Tag Archives: essay

The Big Bad Travel Story

16 Dec
The face of an entire trip.  photocred: Katherine Black

The face that launched a thousand misfortunes. photocred: Katherine Black

Let’s be frank with each other: we all have a Bad Travel Story.  You know what I’m talking about – the I-was-stuck-in-the-airport-for-48-hours, got-malaria-and-was-in-critical-care, had-my-everything-stolen-by-gypsy-children kind of story.  The one one you take turns telling on Thanksgiving, or the one you have on reserve to impress people at parties.  I have never been particularly patient with Bad Travel Stories, since it seems like most people exaggerate them (“and then we were attacked by a hoard of ravenous dingos!”) or are being a teeny bit whiny (“and then we realized that our hotel room didn’t have a private espresso machine!”).  However, after one of my more recent travel experiences, I not only have a Bad Travel Story of my own, but came away from it with some surprising conclusions.

My friend Katherine and I had been looking for a weekend getaway: something smaller and more picturesque than Valencia, maybe colder and more autumnal.  We chose Cuenca, a town an hour outside of Valencia by high-speed train.  Nestled on a steep hill, with its famous casas colgadas (hanging houses) clinging to its edges, Cuenca is one of Spain’s national heritage sites.  But el día de todos los santos, a Spanish holiday on November 1st when most Spaniards go back to whatever pueblo they’re from to visit their families, meant that all the hotels were booked.  Our only option?  Rent an apartment for the weekend.  And why not, we figured?  The apartment company had okay ratings on bookings.com.  What could go wrong?

There was, of course, a good deal that went wrong.

Perhaps thinking that we were lesbians because we attempted to book an apartment with one bed, the company ‘upgraded’ us to another apartment.  Except they conveniently forgot to tell us where it was.  Also that the front door didn’t open without kicking it.  Also that there was no heat or hot water.  (And may I add that it was about 30 degrees in Cuenca that night?)  But, to our great good fortune, we happened to ask a particularly helpful local for directions.

“Eh?  Rincón de Malu?” he said, scratching his thick, white beard.  “Don’t know where that is.”  And before we could stop him, he had banged on all the doors in the vicinity.  “Hey!  Anyone know where Rincón de Malu is?”

A woman in curlers stuck her head out the window.  “Nearby.”

Another woman, this one clutching an icon of the Virgin Mary, said, “The next street over.  I’ll help you with the door.”

Katherine and I spent the evening cuddling and watching the first Harry Potter movie in Spanish.  We slept in the same bed anyway, piling all the blankets from both beds together to keep warm.  (Take that, homophobic rental company.)

The next morning, I was awoken by the rental company calling.  “Your debit card number didn’t work,” said the woman on the other end.  “Give it to us again.”

I blinked, groggy.  “Um.  Only if you cancel our other two nights here.”

“Give it to me or I’m calling the police.”

I shot out of bed.  “Woah.  Okay.  That is not necessary.”

Despite everything, Cuenca was...actually really pretty.  photocred: Katherine Black

Despite everything, Cuenca was…actually really pretty. photocred: Katherine Black

From her rapid Spanish, I gleaned that she’d give us our money back if we left by 9:00.  It was 8:50.  We threw our clothes in our suitcases and dragged them up the narrow, cobbled streets of Cuenca to the bar where we’d been promised free breakfast.  There was, of course, no record of this when we arrived.

“That’s okay, though!  You’re wearing a Valencia soccer club scarf.  Have some toast!” said the restaurant’s owner.  And he plunked two plates of bread in front of us, chattering as we pulled out my laptop and bought new return tickets to Valencia for that night.

“You all want to leave your luggage here?” he asked.  We nodded, grateful, and he whisked it away to a back room filled with entire legs of jamón.  From there, we left to take advantage of our one day of sightseeing.  We went to the Cuenca cathedral, filled with gorgeous panes of modern stained glass.  We walked down trails lined with fallen autumn leaves.  We visited the modern art museum and pondered what a clump of steel wool glued to a canvas meant.  (Our favorite work of art: a square canvas, covered entirely in gray paint, entitled “Gray Square.”  Changed our way of looking at the world.)  Then we picked up our bags from our cheery friend the restaurant owner and headed back to the train station.

However, because this was November 1st, there was no one there to print our tickets.  We climbed onto the train anyway, exhausted.  When the ticket-checker came by, we explained our situation.

“Just give me your names and I’ll call the operations center,” he said.

“Elizabeth.”

“Eli – what?”

“It’s not a Spanish name,”  I said.  “E.  Liz.  A.  Beth.”

He looked at me balefully.  “Why couldn’t you have been named María?”

“I…don’t know?”

“You know what?”he said, shaking his head.  “Just stay.”  And we slumped back in our seats, relieved.

But, to put the proverbial cherry on top of our sundae of misfortunes, the train pulled up short an hour outside of Valencia.  There was, we learned, a train strike.  We were shunted onto the metro system instead.  Katherine and I wandered, lost, until two men (they introduced themselves as Juan the Valencian and Gonzalo the Colombian) kindly took us to the right stop.  The next metro didn’t come for an hour, so we sat on top of our suitcases, trading jokes in Spanglish.  Gonzalo gave us cookies.  When the metro came, they both kissed us on the cheek and wished us safe travels.

Katherine and I still haven’t gotten our money back.  We probably never will.  But what we do have is a swell Bad Travel Story, even more unique because we chanced to meet so many generous people.  And we also learned that a) life tends to turn out okay (as long as you take the advice of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and DON’T PANIC), b) we love the smell of police threats in the morning, and c) wearing a Valencian soccer club scarf will make you friends everywhere you go.

“Did you at least have a good time?” my host mother asked when I got home at 1:00 A.M. that night.

“Did I ever,” I said, and fell asleep in my chair.

Katherine and me in a rare moment of put-togetherness.

Katherine and me in a rare moment of put-togetherness.  photocred: Katherine Black

“We Regret to Inform You of Another Delay”

11 Nov

An account of the joys and terrors of my first air controller strike in Europe.

Previously published this essay in the October issue of the Brown Yorker, so if you’re a Brownie, you’re lucky: you got a sneak preview at my weird adventures on the tarmac at Gatwick airport!

Striking is not a phenomenon I am terribly familiar with.  To me, it conjures up images of women in shirtwaists and men with pocket watches, hoisting handmade signs in faded photos from the early 1900s.  The only real strike I remember experiencing is the Writers Guild of America debacle from 2008, and only that because it disrupted my weekly ritual of watching Heroes.  When an email popped into my inbox from Easyjet, informing me that my flight from London to Toulouse might be affected by striking air traffic controllers, I didn’t pay much attention.  I’d just finished a vacation in London and was going to cap it off with a few days in southern France.  Striking was not the foremost thing on my mind.

That morning, the plane had already started taxiing down the runway when it suddenly stopped.  The pilot’s voice crackled over the speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that, due to a lack of communication from the Toulouse airport, our flight will be delayed for two hours.”  The girl next to me rolled her eyes.  I glanced at her.  Improbably, she was smaller than me and drowning in an oversized hoodie, with black hair hastily thrown into a ponytail.  In one hand, she held a Blackberry; in the other, an iPhone.   She switched back and forth between the two with dizzying speed.

“Um,” I said.  I didn’t want to bother her, but my only hope of contacting my friends in France was to get my hands on a European cell phone.  “Can I use your phone?  I’m American, and my phone doesn’t work, and-”

“Please, go ahead.”  Her English was crisp, tinged with a soft French accent.  “I just need to finish this email to my boss.  I won’t make my meeting.”

“What do you do?” I said, eyeing her clothes.

“I’m an art dealer advisor.  I work for auction houses across Europe,” she said, worrying a piercing on her lower lip.  I tried not to let my eyes get too large.  Here I’d been trying to figure out how many years younger than me she was, and she probably had enough money by now to buy more Hermés scarves than I’d even see in my lifetime.  Her name was Élise, with more emphasis on the first syllable than the second: the verbal equivalent of skipping a stone across a lake.  We drank paper cups of Earl Gray as she nobly tried to find me WiFi.

The movie that shaped my expectations of flights: rampant vomiting, inflatable pilots, and constant near-crashes

Later, I ambled up to the cockpit to ask the pilots if they knew how I could make a call.  I had some hazy idea that I’d find Ted Striker from Airplane! sitting in front of a wall of dials and controls, but instead two young women sprawled in the pilots’ chairs, checking Twitter for updates on the strike.  (This was oddly comforting.)  Although complaining about the French is a national English pastime, they were sick of it by now, so they expertly showed me the inner workings of the cockpit and let me log on to the airport network in the bargain.

“Where are you from?”  said one.

“Virginia.”

I watched her face.  Most Brits did not seem to know where this was, despite the fact that it was dedicated to a certain British queen.  “Is that near Texas?” she asked.

“Um,” I said.  “Sort of.”

“That’s okay,” she said, cheerful.  “I was top of my class in flight school.  I don’t need to know where it is unless I’m flying to it.”

The air traffic controllers at last deigned to let us through, and we took off for Toulouse.  I watched the sun rise from my dirt-stained window, tranquil despite the delay.  Airports can throw you all sorts of surprises, but I hadn’t expected to meet three talented women who were barely older than me.

Later, as Élise and I filed through customs, she unzipped her hoodie to reveal an impeccably fitted silk blouse.  “Au revoir,” she said, thumbs still glued to her Blackberry.

“Au revoir,” I repeated, and wondered if I’d see her name beneath a Sotheby’s sale one day.

Apparently the French strike all the time- they’re only rivaled in this by the Spaniards and the Italians.  Anyone else experienced strikes across Europe (or anywhere else, for that matter)?  Did they turn out as serendipitously as mine?

Serendipity

22 Sep

A story about getting luckier than I deserved.

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) at night

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) at night

 

Last week, I began rereading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, trying to rekindle that love of travel that I thought she and I shared.  When I first read the book years ago, I envisioned her strolling through the streets of Rome with hazelnut gelato in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, the Mediterranean sun glinting in hair that was as golden as mine.  That, I thought, was what my experience was going to be like.  Gilbert makes it sound so easy.  Don’t speak the language?  No problem!  No friends in this country?  Don’t sweat it!  Eat some pizza, visit some fountains, and everything will turn out fine.  Right?

The truth, I’ve discovered, is that it’s anything but.  But I kept going back to the passage she wrote in which she collapsed, sobbing, on the floor of her bathroom.  God, she says, spoke to her then.  He said, Go back to bed, Liz.  I always found that part the hardest to swallow.  Why would god take the time to talk to someone who’s never bothered to speak with him before?  Why that moment?

And yet, as I lay in my lumpy bed last week, listened to the traffic roaring by on the Gran Vía, and cried (as usual), I couldn’t stop thinking of it.  God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time), so he probably had better things to do than talk to me, anyway.  But I couldn’t help whispering through my tears, “I can’t do this alone.  I thought I could, but I can’t.  Please help me.”

For days, I didn’t think he was going to answer me.  Sunday morning, I ran out of tears and just sat in my bed, thinking about what to do.  My host mother had been gone for most of the weekend, leaving me alone.  I hadn’t slept in three days and hadn’t eaten anything substantial in two.  I had left messages in Spanglish on the phones of my Spanish psychologist and the program director, telling them I had run out of options.  I was going home.

However, I was incredibly lucky to have been blessed with good friends as soon as I got here.  Stephanie and Sally, two other UVA students living nearby, answered a desperate Facebook message I sent.  They dropped what they were doing, showed up in my host mother’s apartment, and made me a cup of tea.  Then they carved up a melon and fed it to me.  “Look,” said Sally, “why don’t you come over and have dinner at my place tonight?  I hope you don’t mind, but I told my host mom about you.  She wants to meet you.  Maybe talk things over with you, if you’d like that.”

Image

Sally and I pose in front of a Spanish McDonald’s (classy, right?)

Blanca, her host mother, lived in an old building with laundry flapping from clotheslines in the inner courtyard and a smooth, beveled staircase that rose nine floors into the Valencian skyline.  When we arrived at her apartment door, she had just gotten back from the beach with her son and daughter.  Her skin was still warm from the sand of the Malvarrosa.  Half Swedish, half Spanish, she had blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and pale skin spotted brown from forty years in the Spanish sun.  “Come here, Elizabeth,” she said, smiling.  I (surprise!) burst into tears.  She enfolded me in her arms and let me sob into the shoulder of her housedress.  Then she handed me a set of keys.  “I want you to know,” she told me, “that you are a friend, and you can always stay here.  Always.”  She sat me down on the couch, made me a cup of chamomile tea, and massaged my hands.  “I am going to feed you dinner, you are going to take a long, hot shower, and then you are going to sleep in my extra bedroom.  But first my children are going to take you to a movie.”

Blanquita and Manu, Blanca’s thirty-something children, kissed me on both cheeks, gave me a glass of orchata (a sweet, creamy Spanish drink made of almonds and sugar), and whisked Sally and me off to the movies.  They chose Asalto al poder (White House Down in English), a very silly movie in which Channing Tatum shoots a lot of people, blows things up, and drives cars through windows.  Manu paid for our tickets.  When I protested, Blanquita winked and said, “When a Spanish man offers to pay for your ticket, you don’t say no.  It doesn’t happen often.”

For the first time, I felt like Valencia was somewhere I could be content.

Dinner, instead of the tongue-burning, salty vegetable mix I had grown accustomed to, was a variety of foods I recognized and wanted to eat.  (Tomatoes with goat cheese!  Ripe peaches!  Whole-wheat bread with olive oil!  Flan!)  “I think dinners should always have music in them somehow,” Blanca told me as we served ourselves.  She slipped a CD into her CD player, and the strains of the Appalachian-tinged song “Ashokan Farewell” filled the room.  “Now, Sally tells me you can sing.  Yes?  Would you like to join a choir?”

I blinked.  “Um.  Yes, please.”

“We can do that!  And do you play any instruments?  Piano?  Guitar?”

“I play the flute,” I told her.  “But I didn’t bring it with me.”

“Ah!  Well, then we’re going to rent you a flute to make you happy.  You are a sensitive girl, yes?  An artist.  And artists need their art.”

I could only stare at all of them as they ate: the way Manu gesticulated with his fork when he talked about the English classes he was taking, Blanca and Blanquita’s bright blue eyes, the crinkling of Sally’s brows when she laughed (which was often).  After dinner, as Blanquita and Manu washed dishes, Blanca made me more tea.  “Tell me,” she said, “do you believe in god?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, after a pause.

“But you recently asked god for help?”

I was floored.  “Yes.”

“God sent me to you,” she said matter-of-factly, stirring more sugar into my tea.  “I am an angel, but I am not special, because there have been and will be many angels in your life.  We are all lucky in that way.  Just remember, Elizabeth, that I will always be here in my house for you.  So will Sally.”

Yesterday, after a twenty-four-hour waiting period so that Sally, Blanca, and I could be sure of what we wanted, I moved into Blanca’s apartment.  “I feel like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts,” I told the program director as she helped me haul my luggage (bulging from the haphazard way I had re-packed it) into a taxi.

“It’s wonderful to have you here for good,” Blanca said when I got there.  She kissed the top of my head.

Every time I think I’ve had it in Valencia, life tosses something else – namely, someone else – my way.  I have had the honor of meeting an incredible group of people here, and I hope my luck doesn’t run out during this semester.  And I still can’t tell you whether I believe in god, but after having my own Elizabeth Gilbert moment, I can say that the bonds which connect us are much more curious and delightful than we are led to believe.

Hiraeth: Homesickness When It’s Least Expected

10 Sep

I know I haven’t posted anything here for quite awhile, but since I’m abroad this semester, I may sporadically or regularly update this blog with thoughts from my travels.  If you read my blog before, welcome back!  If you didn’t, I hope you enjoy it now.

A fountain in the Ciutat Vella, the oldest section of Valencia.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to travel.  Given half the opportunity, I will jump on a plane, train, or bus to anywhere.  My wanderlust began five years ago.  After visiting Ireland, Italy, and Spain for tantalizingly brief periods of time during high school, I had all kinds of pipe dreams: attending Trinity College in Dublin, working as a writer and waitress in Siena, and visiting museum after museum in Barcelona’s Barrio Gótico.  When I ended up in the same state as my hometown for college, I let go of those plans for the next item on my travel bucket list: studying abroad.  Most people seemed surprised when I told them how badly I wanted to go gallivanting off to Europe.  “Why would you want to leave UVA?” they asked, bewildered.  But for me, the question was never why.  It was where, and how soon.

As soon as I discovered UVA had an established and respected program in Valencia, I set my heart on going my second year.  I scrutinized the online schedules (Hispanic Linguistics!  Islamic-Iberian Culture!  The Art of Picasso!), delighted that all the classes would be taught in Spanish only.  I perused photo galleries of students smiling at the Valencian beach, in front of the futuristic Ciudad de Artes y las Ciencias, and on a weekend trip in Paris.  How, I asked myself, could this be any more perfect?  I didn’t so much as ask my parents to go as tell them that I was going.  (Fortunately, I am blessed with parents who are used to dealing with a high-strung, whimsical, and stubborn daughter).  Money was deposited.  Plane tickets were bought.  Suitcases were packed.  On September 3rd, 2013, I left the Richmond airport for a JFK flight to Madrid, where I would take a commuter plane to Valencia.  I knew no one, would be staying with a host mom I had only seen a picture of once, and spoke the local language like a demented seven-year-old (if Spanish even counted as the local language; I spoke nary a word of Valenciano, the local dialect).

And (much as nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition), I did not expect homesickness.

The Welsh word hiraeth, a languorous, chew-on-it-for-a-moment kind of word, has no direct translation in English.  It means a combination of longing, yearning, nostalgia, and wistfulness.  This is what I did and am feeling.  It was probably compounded by getting sick my first day in Spain.  I started feeling lightheaded and nauseous on the plane ride.  On my first morning in Valencia, when I was supposed to attend orientation, I couldn’t get out of bed without collapsing.  I missed most of orientation, the proficiency test the next day, and the all-day trip to a nearby beach the day after.  My mood was one of the bleakest I’ve ever felt.  All I wanted to do was buy a plane ticket back to Virginia (and that’s not an exaggeration; if you were to look at my browser history, you would find all kinds of searches for air fare).  I kept crying unexpectedly and for no reason.  Walking down the stately Gran Vía del Marqués de Túria near my apartment, with its tall palm trees and old ladies walking Pomeranians and young couples pushing strollers, I cried into my sleeve and tried not to vomit.  Later that day, I went into a supermarket to look for nail scissors and couldn’t find them.

“Please, where are the finger cutters?” I asked a clerk in broken Spanish.

Mercifully, she understood.  “Over there,” she said, pointing.

“Thank you,” I said, and burst into tears.

Yesterday I was walking back from the UVA center in Valencia with my new friend, Stephanie.  I was telling her how terrible I felt, tears welling up in my eyes once more.  She stopped in the middle of the street.  “Elizabeth,” she asked, “why are you here?”

I answered without thinking.  “Because I want to endure surprises.  Because I want to improve my Spanish.  Because I want to be independent.”  And I knew it was the truth.  Despite my desire for travel and my head-in-the-clouds nature, I am a schedule kind of girl.  I like knowing where I am going and how long I will be there.  If it were possible to map out my entire life, I would probably do that.  But arriving in another country means that there is no order.  Being in Spain feels like drowning: no way to breathe, no way to hold myself up.

Some of my new friends and I enjoying the good weather in Valencia

Some of my new friends and me enjoying the good weather in Valencia

However, I know that somehow, order is going to coalesce out of this chaos.  I am going to learn to live with the dreaded not knowing sometimes.  Already, things are beginning to settle down.  I stood by the window of my bedroom, staring out at the square in front of my host mother’s apartment, sobbing once more.  Suddenly, I realized that I was smiling.  I was crying from happiness.  I’ve begun my classes, with their familiar uncomfortable desks and students unwilling to talk on the first day.  Last night I watched a historical bodice-ripper called Isabel (about Queen Isabella) with my host mother, the kind with verbal smackdowns in rapid-fire Spanish and the weird sort of sex with all the covers pulled up and all the clothes on.  It was awkward in the familiar way that watching Game of Thrones with my American mother is awkward.  Today, I rode the bus to school by myself and got off at the right stop.

I think it is safe to say that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  At home, I have a family, friends, a boyfriend, and a school that I love.  I won’t see them for a while.  But here, I can spend my evenings eating helado until 3:00 in the morning.  I can go gallivanting off to France for the weekend.  I can see the Roman ruins of old Valencia.

I may still fail at this.  It’s possible.  But I want so much to succeed, even if it hurts this badly.  All I can say is: wish me luck.  It’s going to be a wild ride in so many more ways than I expected.

This song’s been comforting me a good deal.  Thank god for progressive bluegrass and Nickel Creek.  Some of the lyrics: 

Your first dawn blinded you, left you cursing the day.
Entrance is crucial and it’s not without pain.
There’s no path to follow, once you’re here.
You’ll climb up the slide and then you’ll slide down the stairs.

It’s foreign on this side,
But it feels like I’m home again.
There’s no place to hide
But I don’t think I’m scared.