Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

I’m beginning to see the light August 27, 2008

In front of some graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal

In front of some graffiti in Lisbon, Portugal

I’ve been feeling a little bit shagged, having spent last night on the night train from Lisbon to Madrid. After a brief snooze on the early morning flight from Dublin, I realized that saving a few euro was NOT worth the lost sleep and neck pain, so I went ahead and booked a couchette (one small step above a regular seat, but at least you get to lay down). Sadly, I was in the top bunk. (Seriously, how do I put an end to that!?!?)

Even more sadly, I did not get to pick my roommates. It was me and three girls who texted and made phone calls at full ‘middle of the day’ volume (I would have paid good money to learn the Portuguese word for whisper) – and received them in turn – all night long. What a tragedy that Portugal can’t produce a phone with a ‘vibrate’ or ‘silent’ mode. Or that its youth is too rude to use them or know how to SHUT THE F**K UP AT 3AM.

Either way, combine that with the rocking and rolling circa 1960 train (with the fluorescent light that would flicker half on with the worst of the turns and bumps like some kind of deranged northern light), and I had one of those sleeps where you would look at your watch and it would be 1am, and 2:30a.m. and 4:00 a.m., and you’re amazed that it’s that late and perhaps you’ve slept at all.

So it followed that around 2am, something (so many options to choose from) woke me, and I realized I had to pee like a race horse. I lay there and shifted in my tiny horrible bed and tried to find a position where I could forget about it or fall back asleep…but it just wasn’t happening. So I had to give up and leave the room and use the horrific train toilet. Is that just dumping out onto the track or ???

Anyway, the whole thing – and so much of my travel – is completely size discriminatory. Normally, I am something of a small person. However, on this trip – because of the backpack – I am not. And it makes me super aware of how the world is not very friendly in that regard. Today I could barely fit into the lift with my backpack on, let alone through the Madrid subway turnstiles. In the same vein, as I was wandering back to the couchette in a completely bleary-eyed stupor, a very large man was heading down the hallway toward me. I already know that

  1. The odds that he speaks English are next to nothing

  2. There is no freaking way we are both fitting down this hall

  3. I don’t even know that he can fit down this hall

At the sight of his approach, I started backing up. He kept coming toward me and sending me way out of the way, and eventually I had to try to pantomime that my room was just up the hall. He seemed to understand and backed up so that I could get to it (this is a lot like the dance in the aisle on the airplane if you ever get in the way of the beverage cart). So I get there, gone just a minute or two, and with the intent to quietly climb back up into my top bunk like the Spider Monkey I have become and no one the wiser, when…what do you know but…MY ROOMMATES HAVE LOCKED ME OUT.

I keep twisting and turning the knob and looking up at the number two on the door. “Are you f-ing KIDDING me!?” I think to myself, as I size up the situation. Just then, not wanting to miss an opportunity, my rotund hallmate charges down the hall, plasters himself up against me (now banging on the door), and starts trying to grope me. I heard the bolt click just as he was moving into areas that would get him knocked out cold. Douchebag.

Needless to say, I’m feeling a little tired and pissed off today.

On a totally unrelated topic, I‘ve been running into a lot of quotes lately that strike me, and I usually stop where I am – even if that involves an awkward moment to relocate the oversized bag on my back and dig out some paper and a pen – and write them down. The other day I was reading something in an old collection of articles that referenced Episcopal Priest Barbara Brown Taylor. She wrote: “To paraphrase a parable of Brother Kierkegaard’s, if you put a bunch of people in a lobby and give them two doors to choose between – one that says ‘transformation’ and another that says ‘lecture on transformation’, most of them are going to line up for the lecture.”

A year ago, I might have done the same. However, here I am, most definitely through the door of transformation. At least I hope so.

You see, when this idea occurred to me – to recreate the trip I took when I was 19 years old – it felt urgent, even involuntary. It seemed like something I had to do, that there were lessons I needed to learn and things I needed to give up and struggles I needed to have in order to push myself past my boundaries and grow into who I am meant to be. But in the back of my mind I remembered how hard this was the first time and knew it wouldn’t be easy.

So not to bitch and moan – because I know this is something I elected to do, and although it’s a trip conducted very much on the cheap and at times it feels a little torturous, it’s still a luxury.- but some days this sh!t is just plain old hard, and it about makes you want to cry.

It is incredibly humbling to haul your every possession on your back and be alone and adrift – an alien unable to communicate with anyone around you. Portions of the Madrid metro are closed right now, which rendered my trip to the opposite side of town (where my squalid concrete block room is located) grueling. It was as hard as I’ve been pushed thus far.

I am starting to think some of what I need to learn is about humility and patience. And being real. And being kind to myself in the moment, even when the moment totally sucks. These are hard lessons in their own stupid way. It’s much, much easier to check out or blame other people or attend the lecture instead of the full-immersion course.

However, despite it all, I can see the little blessings. Like how people are kind and they try to help. As I was wandering aimlessly trying to find the Madrid Metro station earlier today, I stopped a man for help. Once we confirmed that he didn’t speak a word of English (no one here seems to, oddly), and I didn’t know much Spanish, he began an intricate pantomime to explain to me how to get to the Metro. It involved Putting his thumb to his lips and waving the remaining fingers in front of his face while dancing around and making a strange sound. I don’t know how, but eventually I realized this was to symbolize the train station. Then, he went into a violent shoving motion to his left, and it became clear that I must go through the train station and to the left. Voila, a half a kilometer later and there it was. I had to laugh.

A friend asked me what the best part has been, and the best parts are – for me, anyway – the simple little moments where the world seems so small and so beautiful: Running along a lonely road in England or watching birds dive into the ocean in Iceland. Yesterday, for example, I was walking to the train station in Portugal, and the last street vendors were packing up for the night. It was dark out and everyone was long gone from the avenues. The street lights provided the only life. A s a man was packing up his paintings he noticed me trudging past. “Come or go?” he asked, as I had my bag on my back. “Go,” I said to him, “Boa noite.”

“Bye bye, Girl!” he called after me with a wave, “Have a nice day!”

Across the plaza another man was playing a radio, and an old American song from the 1940s – “I’m beginning to see the light” – was drifting across the uneven cobblestone, and everything seemed strangely warm and embracing and perfect for a split second. And that’s what’s keeps me going.

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Slipping into the Twilight Zone August 26, 2008

Cascais, Portugal

Cascais, Portugal

It’s been a long couple days, but in a good way. I went to the beach (Cascais), and got back later than anticipated. Then I took a shower and got roped into a lengthy conversation while drying my hair (it is such a weird experience to be doing things like that – blow drying your hair – in public). As it was my last night in Lisbon, I was begged, pleaded with, and cajoled until I gave in and went out with some of the fellow hostelers. Going out seems to entail not even leaving until about 11pm.

The cutest guy on the beach in Cascais

The cutest guy on the beach in Cascais

Regardless, two particularly friendly North African guys (just finishing up architecture master’s degrees in France) were staying in the same room, and after hearing ‘last night in Lisbon’ forty-five times, I finally gave in. In my opinion, every other night is my last night somewhere, but there’s something to be said for going with the flow.

That stated, I can accurately report to you that bars in Lisbon Portugal are every bit as boring as the ones in the United States – particularly if you have a headache from all the cigarette smoke and no desire to get drunk in a complicated city full of unfriendly and steep cobblestone streets. Despite being a wildly international group (1 Australian, 1 Algerian, 1 Moroccan, 2 Swedes, 1 Korean, 1 Tunisian, 1 Romanian, and me, the American), conversations seem to center around tales of previous episodes of extreme drinking, including a harrowing story from a Swedish guy about some kind of 99% alcohol intended for medical use. He seemed to find it a funny memory, but it struck me as more of a brush with death warning that should be used in a ‘Scared Straight’ film. Not that I’m any abolitionist, but It is a little alarming to me how much alcohol seems to be a focus of everyone’s life, and this seems to extend across all borders. Almost every person I’ve met in a hostel has mentioned that their travel budget is roughly 50% for alcohol. Good thing I didn’t have to factor that in, or I’d be headed home in the next couple weeks.

Me with all of Lisbon at my feet

Me with all of Lisbon at my feet

Meanwhile, to any of you out there with young children, in addition to keeping an eye out for any growing fascination with booze, please consider raising them bi-lingual, even if it’s a Neanderthal language of grunts and groans that you make up yourself. In fact, all the better. If you and your family are fluent in Cavemanch, then you, too, can go out in public and talk about people who are standing right there because they won’t understand you. That’s right all you fluent Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Russian, etc. etc. speakers. The Aussies and I are onto you. When you look at us and talk at a feverish low tone and then erupt into laughter, we know something is going on and we may be the punchline.

Moreover, it truly is kind of embarrassing to only speak English fluently. Last night someone said something to the effect of English being ‘the international language’ and so ‘everyone has to learn it.’ All I could think was, “THANK GOD,” because it’s hard enough having to start every single solitary conversation with “English?” or “Do you speak English?” Particularly being in a country where the only word you know is ‘thank you’. By the way, it’s obrogado/a, and I say it with flourish every chance I get!

In the same vein, last night I got roped into conjuring up my high school French. Needless to say, I provided quite a few guffaws at my own expense. Especially because all I could remember were weird textbook sentences like “the pencil is on the table” and “they are friends.” Also, because high school was a really long time ago. Really long. But no one believes me on that one.

I suspect it’s due to the hard partying life most of the youth of the world seem to be living and that I somehow never partook in along the way. If all you do from the time you’re 15 or 16 is smoke, drink and stay up all night, I’m thinking the key to my eternal youth lies in my general abstinence (minus the alcohol under different circumstances. Here – partially because of budget, but mostly because I’m on my own – I’m crazy conservative) from all three.

Other people may have their multilingual flag to wave. They may be able to carry on conversations in four or five languages on as many continents…but I look damn young. I can infiltrate your youthful scene and you are none the wiser. In fact, you start looking out for me in my apparent youth. This is my super power. Forget out running locomotives and leaping tall buildings in a single bound? Who needs all that, when you could re-enroll in high school?

Seriously though, it’s absolutely bizarre to me. Last night someone suggested that I was 25 and another man said, “No! I would have thought…”

I readied myself, “Here it comes…busted!”

Until he followed it up with, “I would have thought younger than that. More like 21.” Wha…????

On the other hand, the few times I have stated my true age, no one believes me. I honestly think I’d have an easier time telling people I’m a vampire, I never age, and I’m 412 years old. It would not surprise me if that were accepted as fact more readily than the truth of my advancing years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered for sure – just a little baffled.

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

Meanwhile, Lisbon is a really interesting city of contrasts. It’s got a lot of old architecture and charm, and then two blocks away looks like a bomb just went off. The weather has been superb, and it’s a mere 25 minute train ride from the beach…and the world’s coldest ocean. Seriously, it was FREEZING. It wasn’t the coldest ever, I think the ocean off Washington state in the spring is about the same, but considering how warm it is, and it’s August, I was totally shocked. Anyway, minus having very little (no) grasp on the language, I like it here just fine. In fact, in a mere two days I’ve become an expert at getting around on the subways and throughout the Alfama (as long as you’re not in a rush, it’s easy to get out of there, just head downhill). The Alfama is the old “Moorish district” which has these insane and super-steep switchback streets. Apparently they were built that way in case anyone attacked the city: The soldiers would get lost in the street and were easy to fight back from the castle at the top.

In the Alfama district

In the Alfama district

At the moment, I’m sitting here in the hostel kitchen, and someone just handed me a shrimp with the head and arms and legs and wings and horns and beak still attached. Ick. I love shrimp, but if I had to look at them like this all the time, I’m pretty sure I’d eat them a lot less frequently! I ended up munching down a pretty good portion of shell, but I’m pretty sure it added to the flavor (it really was damn flavorful) and I probably got some extra calcium out of it or something.

Lastly, I’m going to make a real effort to get a bunch of pictures up on Flickr in the next few days. Space is allotted by month, so i intend to use everything I’ve got before August ends. Meanwhile, I can’t seem to figure out how to get the link to work from WordPress. They say to paste in the RSS feed from Flickr…but (obviously, if you look to the lower left) it isn’t working. My Flickr account shares the same name as this blog, and if anyone can figure out the exact url I should plug in to get the link going please send me an e-mail or post a comment. Otherwise, boa noite, and tomorrow it will be be buenos dias from Madrid!

 

Forget Coke. I’d like to buy the world some Right Guard. August 24, 2008

Dear World,

Pee-U. You look like a monkey, and you smell like one too. Actually, you smell like a whole cage full of them. In a cage that hasn’t been cleaned in a week. Or a month. Or ever. And has doubled as your bathroom.

Meanwhile fair readers, I have made it to Lisbon! Yay Lisbon! It’s warm, it’s sunny, it’s old world-ish, and if such things are of interest to you, the wine flows cheaply. So cheaply, in fact, you wonder if maybe it’s got some antifreeze in it or something. On par, a bottle of the local vintage averages .75 to 1.99 euro ($1.25 to $.3.00 USD since our dollar is doing so badly. Which, by the way, all the jerk Canadians keep feeling the need to point out. All the time. As if I don’t know. But seriously, if this isn’t enough to turn your blood cold, the two dollars are trading almost equally. They must be pissed about the fact that all their books and magazines are marked up a good 35% over ours.)

Adding to the universal stink with a giant thing of Irish onion rings

Adding to the universal stink with a giant thing of Irish onion rings

Also, it’s not that I’m saying all Canadians are jerks. Just those that feel the need to remind me that our economy is in the dumpster and taking my hard earned dollars down with it. Speaking of Canadians, I have a young French Canadian somewhat stalking me. I think he means well. Or he’s just lonely. Or both. But he’s wearing me out. There is nowhere I can hide where the young fellow doesn’t appear.

So I’m off to duck into my upper bunk (QUICK SEGUE: Doesn’t the law of averages indicate that, on average, I would be in the upper bunk half the time and the lower bunk the other half? How the hell is it that I have had the upper bunk EVERY SINGLE GODDAMNED time??? Like seven or eight or even more times now. I’ve lost count. Seriously, what are the odds on this? Could I somehow lock in the same mojo for some kind of gambling venture? At least make this unbroken streak work in my favor financially? Anyone out there care to take odds?)

All that aside, it’s good to be back in some summer weather. And get away from that Irish temper (I’m kidding a little – although there were some fists flying on the Luas [Dublin’s light rail] yesterday. I was wearing my full backpack ensemble and pointed it toward the fracas like a tortoise might his shell).

In closing, tomorrow I am off to the beaches about a half-hour from Lisbon by train. I’m going by myself, even if it means I have to go out a window. If I can stay off the practically free wine long enough to write up a semi-sober update, I will do so. And maybe even post some pictures. (Just kidding on the solo binge drinking. Users are losers, kids. And drinking by yourself is not only a troubling sign of a problem, it’s not that fun.)