Saturday, January 22, 2011

Winter Travels, pt. III

I turned the street corner and arrived in Plaza Mayor to face Santiago’s giant cathedral, glowing green and gold against the night sky.

Oh My God.

From Granada to Seville, and even Dublin and Salamanca, I have seen many cathedrals over the past four months.  But none compares with the moss-covered, regal ghost that is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  The raindrops only grew fatter and the people fled, leaving me alone under the illuminated giant.  

Without an umbrella, but ready with heavy boots and a waterproof coat, I decided to continue my soaked run through the town.  The place was empty.  The city was mine.  The sky didn’t mind that I was wet and died down only after I ducked into a small tavern on another sleepy street.  Acoustic music lured me towards the back, where bright green plants grew out of the underground walls. The music was live, not very good, and the drink I ordered expensive. But at this point, ten travel days deep, I was happy to be indoors, happy to be in Santiago de Compostela, and happy to be traveling on my own. 

Los Reyes Magos

Spain doesn’t have a Santa Claus.  In fact, the American and English influence of “Papa Noel” has started showing up, on advertisements, outdoor decorations, and Christmas packaging, mostly within the last ten years. I am with most Spanish people in my dislike for the cultural imposition of Santa Claus.  Spaniards have their proper holiday tradition—Dia de Los Reyes Magos—a celebration of the Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ.  Much like in the United States, children write a letter to the Three Wisemen, are tucked into bed early, and wake up the following morning to a mountain of gifts.  January 6th is the day for presents in Spain, only a small gift for children would be given on Christmas.  The Reyes Magos, Melchor, Gaspar, and Beltasar, are distinct ethnicities and are depicted in all the Belens (Nativity scenes) of the towns and in people’s homes.  Each town has a parade, where the Three Kings throw candy from decorated floats and the town’s marching band livens the night. 

The Parade
Families appeared from their window balconies, looking down on children in peacoats and galoshes, who made up bouncy ball games and sprayed silly string on the sidewalk.  Men on horses preceded the parade, announcing the arrival of Melchor, Gaspar, and Beltasar.  Each king came by on a brightly lit float, each with his distinct color scheme and with costumed servants and animals by his side.  The children waved and screamed with delight and scrambled from under the arched sidewalks to catch the kings’ candy.

The procession led into Plaza Mayor, the same place I’d stood the previous night, alone and surrounded by nothing by quiet rain.  I stood surrounded now by umbrellas and strollers, laughing children and eager parents.  The Three Wisemen appeared on the terrace of the great Palacio de Raxoi and called out to the kids in Gallego—a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish.

Gallego sounds like Italian in its inflexion and song-like speech and its smooth “ch”s and “sh”s seem Portuguese.  Gallego is spoken in Galicia, the region in the Northwest of Spain, and is one of the country’s four official languages.  It’s magical and romantic and smooth, and a sharp contrast to the thick and cut off accented Andalusian dialect of the South.  Due to the close relationship to Spanish and the obvious context of what was being said, it wasn’t too difficult to understand the animated speakers.  

“You’ve all been good this year, right nenos?”
“Well make sure you go home and get to bed early, for tomorrow there will be presents waiting for you!”

I was struck by the intense joy of being on my own.  All the colors, the music, and the sounds of children were mine in that moment.  My heart sang as I watched families, the joy of the parents, and the joy of each child. Even though at such a different phase of my life, a free 23 year old, gasping and taking it all in under her umbrella under the cathedral, I felt the parental love.  Sharing something so beautiful with children, the giggles and wide eyed wonder, providing as parents they the infrastructure for the memories, and knowing the children give their parents so much joy in return.

It took me three days alone, three days of bus rides, long city walks, and hours of café writing, to get back to a place where I was okay being alone.  The transition from good company and social interaction was difficult.  I was in Salamanca, desperately lonely and confused.  But it passed.  I stayed with it, felt what I needed to, and worked it out of my system.  The reward was unimaginable.  I remembered how much I love my own company, and under the fireworks and magic of the raining Santiago sky I felt the same magic of the playa as I watched The Man burn under an August moon alone.  Lights, sounds, energy and love.  I thanked God in that moment, for giving me the time to have now, for myself, for travel, for learning and for love.  And for the moments when I will be the parent, ready to share so much love and joy with a child.  

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Holiday Travels chapter 2

Second Holiday, Spanish Style

In Navas de San Juan, instead of tapear (going for tapas) we ligar.  The literal translation is flirt, but the small town, where the accent is thick and the slang incomprehensible, entertains the tradition of afternoon tapas and drinks.  Born in Navas, Mari Carmen was my tour guide and my host. She also decided if I get baptized (because it’s surely blasphemous that I haven’t been) she will be my Godmother as well.
Mari Carmen teaches Geography and History at IES El Fuerte with me.  When she invited me for Noche Vieja (Old Night) I gladly accepted, eager to participate in a Spanish family tradition.  Mari Carmen helped me plan my entire winter trip, she took extra clothes for me to Navas, picked me up at the train station, and brought me into her family’s home.  Her father, Pedro, is a florist, with big brown eyes and a happy smile.  His wife, called Mari Carmen as well, is strikingly beautiful and she enjoys when the house is full of the kids.  Her parents, Domingo and Mari Carmen, live there, and Pedro, the crazy energetic teenager of 24, is in and out of the house. 

            Never Hungry in Navas
Meals in other countries are events.  Everyone sets the table, sits down, and eats together.  The time is dedicated to eating and talking and visiting.  No computers, cell phones, television.  We eat.  I like that. 
Mari Carmen’s mother’s cooking was delicious, especially the lentil soup with chorizo (who would’ve thought I’d actually like chorizo).  She made rice pudding for dessert, and papajotes (homemade doughnut/churros) for breakfasts.  It is true when they say the Spanish mothers only want to feed you.  Mama Mari Carmen insisted on serving me seconds, thirds, and always dessert.  For fear of offending her cooking, I ate it all—even potato chips smothered in olive oil, ground pepper, and sardines.  
The rain prevented us from doing much, but the day I went in for a Spanish hair cut—“Oh, just the ends and some layers”—was exciting as it ended in my bouffant stylish cut that the whole family agreed was much better, and much more Spanish.  I also enjoyed Mari Carmen’s educational tour around the mountains and the area’s reservoir. We were lucky to spot deer and some storks.  I was lucky to get to speak so much Spanish.

Bringing in 2011
My favorite night in Navas de San Juan, however bittersweet, was New Year’s Eve.  Luisa, Mari Carmen’s aunt, hosted us all for an elaborate dinner of crab legs, gumbo shrimp, pork chops in champagne sauce, and homemade tiramisu.  The celebration was very much like a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) party at my mother’s house—everyone talking, loud laughs, hands reaching across the table, pouring wine, playing music.  Eugenio, Pedro’s dinner guest, entertained us with his professional Flamenco dancing and we sang traditional holiday songs.  Luisa had wrapped our New Year’s grapes in festive holiday bags with curled ribbon and we counted down the New Year popping soft green grapes into our mouths, laughing at each other, trying to get all 12 down without choking.  Everyone hugged and gave kisses when the broadcast announced that we had entered 2011. 

Americans do not eat grapes on New Year’s Eve. Most of us don’t dance Flamenco in the living room, nor do we drink light beer with our dinner, but we celebrate with family and we love to love. 

Ten year old Mateo laughs as his 78 year old grandfather attempts to cut the pork chop with his pocket knife.  Andrés keeps the Flamenco rhythm, tapping his fork against the wine glass, and Pedro puts his arm around his wife to kiss her.  We have different customs and different traditions, there is no doubt, but being together, with loved ones, celebrating life and living in love, is what we are born to do and what keeps us going.  New Year’s Eve was the hardest night away from home thus far, missing my mother, my family, the Happy New Year! text messages and having my best girlfriends at my side. But I wouldn’t trade my experience in an instant.  The Parrilla family welcomed me and loved me, showed me their family and shared more with me than I can ever hope to repay them.  And I know my Spanish New Year’s Eve will be remembered forever. 

An Irish Country Christmas
An Irish Christmas in the snow covered countryside was what I envisioned and what I experienced—a snuggled old dog in front of a warm fireplace, simple home cookin’ of spouts and potatoes, quiet company and Christmas crackers.  I spent four days with the Fitzell family in Portlaoise and two days in Dublin City.    

I attended Christmas mass with Margaret, Hollie and Rebecca while Sean cooked Christmas dinner.  My eyes enjoyed seeing a more simple church, barren and beige compared to the ornate and over the top décor of Spanish cathedrals; it was beautiful in its simplicity.  My favorite part was looking around at all the people—the fair skin and dark hair, and all light-eyed, with the occasional Ginger kids—red freckled and for surely the poster children for all things Irish.   

Grandma Betty bought us all Christmas Crackers, a British holiday tradition that The Fitzell family couldn’t believe I’d never seen, nor pulled.  And Rebecca’s sixteen-year-old sister Hollie was quick to explain the process.  Two people pull on a large paper tube, the one with the luck or better technique gets the whole of the cracker as it pulls apart—“CRACK!” and a paper hat, kazoo, and joke fly out.  We entertained ourselves most of the afternoon playing “Name that Tune” with our kazoos, parading around in our gold paper crowns.

Easy Living
The Irish, like the Spanish, seem happier with less.  The Fitzell home is beautiful, it is nice, and it is old.  The rooms aren’t redecorated and up to the latest fashion.  The curtains and the carpet, are quaint and country, there’s no need for improvement if it works just fine.  I noticed this, the simplicity of everything—the home, the meal, the days—and I admire it.  There is no burning need for more more more.  It felt calmer. It felt smaller. Less wasteful.  I enjoyed the simplicity of the family, the five us around the table, watching movies, just being together.  Margaret turned on my bed’s electric blanket every night before bed.  Uncle Billy gave me a Seamus Heaney book of poetry.  Sean made me oatmeal every morning and Grandma fed me Christmas chocolates out of a tin.  Hollie, Rebecca, and I walked through the snowy fields with horses and were triplets in our matching Christmas Eve pajamas.    
The Irish are perhaps the friendliest people I’ve met.  The cab drivers, store clerks, the fellow bus passengers—their sense of humor is exceptional and unmatched.  They are jolly, they are funny—smart-ass and sarcastic—and always “down to have the craic.”  Craic, pronounced crack, is the word for the Irish.  It means fun.  And it fits perfectly into most situations, as most of the time the Irish are in the pub, “just having the craic.”  

Irish Cuisine
I ate cream covered jelly trifle, Fish and Chips, oatmeal, rum cake, and drank a great many cups of tea. The Irish cuisine is distinct from the Spanish, I would say mostly in the difference of olive oil and in fish.  Where Ireland is potatoes, butter and salt, Spain is ham and olive oil and bread. 
The best thing I tasted on the Irish leg of my adventure?  Guinness.  Hands down.   I poured my own pint at the Guiness Storehouse, sat in the bar overlooking the city, and had the craic.  The thick drink is so rich and satisfying.  The beer has the dark flavor and heaviness that you might find in coffee, but the crispness is refreshing, and the smooth creamy head makes it completely unique.  The Guinness in the factory surpasses the pints poured in the pubs of Dublin and obviously stands miles above the Foreign Export we drink in the States.  I am spoiled now, because when you have the best, nothing else is ever good enough.  No pint of Guinness will ever compare. December 28th was Rebecca’s seventh time visiting Guinness, she brings all her foreign friends, and it doesn’t get old.  She knows it is something as important as the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral or Trinity College.  The culture is so based upon a brewery—a beer that literally symbolizes a nation.  

Holiday Travels

Three costumed kings waved down to the crowd of children from their green, gold, and purple lit balcony.  The illuminated cathedral of Santiago de Compostela stood behind, its presence regal and majestic against the dark night sky.  The two-hour parade had led the townspeople, huddled under umbrellas but dancing just the same, to Plaza Mayor, where live music and lights, candies and floats, awaited giddy children and joyful parents. 
And of course, when you think life couldn’t get any sweeter, it does, and fireworks blow up the sky—gold and pinkgreengoldbluered confetti spit in every direction, fluttering alongside the showering rain.  Cheering, laughter, and hugging in the rain.  

On The Road
My holiday adventures stretched over 15 days, beginning with a delayed flight to Dublin and a white Christmas in the countryside, a New Year’s Eve eating olives and grapes in Southern Spain, and a solo journey North—to the charming university town of Salamanca, and to Santiago de Compostela, the rainy city that holds the relic of apostle Saint James and receives over three million religious pilgrims every year.

The trip consisted of a lot of bus rides, plane rides, and two trips by train.  I enjoyed the cityscape of a grayed winter Dublin and Christmas light lit Salamanca.  I explored the Sierra Morena and the endless blanketed olive land of Andalusia, as well as the rocky beaches of the Galicia.  I enjoyed the company and the kindness of people, was privileged to be an honorary member of two loving families, as well as enjoy the company of myself, reaching a point of stillness where I could hear the world again.