Thursday, December 1, 2011
We'll do our best to update you on our arrival time soon.
Monday, November 21, 2011
So, in response, I have concocted a list of Things to Do In Palencia:
1) Eat tapas at Ribera 13, which everyone agrees has the best tapas
2) Eat tapas at El Trompicon, which as far as I can tell is the closest Palencia has to a dive bar. It is famous for its filthy floor and cheap prices.
3) Have dinner at El Chaval de Lorenzo, the restaurant where I made friends with all the staff and where a constant stream of old men and women play dominos and cards
4) Eat dinner on Plaza Mayor (at the restaurant whose name escapes me) where drinks, bread, an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert are 11 euros
5) Have coffee at the lovely cafe on Calle Mayor
6) Have drinks at La Oficina, one of the city's oldest bars
7) See a movie at one of the three movie theaters
8) See a concert at Teatro Ortega
9) See a play at Teatro Principal
10) Watch live jazz at La Oficina or Ponte Vecchio
11) See a band at the Lemon Society
12) Go to a wine tasting at the Lemon Society
13) Try good-quality ham at the butcher near Plaza Espana
14) See a show at La Puerta Verde
15) See stand up comedy on Avenida Casido de Alisal
16) Go to the Sunday flea market
17) Go to the Mercado de Abastos for fresh produce
18) Walk along the river
19) Sit in the Parque de Dos Rios and read the newspaper
20) Sit in the Parque Salon and people watch
21) Walk along Calle Mayor, window shopping and people watching
22) Climb up the Cristo
23) Go out dancing in a salsa club
24) Party in "la zona," a cluster of bars and clubs in the city center
25) Take a day trip to Valladolid, Burgos, vineyards along the Rio Duero, the ruins of the Roman Villa near Saldana, or the walled city of Avila
26) Hike in the hills by the city
27) See one of the art exhibits in the churches
28) Have a drink by the cathedral and watch the storks come home to roost
29) Go to mass in the cathedral
30) Eat lechazo (a special Castilla y Leon lamb dish) at any one of the city's nice restaurants
31) Bike around the city using one of the municipal rented bikes
32) Go to 1 euro sandwich night at 100 Montaditos bar
33) Drink 4-euro mojitos at Casco Viejo
34) Have chocolate con churros at the chocolateria by Parque Salon
35) See a salsa, meringue, or rap group at Cafe Central
36) Go see the current exhibit at City Hall and admire the architecture
37) Take a class at Espacio Joven (youth center)
38) Ride the river boat from the north of the province down the Canal de Castilla toward the city
39) Go on a government-organized nature walk
40) ... to be continued
(Next time: those promised thoughts on expathood and the role of boredom in travel and everyday life)
Sunday, November 13, 2011
"Oh, it's very pretty," they almost invariably say. "I've never been there. But it's really small. There's not much to see." They don't always say the "A" (or in English "B") word, but they don't have to. It's implied. Here, "small" means "unimportant" and "unimportant" means "empty of interest."
... Okay, to be fair perhaps it's not quite so stark and extreme as all that. But for a lot of Spaniards it seems there's two types of places: big cities, and everything else. And I think you can guess which type is worth your attention.
As I've struggled to make a new life here, I've been dogged by an anxiety that is difficult to place. Even once I found an apartment, moved in, and started work, I felt niggled by something I couldn't name-- until, after a few weeks, I started to discover the city and realized it was boredom I feared. All I saw in terms of socializing and food were a scattering of typical Spanish bars throughout the city. They were atmospheric bars, yes, that showed bullfights, served tapas and local wine, were full of old men playing dominoes. But as someone who possesses a more-than-generous helping of the so-called novelty-seeking gene, that didn't seem like enough to keep me engaged for a year. Yes, enjoying those bars for the first few months would be lovely. But what about after that? What if everyone was right? What if I was going to miserable here, and this was the proof?
I started an almost desperate search to prove them wrong. I examined every passing poster and flyer for events happening in Palencia. Surprisingly, I found a fair amount--plays and concerts at the city's two theaters, a festival of local gastronomy, a nature walk led by the Spanish equivalent of the Parks department. I went to some of those events, with mixed results. A concert by a touring Cuban group, decked out in three-piece suits and bowler hats, was fantastic; a benefit for the local food pantry featuring what can only be described as two land-locked cruiseship singers, not so much. But I was heartened even by the presence of cultural events, of possibilities, of choice. I started to realize that for me, choice on how to spend my time is really important. I didn't like the idea of being boxed into one particular activity for all of my Spanish weekends.
The next weekend, I found out that a small bar by the manicured park that cuts the city in half hosts live rock music every weekend. After that came an "alternative" pub with salsa and rap acts; a karaoke/bowling joint with comedy acts on Tuesdays; and a restaurant famous for its filthy floors and tasty, cheap food. And I felt something change--my search for interesting Palencia adventures was no less thorough, but its mood had altered. I found that as long as I knew that there were fun things out there for me to discover, I enjoyed the act of discovering them. Prior to moving to Spain, I had written to a friend that I was looking forward to "getting under the skin" of a city--that had been a big part of whatt I've referred to here as my "stale" expat dream. Well, this was what "getting under the skin" felt like... and I was enjoying it.
I paced myself, trying out a new bar or exploring at a new street, signing up for a dance class, or going to a new concert, once or twice every week. I was (and am) aware that Palencia, while rich with interesting options, is not by any means an infinite city, but I liked mixing newness with the start to a routine, a list of fun places I could frequent if I liked. Sometimes I traveled around the province, or even farther afield (posts about my trips to Madrid and to Galicia, a province in the northwest, are coming). And I didn't feel bored. At least not yet.
Honestly, that's been the worst part of it. The initial fear has mostly been dispelled, but the endless discussion of the "b" word with Spaniards (most often Palentinos themselves!) has not ceased. I'm sure this city is not a cornucopia of fascination for people who've lived here their entire lives, but I haven't--so for me it's an honor and a pleasure to learn about everyday Spanish life and make one of my own here.
My big realization has been that I fear the conversation more than the reality-- so I admit that "Aren't you bored?" and its other question compatriots still niggle. We start down that road, and I feel myself beginning to wonder and to worry. I wring my hands, imagining myself here in the gray doldrums of February, feeling trapped and miserable. Honestly, these days, I find myself thinking that if people would stop asking me if I'm bored, or if the city is too small, or if I have things to do; if they would just stop talking about how [fill in other city, Barcelona/Burgos/Madrid/Valladolid/Salamanca] would make a much better and more pleasant place to live... I could probably live here more or less happily.
Of course, the question after that is: if the conversations and commentary won't stop, how can I fight them? Steady, persistent rhetoric can be as potent a weapon as water torture. Are my weapons of choice-- determination, curiosity, humor, a sense of adventure--powerful enough to hold back the advancing tides of discontent?
(Next in this series: Some thoughts on the relationship between boredom, travel, and expathood.)
Monday, November 7, 2011
Learning Chinese brought me amazing places and allowed me to see and do wonderful things, and I'll always be grateful for that (for the curious, details of those adventures can be found in the initial years of this blog.) And, frankly, being a Chinese speaker has become a point of pride and identity for me. Not very many Americans speak Chinese, and I think some part of me likes that this ability shows I am willing to work hard, take my own path, and try new things. But part of coming to Spain was deciding to put Chinese on the back burner for a little bit.
I originally abandoned Spanish at age 13, jumping ship in high school for the more exotic (and verb conjugation-free) Chinese. For the next ten years, my Spanish language acquisition was pretty spotty. My knowledge of the language amounted to a bizarre mix of three years of middle school basics (Where is the library? The library is in the center of the city...), Rosetta Stone, podcasts, six weeks worth of mornings-and-nights (with creamy English-teacher-training-class centers) in Mexico, and a handful of weeks in Spain. It was only once I hit my 20s and spent the aforementioned time in Spanish-speaking countries that I realized I was ready to face the grammar challenges my 13-year-old self so loathed.
When I started meeting with a language partner in Boston prior to my departure for Spain, I was painfully aware of my inability to, say, speak in the past tense or express in any way my opinions on a topic. I also suffered from frequent code-switches (when the brain reaches for a word in one language and comes back with it in another)-- often I wanted to speak Spanish and found Chinese on my lips instead. It was incredibly frustrating, but with some practice I got to a place where I could access the two brain folders marked "foreign language" separately. I wrote about the beginnings of my trilingualism in this blog during my stay in Mexico, and I came to Spain feeling optimistic.
It took me a few weeks to banish errant Chinese from my brain, but after a month of immersion here in Palencia I felt I had succeeded. Around that time I started my Spanish classes at the Escuela de Idiomas (90 euros for an entire year's worth of courses, 2 or 3 times a week! Gotta love socialized education.) Although part of me balked at being put in the "Basico 2" level, in the end it was the right choice. Yes, I could express myself at a more intermediate level, but there were a huge number of grammatical holes in my language base that no amount of podcasts, Spanish soap operas, or Colombian pop songs could have ever filled.
Instead, with the help of my classes, I started to feel more solid in my linguistic footing. I could finally confidently speak in past tense, I was able to express myself generally in social situations, and I could go to bank and the grocery store, could generally Get Things Done. But the proverbial sword is double edged, of course. I wrote here in my last entry about visiting Valladolid, but there's one part that I left out:
During our program's orientation in Madrid, I met the only Chinese language assistant in Castilla y Leon. Her English name is Lydia, and I was very excited to introduce myself and get her contact information. Lydia and I met for lunch during my visit to Valladolid... and try as I might, I could not get my Chinese to come out and play. It was the opposite feeling of my time in Boston, as I struggled to express myself and failed. My sentences were a garbled mix of Chinese and Spanish, and there were points when I literally had no idea which language I was speaking and only recognized I had sprinkled random Spanish adjectives into a sentence after the fact. It was like I had lost control of my language center altogether. I felt bad for Lydia, who was confused and trying to help, but I felt even worse for myself. I couldn't remember a time when I wasn't proud of my six years of Chinese and when being a Chinese speaker wasn't part of who I was. It was horrifying to think I had lost so much hard work in less than a month.
Luckily, since that lunch I've gained a little bit of optimism. A few weeks afterward, I spent an hour trying to help my Spanish teacher communicate with a brand new arrival from Zhejiang. It was the closest to an aneurysm I hope I will ever experience, switching back and forth between Spanish and Chinese-- at some points I could barely find words in English. But in the course of my efforts I discovered that switching between Spanish and English, then English and Chinese, made it a lot easier. Something about the relationship between my two foreign tongues was causing dissonance. But I have found that cutting out that dynamic (or doing something to ease the transition, like practicing writing or listening to Chinese language music) seems to help some of what I've lost come back to me. And that, in turn, helps me feel all that work, and that linguistic and cultural world in general, is not lost to me.
Life in Palencia is still chaotic, but as things settle down I have big plans, and one of them is to spend more time nursing my Chinese back to health (along with pitching to English-language magazines in Madrid, joining a gym, going to the market more often, and on and on...). Chinese is not totally absent from everyday Spanish life, after all: there is an entire genre of stores (the kind that sell cheap electronics and everyday necessities) that are referred to as "Chinos" after the most common ethnic identity of their owners.
I could speak with the owners of these stores, practice with Lydia, and devote myself to trilingualism, yes. But I have to remember as well that things may never be the same as they were when I was writing my thesis in Yunnan, or even when I was just using the language to keep in touch with my friends and write articles for an immigrant newspaper in Boston. In gaining this gift of direct linguistic access to the world of Garcia Marquez, bullfights, tapas, tango, and Neruda, I have to lose something, too. But wasn't that always the way it was going to be, leaving Boston for something new?
Thursday, November 3, 2011
It's not a city with a good reputation: the people are said to be cold and closed, and someone once told me it was the "ugliest city in Spain." But at the same time, people say the same about Bostonians--who I adore--and about Parisians--who I had no problems with in the course of an eight-day visit. And no one could call Allston, my beloved former Bostonian neighborhood, anything but homely. So, I approached with both trepidation and skepticism, and after several months of hanging out virtually in the couchsurfing group there, watching a close-knit and welcoming community getting together for dinner or to go camping, I felt encouraged to meet them and their city.
In Valladolid, I stayed with Carlos, an enthusiastic host and beer connoisseur/collector with a very impressive collection from all over the world. The first day we walked all around the city, which I found to be quite lovely, although scrappy and unsightly on the edges (but no more than any other Spanish cities I've seen). It has a stunning main plaza, a pretty zone in the center full of old architecture, a university feel (it houses one of Spain's oldest universities), and a lovely big park full of (strangely enough) peacocks. The second day I stayed with Elizabeth, a fellow teacher in the Language Assistant program, and she showed me around further, leading me on a stroll through the city's shady riverside walk, its "beach" (of sorts), and a few old neighborhoods.
Valladolid Plaza Mayor, the model for the Plaza Mayor in Madrid
Twilight in the park by the river
I spent the first evening acquainting myself with the Valladolid couchsurfing crew, who were just as warm and friendly as I expected. We had a small party at Carlos' house, a beer tasting, sampling beers from Carlos' collection (Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, USA, etc). The tasting was fun and low key, and we spent several hours chatting and sipping.
I was impressed with the way my Spanish held up over the course of the evening. But I've also found that after a certain period, it's like a thick plate of glass goes up between me and whoever I'm talking with. I can see the other person speaking on the other side, but it's all hitting the glass and sliding off, and I can only look at him or her with blinking incomprehension and give that universal "I can't understand you but I am trying to pretend I can" smile.
Nevertheless, it was a very pleasant time. I met a lot of kind, interesting people; they asked me about American politics and culture, we talked about couchsurfing, they made sushi and ordered pizza. Along with the beer, I felt like I was tasting a bit of What Could Be. Uprooting your life is hard in any circumstances and is perhaps hardest in a new country with a new culture and language. I had been feeling lonely and frustrated with the pace of my friendship development. (It's one thing to understand that building relationships takes time, and it's another thing entirely to live it.) But this was one night to have a built-in group of friends, ready-made and waiting. It was heartening, and I took that strength home with me to Palencia to keep on with the work of life-making.
But when they finished their party at 2:30 AM and got ready to go out into the city, I couldn't say yes. Spaniards have amazing party endurance, the kind that an American girl has to train for the way she would a marathon, little by little. They got home at 7:30 in the morning; I slept soundly.
Carlos' collection, including beer from the Congo and a Pilsner from 1960 Czechoslovakia
Valladolid Plaza Mayor by night
(More thoughts on life-building, language frustrations, and a return to Valladolid for a ballet-flamenco performance of 'Carmen' coming soon....)
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
I’m no drug user, but it’s hard for me to believe that I could ever find a substance that would give me the kind of high-- sharp, bright bolts of happiness, upwellings of utter contentment, excitement, fascination--that travel has given me. Everything is so colorful, intense, exciting, different, and it leads to moments of uttery joy. I’m thinking about how I felt watching the sun set on the top of the hill next to my guesthouse on Naxos in Greece. Singing drinking songs with Tibetan migrants. Playing with the kids at the Turkish circumcision ceremony. Climbing up to the world’s farthest-east cliff at dawn in New Zealand. Dancing with Aztecs in Mexico on the equinox. I don’t think I will ever find something so soul-filling, so dazzling, so ecstatic.
Longtime readers of this blog may remember that it is this ecstasy that led me here, to Spain. I had so many wonderful experiences, met so many wonderful people in the course of my yearlong nomadic existence, but it was really difficult to always be leaving people and places I had just come to love. What it would be like, I wondered, to put down roots somewhere foreign instead of always moving onward and upward? didn’t know it, but in the first weeks of my life in Palencia, as I started answering that question, I was carrying that ecstasy with me. It was weighing me down.
Before I left Boston, at one of the many jubilant goodbye shindigs I attended, a friend pulled me aside and gave me a pair of earrings and a peptalk. “The first week is going to be wonderful, and I want you to wear these and think about how kickass you are. And the second week is going to suck. You’re going to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, where you’ve ended up. You’re going to want to go home. And I want you to wear these, then, too,” she told me.
I heard her, in the sense that the sound vibrations were processed in my eardrum and through my brain… but I don’t think I really heard her.
It sucked, really, at depths I hadn't anticipated. The first few moments in Palencia were of wonder, sure. I took the walk down Calle Mayor described a few entries ago, charmed by the place. It didn't take long for charm to fade into shock, frustration, fear, though. I found the hostel I’d booked for the first few nights, met up with some fellow teaching assistants, started looking for apartments. But although technically I was moving, it felt like standing still. Everything was doubly difficult: I was unable to find internet, let alone an apartment; unable to understand anything or make myself understood. I felt like I was bathing in anxiety, never able to relax or unclench my jaw. Five days in, I had the predicted melt down, wanting to run away somewhere… but to where, exactly?
I didn’t run. Instead, over the course of a week I forced myself to start to get a feel for the town. I found a café, Chaval de Lorenzo, with Wifi, where I made friendly chit-chat with the young Cuban waiter, Guillermo. The cafe staff learned to expect me in the evening for dinner or a cup of kolakao (a Spanish brand of hot cocoa), while old men around me cheered for the Valladolid futbol game or Leon bullfight. I met the teachers (almost all women) at my school’s English department, drinking espresso with them by the banks of the Carrion. I strolled along the Calle Mayor at dusk, enjoying the traditional paseo with what seemed like the whole town. I discovered the cathedral and its circling storks; I climbed the Cristo Otero, the giant Jesus statue outside town. It all sounds awfully romantic, doesn’t it?
I couldn’t understand why it didn’t feel romantic. It didn’t feel like anything. I wasn’t excited or ecstatic; I also wasn’t despondent. Instead, I was confused. I was living a dream, albeit a stale one. I was setting up a life in a new country, where every day brought me the fascinating, the picturesque, the new and different. Where were those bolts of pure happiness? I felt frustrated and numb. I woke up and felt nothing; ate, worked, spoke, slept. Nothing.
After a week, all the teaching assistants traveled to Madrid for orientation. It wasn’t a particularly happening weekend—we spent most of our time being talked at in a strangely windowless hotel. But on Saturday night I went out. I went by myself—which was difficult and is a topic for another blog post—but I was determined to see some good live music, with or without company. So I did my Internet homework and found a few bars with good reputations, then set out into the night.
The first bar was closed for renovations, and I almost gave up right there. But the second venue was not far, so I picked my way through increasingly teeming streets to a little bar pulsing with energy and drum riffs. Five euros later, I had my beer in hand and was watching a contagiously enthusiastic band throwing themselves into a strange but fantastic musical mixture of ska-punk-salsa-reggae-rock. Crammed on stage were timpanis, a full drum set, a brass section, a handful of guitarists, and a wild-haired halter-topped female singer who was doing her best Gwen Stefani impression and, quite frankly, killing it.
As one ska-tinged song was traded for another with a rocking salsa hook, the crowd responded as one, a mass of happy dancing bodies caught up in the musical chaos. They sang, they jumped, they twirled. And I felt it—that bright hot newness that transports you somewhere close to tears, that delivers a goofy grin and a heart full of helium. I stayed until the end of the show, then caught the last metro back to the hotel. I was so happy: for that night, and for the feeling that I had worried had deserted me. It felt like that flash of warmth that comes for a few days in January of a hard winter. Such a relief after the frost.
In the next weeks that happiness soured to anxiety. My life in Palencia was only becoming richer. I went to a deliciously chaotic gastronomical festival full of sausage, cheese, and wine in the town square. I started to discover interesting bars and venues for theater and music. I found an apartment with a beautiful view of the city, I met new Spaniard friends who brought me to tapas, I visited Roman ruins (details of all of this to come.) But I never found that high, and often that numbness persisted, a distant feeling: "Someone like me would really love this. Should really love this.” Instead there was just blankness, and frustration with that blankness.
Until one afternoon, I was walking to the train station when a boy from one of my classes passed me in the street. He raised his blue-casted hand and yelled “Hell-oo, Ah-lee-sa!”, then nudged the woman accompanying him--a sister, mother, babysitter?--- who twirled around to get a look at whoever her young friend was yelling English at across the road. I grinned and waved back, feeling a purring warmth spread in my chest. There’s something special about being called by your name in the street of a new place.
And as I’ve gotten settled these few weeks, I’ve continued to notice that purring. I go to a concert, discover a new restaurant, meet a new person, go for a walk in the stone streets and think, “This feels good.” Once I even thought, before I could catch myself, “I’m glad I’m living here, even if I couldn’t tell you why.”
I’m not sure if that’s the answer here: is this the feeling of a new foreign home? Does this slowest-paced version of ‘travel,’ this process of home-making, necessarily mean a pleasure that is more stable, a slow and steady warmth instead of the extremes of bright, lancing heat? There’s one part of me that still fears something is missing, that somehow something I’m doing is wrong if I don’t feel those highs from my traveling days. But in my new grocery shopping lists (on which I make sure to include Kolakao), triumphant second-language conversations, walks by the river, hours looking out train windows, savored café-con-leches—and in that purr that backs all of it like a rumbling cat orchestra-- I am starting to think that I was looking at the wrong weather report in Madrid. It wasn’t summer, no, but maybe it wasn’t a thaw between cruel winter months, either. Maybe it was spring coming.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Thursday, October 13, 2011
So, you're a traveler arriving to Palencia on the bus. You arrive in the station, grab your bag, and walk out into the late-September sunlight. You're on a non-descript street with a park on the other side, a dusty and much-used children's climbing structure in the center. You're not sure what direction to go and ask a couple of bored-looking teenagers, who point toward a round-about.
At the roundabout, things start to get interesting. There's a shoe store whose window is stacked with knee-high boots, a pizza place, a typical Spanish bar with metal countertop and stools. Even at this time in the afternoon, when the streets are empty, there are people there reading the 'Diario Palentino' and drinking hot, sweet espresso out of tiny cups. You walk past a shuttered bakery whose window is piled high with glossy truffles, fluffy cakes, and cookies packed with nuts and chunks of chocolate. Mental note: come visit later.
At the other end of the intersection you pass onto Calle Mayor, the nervous system of the city, a narrow stone pedestrian street that makes up most of Palencia's downtown. Beautiful old buildings in various archetectural styles and soft colors rise on both sides, most supported by columns that form a colonade for walking underneath. At first, the Calle Mayor resembles an outdoor mall--and in many ways it is. Flashy fashion boutiques crowd one after another, jockeying for space with banks and cell phone stores. But start to look carefully, and you can find almost everything you need here. A bakery, wafting the scent of new cookies into the street; Pilar's Imprenta for all your stationery needs; an electronics store; a supermarket; a coffee shop. This side of the Calle Mayor is particularly architecturally stunning. The Provincial Office is here, with a spun sugar spire; an old university facade looks like a Venetian Palace. On one side a brief passage leads to the Plaza Mayor, or town square, a small but bustling stone plaza where children play in the evenings on the statue in the center. On the other is a street that opens toward the cathedral, whose pinions are topped in those same evenings with a flock of storks and whose grandeur is surrounded by one of the town's only true plazas, filled with trees and open-air cafes.
You reach the halfway point. Calle Mayor is bisected by Calle Cestilla, a bustling automobile throughway. If you turn right here, you can find the striking coral city hall, topped by white icing flourishes. You'll find the city's theaters here, too, and the green cast iron Mercado de Abastos, filled with butchers and produce stands. But you keep going straight, and the pedestrian street continues.
A grand casino with turn-of-the-century architecture serves famously delicious meals on one side of the street, a laundromat and fabric store shore up more fashionable shops on the other. In a few moments, you can see 'La Gorda,' the smooth soapstone sculpture of a woman that marks the street's only fork. Walk to the right and you'd eventually find yourself on the banks of the Pisuerga river, with its assortment of stone and metal bridges arching over the green water, ducks swimming underneath and branches trailing in the current. But you choose to walk to the left, and the end of the Calle appears. You've reached the Parque Salon, an expanse of manicured trees and flowers that features children riding merry-go-rounds in the evening and whose benches fill with the elderly as the sun goes down.
Past the Parque, continuing north, the town changes. To the south, the city has an old, classic feel. Now, you are in modern neighborhoods, apartment buildings whose first floors are packed with bars and shops. The Plaza España welcomes you with a fountain and a scattering of cafes. Soon after you pass the boxy Escuela de Idiomas, where students of all ages study German, English, French, Italian. You see busy playgrounds set with spindly trees and clusters of churches in brick, concrete, sandstone.
Walk far enough and you will pass the rusty red brick walls of the Fabrica de Armas, a working gun factory. Keep going: now there are car dealerships, industrial warehouses, a giant mall, a hospital and famous nursing school. If you had enough time, you could walk all the way to the edge of town and into the hills--and from there you could see the whole town, the neighborhoods dissolving into the plains beyond, and a giant statue of Jesus Christ (called the Otero here), watching over everything.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Every journey to a new life is difficult, but not every one inspires you to teach your friend the American internet slang phrase “FML.”
Let’s start from the beginning:
It’s a sunny early-fall day in Berlin. I’ve spent the whole morning showering, packing, preparing for the final final legs of my trek to Palencia. A little bit later than we agreed, Toni arrives to have a quick lunch with me and accompany me to the airport. I’m jumpy and anxious about the impending flight, train/bus connection (I haven’t decided which yet), and final late-night arrival in a new and completely foreign place. I can't stomach any food right now-- I take my pizza to go.
We lug my two giant 20-kilo suitcases to the bus stop (the Iceland Express flight included two free checked bags, and I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to get most of my stuff across the ocean in one go.) As we do, we see the bus pull away. There isn't another one for twenty minutes, and there's still a train connection to get to the airport after that. We contemplate a taxi, but Toni decrees that we can make it. I am yet more jumpy. The bus finally comes, packed with people who stare at us and our outsized luggage.
At the station, we run flat out and make the airport train with 15 seconds to spare. It is at this point that I teach Toni the phrase “FML.” Oh, Alissa-on-the-train-to-Schoenefeld. If only you knew what was coming.
We arrive at the airport and find the EasyJet counter. Okay, I think, this could work, right? There’s still 20 minutes left to check in. We’ve made it. I hand my passport to the EasyJet woman.
Except: the small print. I bought a second checked bag, yes. But I didn't realize that the airline’s policy is that all bags cannot weigh more than 20 kilos together... not 20 kilos each, separately. EasyJet Woman informs me coldly that I can check this bag if I like—it will cost E42 per kilo. I do some quick calculations and then reach for the spare E800 I always keep in my back pocket.
Just kidding! I dissolve into a puddle of tears on the floor.
Just kidding, again! But barely. Toni is far more level-headed than I am. He uses his stellar German to ask the EasyJet Bitch (I’ve switched her name in my head at this point) if there’s a post office in the nearby. Miracle of miracles, there’s a DHL desk in the same terminal just a few feet away.
After some semi-panicked shifting of things from one suitcase to another, EJB checks me in. Then Toni uses that same stellar German to get me a quote from the nice ladies at the DHL desk--- only E42 to ship to Spain. We dither for a moment: where to send it? I don’t have an address yet.
Toni, the paragon of cool and calm through all of this, is starting to get agitated. Check in time is over and they have already started boarding the plane. Panicked, we part without a goodbye. I tear my belt and shoes off, take all my electronics out of my backpack, manhandle my bags onto the conveyor belt, sweating all the while. Toni mouths my gate to me through the window.
I run—RUN—to the gate, through a duty-free mall, up and down several sets of stairs, down a long hall. At the gate, there are exactly two idle neon-vested airport security guards and exactly no passengers. I show them the half of my boarding pass that remains, the other having fled the scene sometime during the preceding chaos, and they talk briefly among themselves. Then one of them says to me, “No, not gate 50. Gate 15!”
I don’t have the energy to run back up and down the stairs, back through the duty free mall, and to the other end of the terminal. Panic is flooding white-hot through my whole body at this point, and my breath is coming fast.
I get to Gate 20 and can’t find any lower numbers. Finally, I find a tiny sign pointing around a corner. Another set of stairs; another long hallway. Then a long line in which I catch my breath. The flight is due to take off in 15 minutes. I'm lucky they haven't shut the door yet.
There are two signs above us for gates 16 and 15. Then I hear someone talking about arriving in Amsterdam. I ask my linemates; yes, this is gate 16. I run ahead to the end of the hall: it’s a dead end. I can’t help it. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I say out loud. The Amsterdam travelers gape at the crazy lady pacing back and forth at the end of the hall, clutching a black traveling bag under her jacket and trying to make it look like part of her clothing in case somebody asks why she has two carry-ons instead of one.
Finally I discover the secret: another staircase down onto the tarmac. I make a mad dash, this time basically in tears. More neon-vested airport workers greet me, comfort me. No, you didn’t miss your flight. Just get in line, miss. I breathe a sigh of relief. (Again, too early.)
I find a seat. There’s no room in the overhead compartments and I have to gatecheck my backpack and take my computer and netbook with me. I’m sitting next to a nice couple from Madrid. For the first time, I’m surrounded by Spanish—I dont’ think there’s a single German person on this flight. I close my eyes and breathe it in for a moment. This is what my new life will be like. And then:
“Sorry folks” --(why do airplane captains always call the passengers ‘folks’?)—“but I’m afraid I have some bad news.” The PA system is fuzzy, and it sounds like the captain is turned away from the microphone. I think I hear something about an earthquake and think of the tremors in Washington DC a few weeks ago. The only thing I understand is we won’t be taking off yet.
The minutes stretch by and I get more confused. I stop a passing stewardess. “Did I hear the captain say something about an earthquake?” No, she corrects me. He said ‘bird strike.’ They’ve found a duck in the engine that got sucked in during landing. They’ll need to see if there is any lasting damage before departure.
There’s no ripple of understanding on the plane following this announcement. Everyone here speaks minimal English--I think I’m the only one here who gets it. The nice Madrileno couple look at me questioningly. I clumsily translate the announcement. There’s a jolly gentleman behind me who starts making pate jokes with his two daughters. We wait.
There’s nothing for it: we have to change planes. It takes 45 minutes to clear us out of the old plane and get us into a hot, cramped waiting room. There’s another 20 minutes of chaotic waiting (I guard my electronics zealously), then pushing and squeezing onto busses which literally (and I wish I was making this up) drive in circles on the tarmac for another 15 minutes. Eventually we make it onto a new airplane, baggage and all. The situation seems still salvageable until we sit waiting for take off another 25 minutes.
In the air I’m starting to panic again. I'm not a nervous flyer, but this time I make an exception. I have nowhere to stay in Madrid, and I don’t know if I’ll make the bus to Palencia. This flight was originally scheduled to arrive at 8:05, leaving me plenty of time to catch a 9:45 bus, but after a tense couple of hours we touch down at 9:25, then taxi for 15 minutes. I grab my bag and have to make a flash decision. Should I grab a cab, make a beeline for the bus station and hope the bus left late? I have a few friends in Madrid but no contact information for them. I don’t know the phone numbers or locations of any hostels. The information desk is closed. I feel drained and jittery at the same time.
I get in a cab. He tells me it’s at least 15 minutes to the city. No way we can get the bus, he says as he gets on the highway. As the minutes tick by, I start crying again. I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, panicked. I can’t contact the girl I’m supposed to stay with in Palencia tonight. I can’t believe this day went the way it did.
The cabbie takes pity on me, calling a hostel to see if there’s room, then overcharges me by E20 before dropping me at the bus station. Points against this situation pile up: I can’t see any sign of buses to Palencia; the ticket booth is closed; I was too rushed to write down the name of the hostel and can't remember it. I wander in a haze of adrenaline for some minutes before finding a security guard who takes pity on me. His Spanish is a chaotic swirl in my brain, but I understand the first part: walk straight for 5 minutes.
Of course, 7 minutes later I’m lost, and I still can’t remember the name of the damn hostel. I ask multiple strangers but “I think there’s a hostel near here; no, I don’t remember the name that guy gave me” doesn’t help much. I know it must be around here somewhere. I remember hearing something about a Corte Ingles department store, and I’ve been around this one at least three times. I have fantasies of sleeping on the step of the store, using my damp hoodie as a facemask and my suitcase as a pillow.
I finally stumble on the hostel almost by accident, 11 hours after I left Berlin. It’s a blessed 8 euros a night. The dour man gives me sheets for my tiny, screechy-springed bunk bed. I put my things away, stumble outside to find food.
Later that night back in the hostel, I’m befriended by a lovely, exceedingly outgoing Chilean girl. I tell her my epic story in halting Spanish. When I get to the part about the duck, she bursts into uncontrollable peals of laughter. She can’t believe a flight would be disrupted because of a duck. “In my country, flights are delayed because of earthquakes or wars,” she says, then is consumed by laughter again. I can barely understand her through her giggles, but I do get one phrase, over and over again “El pobre pato!” she says. “The poor duck!”
Every other Spaniard I tell this story to says the same thing.
The next day I finally get that bus to Palencia.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
I wrote here recently about trusting in your dreams to direct you, even if those dreams have gone "stale" (as a friend of mine here put it recently). In that line, I've been imagining Boston and I as a couple of would-be doctors or lawyers who always wanted to go law school or to medical school but happened, inconveniently, to fall wildly in love. Boston and I carried briefcases around when we were 3 or tried to take our parents' temperature when we were 7. Boston spent weekends studying case law for mock trial in high school, while I took a college-level epidemiology course instead of joining swim team or the drama club.
In the days before my departure we were so in love that I was compelled to ask myself: well, wouldn't being a registered nurse or PA be just as nice? I could stay here with Boston and still work with patients. Boston could go to law school and I could join a private practice, giving flu shots and writing prescriptions... But really, if I was willing to give all that up, why couldn't Boston just go into social work while I went to medical school and achieved my dream? Boston and I had a lot of impassioned fights about this.
In the end, though, no one compromised. In a turn of events perhaps surprising to no one, Boston stayed steadfast on the east coast. It was I who got on the plane. Boston and I said our tearful goodbyes. We promised to keep in touch, but we knew things would never be the same. And I don't know if I can speak for Boston, but I for one wondered if I would ever love that way again.
Friday, September 23, 2011
It's especially strange if the airport is in Iceland at the end of the summer. It's 5:30 in the morning and bright like it's 10. You're surrounded by people whose chatter sounds like singing. Everything smells like herring. So you take your bag and wander through the halls to a bathroom, then make your way to a service desk to ask about changing from window to aisle.
A slight man with close-shaved head stands in front of you speaking with a familiar accent. He doesn't have a boarding pass and needs one to get to London for work. The clerk steps away from the desk for a moment and he asks you if you're going to London. No, you say: Berlin, then Spain.
He smiles. As his accent suggested, he is from Zaragoza. You brace for the obvious question and the pitying answer. Oh, Palencia? But why? I'm sorry. It will be interesting for you, but it's such a small city.
You are mentally putting on your "no, this year will be wonderful" armor. He asks the usual clarifying question. "Palencia! With a P? Not Valencia?"
No. Not Valencia. Except:
He breaks into a grin. His face lights up. "Now that is the real Spain! Palencia is beautiful! I mean, really. Have you ever wanted to live across from a Romanesque Cathedral? Now you can! Just make sure it's the kind that stops chiming between 12 am and 8 am... they usually do these days."
He takes a breath. "Oh, you're from Boston? I guess you're used to living near the sea. Well, this is different, but you still have the river. Very beautiful! Anyway, Zaragoza is inland, too. You'll see -- the people! They're so nice, so friendly. Maybe not as open as those in the south, but they are loyal, kind, and respectful. Good friends. My mother grew up in Soria, and I can tell you: inland people were wheat farmers for a long time. They are used to hard work, and they respect education."
The clerk returns. You listen to them discuss the boarding pass for a moment, then turn to leave. From the receding desk you hear him introduce himself.
"Good luck in Palencia! I am Jose Major Domo! E-mail me if you need anything." He gives his e-mail address.
A few minutes later, you board another plane, one step closer. A little bit less in a haze; a little bit more at ease. On the flight, the Icelandic women are wide awake, chattering, buying duty-free items, joking with the flight attendant. It's like a giant, strange party in the sky. It's like it's already mid-morning, instead of 3 am by your biological clock. It's like they don't know what you're heading toward.
Monday, September 12, 2011
Well, hello there. Fancy meeting you here.
It's been awhile, and the time stamp on the last entry here is solid proof. I stuck in one place for quite a bit-- following my stint in Mexico I got a job at a small, cozy private ESL school and settled into an exceedingly lovely life for the next 16 months. I really hit this one out of the park, I must say: a fascinating gig as a reporter for the Chinese/English bilingual newspaper the Sampan; an incredibly fulfilling internship at NPR affiliate WBUR; a fun-filled routine packed with pub trivia, folk dancing, karaoke, and lectures; a fantastically-located apartment stocked with goofy roommates; and a group of friends who often felt more like family. It may have been "only" a few months, but I put down roots during that time. Or maybe I should say roots upon roots-- I bonded in an adult way with a city that I've known and loved (and that has known me) since childhood. I have been excited, stimulated, fulfilled, loved. Many everyday bumps (and a few not-so-everyday ones) aside, it has been one of the best periods of my life.
Which leads me to the next thought: why in the world would I leave!?
For leave I have: on Thursday, September 15 at 3:30 PM I boarded a plane that took me in a rather circuitous route to Berlin, Germany. Following a four-day layover, another plane took me to Madrid, after which a bus ferried me to Palencia (pop. 75, 000), the small Castilla y Leon city in Spain that will be home for the next 10 months.
In the run up to my departure I crammed as much wonder into my days as I could. I organized bowling trips and group dinners; took river cruises to cement the layout of my beloved city in my mind’s eye; and overloaded myself with Asian cuisine and diner fare, two varieties I did not expect to be offered regularly in my new home. And every night after tiring myself out dancing, listening to live music, or spending blissful time with friends, I would wonder to myself: what am I doing, leaving? Am I making a terrible mistake?
One thing I’ve realized as I’ve adjusted to the beginnings of adulthood is that the singular dream is a myth. Sure, some of us have one thing we wish for that hangs on tenaciously as we mature, but dreams transform as we do, molded to fit the new selves we’re growing into. I always dreamed of being a writer, but that dream has been refined and altered from author and illustrator to travel writer to journalist, and back. And in just the same way, when I returned home from my trip around the world, I had a new dream to join the old ones. I had adored my nomadic existence, but I wanted to know a foreign life from the other side. I wanted a home away, cozy bakeries that I frequented for bread, a coffee shop whose barmen knew my name, a Sunday morning market routine. The pull of understanding life so thoroughly in another place was remarkably strong.
And so I applied to the Spanish Language Assistant program, run by the Spanish Ministry of Education, which brings Canadian and American citizens to Spain to help teach English in public schools. I wrote and re-wrote an essay, put all my documents together, got a recommendation from my boss, sent everything into the embassy, and waited.
But of course part of the point here is that life doesn't stand still, and by the time I was accepted to the program in March my dreams had changed. I was deeply ensconced in my new life, busy drinking cheap beer in little bars in my neighborhood, trying new foods in the countless ethnic restaurants surrounding my apartment, writing a series of articles on Chinese life in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood, and pitching stories about Sudanese politics or dolphin communication at my radio internship. As far as I was concerned, I was living my dream. Spain seemed very far away, in all senses of the phrase.
But, I thought, what do I know about what comes next? I feared that this supremely fulfilling life might be just a brief phase, a period of pretend that would be followed by the confusion, general unsteadiness, and angst most of my friends were experiencing. And hadn’t I always wanted to learn Spanish, to live in Europe? Hadn’t my 2009 self dreamed of siestas, salsa, and sweet, hot espresso in tiny silver cups? I accepted the position, although with trepidation.
The summer wore on, bringing with it details of the year to come (and increased anxieties which may well be discussed later in this blog.) I finally found rhythm and confidence at my internship, I spent more and more time with a close-knit circle of friends, I joined a Zumba class and went dancing, I attended barbecues and went on dates. And I thought: what’s better than this? What person in his or her right mind would voluntarily give this up?
In the weeks before my departure a lot of people I love and respect took time to tell me how brave they thought I was being to leave and try all this newness. They told me that they admired me greatly; some even admitted to feeling jealous. I thanked them and felt the warmth of mutual affection spread through my chest, but some part of me was also thinking: “Am I being brave, or am I being stupid?” And also: “I don’t want to be brave. I want to stay here.”
I wish I could tell you the exact moment when I realized I was half-blind, but I think it was more of a gradual realization. Nevertheless, here it is: really, for me “lucky” and “stupid” are two sides of the same coin. I’m lucky to have enjoyed that life which, for a few short months, was so perfect for who I was and what I needed. And I’m incredibly lucky to have a chance to leave that life and try out a dream I once had, even if it’s not the dream that most recently spoke to me the strongest--many people who cherish this dream will never realize it, and it's easy to forget that. But even with those opportunities, I think perhaps you need to be stupid about risk taking and going out of your comfort zone in order to accept the lucky circumstances offered to you.
Ultimately, I don’t deny the fear that comes with “stupid”—fear that things will never be the same (they won’t); fear that I might lose people I love (I might.) But I can also see the incredible luck I have in tasting this life for a year. I can make room for both sides of the coin at once; I can stand it on its edge. With that perspective comes a new question I have to ponder: if I follow a dream that once belonged to a person that was once me, what does that mean? Should you trust your dreams to know you better than you know yourself? I am either stupid enough or lucky enough to have a chance to find out. Maybe both.