Jackie Steves Blogs Spain & Portugal — Part 2

Blown Away By Paintings and Their Messages

This morning we woke up early to meet Inés, a local guide, and tag along with a Rick Steves tour group for the morning. Inés took us on a walking tour of the Old Town.

It was fun to be with a big jolly group of Americans for just one morning. I didn't mind the fact that our union with them popped my adolescent Spanish bubble. It's always a little shell-shocking when my steady diet of being in the company of young adults is interrupted. It happens each time I come home from college. In this case, I felt the contrast between the hostel crowd and atmosphere I had been immersed in during the past week, and the group of studious adult tour members who ask too many questions. Melting in with a group of Americans takes the edge off of that alienated feeling you have in a foreign country. Usually that alienated feeling is pleasant to me, but a morning with fellow countrypeople can be a comfortable respite from the unfamiliar.

We visited a convent where cloistered nuns sell cookies using a lazy-Susan system so others don't see them and they don't see others. Unfortunately, we didn't get to taste their sweets because it was the Sabbath, the only day they aren't open for business.

Inés joked about leaving Zoe and me behind because the convent really needs more recruits. I am in total awe of women who have enough devotion to God to surrender visual contact with the outside world. I can't even imagine what that would be like. I am selfish and indulgent to the extent that I want to do the very opposite—travel. I want to see everything my external world has to offer and have face-to-face conversations with as many people as possible.

When the sisters reach a certain age, some of them take a time out from being “cloistered;” their teeth get so bad (perhaps from eating too many cookies?), they must go out in public to pay a visit to the dentist.

Zoe and I tagged along with the tour group to the Prado. According to that guidebook by that one travel guy, Steve Rick or whatever his name is, the Prado is “the greatest painting museum in the world.” I had to memorize some of these paintings for my art history exams this past year and it was really cool to see them up close and in person.

My favorite was "Descent of Christ from the Cross," by Rogier van der Weyden. I never understood why Flemish painting was my art history professor's favorite until I saw this masterpiece in the flesh. Could this really be from the early 15th century? I was awestruck by the painter's skill. His rendering was incredibly realistic, with life-like shadows, anatomically perfect hands and feet, lush folds of cloth, and scrupulously detailed vegetation. I imagine those who love art for its technical virtuosity might feel like swooning at the sight of this display of perfection.

I also liked Bosch´s "The Garden of Earthly Delights," a triptych of paradise, sin, and hell. Bosch painted surrealism centuries before the movement even started. He uses vivid imagery and complex meaning to project the message that hedonism and debauchery will surely doom you to hell. The right panel, a horrific depiction of hell, almost makes me want to run back to the convent we visited this morning and become a cloistered nun to avoid Earthly distractions (like all the sex being had in the middle panel) and have better chances at making it to Bosch's stunning paradise.

We left the tour group and went out to lunch with Inés. I still hadn´t tried many tapas, so I jumped at the opportunity to let a Spaniard order for me. Inés and I shared three tapas, the names of which I am not sure, but they were something like octopus with potatoes, peppers with cheese, and potatoes with three sauces. Their preparation of these foods was new to me and they all had great flavor, but did not make for a light meal.

We rushed to Reina Sophía (a modern art museum) and headed straight for Picasso´s "Guernica." Once I saw this masterpiece with my own eyes, I was convinced of all the things I had heard—about how it is the most politically powerful painting of the twentieth century. Picasso didn´t even need the help of color to depict the intensity of the horrors of war. The mother, with her dead baby in arms, cries so hard her eyes slide down her face like tears and her tongue is a knife. It is utter chaos, deformity, loud suffering, unimaginable pain, and hope, all at once. Hope is found in the little flower and the woman, who resembles Picasso´s lover, holding a light.

— Jackie


Posted on July 17, 2009

My Awakening

The next day was our museum day. We started out on a walking tour with Inés — a dynamic Spanish tour guide. I started feeling more oriented as she led us through the squares and streets of Madrid's Old Town, sharing her extensive historical knowledge with us. I introduced myself to a friendly girl named Julia, began chatting with her, and then all the underage folk emerged from the woodwork and distanced ourselves from the middle-aged folk. Jackie and I are at that torn-between-worlds age where we don't want to be teenagers or adults, so we pillage, taking only the best of both worlds. The best of both worlds was there on this tour, and soon the non-adults were re-dispersed. I wound up talking to a lot of "grown-ups" who were interesting and kind, put me at ease, and truthfully, made me miss my parents a lot. I felt connected to the people on the tour, unsurprisingly so, because, after all, it was the Steves family that brought us together.

Inés told stories about thieves, about nuns, and about kings. She pointed out restaurants, cathedrals, and palaces. She did it with pizzazz and grace, poking fun at the group at our persistent tendency to plop down on steps, stairs, benches, or whatever surface was remotely accommodating of a human body.

I've never been a classical art fanatic. Most of it evokes zero emotion on my end because it isn't relatable. I'm not a noble, or a saint. I'm not even rich or religious. That being said, the art museum was my favorite part of the tour. I owe my newfound art appreciation to Inés, because she made the art personal. She mixed history and gossip, talking about the politics of the time and the torrid love affairs the painters enjoyed.

The museum was my favorite part of the tour, but lunch was my favorite part of the day. Jackie and I had the pleasure of sharing Portuguese food with Inés at a nearby restaurant. The food was beyond, but the conversation was beyond beyond. I don't meet a lot of people who knock my socks off right off the bat; Inés knocked off my entire outfit in a matter of hours. Her warmth, enthusiasm, intelligence, wit, energy, and generosity was awe-inspiring. I will always remember her, especially the off-work part where she dedicated her day to me and Jackie. After lunch, we raced to La Reina Sofía modern art museum to see Picasso's "Guernica" before the museum closed. I now understand what all the hullabaloo is about. Wow.

— Zoe


Posted on July 16, 2009

How to Tell Good Restaurants from Bad and Americans from Spaniards

When we set out to find a restaurant for dinner last night, we were so hungry that we settled too early.

We found a place where most of the tables outside were occupied. Lots of business is a good sign, right? Oh, but wait, no one is eating the food. They are all just drinking coffee or beer. We look at the menu and it has everything from pasta and pizza to hamburgers and steak, paella and ham—bad sign. Restaurants that dedicate themselves to one area of food are usually safer than those that offer an impressive gamut. I ordered gazpacho and Zoe ordered pasta. The bread was stale, the gazpacho came from a carton, the pasta was microwaved, and they overcharged us. Terrible restaurant choice. We'll take it as a lesson.

I can usually eat anything, but could not bring myself to eat my gazpacho, so my still-hungry stomach was a great excuse to go get churros con chocolate. We went to a famous chain listed in my dad's book and it was heavenly.

Then we bought a cheap bottle of white wine and perched ourselves on a bench in the Plaza Santa Ana for an evening of people watching. We tried to pin down the specific traits that distinguish Americans from Spaniards. American males are pretty easy to pick out, with their baggier clothing, running shoes, backpacks, sloppier shirts, and cargo shorts.

Females are trickier. There is definitely a difference in clothing style, but it is more complex. American females are either more preppy or more slobbish (i.e., sweatshirts, sneakers). Their hair and makeup are usually relatively prim. Spanish females are more daring with their fashion choices and hairstyles. American females wear more shorts and flip-flops. Spanish females wear more black and pants. Americans are generally taller, thicker, and lighter-complexioned. But of course, these are all generalizations and in some cases it's anyone's guess.

Zoe keeps wondering out loud why people automatically know we are American. They immediately speak English when we walk into a store or restaurant. “I'm wearing a dress and shoes like them. I have choppy bangs and nearly black hair like some of them. I don't think my clothing style is that different from Spanish girls,” Zoe mused.

Over the years, I think I've developed a rather keen sense for deciphering nationalities. Even though dissecting Zoe's appearance in a technical manner may not lead one to label her American, there is definitely something in particular I can't articulate that gives her away. It might be her facial features, the way she carries herself, the earrings she wears, or maybe just her vibe in general.

— Jackie


Posted on July 15, 2009

Palace and Park, Churros and Chocolate

And I didn't let the night pass me by! First, Jackie and I packed in a day of sightseeing. We went to El Palacio Real first, and discussed what redecorations we would make were we to marry into the royal family. Neither of us is too keen on doing so, so our plans for renovation will probably gather dust and be forgotten. The splendor of one plushly decorated room after another indeed makes the palace a memorable one, and we didn't hesitate to explore each and every room open to the public. Both of us agreed that the Armory and Pharmacy portions of the palace were eerie.

Then, as suggested in Rick's book, we hopped on the #27 bus and did a self-guided tour of the more modern portion of Madrid. It was a shock to my system to see modern architecture! Then, on the Metro home, my bottom was pat squarely and firmly by a middle-aged Spanish woman, which confused me to no end but didn't faze me too much.

So Jackie and I have had an ongoing discussion about all things restaurant-related, and as I mentioned before, I can no longer make fun of Jackie for her pickiness in choosing a meal. After this very long and hot day of walking and navigating the city, I was desperate to eat. I think Jackie was too, but she is less of a drama queen about it. Regardless, we are searching for a place that looks good, and we come across a pretty crowded restaurant with lots of outdoor seating. Jackie urges us to press on, and see if we can find somewhere better, and I start to go along with it, but then decide to be firm and insist we eat there. She politely obliges and we find seats in the less crowded interior of the restaurant. I order a water and what I think will be fresh pasta. How can you go wrong with that, right? Jackie orders gazpacho. In a suspiciously short time, both our meals are served. Mine is incredibly heavy-sauced and oily, but completely tasteless, and hers is equally unappetizing. We munch on stale bread, thinking about the churros con chocolate that we'll eat later. La cuenta (the bill) comes, and we discover that we paid nearly two euros for the stale bread that we didn't order, and two Euros for my 12 ounces of water. I try to argue with the waiter, but he points to the menu, and I am crestfallen. On the way out, I look at Jackie, and she doesn't even have to say "I told you so." She understands that I had to learn the hard way.

Determined to forget our poor dining experience, we bought churros con chocolate and ate them with glee. Then we freshened up in the hotel and parked ourselves in the loud and lively square. People-watching, as always, was as entertaining as any movie. More entertaining, though, was the gaggle of Italian men — all doctors — who crowded around us and quickly began showering us with compliments (the only one I accepted gracefully was the one that I had an authentic accent!). Because both Jackie and I are instinctual "yes-women" when we travel (keeping safety in mind, obviously), we decided there was no harm in sitting down with them. Our strategy served us well, and we found ourselves lost in a raucous quad-lingual conversation. I spoke Spanish, the men spoke Italian, Jackie spoke French, and everyone dropped an English phrase every so often. Jackie asked them about their wives at one point; "No, we don't have wives. Not here we don't have wives." One of the more forward of the bunch kept focusing his attention on me and saying, "Zowie, you are so beautiful. Would you like to go dancing later?" I grew tired of making excuses, and Jackie's compliment-quota for the night was filled, so we thanked them for the wine and dashed away.

— Zoe


Posted on July 14, 2009

Traveling Styles: Products of Our Families

Zoe and I visited the Royal Palace of Madrid today and walked through a tiny portion of its 2,000 rooms! Zoe declared she would like to take one of the palace's massive chandeliers home — and I decided I would like a fresco of chubby cupids, gods, and goddesses on the ceiling of my bedroom.

We visited the Caixa Forum. The random temporary exhibits we browsed inside didn't do much for me, but the vertical garden outside was lovely.

We strolled through some of Retiro Park´s 30 acres. Then we caught Public Bus #27 to see Madrid´s Manhattan — the modern part of the city busy with skyscrapers but few tourists. The bus dropped us off at the “Gateway to Europe.” Zoe proposed, “Let's go to France! I've never been before.” But then we read in the guidebook that the “Gateway to Europe” was two leaning skyscrapers sandwiching the freeway to France and the rest of Europe. Too bad we didn't have a car for a road trip to go dit “bonjour” à France.

Zoe and I discussed different traveling styles people have. She loves to explore neighborhoods. I like to make sure not to miss all the big sights. Museums are more forgettable for her, whereas I could spend hours in museums any day (especially the art ones). She finds beaches on the Mediterranean majestic. Just one day at the beach is enough for me. She would rather make an adventure out of finding and picking a restaurant. I would rather track down a specific restaurant recommended to me by someone else. She loves perusing clothing stores, seeking to score a great foreign fashion find. I'm too cheap and lazy to put in that extra effort that shopping overseas requires. She is dedicated to documenting all our experiences with photos (which I really appreciate), while I selfishly hate to interrupt any moment with the pulling out of my camera.

We are both products of our families. The way I was brought up on family trips seems to have really shaped what I now fancy. Back in the day, as a youngster I hated my parents' insistence on their chock-full agenda. Weren't we supposed to be on vacation? I get plenty education going to school nine months out of the year, so why are you dragging me to another “enlightening” museum? If I have to look at another Roman ruin I might shoot myself. Aren't summer vacations supposed to be spent relaxing on the beach working on a sexy golden tan? Why can't we just eat that pizza from the stand over there instead of hiking miles to that stupid restaurant you're so set on? But now, while traveling on my own, my travel preferences are much more similar to my parents than I ever would have anticipated.

It's refreshing to travel with someone with a different travel style. Zoe has made me step back to ponder and even rethink why I travel the way I do — and why I like it.

I was brought up traveling with a dad who had to see and visit everything while researching and updating his guidebooks. This instilled in me a sense of obligation, and even guilt, if my days aren't filled with sightseeing. I've realized that such traveling strictly according to an intense agenda can be like wearing blinders. Zoe is really great at observing the more discreet elements of a foreign culture. Sometimes I am so consumed with navigating to reach the next destination that I miss the finer points.

Trips, in my opinion, should strike a balance between being educational lessons and enjoyable, fun times. At the end of the day, if you're super-tired but still haven't made it to that last sight on your list, give yourself a break! Always tell yourself, I'll make it back here someday — and that church I didn't see this time around will be waiting for me to visit.

— Jackie


Posted on July 13, 2009

The Here and Now

It's four thirty in the AM, and I am wide awake — which is not unusual for Spain. The unusual thing is that I am in my hotel room, having been asleep for most of the night. I just woke up, and I assume it was because of all the drunken yelling outside. I just heard a belligerent American yell, at an unreasonably loud volume, "Nobody in this ****ing city knows where they are. Not even the ****ing taxi drivers know how the **** to get anywhere. **** my life."

I am feeling like I always feel when I travel, wishing I had a disclaimer painted on my forehead: "Just because I am from the States does not mean I am just an American." It's not that I disavow patriotism; it's that when I see some fellow American travelers, I see the validity of the stereotypes. One woman today was sitting in the hotel lobby, and I couldn't help but listen to her blab on and on. It was one snobby, boring, petty little monologue after the next. I think the woman she was talking at was Spanish, but can't be sure, seeing as how the woman did not get one word in. I was already disgusted by this woman when she barks at me, "Are you almost done!?"

I politely exclaimed that yes, I would wrap it up. "Sorry, I didn't know you were waiting!" (Honestly, I didn't.)

"Yeah," she said "I'm waiting."

I don't know why I think I can claim special status, because, after all, I am the American sleeping in my crisp little hotel, listening to the nightlife happen without me. At least I'm not the American condemning a city for all its people's alleged disorientation though. Anyway, tomorrow I won't let the night pass me by.

— Zoe


Posted on July 12, 2009

The City Run Not by A King, but by a "Pharoah"

Yesterday we took a breezy three-hour, high-speed train ride from Barcelona to Madrid.

I met up with Federico, a guide friend of my dad's, for a guided walking tour of the city. We began at an Egyptian temple that dated back to many centuries before Christ. We visited the palace, where we enjoyed spectacular views of the park to the east of downtown Madrid, as well as the Cathedral next door.

I was curious about the Spanish monarchy. I learned from Federico that they have absolutely no political power, but the people choose to have a monarchy so that the royal family may act as cultural ambassadors of Spain. He said the family moves between nine palaces at certain times of year, but that these palaces are owned by the people — not the monarch. The democratically elected Parliament wields real political power.

Spaniards must really care about their culture, because supporting a fancy royal family and carting them and their 100-plus attendants around the country every couple of months must cost a boatload of tax euros!

Federico showed me a grand monument to Miguel de Cervantes and his novel Don Quixote. Federico's enchanting stories from certain chapters of the novel persuaded me to read Don Quixote when I get home. Don Quixote is expected to be the brave hero, but he is really a complete idiot. His fat little sidekick squire, Sancho, supposedly a simple-minded peasant, is actually very wise and saves Don Quixote from all kinds of trouble. Cervantes cleverly wrote this sarcastic novel to critique society and government at a time when any blatant criticism would not be allowed.

Miguel de Cervantes died April 23, 1616 (the exact same day as Shakespeare). Now April 23 is the International Day of the Book. On this day Spaniards buy one book and sometimes a rose to give as a gift to someone else. I thought that was such a nice literacy-promoting alternative to all our commercial "Hallmark holidays" in the States.

A Muslim wall was erected in Madrid in the ninth century to separate Christians from Muslims. People would climb over that wall "like cats" to visit whatever friends and family they had on the other side. Today there is a corollary to that name. Someone who was born in Madrid and comes from many generations who have all lived in Madrid is called a "cat." Federico proudly told me that he himself is a “cat.”

The name of this city is a hybrid of names that different invaders gave to the area at different points in history. In the second century B.C., the Romans named it "Matrice," referring to rivers that run through it. Six centuries later, Muslims renamed it "Mayrit," referencing the area's water resources as a "womb" or a "giver of life."

A name that means "giver of life" is definitely fitting for Madrid. I think I like Madrid better than Barcelona. It is so lively here. The streets are more bustling, with a tourist-local mix. The cafés are more crowded at all hours, and the city breathes, using its huge Retiro Park for lungs. Even some of the squares like Plaza Santa Ana are populated — with trees.

Throughout our tour we dodged many construction projects. The people of Spain call their mayor "Pharaoh" because he has planned so many projects to improve the city in hopes of winning the bid to host the Summer Olympics of 2016.

Zoe and I waited at a restaurant for 40 minutes for their next batch of steaming seafood paella to come out. Terribly oily and absolutely delicious. The waiter of course overcharged us three euros for our wine, but we caught him!

— Jackie


Posted on July 11, 2009

Oreo Meat and Bittersweet Goodbyes

For dinner we went to a place recommended in one of Rick's guidebooks. It was near a lively square, but was very serene and chic inside. Jackie ordered a noodle dish, and I ordered a rice dish. Both had meat. Our food came quickly, and, famished as always, I began to shovel it in. The flavor of the chicken was good, but the texture was off. I finally paused long enough to look at what I was eating, and I noticed that the meat looked pretty pink. I asked Jackie if she thought it seemed undercooked, and she said it definitely did. I can't explain why I started feeling panicky, but I did. I sat there feeling worried, wanting to eat my food, but too terrified of seeming spoiled to send it back. Jackie, who often springs into action when I freeze, ushered a waitress over and somehow communicated that it needed to be cooked better. The woman whisked my plate away and returned it unceremoniously a few minutes later. The meal was not remade; rather, the meat had been charred on the outside, and remained pale inside. A kind of unappetizing Oreo effect had been achieved. I finished my rice and left the meat. Needless to say, we didn't tip.

Our hostel was bustling as always, with people drinking and shmoozing, some more loudly than others. One Scottish boy was doing push-ups on the table, but I became quickly distracted by a British boy whose skin was literally red as a fire truck. I forced aloe vera and aspirin on him.

Early the next morning, we said a few quick (and bittersweet) goodbyes and headed to the train station. Next stop: Madrid. One train ride and two bus rides later, we arrived at Puerta del Sol, a square that our hotel (Hotel Europa) borders. At three in the afternoon, the temperature was still high in the 90s (in the mid 30s for you Celsius folk). Feeling borderline faint from the heat and lack of food, I sheepishly bailed on a walking tour of the old city to stay in the air-conditioned hotel room and write. This decision proved to be not-too-detrimental to my traveling experience. Ines, a tour guide we would meet later, took us through the same streets and places. Jackie also sporadically mentioned interesting things she'd learned from her tour with Federico.

I eventually recovered from my bout of wimpiness, and Jackie and I began our search for the perfect restaurant. Making fun of Jackie's stringent rules about restaurants eventually came back to bite me, but we did find the perfect restaurant that night — the attempted overcharge notwithstanding. We ate delicious seafood paella and garlic bread, taking our time to enjoy every bite. The atmosphere was fun too, with a hip rendition of old-timey decor. We had a very low-key night after that — some quick emailing, blogging, then bedtime.

- Zoe


Posted on July 10, 2009

Gaudí, Brilliantly and Beautifully Bizarre

Yesterday we walked 30 minutes in the heat of the midday sun to Sagrada Família, a huge church designed by Antoni Gaudí. A couple friends had told us it wasn't worth it to go inside, so while Zoe waited outside in a park, I coughed up nine euros to explore the inside.

My favorite part was his Nativity, on the exterior facade of one side of the church. It is so detailed and fanciful, it sucks you right into the story of Jesus' birth, and you must gawk for at least 10 minutes before wrenching your eyes away to walk in and see the inside of the church.

I always felt a special spirituality in old churches, as if their old age transported me back in time to be closer to Jesus and His time on earth. Gaudí did the opposite with his Modernista style; it feels ahead of our time, but it made me feel even closer to God. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary in Gaudí´s Nativity are down low, closest to the viewer. The ceiling of the church's interior is a pattern of sun-like bursts, as if God is really emanating down from the ceiling and filling the church. Its 30 tall spires make this place of worship truly awesome-feeling.

We visited the Casa Milà, another Gaudí masterpiece. It was cool to learn about Gaudí´s tremendously innovative engineering techniques. The architectural feats he pulled off obviously came from the mind of a genius. Zoe and I agreed that the best part of this house was the views of the city from the rooftop. We hopped a bus up to Parc Güell, Gaudí's 30-acre park, in which he blends architecture and nature. We climbed trails and stairs up to great views of Barcelona's beautiful skyline. Zoe and I make a good team because I don't like bothering to take pictures, but she loves taking lots. So while I am DN, designated navigator, she is DP, designated photographer. We used the park's rock sculptures, cactus, and views of the city as backgrounds in a goofy mini photo shoot of each other.

I studied Gaudí a little bit in my "Introduction to Art History" course this past year at college. In pictures, his work looked cool but too peculiar for me to say I loved his style. Now, after having seen some of his masterpieces in person, I can truly appreciate the beauty of his eccentric style.

After dinner I insisted on stopping for churros con chocolate. Oh so delicioso! You dip the churros in the creamiest, darkest hot chocolate for the best melt-in-your-mouth sensation ever.

- Jackie


Posted on July 09, 2009

Gaudí: The Genius Lunatic

I slept heartily, and woke to a lit room with people talking and packing. I felt more tired and exhausted than I had the previous nights, when I had spent the entire night dancing. Maybe I am a real party girl after all? At a reasonable hour, I gently shook Jackster awake because the itinerary was calling! I swear that girl takes happy pills; she sat right up smiling. Rather disarming.

Anyway, Ms. Adorable and I finished getting ready and headed out. We walked to see Gaudí's Sagrada Família, and now it's confession time. I had been told by both a Canadian and a Brazilian that the inside of this cathedral is not really anything to write home about. Mauro — the Brazilian — even said that it took away the magic for him because there is so much construction going on inside. I know you only live once and all that stuff, but I really didn't want to let go of those 10 euros...so I parked myself on a park bench while Jackie dutifully checked out the inside. There was a nice breeze, and I like people-watching. I tried to pick out who was a tourist and who was a local. Locals can spot tourists so easily, and I honestly can't understand it. The other day a man called out that he liked my red lipstick. Then, without hearing me speak, asked, "Are you French or Canadian?" He didn't get my nationality right, but he knew I was an out-of-towner. Maybe she was just being polite, but Jackie didn't rave too much when she came out, so I didn't feel completely terrible. I do feel like a Philistine though.

From there we made the hike to Casa Milà, another one of Gaudí's inspired buildings. I did shell out 5 euros there, and admittedly regretted it (ha!). The 5 euros got us entrance to the inside of the apartment building, where it was decorated in Modernista style. The audioguide had some interesting things to say, but I was too ADHD to really pay attention, and I wasn't too impressed by the furnishings. It was a poor man's children's museum, that's for sure! We then went to the much-talked-about attic, where again, I was not incredibly intrigued. It's a neat structure, and clearly demonstrates Gaudí's genius as an architect, but I wanted breathtaking. Because there is a small museum in the attic, its potential for a slightly ominous atmosphere is diminished.

The rooftop, though! That, I could get on board with. It has all the charm and novelty I was craving. Large, imposing, abstract stone sculptures decorated the rooftop, with stairs of varying size going up and down all over the place. The view of the city was beautiful, although I must sheepishly admit that I felt like I was in San Francisco. Maybe the fact that I am a Seattleite born and raised means I think anywhere with warmer weather must be Cali... I had raced ahead of Jackie, impatient at the audioguide, so I had a long time to wander the roof. I noticed an overdressed girl (overly trendy, that is) taking self-timed photos, so I offered to play photographer. The girl's incredibly lackluster response was very amusing. She handed me the camera and nodded her head nonchalantly, like she was doing me a favor. Meeting, or at least even interacting with, people has been (and probably always will be) my favorite part about traveling.

Outside of Casa Milà, I butted into a conversation a New Yorker was having with a woman selling tickets to the apartment tour. I could tell he wanted to see weird abstract decoration, just like I did, so I showed him photos on my camera to prove that the apartment wasn't very interesting. I am so cheap that it's not enough for me to save money; I have to ensure strangers follow suit.

Exhausted and overheated, Jackie and I remained in high spirits. Rejuvenated by the pretty view and some Gatorade, we marched on to Gaudí's next spectacle — Parc Güell. It was very hot in the very vast park, and chock-full of people, mostly tourists. It was spectacular nonetheless, and Jackie and I wandered aimlessly, in high spirits, looking at the high views. I thought back to my Casa Milà audioguide, and remembered a quote from it. Someone bestowing an award upon Gaudí had proclaimed that he didn't know whether they were honoring a genius or a lunatic. As I walked through this park, I definitely got the sense that Gaudí's imagination was vivid enough to qualify him as crazy, and his intellect sharp enough to carry out the dreams of his imagination. I felt like I was somewhere special, in a place that could never be replicated.

— Zoe


Posted on July 08, 2009

Wishing We Could Hang Out With More Locals

Yesterday we joined forces with Brandon from Vancouver (the one who had told me all about his travels on the Trans-Siberian Railway), visiting the Church of Santa Maria Del Mar and the Picasso Museum.

I have to admit that both were a bit forgettable compared to other churches and museums I've seen in Europe. The interior of this Gothic-style church was sparse because during Spain's Civil War its wood furnishings were burnt out by people angry at the Church for siding with the government.

Picasso is not my favorite, but I do admire his talent in a wide variety of styles and his extraordinary innovation. The museum displayed lots of sketches and fewer paintings. As we waited in line to buy our tickets to get in, a man behind us blurted loudly, "I'm from London. Where are you from?"

This ridiculously quirky Brit's name was Daniel. He works as a pianist on a cruise ship. He accompanied us all through the museum. His abrupt, maniacal laugh and shocking random comments made him probably one of the weirdest people I've ever met. Afterward, the four of us talked politics and music over a lunch of paella (a traditional Spanish rice dish).

Last night Zoe stayed in for the night, and I went along with the hostel group to a club called Lotus Theatre. When we all go out together we're like a big, happy, tipsy family.

It's really nice to feel safe in foreign clubs with my new friends, but I'm afraid we buffer each other from real Spanish nightlife. Our new friends take us to really touristy clubs, where we dance with each other instead of with the few Spaniards there (who seem to prey on tourist girls and undress us with their eyes). I feel that American girls are victimized by the stereotype that they find Spanish men especially sexy and are willing to go home with them — or at least dance promiscuously with them. Zoe and I prove them wrong!

As you can probably tell, I've been struggling with how we've been meeting tons of tourists and no Spaniards. It's impossible not to become fast friends with fun backpackers at your hostel or other English-speakers you encounter while you're out and about. This takes no effort, while I'm not even quite sure how to go about meeting locals. We pass lots of young catcalling Spaniard males on the streets, but of course we have no interest in striking up a conversation with them. Spanish girls are much harder to come by, and the few you do see around come in intimidating packs.

When I'm traveling with my family, we are constantly hanging out with locals because my dad usually has many friends wherever we are. I long for that. Zoe and I can make small talk with the locals who serve us drinks at cafés, but we haven't gone much further than that. Usually it's fun to get to know the locals who run your hostel or hotel, but our hostel is run by Brazilians.

The reason I have such a problem with this is probably because I was raised to travel in a manner that brings you as close as possible to locals. Perhaps I should not let this bother me so much, because meeting tons of other young tourists in hostels is a beautiful and fascinating experience in itself.

— Jackie


Posted on July 07, 2009

Being a Proper Tourist...and Person!

In the morning, I went out to breakfast with five hostel friends. We all ordered Spanish omelettes. The only variation in our orders was our drinks: One orange juice, one coffee with whiskey, one coffee sans whiskey, two strawberry teas, and one milk. I still don't quite understand why I ordered milk, but I guess I was thinking about my bones. What came in my glass looked like milk but was quite definitely cream.

Today we decided that some tourist destinations were in order, and truly, they were. First, we went inside the Santa Maria Del Mar Church, which of course was as surprisingly breathtaking as most destination churches are. No matter how non-spiritual you are, there is a serenity that comes just from looking up to see a high ceiling and traditional stained glass, then looking around and seeing red votives with lit candles. I was tempted to buy one and pray for a sick loved one, but I figured that chances are if I eventually find spirituality, it will be free. If God is real, it will be free. I generally avoid libraries because of my vocal tendencies, but it's a fun challenge to attempt silence once in a blue moon. Luckily for me, this was not one of those ultra-silent churches. I always manage to either trip or drop something, and the noise always breaks the silence and gets me lots of dirty looks. No blue moon. I tripped along happily and noisily in my flip flops, flapping my trap.

After the church, we went to the Picasso Museum. Upon stepping into line, a very lively and hilarious British man announced that he was from London. He's a pianist, and for the past few years has been playing the piano on cruises. He just had a few quick hours in Barcelona to do some exploring...and socializing! We were a dynamic foursome — Jackie, our friend Brandon, Daniel the British man, and me. We explored the museum casually, talking mainly about music. Daniel could not believe that we had not been to the Jimi Hendrix Memorial near Seattle. He accused us of being bad Seattleites! The art instigated impassioned conversation — everything from Nietzsche to the allure of female anatomy was discussed. The conversation did not lose steam all through lunch, when we finally had paella. Daniel asked me how old I was, guessing 24. I told him I was 19, and he had the priceless reaction of, "Oh wow! You already seem like a proper person!" We parted with Daniel when he had to dash back to his ship.

After taking a siesta, we went out for grub with our new Canadian girlfriends — Morgan and Becky. We ate at a tastefully decorated but incredibly sterile chain restaurant. Being cheap and comfort-food-oriented, I ordered pesto pasta. Delicioso. Boyfriends were discussed.

Back at our heavenly hostel, people were playing drinking games. Hopelessly social, I partook in the games even though I was taking a night off from clubbing. I played with an enormous bottle of water, and let me tell you, I got very hydrated. Here's the thing. Jackie and I have discussed the predicament of student travel. We both crave culture, aspire to learn, and genuinely desire to experience places authentically, but it's also very gratifying to stay in a hostel where you do "normal" student things with "normal" students. Essentially, most of our days have been composed of seeing sights during the day, and going to fairly touristy clubs at night. It's all fine and dandy, but we keep judging ourselves. Self-loathing aside, I have enjoyed all my socializing immensely, especially getting so hydrated I could barely walk! Clubs don't really get "fun" (translation: JAM-PACKED AND SWEATY) until early in the morning, so I hung out at the hostel with people until they left for the clubs at about 1:00 a.m. (pretty early).

I definitely plan on keeping in touch (via Facebook, of course) with many of my new friends — friends from all over the world, I might add!

— Zoe


Posted on July 06, 2009

In the Company of Backpackers Whose Stories and Hair I Envy

The hostel where we're staying in Barcelona is unlike any hostel I've stayed at before. The hostel employees and the other guests are some of the friendliest people I've ever met. Unlike us, most of the people I've talked to here have weeks of traveling under their belts already — and many crazy stories they love sharing. There are a few backpacker goofballs who seem to take pride in having been on the road for weeks or months and have totally let their hair and beards grow wild.

Here's one crazy backpacker's adventure: I met a Brandon from Vancouver who began his trip in Thailand and took trains through China, Mongolia, Russia, and much of Eastern Europe. He barely had it planned out, and would buy his train tickets as he went, staying with Mongolian nomads in yurts, drinking vodka with Russian prostitutes, and traversing Siberia by train in a third-class car, where he slept on bunks stacked in three levels.

Wow. I don't know if I could ever bring myself to travel like that. It sounds so cool and romantic, but I always plan everything out when I travel. Zoe calls me a dork because I printed out our itinerary and sleeping accommodations in a little Excel spreadsheet. I like to know exactly what is open on which days and at what time, and I make little notes of it. I like to make sure the sights we see on a given day make geographical sense with (are close to) one another. Yeah, it's probably organization overkill, but I'm still an insecure amateur when it comes to independent travel so it brings me peace of mind.

At least this time around, compared to the planning I did for my first Eurotrip last summer, I am beginning to let loose a little. I still have an itinerary written out, but it has much more flexibility to it. One day, I will bring myself to travel like Brandon the Backpacker did. I bet such uninhibited traveling is the ultimate because, after all, most people travel to get away from the routine, the protocol, the mundane. At my age, I'm not confident to let go of it all. I'm still traveling on training wheels.

— Jackie


Posted on July 03, 2009

Tasting Tapas and Sipping Sangria

When we woke up this morning and our roommates told us it was 2 p.m., I didn't believe them. We almost slept the whole day away!

So we threw on our swimsuits and headed down to the beach called Barceloneta. Almost as soon as we laid out my sarong to sit on, three young men who sat 10 feet away asked us how they looked in the sunglasses they were trying on (vendors approach you trying to sell you sunglasses, tattoos, massages, coconut, and beer, among other things.) The young men kept asking us obnoxiously, "How do I look? Do I look hot? Don't I look sexy?" We tried to ignore them so they would shut up, but instead they came and plopped down beside us.

We found out they were Canadians who were taking whatever odd jobs they could find in Barcelona to earn money so they could prolong their visit. While they seemed to know nothing about the city's sights, they knew everything about the clubs and the beaches. We all took turns jumping into the Mediterranean while one person would stay behind with our valuables.

It seems a lot of young tourists, like these Canadian guys, visit Barcelona strictly to drink and party (and maybe make it to the beach the next day.) All the Barcelona hostels I read about online either said, “THIS IS NOT A PARTY HOSTEL,” or “Come Party at Our Hostel!” The city definitely has a reputation for its nightlife, and I know a few college kids who came here to study abroad just for that reason. I've encountered some of these party-loving tourists who have taken on jobs as "flyer boys" or "flyer girls." They get paid by nightclubs to pass out flyers on the streets. This is how they fund their excessive drinking habits.

Back at the hostel, we met a really sweet 25-year-old, Rose, from Sydney. She had planned to travel all over Europe with her girlfriends for a few months. But then those girlfriends got engaged and bailed out on the trip. That didn't stop Rose from experiencing Europe. She said she gets a little lonely sometimes — especially in the super romantic cities like Paris, where she wishes she had a friend or a boyfriend to share it with. But she's been traveling for nearly two months now and still can't get enough.

I've never traveled all alone in Europe before, but I suppose it would be a very different experience. My brother travels alone all over Europe quite frequently and doesn't seem to mind it. I think I would get very lonely. I always presumed it was easier for guys to travel solo. They have the upper hand because of their gender—they don't get hassled or taken advantage of as much, and they are less vulnerable. Also, I think girls are generally more social and just like the company of friends more, while guys can take it or leave it. Then I met Rose, and she doesn't let any of the above stop her. Good for her!

We invited Rose to come to dinner with us. Together, we navigated through the Gothic Quarter (a maze of alleyways covered in graffiti), passed the Cathedral of Barcelona, and finally reached our Basque tapas bar destination.

All the tapas this restaurant served were canapés, little open-faced baguette sandwiches. They were displayed beautifully all across the bar for standing-up diners, sipping wine, to nibble on as they leisurely socialize. It was like picking out of a box of chocolates, never knowing what you're going to get. I think the ones I tried were salmon, gorgonzola cheese, tuna, and hamburger. We also tried their apple wine and sparkling white wine.

Later that evening, we crowded into this other hostel with groups from three different hostels and passed around cheap boxes of sangria. I met three girls from Dubai, a sorority girl from Virginia, two brothers from Cincinnati, two girls from Norway, and many others I can't remember.

We all walked to Club Roxy, and since it was only about 12:30 a.m., we were some of the first to arrive. I could tell tourists far outnumbered the locals at this club. But who can complain when a club gives out free champagne and plays my favorite hip-hop jams?

I liked talking to Mauro, a Brazilian employee of our hostel, who has been taking us out clubbing each night. He had been so nice to Zoe and me, doing little favors like letting me use his phone and giving us thorough directions and advice. But after buying me a drink at the club he told me, "I really respect your father." I hadn't even told him of my relation to Rick Steves, and usually while staying at hostels I can manage to stay incognito (which I prefer, because answering questions about being the daughter of the “travel guy” can get tiresome). But somehow Mauro found out. No wonder he had been giving us such special treatment. It's nice that he respects my father, but it was also a bit of a letdown. I'd rather be treated nicely just because I'm me.

— Jackie


Posted on July 03, 2009

Pseudo Nude-o, Sangria, and Sweat

We cabbed home that night. After 12 hours of sleep, Jackie and I finally woke up, and we headed to the beach. Barceloneta was vibrant, as promised: Men walking around selling "sexy cold beer" and women offering massages. After much deliberation, Jackie and I decided that it would be fitting to remove our bikini tops, because, after all, the expression "When in Rome" applied. We took them off sheepishly, and tried not to compare our nude chests to the many nude chests around us — tanned chests no less.

We had just started relaxing into our new Euro-liberation when a few Canadian guys spotted us. Hearing English brought us back to our American roots, which told us to put our tops back on. We did so, but the guys continued in their...pursuit. It was a disheartening situation, having our girl beach-date crashed by these narcissistic guys who just talked at us, until I realized we could use them as guard dogs so we could go swimming. Jackie and I swam in shifts, and I can't speak for hers, but my water time was a-ma-zing. The water was clear, blue, and just choppy and cold enough to be completely exhilarating. I didn't even mind the Spanish men shouting and hissing indiscriminately at bikini-clad girls, or my new Canadian bud pushing me in. My cheeks hurt from smiling, and it was the first time since leaving Seattle that I could claim perfect core temperature. Canadian bud, Scott, was shivering. Go figure.

That night we went to a sister hostel and drank liters of only the cheapest sangria. The sangria, although horrific, provided a nice catalyst for fast friendships. After an hour or so of forcing down the vile liquid, we were arm-in-arm with our new friends and ready to hit a nearby "hip-hop" club. We, being a very diverse group of happy-go-lucky tourists, brought the party. Unrestrained dancing ensued, and it was all very freeing and satisfying until, for me at least, the evening totally disintegrated. Like raisins in rising dough, we began to get further apart from one another, until I found myself surrounded by mainly strangers.

Now it must be clear by now that I do not have a healthy sense of stranger danger, but I will say that I do have the sense of mind to occasionally question the motives of strange men. By examining the context, time, place, and the placement and movement of their hands and eyes, I can usually arrive at some pretty accurate conclusions about these individuals. In this club, warning bells started going off. When the go-go girls arrived, indistinguishable from strippers, I knew my night would quickly disintegrate. Also, avoiding dancing with strange men grew more and more difficult. Some of them even argued with me as I clutched onto a fellow traveler friend, exclaiming, "Sorry, I need to dance with my friend." In broken English, the man replied, "No, you need to meet new people." He then jabbed my friend Nick in the stomach, and tried to grab me.

Admittedly, we enjoyed our night anyway, dancing to pseudo-hip-hop to the wee hours of the morning. OK, actually by 3:00 a.m. I was beyond exhaustion, not to mention frustration. I have a threshold, and it was reached. Jackie, being the stellar friend that she is, cheerfully told me that we could leave, so we navigated our way home with the help of a few strangers. One told me I had good pronunciation, which filled me with pride, and has given me the confidence to start attempting to speak Spanish more.

— Zoe


Posted on July 03, 2009

We Were Those Rushed Hamburger-Guzzling Ugly Americans

After our promenade down the Ramblas, I was designated navigator to find our way back to the hostel. I thought we were taking all the correct turns on all the right streets, but somehow I got us terribly lost. Knowing no Spanish, I think I confused some of the street names. It was already 10:30 and we had to be back at our hostel by 11:30, when a group of people were going out clubbing together. So we quickly hailed a taxi and splurged.

We found a wine bar that served German food. Zoe inhaled a hot dog and I devoured a hamburger. The woman serving us said, "You are very quick!" We realized we were playing into the ugly American stereotype. We couldn't slow down to enjoy a leisurely meal because we were in such an absurd hurry. We barely had time to chew our food properly and then we washed it down with gulps of house wine. I was very embarrassed, but we had a night of clubbing ahead of us and it was important that we were nourished!

We got back to the hostel just in time to head out again with a big group of fellow hostel guests. Everyone carried their beer, wine, or sangria completely out in the open. Zoe and I shared a terribly cheap bottle of white wine. As we took turns taking swigs from the bottle, I felt ridiculous, liberated, and a little wild, all at the same time.

While drinking liberally like that on the streets, I definitely didn't feel like I was in the States anymore. I wasn't behaving like a Spaniard either, because we saw no other locals carousing in the streets like us. All the locals I saw were having much more classy evenings, drinking leisurely in wine bars. Oh dear, here we go again — acting as ambassadors of the ugly part of American party culture: sophomoric binge drinking. It's definitely a really fun time, but I am not proud of it.

We all took the Metro down to the beach, where there is a whole string of hot trendy clubs. We went to Club Havana and were some of the first people to arrive. Apparently 12:30 a.m. is totally unfashionably early in this country. It was a sizable club with about six bars, a spacious dance floor, and a terrace outside overlooking the ocean.

I could really distinguish — just by looks — between the tourists and the locals. Some of the locals were so well-dressed and beautiful! They seem to wear a lot of white.

Zoe and I were really enjoying all the friends from our hostel, so we mostly stuck with them on the dance floor. After a little while I think the wine got to us and we got tired and sad — tired from jetlag and it being two in the morning, sad because we missed our boyfriends. So we called it an early night and took a cab back to our hostel.

— Jackie


Posted on July 02, 2009

Happily Lost in Barcelona

We threw on lightweight dresses and hit the streets, map in hand. Before we had even consulted the guidebook, we found ourselves on the Ramblas, drinking in the sights, smells, and of course, the sounds (it was delightfully noisy everywhere). Outdoor pet stores, street vendors, performers, and the inebriated shared the street with hoards of locals and tourists.

It didn't take long for us to meet a couple of these drunks...ahem...vivacious individuals (they were certainly high as well, but it became obvious that alcohol was their drug of choice). The shirtless one made a beeline for Jackie, and the toothless one, for me. I ignored mine's repeated demand for cigarettes, and listened to Jackie's tell what seemed to be a woeful tale. It sounded appropriate for an AA meeting, or maybe a therapy appointment, but was told with glee, on dirty steps, to complete strangers.

We wandered further, stumbling upon an outdoor market that we had planned on seeing. It was closing, but its vibrancy was evident even at dusk. Jackie managed to purchase a bunch of carrots, which we washed in a revoltingly filthy outdoor sink. It got the job done, though, and we chomped happily as we strolled through the streets, stealing giddy glances at one another.

Then we walked along the waterfront, and jet lag became more irrelevant still. I couldn't stop exclaiming how in love with the city I was. It was an unbelievably romantic setting, with huge statues everywhere, waves crashing, and wind blowing. The sky was dramatically purple with exquisite clouds. I couldn't walk more than a few feet without being paralyzed by the beauty, and my little digital camera was hot and tired in my hands.

We walked and walked and got more lost in the beauty of the city, eventually actually getting lost. The Medieval gridlines, or lack thereof, were not conducive to jet-lagged tourists finding their way home. Being lost and hungry didn't dampen my spirits though, because I felt like I was lost on the world's most extensive movie set. The old was brilliantly mixed with the new — traditional old Spaniards, teens in miniskirts and espadrilles, gothic architecture, and artful graffiti. Jackie, the more competent one, kept reassuring me that she knew where we were. I didn't know whether I believed her or not, but I was happy when we admitted defeat and taxied it home. Realizing that it was almost 11 p.m. — the time all the kids at the hostel were going out — we ducked into the first restaurant we found. It was a little German place, and in keeping with the classiness that Americans are famous for, we ordered a hotdog and a hamburger and scarfed them down in a minute flat. The bartender could not stop shaking her head and exclaiming that she'd never seen anyone eat so fast. In keeping with our ugly American status, we forgot to tip and literally ran out the door. We arrived at our hostel just in time to throw on some going-out gear and head out with our bubbly group. We were introduced to the nightlife and the metro system simultaneously and seamlessly, bonding with our diverse group of eager travelers immediately. We went to a club called "Havana," which was fancy and touristy, but undeniably chic.

— Zoe


Posted on July 01, 2009