SPAIN UPDATE # 4

Hello all friends and family!

So, if any of you follow the news (or perhaps I should say, as long as none of you live in a cave hundreds of miles away from civilization) you will have noticed a few major occurrences over here in my neck of the woods. First of all, we got bombed. Thankfully, almost all of the students at my school here were out of the country enjoying their spring break, and if not out of the country, at least not in Madrid. The few that were here have been accounted for, and no harm came to anyone involved in my school here or any of their host families, as far as I know. In reaction to circumstances surrounding the bombing (debate rages over what exactly drove people to do this), the Spanish people elected a man named Jose Luis Zapatero of the Spanish socialist party, which has not had a president in the office for many years, if ever. This looks like it will have major changes come with it, as the new president's first order of business is to pull out Spanish troops from Iraq, and disengage himself and the Spanish government from Bush and the American government. There's the summary of goings on as far as I know here.

Now, those of you who know me well know that I do not typically concern myself with politics and such, despite that making me an irresponsible citizen or whatever you'd like to call me. However, being in the midst of the Spanish equivalent of 9/11, and then 3 days later having just about the biggest political change in the country happen since democracy was established 20-30 years ago, it is hard not to follow these sorts of things. Many people have asked me what it is like being over here during such a tumultuous time, if there is any anti-American sentiment, if there are riots, all kinds of things, and I have given them various answers. Here is my take on everything so far.

Because I was in Scotland the day of the attacks (more on that later), I cannot attest to the emotion felt in Madrid. It was somewhat akin to the feeling I had when I saw the September 11 attacks on TV. I felt sympathy, I felt sorrow, and yet, I felt detached. As I continued to watch, and I noticed that this bombing had taken place at the rail station that I had walked through just one week prior, however, the bombings began to affect me a bit more. One thing I did notice, though, was that television and the media here do not leave out any of the gory details. I remember watching the NY attacks and seeing the buildings fall down, people around them running away screaming, and thinking that was horrible. But being here and seeing what they show on the news--people with limbs hanging off, a boy with half of his face melted, and other such grotesqueries--has helped to throw off this detached feeling. Have things changed here since then? Absolutely. Open any newspaper and you'll see articles upon articles about terrorism, the new government, etc. Have these changes affected me? That is a bit more of a blurry answer. While they may become more visible in the coming weeks and months, right now the most visible changes have been some memorials to those who have died, and most visibly, pictures of the ribbon and large signs saying "PAZ" and "No al terrorismo" hanging from apartment windows. It is very akin to what we witnessed in the US after 9/11: the American flag flying half mast everywhere, hanging out of car windows, stickers of it stuck everywhere, etc. The whole scene feels very much surreal, like déja vu in a different language. But as sad, or as desensitized, or as unaffected as it may seem, my life here has gone on with pretty much the same leisure and pace as it did before these momentous occurrences. As per anti-American sentiment, I have not experienced, witnessed, nor heard of anything even remotely similar to what one would call anti-American sentiment. If anything, Spaniards and Americans have more of a bond now, because we are both a people who have experienced and lived through a national tragedy. We have 9/11, Spaniards now have 11 de Marzo. So although it may sound insensitive or what-have-you, I will probably look back on my time here in 10-20 years and be more affected then than I am now, simply because I think living through something historical and seeing the small changes every day in one's daily life makes it more difficult to recognize just how different things might actually be.

Phew. So there are my thoughts. I'd be interested to know how all of this stuff has affected all of you wherever you are, whether this is a big deal or not, etc.

On to the fun stuff!

Spring break took place March 5-14 and consisted, for my friends and me, of Ireland, Scotland, and London. Sweden was supposed to be on that list, but sadly, we missed our flight. But calm down child, I'll get to that.

Friday the 5th we began our journey, taking a 7-hour bus ride at 9am to Barcelona because that is the cheapest place to fly out. If any of you have heard of Ryanair, it is a budget airline that we used for all of our flights during spring break. Ryanair plays quite a role in our epic story. We were planning a leisurely traveling day on Friday until we learned that the airport we were flying out of was actually about an hour and a half by bus outside the city of Barcelona. When we arrived in Barcelona, we were told at the bus station that there was a certain bus we should take to get to the airport, but this bus originated at the other bus station across town. So we took the subway from one station to the other, and when we arrived, we asked where to pick up this bus to the airport. We were promptly told there is no bus; we have to take the train. Umm, ok, how much is that? Half the cost? Sounds good! We take the train they tell us to, only to arrive at the end of the train line and still about an hour away from the airport. After much confusion, asking 5 or 6 people, and finally having a younger gentleman tell is in plain English what we had to do, we took the train and got to the city Reus, where of course the airport is 20 minutes away from the train station. We took a cab and paid another 7 euros apiece to get to the airport, and arrived 30 minutes before our flight, where they told us the flight is already closed. After arguing in a mixture of English and Spanish, they let us on the flight and made us run across the tarmac, only the have us sit in the plane for 20 minutes. We were told later that we had to run because the crew and pilot had decided they wanted to take off early. Silly us, we had not reckoned on that variable! So, after arriving in Barcelona city by bus a full 4 hours before our flight, we still nearly missed because of the unhelpful people at the bus station in Barcelona and the wonderful Ryanair crew who wanted to be prompt and leave early. There was our Barcelona experience. Thank God we weren't there any longer.

That same night, we flew to London, where I had arranged to meet up with a friend who is studying there, Jean Luc Rennault, whom some of you might know. We arrived at the airport at 11pm, and went to take the bus to the city (we were beginning to learn that Ryanair is so cheap precisely because all the airports they fly out of are anywhere from 1-3 hours outside of the city by bus, which costs anywhere from 10-20 euros). Having arrived at Stratford Station at midnight in what we later learned was the worst part of London crime-wise, and having found out that the "tube" (British English for "subway") was closed, we proceeded to walk about 2 miles to the aptly named Mile End where Jean Luc was waiting for us in the only bar that was still open at 1am when we arrived, called The New Globe (those clever Brits). At this point, I was ready to relax, have some laughs with Jean Luc, and toss back a beer or two, but my friends Pat and Jordan were ready to sleep so they would be ready for the early morning the next day. So they wandered off in search of a cheap place to stay for the night, through a place called Whitechapel, which we later learned was where Jack the Ripper went on his notorious killing spree. Meanwhile, I enjoyed my friend's company, a few drinks, and a doner kebab, and made it to bed before my friends did. Funny how life works out. Next morning we flew to Dublin, Ireland and truly began our spring break.

Dublin was nice. We got in around 1pm with no place to stay because one of our group suggested it would be easier just to find a place when we got there. Interestingly enough, that same friend with the suggestion lost his passport in London and thus could not come with us to Ireland. Hmmm... something sounds fishy there. Luckily for us, we stumbled upon a hostel in the middle of the city that had two last minute cancellations and let us stay there for a very cheap price. The gods were smiling upon us. After walking around most of the day, we met up with a friend who also happened to be in Dublin and went looking for a fun pub. What we found was an "international bar" filled with Irishmen, two of whom we made friends with and ended up having a barrel of laughs and brews the rest of the night. Let me tell you all a little secret: all stereotypes of Irishmen are true. These guys were the craziest and friendliest folks I have met in awhile. They joked with us, drank with us, and even fought with each other a bit, in between telling us stories of when one had punched the other in the face and made his nose bleed while they were drunk one time. Good times indeed.

The next day, after touring the Guinness factory, we headed out of the city to experience more of the famed Irish countryside. We arrived in Galway late that night, caught up on sleep, and then walked around the city the following day. What a charming little place. Galway is a little college town about 3 hours away from Dublin by bus, and is not exceptionally famous for anything, so we had no big tourist things to do. It as nice to just be able to walk around and enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere. We walked out to the coast, dipped our feet in the ocean, and had another adventure...

As we walked along the coast, we saw a small isthmus that led out to this big grassy hill stuck out in the ocean, so we, being adventurous and courageous college students, walked out there and ran around and enjoyed the view. We spent a little bit too much time out there, however, and when we began our journey back, we quickly realized that the tide does not stop and start at our convenience: fully 20 yards of our trail was now covered in knee-deep 40 degree Atlantic Ocean water. Taking off our shoes and socks, and putting on our toughest man-faces, we ran/hopped/splashed through the near-freezing water, making certain to utter as many descriptive expletives as possible on the way. Luckily, we all made it, and with no permanent damage to our feetses. It was a darn fun time, and makes for quite a story.

Another night in Galway, where we went to a tavern and listened to some traditional music, then we headed back to Dublin to catch our flight to Glasgow, Scotland. We slept in the airport that night to conserve money, along with about 5 or 6 other backpackers, then took the train into town (another hour-long ride). We got a good cheap hostel and then went out to explore the city that we knew literally nothing about. After finding the tourist office and learning some things to do, we took a tour of the City Council building with a funny little Scottish man who constantly commented on the "lovely ceilin's" and the "genuine (pronounced with a long i sound) mahogany." Afterwards, we strolled around, found a nice fast food but traditional Scottish food place and got some IRN-BRUs, Scottish for Coke, and they tasted similar to Red Bull. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, though it was very interesting being in a country that speaks English and not understanding the language. Yes, the accent is THAT thick.

Next day went off with a few hitches. I had wanted to see some of the Scottish countryside and some castles and such, so we took a bus to a town called Stirling and got to check out Stirling Castle. That was fun, but not as cool as I had hoped, mostly because there weren't real knights and maidens and dragons and kilt-wearing Scotsmen. Yeah okay, so maybe I have a bit of a romanticized view of things. We walked around Stirling for a while, then came back to Glasgow, only to realize that we got back just in time to miss our flight to Sweden. Having a travel companion that is very much the worrying type did not help in this situation, so where I was laid back with the attitude of "Okay, not what I had in mind, and that certainly sucks, but we'll figure something out," Pat, my travel buddy, was more in the mindset of "Everything has gone completely wrong! We're all going to die!!" Meanwhile, this was the same day that when we first woke up we heard about the Madrid bombings, so Pat had been sending text messages to everyone he could think of asking if they were okay, even if he knew they were out of town. Very different personalities, us two, but eventually, we decided to spend one more day in Glasgow and then go back to London and spend a day there, seeing the sights and such. The rest of Glasgow was not bad, but not exactly what I was hoping to see of Scotland. Among the highlights were eating haggis and sipping IRN-BRU in Scotland, and seeing a guy wearing a kilt and talking on a cell phone, so I'm convinced I have experienced Scottish culture. (Editor's note: if you don't know what haggis is, neither did I. I knew it was something disgusting, but I wanted to eat it first and ask questions later. Turns out it is some sort of animal's intestines wrapped in the stomach lining of a sheep. It was a little spicy, but not bad.)

On to London! We had one day to do London, and being pretty much the biggest and arguably coolest city in Europe, that wasn't much time. We arrived about noon and jammed right out to Oxford Square, from which we walked to Trafalgar Square, then to Big Ben and Parliament, then to Westminster, then across the Thames, saw Julia Stiles (American movie star), saw The Eye, the tallest carousel in the world, then walked to Piccadilly Circus, walked down to the original Hard Rock Cafe where I got a t-shirt, then took the tube back to Jean Luc's apartment, where we went out with him and some of his flatmates to some pubs and clubs in east London. We had a much better time on this trip to London than the last, and the next day (Sunday 14th) we woke up early and flew out of London to Barcelona, where we managed to find the right bus back from the airport and then took a first class bus back to Madrid. We arrived back home at 2am and promptly passed out from exhaustion. It was good to be back!

Since then, nothing much of note has happened, except that, as my teachers have pointed out, I am one of the best in both of my dance classes, and will be dancing front and center in the flamenco performance and possibly the Latin dance performance. St. Patty's day here was uneventful, though I did score a free hat at one of the pubs I went to. And this weekend has just been a relaxing, catch-up weekend, but I also managed to book a flight for cheap to Ibiza, and island in the Balearics, and another flight to Sweden after school is out. These next few weeks will be filled with midterms round 2, and then after that, I will have nothing to worry about until finals. This semester is going by so quickly already here, but I still look forward to seeing all of you in the summer or when I go back to school in the fall.

That's all for me! Looking back at this email, I realize I practically wrote a novel, but I think it's kind of interesting, and if you don't, then by all means delete it. Hope this finds you well and email me and let me know how you are doing. I am pretty good with responding to emails as I have finally gotten Internet at home.

Adios, love to all!
Mark
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