26 December 2008

20 December 2008

Our adventures are coming to a close. . .

So last thing you knew we were still in mainland Europe, right? Ha! You're waaaaaaaaay behind. We're in Dublin now.
But from Madrid, we went on to Paris. It was nice, but dreary. Saw the Pere Lachaise cemetery (Jim Morrison is there, plus Oscar Wilde, plus a bunch of other famous people). Had an omelette at a Jim Morrison themed cafe. Visited the Louvre- it was much better than I'd remembered, and I could appreciate more of it. Went through Notre Dame, St-Sulpice, St-Germain des Pres, all that good stuff, plus the Eiffel Tower (we could only see about half of it, though, because of all the fog). We actually took a couple of videos, but the wifi in this hotel is probably not going to allow me to upload them. It's blocked facebook and tuenti and I can't believe it's allowing me on here now.
Oh I need to add that the Madrid Metro system really puts Paris' to shame. I am already missing Spain so much.
From Paris we took a train out to St-Malo, which is a little coastal town that used to be big with pirates and explorers and stuff. The hotel there was nice, but it did not offer internet. Disappointing.
Thursday we took a bus up to Mont-St-Michel, which I'd loved before but wasn't quite as impressed by the second time. It's still really cool, and you should go visit it, but maybe when it's a little warmer. I don't have time to go into the history of it now but wikipedia should fill you in.
Friday we spent in St-Malo, walking around and seeing the beaches and stuff. The sun came out for the first time since we'd gotten to France, and it warmed up. Then we flew to London, and on to Dublin. And here we are now.
More later.

14 December 2008

La Guernica existe- la he visto

So let's see. . . the last three days have been ridiculously busy. I finished up my finals, picked Mom up from the airport, took her out to get bocatas at Bar Los Bocadillos (love them!) walked her around Madrid a bit that night, and finally dropped her off back at her hotel.
Friday was also really, really busy. I came by her hotel that morning with some lunchy food to drop off, and then we went out towards Sol. I wanted to hit up a chocolateria that's kind of a big deal, but it wasn't open yet, which was a little weird. We got chocolate and churros at a Cafe y Te instead, and it wasn't bad.
Then I took her on a really random tour. From Sol I wanted to find Plaza de Espana, which I've gotten to before from there, but only with other people. I was pretty sure we were going in the right direction, though, but we ran into some things I didn't expect- like the Palace. So that was pretty cool. And then from there, you just hang a right, maybe detour through the Sabatini Gardens, and you're at Plaza de Espana.
From there we strolled down Calle de la Princesa to Arguelles and beyond to Moncloa, and I gave her a little tour of Parque del Oeste and my school. Then we took buses (because the view is better) to Retiro, and took a brief walk through there (it would take days to see all of that park). We walked back towards Sol, stopping to get a snack. I am happy to see that my mother is now just as obsessed with tortilla espanola as I am.
After that I had to leave her for a brief while so I could go to my program's goodbye lunch. They served us wine, and I think I am now officially the most tacky person in the world for ordering Fanta limon on the side and mixing the two so I could stand the taste (I don't think I will ever like plain wine, be it red, pink, or white).
The whole thing was a little sad. I'm really going to miss a lot of those people, especially our exceptional office staff. Angel was named our single favorite thing about IES, and Diego, the new guy in the office, was one of the people we most wished was single (I couldn't agree more).
Eventually I made it back to my mom so we could get into the Prado during its free hours (oh, if you're ever in Madrid, the Prado is free for everyone from 6-8 Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 5-8 on Sundays. It's all closed on Mondays). We'd allotted both Friday and Saturday nights for this, which is good, because we only got an hour. We were up on the top floor Friday night and saw mostly Titian stuff.
Yesterday, Saturday, was primarily spent packing. That was so hard! I think I went slowly because I didn't want to leave our perfect little apartment. Now that I don't live there anymore I can tell you more about its location. Well, the boy who lived in an apartment three floors below us said his senora told him their property value (for a tiny little apartment) was 1.2 million! I'm not sure if that's in euros or dollars, but that's kind of a big deal! She said it was in the Salamanca district, but other maps I've seen puts it in the Rios Rosas area. So who knows. Either way, it was in a very safe, very nice neighborhood, and I'm really going to miss it.
So then we hit up the Reina Sofia, which is the big contemporary art museum. I've been there before, and it was just as painful the second time. (Just so I don't get any more of these rabid Spanish commenters telling me to stop discriminating against their people, all modern art makes me feel this way.) Basically what I told my mom was that modern art, like surrealism and cubism, makes me want to break the paintings' frames, take the shards of glass, and stab my eyes out with them. Yes, that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea. We did find some rooms that we both liked, though, with stuff that looked like it was probably from around the turn of the century (when it turned from the 19th to the 20th, to clarify), painted with much more pleasant color schemes.
The main reason we went was to see La Guernica, which is a really big deal. They've given it its own room. And they have postcards in the gift shop which say 'The Guernica exists- I have seen it!'
Then it was back to the Prado, where we saw pretty much everything else I wanted to show her. I gave her a chronological tour of the Spanish monarchs from the Carlos V of the Habsburg family through Fernando VII (one of the Bourbons, I think?). Then we dashed around in the last ten minutes trying to see Fra Angelico's Annunciation (look it up, it's beautiful), Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, and all of that famous stuff. It was so hard to fit everything I've learned into 3 hours at the Prado, considering I'd spent 20 or 30 something hours in there with my class.
We chilled out at the hotel last night and made guac. Now: on to the Rastro!

11 December 2008

Mom's here!

That's it, I'm too tired to write anything else. Just to let everyone know. She's here. I cried when I saw her. More later hopefully?

07 December 2008

"Our ancestors must have been very hardy to go about in nothing but a shirt and a rug"

Oh Scotland. That's where I was last weekend, and it was pretty cool.
It was pretty much just as cold as I expected. Actually, it was colder, because someone told me it would probably be about the same as it was in Madrid. Wrong.
So let's see, I stayed up all night in the airport, flew in to Edinburgh about 9:15. They have a really efficient customs system and my baggage was actually waiting for me when I got through it. That's probably the fastest I've gotten through any airport, ever.
Then I withdrew some pounds from an ATM. Ugh. The exchange rate is pretty awful. I don't want to talk about it. Then I found the bus to the city center and next thing I knew, I was on Waverley Bridge in the heart of Edinburgh, with the Scott Monument and the castle both visible to the west (wait was it the west? Well sort of off to the westish direction I could see things).
I wasn't really sure what to do because I'd told my hostel I wouldn't be in til noon, and it was only ten. (Edinburgh Airport is just too darned efficient.) So I wandered through a little Christmasy park that was set up right there, next to Princes Street. That's where the Scott Monument is, and beside it is a ferris wheel, which was either being set up or repaired as I was walking through. The Scott Monument is a huge, blackened, Gothic tower which was put up in honor of Sir Walter Scott, who wrote Ivanhoe and nothing else that I can immediately think of.
There were a lot of little Germany shops selling schnitzel and whatnot (I have no idea what schnitzel actually is) and general holiday goodness. I realized I could not simply wander for another hour and a half, so I decided to find my hostel. Turns out it's in an awesome area, like I may have mentioned already- right off of High Street and the Royal Mile.
So then check-in time wasn't til 2, which is when I decided to wait around in the lobby and post. That got old too, so I went out to get lunch. I found a baked potato place where they did vegan haggis of all things, but I wasn't brave enough to try it. Instead I got a baked potato with vegetarian chili and cheese on top. The chili wasn't top notch, but I do commend the Scots for trying.
By this time it was about 2, so I went back to the hostel to check in. I've always thought of hostels as being pretty small and a little run down, and the place I stayed in Venice, although awesome, was no exception. The High Street Hostel, however, was pretty massive. It had several floors of rooms, each room holding up to almost 20 people. The lobby was nice, with free wifi, and there was a lounge in the basement with pool tables and lots of seating. Each bed had a corresponding locker. I was assigned to room 3D, which was a fish-themed room. Therefore, my bed was named Bass, as was my locker. I put all my valuables in the locker and left my locked suitcase under the bed (no, I'm not a true backpacker) and headed out.
I'm trying to think of what all I saw the first afternoon. I think I went into a lot of the little shops and sampled a lot of shortbread (delicious!) I went down High Street a little ways in the direction of Holyrood, but I went back towards Waverley Bridge and Princes Street before too long, and I rode the ferris wheel because the Scott Monument was closed (I took a video of me up there but I couldn't post it) and then I started to feel pretty tired. Add to that the fact that sunset is right around 3:45pm there, and my day was over pretty quickly.
Oh! I did spend some time on skype in the hostel lobby that night. You know how much I've been complaining about Spanish guys and how forward they are, right? Well you would think I would be able to escape them in Scotland, of all places. WRONG. While I'm on skype, I can hear the guy sitting at the table next to me and the guy standing between us talking. First they're talking about one of the Asian girls at the hostel, and how she's pretty cute, and then they're talking about whether they prefer blondes or brunettes, and then they start talking about younger girls and how it's okay for a younger woman to date a man a few years older than her if she's mature (I should add that these guys were probably 35 or so). It was starting to make me uncomfortable, so I logged on to tuenti.com, which is basically the Spanish facebook, so that they could see I understood them.
Someone with tact might have ended the conversation at this point. Spanish men, however, have no tact. Instead, I realized that the conversation was becoming directly pertinent to me. They were saying things like, "How strange that a girl would sit at her computer for so long without saying hi to the people around her," and I could feel my face getting red. I didn't want to leave abruptly, because before the Spanish men had shown up, I'd been having an interesting conversation with a paleontologist from Leeds or Liverpool or somewhere in England. He was really nice and actually interested in the fact that I come from the heartland, because he's heard all about how it used to be a massive ocean with huge aquatic predators and whatnot. It's so cute when guys go on and on about geeky things that the girls around them either don't understand or have no interest in. It was a nice contrast from the Spaniards.
Oh, right, the Spaniards. Like I said, it was starting to get creepy, so I shut down my computer for the evening. I heard the creepers remark (in Spanish, of course) about how strange it was that a girl would be going to bed so early. Maybe she's sick, they wondered. With my computer under my arm, I said good night to the paleontologist. Then I turned to the Spanish men and told them buenas noches, and then I headed for the door before they could respond. Once I was back in my room, I dished to a couple of my roommates, because the Spanish guys had been talking about them too (creepers!).
I pretty much passed out as soon as I put my head on the pillow, and then I was up pretty early the next morning. My hair was a mess, but there was no time for a shower, because of the limited daylight. A plan probably would have been beneficial, but I had only a rough outline in my head of what I should see, and I figured my best bet was to go up the Royal Mile.
On my left I found St. Giles Cathedral, named for the patron saint of Edinburgh. Although a lot of it is pretty modern, it was still very nice inside. There was a lot of stained glass and a lot of beautiful carvings, especially in the Thistle Chapel. Look it all up.
So then I continued on up the Royal Mile. I did spend a little time in a souvenir shop with a kilt factory downstairs that you could tour (don't judge me; it was very informative). They had displays of really fake-looking men wearing kilts and tartans through the years. Did you know it used to be illegal for Scottish men to wear kilts? Blame the English, trying to crush their individuality. The display was accompanied by an audio track explaining everything, which is where the quote in my title comes from- in olden times kilts were wrapped around the waist, but there was excess fabric which was draped and pinned up at the shoulders. At night, when they were travelling, they could sit on the fabric, and then pull it over themselves to sleep.
I didn't have much farther to go on the Royal Mile, because I was pretty much at the end of it. Do you know what the end of the Royal Mile is? It's the castle. It's normally 10 pounds to get in to the castle (that's 15 to 20 dollars!) but because it was St. Andrew's weekend (patron saint of all of Scotland), it was free! How lucky is that? Anyway, it's pretty cool. I got to tour St. Margaret's Chapel, which is the oldest part of the current castle. It's named for a former queen of Scotland who arrived with a piece of the true cross. She was famous for her good works and was made a saint after she died.
I saw some of the royal chambers, like the quarters of Mary, Queen of Scots, where she gave birth to her son, King James (the king after Elizabeth I). I very briefly saw the crown jewels, and a dog cemetery, and I got to fight a guy dressed up as a soldier (the pic didn't really come out too well). After that I was about castled out so I went back down the Royal Mile.
There I saw a crowd assembled around a guy whom I could hear shouting but could not see. When I got closer, I realized he was dressed up as Mel Gibson in Braveheart. He was accepting donations for leukemia research to take your picture with him. I wasn't sure if his charity was legit, but either way, it was worth a pound to get a picture with him. He knew how to work the crowd- when a group of Egyptians came to pose with him, he said to them, "Ah, sons of pharaohs. Let me make you a deal. I have a wonderful wife- she's priceless- she's worth her weight in gold. But if you go to the museum and bring me the death mask of Tutankhamen, I'll trade you my priceless wife. It's a great deal." He also kept shouting things like, "I'm a wee bit prettier than Mel Gibson!" When I was posing with him, he was shouting things like, "Let's show them cold Scottish steel! Will you say aye?! Will you be brave in battle?! Will you be my wife?!"
(By the way, he was totally legit. I looked him up. Turns out he's been out on the Royal Mile almost every weekend and holiday for the past 10 years, and he's made tens of thousands of pounds, all of which he's donated to the Anthony Nolan Trust.)
Then I wandered some more. I realized it was about two, and I hadn't eaten in the past day, so I went into a Spanish bar, craving tortilla. I was a little disappointed, and I'm really glad I didn't try their sangria (at 5 pounds a glass, it would have had to have been pretty amazing). I realized there were still so many things I needed to do before it got dark, but first I had to drop things off at the hostel (yes, I spent too much money in Edinburgh. Blame the exchange rate. No, blame me).
After this, I had the daunting task of finding the number 15 bus to Roslin, and Rosslyn Chapel. You know Rosslyn Chapel- the place where Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou end up in the Da Vinci Code. Supposedly where the Holy Grail is hidden. It took a while, but I made it there, unfortunately just as it was getting dark. The chapel is also under construction, which was too bad. Oh, and you can't take pictures inside. And it's 6 euro to get in. But they do offer a free tour of the little chapel, which was so interesting and informative. I learned about the grail legends, and also about the origins of the chapel. It belongs to the Sinclair family, and the first Sinclair came over from France (with the name St. Claire) as one of the guardians of the aforementioned Margaret, who brought with her her relic of the true cross, which may yet be in the chapel. (That's also the origin of the name Holyrood Palace- it means holy cross.) So that whole thing was beautiful, and very, very interesting. Oh, the whole place is decorated with carvings of plants and things, and some of the carvings appear to show what may possibly be corn- carved like a hundred years before Columbus made it to America. It's possible that the Scots were talking with the Vikings, but for a long time there has been a persistent legend that one of the Sinclairs visited the Americas before Columbus (our guide said that he was 'not convinced'). Then again, the carvings could just be stylized depictions of lilies or strawberries (I'm not counting that out).
There are plenty of other stories to tell about that amazing place. Some you can probably find on wikipedia, some I can tell you if you really want to hear them. Anyway, I eventually made it back to the city, and wandered about Princes Street for a bit before heading back to the hotel to shower and sleep.
The next morning, I got an amazing breakfast from my hostel for a pound ninety, which I thought was so worth it. Juice and milk and cereal and croissants and rolls with jam and butter might not seem like much, but I thought it was amazing. They had also offered free hot chocolate in the lounge the night before. All in all, I enjoyed the High Street Hostel. They had pretty exceptional shower facilities, although I'd been warned that the hot water sometimes runs out . That didn't happen with me, but I think I showered pretty late.
I went back down to Waverley Bridge to catch my bus back to the airport. It was a double-decker (awesome) and I decided I wanted to ride up in the top. As I was taking the stairs up, I heard a sound I'd been dreading: the Spanish language. Talking about me. I knew what was coming next: whistles. What was really great was that this was a totally different group of Spaniards. Makes me want to come home right now.
Flight home was uneventful, and Barajas impressed me with speedy baggage claim and customs. It was a good weekend.