Wednesday, October 22, 2008

august closing

It's morning-time in Madrid. The sunlight and the blue skies are soft above the rooftops around me. The heat will be intense later today, but for now, it feels cool, and perfect.
I've taken this week off from class to make a sidetrip from San Sebastian to Valencia on the Mediterrenean coast. This last Wednesday, in a small town 35 minutes by train outside of Valencia, there was an obscure yet semi-infamous festival called the Tomatina. It started back in 1944--no one is exactly sure how--and has become a massive annual tomato fight. The town ships in 240,000 pounds of tomatoes and for one hour there is a free-for-all of tomato chucking. I had heard about the festival 6 years ago and wanted to experience the madness, so made plans to go this summer.
So the rundown...we made it to the town of Bunol at about 9am and were greeted right out of the train station with techno and a row of beer and sangria stands. Oh, and this is to follow the large group of Brazilians who were already cheering, dancing, drinking Sangria (?) and smoking joints on the train out there. Everyone, at 9am, is ready to party. We decided to head away from the madness for a bit and find some breakfast and coffee, so we wandered through the small streets and found a bar to serve us espresso and a little bakery. We sat talking and eating on a bench in the street as a stream of old spanish grandmas, tourist tomato-fighters, dirt bikes, 4x4s, and little kids on bicycles continued to wind its way past us. strange mix. We got up and walked more through the town, stopped in the church and talked with the Romanian man who paints and does its upkeep, checked out an olive grove, and then decided maybe we were ready to check out the festival we had come for. We started following all the other foriegners in their array of tomato-fighting in pink speedos, fairy wings, belly dancing skirts, home-made t-shirts with tomato bulls-eyes, duct-taped shoes, plastic-wrapped bodies, wigs of all shapes and colors, and general randomness. We finally reach a bridge in the center of town where the crowd is getting thicker, the walls of the apartment buildings are covered with plastic and there are people on the balconies above throwing buckets of water onto the festivalers below. We hold back for awhile, not sure if we really WANT to be in the middle of 40,000 people throwing tomatoes, but then eventually head in.
There are so many people trying to push towards the center of the fight that we never really make it very far, but as each big truck passes by us with its remnants of tomatoes, we get stray bits of juice and peels flung at us. The crowds are yelling--tomate, tomate!! The guys in the trucks shrug their shoulders and point further into the mass of people, telling us they've left their load back there. We can see chunks of tomatoes flying up now and then, and red splattered all over the walls. After each truck passes, we push in further, until all movement stops--if we want to keep going, we're going to have to be militant about it. In the meantime, we're getting splashed every few minutes by the buckets of water still coming from the balconies above us and people who have had enough of the tomatoes are streaming out of the center past us, covered and matted with red. We hang for another few minutes and then move back out, checking out more outfits, walking past groups getting public showers from hoses in the streets and drink a glass of sangria.
A few hours later we were back inValencia, showered and resting. Walked through the old city, through big plazas with fountains, old churches and coliseums and arched stone entryways. We went to an amazing italian dinner that night, and the next day I was on a bus back to Madrid.
So, I'm here for another day before I make my way up to San Sebastian and have my last week of classes. All has been going well--meeting people in class (a lot of italians and germans) and getting to know Basque country. I found a couple of hikes to do along the coast up there--really beautiful, green hills, big crashing waves against the rocky coast and farms with wheat, grapes, sheep. The green-ness reminds me of Seattle, and the landscape is a bit what I imagine Ireland might be like. San Sebastian is full of people because it is summer-time--Italians, French, Spanish escaping from the center of the country. There was a week long festival called Semana Grande with fireworks every night, bull fights, concerts, parades, displays of typical basque culture...And after it finished, the festival moved to Bilbao, an hour away, to start all over again! They really, really do like festivals here.

travels resume

well I´m back on the road again...surprise, of course ;)
For those of you who don´t know, I´m spending 8 weeks in Europe this summer. The *purpose* is to practice spanish, so I will be taking language classes for 5 weeks in San Sebastian. Beyond that, there will be some traveling, visiting friends, eating rididulous amounts of ice cream and ´festivaling´ in Spain.
I started out in Paris--just flew in 4 days ago. I thought I´d actually beat the jet-lag because the first day I managed to keep a normal schedule. but no, i´m still suffering random sleeping--awake from 3am to 7am every day and then sleep til noon. yep, random. But I made the most of those awake hours..walked through paris til i thought my legs would buckle and i would fall into the Seine. I decided to try as hard as possible not to be a tourist in Paris, so instead I just wandered...through the latin quartier, along the Seine, out behind the Louvre. Actually i´m not sure where i ended up most days, which made it somewhat difficult to find my way home :) but made for good sightseeing. For one month in the summer the mayor in Paris (who happens to be gay--i heard many, many times...) has been running a big river party called Paris Plage--basically they´ve set up a beach along the Seine, with sprinklers, sand, beach chairs and scarily tanned 70 year old men and women. I walked along there my first day--86 degrees and humid--and then my last night as well. It´s actually wonderful--during the day lots of families with kids and at night people come with their guitars, bottles of beer and laugh, sing, roll around and generally be happy :)
Every morning I would wake up (bear in mind--morning for me meant 1 in the afternoon) ramble through the streets until I found a patisserie and awkwardly order a pain au chocolat and cafe espresso. I still--after 562 times pronouncing it under my breath--cannot say pain au chocolat. someday--I will conquer it. for now, the french will chuckle at the foreign girl and repeat it to me correctly at least 3 times. At night I went bike-riding with some new-found friends. We would rent bikes through the city´s new public bike system, called Velib. It´s something like 29 euro a year to have a membership and there are bike caches all over the city to pick up and drop off a bike. Everywhere you go you see the grey Velib bicycles with the occasional tourist getting dangerously in the way of oncoming Smart cars and mopeds--amusing, and then afterwards you worry a bit that they might actually get hit (especially when YOU are the occasional tourist...).
Lemme see...what else? The Eifel Tower is lit up blue right now--for the next 6 months it will be this way, to honor France´s role as the current head of the EU. Then at night, every hour on the hour, it sparkles for a few minutes like a big firework. No matter how many times I see this, I can´t get over it. It´s beautiful.
The rest of my time was spent wandering down side streets, taking photos of sushi restaurants, fruit and seafood markets, posters for gospel music concerts--you know, the normal parisian things. Actually, I was trying as hard as possible to see the most non-typical paris possible. I still walked along the river every day--and loved it--and ate baguette sandwiches and went shopping in little boutiques. And then checked out french comic shops, watched salsa dancing in a plaza along the Seine, and heard a pop remix of one of my favorite musicians (Sean Hayes--for anyone who knows, this guy is NOT someone I would expect to hear in paris...i´ve never heard him on the radio in seattle!)
And so went Paris...I left this morning via train for northern Spain. luckily I was early (for the 7th time in my life) to the train station because it actually did take the hour those early-type people recommend to sort out my ticket. Then 5 1/2 hours of french countryside...white stone houses, red tiled roofs, cows, sheep, bycyclists, gardens, hay rolls, and--the best. my favorite--field after field of sunflowers. Much like the eifel tower sparkling at night, i cannot get over fields of sunflowers. I love the way they bow their heads at night, and then lift them slowly but boldly as the sun passes through the sky each day. I love knowing that they are planted not to harvest, and not because they make one ridiulously happy to see them, but because in the process of growing and decaying they enrich the soil, filling the field with nutrients for the next crop that will be planted. yes--a magical plant.
So, here I am in northern Spain--Basque country, San Sebastian, Donostia--many names. Basically I´m on the north coast, 15 minutes from France and in the midst of thousands of summering spaniards. I moved into my apartment today--I live with a Spanish girl and a german girl, both living here--and spent the afternoon walking around town and remembering this town from my visit 6 years ago. It´s pretty incredible how familiar it all still feels--the old town with its churches and narrow streets filled with bars, slabs of cured ham hanging from the tavern ceilings, and the harbor full of fishing boats with big green hills beyond.

I wrote all that a couple of days´s from my journal that night:

I walked home tonight and stopped along the bridge which separates the old city from the new--the last bridge on the canal before all of San Sebastian opens itself to the Cantabrian Sea. The tide rushed out beneath me, flowing swiftly over concrete pilings and making ripples with its exit. The gentle, salty wind came up around me, rolling along the skin on my arms and ruffling the curls around my face. My stroll continued home, along the boardwalk, until I couldn´t resist the mix of sand, waves and night-time that called me in...I kicked off my sandals and was soon ankle deep in warm ocean--stars above me, green hills flanking both sides. I closed my eyes, smiled and said a prayer of thanks for all of it.