Friday, March 28, 2014

El Camino de Santiago: La Peregrina

Religiously speaking  El Camino de Santiago, in English “The Way of Saint James,” is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Elder lie. The Camino has existed as a Christian pilgrimage for well over 1,000 years, and there is evidence of a pre-Christian route as well. Throughout the medieval period it was one of the three most important Christian pilgrimages undertaken. It was only these pilgrimages—to Jerusalem, to Rome, and to Santiago de Compostela—which could result in a “plenary indulgence,” which frees a person from the penance due for sins. The modern day pilgrim does the Camino for a variety of reasons – religious, spiritual, adventure, even to lose weight. In 2013, about 225,000 people sporting their scalloped shells hanging from their backpacks (the universally recognized symbol of the peregrino) were issued official “Compostelas” in Santiago – the official pilgrim certificate saying that you have done El Camino. However, on my short walk I met at least a handful of people who do portions of the walk every year but never go to the official “Oficina de Acogida de Peringrinos” (the official pilgrim’s welcoming office).
I also met a few people that have taken walking the Camino as a lifestyle. Like this guy from Italy who has been traveling around Europe on his bike since 2000. At the age of eight he lost half of his right leg in an accident. He has done the Camino numerous times and had a “sello” station (stamping station) set up on the side of the road – he gave us all special wax stamps, hand-done right in front of us. To be an official pilgrim you have to first get “La Credencial,” or what some people call the “Pilgrims Passport.” When you start your journey you have the local church mark the day you started and along the way you gather stamps from churches, albergues (hostels), cafes, pretty much anywhere and everywhere along the Camino. The Pilgrims Passport allows you to, a.) stay in the inexpensive albergues de peregrinos and, b.) proves to the official pilgrim’s office that you actually walked it (it’s hard to believe that some people actually try to “forge” the walk somehow just to get a certificate at the end).
I only had a week so I planned to walk the last 110 kilometers (about 70 miles) from the small town of Sarria to Santiago. This is a popular starting place because the Pilgrims Office will only issue certificates to those who have either walked at least the last 100km or biked the last 200km. There are many routes to Santiago, like ones from Portugal and Seville in southern Spain, but the most traveled one by far is El Camino Frances which starts in the small border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. The journey is 780 kilometers (485 miles) and it normally takes people around 1 month to walk it. Two days before we arrived in Santiago, I met a 20 year old Korean guy named Pak who was on day 32 of walking. He didn’t speak a word of Spanish, said he was not particularly religious and was doing it by himself. When I asked why he wanted to do the walk he simply said, “because I thought it would be a fun experience.”
I purposely went on my own because they say it is something that you should experience solo. Of course, being the social butterfly who hates being alone, I made friends within the first 2 hours of walking. They were four girls from Valencia – two sisters, Eva and Noelia – and their friend Estefania. They had a week of vacation and were escaping “Las Fallas” in Valencia (a yearly celebration that consists of tourists flooding the city, parades, fireworks, partying for days, etc). They were around my age, fun, friendly and it was great to have company, as well as the constant Spanish practice. Eva was studying to be a nurse which came in handy many times on the journey - she immediately diagnosed a small rash that broke out on my leg, reminded us to wear sunscreen and stay hydrated and even went into surgery on one of the massive blisters that had engulfed Estefania’s little toe.
The girls were on a tight budget so we stayed in the most basic city run albergues. On average they cost about 6 a night, had anywhere from 30-50 bunk beds crammed into one room, showering facilities/bathrooms, area to wash and dry clothes by hand (we were lucky enough to be able to use the incredibly expensive washer/dryer by splitting the cost between the four of us) and an empty kitchen (yes, and when I mean empty I mean 2 pots, 3 spoons, 2 forks and NO knives). Well, I guess you get what you pay for. We walked, on average, 22-25km per day (or 13-15 miles). One day we did 28km and I thought I was going to die, my feet were so sore. Our days were pretty relaxed – we normally woke up at 7am and were out of the hostel by 8pm and stopped for a good breakfast to give us some energy. We would walk about 2/3 of the way and then stop for a big “menu de peregrino” (three course meals for pilgrims) at local restaurants for only 9.   
 [Note: Keep in mind that March is the off-season. During high season June-August it is a common fear that you may reach the next town and have no albergue to stay in, due to the influx of peregrinos. The summer schedule normally goes something like this – wake up at 5:30am, eat on the go and try to make it as quickly to the next town before a.) it gets too hot and, b.) before everyone else does to ensure that you get a bed). Personally, the actual schedule is rigorous enough (the physical challenge of doing so much walking, combined with checking into albergues, showering, washing clothes, looking for something to eat, trying to rest and then getting up and doing it all again tomorrow. I couldn’t imagine having, on top of all that, this stress and urgency about not having a place to sleep in the next town]. So as a personal suggestion, to all those interested in doing it, I would always try to go on the off-season (March/April or September/October) and just be prepared for the iffy weather.
There are too many small details about the trip and memories to go into depth here - it’s really something you just feel and experience rather than something you can really describe. But overall, I think the Camino taught me to appreciate the simple things in life - a hot shower, a cold soda or glass of beer, a nice conversation or the exchanging of languages, clean clothes, a warm blanket, that satisfying feeling after a large meal, laughter, a hug, the warm sun on your face, a little bit of encouragement when you need it most, a smile and “Buen Camino!” from the locals….and for that, I am grateful to El Camino.
Logistics: What to Bring?
People who are interested in doing the Camino usually want tips on packing but keep in mind my special circumstances – walking at the end of March means the weather can be very unpredictable (one day it was pouring rain and freezing, the next we were getting baked under the sun). Here is what I packed: 2 pairs of leggings, 3 pairs of underwear, 3 pairs of socks (two walking pairs and one warm resting pair), 2 long sleeved shirts, two sports bras, 1 tank top, rain jacket and rain pants, 1 warm sweatshirt, 1 pair of PJ bottoms (instead of actual checkered PJ pants I wish I would’ve brought loose athletic pants, something that I could wear out around town and sleep in while my other walking clothes were being washed/dried…I ended up wearing my rain pants around town a lot), basic toiletries including sunscreen, poncho, one pair of walking shoes, one pair of sandals (that I could wear socks in), 1 pair of flip flops for the shower, journal, camera, I-pod, sunglasses, sleeping bag (albergues do not provide sheets), pillow case (I would highly recommend bringing one, it makes your sleep so much more comfortable), phone and camera chargers, a very small purse-like thing that I could walk around town with and also to keep all of my important documents and valuables with me at all times, bandana that also could be a neck scarf (a hat would have been a good thing to bring). Every day I wore a special Spanish foot bandages called “compeed,” sort of like “moleskin” in the states, and protected all the places where I felt a blister coming on (you can buy them at any pharmacy along the Camino in all shapes and sizes). Also, our “nurse” recommended that we put Vaseline on our feet to keep them from rubbing which helped tremendously and I would highly recommend it. They say that your backpack should be about 10% of your body weight. I am about 140 pounds and my backpack weighed about 15 pounds (64 kilos, 7 kilos), it was perfect! 
Random things I wish I would’ve brought: a multi-use pocket knife (like I said, the kitchens have nothing so having a knife, a wine/bottle opener, scissors etc is extremely handy), a tiny bottle of laundry detergent to hand wash clothes with,  a walking stick or walking polls (I borrowed ones every day), black permanent marker (there were many places on the Camino where you could write your name or leave a keepsake, so if you want to participate bring a marker to write your name with or even a little memento that you could leave in different places – a piece of cloth, a small laminated picture of something important to you, anything!)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Cadiz and Jerez: Flamenco Hunting

Cadiz - view from above
After weekend after weekend of studying Spanish and seeing the sights in Madrid, I decided it was time for a little bit of adventure. So, I walked down to the train station and bought a ticket to Cadiz, Andalusia, booked a hostel and waited for the weekend to arrive. Friday I had my backpack strapped on and I arrived 15 minutes early to the train station. And, to start off the grand adventure I show up at the wrong train station in Madrid (in my defense the day I bought the ticket I bought train tickets to two other places, while I was wrapped up in telling the booking agent the correct dates and times in my best Spanish she was reminding me of which trains left from which of the two main stations in Madrid). When I didn’t see my train in the “salidas” (departures) screen, my heart dropped down into my stomach – “great…” After verifying my fears at the information desk I accepted my fate and walked over to stand in the ginormous line to change my ticket (thankfully there was another train I could take in 2-1/2 hours). I was relatively calm (maybe after a few backpacking adventures you realize that everything has a strange way of working out…that there is “always another train” and that the times when things don’t go exactly as planned is when the magic happens, when stories are made). However, the elderly security guard and the lady standing behind me seemed to be a lot more worried about me catching my train. “I have 2-1/2 hours to get over there” I thought, but maybe they knew something I didn’t – could the line really take that long? Long story short, for being a young, pathetic American with her backpack in the middle of Madrid or just by the shear kindness of strangers (I like to think it was the latter), the security guard talked to a friend at the information desk who changed my ticket while the lady held my place in line. I was out in 10 minutes, new ticket in hand and bound for the correct train station.
La Mariposa
outdoor bathroom on the terrace
I arrived in Cadiz around 11:00pm and checked into my hostel, “Casa Caracol” (translation “Snail House”). The entire hostel was built from the ground up about 10 years ago and everything about it is handmade including the bunk beds and furniture. On their website they boast, “Offering much more than just a bed, we specialize in atmosphere and good vibes - yoga courses, salsa classes, Indian cooking lessons, BBQs, bike rentals and 'pimped up hot breakfasts.’ Casa Caracol is a friendly and relaxed little backpacker’s haven in the heart of old Cadiz. The caracol- meaning snail in Spanish- reflects the slow pace of things here, hence travelers tend to slow down and sense a different rhythm. We have created a beautiful rooftop garden, full of plants and hammocks, where you can snooze through the siesta or sleep the night under the stars as well as take a shower in the tropical outdoor bathroom!” Oh, and the outdoor bathroom is no joke! (even though it was way too cold to try it out). I came down for the free community breakfast and I chatted it up with some of the other backpackers over pancakes and orange juice. I walked to the beach with some American girls who were spending a semester abroad in Seville and then we all headed back to the center of town because there was a free tour with one of my favorite tour companies, “Pancho Tours,” starting at 1pm. At the meeting point I saw a group of other young people like us and they turned out to also be waiting for the tour to start. We got to talking and four of the girls were American and working their second year as “auxiliaries de conversacion” (a program sponsored by the Spanish government to bring native English speakers from the states and Canada to work in public schools as English teachers). Some of them had Spanish boyfriends there which made for a very interesting mix of people. In the end, the tour guide never showed up (very unusual for Pancho Tours might I add). The college girls bailed and went back to the beach and I stuck with my new group of friends. We walked around the city for hours chatting and soaking up the sun. We stopped and had lunch in one of the many plazas and afterwards stopped for a “café con leche” and some homemade carrot cake.
my new-found American/Spanish friends in Cadiz
The time had gotten away from me and I hurried back over to the hostel to meet my new Dutch friend, Sara (we had met at breakfast) who was working for two weeks in the hostel in exchange for room and board. She was 28 and said that a month ago she found herself a bit bored and restless in Amsterdam. She decided to leave her job and work as a volunteer throughout Europe – mostly in hostels, through the website Sara also explained to me that 2 years ago she decided to fulfill a dream of hers and backpack through South East Asia for 6 months – Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. She assured that she had become deathly ill from food poisoning only once during the 6 months (which is apparently pretty good). I could barely believe the stories that she told me. She makes my 8 days of walking the Camino de Santiago sound pretty pathetic. So anyways, we were both dead-set on seeing some show-stopping flamenco and headed north to the small town Jerez de La Frontera, which was celebrating their annual flamenco festival. When we arrived we hit the streets expecting to find booths, shows and performers littering las callejuelas (little streets), but we were thoroughly disappointed. We couldn’t find anything and whenever I stopped to ask some local would say, “Oh yeah, I think they’re having a show tonight in ‘insert name of taberna’….just follow this street down, take the second left, walk until you see the church then take a right on the 2nd or 3rd street…I forgot the name of it, but just ask around there, they should know.” We finally turned to my handy-dandy “Lonely Planet Andalusia” guide and went to the most highly rated place in town. We showed up right when it is scheduled to open thinking “ok, we’re finally going to see a show.” And, what do you know it was CLOSED. How does it make any sense that the most popular, highly rated flamenco taberna in town is CLOSED, on a Saturday night, during flamenco week! I swear, only in Jerez does this make any sense.
Feeling dejected we went to a place that was being advertised on a flyer. We were fearful that it was going to be one of those cheesy tourist shows but luckily it ended up being exceedingly authentic. The last show of the night started at midnight and of course I was starting to fade (Dominique is no night owl). We waited and waited…15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes. I guess the taberna has to pay the flamenco group a flat price no matter what, so they were waiting for more people to show up. Gosh, how hard is it for a girl to just see some flamenco! The show finally started at 12:45am and yes, in the end we forgot about all the agony and torture we had just endured. Watching live flamenco really moves your soul – the minute they start singing chills roll over your body and you feel this incredible warming sensation, like they lit a fire in your soul. You feel their passion, their love and their bitterness with every gesture, every sound and every facial expression. It is truly moving. From the words of one of the five ladies from New York that were sitting in front of us (they were there taking flamenco classes through the festival), "I feel like I just lost my virginity...again" she whispers to her friend as she fans herself after the first song.
after the hammam
After our exhausting search for flamenco and getting home at 3am the night before I decided I needed a moment of tranquility. I stopped at the Arab Hammam and had a soak in their warm baths which also included a 15 min massage. Let’s remember that much of Spain, especially Andalusia, was conquered and ruled by Arabs for 800 years and is thus enlaced with remnants of Arab culture. Well, it was nothing like the true Hammam treatment that I had in Istanbul but a wonderful, relaxing experience all the same (-:

Friday, February 7, 2014

Toledo "El Alma de España"

The past weekend my American friend Cynthia and I took a short day trip to Toledo, about a 30 minute train ride outside of Madrid. Now, we all know that Spain is home to some beautiful cities with incredible remains of old civilizations, cultures and architecture. And yet Toledo, this teeny tiny medieval fortress city, has been named the “El Alma de España” (or “the soul of Spain”).

Toledo is unique in that while modern civilization has been built up and around pieces of ancient history in cities like Barcelona, Cordoba and Granada, Toledo has remained frozen in time. Toledo was the capital of Spain until the mid-1500s until King Phillip II decided to move the royal court over to Madrid. Incredibly, the structure and lay out of the city has not changed since then and boasts some amazing medieval architecture. Its cobble-stoned streets and cozy shops make Toledo a great city to stroll through – as long as you don’t mind the inclines and declines which gave my gluts quite a workout! Sometimes Toledo is compared to Jerusalem and said to have a biblical landscape. Like Jerusalem, Toledo was a city of three religions - Christian, Jewish and Muslim (normally referred to as the “Moors” in Spanish history). The small city of 50,000 is still home to a Mosque, two Synagogues, a massive Cathedral and a monastery.

Rather than diving into Toledo’s rich political and religious history (which I highly recommend you take a look at but maybe by a professional historian instead of little old me), I wanted to dive into a different topic. In 1986 Toledo was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). I started looking at their website and the criteria for being named a World Heritage Site. I found this:
  • Represents an architectural masterpiece
  • Displays an important exchange of human values
  • Bears unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization.
  • Exemplifies a type of building that illustrates a significant stage in human history.
  • A traditional human settlement that is an outstanding representation of a culture, especially one that has survived despite environmental pressure.
  • Associated with events or living traditions of outstanding universal significance
  • Contains fantastic natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty
  • Illustrates major stages of earth's history
  • Captures significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the development of communities of plants and animals.
  • Contains important natural habitats for conserving biological diversity

UNESCO proudly states on their main page, heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up our world’s heritage. Out of all the places in the world, UNESCO has given only 981 of them the honor of the World Heritage title and Toledo is one of them. ¡Impresionante!

On another note, one of the highlights of our day was “el menú del día” at one of the local restaurants. The “menu of the day” is normally a three course meal plus a glass or wine for anywhere from 10€ to 15€. They are most traditionally offered during the work week for those 9-5ers (well more like 8-7ers in Spain) who are looking for a hearty, filling, inexpensive meal. In Spain, lunch is the largest and most important meal of the day and many shops all over Spain close everyday between 2pm and 4pm to get in a hearty meal (and maybe if their lucky, catch a few zzzzs). There are still “menú del días” on the weekends but they are normally a bit pricier. Here is what we served:

First course: sopa castellaña – bread and garlic soup with cooked egg and ham (incredibly flavorful!)
Second course: Conejo al tomillo – rabbit seasoned with thyme on top of potatoes and carrots
Third course: flan casero – homemade custard

Toledo is also famous for:

* Being the largest producer of Damasquinado de Oro or “Gold Damascene” - the art of decorating non-precious metals with gold. It has roots in the Middle Ages and originates from the oriental-style artisan work done in Damascus, Syria. The craft, perfected by the Arabs and brought with them to Spain, has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries.

* Custom swords, sabers and armor – back in the Middle Ages Toledo produced a special type of steel mixed with iron. Their extraordinary hardness made of each of these Toledo swords an invincible force in the hands of an expert swordsman. All European armies knew the superior quality of Toledo steel swords and many great warriors relied only on sabers of Toledan provenance. They say that even the Japanese Samurai swords are no match (but I’m sure some Spanish guy said that).

* Mázapan – delicious candies made from almond meal, sugar and honey.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Madrid, es que no me caíste bien…

So in Spanish there are a variety of ways to say that you like something, or that someone or something fits you well. In regards to people, there are two ways to express this. The first is llevarse bien o mal con alguien which means, “to get along well with someone, or not.”
Mi compañero de trabajo y yo nos llevamos muy bien. = my colleague and I work well together
Me llevo bien con mi suegra. = I get along with my mother-in-law.
However, the grammatical structure caerle bien o mal is reserved for first impressions.
El nuevo novio de Silvia me cayó mal. = I didn’t like Silvia’s new boyfriend, he rubbed me the wrong way
So in direct translation to the title above (imagining Madrid with somewhat “human qualities” rather than just being a city):
Madrid, es que no me caíste bien... = Madrid, it's just that we didn’t really start off on the right foot and you kind of rubbed me the wrong way... /-:
Arriving in Madrid me ilusionaba mucho (I really got my hopes up) that I would somehow recreate the experience that I had in Barcelona. I was sadly mistaken. Rather than get into the nitty gritty details, which I feel to be irrelevant at this point, I’d rather talk about the here and now.  Bottom line is that I am not living with my Au Pair family anymore and am currently staying in an apartment close to my language school. I have decided not to look for another family and thus my plans have changed quite a bit…my six month Madrid adventure will most likely be cut in half. So, how do I move forward from here? I would like to refer here to a beloved Spanish phrase, al mal tiempo, buena cara = when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So with that, let’s focus on only the positives:
Plaza Mayor
·        I am living in the center of Madrid! I have easy access to everything including famous plazas and monuments, popular tapas bars and quaint cafes, intercambio meet-up groups (English-Spanish language exchanges) etc.
·         The extra free time outside of school and the zero stress of not working (not to mention completely cutting out the 2 hour commute time I would have had living with the Au Pair family going to school every day) gives me time to explore and experience the city, study more Spanish, read, write etc. In short I think that I am going to get just as much out of 3 months here concentrating completely on Spanish and making every day culturally enriching, as I would in 6 months with all the extra responsibilities of being an Au Pair.
·         I am really and truly getting a different experience than Barcelona – living in the heart of the city and experiencing city life (rather than pueblo life). Like I said before, I think I was really trying to recreate Barcelona when maybe I should’ve just left my year "working as an Au-Pair in Barcelona" preserved in my memory as a single and unique experience with a wonderful family during a time in my life that was completely different than what it is now. Madrid will be different – that doesn’t mean worse or better, just different.
·         I have a great roommate named James, a 40-something, flamboyantly gay flight attendant from Chicago taking a 2 month vacation from the bitter Midwest winter and learning Spanish. He is very entertaining. I also have a sweet roommate named Coralie who is from France. We Americans are extremely outspoken, always cracking jokes and she tries to follow along but we must be incredibly obnoxious, haha!
·         I have the support of my teachers and other classmates at my school and the school is right around the corner if I ever need anything.
My room
So, in the words of the famous author Eric Hansen, “onward and upward!” I am gonna give Madrid another shot and hope we can work out our differences.

 ¡Sigue adelante!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

La Despedida de Mi Querida Barcelona

[English Translation at the end]

Me parece apropiado escribir este blog final en español. Hace un año publiqué en mi blog, “Como tercera generación puertorriqueña siento que he perdido el contacto con mi herencia latina – especialmente el idioma. Hace dos años que descubrí el baile de salsa – y que encontré un pedazo de mi alma que había estado añorando. El próximo capítulo de esta historia será por fin entender las letras de mis canciones favoritas. Después de un año espero ser capaz de hablar español como bailo salsa – con placer y sin esfuerzo.” Hace un año que decidí arriesgarme…seguir un sueño. Hace un año mi vida no estaba siguiendo el camino que quería y me sentía estancada – recuerdo de preguntarme, “Tiene que haber algo más en la vida.” Entonces, ¿que hice?...dejé mi trabajo, vendí todo lo que poseía y puse mi vida en dos maletas. Subí un avión dirección a Barcelona para vivir y trabajar de Au Pair para una familia que nunca había conocido y aprender español durante un año. Pero, ¿conseguí todo lo que me propuse realizar? Me alegro mucho de poder afirmar que un año después más tarde puedo entender todas mis canciones favoritas (ahora sé que solo cuentan sobre el amor y desamor). Es más, hace 5 meses, cuando mis abuelos vinieron a visitarme, mantuve una conversación con mi abuelo puertorriqueño. Por la primera vez nos hablamos en español – un sentimiento de orgullo y alegría increíble.

Después de vivir un año en el extranjero, he aprendido que no sólo se trata de hablar un idioma o mezclarse en una cultura nueva, sino de encontrarte a ti mismo. Dada mi condición de licenciada en Sociología (y porque a nosotros, los sociólogos, nos encanta hacer gran generalizaciones), voy a hacer la siguiente sobre mi propia cultura: Cuando se crece en “clase media americana,” se crece cómodo. Se crece rodeado de flamantes coches nuevos y casas idénticas a conjunto; se compran libros de texto nuevos cada año; se duerme de manera segura en camas cálidas en vecindarios tranquilos; se tiene espacio para jugar en grandes jardines; nunca se tiene que compartir espacio con desconocidos hacia donde quiera que se conduzca; uno no tiene que preocuparse por las barreras lingüísticas porque se habla un idioma. Como la vida era tranquilo y cómodo en Estados Unidos, me sentí preparada para salir fuera de mi zona de confort….y Europa no me defraudó – encontrar mi camino en ciudades grandes y líneas de metro; intentar hacer amigos y expresarme en un idioma que todavía no dominaba; aprender a conducir un coche manual por la primera vez en mi vida…y la lista de “primera vez que” sigue y sigue. Aunque he tenido buenos momentos tanto en mis viajes como aquí en BCN, también ha habido algunos momentos que no fueron “tan buenos”…momentos de frustración, momentos de morriña. Pero aprendes mucho de ti mismo no tanto de las experiencias buenas, sino de los malos momentos que aprendes a sobrellevar  – sales del otro lado sabiendo que en el futuro, “podré encargarme de esto.

Una de las primeras palabras que aprendí cuando llegué en Barcelona fue “extranjera”…vaya, está presente las portadas de todos los libros de texto, “Manual de Español para Extranjeros” para que todo el mundo lo sepa (nos gusta esconder estos libros en lo más profundo de nuestras mochilas con la esperanza de “mezclarnos” en la cultura algún día). Cuando lo pienso, después de llevar año aquí, no sé en cual momento dejé de sentirme tan extranjera – cuando el olor de la parada de metro de Plaza Catalunya (una mezcla de sudor y orín) no me molestaba tanto (quizá solo aprendiera contener la respiración); cuando hacer un zigzag por el laberinto de turistas arriba y abajo de La Rambla para llegar a la escuela se convirtió en mi ejercicio cotidiano; cuando empecé a llevarme un buen libro los habituales días de huelga de Renfe para pasar una hora o dos esperando el tren a Sant Llorenç (¿Por qué luchar contra ella?); cuando visitar a la misma mujer en el fondo de la Boqueria, la que vende melocotones por un cuarto del precio de los puestos delanteros, se convirtió en un ritual matutino; cuando golpear un tronco para que cague regalitos en Nochebuena se convirtió en una tradición familiar entrañable; cuando ganar concursos de beber del porrón (sin dejar que el vino te caiga) durante “Calçotades” en el patio trasero se convirtió en un evento habitual de cada fiesta; cuando pedir a la misma mujer viejita de tu pueblo por enésima vez que necesito que hable en castellano porque no hablas catalán se convirtió en algo que esperaba cada día en el parque (¿Me recordará hoy o no?) Además, no me puedo acordar cuando español se convirtió en mi segundo idioma…cuando dejé de pensar tanto y empecé a utilizarlo – cuando empecé a chatear en Facebook sin el traductor de google abierto y hablar con mis amigos españoles durante la cena; o sin pensarlo dos veces antes de llamar al servicio de atención al cliente para quejarme al no aceptar mi tarjeta de crédito; o cuando empecé a pasar horas leyendo las tramas de novelas españolas en la librería local solo porque era divertido; o cuando mi primera respuesta a alguien que me pida direcciones dejó de ser, “Lo siento, no hablo español,” sino, “No estoy segura pero quizá esté por allí” (una respuesta muy española…NUNCA digas “no sé”…es mal educado. Si no lo sabes, invéntate algo); o cuando empecé a “th-ing” mis “zetas” (a la manera de los españoles   ); o cuando empecé a decir cosas como, “me flipa, me mola,” “vale, vale” y “Que guay!” Soy Barcelonesa, ahora y siempre.
Antes de firmar este último blog hay unos agradecimientos que no quiero olvidar.

A Nazli: Mi hermana vagabunda. No sé cuando se nos ocurrió el apodo “vagabundas,” pero nos llamamos así desde que recuerdo (y ya lo sé que literalmente, significa una persona sin casa que vive en la calle PERO en español no puedes hacer “trotamundos” femenino mediante la adición de “a” así que nos gustó más “vagabundas”….además simplemente suena mejor). Has sido, con mucho, una de las personas mas interesantes, ambles y animadas que he conocido en mi vida. Me acuerdo de la primera clase de español A2 en Escuela Mediterráneo, me sentí muy aliviada cuando me dijiste que eras una profesora de ingles (pensé, “por lo menos podré hablar con alguien.”) Desde entonces hemos sido amigas inseparables y compañeras de viaje – en las playas españoles hacíamos topless mientras cotilleabas sobre tu más reciente romance; hacer picnics de pan y queso en el centro de Parque del Retiro en pleno mes de diciembre; escuchar a un Fado en vivo a las 2.00 un sábado por la noche en algún bar en casco antiguo de Lisboa; bailar en desfiles de “gay pride” en Sitges. Gracias por mostrarme el mundo de “couch-surfing” y el arte de vivir de una mochila. Tienes esta sed insaciable de viajar, gente, lenguaje, y cultura – haces amigos dondequiera que vayas y tu energía positiva es contagiosa. Sigue difundiendo tu único buen carácter mi pequeña “love child” – tengo muchas ganas de ver las cosas maravillosas con las que vas a contribuir al mundo. ¡Nos vemos en Latinoamérica!

A La Familia Salvat: Recuerdo cuando llegué en Barcelona. Había metido mi vida en dos maletas y una mochila  y salí de la puerta de llegadas del aeropuerto. Quince minutos después, todavía no había visto a Santi y empecé a sentir pánico… “Acabo de bajar de un vuelo de 15 horas, el que me costó $800, desde California. He dejado mi vida detrás para vivir con una familia, la que encontré en una página de web de “Au Pair” que no conozco. ¿Estoy loca?” En ese momento, Santi apareció como un caballero con armadura brillante con grandes abrazos y besos españoles y me dijo que no podía encontrar sitio para aparcar…exhalé un gran suspiro de alivio. Supongo que tengo mucha suerte porque he escuchado a muchas historias terribles de Au Pairs que han tenido familias horrorosas. Desde el momento que entré en su casa me trataron como un miembro de la familia, como si fuese su hija mayor. Tenía el trabajo más fácil del mundo cuidar a Nuria y Laia cada día (dos niñas muy independientes y cuyo ingles es increíble para sus edades). Y, lo más importante, me dieron tiempo y libertad suficiente para ir a la escuela, pasar tiempo con amigos y viajar – la vida de Au Pair perfectamente equilibrada. No podría haber pedido una familia más perfecta ni una experiencia más perfecta…sé que algún día se lo contaré a mis hijos, “Cuando tenía unos veinte años, me fui a vivir un año con una familia en España. Las niñas ya son adultas pero nunca olvidaré el momento cuando…”

A Escuela Mediterráneo: Siento que mi escuela de idiomas era mi segunda casa porque pasaba tanto tiempo allí (20 horas a la semana, casi vivía allí!) En referencia a las escuelas de idiomas en Barcelona, Escuela Mediterráneo es conocida por ser “la más barata” razón por la cual muchos extranjeros la eligen entre nombres más grandes como “International House.” Sin embargo, en cuanto entré en Don Quijote, otra escuela bien conocida en BCN, me sentí abrumada por las dos plantas de aulas, con un jardín y sala de descanso, y los baños elegantes….siempre escogeré mi pequeña y acogedora Escuela Mediterráneo con sus siete aulitas.  Pero, dejando a un lado el precio y apariencias, Escuela Mediterráneo ha sido una escuela de idiomas excepcional gracias a los profesores maravillosos. Apasionados por sus trabajos, los profesores de EM son amables, pacientes y siempre priorizan a los estudiantes. Gracias por todo vuestro trabajo duro y por ayudarme a llegar a donde estoy con mi español.
Pues…a esta mariposa de ha llegado el momento de coger su avión a Estados Unidos…no puedo creer que haya sido un año entero. Aunque me entristece dejar a los amigos que he hecho y a la familia con la que he vivido, también siento que he conseguido lo que vine a hacer aquí. He hecho más este año que lo que había hecho en mi vida entera – he viajado a mas ciudades europeas de las que puedo contar en los dedos, me he mezclado completamente en una cultura extraña, he hecho mucho autodescubrimiento sobre la persona que soy y quien quiero ser…y además, he aprendido un poco de español a lo largo del camino. Gracias por todo Barcelona, has sido una aventura inolvidable. ¡Adéu!
“Viajar es más provechoso cuando deja de ser sobre alcanzar una destinación y se convierte en algo indistinguible de vivir tu vida.” ~ Paul Theroux
One year ago, I posted on my blog, “As a 3rd generation Puerto Rican I feel as though I have lost a lot of my Latin heritage – one of those main things being the language. Two years ago I found salsa dancing – and I found the piece of my soul that I had been yearning for. The next chapter in this story is to finally understand the words and lyrics to my favorite songs. I hope after one-year I will be able to speak Spanish like I dance salsa – joyfully and effortlessly.” One year ago, I decided to take a chance…to follow a dream. One year ago, my life wasn’t going in the direction I wanted and I felt stagnant – I remember asking myself, “There has to be more to life than this.” So, what did I do?…I quit my job, sold everything I had, put my life into two suitcases and hopped on a plane to Barcelona to live and work for a family I had never met and learn Spanish for a year. So, did I accomplish what I set out to do? Well, I’m happy to report that one year later I can understand all my favorite salsa songs (now I know that they all just talk about love and heart break) and you know what, 5 months ago, when my Grandparents came to visit, I was able to hold a conversation with my Puerto Rican Grandfather. For the first time in my life we were speaking Spanish – a feeling of incredible pride and joy.
After a year of living abroad I have learned that it isn’t just about learning a language and blending into a culture, it’s about finding yourself as-well. Being a Sociology major and all (and being that we Sociologists like to make grand generalizations), I am going to make one about my own culture: When you grow up in middle-class America, you grow up comfortable. You grow up surrounded by shinny new cars and matching suburban homes. You get new textbooks at school every year, sleep safely in your warm beds in your quiet neighborhoods, have room to play in your big back yards, you never have to share space with strangers when riding to and from destinations in your car, you don’t have to worry about language barriers and/or being understood because well, we just speak one language. As calm and comfortable as middle class life was back in the states, I was ready to be abruptly taken out of my comfort zone…and Europe did not disappoint - finding my way around huge cities and metro systems, trying to make friends and express myself in a language I wasn’t yet proficient in, learning how to drive a manual car for the first time in my life and the list of “firsts” goes on and on.  Although I have had some great times in my travels and here in BCN, there have also been some “not-so-great” times…times of frustration, times of homesickness – but this is all part of the journey living abroad. You learn a lot about yourself not so much by the positive experiences but by how you cope with the difficult ones –you come out on the other side knowing that in the future, “Hey, I can handle this.”
One of the first words I learned when I arrived in Barcelona was “extranjera”…heck, it’s even plastered all over a textbooks “Manual de Español para Etranjeros” so that EVERYBODY knows (we like to hide those books way deep in our back backs in hopes of “blending” into the culture someday). Well, when I think about it, after completing my year of living here, I don’t know at what point I stopped feeling like such a foreigner – when the smell in the Plaza Cataluña metro stop (a mix of sweat and urine) didn’t bother me so much (maybe I just learned to start holding my breath); when zigzagging through the maze of tourists up and down La Rambla to get to school became my daily exercise; when I started bringing a really good book with me on monthly Renfe strike days to pass the hour or two waiting for my train out to Sant Llorenç (why fight it); when going to the same lady way in the back of the Boqueria who sells peaches at a quarter of the price becomes a morning ritual; when hitting a wooden log so that it pooped presents on Christmas Eve became a endearing family tradition; when winning porrón drinking contests (without spilling wine all over yourself) during backyard Calçotadas became a standard event at every party; when telling the same elderly lady in your town for the umpteenth time that she needs to speak in Castellano because you don’t speak Catalan became something I started looking forward to every day at the park (so, is she gonna remember me today or not?). Also, I can’t remember when Spanish just became my second language…when I stopped thinking so much and started using it – when I started chatting on Facebook without google-translate open and talking with friends over dinner; or without thinking twice about making angry phone calls to customer service lines to complain about not accepting my credit card; or when I started spending hours reading the plot lines of Spanish novels at the local bookstore just for fun; or when my first response to someone asking me a question or for directions STOPPED being “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” but rather “I am not sure but I think it’s this way” (a VERY Spanish answer might I add…you never say “I don’t know,” it’s rude. If you don’t know, make something up); or when I started “thhh-inngg” my “zzettaas”; or when I started saying things like “me flipa, me mola, “vale vale” and “Que guay!” I am Barcelonesa at heart, now and forever.
Before I sign off on this last blog, I believe there are a few HUGE Thank Yous in order.
To Nazli - my vagabunda sister. I don’t know when we came up with the nick-name “vagabundas” (e.g. female vagabond) but we have called ourselves that for as long as I can remember (and yes people, I know, literally, it means “homeless person” but in Spanish, you can’t make “trotamundos” (e.g. globe-trotter) feminine by adding an “a” so we liked “vagabundas” better…and it just sounds better ). You have been by far one of the most interesting, loving, fun-spirited people I have ever met. I remember the first day of Spanish A2 class at Escuela Mediterraneo, I felt so relieved after you told me you were an English teacher (I thought, “at least I will be able to talk to someone”). We have been inseparable friends and travel companions ever since – everywhere from laying topless on Spanish beaches while you gossip about your newest romance, to having bread and cheese picnics in Retiro Park (Madrid) in the middle of December, to listening to live Fado music at 2am on a Sunday night in some dive bar in the middle of old-town Lisbon, to dancing in gay pride parades in Stiges. Thank you for showing me the world of “couch-surfing” and the art of living out of a backpack. You have this insatiable thirst for travel, people, language and culture – you make friends everywhere you go and your positive energy is contagious. Keep spreading your good nature and uniqueness my little love child – I can’t wait to see the amazing things you are going to contribute to the world. See you in Latin America!
To the Salvat family: I remember when I arrived in Barcelona. I had stuffed my life into two suitcases and a backpack and came out of the “arrivals” section of the airport. Fifteen minutes later, after seeing no sign of Santi, I started to panic… “I just got off a 15 hour, $800 flight from California in which I left my life behind to come live with a family who I found on an “au-pair” website whom which I have never met. Am I crazy?” Just then, Santi shows up like a knight in shining armor with big Spanish hugs, kisses, and said he couldn’t find parking…and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. With all the horror stories I have heard about Au Pairs having the most awful families, I must have gotten really lucky. From the moment I entered their home I was treated like a member of the family, like I was their oldest daughter. I had the easiest job in the world watching Nuria and Laia everyday (the most independent girls and their English is incredible for their ages). And most importantly, I was given plenty of time and freedom to go to school, hang out with friends and travel - the perfectly balanced Au-Pair life. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect family or a more perfect experience….I know I will be telling my kids the story one day, “You know, when I was in my early 20s I went to go live with a family in Spain for year. The girls are grown now but I will never forget the time that…”
To Escuela Mediterraneo: I feel like my Spanish language school was my second home because I was there so much (20 hours a week for a year, I was pretty much living there!) In regards to language schools in Barcelona, Escuela Mediterraneo is known as the “cheap school” which is why a lot of foreigners choose it over big names like “International House.” However, walking into Don Quijote, another well-known language school in BCN, I felt overwhelmed by the two stories of classrooms, with a garden and large lounge area in the back, and the upscale bathrooms…I would choose my small, homey, seven classroom Escuela Mediterraneo any day! But, aside from cost and esthetics, Escuela Mediterraneo has been an outstanding language school and that is all thanks to the incredible teachers. Passionate about their jobs, the professors at EM are kind and patient and always put the student first. Thank you all for all your hard work and helping me get to where I am today with my Spanish.
Well, it’s about time for this mariposa to hop on her plane back to the states…it’s pretty crazy to think it’s been an entire year. Although I am sad to be leaving the friends I’ve made and the family I have lived with, I also I feel as though I have accomplished what I came here to do. I have done more in this year alone than I feel I have done in my whole life - I have traveled to more European cities than I can count on my fingers, have completely blended myself into a foreign culture, have done a lot of self-discovery about who I am and who I want to be…oh, and also learned a bit of Spanish along the way. Thanks for everything Barcelona, you have been quite the adventure. ¡Adéu!
“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.” Paul Theroux