Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Day I Didn’t Get Mauled By Bulls


Guess where I went today? A major clue:

People running desperately… Away from bulls…

I went to Pamplona!

Unfortunately, when there isn’t a prospect of someone getting majorly mauled by bulls in the street, it’s a pretty quiet town with not very much to do.

It is pretty, though, so we spent the majority of the day walking around:

This is the bull ring of the town – during the Sanfirmines Festival that happens in July, the bulls and whatever people are left running end up here. After that, I gather they piece together the stupid people that had the guts to run (“Of course bulls can’t run faster than people! Can’t you see the size of that thing? It sits around eating grass all day!”), and kill the bulls. Spain is home to several different festivals that involve the mutilation of bulls, or so my host mother tells me. I’m not going to translate what she told me.

The Bull ring wasn’t open, so we moved on…

This is the street the bulls run down. I can’t imagine what this must be like for shop owners – just the idea of a bull jumping the barrier (because they do that – you can see footage on YouTube of bulls jumping into the first tier of seats in bull rings) and just ruining the store. Definitely a good place to pay up on insurance.

This place is nothing in a photo, but this is an example of how decked-out the Spanish are getting for Christmas. You will be seeing several night photos with all of the lights rigged up. It’s going to be great – basically none of the lights are lit as yet, but things are shaping up to be really and truly fantastic.

This last one is the exposition hall – there’s a reflecting pool in front of it, but there were no fish, so I don’t really care about it. The dome on the building is huge, though, which makes up for the deplorable absence of fish.

The cool gazebo-thing in the ‘Plaza del Castillo’ – the Plaza of the Castle – which ironically has absolutely no castle nearby.

The only other thing that’s famous in Pamplona is the cathedral, but we were too cheap to go in – after Santiago de Compostela, everything else just pales. Though speaking of Santiago de Compostela, Pamplona is a part of the pilgrimage route to get there, so there’s shells and references to the path all throughout the city – as well as discounts for hikers and pilgrims that even students don’t get. But anyway:

There were a few atypical things in Pamplona worth mentioning. This is for all of the coffee lovers out there:

I honestly don’t know whether or not they sell bagels or even doughnuts, and didn’t get the opportunity to figure that out, as it was siesta time. If you’re ever in Spain shmoozing around town, gawking, taking photos, and generally being a tourist, and wonder if there’s been a bomb threat or if everyone just died in an alley somewhere out of the way, check the time. If it’s between 2:00 and 4:00, they are eating or sleeping – you know, being Spanish.

And the other little anomaly:

We know of the writer Earnest Hemingway (he’s one of Dad’s favorites, unless I’m getting it wrong), who lived in Pamplona for a while; we know of the Arab-infusion kebabs: not meat on a stick: spiced lamb, beef, or chicken inside a pita with white lettuce, a couple of vegetables, and sauce. Together? Ummm… Perhaps this is like pickles and ice cream. You have to be pregnant or otherwise hormonal to figure it out.

Well, that’s all she wrote – or maybe not. Thanksgiving was this past week, after all, and a lot of the USAC students were pining away for their favorite components of the meal – sorry, folks, the majority was not missing family – and so Anne, Jesse, and I did a bit of cooking. I made fantastic buttery mashed potatoes (OH MY GOD), Anne made her first apple pie, and Jesse helped out, provided an oven (and a clean kitchen, which is pretty incredible, given the filthy bears he seems to live with), and supplied us with music. My mashed potatoes ended up looking like mashed potatoes, but Anne’s pie was definitely picture-worthy:

Not bad, eh? Happy (Belated) Turkey Day, everyone!

Journey Into the Land of Tired But Happy Feet (Part Two, Granada)


Okay, forget about how awesome I made Seville seem. Seville is that nasty smell coming from an open grate (or eau de hard-boiled eggs, for that matter) next to Granada. Get into the older districts, and Granada just SMELLS good. It’s something about incense disseminating through the air or the spices or…something. No place I’ve ever been in smells like that – it smells like an exotic version of home.

So you might be thinking, ‘Well, this is all rather pretty, but what was Sarah doing here?’ Granada means ‘pomegranate’ in Spanish, though I didn’t see a single piece of fruit there, so that’s not it. The pictures that you just saw are of the Arabic part of the city (there’s also a Jewish Quarter, and a Christian part, as well), going up a big hill until we saw:

That little thing there is a place the locals like to call THE ALHAMBRA (al-AM-bra).  This is the immense castle/palace digs of Arab kings before the Spanish took over Granada (Granada was actually the last stronghold of the Moors before they were stomped by Isabella and Ferdinand). It’s kinda cool. Kind of. Just a little. Or maybe A LOT.

From this vantage point, you also got great views of the city and the mountains around it:

After walking all the way up this massive hill, we walked back down again and went into a shisha bar – shisha is something you smoke that has neither tobacco nor nicotine. You can get several different fruity blends and share a bowl among friends. I passed on this in favor of the best tea I’ve ever had in my life, while everyone else inhaled and drank less than impressive milkshakes. I have no idea what was in this tea, but it was incredible. If I had one drink I could have this for the rest of my life. I think it might have had cardamom in it, along with a bunch of other spices. Yummy.

But there are a few things that we saw while walking around that are worth mentioning. First you have the gypsies. Steer clear of ladies who try to press herbs on you (I thought it might be rosemary, but it was a bit off): they’ll put a sprig in your hand and say it’s free, but once you have it they ask for money. I don’t know what they’ll do if you don’t pay them, but I’m not messing with that, if not for gypsy magic, then for the fact that in a cage match I would probably come out broken in thousands of places while she cracked her knuckles contentedly. The gypsies live at the top of the mountain/really big hill in small houses or tent constructions; I don’t know what the men do, but it makes me wonder how they survive. (Though it is good to note that at least some gypsies call themselves ‘Roma.’)

Second, the miracle of alcohol:

This is indeed the Alhambra Premium Lager. Capitalism at its most…capitalist.

Third: while the city is drop-dead gorgeous, there were a couple of things that made me wonder, like this:

Nothing says ‘screw off’ like a wall topped with broken shells and barbed wire. What do you bet that they also have a dog with foam spewing out of its mouth?

The next day we went to the Alhambra, and of course, I’m the smart one that doesn’t bring her camera charger – I’m the one that thinks about it and goes, “Nah!” I’m not making that mistake again, because the image of the little battery icon blinking red in the middle of the Generalife (pronounced heneral-lifeh; it’s the garden complex) just sucked. But I did get a few photos, thank God. There’s also loads of stuff on the internet. Trust me when I say that I’ve seen it. I did manage to take some photos before my camera twigged out, though:

There are fountains everywhere in the Alhambra – I see it as a way of stating how rich a king was, in the way he was able to maintain such flows of water merely for aesthetics. My conversation teacher said yesterday that Seville had the hottest recorded peak temperature in all of Europe in the 20th century – something like 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that water would be evaporating out of these fountains like crazy in the sumertime. Some of the fountains are big like this one, and some are basically ones you have to make sure you walk around instead of stubbing your toes on and falling ass over teakettle (I love that expression); there are also some bigger pools in the main Arab palace (there’s also another palace, one that a King Carlos built later on). It’s a lot of water, and a part of why this place is to fantastic.

I can’t really describe this place, partially because it’s just too big to do justice to; if you look at photos, you’ll get an idea of what it was like, but also seeing the details of all of the carved stone walls and ceilings up close and in person just dazzles you. The workmanship is just incredible. It’s clear that these spaces are built to inspire creativity or a sense of tranquility, because even with a veritable bevvy of Asian people sniping photos at every opportunity (WITHOUT actually looking at what they were seeing), my mood changed as soon as I walked in. I think that working at the Alhambra has its perks, because those people get to see the monuments when they are empty, so that they can concentrate on the experience of being where they are – and not avoiding being the unwitting subject of an unsolicited photograph or dodging out of the way.

I did risk it and take some pictures on top of the fortress part of the complex, and got my perhaps one and only decent picture of me during this trip. Yay! It’s a…November miracle! I’m just not photogenic. I wish I could find the British guy who took this photo and hug him.

And the views from the top aren’t bad, either:

These are the barracks of the castle. I don’t know why all the walls are gone, but it’s cool to see everything laid out like that anyway – and it keeps hapless tourists (me) from getting hopelessly lost.

And so that’s all she wrote, really; after this we took the bus back to Seville to eat Mexican food – which is stupid to do in Spain because the portions are tiny, the prices are huge, and the Californians don’t stop complaining about how inauthentic it is. But that’s nothing when you’ve seen the Alhambra.

Journey Into the Land of Tired But Happy Feet (Seville Edition)


This past weekend I took four days to go to Seville and Granada, in the south of Spain – this is Andalusia, where all the fancy horses come from, as well as the home of flamenco. This is the land of the tapa bar, places that look very much like any other bar in Spain as far as I can tell, but that give a plate of food with every drink that is bought: this means that if you buy ‘vino verano’ (wine and lemonade, a typical drink, pretty good, if I say so myself), which typically costs two euros, you get a little plate of food to go with it. Our group sponsored these little establishments for almost every meal. We had a day in Seville, two days in Granada, and then another day in Seville. A grand adventure and whatnot.

So this is what the nice part of Seville looks like; I really got the feel of the Arabic-Catholic fusion that is so prevalent in the south: there’s a lot of Arabic influences in many of the buildings here, which is great because it’s my favorite kind of  architecture.

The first day we visited the main cathedral of Seville, where Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) may or may not be interred. I wasn’t as thrilled by the inside of the cathedral, despite that it’s the largest Gothic cathedral and the third largest in the world – though I’m not so sure about that, as the National Cathedral in D.C. feels so much bigger and it’s the sixth largest – I’m just not so impressed with Gothic architecture. The outside of the cathedral was really, really impressive though:

Fantastic, eh? The sun-looking thing in the last photo has Arab influence written all over it, as well the detail on the lesser doorway (the first photo). It’s elaborate but it doesn’t feel like it’s overdone somehow – that’s the way all of this art is, as well as the fact that it’s easy to tell with one glance what it is, but that everything is different. Each artist had a different way of showing his style.

And just a little thing that’s good to know: the terms Arabic/Arab are different from Islam/Muslim. The first two refer to people that come from a certain area and the second set refer to people that follow the religion of Islam. I’m just going to use Arab/Arabic because there is a part of the Koran that says that Muslims need to have tolerance for people of other religions, so Jews and Christians were allowed to live in Muslim cities, meaning that the artist may or may not have been Muslim. The only real difference between Muslims and non-Muslims in Arab cities tended to be taxes: if you weren’t Muslim, you had a little less money in your pocket – but considering the time period, that’s not a bad deal, based on the alternative of torture, expulsion from your home, racism, or death. But back to the cathedral…

This cathedral is famous for Colon but also for it’s big tower, something that the Spanish kept when they took over the city but then turned from a minaret into the bell tower of the cathedral. You can climb up this thing, which means that you will be feeling better about that greasy tapa you ate before going in, as well as the fact that the views are incredible. Also notice that the motifs on the tower itself are very Arabic:

Okay, so its not very clear in this photo, but you can look it up if you don’t take my word for it: it’s called the Giralda Tower. But yeah. The views are totally sick – you can see out as you climb as well as at the top.

Gorgeous, right?!! You’ll notice several artistic components to the composition of this architectural marvel…or maybe you’ll just think, ‘Crazy Sarah has been pulling my leg again,’ or maybe ‘What drugs has SHE been taking?’ But never fear; the only hard drug I’m on is cocaine…er, chocolate. Believe what you will. But while you ponder whether or not to find help hotlines for Spain, take a gander:

The spiral on the edge is Arabic, as is the frilly stuff sticking up off of the edge of the roof – in case you were wondering.

Now, I always get excited when I see fish here – “OH MY GOD!!! GOLDFISH!!!” – and apparently, the same goes for bells. I wasn’t right next to someone when I saw these, so I withheld my enthusiasm (somehow – I think I may still have been grinning like a fool). Simple pleasures. Don’t judge.

So that was pretty cool. After that we walked around, ate expensive ice cream, and generally gave ourselves sore feet. But that evening…oh my God.

That evening we saw Flamenco. But you don’t just see it – you feel it thudding in your chest, like a second heart beating.

We walked into a courtyard with a small wooden platform in the center, with folding chairs all around it. The first song was just with a singer and guitarist – but don’t you DARE get disappointed. The guitarist had the most incredible talent, with such obvious skill that even I, who doesn’t care a bit for guitars except in the background, was mesmerized by the movement of his hands, how he treated the guitar like it was a part of himself – it was weird to see him stand and see his body without it attached to him. It also interested me that he re-tuned his guitar just a bit differently every time.

And the singer. My GOD. This kind of singing may sound like gibberish – granted, some of the songs are half pure sound and the other half with words, some of which are in Spanish and some of which are in Andalusian – but this takes so much effort, so much refined skill. He could project and change notes at the same time, which is something that any singer has trouble with, as well as great control over his breathing: he sang until he was literally blue in the face sometimes, but kept the notes just as strong as after he took his breath. It took an incredible amount of concentration on his part, but even with such attention to the notes, he still had such feeling – because its all to easy to focus on the technical aspects of forming a sound without remembering the emotion behind it – the look on his face gave it away. I would have been happy to listen to the two of them the entire evening – all of my life – but after the first song came a set together with a dancer that brought it home.

They started to play, the lights dimmed a little, and after a moment an elegant woman in a black dress slid into the room. At first she struck a pose, changing it only a little at a time but each change was rapid, precisely on the beat. And then it really began. Her body moved with curves like that of a snake when it moves, sometimes her entire body or sometimes just in her fingers and wrists or sometimes her shoulder; she snapped her fingers or clapped, or she would pick up her skirts and move her feet like lightning. The number of steps that she could make with her feet were amazing: the way that her toe or heel or both hit the floor and in what order changed drastically. The WHAM of her feet on the floor echoed right through you, bounced around in your insides, and it just wouldn’t stop.

The first song with the dancer was of a powerful woman grieving, of repression and then passion unleashed, of a kind of desperation that if you had never felt it up to that moment, you would feel it then. Her concentration was immense, especially in the times when she would fix her gaze on one spot on the dance floor only she could see, when she would do fast turns and hit her feet on the floor. My God. I was sitting forward in my seat the whole time.

After that song, the guitarist played a song to give the other two a bit of a breather, and then there was another song: this time, the dancer wore a red dress with spots (before it had been a black dress with fringe on the bodice); this song was teasing, of the same powerful woman but this time at the height of her femininity and her self-assuredness. She made more eye contact with the audience and smiled slyly, and when they were done, she stood there for a few moments, breathing deeply, sweat on her face, and then bowed.

Flamenco is beauty that moves, beauty that doesn’t stand still long enough to be doubted. It doesn’t belong in a museum and it’s not just for artsy people – it’s not Picasso or Michelangelo or Monet, it’s what we all have inside of us at its most basic level. It’s fear and desire and need and want and fierce happiness and pride, all made into movement and sound. It takes years to master, to peel away the layers of artificiality that we accumulate over the course of our lives. It’s for young people that are living the tangle of emotions that come with uncertainty and possibility and it’s for old people, who can remember what it was like: it’s for self-reflection, to some extent. The singer, the guitarist, the dancer, show you who you are and give you your life from a different vantage point.

I’ll continue with Seville and skip back to Granada later, just to keep things straight.

The other thing I really liked in Seville was La Plaza de España (es-PAN-ya):

Sorry, that’s just a freaked-out garbage can. I never did see anything that he’d be so scared about, but you never know. It might be hard being a waste disposal. I didn’t bother to ask, so I guess we’ll never know…

But here’s the plaza – it looks pretty new compared to everything else in Spain that’s even a little like this, but it’s spectacular:

(Note the rowboats, five euros for 45 minutes: the fellows running the operation clean up on tourists.)

So that’s all for Seville – up next is Granada…

Pilgrims that Cheat


This past weekend I took a trip to Santiago de Compostela. Now, they told us on the Madrid trip that Toledo’s cathedral is the most important in all of Spain, but honestly, that’s complete BUNK. The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is much better known, especially among the hiking crowd, as there is a massive pilgrimage, hundreds of years old and hundreds of miles long, that leads to that very spot. Its symbol is a scallop shell with a red cross on it – especially around Santiago you see loads of hardy people wearing backpacks that have these shells dangling off of them. Of course, prior to this, the pilgrimage to the cathedral involved a vow of poverty…not high-tech outdoor gear, but it’s still a long trek, the Appalachian Trail of Europe.

This church is actually relatively new – most of its construction is from the 1700s, but it’s been a hallowed spot for much longer, dating back to the Moors and maybe even farther into history. The repute of the cathedral comes from the rumor that the body of Saint James (a.k.a. one of the disciples of Jesus, the one assigned to take Christianity to the Celts/Romans/Visigoths of Spain); it’s housed in a silver box that’s kept under the altar.

The cathedral itself is gorgeous – once you get to it. Plane tickets there are generally 200 or 300 euros, a bit out of my price bracket, but you can take a 80 euro round trip fee on the trains. The downside to this excellent bargain? What would you say to 11 hours on a train? It’s no contest for Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory, of course, but it is intimidating. However, the trip was a great opportunity to study for the even more intimidating final exam for the second class in my Spanish-intensive track, and we got to see a lot of the country, especially since the train took a big detour down into the plains, into Leon, before we arrived in Galicia.

We got there, pooped out but exited. And let’s just say that as far as first impressions go, it ain’t half bad to see a cathedral for the first time, lit up against the night sky. Something that looks a bit like this:

And in the daytime, it’s still not an eyesore, and would you guess what our view from our room in the hostel was?

Yucky cars. But wait! There’s more!

We had a great view of this stand of trees that totally blew my socks off. Yeah. That MUST have been it.

And a close-up:

Now, as per my usual, I didn’t do the tourist and take photos inside, so you will have to take it upon yourself to go on Google and look at all the pictures other people have taken. If you’re lazy or have slow internet, trust me. It was incredible, breathtaking, mindboggling. The altar is what grabs the attention first. This thing is HUGE. A T-Rex would have had plenty of space to romp around and hunt unsuspecting cavemen to his heart’s delight – and I’m not talking about a T-Rex who’s watching his weight, no fine T-Rex is this, but a big fat one. Eight angels hold up a platform above the altar itself, and behind the table, there’s a head (a portrait of James) and a set of stairs that you can climb to get to the head. Custom is that you’re supposed to hug it – though I didn’t, because I didn’t know about it until I came back and my host mother said, “Well, of course you must have hugged the saint.” Um, nope.

It’s all wildly over the top, but somehow it’s balanced out. Maybe it’s the wear on the church itself. There’s a lot of restoration going on at the moment, on a part of the entrance and on the bell-tower – which is badly needed – which could bring it down to a level of comprehension. There’s something inherently noble about it, somehow.

So after we (Anne and I) walked around for a while, we sat down for Mass. I was in love with the voice of the nun that sang all of the small musical bits: she had the voice of a mature woman, a little wavering perhaps, but with such grace you can’t help but be inspired. They also did some priest-y bits, as well as Communion, and then they pulled out the botafumeiro. I hope you haven’t closed Google Images yet, because you should see what this is. It’s about twice as tall as I am, and almost at the end of the service, a bunch of sturdy priests started to pull on a rope attached to a pulley, and this thing swang in a wide arc with incense smoke billowing out (I think it might have been frankincense), tens of feet in the air and about three inches away from the nun, who was singing the whole time, with no regard to fear of any kind. That nun has GUTS. The swing of the botafumeiro, the creaking of the pulley, and the sound of the nun’s music was mesmerizing. My mouth hung open like a ton of bricks was attached to my lower jaw – I suppose you really had to be there.

It was an incredible, emotional experience…so after several hours in the cathedral, getting our minds completely blown, we decided to have lunch.

Now, about that. The night before I’d had the most incredible pasta of my life at this little Italian restaurant (yes, I know it’s not very Spanish): real sphagetti with olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and real parmesan cheese. Pure ambrosia, and totally worth it. So, lunch. Well, that didn’t wash so well. Don’t get me wrong, the food was delicious, but it didn’t sit so well with neither Anne nor I the next day when we figured out that we’d come down with a case of food poisoning – don’t worry, it was mild and we’re completely over it, but still. Another first for me.

We left the restaurant and literally a minute later some guys walked past:

They do look a wee bit funny, eh? But they were singing this great music, so Anne and I stalked them. Like ninjas. With cameras.

Turns out, these blokes are Tuna singers – this is not like tuna the fish, this is Romeo and Juliet serenading status, only Spanish. I think the way this works is that every University in Galicia has a group like this (yes, ribbons, tights, and all), and they go around singing and generally raising morale. This group was from a different part of the region and wanted loads of pictures, so Anne and I ended up taking what must have been 20-30 pictures for these guys, who were very friendly and excited to meet Americans.

It was cool beyond belief – and most people don’t run into this on a regular basis. And not only that, but the night before I’d bought a CD from a representative from the Tuna group of Santaigo. So that means that right now I’m listening to it and that Mom, you are NOT allowed to steal this.

We walked around for a while afterward; the city is beautiful; after all, it’s a World Heritage site:

This last one is of a piper playing something like a bagpipe but with just two pipes, something native to the area. This archway is right beside the cathedral (the cathedral is the wall to the right), and the sound travels like crazy from here. This is just one of many musicians we saw and heard there: the first night we heard the worst vocalist I have ever had my pleasure to hear ruin all my favorite songs (Including Etta James’ “At Last,” pure agony), but the next day there were two pipers piping (separately), two men singing opera (REALLY well – they might have been my favorite), and countless others. I think they sign up for that spot in advance, because otherwise there would be serious violence to get to play or sing there.

After this, we museum’ed a bit – two museums that were actually a part of the cathedral itself. Some cool vistas:

The Bells, they Toll for Thee. (Or something.)

That’s basically all she wrote. My weekend really couldn’t have been better (if we ignore the food poisoning). This was a place I’d dreamed of going to for years ever since I’d read of it in Isabel Allende’s Zorro – a good read. It outlived my expectations.