Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dinner (Mis)adventures in Milano

I wake up from my short nap in a slightly pissy mood. Its our last night in Milan, we promised The Pharmacist we would meet him and a friend for dinner, and its too late to flake. Id been walking around all day and had ended my night at the Cimitero Monumentale, which was an interesting experience to say the least, and to top it off, I had gotten lost trying to get back to the hotel, since the Cemetary was at the end of the world. The last thing I wanted to do was get out of bed and throw some clothes on, especially bc we were planning to be on a 725am train to Venice, which meant we would have to wake up at the ass crack of dawn. No thank you to a late night out.

But I have no choice so, I grumpily get out of bed, try on 3 or 4 outfits until I find one that is acceptable (I am totally going for warmth and comfort, not cuteness), throw some important stuff in my purse, and head out, sans make-up, hair in a loose pony tail.

We meet up and have to stop by the friend’s office to pick him up. The friend, we are told, works in Politics and Culture. Im not sure exactly what that means, but I dont think it really matters. They give us some beautiful books as a gift to remind us of Italy, they say, which is very sweet. If ever there were 2 girls who loved books, Monet and I are them; granted these are in a language neither of us understands, but it’s the thought that counts. Never mind that they are from a shelf that holds 20 copies of each title on it – the kind of thing you give everybody who comes to your office, basically. Never mind also that we will now have to carry these books around Europe for the next 2 months, and that neither of us will throw them away to save ourselves from this extra weight, bc thats just not something you do to books. Dammit.

But I digress.

We walk to the restaurant, a place we are told is very authentic and non-touristy. Awesome, I think. Ive woken up at this point and Im not grumpy anymore, which is a plus for those around me. I cant wait to have some authentic pasta! I have one rule I must follow in Italy, and that is to eat pasta every day I am here, since I refrain from regularly eating it at home. So far, Ive had overpriced rubbery pasta, beautifully-presented but only OK-tasting pasta, and tonight will be the 3rd attempt – I am hoping for something exceptional. High hopes I have, high…

We start with prosecco and antipasti. The prosecco is fabulous. The antipasto is new; Ive never tasted prosciutto in my life, and the serving dish arrives w/ thin slices of some other type of meat at the very top, the prosciutto draped over the sides of the first tier of the dish, with salami, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and pickled onions on the second tier. I decide today will be the day I try this meat that Ive successfully avoided for so long.

I sample everything. The mystery meat at the top is delicious, I wish I could remember what its called. The salami, eccellente. The pickled onions, awesome. The prosciutto. Hmmm. Its sliced so thin and its so tender that it forms a mushy, salty glob in my mouth. I try the rest of the piece on my plate. Still don’t like it. The Italians are appalled.

We move on to another type of wine, drier than the prosecco. I hope this doesn’t cause a migraine tonight, as it usually does. We’ve been here a while at this point, and no one seems hurried. “When the hell are we ordering dinner,” I wonder. Neither one of the Italians look concerned. Im not used to a meal being such a drawn out affair. I am truly enjoying myself and my surroundings, but as time goes on, Im running out of conversation topics… This would be a good time to mention that The Politician doesnt speak any English. So we have to guess everything he’s saying. And we speak zero Italian. So Ill let you imagine how fun it is trying to communicate. I had done enough of this in Spain, the speaking slowly and enunciating every syllable, the trying to find simpler ways to get a phrase across, the having one person (in this case The Pharmacist) translate everything. I am mentally exhausted.

Finally we order. The menu is in Italian, of course. The Politician explains some dishes and I go with one that is pasta w/ fish and potatoes. Sounds great and I cant wait! I imagine a plate w/ a fillet of fish on it, potatoes on the side, pasta noodles right next to them. Yum.

Theres more talking, guessing, and conversation pulled out of my you-know-what. Slowly but surely, Il Politico is getting on my nerves. The food arrives what seems like hours later, and I dig in. Im not sure what kind of meat is mixed in w/ my pasta and potatoes, and I forget what I ordered and assume its chicken. I look at it from time to time and think it looks a little funny. I take a few bites of it. I don’t remember what it tastes like.

I move in for another forkful, a quarter-way thru my meal at this point. And then I see it. It cant be. Oh, God, say it isn’t so. I gently pick it up w/ the flat of my fork, as I cant bear to spear it w/ the prongs, and hold it up for all to see.

“Is this octopus,” I say dryly. No one answers. “Is this octopus,” I repeat.

It is. I am gingerly holding on my fork a baby tentacle. Good Lord. This is what I get for allowing a non-English speaking person to translate a menu for me. Serves me right, I think. I had tried to go outside my comfort zone, figured the restaurant was wonderful, and that whatever I ordered would be delicious. But I was not expecting suction cups.

I play w/ my food and try to pick around the 8-armed creature on my plate. Ive completely lost my appetite, tho I try to fake it. No one is fooled. I am being a good sport tho; I manage to eat roughly half of the plate before I give up. If it weren’t for our tentacled friend, I would never leave that much pasta on my plate, uneaten. As if.

After the main meal, there is more wine. There is a tiny shot of something which I dont like, but it’s paired w/ a sweet cream dessert in a tiny cup, which I do like. There is laughter and, unfortunately, more talk. More conversations pulled out of my you-know-what, had in broken English and broken Italian. Some French and Spanish thrown in for good measure. There is espresso for them, authentic Italian macchiatos for us. There is Mirto, a god-awful after-dinner liquer that smells like perfume and tastes like ugh. Monet and I take 2 small sips. The Italians finish the bottle. I think theyre pretty tipsy by now, which makes The Politician even more annoying. I am completely sober, as I suspect Monet is.

I look around. The restaurant has emptied out. We are the only ones still sitting there, oblivious, while the waiters clean the other tables and shut down for the night. I reflect that, if The Politician hadn’t been steadily getting on my nerves as time progressed, this would have been a perfect night. I have learned the true beauty of what it means to have an Italian dinner. It is about the company and the conversation, as much as, if not more than, the food. Its about taking the time to taste what you are eating, really have an eating experience, as opposed to throwing the food down our throats, which is what we do in America. It is about friends and family and laughing and, believe it or not, enjoying life. I love the concept.

Eventually the bill is settled and we are dropped off at our hotel. Monet & I enjoy recapping the adventures of the evening as we get ready for bed. We agree that theres no way in hell we’ll be able to wake up in a few short hours to catch our train, and decide to take the following one at 525pm. Tomorrow, Venice! Tonight, blissful, sound sleep…

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Day 1, Milan

Our first stop of the day is a cheap clothing store in the area where Mo needs to find some long sleeved layering tees, since we are starting to freeze our asses off in Europe. On the way, we stop at a neighborhood pharmacy for cold medicine (another annoying aspect of winter travel).

The pharmacist notices we are tourists and tells us “Milano issa beautifulla! Soa mucha to seya!” and how can we only be staying for 2 days?? This is a surprising declaration, since every travel website we have read says that 2 days in Milan is more than enough, and that theres not much to see… He gives Mo her medicine and circles a million must-visit things on our map. His accent is endearing and just the way he pronounces the intersection of Via Fiori Chiari and Via Fiori Oscuri makes me melt. Ah, this language!

We all exchange email addresses and plan to hang out later today or tomorrow. We head off in search of the clothing store, which we don’t find, tho it allows us to explore our neighborhood, which is cute. We jump on the Metro and head to Il Duomo. Ive read online that it’s the only thing worth seeing in Milan, and that you can walk on the roof amongst the spires, which sounds very cool to me. I haven’t seen any pictures of it, tho, so Im not really expecting much. At this point, I feel like “You’ve seen one church, you’ve seen ‘em all”, and God, do the Europeans love them some churches! So when we take the last step up from the Metro and I turn around slightly and see Il Duomo for the first time, my breath is absolutely taken away. It is a massive, bright white structure, so full of intricate details I am amazed that something like this could ever even be built by mere humans. I take a bunch of pictures. I stare up in awe. I am dumbfounded by how beautiful it is.

We find out it costs 8€ to walk on the roof, so we pass. I am pleasantly surprised to find that touring the inside is free tho, so we head in. No Camera signs are plastered everywhere, so I pack my mammoth of an apparatus in my backpack. The inside of Il Duomo is massive (I hate to use that word repetitively, however, that’s the one that keeps coming to mind). The vaulted ceilings are ridiculously high, the stained glass windows are huge and made up of a hundred separate panes, the belly of the church is gigantic. I notice someone taking pictures and I comment that he’s gonna get in trouble very soon. Then I see more and more people taking pictures. I tentatively take my camera out, sneak some quick photos and deposit it back in my bag asap. We are in the back of the church and theres no official-looking people around, but I wonder if theyre watching me on the security cameras, and are gonna swoop down on me and kick me out any minute now.

We keep walking and end up in the center area of the church. I see cameras clicking left and right. Oh hell no, I want some pictures too. I take my baby back out and snap away. I semi-sneak, semi-don’t-care. When I walk off towards the exit tho, I hide the camera inside my open jacket and hold the flap protectively over it. An old man in a suit walks up to me and starts speaking in Italian. “Oh shit, Im in trouble” I think, a split second before I realize he’s just a tourist, too. I apologize that I don’t understand what he’s saying and he smiles and walks away. I take some more photos. Click, click, click.

“Ziggy, this shot is beautiful, see if you can get one of these if you wanna try to get away with it”

We are in the very front. I look around. Oh, whatever. I lift my camera. Click, click… Click.

Finally Im done, I am all pictured-out. After we light a candle each and say a prayer for loved ones, we leave Il Duomo, all the while amazed by how beautiful it is. Those of you who know me well know that Im not a big fan of organized religion and everything it encompasses. But some holy places just give me a sense of peace, regardless of what religion or denomination they are. Il Duomo has invoked a sense of awe in me, more than anything, and I find that even as Im walking away from it, I keep turning back to admire it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The stewardess greets us in Italian, though we are still on Spanish tarmac. I stop whatever it is Im doing to give her voice my undivided attention. This generic “Welcome to EasyJet, blah blah blah” airplane greeting is the most beautiful thing Ive heard in my life. “Music”, I think. I understand nothing, but for 30 seconds I am captivated by the lilt in her voice and the way her words flow together seamlessly. Her message in English has the same waves of up and down. With the accent, it sounds so similar to Italian (tho not as pretty) that I cant understand a word here either.

Its to be a short flight to Milano, about an hour and a half, and I hope to sleep thru it. I also hope that everybody remembers its early in the morning and keeps quiet. I didnt get much sleep last night and Im not in the mood.

“I haven’t seen any kids or babies yet,” Mo says

“No, I was referring to the adults. They never know how to shut up”

I start reading my book while we taxi. The Spanish couple sitting behind me, who also happen to be the ones who felt it was their right to cut in line at the gate, are talking. A lot. Actually, the man is babbling like words are gonna go out of style in an hour, and the woman can hardly get a word in. “Oh, God, shut it,” I say in my head. I consider turning around and shooting daggers with my eyes. Within 15 minutes, tho, I am in a fairly deep sleep and the annoying chatter behind me falls away…

An hour later, the same incessant chatter wakes me up, of course. I give up on sleep and wait to land.

* * *

On the bus that takes us across the tarmac, I get to see close-up what Italian women look like. Mo had told me to expect a lot of lip augmentations and fake tans.

“So they all look like Donatella Versace.”


Man, she wasn’t kidding. I see some specimens that scare me. I observe one lady close up on the bus; her skin is pulled so taut from one or 3 face lifts that it looks like its about to crack. Her fake baking results in leather skin, and whatever make-up she decided to use that morning gives her an extra shiny sheen. Im assuming she was going for glamour, but instead, I find something oh-so-sad and unnatural about her face.

Wrinkles are really not a bad thing. Especially when the alternative is this.

* * *

2 buses, 2 hours and 8.50€ later, we are finally at our destination. This is one of those places that cant decide if it’s a hotel or hostel. We share the room w/ a stranger so it’s a hostel in that respect. But I am delighted to announce to Mo the next day that “This is like a real hotel! They made our beds and everything!”

We are checked in by a short, little red-headed man with some hardcore body odor. He is nice enough, tho he seems a little strange. I detect an Arabic accent in his English, but I debate whether I want to divulge that I grew up in Syria and speak Arabic. I have found that sometimes this has the opposite effect of what Id like, and the person in front of me becomes annoying and thinks they can take certain liberties with me that they would never dream of taking with a straight-up American. So I don’t say anything while he checks us in and helps us up to our room with the bags. He goes back downstairs to check someone else in, a Finnish girl we met on the street who looked equally as lost as we were, and was looking for the same place.

“I bet you he’s Arabic,” I tell Mo.

Five minutes later he brings Finnish Girl up to the room and disappears. We start settling in, leaving the door open. He pops back in and leans against the table by the door, arms crossed; very casual and at-home. I don’t like it. I consider again that he seems a little strange. Mo tells me later he looks like the kinda guy that would sniff our underwear while we’re away, and I cant shake the idea.

He starts telling us about Milan and what we should do and see, so on and so forth. We ask him what his name is.


Monet and I look at each other and laugh.

“I told you,” I say in her direction.

Over the next few days, we learn that Ahmad from Beirut has lived in Milan for 5 years. He owns this hostel/hotel with a friend of his who owns another hostel/hotel a few blocks away. He seems to be doing well for himself, which is commendable. I always feel pride for any immigrant who can go to another country, learn a new language and a new culture, and make something of themselves. The feeling that he is a little strange lingers here and there, and I just know that one day we are gonna return to our room to see him kneeling over our luggage, our panties at his nose. I stay cautious and make sure to lock the door when we’re in the room, etc. But all is fine and he is actually a very nice guy. On Friday night we decide, last minute, that we want to stay another day, and tho the hotel is booked, he shifts people around so that we can have a bed to sleep in. The body odor lessens day after day, too, which doesn’t hurt.

* * *

We go to get some nasty lunch. It seems to be normal in Italy to have pre-made food sitting on a shelf that a customer points to, which is then popped into a microwave, and served to said customer. Not exactly my idea of good Italian food. We eat our chicken sandwiches, the least nasty option on the shelf at an Asian restaurant, and go back to the hotel for a nap. The beds are blissfully comfortable and huge in comparison to the crap twin-size mattresses we’ve been sleeping on for the past month. Theres even 2 pillows, a true luxury! Next thing we know, its 830pm and Finnish Girl is coming back from a long day of sightseeing. Pointless to wake up now, I concede, and go back to sleep. I decide we’ll just have to make Day 2 in Milan our official Day 1.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saturday Nights in BCN

"Tell him you have the swine flu, he wont want you to come out then", the girl Ive been talking to at the hostel says.

I crack up laughing. "That should definitely work!" I exclaim as I walk towards my room for my calling card and the phone number I need to dial. I had met some new people at the football match and had been invited out for Saturday night partying at Olympic Village; I was promised it was "The best of the Barcelona" in broken English that is better than my broken Spanish, and I had promised I would be there.

Except that, it was now 21:23 and we were supposed to be meeting at 22:30 in the city, and here I was in my Godforsaken hostel up in the mountains. There was no way I could make it in time, and I hated the thought of flaking so close to the time I was supposed to physically be at the agreed-upon meeting place. But I went to get my calling card anyway bc 1) I was sick as a dog and had spent the past couple days blowing my nose into any type of tissuue, napkin or Kleenex I could find, and 2) Mo wasnt in the mood to party and Id gladly have the most routine, drama-free Saturday night of my life at the hostel before I would willingly leave, knowing I would have to come up the big, bad mountain by myself at 5am again. Then I remembered all the smoke I was sure to encounter at whatever bar we ended up at, and my mind was made up. I was already hacking my lungs out from la gripe; the last thing I needed was the second-hand smoke of 300 of my closest European friends.

Mo comes in as Im leaving to make the call.

"You sure you dont feel like going out tonight?"

"Nah, not really..."

I can sense some hesitation. Its just a hint, barely perceptible, but its there. I feel bad about flaking on these people who dont even know me well enough to know that I routinely flake. Plus:

"We've been lazy as anything, if we go out at least we'll feel like we did something... you sure you dont wanna go??"

"Youre pushing me for an answer I cant give you right now, I dont know," she says with a laugh.

Touche. I tell her Im making the call after I go to the bathroom n can she give me a final answer then?

* * *

A couple hours later we are at Olympic Village, which we come to find out is on the marina, and its a pretty darn cool place. Its dark as hell on the beach as we are walking over to the restaurants and I think "This would be a great place in the summer, or in the day time, or with a significant other". But tonight is none of these situations. We settle in at a South American bar playing loud music, aptly named "Salsa". Its mid-November and after a week of intense cold, it is nice enough to sit outside with a jacket on and have a drink.

Our new friends barely speak English (one is better than the other so he does most of the translating) and our Spanish is difficult to rely on for actual conversation, so I say "Eh?" and "Huh?" a lot, as if I was raised in a barn. There are several Catalan side conversations going on. I find myself volleying my eyeballs from one person to the other, straining my brain, trying to figure out what the hell they are saying, requesting time and again for them to at least speak Spanish so I can kinda follow. But my requests fall on deaf ears (not bc they dont understand me here, but I think bc they are enjoying the fact that they can talk and we cant understand). Regardless of the fact that we can barely communicate, and most things have to be repeated 30 times in order to be understood by any of the parties present, there is lots of laughter and general having of fun.

We start walking down the strip and pop into places as we please. We hang out for a while in one that is playing music I wouldnt expect to hear on a night out, music I dont even know how to dance to. I stand on the edge of the dance floor, straddling the invisible fence; do I do this and feel like a complete fool, or do I just stand here looking like Im arrogant? I realize Im having one of those moments where Im observing life, not living it, and that Ill regret it later. I praise my ability to finally be able to recognize this and start moving my body... my dance partner seems more relaxed now too, since I actually look like Im having fun. Pretty soon the music gets better, the beer is doing its job, and Im having a grand ol' time.

After a while, this place gets old, like the crowd gathering in it. We leave and keep walking. A chorizo/cheese/tomato bocadillo later, we are near Catwalk, a hip-hop club we've heard about and want to check out. Our Spanish friends aren't feeling it; "Its too expensive. I cant get in with these shoes. But if you want go, you are tourists, you go, no problem. We will go to different bar".

So we part ways agreeing to meet up later in the week, and Mo and I head to Catwalk. We round the corner.

"Theres a line?? Im not standing in line," I say. I never knew a party that was so damn good that I had to stand in line for it, period.

"No, I talked to the bouncer, we can pay 10 euros instead of 20 and just go in."

Now, I also have rarely known a party that was so damn good that I had to pay a cover to get into it. But some nights I make exceptions, and this was one of those nights.

* * *

Its 3am and Catwalk sucks, and I find myself thinking we have to kill 2 more hours before we can go home. Im not feeling well and Im bored to death. The club is full of little kids, and not even the weird way people are dancing is entertaining anymore (it seems to me lots of Spanish kids get to the club and bust out all the routines they practiced in front of the mirror while watching MTV. Every dance floor looks like an audition tape for a music video. And not in a good way). We make our way over to a large, sloped seating area that is attached to the wall, where I swear the teenage couple next to me is proceeding to make a baby in front of everyone. Im sitting there people-watching around me and within minutes I realize what a horrible idea it was to sit down, bc now every single annoying guy in the vicinity is zeroing in on me and Monet. I hold a couple of boring conversations bc I dont want to be rude, all the while wondering why I dont just be rude and get it over with? Finally I am left alone and I pull out my BlackBerry from my clutch and start playing BrickBreaker. While Im doing this I wonder if this is an even worse idea, since now all the annoying guys will see a phone in my hand and want a phone number. Ay ay ay. I keep playing. I mutter the occasional "Shit!" when I lose a life. I pause the game every so often to check the time. Roughly one more hour to kill...

There are some tall Black Americans at the bar, one man and 2 women, talking, laughing and drinking with a petite Spanish lady. Im sick and anti-social right now, I cant be bothered to go mingle. I glance at them from time to time, still sitting on this 'couch'. I think the baby the couple next to me has conceived is in the fetus stage now, but they're still going at it, just to make sure, I guess. Theres another teenage couple next to Mo, and they are occasionally going at it, albeit less frequently than my couple. The American guy comes over and takes some pictures with the girls sitting near Mo.

"Who is this guy, do you recognize him?" Mo asks me. "He looks familiar"

"Nope. But I think he just told those girls his name is Anthony."

Mo swears she knows him from somewhere. I try to recognize him, but I got nothin'. I check my phone for the time. 4:15.

"I think we should go down to the coat check in about half an hour and beat the crowds, so we can get going," I tell her.

"OK thats fine. Im gonna ask him his name."

Monet proceeds to talk to the American, who turns out to be very friendly. He introduces us to his friends and Im making conversation with him while hes standing in front of me, but Im not exactly trying very hard with the group. His friends are a few feet away and I dont feel like getting up. Im sure Im seeming pretty snobby at this point, but all I want to do is go to bed. I learn he is an actor and did 2 years on Broadway, and currently lives in LA. Eventually the group makes its way over to us for a couple minutes and he tells us he's visiting the girls, who live an hour outside Barcelona, and that his flight back home is tomorrow morning. We all exchange email addresses and agree to keep in touch.

By the time we leave Catwalk, my voice is getting raspy and Im starting to sound like Lindsay Lohan. Monet and I get on the Metro after spending a ridiculous amount of money on hot dogs and bottled water (the only choice in the area at that hour) and make our way home. I have my Swiss Army Knife ready, blade pulled out and everything, just in case some idiot decides to follow us tonight. I joke with Mo that Im prepared n that Ill cut a motherf*er, but in my head I wonder if Ill really be able to use that little knife on somebody if I have to. I mean, its less than 2" long, its not exactly a machete, but I dont like the idea anyway. Luckily theres no drama coming up the mountain. By 6am we are each in bed, blissfully drifting off to sleep after a good night out on the town.

I wake up late on Sunday afternoon. I go down to the hostel restaurant, take my usual seat at our usual table. Mo is next to me with her laptop as well; we are each in our own online world. After a few hours I see the paper where the Americans wrote their email addresses on the table, and add them on facebook. Something makes me google them (did I mention Im the Google Queen?) and turns out that our very down-to-Earth, totally laid-back Americans are a for-real actor and WNBA players. They were so unassuming I never would have guessed it, which is awesome and makes me like them even more. I reflect that life is interesting; who would have thought in a million years that we would have met these random people in some random hip-hop club in Spain, on some random Saturday night... Traveling has many benefits, and meeting new people (whether ludicrously successful ones or not) is definitely one of the greatest ones.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Barcelona 2. Ziggy 0. (Pt 2)

H3 turns out to be another run-of-the-mill Spanish cerveceria, full of men and the prerequisite smoke. I order a tea and the man behind the counter looks disappointed. I ignore him and take my little teapot of hot water to a table, deciding to start blogging on paper to get my thoughts together. Theres a table of Barcelona's Finest behind me. I look around; Im the only female. Is the staff looking at me funny or am I imagining it?

I settle in and start writing. After a while I notice the waiter is clearing off tables and turning chairs upside down on them. Oh, no. Please dont be closing. You're supposed to be open 24 hours!! I ignore him in hopes that that will make him stay open another 2 hours, thats all I need.

He leans towards me. "Something something cerrado en 5 minutos"

Its 2:55. Dammit. Now what?

I start to wish I had struck up a conversation with the now-departing cops. In my wishful thinking-infused daydream, they let me tag along in their police van. Of course, they're on duty, so they cant actually drive me to the hostel, since its way up in the mountains, and out of their way. But surely they can let me hang out with them and patrol the streets for a couple hours.

I decide not to indulge in this particular stupid whim of mine; life is about choices, after all. I pack my stuff up and leave to wander the streets of BCN.

I head back to Las Ramblas. Its just me and the garbage men. And the guys standing around offering me beer cans from a six pack they have concealed in a plastic bag (common practice in Barcelona; since the stores close early, they have plenty of customers).

Cafes and bars are out of the question a this point, since theyre all closed. I think "hotel lobbies!". I walk up to a nice looking hotel and discover even they have locked their doors. What the hell kind of hotel is this?? I see the security guard heading towards me so I wait. He opens the door a crack, listens to my question of whether there are any cafes he knows of that would still be open at this hour, tells me no, and doesnt offer to let me sit in his dark lobby. I walk away.

I stop at another hotel (now that I am rereading this, I totally feel like a vagabond, mind you). I explain the predicament that I am so tired of explaining by now. I get bold and ask the young guy if I can sit in the small area to the left and wait for the trains to open.

He gets a look on his face and tells me if it was any other night, he has no problem with that, but I have bad luck bc they have someone from Control doing the rounds tonight, and how could he explain to said Control person why theres a random non-guest sitting in the lobby reading, at some godforsaken hour of the night. He apologizes and is sincere, and I believe him. I thank him and leave.

I decide the safest place for me right now is the major bus stop a few blocks away, bc thats the only place theres several people and some life. I sit on the bench and feel safe for all of 2 minutes -- as soon as the first bus rolls through and takes all the people with it, I am left alone, and I feel like a sitting duck (which Im sure is what I look like with my big-ass backpack).

I start walking around the Plaza and wander down a street I havent been down before. Its wide and clean and pretty. I enjoy looking in the store windows, all the while checking behind me every now and then, just to make sure. Pretty soon I see a huge hotel. I contemplate for a quick second and decide Ive already been rejected so many times tonight; whats the possibilty of one more? Pish!

I walk into the fancy lobby. I am directed to someone who speaks English. I explain, he listens, he looks at his watch.

"Its only 1 hour aaand..."

"1 hour and 30 minutes left to wait," I hurry to interject, lest he think thats not a lot of time. "Ive been waiting in the streets for more than 2 hours. Please?"

He says its OK and motions to the chaise. Finally! I give him a heartfelt Thank You and think that when I have tons of money to spend on a 5 star hotel in Barcelona, I am gonna stay at Hotel Majestic, hands down.

I sit down and write some more. I run out of paper, and while I dont want to bother the guy, I really need some more paper, so I go ahead and ask. I write some more on my fresh sheet of papel. I check the time, its 10 to 5. If I leave now itll be 5 by the time I get to the train. I consider waiting until 530 just to be on the safe side, but Im beyond antsy at this point. I call out another thank you and get moving.

I get to the nearest train station and, even tho its only 450-something, the gates are open. I walk down the stairs cautiously, not quite ready to believe ALL the gates are open, buy a new Metro card, and get myself on a train headed to Baixador de Vallvidrera (my stop). Theres a guy across the aisle and one row behind me playing some music off what I assume is his cell phone. The melodies sound all too familiar. I catch him staring at me and I quickly look away. I put my big ol' camera away in my backpack and wonder if thats why he was looking at me. A few stops later, I walk to the other side of the train and take a seat, facing away from him again, just to make sure Im not giving Creepy Guy any messages Im not intending to.

Almost at my stop, I get up and stand near the door. In Spain, you have to press a button or pull a small lever in order for the train doors to open. Monet and I had missed our stop a couple times because we hadnt gotten the hang of this, and I couldnt bear to make the same mistake again, so I got ready. I notice CG get up, move to the door and look at me. He kneels down and starts fiddling with his bike, unlocking it, or whatever it is he is doing. I start to get nervous. Did he get up just bc I did? I wait. He stands up. There are several seats and poles between us, and he is standing behind the plastic partition on his end of the train; it is hard to see him clearly. He looks at me. Did he just motion to me with his fingers, like "come here"?? Now I am officially in something-mode. I decide not to get off and ride to the next station. As the train pulls into Baixador, he gets off and I manage to fake him. I stare at him as the train doors close and I see him going up the stairs carrying his bike, and he catches my eye and holds it. Dammit, I wasnt wrong. He was being creepy.

I get off at the next stop and am waiting on the platform, which is in open-air. A tall, blond man comes onto the platform, nods hello, says "Buenos dias". I mumble, "Hola" with a stern look on my face. Im not trying to be nice to anyone. Next thing I know, just beyond the fence of the station, Creepy Guy is there on his bike, yelling something in Spanish, one hand on the handlebar, one arm high in the air, motioning at me. I think I catch a word about "waiting". Thats all it takes; I freak out.

I walk towards the blond man and try to ask him if theres anyone in the station, but he cant understand me bc Im speaking in English, and I just keep repeating my question, at some point trying to translate into Spanish. I start crying bc I am so done right now, I cant even keep it together. Theres no way I can communicate what I need to with this person in Spanish, its 530 in the morning, its still dark out, and Im on a train platform in what feels like the middle of nowhere.

The train pulls in in front of me. The man is trying to comfort me, "Tranquila te, tranquila te" and in the back of my mind, while I am virtually clinging to this man (not physically, but in every other sense) I think that he could be an asshole too. He asks if I want him to get the conductor. I say yes bc I dont know what else to do. We half-walk, half-run to the 1st car of the train and Im asking the blond to ask the conductor if he speaks English, when I turn around and magically, out of nowhere, there are 2 cops behind me.

I am out of breath just writing this...

The blond hands me over to the policemen and gets on the train. The conductor tells the police "Yo voy" with a question in his voice. As if I am in charge of the situation, I wave my hand at him and say "Yes, he can go". At some point I realize the train is gone, taking the blond who was so kind to me with it, and I didnt even say thank you.

I explain the sitution to the police, 2 older men; one moreno, in his mid-40s and the other blanco with more white than grey hair, in his 50s. Both are balding. Of course, neither of them speak English. I start crying again when I think of CG and the maliciousness in his face.

"Tranquila te, tranquila te" the older one tells me. I understand from him to calm down before I try to speak. The other one is asking me something, and I manage to understand that he wants to know if CG touched me or attacked me, and I assure them he didnt. I keep trying to explain "Hes following me, hes following me" (I have no idea what point repeating things has, but we all seem to be doing it) and as Im saying the next sentence, I realize that this is what my current problem is:

"I dont want to walk up the mouintain by myself, Im afraid hes waiting there. Can you come with me?" Its part question, part 'theres no way in hell Im walking up there by myself'.

The 40-something cop has gotten someone on the phone who speaks English, and I repeat my story, and my request that the cops walk me up the mountain. "Its only a 10 minute walk" I try to sell it. I hand over the phone and they talk, and then the officer tells me that they are going to come with me to my station and wait with me for the other police officers to come. I dont understand why they cant just walk me up the damn hill, but say thats fine, since they reassure me they will wait with me.

We get to Baixador and wait for a good 30 minutes. Wheres the bastard now?? I just wish he would show up, and I actually look around for him, wanting so badly for him to come by so he could get his ass kicked. I imagine the police holding him by both arms while asking him questions, and me slipping in quickly to punch him, or even better, slap his face, like a lady in contempt.

The older cop asks me questions; how long have I been in Spain, am I on vacation, can I describe the man (which I actually manage to do, down to the scars on the left side of his face, in Spanish). But mostly we stand in silence, waiting. After a while, he pulls out the pad where he wrote down my information and points to my birth date; thats his birthday too, he tells me, but in 1959. He is a few years younger than my mother. I smile. We are both Geminis, I say.

Finally the other cops show up. I explain my story again, this time in English (again). There are 2 women and 2 men. The women tell me that their partners will drive me up the mountain. I turn to the original 2 cops and give my second heartfelt Thank You's of the night. If I hadnt felt it inappropriate, I probably would have hugged them, especially the older, nicer one. I walk to the police cars and am struck by how tiny they are. I try to open the back door, forgetting who the back of the car is usually reserved for. The cops apologize for the fact that I have to sit back there. I dont care, I assure them, as long as you take me home. At this point my nerves have completely calmed, but even so, when the officer driving starts making small talk about New York and how he had visited there last month, I find it a little odd.

The drive takes 2 minutes, tops. I make sure they deposit me RIGHT at the door; I feel no need to walk any extra steps by myself. I say thank you and look for a name on the chest of the one who opens the door for me, but find only numbers. I say thanks again and head inside.

Needless to say, Im too hyped up on adrenaline to even attempt sleep. I whisper Mo a recap, grab my laptop and head to the hostel resaurant. I sit there for a few hours, write Part 1, swallow down some breakfast and lots of tea. Around 11am, I head back to my room to go to sleep. I reflect that, as much as I hate the Barcelona trains, I absolutely love its police.

Im sure theres a few morals to this story, but I think the most important is this; Ladies, listen to your gut, its probably right when its trying to tell you something. And on the chance that its not, what have you really lost by being more careful?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Barcelona 2. Ziggy 0. (Pt 1)

My first stop on the way to the game (Barcelona vs Cultural Leonesa) is a local tapas bar. I need a shot to warm up.

"Un chupito de vodka por favor".

The old man obliges. When I ask for a lemon wedge, he becomes interested. After handing me a tiny dish w/ one measly slice (I did, after all, ask for "un"), he asks me why.

"Por que no me gusta el alcohol"

"Hay de otras; tequila... gin...", he lists

"Ugh. Even worse", I say in my head. Out loud, I venture in a mix of Spanish & English, "No me gusta el alcohol en general. This way it goes down faster, then its finished"

He smiles. I cant tell what hes thinking. He asks where Im from.

"Nueva York"

He tells me he has a son living in Chicago, that he & his wife (who has materialized behind him) have visited that city as well as Miami, Los Angeles, and The Bahamas (to which I answer "Very nice!"; I am jealous about The Bahamas part) and tells me I speak Spanish well. I am flattered and explain that even tho Ive only taken 1 Spanish course back in my college days, I speak French and I think that helps. I leave with a flyer for their restaurant and and invitation to come back for breakfast and to practice my Spanish with him.

I am making my way to Camp Nou (the largest stadium in Europe) when I realize its 10 minutes to 10. I get a move on; I dont wanna miss any part of this game. Its my first pro football match, not to mention the home team is the favorite of several people I know, so I feel some type of weird connection.

I make it just in time! After some back & forth with an usher who insists I am in the wrong area (Im not) and who sends me to a different block of seats several doors away, only to be sent back to where I originally was, and having him literally roll his eyes at my reappearance, I finally park my behind in my seat. Ive now missed the teams coming out to the field and what I assume is the national anthem. The game gets off to a mediocre start. I look for Messi & Henry and discover the former is sitting a few rows in front of me (I had splurged for asientos excelentes) in the "dugout", and the latter is nowhere to be found.

In front of me and slightly to the right, a blonde lights up. I cant believe it!! This is a frickin' football game, its a big, official stadium -- surely there are rules?? I furtively look for a No Smoking sign and find none, knowing that it would be pointless anyway, since all the others Ive seen in the past few weeks have been ignored by the masses. I consider telling on her, but I know the usher will just laugh me off. I sit back and wonder why the lady next to her isnt bothered by the smoke. 10 minutes later I get my answer when said lady's boyfriend lights up. I wonder (as I do with all smokers) if it bothers her when she kisses him. Pretty soon, in front of me, 5 of the 6 people in the row are smoking. Simultaneously. One of the blondes turns around and I get a good look at her; she is a bratty teen, she has acne and yellow teeth and bad make-up, and she has dark circles under her eyes. I hate her. I silently wish she gets lung cancer from that cigarette she is sucking on and that all this smoking makes her her age horribly. I try different ways of breathing -- more shallow, through my turtleneck. Nothing works. Pretty soon, I smell the cigarettes on my own fingers and I decide to give up. I pop another migraine pill and curse. (Here I have to add that Monet and I have had a horrible time with all the smoking in confined spaces that seems to be the norm in Spain; I have inhaled more fumes through secondhand smoke in 2 weeks in Spain than I did in 4 1/2 years of actual smoking during & post-college).

The first half flies by; so quickly that when the players run off the field, I wonder if this game is divided into quarters. I stay in my seat, take some more pictures, push the urge to go to the bathroom out of my mind. Pretty soon the players are back. The scoreboard still reads 0-0.

A few minutes in, Bojan scores a goal. The crowd (yours truly included) goes wild!! Hes #11, I notice, and follow his # with my eyes. After Bojan's 2nd goal, the coach puts Messi in. I cheer (bc hes my cousin's favorite player and the only team member besides Henry who I know anything about) and snap tons of photos. It feels like no time at all has passed and then -- goal!! Is it Messi?? No, its Pedro, but the game is finally heating up! Within what feels like 10 minutes, theres a goal by Messi and the final goal by Xavi. The 45 minutes of the 2nd half come to an end w/ zero goals by the other team. The Cultural Leonesa coach has been very animated throughout the game and Im sure he is livid...

I make my way outside w/ the masses and head for the Metro. I have 1 hr to figure out what Im doing - either meeting up with someone Monet & I had met the night before, meeting up with Mo, or getting my ass to the hostel before the trains stop running at 1am. I call Jaime twice, but no answer. There's no Internet cafe in sight, so no chance of getting in touch with Monet. So I figure Ill go to the hostel and start blogging. At the Metro station, I stop for snacks since we've run out of groceries, and I know there isnt enough time to stop for real food . I chat with the Desi vendor about the upcoming games aginst Inter & Real Madrid, and I spend a whopping 8.60 euros on chips, coke & candy. At a train station. God, I need to stop eating this crap, I admonish myself in my head.

While waiting for the train, I take off 3 of the 6 layers I wore above the waist to the match. I get on the train with other Barca fans. At Catalunya, I get off to transfer to the Ferrocarrils train that will take me home (I liken this roughly to taking the LIRR 20 or so minutes outside of the City). I notice the time-- 00:57 --and start to run. Ill be damned if I miss the last train. I follow the signs and get to the correct entrance, and I stop in my tracks. The gate is closed. Cerrado. No frickin' way. I ask the emplyees milling about, and its true. Apparently the Ferrocarrils closes at midnight. "Fuck Fuck Fuck!!" I have no qualms about swearing in front of these people, fairly loudly at that. I specifically asked before the match if the train that gets me home also ran until 1am and was told w/ no hesitation "Si". Damn this hostel for being so out of the way! Damn these damn trains for closing early! Damn Barcelona!

I dejectedly walk out of the station and make my way down Las Ramblas. I have no recourse but to find a bar or cafe and sit there for 4 hours and read my book, until the Metro opens at 5. Monet and I had been stranded last night, and had already discovered that taking alternate transportation home was a dummy mission of the most ridiculous kind, which only landed us in extremely desolate neighborhoods and lost in cabs at 3 in the morning (more on that in another post) so I knew better than to attempt that again.* I walk around looking first for an Internet cafe to email Mo, but of course they are all closed. Next thing I know its 1:30 and most of the tapas bars are closed, too. (This begs the question "If everything closes early, why are the trains closed? And if the trains are closed, why arent there more places open?"). I walk to the Hard Rock Cafe, one of the very few places thats not closed, just certain in my head that they will be open until 5. Wrong again. They close in 30 minutes. Dammit. I go to the bar for a drink anyway, since I feel hopeless at this point.

"Can I order food?" The bartender looks at his watch for a good 30 seconds and makes some weird noises. Finally he says, "You have about 2 minutes".

Thatll work. "Can I see a menu please?". He stands there expectantly while I peruse it. These prices are preposterous! I dont even eat at HRC in America! But I need comfort food right now, and if I dont get it, Im gonna be super pissy. I settle on the cheapest cheeseburger I can find and am surprised it comes with fries. I feel like I need some alcohol, too, plus hes looking at me like he expects me to order some. I get something raspberry-flavored and slushy. I taste it when it arrives and am thankful that its good. My overpriced burger arrives w/ the wrong cheese, but I shut up and eat. They were nice enough to feed me so Im really not gonna complain. I ask for a glass of water and he looks at me.

"I cant give you a glass, I can only give you a bottle"

Of course you cant, you corporate-America advantage-taking asshole (I really am cussing the establishment and the concept here, not the poor bartender). I nod OK at his offer and when a pretty glass bottle arrives (not a cheapy plastic one) I wonder how much I am paying for this fancy water. Just to put this into perspective, you should know that last night, I paid 2.80 euros for some water at Burger King. So I was preparing myself.

Before I know it, its 2am and I have to leave. I settle my bill (24 euros/$36) and explain my predicament to the bartender. He suggests a 24-hour diner several blocks away called H3. I listen intently to the directions, repeat them back to him, and set out, wondering if I will be able to find this place, and wanting nothing more out of life than to find this 24-hour haven...

*Last night's dummy mission along with tonight's is why this post is titled "Barcelona 2. Ziggy 0"