Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Russian Cinema and a Paella Made With Love

I've been so busy this past month that I barely realized Christmas sneaking up, as it does.  However, I'm staving off the Christmas spirit as much as I can, and so will write a bit about my doings out and about Madrid and Alcalá de Henares, with hopefully a Christmas post to come in January. 

First of all, in a crusade to acquaint me with traditional Spanish cookery, my roommate's friend Alberto came over to cook us a giant paella and ply us with delicious sangria.  Determined to capture every step of the process, I hovered around the kitchen snapping photos the entire time, which probably was not conducive to cooking.  However, as Alberto explained it, the secret to cooking a true Spanish paella is to cook it with lots and lots of love.  Which is not to say you have to kiss it or buy it presents or anything... it's more of a mindset.

Anyway, as I followed it, here is how to make paella:

1) Cook your meat, which in this case was rabbit and chicken, in a decent amount of olive oil.  On another burner, simmer something which I believe is broth with some saffron thrown in.

2) Remove the meat and drain, and in the leftover juices sautee onions and peppers in a shape that looks very much like a Christmas wreath.  

3) Throw in some other things: chopped leeks, mainly, and three whole cloves of garlic.

4) After this it got complicated, but I believe what you do is pour the broth into the sauteed vegetables, then add three or more handfuls of rice.  And the most important part, as Alberto impressed on me (possibly not THE most important, but it's the one that stuck with me), is that you never stir the paella; you dance with it.  So there he was, spinning the paella back and forth on the stovetop as it simmered away, and lo and behold by the end of it all he had a real masterpiece on his hands.  Needless to say, it was delicious.

Also, I've discovered a Russian cultural center on Calle Atocha that hosts a free cinema club every Tuesday, as well as occasional exhibitions of hand-painted Matryoshka dolls and lacquer-ware depicting old Russian fairy tales and knitted lace shawls that are so fine the curator demonstrated that she could draw the whole shawl through her wedding ring.  (Also there was free champagne, which I am always a fan of.)  

And I know it's not a very Spanish-themed post for a blog set in Madrid, but I had so much fun watching the following three films that I've decided to try my hand at film reviewing:

1. Moskva Slezam Ne Verit (Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears)  This was the most wonderfully Soviet movie you could ever hope to see, from the very name to the climactic scene where a man in a wifebeater knocks back an entire tumblerful of vodka and then sniffs a crust of bread as a chaser while another man smacks a fish against a table interspersed with a shot of three women sitting in a room sobbing hysterically, to the closing vignette of the fish-smacking man eating a bowl of borscht and scowling.  But histrionics aside, it is really a very touching movie - a love story towards the end, but primarily a story of the friendship between three women as they grow up in Soviet Moscow, struggling through their careers, first loves, disillusions, and so on.  And while some of the opinions expressed on gender roles are a bit overly... chivalrous, shall we euphemistically say, overall it is a story that focuses on tough, resourceful, complex women.  It's fairly long at two and a half hours, but it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1980 and is well worth the time.  Also, according to IMDB, Ronald Reagan watched it multiple times in preparation for meeting Gorbachev, as a way to better acquaint himself with "the Russian soul."  FOUR STARS!

Also, for anyone interested in watching, it is here on YouTube with English subtitles. 

2. Morozko  Not exactly high cinema, but worth watching just to appreciate its sheer weirdness.  First of all, it's a fairy tale, but unlike western fairy tale adaptations, it doesn't follow a single story arc of handsome man insults mushroom fairy, gets turned into a bear, repents and is returned to his handsome self.  No, Morozko is an ambitious seven or eight fairy tales mushed together: handsome man turns into bear, terrorizes village, beautiful girl gets left in the woods to die under her wicked stepmother's orders, handsome man meets Baba Yaga, beautiful girl meets Santa Claus, accidentally gets frozen by his magic staff, is saved and married by the handsome man... and THEN THEY GET ATTACKED BY SINGING BANDITS!  Delightfully camp and surreal, and a good way to familiarize yourself with Russian fairy tale archetypes.

THREE STARS with the extra star owing to a very clever Chekhov's gun thrown in at the beginning, plus the mushroom fairy's line, "Yes, Ivan, a bear will ask my pardon.  But yours will be the back that bends."

3. Snezhnaya Koroleva  Given that Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen is my very favorite fairy tale of all time, I have watched nearly every film adaptation there is and found them all to be ridiculous.  Except for this 1957 animated version, which is a marvel of classic Soviet animation and wondrously faithful to the original story and just magical and scary and heartwarming in every way.  Again, it has the appeal of being filled with dynamic and courageous female characters, and I do fiercely love any story about a girl journeying out into the world to save her jerk friend.  Plus, the little robber girl  is literally one of the greatest characters ever conceived.  That scene where she frees all the animals in her menagerie... it gets me every time.  I cannot talk enough about how much I love this movie, and I think I'm going watch it right now.  

And so should you!  FIVE STARS!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Life in Alcalá

It's hard to believe I've been living here for a month, but there you have it.  I've been working almost exclusively since I moved into my apartment - working in this case meaning writing, transcribing, researching future graduate programs, and signing up for Spanish classes.  (I have realized that my language-learning strategy up until now which has been mostly chatting with backpackers while drinking beer and building up my vocabulary via Latin American magical realism novels has resulted in me being able to say things like, "The vagabond had a terrible upheaval in his demented soul," but unable to understand such commonplace and rather more useful sentences as, "Leave the report on the desk in my office.")

I haven't been doing much out and about the city, though I went out for my birthday with my roommate and a group of her friends, to a trendy tapas place around Puerta del Sol.  Incidentally, tapas are the single greatest idea ever conceived in the history of cookery; rather than order one meal on an evening out, in which case you will inevitably get bored with it after two bites and wish you'd ordered what that guy is eating instead, you order ten different meals and get to sample everything.  Tapas!  Tell your friends.

The only thing I just can't get my head around, and this caused me a lot of grief in Argentina as well, is how freaking late people stay out here.  As a person who enjoys getting up early, and who gets very moody very easily if my sleep patterns get out of whack, I just can't get used to this whole culture of dinner at ten and then drinks not starting until eleven or twelve at night, and then clubbing until six or seven.  I suppose it makes sense in hot countries, where during the summer the weather doesn't become tolerable until after the sun goes down, and you have a midday siesta during the hottest hours anyway.  (Incidentally, siesta is another custom I have issues with, mainly since there seems to be an unspoken agreement among all the shops, libraries, and museums in Alcalá that the moment I finish my work for the morning and decide to take a walk, that's the signal for everybody to close up for three hours.)  My point of all this, of course, is.... tapas!  Tell your friends.

Moreover, I've actually been making more progress in NaNoWriMo than I have in any of the past 10 or so years I've tried it.  Will I reach 50,000 words by midnight tonight?  Not a chance!  I'm currently at around 6,000ish and will be hard-pressed to get another thousand in due to actual work taking precedence, because I, being an American citizen born after the Baby Boomer generation, am being slowly asphyxiated and having all my dreams murdered by student debt.

However, after years of telling myself, "Once I'm out of Baltimore and free of its ambiance of inspirational stiflement, I'll set aside time each morning to write," and then, "Once I'm done backpacking and have some measure of stability, I'll set aside time each morning to write," and then, "Once I'm gone from Dublin and my life has ceased to be a whirligig of chaos, I'll set aside..." etc., I have finally come to a point where I can set aside an hour or two not every morning but close enough to work on a novel I've been envisioning since I was ten.

Otherwise, I really thought I'd have more to write about after nearly a month living here, but things have been slow.  Alcalá is a quiet yet adorable medieval town, dating back centuries upon centuries to when it was a Moorish citadel, which the Visigoths conquered from the Moors and then the Romans conquered from the Visigoths.  As it is, it has a smattering of different cultures lingering in its fabric, including a Jewish neighborhood, a cathedral, a stately, antiquated university, the Archbishops palace where a community of cranes have built their nests, and ancient Roman ruins.

Otherwise, things are going splendidly, and I'm juggling a couple of knitting projects in the scarce free time I have.  I have a set of fingerless gloves and either a headband or a cowl in the works for my roommate and her sister, and multiple possibilities of tiny jumper-like garments to make for my friends who, deciding one bilingual super-baby wasn't enough, decided to have a second.  More exciting projects include a creative writing class I'm going to teach in the city, a Russian cinema club, and Spanish lessons, which start tomorrow. ¡Hasta pronto!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Goodbye Forever, Ireland, and a Room of Her Own

As schemes fall apart and newer, grander schemes congeal, I enter this, a new phase of life in which I am settled in a lovely, tiny, blue room in Alcalá de Henares, a university town about 40 minutes from Madrid by the commuter train - the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, in fact.  I miss Dublin and everybody in it keenly, but leaving forever this time - the eighth time - is not quite as harrowing as the past seven, whether because I'm not surfing the fallout of some huge catastrophe or because I'm only one time-zone and a 20 euro RyanAir flight away.  Or maybe both.

However, as smooth transitions go, the past two weeks have been disaster after disaster, to the extent that at one point I was a hair's width from booking a flight back to Baltimore, getting some sort of white-collar clerical job, and marrying Chad.  (Chad, for those of you who don't know, is American.  He is Presbyterian.  He wears khakis and is an accountant and was in a fraternity and can't think of a better drinking game than beer pong.  Chad has a membership to the local country club where he spends his Sunday afternoons playing golf.  His fondest dream is to own a house in the suburbs, where he will live with his trophy wife and 2.5 children and a golden retriever. And, of course, he drives a Cadillac.  Everybody knows a Chad... if you don't, you probably are Chad.)  While my last couple of weeks in Dublin were lovely, filled with culture nights and whiskey-tastings and a sunset train-ride across the country and ice creams in Phoenix Park and a Murdery Mystery dinner party, things started going disastrously the night I got my wallet stolen - in the past seven years I've traveled through Russia, Eastern Europe, and South America and I finally get pickpocketed in f-ing Temple Bar! - which catalyzed a ruinous chain of events that I shall intersperse with cool photos of around Madrid.

A List of All the Things That Went Wrong Following My Arrival To Spain 

1. Accommodations Fall Through.  Bless her heart, I do love my friend Lisa.  Lisa, who spent months planning the elaborate backpacking trip we were going to take together across South America and then ran out of money and flew back to Dublin the day I got to Colombia.  Looking back, it was probably not the best decision to bank everything on us moving in together in Galicia - especially since said plan was made at Lisa's going-away party and we were both drinking moderate-to-heavily.  Needless to say, it didn't happen and I found myself stuck in Madrid with nowhere to stay, no credit cards, no bank cards, and dwindling cash.

2. No Room At the Hostel.  I had only three nights booked at my hostel, a very pleasant place right in the heart of Madrid's gay district.  (I didn't figure this out until later, and after a few days of exploring the neighborhood had come to the conclusion that EVERYBODY in Madrid is gay.)  But the weekend was approaching and their dorms were all filled up - moreover, I had no means of booking hostels online, so I was forced to go out into the world and scour the streets for a cheap room on super-short notice.  (This actually sorted itself out much quicker than I thought it would, but at the time it was incredibly stressful.)

3. Accommodations Fall Through, Part Deux.  While a girl had contacted me about renting a room in her flat in Alcalá de Henares, which caused me great joy, the room would not be ready for another five days.  And while I had wired myself money from my bank account in the States, it all had to go toward the first month's rent and deposit so I was in the same sinking ship as before.  So I took a friend's advice and contacted a stranger on Couchsurfing about a safe berth for three or four nights.  And since I don't want to sound ungrateful for the one night he let me stay, I will not talk about what a SCUMBAG he was for letting me navigate myself across the Metro system and then the commuter bus system with 2/3 of my weight in luggage before informing me that, just kidding, he had a lady-friend coming over so I had to go back to Madrid in the morning.  Also highly suspicious is how he said not a word to me about this other, higher priority house guest until I mentioned having a boyfriend (not true, but one quickly discovers the magical power of imaginary boyfriends when one is traveling solo across a continent of gringo-hunters).

4. I Left My Suitcase On the Bus.  I was sleep-deprived and starving and still seething over Scumbag the Jerk-Face on the escalator back to the Metro station, imagining the white picket fence bordering my prize-winning chrysanthemums in the house I'd live in once I married Chad, when I realized that I was only carrying 1/3 of my weight in luggage.  So I ran in circles around the bus station until I found it, still sitting in the hold of the 518 bus which miraculously had not yet left.

5. I Went the Wrong Way On Metro Line 10.  This is something I'd never done before.  Never, ever, not even on my very first time traveling by Metro when I was clueless, young expat trying to bumble my way across Moscow.  But for some reason I picked the wrong platform to embark from and found myself heading away from the city, past the suburbs and out into strange countryside where I could see poking through the trees either a creepy, condemned amusement park or an abandoned rock quarry.  Aghast and bewildered, I threw myself off the train at the next stop, clattered down a million stairs, crossed under the train-tracks, and with the very last of my strength hauled my gargantuan suitcase back up another million stairs to the opposite platform.  And I was overheated and hungry and destitute, so I sat down on a bench and it occurred to me that I was in an exceedingly life-like fever dream, and this seemed to make the most sense of anything that had happened to me so far.  So I sat there crying (we've all been there when we're sick of the road) and trying not to collapse until the train finally came and whisked me back into the city.

6. My First Foray Into AirBNB.  After shuffling around between two more hostels in three nights, I finally spent the night before Halloween staying with a Peruvian man in a grand, old apartment complex just off of Calle Atocha.  In my determination to just get on with it, I forgot to ascertain which room in the building my host lived in.  So, fueled by sheer desperation, I dragged my 2/3 of my weight in luggage up flight after flight of stairs - grand, old, imperial apartments don't have elevators in them, of course - knocking at every door I came to and demanding, "Busco a Manu!  Manu vive aqui??" until finally a woman informed me that Manu lived on the very top floor.  Of course he did.  And I was actually so beat at this point that I had to make multiple trips up and down the stairs, heaving my suitcases after me piece by piece.  And at last I came to Manu's door and barely had enough time to move my things in and introduce myself before I fainted dead away in his living room.  When I came to, he had served me a glass of orange juice and was in the kitchen cooking me eggs, but still it's a disorienting and not quite pleasant thing to pass out in a stranger's living room, and that did not help alleviate my maximum capacity stress level.  Manu invited me to a dinner party he was hosting that evening, however, and I got to meet a group of other expats living in Madrid, which made for good Spanish conversation practice.  Moreover, Manu cooked a fantastic dinner (Peru is renowned throughout South America for its cuisine) with chicken, onions, desiccated potatoes, and a crushed peanut sauce.  

Needless to say, it was a relief beyond all words to finally move into my apartment with Belén, far from the weirdness of the city center of Madrid, where I can sit quietly in my room like a peaceful hermit, working and writing and cooking for myself.  Otherwise, Belén is cool and we get along well - she is a music teacher/professional clown/cat lady and has a lot to talk about.  Moreover Alcalá de Henares is a surprising town, which I have not yet properly explored.  

AND in more exciting news, I have finally finished knitting my gorgeous cabled jumper with my alpaca wool from Peru.  And it is WARM and SOFT AS A CLOUD and DELECTABLY FUZZY and my absolute favorite thing I've ever knitted!  I am currently finishing a yellow slouchy hat, with more projects to come.  Moreover, I've decided to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge this year and attempt to write a novel by the end of November.  I've never once completed it, but I'm a week in and still going strong - usually I give up around the third day or so.  So I have high hopes and will be updating frequently to blather about my writing, Spanish-learning, and knitting exploits.  Because I hope my life is going to be nice and boring for the next six months.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Shenanigans and What Have You

It's been a hectic couple of weekends, each at opposite ends of the country.  Just after my last post, my friend Jian from high school in Baltimore, currently doing Science in Zurich (I am very much in awe at having a friend who does real-life Science for a living), came to visit for a few days.  This gave me a chance to explore a lot of pubs and restaurants that I wouldn't have normally, as I am rarely the one who plans nights out.

However, in this case it fell upon me to plan a proper pub crawl for the Friday Jian arrived.  As this was his first time in Ireland, he insisted on eating dinner at a traditional Irish pub... unfortunately, without a reservation, getting a table off the cuff at a pub in the city centre at eight o'clock on a Friday night proved to be impossible.  So we went for Lebanese food instead at The Cedar Tree on St. Andrew's Street, one of my new favorite places that I lament not having the presence of mind to put in my book.  But every time I've eaten there the service has been lovely and the food delicious, and not overly expensive either.  Since we couldn't make up our minds on what to order, we ended up ordering a smattering of starter dishes, tapas-style, and ate them all.  There were some sort of sausages in tomato sauce and hummus with pita bread, but what sticks out in my mind as being especially delicious was a spicy halloumi cheese with chopped tomato and cucumber salad on the side.  Amazing.

We met up with my friend Eoin from Blackrock and commenced with dignified and conversationly pints at the Porterhouse and the Mercantile, somewhat less orderly pints at The Temple Bar because Jian wanted to hear live music, and finished off with drunken, messy pints at The Mezz and Doyle's, just for nostalgia's sake.  In the morning I strangled off an impending hangover by eating leftover sausages from my asado and then embarking on a frenzied cycle to Tesco to buy beets for a pot of borscht I had to make for a friend's birthday party.  For lunch Jian and I went to the thankfully empty Stag's Head on the corner of Dame Lane, where we sat around in the cozy Victorian-era snug and he finally got to have his beef and Guinness stew.

Over the course of the next two days, I gave him the full-on walking tour of inner Dublin: St. Stephen's Green and the open air art gallery lining its fences, Dublin Castle and the sand sculptures, the National Archaeology Museum where we learned about Brian Boru and the Vikings, Trinity College, Christchurch Cathedral, and finished off with tea at Bewley's Cafe.  He was pretty thrilled at how arty and musical Dublin is, which I remember being stunned by when I first came here but by now just take it as the norm.  Everywhere you go you're being accosted by buskers or street artists or outdoor Shakespeare plays or something of the sort, which he says is not the case in Zurich.

The next weekend was a new-moon excursion to Lahinch, a seaside town in Clare renowned for its surfing, golf courses, hurricane winds, and sleazy nightclubs.  After a three-hour drive - just the perfect length for a cross-country roadtrip after the all-too-raw memory of South America's 42-hour bus marathons across desert and Andes mountains - we pulled up to a pair of holiday homes we'd rented for the weekend, hitting the tail-end of a huge Atlantic storm that had hit the coast.  Tommy, who'd grown up in the area and whose family's houses we were staying in, was just after telling us something to the extent of, "You've never seen winds like these.  These are Clare winds."  (And indeed, the gale was so strong I couldn't even open the car door from the inside.) Then, peering into his wallet, "Jesus, I brought a lot of cash with me.  There must be nearly 300 euro in here!"  Needless to say, we kicked off our holiday with a lot of screaming, flailing, and chasing a tornado of soggy banknotes after a freak gust of wind had snatched up his wallet and exploded it all over the street.  I had to be hefted bodily over a tall gate to run after 40 euros that had blown behind it.  It was good fun all right.

By some rare fluke we managed to get all the money back, and the rest of the night was coziness by a peat fire, drinking whiskey, knitting, and reading H. P. Lovecraft stories aloud.  In the morning we took a blustery beach walk, got knocked about by the wind some more, and went on a quest to some ruined fortress which may or may not have once been the castle belonging to the King of the Fairies.  When our one friend ventured too close to the ruins and then disappeared without a trace, we assumed he'd been taken away by the Fairy King, but in the end it turned out he'd just hitched a ride back to town.

On Saturday we went for a wild ramble along the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, which reminded me of Machu Picchu in that it's one of those few places in the world that has ever instilled in me such awe and breathlessness and overwhelming sense of my own utter, utter smallness.  The Cliffs are so high and dizzying and completely lacking any sort of barrier that it makes you wonder what it would be like to throw yourself off the edge.  That crazy vertigo and the stories you keep hearing about people 15 feet from the precipice getting barreled over by homicidal winds (and occasionally blown back onto firm ground after falling) made me latch onto whatever anchoring person was in the vicinity for most of the afternoon - I was pretty sure I was going to blown off the edge like a dead leaf.

It was altogether a lovely weekend, just chaotic enough and with a happy medium of cultural activities, cliff hikes, delicious dinners, and drunken guitar parties.  Now I'm back in Dublin, hanging out in Santry with my friends' cat Patch on account of they are off jet-setting in San Francisco for the fortnight.  I'm looking forward to some downtime for reading and writing, and I'm determined to finish this sweater so I can wear it before I head to Spain.  I'm so very close, with only half a sleeve left to finish and then the ends to weave in.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Fairy Tale of Dublin

Yes, I'm back in Dublin - subleasing a gorgeous room in a giant house way out in Booterstown - my most favorite place of all the places in all the world (Dublin... not Booterstown).  It's difficult to put into words why on account of I'm not entirely sure myself.  Is it because eight years ago I was nineteen and exploding with travel-excitement and in such a mindset that I would have fallen in love with anywhere that wasn't a depressing suburb of Baltimore or a small town in central Pennsylvania?  Is it because all the weirdest and most interesting and cataclysmic things that ever happened to me happened in Dublin?

(Okay, that's a lie... there was the time I spent in a scary, Soviet hospital in Moscow, and the time I rode a horse through the Pacific surf as a storm rolled over the ocean while being chased by feral dogs in Ecuador, and climbing up to Machu Picchu, and doing sauna in Finland and rolling naked in the snow, and that summer in Galway I pretended to be a street musician, among others... what a strange eight years it's been.)

Is it because Dublin is where the highest concentration of my friends live?  If I'd gone to England for my semester abroad would I still spend everything I own and burn every bridge I've ever had trying to claw my way back eight years later?  Somehow, I don't think so.

Part of the reason I decided to go to South America at all last June was to try to break myself of my weird Dublin thing, like if I just gave myself a chance to enjoy living in other countries I'd stop trying to go back to Ireland which invariably results in me spending all my money and flying back to America in tears and anguish, because Dublin is an expensive city and its principle recreation (drinking) is the most expensive part of it.

Only now I have every intention of getting out of Ireland before that happens this time.  Today, after nearly six weeks in Dublin, I bit the bullet and booked a flight to Madrid.  I miss speaking Spanish, and I am not particularly eager to go through another Irish winter - churros and hot chocolate sound infinitely preferable to damp and dark and seasonal depression and praying the rosary over my dying fire as I waste away slowly from the consumption, subsisting on tea and Wild Woodbines.  (Irish summers are wondrous; winters not so much.)  After my allotted 90 days in Spain, I have every plan to head south and take the ferry to Morocco.

Otherwise, my past six weeks have been lovely, filled with swimming with the jellyfish at Seapoint; lounging in the sunshine at Dublin Castle; sparkly drag shows at The George; sand sculptures and art gallery openings and pub quizzes and 'zine exhibitions galore; recreating an Argentine asado as best I could in my backyard (there was steak and red wine and an overabundance of sausages of all sorts); buying a rusty-blue secondhand bike and cycling back and forth across the city, through wind and rain and everything in between; seeing the Milky Way and visiting ruins, a horse's grave, and the museum of Jackie Clark, local archivist extraordinaire and very well-traveled man, in Ballina, County Mayo.

And as I have two more months to go, I am continually scheming ways of coming back and visas I could apply for.  More education is a possibility, if an expensive one, but I have lots of traveling to get out of the way first.  And there are more Ireland adventures to come, including somehow managing to transport a massive tureen of borscht from Booterstown to Harold's Cross for my friend's potluck birthday party, free operas at the Wood Quay amphitheatre, serving as an American au pair for my two friends' amazingly precocious bilingual baby, and a four-day surfing/singing/drinking holiday with a huge group of friends out west in Lahinch, Co. Clare.  But for this weekend, I have an old friend from high school coming to stay with me, so I may have a more typical Dublin weekend to write about, - Book of Kells, Temple Bar, and the like.

Otherwise, yes... I am thrilled to be here, and thrilled that I have two more months.  The weather is already getting chilly, which means I get to wear all my knitted garments that I packed.  I'm nearly finished knitting my alpaca jumper as well, all but one sleeve, and shall be starting a new project soon enough.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Glorious Return To the British Isles

And by "glorious," of course, I mean I flew into London, stayed in a particularly gross hostel around Arsenal, and promptly came down with my customary "welcome to the British Isles, let's bombard you with both an alien climate and alien flu germs!" violent headcold which turned into a violent fever which turned into a hacking, consumptive cough that is still lingering two weeks later.

I really only had one full day to explore London, being as it was too expensive for me to want to stay longer and I was heading off to visit a friend from my university/publishing internship/deadbeat days in Dublin who is now currently living in Bristol.  And as someone who never had much of an interest in London, because my music taste isn't cool enough and the English books of my childhood are mostly set in either the moors or the charming countryside or some alternate fantasy realm that's not England at all, I found it to be very grand and very beautiful and very impressive, but not a place I'd ever want to live.  You can really tell it was designed by a country looking to communicate the fact that at such and such a time it had colonized much of the known world, and for a lone traveler with a practically nonexistent budget who just wanted to explore and maybe find a park to sit in, it was much too big and impersonal to be entirely happy with - a bit like Moscow, actually.

Although I enjoyed eating meat pies and exploring the stalls at Borough Market and riding the Underground and picking out various stations that showed up in Neil Gaiman's book Neverwhere, (Earl's Court!  Islington!) and was especially impressed by Tower Bridge, I still got the same feeling about England as I did the only other time I've ever been to this country, which was a less than stellar weekend in York seven years ago: England is like Ireland - similar buses, buildings, weather, and that omnipresent smell of fish and chips in the air - but with all the life sucked out.  In fact, it's just superficially similar enough to Ireland to make me incredibly homesick.  Sorry, England... if it makes you feel better, you make great TV shows and your reigning monarch is adorable like someone's granny, or a little, white-haired cupcake.

After London I caught a bus to Bristol where I was summarily greeted by Joe, whom I hadn't seen in two years or so, and there was much rejoicing!  We took multiple strolls around Bristol, which reminded me of Galway in that it's a small, quirky, hipsterish university town with plenty of politically charged murals and roughly thirty independent pubs on every street.  I was too sickly to fully appreciate the hundreds and hundreds of microbrewed beers the city had to offer, but I did try a few IPAs and some locally made ginger-pear cider.  At one point Joe, Paula, and I went to visit the Egyptian exhibition, a weirdly hypnotic short film of raptor birds in flight set to a David Bowie score played on steel drums, and a display of taxidermied animals at a museum at the top of a much too tall hill.  We saw a pub that was once frequented by Blackbeard the pirate and quite a few hot air balloons (there's an International Balloon Fiesta every August, apparently), and altogether Bristol was a charming place that looked in many places like the setting of a pop-up Jane Austen novel.

We took the train to Chester, a medieval town that was charming to the nth degree, and in the morning we continued our journey to Holyhead, where we took the ferry to Dublin.  The ferry was much more luxurious than I was expecting, with a bar and a restaurant and an arcade, but it did have a properly blustery deck where you can walk around and gaze longingly at the sea, with your hair all in your face as Ireland appears out of the mist on the horizon.  YES IT DID, IT APPEARED OUT OF THE MIST.  It was the most gorgeous thing in the world.  And I'm in Dublin now and it's more marvelous with every passing day; the past two weeks have been a long, weird haze of Guinness and much too much tea and weirdly summerish weather, for some reason.  Will update more once I've caught up with sleep, which may or may not ever happen...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Musings about CuChulainn, Missing the USA

Over the course of a few very busy weeks, I've been writing guest posts for travel blogs here and there, and here's a short article I wrote for Enjoy Irish Culture about CuChulainn, the hero of the ancient Irish epic, The Tain.

For anyone who hasn't read The Tain, it is just a barrel of laughs, while also being very stern and warlike, of course.  I must have missed the funny bits back when I first read it during a university course on The Ulster Cycle, but parts of it are properly hilarious if you're a fan of absurdity and gallows humor.  A certain warrior named Cethern, who slaughters many men in battle and then crawls back to camp nearly dead, with his guts around his feet, is informed by the healer that he will not survive his wounds.  He responds, "THEN NEITHER WILL YOU!" and punches the healer's brains out through his ears.

There are also quite a couple of scenes where CuChulainn's adversaries refuse to fight him, because he is a beardless boy and it would be degrading to their manhood, so he has to run around looking for a fake beard.  And then, after a great battle where he's single-handedly decimated the armies of Connacht and everyone's afraid he's going to go on a rampage and just tear up the entire province, they send all the Ulster women out to flash their breasts at him, and he gets so embarrassed he hides his face and runs away.  Because, ya know, he's seventeen.  Oh, it's just a delightful, dramatic, bizarre epic altogether, and anyone interested in ancient Celtic cultures should give it a read.  (My translation is by Thomas Kinsella, which gives a pretty accurate rendition of most of the important stories in the Ulster Cycle, while interpreting it in a way that's accessible to modern readers.)

Also, I had so much fun reading it, that I drew a comic of CuChulainn and his wife-to-be, Emer, and here it is:

Moreover, in light of the sudden realization that I have six days left in the States, I am beginning to freak out a bit over all the things I have left undone, whether I made the most of my time here, whether I'm ready to be a vagabond again, et cetera and so forth.  So, having been in the US for a good four months now, I'll write about some of the things here that I take for granted, and don't realize I love until they're gone.  As a highly adaptable person, most of the things other American expats miss I am glad to be without.  Like smiling... I can't stand how much Americans smile.  It's exhausting, and unnecessary.  I don't drink soda, don't eat either large portions or fast food, and don't buy brand clothing that costs ten times as much elsewhere.  However, there were a couple of things that going without for nine months as I jetted up and down the length of South America filled me with rage and enormous cravings.

1)  Bagels.  It's silly, I know.  But there is a certain way a bagel has to be, and that is a proper New York style bagel, enormous and golden brown and with crust you have to tear at with your teeth but light and steaming on the inside, and then you eat it with smoked salmon and cream cheese and capers and any number of delicious things.  Nowhere in the world have I found anything up to par (bagels were still a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland last time I was there), except for a tiny cafe just off of the Plaza de Armas in Cusco that served fresh bagels with sides of scrambled eggs, tuna fish, and avocado, bagels so good I almost cried eating them.  It was run by an Israeli family, and then they closed up to travel back to Israel for a few months, which was very sad.

2)  Loud people.  And I'm not saying the US is the only loud country.  South America was pretty loud at all hours of the day and night, and China, as I remember it, had its fair share of street vendors screaming at you over bullhorns.  But the parts of Europe I've been to, people on the whole talk quite a few decibels lower than their American counterparts, and sometimes you have to strain to hear what they're saying.  That being said, I have been reprimanded for being too loud, which generally happens when I'm telling a particularly exciting story.

3)  Peanut butter.  Again, something I never thought I particularly needed to survive until it was gone.  Yes, I suppose it's an acquired taste, but when you think about it, it's the perfect traveling food.  It's high in protein so a little bit will keep you full for a long time.  It's so versatile you can eat it with apples and pretzels and sandwiches and stir-fries.  It doesn't need to be refrigerated, so you can keep it in your backpack as you ride a bus for 20 hours across the Peruvian desert and then eat it for breakfast and not die.  I once paid the equivalent of $9 for a tiny jar of peanut butter that I found after much searching at a "food for foreigners" shop, and I am not ashamed.

4)  24/7 convenience stores.  How I hate including this after years of rolling my eyes at Americans who go to Europe for a week and then complain about how there's nowhere you can buy burritos at 3 o'clock in the morning.  But when you're hiking up Machu Picchu at five in the morning and you have the sudden realization, "I need tampons right now and there is nowhere within a 3,000 mile radius where I can get them because it's Sunday," you see the value in such pandering to rampant consumerism.

Aaaand I really thought I'd have more that I'd miss about the States.  Sorry, America, not sorry.  I will be spending the upcoming 4th of July in Dublin, drinking copious amounts of tea and eating curry chips and Cadbury chocolate and walking around in the rain, and other such non-American things.  It will be absolutely magical.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Extreme Caged Combat In the City of Brotherly Love

First of all, if anyone is curious about a few thoughts I had about writing 24 Hours Dublin, The Irish Times kindly published a small article I wrote about it.  The editor came up with the description "a long-term love affair condensed into a day," which I thought was just charming!


It sometimes occurs to me that, having traveled and lived in so many different countries, I take the United States for granted and assume there's nothing here I haven't already seen.  Which is unfair of me, because I've only lived in two states and visited a few others, and I'm well aware that there are tons of different cultures and and modes of life and wild things to see across the continent.  I just tend to be less motivated to explore places I don't need a passport to visit partially because I've found it's more expensive to travel within the States.  You seem to need a car to get anywhere, for one thing, and we don't have as widespread a hostel culture as the rest of the world does.  Aside from couch-surfing, in many cases the only option for budget accommodation is a $50 motel room.  Plus, having grown up here I tend to think there's nothing particularly unique to visit in my area.

Anyway, I made amends for my complacence and nose-turned-uppery by taking a mini-vacation up to Philadelphia for the weekend.  My college friend Silas, whose wedding catalyzed my return back to the States from Peru, picked me up from 30th Street Station and we drove out of the city to the National Guard Armory.  Our friend Anthony, an old comrade from back when we studied Goju Ryu at college together, was competing in an MMA cage fight, so we showed up for moral support purposes... and also it was his birthday.  I'd never been to a cage fight before, though Silas has - both fighting and watching from the sidelines - so I was pretty excited alright.  And the whole atmosphere of the place was so uniquely Pennsylvanian, a weird melange of good-natured family sporting event and gun-crazy, truck-driving right-wingers who if you stand within a five-foot radius of them will bowl you over with the smell of beer and weed.

At the beginning there wasn't much of a crowd, but then once the energy of the place got cranked up, it seemed like the entire gymnasium throbbed with a massive swell of people roaring and cheering.  The girl I sat next to kept laughing at how into it I was getting - I was waving my fists around and jumping up out of my seat with sheer excitement.  And it was exciting, watching extremely ripped guys pummel each other good-naturedly (all the contestants were very sportsmanly as well, which I wasn't exactly expecting,) and made me really miss practicing martial arts.  It's been about six years since I practiced Goju Ryu, and I always saw it as one of those things I'd get back into once I have a stable lifestyle and enough money to afford a membership at a dojo.  However, that hasn't happened just yet.

Anyway, the night was a series of nine amateur fights, three rounds of two minutes each, leading up to two professional fights.  About halfway through, everybody stood up and turned towards the massive flag on the far wall as a girl with platform shoes and gold bangle earrings sang the national anthem, which I'd forgotten was a thing Americans do.  Then Anthony's fight was the last of the amateur section, both of the contestants weighing in at 155 pounds.  Now, it is customary in XCC for whoever's fighting, when he's being introduced by the emcee (I say "he" because I don't feel like being PC about it, but there were actually two women fighting in the pro ranks that night, and they were really intense), to have scary death metal or aggressive rap music blasting as he swaggers into the arena, shooting the audience looks like he's going to go out and chew up their hubcaps after the fight.  Anthony strode out to the tune of the Ninja Turtle Rap with this sardonic smirk that didn't budge from his face for the entirety of his fight.

His heavily tattooed opponent charged into the ring to a tune that went something like, "DEATH DOOM DIIIIIE BLOOD GUTS DIE DIE DIE!!!" and man, this guy was huge, no way he weighed 155 pounds.  (I believe what had happened was that Anthony's original opponent had dropped out and was replaced at the last minute by someone much heavier.)  As he steps into the cage, Anthony's sister is sitting behind us is freaking out that she's going to have to watch her brother get torn apart by this terrifying behemoth.  The fight lasted 23 seconds before Anthony KOed the guy, boxed him in the side of the head and rendered him completely dazed for the remainder of the event.  All of us in our section of the bleachers went absolutely wild, and I still have a scratchy throat from all the screaming I did.

Afterwards we ended up at Frankford Hall, an open-air German-style beer hall where we drank many steins of fancy IPAs and had the best curry bratwurst and cabbage I've tasted in my life.  The place was jam-packed and lacked only a brass band in liederhosen playing proper German oom-pa music.  (Though apparently they do have those on special occasions.)  On Saturday I had the whole morning free to explore downtown Philly which, astoundingly given how close I've lived to it most of my life, I've never done before.  It was actually a cool town, with a few modestly arty sections and a few modestly elegant buildings (it seems overall to be a very quiet, modest city... their one claim of fame is that 200 years ago they were the stomping ground of the Founding Fathers, and they don't even make much noise about that,) and every now and then you'll run into this fantastically post-apocalyptic, gargantuan condemned building covered in rust and graffiti where you're sure some mad scientist is hidden away creating an army of zombies.

However, there were a few lovely parks where you can lounge on the grass and eat ice cream, and I had the good luck to stumble across one where there was a fine arts and crafts fair going on, where I lingered and perused through all the quirky ceramics and hanging mobiles and hand-woven textiles and eventually bought a little dill plant for my mom for Mother's Day.  (Dill is a criminally undervalued herb on this continent... you can only find it in special grocery stores in Maryland, and it's practically nonexistent in South America.)

I wandered through City Hall which was very impressive indeed, and discovered Philadelphia's Chinatown, in which I was hoping to find fresh dumplings and those rice flour buns with red bean paste inside, but instead bought what turned out to be the worst dumplings I've ever tasted.  It was like eating glue with peas in the middle, and only too late did I realize that it was because they were vegan dumplings.  Darn vegan dumplings.  However, the proprietor was very friendly and gave me a glass of hot tea and then pointed me in the direction of the Liberty Bell and Benjamin Franklin's grave... the grave I visited, but not the bell because I was quite tired and the line to see it curved all the way around the park.  But I could see a corner of it through a window, so I figure that counts.  (Whereas once in Moscow I waited in a line in Red Square for two hours, in the subzero wind and heavy snow, just to go inside Lenin's mausoleum.... I am a bad American.)

So it was a great trip overall, and good to know that I can satisfy wanderlusty feelings and the need to do something different without decimating my life savings and jetting halfway across the world.  Also, in my mission of scoping out American cities to eventually settle in quasi-permanently, Philadelphia is definitely a contender.  We'll see...