Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Alex's Flipturns

I went for a session with the Shiverers at the King Alfred Leisure Centre. In the lane next to me was this boy who looked to be about half my age. Before we even got in the pool, I could tell he wasn’t a serious swimmer since he didn’t pull his shoulder-length brown hair under a cap, but from the condition of his hair, he probably still attended a good many sessions—the ends of his hair was turnig that whitish swimmer-blond color caused by the chlorine in the pool.
My assumption that he wasn’t a “serious swimmer” was further supported by the fact that he barely completed one lazy fifty for warm-ups, whereas all of the other swimmers did two-hundred meters or more. However, once we began swimming, I realized that this kid was actually fairly fast; probably faster than me. His technique wasn’t good: he created way too much turbulance in the water to have an efficient stroke and, as a result, I ended up with mouthfuls of poolwater every time I breathed to his side of the lane. Still, when he gave effort on our sprint set, he could keep up with me and sometimes even passed me. This ability was particularly amazing because of the fact that every time we reached a wall, flipped, and pushed off, he would bulldoze into the water, head-and-shoulders first. I, meanwhile, tucked my ears between my elbows, extended my arms in a point over my head, and kicked a good half-body’s length ahead of him before he could get any momentum going with his stroke again. Effectively, I streamlined; he didn’t.
After observing this on every single wall it bothered me so much that I finally resolved to say something. We were resting at the shallower end between sets when I turned to him and asked, “How old are you?” It took him a moment to realize I was speaking to him, but eventually he responded, “Thirtehn.” “Do you compete?” “Ya.” “You’re really quite fast…why don’t you streamline off the walls?” He looked confused for a minute while he processed what I had said, and then ducked his head a little with an embarrased smile. “I cahn’t.” I paused. “You’d go so much faster if you did. Like, I bet you’re faster than me.” “Ma coaches allwhys get on meh about thaht.” He looked away, effectivly ending the conversation.
Still, I couldn’t leave it alone. At our next break, I had to ask, “Do you coaches just bug you about it all the time, or do they show you? Like, teach you?” He looked at me oddly. “Streamlining I mean,” I added. “Naw, theh just tell meh.” I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, but this was really bothering me. A thirteen year old swimmer who didn’t streamline! This would never be permitted in the States. Not on any club team I had ever swum for.
I wanted to take him into the shallow end and show him how to do a proper flip turn. I wanted to explain why he needed to push off on his back and how streamlining would make him faster if he practiced it. But how could I do any of this without insulting him and embarrassing myself? Who was I to try and act all knowledgable? I was just some college-age American who couldn’t even beat the twelve-year-old swimmer in my own lane. How could I claim to know better than their coaches?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Chickpea Queen

I made dinner on this particular evening for my Singaporean friends Michelle (who is taking the picture) and Angela. On our trip to Spain, Angela told me that she had never eaten chickpeas before. As my garbanzo obsession is well-realized within the first-floor kitchen (see title), who better to introduce her to this delicious food source than me? I cooked up an Indian recipe mailed to me by a dear old Indian woman friend of my father’s, Queenie. Add a cabbage salad creation of my own and hot pita bread—which, I will admit, I heated in the microwave oven rather than bake fresh—and wha-lah! Dinner is served.

And, might I add, I look mighty tan here. I must heartily thank the surprisingly ample supply of early April British sunshine we have had recently.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

People You Know

People see what they expect to see. We look for the familiar. For instance, I’ve been thinking about “home” (that is, Pittsburgh) and the people I have grown up with a lot recently. The more I think about them, the more I think I see them. Everywhere. Yet, the strangest part is, I don’t necessarily see the people I think about.

I once found myself walking down North street, having just finished a good think about college and whether or not I’ll have my job at the coffee shop when I get back, and all of a sudden I passed a stocky chap with curly dirty blonde hair and do a double-take. Was that Brad Zaccharo? It couldn’t be; he was still in America. A second look assured me it was not. But the strangest thing is, I haven’t thought about Brad in ages, and I might not have actually seen him in person since we graduated high school together. I never knew him particularly well. Why would I imagine seeing him in Brighton?

I have also caught glimpses of George duplicates around Brighton, as well. I’ll see the Jesus-hair, the nearly-beard stubble, the tall lanky body sloping almost lazily except for his subtly athletic gait—and turn sharply to get a better look. Somehow, the possibility of finding my old swimming coach in Europe isn’t so far-fetched, although I logically know he’s still in Colorado, coaching his team of prodigies at the US Olympic Training Center.

Just today, I was sitting by the oceanside promenade, my work spread across my blanket on the grass. I had given up on the article I was reading for the seventh time--Parieto-frontal interactions, personal space, and defensive behavior--and had lain down my pen when suddenly, I heard the tinkling sound of a tinny bell. I turned and found my lap filled by an exuberantly happy little white dog. The creature seemed to be smiling its face off at being allowed to run around in the grass, basking in the sunshine, investigating people like me. And what was my first thought? She looks just like Nelly.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Hair Today....

So I an inquiry to all of my nearest, dearest, fashion-savvy female mates regarding a potential haircut. Below is my e-mail and their responses. For those of you who know my friends, can you guess whose reply is whose? And can you guess what I decided to do?

  • I am seriously considering chopping off all my hair while I am over here. Maybe very soon. And when I say all, I mean ALL. I'm including some pictures to give you an idea. I'm a little terrified and have lots of pros/cons about the idea, but I figure if I don't do it here/now, I may never get up the nerve. Let me know your opinion/what you think.

    Basic pros/cons:

    pros: less maintenance than even right now (and I'm sick of ponytails), something new, easy for swimming (not that I'm doing any right now)

    cons: mistaken for boy or lesbian (b/c I do not have particularly femela features or wear female clothing), not attractive to guys (seriously, poll any guy you know; not that I'm looking to attract anyone in particular, nor should this matter, theoretically), problems of growing it out when I want long hair again

    Please give me your honest opinion


  • Ok here's what I think after looking at pics of you on facebook (btw very jealous of the awesome time you are having). I think before going that short you should try something just a little bit longer for two reasons. If you don't like it that short it won't take as long to grow out. Plus your hair can get really curly and all of the very short hair cuts I found had people with straight hair. So if you got a bob-type hair cut it could be curly or straight and look cute either way. I attached 2 pictures of similar length/style so that if you got the type of style pictured in the straight hair picture it would look similar to the curly hair picture if you decided to wear you hair curly too. This sounds a bit confusing, but I hope you understand what I am trying to say. When in doubt I always ask the person cutting my hair what they think because they seem to know the most about face shape and hair (I just got 5 inches cut off so I'm all about changing up hairstyles at the momen t). Can't wait to see you! Only a few more months!

  • i say do it. we did it to a girl over here, and while i don't think she's that attractive, it when fantastically well, she looks like a rocked out audrey hepburn, and she got her hair cut by drunk civilians.

    you can only do better.

    why i think it will look better: you'll get it done right, i think it will emphasize the upper portion of your face, which is stronger and more feminine anyway (your eyes are bigger than your mouth, for example) and there's always the 'why not?' factor.

    if i had the guts and/or the ability to find a decent wig when performing for bellydance, i would.

  • ok so at first, i was gonna say just go for it and chop it all off, especially in England, where it feels like you can take more risks and do whatever because you're living in a foreign country :) BUT then i started looking at pics of you and trying to imagine you with short hair. i do think that you have some very femine features, especially your eyes, and i do not think that you would ever be mistaken for a guy. a lesbian is another story, although i'd say the same thing of myself. anyways, i say that if you've ever thought about it before and want to do it at some point, this would be the time to do it. However, i'm definitely a fan of your long hair and i think you would miss it. i have pictures of my own as supporting evidence.....let me know what you decide!

    love you loads dahling,

  • Ok, I understand what you're tihnking completely b/c I honestly want to chop my hair off too sometimes, but even though it may seem like less maintenance, it's really not. Actually, the shorter you go, the more maintenance is required. Keep in mind this is coming from the "girliest girl ever" so I know what I'm talking about, lol. My mom has short hair, I'm sure you remember ad she complains about ahving to do it all the time and is actually in the process of growing it in right now. And keep in mind, that growing it in will be just as painful as "doing" it everyday. Those pictures are cute and while you may be able to get away w/ a style like that, think about all the gel/mouse/hairspray you're gonna have to use every morning to get it to look like that. That means extra time getting ready= extra frustration. I say stay with the long hair. Get layers or bangs if you want something different, although bangs require some work to look good too, but certainly not as much as a short haircut. Remember my frustration w/ my bangs??? I'm laughing to myself right now b/c I'm so adament about the topic, lol. Anyway, let me know what you decide to do. If you're sick of ponytails but hair accessories like, clips or headbands. It's really too bad that I'm not there w/ you right not, lol.

  • WOW! Allie I never thought that you would decide to be so dramatic and do something quite this drastic! I'm proud of you my dear sister! Hmmm... so how would you look w/ it? Honestly I have no idea. I think that it will probably look pretty good though. About your pros and cons... The major question that I think you didn't cover was, are you willing to get it cut frequently to maintain the haircut once you get it. I mean having super-short hair is fine and daandy and all but if you want it to stay that way you'll have to get it cut more frequently than you seem to have in the past (aka during college.)

    To solve the "not dressing girlie" problem ... DRESS LIKE A GIRL! It's really not that hard. I can give you tips and everything! :-) And yes, whenever you decide to grow it out, it will take some time, but come on Al, Goldstein hair grows relatively fast, and you'll be fine. And even if right after you get it cut you decide that you hate it, HAIR GROWS. So don't worry so much in that area.Dan (who is home for spring break) should be coming over later, so I'll ask him what he thinks about the attractiveness...

    So after all of that... here is my vote. Go for it. and let me know what you decide!

    Love you!

    P.S. Speaking of hair... I've decided that after prom I'm going to color my hair some type of red/blonde. what do YOU think?

  • Thursday, April 19, 2007

    Shelter Character Sketch

    Juliana is the talkative one I mentioned before. She is probably about my age, perhaps a year or two younger, with the typical layer-lots-of-bright-lycra female English fashion sense and the capability to turn any conversation topic into something that she can prattle on about for literally hours without pausing for more than a split-second’s breath. She makes no apologies for her talkativeness—she straightforwardly told me that people she meets either like her or dislike her because they are either “friendly and willing to talk” or “unfriendly and antisocial.” It took me about five minutes to realize that “unfriendly and antisocial,” in this case, didn’t mean untalkative, but unwilling to listen . . . and perhaps a tad impatient.

    Juliana’s best working partner was a fifty-five year old lady named Susan who was cutely dressed in a jean skirt and green sweater set—her “frumpy clothes” that she could “get dusty,” she claimed. Susan and Juliana were a perfect conversationalist pair: Juliana did most of the talking, with Susan inserting her own complaints about absent workers and evaluations of donator’s bad fashion whenever a gap opened up in the conversation.

    One other volunteer I see on a consistent basis is Pan. (I feel guilty that every time I say her name, I cannot help but think of the Disney movie.) She is from Indonesia, and came to the UK two years ago, when she married a British man. She’s only twenty-four, but for some reason, regarding her as a married, non-working woman who is using her time to volunteer makes me think of her as a “woman,” even though she appears and dresses just as young as any of my peers.

    The first time I volunteered at Shelter and met the two managers, I tended to feel more comfortable with Barry than with Jen. I am embarrassed to say that this comfort level was based upon appearances. (It is wisely recommended not to “judge a book by its cover,” but what else do we have to base our initial judgments upon?) Barry is a thin English chap, probably in his mid-twenties, with long, thin, slightly frizzy blond hair and light-colored skin. He has very narrow, bird-like features—close-set eyes, pointed nose, thin lips—and would look scholarly except for the fact that he dresses more like a painter home from work for the day: scruffy sweaters or loose button-down shirts with worn jeans and old-looking shoes, hair tied back loosely. He also always appears to have ten things on his mind, proof of which is given when he cannot seem to give me anything productive task to do when I can see ten thousand methods by which the shop should be run more productively.

    Alternatively, the other manager of Shelter is Jen: a busty, six-foot twenty-something girl with short black hair cut up around her ears, half of it died an odd faded shade of blue. She looks as though she could be from the Caribbean; she has what looks to be naturally tan skin, wide-set almond-shaped brown eyes, and supple lips. She also has massive tattoos on her upper right shoulder and left calf. (Of what, I don’t know—I didn’t want to stare.) Perhaps she was busy that day, but when I came in, she barely said hello, and I must admit, from what glimpse I got of her, I was intimidated.

    However, yesterday I volunteered for my sixth time, this time with only Jen as the manager. Every other time I’ve been there, Barry has been there also, and usually Jen hasn’t been there at all, but this time Barry was nowhere in sight. When I walked in, Jen looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars and wanted to know who I was. I hesitantly stated my name and said I had met her two Wednesdays ago. Much to my relief, she broke into a knowing smile and laughed, “Oh! I didn’t recognize you at all with your hair back.” See how much difference appearances can make?

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007

    Trip to Uni

    Unbelievable that I ever complained about walking to high school. I suppose it was training for what was in store. Here's my trek to Uni, as mapped out on .


    I am currently addicted to memoirs. I want to write my own in the worst way, but since I cannot come up with the motivation to do so (I claim I do not have the time, but really it is the motivation I lack), I am devouring others’ writing. I began with Angela’s Ashes and have continued with Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors--if not the most unique, certainly the most bizarre memoir I have ever read. Then, a few days ago, I finally got around to reading a chapter of a memoir one of my friends is writing, and now I have begun Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries which, ironically enough, has even been made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. From what I’ve read, I am intrigued enough to want to see it.

    There is something tremendously moving the way people have of describing their pasts, the ways they have of blending their present thoughts and past experiences into coherent wholes. With this blog, I am putting my immediate past into words, so it’s not quite the same. Still, I wonder at the clarity of my memories and what details will remain later, when I go to describe events and people who impacted me during this time in my life. Will I be able to recall the gentle lilt of Fluf’s voice, a quality that I can’t describe, even now? Will the ocean be forefront in my mind, or will I more clearly remember all the little boutique-y shops lining Church street and the swarms of colorful weekend shoppers? Will I remember sleeping in my winter coat when I first arrived in January or joining sunbathers on Brighton’s pebble beaches in the unlikely month of April? Internet access in my pajamas on the narrow Holland House stairways? Boiling chickpeas in a borrowed pot with mismatched lid? Why do certain details survive, and which will make interesting stories?

    My whole life is a story, and surely I can’t record the entire thing.

    Sunday, April 15, 2007

    Walking in the sunshine

    I took a walk around Brighton today. It was 30 degrees Celcius (74 Farenheit), sunny, and packed with people. Perfect for observing my little nook of England.

    The best description of English fashion was one I received before I arrived. A girl who had studied at Sussex last term told me that English people dress as if they had rolled out of bed, thrown on a mish-mash of whatever was lying about, and come out looking fashionable. With a little more color-coordination and some imaginary ironing, this is exactly how they look. Also, they may have even more of an obsession with tanning than Americans do. Already, I have seen several Brits who have darker tans than I acquired during all of last summer.

    Over the span of less than four months, I have seen more dreadlocks than I ever did in all four years of high school at Woodland Hills. Yet, England (or at least this area of it) does not have a very large African-American population. All of these dreads are on white people. They remind me of what I imagine hippies looking like, had I lived in that era, particularly because I usually find them cross-legged in parks, riding bicycles in sandals, or swishing patchwork skirts to the beats of basquers on Sussex’s campus.

    After my travels to London and various locations in Spain, basquers no longer surprise me. I’ve found duets of fourteen-year-old flautists performing in front of charity shops in Hove just as common as grubby old Hispanic men playing their alto saxophones in Metro stations. The one group who did surprise me, however, was the trio of Native Americans in Churchill Square. I was walking past the neon-colored signs of HSBC bank and H&M when I spotted them, all dressed in what would appear to be traditional Native American garb (leather-like attire with beading, feathered headdresses, painted faces, etc.) playing long wooden tube-like instruments, their sounds magnified with electrical amps. All this on the street corner of the busiest shopping hub in Brighton—right outside the mall. And my initial reaction? What are American Indians doing way over here?

    On my walk, I passed two elderly gentleman sitting on a curbside bench. One man was reaching into a cellophane package and withdrawing a small, square-ish, brown bun. The bun was topped with two perpendicular white stripes. Smaller darkish dots speckling its crust suggested that it had been made with raisins. As the man offered it to his partner, I recognized the bun—it is distinctly un-American. These two men were sitting on a bench, sharing hot cross buns.

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    People and Purpose

    I don’t know about religion, I don’t know about God, but I am discovering that people (or at least I) need two things in life. People need other people and people need a purpose. This is why I have always needed team sports in my life, and it is also why I am—back in the States, that is—what some people consider a “workaholic.”

    Right now, I am back from Spain with six days remaining until the Summer term of classes begins at Uni. All of the Americans are either still traveling or have their families visiting, and all of the Brits and other Europeans are still on holiday at home, so the building is virtually empty. All of my American friends, meanwhile, are either experiencing end-of-semester panic attacks or are too cheap to buy an international calling card. Or both. So correspondence with them has been sporadic at best, lately. Thus, in the absence of all friends and with few pressing assignments, I am left with boredom as my sole companion. Only, I am finding boredom to be more a synonym for loneliness.

    Boredom, when I was young, was trailing after my mother, whining about how there was nothing to do. I knew full well that I could clean my room or swing on the swing set outside—as my mother wisely pointed out—but none of these options appealed to me. At the time, I never acknowledged why they did not appeal to me, but now I know: they all involved being alone. What I wanted was to go over Emily and Kelly’s house and play Barbies. What I wanted was for my mom to stop her daily chores and play Jin Rummy with me on the patio. But only now, as I sit in my tiny room trying to enjoy reading a book for pleasure—something I am desperate to do during any normal semester at Rochester—all I continue to do is look at the clock and wonder if anyone will come back and knock on my door. I check my phone constantly. Maybe I missed someone’s call?

    Today was my first day to volunteer at Shelter, a used clothing store. It is run by volunteers, and all proceeds go to a particular children’s poverty charity. I met a British girl Juliana who helped to “train” me, and she probably didn’t stop talking during the few hours I was there except to swallow tea and (occasionally) to breath. I honestly have never met any American—never mind a British person—who talks as much as her. Ordinarily, this would irritate me a bit. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and nothing she had to say was of much substance, anyway. However, I was just so thankful to have someone be friendly to me and to be filling my time with a useful activity (sorting and tagging clothing that had been donated in the basement of the shop) that I more or less decided not to mind and just let her chat away.

    I think now I understand why I actually like working at Java City back at Rochester. Sure, the work is not terribly fun, and the management has proven to be…not my favorite aspect of the job. But working there gives me purpose, and it keeps me around people whose company—ordinarily—I grow to enjoy.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Recent Reading

    What I've been reading recently:
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel -- more complex than it initially seems; reminiscient of Old Man and the Sea, only more entertaining (in my opinion) and less pretentious, although perhaps I only find Hemmingway pretentious because of all the "it's so classic" hype he's given by today's alleged scholars
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris -- absolutely hilarious, a very quick read, highly recommended
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka -- this one wins for bizarrest title; supposed to be a comedic drama filled with historical and cultural commentary but ends up being disappointing because of how transparent the author is in trying to make you detest, laugh at, and sympathize with her characters all one right after the other; worth reading if there’s nothing else around (like in Barcelona, where everything else on the shelf is in Spanish), but not my first—or even fifth—choice
  • On Beauty by Zadie Smith – entertaining, but simply not as good as the hype; I think I appreciate its references to blending African American and British cultures even more coming from my Woodland Hills background and now currently studying in the UK

    And now, what you’ve all been waiting for: a poem from my 1730-1840 British Literature course! Our most recent reading section has been on 18th/19th century female British poets. I’ve selected one piece I’m sure you can all relate to. I most certainly can.

    Song by Amelia Opie

  • I know you false, I know you vain,
  • Yet still I cannot break my chain:
  • Though with those lips so sweetly smiling,
  • Those eyes so bright and so beguiling,
  • On every youth by turns you smile,
  • And every youth by turns beguile,
  • Yet still enchant and still deceive me,
  • Do all things, fatal fair, . . . . but leave me.

  • Still let me in those speaking eyes
  • Trace all your feelings as they rise
  • Still from those lips in crimson swelling,
  • Which seem of soft delights the dwelling,
  • Catch tones of sweetness, which the soul
  • In fetters ever new control;
  • Nor let my starts of passion grieve thee, . . . .
  • Though death to stay, ‘t were death to leave thee.
  • Saturday, April 7, 2007

    If It's in English, Read the Label

    Since coming to the UK, I’ve tried to be a careful shopper. I spend much longer in stores than I ever did in the US, more because brands are unfamiliar than because I’m trying to get the “best deal,” but often I also try to convert measurements (lbs to kg, for example, or doubling the price for currency conversion) so I don’t get too cheated, so this takes extra time, of course. Still, while portions and brand names differ here, products tend to look generally the same: grocery stores typically sell the same foods (apples, oranges, potatoes, celery, dried prepackaged pasta, frozen and plastic-wrapped meats, chips—excuse me, crisps—etc.), clothing stores sell the same clothing (skirts, blouses, shoes, purses, belts, etc.), book stores sell…books, and so forth. Therefore, since I never bought many things at home specifically by their name brands, I’ve simply picked many items here that tend to look the same. This works well with the most obvious items: fresh produce and clothing you can try on are good examples. Unfortunately, it does not work so well for items that come prepackaged.

    Yesterday, I went to the 99p Store to buy some laundry detergent, because is almost all used up. As I was scrutinizing my options, trying to determine which bottles included caps that measured the liquid for you and which ones simply expected you to guess how much 75-100ml would be when you poured it into your washing machine, I made an astounding discovery. There, in very small print below the brand name on the label of one bottle I was holding, were the words “laundry fabric softener.” Fabric softener? I looked at other bottles on the shelf. In the same small print, most of the large bottles that I had been inspecting said “laundry fabric softener.” However, on two of the smaller bottles I had glanced over, the small print differed slightly. On those labels, the words read “laundry liquid.”

    Without delay, I located the bottle that matched the brand of “detergent” I was currently using on my laundry. Sure enough, there were the words “laundry fabric softener.” No wonder my laundry has never seemed completely clean ever since I arrived here!

    American in Alacant

    I have always been proud to be American. Despite what other countries may think of our current president or our current international politics, I can always tell that they have special respect for me when I introduce myself as an “American.” And I can tell, as I watch people of different nationalities interact, that Americans tend to hold themselves differently. Some people may interpret this wrongly. Angela told me that some people think Americans think they are better than everyone else, or more important. I don’t think this is necessarily true, but I can see how others might come to perceive us as acting this way. Americans are unashamed of their origins, beliefs, or opinions, and they are ordinarily not afraid to share or discuss them, either. Many other cultures have a reserved-ness that makes us seem almost brazen by comparison, but I think we are just eager to connect with each other as human beings, and maybe less afraid of the consequences than people coming from other cultures.

    In any case, like I said, I have always been proud to be American. However, Angela made me entirely rethink the “American stereotype” with a comment she made in Alacant. On our way up to Castillo de Santa Barbara, we met two American girls who were from Chicago. They apparently had been in Alacant since the previous day, but since it had been raining nonstop since they arrived, they had done nothing more than visited a pub and sleep. This trip to the castle was the first time they had ventured out to see anything. Halfway up, they stopped to take a picture. Then, they turned to us. “Do you guys know any good bars?” they asked? “We’re going back to get some alcohol.” And that was that. Back down the hill they went.

    As we turned to resume our trek up the hill, Angela turned to me in amazement. “You know, Allison,” she said, “you impress me. You don’t drink. You don’t club. You are probably the most atypical American girl I have ever met.”

    That is probably the truest statement anyone has ever made about me.

    And then she added, “And I’m so glad we’re traveling together. I didn’t know what I was going to do if you wanted to club every night.”

    And maybe the nicest compliment.

    Hostel Mates

    In Spain, we met a variety of individuals, particularly through sharing hostel rooms. Our first roommates in Madrid were an Australian couple, a Canadian woman, a college fat boy from Chicago, and a Chinese girl (or should I say woman? She was 30 but really looked no older than us) named Sao Ming, who we ended up befriending and bringing along with us on our trip to Toledo. The Chicago boy was eventually replaced by a college-aged Irish lass who had arrived amidst a group of fourteen other Irish folk staying at the hostel, and when the Australians left, two British girls took their place. The Australians were my favorite. They were from Perth and had just finished a six-week stay in India. The man, Adam, had an impressive knowledge of art, and the woman Michelle was tremendously enthusiastic about everything they had seen and done and was more than willing to share everything with us.

    At the next hostel, we spent the tail-end of first night in the company of two American girls. This is because they did not arrive at the room until about 4am. However, they didn’t make much noise, so we barely interacted with them, since we arose quite early the next morning to leave for Alacant, while they slept in. However, when we returned, we found two additional French companions. These two roommates created much more of a problem than the two Americans had. First of all, they got all dressed to go out at 11pm or so and then laid on their bunks jabbering away until at least 12:30am, when they finally left. Then, when they returned at goodness-knows-when, they made so much noise that I finally got up and went to the bathroom. Our door at this hostel tended to get stuck in the open position, so I left it like that deliberately when I left so that I wouldn’t have to take my key with me down the hall. When I returned, the door was shut. I knocked. I could hear the French girls laughing inside. I had to knock four times before one of them opened the door. “Oh,” she said, “sorry.” Shockingly, no one else in the room had awoken. I crawled back to my top bunk and tried not to think of evil things I could leave in their bunks the day Angela and I would leave.

    The following day, the last set of bunkbeds filled up. This time, it was a pair of Chinese girls who joined us. I guess Angela had had her fill of speaking Mandarin with Sao Ming in Madrid, because as soon as they arrived prattling away in their foreign tongue, she whispered to me, “I do not speak Chinese. I am from Hawaii.” (That was our joke: that she was Hawaii and I was from Malasia.) So when the girls inevitably asked where we were from, I replied that we were from America. One of the girls wanted to know if it was true that people were allowed to carry guns in America. I said yes and tried to explain that you had to have a license, but she just stared with wide eyes and asked, wasn’t I scared? Helplessly, I just said, “Not really.” Then, she wanted to know if there were gangsters and discrimination, like in some recent movie she had seen. How could I explain “kind of yes, kind of no” to someone who had no concept of what it was like to live in such a diverse place? I started to try, but I don’t think her English was good enough for me to even begin such a discussion, so I just eventually trailed off. Some things are just not meant to be discussed with strangers.

    For all the trouble I had with the French girls in Valencia, two of our roommates in Barcelona definitely won the prize for being the most interesting. At first, we shared the room with four people: a couple from the states whom we determined were only traveling partners, since the boy had to have been gay, and a pair of German girls who we presumed to be about eighteen years old. The couple moved on after the first night, leaving only us and the girls. First off, these girls were total slobs. Usually, the tiny spaces you are allotted by the confines of a hostel force you to be neat; there is simply no room to leave you stuff lying anywhere. However, if you have no regard for others’ personal space, then I suppose it is perfectly logical to leave clothing on the floor exactly where you take them off and purses spilling out all over the place. Then, these girls went in and out of the room at all hours of the night. The spoke a little English, as did the boys we could hear them meeting in the hallway, and it became extremely obvious what all of their excitement was leading up to when, before leaving the room one night, they shoved condoms into their back pockets. Personally, I would have liked to see how they managed in such small bunk beds. The bottom bunk is so low, a person can’t sit up without smacking his or her head, and the top—which isn’t all that far from the ceiling—has railings sticking out all over to prevent a sleeper from falling out. Someone in that group must have been some gymnast.

    Friday, April 6, 2007

    Defying the Heavens

    It’s my second day back in the UK, and what have I done so far? Returned library books on campus, gone grocery shopping, blogged, organized my digital photos, and answered e-mails. And bought a raincoat. Never again will I stoop to attempting to dry my sweatshirt with an automatic hand dryer. And while umbrellas may be impractical here in gusty, blustery Brighton, I refuse to continue to be hindered by the heavens’ weepy inconveniences.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007

    Spain: the last pen

    Our last day in Barcelona—the day of our return flight to Gatwick, London, actually—I purchased the most expensive pen of my life.

    Originally, Angela and I had intended to awaken at a reasonable hour and use the morning hours to pack our belongings, check out of the hostel, and exchange her stockings at El Cortes Ingles. (She was determined to wear her skirt, since one of her pairs of jeans was wet and the other dirty. However, in order not to freeze, she needed stockings. Me, I would have gone dirty. By her standards, I’m sure I was. For our plane ride home, I was re-wearing a T-shirt for the third time, the pair of jeans that wasn’t wet, and the same sweatshirt I had worn every day of the trip.) Then, we intended to return to a tapas bar that we had hunted down earlier in our trip. We had gone in search of this bar one night and found it so packed, the customers were overflowing out the front door, food and drink in hand. We weren’t sure we’d ever get close enough to the counter to order, never mind a seat, so our plan was to return on the last day of our trip and arrive at the bar by twelve noon (when the place opened) so we’d be assured a table for lunch. Then, we would return to our hostel, pick up our bags, walk to the aerobus stop, and be on our way to the airport in plenty of time to check our baggage and board our 9:55 pm plane back to the UK.

    Unfortunately, even the best laid plans sometimes are not followed to completion. Packing, checking out, and even exchanging the stockings went smoothly enough. However, as we were preparing to leave El Cortes Ingles, the rain that had plagued the latter half of our trip began again in earnest. Our clothing and shoes still damp from having trudged through the previous day’s downpour, we opted to forego our final meal of tapas in favor of reclining in a Starbucks (Angela’s favorite haunt, as I discovered on this trip) located only a few blocks away. Securing chairs by the window, Angela sipped her latte and read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty while I worked on catching up in my journal and drafting the first blog entry I would post upon my return to Holland house.

    We arrived at Starbucks at about 11:30am. By Angela’s calculations, we would need to leave by approximately 5:30pm in order to return to the hostel for our bags, particularly since we needed to find out which metro stop to get off for the aerobus (because now that it was raining steadily, we were certainly not walking to the stop; not with her in a skirt and ballet slipper shoes). Needless to say, six hours is a long time to spend in a Starbucks. I hadn’t thought to bring my own book—David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day—along, particularly because my purse was already full enough, so I just amused myself by alternating staring out of the window, napping, and writing in my journal. Six hours worth of those activities, even in unequal portions, means a lot of writing. And, consequently, a lot of ink.

    By 3pm, I had used up both Angela’s pen and my own pen. I was stuck. I neither wanted to spend yet more money on this trip, nor did I want to go out into the rain again, but my alternative was not acceptable: it meant sitting idly for another two-and-a-half hours with thoughts swarming my brain and itching to get onto paper. Reluctantly, I ducked out of Starbucks and headed to the closest place I thought might sell pens: the !Hola! tourist stand. When I requested a “bolígrafo,” the man running the stand handed me a blue Bic pen. It was the kind you can buy at Staples or Office Max in boxes of 25 or 50. Had I not seen him fish it out a box on the counter labeled Bic, I would have thought it was his own personal writing instrument, perhaps having come from behind his ear or his coat pocket. “Setenta,” he told me. Seventy eurocents for a cheapo Bic pen? Did he know what I could have bought this for in the States? Sighing, I handed over one euro, but when he began serving his next customer, I indignantly demanded my thirty eurocents change. He might be able to overcharge a desperate writer for a pen, but he was not going to cheat an American out of her thirty cents change.

    Useful High School Spanish

    The vocabulary we learn in school is not necessarily what is used in the practical, modern world. For instance, upon landing in the Madrid airport, I failed to find a sign anywhere labeled, “cuarto de baño.” Instead, I found the universal womanly outline indicating bathroom (or “toilet,” if you are British—even English speakers cannot seem to agree on the same word for this location) beside the word “aseos,” so I quickly imprinted this term in my memory. Later, I learned that the word “aseo” is not even the correct country-wide word for bathroom; in Valencia you might say “lavábamos,” and in Barcelona, the café workers in El Parque Güel didn’t understand why I was staggering around with my legs crossed until someone finally said the word “baño.” A “calle” in Madrid is a “carrer” in Barcelona, and “plaza” turns into “placa” when you go from one city to the other, as well. Luckily, mentally translating these words this just became common sense after reading so many maps.

    Granted, I would never expect a high school Spanish class to teach every dialect of every city, much less every country of the world that speaks Spanish. That would be impractical, never mind impossible. However, I think that high school Spanish should better equip its students with vocabulary that will prove useful to them when they travel rather than just teaching them lists of random vocabulary words. After all, more students in a foreign language class are likely to travel to foreign countries that speak the language they studied than are likely to pursue the language formally (and would therefore need to amass as many nouns and verbs as possible). For instance, not once on my entire trip did I need to name an animal or describe the items in a classroom. I would, however, have given a great deal to know the terms for “left, right, behind, beyond, near, under, beside, etc.” Map reading and describing locations would be particularly useful, as well as more emphasis spent on the actual artificial practice of ordering foreign (i.e. unrecognizable) food in a restaurant and trying to buy tickets in a train or airplane station. If someone had told me that the train was actually a more practical means of transportation in Spain, I might have paid more attention to that unit when we studied it and consequently had an easier time navigating the stations in Madrid, Segovia, and Valencia.

    Furthermore, American high school Spanish teachers might want to take a quick trip to Spain just to collect some real menus before teaching their food units, because not too many of the food terms I remember learning showed up on those menus. It’s nice to know that “lechuga” means lettuce and “carne” means meat, but it’s much more important to me to know that if I am ordering “paella con pollo y conejo,” I am going to get a dish containing chicken and rabbit meat.

    Spain: danger, sidewalks!

    In spite of my previous “kind elderly lady story,” Angela and I did not received immense amounts of hospitality in Spain. Rather, to the contrary; I have never encountered such poor customer service in my life—across the board. Every soingle place we went, the cashier seemed even more irritated at our interrupting his or her dayto make a purchase than the last. Maybe it was our initial inability to speak perfect Spanish, but I swear that the waiters and waitresses we had acted annoyed with us before we even opened our mouths. Americans are condemned for our capitalistic ways (seen as greedy and money-hungry, I have discovered), but at least we treat customers nicely for giving us their money. The idea is to make customers feel good so that they will return and give your store/restaurant/etc. more money. I wouldn’t go back to a single one of these places, I was treated with such disrespect!

    Perhaps a lack of personal courtesy is the way of life in Spain, though, because sidewalks in that country are more dangerous than those in New York City. People make no bones about bumping into you or pushing you out of their way, whether or not they are in a hurry. Meanwhile, they have no concern for getting out of your way, no matter if you try saying excuse me or make it very apparent that you are trying to get around them. Walking three, four, even five abreast, the concept of forming a single-file line when approaching oncoming pedestrians must be foreign to Spaniards, because no one follows that unwritten law. I brace myself every time I approach a crowd, now. It’s like constantly playing the childhood game Red Rover: crash through the opponent’s line or you lose!

    I found the most dangerous sidewalks to be located in Madrid and Barcelona. However, this was not due to the most obvious, logical the reason one might assume: the fact that because they are the two major cities that we visited, they were the most crowded. Instead, two other factors made these cities’ sidewalks particularly dangerous: cobblestones and rain, respectively.

    In Madrid, all of the sidewalks were made of what one might call cobblestones or cement tiles. This in itself would not have been problematic, had the streets appeared distinctly differentiated, the way I am accustomed to streets appearing: made of black asphalt, with one or two yellow stripes running down the center. Rather, the streets in Madrid were simply continuations of the sidewalks, made of exactly the same materials. What’s more, there were no curbs to separate the cars’ territory from that of the pedestrians; usually, a few widely-spaced knee-high black poles stuck in ground hinted at that invisible border. In effect, Angela and I often wandered into harm’s way while reading maps, looking for streets signs, and gazing into shop windows and now owe each other our lives several times over.

    Walking among Spanish pedestrians is dangerous to begin with, as I noted earlier in their refusal to yield to fellow sidewalk-ers. Walking among Spanish pedestrians in the rain is even more dangerous. For all the sun we enjoyed in Madrid, we received equal measures of rain in Valencia and Barcelona. When weaving in and out among stubborn Spaniards who refused to give up their positions on the pavement in these cities, I encountered another hazard by this refusal to yield: because the Spanish population seems to be, on average, about two to three inches shorter than the American population and because I am at the higher end of the American height spectrum, all of the unyielding Spaniards’ umbrella spokes jutted out at just the most perilous altitude: right at eye level. Fortunately, I have had a great deal of experience avoiding precisely this hazard ever since grade school, when I towered above that population, so I ducked a dodged my way through and have returned to Brighton unscathed, determined that on my next trip out of the UK, I will remember to pack my own umbrella.

    Spain: first reflections

    I have returned, and in more ways than one! I have returned to blogging because I have returned to the UK; for the past two weeks, I have been traveling around Spain: Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, Valencia, Alacant, Barcelona, and Taragona, to be more precise. I would love to have posted entries during my trip so that all of my thoughts would be fresh and immediate, but time and technology can be as restrictive as they are liberating, so I will be forced to use hindsight and reflection to tell you about all that I have learned and observed during my travels.

    My traveling partner was my friend and fellow Holland housemate Angela, about whom I believe I have written once before. She is from Singapore, and this makes her a fabulous traveling partner for these expeditions to foreign countries. She is much better than an American traveling partner, because this way we don’t constantly compare things to “how they are at home,” nor are we as likely to act like or be perceived (and therefore treated) as a pair of “typical American tourists.” Then, she is much better than a European traveling partner, because this way everything is just as new, exciting, and foreign to her as it is for me.

    Angela has done significantly more foreign travel than I have, so she’s a bit more apt at the hand-gesturing, talking slowly-and-loudly method than I am; still, since we went to Spain, I was able to make myself useful by recalling a bit of my high school Spanish. This came in quite handy one time when a bakery worker insisted we hadn’t paid for our pastry and coffee—I managed to make myself understood with the rudimentary sentences, “Compra este primero. Pagamos a la caja.” (So much for tense conjugation, though—present tense is all I could come up with fast enough. It was enough just to correctly match subject with conjugation under such pressure.) Another time, I came to the rescue when Angela had to exchange a pair of stockings. Being unable to read labels or understand the saleslady makes buying prepackaged clothing rather risky, she discovered, and I had been grocery shopping during the initial purchase. Luckily, however, I knew “negro” stood for black—the color Angela wanted—and was able to tell the saleslady we wanted stocking “con pies” (with feet) so that we found the correct stockings. Then, with some motioning at Angela’s previous purchase and the receipt, the words, “Ella compra este,” seemed to get across the message that we wanted to make an exchange. Angela even got money back!

    While I may have managed to make myself understood a few ties, I utterly failed at understanding anyone else. Beyond recognizing a few items of food on a menu, finding exit signs (salida), and telling Angela how much money cashiers wanted (“Dos cincuenta y seis—two fifty-six.”), I couldn’t make sense of a thing anyone said. This proved especially frustrating when we got lost and needed directions. Usually, we had better luck if Angela approached a stranger and asked for help in English, with me interceding (in awful, broken Spanish) only if we were receiving completely blank stares and one-word answers. Ordinarily, we just had to do our best to follow pointing fingers or waving arms, particularly in Valencia, where no one seemed to speak English. The best response we ever got was in Barcelona. We were looking for Parque Güel in a drizzle, hoping to beat the rain (we didn’t and ended up sipping and sliding down a mountain of sandy grit under torrents of rain Angela claims not to have seen the likes of since she left Singapore). We finally stopped an elderly lady who, since she didn’t speak English and we obviously couldn’t understand Spanish, actually walked us to the street where we needed to turn. When we parted, she actually kissed us on our cheeks. We didn’t know how to thank her properly. The only word we knew was, “Gracias.”