Monday, June 17, 2013

Is this the hell that this is?

My brain is kind of a jerk.
This is what it felt like inside my brain. Too many languages.

After spending almost six months cramming it full of French, trying to revive my high school grammar so I can successfully use the subjunctive and don't just sound like I'm either terminally shy or inarticulate while living in Montreal, I decided to take it to Spain. I don't really speak Spanish. I never studied it, in school or elsewhere, and the last time I went to a Spanish-speaking country, my friend Colleen and I were very proud of ourselves that we understood our tour guide when he spoke in the equivalent of kindergarten-Spanish. "THIS...IS...A...VOLCANO," he would say to us, very very slowly. We'd nod our heads, then he would light his walking stick on fire. We couldn't ask why, so we just applauded.
Obligatory photo of the Sagrada Famiglia.

However, apparently, what I *do* speak is Italian. I spent 3 months in Italy when I was 16 years old, and haven't spoken Italian since then. I was actually in the northern part of Italy, in the Dolomiti, the gorgeous rocky mountains famous for being home to Italy's Ladino population, who are famous for not speaking Italian. So I went to Italy and stayed for three months with people who don't speak Italian, and yet somehow managed to pick up enough Italian that my mind very cheerfully said "ARE YOU SURE YOU DON'T MEAN MOLTO BENE INSTEAD OF MUY BIEN?" every time I tried to communicate in Spanish. Basically, I spent my entire time in Spain with my brain throwing out exciting phrases in four languages at once: Spanish, Italian, French, and English. Sometimes I also got some German, which I have also never studied.

Then we went to Morocco, and fortunately, I have forgotten almost all of my vocabulary from my university Arabic classes, so I could be left in relative comfort to speak either English or French. I did spend a few hours on the train to Fes writing out the Arabic alphabet to see if I could remember it (yep, all 4 H's still accounted-for) and my journal is full of little frantically-scrawled notes of "What the hell is the stupid "th" anyway?" (hint: depends on if you mean the soft th or the hard th). So in Morocco, I could read the signs, but not decipher what they meant. Fair enough.
One of the only words I know in Arabic: mdrsa (school)

So Ray and I went to Spain and Morocco. We realized after the trip was over that we had somehow managed to stay in literally every possible sort of residence while we were there. In Barcelona, we stayed with Ray's friends Rob and Aleta, who had recently moved from San Luis Obispo and had almost no furniture in their gorgeous wood-floored Spanish apartment. We sat on the floor around cardboard boxes and they drank wine while I read aloud from the past winners of the Ig Nobel you do. In Sevilla, we stayed in our first AirBNB room, a tiny brightly-colored place in Triana, across the river from Sevilla proper and with a lot more character and fewer tourists. Our one night in Tangier was spent in a typical ratbag Moroccan pension, where the beds have been compressed to the density of walnuts by years of people sleeping on them and never having their sheets changed. This pension was right next to the Grand Mosque, which made the middle-of-the-night call to prayer somewhat noisy. It seemed to go on for quite some time, too, after which Ray muttered, "I knew they were doing a call to prayer, but I didn't think they'd be doing the whole service!"
Medina in Fes
In Fes, we stayed in a riad: a super-fancy, super-swanky old-style Moroccan hotel with a central courtyard, elaborately-painted wood ornamentation, zellij tiles, and two extremely friendly Moroccan concierges. We were right around the corner from a hammam, where I ended up drastically overpaying to have a tiny elderly women scrub all the dry skin off my body and then force me to wear someone else's clean underwear back to the hotel. In Marrakech, we found ourselves in a generic mid-level hotel: clean sheets, hot water, and almost nothing else. Right off the Djema el-Fna, it was mostly just our launching point for getting the hell out of Marrakech. After our flight to Essaouria, we found ourselves in a hippie hostel next to the seawall; populated entirely by long-term traveling backpackers, we shared communal meals and someone played guitar and sang literally every night we were there. They had two pet ducks on the roof and encouraged guests to paint on the walls. A quick flight back to Madrid and we spent two nights in an artist's home (again via AirBNB) in Chueca, the gay quarter populated by cheerful Eastern European sex workers checking their phones in 6" heels and tight pants.
Hanging lantern in Green Milk dormitory

Seedlings at Green Milk...isn't Art Mode pretty?
I don't have many Exciting Stories to tell about this trip, really. We saw a lot of Gaudi architecture, and were inspired to create mosaics. We ate a lot of amazing food. Rob and Aleta took us to their favorite restaurant in Barcelona (Bodega La Palma, mmmmm) where they know the waiter. We would order something, and he would bring us something else, saying, "You didn't want that other thing. You want this." A wheel of fresh raw cheese with homemade blackberry jam...he was right, we DID want that. When we ordered dessert, we got tiramisu and then asked him to recommend something. His brow furrowed and his face got serious, then he nodded and wrote something down; it turned out to be nougat ice cream doused with an anise liqueur, so good we almost cried. We staggered out into the street after that, moaning and holding our stomachs. It was worth it. On my birthday in Madrid, I had the best mushroom risotto I have ever had in my life, and some goat cheese and honey ravioli that I would have married if that sort of thing was legal.
Our host's kitchen in Madrid: knives & dudes kissing

In Morocco, we mostly just ate a lot of tagine and doughnuts. Food in Morocco is really only impressive and exciting if you can eat meat and you don't mind consuming your own weight in sugar. The mint tea, for example. I saw a woman make mint tea in her home in Rabat back in 1999; she took her tiny teapot and threw in a handful of tea leaves, then added a sheaf of mint. Then she went to the giant block of refined white sugar in the corner of the kitchen, took what looked like an ice pick and hacked off an enormous chunk, wedged it in the mouth of the teapot, and poured the boiling water over it so it slowly dissolved into the tea below. Mint tea ("Moroccan whiskey") is more like a decorative syrup than a tea.

We spent a lot of time walking. We realized that one day in Sevilla, we walked nonstop for about ten hours. We needed something to do before the restaurants opened for dinner at 10pm, so we just walked and looked at things and talked and sat and ate lunch and walked some more. We found an Ai Wei Wei exhibit and looked at it. We found some cafes and sat in them and read books. Ray fell asleep in an armchair. We found parks and sat in those. We ate gelato. You may notice a theme in this trip. If you did not, let me point it out to you: walking. And eating. That's pretty much it.
Ai Wei Wei: pretty.

After I lost my phone in Sevilla, Ray let me use his camera. This turned out to be a mistake, because I decided my favorite setting was Art Mode, which produces gorgeously supersaturated photos with blown-out colors. The rest of the trip was mostly just us wrestling the camera away from each other and changing the settings back and forth. The photos mostly just look as though we went to two very different places: one looks sort of like Europe, and one looks like the inside of a Disney movie. Say what you will, I like contrast in my photos, god damnit.

Overall, the trip was gorgeous: restful and calm, we spent a lot of time actually BEING ON VACATION, which is something I rarely do. I usually work or plan or develop skills or something, I rarely travel just for the sake of travelling. This was completely unplanned, except for roughly when we wanted to go where, and even that changed when we got to Marrakech and hated it. We kind of sort of knew what we wanted to do, but we played it thoroughly by ear. I haven't been to Spain or Morocco since 1999, so we also spent some time revisiting things I first saw when I was 19 years old, which means I was constantly saying things like "Wow! That's changed a lot!" And then eating a doughnut.

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