Wednesday, April 27, 2011

how does one escape being inundated by depleting, torturous thoughts?

Yes, I know... I haven't posted the last bit of commentary on my last days in Barcelona. Truth be told, I just can't do it. I am feeling depleted. Not because my trip is over. Not because I am back at work again. I am deeply affected by the events that seem to be going on everywhere I turn.

People are dying all over the world. I know that this has been going on since the year, Dot. But, it seems to be incredibly excessive to me right now. One could argue that it's affecting me because I'm paying attention more than before. Perhaps. I also think that being physically closer to the events, by being in Europe for six weeks, made me feel it in a stronger way.

Egypt, Japan, Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia, Syria, the Gaza Strip...
Natural disasters in South East Asia, barely mentioned on the news...
More lives lost...

Refugees being treated like criminals in the country of my birth! A Labor government taking the stance of what used to be considered a Liberal one, and still insisting on putting unreasonable restrictions on desperate people striving for a better life in our lucky country.

Still, all we hear from our dear Coalition leader is "Stop the boats" - it truly makes me sick, and ashamed to call myself an Australian.

But, where is it better?

I have to admit something. My recent sojourn in Spain made me realise how fortunate we are in Australia. Spain, not even considered to be a third-world country by any stretch of the imagination, is far worse off than Australia. Our methods here, our channels of support, medical, legal, education... eveything is much better here - the next time I feel like complaining about something, I'll definitely be thinking twice about doing so.

So, what to do? How can someone like me make a difference in this world? The problems are just too big.

Considering what I believe in - that there is no God, that we only have one shot in this world, that there is no afterlife - I find myself debating about the best course of action to take. I am not interested in fame or fortune. I am merely interested in making the lives of others better. Is that a reasonable thing to ask? I am starting to wonder.

I am beginning to think that the best way to start would be to work in my own backyard, so to speak. Our human rights record here in Australia leaves a lot to be desired. Aboriginals are still treated poorly. So are the foreigners seeking refuge in our great country. And don't get me started on how much I hate seeing our natural resources being abused, and sold to the Chinese. All for the sake of the almighty dollar. So much for wanting to do something about climate change.

Part of me thinks that I should take the approach of a lot of people in this world: "Me first. That's the most important." But, this voice in my head is growing more and more distant. After losing my house, my security, in effect, the things that used to matter and be a priority to me, are not so important anymore. I feel free to do something about these problems I witness at every turn. I have no children to take care of. I have no home to pay off and maintain. I have no partner to elevate and administer to his needs before my own. It's just me. Frankly, I don't think I have the right to complain about anything in my life. Not when there are so many suffering in this world.

It's time to look at options and investigate channels...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

la rambla...

A bustling street that stretches for approximately one kilometre in the heart of Barcelona. I arrived here yesterday, and it is just as I remember it, if not busier. I specifically requested a hotel room on La Rambla so I could watch the people with ease.

Day and night on La Rambla is a feast for the senses. There's always something to see, something to smell, something to hear. There are people from all over the world here, tourists and natives alike. However, the native Barcelonians are easy to spot, as they are the most vivacious, eager to please, entertain, and share with others what Barcelona means to them.

When starting the camino on La Rambla, you are immediately greeted by the sights of street performers. People who take the time to fully dress up as the character/personality of their choice, with elaborate make-up, to sit or stand for endless hours, mostly motionless, until one puts a coin in their receptacle - then they come to life.

There are some good ones, some bad, and some, quite pointless. There's a guy with his freakish head protruding from a table, accompanied by two other heads of a similar appearance, which he controls. He squeaks at you when you pass, appealing to you to come closer. He smiles, he leers, trying to flirt with you. When you get close enough, he scares you by lunging forward, or animating the heads of his two accomplices. He squeaks again, and even though no words are ever spoken, you completely understand what he wants... he wants money for his troubles. Some pay. Those who don't are squeaked at harshly and ridiculed in front of his audience. He's very popular... and highly entertaining.

Then, there's the guy in black - he looks like a cross between Rob Zombie, and Gene Simmons, except with more black on his face. Very impressive detail in his costume and make-up. He scares passers-by constantly. If you provide him with money, he'll pose for a photo with you. As his sponsors start to stand next him to prepare to have their photo taken, he grabs them, and turns their head in the way he'd like them to pose, spreads his black, bat wings and makes a monstrous pose, as if he were some vulture capturing his carrion in his talons for sustenance.

Then, there's Robot Man. Another hugely elaborate outfit, silver paint on his face, buttons and flashing lights all over his body. His gestures are robotic, he waves, he dances, he salutes, he shakes your hand, he beeps at you in approval when you drop a coin for him. He also likes to scare passers-by, particularly the females. He flirts too, mechanically so.

There's a dead Cleopatra, in Ancient Egyptian garb, but all in black. She sleeps, eyes closed, her fingers around an asp. Pay her and she'll wake from her coma, smile, caress you, and pose for pictures. When that's all over, she returns to her blissful state.

There's a hilarious baby girl in a pram. She squeaks, and demands money, having tantrums if you ignore her. Gurgling and gargling happily if you pay her. She throws her rattle at you if you pass by and not attend to her. She squeaks too, calling you over, demanding your attention.

So many performers, one could spend hours just watching each one for at least 10 minutes. So, you see, it may stretch for only a kilometre, but it takes a very long time to complete the distance, as there's so much to see and do.

Regular-looking people will surprise you by spontaneously bursting into song or performing a whole circus act, amassing a crowd almost instantaneously. One never knows what to expect on La Rambla. There's food everywhere, flower-sellers, illustrators who'll sketch a characterisation of you if you pose for a short amount of time. Some of the cafes and restuarants will set up chairs and tables along the sides of the street with waiters claiming to have the best sangria in Spain to accompany the best paella. It's a full-on fiesta, 24/7.

Then, there are the beggars and the not-so-well-to-do. Whilst pausing for a drink of water to re-hydrate in the unexpected heat I have been experiencing in Barcelona, I watched a group of black men, of African origin, I suspect, set up their wares. Drop-cloths were laid out on the ground, with rows and rows of sunglasses and handbags of various shapes and sizes. Attached to the corners of these drop-cloths were short ropes, which were carefully wound around the wrists of each vendor.

I couldn't help noticing this, and wondered what these ropes were for. I soon found out. After a few minutes of trying to entice potential buyers, a head would raise, on alert. It reminded me of a deer or a rabbit that suddenly sensed danger approaching. In a flash, the ropes were tugged at, the entire shop-front would disappear in a small bundle, and the vendor would hurriedly walk away before the police arrived.

Ahhh... illegals trying to survive on a few euros here and there. It made me sad to watch this going on. About ten minutes later, after the police had been and gone, the Africans returned, setting up their wares again.

When on the Rambla, you manage to mostly ignore the beggars, as there are so many people around to distract them from targetting you. The smarter ones approach you when you're queueing to enter a popular tourist attraction like a museum. You can't escape them there.

Yesterday morning, I was sitting at a bus stop, waiting for a Tourist information booth to open, and a small woman wearing a scarf and slippers approached me. She was hunched over, and held out a plastic cup to beg for a coin. She nodded at me softly, the expression on her face was heart-wrenching. She might have been an extremely good actress, but she gave me the impression that she had absolutely nothing in this world, and that a euro would have made the world of difference to her.

I could help myself. I gave all the coins I had, which amounted to about 4 euros. Her nodding grew more animated, she seemed so grateful for my paltry offering. She grabbed my hand and started to kiss it profusely, thanking me over and over again. This took me aback - I wasn't expecting such a reaction - something that seemed so meagre to me apparently meant the world to her. I stopped her kissing my hand gently, rubbed her consolingly on the arm and said the only thing I knew she would understand. "God bless you." I smiled, nodded as if it was ok, and wished her well. I watched as she wandered off slowly... to where? I have no idea. But that's just it - I don't know what goes on in her world, I can only imagine. What I imagine saddens me deeply and makes me feel so powerless in such a big world.

Here I was, queueing to get some tickets to a Spanish guitar show at the Palau Musica in Barcelona, ready to pay my 40 euros, and there was this slight old woman, immensely grateful for a few euros I had thrown into her plastic cup. It's these times that I pause for more profound thought and examination of my circumstances. Perhaps I should start to document such ponderings. I'm sure that it would greatly exceed one of my brief blog-posts.

I leave for Madrid on Friday, then on to Dubai and Melbourne. Before then, I have so much to see and do. La Sagrada Familia, Salvador Dali's house in Figueres, the Joan Miro and Picasso galleries, Parque Guell, La Pedrera, concerts and more Rambla watching is on the cards. I may post again one last time before leaving, or I may write a final post on the rest of my Barcelona experience when I return home. Time will tell.

Hasta la vista mis amigos!



Friday, April 8, 2011

pinchos... a wonderful way to live...

I have discovered the eating tradition in San Sebastian which I have not seen in any other part of Spain so far. Pinchos. There are taverns everywhere in the Parte Vieja (Old Part) of the city. These open late morning, and stay open until late into the night. Around lunch-time through to early evening, after a hard day of shopping at all the markets and stores to be found throughout the Parte Vieja, you can stop at one of these taverns to have a few pinchos with a cerveza or a copa (cup) of sangria. Ahhh... this is the life...

Anyone who's been out for a meal with me will know that most of the time I am unable to finish my meal, unless I eat really slowly and drink lots to wash it down. I have often complained about the large size of some of the meals in Australia. I will plead with the friend accompanying me to finish my meal for me, as I cannot bear to leave food on the plate when I leave the table.

Now, in San Sebastian, I don't have to do that. Picture this... you walk into a tavern, and you are greeted with plates and plates of little serves of food. You choose what you want to eat, put it on your plate, and pay accordingly. You can eat whilst standing, if you're on the go and just want some sustenance to see you through the day, or can sit at a table and make a small meal of it, and socialise, drink, people-watch.

They are like tapas, but they aren't cooked at the back of the restaurant while you wait with a drink, olives and bread. They could also be compared to hors d'oeuvres, but not that small. A typical pincho I have found available on the bar during the last two days? A slice of French stick-style bread, topped with crab in a white sauce, and garnished with a prawn-tail. Heaven!

Of course, there's more than that to choose from. However, in San Sebastian, because it's on the coast, there are a lot of pinchos with fish, and, of course, the favourite throughout Spain, jamon cerrano (smoked ham). Imagine walking through a city, or better still, having a short lunch break? And being able to stop quickly and have a bite to eat... literally? I have always hesitated to even get lunch during a work day because of lack of time to eat at my pace, as well as the size of the meal I am offered. I have often been known to sit at my desk whilst working, eating a lunch over an hour or so, as half an hour doesn't let me finish my meal in time. Most of the time, I skip lunch for this reason.

Pinchos are particularly a Basque tradition. So, I imagine that these snack offerings are available throughout the north of Spain, as this is the Basque region. I have found San Sebastian even more fascinating for this reason. After weeks of being in this beautiful country, and becoming used to hearing Spanish spoken around me most of the time, I am now hearing people around me speak in Basque... something which I just cannot understand a word of.

Of course, the locals speak both languages... for the tourists and, because they have not managed to claim their independence from Spain, and are still part of it. Hence, the existence of politically-motivated groups such as ETA. To illustrate my point, we were talking to a taxi driver earlier today who told us that he was born in San Sebastian. He also told us that when he was little, he wasn't allowed to speak or write in Basque at school. It was banned. Spain was determined to control these people and turn them into proper Spaniards.

However, today, things are better. Signs everywhere around San Sebastian are in both Basque and Spanish. Most of the shops and taverns in the Parte Vieja of the city have Basque names. It makes it harder for me, as an English speaker, but it's welcomed... I no longer have to rely so much on translations being provided to me by my mother. She doesn't know what the Basque people are saying either. It's liberating, in a weird way.

Before I sign off, there's one thing that has been constant throughout this trip. I have become even more aware of how unimportant and almost irrelevant I am in this world. I am one person of how many? All of use speak different languages, even within our own countries.

I watch the people around me in Spain... each one of them with their own joys, worries, goals, hopes and dreams. And yet, I know nothing of their lives. However, I see a person's face light up when I ask about them, rather than just the regular tourist-type question: where is this? where is that? etc. They seem really pleased when they know that someone they don't know is taking an interest in them personally. From my perspective, I am trying to grab that slice of a culture I am still mostly unfamiliar with. So, it becomes a transaction of mutual advantage - I hope.

This also makes me wonder more and more... with all the problems that are currently going on in the world, and have throughout history, why are we not all taking the time to be more interested in one another? Another culture, another person, another tradition, another history? We seem to talk about these all, mostly meaninglessly... almost like a reportage. Why are most of us not doing more to find out about the other? Some of us are - and those are the people I gravitate towards the most. But for most of us... are we hopelessly distracted by life? The everyday, the responsibilities, the humdrum? If one is able to break free from that, perhaps we can get closer to what we all aspire to attain... true happiness? Or are we ultimately seeking something else? A reason?

Just throwing out some thoughts I have been grappling with during my time in Spain. Along with many others throughout the existence of man.

Tomorrow, Barcelona! I have been really been looking forward to this! I plan to culture myself to death in Barcelona! I hope it's still as vibrant and interesting a city as I remember! Rest, assured that I'll keep you posted.

Hasta la vista mis amigos!



am i crazy? i want to buy a flat in san sebastian...

Well, here I am, visiting San Sebastian for the second time in my life. I am blown away by this place. So much so, I have sent some of my closest friends a picture I took of the harbour with my mobile phone. I can't wait to see my phone bill when I get back.

Google has some wonderful pictures of this magnificent place - perhaps you'll agree with my feelings about its beauty and appeal?

I picture myself here, in a little one-bedroom piso (apartment) opposite the Playa de la Concha, admiring the view of the bay with its little Isla de Santa Clara in the middle. Perhaps, spending my time contemplating and writing in my spare time.

I see a lot of English schools around San Sebastian. Perhaps they'd like an Australian English teacher? My curiosity got the better of me... I decided to pay a visit to an Immobiliaria, a real estate agent. I asked him if it was possible to buy property here without being a Spanish citizen. Oh dear... it's not necessary to be a citizen. I persisted with my questions.

Prices, best locations for breath-taking views, buildings with lifts... Interest rates here? A pro: 1.5% - my jaw dropped. A con: 1 in 5 Spaniards are unemployed at present. Portugal, its neighbour, just asked the EU for a financial bail-out, as it hasn't been able to cope since the world's GFC. There is speculation here that Spain will follow shortly, although Zapatero and the rest of the gobierno has emphatically stated that it'll manage on its own.

I have decided to buy a Tatts ticket, and see what happens. Life could be a dream, as the ads remind me. It can't hurt... buying a quick pick, and seeing if an apartment here is possible.

Another observation I have made here... there are motorcycles and scooters galore! Far less cars... THEY have to avoid the bikes, not the other way around. A paradise for the likes of me.

I have been far more attentive here. I don't get the jist of what is being said as I have in other places in Spain we've visited thus far. The people here speak two languages: Spanish and Basque. Basque is radically different from Spanish - I have not been able to pick up one similarity yet. I found out from a female taxi-driver that "thank-you" is esquerricasko, pronounced "ehs-care-ees-cah-skoh". The same word in Spanish is gracias - very different, don't you agree?

The people here can be confronting at first. They are stern, looking as though you approach them at your peril. But once you work up the courage to do so, they are very friendly, and happily talk about their home and culture proudly. It's worth overcoming the initial fearfulness of possibly bothering them and interrupting their routine. Hotel staff included!

The weather here has been perfect. This is unusual for this time of year, I am told by the locals. The last time I was here was in May, 2005, the beginning of Spain's Summer. The weather, then, was slightly overcast, with a maximum temperature of 24 degrees celcius. The last two days here have been in the early 30s. The skies have been crystal clear, and when we reached the top of Monte Igeldo after a ride on the funicular to look out over the bay and the island, we could see the French border in the distance.

So, prices to live here? Hmmm... let's just say that I still have a few years of working in Australia before I can even consider such a purchase or move. As I wrote earlier... the Tatts tickets are looking mighty appealing. Also, I will gladly take donations of charity to support a worthy cause. ;)

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!


Monday, April 4, 2011

ahhh... cuenca...

I am in Zaragoza. The car has been returned to the right spot at the airport, and I no longer have to drive through Spain with a passenger who likes to call herself my co-pilot and give me instructions and directions to places in Spanish. Yes, she was as useful as tits on a bull... Pardon my French...

But, that's all over with. I arrived back at our hotel in Zaragoza in one piece. I'm grateful for that. Plus, it's worth noting that as I got more comfortable with the roads and the signs everywhere, I am definitely not averse to revisiting the idea of riding a motorcycle through Europe. It would be a hair-raising and fun experience, I'm sure.

Cuenca was absolutely gorgeous. That's where I've been the last few days. It's about three hours drive from Zaragoza - and the drive was marvellous too. The roads are tight and winding, with red cliffs on either side - very pretty and quite awesome to see.

Cuenca itself, was stunning. We stayed at the Hotel Parador de Turismo. This hotel was an old monastery, it had been converted into a hotel. There were breathtaking views from every room of the hotel - even if you walked down a passageway from your room to the lift, you had views.

Views of what? The old part of Cuenca is built on a little mountain - that's the best way to describe it. I liken it to Mont Saint Michel in France, or Montserrat in the outskirts of Barcelona - if you've been to either of those places, you'll know what I mean.

Cuenca is known for its casas colgadas, its hanging houses. These houses are built on the cliff-face, with their balconies hanging over the rivers that run through Cuenca - the Huecar and the Jucar.

It's unnerving to stand on the balconies of one of these houses. The Museo del Arte Abstracto de Espanol (Abstract Art Museum of Cuenca) is situated in one of these hanging houses, facing the Huecar River. As much as I enjoyed looking at the art work featured here, I couldn't restrain myself from being scared to death by standing on the balconies on each level of the gallery.

You feel like nothing is holding or protecting you when you step out - if you have the courage to look over the rail of the balcony, you see nothing but the river about 100 metres below. (At least, it felt like 100 metres - it was probably about 50... I'm sure I'm exaggerating, as I was positively frozen on the spot, standing there to admire the views.)

Our hotel was opposite these cliffs and the hanging houses. To get back to our hotel, we had to walk down many steep, narrow passages to the Puente San Pablo, a bridge for pedestrians which crossed over the river. This bridge, too, was many metres above the river and ground below. I was forced by sheer fear to hold onto the rail tightly as I walked over it slowly to the other side, our hotel and salvation.

At night, the views from here are also magnificent, as the Cuencans have lit up all the rocks, edifices and old buildings that are still standing and in use around the River Huecar.

Our first night was perfect - the weather was beautiful, the night, crystal clear, and there were a zillion stars in the sky. I had time to sit and admire my surroundings as my mother was looking for the Southern Cross in the night sky. Of course, I refrained from reminding her of our location in the Northern Hemisphere - I thought it best that she find the constellation on her own while I looked around, peacefully.

On the second day in Cuenca, as we were heading to the bridge back to our hotel, I was stopped by a busker with a guitar that insisted on singing flamenco to me. He sang, beautifully, in Spanish... the words: Your eyes are like fire and your lips drive me mad with passion. Wow! What an ego boost! I especially found him endearing as he was missing his front teeth - I could see that singing to passers-by was his bread and butter. His busking turf was perfectly situated - he could grab the tourists as they headed to the puente, making his living by trapping them on their way to the magnificent views that lay ahead.

In Cuenca, I have found out about an intriguing modern Spanish artist that I had not heard of before. Fernando Zobel. He was the artist that made the hanging modern abstract art museum possible. Inside, there were many of his works, along with his note and sketch books showing the inspiration and observations he made for each of the pieces on display. Fascinated, I took copious notes of my own about him, as I'd like to locate a book in English about Zobel - the book they were selling in the museum shop was in Spanish. It was a big, thick, heavy tome which I'm sure would have made my trip back to Australia more difficult. So, finding such a book in English is on my to-do list when I get back home.

So far, I have truly enjoyed looking at the galleries and museums in this country. I have particularly found the modern Spanish artists interesting - they seem to have so much say in their work that I can't help myself reading all the Spanish descriptions and labels around them, despite my lack of understanding - I am always longing to find out more.

Again, I can see why people like Hemingway found this country so intriguing. I am sure that I am missing out on a lot because of the language barrier I have been experiencing here. I have had some entertaining and interesting mini-chats to hotel porters, taxi drivers, even ice-cream sellers, and they seem to have a lot to tell. Perhaps I was hasty earlier when I deduced that the Spanish people I was seeing around me in public places probably weren't as interesting as I initially thought they would be.

However, I have found that the people that interest me most are the everyday Spanish - the workers, the attendants, the people I pass by, engaged in conversation with one another on the street.

Surrounded, in the hotels, by other tourists, or even Spaniards visiting from other cities, I am repelled by their need to assert their own culture or status into their unknown environment and surrounds. It feels as though they're being arrogant - I shudder to think that I may have given this impression to others when I was first trying to get my bearings in this mostly unfamiliar land.

At the time of writing this, I am torn... Even though I would like to see more of the world, I would also appreciate the pleasure of returning to this country, to try and get to know it more intimately. The viviaciousness in these people is appealing - at present, I feel like a complete outsider, looking in on a party from the perimeter, waiting for someone to hand me an invitation to join in the festivities.

Now, to explore Zaragoza... I am impatient though. I have saved the best for last. San Sebastian and Barcelona are waiting. It's hard to think about the city I am currently in - it seems far less interesting than what lies ahead. I hope I am pleasantly surprised.

Although, in its defence, I have met the most amazing porter in our hotel this morning. He assisted me by giving me driving directions to the airport to drop off the car rental. His name is Juan Antonio... if Spaniards have a flavour, he's definitely the epitome of what a Spaniard is. He has the stature of a bull fighter, and has the most seductive je ne sais quoi... indescribable, but definitely there. I cannot take my eyes off him. He's an amazing creature to watch. Jokingly, after his thorough assistance, I told my mother to ask him Spanish to come in the car with us to direct me - I'd pay him 100 Euros if he did. He looked saddened that he couldn't leave his post in front of the hotel to receive the guests arriving and bid farewell to those departing. Ah well... it was not meant to be.

I must remember to take a photo of Juan Antonio before I depart for San Sebastian. He's quite a specimen.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!


Friday, April 1, 2011

monkey, be gone...

Ok, I confess... I just couldn't take it anymore...

We were wandering around the streets of Murcia last night, feeling hungry, looking for the Plaza San Juan, as it was recommended to us as a good place to eat. I still can't get used to having dinner from 8.30pm onwards. The hunger pangs kick in at 6.30pm and continue until the beast is satiated.

The problem last night, was that we over-estimated the time it would take to walk from our hotel, across the river, Segundo, to the plaza. As a result, we were wandering around the surrounding streets of the plaza, an activity which I really enjoy, looking at the people and the shops... even the graffiti. (Btw, I've taken some great shots of some Spanish feminist graffiti in Granada... happy to show them around to anyone interested when I return home and sort through the zillions of pics taken thus far.)

During our meandering, I spotted an store called Belleza Masculina, which was open for business. A beauty store for men... however, in my defence, it also had services for women, but men were the priority.

I have been going mad this last week... spying the re-growth of my eyebrows, one hair at a time. So, in desperation, I entered the store and asked the gay male shop assistant if he could help me eradicate the monkey-like growth on my face. Si, si, claro que si... was the response. Ahhhh... salvation!

When a woman finally attended to my needs, I lay down, ready for the operation. But, what was this? She came at me with tweezers! Before I could protest, she started to painfully pluck at each folicle as she spoke about the weather in Murcia... in Spanish. Not a drop of wax was used... and boy, did I feel it.

I had brought my own tweezers with me... but, I hate tweezing. It's slow, painful and a waste of time - ultimately, it's almost impossible to get every hair to shape a perfect brow. That's why I decided to get a professional's help... I figured that if Penelope Cruz's brows can look that good, I shouldn't have a problem. Little did I know that I would be enduring 10 minutes of torture and get to have the pleasure of leaving this establishment for men with a red forehead.

But, enough of that... I'm sure you're not interested in my woes of vanity...

The change of weather in Murcia is noticeable. On the drive from Granada, which lasted three and a half hours, I could feel the temperature palpably increasing. As the bruja (witch) yanked at my eyebrows, she was explaining how Murcia has two seasons - Summer and Winter. They never get Spring here. Wasn't I lucky? I had arrived in time for the hot weather. It has been bright and sunny, starting at 19 degrees celcius in the morning and working its way up to 30 degrees by the afternoon. This is nothing... in the peak, it gets to 40+ degrees.

I'm looking forward to heading north to San Sebastian. I'm toast when it's too hot. The sun just doesn't work well with all the black. Plus, my fatigue increases in such temperatures.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been too much worthy of note here in Murcia. There are so many churches here (which we're not really keen on seeing), so we have just made our way to the Museo del Bellas Artes, which was an interesting distraction for a few hours.

Tomorrow, I get to drive to Cuenca - there's a lot of contemporary art to be seen there, apparently. I am looking forward to it. I'm sure that there'll be more to write about then.

Hasta pronto, mis amigos...



Wednesday, March 30, 2011

cultural differences... some amusing, some not...

My goodness, where to start?

My first comment... the words customer service don't mean as much in some places, as they generally do to Australians. Or is it that I have just been going to the right places in Australia? Or, is "good customer service" only considered to be good when one is fluent in the language and cultural habits of a country?

Earlier today, I went to have lunch in what has become a favourite destination in the centro of Granada. The Plaza Bib Rambla is a lovely square a few blocks from my hotel, with restaurants around the perimeter and little alleyways of interesting shops leading in every direction from it. The lunch was lovely, as usual. But, something that was more obvious to me on this particular occasion, was the poor customer service. The waiters were more intent on conversing with one another and sharing stories of home life and jokes than getting their clients what they wanted. A cafe con leche took almost thirty minutes to receive. I have often joked in Australia about growing a beard whilst waiting to receive my order. Here, in the Bib Rambla, I almost literally grew one!

Luckily for the cafe, the food was great and thoroughly enjoyable, so I could not complain about the service - ultimately, it was worth the wait.

But, I realised that after weeks of travelling through this beautiful country, I have grown a little weary of not being able to apply a little pressure on waiting staff about the lengthy time taken to receive what I want. After we left the cafe, immediately opposite the front door we stopped. Here was a little shop-front, with a woman serving. My mother asked her if she sold any postage stamps. The woman was looking directly at us, then some of her friends passed by at that very moment. They were calling out to this woman from behind us, and this woman, rather than addressing our need, moved her head towards them, reciprocating their greetings whilst completely ignoring our question. I was amazed. When she finished laughing and answering her friends, she spoke to my mother, saying, finally, that she didn't have any stamps for sale. I stood there, agape.

This was a big contrast to the restaurant we ate in last night. I chose a little place near our hotel, purely for its name, La ermita. The translation? The Hermit. It's also a way of describing a way to contemplate and live out life by one's self. It's more of a concept than a person, if you know what I mean.

This place was more up-market than the cafe I just described in the Bib Rambla. Again, the food was impeccable, although presented in a far better way, which is more appealing to the palate. Of course, with such effort, the cost of a meal is much higher. The waiters were attentive, taking great care to explain anything on the menu we didn't understand. We were treated like queens. This made me ponder how the concept of customer service works... here, as in Australia, money talks. You pay for the service, as well as the food and the good experience, overall.

Sure, the food is mainly great everywhere, so far. But, when I don't pay as much for it, my frustration at the service sets in... leading me to the conclusion that this is a cultural difference, or culture shock on my part. I dislike the fact that I cannot express my disappointment, or insist, in an assertive way, that I should be receiving better service.

Perhaps I have chosen this subject to complain about in this blog post because of the hair-raising morning I had. Today, I had to pick up the car rental I had arranged in Australia for the next leg of our trip. It was easier to get from Granada to Murcia, to Cuenca, then Zaragoza by car, than taking a train back and forth to major cities to get to each place. So, off we went to AVIS to collect the compact Mercedes which was given to me. (The fact that it is a Mercedes ALONE makes me a little nervous about damaging the thing.)

I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but the Spanish like to touch-park. They manage to get their compact cars into the tightest little parking spots... and how? Car moves forward, BANG, and stop. Car reverses, BANG, and stop. (BANG = tapping another's car forcefully)

I have been noticing the amount of cars which have scratches and dents all over them, throughout the trip. I'm sure that car insurance is only used here when there is major damage and a panel beater and/or complete overhaul is needed. Australians have coronaries at the slightest dent (unless they own a bomb), and run to the panel beater to fix it immediately.

The last time I was in Europe with a car rental, I totally freaked out when I saw a Frenchie banging my rented Citroen to park his car. I blurted out, in English: "Are you kidding, mate? This is a bloody rented car!", which, of course, was no use to me when the Frenchie didn't speak English.

So, since arriving in Spain, I have watched the drivers here - they're crazy too. They fly through the narrowest of streets. I have found myself hanging on to the Jesus-bar in the back seat of taxis on a few occasions. I remember a taxi driver going on an 80km zone at 120kms per hour. I don't white-knuckle often, but when I do, it's with good reason. This taxi driver needed to be locked up or have his licence revoked, one of the two.

I have also thought about my own car back home, a GIGANTIC Ford Falcon sedan, which would, no doubt, have gotten permanently wedged into a medieval intersection somewhere along the way. You appreciate the space we have in Australia a whole lot more when you're in old, claustrophobic city roads and streets in Spain.

This morning was scary. Keep in mind that I am driving a compact car here. I had to pick up the rental, and drive it on the wrong side of the road continuously. Then, I had to navigate the car down a narrow, narrow alleyway, that is considered to be a main thoroughfare. On either side of this road, scooters and motorcycles were parked, with their tail-ends hanging out on the street, making the space for cars even narrower. I was getting beeped at by motorists behind me, as I was taking things slowly - I didn't want to hit any of the parked bikes. Even though I took the greatest care, I still managed to brush my passenger-side mirror against the padded seat of a Vespa. This made me more nervous. Not the Mercedes! I'll be paying off that damage until I'm fifty!

Of course, it took even longer to get back to the hotel, as all the streets around the central part of Granada go in different directions. Some are one-way, some are not to be entered, some are restricted only to taxis and buses. That'd be fine, but the signs are strange to me - round, red-circled ones with crosses through them - wtf? Ah, of course! No parking allowed! How silly of me! If you're not a local, you'll have more than a little trouble knowing which street you are able to traverse safely and legally.

A scooter rider took pity on me... He spoke to us, telling us that we could follow him, after he asked where we were trying to get to. (See? The ability to speak Spanish helps!) This enormous gordo of a man on a itty-bitty little scooter led us to our hotel's street, and we gratefully gave him some Euros for his troubles, even though he did spit the worst exhaust fumes into our faces most of the way there. If I could have said so, I would have given him the money for his help, with a small comment about getting his scooter serviced and its shocks attended to. I mean, how long did he think the poor little thing would last?

The hotel's porter was amused when I gave him the keys to the Mercedes nervously, begging him to park the car for me under the hotel. I wasn't about to start attempting to park this GIANT compact car in a tiny, underground car park!

So, after that nerve-wracking experience, naturally, I practically ran to the Bib Rambla to calm down and have a nice lunch. It was only after I got there that I realised that I'd be insane to order my usual sangria - I'm driving now! I can't afford to have even the tiniest bit of alcohol in my blood when travelling on Spain's roads! It'll have to wait until the car is returned to AVIS at Zaragoza... six days away...

The question is... will I make it to Zaragoza in one piece? Time will tell...
If none of you ever hear from me again, you'll know what happened.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos... I hope!



Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Having seen the Alhambra for the second time this morning, I had a lot of time during my three-hour tour to look out over Granada and think about my impressions of Spain thus far.

Spain is confusing in the messages it puts out to one who is not a native. On the one hand, it is a passionate and fervent country, with a past full of turmoil and historically hard times under Franco. Funnily enough, as a result, the people of Spain living in it today, seem a little superficial to me. Now, before I get written complaints via email about this comment, let me explain myself...

I watch Spanish TV in my hotel rooms after a hard day of being a good tourist. Almost every channel I see touches on subjects in a very sensational, glib way... the 24-hour news channel is always showing the same headlines over and over, without presenting stories of any depth containing profound examination of issues that may be present. I can't help comparing the coverage of the same news story on Spanish television with the BBC World news channel, or with the coverage I have gotten in the habit of reading online via The Age web site. Even though I am not fluent in the Spanish language, I understand enough to know that issues and controversial, late-breaking news such as the recent Japanese tsunami are covered in a shallow and trivial manner. It leaves me unsatisfied and wanting to know more.

A contradiction to this is the Parliament of Spain. I have watched the gobeirno (government) of Spain addressing issues in their parliament. They do so in a very orderly fashion, each member having the opportunity to discuss each issue and put their opinion on the record, without harrassment, or interruption. A far cry from the Australians' conduct in parliament - particularly on the federal level. Down Under, we scream at one another, insult, cajole, embarrass, condescend and irritate in the interest of scoring political points and securing a better chance of winning at the next election. In Spain, even if the parties disagree with one another, they spend their time debating issues in a manner expected of adults, even referring to one another as usted (the polite way to call another person with respect).

These observations, in turn, have made me watch the Spanish community more carefully. I scrutinise their interactions whilst eating, drinking, talking, discussing... Previous impressions and use of words such as passionate and interactive to describe them are accurate, but again, I can't help now having the impression that, on many occasions, I probably wouldn't care too much to know what they're talking about.

This mystifies me. Where is the Spain that I have read about? Where is the deep and profound thinking that I see for myself in their artwork and cultural offerings? Where is the environment I have often longed to be a part of? Does one have to be fluent in the language to find out where these intellectuals seem to hide?

I have the feeling that I will feel far more at home in Barcelona. This is the city that houses Los Cuatro Gatos, a cafe that became a favourite meeting place for artists in the 20th century, Pablo Picasso included. Seeing more of Antoni Gaudí's amazing creations that Barcelona is famous for - in particular, I am looking forward to seeing how La Sagrada Familia has progressed since I was there in 2005. (This is the cathedral that Gaudí designed for the city, which is due for completion in 2026.)

This is the city of La Rambla, the main thoroughfare leading to Barcelona's port, which features an enormous amount of street performers, mime, musicians, street theatre. It is open 24/7 and I am going to have a marvellous time watching it in earnest from my hotel room balcony, when I am not actually spending time walking on it.

I have come to the conclusion that I need to learn more Spanish, and actually reside in one of this country's cities, behaving as a Spaniard, working, living, pursuing recreational activities in my spare time. Perhaps this will become a goal for me in the next few years? Perhaps it may not?

I also know that I cannot comment on what I have seen here with accuracy - I need to be alone, finding out what these people are about for myself, without using a translator, without hesitating to pursue a more meaningful exchange, in the interests of getting out of my comfort zone and really delving into what makes Spain and its people the way they are.

What saddens me is that I only have one lifetime to fulfil a desire such as this.

Until next time... hasta pronto mis amigos...



Saturday, March 26, 2011

guapa? i thought that was a grapefruit...

Still in Málaga, enjoying the ocean and the nice weather. But, a secret... I don't like Málaga. I have learnt that the tourists (consisting of mainly Brits and Americans) love to park here in Torremolinos - the suburb I am in by the shores of the Mediterrenean. I suppose this would be equivalent to being in a hotel in Middle Park or Port Melbourne.

Around the hotel are shops that are trying to be trendy, by selling the most abhorrent items, crappy towels, sunglasses, horrible postcards, t-shirts and clothes. IIt reminds me of walking through Dimmeys... not quite as good as Target or Kmart... ;)

As a result, there's not much to see around here. So, I have headed to the CBD of Málaga. Yesterday, we visited the Museo del Picasso - still enjoyable the second time. We also saw the Alcazabar and Roman Amphitheatre ruins next to it, followed by a trip to the Museo Interactivo de la Música, which had a lot of information about the history of music, along with interactive computer displays and actual instruments to play. Good for the kiddies... and we were the only kiddies there. It was worthwhile - and amusing to see my mother touching things that had signs stating No Tocar (Don't Touch) emphatically in Spanish. I'm sure the museum's attendants were glad to see our ultimate departure.

Before we got to the last museum, we stopped on a road nearby for a break to consult the map. My mother has an annoying habit of asking everyone around us the same question about five times. It is epspecially annoying when I know the answer, but because I am not a local, I am not to be believed. She is a very nervous traveller.

So, in typical style, as I consulted the map, she spotted a Tourist Information Booth, and ran in that direction to answer the question I was on the verge of answering myself. She took so long, I was wondering if she had gotten lost on the way there, and was asking someone for directions to the Info Booth.

While I was waiting patiently for her to return, a Spaniard was walking towards me from the opposite direction, singing. He caught my attention, as he was singing the beautiful sounds of flamenco that I love to listen to. So, as I enjoyed hearing this snippet of his performance, I smiled at him as he passed. He did a little double-take and came back to stand in front of me.

He said, "Hola guapa!", followed by some more Spanish that was spoken too fast for me to fully understand. I replied "Lo siento, yo no hablo español. Un poquito, nada mas..." (I'm sorry, I don't speak Spanish. A little, nothing more...)

Guapa? Why was this man calling me a grapefruit? I was intrigued. (Before I go on, apparently guapa does not mean grapefruit. Click here for a definition, if you're curious.)

I didn't wait for him to say anything, and asked "Canto flamenco?" (Singing flamenco?)

He smiled broadly... happy I was interested enough to ask. "Claro que si!" (But of course!) was his response. Then, he asked me something I couldn't understand... Perhaps my expression was quizzical, as he explained further with actions. He asked me the question again slowly, this time showing an imaginary ring on the wedding finger.

Ahhhh... I understood now. He wanted to know if I was married. LOL

I laughed and said no... and then he asked me if I had any children. RSVP and eHarmony eat your hearts out. Come to Spain... you can find a man quick smart here! Still laughing, I told him in poor Spanish, no, I did not have children either. He liked that... and proceeded to sit next to me, smiling in a different way. More of a leer this time. It's funny... how sleazy can mean the same thing in one's body language no matter what country you're in.

I handled him the same way I have others... polite, but firm about not being ready to jump into bed just because he smiled at me. Although, what a temptation he was! He could have been Antonio Banderas' long lost twin brother. No matter... I didn't have to control myself. My mother was running back to where I was quite fast when she spotted a strange man sitting next to me.

If ever you want someone to stop hitting on you, here's a tip... take your mother with you. It arrests the entertainment value immediately. ;)

I watched him walk away as my mother was telling me what she found out at the Tourist Info Booth. Exactly what I already knew, what a shock! So, we made our way to the museum...

Today, we have been lazy, and stayed in and around the hotel... watching the waves, listening to the ocean, people-watching from our balcony, as we play Canasta. On the way back from lunch on the beach, we stopped to buy El País, the national newspaper in Spain.

What do I find out??? Antonio Banderas was in Málaga today, making a special apprearance in the opening of the new Carmen Thyssen Museum! The one day I wasn't in Málaga during my stay here! But, what's this? He'll stay in Málaga until Easter... hmmmm... maybe I'll head to the CBD again tomorrow, and do some Antonio-spotting... Heaven knows it'd be more entertaining than visiting one of the numerous churches open for tourists around here.

Wish me luck!
Hasta la vista, mis amigos!



Thursday, March 24, 2011

málaga... a place of crashing waves, picasso and flags...

We have arrived in Málaga, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso. Our hotel room has ocean views, and I have been here a few hours already and I have not tired of hearing the waves crashing on the beach below. It's quite choppy today, and even though the sun's not out, and the skies are grey, it is indeed a magnificent view.

I know what you're thinking... Flags? Why flags?

Well, Málaga is also the birthplace of Antonio Banderas. I always find the translation of Spanish names amusing. The literal translation of this gorgeous man's name is Tony Flags.
Julio Iglesias? Julio Iglesias = July Churches. Placido Domingo, the opera singer? His name's Peaceful Sunday. Penelope Cruz... Hmmm... well, if you called Penelope by her nickname, Pene, then a literal translation of her name would be Penis Cross.

Ok, I think I'll leave it there... I think you understand my point.

So, here we are, all geared up for the days ahead. We leave for Granada, and the Alhambra on Sunday. But, before then, we have so much Picasso to see... and the old Moorish ruins of mosques and the Roman amphitheatre in the heart of Málaga awaits.

Before we left Cordoba, we glimpsed the Mala Muerta - the story behind this edifice is interesting. Apparently, a Moorish Caliph went to war, and when he returned, he was told that his wife had been unfaithful. He then had his wife killed for her crime. But, later on, he found out that she had actually been faithful, and she was killed wrongly. So, as punishment to himself, and to grieve for the wife he loved so much, he built this tower, Mala Muerta (which means "woman mistakenly killed") locked himself in it, and died there of grief.

Good riddance, if you ask me...

Also, we went to visit the Medinat Al-Zahara - a caliphate palace, which was built under the mandate of Abd al-Rahmann III from 940 onwards. Of popular myth amongst Cordobans is that the medina was built by Abd al-Rahmann III as a declaration of his love for one of his concubines, al-Zahara. This is not true. I also found this myth difficult to digest when I learnt that this caliph had a harem consisting of over 600 concubines. What made al-Zahara so special? And if she was so special, why didn't she tell the caliph to be exclusive and abandon the other 599 concubines?

Regardless, the medinat was a fascinating visit. I could see the amazing history behind its construction. It was only discovered in the outskirts of Cordoba in 1918, and it is still undergoing archealogical digs as more and more is unearthed. The sad part is, above the medinat is a monastery which apparently ransacked the medinat much later for building materials for its own construction.

That seems to be a constant story in the South of Spain. Old Moorish architecture, mosques and Arab designs converted to cathedrals and images of Jesus and Mary when the Christians took over from the Muslim rule in Spain's history. Perhaps I'm biased, but I find the Arab caligraphy, archiecture and design far more interesting, beautiful and appealing. It saddens me to see how the Christians obliterated a lot of it in the name of God. In fact, we have made a pact not to see any more Christian buildings. Spain is FULL of churches, cathedrals and monasteries. We'd much rather see more art and Spanish culture in other places of interest. It sounds awful, but after you've seen one or two cathedrals, the rest all start to look the same, and you find yourself skimming over the bits you've seen before.

Now, we're located at a far cry from all that. We're by the beach, surounded by what I would call a huge tourist trap. LOL The shops along the beach are filled with what I've seen many times before... McDonald's, Burger King (Hungry Jacks for Aussies), Ben & Jerry's (ice-cream), shops selling sunnies, t-shirts and fridge magnets galore. I am happy to hear the ocean from my hotel room, but am eager to get back to Málaga's CBD, where all the history and culture is. I feel like I did when I visited Nice, in the south of France. All affluence and show, and no substance.

Not all is bad though... we've managed to find a decent paella down there by the beach. The best I've ever had in Spain thus far. I wonder if we'll find one better before returning to Australia?

Before I sign off... I must mention my tapas experience in Cordoba. We found a small tapas bar opposite the infamous Calleja de las Flores called Tapas 101. Tapas are amazing. Small pinches of food, each costing 2-Euro. One orders four or five pinches/tapas, and one feels quite full by the end of the courses.

One I has was Berenjenas con Miel (Aubergines with honey). At first, I was a little repelled by the concept of mixing the two flavours, but as always, I give new things a try, and if I don't like them, I never return to try again. These aubergines were divine! The best tapas I've ever had! Apparently, they're a favourite Cordoban recipe, and I could understand why. Yummmmm....

These were accompanied by Croquetas Bacalao (Cod Croquets), Cogillitos de Lechuga (Garlic Lettuce), sangria (of course), and finished with Arroz con Leche (Rice pudding). A gastronomic adventure... So glad I'm walking asround an awful lot, otherwise I'd definitely be returning to Australia wider than when I left it.

Ok... tomorrow, Picasso...
I wonder if Tony Flags will be floating around anywhere, paying a visit to the rellies? That'd be another kind of yummmm...

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

goodbye seville, hello cordoba...

Last night we dined at Alfonso XIII, which is located next to the old cigar factory of Carmen fame. An impressive sight to behold... Sevillian tiles with elaborate decoration on the walls, arches that remind you of the Arab influence in the Spanish architecture of the South of Spain. Sheer luxury... the seats were comfortable, the service impeccable. Just one thing... the food was disappointing and overpriced. LOL

Ah well, can't win 'em all...

Despite this hiccup, it was a memorable last day in Seville, as we got to walk around the old part of the city after dark. It never ceases to amaze me how much nightlife Spain has. I felt it more in Seville than in Madrid. The Sevillians are proud of their city, and enjoy it to the fullest. As a non-Spanish speaker, even an outsider such as I can feel the love they have for their home. They are passionate about their history and fervent in celebrating all kinds of festivals within it.

One thing that has been constant since we got to Spain is our use of taxis. Now, before you freak out, imagining the cost of these trips, let me say that they are much cheaper than taxis in Melbourne. A trip across the city, equivalent to the length of a trip from say, Melbourne University, to the Victorian Arts Centre, costs about 5-Euro. Last I checked, the Aussie dollar was equivalent to about 75-Euro cents. It's still a lot cheaper than taking a taxi in Melbourne.

Besides, with my leg giving me issues after a long day, I am extremely grateful to have some pain relief by taking a taxi. I have never been a fan of public transport in Melbourne - I'm certainly not going to start being a fan of it in a city I know very little about.

The good part about taking taxis are the taxi drivers. They are the most colourful characters you'll meet, and know the cities they work in, inside and out. They always provide you with the scoop on the best places to eat, visit, avoid, and they can enlighten you on the cultural habits of the locals that the average tourist may not be aware of.

We've even had taxi drivers that will happily recite the work of a famous poet, just because we happened to pass a monument dedicated to a writer of historical note. We've had singers, wine connoisseurs, complainers of the country (who have lived elsewhere in Europe and seem to be unhappy with their current living arrangements), jokers, and desperate singles trying to pick up one of their passengers (not me, my mother... LOL).

Today, in Cordoba, we had a lovely taxi driver who was pleased to give us a tour of Cordoba, with explanations of its history and all. Sure, it took longer to get back to our hotel, but since we're only in Cordoba for two whole days, we won't be able to see everything there is to see, and were glad to at least be driven past the sights we won't be able to enjoy before we leave for Málaga.

We got to Cordoba from Seville at 9am this morning. We stopped at a tourist information booth at the train station to get a map so we could find our way around. Before we knew it, we had signed up to see a show of Andalusian horses at the former royal stables in the heart of Cordoba. Such beautiful horses, and so smart, following all the instructions delivered by their trainers en cue. I filmed parts of the show - perhaps I will add them to my YouTube account when I return to Australia.

This is my second time in Cordoba, and I am still greatly impressed and overwhelmed by the age of the buildings and monuments here. Part of the city still preserves a wall, constructed by the Romans when they were here. Of course, there's the mezquita (mosque) that Cordoba is renowned for... I'm sure everyone has seen its red and white arches at some point or another. This building dates back to the 720AD, from memory. I will find out for sure tomorrow, when I visit it for the second time in my life.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Cordoba is one of the places in Spain that I would happily reside in if I ever got the chance to. There's something very relaxing about this city, it seems to have a very easy-going way of life.

Well, tomorrow is another day, and a big one too, I suspect. So much to see and do here, and so little time. Not to worry, I'll keep you posted - internet access is free in our hotel. Yay!

Hasta luego, mis amigos!


Friday, March 18, 2011

flamenco and... more questions....

Yes, last night was the visit to Tabloa de Arenal, a place to dine and watch flamenco. Amazing, entertaining, exciting, passionate... I could not take my eyes of the performers, which consisted of singers, guitarists and, of course, dancers. The footwork of the dancers is stupefying - I always have trouble understanding how the human brain can get the feet to move that fast, and with such precision.

Even though I thoroughly enjoy watching a good flamenco performance, I am always a little sad by the end of the night. I wish I had studied the art of flamenco myself. The music inspires me, the expressions on the faces of the dancers, the dramatic gestures and emphatic movements which proclaim proudly that life is something to be savoured and lived to the fullest. Unfortunately, when I was young, I was not allowed to take up flamenco classes - something which always leaves me with a feeling of regret and longing for a pursuit that could have been. Of course, now, it would be physically impossible for me to start any kind of classes - my motorcycle accident took care of that. So, I watch, and pretend that I am up there dancing with them, feeling the heat and the passion as well.

If you have never seen a good flamenco performance, I suggest you watch a particular film, to understand what I talking about. There is a flamenco version of the story of Carmen, which is a famous opera by the composer, Bizet. Not to worry... The flamenco version is not sung - it's a modern interpretation of the story, not the music. (I know that opera doesn't float everyone's boat.)

Anyway, this film, also titled Carmen, is directed by Carlos Saura, and the flamenco in it is marvellous. The film provides the viewer with a much better undertanding of the passion behind flamenco, and the work involved in perfecting the skill of dancing it.

The words I type here will never do the art of flamenco justice. It's a feeling, almost indescribable to someone like me. One has to watch it to get an idea of what I mean. So, I cannot go on about my experience in the tablao last night - it is an extremely personal one. All I can say is that it was truly amazing and uplifting, and I'm looking forward to seeing more when I get to Barcelona.

So, I will move on to the questions that I have about what I have seen so far in the beautiful country...

Walking through the narrow streets of Seville, I wonder about silly things like garbage collection. Yesterday, I noticed that there were a few bins, about the size of the wheelie bins we use in Australia, standing out on the street. There is no access for cars, let alone trucks, on these narrow streets. How is the garbage collected? Surely, garbologists don't have to wheel each bin individually out of the old part of the city to the main road for it to be collected every week? That concept would require a LOT of staff in order to maintain the routine of collecting it. I hope I will work up the nerve to ask the hotel staff before I check out on Sunday and move on to Cordoba.

In Toledo, I had another question, which was ultimately answered via observation. Toledo is an old city, dating back to settlement in the fifteenth century, I think. The streets there are also narrow. The last time I was in Toledo, in 2005, I had a car rental. I was scared sh*tless driving through Toledo's streets, even though I had a tiny Citroen hatchback. The streets were so narrow, I tucked in my side mirrors, as I felt that driving down them was an extremely tight squeeze. I was so scared about damaging the car, which was not mine.

Amazingly, the locals whizz up and down them at 40-60kms per hour, happily. I watch them in awe. thanking my lucky stars that I'm not driving through them again this time around. However, one thing I have noticed since, is that MANY cars here have dents and scratches all over them. It doesn't take a genius to wonder why.

In my first week in Madrid, there were 15 deaths on the road in the city. The footage of the aftermath was scary - the cars looked as though they had been through a wringer - they were almost unrecognisable as cars. It made me a little nervous about the prospect of drving the car I have organised to get from Granada, to Cuenca, Murcia and finally, Zaragoza, before I return to taking trains again. I know I will be driving like a little granny on the right-hand lane (which is the slow lane in this country).

So another question arises... will I die in Spain? LOL

I keep asking the locals about scooter rentals - there don't seem to be any! Scooters are extremely popular here - a perfect vehicle for all the narrow streets. I see motorcycles too, but my impression is that a motorcycle is just too powerful a vehicle for zipping around on these streets. I saw one take off when a red light changed to green yesterday. The rider quickly got up into third gear, built up his momentum, and then dropped immediately back into first to stop at the next intersection. I now understand why we have far more motorcycles in the cities in Australia - we have far more space! Our streets are wider, there are more lanes, and the intersections are further apart. Plus, we have far more wide, open space. There ain't no Nullarbor here, folks!

A scooter would be perfect... but, then I think of what I've seen many times here already. Cars change lanes without indicators, or checking their blind spots. Scooters have been cut off many times by cars - it's amazing that they still happily zip around, squeezing into the traffic and taking short-cuts whenever they can.

Moving on... no matter how hard I try, I cannot get used to the late dinners here! 8.30pm is an EARLY dinner in Spain. People in restuarants, where we make dinner reservations, seek clarification when we ask for a booking for 8 or 8.30pm. They are stunned that we would want to eat so early. They try, unsuccessfully, to persuade us to have a 9.30/10pm booking instead.

Since I have found out that the Spaniards don't really get a siesta in the afternoon any more, I often wonder how they have the energy to rise for work at 7pm, start work between 8/9am, and go right through to knock-off time at 6 or 7pm... returning home to freshen up for dinner at 9pm! wtf?? I'm sure I'd collapse in a drained heap if I stay here longer than 6 weeks!

So, what doesn life mean to these people? They spend a lot of time with one another, partaking in tapas, pinchos and aperitivos in restaurants, bodegas and cafes all over the city. When do they think about their lives? Is there time for reflection? Or is their experience all one big rush through the day, catching up with friends and loved ones before they go to sleep? I often find myself wishing my Spanish were more fluent so that I could ask some of these questions. I guess I might have to walk down the same path as Earnest Hemingway, and actually live here, immerse myself, and start by slowly building relationships to finally understand if the Spanish, generally, are as happy as they seem to be on the surface.

Ahhh.... don't you love it when the questions that arise in your head don't always have answers? It can make you mad, or make you philosophise more than usual in pursuit of "truth".

Just on that point...

Yesterday, I also managed to go and visit the Auditorio de la Cartuja, which is located on the other side of the Guadalquivir. (By the way, the name of this river is Arabic - it means "Big River". There is also a place in Spain called Guadalajara, another Arabic name. This one, I always find funny, as it literally means "River of Sh*t" - some fascinating trivia for you all. LOL)

At the Cartuja, there are exhibitions of contemporary art. We were there for hours. One artist by the name of Alfonso Jaar, had a Marxist Lounge. In this room, which had red walls, black couches, and a red neon light with the name Marx Lounge, there was a huge table in the centre. On it, were numerous books, lying face up. Mainly Spanish titles, but about a third were English. All titles were about Marx, Engels, Che Guevara, Socialism, Existentialism, all kinds of modern philosophy and thinkers.

I took ages looking at all the books, wishing I could spend a few weeks reading some of the titles here. Yes, it was an "art work", but you could touch and feel the books, and sit on the couches to read them, if you so desrired.

I found authors I recognised from my own reading pursuits... John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Ryszard Kapuscinski... I was so overwhelmed with the array, I took photos, so that I could chase up some of the titles when I return to Melbourne.

Yes... as I stated earlier... questions, questions and more questions... I will found out some of the answers in the near future I suppose. And if I don't, oh well... not all questions can or will be answered.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos...



Thursday, March 17, 2011

blessings and a magical ball...

Women offering blessings and palm readings are always to be seen around the main tourist attractions in Seville. I am told that they are gypsies seeking money for these services. I suppose that they are the Spanish equivalent of the Romany people in France which the French are trying to eject from their country.

Yesterday afternoon, whilst enjoying a coffee outside the Plaza de España, I was approached by an old woman dressed in brightly coloured clothes, with a rose in her hair, offering me a green leaf of some sort. She was telling me that the green leaf was for blessings and luck, and she then proceeded to grab my hands to read my palms. Apparently, I will have a long life and two children. Uh-huh...

This went on for a while, and I have to admit, I got impatient. I knew she wanted money, and I tried to dissuade her by pretending not to understand a word she was saying. At the same time, I felt sorry for her. But, then I remembered another experience with these gypsies the last time I was in Seville: three women surrounded me, two taking me by the arms, the third offering me blessings with her sprig of rosemary, marking the cross on my forehead. I got nervous, as I knew they were trying to pick my pockets. Thankfully, at the time, I had my passport and money in a pouch around my neck - if they wanted to rip me off, they would have had to get into my blouse.

These memories came flooding back when this woman took my hands to read my palms. I resisted by repeating the words "No, gracias" over and over to get the message through that I wasn't interested. Of course, she ignored me, and kept telling me wonderful things about my future before she lowered the boom. "Dinero", she stated expectantly.

It was at this point that my mother interrupted and said to her in Spanish: "We are not interested, Please leave us alone."

Boy, did that change this women's tone. The smile immediately disappeared from her face, and she turned to my mother and snarled "Eres muy mala!" (You're very bad!)

My mother retorted, with equal vitriol: "Si, soy mala!" (Yes, I am bad!)

The woman roughly let go of my hands, and walked away, repeating the insult over and over to my mother, as if she were warning the other customers present that they should avoid this brujita (witch).

My sympathy for this woman completely disappeared. I was on the verge of giving her something, because she did look like life had gotten the better of her, and times were tough. But, witnessing the ominous change in her face when we insisted we weren't interested, it was like seeing her eat one of the oranges from the trees that were everywhere!

Despite this unsavoury experience, the night improved. We didn't end up going to the tablao (we had the wrong night). So instead, we went to a restaurant called Puerto Delicias. The dinner and sangria was lovely... but, I must make mention of the dessert I had. The waiter came out with a plate and a small jug. He put the plate in front of me, announcing what it was. I saw a halved strawberry, some grated chocolate around it, and a large dark chocolate ball about the size of a clenched fist.

Before I could ask any questions, with a flourish, the waiter started to pour the contents of the jug over the chocolate ball. As he did so, I realised that the jug contained hot, melted white chocolate. As he poured this hot chocolate over the ball, it melted to reveal a little cake inside. Before I knew it, the cake was at the centre of my plate, next to the strawberry, surrounded by a brown and white moat of delightful, heavenly sweetness.

Ahh! I was amazed at this miraculous, magical ball of dessert. So much so, my mouth was agape as I watched this amazing event unfold before my eyes. The taste? Equally as divine. Had I just had a religious experience? I didn't wait to consider this. I immediately got to work, spooning the goodness in.

If any of you ever go to Seville, I HIGHLY recommend this place. The rest of the meal was great - the dessert was just a perfect way to end a perfect dining experience.

I'll leave it there for now... It's 10am here in Seville, and there are more things to see and enjoy out there. The rain from Toledo has abated here, and the sun is out and shining. I think it's time for another promenade to see what else can be discovered.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!




Seville is nicer than I remember. Our hotel in in the old part of Seville, an area which cars cannot access. The streets are no more than two metres wide, and everywhere you look, there is something beautiful and historic to see. I am starting to notice more of the Arabic influence of the Moors now - plaza names, architecture, Arabic scripture...

Whilst walking past the Alcázar of Seville last night, I heard beautiful Spanish guitar music that seemed familiar. I paused, wondering why I knew the style so well. As I got closer to the busker, I realised who was playing. A guitarist by the name of Carlos del Rio. How did I know this man? The last time I was in Seville in 2005, I heard him playing on the street then, and bought his CD, which I have added to my iPod. No wonder I recognised the sound and style. When he stopped for a break (to file his nails, which were almost as long as mine currently are), I asked him if the CD he was now selling was the same as the one he sold to me six years ago. His eyes opened wide - six years ago? Of course, his curiosity was piqued and I explained to him who I was, and how I knew of him. I got the feeling that he doesn't have many fans or groupies. LOL

It turned out that he spoke fluent English and French, having lived in Canada for some time. Therefore, our conversation was quite lengthy. We talked mainly of music. He seemed surprised that I, an Australian, knew who Paco Peña was. I told him that I was about to buy tickets to see his impending show in Melbourne in July. He then spoke of influences... Arabic, even the classical composer, Bach.

It was during this discussion that he started playing samples of each of the styles of music that influenced much of the traditional Spanish guitar music heard today. It was quite amazing hearing a composer such as Bach (who I never particularly liked too much), played in a Spanish style on a classical guitar, rather than on a harpsichord, or piano. I was very impressed.

So, there I was, standing for about half an hour or so, while I had a highly illuminating and fascinating discussion with a busker, who was willing to enlighten me on other famous Spanish guitarists, and their influences. Of course, it goes without saying that I bought another of his CDs. I can't wait to add this to my iPod when I return home in April.

All around the older part of Seville, there are orange trees fully laden with ripe fruit. I was starting to get frustrated that I couldn't reach any of the oranges, as they looked so large, appealing and ready to eat.

Before I go on, I should explain...
Throughout my trip through Spain thus far, I have had a total of three oranges with breakfast. They were the most perfect oranges that I've ever had... so sweet, and juicy. Nothing like the tasteless ones I've been having in Melbourne, which I have eaten in the past, begrudgingly.

So, you can imagine why I was always keeping an eye out for an orange in one of the trees that was within my reach. I wanted another slice of heaven. I thought that they were quite popular with the passers-by, as all the lower branches were always bare, and the higher branches that were just out of reach, were heavily laden with attractive, ripe fruit.

As it turns out, it's probably for the best that I never managed to pick one. Today, when we stopped for a coffee in a street cafe, we asked the waitress if we were allowed to pick the oranges from the trees. Perhaps there was a local law in effect that we weren't aware of as tourists?

She told us not to eat them. Not because we would get into trouble, but because they were all extremely bitter. Probably best used in a marmalade or something like that. She said that the locals always could spot a tourist, because they picked the oranges, and made the funniest faces when they ate what they picked. Thankfully, I did not become a source of amusement for the locals too.

Wandering around this city, I hear so many foreign languages being spoken. English, French, German, Portuguese... even a few that I have difficulty recognising. What amazes me the most is that I also hear the Spanish hotel staff speaking to their patrons in these languages. I often wonder how many languages they each speak. Very impressve.

Well, tonight we're off to a tablao... to see some raw, intimate flamenco being performed, accompanied by some sangria and some tapas. Should be a great night... and a late one. These performances can last until the early hours of the morning. I'm not sure I will too... as sangria tends to make me sleepy after the laughter and fun is over. Time will tell... and so will my future blog posts.

Before I sign off, thanks to those of you who have posted comments on my blog, and sent me emails, commenting on the things I have written about. I'm glad you're enjoying reading my paltry offerings. Hopefully, I will be able to bore some of you with the endless amount of photographs I have been taking. I can't help it - there is some beautiful detail in the things I have seen so far. I find it hard to pass them by without trying to capture what I found so appealing. I am intent on preserving memories of this beautiful country. Who knows if I'll ever have the pleasure and opportunity to return here. Let's hope I'm not the only one that appreciates the images I have snapped.

Hasta pronto, mis amigos!



Wednesday, March 16, 2011

madrid to toledo...

A funny thing happened on our last night in Madrid. My mother asked a bouncer for directions to a restaurant that we had made a booking for dinner. I tried to stop her, but to no avail. What she didn´t realise was that she was asking a doorman in front a striptease establishment.

¨Please, señor, can you tell me where this restaurant is?¨ - was the rough translation.

He was a pleasant enough chap, even if he did have his two front teeth missing.

It turned out that he was Brazilian... an irony, perhaps?

So there we were, the three of us - my mother having a lovely chat with this man, asking him all about his origins, when finally, she asked him if there were good drinks offered inside the place he was guarding.

His response? ¨Ahh... no... I don´t think you´d like the drinks that are offered here, señora. They come with da chickie-chickies¨

What can I say? It´s never a dull moment with my mother. She´s always the last one to get with the program. The poor thing was horrified that she was enquiring about going into a Spanish strip joint. Of course, I filled her in, after much mirth on my part.

So, on we went to the restuarant, where we had an over-priced, below-average paella and some average sangria.

The next day, we took a train to Toledo, where I am now typing to you from. (That was yesterday, as their internet connection was almost non-existent, so I gave up trying to post this.) A wonderfully picturesque city - with photo opportunities at every turn. I would live here happily if it weren´t for the religious icons and images encountered at every turn.

We had lunch yesterday in a popular plaza, and I was shocked to see a group of people holding a mini-protest against abortion in the centre of the square... in the name of Christianity and ¨goodness¨.

Again, I wish I could speak Spanish more fluently... I would have approached them and said something along the lines of: ¨You mean that the ten abortions I´ve had so far were not the will of God, and I'm going to hell?¨

Of course, I said no such thing, and gave them a unimpressed look instead. Mental note to self: learn Spanish, you idiot!

So, here I am... typing this post in a painfully slow way, as I´m using the hotel´s computer in the foyer. Internet access here is free, but my little laptop kept failing to connect. I have an inkling why - I am seated at a computer with an ancient-looking 14¨monitor, still operating on Windows 98. The RAM is driving me mad, as it is thinking really hard about having more than one window of IE open... Tabs! What are those? *cringe*

So, normally, I would write a lot more, but this is just too annoying.
I don´t want to die here, waiting for a page to refresh.

I´ll sign off, and write again when I get to Seville tomorrow...

But, before I do, I want to say that I am horrified to see the events that are transpiring in Japan - how devastating! I hope that none of you have loved ones visiting there at present, and that all is peaceful and calmer in your world. But, my heart goes out to the Japanese - how they must be suffering...

All the best, mis amigos... ¡Hasta mañana!


Sunday, March 13, 2011


We visited the Real Academía - another gallery, which used to be under the direction of the famous Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya. A lot of his work was featured here, and when we completed viewing the artwork on an entire level of the exhibition space, we went to another area called Calcomographía, which is an early form of lithography. To our disappointment, this section was closed for the day.

A man greeted us at the entrance to this section of the gallery, holding a pair of cotton gloves, which immediately caught my attention. I deduced that he was involved with some kind of art preservation, or perhaps was an expert in carbon dating or something similar.

What ensued was extremely interesting. Firstly, he explained to us the meaning of calcomographía... in Spanish, of course. I was surprised at how much I understood of what he said. I interjected with "lithographía?" and he nodded and smiled, and said it was indeed an early form of lithography.

This man was quite a character, and you could tell he was highly intelligent, by the way he spoke and the words he used. I have come to the realisation that the bigger the word in Spanish, the more I understand what is being said. The long words are easily recognisable to me... case in point... lithographía is lithography in English. See what I mean?

He was shorter than me, this man. He had a beard, crazy, greying hair and wore thick glasses. He reminded me of Professor Calculus of Herge's Tintin fame. He was highly intriguing, and fascinating to watch as he spoke, whether you understood him or not. You could tell he was passionate about his work, and spoke with the usual Spanish enthusiasm, accompanied by his own style of animated sweeping gestures and melodramatic movements.

I'm not sure how it happened, but we got to the topic of bull-fighting, a popular ritual and pastime in Spain. My mother mentioned to this man how I cried profusely when I saw the movie Carmen, a film adaptation of the opera, starring Placido Domingo.

For those of you who don't know, the film opens with a bull-fight, and is quite confronting. A bull is slowly tortured and finally "conquered" in its ultimate slaying by the toreador (bull-fighter).

Well, this started another animated reaction from Professor Calculus... He could not comprehend why we were so affronted by this important recreation that was richly steeped in Spanish history. He defended the ritual poorly by saying that Western governments of the world (with particular reference to the Americans) kill people all the time, and this killing of the bull was not as bad as that. A poor justification in my book.

Unbelievably, he also went on to say that we keep battery hens in cages in an inhumane way - at least the bull dies in the open air. I couldn't believe was I was partially hearing. I looked to my mother for clarification. Was my poor understanding of Spanish leading me to believe that this man was defending the act?

In retrospect, I am sorely regretting that I don't speak Spanish more fluently. I would have had a thing or two to say in refute to this man's strongly held beliefs.

The good news is that the Spanish population is almost evenly divided on the continuation of the pagan practice. I thought bull-fighting had been completely abolished, but it still thrives, and there is change on the horizon.

Regardless of considerably disagreeing with this man, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him. He was so engaging and full of life, I found it hard to ignore or dismiss him. I have never listened so hard in my entire life... and I'm glad I did. I hope there are more interactions such as this one coming up in the near future. I relish it.

Another person we met after our visit to the Palacio Real that morning (before the gallery) was in a coffee shop we were sheltering in from the rain. A waiter who greeted our arrival to the cafe with great enthusiasm. He was particularly attentive after he found out I was from Australia. I appreciated his sense of humour as well. My mother has this wonderful habit of telling the people we meet that she is from Chile and that I am her daughter from Australia, that doesn't speak much Spanish. She announced this to the waiter, as per routine, and he retorted with "... and I am from Cadíz", as if he didn't give a damn about her announcement. I laughed heartily, and was intrigued enough to intently watch him speak with my mother.

He could have been John Malkovich's long-lost twin brother - he had the same face, the same mannerisms. I loved watching this man. Unfortunately, I didn't get to talk to him for too long, but when I was preparing to leave, he took my hand, as if about to shake it, held it with both of his hands, and said in poor English, "Take it easy" followed by a large smile. "Muchas gracias" I said in response with a large smile as well.

It is these interactions with the locals that I appreciate so much. They cannot be experienced in quite the same way in Australia. But, it gives me pause... if I were to experience similar interactions in my home city, would I react in the same way? Or would I avoid and dismiss them without consideration?

As I get older, I savour interactions of all kinds with the people I encounter, at home, or overseas. I hope I have the wisdom to recognise them as worthwhile and enriching.

Until next time...
Hasta luego amigos!


Friday, March 11, 2011

a great monastery...

Today, I saw the monastery at Escorial. Actually, its name is inaccurate. The monastery forms only part of it. It was also a royal palace for Carlos V and his wife, Isabel. But, a royal palace with a difference. It was quite plain and understated for a royal abode. The rooms were simple, the most ornate feature being some of the doors, which were hand carved in Germany. Even the king's throne was quite unremarkable - apparently, it was specially constructed for him to assist with his painful gout. But, if you ask me, this "special chair" looked extremely uncomfortable - I didn't envy that luxury in the slightest.

Far more impressive were the tombs in the pantheon. In the bowels of the palace were the sarcophagi of all the dead kings and queens in the history of Spain, since Carlos I, who doubled as Emperor of Germany. The grandfather of the current King of Spain is kept here too, and it is expected thst when the current king and queen die, they will take up residence here as well.

The whole place was cold. As it was constructed of stone, and only last week, the palace was covered in 15 centimetres of snow, I was grateful for the endless stairs to climb when leaving the crypts in the Pantheon.

We climbed and climbed giant steps, as we were taken into the cathedrsl above the tombs... as always, a very impressive sight. The dome in the cenral part of the room being about 95 metres high. Of course, the artwork detail in the frescoes and ornamentation never fail to impress me in the cathedrals I have seen in Europe so far. As an atheist, it astonishes me that human beings spent so much time and devoted so much attention to create magnificent homages to a God, which according to me, does not exist.

The monastery itself is still home to about 60 monks. This section of the building was closed off to the public. But, we were taken into the library... Behind glass cabinets were illuminated manuscripts and tomes dating back to the 16th century. Here, I was astounded, as the only preservation methods in this library were keeping the precious books out of direct sunlight. Apparently, people are able to look at them still, with special permission from the monks. There has been no digitisation of the contents of the library, and even I could see that the keeping of these precious books left a lot to be desired.

Carlos V insisted that these books were added to the collection from all parts of the world. He wanted to keep all the information ever published, similar to a State or National Library's legal deposit. That fact in itself made me sad to know that no one has taken responsibility in preserving the collection besides keeping the books in some fancy glass cabinets.

At the centre of the library was a large golden globe of the Earth, constructed at a time before Galileo, when it was still thought that the world was at the centre of the universe.

All of this was very thirsty work. Returning to Madrid in the afternoon for some tapas and a glass of wine was well received. This free offer of a snack was provided at the city's popular shopping centre, Corte Ingles. I would liken this department store to Australia's Myer - many levels, many shopping options, all in one location.

I found it quite hilarious to see the types of items on sale there. In some ways, the fashions and styles of household accessories looked quite dated. Things I recall seeing in a store like Myer when I was in my teens, are, here in Madrid, the latest fashion to hit the stores.

The tapas and wine I was given in the store's cafeteria were awful. But, there was something on the menu that immediately caught my attention. Dulce de leche crepes with helado. For those of you who don't know, dulce de leche is a caramelised condensed milk that the Spanish make and have on their deseert menus often. It definitely appeals to a sweet tooth like me! I was in heaven! And with helado! Helado = ice cream... you can figure out for yourself why I was so pleased.

Memories of my last trip to Spain and France in 2005 came flooding back. I had reached the stage where I was following the dulce de leche desserts and ice-creams all across the country. I always asked for it and was rarely disappointed to find it available on the menu. I am sure this will be a repeat performance of sorts.

So, tomorrow is another day of sight-seeing and discovery. There is an Egyptian temple to the west of the city that was a gift from the Egyptian government, reconstructed in Madrid piece by piece and completed in 1973. I hear from the locals that it is a good place to visit. Perhaps that will be on the cards tomorrow, who knows? Time will tell...

Hasta luego amigos!