Voilà, ça y est.

„Eets no problem, eets no problem“  said Turgot with a huge smile. He was our covoiturage (ride-share) driver from the chaos of Spain into the relative sanity that is France. Headed to Bordeaux, we were apologizing for our terrible French skills, having had them scrambled from our recent escapades with the Spanish language. Little more than 10 minutes into our drive, he asked us if we’d like to stay with him instead of paying for a hostel we had already booked. Making a gut decision, heavily based on his happy-go-lucky vibe and the fact that all my past experiences with Cameroonians have been wonderful, we decided to take his offer!

That night we initiated him into CouchSurfing by cooking him dinner before making a round of “the blonde city” by night. Bordeaux’s train station has a beautiful front, but behind it is where the prostitutes work, waiting in parking lots in vans, often with the lights on to read by. He told us he wanted to show us both sides of the city, and that was exactly what we got. The place de la bourse and the accompanying reflection pool was the perfect spot to sit by the riverside and share a bottle of Cava.

Bordeaux by day was aesthetically pleasing to be sure, but it didn’t seem like the city had much to offer besides photo opps and countless dégustations, which we decided to skip in favor of sipping a few local reds on our own time. Turgot surprised us by cooking a fantastic meal, and we spent more time frolicking in the water on the place.

Moving from one very hospitable host to another, we found ourselves in La Rochelle, the last stop on our journey together. (Michael will continue traveling until September, so if you’d like a slightly different perspective on a trip through Europe, take a minute to read his journey on Transnational Considerations).

You might remember Kyra, another Fulbrighter in Gießen? Her brother Alex took us in for a few wonderful days in the city that has been his hometown for the past eight years. A scathingly funny writer (author of The La Rochelle Times, a blog inspired by The Onion) I’m very grateful to have met Alex as he was not only a fabulous conversationalist, but as an expat who taught English for a year in France and never left, he also gave me hope for the future…

Bordeaux was the blonde city, La Rochelle was the white city. We didn’t run into any knights of Gondor, but the Knights Templar had left their own marks on the town. If I had to pick a favorite place from the trip, the decision would teeter between Valencia and La Rochelle. Coastal cities seem to have a hold on me…La Rochelle caught me with its ocean air, bike-friendly streets, fresh and inexpensive seafood and a quiet hum of people/sounds/smells that floated pleasantly in the background. The fact that Ryanair has a conveniently located airport there means I’ll be back someday soon. Perhaps my pictures can convince you to take a trip…

_____________________________________________________

I’ve come to terms with the realization that if Germany and Spain were somehow geographically and culturally merged (besides the utter havoc it would create…can you imagine a well-oiled, workaholic machine of a society working well with the concept of siesta?), it might just create my ideal living conditions. Take the two climates, average them, stick a beach in there somewhere and I’ll call it home without hesitation.

Then again, I always seem to breathe a huge sigh of relief when I’m back in France…hmm.

Advertisements

Jaiak all summer long

Not to shortchange Bilbao, the city that we visited after Barcelona, but the two are simply incomparable.  Perhaps the extreme tourism of Barcelona had clouded my outlook on Spanish cities, but Bilbao’s thriving Basque culture and lack of tourists took me completely by surprise. The countryside alone was a drastic change from Barça’s seaside beauty; from first impressions, the fog trapped in valleys as the sun set behind rocky, forest-covered hills reminded me more of Virginia than anything. Cooler breezes from the Atlantic, a trip to the Guggenheim, a funky language isolate – Euskara – and a Peruvian CouchSurfing host with a penchant for partying colored my three-day weekend in Bilbao.

After getting past the sheer awesomeness of the building’s exterior,  the range of emotions the exhibitions induced was almost frightening. From a giant wall of scrolling, blinking red text about an artist’s reaction to an AIDS diagnosis to a case of jars containing formaldehyde-soaked cow organs (supposedly meant to represent two lovers), the exhibits assaulted the senses.

The nights passed in FIESTA party-mode, doing botellon in a few pueblos around Bilbao as part of the summer’s nonstop outdoor festival that rotates between towns each weekend.  We drank kalimotxo (red wine mixed with Coca Cola, better than it sounds, actually), danced in the streets, met the Bilbao CouchSurfing community and cooked for Adrian, our last host in Spain.

He was our tour guide and translator, taking pity on our lack of knowledge of Euskara, Basque country’s unique language. He clued us onto the difference between everyday tapas and the more refined pintxos of Basque country. After an endless dinner of fantastic food at a local restaurant, the owner — a friend of our host — even gave me a “Sopelako jaiak 2011” bandanna as a souvenir of the fiesta in Sopelana, one of the villages outside of Bilbao.

Though Bilbao was a spur-of-the-moment decision after rethinking our flexible itinerary, I’m really glad we ended up there. The intangible difference – a feeling brought on by the different language, weather, and food – and the tangible pride and separatist attitude surrounding the Basque people, a weekend with a fiesta-loving Peruvian…lovely reminders of why I adore traveling.

Eat. Dance. Love.

It’s far too easy to revel in Gaudí’s masterpieces or get sucked into the partying crowds of 20-something tourists who swarm Barcelona in the summer. Short and sweet: it’s a fantastic city with everything to offer. My thoughts on a few restaurants, clubs and tours you might try yourself (or avoid) if you’re in the area:

Eat.

Organic

Simple title, simple concept. The food, service, and ambiance could not have been better. Even the steeply priced pitcher of freshly made organic sangria was worth it. Our waiter happened to be the owner’s son, a gentleman and a charmer who spoke at least five languages and entertained us from the moment we walked in the door. Vegan buffet (all you can eat – the gazpacho stole the show), an indescribable zucchini and rice dish with a delicately tangy orange-squash sauce and fried tofu were perfect compliments to an unappealingly grey blob that turned out to be my favorite part of the meal, a surprisingly good eggplant puree. Added comical bonus? Seeing the elderly chef wearing an “organic is orgasmic” shirt.

Dance.

Opium Mar

“Clubbing for beginners” is the first thing that came to mind as I entered the venue. 20€ did not seem like an appropriate cover for the quality of the DJ and clientele. (We flashed the keys from the hostel we resigned to staying in after an unsuccessful attempt to find a CouchSurfing host in the high season and got in without paying). Keeping in mind that this was a club that made deals with hostels, I was expecting something uninspiring. The playlist consisted of chart hits from the past two years played in direct succession with little remixing. What’s worse, the 5€ shots and (hold your breath…) 15€ mojitos assured that the area directly outside of the club – right next to the beach – was littered with beer cans and handles of vodka from hundreds of pregamers. The outdoor lounge areas overlooking the beach were overcrowded, but redeemed themselves with their sense of sleek style. Looking at their lineup online it seems as though we happened to go on an inopportune day…Tiesto, Bob Sinclair and Kaskade make me want to give Opium a second go.

Antilla Salsa Club

Live salsa music, no cover (one drink minimum), plenty of fans blowing from each corner, good lighting, friendly staff and decently good dancers made Antilla a nice, low-budget night of fun exercise. The dance floor was full but not overcrowded, and everyone on it was in a good mood. If you’re a salsero, it’s a good time guaranteed!

Love.

RunnerBean’s Gaudí tour lasted 2 ½ hours and could not have been better. Led in English by an effervescent redhead, we traipsed around various areas marked by the LSD-addict Gaudí, whose architectural genius gained him a devoted fan (me!) within seconds of seeing the first building on the tour. Being his ‘unfinished masterpiece’, Sagrada Familia was, of course, well worth looking at, but was not the most impressive of his works. (My lowly opinion, yes, but you’re the one reading my blog, aren’t you? ;-)) The concept of the free walking tour worked out well; those of you unfamiliar with the system will be happy to know that the amount you donate to your guide at the end of the tour is truly up to you. The guides will have worked extra hard to earn that money from you, making it an excellently informative time.

Park Guell free walking tour (website link to come when I’ve sorted through notes from the trip)

Much smaller than the RunnerBean tours, our tour guide spoke only Spanish to the three people on our guided walk and provided us with even more detailed background information about all of the levels and installments in Park Guell than the Gaudí tour had about his commissioned buildings. The 1 ½-hour tour worked on the same donation principle, and made our group feel slightly elitist with all the information we had access to compared to the hundreds of people around us. The only thing that could have been better? At times, I felt rushed to move onto the next area when I really wanted to get a shot of this or that at the perfect moment when the tourists in front of me finally decided to move an inch to the right…otherwise, it was another fun time learning new things in a surrealistic setting.

Old City Walking Tour

Another one offered by RunnerBean, we turned this into our own little adventure by missing the start of the actual tour and creating our own legitimately free tour of the old part of the city behind übertouristy La Rambla. Photographing graffiti-covered doors and ordering a caña from an in inconspicuous corner bar made for a relaxing afternoon away from the hubbub of La Rambla.

__________________________________________________

A few last thoughts: Catalan is beautiful. I took too many pictures. I love the ocean. The end ^_^

Seaside freedom

After Madrid’s fiasco I was ready for some sun & fun. Gandía Platja, a beach located just 45 minutes south of Valencia, was where we spent the next few days. A generous coworker had given me the keys to her beach side apartment – we could not have been closer to the sea unless we had camped out on the sand.

Fresh air and perfect weather greeted us along with Bill and Michael, a couple of crazy British/German expats who befriended us and drove us from the train station to a supermarket (some Serrano jamón was in order) and finally, to the seaside.

Gandía and Valencia were overrun with tourists, most of whom were Spanish, Russian or British. We heard no other Americans and very little English for the next few days. Our interactions with locals were limited to a few orientation questions scattered here and there, so I unfortunately didn’t practice Spanish at all. What struck me however was that it was the first time in years that I had simply taken a day and done nothing.

A day at the beach. What did I get? Slightly dehydrated, a sunburn (although I used copious amounts of sunscreen), salty skin, seawater-tousled mermaid hair. And lots of time to think.

But while all that thinking was going on, I realized that all I ever do is think, plan, figure out the next step. I’m incessantly making mental lists of things to do, calculating what I need or want to accomplish. Having to go for that long without scribbling down a thought, typing or researching something was difficult, and had it been for more than one day I would have gotten antsy. I wouldn’t say I’m a workaholic as that implies actually working, no, if anything I’m a planaholic or perhaps simply addicted to brainstorming. I guess it’s really possible to be “bad” at taking a vacation…
________________________________________________

After having explored dozens of European cities, I tend to get into a rhythm when I arrive in a new one. Climb something tall to orient myself, learn about some old stuff relevant to the city’s background, eat and drink regional specialties, interact with locals whether through Couchsurfing or random pleasant encounters. I gain culinary, linguistic, and historical knowledge and if I’m lucky, a friend or two who wouldn’t mind having me back in town sometime.

Venturing into Valencia, we tried fideuá del pescado, a regional dish with macaroni noodles and various suction-cupped or fishy sea creatures. A lovely British expat let us keep our backpacks in her international bookstore the following morning as we climbed Valencia’s church tower, sampled Spanish pastries like cocas de mazapán con almendras y piñones, photographed monuments and back alleys, locals and tourists alike.

Maybe it was something about the air in Valencia combined with the Calatrava structures near the waterfront, but I felt at home (read: Milwaukee) in Valencia. For Spain, where up until then I had felt like a real tourist – at the mercy of chaotic train experiences, slogging along in endless lines, or sweltering in a fresh wave of heat – that sudden comfort was well worth noting. I didn’t want to leave Valencia, but Barcelona and Señor Gaudí were calling…

Roadblock

Panic. Heart pumping, breath shallow, quick. The bag was gone. With it, a passport, credit and ATM cards, laptop, iPod, Eurail ticket.

I was gone two minutes, buying a snack in a cafe while we waited for a connection from Madrid to Valencia. My bag and Michael’s lay under our small table. A woman told us she had seen the man with the yellow tshirt bend over to tie his shoe and slip the strap of Michael’s small bag over his wrist before he quickly stood up and walked off with it and his own bag over his other shoulder. Michael had been sitting right there. Not eating, not listening to music, no distractions. He had simply been sitting with his back to the man at the table behind us. The bag was resting against the table instead of against his leg. I was just lucky that my bag had been out of his reach.

Lesson learned.

The next two days were surprisingly stress-free for me. Michael took care of getting a temporary replacement passport and cancelling his cards, and put his Spanish to good use while filing a police report. I would play bank for the following weeks, until the cards came. The whole thing went smoothly — Madrid was the best place for it to happen. Our trusty friend Don came to the rescue and hosted us for two extra nights.

I even got to see a friend and ex-coworker of mine who was also teaching English in Europe. Jordan, another Wisconsinite, took me to see the play Los Miserables, the Spanish version of the wonderful musical Les Miserables. The passion, strife, and intensity of the story was much better suited to the telenovella-like acting qualities that the Spanish actors imposed on the characters they played. Regardless of the slight language barrier, I had a fantastic time seeing a completely different version of a theatrical production I’ve known since childhood.

While regrouping from the roadblock, a night out in Madrid and an afternoon in Jordan’s pool made the whole thing seem like a vacation again. It was easy to stay optimistic with a couple good friends around to help us out, and before we knew it, we were on the road again to Valencia and Gandia beach…

¿Oje, AVE, qué tal?

The Spanish high-speed train system is both maddeningly frustrating and pleasantly classy.

Fail: Reserving a seat

When the online reservation system does not allow you to reserve seats for ANY train at ANY time.

Win: Personnel

Sexy train attendants. Enough said.

Epic fail: Buying tickets

When your „please take a number“ ticket is #589 and they are only on #234. And there are 10 ticket windows, but only 3 are open, even though it’s 11:00 on a Wednesday.

Epic win: Boarding experience

When you enter a perfectly air conditioned train car and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack is playing. Next stop, Mordor!

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!