Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | April 18, 2009

Roadtrip Through Asturias

The nice thing about having two hours to prepare for a vacation when you´re coming from another is that your bag is almsot nearly packed. I didn´t need to run around trying to find my passport, pour shampoo into a travel bottle, or pack reading materials. Just a few pairs of clean undies and socks, and I was on my way.
Kike, Inma, Alfredo and I took off from Sevilla at 10 am down the Careterra de la Plata, a highway that follows the ancient route explorers took to carry gold from the ports in Sevilla and Huelva up to Madrid. It crosses the wide expanses of Extremadura, up through the hills to Salamanca in Castilla y León and then onto Madrid.

somewhere between Ribadasella and Llanes

From the Guadalquivir River Valley, the four of us piled into Kike´s 97 Mercedes Elegance and drove north through the Sierra Morena, stopping in a village called Monesterio to fuel up. Extremadura is like the outback – sweeping plains of cork trees underneath a blue sky crowded with clouds straight out of the Simpsons. There are goats and pigs and sheep everywhere, as the region is famous for their meat and cheese products. In fact, there isn´t much more on menus here!

We arrived to Salamanca after about four hours, a beautiful town made from sandstone and home to Spain´s first university. Kike studied for a year here, and bought himself a nice meal at a restaurant called Dulcinea, right off the main square, right after receiving his measly paycheck. We waited nearly an hour for a table in the teeny and tightly-packed dining room, then walked through the city. I had been here onec during my study abroad course, so we quickly breezed through the cobblestone streets of the city past the cathedral, Casa de las Conchas, the university and the main square, considered one of the most beautiful in Spain.

Soon we were back on the road again, over the central plateau and through towns with just a church and a few excuses for buildings. This is the Spain I fell in love with – small, red buildings surrounded by absolutely nothing. Broken down, forlorn. But soon we were traveling through the mountains of León, through a rainstorm and past jagged cliffs that plunged into a large lake.

We reached Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, after sundown. It seems like the second you hit the northern provinces of Spain that line the Cantabrian Sea, everything is green and hilly. The truth is that Spain is really mountainous, and it gets a lot of rain (except for Sevilla, which is flat and dry). Oviedo was one of the first capitals of Spain because of its proximity to both the mountains that protect it and the sea just 10 miles to the north (Asturias is also one of the smallest states).

Our hotel, named for the second king of Spain who was killed by a bear during a hunting excursion, was right off Calle Uria, one of the main drags. The center of the city is small enough that it merited a quick visit the following day, but we concentrated our efforts on the sidra trail. Northern Spain has a reputation for producing some of the finest apple cider in the country. It’s fermented and poured by a waiter who raises his arm and tilts the glass below. As one could imagine, a lot of cider ends up on the floor! You only get a small quantity in your glass, which must be drank quickly in order to preserve the flavor. We pretty much were taking shots all night, a kind of Spanish version of power hour. We also ate – get this – sea urchins and a type of snail native to the Cantabrian that you eat with a nail. Yes, a nail. These Spaniards are crazy.

After the quick tour through the center, we were back on the road to a town called Infiesto. Alfredo’s uncle and his family live there in a town with one long street next to a creek surrounded by hills. It’s quite picturesque. In search of fabada, the fabled Asturian bean dish that I LOVE, we drove through several small towns through winding roads, past farms and herreros. We finally ended up at a restaurant with fabada and tortu, a flat corn tortilla with pig guts and a fried egg on top. Alfredo’s aunt gave us the names of places we should hit along the way, so we drove along a coastal highway through poor little villages, past the cliffs that plunged into the sea, in and out of little towns faster than imaginable on the two-lane highway.

We stopped in one small town called Niembro. We had to take a country road past a wide river, past the town’s forlorn cemetery and Kike’s poor car climbed to the top of the village on steep roads. We nicknamed the town “Mataninos” or the child killer because the roads were barely wide enough for his car, and we didn’t see any children. At the top of the hill, there’s a wide park with views on both sides of a beautiful beach and the Cantabrian Sea. It was breathtaking.

Inma, Alfredo, Kike and I on the Cantabrian Coast near Niembro

On the drive down, barely dodging other cars, we stopped in the town of Llanes for a coffee. The town has medieval roots and a nice seaside park. I drove us back to our destination for the night, Cagas de Onis, a village in the foothills of the Picos de Europa mountain range. the town is located on the river Sella and a menacing stone, Roman bridge meets you at the entrance to the town. It’s even more beautiful than any other place we’d seen. We spent the night eating and drinking cider.

The next morning, we got up early to drive into Picos de Europa to the Lagos de Covadonga. The highway closes off during busy tourist weeks because the mountain roads are dangerous. We arrived shortly before it closed, ensuring we could see two glacial lakes at the top. The mountains were still covered with snow and we had to hike a long ways up, but, like many things, it was worth seeing the entire mountain range and the lakes.

Lago Enol, Picos de Europa

On the way down, we stopped at a monastery built at Covadonga. Legend has it that the Virgen appeared here to Don Pelayo when the Moors were conquering Spain in the late 8th century. Because of the mountains, the Moors captured just about every part of Iberia except the small patch of Asturias. The Virgen told him and his men to reconquer Spain, which is what they did (it just took 700 years). There’s a small chapel in the cave where she appeared and an enormous church and monastery across the valley. The fog was coming down from the mountains, making the monastery shrouded by the time we left.

We headed to Gijon for the afternoon, the biggest city in Asturias. It’s very regal and laid-back, and we had a beautiful afternoon to walk around the marina and the city center and the beach. After lunch outdoors of more sea urchins and chicken, we had a nap and had dinner at a michelin-rated restaurant. The food was amazing, the service was horrendous. We got a wheel of cheese, more vigaros and a few bottles of sidra before resting up for the long drive back.

Seaside church in Gijon

And it was back down to Sevilla and back to school. Nine more hours, countless losses of radio coverage and a bocadillo de lomo. And severly cramped legs.

Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | April 8, 2009

How does it feel to make love to a G? and other Amsterdam adventures

When I first came to Spain, overwhelmed by cheap flight choices and 12-hour work weeks, I made a list of the top-5 places I wanted to visit before I went home. Ireland was up top, followed by Germany, Morocco, Portugal and Amsterdam.
I saw the Guiness factory in Dublin, visited Eva in Cologne, traveled to Tangiers with my family and saw two coasts of Portugal. And finally, this Semana Santa, I found myself on a plane from Madrid to Amsterdam with my friend Cat.

Semana Santa is a week of jaleo, religious processions and closed shops, mixed in with all-day drinking and soaring prices. In other words, as a resident of a neighborhood full of churches and narrow streets, I wanted out of Sevilla. The entire Catholic world comes to my city to watch several dozen church bodies, known as hermandades, dress up in long robes and pointy hats and parade around the city in pennance and observance of Jesus’s death and rebirth. It’s not something I’m really into, honestly.
So, at 5:15 a.m., I was at Cat’s door, ringing endlessly to tell her that I had gotten a cab and he was waiting for us. Not surprisingly, neither of us had slept much and neither of us had many ganas to catch a plane at 7 a.m. After a quick jet to Madrid, where we bought a bottle of champagne and some fresh orange juice for mimosas and tried to get a person unlocked from her maze of an apartment, we were thankfully passed out on an Iberian flight to Amsterdam.
Martin was waiting for us at Schipol, a dazzlingly simple and clean airport. We took a train into the city to Staation Zuid, where rack after rack of bikes were parked at the entrance. Martin put us on a bus and he cycled to his house and waited for us there. These people have got it figured out with the bikes! Cars respect them, pedestrians respect them, there’s a place to park them everywhere!
Martin lives in a one-bedroom flat in the southern part of the city, a 10-miunte train ride from Leidespleine and the canals. He has a wall full of books, a comfy balcony and tall windows. Felisabel, whose sister is married to a Dutch man, explained to me that during the times of Calvinist thought, people were mandated to install large windows with no curtains so that everyone knew everyones business. This makes for little privacy, but a lot of light, and we certainly got a good day.
Taking advantage of that, we headed toward the city center, stopping to have a few beers in an open, golden plaza. The place was packed like a sardine can. We found a tapas place (oddly enough, the concept of bite-sized snacks has really caught on) and had creamy hummus, patatas bravas, an emapanda packed with broccoli and carrots and a bottle of house wine.
I have always touted my good sense of direction, but the rings of canals and alleyways in Amsterdam really turned me around. Cat and I spent several hours and several euros in beer on our quest for the Red Light District. We stumbled upon it – literally. Cat and I crossed a bridge and she was suddenly face to face with a prostitute in a glowing red cabin. We had arrived late enough for the drunks to be out, smoke wafting out of coffee shops and mingling with the smell of pizza and doner from every other storefront. It’s true what they say – the district glows red from the cabins where prostitutes for every fetish conduct their business. The red even shone on the canal. Cat and I indulged in some vices before we needed refueling – a strawberry covered waffle and french fries. We forgot about any shame as we gobbled it down!

The next morning/afternoon, we had a leisurely day walking around the city, following the canals and tram lines through the center. We had heard from Cat’s friend that there was a pillowfight in the main square, Dam Square, but no one we asked seem to know anything about it. After an overpriced buffalo mozzerella and salami sandwich, we found ourselves back in the Red Light District like moths to a (red) lamp. The stores there are outrageous. If it’s not a sex shop with all kinds of apparati. it’s a headshop full of marijuana memorabilia – rastafarian ashtrays, lighters emblazoned with the flag of Amsterdam, etc.

Eventually it was time for our midday beer (Spanish beer consumption knows no time limits), so we wandered into a maritime themed bar called the Sailor or something. Not only were we the only girls, but we were the shortest by more than a head. Some guys tried to leave the bar and started talking to us, and we felt trapped by the five of them because they towered over us! We went to a more tranquil bar, where some old men tried conversing with me while Cat was in the bathroom. One of them told me his wife was a prostitute and therefore rich, making him available to me because they clearly had an open relationship. Yikes. Another with a wedding band offered to take Cat out. Turns out they were in town for a car show (hence the sausagefest in the other bar). I’ve discovered that most native Amsterdamers steer clear of the indulges like coffeeshops and prostitutes, and that there aren’t so many old people in the city. Most of them live outside the city, which is inhabited by young professionals and students. A far cry from Sevilla and most of Spain.

We grabbed some wine and snacks to drink before heading out for the night. Martin suggested a place with live music in an old church called Paradiso. Sounded like something straight out of Ibiza, but we paid the 16€ to get in. The place was vacant at 1am (we should have known better), but we were soon joined by scores of revelers on the dancefloor. We kept to ourselves – buying each other tequila shots and beers like we were on Spring Break, minus the nudity and ocean and stuff. At 3am, realizing we hadn´t ate, we went to a coffee shop that had exploded into a shop, a hostel and a restaurant to watch the NCAA semifinals and chow down on nachos and fries.
The following morning, despite all of our efforts to wake up early, we finally got to the Van Gogh museum after two coffees and much later than our scheduled time of 10:30 a.m. The bottom level is was dedicated to Van Gogh´s impressions of the dusk and night hours, a wonderfully crafted progression from the hours a farmer leaves his hoe in the field to the deepest hours of sleep. Even the walls got steadily darker! I nearly fainted seeing some of Van Go´gh´s most famous pieces.
After an expensive lunch on a terrace near a canal, we walked through the Jordaan district to the anne Frank House. When I was a kid, I read her diary countless times, fascinated by her optimism and how her young mind could capture the fear and the restlessness so well. I´ve been dying to see the secret annex, and standing in line made me feel like a little kid about to pee his pants. Located on a street just steps off a canal and a huge church, it´s amazing how the back annex of the factory where Otto Frank once worked is invisible from the street. After the house was raided and the jam factory moved, the furtinture was seized and Otto Frank requested it never be refurbished. The tour winds through the factory and contains a few artifacts of the family and those who helped them hide successfully for about two years. Up a narrow staircase is the two-story annex, void of most anything. Hard to miagine eight people living in there, silent during daytime hours. I got the same feeling visiting it as I had at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC.
After such an intense experience, I needed to calm down. Cat and I found a bar on a canal that was full of old, drunk people and 80s music. We moved around, stopping to have a few beers until we were, magically, at the Red Light District again. Strange. We sat in a coffee house until two boys a bit younger than us asked if we wanted to have a beer in honor of one´s birthday. Long story short, they were lame and we ditched them.
We spent the last two days in amsterdam doing a lot of wandering, crusing down the canals and admiring the wonderful canal houses, drinking Dutch beer (with a quick trip to the Heineken Brewery), spending an afternoon in an English Language bookstore and drinking more beer. Martin came out for falafel with us one night and cooked the next. Many, many thanks for your hospitality, Martin!

Our trip home was relatively easy compared to the trip to Amsterdam. We caught a taxi back to Cat´s house and, upon leaving her house, I was face to face with the Hermandad de San Bernardo, a religious fraternity that counts bullfighters and the whole fire brigade as members. I was tired of the KKK-looking nazarenos after a short time, but I knew crossing the center of the city with a huge backpack would be impossible. And it was. When I arrived home, I called Kike who merely said,”Pack your suitcase. Tomorrow we´re heading to Asturias.”
And I´m off again.
Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | March 31, 2009

On my way to becoming a Spanish housewife

I have a very strict regime in the afternoon: Classes are conducted at the same time and place every week, showers are blocked out in one-hour time slots and nearly every night ends with beer at La Grande followed by kebabs and mushrooms at Las Golondrinas. When it comes to, which bed do I sleep in? the answer is, five times out of seven, at Kike’s apartment across town.

Last night, Julian and I said goodbye outside the Hotel Occidental and I called Kike. He told me to come to his house for dinner and to let myself in, as he would likely still be at the supermarket. When he returned home, I asked, “What’s for dinner?” and he chucked three plastic bags full of food onto the counter and said, “Your turn!” before lighting up a cigarette and turning on the TV.

I cook about 2% of the time we eat together, so I figured it was finally time I did it. I had our hamburger patties, four buns, 17 slices of packaged cheese, four tomatoes, a pack of bacon, half an onion, a green pepper, a clove of garlic and a cucumber in front of me.

“Gazpacho and hamburgers it is, then,” I remarked, fuming a little because I had slaved over a box of premade brownies the afternoon before. The hamburgers I had down and felt pressured to make well (it is the most American of foods, afterall), and the gazpacho I had seen done a million times. I figured it was my last chance to impress him before he wrote me off as an absolute disaster in the kitchen.

Thankfully, he stood over me and instructed me on what to do, when to add more water. He said, “Ha salido estupendo,” it turned out great. PHEW.

Gazpacho (cold tomato soup)
4 medium sized tomatoes
1 green pepper, deseeded
1 cucumber
1 cove garlic
a lot of olive oil
about half as much vinegar
salt to taste

Cut vegetables and garlic into chunks and throw into a blender
Add a lot of olive oil, half as much vinegar and two large pinches of salt
Add about half a cup of water
Put blender on some kind of setting that will allow you to blend the ingredients, adding more water if necessary
If large chunks of veggies, skin, remain, use a strainer and a blunt mortar to extract the liquid as neccessary
Chill overnight and serve in glasses

Then again, everything in Spain is difficult due to lack of materials, so I don’t think I could ever cook in America. Buen provecho!

Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | March 17, 2009

With so much drama in the SVQ

Last year, my querida Kait Alley left Spain saying, “This GD country has been doing nothing but shitting on my head for the last eight months.” I kind of feel the same way, just about the last two weeks. It’s been nothing but drama and quite a few tears.

Melissa’s cousin (I will call her Prima because she’s a minor) came to stay with us because, at 17, she was pregnant and being beaten by her gypsy boyfriend. The poor girl was scared out of her mind and confused, leading her to be a perfect house guest – quiet and never in the way. The three of us always tried to have someone at home should she need anything, inviting her out with our friends. After five days here in Sevilla, she and Melissa went home to La Linea de la Concepcion to visit their family.

I arrived home on Monday just before 3pm to find Prima in the sitting room, watching the Simpsons. I asked her how she was feeling, commenting on how she even looked more animada, and she told me she had done a lot of thinking and felt refreshed. I took a shower, and when I left the bathroom, I noticed the door to Melissa’s room was slightly ajar. I went into my room to get dressed and Prima appeared shortly after to tell me she was going to go for a walk outside to clear her head. I offered her my keys, which she refused, saying she’d be back within the hour. By 6:15, she hadn’t showed up and Sanne and I reasoned it was a nice day, or she had gotten lost. I went to give class, and by the time I got home at 9:30ish, she still hadn’t shown up. Melissa came home running from class to find that Prima had robbed 263E from her tuition money. Since she had been gone for several hours, she could have been anywhere.

Turns out she’s camping out in her boyfriend’s house, refusing to come out. Some of her family members have seen her and there’s already a kidnapping notice for her because she’s a minor (if I understand correctly). She’s got a record already for drugs and is no longer pregnant, which she found out last week.

The other big news is that Kike has to work in Madrid for two months. Madrid isn’t in some isolated corner of the globe, but it will effectively be a long-distance relationship because we will be, at best, 2.5 hours away from one another. Sure, there’s weekends and cell phones, but I’ve gotten accostumed to having him back in Sevilla and was trying to plan around all that so that I would go home for the majority of the two months he’ll be back in Sevilla. Spanish people are spontaneous. Meeee not so much.

Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | March 10, 2009

Me quejo hoy de….

Today I complain about all the people who poke fun at my accent.

I ran into Christene coming home from a lesson today. We walked a good recorrida from Reina Mercedes to Puente de Los Remedios until I decided I wanted to have a beer. We went to a place called Primera de la Puente that has really good tapas. Christene has the most unaccented Spanish I’ve ever heard – she flat out refused to not pronounce the last syllable and doesn’t omit her s sounds like all Andalusians. I, on the other hand, keep picking up the accent because of my exposure to it. She ordered her glass of wine and I ordered my beer.

“Una cervecita, por favor” was mocked “uhhh-nuhhh ssssiiiirrrrvAAAhhhjjuuuhhh” and not, “oo-nuh ser-vay-ca”. REALLY? I’m going to give you business and you’re going to mock me?!

I get people who tell me my accent is funny although they understand me and what I want to express, and that I do it without mistakes. (Cat, hablas muy bien y te entiendo perfectamente, pero tu accento me hace mucha gracia is as coming as people saying hola to me when I walk in a store). Imagine you learned a language for several years from another non-native speaker and then went to the origin of that language and learned it well only to have it ravaged by living two years in the place where they butcher the language, swallow the last syllable and practically talk with their mouth shut. Your accent would be messed up, wouldn’t it?!

I always tell my students that the most important part of learning another language is trying to be understood. I have to explain things in a million words when I lack just one or make gestures or draw to be understood sometimes. But communication and ultimately getting my point across has always ALWAYS been the aim of any kind of conversation here.

As for the waiter at La Primera, I kept my mouth shut. Being tactful won out over “Do you speak another language, or are you just ignorant? Because I’m learning a third one while you can barely be understood in your own?”

Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | March 10, 2009

China 6: Universiade and The longggg journey home

The city of Harbin is nearly three times the size of Chicago, population-wise at least, so we couldn’t even tell you in what direction the river was from our hotel, nor Beijing for that matter. My dad suggested we get a bird’s eye view of the city from the Dragon Tower, one of the 25 tallest buildings in the world and the telecommunications center for northeast China. After the Berkowitzes and we paid nearly 20 bucks a piece to ride an elevator, climb some rickety stairs and barely see a few blocks ahead of us because of the smog. My dad really didn’t get the view he wanted, but we did give Ellen a little bit of a scare because of her fear of heights. She did a quick lap around the top and went inside to look at the butterfly collection.

The new ice sports complex wasn’t more than a 15 minute walk, but the clear day was mistakingly took for a warm day, and we suffered because of it. The two rink are connected by a long tunnel lines with inflatable Dong Dongs and the hotel in front of them made us pass through security and metal detectors just to make it into the lobby! We had orginially only wanted to stay for the 10-minute practice, but because of a lack of good information, we were told we may not be allowed to enter for the competition. This was at 12:50 p.m. and synchronized skating wasn’t scheduled to start until 9:30 p.m. Instead of taking risks, my family decided to stay and I was thankfully to have brought a book and snacks (we were also told there would be no food, so Nance and Linder brought cheese, crackers, chips and fruit).

Margaret’s team skated third to Roxanne from Moulin Rouge. In the collegiate division, they skate just one program that’s about 7 minutes long and is creative and includes a lot of lifts and stunts. The short program, which is about four minutes and much more technical and precise, consists of cumpulsory moves that a team must complete – big moving circles that cover 75% of the ice, for example, or a backwards pass. Out of the five teams competing, they came in fourth after the short program for not having all of their moves counted. But, you have to give them credit for learning a new program while perfecting another one for national championships. The girls were upset, but I thought it looked cool and everyone stayed on their feet.

The next morning, my dad and I headed to a Confucious Temple in town. It’s on a pedestrian street, and the first thing I noticed was that the people were actually fat. Not fat in comparison to Americans, but fat in comparison to the other Chinese we’d seen. The temple was masked by a heavy cloud of incense, as people used giant pits to burn inscense in paper bags while saying prayers to giants Buddhas placed all over the complex, which is bigggg. In the middle, there’s a giant golden guy and people left food offerings at his feet. The buildings that ring around him have the traditional tiers and dragon riding kings, which made me feel like we’d escaped the city. Then, upon leaving, we saw a monk wearing crocs and talking on a cell phone. And people think China is cut off to the rest of the world!

We met Helen and Larry for an early dinner at the Russian restaurant we’d eaten at a few days before, where I prdered the exact same thing, and headed to the rink for the end of ladies free skate. We sat much closer this time, so we could see every finger on the skaters’ hands as they landed jumps and spun out of spins. For the long skate, the girls skated second, after Switzerland. They had these AWFUL pepto bismal pink dresses and danced to Mamma Mia! and it was a fun program. The hockey team came to cheer them on and many of the spectators behind us took flags to participate. Margaret didn’t skate this program, but she did get on the ice to pick up sequins that had fallen. The finished fourth behind Sweden, Finland and Russia, despite not being the senior team. They were disappointed not to medal, but just recently won the National title at the nationwide collegiate competition. I was expecially proud of Margaret because she was cut from the team her sophmore year and won a spot back on the team by dedicating a lot of time to working out and passing skating tests.

Our wakeup call the following morning was 4:30 a.m., and it was even colder than we could have imagined. One of the other dads was nice enough to preorder breakfast for us, so we had fruit and dim sum and sausages and thermoses of coffee. The Harbin airport is goofy city. There was hardly anything written in English, so we couldn’t figure out which ticketing counter belonged to our flight back to Beijing and ended up being pushed to the end of the line with a bunch of other athletes. The security checks were seperated into three parts – ticket and ID, bags and finally body searches. This wasted enough time to get us to the gate with just 2o minutes to boarding.

Once in Beijing, we were met at the gate by an army of Harbin Universiade achetes. I had a four hour layover and wanted to stay with my family for a little while before heading out, but the volunteers practically pulled me away from them to get the bus to another terminal. They all seemed a little disorientated, so I kept getting handed off from one to another. Finally, I found myself with a tall, skinny boy and another girl. They offered to carry all of my bags, convinced I was an athlete despite my objections. They rode the bus with me even though I assured them it wasn’t necessary and I could get there on my own. The queue at Air France was long, so I once again told them they could leave, but they instead checked me in at the Business Class counter and tried to upgrade my seat before accompanying me all the way to the gate.

The 10.5 hour flight passed without sleep, so by the time I got to Paris, changed terminals, had my passport stamped assuring I got into the EU (at which point I realized my French lessons were COMPLETELY worthless because I couldn’t tell the man, “J’habite dans l’Espagne” when he asked why I was going to Spain), then going through security again and having a man tell me our government didn’t spend money properly, I realized I was completely wiped. I could barely keep my eyes open waiting and listening to music, so I grabbed the cookbook my sister gave me. I got on a shuttle to the plane and started hearing Spanish. FINALLY a language I understand and can express myself in! I recognized one of the other passengers from the airport in Beijing and smiled weakly, still overcome by my heavy eyelids and the fact that I’d been up well over 20 hours. He was speaking on his mobile and said, “There’s a girl here coming from Beijing, too. I think she’s foreign because she’s reading a book in English about Spain. She must be going to Spain four tourism purposes.” So I broke out some Spanish slang to tell him I was returning to my curro, or work, in Sevilla.

We talked for a bit (I think his name was Jorge? I was so asleep at that point I could barely string a few sentences together!) and I wished him a good trip. Turns out he was sitting right next to me. Que casualidad, right? We talked for the whole trip before he told me, “Tienes cara de sueno” – you look tired. You think? Once we arrived in Barajas, he offered to accompany me by metro because he lives a stop away from the bus station. I accepted and grabbed my bag from the luggage claim. As we were leaving, a study abroad student chased me down and said, I think you have my bag. I apologized and said mine was the same size and color and I had completely neglected to read the tag. He said, “I asked if there was another big, blue backpack that had arrived and they said no.” AWESOME. It’s 24 hours after I left Harbin and I have no bag and a six-hour bus ride to endure before getting to my bed.

Jorge helped me with the baggage claim simply because I was too tired to speak. My cell phone needs to be unlocked every time it’s switched on by a four-digit pin, but it had somehow become locked while in China and I had to enter a barcode used to activate the card. So when she asked for the phone number so the airline could deliver my bag (which was chilling out in Paris still), I tried to give her my home line. I of course couldn’t remember it, nor did it do any good to give her Kike’s number since he was in Somalia. I started crying out of exhaustion and frustration. The good news was my bag had been located and I had a light load to take on the metro, which has a transfer. By the time I got on the overnight bus from Mendez Alvaro a few hours later, I passed out, only waking up in Ecija, a mere hour from Sevilla.

I have never been happy to get back to Spain. The more I travel and the more of the world I see, the more I feel at home in Sevilla and the more I like even the most bothersome things. I’ll put up with beauracracy and moscas if it means I can drink beer at 11 am every day and get to swear at my kids when I’m frustrated!

For pictures of China and the rest of the year, check out .

Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | March 9, 2009

China 5: Harbin pre-Universiade

I will tell you that, more or less, all fast food worldwide tastes the same. And then KFC creates the spicy chicken breakfast sandwich and I find myself passing the one KFC in Sevilla reminding myself about it. We hopped on a plane to Harbin, a town two hours south of the Russian border, a town known for its cold tempratures, fashion and ice sculpture festival. Yes, ice sculpture festival.

I was warned about the Chinese being pushy, but I witnessed it first-hand when the plane landed. We were seated near the back in a nearly empty plane. Instead of waiting for use to grab our luggage from the overhead compartments, someone went careeeeening past us, sending Linder toppling over into her seat. Que moro tienen. We were welcomed to an airport in the middle of an ice field by life-sized caricatures of a snowflake. This would be Dong Dong, the mascot of the Winter Universiade. Apparently my sister and her synchronized skating team at Miami of Ohio are pretty big deals because this competition attracts full time university students from all over the world (including Borat’s home country of Kazhakstan!) The students are treated like Olympic athletes – they live and eat at an athelte’s village, have interpreters and security badges, and are often asked to pose for photos.

We took a taxi to the center of town too a big, fancy, five-star hotel. The team mom, Janine, was waiting for us with all of our tickets and plans and schedules for the next few days. The woman is una puta macina!! (a machine) We joined some of the other team parents for lunch at a restaurant nearby. A concierge insisted he take us so he could translate, as this place isn’t so touristy and we would have a hard time understanding. There were two high schoolers with us who asked, “Do they have sweet and sour chicken on the menu?” only to find out that they had pigs ears and other strange looking things. By now, we were pros with chopsticks and our stomachs had adjusted to weird foods prepared under questionable hygeine, so we drove our chopsticks into some beef dishes and spicy prawns.

Our hotel is located next to a new mall known for its fashion. We were disappointed times ten to find Hello Kitty stores cozied up to a wannabe Starbucks and an appliances store, but the basement supermarket was definetely a trip. We got pushed into the Super-Walmart like store that had everything-even free sample! The candy aisle featured corn flavored soft candy, and there were a few aisles dedicated to noodles that just required hot water. A sandbox full of rice stood in front of the checkout lines. I’m used to seeing supermarkets dead after the meal time started, but you could barely steer a cart through this place! The kids were snapping pictures because they’ve never seen anyone chopping fish heads off and the guts spilling out, nor to watch a woman boil pig feet or makes an omelette right in front of you. There were all kinds of strange foods for sale, and in the international aisle, I was not shocked to find just olive oil from Spain.

We had a rest, which consisted of my dad and I propping ourselves up on the silk blankets and watching the National Geographic Channel while we ate some cookies we found at the supermarket. We also picked up a few beers because Harbin is known for its beer culture, as well. The city welcome the first beer factory to Harbin in 1900, and suprisingly the beer is better warm! Janine made a reservation for us at a Russian restaurant down the street. Even at 5 p.m. the place had live music – a tall, blonde Russian woman and a shorter man clad in traditional clothes kicking his legs in time with the music. Rose and I split borsch and chicken stuffed with grapes in a cream sauce and I had some Russian beer. It was AMAZING to not eat Chinese food for the first time in a week! Because of our fears of sanitation and some sensitive tummies, we tried not to go too wacko with the foods.

The following morning, after getting things settled with the schedules regarding practice and competition, my parents, Linder and I took a cab to Central Street, a long strip of Russian tea shops, American fashion stores and ice sculptures. I swear, if it weren’t for all of the Chinese characters on the buildings and all the Asiatic people, this city could look European! There is baroque architecture up and down the street, orthodoz turrets piercing the sky and Russian letter accompanying the characters. Snow began falling, making the weather outside nearly unbearable by the time we reached the Soagua river, marked by an odd-looking monument to the hundreds who died when the banks flooded in the 50s or something.

Harbin’s always featured for its ice and snow festivals, which consist of three parks – two of ice sculptures and one of snow. The Children’s Park is located right off of Center Street and is a couple of acres of castles, pirate ships and Disney characters. The park was closed, so my mom walked into the first doorway she saw to try and get warm and ended up in a pet shop. It was the ODDEST place I have ever been, and thankfully it wasn’t a puppy mill. There were plants next to dog booties, dozens of turtles piled into a single tank and grain. It was like a Chinese Farm and Fleet.

Nance and Linder headed for home, so my dad and I stopped to have a coffee at a Russian Restaurant to warm up. We sat in the plush booths for two hours and our coffee stretched into beers and eventually onion rings and a club sandwich to split. We could watch the entrance gate from the window next to our table, so as soon as the giant ferris wheel started turning, we bought our tickets for 150RMB and went into the park. The fence was made of ice with Mickey Mouse ears, and recreations of famous Disney movies and sets were all over – Cars from Cars, a few castles, spaceships from Toy Story, the pirate ship from Pirates of the Carribean, Aladdin’s castle, lifesize Shreks, etc. Everything was carved from ice that’s carved from the river – huge blocks that are worked on by artists from all over the year. My dad and I took an elevator to the top of one of the castles and pushed each other down ice slides (probably not smart or safe) and ended up with snow-covered butts and then climbed a pagoda when the lights began to turn on. Pink, blue, green and gold lights are frozen into each of the sculptures and at 5pm they began to light up, starting at one end of the park and spreading to another. Aladdin’s castle glowed a golden blue, the lighthouse on the pond became a pink beacon. Children suddenly appreared from the trees for all I know, and they were running through the park carrying fruit kebabs.

We had a meeting with the girls FINALLY back at the hotel at 6:00, so my dad and I tried to hail a cab. Most people sped off upon seeing us, and the cabbie who picked us up picked up another guy two blocks away! Because it was rush hour, we were told cabbies often pick up several people in more or less the same direction. What was even stranger that he started screaming and then drove onto the sidewalk and proceeded to speed past the traffic until the next traffic light! It was great to see Margaret, who gave me the Gwenyth Paltrow Spain cookbook with made me crave Spanish food. I ordered gazpacho off the menu that night for dinner while we caught up with Margaret, who told us all about life in the village and the crazy dude from the US Hockey team who followed around all of the synchro girls. Hay gente pa todo.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel, the same fried noodles and dumplings we’d been eating for over a week. My dad and I bought cookies and Sprite for Margaret, who wasn’t staying in a five-star hotel and had only eaten bread and fried rice since arriving. Janine arranged for us to take a tour of the city with an interpreter who I didn’t understand (this, after listening to pueblo kids for three semesters). We picked up the skaters at the village and Margaret and I sat chattering more than our mother does while the interpreter Cindy dronnnned on. Our first stop was at St. Sofia church, a Russian Orthodox, brown brick church with green turrets surrounded by a plaza. There was Universiade memorabilia all over the place and people snapping pictures of 20 girls wearing the same red jacket (known to them as snuggies or elmos). The church is breathtaking on the outside, but the inside has a souvenir stand and its all falling apart inside. I really love old, abused objects, but this place just looked like crap. A choir sang songs like Santa Lucia in Chinese and wore these obnoxious pink dresses, which I later came to realize were the same as my sister’s long program dresses.

We drove across the city to a recreational area called Sun Island Park. The giant snowsculpture park dominates the lake and hills that make up sun island, featuring reindeer and Santa Clauses to pay homage to Finland, as well as the recreation of a Bird’s Nest, a mountain dominated Dong Dong and his female counterpart, Dong Dong. There were giant lions, mountable pigs and tractors (have to represent Iowa) and dozens of representations of oxes. The city had experienced a heat wave a few weeks before, so half of the statues looked like hoodlums had knocked off the arms or Santa or the snouts of the reindeer. Afterwards we had dinner at a famous dumpling retsurant that Margaret’s coach wanted to go to. I expected this place to have dumplings de puta madre, but they gave us soy bean crazy things, tripe and another assortment of weird things. I have no idea what I put into my mouth, but I didn’t like most of it. I had to wash it down with coke, which I also don’t like much.

I was the msot excited to see the Ice Sculptures on a bigger scale than the one my dad and I had seen the day before, called the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. I was blown away by this place. The west end of Sun Island practically glows from the arena, which is about as big as three football fields. The whole thing is surrounded by a wall of ice and a decorated main gate, like the portada de la Feria here in Sevilla. Inside, with only a time of 30 minutes allowed because of the cold, my sister and I RAN around the whole park my dad caught us in his viewfinder and said something along the lines of, “There go the girls; nice to see them enjoying the festival.” I would have loved to get better pictures of the miniature temples and pagodas, the bright green Dong Dongs or the Giant Peaceful Buddha. In years past, the festival has been more extensive and they’ve collaborated with other countries to recreate famous landmarks. Margaret paid some of the University’s money to take our pictures with snow foxes, who were so afraid of the heat lamps they were put under. If they didn’t grow up to be so ferocious, I might have tried to keep one!

Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | March 7, 2009


As expected, I returned from bitterly cold Siberia to a week of rain in Spain. This year has been unusually wet, as my banker always reminds me when I take my check in at the beginning of each month. That´s always followed with, “At least it´s not cold like Chicago!”

But yesterday we had sunshine. The warm, golden kind that appears and send everyone out looking for it in the streets. After making lunch for me and the Keeks, I hopped on a bike towards Puerta del Osario and my friend Soledad´s house. I got to wear my new fake ray bans that Felisabel called “veranal” – summery, and passed people driving with the windows down and the music up. At one stoplight, one of the Africans who sells packets of tissue was grooving as he tried to unload them. I ran into my dear friend Lindsay with her parents, as running into unexpected friends is one of the things I love most about living in a city this size.

Soledad used to live in my neighborhood, so we saw one another a lot more back then. Her new apartment is gorgeous – the perfect size with a lot of character and broken things. She´s got two roommates – one makes jewelry and the other is a musician – who are just like Soledad, artsy and connected. She took me to a bar in Plaza de la Encarnación called Los Alcazares. It was merienda time, so families had gathered for a coffee and a donut or waffle. The sunlight streamed through the windows on the old advertisements for sherry wine and flamenco dresses, the art deco ones that I love so much. We sat and watched the people strem in and out, and everytime the door opened, we were blinded by the sun even though we sat with facing the bar with no windows above it.

Sole went home and I walked around her neighborhood, admiring the names of the streets like Saffron and Lost Boy. I love Triana madly, but I need to live in this neighborhood with artsy people on a street called Ave Maria. It was now about 7:30 pm and I had to watch where I was going because all of the old ladies in Seville were out for their paseo, an age-old tradition where people get dressed up and walk around practiced all over Spain. I thought about my first paseo in Valladolid with my señora when she told me that flip flops were not suitable unless I was at the beach (I refuse to wear flip flops unless I´m at the beach or walking inside my own house now). Kids botteloned in the plazas tucked off the main streets and the chesnut vendor outside of Zara in La Campana had been replaced by a manifestaton for a missing teenager.

Springtime gets me excited for short sleeves and having drinks outside on the river and going to the beach, but also for Feria. A week where I wear a flamenco dress and drink sherry and dance Sevillanas. I stopped into a few stores to get some color inspiration for my complementos, or accessories. Women pile fake flowers and decorated combs into their hair, put on a shawl over their flamenco dress and slick back their hair. I watched the mother and aunt of a small girl with blond curls reject red fake flower after red fake flower until they found one the size of the little girls head. She pulled on the small plastic braclets and said, “La gitana!” I chickened out, unable to decide whether I should have lime green or turqoise and decided to enlist the help of my friend Susana.

Later that night, we had dinner at Las Golondrinas, a bar where we nearly always end up after beers at La Grande and before a copa at Java. We did the usual – beers around the table and punta-pinchi-chipi-champi: some part of the pig salted and eaten with bread, a pork kebab, small calamaris and mushroom heads sauteed and served with a mint sauce. My creep-o landlord walked by, amazed that I didn´t always wear pajamas and have my hair up, and commented on that very fact (he comes at like 9am on Fridays, what does he expect?) We stood outside on a perfect night and drank beers. The things I love about this place are so simple.

Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | March 5, 2009

Beijing 4: Temple of Heaven, Tianamen Square and Hutong tour

Our last day in Beijing started just as early as the others, even though we took a van down Wafujing Jie to the Temple of Heaven. Dad went out to get breakfast and found just McDonalds. Signs around the city advertise value meals for the equivalent of about $2.80!! My dad got breakfast for four – coffee, hasbrowns and a sausage biscuit – for less than $10, and it was easily the worst food we had the whole time in Beijing (and I love McD breakfast!). Sadly, our sweet little Mr. Tian could not drive us, as Jack explained, because Beijing traffic laws dictate that you can’t have your registered car on the road more than five days in a week. How this is inforced, he couldn’t tell us, so he hired another driver who was about his age.

The roads were packed, even at 9am. We first went back to the Silk Market so my mom and Linda could finish the end of their shopping, but we had Jack run around and bargain for us. Thankfully, we were some of the only people in the mall and did a goopd job. According to Chinese tradition, you must make the first sale of the day in order to have a good sales day. I got gifts for cheaaaaapppp! And we didn´t lose our heads with all of the people running after us practically shoving the goods into our hands.

The Temple of Heaven is a series of small temples and a large, circular one to which emporers used to pray for good harvests once a year. Like all great cities, the center of Beijing was built on an axis that starts at the temple of Heaven and runs through Tianamen Square to the Forbidden City and beyond. We entered the park surrounding the buildings, all built on the axis, from the west gate. Snow had, again, fallen in a light dust, but people were outside exercising and playing a game that was like hackey sack, only with a shuttlecock. And, in a cement jungle, this was one of the only natural places we saw. This is where the doggies were hiding!

We went to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a circular building at the southern part of the park that´s preceeded by an acoustics wall and a round, granite altar. The decoration mirrored that of the Forbiddhen City – golds, reds, jades and royal blues. Walking along the axis back north, we passed a series of guards marching, half of them dressed in plainclothes. Their discipline is astounding. The Temple of the Great Harvest, also cylindrical but with three tiers, is covered in paintings and embellishments on the inside to match its grandeur from the outside. The street sweepers were doing their jobs, making small mounds of snow qith equal distances. Jack told us that the characters on the front meant “good Harvest Year”

Jack and the nameless driver took us to Tiananmen Square, the largest public, open air square in the world. My mom remembers watching Mao preside over miltary parades from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, so she just about flipped out as we pulled up. Jack lead us through the underground security points, where we had to put our bags through a scanner and get the wand passed over us. The day was icky and gray and the snow had begun to turn to slush. I got all crabby because my boots soaked through and I hate my feet being wet. We came into the sqaure at the southern edge, meeting a large tower with the old train station behind it. Also in the square are museums to the history of the PRC and famous, influential people, as well as an enormous mausoleum that dominates the center. My mom ignored mine and Jack´s insistence that taking pictures with the soldiers staffed all around the plaza was illegal.

Jack lives close to the square, so he took us to one of his favorite restaurants. We were the only westerners in their. We sat at a round table with a large, glass wheel in the center upon which the food was served. Jack ordered us a bucket (literraly a bucket) of fried rice, fried noodles, pork and chicken dishes, spicy shrimp and other delicious stuff that we gladly snarfed down. We watched the place fill up and I had an eyeshot to the tanks where people picked out their lunch. We ate for about $5 a head with a drink. I was still clumsy with chopsticks at this point, even after several days in China.

I had been most keen on seeing the hutongs, traditional alleys that have survived amidst China´s massive growth. These neighborhood are dreary and sandwiched between skyscrapers and shopping malls. Jack showed us around one that was listed in my dad´s book as very up and coming. It was hip, crowded and dilapidated. Bars and boutiques stood next to traditional homes. Bikes crossed with cars and trams. I saw a man selling sweet potatoes on the street to people as their cars passed his little stand, which consisted of a grill on wheels. There were fabric shops next to tea houses, luxury hotels next to shacks. It was an interesting juxtaposition, mirroring that of China´s uneven expansion. Thankfully, the government has taken steps to ensure that these neighborhoods be saved to preserve some of the cultural impact they´ve had.
After a tea ceremony demonstration that had me so desperate to peepee that I used a squatty potty (aka a hole in the ground), we headed back to the hotel to pack before meeting the Berkowitzes, the parents of one of Margaret´s roommates, for dinner. We went to the same restaurant as lunch, whch greatly excited Jack. The whole day got us wiped out, and we needed to be at the airport at 5:30 am for the flight to Harbin the next day.

Posted by: Cat of Sunshine and Siestas | February 28, 2009

Beijing 3: The Great Wall at Badaling and The Ming Tombs

Mr. Xian picked us up early to take us to the Ming Tombs, a necropolis where 13 of the 16 emporers from the dynasty are buried. My father talked about these huge animal statues and how elaborate all the temples were…which led to my extreme disappointment. Jack told us there were two tombs – one was bigger and more interesting, he said. We were still technically in Beijing because the city buses were running to the periphery parts of the city. we were in the middle of a big valley and all of the sudden pulled into a parking lot. It had snowed again, so we were once more greeted by the sweepers and a snowy park. The park was dominated by an enormous red tower and flanked by trees. Yeah, that was about it. we had to descend About 150 feet into the tombs where we were pushed like cattle through five rooms. We saw replicas of the small red coffins and thrones, which were littered with money. Like many cultures, Chinese believe that ancestors must be given things like food and money to take with them to the next life. We left in about 25 minutes.

From there, Jack took us to a jade factory. Once again we were told, don´t buy here! but that didn´t stop Nancy and Linder for bargaining the shit out of it. Jack bought us lunch in the dining hall of the store – spicy chicken with peanuts, vegetables, fried pork, egg drop soup. By now, it was starting to warm up so the weather was getting hazy. As we drove on the outskirts of town to Badaling, the touristy part of the Great Wall, we could barely see the tops of the mountains and the remains of the wall looked just like the wall between two farms, despite the Wall rising to 25 feet in some sections. Originally built over centuries to keep out the Mongols from the north, the wall has been reduced in some areas to mere feet because of erosion, sandstorms and vandalism. Badaling is among one of the preserved spots, bringing in a lot of tourists and jsut as many people seeling postcards, stamps and other souvenirs.

There were stalls and ropes like an amusement park leading to the main gate. The wall has been around for eons, so many of the steps were slick and the snow added an extra danger. The kilometer or so we walked was full of people, and even though the views of the surrounding mountains were pretty, the fog or contamination made taking good pictures of the landscape nearly impossible. Square watchtowers rise every couple hundred yards. My dad and I climbed to a high watchtower, slipping a few times and me taking a spill halfway up. It was impressive to imagine the sheer manpower that it took to build something 4,000 miles long with limited technology.

Nancy wanted to see how silk was made, so we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find her some silk stores. At each, we learned the life cycle of the silk worm, how silk is stretched and dried and how a silk duvet is made before the sales pith came. I would have liked to buy one. I was getting really sick of shopping by that point, so I sat near the escalator and waited while contemplating buying Kike a silk robe.

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