Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Morriña

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and according to this website I found, I am 3,747 miles from home. On Christmas I will also be 3,747 miles from home. Maybe even a little more depending on where I am that day. Perhaps a little less.

No matter the small change of distance, it doesn’t change the fact that I will be very far from home for this year’s holidays. But I am not unlucky, I have chosen to be in this position, to work here, far away from Kirby Ct. In fact, I’m having a pretty good time over here.

Some people don’t have a choice. For necessity of work or a better life, or trying to work for a better life, they’ve traveled long and far, far from home. Some people will never again spend the holidays with their families and friends, for one reason or many others. If you’re a solider, a scientist in Antarctica, a migrant worker picking berries.

There are these guys here in Bilbao, most of them are from Senegal and Equatorial Guinea, and they walk the streets trying to sell cheap watches and caps, mostly counterfeit. Some of them will never go home. Some can’t. There might not be a home anymore. Instead, they’re trying to sell things to passersby, many of whom pretend to not even notice them.

Imagine their holidays, whatever time of the year they may be. Eid. Christmas. Ramadan. They find themselves in Madrid and Marseille and Münich, selling fake Tag-Heuers and Dolce bags instead of being with their mothers and brothers and sons and cousins and friends, wherever they may be. And in a place where many people are at best cold and at worst openly hostile.

Imagine that. Imagine the sea they crossed, one that separated both lands and cultures.

I am grateful and I give thanks that these are things of which I know nothing. This kind of self-sacrifice is not why I crossed an ocean. I did it in search of a better understanding of what life has to offer, of what it’s all about. Along the way, the hard times like this, in rooms alone thinking, and also the good times of lights and colors and laughing, have shown me that so much of the meaning of life comes from simply learning and trying to understand.

So give thanks that you’ve got what you’ve got and that you know whom you know and that you love whom you love and that they love you right back. Somewhere, across many seas, is someone who wishes they had the food you have, the situation you find yourself in. I always took Thanksgiving for granted, but now I’m starting to understand.

And we go on learning alright.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Respite from the Internet in Portugalete

It can't be.

Because we are changing internet companies at my house in Getxo, we have been most unfairly left without wireless internet for several days. I think it's almost been four days at this point. Barbarity.

I can barely live like this. Because of this most unpleasant interruption in the transcurrence of my normal patterns of looking up random bullshit on wikipedia, my cell phone's 3G bill will certainly have gone up significantly. In addition, this evening, after sitting inside for a while, in the dark, I decided to take my trusty MacBook for a walk.

 I crossed La Ría de Bilbao in the hanging bridge of Puente Vizcaya, and for the past hour I have been ducking into bars trying to find one that has wifi. Finally, on a small backstreet in Portugalete - a most quaint callejón if I do say so myself - I found a bar with semi-functional wireless internet.

I am somewhere over there to the left, in a bar in an alley near that church. 
To be here on my laptop in a bar amongst drunken, socializing Basques is a novel thing indeed. There are many groups of people, and though I am not the only loner, I think I am the only lone person who is not a sad, old, alcoholic government employee drinking by himself. I am, however, a somewhat malaised, young, alcohol-in-relative-moderation-consuming, government employee drinking by myself.

But because I have my computer, that almost counts as having company. I have the world at my fingertips. Or at least, a staggeringly small and narrow-minded part of it, as long as I keep reading The Nation blogs.

The computer's screen turns my face blue.

I think I am going to do this more often though. Go to bars with my laptop. I need to make this commitment, even when we get wifi back at my house. I'm not going to lie, I am downloading a few episodes of Tremé right now, so that is my ulterior motive for being here.

Now, more and more people are coming in, and I am beginning to feel more than a little bit awkward. There is a golden retriever tied outside the bar's front window and he is staring at me intently, with a sizable stalactite of drool coming out of his smiling mouth. He has significantly added to my joy.

And how would he not?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Poner las pilas / Put the batteries in [more or less]

It was a very Basque day today. Typical Basque days are a lot like typical Oregon days in terms of weather. It rains. It's cloudy. There are lots of puddles. This is because of the rain.

This does not accurately depict my energy level today.
Though I like the rainy weather, it has taken a little bit of my energy away today.

Friday, 12th of October, 2012
  • Watched half of a pretty well dubbed "Return of the King" (El retorno del rey) on Euskal television.
  • Put on pajama pants.
  • Walked to Doner Kebab. Ordered Doner Kebab. Took said Kebab home. Ate kebab.
  • Looked out the window at all the lovely people.
  • Spoke incorrect, unrolled r Spanish with my roommate.
  • Watched the Daily Show. Laughed.
  • Looked up Paul Thomas Anderson's filmography.
  • Downloaded "Punch Drunk Love". Didn't watch it.

So to complement all of this prodigious achievement, I will now post some pictures I have taken of my new surroundings.

Sopelana, Bizkaia

This, however, I did take today.

Though it looks like a small village, this is actually just a part of Algorta, Getxo. Which is a big city.

I found ducks here, though not the the Chip Kelly variety.

I feel partly cloudy today. I need to come home before 8 AM next time.
Well, I'm sure I will have more solid things to say later today. Or tomorrow.

Agur! (Adiós)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

La siesta perfecta

This is my first entry from the Getxo, on the coast in the Basque Country, my new home in Spain the Northern Part of the Iberian Peninsula.

(It's not Spain).

Instead of boring you with the whole story of Basque Independence and resistance to perceived invasive Spanish nationalism, I'm going to get right to a much more crucial part of daily life here in Sp-

...the Northern Part of the Iberian Peninsula.

That crucial facet is something they call la siesta. You may be familiar with it. We anglophones refer to this curious phenomenon as a "nap".

As I write this entry, I am prostrate in my bed atop new and boldly colored Ikea sheets. As many of you probably know, the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula are very fond of napping. The other day, I heard a Basque friend say:

"They say the ideal siesta is twenty minutes - no more, no less."

This was said with a certain air of authority, a smug aloofness. This comment was beyond margin of doubt.

"Bah," I thought to myself. "Everyone knows that twenty minute naps suck major polla." Who would want to engage in the tease of only lying down for a few minutes? Not even a full half hour.

However, a few days ago, I found myself en casa and I was tired as hell. However, I had some big plans for the evening (wearing a suit and drinking wine in the streets). I knew I had to recharge the batteries somehow.

I remembered the dubious claim my friend had made about the supposed superiority of twenty minute naps. "Hell," me dije a mí mismo (I said to myself), "I must as well test this theory out." I laid down on my previously cited (and still boldly colored) Ikea sheets and set to work. Or did the opposite of setting to work. Trying to do absolutely nothing at all and spur on unconsciousness. Thus is the perplexing paradox of sleep.

Goddamn if them weren't some of the best twenty minutes I ever did spend. Maybe I was influenced by the air of authority that mi amiga vasca utilized in her declaration of the veinte minuto primacy. Maybe this is why the placebo effect is so well documented in science; the power of suggestion is indeed quite powerful.

Twenty minutes might not seem like enough, but I direct your attention to how relaxed my friend Pablo appears in the following photographic evidence:

This is how it's done, fools.

And yes, that's right. That is the Simpsons, dubbed in Spanish. And you're right, Pablo did only sleep for about twenty minutes. And you know what? I didn't ask him specifically, but he seemed pretty goddamned relaxed to me.

To answer your question, yes, our apartment is that colorful. We're big on the fuchsia and lime green combo. It's like a Basque Barney the Dinosaur, although he's more a weathered, sun-bleached lavender than hearty purple.

And yes, the Castilian Spanish Simpsons voices sound a lot like the English ones, especially Homer.

I hope you have learned something from this most solemn and thoughtful post. Since someone is outside bumping Beyoncé from a beat-up Peugeot (I can't actually see it, but we can be fairly certain), it is time for me to tell them to go vete y tomarlo por culo.

I can hear the Google Translate windows opening as we speak.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Crossed the land / Cruzado la tierra

Well, I have come a long way. Literally. Physically. Metaphysically.

A few days ago, Cassidy R. Berk and I courageously completed our journey across these United States in his trusty, and now dusty, charcoal-colored Honda Civic. We saw sights and heard sounds emblematic of so many facets of this great country of ours, details from which I will go into further on down the line. Promise.

But now I find myself standing on the deck of a veritable castle in the Hendricks Park section of Eugene, Oregon, a town I have come to know and love so dearly over the years. It's a place I will always hold in my heart for the times, both terrifically terrible and terribly terrific, that I've had within its municipal limits. And in other municipalities nearby.

Oregon, it's good to be back. Oregon people - you are much loved, family and friends alike.

View from the hilly heavens, looking down upon the masses

In many ways, this, and not the East, feels like home. And in many other ways, this is still part of my journey, being here, seeing what there is to be seen. I originally created this blog so people could keep track of me (and I could try and keep track of myself) while I was in Spain, but I realized that "journey" - viaje - means a lot more than just when you check bags and pack toiletry kits. A journey is where you see things you haven't seen before, even if it's in the same places as always.

There are many kinds of journeys, and everywhere can be a new place.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Gibraltar Has a Burger King. / Gibraltar tiene Burger King.

If you don't like watching baby monkeys at play, and are therefore a total douchebag, do not watch the following astonishingly precious videoclip, narrated by me. Also, if your heart is made of pure stone and you have a vacuous, gray soul, please do not watch the following video as you may find yourself feeling inklings of real human emotion. 


I guess, in the end, I was never really given any pumpkins. Nor any other type of squash for that matter. Sort of a let down when you think about it. But I did get this Gojira album. In their hometown. In France.
How metal is France? Very. What does this picture have to do with anything? Nothing.

I'm back in the United States now. Do I feel different? Yes. How exactly? I need more time to think about it.

Would I have done it again? Definitely.

In fact, tomorrow I'm going to ride the Metro down to D.C. to take my new visa application in. I'll let you know how it goes, blog. I'm talking to the blog like it's a person. Yes. I am.

And let's be clear that yes, I do feel like a slacking reprobate for not writing more. Then again, I was never known for my ability to turn in homework assignments in a timely fashion, and of late it's dawned on me that maybe failing to update my travel blog is a manifestation of this same complex.

Sometimes, I guess, I just feel like I ain't got nothin' to write good about.

So to calm the clamoring-for-pitchfork uprising, I give you a picture of Granada at sunset. Print it out, use it as a post card. Postcard. Is there a space?

Oh yeah, Gibraltar has a Burger King.

What does that have to do with anything? Nothing.

More coming soon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The waning days / Los días menguantes

It's starting to feel real.

I'm quickly approaching my last days here in Valladolid. As difficult of a relationship as I have with Pucela, leaving this town is bittersweet. Big upheavals in life are always difficult, and leaving the place where I've lived and loved and worked and bled for the past ten months won't be any exception.

There have definitely been cold nights and times where I wanted to feel something familiar. And of course, the cultural peculiarities - more often than not the little things - really me tocaron los cojones sometimes.

Above all the great people I have gotten to know in this city on the Pisuerga will be tough to leave behind. Moreover, tomorrow is probably the last day I'll be going to my instituto to see the kids I've spent the whole year with. That will be hard. Apart from the beautiful, thoughtful gifts they've given me throughout these past two weeks, the times I've had with them I'll never forget. Never.

If you're reading this, guys - and you should be, because I've taught you English for the past ten months - I want you to know that I am going to miss you very much and that I will always remember the classes we shared together. Sometimes, I think you taught me more than I taught you, and that's not just because a lot of you don't study! (Joke.) (Sort of.) But you really helped me learn a lot of things about the world and about myself.

We're not so different, you and I.

And I know I told you all not to cry the other day, but I know that I might have a hard time following my own rule soon. I really will miss all of you. Even the bad ones who don't study.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Santurtzi / Santurce

Finally, after trekking through a mountain of savagely inefficient bureaucracy, I just got my placement in Spain for next year. My top three choices had been Cataluña, Valencia, and the Basque Country, in that order, but because the former two comunidades are going belly-up (or patas arriba, "paws up") I'm going to be up north living with the vascos for the next year.

Specifically, I've been placed in a town called Santurtzi/Santurce, which are its respective names in both the native Basque language and the dominant Castillian Spanish. I think I explained earlier in a blog post about all the crazy languages that Spain has within its borders. Of these twisted tongues, Basque is surely the most distinct and difficult to learn.

But enough about linguistics.

Santurtzi is part of the Bilbao metropolitan area. Bilbao might ring a bell for some of y'all because it's the home of the famous Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. I went there once, and here is some evidence.

¡Qué susto, macho!

I know what you're thinking: that's one big spider. And you're right. It is.

It's art.

Anyways, Santurtzi is about 9 miles northwest of Bilbao, at the mouth of the river that flows into the Bay of Biscay. I think. Go look at a map. 

A is Santurtzi. B, appropriately, is Bilbao. The A for Santurtzi is not as appropriate, although "A" is the second letter of its name.
So as you can imagine I'm really excited to start wading through another bog of meaningless and drone-like paperwork so I can obtain my visa for the next year. I'm also tickled pink about cleaning my apartment and not getting any of my security deposit back!

A general representation of my sentiments.
But seriously, I couldn't be happier about my placement next year. 

Sometimes, I worry too much about logistics instead of enjoying the moment. I think I might be the only person in the world that does that. Right?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

El camino de Bruselas / The Brussels Walk

A few weekends ago, my partner in crime David A. Palmer and I went on a small jaunt to an equally small country called Belgium. While there, we went on an interesting, and also small, walk through the city of Brussels. You may know it for its famous sprouts, or perhaps for its Euro regulation.

Anyways, the aforementioned Dave and I though it would be pretty cool to each write a thousand words about the walk we took and see how differently it turned out. We also decided, in a shameless and selfish gimmick, to each post our pieces on the other one's blog.

So without further ado, here is David A. Palmer's version of "The Brussels Walk". You can find mine on his blog at .


Our hostel was a long ways from downtown Brussels.  And I don’t meant just spatially.  Sure, it was at least a solid half-hour walk.  But the neighborhood also looked a little rough.  Especially after arriving in Brussels from Bruges.  Bruges is the fairytale town of Belgium.  Brussels: the reality. It was like walking out of Harry Potter and into Hemmingway.
            Alex and I left the hostel around 8:45 p.m. on a Saturday evening and it was still fairly light outside.  8:46 found us walking alongside a hulking square, white, Godiva Chocolate factory.  It looked more like a warehouse than a wonderland producer of delightful sweets.  All the chocolate retailers in Bruges had been tiny, picturesque little shops with names like Confiserie de Clerck and Dumons Chocolatier.  But not here in outskirts of Brussels.
            As we walked by the Godiva behemoth Alex and I discussed the group of three cute Canadian girls we had met at the hostel.  They had promised to meet us downtown at 10:30.  First, they wanted to cook and eat dinner.  Then have a few drinks in the hostel. And then get ready.  By the time we agreed that there was about as much chance of Ryanair handing out free milk and cookies as there was that the girls would show up on time, we had come to the main road, Boulevard Leopold II. 
            Turning onto Boulevard II, we passed the Simonis Metro stop, where we had emerged hours earlier on our way to the hostel.  There were still several groups of younger to middle aged men hanging out, smoking and talking amidst the construction and heaps of trash and in front of the station. 
            Boulevard Leopold II was a wide swath of a road, six lanes across at its widest point, and the difference between it and the neighborhoods of Bruges could not have been starker.  It was a lived in neighborhood, and it was an immigrant neighborhood.  There were teahouses, bars with signs in Arabic and electronic shops.  We also noticed that virtually everyone around us was dark-skinned.    When I think North African immigrants I think southern Spain and Italy, not Brussels, yet here we were.
            As we passed one particularly crowded teahouse our discussion turned to existentialism.  There were large clumps of middle-aged men sitting at tables along the sidewalk, drinking a strange-looking brown drink with lots of small green leaves, out of glasses.  “So it’s just the idea that we exist to exist?” I asked bemusedly. 
            We walked over puddles pooling in cracks on the sidewalk and under construction scaffolding.  Alex made the point that while existentialist philosophers make some excellent points, they are inclined to ramble.  Which led us to the topic of writing in general: the proliferation of meaningless blogs and the endangered state of real journalism.  The danger the New York Times faces in being the only major newspaper behind the firewall, and their lack of other real options.
            We ducked across the busy street, into the shadows of the buildings.  Taxi drivers were relaxing on this side, sipping beers as they waited for fares.  The concept of botellon, drinking on the streets, was very much alive in this district.  A middle aged man with dark skin put down a half finished beer next to a tree and called out to an acquaintance up the street in a strange tongue.  The rough appearance of the neighborhood was making us a little nervous.  It reminded me of the neighborhood around Marseille’s train station, with its packs of guys drinking on the streets and homeless on virtually every step. We began to debate the intelligence of walking home along this road later that night.   
            We soon came to a wide canal.  We had just about made it to downtown Brussels.  I started looking for some medieval looking walls, or ancient but majestic buildings.  Almost every European city has walls and edificial history.  But all we saw were car dealerships and office buildings. 
            Here we came across a family, also heading downtown.  The parents were tugging on the hand of a little girl, urging her along.  Just then a woman crossed the street and walked past them, heading downtown as well.  She was wearing bright pink high heels and extremely tight pink pants, but had an old face, too old to be dressed up like that.  The little girl stared with interest at her as she walked by.  Just then Alex made a noise of recognition.  As the woman moved off he turned to me.  “Dude, that was a prostitute.”  Oh. 
            We kept walking.  The buildings got taller, but they were still all glass and offices. And standing on every street corner here were more women with high heels, tight skirts and fish-net leggings.  The traffic on the roads was fairly busy here, but there were very few other people sidewalks.  Except for the prostitutes.  In Brussels.
            The buildings, more glass and industrial, started to tower over us, the shadows a bit more menacing than they had seemed before.  It was like Munich, the efficient German city, without the cleanliness and order.  Or maybe Barcelona without the crowds and street performers.  Finally we were spit out onto Boulevard Anspach Laan, the main road that cuts through the heart of Brussels. 
            It was like poor man’s Time Square.  There was an electric Coke-a-Cola sign hanging on a stone building.  Alex took a picture.  Supposedly the sign was famous.  I could only compare it, and not favorably, to Boston’s historical CITGO sign near Fenway. 
            We were hungry and needed to eat soon, just in case the Canadian girls did get their act together and meet us at 10:30.  To our right was a Chi-Chis.  Good old fashioned Mexican-American chain restaurant.  We both looked at each other and had the same thought.  Brussels had been awful so far. Disappointingly, maddenly, ugly.  We’d eat at Chi-Chis. It would be our fuck-you to Brussels. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

La absurdez de 'footing' / The Absurdity of 'Footing'

Exercising is a terrible. But it doesn't have to be.

Like all of you - excluding the perfection-chasing, overly-enthusiastic yuppie types - going for a run can be a harrowing prospect. The only thing that's worse is THINKING ABOUT HOW YOU HAVE TO GO FOR A RUN LATER, after all of your appointments, prearranged commitments, job interviews, studies, and the other things we have to do to oil the rusty, crushing gears of our monotonous lives.

Let's face it, it's difficult to try and squeeze some exercise into our busy days, especially as we hurdle meaninglessly along towards the unknown; unto the looming, Sartreian void which is death. This is especially true if you work with children or if you spend seven hours a day in a cubicle.

So let's be realistic, when facing the rising tide of the existential absurd, it's hard to find time to jog.

We all know the situation. You're sitting there, at school or work, or on a park bench, or in your bed, and you're having a great time. You're in the moment. You're zen. And then, all of an sudden*, you realize you should probably be exercising. You realize that you're fat. You realize that the only way you can avoid being a bad, fat person is to exercise.

Here's the thing: remember all of that snarky shit I just said about the ghoulish penumbra of this life's flat and meaningless existence? Well, you know what Camus said, about laughing in the face of the absurd? The Spanish are right on top of that. While they might not have read the Stranger when it was assigned to them in school, and maybe they didn't even read the back cover, but like any good work-avoiders (and the Spanish might be the world champions...if the tournament is mañana**), the Spanish have definitely at least read some quotes from Camus to put into their slapdash, last-minute essay. And one quote they definitely took note of went something along the lines*** of "the only way to combat the malaise of life is to laugh in the face of the absurd".

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Spanish have decided to call the act of jogging, "footing". This is roughly pronounced "foo-teen", and the correct way to use it in a sentence is to say, "Voy a hacer footing", i.e. "I'm going to do footing".


As you can imagine, as a holier-than-thou native English speaker, full of spite that I am, I cannot in good faith utter the sentence "Voy a hacer footing" and continue my life as a proud, self-confident human being. It's too much.

But wait.

You know when you think about have you have to go running later today? Because you're a fat, bad person? Which you actually aren't - this is the real media conspiracy: making us think we're fat. And screw you Fox News, because your network is the worst about it. Your female anchors are way too hot. Are all hot women conservative bitches?

I digress.

So you know how you dread - hate - abhor - obsess over - dread**** - hate - thinking about going running? I have a suggestion for you. Next time, don't think about going running. Don't even use the mental language "going running", or "va a correr" or "vai correr", or whatever your native brain language might be.

Think about choosing to go do a little footing instead. I guarantee you that, while you still might not actually get off your ass and do anything, you'll at least laugh about how badly that word was translated - invented - in Spanish. You need to at least laugh at that.

Also, once you do get off your ass and get out there (because you ultimately will, once it dawns on you that have nothing better to do and because life is meaningless anyway, you might as well move your legs across various terrain in a repetitive pattern for ten to twenty minutes), remember another thing:

If you are like me and are paranoid, and always think people are analyzing and criticizing your running form and communicating it to other pedestrians using telepathy, you have a responsibility to society - when footing - to immediately start to feign like you are running through the Marine obstacle course at Quantico. You must jump over every park bench, run along the side of any retaining walls (like you are adeptly avoiding unseen pursuers along a building ledge), and you must act like the tiles of the sidewalk are truck tires at the NFL combine, there solely to test your foot speed and agility.

Hey, this isn't some bullshit running. Fuck running. This is footing. This is serious.

*In Spanish, a way of saying "all of a sudden" is "de golpe", which means "of a smash", or "of a hit". This is a cognate of the French word "coup", like in "coup d'etat" ("blow to the state") or "coup de grace" ("blow of grace"). This is a fucking awesome way of saying "suddenly".

** "Mañana" means tomorrow, and the Spanish know better than any American procrastinator that tomorrow is a much better time to do things than today.

*** I also did not look any of this up. I kind-of-sort-of remember it enough from like, something I kind of read a while ago. This is a blog, not a fucking research paper.

**** I said dread twice. It's a good word. It rhymes with "dead". It sounds harsh.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Oregon in Spain / Oregón en España

Before I cam to Spain, I had a mental image of a sun-drenched, wind-swept earth, full of knights tilting at windmills and debonair dudes with nylon-string guitars wailing in a forlorn, quasi-Arabic syallabary. This was a land where people were always winking and laughing at some inside joke about the futility and thus innecessity of hard work; men were slapping each other on the back while slapping women on their hindparts; a land where everyone was good at spitting game and good at playing castanets.

However, I've told you enough about the deconstruction of the preconceived notions of Spain's people. Shoot, I've probably even covered the landscape enough too. Tell you the truth, it must sound like I'm just constantly bitching and moaning about how much life sucks over here. Right?

Don't answer that.

But to all my Pacific Northwesters - check this out:

Greetings from Seattledolid
Somehow, the Northwest has followed me here. All we need now is several steamships full of emigrant hipsters and a cargo tanker full of unicycles, used books, thick-rimmed lensless glasses, and flannel shirts. We'd also need to establish at least seven organic food stores. Then, such as this following artsy picture shows, we'll be totally ready to write spoken-word poetry about the gloomy gray skies and perform it in a hip coffee shop, run by a failed bassist with 1890s-U.S. President mutton chops. Maybe, soon, between the espressos and the organic, range-free, egg-white omlettes, we'll even be able to play a worn, 1974 edition of the board game Clue, just because, like, it's so much better than the new updated version, before Colonel Mustard totally sold out.

This street represents the futility of existence. Calle Godot.
So as you can see, Spain also has shit weather in late April. Where are my goddamn palm trees?

Friday, April 6, 2012

El páramo / The Plain

I have never lived in a place as arid or barren as the province of Valladolid. It has been a shock moving from Eugene, Oregon, which is one of the most verdant and lush places in the United States, to the empty plains of central Castilla. I never knew before that a change in landscape could be so unsettling.

There is not much in the way of forests - just a few scattered "pinares", or pine groves. Some of the landscape looks exactly like northern Utah or southern Idaho, places which I came to know due to my epic journey across the United States almost a year ago. Actually, east of the Cascade mountains in Oregon looks very similar to Valladolid, but without nearly as much change in terrain. Here, for example, is a landscape shot near Burns, OR:

I don't know if I could live for an extended period of time in a place like that. Something about the Wild West just has a mystique, though. That unspoken edge to it, carved in from centuries of cowboys, desperadoes and history.

 But, of course, all of that existed in Castilla as well. There were knights and duels and jousts and desperadoes and vaqueros, long before there were any on our continent of North America. 

Maybe, just maybe, it's my rut-stuck way of thinking about a place that's unfamiliar to me. Because this plain, this páramo, sometimes doesn't match up to the one I am used to. But sometimes when I scale one of the flat-topped, monolithic mesas that encircle the city, the astounding view I get is something that conjures up the epic wildness of the American Old West. Maybe, just maybe, the Spanish conquistadores saw something that reminded them of home - many, many years ago.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

El Lechazo / The Suckling Lamb (or Eating Young Animals Continued)

Today, ladies and gentlemen - and the rest of you maladroits - I was invited to a small town in the province of Palencia for a barbacoa. That's Espanish for "barbecue". Actually, our word comes from their word. But really - we know that our word is better.

Unfortunately however, I forgot to bring my camera, but what we ate was something divine and I hope my words are enough to convince you more than any multi-megapixeled image. We ate something out of this world. Actually, we ate something that had only recently BECOME PART of this world, and that particular thing was el lechazo, or a very, very young suckling lamb. Roasted whole. For hours.

It's appropriate that the province of Palencia is well-known throughout Spain for having the world's third-largest Jesus statue (which I think I have commented on in a previous post), because this recently-deceased lamb had a taste of divine proportions. And, gente, I'm happy to report to you that like a true adventurer, I ate the little bastard's brain. Yes, that's right: all the knowledge possessed by this little lamb (which, contrary to popular refrain, never belonged to anyone named Mary) has been assumed into my own body of understanding. That is, of course, how things like this work.

Have any of you ever eaten brains?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Segovia - Roman Arches, Jewish Graveyards, Muslim Fortresses, and One Little Pig

            It was Sunday and I was sick as hell of lying in bed.

Here in Valladolid, and in Spain as a whole, Sunday is dead. You’ve surely heard of the Spanish custom of “siesta” – napping (or at least not working) between about 2:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. Well, Sunday is the weekly equivalent of a 2:00-5:00 PM siesta, only it lasts the whole day. Nearly no businesses are open, save a smattering of restaurants and cafés, and the city itself seems comatose. It reminds me of an old Western frontier town when the black-hatted villain rides in: the streets are cleared and only the bravest of souls have the cojones to venture out into the eerie calm.

Well I was sick of the Valladolid Sunday routine and I knew I had to get out of dodge or risk being suffocated by a Spanish tumbleweed of boredom.
People have kept telling me to go to Segovia, an ancient city about halfway between Valladolid and Madrid. The town is in and of itself a historical landmark, a crossroads of many ancient cultures. Its most notable attraction is a aqueduct built by Roman engineers in the 1st century A.D. (yes, when that Jesus dude was around). There is also a Muslim-Iberian castle called el Alcázar, which was supposedly the main inspiration for this dude named Walt Disney when he designed the castle logo for some company he founded. No big deal.  
It’s curious, that we folk in the United States miss out on, living in a place with so much documented history. Maybe if more of Native American culture had survived, or rather, had been allowed to survive, we would know a lot more about what our land used to be like and have a greater appreciation for history. For us, something “old” or “historic” is often “only” one or two hundred years old. Here in Spain, and in Europe in general, one or two hundred-year-old buildings aren’t considered landmarks. You need at least three centuries to considered meritorious of the label “historic”. Shoot, they still use buildings from a thousand years ago. I have a friend in Seville whose apartment building was built in 900. No, not 1900, but 900.
It’s funny though, that in order to appreciate the richness of the past, at least in the historical places that I have visited so far, you often have to ignore the ever-encroaching influence of the present. It’s difficult to appreciate the magic of a 1,500-year-old cathedral when someone has spraypainted “I love you Sofía!” in eye-assaulting neon blue on the side. It’s very hard to transport yourself to a world of 2nd-century Ibero-Roman legionnaires when you have to drive through monotonous miles of stucco-colored, 1960s-era apartment blocks in order to see the surviving evidence of the old world. It’s a jarring contrast if you’re not ready for it.

It’s a tough realization for us tourist-types in Europe (even those of us who live here) that when we go visit these incredible sites of history, especially if we’ve traveled long distances to see them, that in the past countless centuries since their construction, life has gone on in a big way. Especially in the past couple hundred years, modern society has changed so drastically and so rapidly that it makes sense when you have a superhighway next to Stonehenge, a parking lot next to the ancient Portuguese castle or a public housing project next to the 9th-century Muslim-Iberian fortress.
It’s on us, then, to use our creative minds to extract ourselves from the grind and concrete of the present era and try to transport ourselves to another era. We have to do something as adults that we don’t normally do much anymore “as mature people”: use our imagination.

There was hardly anyone on the bus itself – just myself and a few other wayward souls. However, while I was eavesdropping on conversations, I overheard a girl speaking on her cell phone in a sweet and mellifluous language, replete with nasally “ims” and “ãos”.
I sketchily moved to a closer seat, and once she got off the phone I asked her if she was from Brazil. She was! Who says we don’t know geography?
We talked for the rest of the bus ride in a strange mixture of bad Spanish (her), worse Portuguese (me), and universally understood hand signals. Once we got to town, she told me that she lived in Segovia and that she would show me the aqueduct. Now, this is the type of kindness from strangers that really makes your day brighter. That’s something I’ve been missing a lot over here in Spain. But I’ll complain about that later.
 So my Brazilian friend, whose name I cannot now remember, walked me to the aqueduct. I totally could have found it on my own but I was perfectly glad to listen to her fantastic accent and her adorable confusion of Spanish and Portuguese for a little while longer.

Segovia’s aqueduct is really something incredible. It’s about 60 feet high at certain points and it must be over a mile long, snaking its way through much of the ancient part of the city. The importance of its historical attraction was evidenced by the multi-multi-multilingual signage sprinkled throughout the whole plaza. Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, English, German, French, and all of them were there taking pictures on their SLR cameras. 

I’m not a huge architecture buff or anything, but one fact about the aqueduct’s composition left me surprised and impressed: in all of its height, length and dimension, the builders used absolutely zero concrete. The thing is held together purely by the virtue of its own ingenious structural integrity. Pretty amazing. Even after 2,000-some years, it’s still standing.
I had had enough aqueduct-gazing, so I ventured down some appealing-looking side street with absolutely no idea of where I was going, but the general idea that I was going the “right” way. I suppose there was no real “right” way at the time, but on this type of spur-of-the-moment trip, one moves through his itinerary at the behest of an oblique network of semi-palpable, metaphysical forces. You see a cool looking building in the distance, and boom – you’re going to walk to it, no matter how long it takes. In this case, I saw a cool looking street and I knew that I was going to walk down it, and I had a pretty good hunch that beyond its cobblestoned-intrigue lay further captivating sights. 

My random amblings indeed led me to the Plaza Mayor of Segovia. For all who ain’t in the know, in Spain and many other Latin-descended countries, the Plaza Mayor (which translates to a mixture of “Major Plaza”, “Oldest Plaza”, or “Most Important Plaza”) is the nucleus of any city’s lifesblood. The city’s most important buildings are its major cathedral (and in Spain there is always major cathedral) is either in, next to, or very near to the Plaza itself. 

It was a gorgeous day so I continued my ambling, ambling around the Plaza itself and also ambling into various buildings of civic, religious, and historic importance, but that I will spare you the details of now.


This is mainly because I don’t want to write about it anymore. When traveling in Spain, and perhaps in other Southern European Catholic countries as well, there is a phenomenon I like to call “Severe Cathedral Overload Disorder” (SCOD). This illness is caused when, as a heathen American or Northern European, you have visited at least five large cathedrals, ranging from “epic” to “tremendous” to “grandiose and self indulgent” to “shouldn’t they be worshipping God instead of building cathedrals?” Symptoms of this disorder include: not really caring how goddamn high these flying buttresses are; getting sick of seeing wooden, scarred depictions of worse-for-wear Jesus being tortured by equally wooden Roman soldiers; feeling jaded about the amount of gold-plating and gold-leafing the Catholic church does with its parishioners’ donations; and finally, not giving a fuck about seeing anymore goddamn cathedrals. 

At a certain point, ladies and gentlemen, each big-ass stone building with tons of peace-sign giving icons of saints and crosses and stained glass blends into the next. Now, I’m not religious, but I consider myself a believer in a higher power, and if you want to call that “God”, I’m fine with that. I also personally believe that Jesus is a wonderful teaching figure and while he’s maybe not the one-and-only son of God sent to save us sinners from ourselves, that he was a great man and he certainly had some good things to say. I don’t like putting a label on my spiritual beliefs, but I would call myself a “Christian” in that I believe many things Jesus advocated were good. In that same sense, I’m a “Buddhist” and a “Muslim” too, but that’s for another discussion another day.
 My point is, despite my firm belief in many of the teachings of Jesus, I’m not sorry when I admit honestly that I think building legions of ornate cathedrals and carving countless, expensive and surely time-consuming physical representations of Jesus is a pretty big waste of time, money, and effort. I would go as far to say that it’s almost blasphemous in the sense that all of that money and effort could have been used in much better ways, like actually helping people in need or advocating for the rights of the poor, hungry, and tired. It doesn’t help that many of these cathedrals are contemporaneous with the vile Spanish Inquisition and the Expulsion of all Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. The Jesus I know (and I’ve read a good portion of the Bible) would not have done any of that. Sometimes, I think that the priorities of organized religion lie more with advancing human interests and not with the pursuit of goodness and justice.
Wait, did I say “sometimes”? 


Interestingly, I saw on the tourist map of Segovia that there was a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town. Knowing that most traces of Muslim and Jewish culture had been assimilated and/or eliminated after the Inquisition, I knew I had to check out this relative rarity. I walked through the “judería” or Old Jewish quarter, which has by and large been turned into a residential district, I noticed that on the map what was marked “Old Synagogue” had been changed into a Catholic chapel. 

This kind of assimilation (“conquest” might be a better word) is very common in Spain, and a majority of Muslim and Jewish-related landmarks have been turned into Christian places of worship, or at times, completely extirpated. Some ignorant elements of Spanish society like pretending that these two brilliant cultures did not contribute anything to modern Spain, despite the fact that the Spanish language is filled with Arabic-derived words, and that it doesn’t take a genius to see the obvious connection between Muslim and Spanish architecture. Also, the impressive and beautiful rainbow of skin tones, eye colors, and physical characteristics of modern Iberians did not come from centuries of isolation (like the Vikings of Northern Europe) but from an absolutely dazzling mixture of peoples from all corners of Europe, Africa, and Asia. But I’m not going to start another rant.

The Jewish cemetery was not so much a cemetery with orderly headstones and respectful markers but what you might call a “necropolis”, or a massive burial site. It was located outside the ancient walls of Segovia on a hillside, marked by a few signs and an array of almost-hidden Stars of David, cast in iron and cemented into various boulders. This was all that remained of the Jewish community of Segovia. A few stars, a couple Menorah inscriptions, and one or two informative plaques. It was sad, but at least they got any recognition.
Next, in continuing my tour of Segovia’s almost-forgotten side, I went to the Alcázar, which is a beautiful Muslim-built, “Christian”-repurposed castle from the last millennium. This is one that that guy who drew the mouse really liked and decided to make a model of. Walt something.

 I didn’t get to go inside because the joint was about to close, but it certainly is a beautiful architectural specimen, position picturesquely on the side of a cliff and offering some amazing views of the countryside below. 

However, I haven’t even told you the most important part of my trip yet, and it’s a perfect segue from talking about Jewish and Muslim culture.
 In Spain, they really like eating meat, and they really like eating meat, and more specifically, they really like eating pork. Even better if it comes from a very young pig.
They really like eating pigs here.
I had long heard rumors of a Southern Castillian dish called cochinillo, which means “piglet”, which consists of, quite literally, a piglet that has been roasted for hours and hours until it tastes like the manna of God. With many Euros in pocket, I set out to locate this mysterious piglet dish and confirm or disconfirm its purported bomb-tastingness. I found a suitably-priced, classically-Spanish-looking “mesón” restaurant and initiated my culinary conquista.
Holy Mary Mother of God. Y’know, the same one all those cathedrals are for.
First, they brought me Castillian bean-and-meat soup, and I was pretty full after that. Bean-and-meat is an ever-popular combo around these parts. 

But then, ladies and gentlemen, came the piglet. Golden-brown, young and tender, smelling like what the odor of God’s smokehouse must be like, the cochinillo was one of the best things, if not THE BEST thing I have ever eaten in my entire life. I’m going to spare you a detailed, “foodie” description of the taste and the aroma, but let me just tell you that if this were a dish I had consistent access to, I would have already died of congestive heart failure. 

Alas, I could not continue eating the cochinillo forever, and it was getting to be time for me to head back to the bus. Full of young pig parts, I slowly ambled back to the bus station, and was surprised to find my friend Natalia there, also waiting for the bus. Natalia is from Aguascalientes, Mexico, and because I think I somehow know a lot about Mexico from having lived there for three months, we began to talk about her home country. And just like that, the bus ride was over and we were back in Valladolid, her sick of hearing me attempt to talk about Mexico, and me thinking I’m so worldly and cosmopolitan for talking to her about Mexico.
But on my walk home from the bus station, there was only one thing on my mind: piglets, and how goddamn tasty they are. And I can taste it now.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hey dude! / ¡Oye, tío!

            I consider it a grand success that a lot of the students in my school now say the word “dude” a lot in English with me. It is fantastic to see that a new generation of international academics is learning the real way to speak English.

Excuse me, American.

Spain has several convenient muletillas ("little crutch", meaning crutch word) that function in a similar fashion, such as tío ("uncle"), macho ("male"), and the omnipresent hombre (d'uh). And it's not uncommon to string all three of them together in a single burst of convivial meaninglessness. 

Thus we have the perennial classic:

¡Oye, tío! ¡Hombre, macho!

And you've said so much without saying anything at all!

Monday, March 5, 2012

El perpetuo trabalenguas - The Perpetual Tonguetwister

            I’m not going to lie to you. At times, living in a country where another language is dominant makes you feel like your brain is pretty useless.
Now, I have studied Spanish for several years now. I have a degree in it from the University of Oregon – a pretty nice khaki piece of paper that says I have an advanced knowledge of the language, and I think it might even say I graduated “with honors”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. But sometimes, going into a bar and ordering a café con leche makes me feel like I have the IQ of a two year old who has been repeatedly hit in the head with a tire iron. This is especially true if I try to add any kind of flair to the sentence and really “make it my own”. I’m not sure how much I try to make English “my own” language; I normally say “Dude,” and then an semi-intelligible string of nouns, superfluous adjectives and even less necessary adverbs comes out, and what results is something most American English speakers can understand, but perhaps many others, especially older members of my own family, might have trouble understanding.

Dude, like, what type of tip is this dude on, right now, man?

Suffice it to say, then, when I try to make Castillian Spanish “my own”, an even less comprehensible concoction comes out of my lopsided mouth, and many native speakers here in Vieja Castilla are left bleating out a resounding “¿Qué?” in the face of this pale-skinned foreigner, the not-so-affectionate term for which is actually “guiri” (geer-ee). It’s sort of like the Iberian Spanish version of “gringo”, of which I’m sure everyone is familiar.
But there’s the interesting thing going on: here, what we call “Spanish” is not even really the native language in a majority of the Iberian peninsula. Of course, you’ve got Portugal where they speak Portuguese. Bien, that’s all fine, but even in Spain itself, “Spanish” is actually a misnomer that offends many people. Here, what we normally call “Spanish” is normally referred to as castellano, which means “Castillian”. This is the language that a vast majority of people in the country speak, and it’s the same language that all those big-ass countries in Latin America speak – Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, El Salvador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Panama, Honduras, Cuba, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and of course Puerto Rico (which ain’t a country, dude).
However, here in Spain, there are actually three – count ‘em – three other languages that are considered co-official with Castilian Spanish. In reality, there are many other minority languages in Spain, but only three have sufficient quantities of speakers to merit the consideration of "co-officiality" in their respective provinces. 

Here's a little breakdown:

The three main languages are (with their colors corresponding to the map):

 Galician gallego in Castilian Spanish and galego in the language itself, this is a language very closely related to Portuguese, and it’s spoken in the northwestern corner of the country, appropriately right above Portugal.

 Basque vasco or euskara in Castilian Spanish and euskera to the Basques, this is the language spoken by a minority in the Basque Country, and it’s one of the most insane-looking languages on Earth. It has absolutely no linguistic relatives in the entire world, and it’s what some people call an “indigenous language” of Europe. 

 Catalan catalán to the castellanos and catalá to themselves, they speak this language in Catalonia, on the northeast coast of Spain where Barcelona is. Of all the minority languages, this one has the most native speakers (around 7 million).

Many of Spain’s minority languages are learned in schools, and especially with Basque and Galician, they are considered official languages more as a formality and method of asserting the peoples’ autonomy than as a matter of linguistic necessity. Many, many people in Galicia and the Basque Country do not even speak their respective “native” languages – only Castilian Spanish. However, in Catalonia, while many people are either bilingual Spanish/Catalan speakers or monolingual castellanos, many people, as I will soon recount to you, are so proud of their catalá that they would rather speak English to tourists than castellano, and this is due in no small part to the long periods of linguistic imperialism that the Spanish empire (both Francoist and otherwise) has embarked upon throughout its history.
And speaking of the fight for independence in different regions of Spain, I will segue into telling you a little bit about my time in Catalunya and Euskadi, or for the castellanos among us, el País Vasco.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

La lucha lamentable

I know I've already written a lot on here about fascism and its lingering shadow in Spain, and I don't want to give the impression that everyone walking around Valladolid is throwing up Nazi salutes and perusing well-worn copies of Mein Kampf (which, unlike in English, is actually translated in Spain as Mi lucha, which makes it sound more legitimate). However, like I mentioned earlier I have seen far more open support of ultra right-wing ideology here in just under five months than I have in my entire life in the United States. It comes in the form of graffiti, wheat-pasted posters and stickers in public places, skinheads openly flaunting their beliefs on their sleeves, literally in the form of Nazi and quasi-Falangist armbands. The numbers "88", for "Heil Hitler" are graffiti'd in ubiquitous locations around town. It is truly revolting.
However, I saw something yesterday that disturbed me. On my way home from work, I walked past some kids horsing around on a park bench. They looked to be about 15 or 16 years old at most. There were two girls and one boy, and the girls were dressed like normal, coquettish Spanish teenagers, with the practically-compulsory black leggings and khaki colored skirts, with their hair done nicely. In short, they looked good, they looked respectable, they looked cute, like normal teenage girls. But the boy who was with them had his head shaved and was wearing a black leather jacket, and looked decidedly tougher than the girls, like he was from a different corner of society. But here they were, joking around and laughing, as any classmates do who have just been released from the stifling Bastille of high school for the day. The boy was looking at the girls in a way that suggested that he was trying to impress them, as any 16 year old boy would in front of two attractive female friends, and the girls in turn looked impressed by these buzz-cut renegade, tall and Doc Marten'ed, making those typical, manly Spanish gesticulations with his hands, as if he was telling them a story which he could barely believe himself.
As I got closer to the group, I saw that all over the boy's leather jacket were patches. At first I couldn't read them, but I thought they would inevitably bear the names of various punk and metal bands, which would be absolutely normal for kids anywhere, and especially in Spain (they like to bang their heads here, so to speak). But as I got within distance to read the patches, I saw that instead of Rancid and Iron Maiden logos, there were nothing but "88"s, swastikas, pictures of Hitler, and white power symbols. I was stunned, dumbfounded. I stopped walking, standing only a few feet away from them on the sidewalk, and I watched them interact, playing around and laughing like normal teenagers, oblivious to me standing there, mouth agape.
The worst part about it was not so much that the young boy was wearing the jacket. Like I said, it wouldn't have been the first time I'd seen something like that. But what really shocked me, what really made me feel sick, was that there were people all around us who did not act as if there was anything wrong. This was on one of the main streets in Valladolid and there were dozens of people around. And these two girls, ostensibly normal and mainstream as could be (if there is such a thing based on appearances) that apparently saw no problem with the views of intolerance that their friend was, quite literally, wearing on his sleeve.

And I stood there and stared.