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.