This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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This hot afternoon

SS-12Sunshine, with shade under the tamarind trees
White tables and chairs against white boardwalk
Women in flowy flowery dresses and gentlemen in panama hats
Behind a white-painted Belle Epoque iron railing, a busy beach with bathers
White Ferris wheel spinning
Orange Apérol spritz is (unfortunately still) the choice of many
Hiking sandals, on both men and women (why?)
Straw hats, very few baseball caps
Murallas of Parque Urgull
Patatas fritas and calamares

I have a new housemate. And she is the new girl in class. She is young, from Newcastle, does not do any exercise, does not like to work, and she smokes. Also, she favors to pronounce Spanish as if it were English. All this I found out in our weekly introductions exercise in class. I try to not judge her because she is different from me. At least she is here, working hard on learning Spanish. And I am sure the rest of the class has pigeonholed me in some way as well. Perhaps they think I am snooty because I wear pearls practically todos los días.

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


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Capoeiristas, concealed toilets, and unordered life plans

christinaenea-4Spent the morning in Christina Enea park and was quite distracted by four white-clad, surprisingly chubby capoeiristas spinning and tumbling about to drum beats from a boom-box. What’s the deal with wearing white? These well-rounded capoeiristas seemed to represent a local club, with Brazilian flags on their shirts and cameras rolling to capture their dancing battles. The one lady of the trio revealed her convex belly and an awfully bright yellow yoga bra, but who cared? She rocked the outfit, and she could do things while wheeling on her hands and feet that I will probably never master. christinaenea-2I seemed to sit right under a quince tree, as a lady with a little fat dog busied herself around my bench, picking fruit into a bag. The dog was quite as interested in what was on the ground as her mistress, but not helpful at all in picking quinces.

Gave up on the summit of the park and the capoeiristas’ acrobatics in favor of looking for a toilet. Or “los servicios comunales” as they are often called here. Thanks to a quick Google search pulled up a map of the park and found the toilets, unmarked and well hidden from anyone who necesita el baño. The peacocks I passed on my way look at me with disdain. There is nothing elegant about a tourist desperately in need of a bathroom.

After I successfully completed the comunales project the park was nearly empty. Most families had probably retreated for a late Sunday lunch, and I repaired underneath a tree which at close inspection appeared to be a Californian redwood tree. In Spain. And it certainly was not planted yesterday – or less than a century ago.christinaenea-1The whole aim of this trip to Christina Enea park was to create a life plan: what would I like my life to look like 10 years from now? 5 years from now? What needs to be kicked off next year, or this year? I sat underneath the redwood tree and gathered bits and pieces: getting hold of Spanish and then spending the rest of my life trying to decipher French; completing the book manuscripts I have in my head; ensuring my job either includes home office time or a max commute of 20 minutes door-to-door; and ensuring I have enough creativity and headspace in my life. And oh yes, living by the sea. And oh yes, the person I live with wants to move to a landlocked country. 

The bits and pieces refused to create order among themselves. Like the insane pioneer claims in a favorite poem by Margaret Atwood, “this is not order but the absence of order. He was wrong, the unanswering forest implied: It was an ordered absence.”

I gave up and went for pintxos and local wine.christinaenea-3(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


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Sunset at the pop-up bar

SS-13Sidra, olives, and a setting sun in San Sebastián. There was my Swiss housemate, whom I had found earlier in his room feeling miserable about a broken eardrum which ended his surfing afternoons. There was my classmate who was going to Paraguay for two years. And her mother, who had just arrived and would join school next week. There was an American classmate who had spent a year traveling in Europe, looking for her father’s lost Jewish family. There was a Filipina ex-classmate whose boyfriend was local; and her two Filipina friends. And there was I, listening to my new friends talk and from time to time turning to look at the sun still warming my back.

Parque de Urgull now has a pop-up bar, and it is popular. Also, the sunset happens to be magnificent. My American and Filipina classmates climbed all the way to the foot of the Christo statue for a good view. My Swiss housemate was enjoying the moment with every cell in his body, which is more than one can say for most 25-year-olds.

Here the sun sets late, and fast. It is as it falls into the ocean, just like in the tropics. We are also more West here than most of the British isles; yet we are in the Central European time zone. Hence the day is longer towards the night: the sun does not set until just past 9 pm in late August. It also does not rise until past 7 am, so the mornings are dark. I squinted at the sinking sun and wondered whether this had contributed to the late eating habits of the locals. After all, most restaurants open only at 8 pm which is still an hour away from sunset – and two hours too late for my early health-habits.SS-10(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


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Week 1: completed!

grammarYesterday we completed the first week of class. Some students are leaving, and some new ones will arrive. The pace of the lessons may be fast for someone who hears everything for the first time, but for me this is a highly useful repetition of the Rocket Spanish Level 1 content which I completed last winter. Together with the vocabulary cramming I also undertook last winter I am able to stay afloat and relaxedly listening to what is brought to our attention, obtaining a deeper comprehension of the grammar, and picking up 3-6 words every day.

When I go home I have a lunch with fresh or steamed vegetables (yay! No pickles or pintxos!) and complete one chapter from our grammar book, on top of our official deberes as well as a good helping of the the frequency word list.

I am happy to notice this system works for me. I am (limitedly) communicative in Spanish and able to carry out a longer but simple conversation. I just need a little more time and education to climb across the hurdle that is becoming effectively communicative. I am already dreaming of the day when I can finally add a fifth language to my list of “fluents”.

Last night I celebrated the successful completion of week one and tried to be quiet the following morning, as my land lady’s door was still closed. She comes home late every night and I often do not hear her at all, as I get up early for yoga. But around 10.30 am I desperately needed the ironing board from her room and moved to plan B, hunting around for a shirt which did not need ironing.

Suddenly the front door opened and my landlady entered, looking surprisingly fresh for an all-night-out. Turned out she had not been at home at all that night. Naturally my mind swung into all sorts of ideas about the adventurous life of my landlady, until she brought the boring reality down: she had been with her family and ended up too far from home so she stayed over with them.

Ah, if only I had discovered that my otherworldly-efficacious landlady did not only run two jobs and a social life, but was the life of the party every weekend as well.

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


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Pintxo bar survival guide

padronesMore pintxos. Of course. This is San Sebastián. I lust for fresh vegetables but all I find is pickled olives, pimientos de padrón, or grilled red peppers on bread (which I do love but in moderation!). At home I steam tenderstem broccoli or flat green beans every day. Word is spreading among my classmates about a restaurant that specializes in fresh vegetarian fare. Sounds like heaven to me right now.

The original pintxos were apparently simple fishermen’s food. They seem simple, but keeping a menu of 20-30 pintxos and bocadillos requires a lot of salting, pickling, blending, and deep-frying. A potato tortilla is a pintxo (or bocadillo), and the “original” pintxo with green olives, green pickled peppers, and a small slice of pickled anchovy requires quite a lot of preparation if everything needs to be home-made. GetariaBasque bars are not places for relaxing, thinking, and writing. The music is loud and energetic, and if there is no music the other people are loud and energetic – and there are no seats. Eating at a pintxo bar is not for the timid, and some command of the Spanish language does make it much easier. The best is to just elbow in, look at what is going on and what is on the menu (and everybody’s plates) and then do like everyone else. And if there is no need to elbow one’s way in one is probably better off by going somewhere else. Some pintxo bars are order only. Others require the guest to take a plate, fill it at the bar, and pay at the end of the counter. Some bars have table service for the lucky ones who manage to grab a table. Finally, in the most traditional bars one elbows one’s way to the counter, orders just 1-2 pintxos and a small glass of cider, and flees into the street to eat after paying in cash at the bar. 

Each bar may serve 20 different kinds of pintxos, but there is always one signature pintxo that the locals know to choose. Some are proper dishes (I’ve even heard of a risotto “pintxo”). Thus on a Wednesday pintxopote night (or a weekend night) people pintxo bar crawl, having one or two bites and a small drink at each place before moving on. Ordering 10 pintxos in one place in one go is what tourists do. 

With pintxos most locals choose to drink Basque cider, or txakolí, a local cider-like wine. Both are very dry and contain little or no bubbles. Therefore they are poured from a special cork which is added to the mouth of the bottle. The glass is placed several dozen centimeters below, preferably at arm’s length, and the drink is poured in one long stream (like something else yellow…). The idea is to freshen up the flavor by aerating the drink before serving. Both txakolí and cidra taste surprisingly strong and yeasty and even bitter. The cider is strong and alcoholic while the wine is not, and both are served in the same large tumblers which are only poured one-third full or less – some 100 cl at a time. Just enough for a pintxo.SS-9

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


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Earth’s history like pages in a book

Flysch-5One sunny afternoon after class I, my classmate, and two lovely Catalan ladies crammed ourselves into a car and headed out to the Flysch UNESCO geopark. Our guide gave us a walking stick each, brought us up a hill with a magnificent view over the coastline, showed us the hiking route across the rocks to a beach we could not quite see, and said “agur”, which is Basque for “adios”. “See you when you get there.” Then he turned on his heels and walked away, back to the car.

We ladies began our trek down the hill, along the beach, with some trepidation that we’d lose the way because there were so many trail options and markings. Finally we understood that “our” trail was the red-yellow-white detour trail of the Camino del Norte (the North pilgrimage route to Santiago) and we lifted our eyes to enjoy the landscape.Flysch-1And stunning it was: soft, undulating grassy hills that stopped short as if cut in half, with a rock face plunging straight down into the ocean. Horses with bells and lots of flies, green grass, blue skies, blue ocean water, and white froth. And several pairs of backpacked people walking the Camino, more or less worn out and sunburned.

The Flysch geopark is like an open book of the history of our Earth. Each vertical slab running from the hills into the ocean is like a page, a fossilized fold of the surface of the Earth. Once upon a time these pages were laid one on top of the other, but then the continental plates moved and forced the ocean floor to turn sideways, like a book standing on its spine. There are “pages” of yellow sand; others with ammonites trilobites, and other sea life; and surprisingly many black bands from volcanic eruptions. Together these layers form millions of millions of years of history. The reason for the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago can be confirmed here: the black band sitting in the right place “in the book” contains traces of extraterrestrial material, from the ash cloud that killed the sunlight and much life on Earth for years after the meteorite hit. Flysch-2Good shoes were needed, as well as a good head with two functioning ears. Our guide spoke with an Argentinian accent (which I find the most difficult Spanish accent). Somewhere along the tour he must have forgotten that I and my classmate were estudiantes de español, possibly because we nodded our heads too vigorously. And so the guidance of the second half of the tour was lost to us.

As I sat in the shade of the striped rocks I marveled at the age of our Earth: the time and effort needed to slowly create these deposits of animal fossils and dust and silt which then became band structures. The Iberian peninsula was once upon a time far adrift, and only when it floated back into contact with continental Europe the Flysch formation was squeezed and rotated into view. Could this stunning geometric structure have been a holy site for humans living here tens of thousands of years ago?
Flysch-3

(Flysch Geopark, Spain; August 2019)


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Beach day and time-traveling in Spanish

Flysch-4Today was a beach day. I also got sufficiently much sand in my notebook. I found myself needing a new pen and finally located a stationery shop 10 minutes before siesta closure. I then proceeded to spend five of those trying to explain to the shop clerk what a rollerball pen was. “No es una pluma, y no es un stylo o biro. Es un otro lápiz. Más fácil para escribir…” I finally dug out my current pen from my backpack and showed it to her. “Ah!” her face lit up. She did have a Stabilo Worker, although what “rollerball” is in Spanish I still do not know. I missed my heavy, clunky Faber-Castell but as it is too showy outside of the office world I left it at home.

I briefly encountered my landlady again today. “Muy mal!” she scolded me and my housemate, Swiss Patrice, as she walked into the kitchen. “You do not learn Spanish if you speak English” she added, and bullied us into another early-morning brain-numbing conversation in Spanish.

Today’s class was all about the imperfect past tense. “If the time is not completed, you should use this tense” explained our teacher. For example, today is not yet over and neither is this week. Makes sense. But it turns out that for Spaniards, “a while ago” or “five minutes ago” is also not a finalized time or activity. “Pues sí, está finito, de verdád?” I tried to argue. “No, pero it is still part of today, and today is not finito…”

The Spaniards seem to consider time within a day a dimension accessible for back-and-forth time travel.

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)