Thursday, December 16, 2010

Little country, big love

The best has been saved for last. This one is about Ireland.

My companion and I almost didn’t make it. Our obstacles on the way to the airport included delayed buses, a pink and purple metro stop in the middle of nowhere, the slowest revolving door ever made, stalled conveyor belts, etc. But the struggle made me that much happier to have finally made it.

The greatest thing about Dublin is that you can walk around aimlessly and come across delicious cafes, used bookstores, old churches, rustic pubs, and Viking ruins within a few blocks of each other. We never had to take public transportation and whenever we got lost, nice Irish people helped us. They actually volunteered their help when they us with a map. You wouldn’t find that anywhere else. 

I found a café called Caffe Shannon, where there were delicious baked goods and a brochure for a production of Jane Eyre. It was fate.  Then we went to Coral Evensong at St. Patricks cathedral, which looks exactly as it did 1,000 years ago. It has so far been my favorite church in Europe. 

I found to my great disappointment that many of the things I love about Irish culture are dead, clichés, or both. When I asked where I could find Irish dancing, people told me to go to Galway. The only celtic knots I saw and the only bagpipes and accordions I heard were in the souvenir shops. I began to feel like a walking cliché. Shannon: former Irish dancer, addicted to accordions, in search of claddaugh ring, soda bread, and Irish coffee. I didn’t even both to claim my heritage, because a half-Irish-American doesn’t count. I learned that Dublin, while awesome, is not a truly Irish city. If that’s what you’re looking for, you go to Galway, Galway, Galway.

So I went to Galway….for 45 minutes. I took a bus ride (5 hours one way, 5 hours back), in which we stopped at a fairy fort, which really exists, a 3,000 year old tomb that looked like Stonehenge, and the Cliffs of Moher. We waited in Galway for those 45 minutes and went to a Christmas market, where I wanted to eat everything, and I certainly didn’t want to leave. But back to Dublin I went, and that was good, too.

I almost wish I didn’t like Ireland as much as I do, because everyone else seems to love it too. People come back glowing. But no one loves Ireland more than the Irish. My hypothesis is that, having struggled as much as they have for their country, they have to love it. They love their Guinness, their music, their tall tales (which are real). I once made a joke that I didn’t like Ireland, and it was not received well. The Irish are probably the funniest people in the world, but there are some things you just don’t joke about.

 Every time an Irishman opened his mouth, I burst out laughing. Once I cried from laughing so hard. I’ve never had my leg pulled as much as I did in those four days, to the point that I stopped believing anything anyone said.  I tried to keep up, but I fear I’ve left my wit in America I think they liked me anyway. I learned plenty of slang and my vocabulary is now more colorful than ever:

Wagon- annoying girl

Craic- fun

Lashed- drunk, like, really drunk

Hunny-bunny- term of endearment

That’s all, until next time.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Por fin

 I try to think of words to describe this trip, but there aren’t any. Here are some I have thought of: wotcher, cheers, wagon, quite good. But those are simply my favorite colloquialisms, and mean nothing to you. Just know that it is always a challenge to not use British speak in my daily life without sounding pretentious, and it was even harder when I was there. 

But really, I went to England and Ireland. My Meccas. Life is complete. I have been so homesick for so long for those places, and yet had dreamt about them for so long that they seemed about as real as Narnia and Hogwarts. It hurt to leave. Sure, I’m coming back for a long time in a few years, but years are long. The bright side is that every time I regretted not being able to see or do something, I was able to tell myself “next time, but better,” and actually believe it. 

First I flew into Bristol in order to see a smaller British city. There I saw the Sound of Music and ate fish and chips. On the bus ride into London, I had every intention of staying awake to see the countryside I have been pining for, but promptly fell asleep. 

People say Londoners are mean.  I don’t know who they were comparing them to, but I didn’t find that to be true in the least. Yes, two or three people were rude to me, and their rudeness was among the worst I have experienced, but the majority were quite nice. I think people got a little confused- yes, the rude people are ruder in London, but they are also fewer. I was called “my love” and winked at (in a friendly, not creepy way). People were noticeably polite, certainly more so than Americans, with their “sorrys,” “pleases,” and “cheers.”  It was strange after being so long in Spain, were such niceties are not used.  Even British children are well-behaved and cultured. 

One of the greatest things about London is that it is a city with history, like Rome, but it is still very much alive. In Rome, you see the Vatican, the Coliseum, and the Trevi Fountain.  In Paris, you see the Eiffel Tower. In London, however, the list of things to do and see is never-ending. There are quiet places and loud places, historical and modern, magically next to and on top of each other. Considering the size of the country, the amount of history packed in is incredible and condensed. I certainly walked in the same footsteps of almost all of my heroes. 
I went to the British Library, were I saw the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, a collection of stories written by Jane Austen, as well as her writing desk, hand-written poems by Wordsworth and Oscar Wilde, among others. Also, I saw the original copies of Beatles songs such as Help, I Want to Hold Your Hand, etc. and original copies of the Magna Carta. There’s nothing like a good original. Other sites- Platform 9 ¾ (under construction, lame), the obvious Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Globe Theatre, Tower of London, the Imperial War Museum, and a service at Westminster Abbey.  St. James and Hyde Park really are enormous parks right in the middle of the city. (Nature!) The London Bridge is the most anti-climactic site ever. It's at least as bad as it sounds. Don’t bother going. Much more exciting is a few blocks down, where the bridge that was destroyed in Harry Potter 6 is located.  

I enjoyed dispelling the myths of my companions. I didn’t realize how much I knew about England until I got there. Yes, there is a difference between Big Ben and the Tower of London. No, Boxing Day has nothing to do with boxing. No, there is no meat in mincemeat pie (which I will have you know is delicious). 

It is important to note that the best men are in England. After slimy, skinny Spanish men, the tall, pea-coated, bespectacled, well-read, and polite Brits were a pleasant surprise. There’s nothing like seeing a well-dressed man reading in a pub. 

I got to spend a day alone in London, one of the greatest cities to be alone in. I hunted down bookstores, which was harder than I thought it would be considering it is pretty much the most literary city in the world, visited Dickens’ house, and saw Les Miserables, which made me bawl like a baby. 

At the end, my only comfort was that in leaving England I would be going to Ireland. England is the home of my mind, but Ireland is the home of my blood. I was going home in a different way.

There is no neatly developed and wrapped-up theme for this blog, which I usually attempt in order to keep the attention and respect of my readers (or shall I say reader?). But for this one I have none. Just know that I love England probably more than anyone else, or at least as much as anyone could. Ireland is different; with its people, beer, and underdog status, it is easy to love. England is a bit harder, but that only makes it all the more mine. 

Dirty, dirty Spain

Only when I went to Madrid, Segovia, and Toledo for a glorified field trip did I start feeling like I wanted to feel about being here. I have tried very hard, I have forced myself to enjoy my time here, despite jet leg, heat exhaustion, ugly Americans and uglier Spaniards, and the constant feeling of discomfort I face by living in a stranger’s home in a strange country. And I succeeded.

But I got deep into it this weekend. The immense stress that comes with travel (the taxi to bus to airport to metro to bus-ness) was lifted off my shoulders. I had no idea what was in Toledo and Segovia, and only a vague idea about Madrid. I let Mark and Maria, the group directors, load me on a bus with the others and take me to unknown locations. Not having control over where I was going was strangely liberating.

I saw Guernica for the first time. Then I saw Goya and Velazquez for the second time. (Goya will always be my favorite because of his morbid honesty.) I went to El Escorial, a Renaissance palace outside of Madrid, and saw the altar in the church where the king who built it (Felipe or Carlos or something) lived when he was too sick to walk and later died. There were crypts in which almost all the leaders of Spain are interred. These things were good, but not my favorite part of the trip.

In Segovia, there is a castle, the Alcazar, which was supposedly the basis for one of the Disney castles. It is perched on top of a cliff overlooking a forest with a river. There is also something like the second-oldest church in Europe, which I accidently stole a piece of for my collection of rocks and ruins. Castles and churches are all very good, but Segovia was the first time I had seen nature (besides olive trees) in Spain. And it was fall. Actually, it was Halloween. I imagine that there is no better time to be in Segovia than on Halloween. The leaves were all bittersweet colors and so was the air. Being farther north than Andalucía, it was cold, green, and rainy- the best weather. The castle was creepy in the best way possible. There were more happy trees like the ones I found in Portugal. We took a hike and got pleasantly lost, although the castle was never out of sight. For the first time in Spain, I strangely felt like I belonged.

In Toledo I went to mass in the gothic cathedral. I think I have never seen a town with such a high religious building to population ratio. Everywhere I went there were synagogues, chapels, churches, cathedrals. I ventured off on my own and ended up possibly trespassing, scaling down a cliff to look at some bird-infested ruins, and walk along the river. I think it was the first time in two months that there wasn’t a person within fifty feet of me.
I realized that I don’t just like nature, I need nature. When there is nature, you can forget about people, which is essential sometimes. The feeling of discomfort I had been feeling in all the places I’d visited and in Granada as well, was mainly a result of the lack of nature.

Having crawled in the mud and dirt of Segovia and Toledo, I gladly ruined some of my clothes. I breathed in the freshness of the air, and I felt the oldness. I could have been wandering the Spanish moors and forests 500 years ago. It is important, not only to find old things, but to find things untouched by time. I want to feel like I have a time machine.

This trip was possibly the most essential one I had in my time here. I established an inner-independence which I had lacked previously and caused me to make resolutions for the rest of my trip. I refuse to be idle when there is opportunity. I refuse to follow a crowd, even if it means I get lost sometimes. Walls and roofs do very little for me, and companionship, although beyond wonderful when provided by some, is a nuisance when provided by others. Those are the lessons that have defined my November and December.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My heels in the sand, my heart in Portugal

The happiest sight I have ever seen is that of two fluffy dogs frolicking on the beaches of Lagos, Portugal. You can’t want anything more in life than to be a beach dog that gets to play on the beach every day: now that’s fulfillment. The joy emanating from them was a tangible force. I unfortunately forgot to take a picture of them but I can see them vividly anyway, fetching rocks with silly, floppy, uninhibited joy.

The second happiest thing I have ever seen is the happy trees of Portugal, which I also forgot to take a picture of. While the bus ride to and from Portugal, at a whopping 13 hours each way, was an extraordinarily painful experience, these trees made it worth it. They grew in a naturally round shape, perched atop a spindly trunk. There were miles and miles of these on rolling green hills. They were simple and unpretentious, much like the Portuguese dogs.

That’s what I like about Portugal. It is a better version of Spain, a return to simplicity. I began to breathe after being strangled for so long by the city.  Yes, it lacks Baroque architecture and shoe stores, but it makes up for all of that in natural beauty. I climbed on top of enormous grottos in the face of an oncoming storm, I went out into the Atlantic Ocean and saw baby dolphins, went kayaking, and frolicked on the beach countless times. Once, I even braved the water and went swimming. I enjoyed observing the Portuguese people, who are interesting, casual, and weather-beaten. And best of all, despite the high tourist population of Lagos, it still has the appearance of being untouched.

When it was time to leave, I had no desire to go. I dug my heels (literally) in the sand. I realized that the phrase "parting is such sweet sorrow" is a huge lie: leaving was not sweet, just sad. I wanted to stay and become a Portuguese beach dog.

Never have I met a place quite like Portugal. Any number of things made the trip a disaster- rainstorms which ruined almost all of our plans, horrific bus rides in which I barfed in a bag and had to wait for an hour or so until a stop to dispose of it, sleeping through the bus I was supposed to take, losing 200 euros, trying desperately to canoe with kayak paddles in a harbor, being called unspeakable names by a random drunk guy with a Liverpool accent, etc. But still the best word I can use to describe Portugal is “happy.” Wordsworth used to find one word which he thought best suited a subject and use it repeatedly: I used to think it was a tonteria, but now I understand what he meant. Portugal is happiness incarnate.

That's all I feel I need to say about Portugal, but you should go and see it for yourself.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Self-rebuttal and continued thoughts on Spaniards

Since my last blog, a number have strange events have occurred which have warranted a response to my own complaints.

One of my biggest symptoms of culture shock has been the constant and persistent harassment by men on the streets. In America, this is not okay, at least by my standards. But when you move to another country, you have to put aside everything you have ever thought…about anything. You have to stop being yourself for a little while if you are truly going to learn about the new place. This is a struggle for me because I have worked very hard to become who I am, and losing that is scary. In some ways, I have been clinging to my old identity more than I should.

But I recently had the opportunity to talk to a very nice Spanish brother and sister. I told them that there are certain things about Andalusia which I have been struggling to get used to, specifically, the aforementioned issue: “No me gusta cuando los hombres me gritan cosas como “guapa” en las calles.” I got blank stares. They simply did not understand my complaint. The sister even had to repeat the sentence to her brother, mostly because of my atrocious accent. They said, “why?” I told them it was offensive and disrespectful. More blank stares. “You mean, you don’t like it when they call you beautiful?” No, no, I don’t like it. Not from someone I don’t know. It’s creepy. I don’t know that word in Spanish. .. “But Spanish people are very straightforward. They tell you what they think. If they see you on the street and they think you are beautiful, they tell you so. It doesn’t mean anything more than that; it’s simply a game people play.” But it’s disrespectful, I insisted. “Why?” The conversation became circular for awhile.

My Spaniards told me that if you don’t want the attention, there are certain ways to avoid it, which I had already been learning slowly. If you look their way, for example. So if you don’t want to be spoken to, you must not look at anyone on the streets. For an observer, that’s like torture. But mostly, they instructed me, one must not take it too seriously. The woman is even permitted to respond with a cajoling statement, such as “¡venga ya!” it’s supposed to be a pleasant interaction for everyone concerned.

Eventually I began to understand. It is an entirely different culture. Certainly things flatter Americans that Spaniards find offensive, and, as I am learning, vice versa. I am learning slow as molasses how to be a Spaniard, and digging my heels in the ground all the way. However, I am running out of time to adjust.

“Guapa,” means beautiful and classy, I have learned. “Rubia” is not so good. When I asked them about “cuanto cuesta,” which means “how much?” their reactions were much different. The brother, gentlemanly and appalled, said “people actually say that?” and the sister informed me that because I am clearly a foreigner, there is nothing I can do to avoid it, besides be offended. There is nothing good about that comment.
I have learned that when a waiter or a nice man at the salsa club calls you “guapa,” “mi amor,” or “reina,” it is quite nice and even funny. One of my friends has instructed her American boyfriend to call her “reina” from now on. Girls even refer to each other with such names. It’s better than what some American girls call each other, names which I am sure you are familiar with and won’t repeat here.

I still haven’t learned to enjoy comments from random men, but I have learned from the Spaniards that those things happen and they pass you by. You can’t take them with you and dwell on them. Yes, I don’t like that men can comment on women but the opposite is not permitted (not that I would engage in such activity if I had the option). I don’t like that there is such superficiality here, but in reality almost every place is immersed in it and the Spaniards are simply more upfront about it. It is something that I am at least getting used to, although I think I will never enjoy it like a Spaniard would.

I have never before been very proud of American culture or considered myself adjusted to it, but I am discovering that I am more American than I ever thought. I am not sure what I think about that.

Just when I thought “get me the hell out of Spain,” when I couldn’t stand Andalucians anymore, like magic I began to have a number of positive experiences. It began with the brother and sister and continued with my intercambio, who is very nice and normal girl named, (surprise!) Maria. Also, I teach an English class and take a flamenco class, which are both filled with boisterous, hilarious women who restore my faith in this place. Their energy is contagious and they make me feel more included in the culture. They are endearing, if not very diverse.

I have noticed that there seems to be a very small range of personalities here, which is unfortunate. Many of the Spaniards I have gotten to know are great and I love them, but they are not very interesting except for the fact that they are Spanish. You can have virtually the same conversation with 5 different people. Maybe I have been spoiled by American diversity, but I miss the spontaneity that usually comes with meeting new people.

Andalucía may not be a place I would move to permanently, but I am learning, albeit slowly, how to enjoy my time here, including the homogenous but delightful people.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Respect: in rejection of Spaniards

Get me the hell out of Spain. I shouldn’t be as enraged as I am; things like this happen everywhere. Some people choose to ignore the intentions and be flattered by the tradition, others don’t care or notice, and others let it bother them every day. It’s a fact of life for girls, which I should be used to by now, but all I really want most of the time is to be invisible.

I have decided to wear my hair down today. Not a big decision in a normal situation. But then I realized that the within twenty minute walk to school and the twenty minute walk home, I would receive at least five lurid comments, ranging from a creepy, incoherent mutter a foot away from my ear, a loud conversation carried on about me by two men as I pass, a “guapa” or a nice “cuanto cuesta” shouted from the third storey of an apartment building. Then I thought, “get me the hell out of Spain.”

This problem bothers me just as much as it did on August 28th. Shouldn’t I have gotten used to it by now? Shouldn’t I be stronger than that? Maybe by December I will have effectively blocked out the Spanish male voice from my range of hearing. Until then, I will use my strategies for avoiding this unwanted attention, such as crossing the street at inconvenient times and walking awkwardly close to/behind any non-threatening man, whether I know them or not. Something about men keeps other men from making the lewd comments, I have noticed. If you walk close enough to a guy, you don’t actually have to be with him, but close, the construction worker becomes wary of being thought gay, being beaten up, or both.

I hope today I will be pleasantly surprised and I will be allowed to walk to school in peace (although I know peace should come from within). But it would be nice to be invisible today, even though my hair is down.

I suppose there are some things you can’t stop caring about. Maybe I will take my pepper spray with me and use it on everyone who offends me today.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Roma está en la calle

Well, I have just returned from Rome, something I never thought I would say. It was fantastic to say the least, but I did not have nearly enough time to do everything in that old, old city.

I had time for the basics: Vatican City (including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica), the Coliseum, and the Trevi Fountain. All of these are things which everyone, including the native Romans, agrees that you must see. I must be the only one who disagrees. (Perhaps some latent bitterness is expressing itself because at the Trevi Fountain I only had enough coins to guarantee a return trip to Rome and to fall in love. As of now, I am not able to get married. I will have to return to ol’ Trevi and throw one more coin in before the said event can occur. I am not terribly concerned about it; I only hope I haven’t doomed myself to unrequited love or something. But I digress.)

If you have always wanted to see the Coliseum, look at the pictures. That’s exactly what it looks like. You have saved yourself 8 euros, or 20, if you wanted a tour. I was unimpressed, which sounds terrible. But seriously. I wish I could say was better the Sistine Chapel. Walking in, I had forgotten what I would see. It was an awesome sight- that’s an objective fact. But in the Sistine Chapel, photography and talking are forbidden, which makes sense because it is, well, a chapel. There is also no real way to enforce these rules, so there were two shushers stationed at the altar. I think no one has ever had less job satisfaction than those two men. Even with the dull roar of countless different languages intermingling with the clicking of cameras, I could have enjoyed myself in the chapel, since I can block out sounds fairly easily. But we were only allowed to stay in the chapel for about 5 minutes. FIVE minutes to stare at a room crammed with as much artistic genius as the world has ever seen. I might as well have not gone; I didn’t even see the hands almost touching. Two days after I returned from Rome, the chapel was discussed in one of my classes, and I didn’t recognize it. (Atrocious and embarrassing, I know.)

Even in the Basilica, the situation was completely overwhelming, yet I felt underwhelmed. There was more to see than could ever be seen. The masterpieces were too close together to be properly appreciated. Yes, I saw the Pieta and it was incredible from the viewpoint I had from 50 feet away. I could not have gotten any closer without being unchristian, and I didn’t want to brush past that many fanny packs anyway. I was surrounded by tourists snapping pictures for the sake of being able to prove that they were there, and dispassionately walking away. I even saw people taking a picture of a replica of the Pieta in a gift shop. They probably thought it was the real thing.

Sometimes I become concerned that I have become desensitized. I think that maybe I am too old already; I have seen too many pictures which have inundated my mind and polluted my vision, making me incapable of the sensations of awe and wonder. I think that I have become too cynical and I am only going to get worse. The years of my life in which I was most receptive to these experiences are gone. How could it be that I felt more love/fear/joy/awe when I read a book about something beautiful/horrible/awe-inspiring than when I see the actual thing? I think that maybe going through high school full of doubt has ruined me for life…I begin to be jealous of my mother, who never seems to have lost her sense of wonder. At an age she wouldn’t thank me for disclosing, she can still get goosebumps at the smallest thing. I begin to wonder what has happened to me. Am I too German and not enough Irish? Have I become too in control of my emotions? Or is the fact that I am deliberately seeking emotion the reason it keeps evading me?

But then I walk down a Roman street at night and suddenly find myself in square with a fantastic fountain. Something I have never seen before nor ever expected to see. An enormous obelisk (of course) flanked by gods and people and animals. So unexpected, so enormous and beautiful. I knew that Rome was full of art and architecture, but somehow I was not prepared to see this. It just happened to be there, a work which in any other town would have been worshiped, but in Rome is sadly overlooked. Then I encountered a bridge. The railing of the bridge consisted of columns and on top of the columns were statues of angels, maybe 20 feet high. I have never heard of this bridge before and I will probably never hear of it in the future. In retrospect, I know the name, but I won't tell you so you can discover it for yourself. No one I was with cared about it, and I am sure I liked it more for that. Each time I crossed it, I felt the same. It was truly a spiritual experience in a way that cannot be found in the Basilica or the Sistine Chapel.

In Granada, there is a graffiti that says “el arte esta en la calle”- the art is in the street. It is very true, and I love Granada for that. But in Rome, spirituality is in the streets. There is no experience like walking along and suddenly finding yourself under the wings of two dozen angels.

The sacredness and the beauty I expected to feel in Rome were not in the places it was supposed to be. If you want to experience Rome, walk around the streets. In doing so, you will discover Rome by accident. When I go back to Rome, maybe to throw that third coin into the Trevi Fountain (but probably not), that’s what I am going to do. You can feel the oldness thoroughly mixed into the city. It is a tangible force. They will probably never be done discovering ruins, which is why the metro system is terrible; they can’t build a third line because they keep discovering more of them. It is true that everything exciting in that city happened 2,000 years ago. But it was very exciting indeed.

The things I saw in the Vatican and the Coliseum were objectively beautiful, noteworthy, historical, etc. So I was concerned when I did not feel about them the way I was supposed to. But the fact that these characteristics are loved by the entire world means that they must necessarily not be special to me. So I look for things that have a particular impact on me that others don’t notice. That, I believe, is the point of travel. It’s the point of life. That’s why, rather than Michelangelo, I prefer Goya, who makes me forget to breathe, forget that I have a body.

There is something rather magical about Rome (of course). It was my first REAL travel experience, with just me, my backpack, and two friends, and I fell in love with the concept in a real way. It is no longer an idea- I really did meet interesting people from Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, etc. who have nothing else on their agenda but to travel. I ate real pizza. I saw things that my 11- year old self never truly believed I would see. Even my 19-year old self didn’t believe. But now I do. This dream of mine to travel is no longer a child’s fantasy, but a young adult’s reality. I don’t know which is more dangerous. I don’t even know which I prefer. But I am certainly not going to stop.