Wednesday, June 24, 2009

kids these days

I'm on a bus on the way to Granada. As I was making my way toward the back of the bus, I was wondering why so many of the other passengers were crammed in the front of the bus.

Now I know.

I am back here with 4 teenagers and their cell phones, which are powerful and frightening weapons. Occasionally the teens talk on the phone, but that doesn't cause any particular problems. The problem is that they play really loud music on horrible, tinny cellphone speakers. Even if they put on headphones, the music is unbearable, and they sing along. Every once in awhile they want to talk to each other, so they turn down the speaker and yell, probably because they have such damaged hearing.

I had this experience once before, on a train in France. Last time I just stewed and shot dirty looks. This time, I jovially asked them not to use the speakers. It didn't work. One of them switched to headphones, but those seemed even worse. I could hear the music just as well, and he sang even more loudly.

Spanish rap sounds ridiculous, only slightly more ridiculous than Spanish teenagers trying to sing along with English rap. I think the ones currently annoying me might be Italians, though it could just be that Catalonian accent everyone is always warning me about.

Yes, I know I sound old.

Before I got on the bus, I didn't know whether it was three or four or five hours. I still don't know, but I'm counting every minute. Granada better be good. Really good.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

making a run for the border

I have a habit of walking purposefully in a direction, as though I know where I'm going. I don't want to appear lost or confused, so I pick a direction and start walking.

I did it this morning. I left the bus station of La Linea, which is the Spanish town bordering Gibraltar. There weren't any signs pointing to Gibraltar, so I just turned right and started walking. After a block or two, I decided to ask someone if I was going in the right direction. He pointed the opposite way from where I was headed. I turned around and saw an enormous rock hiding in the mist.

Right. That way.

trains, planes, and automobiles

I'm on the move again.

Since May, I have taken a plane to London, another plane to Lyon, two trains to Le Puy, two trains from Le Puy back to Lyon, three trains to Barcelona, a bus to Toulouse, a rental car to Villefranche, three trains to Pamplona, my feet to Estella, a bus to San Sebastian, a bus to Bilbao, a plane to Sevilla, a bus to Tarifa, and today I will take two buses and a short walk over the border to Gibraltar.

Tomorrow I plan to take two buses to Granada, though I have no idea of the hours and departure points and costs.

This is the kind of trip I try to avoid: endless shifting without staying planted in any one place long enough to know it or appreciate it beyond just the major monuments. I have hit my stride, though. I am feeling more comfortable with moving from place to place. It isn't exactly as I planned, but I'm learning something. So that's something.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

can't touch this

I regret to inform my American audience that hammer pants are very much in style in Spain. You think the swine flu is contagious? Wait until you see the saggy crotch epidemic that's about to hop the pond.

a privilege and a responsibility

Today, as with most days, I had every good intention of spending time writing. I always manage to find something else to do, though. I wander around whatever town I am in, plan the upcoming parts of my trip, chat in Spanish with locals, read. These all count as productive activities, so I don't have to feel guilty for not making good use of my time and my wee computer.

Of the three unread books I have with me, I selected On Bullfighting to serve as my breakfast companion this morning. I purchased it largely because it was one of 50 or so available English books, had a cool cover, and was endorsed by Jeannette Winterson. Since I wasn't going to attend a bullfight, I thought I may as well read about it. It felt like a bit of a duty rather than a pleasure, though. When I bought it, I secretly thought that I would have good intentions to educate myself but would end up reading the trashy mystery that is based in Sevilla (which counts as somewhat educational since it is set where I bought it) or even the Spanish book (which is waterproof and lends itself to reading while floating in the sea).

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the book is a weird combination memoir/non-fiction account. Odd because the writer is reflecting on her own experiences as a person and a writer, even though these have no direct relation to bullfighting. I find non-fiction more interesting when I can hear the writer's own voice. So I was reading and eating my crepes and I came upon a passage in which Kennedy talks about her trip to Granada. Since I am voyaging to Granada in two days, I paid special attention. The author refers to poet Federico Garcia Lorca; my friend told me to read a recent New Yorker article about him before going to Granada.

I lingered over breakfast and read Kennedy's' musings on Lorca's execution in 1936 by Nationalists, She is moved that Lorca died for his art and links it to her own weaknesses as a writer, saying, "I also think that if I had any backbone I would write as best I can, because of the silenced dead, because writing is a privilege and also a responsibility."

Then I closed the book, payed the bill, and climbed up to the rooftop deck of Hostal Africa in Tarifa, Spain and gazed out over the meeting of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, at the Rock of Gibraltar and the haze of Morocco, and I started to write.

Bs (ahem)

I tried to make plans to watch a Bullfight in Barcelona with my Boyfriend on my Birthday--and not just because of allure of the alliteration. For a number of reasons, it didn't work out. One B at a time:

B #1: Barcelona
I learned that bullfights in Barcelona are notoriously uninspired and touristy. Barcelona is Catalonia, and depending on who you talk to, Catalonia is not Spain and does not care to carry out Spanish traditions like the bullfight. It would be sort of like going to a lobsterbake in Utah. Or a jazz festival in Connecticut. You could do it, and it might be pretty good, but why bother?

B #2: Boyfriend.
My boyfriend's response to the idea was, "I don't want to go to a bullfight. Just because I'm in Mississippi doesn't mean I am going to attend a lynching." Hmmm. I wonder if we'll be in CT during the jazz festival . . .

B #3: Birthday.
I still contend that it would be a memorable way to spend a birthday.

B #4
I was sort of relieved when my boyfriend refused. I don't think I really wanted to go at all, but I am curious. When walking across Spain, I noticed that nearly every little smoky bar in every tiny town has gatherings of old men watching bullfighting on tv. It inrigued me. I would sip my Cola Cao and try to figure out just what they were looking at. Sort of how I feel when people in the U.S. watch golf or bowling. Or when a toddler is staring and pointing and I follow the gaze and find nothing there.

Anyhow, once I got the old men talking, I could barely understand them because there was so much vocabulary and nuance involved in the whole thing. I wanted to condemn the sport, but I didn't understand it well enough to do so.

I think that's how I feel about much of traveling. If I don't understand some cultural phenomenon, if it disgusts and alarms me, I need to try to participate in it, especially if it makes me uncomfortable. That isn't always true. I won't be performing any female circumcisions or foot binding, but there are ways I could push myself. Still, where does the line between respecting a culture end and basic morality begin? And if you can answer that, can we apply for some kind of patent or copyright together?

But really, that's the joy of traveling for me--facing the discomfort and acknowledging when I can't endure it and figuring out what the balance is. When I should be tolerant, when I shouldn't.

One day, I'll go to a bullfight. I'll probably be disgusted with the event and with myself, but at least I'll know why.

Friday, May 29, 2009

zee mall

One of the things I like about traveling for long periods of time is the opportunity to observe the quotidian aspects of daily life in a different culture. I spent much of yesterday at the mall.

When I arrived in Lyon, a member of the train staff struck up a conversation with me in English and told me that he had visited Philadelphia:

“You know zee King of Prussia Mall?”

“No. I don't know it.”

“King of Prussia mall in Philadelphia?” he insisted.


“It is zee largest mall in Philadelphia!” He was as appalled as if I had said I had never heard of the Statue of Liberty.

It turns out that mall culture is pretty much the same in France as it is in the U.S. There are groups of giggling adolescents, exasperated moms with strollers, running children, and canoodling couples. Some elderly people sit quietly, people watching. This particular mall had a huge and impressive three story fountain in the middle.
There is fast food and just slower than fast food. (Yes, there was a McDonald's. This one featured a display promoting McDo as healthy using an enormous glass case full of clinical looking fake carrots immersed in clear tubes. It reminded me of the restaurant Founding Farmers in D.C.)

The products in the mall are only slightly different, but it was fascinating to visit the enormous grocery store/everything else store, sort of a combination between a huge grocery store and a Wal-Mart and a Costco, but without the huge bulk quantities.

The French take their food very seriously. As I gathered a few fruits and snacks, I admired the full aisle devoted to chocolate bars and noted there was also an enormous section for yogurt. The milk is not refrigerated. It comes in cartons. In the prepared food section, there was a man set apart from the others in a small booth devoted to a big wok of paella.

Twice I noticed people stealing. One man was chowing down pint of blackberries that rested in place in the produce section. As he stood talking to the woman with him, he put them in his mouth, one at a time and looked around surreptitiously, but it was clear that he didn't really care if he was caught. A bit later I noticed some teenagers standing in the candy aisle who had opened a bag of peanut M&Ms and were gathered around the treat as though one of them had slain a zebra.

I waited in line at the checkout. It seems like there is always a line 3 or 4 people deep. Americans would revolt. That little incident in 1789? Nothing. Toddler tantrum.

So I stood there, trying to observe the customs and mimic them. I spend a lot of time doing this lately: watching carefully and trying to follow along. The woman in front of me reached down and grabbed a large plastic bag, and the cashier rang it up and then put the groceries inside. I did the same. I still don't know the point, but it wasn't necessary. There were other bags.

The cashier picked up my produce bags one by one and gave me a disapproving glance between each one. She asked me something. I shook my head. She asked me again. I shook my head again. My responses are often based on what people expect me to say. Usually I say yes, but she clearly had busted me. I repented. I slowly realized that I was supposed to have the produce weighed and priced before I arrived. I waved her off and paid for the rest of my groceries. Oranges? Who needs juicy, sweet Spanish oranges?

waltzing not walking

There comes a time in every trip when I think of Tom Waits's rendition of “Waltzing Matilda.” There is one line where he groans in his rumbly voice, “And no one speaks English and everything's broken.”

The first morning of my pilgrimage from Le Puy, I woke up and realized it was not the right thing for me to do. It was confusing, overwhelming. Still,I packed my bag and went to the pilgrim breakfast and sang along to the intolerable pilgrim anthem. At 7 a.m. sharp I was in the cathedral, seated before the altar of the black Virgin Mary and listening to some priest drone on in French.

Sitting there amidst the pilgrims, I had a realization. It was probably the most powerful realization I have ever had in a church. I needed to leave. Immediately. I got up while the priest was still speaking and walked the first mile of le Chemin, which led me to the train station. Five minutes later, I was on the morning train to Lyon, going back from whence I had come the day before.

Why? Lots of reasons, really. Most of them relate to my health. I've been ill, and my meds haven't settled down. My sleep is disturbed, and my hands are quaking so much that I have even less coordination than usual. I was going to be far from public transportation or internet access, a brutal combo. The gite made me sing a weird pilgrim song.

“No one speaks English and everything's broken.” So true.

Time to waltz.

chocolate-based society

Several years ago my friend Kris and I were eating out at a Lebanese restaurant. The waiter asked if we wanted dessert, and after he left, Kris leaned over and whispered to me, quietly and seriously, “They're not a chocolate-based society.”

I think they know,” I whispered back. “Why are we whispering?

We didn't have dessert. At least not there.

These categories of civilization are a serious and sensitive matter. I think of Kris often as I wander the streets here. France is not only a chocolate-based society, but the rez-de-chausee and the first floor and maybe even the second floor are chocolate, too. Chocolate croissants, chocolate mousse, chocolate doughnuts, hot chocolate, chocolate bars, chocolate ice cream, chocolate tartes. Chocolate everywhere!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

lizzy's house

How come no one told me Buckingham Palace is ugly? Aren't royalty supposed to live in lovely, pretty buildings with gold and turrets? This place looks like the IRS building. Or maybe the Supreme Court. Certainly nothing worth guarding while wearing big hats.

From london

je suis desolee, madame lander . . .

I can understand quite a bit of French. I can read it pretty well. When I try to speak, though, a lump rises in my throat and I start to look more like Marcel Marceau than like a person who studied French for 5 years, then spent another month in the Cote de Azur brushing up on it. It's infuriating, isolating.

When I'm not pointing and grunting, I tend to answer in Spanish when someone speaks to me in French, which is particularly ridiculous given that whomever I am speaking with is much more likely to know English.

"Voudrais un croissant?"

"Comment allez-vous?"
"Muy bien."

"L'hotel est la, madame."

The short words, the niceties, almost always come out in Spanish. "Oui" and "merci" are awkward in my mouth. As I write this, my waiter brought me a check, to which I replied "gracias."


There is a part of me that wants to flee to Spain. There, I can easily flirt with children, ask for the right kind of coffee, and chat about el Camino de Santiago instead of this weird le Chemin de St.-Jacques people keep wanting to talk about.

This seems like a fine time to show my favorite museum sighting in London:
From london

one of the people in this picture still has her appendix . . .

From london

but the other one had hers removed in Uyuni, Bolivia. (Note Minuteman t-shirts.) Two years and eleven and a half months after Karen decided to get appendicitis in the middle of the salt flats, miles from absolutely everything civilized, we were reunited in London where she and Anne (pictured below), another of my Irish lasses who was there for the adventure, are studying in London.

I helped Karen out with translating from Spanish to English (or Irish/Leppish) while she was in the hospital. As I explained to the girls, there are two words I hope to never again have to use: "anestetico local." Ouch. Karen was quite a trooper, though she reminded me that even in her agony as she endured a bumpy jeep ride back to town and an unsanitary, unheated hospital, I kept telling her to "suck it up." I reminded Anne that I was horrified when I translated the details of the surgery, and she replied enthusiastically, "It'll be grand!" as though we were going to an amusement park.

You would have thought we were schoolmates the way we chattered on. Seeing these ladies was a good blessing to my trip, a reminder that travel teaches unexpected lessons at peculiar times.

From london

Monday, May 25, 2009

my new blog sponsor

So here I am in the cool air-conditioned comfort of a restaurant that serves mousse au chocolat and drinks with loads of ice. The bathrooms are clean. It has Wi-Fi "gratuit et illimite." Best of all, I will encounter many more of these restaurants in my future. What a relief.

Welcome to McDonalds, may I take your order?

From lyon and le puy

It seems fitting to begin a pilgrimage by acquiring new vices--or cashing out on long held principles. After all, shouldn't a pilgrimage teach us about our imperfections? Or something like that? I don't know. Just find me the justification for defying my long held disdain of the Golden Arches.

I seem to remember complaining about how McDo seduces people into a routine of predictablity and normalcy while serving food of questionable quality and challenging the locally owned restaurants to stay competitive. Ahem.

After years of preaching and teaching against McDonalds, I have a feeling I'll be contributing to the negative aspects of globalization one air conditioned, mass produced chocolate mousse eating blog post at a time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

camino 09

I'm going back for more.

In the summer of 2007, I walked 500 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. This summer, I'm going to be walking on another part of the Camino, a route that begins in Le Puy, France called la Vía Podiense. Here's a map of the routes.

This time around I am armed with 500 years off purgatory that I earned by walking last time. My rainbow mohawk from 2007 has grown back in, though I have a freshly dyed stripe of purple in the front of my hair. I no longer have an Obama sticker on my water bottle, but I do have President Obama in the White House. I'm heavier than I was two years ago, and my pack is heavier, too, since I will be carrying a tiny computer with me.

A couple of things haven't changed at all since I set out on my first Camino. I'm still nervous. I'm still excited. I'm still certain that no matter what happens, it'll be grand

Monday, March 30, 2009

following the arrows to dreamland . . .

Two years after walking 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, I still notice yellow arrows like the ones that directed me across Spain. Occasionally, they are chalked on sidewalks or painted on lampposts. Most often they decorate construction sites. I keep one on my keychain. The paint is flaking off the front, but the back shows a simplified map of the Camino route. It strikes me as funny to have a memento of a long walk hanging next to my car key.

I feel like I'm following the arrows again as I make plans to spend some of this summer strolling through France on a different part of the Camino. One night, when I was having trouble falling asleep, I envisioned yellow arrows, one after another. I saw them stretched out before me, and soon I was dreaming.