Friday, November 24, 2006

Homeward Bound

On Wednesday, I set out from Barcelona to make a roundabout journey home: Barcelona-Paris-Newark-Pittsburgh. I’m home for the holidays—all of them—to wait out a block of time for visa reasons. So I’m in Connellsville once again, after having nearly missed my flight from Paris to Newark—a delay in my Barcelona-Paris flight had me running through Charles de Gaulle, where, once I reached the corridor where my gate was located, I found Air France people looking for me, radioing the gate with walkie-talkies once they spotted a winded, frantically running American. It was a near miss.

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

The Dali Triangle

This weekend, Andrew planned a surprise trip—whose destination, this time, I didn’t find out until we’d been driving for about an hour in the car. We were headed to Cadaques, a tiny village two hours north of Barcelona, just below the French border, on the rocky coastline of the Costa Brava. The drive isn’t difficult until the last leg, which involves a winding, steep climb up the mountainside—with a steep dropoff to the side, and lots of sharp blind curves. It was enough to make me realize that I haven’t, after all, grown out of my tendency to get motion-sick. But we reached the town without incident.

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

State of the Kitchen

The kitchen of our new apartment, though limited to a freestanding double-hotplate unit, a large toaster oven, and a microwave, has proven to be more useable than we initially feared. The hotplates are super-hot, boiling water in half the time as the gas stove in our old place; and though we can’t use them both at once—they’re too close together—we’ve made do. The toaster oven thing is quite large, which means we’ve been able to cook the holy grail of easy dinners: frozen pizza, which here in Barcelona are fantastically cheap and, surprisingly, delicious.

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

Marrakech, Part V: Eyes and Instincts

There was a lot to absorb in Marrakech—too much for one trip. Marrakech is too wild, too different, too surprising, too uncomfortable—the things I saw and felt during this first trip are still swimming around, undigested. I think perhaps they’re not meant to be digested, that the exhausted inside-out feeling I had when I got back to Barcelona was the point of going to Marrakech. It’s not a place I want to live, unlike, say, Amsterdam, whose canal houses and ridiculous charm are perfect for domestic fantasies; and it’s not a place ideal for relaxation, like the hidden cove beaches of Mallorca. In Marrakech, I was uncomfortable, sometimes nervous, often uneasy, and always aware to the point of absolute sensory overload.

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.

Marrakech, Part IV: A Small, Strange World

The night before we left Marrakech, we decided to have a home cooked couscous dinner at our lovely, four-room riad. The French riad owner, Michel, and all the other guests had stayed in for dinner as well: a French-speaking Swiss couple, who, thankfully, spoke English as well; a French couple; and two new guests, a French woman and her daughter, who’d arrived just that night. When the French woman came into the cozy, fire-warmed lounge for dinner, I thought I recognized her—but that was ridiculous. She was French; we were in one of hundreds of riads; we were in the middle of Morocco. But when I saw her again the next day at breakfast, the feeling persisted, and later in the day I placed her: she looked like the heartbroken downstairs neighbor in Amelie.

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.

Marrakech, Part III: The Souqs

In warren of Marrakech souqs (small shops), which begins to the north of Djemaa el-Fna, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of stalls line the streets. Some are wood-lined, with elaborate doorways and luxurious interiors, but most are makeshift, little more than alcoves carved into rock. The narrow streets between them, some paved, some dirt, are covered in places by a haphazard “roof” made from tarps and sticks. Real Moroccan life is conducted in the souqs, which sell all the essentials of daily living: conical mounds of spices and herbs; jars and bins of apothecary supplies; all manner of dried foods, preserved fruits, and olives; tray after tray of Moroccan pastries, buzzing with bees and flies; bushels of fresh mint; freshly butchered meat; soon-to-be butchered meat. Pomegranates, fresh figs, onions, carrots, peppers, zucchini, and eggplant are piled in every available corner, sometimes sold by old women hunched over small blankets on the ground.

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.

Marrakech, Part II: Djemaa el-Fna

We saw so much of Marrakech during our four days there; but had we simply stood in one spot in the Djemaa el-Fna the entire time, looking around, taking it in, our trip would have been no less interesting.

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.

Marrakech, Part I: A Marrakech Welcome

We arrived in Marrakech in darkness. From the window of the plane we could see the bright red neon Marrakech Menara Airport sign in French and Arabic; when we climbed down from the plane and walked en masse across the tarmac to the airport door, we could see the Koutoubia minaret in the distance—the city center. Inside, our passports were stamped; we found an ATM and withdrew hundreds of dirhams, the equivalent of about 30 euros; and then we looked around anxiously for our driver, without whom we’d have been stranded at the Marrakech airport. The city center would have been accessible enough by taxi, but our riad—a traditional Moroccan home refurbished as a guesthouse—would have been hidden forever in the warren of unmarked streets in the Marrakech kasbah. Fortunately for us, there he was, along with Simon, a guide/servant sort of person at the riad, with Andrew’s name and the name of our riad written on a bright red sign. Simon spoke minimal French and even more minimal English. He shook Andrew’s hand, but turned away from mine when I offered it until the driver chided him in Arabic. Andrew and I followed them to the car, and we were on our way.

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.