks and cells. Everything seemed so small, and so harmless—packed with tourists on a hot, sunny, verdant afternoon.

Birkenau, a short shuttle bus ride away, was more in line with what I’d imagined the camps to be. Though most of the barracks have been destroyed, some remain, and inside were the wooden bunks where prisoners slept twelve to a bed. A gas chamber and crematorium have been preserved as well, and these were horrifying. But a second later, our group filed out and another group filed in, and we were back out in the sunlight, sipping from water bottles and snapping pictures.

The enormity of what happened there doesn’t seem to match the physical remnants. There were surprisingly few human stories to accompany the sights at the camp museums; the tour focused on facts, figures, and explanations of how prisoners were housed and processed, rather than on the thousands of tales that haunt stories, novels, essays, historical accounts, and poems. Perhaps the physical remnants—concrete, unambiguous—simply make the whole thing more incomprehensible. In this small town, in these simple brick and wood buildings—here is where it happened. The setting was too normal, too banal, too sunny. It made the facts more staggering.

The next day, I took a guided walking tour through the Jewish quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz—it ended up being just me and the guide, and we walked through the now-trendy quarter as well as the former Jewish ghetto, ending the tour at Oskar Schindler’s factory. The guide had brought with him a mini-DVD player, and he showed me a few scenes from Spielberg’s movie that were filmed in places we walked—an entryway in the Jewish quarter, a stairwell at the factory. There isn’t much to see at the factory, other than that stairwell and Schindler’s office, now empty; the factory is empty too, except, my guide told me, for a few avant-garde theater performances. But again, here was a physical place, a remnant, where so much history happened; and it was little more than an abandoned building, stuffy on the hot day. We walked through empty, overgrown lots on our way back to the main street.

Krakow: Part II, The Surprise

I spent next to nothing on food in Krakow. Each morning, my hotel set out a breakfast spread of breads, rolls, cheeses, meats, jams, fruits, yogurt, cereal, and potted chicken terrine (that tin’s label required a few flips through my Polish-food dictionary). For lunch, I ate at “milk bars”—cheap Polish cafes where you order at the counter and pick up your food when it’s called. I wasn’t prepared for how cheap the food would actually be: a plate of pierogies, for example, was 4.80 zloty—less than $3. A plate of potato pancakes smothered in mushrooms was roughly the same amount. For two dinners, I had a huge, delicious gyro from a storefront—about $2. One night, I ate in a restaurant recommended by a friend of a friend of Andrew’s. I had borscht (served in a mug) and a big plate of pierogies for less than $10, in a charming atmosphere. The bread I was served before the meal came with a small pot of lard. On my last night, I ate at another charming Polish restaurant and had fried ewe’s milk cheese and a big bowl of pierogies. On this particular day, I ate pierogies for both dinner and lunch—impossible to tire of them.

One night mid-trip, I decided to go up a notch and have dinner someplace a bit fancier. The restaurant I chose has a “medieval cellar” with stone walls, rough-hewn wooden tables, and stone benches. Tall candles light the room. It was an amazing place, and I was seated at a small table for one, with my own tall candle. I ordered a Polish beer and a pitcher of water. For a starter, I had herring with apples, onions, and sour cream—delectable. I’d ordered a chef-recommended trout, billed as boneless, for my main course, expecting a filet of sorts of nice fish. What came to me was a whole fish—tail, skin, fins, head, eyes. It was indeed boneless—somehow—and delicious, but as I dug into the fishy flesh, I felt the fish-eye watching me.

About halfway through my meal, two loud Americans swept into the room and began ordering around the waitstaff. “It’s a surprise,” they said loudly. The trout and I exchanged a wary glance. “They’ll come in and ask for a table for two. Then they’ll come in and see us.” Two more Americans came in. “If we sit here in the corner, they won’t see us. Maybe they’ll actually sit down without seeing us—then we can ask them for something and shock them.” The plan was laid.

Two young people came in—perhaps a young couple—and were, duly, surprised. “Mom, Dad. Grandpa,” the girl said. She sounded resigned, even horrified. Her male friend put a better face on it: “Oh my God, you guys. Oh my God. I suspected. I thought something was up. Oh my God, you guys.” Despite my twenty-plus minutes of eavesdropping, I couldn’t make out where these people were from, what the relationship was between the couple (they didn’t exactly seem romantically entwined), or why they were being surprised; but the tenor of the conversation was exactly what you’d expect from such an event. “You should have called.” “We tried to call. Something’s wrong with the phone.” “I told you I wouldn’t have time to make a reservation.” “Well, we must be having communication problems.” “Do you have any painkillers? My back hurts more than you could possibly imagine.” “We got hotel rooms on either side of yours—isn’t that amazing?”

I looked at the trout. You see, it seemed to say. You see now, truly, how pleasant it can be to eat alone. Its fishy eye looked back at me, unblinking. Sit back. Enjoy the potatoes and the cranberry-stuffed baked apple that accompany me. Be happy you were not the one being surprised in Krakow.

Krakow: Part I, The Salt Mine

According to all the guidebooks and websites I read about Krakow before my trip, the Wieliczka salt mine is a Krakow attraction not to be missed. So on Tuesday, after a hearty breakfast at my hotel, I set off to explore it. I’d opted against an organized tour: the price seemed high, and the estimated length of the trip was much longer than I anticipated wanting to spend at the salt mine. A woman at the tourist office had told me how to get there on my own, so I made my way to a local “mini-bus”—Krakow’s version of a city bus—and paid just 2.5 zloty (about 50 cents) to get to the mine.

I didn’t really have an image in mind when I planned to visit the mine. That’s a benefit to planning a trip fast to an unexpected place—no preconceived ideas to support or refute, even in the back of the mind. At the mine, I bought a ticket then waited in a holding area with hordes of other tourists for the English-language tour. A French group entered the mine; then a large Polish group; then a Spanish group. I imagined the mine filling up with people. Finally, the English group filed in and immediately began a descent of almost 400 stairs. Mercifully, the mine was cold: Krakow had been swelteringly hot, and it took a long time for my skin to cool enough to require my sweater.

Our guide was a humorless Polish man named Dalik. “You cannot explore the mine on your own,” he told us before we descended. “You do not know the way. If you get separated from the group, you may die.” The group—all Americans and Brits—chuckled. Dalik didn’t. “You see I wear a hard hat,” he said. “The ceilings are low. You do not have hard hats. If you hit your head, you’ll be dead. You can remember that by the rhyme.” Again, the group tittered, but more uneasily this time.

The salt mine was, first and foremost, a mine: deep, dark, damp. Chambers carved from the salt were supported by thick wooden beams. The salt was gray and a deathly green, not white; it was like being inside an ashtray. What makes this mine so remarkable and so sought after by the hordes of tourists are the figures carved from salt that appear unexpectedly within the chambers. Through the years, miners have occasionally felt compelled to carve things from salt: human figures, religious figures, and, especially, dwarves. “That dwarf is carved from salt,” I thought to myself, impressed, at the first sighting. But after many dwarfs, and after veritable dioramas of salt-dwarves lit with multicolored lights, the effect dims. “This salt chamber is gigantic,” I thought, impressed, at the first gigantic salt chamber. But after many salt chambers, especially after a salt chamber in which a light-show is accompanied by a Chopin soundtrack that’s underscored with “sounds of the mine”—chink chink and so forth—the effect, again, dims.

The grand finale of the salt mine is a salt ballroom, with the floors, wall decorations, and everything else made of—yes—salt. Chandeliers—salt—hang from the ceilings (salt). Concerts and other events are sometimes held in the salt ballroom. On one end of the ballroom was a life-size salt statue of John Paul II.

After following a circuitous route to the exit, a route that wound through several underground souvenir shops, an underground restaurant, an underground museum, and an underground post office, I boarded an elevator that lifted me back to daylight. It was a relief to be back in the open air. The salt mine seemed, to me, little more than a weird tourist trap—a sight best left to tour groups and schoolchildren.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A Bit Further Afield

Tonight, Andrew and I will go to London for the weekend; on Sunday, when he flies back to Barcelona, I’m going further afield: to Krakow, Poland, for four days. I chose Krakow for a variety of reasons, most of which are visa-related and too dull and convoluted to recount. More importantly, Krakow stood out because of two dreams I’ve had over the past year or so. In both, I was traveling to Poland—a place I’ve never had any real reason to explore. In the first, I was at an airport without a ticket, overwhelmed at the prospect of choosing to fly anywhere in the world. I chose Poland. There was some distress in the dream: just before boarding the plane, I realized I hadn’t bought a guidebook; it was late at night, and the airport shops were closed. In the second dream, I was on a wooden boat, sailing toward Poland. I was on a canal of sorts rather than an ocean, and voluptuous, elaborately-roofed buildings loomed ahead. That image of the rounded turrets and deep colors of the buildings has stayed with me.

And so, with a few free days, a cheap flight from London, a guidebook, and a room reserved at a nice hotel near the market square, I’m off. The dreams are neither here nor there—strange sensory impressions rather than clues or instructions. They tell me nothing about what to expect. But all I’ve heard and read suggest it will be a very full, very interesting few days.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

World Cup Madness in Paris

On Saturday night in Paris, crowds began gathering outside cafes whose televisions were visible from the street to watch the World Cup match between France and Brazil. Rachael and I sat at a sidewalk table to eat dinner—moules frites—and watched the French go crazy at every turn of the game. After dinner, we wandered around St. Germain, occasionally joining a crowd to check the status of the match; we were near the Pont Neuf when France finally won. The crowds charged down the streets, gathering near a grand fountain, cheering and waving France’s flag. Boys scaled the statue in the middle of the fountain, dancing with their shirts off in the streaming water and wrapping themselves in soaked flags. It was, just as in Barcelona, a happy riot (though, like Barcelona, we learned it had turned more destructive as the night wore on).

A souvenir shop near the Pont Neuf did a brisk business that night selling flags to tourists and Parisians who wanted to celebrate in style. They whipped the flags around their necks cape-style and joined the cheering masses in front of the fountain.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Weekend in Paris

Going back to a place I’ve left isn’t one of my favorite things to do. I always feel like a trespasser, intruding into a life I’m not a part of anymore. Once I leave, I like to be gone for good. Of course, this can’t be true for New York, since I want to go back one of these days; but I’m not ready to go back quite yet. The finality of my move away—with the boxes and the cut ties and the UHaul—made it temporarily permanent. I left, and I need to be gone for a little while.

This weekend, I went back to Paris for the first time in three years. In that time, I was certain my memories had made things different from what they actually are. I couldn’t even remember the name of my favorite used bookstore, and my internet searches suggested that the store had closed or moved. As this visit approached, I didn’t think I'd recognize the city at all—it would, surely, be too different. I knew I'd be just another American tourist, but I was afraid I'd also feel like one.

Paris had changed—but it was still a city I knew. My traveling companion, Rachael, and I ate at my favorite restaurant, where all my favorite things were still on the menu; we spent a few hours in my favorite park, where children were still pushing small sailboats around a pond with wooden sticks. We visited some museums and walked miles through the city. It was uncomfortably hot—air-conditioning is still hard to come by—but the cafes, shops, streets, sights, and atmosphere were the same as ever. My favorite used bookstore turned out to be right around the corner from our hotel: “I think it was down this way,” I said, and then, suddenly, there it was.

This time, I felt braver trying to speak French, even successfully explaining to a newspaper vendor the kind of phone card I wanted to buy, and requesting a different type than the one he offered. It was such a small, inconsequential victory. But I felt capable, part of the place—as much as it’s possible for an American tourist in Paris to feel. And on Sunday, when we took a taxi home from the Barcelona airport, I gave the driver directions in Spanish, all of which I’ve learned over the past two weeks. Another small, very small, victory. But in another way, not small: I can get places, ask for things, make myself understood (even if my sentences are incomplete and my pronunciation chronically imperfect). It’s a nice thing to feel and to know.