Sunday, January 3, 2010

My trip to Spain and a bit of Amsterdam

Hello my friends,

I embarked on my 7 day journey to Spain via Amsterdam on Christmas eve. I was still sniffling from a cold that I was suffering for 4 days. Luckily, I sat next to a recovering cold patient who was still sniffling, so I didn't have to worry about infecting someone healthy and innocent. My neighbor passenger turned out to be a reeelly nice native Spaniard gentleman from Malaga (who looked nontheless innocent), who later gave me a list of 10 things to do in Madrid. It was an excellent start.

Before I left, I went to the Get Lost bookstore (Market & Octavia) that specializes in travel books. I bought the lonely planet book on Spain - quite thick that I could use it for a pillow when I'm roughing it. A Spanish phrase book. And a couple more books on Spanish history, people, society, etc. - "the New Spaniard", and the "The Ghost of Spain".

When I arrived in the afternoon on the 25th, only a handful of shops were open that it felt like a deserted town at first. It was cold - snow on the ground and raining. I trudged around and saw this t-shirt in a shop that I had to document. "Home fucking is killing Prostitution". It's too bad that I couldn't think of anyone who would wear the shirt. I read that most of the clients in the red light district are British. Some stores were selling various party drugs, sex, hanging decorations that are "trippy", coffee shops that sell pot etc. I didn't feel like doing any of those btw...

At one point, I had to go into a McDonald's to take shelter from the rain and to take a look at the map. I noticed that pigeons were walking around the floor between tables eating french fries. A clue that I was close to the Dam square famous for thousands of pigeons eating lots of fries. Pigeons living on potatoes - so unnatural. (a video of these pigeons eating fries) There's a famous fites place in Amsterdam. I wonder if that was near the square other than McDonalds.

I bought myself a pretty dress instead of the "home-fucking kills prostitution" shirt and went into a quaint cute adorable bar. There I met a middle age british couple, Paul & Claire, who come to Amsterdam every Xmas. They told me how Amsterdam changed over the years - how all the shops used to be open on Xmas and how lively the streets were during Xmas. Netherlands used to have a big celebration on December 5 instead, Saint Nicholas' Eve, instead of Xmas in the past, but that has changed. Paul suspected that because of all the international chain stores in the city close on Xmas, other shops followed. So, I looked up. And, sure enough, there is a reason that this holiday became controversial as the world changed. According to this tale, Santa Clause had 3 dark skin assistant boys. Celebrating this holiday, of course, made people uncomfortable because the tale reminded them of slavery. Understandable. But, the uplifting part of the story from wikipedia ( is that the colonies of Netherlands still celebrate this day with black Santas.

When it got dark around 5, the cold sleet, lack of sleep, my thin converse shoes with holes, wet cold feet made me feel miserable. I stumbled into an Indian restaurant and ordered a saag paneer. I was the only one at first. I wrote in my note "This is one of the most painful fatigue I experienced in my life". I wanted to just put my head down and take a nap right there. I did take a nap resting my head on my hand as if I was reading... I probably slept like that for 20 mins and i dragged myself into the cold to catch the plane to Barcelona.

Then I woke up in the Barcelona airport after a deep dark nap on the plane. The airport was beautiful. I thought they must have felt the pressure to make it extra beautiful given that there are lots of work in the city by the superstar of the region, Gaudi. took a taxi to Sara(Erika's good friend)'s place where I stayed in the Gracia neighborhood. Sara was out of town, so I picked up the keys from a neighbor.

I entered the building, found the switch that turned on the light in the staircase but also made the tic-toc-tic-toc sound that sounded just like the bomb clocks in the movies. oh boy. i was reading about the bomb that went off in 2004 in Spain a couple hours before. i thought about death for a while, and i started to climb the most narrow and steep staircase I've ever climbed. Reached the 4th floor, which probably burned 5000 calories. found the door, but not the door nob. found the key hole and then the light went off. the tic-toc sound was the timer for the light to go off, which was what i expected if it wasn't a bomb. so... i'm alone at midnight in a dark staircase wrestling with a wooden door with no door nob. I panicked a bit but.. just like what McGyver would do, I whipped out my iPhone and used the light to examine the door again. 5 minutes probably? that felt like half an hour went by. it turns out that i had to turn the key counter clock wise where the keyhole is on the left side of the door, which I thought was a bad design. And i had to turn the key further to open the door. 'okay, i got that solved. Jesus!'

I find that using the word 'jesus' in Europe gives me more satisfaction than using it in the US because it somehow feels more effective. It must be the fact that I get to see a lot of dying Jesus in museums in Europe. Using the word 'Jesus' in Korea as a swear word isn't happening yet. But, looking at the percentage of Christians in Korea, perhaps, the day when the word becomes a swear word is not too distant.

Party in the old city: I was warmly welcome by friends of Erika in the La Ribera neighborhood in the old city. The host, Edu, gave me a tour of his lovely place with a winding staircase to the basement where the socializing was happening. His place used to be a big wine cellar in the old days. His entrance door was a big black heavy door that exuded some gravitas. The two bedrooms in the basement had the brick arched ceilings that showed their age and it was apparent that the whole place was once a wine cellar. So, Edu, is living in a stylish wine cellar - how cool is that. Barcelona's population in the 19th century was 115K (i tried wolframalpha and bing, but got this data from google eventually) and in 2006, it was 1.6M. So, it makes sense that wine cellars become apartments these days.

I partied, danced, laughed, drank with the married couple Ryan & Isaac and the locals until we decided to go out to the beach and see the winter Mediterranean sea. A pleasant memory, it is.

I crashed at Ryan & Isaac's quaint apartment. I am regretting that I didn't take more pictures at their place, especially the wooden doors to close the windows. The beautiful aged wooden doors looked like they were more than a couple hundred years old. Woke up in the afternoon to get food. On our way there, Isaac pointed out a lot that looked like a construction site. It turns out that people were going to build a shopping mall in the area, but when they started to dig, they found some Roman remains! This delayed the project frustrating some people but exciting some others. Treasures and mysteries, I was fascinated. Although Davinci Code by Dan Brown was awfully written, I remember really enjoying the puzzles and the conspiracy theories in the book. I suspect that such findings are fascinating because it means that people did not know that there was a site of Roman remains under their feet, which means that there was a discontinuation of knowledge in history. A site of an advanced civilization was forgotten despite they had means to document it, which then becomes a mystery.

I find that traveling Europe is like studying, imagining what it was like in the past right there and being inspired by human history. You never go to Europe to relax because you have to know some phrases if English is not spoken, you want to learn the history of the place, you want to know the culture and try not to offend the people, you want to see the art, you want to know the relations with the neighbors, etc. so, can be stressful.

I was reading the history of the monarchy of Spain on the plane. While reading about them (, I thought "They don't seem so special, but it would be so cool to be one of them!) From what I've read, the kids are a bunch of jocks who participate in the Olympics. There is an expression "to be the king of spain". I've never understood the full meaning of it. Moxy Fruvous has a song called "king of spain", but they were modifying the tale of "the Prince and the Pauper". There is a band called "king of spain" in UK, but I don't know why they are calling themselves that. I searched and searched and couldn't quite find the origin. Is it related to a legend that a King of Spain had lisp, and that's why everyone started to speak in lisp? Or kings of Spain losing their thrones so often? Does it imply elitism?

After recovering from the party the next day, I ventured out to try out some tapas around 11pm and not many places were open although it was not too too late for dinner for Spanish standards. I went to 'Bo' in the Gracia neighborhood and ordered cava(sparkling wine), some mussels, risotto, and some Catalan bread (bread dipped in tomato sauce + olive oil). The waiter from France was charming me to death winking by the time I ordered dessert - small little crepes with xocolate sauce. I asked him about live music around, but I was not in the right neighborhood. He recommended a couple bars with good music from which I selected a bar called 'La Journal'.

It was a tiny cutesy bar with newspaper plastered on the wall, which reminded me of my college years in Korea. As soon as I entered, there was an aggressive Brazilian man who insisted that he buy me a drink. I ordered Clara, which is a spanish beer mixed with lemonade. refreshing. Because the brazilian aggressive man didn't know english and my spanish is non-existing except for my phrase book, I talked to the bar tender who is from Columbia who spoke English. He said he lived in New York and Houston, Texas where he was an art director. Artists.... moon lighting as bartenders at night is the same everywhere on earth. And then.. there was a group of shy people. They looked like they were curious about me - they looked at me from time to time and smiled, but couldn't quite say hola. Turns out they were a group of 'Catalan's - the people who I've been reading about from my books - a group of people characterized as hard working but somewhere between hippies and punks. Once I started to talk to one, I had the chance to interview the Catalans in that bar. From what I read and heard, they are closed, private. I asked them "I heard that Catalans are closed people, but you are all friendly. What's up with that?" And one of them replied with a long answer - basically admitting that they are closed people but nice. I was thinking they would have the mullet hairstyle with sometimes dreads on the back. But these people didn't have that hair. One guy had a really curly light hair that looked puffy like an blond afro. Another one had darker hair like mine but shorter. They all spoke English, educated and many of them studied abroad such as in the US some time in their lives. There were a couple Italian women who were part of the crew. The aggressive Brazilian guy came around again shouting 'fiesta, fiesta, discotheque' and wanted to buy me another, which i had to say 'no fiesta'. There was no way I was gunna party like the Spaniards the second night, so I came back to Sara's flat for a good night's sleep. I got rained on again on the way back, Jesus.

The next morning, which was Sunday, I woke up with a headache. I went out and had a bocadilla (bacon baguette sandwich) with cafe con leche (strong latte) for 3 euros. yummy~ until I felt like I had the fever again. And when you're sick, you can't digest. I was nauseous and had to lie in bed again until Sara came back from Italy. I'll have to finish my todo list in Barcelona next time I come. A friend of Erika's, the friendly, joyful, happy Italian woman, I met who lives in the flat. (2 bedrooms) She gave me a cup of tea that is good for cold and I went to sleep.

Got up around 5pm and started my adventure into the old city. La Rambla, check. Being lost in the old ally, check. Churros y xocolate, check. People were in long lines where they serve "churros y xocolate", which was in my todo list of Barcelona (author: Erika). It's a thick hot chocolate and deep fried pastry that you dip. Not being so patient, I kept wandering until I found a cafe with a short line. I waited for a table to free up. When it did, it was a table for 4. A couple behind me were waiting for a while, and so I told them I didn't mind sharing. I ended up talking with the couple who spoke English. The man, originally from the Canary Islands, came to Barcelona to find work. When he visited Israel 2 years back, he met the Israeli woman and fell in love. So she moved to Barcelona and became an English teacher. He is a salesman. Very friendly and soft spoken, they talked about how they are enjoying the city but is nostalgic of the beautiful southern Spain and showed me some pictures. They said their religion is "love".

walk walk walk.. around 10pm, I found a bar that was in my todo list (Bar Mundial) for great tapas. It was closed, which later I learned that probably it was not open yet. A lot of the bars in Spain open after 10:30 (which was the case in Madrid). I stumbled into a Paella place. I ordered the Paella Negro, which they use the squid ink to make the dish black and give the squid flavor. It was so good that I ate the whole thing all by myself.

then I walked around the neighborhood that Erika used to live. jumped onto the metro home and went to sleep.

The next day was Sagrada Famillia, Gaudi's piece. and Park Guille, Park designed by Gaudi where there are ginger bread houses and such. did the touristy things while looking hard for another treat of Churros y xocolate. That night I hung out with Sara, her Italian friend, her friend's brother and his boyfriend at one of the famous xocolate place. Thick hot xocolate is all the rage, for a good reason. walk walk walk, another tapas bar near Sara's place with Sara. The passionate Italian woman and I discussed 'amore' at a bar that serve catalan potatoes (potatoes in hot sauce). Then that was the end of that day.

Madrid the next day. Flew from Barcelona to Madrid, still sick and sniffling. And, Jesus, this el nino thing, I got rained on again. From what I heard about people in Madrid vs. people in Barcelona, Madrid people are friendlier than Barcelonians. Sure enough, there were people who approached me asking if I was lost and wanted to help. Friendly non-creepy people, I found. Arrived at the destination to meet another friend of Erika, Ricky an Italian-Brazilian who speaks Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, English, a bit of French. I laughed and laughed because of his view/observations of the Europeans. French are the rudest like mutherfuckers and are full of themselves, the Spaniards are rude as well but not as rude as the French. The Italians are loud and annoying because they always complain. Ricky's parents are Italians settled in Brazil. So, Ricky speaks Italian with the Brazilian accent. The british swallow their t's when they speak, so very polite with stiff postures. I learned that rolling the tongue is a learned thing and not a genetic thing as I first suspected. All Spanish, Italians can roll their tongues but a lot of Frenchies/British can't. How Brazilians walk like they are dancing and how he can spot them from far away, and how he hates the Argentinian mullet hairstyle. On and on and on, generalizing nationalities is a fun activity in Europe.

I went to the Meseu de Prado. Saw lots of art. Saw a couple hundred dying Jesus paintings. Saw pieces done by Goya, the freak. lots of paintings of biblical stories, greek mythologies, and saints whose name I haven't heard of. I would have loved an art historian as a museum companion like i had in the past(Hyunjin Kim), but I managed to get inspired and enjoyed the museum. Lonely Planet tells you which rooms to go to and I followed their advice before I got the museum feet. I could understand how those huge huge paintings done by painters for the kings could be national treasures. The aristocrats would acquire them in various ways like.. war or through auctions. Goya, the freak, was my favorite because of his boldness in describing his despair in human cruelty especially from the Peninsula war - through his 'dark paintings' . A lot of painters painted the same subject. For example, Ruben and Goya, they both painted Cronus/Saturn from the Greek mythology eating his children. Both disturbing, but Goya's was far more disturbing. They say he started to show his craziness after his lover died. Goya's painting on the upstairs were realistic paintings before he went out of his mind.

At this point, I saw about 50 dying Jesi. The crucified Jesus, especially, is something that all painters in that era had to paint some time in their lives. 'Crucified Jesus' is like 'stair way to heaven' for guitarists. One of my favorite dying Jesi paintings was, (damn, i didn't bother to write down the artist or the name of the painting) the one with Jesus getting whipped by two bad guys with the description "the look of jesus is that of resigned suffering". And it truly was exactly that. 'Resigned suffering.' I like to think that Jesus had that hipster attitude saying "oh, whatever! Whip me as you want and while you're at it, why don't you just kill me?". Jesus Christ.

Came back to my host's place and Ricky and I went out for some typical Spanish bars in La Latina & Sol. It was around 10:30pm in Madrid, the night was young. Bars were starting to open their doors, people were still eating dinner. We went in one of those cervecerías wtih florescent lights and ordered a plate of Jamon Iberico, which they shave off meat from pig legs hanging from the ceiling. and some calamari. The cerveceria (spanish beer pub) had a separate room for diners that had 7 to 10 big groups of people drinking and eating. The decibel level increased as more drinks were consumed, and soon it turned into some sort of rowdiness competition. One group would bang on the tables, clap, sing and make loud noises. Then, the other group would watch and wait for their turn to go even louder and rowdier. It was good to see people enjoying themselves. Turns out all the groups in that Spanish bar were Italians, according to the bartender from the Dominican republic, except for one group wedged between the two loudest of Italian groups doing their 'party-off' sessions. Those middle aged looking Spanish group just quietly ate as the Italians started to dance Flamenco and sing the Italian anthem, at which point Ricky started to sing along. fun and jolly!

When the Spanish group was leaving the place, I asked Ricky to ask the Spanish people if they had suffered. Ricky asked them in Spanish that his journalist friend wanted to know if they suffered. The gray haired big belly man broke into a smile and said that they didn't mind at all. They obviously looked like they were suffering...I wondered if they were Catalans who were closed about their real feelings.

After dinner, just like how Asian restaurants in the US would give you after a meal either fruit, candies, or gum, spanish bars give you something as well. And that is some green Licorice tasting liquor shots and they are usually had with the bartender who served you. So, after we paid, we toasted with the friendly Dominican bartender, who told us about the Moroccan gangs, the source of drugs, in the La Latina neighborhood.

The bars were handing out free drink tickets in the streets. After getting a free shot from a bar called Monalisa, where I met a British living in North Beach, sf. Ricky took me to a popular Irish bar. There were a LoT of Irish bars in Sol, Madrid. I had a half a guinness and watched people, listened to music (80s and 90s, I remember listening to 'sweet home alabama' and 'take on me'), and discussed some more on the anthropological observations in Europe. There is definitely fun in generalizing a group of people. The flaming colorful Italians are obviously the most entertaining with their clean cut button down shirts with the Italian typical gestures. (I'll try to demo them upon requests) At the end of the night, I could spot Italians for their melodic intonations and their dramatic gestures. A group of 3 good looking marina style Italians sat down and they basically started the party in that Irish bar. Oh, boy, were they loud. I think Italians are the Cantonese of Asia. Ever so anglophile Japanese would correspond to the polite British. Koreans... somewhere between - I'd say they are the stuck up Frenchies in Asia. As for me, I like to think that I fall into the hippie punk anarchist Catalan group.

After these Italian guys turned into frat boys, we went to explore more. Another Irish bar where it had that green clover Irish sign on the outside. It was lively but least like the typical Irish bar - they had a DJ spinning some pop and house music. After ordering drinks, a hippie looking Spanish couple approached me and said hola. They praised me for my looks but didn't speak English, so we cheered and drank. Interestingly, Ricky pretended that he didn't speak Spanish and soon we left that corner because Ricky was feeling uncomfortable. He later told me that he suspected that they were either wanting to sell drugs or wanting to take us to an orgy. Ricky being well traveled and street wise, I believed him. chuckle

There were Lots of macho Italians looking tough. Well dressed with scarves, but way too macho for me to feel wanting to converse. A different kinds of Italians.

Ricky complained that he can't go anywhere wearing what he was wearing in Italy. He looked at what I was wearing and said my converse shoes wouldn't pass and I need to carry an armpit purse instead of my casual shoulder bag that I rock. I asked him if he was religious. He said he wasn't but he believes that there is something. I asked him if he believes in bread turning into flesh and wine into blood in the communion service. And he told me about how he and his friends ask for butter. "Can I have butter with the bread?" or better "Can I have Philadelphia cream cheese on the bread?".

I wanted to talk to the locals and see what they are like and how they live, but the big muscular macho boys did not do it for me. So, more exploration and onto another bar. ... more free drink tickets. small venue, good music, more approachable people. There was a group that looked interesting, on the quieter side, who we ended up talking to. They looked a bit shy and sensitive, but they turned out to be Italians (the boys) and Portuguese(the girls). According to Ricky, Portuguese are serious and quiet people and they don't like changes. Ricky and the Portuguese exchanged the language difference between Brazil Portuguese and Portugal Portuguese and had a blast. The soft spoken Italians talked about how they had a hostile encounter with their fellow Italians at the airport. That night, I saw the sing-a-long dancing Italians, the Marina frat boy Italians, the hunky macho Italians, and the sweet sensitive Italians. Overall, I met more Italians than Spanish people and that was fun! End of the day at 3 am.

The next day, I woke up with a nasty hangover. I didn't feel bad when I went to sleep the previous night, but it must have been all the mixed drinks. All I wanted was a chicken noodle soup or pho at the hour of 8am. nausea. I could not breathe another breath of cigarette air, or ham, or seafood. I was paying for it when i pulled myself to go to the supermarket to buy some soup. My phrase book lacked what turns out to be the most useful phrase in the health/drugstore section. "I have a hangover. could you give me an IV or something?" I reminded myself of how Jesus would have chosen 'hang over' over crucifixion if he had the choice. So, I nursed my hangover with the concept of the 'resigned suffering'.

After I took a long nap and my nausea was gone, Ricky and I set off to the center of the city. Beautiful beautiful grandiose buildings from 14th century or older that humans these days would never build with such ornate sculptures, columns, frieze, etc. They are such contrasts to the 19th, 20th century's industrial buildings that is all about being practical. This reminds me of how I can spot an American in Europe. If I saw one that was typical, I was right. If they wear white sneakers, baseball cap, bad looking jeans, with functional sports jacket, they are americans. The stereotypical Americans are all about practical and don't care at all about style. Europeans, have their own sense of aesthetics and it seems as if they try to seek beauty including what they wear and such.

Another thing that I read from the book is how Spanish people love lotteries and gamblings. They bet on everything including poetry contests. So, it wasn't a surprise to see long lines of people buying lottery tickets.

Addicted to 'churros y xocolate', I had to have another before I left. Ricky took me to a place that was well known. We got rained on again on the way, but when we got there, the place was packed. The place was packed with old people eating churros y xocolate. I thought I was at an Opera with gray hair everywhere. It amused me so much, I had to take a picture of the old fogies of Spain dipping churros in their hot chocolates. Ricky told me that young people spend their money on alcohol and not on xocolate.

Early morning the next day, back to Barcelona, met with Sara, packed, had a nice coffee with Ryan and Isaac, and hopped on a plane to Amsterdam. By this time, I got sick of getting rained on, I decided to treat myself to a nice hotel, which was followed by a 1st class bump up on the plane the next day so I could fly back home horizontally. Being able to fly horizontally really makes a difference. I think the airlines should have a chair section and a bed section where they install bunkbeds.

I was curious about the demographic of people flying on 12/31 or 1/1. Families. Nerds. Geeks who looked like they didn't care about partying and I was one of them. :)

Happy 2010!

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