Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A little about a lot

There seems to be no other way to start this post except to comment on how long it has been since I last wrote. When one is at home living through the "grey weekdays" (a phrase directly translated from the Hungarian a szürke hétköznapok), ten weeks can pass by in the blink of an eye and suddenly winter is turning into summer and it's all a bit incomprehensible. When travelling, I think, one is more prepared for (or against) the inevitable feeling that time will slip through the fingers, but it's tempered by the simple fact of so many places seen, people met and experiences had.

Before I continue, I just want to write a sentence here for the late Greg King. I was lucky enough to meet Greg and "work" with him in a very limited capacity but he really inspired me and I think his death is a huge loss to many people personally and to the legal community in general - it's really saddened me. I've been thinking a lot about his family.

Since I last updated you, my travels took me to both Poland and Holland for the first time and back, after a six year absence, to my second home, Hungary. It's been a rollercoaster few weeks with a lot of rain and a lot of sunshine.

While in Berlin we looked at the map and realised how close Poland was, so we hopped on a train and found ourselves in the city of Poznan. The whole thing was spontaneous and so our expectations were perhaps not high, but we really loved it. The old-town is just beautiful, full of colourful dollhouse-like buildings and the scent of history lingering in the air. The food was phenomenal and the vodka very dangerous. We encountered many friendly and open people who really made us feel welcome and ensured that Poznan would become rooted in the "favourite places travelled to" category. (On reflection, that category is pretty big actually.) Poznan also found a special place in my heart due to its connection with Hungary via its 1956 uprising - the city revolted against the Russians just a few months before Hungary did. (Contrary to popular belief neither of these were "anti-communist" per se, rather "anti-foreign-oppressors".) It was the Hungarian revolution that brought my maternal grandparents to New Zealand and so it's a big part of my identity too, and the Poznan connection was previously unknown to me. Poznan pays homage to the revolution's sentiments and victims with a great little museum and a massive, very impressive monument in the city centre. Solidarity with the Hungarian cause and "freedom fighters" is expressed in both these memorials, and also popped up in conversation with a few locals.

After a couple of nights back in Berlin we were on the road again, this time heading for Amsterdam. My cousin R's friendly face awaited us in this city of canals and coffeehouses (not to mention an inordinate amount of bicycles whose rate that can be compared to NZ's sheep population), and she took very good care of us. Due to the distances between our homes we have never really spent much time together and yet we share many traits that we can only put down to inherited family genes, so it was quite special to be able to just hang out together. I also loved wandering the city's tiny bridges and sensed an elusive, energetic life-rhythm pulsing in the streets.

For me, one of the highlights of the visit was seeing Anne Frank's house in the city centre. I read her diary countless times when I was younger and it still sits on my bookshelf at home. Back then I was always enthralled by the similarities in our lives and feelings despite the enormous differences between our situations, and inspired by her ability (especially given her young age) to express sentiments that seemed so personal and unique. I suppose it was one of the first times I encountered the truth of my father's old adage "the most private feelings are the most universal". Visiting the house though, walking the rooms and seeing the posters still in the bedroom, imagining the forced quiet chaos lived between those walls, was the first time the very tragedy of these facts hit home. That such a special and yet very ordinary girl was subject first to the restraints of living in hiding and then to the unimaginable horrors of a concentration camp, not to mention her death one month before the camp's liberation, was really brought to life for me. (As a side note though, this experience, like most popular tourist attractions, was a bit dampened by the amount of jostling and neck-craning required.)

Soon we were back in Berlin, this time in a dance choreographer's Kreuzberg studio apartment with a huge empty wooden floor space and geraniums in the windows. Our neighbours were a friendly Irish couple who we would have coffee and long conversations about Ireland and New Zealand and life in general with on a small wooden bench outside or, when the weather turned colder, at our place. One afternoon our other neighbours, who we hadn't yet met, knocked on our door to say they were moving out and could we please take a spare five bottles of wine off their hands? We found a wonderful bar at the end of the street full of old photographs, dusty bottles of spirits, locals and cigarette smoke. It also boasted two gorgeous dogs - a huge, resigned black one and an energetic little beige one. Needless to say we became regulars there, as we did (to some extent) at a beer garden a few streets away from us, with coloured fairy lights and a roaring fire. While in Berlin I discovered that a New Zealand friend, B, was living just a neighbourhood away. We met during German classes at university and revelled in the fact that, after about three years of not really keeping in touch, we could pick up where we left off and practice in Berlin what we'd learned in Wellington - it was one of life's cool little surprises.

A little while later I found myself in Vác, about half an hour from Budapest where some of my Hungarian relatives live and where I spent a lot of time at various phases in my life. Admittedly it was very strange at first - walking these streets and sitting in these lounge rooms remind me very strongly of being nine or 13 or 18 years old depending on how the light falls. I haven't been back since before I started university and it felt remarkable to see the things that had changed and others that remain the same. I wondered how I would fall into the rhythm of things here as an adult but ultimately I found my balance.

So being here, for me, is a peculiar mix of the familiar and the new as I walk a jagged line between local and visitor. There is joy to be found in being somewhere the language flows easily from my lips and where I recognise the pattern of the streets, and a different but equal thrill in (re-)discovering the secrets of these places. I suppose it adds to the experience that I have a pretty hopeless memory, so places present themselves to me with the vague and unplaceable remnants of experiences floating in the air.

The New York Coffee House
While here I've been host to two separate friends visiting and so I have indulged in some of the more touristy pleasures that Budapest has to offer. Drinking overpriced wine (about equal to a glass in NZ) at "the most beautiful cafe in the world", the New York Kávéház, full of tourists, decadently decorative fixtures and over a hundred years of history. Luxuriating in the warm waters of the thermal baths at the Széchényi Fürdő. Wandering the rows of fresh food and folk embroidery and leather bags at the Vásárcsarnok, hearing the mix of retired Hungarians' and excited tourists' conversations there. Walking along the Danube past the beautiful bridges that straddle the divide between the two previously separate cities of Buda and Pest is always a favourite pass time. It's an experience that is transformed with each change of light, daytime and season, one that passes unnoticed by many locals and causes wonderment in many tourists. In this sense I guess I fall more into the visitor category because it takes my breath away each time.

In other ways, I have fallen back into the life I left behind in 2006. I've returned to singing with the Váci Vox Humana, the choir that my late great-great-uncle conducted for 42 years and is a cornerstone in my relatives' lives here. Members of the choir approach me with affectionate smiles to ask about my parents and my grandmother, who left this town with only a handkerchief in hand over 50 years ago - people who knew her and her family in a way I never did. My grandmother's uncle has been on my mind a bit recently as it's the anniversary of his death now - I didn't know him all that well but he was a special person who left behind a big legacy. He's always left an impression of me and I remember writing a story about him for a high school assignment. A week ago we sang Fauré's Requiem which is one of my all-time favourite pieces of choral music, and, as predicted, I was carried away with the irreplaceable feeling of being one voice of many giving life to a timeless and evocative piece of music. Another familiar and faraway feeling brought to the fore.

Here is where I will finish. There will be many more things to write in the coming weeks and I will try not to wait so long to "put pen to paper" next time (especially because if I do I'll be just about back in NZ). As always sok szeretettel.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A little familiar


It is a lovely Sunday morning in Berlin. This sentence might predictably be followed by a description of a bustling street filled with buskers and street art and large umbrellas shading café tables. Actually, though, I am sitting on a concrete slab of a balcony looking out from this concrete slab of an apartment building onto the concrete slab of a supermarket opposite. (The supermarket is like a library. The aisles are quiet and well ordered.  The building is low and unimposing and speaks accurately to the lack of tiny bottles of expensive and exotic food inside. Exotic to Germans, I mean, because of course to me even the most budget leberwurst is a little exotic.)

World Clock on Alexander Platz
Nonetheless, it is lovely. The sun is shining and the expanse of grass separating this Soviet style collection of shoebox apartments from the road has been freshly mown. This is an example of something that has occurred to me a few times in the two weeks we have been in Berlin. The sun shines less here than in Montpellier – the streets are less picturesque, less romantic – and the city wears its fraught history on its sleeve, on its walls and behind its windows. And yet, it is immediately closer to my heart than the pretty, carefree Mediterranean city we have just left. 

Perhaps this should have been obvious because of Berlin’s proximity, not so much geographically as socially, culturally and historically to my Hungarian roots, or I could take a bit of a self-centred-psychoanalytical approach and say that the past and present morally and socially chaotic nature of this place resonates more with my personality and my history than Montpellier did. Writing this, though, it strikes me that it’s probably simply that there are places you connect with and ones you don’t so much and if I wanted to subject you all to my philosophical ramblings on the subject I likely should have warned you (sorry).

Anyway! All that is not to say I didn’t like Montpellier. The streets of Montpellier (in the centre at least) are nearly all beautiful and summer is a wonderful time to be there. One of my favourite parts of our time there were the free classical music concerts put on by Radio France. For two weeks, I had the opportunity nearly every day to enter the cool air of the concert hall Le Corum just minutes from our apartment, at noon and in the evening, and listen to young prodigies or more established talents play beautiful old works as well as more challenging (or, let’s be honest – to my ears, nearly unbearable) contemporary pieces.

I was especially happy to have heard Debussy’s Claire de Lune played in a French concert hall and to have an older French lady sitting next to me lean over and say c’est merveilleux! The same pianist played an encore that was an enchanting piece previously unknown to me by Franck – I’ve since listened to this link played by Hungarian Gyula Kiss countless times (typical to Hungarian artists, he plays the piece at least twice as slowly as most other pianists and therefore lends it a very endearing melancholy). Since we’ve been travelling I’ve experienced that clichéd feeling that possessions aren’t important (with the exception of a few essentials, e.g. passport, camera, toothbrush or at least some breath mints…) – they get lost or broken or left behind and life goes on. This feeling and (probably more importantly) the baffling weight of my suitcase has left me uninspired by souvenir shopping – but I feel like that short piece of music is a treasure found in the city that I can take with me.

Just up from Le Corum a staggered set of stairs leads to a leafy park/boulevard where we used to enjoy our Friday nights. The city puts on a wonderful (again, free) festival where each week wine, food and music are on offer.  For five euros each we’d pick up a festival wine glass and our three coupons and join the hundreds of other wine “tasters” mobbing winegrowers from around France. Once we became seasoned in the art we abandoned the wine tasting and instead brought our own bottle of wine to share among the other evening picnic-ers sprawled on the grass, nodding our heads along to the beat of the covers band on stage and sampling the paella, enormous oysters and salami rolls on offer. The highlight for me each week was the makeshift stage set up for ballroom dancing, apparently random couples coming and going or individuals pairing up, some wearing dancing shoes and others jandals, moving in sync with a tango or some tune from the 20s.

It was so hot the entire time in Montpellier that jackets and jeans became a distant memory (it’s funny how quickly this feeling appears). Our charming little flat had lots of big windows that could coax a breeze through the rooms, but the best respite from the heat were trips to the beach or river. One day a friend M had met years ago took us to Pont Du Diable, an old arched stone bridge sitting over a river where we joined the kids and old folks in the cool water. In our first two weeks we stayed in a small hostel/homestay where we’d sometimes accompany the owners on a drive to Palavas, the beach town just a few k’s from Montpellier. This was everything I hoped for from my first experience of the Mediterranean sea – blazing sun, white sand and warm (very salty) water. A later weekend saw us train and bus to the nearby town of Sete, where yet another free festival invited beach goers to enjoy DJs and beer stands in between sunbathing and swimming.

When it was too hot to make the hour-long journey by tram to the water, I came to love the – until then completely foreign – idea of sitting among other wilting patrons at a café on the main square, Comedie, being sprayed with misty clouds of tiny icy water drops (I did spare a though for the people I love freezing in Wellington). 

(Naturally I also became a regular at the local English language bookshop/cafe. The book lover part of me can’t help mentioning my delight at the impressive collection of English language novels found in our rented flat. More than a few stifling evenings were spent reading/discovering/being enthralled by LP Hartley, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan, Alison Lurie and even that controversial book The Help … honestly, I really loved working my way through that mini library. I feel a bit embarrassed about this, maybe because books are sometimes seen as a way of travelling or experiencing without getting up from your armchair in your suburban house with a picket fence, and why waste time on that when you are “out there” in the world? But for me, (good) books have always been more of a lens, like a kaleidoscope that can make squares look like triangles or hexagons just by changing the angle. They offer more than a story – by pointing out or exploring the assumed or the unobserved, they invite me to do the same long after I’ve finished reading – whether at home or on the road. In other words, they enrich whatever's going on around me. That might be why I like McEwan when others find him banal … like maybe this paragraph is becoming?)

Leaving Montpellier brought an end to our affair with France. We chugged along through the night by train and found ourselves, for the first time in nearly six months, somewhere with a tinge of familiarity. Both M and I have spent time in Germany before but this is the first time we’ve seen Berlin. Here we met yet another of M’s old friends (M is a very friendly guy), who lives about 20 minutes from the centre in old East Berlin, where I’m writing from now.

Mauerpark
Where to start about Berlin? As I said, I connect to the place partly via my Hungarian side. The remnants of the Iron Curtain are visible in the same way in the style of some buildings and more imperceptibly in people’s attitudes. (Also in the hairstyles of the middle-aged check-out women at the supermarket.) In many ways the effects are much more noticeable here due to the way they’re contrasted – while Hungary’s economy/politics are considered “generally” post-Soviet, here there is a continued disparity between wages in (old) West and East Berlin, in the same city, same currency, same jobs, nearly a quarter of a century after the Wall came down. I suppose this is the less romantic equivalent of parts of the Wall itself that remain standing, invariably decorated with graffiti or street art, or chips of it that are sold in plastic pouches. But neither Hungary nor Berlin can be defined simply by this small part of their history – the food, in particular, is also similar and I have delighted in finding Hungarian favourites in the supermarket (e.g. Pick salami and "tévé paprika").

My NZ side has also been nourished though. One Sunday brought back especially vivid memories of Wellington when we went to a cafe/music venue called St. Gaudy's to hear Mara Simpson and Hollie Smith play. I first came to know Mara's music through the bars like Havana in Wellington, dimly lit and buzzing with activity while local artists (my brother included, at the time) pour their dreams and disappointments into a microphone. In Berlin the difference was that the audience was seated, distracted only when taking a sip of beer, but there were enough Kiwis there to feel like we were at home. It was the first time I'd seen Hollie Smith live and she was as fantastic as she's famed to be, and down to earth (or maybe just "Kiwi"?) enough to have an easy chat with beforehand.

We also discovered a place named Kiwi Pub and it is just that. Drinking Monteiths and talking to bar owner John from Papatoetoe (a pretty classic Kiwi bloke) was just what we needed to help ward off that mid-year homesickness. A week later we met a fellow couple of NZ travellers on a similar mission to our own while watching a Bledisloe Cup game at an Irish pub at midday with a couple of beers in hand ... we took them back to meet John and cruised our way through the evening swapping stories about travel and about home in equal measure. Choice.

As for Berlin in general - it is as vibrant and vivacious as I'd heard. To me, the way the city confronts its history has been especially impressive ...The slightly ironic way the security booth that separated the "American" sector from the "Russian" at Checkpoint Charlie remains in tact next to what is now a huge McDonalds. The incomprehensible mass of stone cubes to represent the Holocaust and its victims (somewhat desecrated by sunbathing or cube-jumping young people - does this mean something sinister, is it disrespectful or forgetful? Or is it just natural, inadvertent? Or maybe it's some kind of triumph of normality/joy over horror?). The "Topography of Terror" at the site of the old Gestapo building, an outdoor exhibition that traces the (many) darker parts of Berlin's recent history, in one long, seemingly endless straight line.

One of my favourite experiences where the city's history and its present state are juxtaposed has been Sunday at Mauerpark. Mauerpark literally means "Wall park" and it is a huge grassy area flanked on one side by a large section of the Wall that still stands (pictured above). A footpath follows the Wall, dotted with wooden benches and with single wooden swings here and there. Swinging on one of these means being flung backwards towards the Wall and then forwards, away from it to look over the whole park. On Sundays the park fills with picnic-ers, sunbathers, lovers and a massive flea market where crafts, clothes and knick-knacks from way before the Wall went up can be haggled for. The best part though, to me, is the mass karaoke that takes place each week. Hundreds of people sit in the sun on a semi circle of steep stairs in front of the Wall to watch complete strangers try their hand at the Backstreet Boys (etc). Below them a DJ sits on the stage with some speakers and a microphone under a sun umbrella. Everyone laughs, cheers and sings along - when we went, "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" was a big hit. (Not to worry though, we also heard an old German hit that was apparently very popular.) I was completely besotted with this casual and awesome expression of unity right up against the symbol of the city's recent division.

I've also loved discovering Berlin's quirky cafes, wandering Museum Island (although the lines/admission prices have so far kept us admiring from the outside) and enjoying the makeshift beaches that pop up randomly throughout the city. One of these was next to the Spree (the river running through Berlin), but another, quite similar one, is simply in otherwise the concrete laden Mitte (centre district) - hut-style bars surrounded by inexplicable sand and beach umbrellas - as strange as they sound, very charming!

This is where I'll finish. We have quite a bit of travelling planned for the next couple of weeks so there'll be lots more to tell next time - until then, viele liebe as always.

P.S. I can't believe I nearly forgot ... the beer and bratwurst in Berlin are, of course, phenomenal (and frequently enjoyed).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A little dreaming

Here I am, sitting in a windy summer garden to begin my blog post to you and I am loving it. Despite growing up in Wellington where one is fully entitled to become thoroughly sick of the wind, the rustling leaves around me are a welcome respite from the intense heat of today. (Actually it reminds me of a chapter from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in which a village is plagued by incessant winds for years. I remember thinking how this seemed, like the other scenes in the book, to be magical and enchanting ... only be caught in one of Wellington's chilly gusts and recant my earlier observation immediately. But maybe I was too quick to do so ...)

We are in Montpellier, in the south of France. The heat surrounds us like disappointment or excitement might, completely and insistently. It reminds us both of Seville and while we moan about it now and then, it is refreshing in its own way. And with the beach nearby and the infectious festive spirit pervading the city, it seems silly to take a few sweat patches too seriously. Also of course there is the mere fact of being in the south of France - the subject of so many trashy books, celebrity gossip columns and retirement dreams. More importantly (and appealingly), my dreams.

Before we came here another of my dreams came true - Paris. (Paris, Je t'aime. "Sitting in a park in Paris, France/Reading the news and it sure looks bad" - Joni Mitchell, all time favourite. And all those high school French classes, of course.) We took a spontaneous trip with our friend in Reims, whose brother lives there - or more precisely in Clichy, which is technically just outside of Paris but still along one of the main metro lines. In the end we stayed seven days and we loved it.

First and in a blindingly obvious way we headed to the Eiffel Tower. Less cliched was that we took a bike ride in the wee hours of the morning and arrived in time to see the city's icon transform from a dark shadow into the postcard version of itself as the sun rose. This meant we had one of the world's most popular tourist attractions all to ourselves and I had plenty of time and space to marvel at just being there. (Also to take about 150 photos, many of which unsurprisingly turned out to look pretty similar.)

While in Paris we saw most of the other tourist attractions I had read about during French class ... The Sacre Coeur, a magnificent cathedral overlooking the city from the charming Montmatre neighbourhood. The Louvre, complete with its late addition controversial glass pyramids and its overwhelming collection of art. This included, of course, the secretive Mona Lisa, who I believe is done great justice to by Nat King Cole. It is also, as rumour has it, both small and mostly obscured by the protective glass (uncommon in the rest of the museum) and hordes of tourists in front of it. The Notre Dame, where mass was held amidst the teeming visitors armed with digital cameras. The expansive, expensive Champs Elysee, flanked by springtime green trees leading to the Arc de Triomphe, weirdly marooned in the middle of a frightening round-about - a beacon of history among the most modern vehicles money can buy. Finally, on our last day, Hotel des Invalides, an incredible museum where World Wars One and Two come alive and Napoleon's remains lie buried in an enormous tomb.

That's the postcard stuff (funnily enough we didn't end up buying any postcards ... sorry everyone!). I found it all very exciting, but looking back it is the less generic experiences that remind me that yes, I was in Paris. On our third day we found ourselves in the rain at 7.30am, not knowing where or if we would be staying that night. Hauling our enormous, increasingly wet bags around, we found a small bar that was open, apparently for the benefit of a few early morning beer drinkers, and ordered some much needed coffee. Subsequently we spent three hours in the nearby McDonalds, taking advantage of their wifi and looking for a way to stay just a few more days. In the end a friend of a friend came through and we were able to spend another few nights with them, right in the 10th district, just a few strides away from the Sacre Coeur! Well I've never been so happy just to have accommodation, to be honest.

In fact it rained nearly the entire time we were there. One afternoon I was caught on the Pont Neuf (walking across the Seine from the Notre Dame to the Louvre) in a huge downpour, thunder bellowing behind me and my umbrella refusing to behave. I rushed to the safety of the metro station only to find that the hordes of people and my relative unfamiliarity with the metro lines was just about equivalent to or maybe worse than being harassed by the storm.

I had just come from Shakespeare & Co, an English language book shop and library/reading room in the heart of Paris, which used to be frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and was used as an office by James Joyce (in fact, the original owner, Sylvia Beach, was first to publish Ulysses). Apparently many of the staff currently employed are also aspiring writers. Its collection of books was truly impressive, and the reading room upstairs has a certain magic to it - the ghosts of many writers and dreams and ideas lurking amidst so many old, dusty editions. Outside a fiddler's busking also seemed to echo another time. Frankly though, like many famous places in Paris (including those listed above), the place's charm was a little obscured by the number of tourists, and the jostling and loud voices that must follow from such a large number of people wanting to see or experience the same thing at the same time.

In the evening however I arrived early enough to get a seat in the tiny reading room to hear Debra Sparks give a lecture entitled "Where Do Stories Comes From?". For an hour or so I felt transported into the role of "writer moves to Paris to work on novel by a small window overlooking the Seine, smoking cigarettes and occasionally walking down the street to buy a baguette or to meet with other expat writers to discuss the newest chapter". I took some notes, stayed quiet when it came to question time so as not to interrupt the stream of "questions" beginning with "well I have this manuscript ...", and because the books were outlandishly expensive, bought a book bag when it came time to leave to remind me of my Parisian writer's reverie.

(As a side note, I made another two unsuccessful trips to other English language bookshops renowned for their selection of books and tea, which had sadly both closed. Happily though there is a cafe/English language bookshop here in Montpellier called Le Bookshop, which I like very much despite the fact that they didn't give me a job when I asked for one ...)

Probably my favourite parts of Paris were the most ordinary - walking the hilly, cobbled streets of Montmatre, drinking coffee from wobbly tables on the pavement and stopping to buy fruit on the way back to the apartment. Also - as strange as it may seem - eating at the lovely Thai restaurant just around the corner recommended to us by our hosts. It's funny what can make you feel like a local sometimes.

And now we find ourselves in Montpellier. A warm city close to the beach, full of cafes and plazas and a Mediterranean feel. And, it must also be mentioned, an inordinate amount of beggars sitting on street corners and hassling people at tram-ticket machines, as well as seemingly perfectly well-off strangers who ask for cigarettes (I have a very low tolerance for this). We spent a few days staying in a tiny apartment with another friend M met in New York, and then moved on again to a big house with a lovely garden, an adorable geriatric little dog and a cast of eccentric characters. We spent ten days there taking regular trips to the beach and lolling on the shady terrace, acclimatising to the immense heat. During our evening forays into the city centre we saw people playing music and dancing in the street - once for the nation-wide Fete de la Musique and once for no apparent reason except it was Saturday (and a few hen's parties converging out of happy coincidence). We have now settled for the next few weeks in an apartment on a charming and busy street, so stayed tuned ...

With love as always, Z.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A little champagne


Continuing from last time ...

At this point we experienced a few more typical and much less inspiring quirks of travelling - snagging the worst (i.e. slowest) check-in counter at the airport, throwing things into the rubbish bin out of my too-heavy suitcase, waiting throughout the dead wee hours at Charles de Gaulle airport along with a few homeless people, dazedly catching the right train(s - there were two, and then the tram) and finally ending up in Reims, Champagne. The breakfast croissants at the train-station cafe did help although subsequent experience has proven our initial impression that the French don't really have coffee down to a tee like NZ does (like rugby I suppose ... har har). 

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In Reims' was our first friend from NZ. Going somewhere you know people is quite different from just plunging into an unknown city. Within a day or so one of his friends drove us all to a forest where we wandered among branches and bark and leaves and picked the last of the season's lily-of-the-valley. On our first night we went to watch another friend's band play at a bar and I ended up singing a sort of karaoke version of "Stand By Me" with a girl called Elodie and a band made up of short, potbellied, greying and very jolly men. 

We did also explore the city's main tourist attraction, its very own 800 year old Notre Dame. This is no copy-cat cathedral - Reims used to be the capital of France and many a French king was crowned here. The cathedral received more than its fair share of bombing during various wars, especially WWI and WWII, but is still standing and pretty magnificent, if a little battered. The other night there was a light-show projected onto it (as part of a festival in honour of Joan of Arc, who is much loved here) and it was spectacular. Accompanied by music, it depicted the cathedral being built, the men and the scaffolding, the wars, and the apparently original colours it was painted all those years ago (something I didn't know ... the architecture is always so impressive that I never imagined these massive works of art would actually have been painted, too). 

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We spent a few days in Reims (where we began our ongoing discovery of the the delights of French supermarket and bakery shopping) and then hopped on a train again to get to a tiny French village that most French people haven't heard of, called Carignan. This is L's hometown and we loved it so much we stayed nearly two weeks instead of four days. L's parents welcomed us with absolute warmth and also with foie gras (chicken liver pate), escargot (snails) and plenty of champagne. 

During our time there we visited the neighbouring towns. Sedan, home to Europe's largest castle from the Middle Ages at 35,000 square metres.  Here we explored dark narrow passage ways and wandered rooms that housed kings and queens and soldiers. Charleville-Mézières, which hosted the Fete de la Biere (beer fest) that we attended. I'm sure you can all imagine what a beer fest involves so suffice to say I got to know Chimay beer quite intimately and that we made friends with some people from Reunion Island. Also that we saw a pretty amazing Victorian/zombie dance to Michael Jackson's Thriller, which was (I'm sorry, I just can't help it) thrilling. 

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Bouillon, view from the castle
Carignan is actually closer to Belgium than it is to any decent sized town in France. M and I exhibited typical NZ delight when L said "let's go to Belgium to watch the football game tonight". Going to another country just to watch the game! Going to another country and coming back within just a few hours! As it turns out French people in the area go to Belgium regularly as many things are much cheaper there than in France. In fact most of the time it was quite unnoticeable that we had passed into another country (no border crossing as such). We ended up making a few trips to Florenville (to watch the game), Orval (to try Orval beer and glimpse the abbey whose monks came up with it) and Bouillon. Bouillon was very picturesque and also housed a huge castle, owned by Godfrey (or Godefroy) of Bouillon who later went on to lead the First Crusade and become the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (or "defender of the Holy Sepulcher"). Of course he also ended up having a beer named after him, which we sampled in the hot sun at a cafe close to the river. 

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One of the most memorable parts of our visit to Carignan was visiting a fort on the Maginot line. The first and only one to be captured in fighting with the Germans. The Maginot line runs from Dunkirk to Corsica across the entire length of the French - German border (and also the French - Italian one), was built over decades and considered genius. This fort was the only one in which all soldiers protecting it died, many from asphyxiation. 

By coincidence we visit on the 72nd anniversary of the day they died, 19 May 1940. On this day we are lead through the first weapon block by a young guy dressed in an old soldier's uniform, who is very passionate about the fort and its story. We see the weapons, the kitchen block, how eletricity was generated and the rows of bunk beds. We see the steel doors blown apart by the force of explosions and are told about all the different things that went wrong and why. Later we descend a square spiral of stairs until we are 25 metres underground. Then we walk a concrete tunnel not wider than a metre and a half and very long. The tunnel connects the two weapon blocks and it's where most of the soldiers ended up trapped. There are 107 dead and dying men around us, panicking and praying and remembering their families. I feel claustraphobic and profoundly sad and I can't wait to get out into the fresh air.

I guess that sounds like I hated it but actually I found it very interesting and very moving. 

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On a less sombre note ... another highlight of our visit was the kindness of the people we met. L's father, P, was recovering from a foot operation and therefore at home during the day with us. He didn't speak a word of English, M's French was about the same (it's since improved) and mine was quite limited. Nonetheless we formed a good friendship that involved a lot of hand gestures and pointing. Watching P and M cook a barbecue or cheer on the same team together was both funny and really quite cool. It turns out you don't need to speak the same language to understand what the other is saying. L's mother turned out to have a level of English that surprised everyone including herself (her initial would also be M ... very confusing), but I still had plenty of chances to practice my high school French with her and others. 

Anyway, their kindness and openness was abundant. On our first evening we were taken down to one of the village's three or four bars, the Cafe de la Place, to share a drink with the locals (who we were to see more than once after that). I think it was from this point that we began to feel at home. We also loved getting into the practice of having "apero" (short for aperitif), i.e. a drink and nibbles before dinner, which really is already within both our natures. 

L's parents were good friends with their neighbours who owned the "Friterie" down the road. This means a caravan where burgers and all their ingredients in various different forms are served, as well as fries. When I pictured French food I did not envisage myself eating a long bun which is practically obscured due to all the fries in and around it, but admittedly this dish is called an "Amercain". At any rate Friteries seem to be quite common in the north-east of France but this one was special. Philippe and Sylvie (who, again, spoke no English whatsoever) were lively and warm with, from what I gathered, a slightly dirty sense of humour and raucous, contagious laughs that made regular appearances. On our last night we were invited into their home for farewell champagne and encouragement to come back any time and as soon as we liked - preferably in time for their son's wedding the following weekend.



Monday, June 4, 2012

A little of the south

Bonjour from France! We have been here three weeks in the company of friends met in NZ and have been loving the pain au chocolate, the little bits of home that pop up in conversation, and the accompanying feeling that the world is quite small.

A lot has happened in the four weeks since I last wrote, and also I recently raced through Emily Perkins' newest novel The Forrests (a surprise package that turned up in a small French village from my pretty amazing family), which really lived up to my expectations, as I so hoped it would (Perkins being one of my favourite authors). In it she successfully leads the reader through nearly the entire lives of the main characters in a very personal way with the use simply of one anecdote or life event full of beautifully described ordinary details per chapter. As with all good books, I found it very inspiring. Viola, some short snippets from the past little while ...

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We managed to successfully navigate the adventure that is flying with a cheap European airline and then finding the bus station, purchasing tickets in a language you don't really speak and trundling along past olive groves for three hours to finally reach Granada. Like many things when travelling, this otherwise mundane experience brought with it a decent sense of achievement and some minor fascination. Dismay also threatened to make an appearance when we were staring out the bus' windows at the grey, industrial looking outskirts of Seville and Granada - where was the beautiful Andalusia that everyone had told us about? Soon enough though we were, indeed, among churches and plazas and road-side orange trees. 

The next morning we hauled ourselves out of bed when it was still dark in order to visit the most popular tourist attraction in Spain, the Alhambra (Andalusia's Gaudi). A very animated taxi driver took us through the winding streets and up the hill, turning tiny corners with precision - cheerful, laughing, hurrying to get us there on time, telling us all about Andalusia and how Granada is the fairest city of them all. At about 7.30am we were faced with the huge, sleepy cue for tickets, the sun not yet fully risen. Thanks to an insider tip from our hostel's owner we managed  to find the shortest line, tiny cups of dark coffee in hand, and be in the gates just after opening.

The day was spent wandering the extraordinary palaces, prison grounds and gardens of the Alhambra. Thanks to the way it is maintained, this felt like walking side by side with the "foppish ghosts" (a very apt phrase courtesy of the Lonely Planet guide) who inhabited its grounds, like stepping back in time and discovering that something so old it seems like fiction really is (/was) a reality.
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On our last night we weaved through the white houses of the hilltop neighbourhood Albaicin to see the Alhambra lit up. We watched the moon rise as the sky became darker and the orange lights flicked on one by one. Afterwards we found a bar where free tapas were served with each 1.50 euro beer and, being in the South (where English is hardly spoken), we pulled out the phrasebook to try to decipher the menu (although we eventually went with our usual, "what the hell, let's get this strange-sounding one" strategy anyway). The owner took a liking to us and when we refused food with the last beer because we couldn't possibility eat any more, he (while at first appearing a little offended) decided to compensate by bringing out three shots of beer for us to share over some jumbled, hand-gesture laden conversation, followed by some chilled dessert wine. And so Granada welcomed us with open arms.

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Rain slashed the bus' windows for three hours straight on our way to Sevilla but as we began walking the sun peeked out and decided to stick around for our whole stay. We were immediately enthralled by the city centre, the gorgeous buildings and tiny streets (with even tinier and thereby mostly ineffective footpaths). A few hours later we found ourselves sitting on a boat-bar on the river drinking (of course) Alhambra beer and feeling... well, pretty stoked. 

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Our hostel was a 500 year old building with tiled walls inside and three rooftop terraces. One of them had a hammock which we made great use of, especially one morning after admittedly overindulging in the vino tinto at a few of Sevilla's side-street bars. Surrounded by hundreds of roofs and a few church steeples that seemed so close you could just about jump onto them, every square metre offering a quirky or beautiful detail - I felt days and days could be spent looking at the view. That night we were still up there (having returned from a brief foray into the city centre) which turned out to be the perfect spot to watch a huge Mothers' Day parade (held in Spain on the first Sunday of May, as it is in Hungary). Like Easter, this was a very religious event, a huge statute of the Virgin Mary being carried down the street surrounded by priests, marching bands and onlookers. 

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One evening we went to a flamenco show at the world's only Flamenco Museum. Having avoided them  in Barcelona for fear of being ripped off, and because Andalusia is the home of flamenco (among most other things "Spanish"), we were lucky enough to attend one of the twice-daily shows that included the Museum's choreographer along with his partner, a guitarist and a singer (who all did individual performances as well as together). And we were suitably dazzled (inspired, awed, enlightened as to what all the fuss is about ...) by the emotion, energy and skill displayed. It just about made up for our collective disappointment in coming to Sevilla during one of the few weeks when there was no bull-fight to watch. Being illegal in Catalonia (and undoubtedly, soon everywhere), we (especially M) had been excited to watch this age-old Spanish tradition. However, loving Sevilla as much as we did made it easy for us to resolve to go back to remedy this. 

The following night we attended a paella class (not really necessary as M had already put his hand to it a few times during our weeks in Barcelona and has really mastered it) hosted by the hostel. We drank sangria and got chatting to some of the interesting (or kooky or completely normal depending on your point of view) people that one mets at a hostel - the Aussie guy who appears intent on visiting at least several dozen countries and is apparently making good progress; the Dutch guy with South-East Asian heritage who takes hundreds of photos, mostly of people he's just met and will probably never see again (except in the photos ...); the lovely, cheerful Spanish lady who runs the hostel and rather surprisingly throws a few swearwords into her English conversation. 

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One more night in Barcelona before our Spanish adventures ends, or at least takes a pause. Of course we go to Les Tapes. We take wine and a card and stay till after closing talking with S and B. Email addresses and promises to keep in touch are eagerly exchanged but we can't help feeling a bit sad as we make the same walk home for the last time. I think this is what's called bittersweet, and it's also completely typical of travelling. So, as a first, it was perhaps a little shock to the system in preparation for all the goodbyes that meeting wonderful people necessitates. 



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As always with love - France coming soon!




Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A little Catalan

Recently I had my last Spanish class here in Barcelona. Quite predictably, I felt a funny sense of nostalgia even though I had only been attending for six weeks. Walking to and from school two mornings a week had become one of my few routines here and I had really enjoyed the lessons themselves too. The school was recommended to me by a friend taking Portuguese night classes - a shopfront that appears to sell books and wine (obviously this combination immediately endeared the place to me) but which also has a short corridor down the back with doors either side that open onto small classrooms. My class would vary between only two and four students and once I even ended up having a "private" lesson in which my teacher, Elisenda, and I discussed Spanish literature (in Spanish, for the most part!).

In fact Elisenda grew up speaking Catalan at home and later learned Spanish at school. The same is true vice versa for children living in Barcelona - those who speak Spanish at home learn Catalan at school. This mixture of languages pervades the city, except for street signs, which are almost exclusively in Catalan. When we first arrived, not speaking either language, M and I struggled to know which was which - in shop windows, at newspaper stands, and especially when hearing the languages spoken. (I felt less silly about this when an Italian friend told us that, despite her language background, she felt the same way when she first moved here.) In some ways they are indeed similar, but they are also quite different. The easiest way the describe it is that Catalan is closer to (old) French and further away from English than Spanish is.

In our first weeks here we endeavoured to speak Catalan (we even bought a dictionary!) but ultimately ended up switching to Spanish because while Catalonians are very proud of their language, Spanish is easier to use for our tourist-related purposes (that's of course when people don't immediately start speaking English to us). This is true especially in such a cosmopolitan city where not only are many people not Spanish but there are also many Spaniards here who are not from Catalonia. For example, I mentioned in an earlier post that our flatmate is from Galicia - he came to Barcelona for university a few years ago. His mother-tongue is Spanish but he also grew up speaking Galician, which he tells me is more similar to Portuguese (given that Galicia neighbours Portugal) than anything else. He speaks a little bit of Catalan and understands it, but generally finds Spanish (technically Castilian) to be sufficient living here. And naturally Spanish is more useful language in general (being I think the second or third most widely spoken language in the world) than Catalan, although coming from my Hungarian background, where the language is also limited to mostly one area, I don't really like using this as an excuse.

When we were in Montserrat recently, I bought a CD of Catalan songs by a singer named Marina Rossell (the recommendation actually came from my father who discovered her through his internet travels shortly after I left NZ!). It's full of traditional 18th and 19th century Catalan folk songs with a bit of a modern spin. I love the music and the CD was a real find because the liner notes contain all the lyrics in Catalan, Castilian, French and English, so I have been able to gain an understanding of the music's meaning, too. Some of the lyrics' sentiments really remind me of feelings relating to national pride and alienation expressed in Hungarian songs, which makes them very relatable for me, such as -

Sweet Catalonia
country of my heart
when parted from you 
of longing one dies. 
(Track 1, The emigrant)

We are and shall be catalan people,
whether they want or not,
for there is no prouder land 
under the light of the sun.


God passed there in springtime
and all was song at His step.
Sing earth, sing still
and sing that you may sing.
(Track 2, The Sacred Thorn)


These feelings obviously date back centuries and at the same time are still current, especially as Franco's oppression of the Catalan language and culture is still vivid in people's memories. We were lucky enough to have a conversation about this with S at Les Tapes, who grew up in Barcelona after moving here from Andalusia when he was very young. Of course the conversation started out about football, but actually the subject of football and Catalan pride are not all that separate.

Barcelona has two footballs teams - the famed "Barca" or FCB team of course and another team named Espanyol. The teams, according to S, hate one another. The main reason for this is Espanyol's good relationship with the Real Madrid team which, as in politics, is considered a capital-city oppressor who thinks they have a right to control what goes on in Catalonia, in football and in local government. (For football fans: S told us the story of one of the greatest footballers of all time, Di Stefano, being signed to FCB before Real Madrid apparently "changed the rules" so that he ended up playing for Real Madrid and becoming their 1950s version of Messi, if not better - that is, he was effectively stolen.) Another reason is that the team's name, Espanyol, is considered a betrayal for a Catalan team because Catalonians are Catalan before they are Spanish. This is evident even walking down Barcelona's balcony-lined streets where the Catalan flag hangs from many windows while the Spanish flag is nowhere to be seen (except at the doors of government or other official buildings). However, as a Barcelonan friend J was telling me, everyone celebrates equally when the Spanish national football team qualifies for or wins a regional or global tournament, so the feeling of separatism is not entire.

Catalonians are of course not the only cultural group in Spain to feel this way - the Basques, for example, feel a similar sense of independence. S considers that Catalan attitudes have more legitimacy because unlike the Basque terrorist/nationalist group ETA, they do not resort to violence against innocent parties to convey their frustrations at central government actions, although protests are frequent.

Catalan flags were even more prominent around Barcelona last Monday when the city celebrated Sant Jordi day. This is Catalonia's version of Valentine's day, when woman gift men books in exchange for a rose. The streets were full of book stalls (packed with spy novels, thrillers etc - suitably "male" books, M pointed out) and buckets upon buckets of roses wrapped in cellophane the colours of the Catalan flag. (Especially on La Rambla where it was practically impossible to move from the crowds - interestingly, this was one instance where there were no concessions made for tourists and all the books were in Catalan or Castilian - perhaps an indication of how "Catalan" the holiday is considered.) While variations on the legend of St George slaying a dragon to save a princess have spread across many countries in Europe, the Catalonians have really made it their own with this vibrant celebration.


M and I experienced another triumph of Catalan culture this weekend when we visited the Museo Nacional d'Art de Catalyuna, the National Museum of Catalan Art (mostly referred to as MNAC). We had been meaning to go for a while and I am so glad we did because it was just fantastic! The building itself is beautiful and the exhibitions breathtaking. They include art dating back to the 11th century right up to some of Gaudi, Dali and Picasso's works. The museum is very well set out, so much so that some of the exhibitions manage to incorporate ancient wall- and ceiling paintings into the structure of the exhibition rooms.

We spent the afternoon wandering from room to room and emerged just in time to see the Magic Fountain, which stands outside the museum, in action (this only happens for two hours in the evenings on Saturdays). This too was spectacular because not only is the fountain itself impressive, but there are also many other smaller fountains and cascades of water around MNAC and the stairs leading up to it (including either side of the road that paves the way to the building) that suddenly come alive (to the childlike delight of everyone). Hundreds of people jostled to watch the spectacle that is accompanied by music and there also happened to be a very lively drum performance happening, so there was an awesome energy about the place.


Visiting MNAC, the treasure trove of Catalan culture that it is, was, I think, a special way for us to spend part of our last weekend in Catalan country. Next time I will be sharing our journey to the south's Andalusia and I am looking forward to seeing you again then (in that strange abstract way that blogging allows). Hasta luego, como siempre con besos!


Thursday, April 19, 2012

A little spirituality

I am writing to you from one of our quieter evenings here in Barcelona - I have been meaning to write for a while but (as suitably quixotic as it may sound) walking home from the supermarket at dusk along the streets lined with newly green trees really inspired me to sit down and tell you what has been happening for the past couple of weeks.

(On a random bookish note, I am currently reading Emile Zola's Therese Raquin and he describes these springtime trees as covered with "a light, pale-green lace", which I really liked - especially in contrast to the extremely dark nature of the rest of the novel. This is the second Popular Penguin I am reading that was kindly gifted to me by the bookshop when I left - I really love how they feel to pick up and race or meander through. And of course they're light enough to be perfect for travelling, a stance I will old-fashionedly and staunchly maintain in the face of Kindles. For the booklovers I know reading, for example My Green Bookshelves (great up-and-coming blog by the way from a friend and fellow ex-bookshopper, turned publishing student) - I also recently finished Jennifer Egan's Look At Me and Ali Smith's The Accidental. It was interesting to read these one after the other as they are both predecessors to the authors' hugely successful novels A Visit From the Goon Squad and There But For The respectively. They were very good but perhaps inevitably I found them both a little disappointing, partly because I felt they explored similar themes to their younger siblings that I loved so much, only less articulately.)

Right, forgive the foray into works of fiction. I think it is still a hangover from finishing university that I so relish having the time (or lack of guilty conscience) to read novels. For me, reading in our Barcelona bedroom or on the Spanish sun warmed grass is also one of the delights of travelling - I know that coming across these books in years to come will invoke the same feelings and scents, sights that surrounded me at the time.

So back to reality and the present - recently we were enjoying one of our frequent meals at Les Tapes on what happened to be the day before their 30th birthday. We took S and B one of those aluminium models that you can "make" [fold] yourself of a tuatara for their fishtank that sits opposite the bar and is a great source of enjoyment to them and customers alike. (Thank you to my mother for having the wisdom to tell me to put a few of these sorts of things in my suitcase!) Tuatara has since taken up residence there although he's not very sturdy so he seems to spend most of the time lying down after being knocked over by the fish. We were lucky enough also to be gifted 30th anniversary t-shirts and to celebrate with a drink after closing with S and B and a friend of theirs at a bar just down the road. It was wonderful hearing their stories and experiences, about how much has changed in 30 years, and I think we both felt quite privileged.

And just over a week ago we celebrated Easter. On Good Friday we wandered down to La Rambla to see the Easter parade taking place. I was completely overwhelmed by the number of people (particularly older people) who turned out to witness and call out ("guapa, guapa!!" - "beautiful, beautiful!!") to the huge Virgin Mary and Jesus statues on big, lavishly decorated carts being carried through the city. Easter (or Pasqua in Spanish) seems much more religious than commercial here - there were only a few Easter eggs in the supermarket and no posters of Easter bunnies with colourful baskets. Instead, "Easter cakes" (Mona de Pasqua) appeared in the windows of bakeries and cake shops (traditionally given to children by their godparents) and the city seemed to empty out as families travelled out of town to enjoy the long weekend. We stayed and I spent Saturday preparing the same food that my mother makes for Easter, on my own for the first time. This was quite strange for me but ultimately satisfying - seeing the same things take shape at my own hands that my mother made so special throughout my life. Finding all the right ingredients at the supermarket was also a triumph after a number of experiences when we have carried things home only to open them and say "...this is not what I thought it was going to be - but let's eat it anyway"!

Actually this doesn't only happen with supermarket shopping ... a while ago M and I tried a restaurant near our place that came highly recommended by various reviewers. Meson David did not disappoint as they served up a huge, delicious pork leg to M for just 8 euros. It's quite a big place and obviously very popular so we enjoyed sitting and watching tourists and locals alike enjoy the food and wine under the wooden beamed ceiling. When it came time for dessert the waitress bought us a menu in Spanish, as opposed to in English, which as always was a bit of a triumph for us because (we assume) it means our Spanish is half decent or at least we do not scream "tourist" when we open our mouths (generally even when we speak Spanish people are very quick to switch to English as soon as they realise we're not locals). So we ordered and I decided to go with the mysterious "musician's dessert with love" without knowing what it was. Well ... I was served up a four euro plate of nuts and dried fruit. Or what was effectively scroggin. We couldn't help laughing, even as I lamented coming to the other side of the world only to be served scroggin, and as we tried to figure out what nuts and dried fruit have to do with music or love.

Anyway, I suppose the week following Easter was a bit of a "religious" week in general for us (disregarding the numerous non-religious elements, obviously ...). On the Sunday we visited Santa Maria Del Mar, mentioned in my last post, and marvelled at the magnificent stained glass windows and enormous, ancient stone arches inside. A few days later we hopped on an hour long train ride to get to Montserrat - a village built around the religious effigies, symbols and centuries old hermits' dwellings hidden in a spectacular mountain. The name literally means "serrated mountain", a very apt description of the beautiful stony mass that stands to the northwest of Barcelona. Words (indeed pictures) actually feel a bit inadequate to describe the sight of and feeling or energy of the place. First, it is one of those slightly unbelievable and yet completely pure examples of nature at its best. Secondly the energy that this evokes combined with the spiritual nature of the place is undeniable.


We took the steep cable car from the train station - if you can spot it, that yellow speck in the bottom right third of the picture is the car packed with 35 people. This picture was taken by M who made it climbing up the whole mountain to the other side by the dimly visible cross pictured above. I turned back after half an hour of discovering how unfit I am and how ill-chosen my footwear was. Before we started out though we checked out the fantastic Basilica not far from the cable car stop. Unfortunately we missed the famous boys' choir (reputedly the oldest in the world) that normally sings there because they were on holiday but we did spot the Black Virgin statute that the place is known for and were, again, in awe of the church itself. Later, while M was powering up the mountain, I wandered up another path on my way down past sunlight dappled monuments of the Stations of the Cross and discovered, at the top, a carved wooden seat. It looked Hungarian from afar but I told myself to snap out of it because why would it be Hungarian? Sure enough though, it was! I couldn't believe it, in the middle of Spain's one of most magnificent sites...well, what can I say, we're everywhere. I am not ashamed to say I laughed out loud in delight all by myself up on that mountain track.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A little bit random

Twice in the last few weeks M and I have acted as Barcelona locals or at the very least "seasoned tourists" for some slightly lost looking visitors. By coincidence three out of four of them happened to be Finnish (make of that what you will in light of the current Brownlee upset ...) and the other German. On both occasions it took us all about 20 minutes to find that we'd bumped into those kind of people who you don't need to know for long or well in order to have a fun night out with them.

The first couple we only spent one evening with, drinking one euro cervezas from the "cerveza men" who sell beer on every corner of every central street after hours. Often these beer cans are extracted from underneath a grate or a manhole so it's a good idea to wipe them down before drinking - and of course I guess it's not what you would call legal, just as drinking on the street isn't - nonetheless they're popular with the Barcelona nightlife. Although, like all good salesmen, the vendors are sometimes persistent to the point of annoying. Anyway, the four of us spent a lovely evening on the waterfront talking and laughing and finding the similarities in lives that seem to be completely different.

A week or so later we met another couple cautiously eying Les Tapes, which was full to the brim with regulars. We took them to another bar for some tapas and formed a three day friendship that involved the first jug(s) of sangria we've had since arriving and a party that was shut down by police 20 minutes after our arrival (a complete coincidence, obviously!). Of course we took them back to Les Tapes (which is unmissable if you're ever in Barcelona) and had a delicious meal of gambas (prawns) and fish, which, for M and me, was our first time sitting in the low-ceilinged seating area downstairs instead of at the bar. Afterwards our hosts, the bar's owners, recommended another place to try nearby to round off the night with (as Les Tapes closes at 11.30pm, partly to avoid the  neighbourhood complaints that lead to the type of police visits and fines mentioned above ...). They later joined us there after closing for a drink and to share some jokes. In other words M and I now have a surrogate aunt and uncle here in Barcelona and as you can imagine, this is one of the best things you could ask for after being in a foreign city for six weeks.

On Sunday us girls went to El Born for the afternoon, a suburb M and I haven't explored much yet. The sun and seemingly most of Barcelona's inhabitants were out enjoying the day in all its glory. We ate lunch  at a reasonably priced tourist spot only metres away from Barcelona's oldest church, Santa Maria del Mar and then headed for Parc de la Cuitadella. This is a huge area (to my NZ eyes at least, perhaps not for Londoners) that houses (naturally) a Gaudi waterfall, a zoo and a tiny lake full of rowboats. M and I came across it on our first day here and were immediately enchanted (especially by the orange trees). On Sunday it was absolutely packed with sunbathers and friends gathered for picnics and to play music or dance together. On the way we got distracted by a big vintage market that was being held in a nearby train station (with the trains still running) and I bought my first piece of Barcelona clothing for a whole three euros.

These are the sort of friendships I think are typical of travelling (at least my preferred way of travelling). They are necessarily short in nature, which may be why they seem to quickly reach a level of camaraderie we sometimes don't find with those we see all the time. Or maybe that is because (in the case of foreigners meeting foreigners) there is immediately a common ground to start from simply due to the coincidence of choosing, from all the cities in the world and all the years and months in our lives, to be in the same place at the same time.

These are probably all relevant, but I like to think friendships like this are also a natural consequence of having or taking the time to stop, ask, talk, listen to people who we might otherwise be too busy or frazzled or fed up to even look at. Goodness knows I can relate to that frame of mind and the accompanying cynicism. And of course, it would be unfair of me to omit the instances we have met people here in a similar vein and found that, in fact, under no circumstances would we normally (want to) associate with them. However ... insert cliche about no pain no gain, diamonds in the rough etc here. It is true though I think that once we get past that initial gathering of mental energy to make the effort we wouldn't otherwise, the good that we can find in and learn from people (hopefully) outweighs ... well, all those other people that we can choose never to speak to again.

(Having said that, despite Barcelona's 1.6 million population compared to Wellington's 400,000, it unsettling how often we bump into the handful of people we have met here just walking down the street, as you would at home. I can only surmise that this is because the city centre is, while much larger, similarly concentrated to Wellington's. In the end the encounters are less obviously because here I do not have 24 years of history with the city waiting around every corner.)

On a completely different and less meandering note, not just Barcelona but many other large cities in Spain completely shut down on Thursday. The March 29 general strike was against labour reforms currently being introduced to combat the country's rather horrific unemployment rate. I can't really enlighten anyone about the politics of it all, but we did wander down to Placa Catalunya to witness the thousands of people, the signs, chanting, police, random smoke in the air around the city ... we actually just missed the tear-gas part of the evening, which was probably fortunate. Going to school in the morning though most shops were shut or had their front grates lifted only halfway, only cautiously inviting customers because doing so was, I believe, a lack of solidarity and traitorous, especially as every business had been warned with flyers on their doors that on March 29 "nobody works, all shops are shut!".

Public transport also ceased, but the worst part was that rubbish collectors and street cleaners were also on strike. Rubbish bins overflowed and spilled onto the footpaths, completely blocking the way. The roads were littered with old fliers, cigarette butts and other random debris. The cleaning only stopped for 24 hours but walking through the city was like navigating through the gross aftermath of a massive party (despite the fact that, due to most places being shut, the city had been much quieter than usual ... apart from all those people protesting, obviously). I really felt for the cleaners who would have 10 times the work to do come the end of the strike. Yesterday morning though, bless them, the streets were back to their relatively clean state ... and that, I think, deserves some respect.

Muchos besos como siempre, hasta leugo!


Thursday, March 15, 2012

A little excursion

It is another sunny morning here in Barcelona. I am sitting in the lounge next to a big wooden carving of a stick figure who is folded onto himself with his elbows on his knees and his oversized head in his hands, with huge bulging eyes looking out from underneath a bowler hat. Opposite me there are a pair of narrow french doors letting the sun in onto a painted wooden rocking horse that sits beneath them. While I suppose these are both potentially quite creepy, they really made the place for me when we first walked in  (as maybe future friends or guardians, I'm not sure which). I also immediately loved the concrete walls painted various shades of orange and yellow, which at the time just seemed suitably "Spanish" but which, I have since learned, can also seem to create light and warmth.


Our own room has a window that looks out onto a ring of buildings surrounding a wide expanse of roof that sits a few floors below us. We are one of many windows, washing lines, lives that all look out onto one another. The roof below is a hangout spot for pigeons which are chased by seagulls which in turn are dwarfed by another type of gull that likes to stalk around the place. They seem to be quite content with the three multi-coloured cats that wander around and sun themselves, maybe because the big gulls can match them in size (as you can see my bird-naming is somewhat lacking). Anyway, they all keep us and the surrounding flats company with their hawking and meowing and wailing day and night. Again, something that might be considered awful but that (maybe just for us, maybe just for now) often provokes a smile.


Last weekend we had a chance to get out of the city though, which as wonderful as it is, is nonetheless quite dirty despite the constant street cleaners rolling up and down the roads and footpaths leaving them wet with puddles. It was a relief to be "in the moutains" (by our standards it was more like being "in the hills") 20 minutes by train in Les Planes. We went with the language school to "la fiesta de la calçotada" in honour of "calçots". These are a Catalan delicacy - a type of large spring onion that is cooked on a barbeque until it is completely black and sooty, then peeled (by holding the stem and pulling upwards), dipped in a tomato based sauce and eaten with relish. I say with relish because it's held high in the air above upturned faces and then lowered into mouths that are wide open and smiling at the same time. Calçots are only in season for one or two months a year I'm told, and so apparently Catalonians take every chance they get to enjoy them.


So about 30 of us made our way to Plaça Catalunya and then onto the train with bags and bags of onions in tow. When we arrived, we were faced with a huge barbeque area - a long line of pits for cooking behind a big collection of green picnic tables filled with bottles of wine (later to be mixed with coca cola to make a "calimocho" or with lemonade to make what we dubbed "poor man's sangria" - delicious), "alioli" and various other essentials. The cooking was already in progress and of course, one of our chefs just happened to be a Kiwi - Peter from Kerikeri, who naturally did an excellent job. The menu was to include everything from potatoes wrapped in tin foil to whole grilled artichokes, sausages, steaks, sardines ... It was a feast, turned into a fiesta by the sunshine, the number of strangers sharing one space and of course the calimocho. It was basically really awesome.


(At first when my teacher told us about it she said the calçots were cooked in fire ... "so we go to the mountain". At first I didn't understand how these two relate to one another (bonfire maybe??) but I have since learned that barbeque-ing in Barcelona itself is illegal, which I guess is one of the reasons that places like Les Planes exist and are used with such enthusiasm). 


We also got to meet some new people, students from the school and staff members and other random strangers. It has not ceased to amaze me all the different reasons people come to Barcelona (we have in fact meet very few "Barcelonans", even our flatmate is from Galicia, in the north). It seems to be a great place to come if you are living in Europe and are having a mid/quarter/late life crisis or are just a bit stuck (provided you have funds/work here). Actually, we also met an Australian man in his 60s who had sold up everything at home and arrived here a few weeks ago, so I guess there are no geographical limitations...


With love, as always, hasta luego!

Friday, March 9, 2012

A little big city

Here we are in Barcelona. This sentence reminds me of my dad's voice at the beginning of all those videos shot in various towns around Europe when my brother and I were kids chattering and singing and bickering in the car until we got to "here we are".  I also think of my father now on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the morning when I walk down La Rambla and up Carrer de Ferran to my language class in Carrer d'Avinyo. I remember all his walks through Budapest on his way to learn Hungarian and the accompanying fascination, and I feel another small repetition of histories.

It's nearly a month since our first day here when we discovered these streets, wandering and wondering at the alleyways and boulevards. The famous La Rambla, with its huge trees that have seen so many years and changes. Of course, it is a complete tourist trap now but the street is nonetheless very helpful to me because it marks the middle of the centre of Barcelona, a place I can always seem to find my way back to through the myriad of winding cobblestones either side of it. Placa Reial, ringed with arches and restaurants and palm trees and centered on a fountain. And then, of course, Columbus (a huge statute pointing towards his discovery), the waterfront and the cafe/bar where we first ate tapas and where, a week later, a friend took us (one of those wonderful fateful coincidences).

Our first three days were spent in a similar enchanted state while we continued walking around the city and coming "home" to our shared apartment/hostel and our tiny sloping balcony with one euro bottles of wine and chorizo and gouda cheese. During this time we found the Catedral (google tells me it's officially "Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulalia"). Having earlier walked around outside Sagrada Familia, full of construction and hordes of people, this smaller work of Gaudi's blew us away with its eaves and inner courtyard, surrounded by buskers. The city is full of Gaudi, which for the most part seems to be a tourist gimmick, but we began to understand why when we visited Park Guell this week. This huge park (scene of a moment of seduction in the Spanish Apartment, for anyone who's seen it) is a landscape gardening masterpiece full of trees, bushes, cacti, colourful tile roofs, seats, walls, the lizard (one of his most famous pieces) and stone structures that look like messy collections of rocks but on closer inspection are intricate and patterned. The whole place offers fantastic views onto the city and, weirdly, (given that is it on a hill quite far above sea level) is sandy and dusty. In short, it's amazing.

(Actually, I have thought of the Spanish Apartment several times during the last few weeks and had my very own Spanish Apartment moment while we were riding the cable car and the same Chopin waltz as is played in the film was tinkling in the background. "Living the dream" has taken on a whole new meaning.)

"It's a small world after all" proved true again that first week when we met up with two Italian girls living in Barca who M had met in New York years ago. They took us to some bars where the "Spanish" (or, in this case, Italians) go, where the wine or vermouth is homemade and the place full. A few days later, we found a flat just around the corner from them. It's in El Raval, the "dangerous" (read: less touristy) part of town, where I am writing from now. To be completely honest, M found it while I was having a siesta one day, a practice which, we discovered after a while, is not actually practiced in Barcelona, although the smaller, owner-operated places do shut down for a few hours and reopen until late at night. We have found that after about 5pm is when the city comes alive and the streets and shops and restaurants fill with people, the football starts playing on the bar tv screens (with cries of "gol-ol-ol-ol-ooooool!!" from the commentators now and then, more regularly if Messi's playing) and the cops seems to multiply in numbers around town.

We have also found our own collection of bars where we have started to become regulars. Bar Muy Bueno, not far from where we live, where we get served a huge three course meal plus drink and coffee for 8.50 euros, if we make it there before 4pm (and, to our triumph, no English is spoken). Les Tapes, run by a Spanish husband and English wife, full of knick-knacks, a book exchange, and the most delicious tapas. Eating there is like going to the fridge at home for some leftovers where mum and dad make everything (including things you normally don't like, in my case eggplant) taste heavenly. And of course there is always football playing and the bar's very own collection of eclectic regulars also provide entertainment. (We were also treated to one of the owner's card tricks the other night, which I think probably officially marks our status as "regulars".) Among others ...

Our time here has been full of the excitement of being in a new city mixed with the ordinariness of "living" somewhere - walking up four flights of stairs with the supermarket shopping, hanging out the washing on a clotheshorse by the window, waiting for water to boil on the stovetop for the Nescafe ... (although, at this stage without having to go to work, a luxury as long as it is temporary). Doing the Stuff daily quiz, still ploughing through (savouring?) Janet Frame's Living in the Maniototo. I have rediscovered my (Hungarian?) passion for aqua con gas (ásványvíz or soda water) which M is gradually beginning to partake in, the empty bottles of which are currently full of flowers purchased on La Rambla one evening for the probably exorbitant sum of four euros (worth every cent despite the fact it would have bought me a pack of Lucky Azuls (Blues)). Old things turned new. Is it when these things become old again that we have "lived" somewhere or is that just a decision we make?

At any rate, we are currently very happy in our very own Spanish apartment and sending lots of love to everybody at home...hasta luego!