Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Diada de Sant Jordi

Yesterday, April 23, was St. George’s Day, the Diada de Sant Jordi, the Catalan equivalent of Valentine’s Day. The day marked an anniversary: I arrived in Barcelona on St. George’s Day last year, ready to begin my Barcelona adventure. It’s been exactly one year, more or less, since Barcelona has been home.

The Catalan tradition for Sant Jordi is for men to buy women a rose bundled with a palm or stalk of wheat, and for women to buy men a book. This year, Andrew bought me a beautiful bouquet of red roses, orchids, palms, and small purple flowers; I bought Andrew Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. The whole city filled with books and flowers. On La Rambla, roses and wheat stalks wrapped in cellophane and tied with ribbon in the colors of the Catalan flag filled plastic buckets, and stacks of books—mostly in Catalan—spilled over on tables. Andrew learned during his internship last summer that 30% of Catalonia’s book sales occur on the Diada de Sant Jordi.

We strolled through the city yesterday and were pleasantly surprised to find that there was a small exhibition in the bottom floor of the Casa Amatller—the step-roofed house designed by the architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, right next to Gaudi’s Casa Batllo—consisting of photographs of the Amatller family and lots of detailed photos of some of the stonework on the building’s façade. I’ve always liked the building, but never paid it much particular attention, grouping it into the generally pleasing landscape of the “Block of Discordia”—of which this, Casa Batllo, and another, equally wild building are a part. But the photos revealed so many fabulous secrets of Casa Amatller that it now ranks as one of my favorite buildings in Barcelona. The stonework, unremarkable from a distance, is actually a series of artistic animals: glass-blowing frogs, donkey writers, dog photographers, iron-pouring mice. A carving of St. George slaying the dragon lies just above the entryway. The whole façade is a fairytale landscape of anthropomorphic wildlife and symbolic figures, but the details are all but impossible to see from the street if you don’t know what to look for. A little more of the city, suddenly revealed.

Early yesterday evening, we were sitting idly in the apartment, casually discussing what we wanted to do that night. Suddenly, Andrew jumped up—“We have a concert,” he yelled, and indeed, both of us had forgotten we’d bought the tickets, just as we’d feared we would. We had no idea what time the concert started, and Andrew couldn’t seem to find any mention of it online. I was throwing on clothes; it was a scene of chaos. (To say we have a lot going on right now—graduation this week, many major plans to get in order, big changes to figure out—is an understatement.) Fortunately, there was over an hour until the concert, and we made it right on time to the Gran Palau de Liceu—Barcelona’s opera house—to hear the singer/guitarist Paco Ibáñez. The concert began at 9:30pm. Paco Ibáñez’s singing and playing were lovely; but at 12:30am, he was showing no signs of stopping, introducing more and more guest musicians. Andrew and I were famished, so we quietly made our exit—marveling, as we hurried to the nearest Maoz falafel stand, that this concert could very well go on all night.

We walked home at 1am, the remnants of the Diada de Sant Jordi littering the streets—bits of ribbon, discarded stems, trimmings of leaves and wheat.


The other day, as Andrew was leaving our building, the doorlady stopped him and told him we need to sweep the terrace because detritus was blocking the drain. He said fine. A day or two later, we swept the terrace, which really did need sweeping, littered, as it was, with leaves and dust.

It occurred to us only later that one of our neighbors—all of whom can peer down onto our terrace from their own, smaller, balconies—must have reported us to the doorlady for being lax in our housekeeping. Who’s to say we didn’t want leaves on our terrace? Maybe it was intentional. Maybe it was art. In any case, we apparently have a nosy neighbor. I hope he/she is enjoying the view of our terrace’s now-stunning leaflessness.

La Policia

A few days ago, I was home alone, writing, when the door buzzer rang. As usual, I ignored it, figuring that it wasn’t meant for us and that, even if it was, I wouldn’t be able to help whatever Spanish-speaking person was buzzing anyway. However, moments later, our actual doorbell rang. I answered the door. It was the police.

The two policemen were looking for a man I’d never heard of. I assured them a couple of times that I didn’t know who he was. I thought they’d just accept the fact that they had the wrong address and leave; I was wrong. Apparently, a man they were looking for told them that this was his address. The policeman asked me for my passport. He then asked me again if I knew the man, then began asking a lot of questions about how long we’d lived here, and who’d lived here before us. I explained that we’d lived here since October, were Americans, and that the couple living here before us were also Americans and that we all were connected to Andrew’s school. He asked for the names of my parents. He asked for my phone number. He was writing all of this down. When he finished, he read the statement out loud to me, asked me if it was correct, and had me sign it. It was all just paperwork, they assured me; they wouldn’t be calling or bothering me again. They thanked me and left.

The reason I write about this strange but ultimately uninteresting incident is this: it was all conducted in Spanish. So, despite my belief that I’m impervious to learning a language, apparently I’ve learned a little. Enough to get by. Enough, even, to handle a little visit from the police.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Romania III: Bucharest

Bucharest, for me, was a city full of jaw-dropping juxtapositions, a city where the past weighs heavy on every corner but which is sometimes pushed violently aside by a very modern, very urban, present. Vlad’s family owns several apartments in Bucharest, and on Thursday, after stopping at the airport to pick up three new additions to our group, we headed into the city to the apartments where we’d be staying, past many drab Soviet-era apartment blocks as well as many beautiful buildings with elaborate stone molding, and several lovely churches—Eastern Orthodox, some with a large painted eye above the entrance.

In the center of the city is Piaţa Revoluţiei (Revolution Square), flanked by the former Communist party headquarters; it was from the balcony of this building that party leader Nicolae Ceauşescu faced an angry crowd demanding his resignation in 1989—it was the moment he realized his regime had come to an end. He was executed four days later, but violent fighting continued for several weeks. Romania’s overthrow of Communism was marked by more violence than that in any other country in Eastern Europe.

Just steps away from the square, however, is Calea Victoriei, a wide avenue lined with luxury shops—Hugo Boss, La Perla; Pizza Hut and McDonald’s make appearances, to be followed by Starbucks in another month or so. Above the swanky stores are drab-looking apartment windows, crumbling building facades. All of these things—the remnants of Romania’s bleak history, the wealth and aspiration that characterize its present—are intertwined everywhere in Bucharest.

Vlad planned well for our eating and drinking. Our first night, we went to La Mama, a popular restaurant serving traditional food; later, we went to a club called The Office, so plush and expensive that it wouldn’t have been out of place in New York. The next day, we had coffee at the Cişmigiu Gardens, which had leafy, bench-lined walkways, lots of lovely flowers in bloom, and a pretty lake—like a Romanian Central Park. What followed this nice breakfast was go-karting, which is where the travel preferences of the group and the kind of travels I prefer began to diverge (and it became clearer than ever that our group was seven men, two women). The go-karters seemed to be having a great time; but I was itching to get into the city center. First, though, lunch, at a lakeside restaurant at Herăstrău Park.

Andrew and I and another friend then diverged from the group to go to the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, which was full of lovely handmade crafts including many ornately dyed eggs, painted pottery, and traditional costumes. There was even a wooden house—in its entirety—inside the museum, as well as a wooden windmill and a water mill. It was all very interesting, but some of the English translations of the wall tags distracted from the art they identified: a tag describing a somewhat odd little room full of an eclectic mixture of pottery, textiles, and paintings said “No one is ignorant of the charms of Grandma’s kitchen. But no one talks about what happens when Grandma is dead.” The room was intended—I think—to be a kind of memory space, where the things representing “Grandma” are housed; but the effect was a bit creepy and confusing.

That night, Vlad took us to one of the nicest restaurants in Bucharest (though inexpensive by U.S. or Spain standards)—an Italian place called Cucina, inside the Marriott Grand Hotel. Then we went to the Krystal Glam Club, to hear David Moralis—apparently a famous DJ. It’s hard not to feel old and dowdy in Bucharest’s clubs; not only is everyone extremely young, but the girls are extremely beautiful, and they are extremely dressed up. In their super-high stilettos, they tower over the men, who seem almost aggressively underdressed in comparison—jeans, sneakers, baseball caps. The fancy-restaurant-and-club scene isn’t normally one I seek out when I travel; but this trendy opulence—and showiness—is part of Bucharest too, a kind of sight in and of itself.

Saturday—our last day—Andrew and I got up early and stole some time for sight-seeing. We went to the Amzei Market, small but full of delicious-looking strawberries and lots of lovely flowers, including fat bunches of grape hyacinths. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall patisserie for coffee and a pastry—each the equivalent of around 30 cents. We spent a couple of hours in the National Art Museum, surprised to find it so beautiful inside—immense, with high ceilings and marble floors; almost Met-like. And the art was wonderful—mostly Romanian, artists we’d never heard of before. We bought a museum catalogue so we could remember the ones we liked.

We were supposed to meet the group for lunch; but we decided instead to visit the Palace of Parliament, Ceauşescu’s megalomaniac project, the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. It’s enormous—indescribably big, with over 1,000 rooms; everything is of over-the-top proportions, like the chandeliers, one of which weighs 5 tons. Construction for the building, which began in early 1980s, was happening while Romanians were starving; the satisfying irony, however, is that Ceauşescu was executed before the building was finished. He never got to use it.

From there, we walked to the old town and explored its narrow, cobblestone side streets. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, the promise of Bucharest was clear; many buildings along the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Calea Lipscani, were crumbling, but there were also some new-looking bars and cafes, and we had the very strong sense that in five years this area will be unrecognizable. It’s exciting to have seen the city at this point, before it becomes a touristy destination—I couldn’t even find a postcard—and while it’s still hovering somewhat awkwardly between what it was and what it will be. We had lunch at a nice café, eating sandwiches and drinking café lattes, across the street from a bulbously-spired Russian church. We rejoined the group for dinner (a shaurma from the popular Killer Chicken kebab stand) and drinks and dancing.

We saw a lot of Bucharest; but there was much we didn’t have time to do, and there is definitely reason to go back—not only to Bucharest but to other parts of Romania, to see more of the stunning countryside. I’d like to visit again in a few years, to see how far this very interesting country has come; and see the other Eastern European countries as well, to observe the changes and struggles as Eva Hoffman did in the book that accompanied me on this trip, Exit Into History. Our time for frequent traveling is coming swiftly to an end, however. And though Andrew and I were both quite happy to be home after our two-week travel bonanza, I wonder how I’ll feel four months from now, six, when we’re back in the U.S. and hopping off for a weekend or week away is no longer so easy to do.

Romania II: Transylvania

Tuesday morning, we left Cornu and headed to Transylvania, driving deep into the countryside. It was an incredible drive—and incredible driving. The roads are generally two lanes, but people pass aggressively, often swerving out of the way of an oncoming car with just seconds to spare. There were often horse-drawn carts slowing up the traffic, so passing was unavoidable; I sat in the backseat and tried not to pay attention. There was plenty to focus on instead—the snow-capped Carpathians in the distance, flocks of sheep, deep pine forests. And the houses—fairytale constructions of turrets and spires, gables and paned windows, set against the mountains and picturesque in exactly the way you’d expect. Along the road were women and men selling jars of honey, round cheeses, strawberries. The women often wore kerchiefs on their heads and long, heavy, patterned skirts.

Our destination was Bran Castle, which Vlad the Impaler once attacked—he was the historical inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as was the castle. However, whether Vlad the Impaler actually lived at this castle or not is unclear; various books claim different things, and several castles in Transylvania seem to have Dracula connections. In any case, Bran Castle was lovely, but far from the creepy, shadowy spectacle I’d had in mind from reading Dracula before I came; indeed, the day was sunny, the sky a cheery blue, and the airy castle rooms were more cozy than sinister. Outside the castle, Andrew and I bought a hand-embroidered tablecloth from a craftswoman.

We drove on, higher and further into the mountains to Poiana Braşov, a charming resort area. Vlad had booked three rooms at the Vila Daria, a hotel in the middle of absolutely nowhere—we drove up unpaved roads deep into the woods to get to it. Two large dogs roamed the parking lot; the woods were full of fog; a large bear skin, head and all, graced the lobby. We were the only six people staying at the hotel—this, unlike Bran Castle, was truly creepy. The rooms, however, were luxuriously huge, modern and comfortable; we were told that Nicole Kidman rented out the entire hotel during the filming of Cold Mountain.

It was late afternoon by this point, and we headed to a rustic restaurant called Coliba Haiducilor for lunch—heavily decorated in traditional Romanian style, with lots of painted pottery and walls covered with various animal pelts. Vlad ordered two platters of appetizers for us, one hot, one cold; Andrew and I tasted what looked to us like a croqueta, only to be told by Vlad that we’d just eaten brains. It was difficult to eat anything at all after that, though the venison with “hunter’s sauce” I ordered was delicious.

Later that night, we made a treacherous drive down the mountain into Braşov, which was, even at night, a charming little town. The main square and the large church looked beautiful; I wish we could have explored it during the day. It was late; we went to a bar to watch a soccer match, and ordered Heinekens. I had the very strange sense that though we were in a small Romanian town, we could have been anywhere at all in the world doing the exact same thing.

Wednesday, we left Braşov and headed to Sinaia, which is set dramatically against the Bucegi mountains in the Prahova valley. Once again, we passed fairytale houses and lovely, stunning countryside; we stopped at a roadside craft market, where Andrew and I bought a sheepskin rug. Our destination in Sinaia was Peleş Castle, a German-style castle where Romania’s King Carol I lived until he died in 1914. The rooms were ridiculously lavish, each decorated in a different style—a Turkish room, a Moorish room, a Venetian room—and full of gold, wood, marble, glass. This, for me, was an archetypal castle, with turrets and grand stairways, and there was a pleasing sense of creepy decay about it, particularly the statues outside, overlooking the lush landscaping and the misty mountains in the distance.

For lunch we drove to Taverna Sârbului (The Serbian’s Den) for another meat-heavy meal—I had pork schnitzel, which was delicious but reinforced my desire to never eat anything but salad, ever again. Vegetarians would not fare well in Romania.

I felt fully satisfied by both the food and our charming foray into the mountains as we headed back to Cornu. That night, Vlad’s mother cooked yet another huge dinner—polenta served with butter, sour cream, and a good local cheese that tastes much like feta.

On Thursday, before we left Cornu for Bucharest, Vlad took us to a golf course—one of two in Romania. The resort was lovely, with pretty views into the mountains; what was lovelier was the fact that we could get a massage for very little money. So Andrew and I left the group at a sunny café table and headed to the spa, where I soon found myself having my back pummeled by a very strong masseuse, near a window overlooking the Romanian countryside. If you’d asked me last April what I’d be doing in a year, I would never have imagined that this would be my answer.

A huge lunch awaited us back at Vlad’s house—devilled eggs, a delicious egg soup, stuffed cabbage, baked chicken—and then we were on the road again, headed to Bucharest.

Romania I: Cornu

We arrived in Romania on Monday, surprised to find sun and warmth—a relief after the cold rainy days in southern Spain. Vlad, Andrew’s Romanian friend from business school, met us at the airport; some time later, three Spanish friends arrived as well.

Vlad’s parents welcomed us to the family’s country home in Cornu (about an hour outside of Bucharest) with tuica—a traditional, fiery liquor, homemade from the plums and apples grown in the backyard, served from a label-less plastic Coke bottle. We were given homemade wine—to me, as rough as the liquor—and hard-boiled eggs that had been dyed for Easter. We cracked the shells by hitting two eggs together, saying (in Romanian) “Christ is risen.” Then on to the meal—a local cheese and fresh, sweet tomatoes; spinach and lamb spread; lamb soup; lamb steaks; spinach with lamb. Vlad’s parents couldn’t have been more hospitable; this is the third group from Andrew’s school to make this visit to Romania, and they seemed so pleased to have us in their home, and in their country.

Cornu is more village than town, a place where many well-off Romanians have their country homes. There isn’t much to do; but we took a walk, seeing some pretty churches and houses, as well as a “horse-drawn cart crossing” sign with an illustration that could have been from the Wild West. In every backyard were grapevines, and lots of plum and apple trees; one backyard was full of heavy cooler-like boxes—bees. There were chickens in some yards, and dogs everywhere.

At night, we watched a television station showing only homemade music videos—tremendously poor quality, with lots of scantily clad women idly dancing. In many videos, men tossed money—literally threw bills into the air. The songs dealt mainly with money and status, and one was even titled (in Romanian) “Dollars, Euros, Pounds.” Vlad said this is the Gypsy music station, and that the Gypsy singers are often paid huge sums to sing at Romanian weddings. We even saw a video with the Gypsy who, Vlad said, started this kind of music—a midget who calls himself Adrian the Wonder Boy. It was all very strange, and captivating.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Tomorrow, Andrew and I are heading east, further east than either of us have been before: to Romania. I am incredibly excited. This trip is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing: we were invited by a Romanian friend of Andrew’s, Vlad, who will take us first to his family’s home in the country; then to Transylvania; then to Bucharest.

We found some interesting travel advice about Romania from the Fodor’s website. Some is obvious—like advising against drinking unrefrigerated milk sold at local markets. But some of the other advice paints an interesting picture of what awaits us:

  • On Romanians: “Their efforts on your behalf may charm you, but they could also be cheating you.”

  • On road conditions: “Progress may be further impeded by slow-moving trucks and horse-drawn carts.”

  • On road rules: “Although the law calls for the issuance of tickets for traffic violations, locals often settle with a negotiated payment on the spot. However, you should avoid this practice and instead accept a ticket.” (I love this one—I have a clear image of my engagement ring being part of our ‘negotiated payment.’)

  • An oddly specific warning on safety: “Beware of hustlers at the railroad station claiming (falsely) to represent hostels. They will often offer to make a reservation for you at well-known hostels via cell phone, but only on condition that you pay the first night's fee up front. They then send you off on your own to the real hostel, which will turn out to have no affiliation with the hustlers and will have received neither a reservation for you nor the first night’s fee.”

  • And finally: “Bucharest has many stray dogs; ignore them and they will ignore you.”

All of this suggests that Romania will be a true adventure, a different world. I’ll pack my garlic and my crucifix along with my camera.

Andalucía V: I'll Have a Baked Potato

Late at night, when I’m hungry for a snack, there’s one thing I can say with certainty that I’ve never considered eating: a baked potato. Baked potatos just seem like dinner food, a side dish, not a snack. Yet in Granada, a city that is home to more gypsies than, it seems, any other city in Spain, gypsies were everywhere with large silver-painted barrels they’d rigged to bake potatos. “Patatas, patatas asadas,” they called. Along with the barrels and sacks of potatos, there were displayed numerous condiments for the potatos—olives, pickle slices, mustard, ketchup, other unidentifiable sauces, grated cheese, salt and pepper.

The first time I saw a group selling baked potatos, I was incredulous. Andrew and I were sitting in Plaza Nueva, having a coffee (incidentally, we’d managed to sit at a table in a sea of tables belonging to yet another Oh La La), when the gypsies set up their stand. “Are those…baked potatos?” I said, squinting. Smoke was coming out of the barrel. Sure enough, after some time had passed, a woman reached into the barrel and pulled out a few baked potatos. “Who’s going to buy a baked potato?” I said. It seemed absurd. Yet soon a man approached the stand and bought two baked potatos, which were steaming-hot. He ordered them with salt and pepper. We saw more people buy baked potatos. And later that night, and the next day, we saw more stands, and more people eating baked potatos. A child ate a baked potato on the steps of a church after a paso. I began to want a baked potato. If we’d stayed for another few days, I may have even bought a baked potato. Strange, strange, strange.

Andalucía IV: Granada's Finest

Holy Week was alive and well in Granada, but the pasos were shorter; the crowds less vast and silent; the band members less somber than in Seville. But our purpose of visiting Granada was not, specifically, Holy Week: it was to visit the Alhambra, that immense and magical complex of palaces and gardens whose construction began in the eleventh century. Like everything else about our trip through Andalucía, we had to book our visit well in advance; but even seeking tickets several months ahead of time proved unsuccessful since the number of Alhambra visitors is so limited. Fortunately, Andrew found tickets through a tour company. And the Alhambra did not disappoint. The gardens of the Generalife—the “summer home”—were extensive, and full of soothing fountains and pools, orange trees and roses. And the palaces were just ridiculous, room after room of intricate carvings, tiling, and arches. Here, too, were bubbling fountains, and several interior courtyards full of fruit trees; it was a place entirely separated from the world beyond it, entirely self-contained. Andrew says the Alhambra is his favorite monument in Europe.

Besides the Alhambra, I have only two words to describe Granada: free tapas. In every bar, when you order a drink, you get a small plate of food. And not just potato chips or peanuts—real food, delicious food. The kind of food that just makes you want to head to another bar to order another drink and get more free food. In other words—I had my first true taste of the tapear. Seville’s tapas were wonderful; but none were free. In Granada, the tapear took on an entirely new dimension.

It started on Thursday, when we happily arrived in Granada after our brief stop in Córdoba. After checking into our hotel—a beautifully restored mansion in the city center, with a large room full of antiques and a huge tiled bathroom—we headed into the city, which was more Moroccan than Spanish. Walking through the streets near our hotel was like being back in the Marrakech souks. Windows were full of Moroccan pastries; lantern-lit tearooms were full of people drinking mint tea. We stopped in a bustling tapas restaurant for a snack of ensaladilla rusa and manchego cheese; we were given a plate of delicious mushrooms “de la casa” as well. Next, we went to a bar for a drink; but when the bartender handed us a plate of sliced bread with ham, we shook our heads, assuming he was giving us someone else’s food order. Little did we know we’d just turned down our first free tapa. We knew better from that point on, though our tapear that night consisted of a blend of free and paid-for tapas. The highlight was a chorizito bocadillo (a sandwich with small rounds of chorizo) at a packed bar called La Mancha. The best bar was a place called Bar Leon, whose walls and ceiling were covered—solidly—with Semana Santa posters.

Friday, we followed our trip to the Alhambra with a stroll to the Mirador, a lookout point from which you can see the Alhambra and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, then through the Albaicín neighborhood. When we found ourselves in a lovely square, we decided to have something to eat. Before we knew it, we’d ordered a huge platter of fried seafood, a large bowl of gazpacho, and a huge dish of caracoles (snails). All delicious, especially since we even had a brief period of sunshine. But rather than fill us up, the lunch put us in the mood for a tapear—Granada style.

And we had a true tapas feast. Fried shrimp; croquetas; sliced bread with turkey, served with olives and gherkins; cubed ham and cheese; small tuna sandwiches; small rounds of sausage; a baloney-like meat on bread. One bar was so crowded there was nowhere to set down our drinks and plate; Andrew and I took turns holding the plate while the other person ate. There, a paso went down the narrow street right outside the window. We went next to a bar across the street, had more drinks and food while standing in the doorway, watching another paso. It was all very strange, very Holy Week, very Spain. The only food we paid for all night was a schaurma, which we ate as we walked back to our hotel through the winter-cold.

Andalucía III: Córdoba

On Thursday, we took a train from Seville to Córdoba to see the Mezquita. It was another cold, rainy day when we arrived—winter has come late to Andalucía; and, not wanting to haul our luggage through the city, we took a step in a new, sketchy direction: we left our things in a locker at the train station. It was all very spy-movie-esque. Too bad the only things we left there were clothes, a few books, and makeup items.

The Mezquita was amazing—the red-and-white arches, the forest of columns. It was enormous (the third largest mosque in the world), and very peaceful. Strangely, the Mezquita is Christian; in the sixteenth century the Christians built a church inside the Mezquita, an aesthetic travesty that even they wound up regretting. But there were chairs set up in the main space as well, perhaps for a Holy Week service. It seems like an ideal space for reflection or meditation of any kind.

Thrilled with the Mezquita, we were disappointed with Córdoba—not least because it was cold and rainy and shut up for Holy Week. The streets were deserted; shops were closed. Hungry at the unheard-of time of noon, we found even the restaurants closed. We wound up eating in a place called Oh La La, rain dripping from the ceiling. Though we’d planned to spend all day in Córdoba, we decided at that point that it might be a better idea to just continue on.

We retrieved our spy documents from the train-station locker and walked across the street to the bus station, where the scornful ticket attendant informed us that since we’d ordered the bus tickets online, there was nothing she could do to help us change the time; we’d have to call someone else. Andrew made the call, and successfully changed the ticket time. When we once again approached the ticket counter, Andrew explained what we’d done, assuring the guy that our record locator number was the same. The guy gave Andrew a look that can only be interpreted as “What you are telling me is impossible.” Frowning, exuding doubt, he somehow managed to find our tickets. Ah, Spain.

Three hours later, we were in Granada.

Andalucía II: Dinner at One in Seville

The pasos weren’t something we needed to seek out in Seville; we ran into them accidentally, trying to get from one place to another and suddenly facing those pointed hoods and massive crowds. Occasionally, forced to cross some street or another, we found ourselves momentarily part of the procession, in step with the hooded figures.

While the pasos processed around the city each day, we saw some other Seville sights. We climbed to the top of the Giralda, the tower of the Cathedral; instead of steps, there are 34 ramps—riders on horseback used to ride to the top. We went to the Real Alcázar and saw the impressive Moorish carvings and elaborate gardens. I went to the Museo de Bellas Artes one afternoon while Andrew had a phone conference and saw some beautiful Spanish art; one of the most popular Zubarans was on loan—but it was on loan to the Guggenheim’s exhibition of Spanish art, and I saw it when I was in New York for those couple of days this January. I had a strange feeling, of perhaps being in too many places in too short a time.

And we ate well. Very well. We had churros y chocolate late one night after watching a paso. We sampled an Andalucían speciality—spinach with garbanzo beans (delicious). One night we rounded off a fabulous tapear—something southern Spain does way better than Barcelona—at a fritadoria, which is my personal version of paradise: a place selling only fried fresh fish. We ordered fried shrimp in a paper cone and ate it outside on the street. It was well after 1 a.m., and people were just figuring out what to do for dinner. We’d had to fight our way through crowds to the counter—there are no lines in southern Spain. Grandmother-types were ordering vast quantities of fish. I thought we ate late in Barcelona—but Seville takes “eating late” to another level entirely. And in every bar there were posters and framed pictures of Jesus and Mary in states of suffering and mourning—usually right next to something profoundly secular, like a mounted bull’s head or liquor bottles. Catholicism is woven into every part of this city, unobtrusive unless you’re a visitor seeing it all for the first time.

Seville is the kind of place where people eat standing up, crowded around the bar or around large barrels standing on their ends, ordering tapas by pointing at it, shouting requests at the harried tenders behind the bar. We wound up one night at a packed bar, having delicious ensaladilla de gambas (shrimp salad), among other things, surrounded on all sides by shouting Spaniards trying to get the bartender’s attention; and it struck me how lucky I am to be doing all this—seeing all these places with Andrew, having him to lead us through the chaos that is the Sevilliano tapas bar, being able to travel for an entire week across southern Spain together, simply to experience Holy Week. These are lucky, wonderful days.

Andalucía I: Holy Week in Seville

I’m a convert. Not back to Catholicism—though spending a week immersed, as Andrew says, in “Big-C” Catholicism would definitely be the way to bring this about. No; I’m a convert to Andalucía. I feel like I’m betraying lovely, splendid Barcelona by saying it, but southern Spain is amazing. The kind of place that ignites love instantly. The kind of place that’s easy on all the senses, that fits the fairytale image of Spain. Life in Barcelona is good. Life in Andalucía would be, it seems, very, very good.

We flew to Seville on Monday. One of the first things that stands out in Seville is the air—it smells of jasmine and orange flowers, everywhere. For Andrew, this trip was a kind of homecoming—he lived there for six months in college, and has only visited once since then. He loved Seville so much when he studied there that he very nearly didn’t come back. Perhaps I would have met him anyway, traveling on my own one day to Seville, striking up a conversation over a plate of albondigas in a sunny plaza. Quien sabe, as the Spanish say—who knows. In any case, he did come back, and we arrived together to find it sunny but cold. We checked into our hotel in the neighborhood of Triana—a “real” hotel this time, a big chain, with desk-attendants on duty all night, climate control, an array of amenities in the bathroom, and—speaking of bathrooms—an immense, lovely shower. A far cry from our own apartment and the sundry B&B’s we’re used to, which don’t even offer a bar of soap.

It’s Holy Week—Semana Santa—which was our purpose for coming to Seville at this particular time. Unlike most of our trips, which we plan on a whim, we’d booked our flight and hotel for this trip many months ago. The city fills up for Semana Santa; we were lucky, even back in December, to get the bookings we did.

After a delicious lunch in Triana (a platter of mixed fried fish, a plate of albondigas), we headed into the center and saw our first paso—a religious float carried in a long, ritualistic procession. A paso in Seville begins with a formally dressed marching band playing funeral songs. The band is followed by hundreds—perhaps close to a thousand—nazarenos, who are men, women, and children carrying tall candles and wearing robes and high, cone-shaped hoods, many of them barefoot. The hoods cover the entire face, leaving only eye-holes—they look like the Ku Klux Klan. At night, when the candles are lit and the processions stretch for miles and the crowd is silent, with only the somber drumbeats of the band, the effect is as creepy as it is devout.

There are two pasos in each procession: one of Christ in a scene from the Passion; and one of the Virgin in mourning, with pearly tears on her cheeks. Each enormous paso weighs a ton or more and is covered with life-size statues, mounds of flowers, and candles. The Virgin always wears a golden crown and an elaborate robe. Each of these is preceded by a band, and each is carried by a group of men called costaleros, whose grunts of exertion can be heard each time they lift the paso. They must walk for miles—from their home church, to the Cathedral (where their pasos are blessed), and back to their church.

These pasos do not move swiftly. They are very much stop-and-start, with long pauses each time a paso needs to be maneuvered around a corner or through the doors of a church. It is a painstaking, lengthy process. Yet the crowds are rapt—and there are crowds. The streets around each paso become a sea of people, at all hours of the night; Andrew and I found ourselves locked in a mass of people at midnight, one, one-thirty. And since this is Seville, it is a family affair. Parents, grandparents, children, babies—entire family units turn out together for the processions, all of them dressed up. In Seville, which is all treacherous cobblestones, women are almost uniformly in high heels. And the enormous crowds get almost silent when a paso goes by—quiet enough so that a singer standing on a balcony on a main street can be heard singing a saeta. Even groups of teenagers pause from their smoking and drinking to bless themselves when a paso inches forward.

Pictures can’t do Seville’s Holy Week justice, nor can these short videos (which I uploaded to YouTube)—but they can give a glimpse:



These processions are as much a part of Easter for children in Seville as Easter baskets are in the U.S. We saw kids raptly watching the processions, holding out their hands for candy, pieces of which the nazarenos drew from deep within their robes. At night, children rushed up to nazarenos during a procession’s frequent pauses, hoping they’d tilt their dripping candles and add drops of wax to quickly-growing wax balls. The children would hold out the balls and turn them, trying to catch the wax drops evenly on all sides. I don’t know what happens to these wax balls after Semana Santa—but some were impressive even by Monday night, as large as baseballs. And being part of the festivities is something respected—something to be strived for. Andrew said that when he studied in Seville, his host family’s two young children would “play” Semana Santa, rigging a paso-type structure from cardboard and tubing, pretending to lift and carry it on their shoulders.

The streets became more and more dotted with wax drippings as the days passed—white, red, black.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Partido de Futbol

It’s a time for celebration: Andrew has officially finished his MBA! He had his last class on Friday; and turned in his last assignment on Saturday. Graduation isn’t for another month; but he is, for all intents and purposes, an MBA. He deserves a big hand.

This weekend, fittingly, Andrew and I crossed off two more items from our “things to do before leaving” list. On Friday, we had lunch at the Boqueria, at one of the small stalls preparing tapas and meals from meat, fish, and vegetables fresh from the market. We chose one and sat down, and the guy behind the counter told us to indicate what we wanted—platters of fresh fish, sausages, salads, clams, and other tapas stretched along the counter; everything would be prepared to order. We had flashbacks of Marrakech, ordering without a menu; nonetheless, we selected a few dishes—sausages, albondigas, patatas bravas, calamari. The calamari were a challenge. We were sitting in front of all the fish, and we could watch as the cooks pulled pieces out to be cooked; both of us said “Ew” when they pulled out oval-shaped, purply-white squids. Those things turned out to be our calamari; we’d neglected to order them fried, and four plump globes of squid were simply grilled quickly and served with parsley and lemon. Those were a struggle to eat, with their squeaky consistency and unappetizingly textured insides. Sliced and fried, fine; this way, less good. But the rest of the food was excellent—and there was no need to leave me as collateral to pay for it.

Last night, we crossed off another list item, something new for me but not for Andrew: an FC Barcelona match, held at the immense, 100,000-seat Camp Nou. One hundred thousand seats—you could fit ten Connellsvilles inside. “Ten villages,” a Spanish friend agreed before the game—though calling Connellsville a “village” is, perhaps, a stretch. Andrew had gotten the tickets from a friend, and our first-level seats were so close to the field that we could hear the kicking. We could see Ronaldinho stretching before the game. I could hear my favorite player, Puyol, shouting commands to his team. The craziest thing about the match was how quiet the stadium was during the match—at times, almost silent, everyone intently watching the game. There were occasional chants, and plenty of screaming at questionable calls and good plays, but otherwise it was eerily quiet—intense. Barcelona won, 2-1. The game was so much fun—and I even bought my first-ever piece of sports-team paraphernalia: an FC Barcelona scarf.