Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Prairie Home CompaƱero

After our obligatory stops in the northern coast's two major cities, San Sebastain and Bilbao, Duncan and I decided to rent a car and head west into Cantabria and Asturias, regions known for small towns, beautiful coastlines, cider, rain, and the lushest of greens abound. We'd conceived of this drive with the utmost of optimism, hoping to simply get off at the right exit onto a small road that would lead us straight through the quaint, idyllic towns that we may have very well made up.

This was for the most part foolishness, but we made a good go at it, and this part of the country made driving an absolute pleasure. We stopped briefily in Santillana del Mar, a would-be cute little medieval town, but because of the sickening number of tourist shops selling absolute shit, we decided not to hang around after our tour of the church.


We moved on to spend the night in Comillas, which had the right look to it but felt a bit dead. It was too late to move on, so we found a room above a bar, and went out for a pre-dinner drink. The bar was pretty much empty, except for a couple of older respectable guys who had come in just before us for a glass of wine or two each, which they promptly downed in about ten minutes before moving on. As soon as they'd gotten their drinks, the bartender asked them something I couldn't hear, and soon after produced a plate of about 15 small baguette slices topped with shrimp smothered in what looked like a mayonnaise sauce. After eating a couple each, the guys looked at us and slid the plate over. We accepted, slid the late back after taking one each, and I thanked them repeatedly, thinking they had ordered food for themselves and were sharing. They sort of laughed in a friendly way as if the thanks were not necessary. 'It's just to snack on,' they said, 'it's for anyone, have as much as you want.' My puzzlement deepened when the bartender slid another full plate of the things in front of us and carried dirty glasses into the back without a word. My first thought was, 'Never leave this place.' I mean, peanuts are one thing, but a free plate full of shrimp appetizers is, I mean, that's just something else. We of course chose to ignore that in eating the whole plate we might has well have been chugging from full jar of Hellman's.

The next day in Comillas we visited a small house turned fancy restaurant called Capricho de Gaudi, built by that most famous of modernistas, of whom I knew nothing about at the time, in 1885. It was as weird as it was cool, and unfortunately this picture doesn't do justice to the colors.

From there we took a drive up to the Universidad Pontificia, which was designed by another modernista, and has become a complete waste of stunning architecture and surroundings.


We then took a tour (with what looked to be the Cantabrian Geriatric Society on their weekly outing) of the Marques de Comillas' house, a bewildering Gothic...thing.

Turns out the Marques was not exactly entitled to his...er...title- he was born poor, went to Cuba and married some rich guy's daughter, then multiplied his fortune and came back and called himself the Marques de Comillas. Which really inspired my lifelong dreams of one day proclaiming myself a noble. Marques is a good one, but I think I'd prefer Baron, perhaps Viscount if I'm really feeling saucy.

Before leaving Comillas we purchased several blocks of fresh cheese from a small market in the town's square, and after tasting every one of the cow's, sheep's, and goat's milk cheeses the guy had to offer. Two huge baguettes and a few bananas in the bag, and we had lunch to go. On our way west, we got off the road and headed along a winding road that led, well, up.

We didn't really know where we were going and didn't really care much. That's how the days were- slow, peaceful; if we'd see a road we liked, we took it. After twenty minutes of winding and praying nobody would be speeding around a corner on this particular 'two lane' road, we parked and walked up to a peak to start working on that cheese; the only sights the rolling green hils and the tiled roofs of the distant villages; the only sounds the cool grey breeze, the faint ringing of bells dangling from cattle and sheep collars, and, for twenty or so seconds of natural splendor, Duncan's pee hitting the grass.

You know, it occurs to me that I haven't taken time to properly introduce Duncan to those readers who don't know him, so, let me digress for a moment...
Ladies and Gentlemen, the esteemed Duncan Randolph White:

So, yeah. I think that's good.

After our picnic, we turned back, caught the main road and kept heading west to what would be our destination, lovely Cudillero, a beautiful fishing town that we deemed, for our purposes, Perfect, or at least, Close Enough.


We managed to find a reasonably priced room managed by a sweet-as-can-be old lady and her middle aged son. They informed us of a big festival going on that night in the next town over, about a 2km walk, which celebrated the local patron saint's day. Turns out our timing and town choice was perfect. Excited, we split a bottle of wine we'd purchased earlier, and went down to the local bars to get out night started. Here was our first introduction to Asturian cider. It is served in liter bottles that cost 2 Euro apiece. The cider is kind of tart, almost bitter, so it is poured from a great height into a tipped glass in small amounts, and then drunk immediately so that the foam gives it a fresher, crisper taste. This takes practice (the pouring, not the drinking- the latter I went to college for). The bartenders would reach one arm up in the air as high as it could go, then lower the glass in their other hand as low as it could go, and tilt it slightly. The liquid being poured would fall about four feet and land on a tiny strip of tilted glass, and if the pouring hand oscillated slightly or tilted the bottle more or less (impossible to not do a little), the stream would shift and the bartender, staring not at his top or bottom hand but the moving stream, would move the glass accordingly. The bartender usually pours your first drink, then leaves you the bottle, and if you want more you can ask, or you can try to do this yourself, and inevitably pour half of the bottle all over the floor and/or your shoes. But it's cheap as hell, so whatever. Needless to say, this is an incredibly entertaining way to get drunk.

As advised by everyone, we headed out to the festival at close to midnight. It was a nice quiet walk up a slight incline that we knew was over when we heard music blaring from the middle of nowhere. There, we found a big white tent, and locals of all ages. I mean from 1 to 75, midnight on a Friday, these people were out there. The older men and women danced in pairs the whole night, maintaining perfect rhythm without thinking, smiling or showing any signs of enjoyment. Young kids scurried about, a cheesy band led by a man in all black and a terrible toupee played salsa and pop music, and everyone got wasted. Duncan and I spent our time staring- puzzled- and pouring as much cider on the floor as we did down our throats. Here's us not being very good at it:



So, this whole shindig was kind of bizarre. Maybe it was the giant tent, maybe it was the binge drinking taking place directly alongside the wholesome family entertainment, maybe it was the rhythm guitar version of Sultans of Swing that had no vocals or lead guitar but still brought the house down, I don't know. The most amazing thing was that when we got tired at 3:30 in the morning, the old people were still dancing, the younguns were still scurrying, and poeple were still showing up. I thought we'd made it a late night, but apparently we were the first to go home, because the walk back was deserted. Little town Spain's big night out I guess. Way to go, I say. Way to go.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Eating Feet, Marinating Words

At midday I met Duncan in Nice, where the wedding he attended took place, and we sat down at a cafe so a French waitress could treat us like idiots. We walked through the town, along the beach (which was made entirely of pebbles, actual small rocks that people were lying on, which, if this is where they go to relax, perhaps explains the French) and up to a nearby waterfall/city view. The town was pretty nice (absolutely no pun intended, it's just really unfortunately the exact word I want to use here), if extremely touristy and gaudy.

We spent the afternoon in the hotel of some of Duncan's family friends and were treated to some luxury- a pool, a nice bathroom to shower in- before heading to the train station that night. On the way, I saw three familiar German looking guys across the street. Unable to think of anything better, I shouted 'Hey Namibia!' The backpacker circuit in full force, these guys had made their way north after Napoli and were going to stay in Nice for a few days. They gave me email addresses and said they could probably help me find a place to stay in Munich, where they would be working.

We took an overnight train to Bordeaux and then another train to cross the border, and a third to get to San Sebastian, which was at the time covered in thick grey fog. This did not suit the city well. Our walk up to the castle and Jesus figure topped hill revealed a long sandy beach backed by boxy ugly modern apartment buildings that were on their way to looking pretty run down.


We were thinking about renting a car to take west to Bilbao and into Cantabria and Asturias, and I saw a rental car sign in an internet place so I stopped in to ask the attractive blonde at the desk about it, and another guy overheard my questions and stopped to listen. We talked for about five minutes in Spanish until she asked if we spoke English because it would be easier to explain, and I said yes and the other guy did as well. Turned out she was American, a graduate from Syracuse, had come to San Sebastian after graduating to learn Spanish, and was an idiot. After terribly misunderstanding what travel recommendations we were looking for, she kept saying, 'if you can pick up a bit of Spanish , you can just ask people along the way,' having forgotten that she was the one who suggested that we switch to English. She said that she came here instead of South America to learn 'real' Spanish, and then went on a long diatribe about how South American Spanish is corrupted by English. She cited as an example the fact that in Spain, they call a computer an ordenador, whereas in Mexico it is a computadora, because in English it is computer. I pointed out that the advent of the modern personal computer took place almost entirely in America, and ordenador is equally similar to the French ordinateur. She found this very confusing. She then repeated that she wanted to learn real Castillian Spanish, not some cheap Americanized version like in Mexico or Colombia. This I loved. I was about to ask her why, then, did she come to the Basque country, where they prefer their own completely non-Spanish language and are decidedly not a part of Spain, have violently sought independence from Spain, but realizing the argument would be lost, I opted for the diplomatic solution and put her head through the ordenador.

Later that afternoon we stopped in a tapas bar, where we ate a little meat stuffed thing, some kind of shrimp salady (using the America version of the word 'salad,' meaning smothered in mayo) thing, and I finished the snack off with a big bite of my foot. When the 50 something friendly carmudgeon sort of bartenders served us our glass of the local cider, and poured themselves one, I lifted my glass towards them and said, 'que viva Espana,' forgetting where I was. After a minute, the bartender said, brusquely, 'this is not Spain.' Not realizing my mistake, and without any idea what he was talking about, I said, 'What?' 'This is not Spain, it is Euskedia' (the Basque word for the Basque country). I apologized sincerely, wondered if Basque terrorists ever pose as aging barmen, and slowly backed out the door.

We met a friendly Spanish couple that night and sampled the local wines, which are cheap and good, and the next day we set out on the bus for Bilbao. The highlight there is the Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry, a building so bizarre and incomprehensible, and yet so sublime that the art on display inside hardly seemed worthy.




Some of the exhibits were very impressive, but others, a 'sculpture' that was a large undecorated steel plate, square on three sides and curved on the other, for example, were of the kind that makes you wonder if something becomes art when somebody hangs it on a wall. And still others- a large spiderweb-like metal cage enclosing a horizontal screen that repeated a 12 minute video of a young Eastern European man receivng electroshock therapy and being held down at the face by a nurse whose right hand had only little stumps for fingers, but he could use the fleshy pads of his mangled or birth defected palmy stubs to grip the screaming and contorting patient's features as necessary- that make you wish all modern artists were content to suspend scrap metal. And then you wonder why you can't stop watching.

On the walk back to our hotel from the museum we were met by a parade of mostly young, poorly dressed (by choice), chanting Basques, who looked like they had been recently been attacked by a mob of disgruntled barbers (more on Spanish haircuts to come), and whose front rank held a white cloth banner that said something in Euskedi about someone named Sandra.

I asked a guy smoking while he watched what they were going on about, and he explained that they were demanding the immediate release of a well known, vocal Basque activist/terrorist, who may have played a leading role in several deadly bombings. I asked how long she had been in jail, and he said, 'she was arrested the day before yesterday. She was brought in to face the judge in Madrid who will decide if there is enough evidence to put her on trial.' 'When will he decide?' 'Tomorrow.' I have to give credit for the spontaneous mobilization of the protesters here, but, um, not to be politically insensitive or anything, but that is just fucking crazy. Shouldn't they be waiting until after the judge decides whether she will even face trial? I imagine their chant went something like 'NO TO TIMELY LEGAL PROCEDURE. RELEASE THE FAIRLY TREATED SUSPECTED MURDERER. NO TO LEGAL PROCEDURE...'

The Basques we met were all very friendly and generous, but many projected their pride on too big a screen for me to find it admirable. Understandably, there is a historical context of language and culture oppression that you don't hear much about these days, but the independence seekers seem concerned with what distinguishes them from the Spanish rather than what unites them. They vehemently cling to their language, which is spoken nowhere else in the world-language being primarily a system of communication- instead of embracing an international language that affords them a connection to a broad global community. I understand that language is also a strong symbol of identity, but the very need to express a distinct identity from those who are so otherwise culturally similar suggests a worldview that is best eradicated. This is indeed a vibrant and warm culture, but one that is disappointingly-because they are educated enough to know better- committed to difference in a way that stinks of regressive tribalism. And now, my hypocrisy: when I meet new people and they ask me where I am from, I always say 'New York' instead of 'America.' When they ask me about Bush and America's political climate, I say that New York is New York, and not America. That revealed, you won't ever see a New Yorker clamoring for independence from the red beast of the middle, or wasting his precious time to blow up anyone from said beastly red middle for said independence. Though perhaps I will be eating these words come November '08.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre are five small harbor towns clustered along the Northwestern Italian coast and connected by a footpath. Each town has its own distinct look and feel, but they all share the brightly tackily colored and boxy architecture, that anywhere else would be vomit inducing, but here just seems to work. From the train I got off at the second town from the bottom, Manarola, but was unable to find cheap accomodation. I did, however, find eight or ten hole in the wall joints selling foccacia smothered in olives or cheese or meat or whatever. I am usually good about getting my bags into a room before heading back out to chow, but unable to contain myself, I just flung my bags into a corner of the street and ate my heart out. For the three or four days I was in the Cinque Terre, I don't think I ate a single foccacia unrelated meal.

I was told I could find something cheap in the southernmost town, Riomaggiore, and indeed, as soon as I got off the train, I was stopped by am old woman, who at first glance looked completely insane, but turned out to only be a little batty, and maybe a tiny bit smelly, but a real sweetheart. Her name was Mamma Rozza, and she had a sort of unofficial hostel of questionable habitability, but it was cleanish and cheap and I got my own room, and was able to wash everything I own for free.

During my time in Riomaggiore, I ate foccacia, drank espresso, ate some more foccacia, read, and watched sunsets from the rock formations by the harbor.


One evening I met four fourty something Austrian bikers who bought me a beer and enlightened me on the pleasures of riding unbelievably fast Italian motorcycles on unbelievably windy roads while wearing unbelievably colored jackets. At night I drank at the only bar in town, where an unfriendly bartender became my best friend when I recognized Toots and the Maytals, and then a Clapton cover of a Stevie Ray Vaughn song. He said, 'It's good to meet an American who knows good music and doesn't scream a lot.' I then sat down and chatted with six American college students from North Carolina who asked the owner/bartender if there was a 'real bar' they could go to after and later proceeded to get drunk and scream lots. I guess he had a point. At the bar I made a couple of friends, Gian Lucca and Luigi, who were too cool for me to not go find the next few nights, even though I was supposed to be saving money.


Luigi spoke Spanish, and Gian Lucca kind of spoke English, and this guy took our picture.

The next day I hiked from Riomaggiore to the last town, Monterosso, with a couple of Kiwi sisters I'd met the day before. The walk was stunning and just difficult enough, and in each town we consumed something as if to make the visit official. Gelato here, foccacia there, espresso there, foccacia and gelato there, focaccia and focaccia there.




That night at Mamma Rozza's I met a pair of American girls and struggled to keep interested. (One was about to move to China with her husband to be missionaries, and you can just imagine the plethora of common interests that sprouted from that little factoid, and the other was in her sixth year of undergrad at Eastern Michigan state. Yeah.). I also met a group of Erasmus students, Erasmus being the European student exchange program, who were studying in Bologna. Four Portuguese and a German. I couldn't have had an easier time getting along with them.

We played silly word games for about five hours and talked about whatever. I was impressed by how well the Portuguese spoke English, and found out that they all learn English from a very young age in school. I asked what they thought about that, and one said that he thought that eventually English will be the primary language everywhere, and that it kind of makes sense to have an international standard. I asked how they felt that people from English speaking countries rarely speak another language. They said it's annoying, but they don't mind being taught English. After a while, one, Teresa, said, 'it's nice to finally meet a nice American...' and then added a shrugged 'for once.' I laughed and said I was starting to feel the same way. Teresa then explained that there is an American military base near where she grew up, and most of the Americans she meets aren't great. This I could understand. I would imagine that the troops stationed in Portugal don't have much on their plates, and thus have lots of time to devote to being meatheads.

Later that night, the German guy Nicolas asked if I've felt weird being an American out in the World right now, and it was the first time I'd thought about it since I'd left. The fact is that everyone has been incredibly friendly, and loved hearing that I was from New York. And once I shit on Bush, they let their guard down and open up completely. But even Nicolas, who couldn't have been nicer, said that there really is an anti-American sentiment in Europe, and he wanted to know if I've experienced that. Unfortunately, we are completely underrepresented by friendly open minded travellers, and overrepresented by our military, our President, and tour groups. And none of those makes the best ambassador, it turns out. An individual American is one thing- a welcome thing- America, or AMERICA, is a different thing entirely.

After three days of beautiful weather, fantastic people, and enough bread, olives and cheese to last a lifetime, I set out from Cinque Terre to meet Duncan in Nice and continue on to Spain, for, well, some more bread, olives and cheese.

Friday, May 26, 2006

You're Shakin My Confidence Baby

When I got off the train at Pollina, the station was empty, except for two station employees. At first they ignored me, so I just picked a direction and started walking off the platform. They whistled behind me and said something in Italian, which I presume was, 'hey asshole, where do you think you're going?' 'Pollina?' I asked. They smiled and looked at each other and waved me over and explained that thought I was technically headed in the right direction, the road to Pollina went from the other way and kind of wound around for 2km before getting there. They also explained six or seven other things about it, but they lost me pretty quickly. Love friendly Italians. They confirmed the presence of hotels there, at least, so I set off on the windy road- meant explicitly for cars, I should add. Six gallons of sweat and half an hour of wondering just what the fuck I was doing here later I got to what looked like a main drag of a street, where everything was closed, it being Easter Monday. The town was plain and unnatractive, far from the quaint and distinctly architectured Sicilian village I'd hoped for. Huh. Interesting. At least it was on the water.

After crossing through the entire town, I finally stumbled upon one hotel, and a sign for another one, and opted for the latter, assuming the one off the main street would be cheaper. I passed by it but was waved in the right direction by some locals, and finally found the doorbell. After ringing, waiting, ringing, waiting and ringing, I backed away and looked around. Nothing. From up above me I heard a woman's voice.
'Sonna, sonna,' she said, and I looked up to a third floor porch where one elderly woman stood, talking to another woman on the third floor porch of the building across the street.
'Sonna, sonna' she said again as she made the push the doorbell motion. I rang a few more times, forcefully now.
Then she started shouting down the street around the corner for about a minute, until she said something to me that implied that it was all taken care of. A minute later and a thin but older woman with a mustache I could only dream of sporting opened the door with a smile. Priceless. The ladies on the porch continued their conversation, and before I walked in, I accidentally dropped a penny and reached over to pick it up, when I saw out of the corner of my eye a Black man walking by eating fried chicken, who was almost struck by a swerving truck driven by an Asian woman, who screeched to a halt right before a soaking wet Mexican hopped onto the flatbed and said, 'need any drywall, meng?'

I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering why I had been sent to this place, but was temporarily entertained when some young (mostly) people rolled a ping pong table out into the middle of the street, started blasting music from a car stereo and began playing competitive mixed doubles with vivacity and joy that I thought was only attainable after 4-12 Natural lights.

It was pretty fun to watch, if only because their energy was contagious. That night I splurged on a Sicilian dinner of Pasta alla Pescatore, which was loaded with so much fresh mussels, squid, and fish that the pasta was gone well before the seafood was. After the wine and the food, I sat and wondered why I was here, and when the last time I had a conversation I understood was. I came up with answers to neither.

But the next day, I figured out that I was only maybe actually in Pollina. In the distance I could see a town on a hill, and there were signs that pointed sort of that way and said Pollina.

Asking my mustachioed hotel proprietor 'Pollina?' and lots of pointing at the ground and at that distant hill helped me understand that they were both called Pollina, or something, and that to get up there, I could take a bus at 2:30. One question answered. At 2:30 a big tour bus packed with middle aged Germans, presumably coming from Cefalu, swung through and brought me up to this awesome little town.

Tiny windy little alleys, a medieval theater and tower, a bunch of old Italian men gesturing and talking about God only knows what, considering they live on a huge hill twelve kilometeres from the nearest tiny fucking town, the place, minus the fifty ill fitting bright colored shirted and white tennis shorted despite the fog and brisk weather Germans, was the small town wonder I was looking for. The whole tour bus thing must be bizarre for the locals- they live in a town of a couple hundred people, but every day fifty Germans wander around for the afternoon.





From Pollina I took the train to Siracusa, which the Lonely Planet described as a highlight of a visit to Sicily, and coming off of two highlights, I was pretty psyched. Indeed, the paltry one day I'd alloted to Siracusa would be completely insufficient, and I could have stayed for weeks. The air was perfect, the scenery perfecter. The night I arrived, I wandered by an open door that had this inside:

In case you can't make them out, those are old peope dancing. I could have stayed there for hours watching, but after five minutes I felt creepy. Still, there is something inherently enjoyable about watching old Italians enjoy life.

The next day I got up early to make the most of my short time. The tourist attractions were split between the island of Ortigia, and the archeological zone across the city. In the morning I wandered through Ortigia, eyes wide and camera poised, unable to stop myself from taking pictures at every turn through the alleys and piazzas and along the coast.






The whole place was a veritable feast of architectural wonder, and I hadn't even gotten to the secondi piatti: Siracusa's extravagant Duomo. When I arrived, the sight was almost too awesome to behold:

Nemesis thy name is scaffold. On the inside it was nice though.

Despite that disappointment, Siracusa was an exercise in retinal orgasmica. After my a'wanderin' I spent an hour at the old castle on the water, and even waited until a large tour group passed by so I could sneak up past a barrier to get a prohibited view from the turret.

The photo was just okay, but the tingly exhilaration of minor mischief was pathetically satisfying, especially after I hopped the barrier on the way out and kind of spilled into the main hall where two people looked up after the thwap-crack of the wooden gate flapping after released from the burden of my weight, and gave me a puzzled where-did-you-come-from? look while I swept the dust off my trousers and said 'buon giorno.' (I feel that dust tends to be swept off of trousers, as opposed to pants).

I then walked across the city to the archeological zone, where they've got Greek and Roman stuff, some cool caves backed by impressive views over the city, and the Ear of Dionysus, a big cave supposedly named by Caravaggio.





Siracusa might be the most beautiful city I've ever seen, and certainly wins the I am a dickhead for not coming here with more time award. Still, with the Cinque Terre on my next day's plate, I couldn't lament for too long.

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