20 April 2010

Hotel California in España (You can never leave....) OR "You Shall Not Pass!

Recent events realated to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano have extended our stay in Spain considerably longer than was anticipated. We were originally due to fly out of Madrid on April 17, but it is now looking like April 23 is the closest likely date.
To sum up the last few days in six words:
Tired, lines, pay, hungry, metro. Again.
We have been several times to the airport to speak directly to customer service personnel, since phone lines and websites are too overwhelmed. We´ve checked into and out of our hostel 4 times. We´ve looked into taking buses and trains to get out of Madrid, but they are all incredibly expensive and already booked full. Now that we have accepted with some certainty that we will be staying here for several more days, things are a bit easier. We have taken a view of moving very slowly, since we no longer have the energy to be stressed or worried about travel arrangements.
Yesterday the weather was a little better (finally!!) and we wandered over to Madrid´s enormous Buena Retiro Park with some folks we met at the hostel and took refuge in the greenery. I had a terrific grass-flop nap and woke up feeling much calmer.
In a funny way, I am quite glad we have been forced to stay in Spain a bit longer. Our time in Valencia and the first part of Madrid was pretty rough for me. I've encountered more anti-american sentiments here than I've ever experienced and it's been humbling, frustrating, eye-opening. Traveling with my Mexican friend Pam has brought out some remarkable contrasts, at the level of our different languages, of assumptions others make about why we are traveling together, why we speak French together instead of English or Spanish (the simple reason being that she doesn't speak much English and I don't speak much Spanish). Traveling together is a bit like being in a huge social experiment, but we don't always have enough distance from our encounters to appreciate the irony. There are moments that are just weird, as when we ate at a restaurant where the wait-staff thought Pam was my hired tour guide instead of my friend and kept behaving in ways that were really awkward for both of us, kind of implying that we were of different social classes. Other times Pam receives a really warm reception and people ask all sorts of questions about her country, then they turn to me and, on hearing I´m from the US, they shut down completely. And there have been many variations in between these extremes. We've gotten to know to know some interesting people here at the hostel in Madrid, and it's great to be able to move beyond those first assumptions and stereotypes and see and be seen as human beings. 
This is what I remember loving about backpacking around England a few years ago, how the limited time and space encourage people to move past their normal barriers and politness and be more open with each other than they otherwise would be.
The first night you arrive in a place and put your stuff down. Maybe you are tired and hungry and you think "Ah jeez, the girl in the bunk under mine has left her crap all over the room and I can't climb up to my bed without stepping on it, GRRR." But by the second night you think, "Oh, that's so-and-so from Argentina" or whatever, you begin to have a much more human view, the smaller frustrations and first impressions fall away as you find out more about others' lives, why they are the way they are, why they are traveling...
I've had some incredible conversations in the last couple of days for which I am very grateful. I'm not really at the point to clearly articulate them, but they are all there churning away. I look forward to sorting them into a bit more order soon.

14 April 2010

Dreams in España

Okay, I´ve got some time here in the Home Hostel in Valencia to do some much-needed updating!
The last three weeks I´ve finally gotten to do some traveling! I was in York, Leeds, Scarborough and Cambridge, England with a group of my high school students for a week, then in Paris for a weekend before catching a flight to Barcelona on the 7th. I´ll have to work backwards I think, and update England and Paris when I get back to Vesoul.
So, Spain, here goes!
Barcelona, Day 1
Pam and I arrived in Barcelona on April 7th and found our hostel, Pension MariLuz, without too much difficulty. I was immediately struck by how beautiful Barcelona is, a lot like San Diego, with lush plants and colorful buildings. There was a huge feeling of energy and bustle around La Rambla, the huge central street that runs all the way from the city center down to the sea, and at first we felt drunk off that collective buzz of people: tourists with cameras, vendors selling postcards, checkered scarves and tiny songbirds like noisy jewels in cages that swayed in the seabreeze. The architecture is some kind of mad orgy of color and form from the last several hundred years, all whimsically smushed together. 
We wandered around for a while, exploring the myriad tiny winding streets off of La Rambla. We met the other two women sharing our four-bed dorm: Ema, an older Mexican lady who told us a long saga of how she´d moved to Spain 5 or 6 years ago to live with some friends who´d died a month before her arrival and she had been in and out of work since then. It seemed she was currently out of work, and while she seemed very friendly, we were a little wary of her. Later, I discovered she snored more musically and intricately than any other being (human, dog, cat...) I have heretofor encountered; she was a veritable orchestra of nasal whistles and gasps.
We also met Charlene, a very cosmpolitan young woman who spoke several languages and had lived in several different countries. She told us about a tango festival going on in Barcelona that weekend and I jumped at the chance to go dancing with her our first night. She even let me borrow her killer tango shoes.
We arrived at the milonga that night fashionably late at about 1am. People were very open and friendly and I got to dance with 5 or 6 people in about an hour. The bar was tiny and intimate and played traditional tango music. People kept bumping into each other and tripping over the tiled floor, but I was in heaven. It´s been over a year since I´ve danced and I was rusty as an old spoon, especially since most people were dancing close embrace, which I haven´t done much of, but it was still awesome. We were disappointed when the evening ended at the comparatively early hour (for Barcelona and tango) of 2:30.
We decided to walk back to the hostel and look for another bar or dance place on the way, but the only places open were very gross and touristy. We saw quite a few American frat boy types hollering at English girls in too-short skirts and heels that were too high for anything other than a lurching walk. The girls made me think of wounded gazelles from National Geographic documentaries and I tried to quicken our pace, since we were also attracting a lot of unwanted attention from the men in the street. Some guys starting following us and bothering us and there was a strong marijuana smell everywhere. It seemed like one of those situations where nothing would actually happen other than a lot of vulgar insults, but it was unnerving all the same. We were briefly lost trying to get back to our hostel in the tangled mess of medieval streets and Pam and I started looking at each other with that "" We should not be here right now" look. We made it back ok and downed cupfuls of tap water before heading to bed, just in time to witness our first performance of the Concerto of Snores in A flat.

Barcelona, Day 2
Day 2 came cold and rainy, so after a cramped breakfast in the miniscule hostel kitchen, surrounded by a group of disappointingly unfriendly Frenchpersons, Pam and I headed off to the legendary Sagrada Familia. This enormous plan for a church was begun in the late 1800s and gained mythical status after Antonio Gaudi took over the work as principal architect. Like most of poor Gaudi´s plans, the work was not finished before he died and only a few of the many towers have been completed. The church has no finished interior and there are some 300 workers and stone masons working on the temple at all times. Visitors walk around the construction zone with audio guides pressed tightly into their ears, trying to decipher the intricate carvings and sybolism Gaudi authored for the two completed facades, the Crucifixion facade (my favorite actually, with its very minimalist geometry) and the Nativity facade, overwhelming in its abundance of plants, sea creatures and animals.
We spent 4 and a half hours wandering around the site and still felt we had seen and understood only a fraction of Gaudi´s plans, which interweave religious themes with organic designs of plants and trees and allusions to math and science. He even invented a whole new way to work out the physics of the towers and arches using thread and tiny lead-filled sacks. Clearly, this guy was a genius, even if a slightly mad one.

Barcelona, Day 3
Day 3 was the day of Las Chicas Muchas Perditas. We basically spent the whole day getting lost and un-lost and lost again. We wanted to head over to the Gardens of Monjuïc, but took the bus in the wrong direction, to the opposite end of the city. An hour and a half later we stumbled into the heat of the square outside the Olympic Stadium on the back side of the gardens and wandered around looking for a restroom. We found a nice patch of green grass and flopped down to have a picnic of dry sandwiches and fresh fruit, followed by a very satisfying nap  in the nearly deserted Grecian gardens outside the stadium, high up over the city. The gardens  were lovely and modern with reflecting pools, fountains and straight, clean rows of columns. We felt peaceful and utterly safe for the first time in Barcelona and slept for over an hour, until the shadows started to creep around over us and I woke up disoriented and realized the half of my face turned toward the sun was bright pink.
To be continued...