Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sevilla. Que me cago.

Os debo noticias, ¿verdad? Pues, venga.

I´ve spent the last three days wandering as if in a dream through the streets of Sevilla. It´s a city where flamenco dancing is a legitimate profession, where during the hottest half of the year women, young and old, fan themselves with abanicos, and where people eat dinner standing up in crowded bars and throw their napkins on the floor. Four years ago I lived here for a semester with a Spanish couple and took classes through an exchange programe at the Universidad.

It is a trip to be back. Every time I set out walking in a direction, I manage to intuit my way to exactly where I want to go. And every couple of blocks, a stray memory pops out at me. I had hot chocolate here once with so and so when we were trying to find the flea market. I called the States on this payphone my first week here, when I was miserably homesick. I got 1 euro coffees here between classes. I almost want to leave immediately, for fear of creating new memories that will tread on my old ones. It´s like I´m watching a huge soap bubble drift in the breeze, but if I stare too long, it will pop.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Destination: siesta

I´m in Madrid after a horribly early flight, and am about to take a
nap. How´s that for exciting news?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Ancient bread and two bad eggs

To bookend our trip to Egypt, Kyle and I spent a few days exploring the south and north of Israel, respectively. First we hit Mitzpe Ramon, a little town on the edge of the giant "makhtesh"--sort of like an enormous canyon or crater. We stayed in a tent the size of Kyle's dorm room, then hung out by the edge of the cliff, took some pictures, and saw lots of wild, roaming ibex.

Afterward, we continued down to Eilat, at the bottom tip of the country. Based on the folks we encountered there, "bottom tip" might be a frighteningly accurate description of the city's inhabitants. At the Egyptian consulate, a couple of batty Brits wandered in to demand whether they needed new visas for Egypt, since they'd just been there. They discovered that they indeed did, and also needed passport photos, so they left in a huff to get pictures taken. "If you see an old man with white hair come in, that's my uncle. Tell him we'll be right back," the woman instructed. They returned twenty minutes later with the uncle in tow. He wore a crew neck sweatshirt, dark aviators, and had chin-length white hair. Apparently, the guy had disappeared forty years ago and the batty Brit couple had traced him and found him hiding out in Eilat. Kyle and I weren't sure he looked happy to have been found. After we got our visas, we went out for breakfast, where we encountered crazy old guy #2. He had buzzed grey hair, was chubby, and wore sweatpants with a t-shirt and enourmous, clown-sized sunglasses. He ordered a latte and a couple of pastries, keeping the sunglasses on all the while. He stirred sugar into his latte and set his pastries carefully on the chair next to him (for safekeeping? to protect from pastry-klepto's?). The sunglasses never came off.

After Egypt, we headed to Haifa, on the Mediterranean, in the north. We couchsurfed with a 23-yr-old married couple. They'd met when she, an American, had done a high school exchange program at the school on his Israeli kibbutz. After high school, she'd immigrated to Israel, where they both joined the army (mandatory for most Israeli citizens). They got married last year.

From Haifa, we went to Tsfat, a town full of mystical religious people. Tsfat looked the part, thanks to clouds of fog that rolled back and forth through the hilltop. We stopped for lunch at a tiny store that sold local music, mystical books, and "ancient bread." The guy at the grill, dressed in a white robe with some sort of head wrapping, asserted that the food he served was the first bread that man ever made. I'm sure he knew. It was a sort of savory pancake with onions, cheese, tomatoes, and spices on top. As we ate, he showed us a book that talked about crystals and bean sprouts and the magical power of words.

Last Thursday, weary after our travels, Kyle and I went to the Ein Gedi Spa on the Dead Sea. We floated in the indoor warm mineral baths, covered ourselves in mud, then walked down to the Dead Sea and rinsed it off. The "beach," rather than sandy or rocky, was made of hard, white mineral crusties. Floating in the sea and the mineral baths was incredible. One literally doesn't have to do anything to stay above the surface. Lie on your back, your belly, or just kind of sit suspended in the water. Read a book, close your eyes, relax--do whatever you want, just don't get the water in your eyes or mouth. My favorite floating activity was to roll from my belly to my back, round and round, on the surface of the water. Flip. Flop. Flip. Flop.

We popped in the outdoor sulphur showers to finish the day. Back home, four days later, after numerous fresh water showers with soap, we still smell like two bad eggs.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I like American coffee

Perhaps I'm inviting ridicule, but here's the truth: I miss living in a city with chain coffee shops strewn every couple of blocks that serve reliably moderate-quality, excruciatingly hot coffee in 12+ ounce paper cups. Let me explain.

France: French coffee isn't bad. It's just tiny. And not really portable. At every Brasserie (cafe slash bar slash restaurant) in both Paris and rural towns, one can exchange about three dollars for a one-ounce cup of freshly brewed espresso. The quality varies from tasty to bitter. If you're a latte kind of gal or guy, you can get a cafe au lait, which will cost between three and five dollars and will be served in a 2-4 ounce cup, depending on whether you ask for a "petit" or "grand." It's satisfying, for about three minutes. Then, with the cup drained, you're left to entertain yourself until you can find the waiter again and ask for the bill. Fortunately, French cafe culture doesn't frown on loiterers.

Israel: The Holy Land brings coffee trouble of a different sort. The bean quality is usually good, and sizes are little bigger than in frog country--a whopping ten ounces or so at largest. Like France, no one cares how long you stay. There are coffee chains everywhere. They serve espresso beverages and (less frequently) filter coffee. The problem with drinks in Israel is that they are never, ever hot. Coffee is generally served on the hotter side of warm, so that the first sip of a latte here is the temperature of the last sip of a latte in the States. Within a couple minutes, the small drink that you just paid over three dollars for is tepid. Oh, but this place is plagued by an even more gruesome demon: Nescafe. Apparently this youthful country didn't develop a real cafe culture until recently. Before Cafe Hillel and Aroma dotted the Jerusalem streets like off-duty soldiers--i.e., they're everywhere--Nescafe was ubiquitous. (I don't just mean any old instant coffee; it's literally Nescafe.) Now, the same shops and restaurants that serve espresso also have Nescafe on the menu. And to further the insult, it's usually more expensive than real coffee! What sort of deranged sap would choose to purchase a lukewarm, 10-oz mug of bitter, disgusting Nescafe when there were perfectly respectable caffeinated alternatives available for 25 cents less?!

Egypt: Your only option here, unless you want a Nescafe, is "Arabic"/"Turkish" coffee. It's like the Turkish coffee available in the US except that it isn't sweetened or spiced: it's strong, served in a tiny glass with the fine grounds still in it. Smart people skip the last two sips, or wind up with a mouthful of grit. It's not bad. At least it's hot and cheap. Cairo, however, as a huge, international city, is home to ten branches of a terrible, local-cafe-crushing, American coffee chain. Yes. For our first excursion our first day in Egypt, Kyle and I went to Starbucks. More photographic evidence is available in the slideshow at right. I'd like to call Kyle the fink, since it was she that insisted we go, but I can't deny that I enjoyed every burning hot sip of that enormous, slightly over-roasted latte. Or that we went back three times.