I met no barber.

I always find it sad saying good-bye to friends when I don’t have the slightest idea of when we’ll meet again. It does, however, help me keep thinking optimistically about the next time our paths might cross and automatically nixes the possibility of taking any of friends for granted. With that in mind, Michael and I left Brett, Don and the bustling heat of Madrid and exchanged them for Mauricio and the stifling heat of Sevilla.

Lucky for us, our Couchsurfing host Mauricio let us have free reign of his apartment and we came and went as we pleased. Twenty minutes into the center on Sevilla’s impeccably clean metro system, we soon found ourselves in the midst of Dia europeo de la música, and enjoyed a free outdoor concert of Moroccan-influenced Spanish music. We had a quick walk around to preview some of the sights we’d visit the next day and made our way to a flamenco show at Los Gallos. Despite the fact that it was clearly designed for tourists (30€ for the two-hour show, including one drink – we chose sangria), the actual quality of dancing – and live music, of course – was excellent. My mind wandered to fill in the female dancers’ inner monologues with tales of strife to match their passionate grimaces and wondered at the male dancers’ machismo.

After the show let out after midnight, the temperatures had finally dropped to a comfortable warmth and the city was still alive. A closed metro meant splitting an overpriced taxi ride home (the driver tried to charge us even more when he got lost, but I wasn’t about to let that happen). We slept in without thinking that we’d awake to the hottest part of the day; sunscreen slathered on, water bottles loaded, the day brought us to the heights of la Giralda, to the cool respite of Sevilla’s cathedral, and to the exquisite Moorish palace Real Alcázar. Having gone a little picture-crazy, I took a break with a Spanish newspaper and the freshest mojito I’ve ever had until I decided it was time to buy some stamps.

Up until this point, my Spanish had taken me as far as buying tickets and food (para llevar and para tomar – “to take out” and “to eat in” were the first verbs I learned in Madrid). But the hour had come. Postcards had to be sent. I didn’t really  know the word for stamps, though I had seen it before. I approached the tabac counter and confidently stated, “I need 1 chair for the United States and 2 chairs for Germany”. Whoops.

You see, sillas is the word my brain decided to use instead of the correct word sellos. Damn vowels. Tricksy little phonemes, they are. In any case, it was a nice reminder of the early days of learning a language when it’s still funny to make mistakes. I laughed it off, corrected myself and got what I needed.

Mauricio was at home that night, so Michael and I taught him the basics of salsa while he patiently listened to my Spanitalianglish mixed instructions. He was a quick learner and it was lovely to finally get to know the person whose casa had been our casa for the previous two days. (Side note: I’m always amused when I have the chance to introduce a person to something foreign to my own cultural upbringing – a very WASP-y one, albeit nowadays minus the P – and closer to theirs. Back in Gießen, for example, I cooked the first sweet potatoes that my language tandem partner from a pueblo near Puerta Vallarta had ever eaten. Funny how the world works).

Sevilla’s andalusian atmosphere of forced relaxation imposed by the sweltering heat dominated my impression of the city, and at first glance I liked it more than Madrid. Not a place I could live, but definitely good for a holiday or two, Sevilla’s vibrant arts scene and wealth of beautiful city scenery could have kept my attention for much longer than two days. Rolling on to the next destination – Valencia – we headed back to Madrid for a train connection that turned our rough itinerary thoroughly upside down. Look for some seriously useful travel advice in the next post on Madrid, otra vez!

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Madrid: primera vez

I flew to Madrid on Sunday night to meet up with Michael, a fellow Madtown Ballroom dancer from university. We had a Couchsurfing host lined up, a chill ex-Marine named Brett who has seen 81 of these 100 Wonders of the World and was consequently infinitely better traveled than the both of us combined. He took us out for tapas at La sureña, a small place overflowing with Spaniards where you could barely hear yourself talk over the volume of rapid-fire conversation. The gambas (shrimp) and pulpo (octopus) were delicious, but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the tiny beer bottles they accompanied…they were like fun-sized beers for training your ten-year-old. The bottles triggered a comparison of Germany to Spain which continued throughout the entire trip.

Lucky for us, another dancer friend of ours was living in Madrid for the semester and so we had a touristy day with Don, who led us around to the must-see spots – Palacio Real, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Parque del Retiro (we danced a bit by the pond), and the Reina Sofia to get up close and personal with Picasso and Dalí. A trip to the nearest heladería for some gelato ended up turning into a few hours of catch-up conversation as I hadn’t seen Don in six months. Little did we know that Michael and I would be back in Madrid and seeing Don again sooner than we thought…I’ll save that (un)fortunate adventure for after I write a bit about Sevilla though.

Another great Couchsurfing experience awaited us; Brett had grilled steaks and fresh asparagus in preparation for a grill-off competition he had signed up for, and we spent the evening enjoying the food and talking in the balmy night air on his balcony. I loved Madrid’s metro, but I only had a day and a half to get to know a small part of the city (which had been spent primarily with friendly Americans), so couldn’t decisively say if I liked the city itself or simply the experience of being there.

Spain’s high-speed trains impressed me even more than its fantastic metro system – Deutsche Bahn trains were comparable, but the Renfe AVE trains were more like taking a flight between cities, complete with “flight attendants”. Going through security and two checkpoints before boarding the train and the on-board comforts made the trip from Madrid to Sevilla a breeze! More on the Andalusian vibes in the next post…

¡Un beso!

Off the beaten path

Every once in a while a maddening urge for an adventure comes over me. Right, let’s be honest, lately it’s been more than just once in a while…

This past weekend was spent at breakneck speeds, both on land and in the air. Guido, the husband of a colleague of mine, was kind enough to take me flying in his aviation club’s 4-seater over Hessen, and brave enough to hand the steering over to me once we were up in the air! Flying a plane is surprisingly easy, albeit extremely wobbly business; after an hour I was feeling slightly queasy despite my lack of fear. We were lucky to have excellent weather, and I was able to take some great pictures of my “home”land and the school where I teach.

Guido managed a very smooth landing after an hour in the air, and I rushed off to the train station to hop on the next ride to Luxembourg, where I had planned to meet Nick, a close friend from high school teaching English in Lille, France (his blog about the oddities of French culture and his travel experiences is well worth the read). We were hosted by an experienced Couchsurfer, Joaquim, who made sure my time there was spent having some exceptionally non-touristy adventures. This picture should give you an idea…

Vianden's medieval castle

Why all the gear, you ask? Because when you’re motorbiking at 222 kph (138 mph) a fly feels like a stone. Pardon? Yes. Absolutely fantastic. (The thrill of the ride, not the dead insects on our helmets). Dangereux? But of course! Don’t worry, I was riding behind Joaquim who’s an excellent driver…it got to the point where anything less than 150 kph felt excruciatingly slow.

La petite suisse

The countryside immediately outside of the city of Luxembourg and onward towards the German-Luxembourg Nature Park surprised me with its beauty and Lord-of-the-Rings-esque landscapes.  The incredibly smooth roads wind along idyllic streams and, once in a while, you might stumble upon a waterfall if you hike the trails or climb around the small-scale cliffs that border parts of the drive. The rather small country was turning out with some rather lovely surprises, which continued later that evening…

We had been introduced to the nightlife the previous night (it seemed as though every businessperson in Luxembourg simply slipped from a suit into business casual attire for the evening, as the quaint bar and club quarters were jammed with people whose wealth showed). After the somewhat tiring drive, our host led Nick and me to a few spots around the city for some nighttime photo ops. Empty streets and a waxing moon made for a peaceful midnight atmosphere; we all took advantage of Luxembourg’s aesthetic charm and enjoyed the lights by night. Our general impression of Luxembourg? It’s an underrated destination that more people should take notice of. My personal feeling? It’ll be a place for discoveries that play with your senses and leave you wanting just a little bit more…which is saying a lot for a country which is so small

“A city of free will and dreamers”

…Berlin, as described by a beautiful Dutch-Indonesian woman with spiky, red hair as she cut my lion’s mane last weekend. The Fulbright Program invites its grantees to a four-day conference once a year and pulls out all the stops when it comes to hospitality. Most of the speeches and panels took place in the Park Inn Hotel on Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin (though Berlin has many “hearts”, Alex is one closest to many of the famous sights and museums), and also happened to be where I enjoyed the comforts of a hotel room for the first time in years.  Side note: I still can’t say I prefer hotels and hostels to Couchsurfing, especially when the shower is simply a modern-looking glass box in full view of anyone in the room, while the toilet has “artistically” frosted walls that allow anyone in the shower – and therefore, in the rest of the room – to see a fuzzy form of you doing whatever you happen to be doing in there. Give me a cushy couch and a blanket any day and let me be low-maintenance, thanks.

That’s not to say that the accommodation was uncomfortable or that conference was anything other than spectacular; the four days were jam-packed with a tour of Berlin’s Şehitlik mosque, lectures, discussions, networking and partying. I personally spoke with U.S. Ambassador Philip D. Murphy, author Josef Braml and posed a question (in German) to Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, Berlin’s senator for urban development regarding the untimely death of Berlin’s beloved polar bear, Knut. To avoid going into detail regarding the individual speeches, the overarching themes of the conference were simply “change is the constant” and “network, network, network”. More than anything, the few days in Berlin filled me with an immense amount of pride for being a Fulbrighter.

As such, it’s time for a much-needed plug for the Fulbright program. If you’re reading this blog, you likely have some interest in international happenings or, at the very least, you have an inkling of the fact that the world is a lot smaller than it seems. This awareness alone should make you consider applying for a Fulbright grant. Want my help? Whether it’s for an English Teaching Assistantship in any number of countries, or for a research grant for a project of your design, just email me/leave a comment and I’ll have you send your application to me for a thorough read-over. Questions about the Fulbright Program in general? Just read their FAQ page.

The most enlightening part of the conference was prompted by the electric atmosphere created by having so many bright, talented, idealistic people in a small space. I was surrounded by people who simultaneously outshone me in both number and impact of their countless successes and yet made me fiercely proud to be counted among them. I realized that I need to be more ambitious. To learn more, to use my time more efficiently, to dream bigger, and to implement the steps necessary to reach higher goals. I have the drive, and I have ideas, but I must develop the ability to be thrilled with implementing some of them that make me stand out from a crowd.

Right, enough of the diary entry. On to the weekend! I couchsurfed with an eccentric guy who sells books at a flea market for a living and knows more obscure English words than any non-native speaker I’ve ever met (what other German knows what topsy-turvy is)? Having been in Berlin before, I kept my sightseeing to a minimum, but lucked out with some beautiful weather to accompany what I did wander to.  Some of the other Fulbrighters stuck around for a few extra days, and I’ll just leave you with a sampling of the texts I received from a few of them as the weekend progressed to give you an idea of the craziness that ensued…

Thursday, 01:52 – “I’m in Busche. Come with a girl/lesbian. Bring no one else.”
Friday, 21:50 – “Oh my god Ginger, I think this is a sex party! He’s laying condoms, Crisco, gloves, and drugs all over the place! Ah!”
Saturday, 23:11 – “I need to catch my second wind. Looks like a dance/strip club? I might be able to throw on something snappy and boogie tonight.”

…A city of free will, that’s for sure…

CS Adventures Continue in Lyon

After Strasbourg, Rick and I hopped a ride with a nice French man named David to Lyon, where we stayed for three days with a new CS host, Fred.  His apartment was perfectly cozy, with a garden courtyard that had a cute little two-room house on the other side specifically meant for CSers and the occasional party.

We got in at night, went to sleep early and explored Lyon the next day.  It’s a very different vibe from Strasbourg, and definitely larger/not as clean, but there are many more students.  After seeing the Cathédrale Saint-Jean, we hadn’t gotten enough Catholicism for the day so we took a half-hour walk up the side of a very large hill.  It was worth it; the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière that overlooks the city at the top is absolutely impressive; the detail and decoration of the architecture itself, the frescoes and mosaics inside, and the view it offers are reasons enough to take a hike.

That afternoon, we wandered through le Vieux Lyon, the ‘old’ part of the city, explored a bit more of the ‘main’ part of Lyon, and headed back to Fred’s.  That night, he had several of his and his roommates’ friends over for a fête which started with aperitifs, cold cuts, vegetables and regional cheeses at 8 pm, and, after couscous, pork tenderloins, and sausages were served, and many bottles of wine (and one bottle of rum) later, ended around 2 am. The quality and quantity of French and English (and German, Spanish, Russian? etc. etc.) spoken by all of us throughout the night varied as much as the quality and quantity of beverages consumed…need I say more?

We took it easy the next morning after the festivities of the previous night, but Rick and I were still fit enough to walk from the apartment up to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where we had planned to be productive in attempting to write postcards, but actually just ended up lying on crunchy leaves, people-watching, and talking for a few hours.  Actually, we talked so much that we completely forgot to visit the free public zoo in the park until we realized that it was almost time for dinner.

Fred taught us to make tartiflette, a regional specialty from his hometown of Annecy, which turned out to be both delicious and incredibly easy to prepare.  The downside?  Depends on your diet, but it’s extremely heavy, being as it’s simply baked potatoes, a mixture of onions and fried pieces of ham (lardons), with baked reblochon cheese on top.  Good food to prep for winter hibernation.  That night, France beat Luxembourg in football, so everyone was in a happy mood.

Our last day in Lyon was another relaxing one, as Rick and I spent most of the day wandering around the free zoo in the Parc de la Tête d’Or and sampling all of the various smells the different roses in the Roseraie had to offer.  This was the part where I really started wishing I had a better camera, so if any of you have any suggestions of where to find a decently good one for a reasonable price, please let me know.  For now, you’ll have to content yourselves with my lower-than-preferable resolution pictures, which can be seen here

We left Fred’s place that evening, and after having a small issue in contacting our next Covoiturage driver, met up with him and a very nice Belgian man named Julien, who were extremely amusing throughout the 4.5 hour drive to Toulouse.  More on that in my next post…till then, be well!