Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Galway II

There’s an edge-of-the-earth feeling here in Galway, pressed up as it is against the ocean; there’s the sense of being separated from normal life. The fact that it’s (mostly) English-speaking only adds to this strangeness: it’s both familiar and unfamiliar; I’m a tourist but, at the same time, would be perfectly able to nestle inside the city if I had the time. Being a tourist feels different when I speak the language—that’s the conclusion I’ve come to over the past week in Ireland. I don’t feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a distant, though charming, new culture; but the sense of instant belonging that comes from speaking English is a false belonging. I’m still the lone traveler sitting at the bar with a book, still the American pushing aside the boiled cabbage on her dinner plate. I normally don’t get lonely traveling alone—lonely for Andrew, yes; but not lonely—because I never feel excluded from the conversation, never feel like maybe I should close the book and make small-talk with someone else half-watching the soccer match on the pub’s TV. Not understanding or speaking the language is a kind of comfortable cocoon.

The Irish leg of my journey is drawing to a close; tomorrow I head to Edinburgh. It’s a much bigger city than Galway, with a whole roster of museums and other attractions, and I’m sure the days there will pass quickly. It is nice to be exploring these new places but I’m anxious to return to Spain and pick up our cozy Barcelona life.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Galway

It was a rainy, blustery day in Galway. The weather here is capricious: raining one moment, sun peeking through clouds the next, but mostly misty and cloudy. This morning, I set out on an ill-advised walk along a river pathway; the beach isn’t far, and I wanted to see the ocean. There are few guardrails along the walkway, and as the wind whipped around me, nearly tearing off my jacket’s hood, it occurred to me that I might easily be swept into the water. I did reach the ocean, and the wind was so strong there I nearly fell over. But the view was beautiful—violently churning water, the wet stone walls, and, as I walked back, crowds of large white swans in the river.

Galway is a lovely little town, with one long pedestrian street that is the city’s heart. My B&B is a ten-minute walk from there, over the Wolfe Tone Bridge, over the churning water of the River Corrib. It’s run by a young couple with a tiny baby, and the family is a true picture of Irish coziness; in the morning, as I eat breakfast in the breakfast room, I can hear the baby cooing happily from the kitchen. Galway has lots of pubs and lots of bookstores, which is excellent because there is not that much else to do; I’ve finished the two novels I brought already—The Sea by John Banville and That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern—and have picked up a trilogy of Edna O’Brien novels at a local used bookstore. After my blustery walk today, I went to a cafĂ© with my book, then returned to the B&B for more reading, then headed out to a pub for a lunch of seafood chowder and a Guinness and…more reading. Then dinner (a hearty shepherd’s pie with mashed potatoes, boiled cabbage, and turnips) and now, at the B&B once again, more reading. There are worse ways to have spent a cold wet February day.

Temporary Dubliners

We spent the weekend in the city of Ulysses, in the city that countless writers—Joyce, but also Samuel Beckett and Edmund Spenser and even Bram Stoker at some point called home. It was my first time in Ireland, so all my impressions were firsts: the difficulty I had understanding the Irish brogue of our taxi driver as we made our way from the airport to our B&B; the abundance of pubs and the even greater abundance of men in those pubs, with a stark minority of women (noticeable even by the standards of Andrew’s school, where having a handful of women at a party is remarkable); the bright signs for “off license” stores, the exact meaning of which still remains a mystery; the painstaking process that is the pouring of a Guinness.

We’d planned this trip—part of an extensive trip that I will continue on my own—as the final Trip of Exile that will render my passport flawless to even the most dutiful of border control agents. It gets increasingly ridiculous to be so deliberate about this—my passport wasn’t even stamped when I flew back to Spain a few weeks ago, which means that, going by stamps alone, my new 90-day period won’t begin until March 4, when I return from this trip—but no matter. Better to be safe than sorry, etc. In any case, unbeknownst to us, the Dublin leg of this trip coincided with a big rugby match between England and Ireland, which made our search for a hotel difficult—room rates had jumped, and many places were booked. But Andrew found us a little B&B outside of the city center that turned out to be perfect. We had a large, pretty room, and a bus into the center stopped right across the street.

Over our three full days in the city, we saw all the Dublin highlights. On Thursday, we went to Christ Church Cathedral; the Guinness Storehouse; and the Gaol, a former prison. We had an uncharacteristically difficult time finding the prison, even though on our map it appeared to be only a block or two from the Guinness Storehouse; only after walking for what had to have been miles did we notice that the map said in small print, “not to scale.” Indeed, the map had conveniently minimized an approximately hour-long walk into a seemingly tiny distance. Later, we went to the National Gallery, impressed with the artistic lineup—Monet, El Greco, Caravaggio, and Vermeer were among the excellent collection. We finished off the day at a pub.

On Friday, after a hearty Irish breakfast at the B&B (Andrew and I, neither of us normally able to stomach anything more than a cup of coffee in the morning, tucked into gigantic spreads of eggs, bacon, sausage, cereal, toast, orange juice, and more every morning in Dublin, only to then find ourselves hungry again a few hours later—we ate what seemed like huge quantities of food over the past few days), we headed to the Hugh Lane Gallery, a lovely museum full of gems, including several Corots. There was a fascinating wing focusing on the studio of the artist Francis Bacon, who claimed to thrive in and draw all his ideas from his chaotic work space; he donated his studio and its entire contents to the Hugh Lane, where it has been reassembled.

We followed that entirely satisfying museum experience with a visit to the Dublin Writers Museum, which included a few first-editions, letters, and other ephemera of Dublin’s most famous writers. Having just finished reading A Pound of Paper by John Baxter, a memoir about book collecting, I found the first edition of Dracula particularly interesting—how much would that be worth? A visit to the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity College rounded out our cultural activities of the day. We even had coffee at a bar on Trinity’s campus. “This is just like being in college!” Andrew said. Except for the fact that we’re engaged and thirty, and were standing at the bar drinking extremely suspect coffee (how long had it been sitting there, exactly?) instead of beer.

We’d gotten tickets to a play that night called A Number, which was at the Pavilion (part of the Abbey Theater). There were just two actors—one man played a father, and the other man played three sons who were expressing their confusion and rage over having been, unbeknownst to them until recently, cloned from the father’s “original” son. It was an odd, disturbing play, raising troubling questions about identity and what makes someone that person and not another.

On Saturday, we headed a little ways out of town to Howth. From the summit of the town, we could look down from craggy cliffs into the Irish Sea; there were paths along the cliffs, so we set out on a hike. Saturday was, as our B&B host said that morning, a “soft day,” rainy and misty. Though parts of the path were gravelly, there were many muddy patches and puddles, making for some slippery walking. At a particularly treacherous junction, I found myself holding desperately to a wooden fence as the mushy ground slipped out from under my suede-shod feet, which suddenly were not only sliding on mud but sinking in mud. I screamed and flailed before finally regaining my footing. Andrew tried to hide his laughter and could not. He pretended to be shocked at how non-outdoorsy I’d proved myself to be, as though this were a revelation. We hiked a bit further, but when the rain became a lot more like a downpour than “soft,” we retreated to a mountaintop pub and spent the afternoon cozily with beer and club sandwiches, drying off and watching a soccer match.

We headed back into Dublin late that afternoon and found a not-too-crowded pub in which to watch the big rugby game. Neither of us know anything at all about rugby, but being out of the rain and doing what every other Dubliner in the city was doing was fun. Ireland won, and as we walked around Temple Bar afterwards to soak up the atmosphere, the celebrations were in full swing even though it was barely 9pm. We had hoped for a dinner of fish and chips in a pub, but we revised our plan and sat in a cozy restaurant after seeing the masses of people spilling from every pub we passed.

And so our lovely weekend in Dublin came to a close. It was strange traveling together in an English-speaking country—just something different about being able to ask for details about a specific bus pass, for example, or making small talk with the men who ran our B&B, or looking at the headlines of the newspaper. Small things that make for a simpler, but no less charming, little trip.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Si, si...Que?

This weekend I dove head-first back into my Spanish practicing. Since my return to Spain, I’ve made a few token steps toward regaining my footing—perusing my verb-form flash cards, declaring that I’d never learn Spanish at all, the usual ritual—but have shied away from actually speaking. There have been challenges: two repairmen spent an afternoon on our terrace, fixing a drain pipe, and my interactions with them (Did I have a large container for water? Like a mug? No, bigger. Like this big pot here? Si, si…Did I have a broom? Si, si…Que? You mean this electrical outlet here by the door? No, a broom. This object here? etc) relied quite heavily on mime. Plus, they may have been speaking Catalan. And earlier in the week, we were invited to dinner with a Chilean couple; yet we spoke in English, for my benefit, the entire time.

This weekend, however, we were invited to a party hosted by some of Andrew’s Mexican friends, at which we were the only native English speakers among a large crowd from Mexico, Argentina, and Chile. “There’s going to be a lot of tequila at this party,” Andrew warned me in advance, “and a lot of Spanish.” More difficult was the fact that Spain-Spanish sounds much, much different from the Spanish spoken in Mexico and South America—even Andrew has a difficult time understanding it sometimes. I can only imagine how difficult it was for everyone else to understand my own fumbling attempts, since my Spanish is a tricky blend of a heavy American twang, incorrect verb forms, made-up vocabulary words, inventive combinations of French and Spanish words, and generally terrible pronunciation. Not to mention the fact that my body temperature rises and I get so overheated that, at a glance, one might think I was having some kind of phobic episode.

I did, however, speak (I guess I’m not phobic of Spanish, not yet). I may not have spoken correctly, but I did manage to carry on rudimentary conversations. I could understand enough of what was said so I felt like I was part of things—though, of course, at times I found myself facing an expectant face and realized that a question had been asked, the subject of which was a mystery. Ah well. It’s time for the Spanish practicing to being, in earnest, once again.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sunny Spain

While family and friends back home are shivering in a winter storm, I feel particularly happy that I’m here in Barcelona, sitting on my terrace, squinting in the warm sun. There is so much sun right now that soon I’ll be unable to sit here at the table. It’s in the sixties, and the sky is clear blue—not a cloud in sight. It is a perfect spring day, and it’s February. Spain is a fabulous, fabulous place.

Venice

To celebrate our engagement, Andrew and I went to Venice last weekend—a trip Andrew had planned while I was whiling away the weeks in the U.S. It was a trip we’d been looking forward to for months, and a place we’d both always wanted to go. Just days after I moved to Barcelona, we’d compiled a list of trips we wanted to take during our time here—subdivided into weekend, long weekend, and longer trips—and Venice was close to the top of the “weekend trips” category. And it did not disappoint.

We took a bus from the airport to Venice, then a vaporetto (a subway-like boat) toward our B&B. We were instantly turned around when we stepped off the boat into the tiny, winding streets, and getting turned around in Venice poses unique challenges: many streets dead end into canals, with nary a bridge in sight. But even in those first minutes, trying to find our way to the B&B, the timeless, lost atmosphere of Venice was palpable. It actually feels much like Girona—seemingly separated from regular life by both time and space—so it made a particularly fitting engagement-celebration destination.
The weekend we were in Venice was the start of Carnival, which we looked forward to with both curiosity and apprehension. We’d planned the trip in the off-season specifically to avoid the choking crowds of tourists, without realizing it was Carnival weekend, and hoped it wouldn’t mean we had to elbow our way through the streets. Fortunately, Friday and Saturday seemed calm, and the only indication of it being Carnival were the occasional masked or full-costumed passerby, and, at night, the remnants of concerts (empty beer cups, groups of what seemed to be primarily American study-abroad students) in some of the major squares that we walked through as we explored the city.

On Saturday, we joined a (manageable) throng of tourists and pigeons to see the Basilica San Marco and climb the Campanile bell tower in Piazza San Marco. The views from the tower were spectacular; what was more spectacular was the enormous bell just inches above our heads that began swinging—and then ringing—at noon. A woman unfortunate enough to be standing directly underneath nearly got knocked out cold. Though we forewent a gondola ride (the price was prohibitive), we took to the canals two other ways: first on a traghetto, a gondola whose purpose is simply to take people from one side of a canal to another when there’s a long stretch without any bridges, and then on the Line 1 vaporetto for its full circuit out to the Lido area and back. Saturday night, we couldn’t resist buying masks of our own, which we wore to do some nighttime strolling through the Venice streets.

On Sunday, when we went back to San Marco to take a “Secret Itineraries” tour of Doge’s Palace (where we saw the cells in which Casanova was imprisoned and from which he subsequently escaped), the square was packed with people—tourist and Italians alike—so tightly that we barely managed to elbow our way through. And it was true elbowing, pushing old ladies and children, the kind of crowd that makes one claustrophobic if one stops to think about it. We soon learned that this was the kickoff to Carnival—at an attic window of the Palace during our tour, our guide said “Look! The flying dove,” and gathered us at the window—it was a white-clad acrobat descending from the top of the bell tower, supported on a tightrope-like wire.

Some of the main thoroughfares were crowded that afternoon, but by simply taking a side street we escaped the crowds entirely—indeed, we often found ourselves completely alone, with only our heels clicking on the stone streets. Small, empty squares; bridges appearing from nowhere; smells of food cooking—Venice was, despite all we’d read and heard, a lovely, secret-seeming place. The ending of our trip was true Spain: Somehow, Iberia managed to lose our luggage somewhere between Venice and Barcelona, along with the luggage of twenty or so other people from our flight. It was delivered to our apartment the next evening. Who knows where in the world our little suitcase spent the night?

Big News from Girona

When I returned to Spain last week, my jet lag was almost imperceptible—I was so ready to return that it didn’t take any time at all for my body just click over, easily back in step. Of course, it helped that Andrew proposed the day after I arrived! Nothing like a little life-changing, giddiness-producing excitement to shake up the biorhythms. It happened in Girona, at this beautiful spot along the ancient wall that surrounds part of the city:

It was, to say the least, the perfect welcome back to Spain. And Spanish bridal magazines will be a pretty painless way to practice my Spanish reading comprehension and build some bridal vocabulary…