Are you ready to see something you’ll never forget?

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Twelve miles outside of the river town of Ribadeo, Atxuri parked his car on the coast. He got out of the car like he always does – like he’s about to do something extremely important – and I got out of the car like I always do, forgetting that I still have my seatbelt on.

No te apures,” I tell him, disentangling myself from the car.

“We can only go there during low tide,” he says, as if by the time I got from the car to where he was standing we would have missed our opportunity. I love how he makes all the goods things in life so dramatic.

Like right now, he’s putting on his sunglasses like they do in the movies – all slow and gangster-like – and taking a long mystical look out over the ocean.

“We’re on time,” he says.

“Of course we’re on time,” I snorted. “We planned this out yesterday.”

He glares at me like I’m about to fuck up his movie and I grin. A car full of Germans pulls up alongside us and we both look at each other with the same expression: What are they doing here? Without hesitation, we break into a full run down to the famous beach, Playa de Catedrales.

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It’s not that Atxuri and I are afraid of the Germans; we just like to discover new places by ourselves. Like we are the only two people in the world. This is, perhaps, every traveler’s dream and there are only a few moments in time when we get to experience it.

Today was not one of those moments.

There were other people on the beach, but I didn’t mind. I could hardly tell they were human because the rocks that shot up out of the sand completely dwarfed them in size.

This was the Playa de Catedrales, where one feels that they have entered an outdoor cathedral designed by God rather than for him. This was the Playa de Aguas Santas, where everything you touched was quite literally alive and breathing. This was As Catedrais, as spoken in Galician, considered a national monument by La Consejería de Medio Ambiente de la Junta de Galicia and one of the best-known beaches in Spain.

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I felt my heart stick to my throat as I watched Atxuri disappear amongst the monster rocks that had been almost completely submerged in water only an hour before. It was incredible.

The rocks rose up more than thirty meters high. All of them were teeming with various forms of marine life and about half were riddled with deep, inviting caves and crystalline pools of water.

It was a place that spoke directly to every childhood fairytale land that I had ever imagined in my heart. It was place that I thought only pirates could find and I certainly wasn’t a pirate. Really, it was a place where you felt like you could do anything because it would all be erased by the tide in a few hours.

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Atxuri decided to kick off this newfound liberty by taking a leak.

“You wouldn’t piss in a cathedral,” I scolded him, but he was already zipping up his pants and taking on his second transformation: Gollum, from Lord of the Rings.

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He wandered into a murky cave calling out for “my precious” until he vanished from sight. I wasn’t about to go after him. I was well aware of his predilection for scaring me, so I kept walking further down. A few minutes later, he appeared on the other side of the cliff.

“Did you find any treasure?” I asked and he held up a dead starfish.

“Well, that’s not going to buy us dinner,” I mused.

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All of a sudden, we heard a shout and we turned to see the Germans, stark naked, and running into the water.

And people say the Germans are too uptight.

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 People also say that Galicians always answer your questions with a question.

This was true of the old man walking along the road when we asked how to get to Playa de Catedrales.

He said: “Are you ready to see something you’ll never forget?”

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City Slickers

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There is something about not being where you’re supposed to be on Christmas that makes you feel lost…like you’re living the life of someone else.

Because if it were your life, you would be home celebrating it with your family…Yet you aren’t at home, so you must not be yourself…But Atxuri was with me and he definitely felt a part of my life, myself….my life, but at the same time, a different life: my other self.

As these dichotomies bounced against my brain, my body decided to get sick.

Just a little sick, but enough to let me know that it wasn’t happy about the change of scenery. I could feel every bone in my body desperately crying out for that white Wisconsin snow, that big wet stuff you can only get off the Great Lakes….and I knew that no matter how long I stared out at the Bay of Biscay in the port of Gijon, no snowflakes would magically appear. Something inside of me writhed in misery.

Atxuri went surfing and I laid in the hotel room. I took a bunch of cold medicine and slipped into a beautiful dream…I was in my backyard, trudging through the snow and running my fingertips along the snow-dusted pine trees borne of my father’s back.

Christmas Day

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Even though we are both foreigners to the land, Atxuri has had a few extra years to explore the Basque Country and its surrounding areas than I have.

He is the expert.

I am the explorer.

I feel lucky to have him, but I also like stumbling upon things on my own.

Therefore, it fills me with secret glee when I find a “secret spot” that he doesn’t know about, a place where I can be the knowledgeable one who gives the gift of a new world marvel to a fellow insatiable adventurer.

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This time, that place was La Cuevona de Cuevas, a small village a few kilometers outside the Asturian town of Ribadeo.

My Bilbao family had taken me here two years ago and since then, I’ve been dying to show Atxuri. Cuevas is a village that is only accessible by going through a large, cavernous hole in the mountain that stretches and twists for approximately 300 meters. You can’t see the light on the other side, but the cave is so big that a road has been made for cars to weave their way through its stalactites and stalagmites. When you reach the other side, you are created by a sleepy 15-house village and a defunct railroad station.

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We had coffee at a tiny bar, miraculously open on Christmas Day. An old man sat watching Oceans on television while another one baled hay out in a field. I got the impression that everyone in Cuevas must be really old.

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We found a friendly cat which Atxuri decided to kick.

This is a perfect example of how no matter how much I think I know that man, he continues to surprise me.

 

Case in point:

Atxuri is a vegetarian.

He is supposed to like animals.

He used to be a part of an animal liberation movement when he was younger.

But now I just saw him kick (albeit lightly) a cat that had been lovingly wrapping itself around his legs onto the railroad tracks.

I point this out to him.

“Of course I like animals and I think we should treat them humanely. They don’t fuck with us so I don’t think we should fuck with them. But that cat…that cat was fucking with me so I have the right to fuck with him,” Atxuri explained.

And I had to admit, his philosophy made perfect sense.

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Don’t fuck with me, kitty.

We moved onto the first beach.

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Niembro

The second beach.

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Playa de San Antolín de Bedón, near Naves

No waves. :(

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And finally, we made it to the seaside city of Gijon/Xixon.

Population: 277,559

It would be here where we would spend our most very un-Christmassy Christmas, but one could hardly complain. I was in a new place.

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I have never had a Christmas that smelled so strongly of salt.

Galicia and The Tale of 48 Beaches: Part I

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It’s Christmas Day and we are side-swiping the Cantabrian coast in a tiny blue Polo packed with two surfboards and leftover holiday booty. My traveling companion is a heavily-bearded man with deep-set brown eyes that I have now known for three and a half years, but I still have the habit of staring at him like we just met.

 I’m just so fucked-up in love with that face.

 People say he’s shy, but that’s because nobody has ever met him in a car. (De hecho, I often fantasize about how I could arrange for people to meet my boyfriend in a car). Right now he is belting out the lyrics to Extremoduro’s “Me Estoy Quitando” as I write this. He has an excellent, baritone voice – the kind that makes you want to investigate the source with your tongue.

He only sings in the car, but the man can sing. I try to sing along, but I have never known the words to any Spanish song. Atxuri (as we shall call him) is impressed every time we walk into a shopping center and I know all the words to every song playing. (In shopping centers, they are always playing English commercial music).

 “But you never sing in Spanish,” he says.

And it’s true.

I know Spanish perfectly well, but the lyrics just never stick in my head. Even my beloved Onda Vaga – a band that I listen to at least six times a day – is a victim of my Spanish musical retardation. I only know half their lyrics by heart and I have more fun inventing them anyway. Atxuri hates it.

 “It’s yo dormiría así not yo dormiría con Ashley,” he spits.

(It’s “I would sleep like this” not “I would sleep with Ashley”).

“So? A girl can dream, right?” I spit back.

That’s the extent of our fights.

 

Atxuri sings and drives, I write and navigate.

The plan is to tell you about our two week road trip around Galicia, but the truth is, the idea of it all makes me yawn. Yeah. Another fr•£¢king blog about Spain. It’s me and 9 million other ex-pats talking about the same thing. When am I going to wake up and write something original?

The truth is people, I can’t answer that because I don’t know. I have a lot of other shit on my plate right now. Yet every once in awhile I ask myself if anything is really original and if the real talent doesn’t actually lie in taking something cliché and finding a way to make it sound original…isn’t that what every artist is about? Aren’t we all just mouthing off about the same thing in different ways? Meh.

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Is anyone tired of reading about Spain yet?

Because I am tired of writing about it…hence the lack of activity of this blog.

Yet the words are dripping off my fingers…feels good to get back out here.

 

So here it goes…

 

Part 1: Christmas

 I’ve managed to successfully avoid Christmas in Spain for the last three years so it was time. I have been avoiding it because I’m not all that impressed by it.

No snow.

No Santa Claus.

No Christmas trees.

WTF? Can you even call it Christmas?

 

Ok, let’s be culturally sensitive here.

Traditionally, Spain has celebrated Three Kings Day on the 6th of January far more than Christmas Day. Children don’t write a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole; they write a letter to the Three Kings and address it to Morocco. They don’t leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus nor fodder for the reindeer; they just leave water for the camels. The Three Kings come through the window because there are no chimneys, no fireplaces, no stockings, etc.

 In the Basque Country, they have also invented Olintzero. In my opinion, they have done this mostly out of spite/ to be different. Most people tell me that Olintzero didn’t exist until the 1980’s. Olintzero is probably Santa Claus’ washed-up younger brother. He’s a slightly overweight drunk coal miner who wears a beret and leaves presents on Christmas Eve. I really don’t understand how being a coal miner doesn’t give him an unfair bias. During the years of surplus in his trade, isn’t it highly likely there will be more kids getting coal than presents under the tree, you know?!

 Thus, like everywhere else in the world, Christmas has become a matter of politics. If the Olintzero brings you presents, you’re clearly Basque and if you’re visited by the Three Kings, you’re a leaning or practicing conservative. If you’re visited by both (and many kids are), well then, you jus’ plain spoilt!  :)

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 In my house – despite being too old to be visited by any mythological do-gooders – we put this adorable little Christmas tree:

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Christmas Eve was spent at Atxuri’s distant relatives’ house in a small village outside of Bilbao. Christmas Eve is usually a time to go out drinking with your friends. You do this until around 10pm, then you go home and have dinner with your family and open presents. Yes, Olintzero comes BEFORE midnight. I don’t know how they explain this to the kids as there were no kids at our dinner. Typically, families also meet Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Three Kings Day to eat together.

 Yeah. I know. It’s absurd.

I have often thought that the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas are placed so close together that I don’t have much to talk about with my family in the course of a month, but Spaniards meet to eat with their families FIVE times in the course of TWO weeks!!! That’s love.

 Ours was a quiet dinner filled with catastrophic amounts of seafood. I even ate percebes (barnacles) which Spanish Dictionary disgustingly describes as “a mollusk having five crusty plates and a fleshy foot.” A fleshy foot!!! Rather than a foot, I felt like I was sucking down the fingers of a sea mermaid. Thank God everything goes well with alcohol.

 Atxuri’s distant relatives are incredibly generous, heartwarming people for being distant relatives. They treated us like monarchs.

 I am officially in love with Maria Pilar, a ripe old lady of sixty-something and have been for about a year or so. Last year, she had a heart attack in her home and managed to get herself to the hospital on her own. Atxuri and I visited her a few days later and asked her how she was doing and she told me – with fire in her eyes –  “I’m as strong as an oak!”

 She reminds me of a mixture of my Great-Grandma Janik and My Great Auntie Elaine and I hope I am as eager to live as she is when I’m her age.

 She showed me the room where Atxuri stayed when he first turned up from Argentina and there was still a picture of him above the bed like he was one of her own children. He was so striking at age 20 that I had to fight the urge to take the picture.

 How lucky we both are to have people who love us on both sides of the ocean.

 The next morning, with our hearts full, our tummies bursting, and Christmas leftovers in the trunk, we set out for the Galician coast.

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Check Mate


The other day, I was in a conversation with three French people and another American. We started out speaking in Spanish, which was perceived to be the common language of all parties, but after fifteen minutes one of the French politely asked if we could switch to English because his Spanish wasn’t so good.

His request created an awkward situation because the other French girl didn’t have a good enough command of English (the French were not traveling together) and the American and I immediately took the upper-hand in the conversation due to our ridiculous skills in English. The conversation and its actors completely changed.

It was the first time I really started to view multilingual communication as a king-sized game of chess.

Oh, what’s that?
You want to switch to English?

Check Mate.

Joining the Struggle

The journey from Bilbao to Vitoria is an hour by bus. It was Thursday and so the accumulated exhaustion of the week got the best of me and I fell asleep. Luckily, my brain is a clever one and I always wake up before my stop: the university.

Yet today, I got off the bus and was immediately seized by the sensation that I was still dreaming.

Everything was quiet.
Too quiet.

And nobody was around.

I had thought to go to the library for a half an hour before class started, but now I wasn’t so sure. When I arrived at the entrance, I had to pick my way around toppled over chairs and tables, papers and books were strewn everywhere, and smoke was pouring out of the windows and doors. The fire alarm was going off rather half-heartedly, as if it knew that no one was around to hear it so it wasn’t going to try as hard.

I tried to walk inside a bit farther, thinking the smoke would clear, but it was too thick. It burned my eyes and clawed at my throat. I saw Lourdes, the chipper librarian who had given us a tour of this beautiful building last week. She was running down the hall with a handkerchief over her mouth. She looked at me briefly and took her hand away as if to say something, but then just started coughing.

That’s when I heard it.
The rubber bullets.
The police sirens.
The shouting and chanting of the students.

It was if somebody had just taken the world off mute and all the sound came rushing back to me at once.

Today was the national student strike against education cuts and the protest march had just passed through the university. I ran out of the library to see armored police vans on every corner and I felt myself get a bit sick.

My Polish friend, J, who had gotten off the bus with me, was standing outside the library and surveying the scene. He saw me and echoed my thoughts perfectly: “We’ve got to get out of here, Lucy. If they get us, you will be the imperialist spy and I will be the socialist rabble-rouser.” There is no place for immigrants in a national demonstration. Not if you want to have a shot at naturalization.

We skirted the perimeter of the university until we could find a safe entrance into our building, but every door was barricaded by benches or guarded by people waiting to heckle at those who chose to break the strike. We had to look them in the face when we entered.

I felt embarrassed.
We were the scabs.

I stand in solidarity with all of the students and their mobilization against education cuts in Spain, but that day, I knew I had to go to class. My teachers are already lenient with me as they know I must miss days due to work, but if I miss any more, they might change their minds.
I can’t risk that.
I must find other ways to protest.

Even so, the Spanish student struggle doesn’t slide off my tongue so easily. It is hard for me to get angry about rising tuition costs when Spanish universities are twenty times less expensive than any US institution. It is difficult for me to get upset about the elimination of a universal study abroad grant – something that Spanish students take as an educational right – when study abroad was never a universal option in the States.

That’s not to say their indignation is misplaced. I must remember that their struggle to maintain what they have is my struggle to achieve a level of equality that I never knew in my own country. University education and study abroad should be financially accessible to all. I came to Spain because it’s precisely these kind of policies that make sense to me. Yet now, their austerity measures seem to be making them go the way of the United States. For this reason, they must fight.

As I sat in the classroom and listened to the rounds of rubber bullets sound off outside the window, I felt myself getting smaller and smaller in my chair. I have never been one to shrink away from my beliefs. I have never been one to stand down when it was time to stand up, but that day, I finally understood the power of personal motivation over popular mobilization. My ability to stay in Spain trumped my desire to go out there and join the masses …and it didn’t make any sense… because if we don’t speak out now and speak out together, by the time I gain my residency, everything in Spain worth fighting for will be gone.

Another One Bites The Dust


Wedding rings have always been particularly curious concept to me.
I don’t understand them.
I look at them like an archaeologist looks at an unknown artifact unearthed from a thousand year old tomb:
What could it possibly be used for?
Why is it always found on the same finger?
What did it mean for women?
Was it a sign of reverence?
A symbol of shame? Pride?
A simple indulgence?
What a puzzling find – this circle that belongs both to the young and to the old.

No wedding ring holds the same meaning.
This much I know.
Each one is tainted by the relationship that it holds within it.

My friend, Myra, flopped her hand in front of me like it was disconnected from her arm and then extended her ring finger in such a way that it commanded the attention of everyone in the bar. I don’t know how she did it, but her ring finger was glittering and everyone in the bar was looking. I had to fight the urge to look away…because the only thing that trumps my curiosity for the object is my fear of it.

I happen to think that wedding rings are contagious. It’s better not to risk it. It’s better not to look a diamond in the eye because well, it could EAT YOUR SOUL and that would be the end of you.
I don’t want to die that way.
Mine is not a glittery death.
No, sir. You will not find me in that thousand year old tomb with a tiny piece of silver hugging a sliver of my hand.
I won’t have it.

Myra didn’t seem so sure of herself either. She let me contemplate it for a moment and then she self-consciously shoved her hand back into her pocket. She told me this beautiful story of going to this remote island off the coast of that one exotic sounding place in that one unknown sea and when the sun was setting and the orchestra was playing and the audience was holding their breath slash you should imagine every single romantic scene imaginable right now and then he asked her to be his wife.

I think I sort of cringed when she said that…and then I got stuck on the idea of what language he would have asked her in. They were a trilingual couple, so that was important. Would you ask your lover to marry you in your native language so that it comes directly from your soul? Would you ask your lover in their native language so that the words mean even more to them? Or would you ask in your mutual second or third language, where you both have equal levels of sentimental understanding and expression?

I desperately wanted to ask Myra, but in my head, the question sounded ridiculous. What I needed to be saying was, “Congratulations! When’s the big day?” My tongue was producing, “I’m so happy for you!” but my brain was sitting on an entirely different branch, completely aloof to the circumstances. My brain – my inner me – didn’t really want to think about what Myra was telling me. That would require a lot of responsibility and steady contemplation. Instead, it (I) chose to think about trivial things – like the language of the delivery and whether or not it would have affected her response.

(It’s shit like this that makes me realize why I am a linguist at heart.)

And did he really say, “Will you be my wife?” or did Myra (not a native-English speaker), really meant to say that he said, “Will you marry me?” Because the latter would have been much lovelier on the ear. “Will you be my wife?” sounds all together medieval. You mind as well go for the glory if you’re going to bumble it and say something like, “Will you be my wife and bear my children?” Ugh.
Positively medieval.

Yet I couldn’t ask Myra that either.
I couldn’t really ask her anything because I got this feeling that she had suddenly passed into some distant, unknown land that she was not coming back from and I was left behind, to guard the gate. I was (and I am) okay with that.

I worry about her though: out there, all alone in the wild world of matrimony with nothing, but a shiny little ring to stave off the wolves. She’ll have tough times ahead.

“Of course I said yes in the moment,” she explained. “But then I had nightmares for like a week after…Now I’m slowly adjusting to the idea.”

She swished her wine around in her glass when she said that line: “I’m slowly adjusting to the idea” like she was reading the words right off its flavor palate. The idea that anyone would have to “slowly adjust” to a marriage proposal gave me the shivers. Yet there are so many women in this world who have to do just that…and under much worse circumstances.

These are the kind of moments where you want to something rash.
You want to break a wine glass.
Smack Myra good and hard across the face.
You want to scream, “Down with society!”, climb up on the bar, and burn your bra.

But you don’t. You just finish you wine, pay the bill, and go home.

And for that, Lucy, you are a damn fool.

(Why is it that whenever one of my friends decides to get married the song “Another One Bites the Dust” turns on in my brain? Wasn’t it men that always thought marriage was anathema? What’s wrong with me?)

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