The Narrow Road to the Interior: Or, Returning Home

Here’s a not-so-great, or perhaps in-the-end-great-but-shitty-in-the-moment part of studying and living abroad for a significant amount of time: the return back. I’m writing this not just for all the other students/world travelers/etc who already have or will soon have experienced this phenomenon, but also for the friends and family back home who may not have already experienced the bitter aftertaste of a return from a life abroad and may get offended or upset if I don’t explain what I’m about to explain.

Going home is shitty.

Now, I’m not saying home itself is shitty, or that I’m not feverishly excited to see family and friends, almost all of whom I’ve not seen for at least five months, some longer (Audrey, I really am damn proud of us for doing a long-distance friendship/basically a platonic relationship so well for so stinkin’ long–since May?!).

I’m not saying that part of me isn’t thrilled–THRILLED–to pick up certain parts of my life that I had to leave behind, and I’m not saying there aren’t amazing things back in Alabama/New Orleans that I couldn’t be more happy to reacquaint myself with: live music every night; incredible food of every variety so readily available (Spanish food just rubs me wrong after eating so much of it); finally starting Japanese this coming semester after wanting to since I was six watching Pokémon; finishing my Spanish major capstone; living in a new house–in a whole new neighborhood–in New Orleans; the festivals upon festivals in that great city; having a dog; not re-wearing the same 6 clothing items in slightly varied combinations; etc… I also am entering as a candidate for the first combined Spanish&Portuguese 4+1 Master’s degree at Tulane, whereby the two-year graduate school process is condensed into only one extra year (!!!), and will be starting my grad-level classes for that when I return, so I’m pretty pumped for that. And I’m finally committed to making a website for my writing/art–something I’ve been putting off for years–as soon as I’m back (and have slept a week, of course), which will hopefully keep me busy.

But, but but. As much as I have to return to, there’s quite a lot of richness that I’m leaving behind. The path back is often harder than leaving, and here’s some reasons why I’ll miss Madrid:

-Spanish. I mean, duh. This is the longest I’ve ever been fully submersed in a Spanish-speaking world, despite reading the occasional article or message in English from back home, practicing Brazilian Portuguese (shout-out to João on that), or sometimes dipping into English with American friends here (although, to toot our own horn, I think my roommate Alexa and I have done a very good job at attempting to speak in Spanish together as often as possible in our home stay and even on trips abroad). Unlike many countries in Europe in which English has become a sort of lingua franca for so many, Spain, especially in the more rural areas, is difficult if not impossible to meaningfully navigate without some advanced grasp of Castilian. I’ve studied Spanish for so long that I don’t know if my basics necessarily improved, but certainly the fluidity and ease with which my mind drops into Spanish now has been gratifying. Also, I love Spanish slang. ‘Vale’ (basically “ok” or “alright”), ‘ya está,’ ‘pues nada,’ etcétera are just such great fillers. João and I were admiring this the other day and looking for equivalents in English or Portuguese, and while they do exist, they’re not as ever-present or as necessary for the flow of speech as they are in Spanish. Maybe it’s because Spaniards just speak so damn fast that they need filler words and phrases to give them a bit longer space between thoughts, maybe it’s because it adds a musical-like repetition to the language, but whatever the case, I’ll probably still be dropping “vale’s” and “‘Ta logo’s” when I’m back until the awkwardness of no one understanding me beats it out of me…

Public transportation. This is a common complaint of many who have lived in Europe, or any other area where public transportation is the main means of getting around, and then return to the States. Coming from the South, where infrastructure is even more notoriously bad than the country as a whole, cars have always been my default mode of getting around–practically a necessity in Birmingham and New Orleans. And I do love driving: there’s a sort of freedom, of real personal agency, and moreover it’s a great excuse to blast that new CD and give no shits about how you sound singing along. But I’ve gotten quite accustomed to using the Metro every day to get everywhere: you hop into the station, within 2-3 minutes pick up your metro, then can criss-cross your way to virtually anywhere in town in no more than 30 minutes. The metro and even the buses run precisely on time–perhaps ironic given that everything else here, including classes, runs slow by a quarter of an hour or more, “Spanish time.” As happy as I am to reignite my relationship with Fred, the white Honda Civic to whom I owe so much of my wild youth, I’m starting to have nightmares thinking about driving on those pot-holed roads of Uptown in NOLA…

-Cheap cheap cheap. Grocery haul that lasts a week for 30 euro?! Coffee for a euro?! Three-course prix fixe menús del día for 10 euro?! Paying 5 dollars for a Starbucks latte is something I will never again consider.

Constant struggles: Suffering through challenge upon challenge, having your normal lifestyle uprooted, navigating a new country (hell, a new continent) in a second language: all of these at first sound difficult at best and terrifying at worst, but the truth is, living abroad keeps you on your toes. It forces growth, whether you thought you were ready or not.

Ease of travel within Europe. Once you’re here, anything more than a four-hour flight to get anywhere would seem insane.

Surprises: I’m a fiction writer, which also means I’m the person who knows the end of the movie halfway through, who figures out about surprise parties before they happen, doesn’t like to get her hopes up, etcetera because I’ve trained myself to guess the endings of things. It’s more of a curse than a blessing. In any case, I LOVE a true, honest surprise–mostly because they don’t come round that often. Throwing yourself in any new situation like this is bound to yield more than a few surprises. Mostly pleasant.

-Not having a tip culture–not in restaurants, not in taxis, never. Because service workers actually get a salaried wage here.

Spanish bluntness: Growing up in the South with the dual expectations of 1. Southern sass but 2.Southern belle syndrome (aka passive aggressive insinuations and excessive apologies instead of confrontation) has always been a confusing thing for me, and I’ve picked up the particular habit of over-apologizing from it, throwing out sorry’s “just in case.” It’s more a cultural thing than anything, but it’s been a habit I’ve wanted to rid myself of for a while–I’m sure it annoys my friends who don’t understand that it’s more a gut impulse than me being excessively meek–and Spain’s been really good for that. If you throw out a “lo siento” when it’s not appropriate, a Spaniard will stop you and chide you for apologizing when it’s not necessary. This definitely happened a lot the first month or so in the home-stay, with Cristina and María out-right correcting me for saying sorry when it didn’t make sense, and I think it’s finally been beaten out of me. Which I think is good. After all, if you’re always saying sorry, doesn’t it water down the force of your truest, deepest apologies?

On the note of bluntness, Spaniards will pretty much blurt out their opinion on any and everything at hand. We might be watching a TV series and Cristina will blurt out “Qué fea!” (“How ugly!”) about an actress; or, with the recent elections, Cristina will often go around saying that it’s “all set up” and that the oil barons have already decided this election (she’s a bit of an self-proclaimed conspiracist). When it comes to meals, outfits, you name it, they are brutally honest: if they think something isn’t so great, they’ll say so. It’s a bit jarring at first, but it’s come to be refreshing to know that no one’s going to passive-aggressively refuse to admit their thoughts or qualms with something. I like it and I like that I’ve picked it up a bit.

Anyways. I’m saying all of this from experience, because it’s happened to me before. Even though it was for a shorter time, only a little over a month, my study abroad in Cuba (also through Tulane) involved plenty of culture shock upon arrival, but perhaps even more so upon returning. True, no longer was I more or less fending for myself in a foreign country, struggling with murky Cuban Spanish, or dying from the incomparable Caribbean heat. But I desperately missed (and even now, still do) Cuba, that island with such fama: the Malecón at sunset, the best show in town where all manner of Cubans congregate by the boardwalk to overlook the bay; wandering around our neighborhood of El Vedado and marveling at the deteriorating mansions; the crystalline beaches at Varadero where we went to veranear for a weekend. These treasures don’t yield themselves so easily to being forgotten, but they also never quite reveal themselves to our loved ones in the way that we’d like. We can show them pictures hour on the hour, explain how Cuba “was something else,” how it changed us, tell them anecdotes of that time we were so drunk off of dark Havana club rum that we had to take a máquina home while our roommate cradled our head (Caroline, don’t think I’m not constantly thinking of a good way to properly pay you back for that kindness), and yet–a space remains. And that’s only normal, but it is that very space that makes the return so murky.

Although I believe that the culture shock from Cuba was much greater–there’s a lot of reasons for that–I have spent more time in Spain, so it’s hard to say whether it will be easier or harder to readjust to life back home this time ’round than my last stint abroad. Something many of my study-abroad friends and I have worried about together lately, the fear saturating our recent meals, is that relationships and friendships, dynamics, family situations, etc. will have changed or somehow deteriorated while we’ve been gone. The fact of the matter is, that is completely possible. Aside from maintaining in regular contact with a select few friends via texting, Whatsapp voice messages (a MUST, y’all), and the occasional Skype or Whatsapp call, I’ve not kept up much with those I care about, despite best efforts on both sides; I’ll see things on Facebook about specific events in friends’ lives or, in the news, articles about current political and cultural furor in America, and yet obviously none of that adds up to a complete picture of home (if we are ever truly allowed a complete picture of anything… sorry, waxing philosophical). The possibilities of whatever you might be returning to run any part of the gamut, so much so that you have to realize it for what it is at the risk of maddening yourself: out of your control.

There’s also something maddening about the space, a space that never seems fully closed even after we’ve returned: we close the space between us and “home,” the old home, only to find a new rupture between our new selves and our new home, our new family. And I really do mean that. It’s not just the friends, Spanish, International, and fellow Americans, that I will miss; I’ll miss Cristina and María as much as any daughter would miss her mother or sister, because, well, we ARE family now. The fact that Alexa is also staying in Spain for the next semester only makes it harder to say goodbye, although at least we have the prospect of living together again in less than a year to look forward to (and you better know that we’re gonna rule the block). These leavings are inevitable. That is the price of leaving: we become fractured selves, fractals, multi-faceted in a new way.

But eventually these quirks, these gaps, these ruptures, all become folded into the bigger weaving of our lives. We come to accept that many, really the immense majority, of the people we will be around back home have not had our particular experiences, and to both never, ever begrudge them for that nor forget the special bond of those with whom we made these memories (Alexa, I’m looking at you–very serious about speaking in Spanish together when we’re rooming again in the NOLA house next fall!). We meet in the middle: we are never wholly the people we were before, nor solely this new identity, but some amalgam, perhaps messy at first, but (hopefully) a more cohesive self as time goes on. The question of space somehow loses its relevancy when we realize that everything–everything we’ve experienced, all that we’ve learned, the people we’ve loved, the languages we’ve picked up, and the pieces of ourselves we’ve lost along the way–is connected, even if we cannot yet quite articulate how.

P.S. My traveling days are far from over.

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Marbella Beach, Barcelona.

“Al final de este viaje”// “At the End of this Journey”: an album I listened to on-repeat before leaving Cuba. It’s been making the rounds again on my iPod recently.

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Los Restos (The Leftovers): Final Days & Goodbyes

The goodbyes have officially started, the holiday season is upon us already, all my exams are over, I leave tomorrow morning… this is the final stretch!
Christmas time in Madrid isn’t exactly of the old-European-charm variety, but I like the decorations around town, from the haphazard decorated trees in Huertas to the varied lights scattered along the streets:

One night before exams started, for one of the Reunidas classes, the students performed snippets from various Spanish theater, from Lorca to Tirso de Molina, and it was quite entertaining:

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A dead Tommy, with Dan mourning over the murdered body of Samantha. Sigh, Romanticist dramas.

Afterwards, a group of us girls from Reunidas got together for dinner at a restaurant near Sol to exchange Secret Santa gifts (known as “amigo invisible” in Spain) and enjoy each other’s company before parting ways. Some of us leave at the end of the semester (like moi), others will be staying for the entire year (like Alexa), so it was a bit of a surreal mix, with some of us knowing how much we’ll miss Spain and others not so worried, knowing that they’ll be back in January.
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Alexa was to leave a few days before me, so in the tradition of our family dinners, our homestay mom Cris prepared us a special “last supper” for the last one we’d all be together, featuring two of our favorite cuisines: Indian food & Italian Tiramisu ❤

Cristina also gave us both matching pairs of gloves for Christmas because she is a sweetheart.
I finished all my exams by Tuesday and had the rest of the week before my flight home, so I’ve gotten the chance to do quite a bit (aside from sleeping in every day…). On Wednesday, Alexa and I went with Cris to the Palace Hotel in Atocha to admire the Christmas decorations and chat over tea and sweets; from there, we walked to Tirso de Molina and hung out for a bit in a gallery there that’s currently featuring some of her work.


There was a wonderful moment when we were leaving the hotel and talking about violetas, the candy (see previous Food Porn post), and Cristina mentioned the famous song “La violetera” by Sara Montiel, one of the most famous Spanish singers from the 20th century, a gata who sang Madrileño ballads in the 50’s. I’d actually already known about this song: years ago, in my high school AP Spanish class (shout-out to Amanda for some great education there), I had splurged on an album of the “100 Most Popular Spanish Songs of the Fifties” to practice the language, and some of my favorite songs on the disc were by “Sarita.” I even did a project on ‘La violetera’ and how it represented the Spanish identity… Come to think of it, listening to Sara Montiel and her nostalgic vision of the Madrid of days past was probably when I first knew I had to come to Spain. Suffice it all to say that when Cris mentioned the song and started to sing it, I joined in with her–magical, this mix of the past and the present. To be in Madrid, reliving this song that sparked a dream come to fruition.
Here’s that song:


Alexa left on Friday morning, so we had to say early goodbyes on Thursday. From shopping on Gran Vía/Fuencarral, indulging in our favorite sweets at La Mallorquina, and trying the famous Indian food of Lavapiés (but why was it so sugary?!), it was a nice last day spent as roommates here. But we’ll be seeing each other soon enough!

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Sweet lil nugget!

After Alexa and I parted ways, I met up with my Brazilian João at the Cine Doré, home to the showings of the Filmoteca Española and a famous spot for “off-beat” film–arthouse film, documentaries, the like. They were showing “Aliyah Dada,” a Romanian documentary discussing the immigration of Romanian Jews to Palestine before WWII, during the Holocaust, and afterwards during Romania’s period of being a satellite state of the USSR Had no idea that Romania was so key in the creation of the state of Israel–fascinating stuff.

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Afterwards, fun times in Maloka in Malasaña, a Brazilian bar where I tried my first caipirinha (made with lime and cachaça, a sugar cane-based liquor similar to rum). They were playing a bunch of Paulista (Italian-influenced) samba and some forró, so obviously I adored the place.

I’ve been spending a lot of time hanging out with María and Cristina, which is always a joy. One of our favorite shared loves is music–Cristina, being an artist, always has music in the background playing as she paints, and María’s father is a guitarist, so naturally their whole family is pretty damn musical, and then there’s me, the Jazzhead/Radio DJ chick. We actually spent one night this week almost exclusively exchanging a ton of music–me jazz and samba, them Spanish music across genres–and I’ve included some of the music they showed me down below (so you guys can enjoy, but mostly so I can remember them, haha):

Gypsy-influenced flamenco from Andalucía…

Lola Flores, the “Gypsy Queen”

The Spanish Gypsy singer Camarón de la Isla.

…Spanish guitar…

Paco de Lucía, a legend of the Spanish guitar. Guitar players, look upon this and weep.

An Arabic-inspired tune on the Spanish guitar

Another classic composer of Spanish guitar, Isaac Albéniz.

…orchestral composition…

“The Search for the Great Beyond,” Joaquín Rodrigo, written for NASA. He was blind, so all of this was dictated from him through a middleman onto paper–quite an amazing process.

You get the idea. Spanish music really has a lot going for it. Brazil still comes in first for the country with my favorite music, but I’m loving flamenco and Spanish guitar…

On Saturday, I spent the day mostly alone–or, better said, alone with Madrid, my last “date” with this city I so love. Instead of taking the metro, I walked from the piso through all the lower south-western neighborhoods of La Latina, Lavapiés, Las Letras and Huertas all the way to the edge of Retiro. Between grabbing Galician food, people-watching over a cappuccino, and meandering about the flower markets of Tirso de Molina, I managed to also get some Christmas gifts for María and Cristina (obvs)

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Quevedo quote embellished on a street in Huertas/Las Letras, the historic literary area of the city. If you’re a Spanish major and you haven’t memorized “Miré los muros de la patria mía…”, are you REALLY a Spanish major…?

Today, for my last day in Spain, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing what my host mother titled an “historic moment” for the country: the presidential elections, known as 20D (2oth of December), were today.

There’s a couple of special things about this election cycle (by the way, yes, Spain is a democracy–the King is just a face for the nation and doesn’t actually govern): for starters, this year marks the 40th anniversary of death of Franco, y’know, that dictator guy whose forces received aid from Mussolini and Hitler to commit thousands of wartime atrocities and whose nearly 40-year-long reign committed a litany of postwar crimes against humanity (seriously guys, this stuff is whack https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francoist_Spain).

Perhaps more significantly, though, is that for the first time since the Transition to democracy, we are seeing the end of bipartisanship and beginning of a true multiparty system in the country. Although all parties are free to exist, the two main ones, El Partido Popular (conservative, with many of their members descending from the Franco regime) and PSOE (The leftist Worker’s Socialist party) have dominated the scene, creating effectively a bipartisan system for the last 40 years. However, this election cycle marks the first time that there’s been any notable competition from any other parties, the other big ones being Podemos (a group led by students, progressives, and young Spaniards–their candidate is actually also a professor in Complutense, the university I attended here!), Izquierda Unida (“United Left”) and Ciudadanos (claiming to be the “center”).

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Posters of some of the major parties

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“May the child you were, not be embarrassed of the adult you are,” Greenpeace campaign depicting child versions of all five major candidates.

This morning, I went with Cristina and her daughter María as she went to go vote (so that I could see the process) and the rest of the day has been spent in anticipation of the results. As of my writing this at 11:05 pm on the night of December 20th, PP, PSOE and Podemos are the top three winners of the vote, with no single one gaining the absolute minority needed to have a singular government; although we’re not sure yet who will be president, we do know that pacts between some of the parties will be necessary. Particularly impressive is that Podemos has only existed for about one year; their success in these recent elections marks a stark change in the two-party system that has been the tradition in Spanish politics. Cool stuff to be in the country for, and not a bad last day.

Tonight, packing up my life from the last 4+ months into a bag, it’s really hitting me how much I’m gonna miss this place… But, on the plus side, I have tentative plans to come back in May to visit while Alexa is still here and go on vacation with Cristina and company to Andalucía in the south of Spain, so that’s something; and also, Cristina and María have promised to visit us in NOLA sometime in the next two years! You can’t keep family apart for too long.

FOOD PORN.

This is exactly what it sounds like: all the random various delicious foodstuffs that haven’t fit into previous posts. This is for all you who are curious about what “Spanish” food is, who want to know what a cosmopolitan city like Madrid has to offer in the way of meals, or who just wanna drool over pictures.

(Warning: the only complaint I have with Spanish food is that it’s kinda like a child’s imagination of what food should be: mostly meats, sweets, and carbs, often fried, with minimal vegetables. Try living on a diet like that for four+ months…)

Anyways. Enjoy.

Restaurants/Spanish Dishes

El Mercado de San Antón: a three-story marvel in Chueca, el Mercado de San Antón is sorta like my beloved Mercado de San Miguel, but a bit more low-key: it’s less packed with tourists and more with the local hipsters of Chueca and Malasaña. From Spanish tapas to Greek gyros to sushi to groceries, this place has a bit of everything culinary. In sunny climes, grab some gelato and chill on the rooftop with a sick-ass balcony view.

One of my favorite breakfast spots has to be at El Mirador de de San Isidro, a spot that Alexa found. It’s maybe three minutes walking distance from our piso. Spanish breakfasts and European/Continental breakfasts aren’t exactly spectacular–more often than not, it’s just some bread and coffee–but I do love the very Spanish “pan con tomate,” bread with an emulsion of tomato topped with olive oil and sea salt. It’s a basic, but very tasty and hearty, Mediterranean breakfast.

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Pan con tomate with olive oil and sea salt, and of course coffee, at El Mirador de San Isidro in Pirámides: this is THE classic Spanish breakfast.

Then there’s been, of course, the college-food staples:

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A nice Estrella de Galicia (the best of Spain’s beer offerings, which is unfortunately just middle-of-the-road at best) + pizza in a little hole in the wall in Barrio Salamanca. Is it obvious that I miss father-daughter beer&slice bonding with my dad? Shout-out to the Mikester.

And plenty of calamari:

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Bocadillos de calamares and beers with the notorious Chris Brown in Atocha.

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Brocheta marinera: various grilled seafoods with actual salad (they apparently do occasionally exist here in Spain…) in Atocha.

And one of my favorite dishes, paella

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Paella mixta feat. café con leche as part of a menú del día at El Ribeiriño about two steps from our homestay in Pirámides.

One of my all-time favorite brunches has to be at Ojalá in Malasaña (see “Bars” also). Some of the freshest food I’ve had in Madrid, if not particularly Spanish (menu could easily be something taken from a hipster hang-out spot in Brooklyn or San Francisco…but I ain’t complaining!).

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Brunch including toast, salad, hummus, guac, fruit, coffee, and orange juice for *drum roll* 9 EUROS

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Tropical vibes at Ojalá.

And I’ve even managed to find some pretty good Asian food:

Phuket Thai (with a name like that, you KNOW it’s good):

and Banzai Sushi:

When it comes to dishes in general, Spanish cocido is also a pretty big deal. It’s the go-to food for cold weather. Basically a bunch of stewed root veggies.

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Cocido madrileño

Cafés/Coffee Shops

My ABSOLUTE favorite coffee shop– and this is a hard decision–is Lolina Café in Malasaña. Definitely my favorite place to grab a cappuccino and study for hours. It’s got a basement with comfy sofas that are perfect to curl up in with a latté…

Granier–there’s a bunch of these scattered throughout the city, but my favorite is the little one on Fuencarral. The beauty of this place is mostly in its cheapness. 1.40 euro for a café con leche and a berlina (donut) ain’t nothing to argue with.

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WIP-Tsters in Granier.

Sweets&Treats

The most important bakery in the city (in my humble opinion) is La Mallorquina, right on the edge of Puerta del Sol (the cultural and commercial center of the casco antiguo/old city). This is the hub where all the Madrileños go to get their holiday pastries. Whenever I’m in the Sol area, I can’t resist stopping by for their 2 euro napolitanas…

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Turrones: a typical Christmas treat in Spain that’s sort of like a nougat-sweet.

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Tarta de Santiago, an almond cake originating from Galicia.

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An abanico (“fan”), a Spanish pastry glazed with a citrus-sugar syrup.

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Dulces navideños–typical Spanish holiday treats. Cristina has a bunch of them lying around the apartment.

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Violetas, a Spanish suckle-sweet made lightly with the flavor of violets.

Bars/Drinks

One of my favorite café-bars of Madrid has to be Ojalá. As I’ve already mentioned, Ojalá makes a mean brunch, but a meaner cocktail. From the tropical atmosphere to the creative drinks to the fact that the BASEMENT IS FILLED WITH SAND LIKE A MINI-BEACH, you can’t go wrong with this Malasaña joint–although, like most of the neighborhood, it tends towards the pricy. “Ojalá” translates to “May God grant/If God wills” (from the Arabic “Insha’Allah”), and this spot is pretty much a sacred oasis so that fits.

Malasaña and Chueca in general are rife with cool bars:

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In Dreams Café, a Malasaña bar with a Vintage American theme… Cheetah print, kitsch, and 50’s-70’s American music abound.

And, of course, Spain has its own signature drinks:

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Some Estrella Galicia’s, a tinto verano (popular summertime Spanish mixeddrink of red wine, seltzer water/Sprite, lemon, and sometimes an added dash of rum for a punch; sort of like a simplified sangria), and potato chips, which are by far Spain’s preferred bar snack. I theorize that it’s because the salt makes you thirstier, you drink more, the bar makes more money, etcetera…

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Ah, Don Simón and his wonderfully shitty pre-made sangria. A classic staple for the poor college student. That bottle is 100% plastic.

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Desperados: a Spanish beer mixed with tequila and served with lemon. Sounds disgusting, but somehow the beer and tequila flavors kinda cancel each other out and it tastes pretty good?

Anyways, speaking of booze, here’s a nice gem of me from Benarés (that dope Indian fusion restaurant my mom took Alexa and me to) to round this post out:

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Come at me, boyz.

Less than a week till I fly home and can eat as many vegetables as is humanly possible!

Miscellaneous Madrileño Things

It has come to my attention that this blog is missing a crucial something-something: a focus on Spain, Madrid in particular (you know, that city I live in?). This may be the first blog post I’ve made since early October specifically about my adoptive home in Spain… shameful. Anyways, I’m going by events first, then will be putting out some shorter blog posts about places I love here, things I’ve seen, etcetera so that I don’t have to dump every little thing here. So to that effect, here we are–various ramblings to prove that I have done more than just travel haphazardly around the Occident!

First of all, WINTER HAS COME, and with a vengeance:

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Ice Queen (feat. blanket-sized scarf)

A chill has set into Madrid, although take that with a grain of salt–I’m the sort of Southern belle who cannot handle weather below 50 degrees without a) draping herself in sweaters, gloves, coats, etc. b) drinking coffee/tea every hour on the hour merely to keep warm, and c) seeking refuge in my extremely blanketed bed in the middle of the day just to conserve warmth, or d) becoming comatose. Spending time in Alabama, New Orleans, and even a summer in Cuba has pretty much made me immune to heat&humidity, but at the cost of my internal heating system being completely shot. There’s a reason I chose Spain instead of Sweden, and let’s just say it wasn’t just so that I could practice Spanish: the coldest it gets here still pales in comparison to the snow-laden winters of more northwards European countries. But that said, the typical lifestyle in Spain makes a laughably light winter anywhere else actually quite harsh, and that is that Spaniards rarely, if ever, heat their homes–it’s just too expensive, I suppose. Instead, they compensate by wearing ridiculous amounts of layers starting in early October. Coming home from the cold, you don’t return to a warm house with a fireplace, but more likely an un-insulated apartment whose core temperature is about the same as outside. It’s a little disheartening: the cold gets in your bones and never really goes away.

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Autumn comin’ a knockin’ on our metro steps.

Classes here have been fine. I prefer Tulane’s classes–more interactive, smaller class size, plus I know and like the professors in my specialties–but the Reunidas classes have been interesting enough; I especially like my class on Spanish literature between the 18th and 21st centuries, and there’s also a Politics/Economy of Current Spain class whose professor’s lecturing style is really intense and interesting. I really have learned much more outside of class, whether in active political debates with my host mother, reading Spanish news and novels, or just walking around the city and taking it all in osmosis-style.

[School anecdote: some students from the Anarchist Union at Complutense set off fireworks inside the building of Edificio B, where our classes are held, so that was fun. A ~political party~ if you will…?]

We have a few traditions, and we’ve fallen into some nice routines: dinners every night with the homestay fam…

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Our lovely lil fam, from left to right: María (15 but not the whiny-emo-15 year old that I was…), Alexa, Cristina, and this dingus

…passing afternoons on the weekend in Retiro park (for example, rowing with my friend Gabby, who’s from NYC but is here for an internship)…

…my weekly English lessons with ma kids out in Majadahonda…

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Cheese on a roof. It’s all part of the English-learning process.

…and Wednesday afternoons spent in the Prado museum (see previous post) for our Spanish Art History classes.

Me and some fellow WIP-Ters chilling on the steps after one of our trips to the Prado.

But of course, besides that, there’s been some sweet highlights:

Live Music

I knew going into this journey that live music in New Orleans would be one of the things I’d have the most FOMO (fear of missing out; yes, this is a real term) for. It’s an incomparable scene: not only is there live music every night, any day of the week–I mean, there are other cities where that’s true–but the quality and variety gets you hooked. The kicker is that so much of it is startlingly good, and there’s just about every genre imaginable represented, to one degree or another: my faves are jazz fusion/improv/experimental, but there’s blues, pop, country, electronic, metal, noise, really anything, and many are free or close to nothing. Plus, at least in the alternative scene, there’s such a sense of community: these musicians take care of their own. It’s really an amazing thing. They’re definitely some of my favorite people in the city. And I haven’t found anything close to that here (and probably never will anywhere else… sigh), but I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the cats I’ve managed to catch here:

Oct. 27: Jazz legend Chick Corea & The Vigil, live in Madrid at the Auditorio Nacional. Apparently, the Spanish love him. Some background: I’m a big fan of Chick, and often spin his records on WTUL, the radio station I work at in New Orleans. So when I found out he was coming to Madrid, I bought a pair of tickets in a heartbeat for me and the Lexster to soak up the jazz magic (also, the National Auditorium in Madrid is an AWESOME space):

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Packed house for Chick.

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A much-deserved bow.

Seeing his song “Spain” performed IN SPAIN has been one of the chiller things I’ve experienced in the last decade. Here’s that song:

Nov. 16 Jazz Fest in Madrid: Esperanza Spalding. Another favorite of mine to spin on TUL. I knew her mainly for her jazz-fusion-y reimaginings of samba; her version of “Inútil Paisagem” with Gretchen Parlato is a top pick:

But for this concert she was performing songs from a new upcoming album–Pop-Art-Rock-Jazz sort of stuff, which I was totally into.

Here’s one of the songs I got to see her play, and you can really see the Pop-Jazz-Rock mix well:

I had never heard anything in particular about Madrid’s Jazz Festival before arriving here–in fact, I didn’t even know it was happening, my mom pointed it out to me while she was here visiting!–but the lineups were impressive. There was also an Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) show scheduled, but sadly it was cancelled the day-of for undisclosed personal reasons. Merp.

Then, of course, there’s been flamenco, that most Spanish of music and dance:

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Impassioned flamenco based on a romantic drama at Las Tablas.

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Lighthearted flamenco at Sala BarCo.

Theatre

-Nov. 3 El Burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville) by the playwright Tirso de Molina with Chris and Rachael, two friends from the study abroad program I’m in. Now, typically, even though “El burlador de Sevilla” is literally about Don Juan and his amorous conquests, it’s pretty atypical for Spanish theatre to be super sexual, much less Golden-Age Spanish theatre from the 1600’s (the category this piece falls under). But not so with this version. In addition to being ridiculously artsy, there was quite a bit of full-frontal nudity and more than plenty sexual innuendo, with the play starting with two of the actors on the floor, y’know, getting down in the down & dirty. Talk about a modern re-envisioning. Obviously, I loved it.

For more info: http://www.diariocritico.com/noticia/489916/teatro/el-burlador-de-sevilla-de-tirso-de-molina-en-polemica-y-provocadora-version-de-dario-facal.html

Nov. 21: During her visit, Laura and I went to a show called La del Soto de Parral at the Teatro de la Zarzuela (Zarzuela Theatre), known, appropriately, for its zarzuelas. As Wikipedia will tell you, a zarzuela is “a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular song, as well as dance.” Kinda like a “folk-musical,” if I had to label it? Would highly recommend catching one of these shows if you’re in Spain.

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Laura and I in front of the Theatre.

Visits

-Nov. 10 Mom’s visit: my mom came to visit me in November and, aside from heading to Italy, we also had some fun in Madrid.

We went shopping…

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Moms and I on Gran Vía, the big shopping street in the commercial heart of Madrid. Zara was our main target.

Then headed to the Sorolla Museum, situated in the home of Luminist painter Joaquín Sorolla:

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La madre

(This art is incredible. One of my favorite artists, for sure.)

And then on to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, one of the premiere art museums of Madrid. Together with the Prado and the Reina Sofía, it forms the “Trinity” of museums here.

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Exterior of the Museo Thyssen.

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Munch, Dalí, Miró, Derain, Hopper–oh my!

Both of these museums fall on my Top-10 list, for sure.

That night, we headed to Benarés with Alexa. This restaurant just opened, but it’s been ranked one of the hottest–and tastiest–places in the city. Plus, it’s Indian fusion food, and I’d been seriously missing my ethnic cuisines in my time here.

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Probably my favorite moment during her visit, though, was when we all went over to my homestay for dinner. Cristina, being the angel she is, had prepared a variety of tapas for my mom to try:

The amazing assortment of tapas that Cristina lovingly prepared for my mother and I so that she could try homemade traditional Spanish food ❤

My mom doesn’t speak Spanish, and Cristina knows barely any English, so they had to communicate mainly through me/physical gestures. It was really quite sweet; Cristina said that they “understood each other through the eyes.” After we left, my mom turned to me and said, “You know… I could learn Spanish.” I’ve never felt prouder. I’m the only one in most of my family that knows any second language, so it was validating for her to see the real value of it: being able to connect with people who would otherwise be beyond your reach because of linguistic barriers.

Nov. 23-24 Laura’s visit: Laura, one of my former high school classmates, came through Madrid in late November, and we had the good fortune of meeting up and doing quite a bit. She’s an amazing girl, studying Pre-Med at UPitt, and on top of it has a beautiful Colombian Spanish–somewhat of a nice break from Castilian, I have to admit. Starting with a Sunday morning at my favorite open-air flea market, El Rastro, in La Latina…

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…to some dope Basque food at the ever-solid Txacolina…

…to tea time with the homestay, Alexa, and Alexa’s grandparents, who were also visiting Madrid…

…and we ended our day with Alexa and chocolate con churros at Chocolatería de San Ginés, by far the best I’ve had in town.

Later in the week, for her last night in Madrid, we went to El Mercado de San Miguel (see previous post), and ended up hanging out with a couple traveling in Europe but originally from Brooklyn, Jessica and Zachary, probably two of the chillest people I’ve met in a hot second. Jessica, as it turns out, is from Cabo Verde, and speaks Portuguese. We exchanged words in a mix of European-Brazilian Portuguese flurry and laughed–there are ALWAYS more Lusophones than you’d ever expect in any given place.

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New frands!

Like I said, Alexa’s grandparents were also visiting around this time, and one of their last days in Madrid, they were kindly asked me to accompany them. We started with lunch at Maceiras, a Galician restaurant in Huertas.

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Me, Alexa, and Mimi in front of Maceiras in Huertas.

The food was amazing, and the company even more so.  Her grandparents, Mimi and Opa, two born-and-raised Texans, are the most adorable people I think I’ve ever seen. Even though they’re old, they still get out and travel, and they’re so obviously in love with each other despite decades of marriage that it’s maybe too sweet to handle.

We spent the rest of the day wandering into shops to sate Alexa’s insatiable shopping addiction. Later, all of us headed to a Thanksgiving dinner put on by our program at Casa Adolfo near the Argüelles area (not that Spaniards, or really anyone outside the U.S., celebrates Thanksgiving, but hey, we’re American still… I guess?).

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Mimi and Opa, Alexa, *yo*, and Amy Olson, our study abroad coordinator at the Complutense.

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Other Events/ True Misc.:

Nov. 21 El Clásico: The biggest football game of the year. This game was the most epic event of my 2015 experience, hands down. I mean, just look at this sheer CROWD…

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In Spanish, this would be “un montón de gente”…

I normally classify myself as a sports atheist, but I’ve really come to appreciate soccer (football) since I’ve been here. You kinda have to; it’s ever-present. Choosing a team to root for in this game, though, was a bit hard… Real Madrid, my home team, or Barça, the objectively better team? Plus, there’s all these current political underpinnings–the fact that Cataluña, the region to which Barcelona belongs, is actively trying to secede–that gave the match a heightened level of meaning and intensity. In the beginning, I tried to root for both, buying a little scarf with both team colors on it, but as the game got going, I found myself shouting whenever Barcelona made a good move and wincing when Real Madrid got close to scoring. Then again, Barcelona killed it (they finished 4-0 over Real Madrid), so maybe I just got caught up in the excitement of their immense success…

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The game was like a delicate game of chess: strategic moves pulled off with a sort of artisan-level of quality. I was entranced.

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Victória!

The couple next to me throughout the game were hilarious, throwing out “coño! payaso! joder!” every other second (obviously, they were Real Madrid fans). Thankfully, they didn’t give me any grief when I cheered Barça on. Their energy, the energy in the stadium, everything–so powerful.

The only bad part of the experience was getting called a c-nt in the street by a Real Madrid fan for wearing Barça colors… No matter how much I’ve grown a liking for football (soccer) here, that sort of shit will never fly with me. You betcha I snapped at him in Spanish. That alone has probably got me converted to being a lifetime Barça fan.

Los Mercados Navideños/ The Christmas Markets: In Madrid around the holidays, it’s very common to see little street markets with trinkets and such pop up. These, combined with the newly installed lights, help set the mood for the season real nice.

Also, Alexa and I went to an art talk about some Japanese ukiyo-e prints given in Spanish; that was dope. Lot of overlap with the stuff I studied over the summer at Berkeley. Seeing a talk about Yoshitoshi’s illustrations for Genji monogatari (one of the works I studied), in SPANISH, was the best of all possible worlds:

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Art talk at the Japanese center in Madrid (wish I had known this place existed months ago….)

Also, um, there’s a “Cat Café” (La Gatoteca) in Madrid… the drinks are ehh but do you really go to a cat café for the coffee?

On a similar note, our homestay cat has finally accepted Alexa and me as one of her own!!! It took long enough…

According to Cristina, we’re the first homestay girls that Tuca has ever been affectionate towards–she said it must be our “good energies” (what does that even mean…? Gotta love Cris and her hippie ways). Now she won’t leave us alone.

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Tuca sleeping on my arm, ie, making it impossible to work or, in fact, move.

So that’s more or less been the last forever of my life! Crazy to think there’s only about a week left…

(Doing a separate post for all the food. Prepare your stomachs.)

 

Buona sera, Italia!

Mamma mia, pizza pie, olives, bacchanalia, the Godfather… how many Italian stereotypes can I throw out at once?! Italy has definitely been on the top of my “Go To” list ever since pizza and pasta were the only things I would eat as a kid–thank god that’s taken a complete 180º–up until college and really getting into classic Italian cinema (thanks, La Dolce Vita), literature (Italo Calvino, I’m looking at you), art history (um, birthplace of the Renaissance, need I say more?), and even music (Sofia Loren’s voice matched her looks, let’s just say), and of course, the finer points of Italian cuisine aside from the typical Americanized favorites. Plus, Italian is quite similar to Spanish–naturally, considering they were once both dialects of Latin. So when my mom was planning her trip to Madrid to visit me but also wanted to travel elsewhere in Europe, and neither of us had ever been to Italy, I knew where we had to go. [Sidebar: more about life in Madrid in separate upcoming posts!]

After spending the first half of the week in Madrid, we flew out last Thursday to Florence (Firenze, in Italian). It was a quick 2 hour affair, and by 3 in the afternoon we had already landed.

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~Volare, ohhhh oh~

To my chagrin but not at all to my surprise, my mother’s first preoccupation? Shopping, and we hadn’t even left the airport! But on the bright side, while she was milling around the clothes, I decided to try my Spanish with the cashier to see how much overlap there was with Italian, only to find out that she had actually studied in Madrid (also at the Complutense, in some crazy stroke of coincidence!) and spoke fluent Spanish, if with a very Italian accent. Also, when I mentioned that my more permanent home was in New Orleans, she told me that her husband was a jazz saxophonist and that the two had been planning a trip down to NOLA–small world of ours, I guess! In another weird stroke of overlap, the symbol of Florence is the fleur-de-lys, if slightly distinct from the better-known French version…

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Fleur-de-lys on the side of an historic building in Florence

Anyways, it was amazing to get to use Spanish so early on in our trip to connect abroad.

We took a cab to our hotel, Relais Uffizi, which is right in the old heart of the town. The weather was crisp and bright, with a clear sun welcoming us, so the ride was pleasant even as we got held up by foot traffic in the tourist-filled downtown (sidebar: Florence is not a particularly huge town, and is wonderfully walkable. The side streets aren’t very accommodating for vehicles, so it’s a better move to go on foot.)

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pictured: EXTREMELY narrow Florentine street

We arrived at our hotel, which is right on the Piazza della Signoria, a large open square featuring the Palazzo Vecchio and various Neoclassical sculptures:

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Piazza della Signoria; view from our hotel.

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Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace”)

The location of the hotel was perfect, the staff was pretty helpful in making recommendations/reservations, and the rooms had an old world charm, if lacking much luxury.

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Anyways, since the plaza was so central, it was surrounded by everything you’d expect: clothing stores, gelaterias, pizzerias, cafés and biscotterias, street vendors, leather shops, shoe shops, parfumeries…hnnng. After grabbing some pizza at a café on the Piazza (“plaza” in Italian)…

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overpriced, but a pretty view of the Plaza.

…and trying some delicious tidbits at a bakery…

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One of the many street vendors in Tuscany. They sell just about everything, especially leather products, which Italy is famous for in general.

…we wiled the day away hopping from boutique to boutique. Lisa, being basically a shopaholic, and I spent quite a few hours shopping over our stay, and that afternoon in particular. After wandering in and out of stores and around the Piazza della Signoria, we had worked up quite an appetite, so we took a recommendation from the concierge for a little restaurant about two blocks from the hotel called Antico Fattore, a traditional little spot that was pretty good (not particularly unique, but definitely solid). Momma got meatballs, a classic, and I stuck with one of my favorites: gnocchi with pesto. The real standout, though, was the tiramisu. I downed so much of the first one that we ended up getting two, and yet I regret not a thing…

By the way, if you haven’t already guessed, I was terrible and avidly photographed everything that we drank/ate in Italy because it was all incredible. Prepare yourselves.

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what you’ve heard is true, this is a food blog

We got two tiramisu and I ate 3/4 of them both because I am a creature.

The next day, we woke up unfortunately early in order to take advantage of our only full day staying in Florence. This was the day for tours, museums, meandering, and it did not disappoint. We struck gold with Art Viva, (http://www.italy.artviva.com/tours_category/2/florence_tuscany_tours_italy), which was the highest rated tour company in Italy according to all my google searches and is apparently world-famous for its quality mix of historical info, art theory, and good ole storytelling (any Southerner’s true weakness…). It also conveniently incorparated two key tours–one a general walking tour of the city, another, more art history-intensive tour of the Uffizi art galleries–into the span of one day with room for lunch and time afterwards to enjoy the city before dinner. So my mom indulged me in my cultural/historical/art fix and we last-minute booked a spot for these tours the night before. At 9 the next morning, we left our hotel and met outside the Art Viva office.

Our tour guide was an Australian man, maybe mid-thirties, who had been vacationing in Florence after graduating university but fell in love with his current wife, decided to stay, and now does English tours on the side (or at least that was his story–almost too romantic to believe!). He had an Art History/ Architecture background, and that became obvious from the minute we started walking; this kid knew his stuff.

We started in the Piazza della Repubblica and three hours later ended up at the Duomo, gorged on history–no surprise in a city with millennia behind it.

We broke up our trip with a break to admire the beautiful Arno river and the Ponte Vecchio, one of a couple of bridges that crosses it:

We made our way to the Piazza della Signoria, right next to our hotel, and focused on the statues of the Loggia dei Lanzi

Important historical anecdote: Michelangelo’s David has long been considered to represent Florence, the underdog, with his gaze fixed on Rome. Meanwhile, Hercules, the statue right beside the David, was commissioned later by the Medici when they returned to take Florence after their exile in Rome, as if to say “Naw bitches, this ain’t no David and Goliath story. We’re the big bads.”

Finally, for our last leg of the tour, we meandered towards the famed Duomo of Florence.

Brunelleschi’s Dome is a marvel of architecture and engineering–the largest dome for centuries and still to this day the largest brick structure in the world. Still centuries later, no one is quite sure what his method was for building an edifice of such grand scale without it collapsing into itself… Renaissance magic, perchance?

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Il Duomo peaking out to say hello.

 

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Yooooooo Duomo

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Inside–check dat fresco!

We wished our Aussie guide well and set off for lunch before our next 3+ hour tour. Deliciousness at a place called La Bussola, where we were seated beside two middle-aged women who were speaking…hmm…wasn’t quite Spanish… Portuguese? On a limb, while my mom was in the restroom, I turned over to them with a “De onde são vocês?” and, sure enough, they were both from Recife, Brasil, vacationing through Europe. We chatted happily for the rest of the meal about everything from Brazilian music to Pernambuco (the state in which Recife is located) to traveling abroad–I think all three of us were just happy to have found another Lusophone in Italy! Traveling always keeps proving to me that you don’t have to visit a Spanish or Portuguese-speaking country to have plenty of opportunities to use the languages you’re studying. They didn’t speak a lick of English, though, so my mom ended up sitting there smirking throughout the entire conversation. Sorry, Lisa.

Anyways, here’s some food porn from that meal.

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Margherita pizza and “bavette alle vongole veraci”–pasta with clams and cherry tomatoes.

Tea time with Caffe Rivoire.

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Y’all. Cappuccino is the drink of the gods. How have I never known?!

Our second tour was of the Uffizi Galleries, private offices of the Medici turned into an art museum that the Medici family had created out of their own private collection then continued to sponsor. The guide, Angelo, was a sassy and sharp Florentine with a specialization in Renaissance art–appropriately, that’s pretty much the majority of the Uffizi collection.

The first room we entered was filled with Byzantine-style Madonna and Child paintings, with one in particular standing out. I’ve placed the typical style on the left and the unique piece on the right:

Looking at these two side by side, it’s easy to note their overwhelming similarities: same colors, same gold background, same frame shape, same theme and personages and poses, etc. But it is in fact the smaller details, Angelo argued, that made this painting truly revolutionary for its time. You see, the painting on the right employs a certain language that the one on the left lacks. It is, by now, an old language for you and me, one we take for granted as a given in art–but in Giotto’s day was beforehand unheard of: perspective and depth. Notice that on the right, the angels are lined up on top of each other in an effort to evoke depth without really succeeding; in Giotto’s Madonna, we can see clearly that some angels are standing closer in our field of vision than others. Furthermore, the bodies are completely different: whereas the Mary on the left is flat, with no anatomy revealed in a meaningful way, Giotto’s Mary evokes depth and volume with the folds of her dress on her legs, breasts, etcetera. Perhaps the most important revolution in the language of Giotto’s Madonna and Child is that it speaks of its subjects in significantly more realistic tones, indicating real bodies, real anatomy, real physics, etc. that beforehand were considered irrelevant for religious art (ie most of the art of that time). I remember studying this piece in a college Art History course, but let’s just say that Angelo’s impassioned comparison–plus seeing the piece and its antecedents side-by-side in their true scale–was another experience entirely.

You could write a thesis on each and every one of the works in this gallery. I’ll spare you –but google ’em or something!

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A rare woman Renaissance artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith Beheading Holofernes.” The woman assisting Judith is a self-portrait of the artist. Artemisia was violently raped by a fellow Florentine painter, Agostino Tassi, when she was 18. Many view this intensely violent work (in which Judith kills her would-be rapist Holofernes) as a psychological reflection of Artemisia’s own understandable desire for revenge–in fact, without knowing this backstory, it’s easy to dismiss the work as overly violent and excessively dark. Thus behind its more obvious religious story lies a painful catharsis on the part of the artist. This is one of my favorite pieces in the Uffizi.

There was also a really great view of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi:

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Yo Dante

Mom and I spent the early night in Piazza della Repubblica chillin’ & carouselin’

For dinner, I had special plans: La Giostra, a super-intimate restaurant with the unique fame of having been started by two princes of the royal Hapsburg-Lorena family. If you know anyone who’s visited Florence, they probably ate here when they visited–it’s a super hot spot, and highly recommended/awarded for its ambiance and food. If I had one definitive food recommendation when in Florence, THIS place is it. A must. Check it out yourselves:

http://www.ristorantelagiostra.com/eng-home.php

The pièce de résistance: PECORINO AND PEAR RAVIOLI. Scouted this out days before on the online menu and the expectations were high and it obliterated all doubts. “Fuck, that’s delicious…”

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Spinach ravioli with goat cheese in back; pecorino and pear ravioli in butter sauce (!!) in front.

This dish was a game changer, guys. Counting down the days (hopefully not years…) until next we meet. I found a recipe online (http://findmeinflorence.blogspot.com.es/2012/12/pear-ravioli-florence-coquinarius.html) that I’m pumped to try when I’m back home with more time and a real kitchen of my own.

The next day, we got up early and took a day trip to La Toscana (Tuscany), the region in which Florence is located. The drive itself is beautiful: winding hills, vast valleys of green grape vineyards and olive groves, an eternity of blue sky. I’m a sucker for land like this–Bay Area, Napa valley, even the beautiful farmland of Alabama, are some of my heart’s favorites, and now the Tuscany is an easy front-runner. In fact, it reminded me a lot of my beloved NorCal quite a bit, if with different flora.

Not sure that this all wasn’t some huge fantastical fever dream:

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This song is how Italian landscapes make me feel:

Our first stop was in San Gimignano, a town whose medieval architecture has been remarkably well-preserved.

 

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Taking a break from hoofing it up the windy streets in San Gimignano.

We then took a jaunt to Siena, the age-old rival of Florence. Whereas Florence is a Renaissance marvel, Siena maintains more of a medieval aire, particularly in its architecture:

Another day, another dome:

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Il Duomo of Siena (smaller than that of Florence, but I’d argue that the inside is prettier).

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Stopped for more delicious Tuscan food:

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flowers growing on medieval wall in Siena

On the ride back to Florence, we stopped at a winery, Sant’Appiano Fattoria, for a tour, just the two of us:

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Literally a mother&child reunion

We booked our butts to get back to Florence for stunning sunset view at the Piazzale Michelangelo, situated on a hill with a vista of the whole city:

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The next day, we spent an unreasonable amount of time in Patrizia Pepe, a designer line based in Florence that my mom (and yeah, me too, I admit) fell in love with, then had to book it to get to our flight. But I last-minute remembered something devastating: we hadn’t tried gelato this whole time in Italy?! Must have gotten too caught up in the tiramisu… Anyways, I sacrificed a final shower for a chance to go to Gelateria Santa Trinita, a gelato spot one of our tour guides recommended, and even though I ended up getting back late with gelato dripping all over my shoes, it was worth it…

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The real deal, guys.

As we left, dragging our bags along the cobbled streets, we passed once more by the Piazza della Signoria, where there were demonstrations for the recent attacks in Paris, which happened the same weekend we were in Italy–in fact, Paris was one of the destinations we had originally considered for my mom’s visit. Hard to imagine how many alternate timelines, possibilities, like that exist for ourselves.

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Conclusions: Such a great trip, and so happy that my mom and I went. Italy has captured my heart, and I haven’t even seen such cities as Rome or Venice. Also, I really really REALLY want to learn Italian. Soon…

Arrivederci, Italia.

Amster{DAMN!}

Ah, Amsterdam: Land of the Weed and Home of the Blazed! (joking, Mom). A city renowned the world over for its waffles, canals, art, and lax prostitution/recreational drug use laws. For those of you who forget that Amsterdam is not actually its own country but rather the capital of Holland (aka the Netherlands/Lowlands/Países Bajos–why so many damn names?!), don’t feel too bad: even locals will joke about how it’s basically a city-state, fiercely unique. Alexa and I had booked our tickets for a flight on November 5 almost two months in advance; it was our first trip without some sort of program, guide, or travel agent (and, conveniently, my only one), so we knew that navigation this time would be a little tougher (especially since I have absolutely no sense of direction; that gene didn’t get coded at all). And, in fact, despite all of our best efforts, we managed to get quite confused in the train system many times, particularly on our way from the airport on the way to where we were staying in Amsterdam:

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I title this “Lost in Trainslation”

To be accurate, we weren’t staying in downtown Amsterdam, but in a suburb known as Diemen (pronounced “Demon”…if my life were a literary novel, I’m sure this wouldn’t have boded very well) in the apartment of Katherine, Alexa’s school-days friend from Austin who is currently studying abroad in the Netherlands and was kind enough to let us lodge with her the first two nights of our stay. The little town doesn’t have much, but is certainly picturesque.

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From left to right: dingus, other dingus, and Katherine; waiting for the train to take us downtown.

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Walking through Diemen on the way to the morning train.

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¿fall?

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Kerk (church) in Diemen. Side note: the Netherlands is a historically Protestant country

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Façade of Centraal Station, the main connecting station for train and metro alike

We wandered around downtown Amsterdam for a while, taking in the beauty of the canals (there are 165+ throughout the city–it ain’t called the “Venice of the North” for no reason!) and the fall colors. The sky was overcast, which is normally a big turnoff for me (I’m a sun lover and tend towards depressive spells in dismally grey weather–sunny Spain is good for that), but contrasted with the recently installed Christmas lights and autumnal shades of the city, the atmosphere turned out to be quite lovely:

Alexa and I have been dying without real breakfast in Spain (“continental breakfasts” of bread, jam, and coffee do NOT count), so Katherine took us to this awesome spot called Huis de Hoek (“House on the Corner”), which I would HIGHLY recommend for your next Dutch brunch bunch. It was also where we got to try homemade appeltaart, a Dutch type of apple-pie served at room temperature and made of slices of fresh apple, cinnamon&nutmeg, raisins, and nuts, and a slathering of whipped cream, no ice cream (slightly more justifiable as a breakfast food, I hoped):

Most of that first full day was then spent wandering around the city, from Westerkerk (an historic church, also the burial site of the artist Rembrandt)…

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…to passing by the house in which Anne Frank’s annex is located…

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Anne Frank Huis (sadly, the line was a mile long and we didn’t buy our tickets in advance, so we couldn’t go inside)

…to the Amsterdam Museum, a wonderfully user-friendly museum made of interactive exhibits focused on the city’s history:

and also, a pretty neat exhibit about Amsterdam’s historic Graffiti culture:

…to the Bloemenmarkt, Amsterdam’s famous floating flower market. The Dutch take their flowers quite seriously–in point of fact, the stock market in Holland once crashed due to tulip bulb speculation.

[“Tulip mania or tulipomania (Dutch names include: tulpenmanie, tulpomanie, tulpenwoede, tulpengekte and bollengekte) was a period in the Dutch Golden Age during which contract prices for bulbs of the recently introduced tulip reached extraordinarily high levels and then suddenly collapsed. At the peak of tulip mania, in March 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. It is generally considered the first recorded speculative bubble…”–Wikipedia, you nerds out there are welcome.]

…to CHEESE (Dutch milk products are the Truth):

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…to checking out some of the ridiculous wares of a head shop (as you might know, weed in all forms, edible and for smoking, is legal here, as well as some forms of shrooms)…

…and, of course, one of the Netherlands’ famous (infamous?) coffeshops. Hint: the coffee is not exactly the main selling point.

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We also tried famous Dutch mint herbal tea, which is just fresh stalks of mint steeped in hot water. It’s fantastically fresh (and great for sore throats).

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that dank herb. (i just crack myself up sometimes)

We wandered about some more as the sky darkened and the rain slicked the pavement into a shine:

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…and enjoyed some serious Christmas vibes for the first time this season…

…and, for dinner, indulged in some Indonesian food. As some of you may know, Indonesia, as well as parts of Brasil (Recife), South Africa (Capetown), Sri Lanka, and New Amsterdam (what later became New York City), among others, belonged to the Dutch Empire before various political changes or economic pressures pushed them out. This is a similar story to Spain; however, unlike Spain, which has unfortunately not incorporated much of its colonies’ cooking into its own cuisine, the Netherlands, particularly cosmopolitan Amsterdam, has fully adopted the food of its former colonies, and is especially famous for various excellent Indonesian eateries. It makes sense: as Katherine told us, Dutch food is mostly “mashed, boiled or fried,” sort of like British food, and it’s not exactly something to wonder at. We ate at the highly-recommended Kantjil & de Tijger (http://kantjil.nl/en/), which is right in the heart of Amsterdam. I’ve never tried Indonesian food, but it sort of reminded me of Filipino food: almost a mix of Asian and Caribbean flavors. In other words, DELICIOUS.

It’s also interesting to note that the Dutch, being a hard-working people to a fault, often don’t have time to make themselves food, so eating out in restaurants or take-away places is HUGE in Amsterdam daily life.

We finished our bacchanal of food with a Dutch favorite: waffles! There is a lovely place a hop and skip from the Red Light district called René’s Croissanterie (labeled “Best Chocolate Waffles in Existence” by Tripadvisor.com), where we may or may not have eaten at at least once every day we were in town. They had a bit of everything, from French to Dutch to German baked goods, and coffee to top it all off (they say that, on average, the Dutch each drink three cups of coffee per day!, and the high quality of their coffee matches this statistic).

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The first thing I tried: the famous chocolate waffle. No disappointment, just sugary love.

We then caught a metro out to Campus Uilenstede, where Katherine had arranged for us to participate in a beer cantus. Alexa and I had absolutely zero clue what this is, but it basically involves endless pitchers of beer paired with various drinking songs/games with notoriously strict rules. Typical college shit here in the Netherlands with actually centuries of practice, particularly within student groups such as sports teams; I’d liken them to hazing rituals at fraternities in the States, perhaps a bit less strict/asshole-y. Each cantus involves a songbook of specific choruses (“cantus” comes from Latin “cantare,” to sing) that, at least traditionally, every member would have memorized to avoid punishment–ie. unfair drinking demands–along with a litany of other various (mostly purposeless) rules to encourage punishment/entertainment. It’s a tradition that started with German student groups hundreds of years ago, which doesn’t surprise me at all. Anyways, this sort of thing is normally not much my scene, but 1. endless beer and 2. it’s a very Dutch tradition, so I figured it was worth a go. A bunch of Catherine’s international friends were there, too; snippets of Spanish, English, a bit of French, and plenty of Dutch/German/god knows what other languages were flying around the room the entire night. It was pretty crazy (Alexa and I had to duck and cover multiple times due to beer being slung around the room…) but one of the Dutch kids hosting the event told us that this was one of the ‘tamest’ ones he’d ever been at… People of the world, send prayers to the Dutch for their drinking insanity.

Alexa and I ended up disregarding most of the rules (drinking out of turn; talking throughout; taking pictures (see below)) but somehow didn’t end up getting called out? Almost wished we had, if only to refuse to play along and humiliate ourselves. Guess we’re Southern rebels at heart, after all.

It was an all-night event. We didn’t get back to Catherine’s dorm until well past the witching hour, let’s just say.

Anyways, we had a somewhat later start to Saturday. Alexa and I went in solo to town the next day; we were staying the last two nights with Brian, a friend’s cousin who is from Amsterdam, goes to university there, and was ridiculously nice enough NOT ONLY to let us crash at his place, but more importantly, to let me have his last Leffe beer so I could try it:

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Leffe, a delicious popular brand of beer in Holland. (And the question arises… why do I live in Spain, land of the shittiest beer known to man…?! Oh, right, the wine.)

By the way, Brian, and many people in the Netherlands, speaks fully fluent English (although it doesn’t hurt that his mother is American). Dutch children learn English alongside Dutch as early as kindergarten or elementary school, although many of them go on to also learn German, French, and occasionally Spanish because they are ridiculous overachievers with a culture of polyglotism (is my jealousy showing through?). This common ground of language certainly made getting around town much easier.

We trollied into town again and wandered:

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…indulged in splitting a giant Dutch pancake at Sara’s Pancake House, a sort of mix between fluffy American pancakes and thin French crêpes…

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The “Brazilian”–whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, orange liquor

The syrup they had was a bit more questionable… “Try it before you buy it,” folks.

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stroop kids (sorry)

…then spent the night strolling around Amsterdam’s famous Red Light district, which, despite what you might think, is quite safe (funny what happens when you legalize certain things):

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Bikes and the Red Light District: symbols of Amsterdam for a reason.

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Christian-themed hostel in the middle of the Red Light district– “one of these things is not like the other…”

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cheesin’!

Sunday was our last full day in Amsterdam, and we started it off to a sweet start (heh, pun) with Brian the Dutchman/nicest human being in existence making us Dutch-style pancakes:

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Cheesy, bacony, soon-to-be syrupy goodness

We spent much of that day at the famous Rijksmuseum, a national museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Netherlands. It also is the most-visited museum in the country, and with good reason. Conveniently enough, it’s where that famous Iamsterdam statue that you’ve seen pictures of people posing on is located, so clearly, that happened:

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The building itself is a grandiose marvel, and the art does it justice (check each picture for its info, too much to talk about separately):

There was also a view into a incredibly lavish four-story library containing everything from historic documents to literature. (Remind anyone else of the library in “Beauty and the Beast”?). Good thing it was inaccessible–even though the books are all in Dutch, I might have still gotten trapped trying to read some…

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*wets self*

After spending hours wandering around inside, we finally had to leave–although I bet you could spend a week in there and not run out of things to see–in order to catch a ferry ride through the canals of the city.

Some fun facts learned on this tour:

  • Over 50% of the Netherlands is under sea level.
  • There are over 3000 houseboats in Amsterdam. They became a popular low-cost housing option post-WWII due to a housing shortage but now licenses sell for a pretty penny because they’re seen as a luxury. Some of these houseboats cost millions of dollars, plus the price needed to pay for the license (and no new licenses will be given, so the existing ones sell at a high price).
  • You know how I mentioned that the city is so hard to navigate? That’s because all of the streets radiate in a circular growth away from the canals, as opposed to most cities where the pattern tends to be based on a square format. Now I don’t feel so bad for constantly being confused…
  • As you might have noticed, most of these buildings appear a bit uneven, as if they were slanted towards the Amstel river. That is in fact the case, and this is due in part to the fact that the houses have sunk a bit over the years on the marshy terrain as well as to make the buildings look impressive and looming from the water.

Our night ended with another meal of amazing Indonesian food, since Alexa and I figured it’d be quite some time since we’d have access to it in the future (I don’t even think I’ve ever seen Indonesian in the States before):

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If you think that we didn’t eat all of this despite severe gastric distress, you CLEARLY do not know us well enough.

And thus concludes a marvelous trip to the “Venice of the North”–although there’s still some things I feel like I NEED to go back and do/see: see inside the Anne Frank House, visit the Van Gogh museum, see some live jazz at one of their famous clubs…

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Until next time, Netherlands! Next post: Italy with the Lisa 🙂

Olá, Portugal: Porto and Lisboa

And again, reeling to recap recent trips…

“France, Italy, Spain… What’s that other country in Western Europe?” Despite being somewhat of an outlier on most travel itineraries, Portugal has always been on my radar, both because of my studying Portuguese (albeit of the Brazilian variety) as well as the glowing reviews from friends of mine who’ve been who claimed that the people are kind, the land is lushious, and most importantly, the pastries are off the chain… As well, it’s one of the most cost-effective trip destinations in Europe.

If Spain is the marginalized Western front of Europe, then Portugal is even more so. In fact, the two countries have quite a lot in common: in addition to sharing a past of Roman heritage as well as a subsequent tradition of strict Catholicism, to having quite linguistically similar languages, to general mannerisms, the two countries both had their hay-days as colonial world powers nearly half a millennium ago, and both have suffered a great decadence (at least from a fiscal/power point of view, if not, some [not I] might argue, in a cultural sense) since. In fact, the two were often in historic competition, both for favoritism from the Catholic church as well as to power holds in the “New World”–and Spain actually vied for quite some time to take over Portugal before the latter firmly established itself as a nation that wasn’t going to be eaten up or taken over. But the two countries have often tended to mirror each other. Indeed, even to this day, Portugal and Spain also share similar situations in the European Union–both entered in the same year, 1986, after both countries did away with their respective dictatorships and established democratic states (see? they really are twins in many a sense). However, the economic crisis that has hit much of Western Europe has started to somewhat slack in Spain, but is still unfortunately a powerful shadow hanging over the head of Portugal… All of which, nevertheless, makes for good travel, considering that the cost of everything from food (café com leite for 1 Euro?!) to lodgings to transportation is quite cheap.

Like with Barcelona and Morocco, I went with CityLife (my last organized trip with this program) and was accompanied by The Notorious Lexster (Alexa) again. The bus we took left at 2 AM on Friday “morning” and, after another sleepless bus ride, we arrived in Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, a beautiful old port town, and our first destination on the trip, around 8 AM. [You may have seen the name also spelled as “Oporto”–this is because the English, with whom the Portuguese have a long and historic relationship, heard the indefinite article “o” (“el”, “the”) in front of “porto” (port, also the real name of the city) as one whole word, Oporto, thus the confusion that has led to a sort of double-name situation. Another interesting thing: many cite the city’s original Celtic-Latin name, Portus Cale, as the origin of the word “Portugal.” Linguistic fun.] We hustled into our hostel, put our stuff down, and the two of us left to look around a bit solo before our long day of walking tours. We were butt-tired, of course, but the crisp coastal air and clear fall sunlight helped stir us to action. Our first sights:

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our hostel’s cute, tile-lined street

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Lining building exteriors with tile was a Moorish tradition that stuck in Portuguese architecture, or so our tour guide later told us. As well, the streets were built in Moorish style–that is to say, extremely narrow, like those of Chefchaouen!–and despite recent modernization, they have remained the same slim width (it’s rather hard to expand streets without demolishing historically valuable buildings…).

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magic stones&secret alleyways

We wandered a ways off from our hostel and ended up unexpectedly on a bridge, which happened to cross the Rio Duero:

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Bridge looking over to Gaia, the town where Porto is ACTUALLY made (but Porto takes the credit because they’re in charge of exporting it…)

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We later found out that Porto actually has 6 (SIX) bridges, connecting across to what is actually a separate town, Vila Nova de Gaia (Gaia for short). Both towns hold a claim to the nickname “City of Bridges.” One of these bridges actually has the fame of being designed by Eiffel&Company (name ring a bell?).

We strolled over the bridge, ending up in Gaia within minutes. Being held aloft in the middle of the port bay offered an amazing view of both cities:

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“the earth laughs in flowers”–notorious RWE

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Sigh. So freakin’ gorgeous. Why does no one ever talk about Portugal?!

But of course, the day doesn’t truly begin until coffee and pastries are involved…so we meandered up one of the streets and grabbed ourselves some croissants and café. After bumbling through “Dois croissants, por favor–quanto? Obrigada!!” we took our treats out to the street and soaked up some more of the morning sun. The croissants were plain–no butter, chocolate, nothing–but just MELTED in the mouth, and the coffee was noticeably stronger than the madrileño variety (which is already enough to have Americans reeling, so you can imagine!). Portuguese bakeries are famous for their delicious wares; I hate that Spain didn’t inherit good baking from the French during the French occupation of the Iberian Peninsula during the 19th century as part of Napoleon’s conquests, but at least the Portuguese did, and it really shows in their sweets. We scarfed ours down (no pic, alas).

Thinking about ordering has reminded me… A fun note on European Portuguese: I knew going into it that the accent would be noticeably different from the Brazilian kind, but I didn’t realize how vastly the two vary. I’d like to think I have a pretty good ear for Portuguese–mainly have the genre of Brazilian Popular Music to thank for that–but for the life of me, I could barely catch most of what people were saying the whole trip. The grammar and orthography is similar, so street signs and menus were super easy, and I bought some books in European Portuguese that I’ve looked through and that seem fairly intelligible, but speaking… I can see why the contrast between the two dialects is such that classrooms really do have to choose one or the other to teach. I would imagine the difference between the two is similar to that between American English and British English, but likely more extreme. Personally, I’m glad to be taking Brazilian: it’s more practical since there’s a ton more speakers, it sounds more musical, it’s easier… In any case, traveling in Portugal was in part so fascinating just to see a sort of weird shadow self for a language I’m studying.

I digress. About that time, we had to get back to the hostel to meet up with the group for the guided tour. Ours was led by a woman named Ana, born and bred in Porto, who claimed she was going to convince us throughout the course of the day of why Porto is the best city in the country, even over Lisbon. We began by wandering around one of the city’s hundreds of old convents (the entirety of Porto at one point belonged to the Catholic Church, and many of its now-secular-repurposed buildings began as either churches or convents or cloisters):

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Interior courtyard of an old convent

…and soon ended up on the town’s old muralha (muralla, or great wall, which would have surrounded the original city but has since been swallowed up as the city grew):

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damn blonde always blocking the view!

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PortuGals (sorry)

Our next stop was to the Cathedral of Porto:

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Front of the cathedral.

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Porcelain tile detail on one of the vaulted sides

Passing by the Cathedral led to a grand open square…

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On the left, the Cathedral; ahead, the Bishop’s seasonal mansion in Porto

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A lovely little tower that Alexa and I, as well as the rest of the group, took turns posing in front of, only for Ana to inform us that in ye olden days, this space was held for public executions…gulp! Thankfully, this spiral statue was not the original hanging tower, but rather a monument resurrected in memory of those who had been tortured and killed in this square throughout the centuries. Still fairly morbid (or is this what you would call old world charm…?)

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View of the rest of Porto.

From the Cathedral, Ana took us on a walking tour through the old part of the city, which led us down the hill towards the water (both Porto and Lisbon are SUPER hilly, but you know what they say–“real cities have REAL hills”):

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casual remnant of a Roman acueduct forming part of the street…

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Oldest house in Porto, according to Ana

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They say that the Portuguese painted their houses these warm colors to ward off the depression brought by losing so many sailors (ie. husbands, sons, brothers, friends) at sea. Whatever the reason, it was lovely to look at.

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I’m a sucker for this tile… Why didn’t Spain retain this?!

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And then, because she was the BEST, Ana managed to get us into a bakery that normally sells exclusively to restaurants or events… the richest, smoothest chocolate cake you could imagine:

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“Bolo de chocolate,” em português!

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“Sweet Kitchen”

Replenished with a nice shot of sugar, we continued our trek until we got down to the shoreline:

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…and then once again hiked up the hills to catch sight of more Porto neighborhoods:

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excuse me, ma’am…?

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Statue of São João Baptista. Every year, on Midsummer’s Eve, Porto residents celebrate the Festa de São João by drinking to excess, partying in the streets, and hitting each other with garlic flowers (traditionally) or (more recently) soft rubber hammers. No I don’t know why–why not?

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Statue of Henry the Navigator, generally regarded as the “patron of Portuguese exploration” (particularly in Africa).

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dat dope Portuguese orthography

Up and up and up, we probably walked 4-5 (hilly) miles that walking tour… Anyways, Ana led us to the old Judiaria, or Jewish neighborhood, of Porto, which was a lovely walk:

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Apparently, this area is famous for alheira, a kind of sausage that uses just about every kind of meat–veal, duck, chicken, quail, or even rabbit, everything–except pork. And the reason is as follows: when Portugal expelled its Jews in 1497, in a similar move to what Spain did in 1492, the government allowed some Jews to stay as long as they converted to Christianity and gave up their idiosyncratic traditions. However, many of Portugal’s Jews still continued their practices in private, but many attempted to disguise this by taking up seemingly counter-Jewish habits and lifestyles. Thus, eating these sausages made it seem like the would-be converts had given up their dietary restrictions, when in reality the dish contains not even a single morsel of pig.

We came upon a fenced balcony area with a nice view of the city:

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just kidding, it’s me again!

…only for Ana to inform us that this wall had once been famous back in the day for suicides, especially in young women (unsure why this particular demographic). In general, what with having 6 bridges and a bay, Porto would be pretty convenient as far as flying jumps go. (Sorry for the dark humor, ma.)

We took the scenic route around town back to our hostel:

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are you getting tired of seeing a bunch of pics of cathedrals…?

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View of the city from a strategic battle point used by a Portuguese king against his own brother. Sounds like medieval-era savagery, yes? No, that was the Liberal Wars of 1832

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Torre dos Clérigos

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Apparently this building was used as a massive prison/torture hall during the dictatorship, despite (or because of?) it being right smack in the central of the city… Same thing happened in Madrid, old buildings in the center of the city whose basements barely masked the screams of torture. Sigh, fascism.

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Liberdade Square feat. King Peter IV

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London or Portugal? (Aka heavy British influence)

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Our final stop was the Porto train station…

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Historical paintings (of the Reconquest of Portugal from the Moors, fending off Spain, etcetera)

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Now the part you’ve all been waiting for: food porn! Alexa and I wandered onto this casual outdoor café gem:

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Super thick salmon filet (daaaamn, she thick…) served still cooking on a stone griddle with garlic butter&fines herbes; artichokes, green beas, and edamame pan-grilled in olive oil; potatoes seasoned with cayenne, saffron, and rosemary; accompanied by sea salt and (unpictured) café com leite. This whole ensemble was 9 MEASLY EUROS, PEOPLE

Look at all those vegetables! Too bad Spaniards have all but banned healthy greens from their diet…

We went back to the hostel and took a siesta/power nap before heading out again to the famous Livraria Lello&Irmão, a beautiful old bookstore that apparently inspired much of Hogwarts’ design (J.K. Rowling lived in Porto as a teacher with her Portuguese husband for a time). This place has become so popular due to the Harry Potter connection that to enter costs 3 Euros, but thankfully the entry covers a discount towards for the product–as if they needed to give me more reason to buy books!

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One of the cooler bookstores I’ve been in, and with a great half-Portuguese half-English selection.

Alexa and I proceeded onward on a gastronomic bacchanal. I pondered my bookstore haul over our first course of “dinner”:

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“O amante japonês” (The Japanese Lover), Caravalho; a Pessoa poetry collection; a José Saramago novel; a CD of Fado from arguably the most renowned singer in Portuguese history, Amália Rodrigues; and doce de leite (dulce de leche) icecream + café com leite to round things out.

Because that wasn’t enough, we had “second course” at a cute wine bar called “All in Porto,” where we first sampled a variety of ports…

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Port, the signature wine of Portugal; a super-sweet aperitif/digestif that is, on average, 18-19 percent alcohol.

…and finally treated ourselves with two cups of Senior Tawny port and a cheese/bread plate. Side note, the woman who was working there and tending to us was Brazilian, so she and I excitedly chatted it up! Definitely made ordering easier, I’ll say that much.

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Two large glasses of port, three servings of bread throughout the night, innumerable cheeses, olive oil, honey, blackberry preserves, and olives: all of this was 17 Euros, which we split. Bless Portugal and its cheap-ass food. We proceeded to finish the feast with some nice digestive cigarettes because, hey, this is Europe [also, we may or may not have used that little lamp as a lighter…].

Porto said goodnight to us with the most marvelous sunset I’ve seen this fall:

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Hard to believe all of that was only one day… Porto, I love you and miss you already.

The next morning, it was already time to get on the road to Lisboa (or “Lisbon” in English…although I think it sounds so much more melodic in Portuguese, no?). We arrived to a rainy afternoon in the city:

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Anit-NATO demonstration

I’m not going to lie, the ‘bleagh’-ish weather in Lisboa–although it did improve somewhat throughout the day–was definitely a downer, but I still enjoyed the city. Pretty much as soon as we dropped off our things at the hostel, we went on another 4+ hour walking tour (would have helped if we weren’t exhausted from the day before, but eh, c’est la vida).

Our new tour guide, Hugo, was hilariously blunt–he was quick to inform us that “we Portuguese are a pack of cheap bastards who surreptitiously aided both Allies and Axis powers in WWII” and also that “European Portuguese is harder to learn than physics or quantum mechanics, don’t mess with it.” Also, he insisted that, technically speaking, Portugal is the oldest country in Europe if the definition you’re using is having unchanged borders since its initial foundation (which, by the way, was when a Gallego-Portuguese prince won a war of succession with his own mother, imprisoned her, and founded the country). Hmm.

Like Porto, Lisboa is incredibly hilly, which means, aside from aching buns, some pretty dope views:

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Streetcars and hills giving me more than a little bit of flashbacks to San Francisco this summer…

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Roman-style tile found all throughout the city. Hugo joked that it was a great thing for short guys like him: “this way, the women never want to wear high heels!”

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chestnuts quite literally roasting on an open fire

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We tried ’em!

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Hugo took us to see some pretty impressive graffiti, which the Portuguese government actually supports as an art form:

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Graffiti in homage to Fado, “flamenco’s more melancholic, less flamboyant cousin.” Note Maria Severa, the curvy woman with the penis sardine; she was a ‘lady of the night’ credited with being the first true fado singer.

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nothing particularly historical about this, I just thought it was cute as hell

Then more hills up the side of the city, meaning more views:

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I title this “smize surprise”

Hugo then led us to the side of the São Jorge castle (we didn’t go in–he said it was a “load of crap”)

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DSCN3142 oh Hugo, you sassy little man

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cube of flowers/street art

DSCN3145When we arrived in the midst of these ruins in a seemingly historical district, all of us were taken a bit aback–the area looked like a war zone. Hugo began to tell us of November 1, 1775: every November 1st is All Saints’ Day in Catholic countries, celebrated by lighting candles and going to church to respect dead family members. That particular day, Portuguese families had lit candles, were in church or at home, and were paying observance to one of the holiest days of their calendar, when suddenly the earth began shake beneath them, as if a sign from God. Some of you might know that the terrible earthquake that Japan experienced in 2011 was a 9.0? So was this earthquake, according to posterior calculations. The quake itself was said to have lasted at least 4 to possibly 5 minutes, creating fissures as great as 5 feet in the ground; many churches collapsed on top of the praying citizens inside. The survivors of the earthquake itself who dared look outside came upon an ash-gray sky (the earthquake had shaken soot and ash and smoke into the air); and it was around this time that the fires began. Remember that I mentioned that everyone was lighting candles that day for their loved ones? The earthquake knocked over the candles and, inevitably, flames began to engulf house after house. Many Portuguese, understandably in shock and quite possibly certain that this was an impending apocalypse, ran to the flatest, safest area they could think of from both earthquake and fire: the docks of the Tagus river. But by the time they got there, there was no river…why? Do any of you know what often follows a sea-side earthquake? Maremotos, in Portuguese, better known by its Japanese moniker: tsunami. The whole harbour and downtown areas were obliterated by the waves. The part of the city that was not flooded raged with flame for five days more. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s entire population died in the span of less than a week. Aside from demographic and political upheaval that this disaster caused, the mythos of the 1775 Lisbon Earthquake lingered for hundreds of years, influencing both theological and philosophical movements of the era, from Voltaire to Nietzsche. Behind the Holocaust, the earthquake is often considered one of the single greatest events to utterly change European thought and culture, and one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. It also apparently “profoundly disrupted the country’s colonial ambitions” (thanks, Wikipedia).

Anyways… thus was his narrative, although I’d argue that standing in the city while hearing it certainly made it more powerful. If anything, I was mostly in shock that my American school system had not once brought up this seemingly cataclysmic event… In any case, we toured around the city more:

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…and went to check out this fado that everyone was talking about! (Over dinner, of course).

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Bacalhau (codfish, a Portuguese obsession) and wine, could it possibly be MORE Portuguese?!

I didn’t take any pictures of the show, but I have to say, not nearly as dramatic or melancholic as I expected. The man singing actually seemed plump and jovial. Guess I’ve been spoiled on recordings of Amália Rodrigues, who’s known as the Rainha do Fado (Queen of Fado) and is often culturally contrasted with the figure of Carmen Miranda, who would represent Brazil in that case. An example of her majestic work, if you’re interested:

The next morning was our last day, but we didn’t waste a moment! We got up early and headed to Bairro Belém, a historical neighborhood of Lisbon, where we tried the renowned Portuguese pastry known as pásteis de nata (cream pastries) at a bakery famous for its version. The whole place reminded both Alexa and I a lot of Café du Monde in Nola, from the service to the setup down to the food itself:

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The inside was something of a custard/vanilla pudding deliciousness. I think I like these better than beignets…but don’t tell New Orleans I said that!

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Cinnamon and powdered sugar to top it off, because duh.

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i will eat them all

Outside, a hop and a skip away, what could it be…? Oh, right, another Gothic church.

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Jerónimos Monastery

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Hot chocolate for rainy days!

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Praça do Império

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Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries)

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some rather unfortunate something or other

We then made one last stop to the other side of the coastline to catch a few more views before leaving:

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Wait, isn’t that the Golden Gate? (No, but they were built by the same company). Between this, the hills, the winds and the cable cars, I could almost believe we were in San Francisco…  [Puente de Abril 25, 1974, the date of the Revolution that succesfully toppled Portugal’s dictatorship]