In Spain, of course, they speak Spanish. And I vaguely remember that that seemed strange for the first few minutes after I landed in Barcelona, because where I grew up, speaking Spanish meant certain things about the speaker. Generally it meant aged 25-50, a darker, more exotic look, people who had a little, or a lot, less than I did. There were exceptions, of course, and I’m not even sure how conscious I was of these generalities until I left.

Still, it was strange to be in Spain and hear everyone speaking Spanish – from the Chinese immigrants working in the convenience stores, to the kids playing outside (who otherwise looked just like American kids back home), to the old woman walking around with her cane and her furs, looking down her strongly European nose at everyone who passed her. It was different – but it felt somehow right, and after an hour or so, I completely forgot about the old connotations. Spanish after all is a living language, spoken by entire societies – their rich, their poor, their young, their old – and in the United States right now, our perception of Spanish-speakers has come out incredibly skewed and unnatural.

On my journey home, I went through Madrid first, and then Miami. The proportions of English speakers to Spanish speakers changed gradually, and the flight over was about half and half. This itinerary might have softened the linguistic transition for me, but it also brought me back face to face with the language’s reception in my own country.

The flight landed and the airport workers descended on us as we disembarked, herding us into different lines while shouting at us – in English, mostly, with one or two Spanish words thrown in, as a condescending afterthought, so mispronounced and devoid of context that they couldn’t have been helpful. “Go to the left for customs, you’ll have to show your passport… pasaportay! After that is baggage claim, those of you with connecting flights need to pick up your luggage too… equipajay!”

They hadn’t given us the customs forms on our flight, so I had to go up to the counter to get mine. There I found another worker standing imperiously over a tall counter, talking to a short and nervous looking woman standing below. “You need an address in the United States,” she was saying again and again. “Direcciones. Direcciones. You need to write down the address next time you travel. The officer needs to see an address. Direcciones.” She was getting more and more frustrated, speaking more and more loudly, as if that would help. I started filling out my own form, but stopped when the worker kept asking her who was coming to meet her, and she wasn’t understanding at all. I stopped for a moment to translate – it was such basic stuff, just, “Who is coming to meet you? Your daughter? Can you give me your daughter’s name? Your daughter’s address?” You’d think the customs officers in MIAMI would be trained to handle that.

I finally got in line myself and was called up to the passport check. I had an American passport, and obviously understood English, but I said few words, and it was noisy, and I have a Spanish-looking first name. I guess that was all it took. Every other time I’ve gone through customs, they’ve stamped my passport and handed it back saying, sometimes even with a smile, “welcome home.” And after a long journey, that feels… good.

But this time was different. The officer never smiled. Before stamping anything, he gave me one more long look. Then he thrust the passport back into my hands, gestured in the direction of the exit, and muttered, “Entre.” – “Enter.”

The implications made me want to throw up.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 14:58  Comments (2)  

Long Way Home

View from my window

December 18th was probably the longest night of my life. I mean literally. I’ve never been so far north, so close to the equinox. But figuratively it wasn’t a piece of cake, either.

To save money, I picked a cheap flight from Studentuniverse.com, even if it was a bit convoluted. In the end, I had to spend a short night in Bilbao, get up at 5 to get to the airport, fly to Madrid, transfer, fly to Miami, transfer again, and then fly home to Tampa. I was awake for a full 24 hours, and going through security twice and customs once and fighting stairs and busses with all my suitcases, they weren’t particularly pleasant, either.

At least I kept flying south – the bad winter Europe’s having is playing havoc with all airports north of about Paris, and when I was in Bilbao they kept delaying the flights to Germany and the U.K. by hours at a time.

As we neared Miami, the Spanish pilot came on the air and said, only in Spanish, “As you know, Iberian ham products of all kinds are prohibited in the United States. If you declare them, they will take them away. So, you have two choices – either you can not declare them, and take them home and enjoy them with your family for Christmas… or you can declare them, and we will take them home and do the same.”

Published in: on December 20, 2010 at 22:40  Comments (1)  

Last Laundry, Last Groceries…

I’m down to a few more lasts as I prepare to move out of my piso and fly home. I did my last big load of laundry today so that I could actually start packing. I did my last groceries, as well – a loaf of bread, a carton of peach juice, and two potatoes. Really it’s only what I need to use up what I already have. It’s amazing how much needs to be done before I actually leave.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 15:52  Leave a Comment  


Plaza in Ochagavia

For lunch on the second day of our road trip, Marketa and I stopped in Ochagavía, the most prominent village in Navarra’s Salazar Valley. We walked alongside the river, admiring the traditional architecture and taking pictures like crazy. Then we found a reasonably priced sidrería (Cider-house) to eat at. Marketa ordered “cow’s face” as she called it – some sort of cheek meat, while I ordered traditional Basque meatballs, Basque pate, and cuajada for dessert.

Marketa saw some Kukuxumusu merchandise in a store window in the plaza, so in we went. I was ecstatic to find several animated movies from my childhood – in Basque! Red-faced but determined, I asked the lady behind the counter for Haran Sorginduaren Bila – also known as The Land Before Time. She was very sweet. “I see you like cartoons, just like me!” she said. As she was scanning the movie, though, she realized that it wasn’t just in Spanish, but in Basque! I told her that was why I was buying it, because I was studying Basque a little.

At that, she went out to the street and called in her friends. “This is an American girl, studying Euskera!” she announced. All of them were pretty impressed. “You’re doing what we could not,” they told me. “We’ve tried to learn a little bit, but we’re too old now, it’s too late, we’re the lost generation.”

“Our grandparents spoke Basque, our parents understood it. But then came the Franco years… It skipped us. But now the children are learning again! And even you, an American!”

Mount Arangoiti

With views like these, it’s no wonder people hike up Arangoiti. But here’s the mountains little secret – you can actually drive up all the way to the peak itself!

Published in: on December 12, 2010 at 17:56  Leave a Comment  

Zorionak Ainhoa!

Just like in ordinary life, sometimes you have to make tough decisions while abroad. I’d been looking forward to the upcoming International Student Farewell Dinner for weeks, just as I’d been looking forward to my friend Ainhoa’s birthday party. I’d submitted photos to the farewell slideshow, RSVPd on Facebook, and bought Ainhoa a birthday present. Then, the day before the dinner, I got a phone call from one of Ainhoa’s friends. The two events were going to be held the same day, the same time.

It wasn’t a fun decision to make, but I knew from the moment I got the phone call what I would decide. Ainhoa had been a great friend to me. Of all the locals I’d met, she’d made the most sincere effort to include me and show me her culture. I couldn’t miss her birthday, not even for a tear-filled slideshow where all the international students would probably sing along to “as we go on, we remember, we will still be, friends forever…” (and really, what else can happen at an event like that?)

So, I went to Ainhoa’s party. I was meant to meet with the girls who lived on my side of town so that we could take the bus to Txantrea together. I arrived at the designated place at the designated time. It was a cold night, and generally arriving right on time in Spain means you will be waiting 10-15 minutes, but I decided to play it safe because I was meeting with Basques (northern Spanish cultures are a bit less relaxed about time), and because it was a surprise birthday party. After several minutes, another girl who was waiting approached me and asked whether I was Miranda. We chatted and laughed at ourselves for arriving ‘early’ until Andrea came out of her apartment at last. By then we had missed two buses, and since they only come every 15 minutes, we were over an hour late to arrive in Txantrea.

On the way from the bus stop, we suddenly heard cowbells sounding through the otherwise quiet night. To my delight, a parade of Basque Joaldunak ran by! These are dancers who wear cones and ribbons on their heads, costumes of bandanas and wool skirts, and, best of all, two enormous cowbells strapped to their backsides. “Why are they here?” I asked. “To scare away evil spirits!” said Andrea. I laughed at that. “Okay. But why here, and right now?” She just smiled and shrugged.

We met up with the rest of the group and headed to a bar. As we approached, I once again heard the clanging of cowbells. The Joaldunak were taking a break and a beer inside! It was a tiny place, with Basque independence posters joining calls to socialism, vegan-ism, and the legalization of marijuana on its walls. I worked up my courage to ask one of the Joaldunak for a picture. He was so excited that I spoke a little bit of Basque, that soon he was teasing me and telling me I could play with his bells. Awkward in a way but way too much fun to resist!

After some time in the bar, we went back to a friend’s place. This was actually my first and only time in a private house in Spain! (Within Pamplona, it’s all apartments.)  We cooked sausages and croquettes to eat with bread and good Navarran cheese. Everyone wanted to play cards, but after a round or two of playing some Spanish game I never really got the hang of, they asked for an American card game. Okay, fine, but they didn’t have what we would call a ‘standard’ deck of cards – only a set of Mus cards, with less royalty than our decks and suits of coins, swords, cups, and wands, like in tarot.

Towards the end of the party, I gave Ainhoa the present I’d put together for her – some large print photos I had taken of her the day we went to the Cantabrian Sea. Ainhoa and her friends had a present for me as well! I had misunderstood a certain Basque political poster, often hung out of people’s windows in Pamplona and elsewhere, to simply mean, “The Basque Country is awesome!” They all thought this was very funny, and bought me one of these flags. Everyone signed it for me as well.

Zorionak, Ainhoa, eta Mesedez!

Happy Birthday, Ainhoa, and Thank You!

Pony Problems

I was excited to find Arangoiti when I was scrutinizing my map of Navarra, planning my road trip with Marketa. A mountain we could drive right up to the top of? The highest thing for miles around, with views of the Embalse de Yesa, the Leyre Monastery, and Foz de Arbayun? It sounded perfect. Some people hike up to the top of Arangoiti just for the view – what could go wrong if we drove up instead?

Watch and see!

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Published in: on December 11, 2010 at 17:48  Leave a Comment  

Return to the Foces

Foz de Lumbier (Morning Sun)

Marketa and I started the second day of our road trip with the Foces of Lumbier and Arbayun to the east of Pamplona.

Rushing brown waters in Foz de Lumbier

I’d visited the Foz de Lumbier before, but I was happy to return – the foliage had changed from autumn colours to winter, and the morning sun lit up the side of the canyon that was deep in shadow during my last visit. Weeks of rain and recent snows had turned the waters turbulent and brown. Of course, the visit was also much more convenient by car: we paid 2 euros to park in the nearby lot, and then we could walk in and through the canyon and back in about forty-five minutes.


"The" view over Foz Arbayun

Just a few kilometers down the road is Foz de Arbayun. Arbayun may be even more spectacular than Lumbier, but it’s somewhat less accessible, with no easy path going directly through. There are some hiking trails that go through the gorge leaving from the village of Usún, but as we had lots we wanted to do that day we opted merely to drive to the lookout point on the road between Lumbier and Navascues. It’s well worth a quick stop – the view is stunning.


The Valley of Baztan

The road trip I took with several friends to the north of Navarra took us through the Valley of Baztan twice. The valley, one of Navarra’s seven largest, is named for the river Baztan, called Bidasoa further downstream where it forms the international border between Irun, France and Hondarribia, Spain.

On the way up north, we visited the village of Amaiur-Maya. I saw it on the map and suggested a quick stop as I had seen pictures of its mill in one of the tourism guides. In the end, we didn’t even see the mill – but we strolled down main street (the only street?) and up a hill to a strange monolith, built (as I later found out) to commemorate the a Navarran revolt in 1522.

Night was falling as we headed back south, stopping in Elizondo (the capital of the Valley) and little adjacent Elbete. Elizondo’s church is worth a look (Eliza = Basque for Church) but mostly I just enjoyed the quiet streets with their yellow lamp-lights.

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 16:48  Leave a Comment  

North, to the Witch Caves!

Zugarramurdi, in the Valley of Baztan

In the extreme north of Navarra is a little town called Zugarramurdi, home to 218 people and, four hundred years ago, one of the biggest and bloodiest witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Ultimately, forty suspected witches were found guilty and sent south for further trial, where many ended up being burned at the stake.

In my second to last week in Pamplona, some friends and I took a rental car up to Zugarramurdi from Pamplona (about 1 1/2 hour drive). We were in a bit of a hurry, so we only took the quickest peek at the new Witch Museum, but we were especially eager to see the Sorgin Leze, or Witch Caves, where the devil himself was said to give services to congregations of witches on the banks of the Hell Stream (Infernuko Erreka in Basque).

The Hell Stream

The first thing we came across while walking the loop path was the infernal stream itself, reddish brown and strangely opaque. It looked as thick as paint, but it was moving too fast and without staining the stones around it. Although we were certain that the colour must come from the soil – clay or something similar – it was easy to see why earlier generations had found it so unsettling.

The caves are enormous and airy inside...

Following the stream, we soon found ourselves in the cavern itself, with its high ceiling and the little chambers above us to the left, where the covens were said to hold more private meetings. Open on two sides to the air, it was more like a natural bridge than a cave, but spectacular either way.

Whatever you believe about the historical ‘witches’, it’s easy to imagine some fantastic bonfires taking place here!

The biggest opening, with the hell stream below.

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 00:54  Comments (1)  
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