Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Now I know how it feels to be the village idiot August 29, 2008

Beautiful Barcelona

Beautiful Barcelona

Spain has it in for me. There is some weird trend starting up here wherein every time I check out at a grocery store, something explodes. Today is was a bottle of sparkling water (oh, how I love my agua con gaseo). I don’t know how or why, but as the woman reached for it to run it over the scanner, it busted a leak like Old Faithful and shot a powerful stream all over me. I do prefer the wet t-shirt contests where I’m the only contestant. Ups the odds that I might win (which are usually pretty slim).

Yesterday, it was my little four-pack of ‘Danone’ yogurt in “Macedonia” flavor (no idea what that means). As the woman (different city, different cashier at least) sat it down for me to bag, a giant glob of it launched all over my shirt and shorts.

These things are really no big deal and even kind of funny (especially because I cannot recall a single instance in my whole life where this has happened, and now it’s happened twice in a row). The issue is that it causes a major stream of dialog that I can’t comprehend a word of. So basically I try to fake like I understand what they’re saying with lots of nodding and smiling and “Dios Mio!” (kidding on the “Dios mio.’ I’m not sure anyone says that. Kind of like ‘my stars!” or “good golly, Miss Molly!”). Anyway, usually I figure if I were in their shoes, I’d be saying something like, “Holy crap! I’m so sorry! Go grab a new one.” So I leave to get a new one. The problem usually kicks in when I come back with the new one and they ask me something.

It’s at that point that I have to formulate and speak a grammatically tragic sentence in Spanish that likely translates to, “Here is new one. Me go now.” It’s like Arnold Schwarzanegger (sp?) before he was the Terminator or governor. Those monotone adverb and article-less sentences aren’t so cute when you’re just a ‘roided-out, orgy-loving Austrian weight lifter. Does that sentence mean I can never live in California again?

Anyway, back to my story of one-woman food fights, it’s at this point that everyone invariably gives me the sad, sorry look that you would to a parent with an obviously very, very slow (eight sandwiches and a red checkered blanket short of a picnic) child. A look that says, “Oh. You’re deficient. I didn’t realize. I pity you.”

In the same vein, I realized this morning that there is no way to look sophisticated while running down the street with a giant backpack bouncing behind you. I don’t care if you’re Jackie O. It cannot be done. Even Jackie O. would look like a lumbering jackass in the situation. Even with the big round sunglasses and the head scarf. Even with John John in tow. She would. Trust me.

I had this realization, naturally, while running down Calle Atocha in Madrid. I hate it when stupid events (like the lazy woman never waking up to allow me to check out at 9am) conspire against me, and I realize I’ve got to run – and about 40 pounds heavier than usual – if I’m going to make my plane/train/bus/starship. At this point I’m pretty well acclimated to the physical element of lugging the bag, it’s the fact that it renders me bulky and gigantic that I can’t seem to get through my head. I’m like a cat with clipped whiskers. I head into a space and get in so far…and realize I’m stuck. This is a clever and allegorical way of saying that this morning I was late, so I had to run down a busy metropolitan street during rush hour with a giant backpack strapped onto me, and I more or less bonked, bumped, jostled and plain old knocked over a dozen or so people en route. Sorry about that, slow moving people of Madrid.

In other news, it could just be a coincidence, but i saw no less than 5 shops selling kittens yesterday. It did occur to me that traveling with a trained cat (maybe i could get it to sit on my shoulder like a parrot?) would liven things up. I could name it Wanderlust and together we could cross the continent, sharing cans of tuna and performing stupid cat tricks. A lesser version of that seemed to be the thing to do in Portugal: Get a huge dog (Mastiffs were usually employed for the purpose) and then go from table to table at the outdoor dining spots in all the alleys, begging for money to feed the giant dog. Invariably these were healthy-looking men in their 20s and 30s, and all I could think was, “Why did you have to drag some poor dog into your mess?” The dogs were always laying on their sides looking exhausted from all the heat and panhandling. Or maybe they were just embarrassed to be associated with that guy? The guy ruining everyone’s lunch. I’m sure dogs know if their owner is a loser just as much as kids know when their parents aren’t cool.

Meanwhile, I’m out of that awful little room in Barcelona. Barcelona rocks and makes me realize how much I didn’t really like Madrid. It kind of reminded me of Boston. Not to pick on Boston (too much), and not in terms of specific looks, but in vibe. Both are large cities with a lot of history, and both have some cool old stuff and crazy roads that lead to seriously confusing floor plans. But in both I find the people kind of standoffish and the town inaccessible. I walked a solid seven or eight miles of Madrid, and could never find it’s ‘pulse.” I guess it’s safe to say that I just didn’t really vibe with Madrid.

Barcelona, however, is fantastico. It’s lively, it’s got history, it’s funky, it’s tropical, it’s gorgeous, and it has a nice rack. There are beaches and palm trees and little shops where you can get the biggest falafel pita on earth (and possibly the best) for 4.20 Euro. The metro system is delightful, and I am no longer sleeping in a prison cell. Who could ask for anything more???

Viva Barcelona!!!

 

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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