There is nothing quite as uncomfortable as being sick in a foreign country. I could not recommend this less, and it's a real shame, because I personally have been sick in many foreign countries. Blame on the change in environments, all the new people, the different food, the lack of United States style sterility, hell, blame in on the henny, whatever you blame it on, it always happens to me. Let's not go to far, here, because, knock on wood, I've never gotten anything really terrible and life threatening, but what I lack in severity I seem to make up for in volume, because I've gotten sick in almost every place I've spent more then a week. While I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in my short lifetime, there have been periods of said travels that I recall only as a haze of tissues, tea, and desperate searches for a translation of the word "antihistimine" in various languges. Not that that doesn't have it's charm.
Here in Spain I managed to last about 3 and a half weeks without getting sick, so, really, that just might be a record. However, this past Sunday as I walked down Calle Atocha I recognized that I could no longer ignore the fact that I could barely breathe through my nose and my throat felt like something had died in there. Super.
While getting sick in the comfort of your own home at least has the comfort of soup, tea, daytime television and more blankets then a dorm room in Minnesota, getting sick in a strange place while staying in a hostel is uncomfortable to say the least, and tragically free of trashy television. Moreover, I would advise all of you to be careful mixing decongestants with travel, and here is why: When you are traveling everything looks a bit off to you anyway, as, you know, it's all accented and European, or whatever, and when you add cough medicine into the mix, well, that's just a whole new ballgame, you know? Finding myself wandering aimlessly yesterday with no idea where I was or how I had gotten there was certainly a fun new experience for me, and one I wouldn't wish on my enemies.
Luckily, no one really noticed that I seemed to have no where to go or nothing to do because, well, honestly, spend a day in Madrid and you will assume that everyone is unemployed. For no reason that I can asertain at this moment, the denizens of Madrid seem to delight in standing around in public. Every square, plaza, street corner and parque has people just waiting there, passing the time, inevitably smoking, reading, sipping "Cola Lights" (EUROPE), and generally just doing nothing. Now, to be fair here, I have realized that a fair number of these people are, in fact, prostitues, in which case, it's totally clear for what they are waiting. But the rest of them, well, seriously now, what's the deal? I mean, they can't ALL be recent college graduates high on dayqil putting off real life by hanging out in Spain, can they? And if they are, well, I don't know, maybe we should form some kind of club. It's a thought.
I woke up feeling a lot better this morning, which is a good thing, because the closer it gets to the weekend here the later people go out at night, which makes for some awkward early morning conversations as I get ready to go to class and everyone around me is stumbling into bed. It's hard enough to speak Spanish with drunk French guys when you are sober, let alone hopped up on cold medication. Trust me on that one.
Let's run down the pros and cons of hostel-dwelling, shall we? Pros: 1. It's very very very cheap. For the price of around 25 dollars an evening you can have a bed, bathroom access, free wireless internet, laundry services, a safe for your valubles and daily breakfast. Not bad, for Europe, where sitting on a bench in a park can often run you at least a couple Euros. 2. If you are the kind of person for whom traveling in foreign lands is an opportunity to get wasted in a variety of bar and club-like locations, a hostel is a great place to stay, because for a set price you can do a "pub crawl", which is an event, as some eager young Canadians explained to me, in which helpful strangers lead inebriated travelers through a series of "pubs" and clubs. Traveling really does broaden your horizons, doesn't it? 3. There is a bar in the basement.
Cons: 1. It's very very very loud. It's more then possible that because you pay so little to be there they had to make the walls out of paper, cleverly concealed as walls. 2. The lack of personal space can overwhelm one, as can changing in the bathroom, sleeping on a bunk bed (how do children DO this?) and hiding all your stuff because as nice as other travelers are, well, you gots to live by Hitchcock rules and TRUST NO ONE. 3. There is a bar in the basement.
Nevertheless, as uncomfortable as hostels can be, and as much as my friend Jon makes fun of them (hi, Jon!), I do enjoy staying in them overall because, well, did I mention cheap? But more then that, really, is that you can meet people of all kinds, which is a blessing and a curse in it's way. Currently as I type this a stressed out Korean man reads in the bed near to mine and a Brazilian guy dozes, which is socially acceptable during the day here in Spain, point to Europe. Last night I sat in the hostel bar ( I mean, I could leave, I guess, but it's RIGHT THERE, so...) with an extremely, painfully earnest german boy and about 20 loud french teenage girls. Ah, the world, it's such a great place where teenagers everywhere all dress exactly the same. Like a Delia's catalogue just threw up all over them.
Luckily, my Spanish classes here have started, so I no longer feel obligated to connect with strangers in the hostel, because I can now connect with strangers in my classes. Speaking Spanish with a dutch girl, an austrian girl and a french guy can get a little awkward, but I'm not going to lie to you, it beats watching french girls writhe around a hostel basement to the soothing sounds of Rhianna. And not, you know, new, post haircut Rhianna, but old vintage Bring it on: All or Nothing Rhianna. Some things travel so slowly across the Atlantic Ocean...
While is is a commonly held belief that Spain, and, in fact, all of Southern Europe, is a balmy land of sunshine and smiles, the sad truth is that Spain enjoys a winter just the like the rest of the world (or the rest of the Civilized world, as I believe I've made my thoughts on California crystal clear). When I walked out of my Spanish class this afternoon, it was cold, rainy and disgusting. Just like fall at home.
Ah, Espana. You saucy, strange, porcine laden country. Humid with sun and cigarette smoke, Spain is filled with boys with mullets and sweat bands, girls with rilo kiley bangs and shaggy boots, old ladies who look like they are on vacay from a convent, school children wandering in packs like plaid covered sheep, old men gathering over tapas y cervezas, brandy, almond encrusted pastries, Arab arches, cool sneakers, palm trees, red wine, Velasquez, and lots of other things. Madrid, the capital city, the 18th century city with starbucks on every corner, is a large and twisty city with plazas everywhere you look and people of all types and sizes rooming it's streets. And now, I'm one of them.
I've been in Madrid for three and half days now, which has given me time to visit the Prado, to walk around Plaza Mayor and much of the rest of the city, to take the obligatory trip to el Corte Ingles (a giant department store native to Spain with SO MANY LEVELS) and in general check the struggle out all over this city. Not only do fanny packs ABOUND (why? why? I just, I don't, I can't...I mean my DAD has one but I just...no), but additionally there are street performers, nuns (who are maybe street performers? I couldn't say) and hilarious struggles at every turn. For example, last night I saw a woman at a bar order a lemon Fanta and beer. Several days in a row have gone by with me seeing amazing and unaccountable public displays of affection, really to the point of, oh, my, did I just see a baby made in front of me? And, honestly, spending an afternoon at the Prado Museum means just a delightful few hours of German tourists standing in your eyeline like it's their job. Really? You need to see this El Greco THIS badly? More to the point, you need me to NOT see El Greco this badly? What did I ever do to you?
All of this time spent solitary may be getting to me. In an effort to connect with other sentient beings I've been feeding birds during my lunch times. You see, the weather here in Madrid has been frankly lovely, warm, sunny, dry, holiday weather if I've ever seen it. So I've eaten almost every meal (alone) outside, with only aves for company (that's Spanish for Bird. See how this is a learning experience?) On the other hand, though, it makes having wine at lunch seem much more acceptable (hi, Jon!), because my friends, the birds, don't have room in their heads to be judgmental. Thank god for tiny animal brains.
Wandering through various museums and national tourist sites, I couldn't help but wonder, what are other people my age doing at this point in time? Why, they are going out, of course, and given that this is Spain, they are sleeping until 2pm. pregaming at 10pm and heading towards their first club at 1am. Right, just about at the point when I have been in bed for at least an hour. Lovely.
I probably should enjoy European techno music and overpriced drinks with a 10 Euro cover while dancing throuhg a cloud of stale smoke and bad cologne more. Yeah. Let's leave that sort of thing for future-Leah, shall we?
My Spanish classes start on Monday. Thank goodness they do, because judging this hard takes a toll, it really does. Trust me.
So as it turns out I'm currently writing this on my stomach on a bunk-bed in a hostel in Madrid. Funny how life turns out.
This morning I was lying in bed in Tobarra, not 10 hours ago, counting the minutes until it made sense to get up. As I waited for light to fill the sky I couldn't help but reflect upon the day ahead. Because Tobarra is a tiny town, remote from most major cities, the only way to leave it's dusty little shadow is to take a bus from the Estacion de Autobus which rests on the eastern limits of the town. Of course, this is Spain, and rural Spain at that, so no one is quite sure when the bus comes or where it stops. Deciding that I wasn't willing to risk missing my only ride, I arrived at the station at 7:45, which turned out to be just in time for me to wait for an hour for the bus. Joining a group of bewildered chain smoking Spaniards I waited on the sidewalk with my belongings around me in the morning chill, thinking, well, with fun times like this, who needs coffee, you know?
Two bus rides and one furious and painful walk later (new shoes, many blocks, heavy bags, a regular recipe for fun)I was standing in the Albacete Train station. Let me tell you something about Spain, just in case you ever consider visiting. Please, trust me on this one, never go to Albacete. Just, let that dream go. Really. I'll save you the train fare. And, frankly, that's not nothing, honestly, because even if European train travel is cheaper then train travel in the US, well, it's still nothing to sneeze at. It takes a lot of money to get out of a one horse town, let me tell you.
My two hour wait in Albacete was followed by two hours on a train to Madrid, watching the countryside go by in all it's dry desolate beauty. This was the alternative to watching the 2008 remake of the classic film The Women. One of the most hilarious things about Spanish train travel is that they provide you with movies and headphones, like a plane. On the way to the farm they gave us the animated version of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, and so frankly I consider The Women an upgrade, and a positive sign. However, dubbed Meg Ryan isn't really my thing, so I opted out of the movie and watched the country go by. Equally lovely is the individually wrapped jelly bean they give you as the train pulls into the station. A waste of plastic, sure, but delicious.
When I arrived in Madrid I ended up walking the wrong way for a few blocks before I got my bearings. However, now that I'm showered, changed, no longer smell of horse and have left Tobarra far behind, well, I'm feeling a little more at peace with the world. Bring it on, struggle. I've got wifi, I downloaded the new Mad Man, I'm ready. Hola, Madrid. Vamos a luchar.
When you are considering a vast and important life change and decide to go work on an organic farm in Spain for a few months, there are some key factors you really ought to consider.
1. Is the farm in the middle of no where? 2. Is there one working phone in the vicinity? 3. Is there internet access in more then one location in the surronding, say, 100 square miles (or Kilometers, it is Spain, after all)? 4. Are the owners of this farm insane drunken prejudiced Brits who will mock you, your Americaness, you beliefs and your clothing constantly and speak no Spanish? 5. Do you really like horses? 6. Do you really like the smell of horses on everything you own? 7. Do you have enough money for alcohol? 8. Do you even enjoy farming? 9. Do you want to be picking straw out of various parts of your underthings constantly? 10. What the hell are you thinking?
Had I considered even one of these key questions I might now not be finding myself in just such a town, working on just such a farm, franticlly looking up flights back to the United States. Because as it turns out, the tiny town of Tobarra, while charming for an hour, is dreadful for any longer then that. And while the idea of getting back to nature and being totally cut off from the world as you know it and the itunes store in particular is a delightful one, the reality is far more painful. I am now bruised, scratched, bitten (thank you, Campero the stallion, you´ve made my day) and thinking about my escape plans. In other words, come next Tuesday, I´m out of here.
In times of stress, trouble, or when you find your life plan for the next five months falling to bits around you, it might help to breathe, relax, and try to find a wine opening. Oh, well, life is nothing if not a series of setbacks. Or, in my case, life is currently a series of jobs involving horse manure. So you scrap the plan and start again somewhere else, right? Preferably somewhere where they speak Spanish. Given that I´m in Spain, I had no idea that would be so difficult to find.
Long story short, I´ve got some more time on this strange farm (which I use the lip of a highway to walk to daily. Seriously. What is the term for ¨ghetto¨ which you can apply to the country? Whatever it is, I need to know it), but I´m counting down the days. A week from right now I´ll be in Madrid, where I think Í´ll be staying for at least a month or so. The struggle, my friends, I´m feeling it right now.
Leah Franqui is a fairly interesting person/director/writer/reader/eater/drinker. She likes ugly dogs and dislikes her hair in the morning. She's a sucker for environmental causes and plays hardball with deals on chewing gum. She is a struggle.