Thursday, May 31, 2007

Finally some photos!

I've gone and put my photos up in the appropriate posts because they will make the most sense that way. There's new photos as far back as April 28.

I will try to put photos up more frequently, but it really depends on the computer situation. I will try to try.

Am I charming or funny?

I'm not asking for answers to that question.

Pretty much every time that I have spoken while in Bordeaux (I'm referring to speaking in French since that's all I speak except with Anglophones that I've met at my hostel), I have noticed that people within hearing range all start smiling at me. Being paranoid, I wondered at first if they were laughing at my French - I do make the occasional grammatical error and my accent is different of course. The smiles, however, do not seem to be those of people who are laughing at me. First of all, they make no attempt at concealing their smiles; in fact they turn toward me and smile.

Still being paranoid, I asked myself if perhaps the smiles are patronizing ones - the way you would smile at a small child who cannot express himself well and that you find to be cute. Once again, the smiles don't quite match up, and I doubt people would overtly be patronizing towards me (at least, I hope not).

Also, people have been surprised to find out that I'm not a native French speaking Canadian, or at least they're acting that way (there goes the paranoia again). This has suprised me a lot, because of the aforementioned grammar mistakes.

So, I have been left to conclude that for some reason, the people in this region of France find the way I speak French to be charming or endearing. I have had one Frenchman tell me that he liked my accent, surprising to me because I had heard that many French view Canadian French with disdain. I've spoken to Francophone Quebecers who were asked to speak English in France.

Maybe the disdain is just for the Quebecois accent, and since I don't have that accent I don't get that treatment. I speak French with an Anglophone Maritimer accent (honestly, my French sounded different than that of my Anglophone Albertan classmates) and it seems that the people here like the sound of it. There's not a lot of Maritimers in the world, so my accent could be the first of its kind that many people here have heard. Funny, I used to be embarrassed to speak French in France because of my accent. I even felt embarrassed in my French classes in Edmonton until I decided that I wasn't going to let myself feel inferior to a bunch of Westerners.

At least there's one place in the world where I may sound charming! I never thought it would be France, if anywhere. Maybe I don't have to worry so much now about feeling big and awkard amongst the effortlessly elegant French women.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A day in Bordeaux, à la James Patterson

This is a bit of a lengthy (sigh, as always) rant, but I had fun with it so I'm putting it up.

I've been inspired once again! Not by large pieces of steel this time (you had to be there, alright?), but by a book that I was reading. "The Big Bad Wolf" by James Patterson is the book, a former New York Times bestseller.

You might think this is a strange book to be inspired by, but hear me out. You see, until I started reading this book (I found it abandonned on a train, by the way), I had never entertained the notion of being a fiction writer, much less a bestselling one. I'd always assumed that to do that took some writing ability or a knack for creating interesting characters and plot lines, neither of which I'm capable.

Now I know better! The Big Bad Wolf has neither of those. I'm not going to quote from the book to prove my point, because who knows what the hounds of copyright infringement can sniff out. Instead, I will present for your consideration an account of yesterday morning in the style of the book.

I woke up from a noise below me. The girl in the bunk below. Her alarm. I checked the time: 20 minutes before seven. Too early for breakfast yet, so I dozed a bit longer.

I went down to breakfast at 7:30am - half a baguette, cornflakes.

I walked to the train station to get a timetable. I walked to the centre of town. From there I walked to the tourist office.

It started to rain. Wet drops of water falling from the sky. The drops were damp, and also wet and moist. My hair became slightly wet, probably on account of the rain. I was wearing a green corduroy jacket.

I needed to contact a girl I know who lives in the area. I had her phone number, just needed a phone. Found a public phone - it only accepted calling cards. No coins. Another phone, same deal. And another.

It didn't seem possible. It wasn't possible. And yet, that's how it was. No money accepted. Welcome to France.

What was I to do? How could I contact her? Why was France against coins? And where in the world was Carmen Sandiego?

An internet cafe, email and reply. The girl was busy, unfortunately. Too bad, I would have liked to see her. Another time, another place.

I spent several hours walking around the city. Old buildings, new shops. Clothes, bakeries, chocolate. A girl like me could easily spend a lot of money in this city. I only need the money to spend...

Hopefully that gives you the drift of it.

Just for the record, I'm not literary snob. I'm usually easily entertained, even by weak characterization and storylines. I can let myself get carried away by a story. I've enjoyed many a bestseller. The last novel that I read was by Catherine Cookson, I will admit, and I enjoyed it well enough. For those in Canada, Catherine Cookson writes dramatic novels set amongst the lower classes in early 19th century Northumbria (northern England). The novel I read, The Dwelling, was summarized as follows: "Cissie Brodie - a girl of determination, a woman of passion".

Apparently, I have found my lower limit for writing in Mr. Patterson's works.

Oh, Mr. Patterson, if you somehow ever read this, I'm sorry for being mean (my mom always warned me to say nothing if I didn't have anything nice to say), but sir, someone paid 11 bucks (8 US) for your book. A lot of people did. I'm just glad that I wasn't one of them.

Now, as for my own "writing", I'll just sit back and wait for the publishers' offers to roll in.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wrapping up Spain because I'm now en France

And struggling with the French keyboard that has letters where I'm not used to them being.

So when you last heard my location, I was in Granada, hanging out with international Trailer Park Boys fans. From there I journeyed north, via Madrid, to Bilbao. Seeing as I was planning on going to southwestern France it seemed like a good way to break the journey up - it took about 12 hours in two parts as I did it.

Bilbao is a nifty little city - I say little because it felt that way since wherever I was I could see the surrounding hills. The city's sort of nestled amongst rolling green mountains. So nestled, in fact, that it conceals certain parts of the city from view; hence the feeling of smallness. I like cities that feel smaller than they are. Edmonton always felt that way for me (until I had to walk to get around the South Common, but that's another, old tale).

A fountain in a park that I liked.

The famous Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, sitting on one ugly river (sorry Bilbao but it's true).

People are very friendly in Bilbao, as in the rest of Spain. Sadly, I can't understand what they are trying to say to me in a friendly manner. I do think that I do understand Spanish a bit better now - I can sort of get the gist of directions that are given to me now. When I'm told something, the price of goods being a good example, if I go with my instinct on the meaning then I'm usually right. If I try to think about it, I tend to screw it up.

I think Spanish is probably better suited to my linguistic abilities than French. French is a delicate language requiring proper ennunciation, so it is treated brutally by my heavy Maritime tongue and locked jaw.

Oh, if you thought that a continental breakfast involves toast and cereal, think again. From what I have ascertained, it is coffee, a croissant or some other type of bread roll, and a cigarette. The ash trays are sort of nifty: a ceramic ring for resting the cigarette on, and a ceramic dish under the ring containing water. Not realizing what it was when I first spied one in my hotel room at Vaughan Town, I picked the ashtray up and tilted it to examine it, promptly spilling the water all over the desk. Go Megan.

Pharmacies in Spain and France are indicated by electric signs in the form of crosses, generally green, that also read the date and the temperature. I wasn't aware it was a temperature at first (I'm not used to such courtesies from signage) and so wondered what exactly was on sale for 29.0 or whatever (I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed by times). The pharmacies also sell only what would be termed "salon" hair products in Canada, that is expensive. I held off buying toiletries until I found some in a supermarket.

If you see someone on the street in Spain who is using a shopping bag to carry something, it will inevitably be a blue paper bag from the clothing retailer Zara, or it will be a plastic bag from El Corte Ingles, a department store that's name translates to the English Court? I guess at home you'd generally spy me using an Atlantic Superstore or a Sobeys bag, since they're always in large supply.

After making that observation, I realized that I am not a typical person. Most people travelling are commenting on the lovely scenery, the buildings, the food. I'm noticing pharmacy signs and shopping bags. I'm sorry if you don't find shopping bags interesting, but I can't say the observations are going to change.

Finally, while in Bilbao I visited the Guggenheim Museum of modern art. There I had an experience that I was not expecting and calling it significant would be an understatement.

What struck me so fiercely was the sculptures of Richard Serra, in the exhibit A Matter of Time. The sculptures are huge, curved steel plates wrapped in spirals or forming corridors, and you walk through them. The experience was often bizarre - in one sculpture, I felt as though I was being physically pushed from one side to the other just because the slanting of the walls shifted. Another toyed with my sense of distance: inside it seemed much shorter than it did outside. Basically, the guy was sculpting space itself, an idea very simple but one that had never occurred to me previously. It blew my mind, as the expression goes, but I can't sum it up better. It was like my mind started considering things about space that it never had before. If there's truly a Platonic form of space, I may have had brief contact with it, even if I didn't entirely understand it. I actually had to go back to my room after leaving the museum in the early afternoon in order to sleep for about 6 hours. I had overexercised my mind, I guess.

I won't try to explain my Guggenheim experience any further because it won't come out coherently without hearing my enthusiasm and seeing my wild hand gestures (I'm not sure it will then either, but oh well). So you'll just have to ask me about it in person sometime if you want more details - maybe I'll have figured it out some more by then.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

TPB Around The World

I forgot to mention this before, but it may be of interest to the East Coast folks. So when I was in Granada, one of the people I met was a guy from Norway. When explaining to some people where I'm from I made reference to Halifax. Upon hearing this, Mr. Norway exclaimed "Trailer Park Boys!"

Since I wasn't aware that the Trailer Park Boys aired anywhere other than Canada and the United States, I questioned him about how he knew of the show. Turns out he downloads the episodes from the internet (fair enough, as I've seen most of them that way since I didn't have Showcase). Who would have thought that Julien, Ricky, Bubbles and crew were making the Maritimes known around the world?

And for those of you who may be worried about the impression the world is getting of us Maritimers from Trailer Park Boys, rest assured that our Norwegian friend did not assume me to be gun-toting, nor did he ask to buy some hydroponic dope grown in a trailer or hash scraped from a "driveway".

If you have no clue as to what Trailer Park Boys is, then I'd recommend that you follow the Norwegians and download some for yourself. Just to be fair I'll warn you that it's not everyone's cup of tea (some people absolutely hate the show) and it does contain foul language, etc. But I likes it anyway.

Regarding Scandanavians: based on the ones I've met, I've come to two possible conclusions, neither of which I can rule out at present. The first is that all Scandanavians are good-looking. The second is that Scandanavian countires only allow the good-looking people to leave (if so, then going there would reveal a country full of the ugly and average-looking folk). Or perhaps I'm just a sucker for blonds and redheads.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Southern Portugal and Spain

Now with some photos! So you don't have to read my words.

Ok, so what follows is some descriptive "sentences" about the towns in the places in the title. I'm too lazy to write full sentences. It's sort of like what my teachers called "word pictures". You can pretend it's poetry if you like, but it's not. Just plain ol' laziness:

Brillant white smooth walls
Holes chipped away showing light brown stone
Red brown curved roof tiles
Windows, wrought iron with twisted bars and curicules outside, wooden shutters inside
Coloured tiles surround the frames
Rails enclose small upper floor terraces, just large enough to step out on
Potted plants fill the spaces, blue and white ceramic plates and pots line the walls and sills
Sheets and other laundry hang out on the railings in the burning sun to dry
Open doors show glimpses from the street of narrow staircases and long, shaded corridors with tiled walls
Narrow streets that wind and form nothing ressembling a grid. Sometimes stairs lead between streets
Street surface is rounded stones in concrete, rectangular bricks forming a narrow drain down the middle
Stones used in mosaics in some steets and squares - sometimes just patterns, sometimes pictures of plants or coats of arms
Over the walls bounding the streets spill climbing plants from shaded gardens. The trickle of fountains can sometimes be heard from the wealthier ones, but more commonly in the town plazas
Shops and restaurants spill out on to the sidewalks, wares and tables covered by awnings and umbrellas
Dogs wander of their own accord - watch where you step or squeltch! (come on, you knew I couldn't stay serious for long)

So there's some images for you to tide you over 'cause I don't have any pictures up.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Miscellanea or I Update More Often When Internet is Free

In theory the posts would be shorter if I write more often, but I defy theory.

Taking shelter from the rain and a bit of a thunderstorm. There's been a few of those in the past week, but always at night before.

The signals for "walk" in downtown Granada are green figures of a man walking, like pretty much everywhere else in Europe that I've seen, but these ones move! That has amused me far more than it probably should have.

I have found that shopkeepers in Spain and Portugal are unnaturally annoyed at having to break a bill. Like I paid for something that cost 1.40 Euro with a 10 Euro note and seemingly ruined a man's day. I felt bad, but what could I do - the bank machine gives me 20's, so I have to start breaking them somewhere. If I do not hand shopkeepers the exact change, they will interrogate me as to whether I have the appropriate change so that some whole number of Euros can be returned to me.

I had an active night of what I will call "sleepacting" since I didn't do any actual walking. I thought that I was having a conversation with some people that I had been hanging out with prior to going to bed, and that these people were standing beside my bunk. That couldn't have happened because they were not staying in my dorm, but it seemed real enough at the time. So real that I imagined/dreamed? that one person was trying to pass me something but I couldn't understand why my fingers weren't taking hold of it when I reached for it.

I love the pound sterling! I was doing some math this morning to see if I have been staying on budget. By "on budget", I mean not exceeding an amount per week that allows me to travel for the time I plan to. Because the pound is so strong, I've been doing very well without even really limiting my spending too much - I've spent a little over half of my limit, or I'm spending per week about what my actual take-home pay was in a week when I was working in Scotland. I'm not used to this strong currency thing, but I certainly could get used to it.

A strap on my sandals has ripped, and I have shoddily repaired it but I am disappointed with them. They are North Face brand which you usually pay quite a lot for although I got mine on sale. I got them in 2004, but given that I only wear sandals about 2 months out of the year they have only been worn no more than 8 months, not so long for supposedly quality footwear.

Shoes that I am quite pleased with (gee whiz, she's writing about shoes now, you exclaim. I thought this was a travel journal!) are some Kickers brand ones that I got in Dunoon about a month before I left. They are as comfortable as being barefoot, but an improvement as well given that they cushion my feet from stones and the like. And they can actually pass as a dressy shoe - they're a rugged version of that flat ballet shoe that's everywhere these days, and all black. I have no idea if all Kickers shoes are like these ones in comfort, but man are my pair excellent.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Water and the Heat, Sangria and Gelato (Granada)

Now with photos at the bottom of post!

I'm in Granada as I write, staying one more night and leaving tomorrow evening. I've been here since Monday afternoon. I've been enjoying it here. The hostel I'm staying at, Oasis Backpacker's, is excellent: 15 Euro a night for a dorm bed, with fridges in the rooms, lots of space, a roof-top terrace, backyard patio, good size kitchen, free breakfast, free internet. Basically everything a hostel can do right, which is why I had to book in advance to be able to stay here. They even put on events at the hostel, like dinner parties that cost 3.50 Euro for a three-course meal, of which I have partaken and been well-pleased.

Today I've been taking it easy, just spent the afternoon strolling around town with Andrea from Montreal and we stopped for drinks at one place and then gelato at another. A nifty thing about Spain is that you sometimes (always in Granada) get tapas (snacks) for free with your drinks. So not only do you not feel rushed away from your table like you often do in Canada when you don't order a whole meal, you actually feel welcomed to stay because they've brought you food. It also slows down the pace of people's drinking, I think, so that you don't get that problem with drunkeness that plagues other cities in the world.

The gelato here is like fluffy ice cream. It's soft, but it's not like soft serve ice cream because it still has the graininess to it that hard serve ice cream does. Whatever it is, it's real good.

It's a different schedule and pace of life entirely, and I must say that it's pleasant. Shops in Granada actually do close down for a siesta period in the afternoons, opening again in the evening. People go out into the streets and the squares later in the evening to chat with others, and often stay out quite late. In Madrid, the busiest I saw the streets was at midnight. People are everywhere at night, and it's not like they're all out drunk, they're just having dinner or sitting around. It's people of all ages out at night too, not just the young folk.

I asked some of the Spanish folk at Vaughan Town about the siesta break that they get from work - do they actually sleep, for example? I asked specifically about people who have to travel to get to work so that it wouldn't be feasible for them to travel home to take a rest, so I wondered if they slept at their offices. From what I gathered, many people do go home and take a nap, but those who are unable to go home don't sleep. So how people in Spain have the stamina to stay up to the wee hours of the night and then go to work for 9am day after day is still a bit of a mystery to me. I know I couldn't do it without a nap sometime.

I went to the Alhambra yesterday with a California girl, Shannon. We had to wait in line for almost two hours to get our tickets, and we arrived there at 7:45am. The wait wasn't too bad because we had each other to talk to and also some fellows from South Africa in the queue behind us. The worst part was that we had dressed for the usual 27-or-so degree weather and it was more like 12 degrees, so we felt cold.

Anyway, once in the gates Shannon and I checked out the gardens, the palace, and the fortress. Now, before I go on further, I should explain something. I never really had any interest in visiting Spain at all until I read a book called The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is described as a historical fantasy writer, in that he writes books that have some fantasy element to them (often not much) and they are very much inspired by some period in Earth's history, but they are not set on Earth but an alternative world. That may sound a bit out there, but really they do follow the history that inspired them quite well, or at least the spirit of it.

So the book I mentioned is set in a version of Moorish Spain in the days before the Christian Reconquest. The description of "Spain" in this book is what caught my interest in the country - of the land in the north versus the south, the intense heat in parts and the farming country elsewhere. Some of the characters are royalty, and so there are many scenes in palaces and gardens just like the Alhambra.

I mention all this because the Alhambra could just be viewed as "another palace" said with a groan, because although it's gardens are quite beautiful, and the palace interiors are decorated with coloured tiles and carvings in every stone service, after a few rooms of that it could get sort of boring. If I hadn't read The Lions of Al-Rassan, I probably wouldn't have been overly impressed by the palace and grounds, other than the fact that there was an awful lot of work put into that place and the wealth was tremendous. But I did read the book, so I was also imagining the people who would have once lived their and the events that would have taken place. So that made it have a little extra to me. What really grabbed me about the place, besides the obvious wealth involved, was the focus on water. Every courtyard, every garden, had at least one fountain or pool. In a place that can experience droughts, I suppose this could have just been another way of showing off wealth. However, referring back to my reading experience, I recalled descriptions of the intense heat of southern Spain (that I'm experiencing just a taste of now) and how the people in the novel really felt the relief and sustenance of water from its presence in gardens. You can still see that focus on water today in southern Portugal and Spain, where city squares often consist of benches around a fountain.

All these photos are from the Alhambra. If you want a photo of the fortress itself, I suggest you Google Image search it, because you'll find ones taken from better vantage points and with better cameras than mine.

I like mosaics. Europe is full of them.

I like the symmetry here.

This looked pretty.
Yep, a post.

Besides seeing the town, I've been having a great time talking to the other travellers at my hostel. I've come to realize that meeting other people is often more enjoyable for me than the places I see. I need to find a job where I'm always meeting new people - I guess the hotel trade was a good one, but then the hours are pretty intense as well. Anyone have any ideas?

Going to head back to the hostel and shower before the free Spanish lesson that's being offered - I figure anything will be of help! No more deleting blogs accidentally for me.
The very dry river and bank. Just thought the wall looked cool.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Megan's Guide to Art History

Was to the Thyseen Museum on Sunday in Madrid. I chose it because my guide book described it as a lesson in art history. And indeed it was. So what follows is my general outline of the history of art.

It started in medieval times with religious paintings of important figures in Christianity in medieval clothing. Then sometime in the late 1400's portraits became a thing, dark ones. The religious painters found some colours other than reds and golds - blue, for example - and the portrait guys followed suit.

Then, sometime in the 1600's, the Dutch and the Italians started painting landscapes and buildingscapes, usually in darker colours. The portraits continued, with rich people in more elaborate dress, sometimes posed to emulate someone in mythology.

In the late 1700's someone (Dutch again, I think) thought it would be cool to paint some fruit really, really well. Then the French painters said "Moi aussi!" This is when I noticed the effects of light were becoming more interesting and realistic - paintings appeared to have depth. The portraits continued, new and improved with lighting.

Some people started painting sentimental pictures of peasants. In the late 1800's the French stepped away from fruit for a while (although not completely) and so began the Impressionists and their ilk (post-impressionists, colourists, fauvists, etc. - I've read all sorts of terms but can't place them all). This is the art that I like the best. I'm very impressed by how a blotch of this colour here and this colour there, placed seemingly haphazardly, can form an amazing picture. I also really like how the light is captured in thse paintings (I have a thing for light, it seems).

In the early 1900's it all went weird. You go from Cubism with some recognizable shapes to what I would call abstract painting. I just don't get this stuff. Now, maybe these paintings are making reference to other periods in art history and because I don't know art well enough, I don't "get" them as a consequence. This idea occurred to me after Rob, the master of ceremonies at Vaughan Town, explained to me that post-modern art is art that refers to other art).

This would be analogous to, say, comedic television in the 1990's and on. The Simpsons, for example, is only truly funny if you understand all the numerous historical pop-culture references that it makes. Ditto for Family Guy (television history references) and the now-cancelled Futurama (science and science fiction references).

If a person from another time were to watch those shows, they would probably not find them very funny, whereas early television comedy, say "I Love Lucy", was more slapstick and probably more generally accessible, I think. Television had to wait a few decades to have enough material to be self-referential.

So in the same way that I don't know medieval symbology or religious lore well enough to get stained glass windows in cathedrals, perhaps I don't know art well enough to get post 1900's art.

On a final art note: I'm surprised how bothered people are today by women in skimpy tops, because if art of the 1400-1500's is accurate, women were falling out of their tops completely in those times. I learned on my first European trip that in museums the proper word to describe such clothing is "flimsy."

Back from Vaughan Town

The light in Spain makes colours so lively. Here's a building in Madrid's Plaza Mayor.Look at that red!

And here, at the hotel Gredos.
Vaughan Town folks hanging out at the river.

Being from an island that is essentially a big sand dune, I don't think I will ever ceased to be impressed by rocks, especially when you have so many of them that you just pile them into a fence. This is on the road outside the hotel.

Vaughan Town was interesting in two respects. I got to meet loads of Spanish people, a nationality I've not encountered frequently. And I had hour-long conversations with people, over-and-over again. It's not too often in everyday life that you spend that long speaking with just one person. As a result, I got to know many people very well in a short period of time. And I have to mention my fellow anglophones, who I had a great time with as well.

Prior to this experience, I must admit, my stereotype of Spanish people was that they are very emotional - similar to how I imagine Italians. I also held the idea of the macho-male, as well as the gregariousness in general for Spanish people. I have only really known one Spanish person up to the point I went to Vaughan Town, and that is Victor, the chef at the Coylet. As anyone who knows Victor can attest (and if you're reading this Victor, don't worry, I love you all the same for your ranting), Victor has a tendancy to passionate expression on certain issues, that wouldn't actually contradict my stereotype.

In the course of the last week I had discussions with 14 different Spanish people learning English, plus Carmen, the program director. And not one of them was that gregarious, over-the-top stereotype. In fact, I would say that the Spaniards started off the week more reserved than any of us anglophones, and being with us brought them a bit more out of their shells. Underneath the quiet reserve were friendly, funny people.

The machoness wasn't there, although there is still more chivalry - try as I may, I could not get a Spanish man to walk through a door that I held open for him, or let me bring him a drink from the bar.

I discussed the stereotype that I had held with some of the Spanish people. It seems that they also have that impression of the Italians. They also seem to have similar stereotypes of the French to what we have in Canada. Maybe I need a week in each of those countries to prove or disprove the stereotypes - I know I've definitely met loads of friendly French people, but also some not so friendly.

My general view of stereotyping is that cultures do tend to produce a certain mentality in their subjects, but there are always exceptions. As I've often put it, every country has its arseholes. If you meet just one person from a country, you never know if you've met the exception or the rule or somewhere in between. Unfortunately, people often treat any foreigner as an example of that country, even if that person probably shouldn't be.

For interests sake, I asked the Spaniards what their stereotypes of Canadians are, but they don't seem to have any. We're the country that no one in the world really thinks about. Many of them had never spoken extensively to a Canadian before meeting myself and the other Canadian girl at Vaughan Town.

I had a really good time last week, so good I'm going back the first week of July. Now I just need to find similar free experiences in other countries...

Oh, and if you'd like to see the people I spent the week with, and the place, everyone's been putting photos up on this album, so have a gander if you so desire.

How I Lost My Blog

You may have noticed, or not, that there was no blog at this address for a while. That is because, while trying to make some changes from an internet cafe in Madrid on Sunday, I accidentally deleted my blog.

When I log into Blogger, I've been getting all Spanish instructions, and I know how to make a new post from memory but changing anything else involves reading Spanish, which it seems I don't do as well as I think.

So I accidentally hit a button that said "delete everything", and then it took me a while to realize that everything was gone and even longer to figure out how to get help on it. I e-mailed the Blogger help people and from the help of one with the moniker Danish, you are now able to read what I have written once again. Hurray!

I had two posts written up on Sunday, ready to go, so I'll put those ones up first and then get to the present, which is me in Granada.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A week of silence (probably)

I'm headed to a thing called Vaughan Town (it sounds like a cult, doesn't it) tomorrow morning in the province of Avila, west of Madrid. It's a 6-day long program that puts together 15 native English speakers with 15 Spaniards who are learning English. The idea being that people learn English best speaking to native speakers, and even better when exposed to the different accents of the English-speaking world (so I'm exposing Spanish people to a Maritimer accent - I'll have da ticken' it up a bit, eh dere b'y?). The anglophones volunteer their speaking services for the week in exchange for free accomodation and food basically. I heard about the program from Fraser who did it in October and it seems like it'll be fun. We meet for a reception tonight that involves food (tapas) and then tomorrow morning hop on a bus at 9am and arrive around noon, I believe.

So the week of silence is that there's not convenient internet access, so I probably won't be updating until I get back to Madrid (where I am now, just off the train from Portugal this morning). It won't be a week of verbal silence, since they want me to talk, and we all know that I can do that without being pressed.

On the topic of silence, it's been interesting being in countries where I don't speak the local language, namely Spanish and Portuguese. It certainly cuts down on the casual conversations that one often has with people in shops or at the train station (generally eliminates them altogether). I've been doing a lot of smiling and nodding or shrugging. My lack of comprehension didn't deter one Portuguese lady from chatting away to me for several minutes, complete with gestures and pats on the arm, of which I understood "nada".

Something I found amusing - the metro in Madrid is so old-fashioned that the signs say that seats should be reserved not only for the elderly, the disabled, and pregnant women, but also for women in general. Enforced chivalry.

Well, I'm going to find a laundromat and clean some clothes, and then perhaps check out some sights in the city.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


I've spent the week hanging around the south of Portugal, in a region known as the Algarve. I've been staying in the town of Lagos, in a room in an apartment that I've had to myself, complete with a balcony, for 11 Euros a night, so not too shabby. It's like the height of mid-summer here. It was warm in Paris and Barcelona - in the 20-degree range most days - but here it's been in the high 20's or more, and in mid-day it's scorching. I've been taking in the beach scene, from the shade, sheltering my poor pale skin from the sun in the cloudless sky, and have thus accumulated a lot more freckles (I tan in splotches!).

I travelled to the town of Silves by train one day - it's to the east of Lagos, and was the capital of Portugal in the time of the Moors. Checked out the remenants of the castle there, wandered around town, and saw oranges growing on trees for the first time in my life. Also loads of poppies growing wild. I've been in places where these things grow before, just not at the right time of year I guess.

The Sé (cathedral) in Silves:
I took the bus westward to Sagres another day, and to Capo St. Vincente, the most south-westerly point in Europe as it's touted. Looking at the far-stretching blueness of the ocean, it's hard to believe that anything lies on the other side of it, let alone a whole couple of continents.

I also went to the fort in Sagres, and walking there was a long hot trek in the sun. It didn't make me feel any better that the landscape looked like this, with tough looking plants that I wouldn't want to meet down a dark alley.
Relgion seems to be everywhere in Portugal. There's little religious statues in alcoves in walls in the streets, or pictures hanging up. There is even a major bank called Banco Esprito Sancto (or some spelling to that effect), which if my memory of Latin serves me correct, is the equivalent of Holy Ghost Bank.

I commented on the graffiti in Lisbon - well, there is still graffiti here, even in the small towns. It always puzzles me that graffiti looks the same in every country I have ever been too. Do the graffit people have a conference or something to decide on the international standard? The style of lettering is the same no matter the culture or language. It also puzzles me why graffiti artists, who are generally trying to make some attention-getting statement or demonstrate their turf and toughness, choose to use what I would call "bubble letters", a style that I associate predominantly with 10-year-old girls.

I suppose that I've only seen graffiti in the Roman alphabet - perhaps if I was to see Greek or Cyrillic or Chinese graffiti it would have a different style. Probably it would just be in bubble letters again.

Shopping for food can be an adventure over here, as labels are often in Portuguese only of course, or other languages with which I'm not overly familiar. I'm often taking a guess as to what I'm buying, and if it's labelled in German that's usually my best hope after English and French. I did stumble upon a Lidl store in Lagos, and that's helpful because the food is usually labelled in about 8 languages. For you Canadians, Lidl is a German (I believe) chain of grocery stores that are quite cheap and have an unusual, unpredictable stock. Kind of like a dollar-store of food. The most amusing thing that I saw on my recent trip was weiners (i.e. hot dogs) in some sort of clear fluid in a jar. To my further amusment, the label indicated that these were "American Way" weiners - yes, yes, hot dogs always come in jars in the States.

Lidl also has the unhappiest employees that I have ever encountered. No amount of politeness, no friendly smile can crack their icey exterior and coax out any look other than pure hatred. Maybe it's company policy that they don't smile, kind of like an anti-thesis to company policies of the likes of McDonald's and WalMart.

I do enjoy the language lessons that I get off of my multi-lingual packaging. For example, from the wrapper of my Magnum ice cream bar the other day (I now love the Ecquador dark chocolate one) I learned that in French, vanilla flavoured ice cream is "glace parfum vanille". This was news to my Canadian French, as I've always called ice cream "creme glacee" (forgive the lack of accents), and I never recall seeing the word "parfum" on any food package in Canada. Then I learned that for ice cream to be "coated" in chocolate is "uberzogen" in German, a word that strikes my fancy for some reason.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Barecelona then Portugal

I took an overnight train to Barcelona, getting there the morning of May 2. It was a first class bunk, just a bit roomy then the 2nd class ones really (in case you're wondering, the rail pass that I won is a 1st class ticket).

I know I said I was going to Bilbao, but I discovered that Spain is much bigger than I thought. My apologies to Spain, I should know better to assume everything is close since I'm forever telling people that Toronto is no where near the "east coast of Canada". So I stayed in Barcelona for a couple of nights. It won't rank as my favourite city in the world, since it's very packed and grubby, but it does have a lot of neat old winding streets. And palm trees, and warm weather.

I wandered around La Rambla where human statues in bizarre costumes perform - a Edward Scissorhands look-a-like snapped his scissors at me when I gave him a few coins. I went to the Market de Bourqueta for fresh fruit.

I spent an inordinate amount of time booking a ticket on a train to Lisbon, my next stop. I won't go into that, but lets just say that they could organize the train ticketing system better, and open more than 1/4 of the ticket windows.

I went to La Sagrada Familia, a cathedral under construction for over a century. It's unusual in design with natural influences, like columns that ressemble bones and trees, stair cases that are single helixes, and bunches of fruit on tops of the towers. I tried to find a park designed by the same guy, Gaudi, but with no luck. The park was supposed to have been part of a town but Gaudi never finished that either. He seemed to have trouble actualizing his ideas, or completing them. I can identify with that.

I went up to Park Montjuic and it was there that looking down on the city that I felt really disturbed. It's such a heaping of buildings, most of which aren't all that pretty. It felt stiffling looking at it. It's funny, on the street the buildings don't look too bad with their terraced windows and plant pots, but from a far it looked terrible. So I'm off mixed feelings on Barcelona.

I left there yesterday afternoon, first on a train to Madrid where I had to ride in 2nd class (gracious me!). It was actually quite comfortable, with a Lindsay Lohan film (can't remember the name - she's really lucky, then she loses her luck via kissing to a previously unlucky guy and has to get it back) that was all in Spanish so I couldn't really understand it and it was probably better that way.

Got into Lisbon this morning and had to ride from south of city to north of city to change trains. The entire city seems to be concrete apartment buildings in pale stone colours, with graffiti everywhere. It didn't seem pleasant, and after having enough of grubbiness of big cities, I was glad of my choice to go down south to Lagos, in the Algrave region. I don't know if I'll go to Lisbon to spend time at all, maybe just an afternoon before getting my train back to Madrid.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Things I like about Paris

Since I was hard on France in my last post, here we go.

1. Rollerbladers are not treated as though they are evil. You see all sorts of people skating in groups, playing pickup games of hockey in parks, and in general not being shunned by the world. There's lots more skaters than in Canada as well. The municipal government even mentions "rollers" on their signs about scenic river routes, as well as pedestrians and cyclists (Charlottetown Boardwalk could learn something therre).

2. Free public toilets. Important when travelling.

3. Streets that are named after someone have info on the sign about the person - it's a nice touch.

4. Fresh bread at any time of day. Unlike Scotland where it seems to sell out at noon, and that's any bread.

And in general it is a nice city as far as cities go. It's very grand, in that you can tell from the buildings, the gold paint on the fences, the sculptures of winged horses and sphinxes and what-have-you, that this is a city that has been rich for a long time and isn't afraid to show it off.

May 1 seemed to be a holiday, so all of the tourist things I had planned failed due to closures save Notre Dame cathedral. It was huge, very dark inside, quite imposing. Stained glass windows were pretty but I always have trouble figuring out what they're about due to the ornateness and the fact that I don't speak medieval religious symbology.

Afterward I wondered, discovering that everything was closed, so I made my way to the Champ de Mars, the park on which sits the Eifel Tower, and sat watching Parisian families play football and hang out.

Unlike in the UK, where people seem to obey the signs that say "No ball games" on any stretch of grass, in Paris they just play ball right by the sign. The rules seem to exist to be broken. In Notre Dame, there were signs saying not to take pictures but everyone was. One guy was setting up a huge tripod!

And a final neat thing about Paris is that I was able to speak French all day and my accent even improved over the day. So then I went to Spain where it's not of much use. Another post...

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Paris photos

Parks in Paris often consist of pebbly dirt like the one below, on which brave, masochistic Parisians run in the hot sun. Parks that let you sit on the grass, like the Champ de Mars (home of the Eifel Tower) fill up quickly on sunny days. The dust coats your shoes, so that my black shoes looked grey, and I had to empty little stones out of them frequently.

People sitting outside the closed Louvre. A common occurrence, it would seem.

A bridge in the typical grandeur of Paris, with some of the restaurant boats that makes trips along the river Seine.