On to Edinburgh (Note: I Am Not Currently in Edinburgh)

I’m severely behind on this blog. I am, however, also resisting my constant urge to abandon things after I’ve fallen behind on them, so here are my delayed reactions/recollections of my brief time in Scotland, whether you want them or not.

First of all, to say the weather in the UK was a relief after the sweltering heat waves in Spain would be an understatement. When I arrived at my Airbnb, one of my hosts apologized for the weather, suggesting that this was no kind of summer for a tourist. I begged to differ: it was nice to know that I had lugged my faux-leather jacket around for this long and finally had a reason to use it.

I’m still learning how to be a tourist. Having two-and-a-half free days in Edinburgh, then, was as enjoyable as it was somewhat challenging. So I compromised and did what I do best: I put my headphones in and walked, through the city center and the Royal Mile, for the better part of an entire day.

It was overcast, drizzly, cold and wonderful.I walked as far as my feet would carry me, winding the side streets, through shopping districts, down steep hills away from the center (and back again). I found an independent art and record store in a beautiful, old church. I took a break from particularly ominous clouds in the National Gallery’s wing of Scottish art. And I ended my day at the warm and relatively welcoming Brewdog Pub, which features the delicious (and wonderfully titled) Punk IPA.


I tried to continue my streak of atypical sightseeing the next day which – sunny, beautiful, warm – was in complete opposition to the one before. I took advantage of that by taking on the Arthur’s Seat hike (which, having brought nothing whatsoever that would aid in hiking, I underestimated).

One of the advantage of doing it alone was the ability to ignore virtually everyone and bring my iPod, which allowed me to appropriately soundtrack the adventure with the Scottish artists Frightened Rabbit and Foreignfox. An example: just as I was stopping for breath/a bitter glare at the people ahead of me in appropriate tennis shoes, “Modern Leper” began to play. I kept walking.

The evening was, if you know me at all, kind of as you would expect: whiskey cocktails, a restaurant that exclusively sold varieties of loaded baked potatoes, and – of course – a UK Foo Fighters show. The latter was wonderful, despite being surrounded by people that were having a little too much fun that, unfortunately, they most likely don’t remember. (Genuine question: why do all-ages shows involve at least one kid with braces who thinks every show is something out of ’80s DC hardcore? Why is it always the biggest kid?)

All in all, it’s hard to say I didn’t have a good time in Edinburgh. But underneath all of this, however, I had to come to terms with the idea that traveling alone is just kind of hard, in a way that I hadn’t remembered. Don’t get me wrong – being able to set my own schedule, and not held responsible for anyone else on 3:30 a.m. treks to the airport, is a hands-down advantage.

But the reality is that I made better friends with the espresso machine at my Airbnb in Edinburgh than with the people who were actually hosting me – which, needless to say, is a little depressing. The Welsh woman I met at the show provided the first real conversation I’d had with anyone that day. Maybe it’s the side of my personality that has been described to me as “textbook extrovert,” but I find something mentally exhausting about going through these experiences – the good, the bad, and the ugly – alone.

I’ve been fortunate to have a handful of great tour and travel buddies over the years, and every so often I’m reminded how fundamental that has been to those experiences.

That is, after all, one of the biggest regrets I had about missing the canceled shows, here and in London. Sure, the shows would be fantastic – they always are – but, ultimately I (of all people) can and will see them again. I’ve written about this before as well, but one of the things that allowed me to travel somewhat alone last time is that, frankly, I wasn’t.

Going to shows is inherently social, a shared experience from word go, even if you don’t speak the same language. There’s the line, standing at barricade, the show itself. The entire draw is that it’s communal in nearly every sense. It’s shared, whether you like it or not.

I’ve met some of my absolute favorite people at various stages of the process, and we’ve been able to do it all over again, even across the globe, the next time around. More than anything else, that’s what I missed. While I probably (definitely) needed the rest, while I certainly didn’t have a bad time, that realization followed me throughout the UK.

With that in mind, I was more than happy to trade in my leather jacket weather for the scorching sun of Italy and companionship of my original international travel buddy: my mother.

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello (to London) or Catch You Next Time, Foos

Well, it’s certainly been an interesting few days – and it definitely feels like a lifetime since I left the program in Madrid.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was England-bound (and after that Scotland, where I am now) with a specific purpose in mind beyond an affinity for both cities: I was scheduled to see Foo Fighters play some really, really big shows.

And as predicted, due to unforeseen circumstances, that….did not happen.

This may seem like a peripheral thing – and maybe it is – but this portion of my trip truly did revolve around those shows. Actually, I’ve written quite a bit about why that is, and how that part of my life has sort of taken on a life of its own over the last four years or so.

Considering how long that piece is, and that most of the readership of this blog knows me personally and really doesn’t need any exposition on my band-related travels, my first few hours in England were nonetheless an experience.

First of all, I’m an idiot.

I passed out on the flight to London. Well, okay, not that kind, but it might as well have been; the head-against-the-window, mouth-agape, why-is-there-no-air-circulation-on-this-plane kind of sleep that leaves you wondering who, let alone where, you are when the plane hits the ground. We were stalled for at least an hour on the tarmac for reasons I’m still not clear on, and from that point on it was a lost cause.

When we eventually made it to our destination, I stumbled off and made my zombie-like way to passport verification. I had given my Airbnb hosts a vague time for my arrival, and even if my shuttle made it on time, it was looking like I wouldn’t make it – which made me nervous, because they had made it clear they weren’t waiting around all day.

I saw, gratefully, that the line for non-EU passports was incredibly small. All I had to do was fill out the passport card and…..

….Where the hell was my passport?

I don’t know whether panic or overwhelming defeat was the dominant emotion as I sat in a penned-off area at passport clearance at London Gatwick, twiddling my thumbs and praying that they found my passport on the plane and not, as I feared, on a jet bridge in Madrid. I averted the eyes of an airport security agent as he berated the woman across from me for essentially attempting to break the terms of her visa. I tried futilely for nearly an hour to access the wi-fi connection. So much for being a “good traveler.”

Ultimately, thankfully, they found my passport below my seat, right next to my sunglasses – both of which I can only imagine dropped from my hands as I fell into a stupor somewhere in transit. Off to a great start.

And it only got better. I had booked a shuttle called EasyBus, a function of notorious budget airline EasyJet. Not only did I find that this “bus” was a 14-passenger van – to the point that you had to duck your head and crouch AND put your luggage in a rack at once – but it was running an hour late. Innumerable vans passed us by, dropping off passengers and proceeding to their lunch breaks as the scheduled times ticked by. You truly do get what you pay for.

There was the cherry on top, of course. As I frantically texted my Airbnb hosts from my roaming Spanish cell phone we’d gotten for the dialogue (really looking forward to seeing those charges next month), I realized that even as they finally decided to wait outside for me, I had taken the Tube the wrong way. I would have to backtrack, then change lines, then walk to this new place. They arranged someone else to let me in.

I imagined their sight unseen impression of me, which was probably simply wondering how an unaccompanied, if articulate, fifth grader had managed to make it to London alone. Not well, apparently.

It was at this point, finally sitting in my room, finally connected to wi-fi for the first time that day, that I heard the shows were canceled. There’s a reason this is only hitting me just now, I think. (Denial? Probably denial).

With my plans now up in the air, being so tired, and with the nagging assertion that I was in London, damn it in the back of my mind, there was really no time to think about it. So I didn’t.

I proceeded to have what can only be described as a lovely time.

I tried to check off things that I hadn’t seen before: Camden Market, Soho, Regents Park and its breathtaking gardens. My first afternoon was spent wandering around the Covent Garden area, into Chinatown and the theater district. I was, gratefully, reunited with at least a few of my far-flung tour friends: Jamilia and Ans from Belgium. They suggested we meet up at Portobello Market in Notting Hill, which turned out to be one of my favorite spots of my visit.

I’d last seen them almost three years ago as we’d braved a day of 92-degree heat at BelgiumThenvsNowBrussels’ Pukkelpop Festival. My, how time flies. Fittingly, we were reunited at a gig by the band UK Foo Fighters, who must be the most singularly detail-oriented tribute acts to ever exist.

Nearly every nuance of the band’s live performance was replicated. And, as so many people had traveled in for the Wembley shows (with, like myself, nonrefundable travel arrangements), it was like witnessing rock and roll group therapy: hundreds of people yelling along to the songs they should have been hearing not even a block over, in one of the biggest stadiums in the world, arms around each other in a tiny club. It may have been a concession of sorts, but it was pretty damn cool.

All of this to say that while I had a great experience in London and I’m grateful for the time I spent there, it’s been a period of mental readjustment, to be sure. I think, if I’m truly honest with myself, the hardest part is knowing that before I had decided to tour for this portion of my trip, I had toyed with the idea of going absolutely anywhere and everywhere I hadn’t been – Oslo, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels (which I technically have been to, but it didn’t really count).

With the driving force gone from this venture, it was strange to not feel as excited about it as I would have been with a show to go to, or with everything around me being new – or, hell, even with my friends around me. Without a doubt, these are the things I’ll have to keep in mind going forward as I plan my next adventure (and somehow I always am).

On a lighter note, here’s a rare and brief explanation for this photo, featured above:

2015-06-19 15.07.55On one of the days that I was meant to see the shows that was, now, completely free, I set off to finally visit Abbey Road. Standing outside, I was particularly struck by all of the signatures and messages written on the white gate just outside the studio.

I went to take an artsy-looking Instagram photo of a random portion of them, when I did a double-take: I recognized the handwriting.

It was Dave Grohl’s signature, written only days before. Because of course it was.

Phase One: Complete

It’s incredibly strange to think we’re nearing the end of our time in Madrid – but if I’m honest with myself, it definitely feels like it. I get the prevailing sense that while I’m sad to leave this all behind, it’s sort of time to go. What started as a full-out sprint has slowed to a steady, tired jog across the finish line.

Protest coverage in Barcelona.  Photo cred (as always) Maria Amasanti.

Protest coverage in Barcelona.
Photo cred (as always) Maria Amasanti.

Toward the beginning of the dialogue, I mentioned one of my favorite aspects of traveling: the awareness of the full weight of one day that it can provide. I stand by that, and there’s truly no escaping the sheer mass of five weeks spent doing this work.

There are a lot of ways I could measure my time here. There are my three stories, and all of the work that went into them: sleepless nights in my home stay in Barcelona, hours spent at a surprise protest, a punk show in downtown Madrid, e-mails sent and unanswered.

There’s my oddball Instagram account, a sort of visual highlight reel that in no way conveys how beautiful Spain truly is:

There is, especially for Karolina and myself, a tally of things gone wrong: a missing host mother, cold showers, tuna in my salad. An airless apartment in a string of 90-degree days, an endless string of vegetable tempura lunches, an utter lack of reliable wi-fi (which, for reporters, is comparable to oxygen in terms of necessity).

There’s our record of Friends episodes in Spanish (24), the number of times my feet were stepped on on a dance floor, causing minor injury (two), the amount of cava and hummus purchased and consumed by the residents of our apartment (unknown/immeasurable/embarrassing).

There’s the sheer number of miles walked, either by virtue of a walking tour, chasing a protest, a hike, or my own predilection for wandering a city listening to NPR:

stepschart2

I’m pretty sure in Barcelona in particular we were averaging around eight miles a day.

In much the same way, I feel the takeaway from this trip can be viewed in a myriad of ways.

There’s a short list of things I would change or do differently, if I could. I wish I would have been good enough at managing time to maybe get another story out – or maybe that we had just enough more time to make that possible. I wish I could stay longer, dig into the music scene, see more live shows. I wish the government representative for the Ministry of Culture had responded to my e-mail before my deadline, so my story might have been that much stronger. (I can’t say I blame them, though).

I wish I had brought a bigger suitcase, because I am incredibly concerned that I won’t be able to fit everything in it again. I’m not entirely sure how I did that the first time.

There’s a longer list of positives, of course.

I’ve come to love Barcelona and Madrid. Both are lively, beautiful and layered, with people I couldn’t be happier to work with. I could use another three weeks in each. I can’t wait to come back someday.

It’s been all the more fun for being here with this group of people. I think it’s beyond all of us how it turned out so well, with being so incredibly different, but it did – and for the most part, it’s been a blast (especially at our apartment, if I do say so myself).

I’m proud of the work I did, taking my stories from pitch to post-edits, and making my deadlines. I’m proud that, even when I was up late or into the morning, or even when I was incredibly frustrated with research or finding a source, I didn’t give up. I’m proud of tackling the language barrier as best I could, and asking for help when I couldn’t (which is, actually, my least favorite thing to do).

I’m proud of rolling with the punches and being adaptable, of laughing off something that, while maybe inconvenient, really wasn’t the end of the world – and being able to see that for what it was. It can always be worse, and it will always get better. And even if it doesn’t, it’ll make for one hell of a story. I’m not the first to mention this here, but I think for the most part we’ve all come to realize that we’re each more resilient and driven than we may have thought at the outset.

With that in mind, here’s what I’m looking at now: this adventure as one part of a larger whole, one phase of my trip over with, and miles to go before I sleep:

TravelMapScreenShot
Without exhausting this topic (which, outside of the blogosphere, I’m pretty sure I have already), I’m faced now with the prospect of some of my post-dialogue plans being completely thrown off with little notice. I think that if anything has been reconfirmed for me through this, though, it’s that things just kind of happen. And when they do, ultimately you have no choice but to just get through them and do what you came to do – even if that means whining about it just a little.

And now, without further ado, I’m about four weeks late for a much-needed nap.

“Amigos”

It’s getting down to the wire with story deadlines here, and our time in general. (That’s absolutely crazy to me, for what it’s worth.)

When I’m no longer constantly preoccupied with this story, I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about our time so far in Madrid – and, thanks to our last excursion this weekend to Toledo, I am positive I’ll have an abundance of photos to share, none of which will do justice to how breathtaking it was.

But for now, I leave you with this, which is generally apropos of nothing.

In Barcelona, Karolina and I discovered our mutual obsession with  love for the show Friends. I consider quotes from that show to be a kind of dialect I’ve been fluent in since childhood. I can reference it without thinking, and I identify with the bitingly sarcastic character Chandler sometimes more than I would like to admit.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/fivezaj/24-signs-youre-too-awkward-to-talk-to-a8zp#.gv6Qvr5qW We both were also determined to better our Spanish – out of necessity and, in my case, both intellectual desire and a stubborn reaction to constantly being the only person in a room to not quite know what was going on.

I remembered an anecdote my friend from Paris had told me three years ago; she’s conversationally fluent in English, and had told me that her method of education had been playing the show Friends around the house, 24/7. Being surrounded by the language constantly, and in a format she knew, had helped her to drastically improve.

Thus, a tradition was born: Karolina and I have officially made it through an entire season (24 episodes) of the sixth season of Friends since we started. And while I’m not sure it’s provided much in the way of instruction, it has been relentlessly entertaining. (It has also, unlike watching the program in English, demanded constant attention – I don’t know if I’ve heard the language spoken so rapidly in my life.)

Here’s an example, for your enjoyment:

(In my opinion, whoever does dubbing for Chandler is a gift – the dedication to accurately imitating his weird noises and vocal ticks is admirable.)

Now, about all of these follow-up e-mails in my drafts folder…..

spotify:track:7v0mtl6oInUtHOmTk2b0gC

Madrid’s All Right, If You Like Accordions

My first days in Madrid, in summary: It is very, very hot. My feet hurt. I might just love this city.

apartmentviewsunset

The view from our new apartment’s balcony. Not too shabby.

I’m somewhat biased in that, traditionally, I’m drawn to cities like Madrid. I find the energy contagious, the scope and size of them breathtaking rather than daunting. I’ve come to appreciate the feeling of being small, a part of something much larger than myself.

I love the idea of getting on a train surrounded by people on their way to work (or whatever it is) all of whom could give a damn about my business, let alone about the guy who just started a solo jazz performance on his melodica (true story). It fosters a kind of single-mindedness, because when you’re not worried about what anyone else thinks of you, you proceed directly with living your life.

It’s the same reason I’ve been compelled to co-op and otherwise live in New York for over a year and a half of my time at Northeastern. The parallels are hard to escape: there are infinite things to see and do, huge numbers of people, and, for the most part, there is always something going on.2015-05-27 10.57.57-1

And, of course, there are innumerable streets and avenues to walk. Over the past few days, I’ve tried to explore as many of those as possible. With Karolina and alone, I’ve managed to indulge in my favorite pastime: wandering, headphones in, for hours in a new place.

I used to say I could walk the streets of New York forever if I could; one of our first days here, Karolina had to all but force me to stop for food, two hours into our aimless wander through the city. I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

pantomate

A few of my favorite things: cafe solo, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and pan con tomate – all for three Euro.

Unfortunately, it seems my photo-taking is inversely proportional here with the amount of things I’ve actually seen. Karolina and I discovered the beautiful, sprawling Parque de Retiro, electing to walk back.

That took nearly two hours. On our way, we discovered the young, vibrant neighborhood of Chueca, full of restaurants and tapas bars covering sunny plazas; the tourist-filled Fuencarral; the aptly-named Gran Via, a European cousin of Fifth Avenue.

No more than 48 hours later, a colleague encouraged me to take a spontaneous trek 20 minutes out, into a neighborhood I would have no idea how to find again, in search of vegan ice cream. Once it was acquired, we trekked back again to continue our assignment in a local record store.

While perhaps the weather isn’t ideal, without exaggeration, this is the kind of thing I

Because of course I would stumble upon a rock festival in a small town in Spain

Because of course I would stumble upon a rock festival in a small town in Spain

live for in seeing a new place. In a sense, the conscious decision, in itself, to explore something entirely new makes it feel a little more familiar.

Then there was, of course, the day trip to the beautiful Segovia, where we stumbled upon a small outdoor festival; the familiar sounds of California-inspired desert rock, performed in Spanish, were nonetheless all the better for their juxtaposition to stoic, aging churches and cobblestone streets.

2015-05-30 11.45.41-1

A sampling of Segovia

Sitting in the sun, beer in hand, listening to live music – I remarked to Karolina that I could have closed my eyes and been back at one of my favorite outdoor venues the summer before. It was a little piece of home, but with a twist.

The universe, however, is constantly dissatisfied with such subtlety: as we got up to leave, a couple came running after us: “Are you from New York?” I was startled by the question (let alone hearing it in English) so they explained before I could form a response – gesturing to my bag, purchased at my favorite, tiny record store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, they told me they lived just down the block.

Bye Bye, Barcelona, or Maybe This Punishing Schedule Was Worth It After All

Historically, I’m pretty miserable at being a tourist.

Most of my solo travel has been with a goal in mind – a show to go to, people to meet up with, some sort of endgame that strictly limits the “free time” I have to work with.

Usually by the time I have all of the various moving parts in order, I’m either too exhausted to come up with a solid sightseeing itinerary, or I just don’t have the time (or money – picking and choosing which cathedral or museum to visit is its own exercise in disappointment).

The last two weeks in Barcelona have been all the more interesting in this respect. Whenever we weren’t in class, we were off to one destination or another – a day trip out of the city limits, a walk through a certain neighborhood, an art museum. And despite the inherent frustration in doing so as part of a herd of 20+ backpack-clad people (and balancing the time demands of this with reporting) I came to appreciate that immensely.

I’ll admit that if I were to do my normal planning via travel guides on LonelyPlanet, TripAdvisor or the like, I wouldn’t have come close to this. Hell, now I feel like I could write my own.

Guided tours were hits and misses; hiking was….challenging; the weather didn’t always cooperate. But in the end I had to reconcile myself with the fact that I saw a lot more of Barcelona than I ever would have, had I been left to my own devices.

Most of the time, I felt like I didn’t have any time; I certainly wouldn’t have planned an in-depth itinerary with what little I did. It’s more likely my trip would have resembled variations on a single, long nap.

That being said, I think the nature of the journalism program has provided a sense of balance to the inherent awkwardness of being shepherded from Gaudi to Gaudi. By virtue of our work, we’ve been not only encouraged, but required to interact with people who actually live here day-to-day – they are not only invested in the stories we’re writing; they are the stories. I think the process of interviewing surpasses any other kind of cultural engagement we could have asked for in signing up for a dialogue course (which, the more I think about it, is in our case all too aptly named).

Part of my workload here in Spain was lending a hand to a story on the growing sentiment of anti-tourism, or push for tourism industry reform, led by locals of the city. After doing research and talking to protesters, it was hard to get rid of the self-conscious voice in the back of my own head, making me see my own actions here in a new light. In a sense, it gave me an idea of everything that I didn’t want to be associated with, let alone represent.

Saturday night was one of our last free evenings in Barcelona, and one of my only opportunities thus far to indulge in one of the city’s trademark late nights. I don’t do so well with open-ended free time, my constant indecisiveness usually whittling away the hours until I sit at home with wine and Netflix. With all of the aforementioned on my mind, I knew I wanted to go somewhere local, preferably frequented by locals. I asked Inma, one of our program coordinators, for a suggestion.

Thus, at midnight I found myself in quite literally the corner of a tiny basement space called Quilombo. It was neither a bar nor a venue, but some entirely unique hybrid thereof. While at 11:00 I had arrived thinking the place was dead, by 11:30 it was as if a crowd had materialized from thin air, the energy and volume (and temperature) up exponentially.

As more people arrived into the early hours of the morning, the staff simply urged people to squeeze closer together, around the tables of strangers, against the wall. They carried stools overhead and somehow found a place for them amongst the chaos, which only meant having to step over them to carry drinks – and, as the night wore on, to dance.

The incomparable Pepe, a magnetic performer and improbably talented guitarist, enthralled the crowd with song after song that, apparently, everyone in the place knew, singing along at the top of their voices. At one point shakers made out of empty coke cans were passed around; later, cardboard fans with the logo were passed out, somehow turning into a prop for some of the dancers, and a necessity for those of us against the wall.

Maria turned to me several songs in and remarked that if I knew the words to any of the songs, Quilombo would probably be my ideal bar. She wasn’t wrong. In a brief and shining moment when “La Bamba” segued into “Twist and Shout,” I smiled so hard my face hurt.

It was one of the most palpably joyful things I had experienced in a long time. It was exactly what I wanted.

In summary, I feel I can leave Barcelona with sadness, but with few regrets. My only wish is that I had another two weeks dedicated solely to trying bars and restaurants per the recommendations of Inma, who has proven to be something of a spirit guide in how particularly perfect her suggestions have been.

It’s been a privilege to spend two weeks getting to live and work somewhere, getting to know it all the better by reporting and studying its language. I’ve enjoyed the city so much; I’ve even rediscovered how much I enjoy learning (and struggling through) Spanish.

In that sense, it’s a question of not so much looking back but looking forward to Madrid, with a better idea of how to hit the ground running and do the very best that I can.