Tag Archives: travel writing

How To Visit the Past

A long time ago, a nurse in the Dutch army met a seaman in the American Navy at an officer’s club in the Philippines. He was composed of wasn’ts: he wasn’t an officer, he wasn’t Catholic, he wasn’t going to be her husband. And yet, they dated. And yet, he proposed. And yet, she said no (due to his lack of Catholicism). And yet, he became Catholic (one of the most devout I’ve ever known). And yet, they got married. And yet, despite the wasn’ts, they lived happily ever after.

Or something like that.

I inherited many things from my grandmother. My curly hair, my short, thick, graceless fingers, my Dutch heritage, my liberalness, and this story. This is the story of how my grandmother met my grandfather, how I moved to Europe, and how, for one week, I got to revisit the past.

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The church where my grandparents were married in Joure.

 

 

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The courthouse room where my grandparents were officially married.

 

When my older sister turned 13, my grandmother took her and my two other cousins–also Dutch, also 13–to Holland. They spent a few weeks traveling as my grandmother introduced them to the place that she’d come from.

We come in sets, my cousins and I, like littermates. We’re grouped in increments, occurring every few years. Katie, Meredith, and Dennis were the first set to be taken to Holland. They were also the last. Beppe died four years later.

I grew up knowing that, one day, I’d go to Holland. I thought it’d happen with my grandmother, then later, there were talks about aunts or uncles or parents stepping in to finish the tradition that never was. Because, if there was one thing that my grandmother valued, it was the connection between her old country and her new. We always had cousins and great-aunts and family friends visiting. She hosted nieces and nephews, sent her own children to spend summers in Holland, visited at least once a year. She never moved back but she never moved away.

A year ago, I had some last-minute time-off. Almost immediately, I knew: this is it. It’s time to go to Holland.

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A bicycle for sale in Heerenveen

 

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A bicycle (not for sale) in Amsterdam

 

Things exactly one year ago were a whirlwind. I had a puente where I went to England, then I was home for two days, then I was on a train to Cadiz for carnival. And then, directly from carnival and still very much hungover, I’m on a plane to Amsterdam. I’m going to the grandmotherland.

I arrived in Amsterdam late on Sunday evening with a bit of a hangover, a bit of a cold, and a lot of exhaustion. I still hadn’t planned out all of the details of my trip.

This is where the family comes in. Number one travel suggestion for visiting Holland? Be Dutch.

My cousin Maryke has informed the clan, through the power of Facebook, that one of Sirpriana’s own grandchildren will be returning to the home country. The Dutch relatives come out in surprising force. In Amsterdam, Sjoerd and Fransizka book-end my trip: collecting me from the airport and hosting me when I first arrive and then putting me up for the remainder of my stay in the tiny house in their backyard. In Eelde, I spend a night with Maryke and meet my cousin Jesse, who I’ve heard so much about. In Joure, I stay with my Tante Ide, Maryke’s mother, who shows me the courthouse where my grandparents married, the old family farm, and also Giethoorn.

Maryke is one of the few familiar faces I know in Holland. She visited us once or twice when I was little and I remember her vividly. When I stay with her, she buys me antihistamines and a cheese slicer: the only things you need to win me over, apparently.

Tante Ide is Maryke’s mother. Maybe I’m supposed to remember her from when I’m little, I’m not sure, it was all so long ago. But before long, she becomes familiar. From the Dutch accent to the way she cuts her food, it’s like being with my grandmother again.

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Tante Ide in Giethoorn

 

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Franziska showed me around my last Saturday in Amsterdam (and Holland). We went to the Rijks, for bowls of soup, and a market where I got a leather journal, a sundress, and a bitchin’ handkerchief for less than 25 euros.

 

My grandmother, Sipriana Minnema Adams, died when I was only eleven or so. Now, at the age of 23, there are so few things I remember about her.

Mostly, I know the stories that my family tells me.

Like three weeks ago, I was at dinner with my aunts Mary and Lisa and we get to the topic of Beppe and Granddad. Aunt Lisa tells us, “Once I asked Mom, ‘why did you date Dad?’ And she told me, ‘because he fed me.’ And then I asked Dad, ‘why did you date Mom?’ And he told me, ‘because she was on time.'”

Or the one that my mother told me, about how, years and years after my grandparents had been married, my grandmother told my grandfather about a bank account she’d started when she’d first come to America, some seed money, in case this whole marriage thing didn’t work out.

The impression I get of my grandmother is that she was fearless. That she was independent and strong. She was confident. She was kind. She was punctual. She was stubborn and, probably, she was sometimes wrong but, in the end, she was usually right.

She was also a saver, hence the secret bank account. When each of her grandchildren were born, she bought us stocks. It was those stocks that I sold to finance my trip abroad.

Going abroad was hard and scary. Not that my family would’ve ever told me not to go, but let’s just say they would’ve been perfectly okay if I’d changed my mind last minute and decided to stay. So, finding the courage to get on the plane and leave was something I had to do on my own.

I thought about my grandmother, leaving Holland for a new country with a new husband and a new future that she’d probably ever imagined. And then, several years and five kids and fifteen grandkids and one happily ever after (and a flesh-eating bacteria and a bout of pancreatic cancer and a few other maladies) later, here I was. I was made possible by one adventure, committed to by two people in a courthouse in Joure, all those years ago.

So I got on the plane and I moved to Europe.

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It is my DREAM to one day live in a tiny house. Franziska let me live my dream for the weekend by setting me up on a cot in her office aka MY VERY OWN TINY HOUSE. Also, not their cat.

 

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The ceiling of the Hetsheepvaartmuseum, in Amsterdam

 

I don’t know how it took me a whole year to post about being in Holland. Even though I wouldn’t have been able to make a spur-of-the-moment trip if I hadn’t been living in Spain, my time in Holland seems separate from my time in Spain. This trip wasn’t about traveling with friends, about taking in new sights and unforgettable memories and cheap hostels and even cheaper beer.

This was something different, a connection with my past. It reminded me of being six and seeing my sister off at the airport. It reminded me of being five and picking bluebonnets and buttercups in the field behind my grandparents’ house on Sunday mornings after mass. It reminded me of the red toenail polish my grandmother fastidiously wore, it reminded me of the blue and white of her extensive collection of Delft china, it reminded me of cake on Sundays after mass. It also reminded me of my grandfather, not because he was from Holland as well, but because of how much he loved my grandmother.

If you were hoping for some step-by-step tourist guide to Holland, I apologize (though I do heartily recommend the Hetsheepvaartmuseum, the Rijksmuseum, and Hortus Botanicus!).

Sometimes I forget that I ever went to Holland and I guess I just wanted to remind myself of the reasons I went, and the reasons it meant so much to me. And also, for the future.

I never would’ve had Spain or Italy or carnival any of it, if I hadn’t gotten on that plane. And I never would’ve gotten on that plane if it wasn’t for my grandparents. So let this serve as a reminder to myself in the future: get on the plane, marry the foreigner, move to a new country, be independent and stubborn and kind. Because fortune favors the bold and adventure always follows when you’re willing to take the risk.

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A Special Set of Skills

I’ve been applying for a whole slew of jobs lately, particularly in the field of hospitality and customer service. While my actual work experience is rather limited, I’m playing up other skills, like my success in completely random and unrelated fields (pottery painting, horse wrangling, whitewater rafting), my dubious Spanish skills, and things I’ve learned from this past year. Somewhere after “functional-ish Spanish” and “traveling hungover,” is the skill of flexibility.

On no trip was my flexibility tested more than my time in Italy. Here is a short list of setbacks that required flexibility whilst journeying across the Italian countryside:

1. That time my flight got canceled three days before I was supposed to leave.

2. That time I had to book a new flight and bump up my departure time, giving me 24 hours to pack, give notice at work, and get ready for a week in Italy.

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This is what last-minute packing looks like.

3. That time that I got all the way to Malaga and found an email from EasyJet that basically said, “JK, original flight back on. All that drama from the last 24 hrs? It was for naught.”

4. That time I had to beg EasyJet at 6 AM to let me on the plane.

5. That time that Laurel and I arrived in Milan and got lost right out of the gate because we spoke no Italian.

6. The time immediately following that when we bought the wrong train tickets in an effort to get to Como.

7. That time that Laurel and I successfully made it to Saronno, transfer to a new train for the last leg of the journey to Como, take that train all the way to the end of the line, find out that its not the right train, head back to Saronno and try again.

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Oh hello, Saronno train station, you look familiar!

8. After getting on the right train, finding the water taxi, spending too much on the water taxi, getting to Menaggio, Laur and I read the sign pointing towards the hostel, then walked in the opposite direction for twenty minutes.

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The expensive, but worthwhile, water taxi.

9. That time that we hiked several hours up a mountain and to a waterfall and then got lost on the way back down.

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The waterfall in Val Sangra. Worth it? The near-heart attack given by the sight of the world’s largest cows that live in this part of the mountains might beg to differ.

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Ehh. In Val Sanagra.

10. When there was a train strike (naturally) and we couldn’t make it to Venice.

This is what cancelling your trip to Venice looks like: sailing on Lake Como with new friends from Australia.

This is what cancelling your trip to Venice looks like: sailing on Lake Como with new friends from Australia.

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SAIL.

11. Even though it didn’t happen to me, that time that Christina missed her flight out of Barcelona, booked a new flight to Milan, couldn’t catch a train to Como because of the strike, got on a bus that left her at the Swiss border, and joined us for a brief 24-hour stint in Menaggio.

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Reunited and it feels so gooooooood.

12. When the train strike ended, we cut Venice from our trip itinerary, and made it to Milan, we bought the wrong train tickets and made it to the right train to Cinque Terre with a few minutes to spare.

13. That time we got lost in Vernazza, an Italian town with exactly one road, and couldn’t find our lodging because we couldn’t find a street sign.

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Vernazza

14. That time Christina wanted to wear her hiking boots with her sundress and Laurel and I outvoted her and then we ended up hiking for an hour and a half.

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I see Italian trail markers every time I close my eyes.

15. Whilst hiking the trails connecting the cities of Cinque Terre, we were finally coming down from the mountain that we had to climb to get to Manarola and came to a fork in the road. Naturally, we took the path that led us along the cliff with no handrail.

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Quick, 2-hour accidental hike. Corniglia in the distance

 

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Manarola, as viewed from the edge of a cliff.

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The end of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore

16. The time when, taking the train back from Riomaggiore, we didn’t buy tickets since we hadn’t had our tickets checked the entire time we’d been in Italy, and this happened to be the one train where they were checking tickets. We were also on the wrong train.

17. The time that I packed only skirts and dresses (and one pair of pants) for a week in Italy and then it was rainy and miserable the three days we spent in Rome.

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The colosseum is smaller than expected #secfootballproblems

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The most breathtaking landmark I’ve seen to date.

With the year wrapping up, my fellow ex-pats and I are making plans for the future. The majority are coming back for a second year in Spain, while others are pursuing new paths back in the States. For them, Spain helped them figure out what kind of career they want and what they want to do with their lives. Me, I’m still trying to sort out my emotions from New Year’s.

But one thing I have figured out is this: I want to work for a company whose creativity and passion matches my own. One thing that my scattered work experience has in common is that I’m at my best when I’m being challenged.

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Saturday market in Como

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Watermelon bike in Florence

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Lemon tree in the mountains that run along the Mediterranean

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Ruins in Val Sanagra

I was watching Charlie Day’s commencement address this morning and, if anything, it resonates more with me a year out from college than it would’ve a year ago. Because when you’re sitting in an auditorium in a funny hat and gown, anything seems possible. The future is a big uncertain thing and you don’t know what the next adventure holds.

Well, I’ve made it through the next adventure after college. Sometimes, it felt like a continuation of college. Sometimes, it felt like I was just born and living for the first time. Sometimes, I feel like I’m back in that auditorium wondering what the hell is going to happen next.

So I’m staying flexible. I’m taking a bus to Switzerland and skipping Venice and hiding in a bathroom from the man who’s come to check my non-existent ticket. I’m applying for any and everything and I’m refusing to settle for a job, a career, a new life in a new city, that doesn’t excite or impress or inspire me. I’m terrified, but I’m going with it.

“You do not have to be fearless, just don’t let fear stop you.” –Charlie Day’s Merrimack College Commencement Address

 

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The Last Month

If you’ve noticed a lack of silence around The Accidental Adventurer, that would be because I’m trying to break some non-existent record (that only exists in my head, like many of my travel games, apparently) by traveling for the last 9 weekends straight (in backwards-chronological order: Almeria, Cabo de Gata, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Lake Como, Almeria, Granada). The blog posts have been piling up and I still haven’t even finished my damn post about the trip to the (grand)motherland (aka Holland) that occurred back in February and has been hiding in my drafts folder for the last few months.

So, in an effort to procrastinate even more, I thought I’d pull together a list of things that, with only a month left to go, I’m just now realizing.

1. I’m a competitive traveler.

This was brought to my attention whilst abroad in Italy, specifically Rome. I like to think of myself a student of crowd dynamics: it’s all about reading the bodies, seeing a break in the crowd, and going for it. When I get into a metro station or historical monument, I don’t dilly-dally. It’s a get-in, get-out mentality and I’m blazing a path that all others in my party must scurry to keep up with (sorry Christina and Collin). In my mind, I’m racing (against myself? Who else is playing this game, Madelyne?) to make it through the crowded situation as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Another explanation besides OIC (Obsessive Internal Competitiveness; don’t look it up, I just coined it), could be the fact that I’ve got a bubble and I like to keep it intact. Fun fact: having a bubble is how I avoided getting pickpocketed on a metro in Rome (um, why are you standing so close to me? Oh, it’s because your hand’s in my purse? That makes sense.)

Another game I like to play when traveling is called Get Me the Heck Out of This Security Line Without Any Hangups. Hangups include: forgetting to take off belts, being told you can go through with your shoes on but then going through with your shoes on and setting off the detector and having to go back through and take off your shoes, forgetting to wear a tight enough shirt so that the security guards can visibly see that you’re not hiding anything under your shirt and therefore can refrain from doing the awkward credit-card-swipe-between-your-boobs thing.

2. My couch is more comfortable than my bed. 

Figured this one out when my friend since forever, Luke, came to visit and I “selflessly” gave up my bed for the few days that we spent in Huercal. Score one for manners!

We're pretty much an old married couple.

We’re pretty much an old married couple.

3. My TV does speak English!

Also a realization from the Visit of Luke. Whilst trying to find the Bayern-Real Madrid match on the telly, I got distracted, as I do every time I turn on my television here in Spain (a thing that’s only happened a handful of times since I moved in), with trying to switch the language to English. And this time it worked! So Luke and I chowed down on burrito bowls and watched terrible celebrity news about the richest babies and a really bad Charlize Theron movie and I fell asleep on my mega-comfortable couch and it was all so American I could’ve cried.

4. Spain doesn’t scare me anymore.

I was walking to school sometime in early May when it hit me.

I remember the first day I arrived here. Saying I was cautiously optimistic would’ve been a stretch; I was convinced that this was going to be the biggest mistake of my life to date and I would have to just grit my teeth and suffer through the next 8 months. I had a survival strategy: drown myself in Friends episodes, write copious amounts, and travel to Almeria to see my friends on the weekends every chance I got. And that’s actually pretty much how it went down. But, also, it became my home.

When I first arrived, everything was a Big Deal. Going to the supermarket for the first time left me soaked in sweat, for the first month I had to force myself to make my daily visit to the bank to try and sort out my bank account yet again, and every so often I’d reward myself with a walk to the British goods store and a Dr. Pepper: I’d run these errands then I’d scamper home and stay there until it was time to work.

And now, it’s not. I know people, I know places, I know words in Spanish necessary for communicating. Spain doesn’t scare me anymore. It’s going home that’s got me terrified.

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Things that don’t scare me: Spain. Things that do scare me: a two foot drop and a three foot gap between my toes and this boat. In Barcelona.

5. I’m good at simple.

I figured this one out a little over a month ago, when I was packing for Italy. One week spent on trains, planes, and automobiles starting in Milan and working our way down to Rome, and I’d crammed all of my necessities into a smaller-than-necessary backpacking backpack. Much credit is due to H&M’s pañuelo-sized tank tops, but more credit is due to my winter break training when I made it through 2 weeks and 2 major holidays in 2 different countries with a slightly-bigger-than-said-smaller-than-necessary-backpacking-backpack-but-still-impressively-restrained suitcase. One pair of pants, no jacket, and too many skirts meant I was often ill equipped for the springtime weather but not throwing out my back with a child-sized backpack that also doubles an effective weapon and shield (ahem, Laurel) (broma, Laurel, I actually really want to make the Purple Beast my own).

But this has spilled over into other areas of my life. I can sleep on almost any surface you give me, I can stay up at a disco until 5 and I can wake up at 7 to catch a train, I can survive a weekend in Barcelona with a pair of shorts, two skirts, and a tank top (not that I did, I’m just trying to prove a point).

And it’s freeing (not just because I’m confidently striding ten feet ahead while Laurel is crushed under the weight of the Purple Beast). Less money spent on clothes and extravagances like a bed (because I really should’ve just been sleeping on my couch the whole summer) mean more money spent on the important things, like plane tickets and beer and books.

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Simplicity personified

6. This is the end. 

With one week to go, I’m finally starting to realize what this all means. Hint: it means that I’m leaving in a week.

As in, no more Spain. As in, no more weekend trips to Almeria. As in, no more puentes in Barcelona. As in, no more cheap RyanAir flights to Dublin. As in, no more binge shopping at H&M.

When we were hiking in Italy, Christina (or was it Laurel), asked the other two of us what we were going to say when we got back to the States and people asked about our time abroad. I had a dialogue ready in my head.

Well-Meaning Person: So, Madelyne, what’s changed since you’ve been back?

Madelyne: [Gaze off into the sunset dramatically. Whisper:] Everything.

Well-Meaning Person: [naively chuckles] What’s that supposed to-

Madelyne: EVERYTHING.

It has. It has changed everything. It’s changed the way I talk, the way I think, the way I cook, the way I dress, the way I look, the way I walk, the way I feel. Everything.

There’s really no good way to end this post because there’s really no good way to end this year. I’m gonna shoot for going out with grace and dignity but will DEFINITELY fall short of the way. In the mean time, I leave you with this picture of a Spanish sunset and the promise of tears.

Sunsets in Almeria

Sunsets in Almeria

 

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Ex-Pat Games

In honor of my flight to Italy being cancelled THREE DAYS before I was supposed to leave, while I’m scrambling to find some travel alternatives, I thought I’d enlighten you on some games that us young ex-pats like to play whilst abroad.

How Can I Get There for Very Cheap Game

Objectives: Get there for very cheap.

Rules: Pay little to no money.

Directions: Employ every method you have in your arsenal: Skyscanner.com, Hostels.com, Alsa, BlahBlahCar, basic human interaction. Fly Ryanair. Buy a suitcase that fits their stringent luggage requirements, then load that baby down and take it everywhere. Speak the language when necessary, play the mute card when necessary.

Be flexible. The cheapest flights are usually the ones that no one wants, i.e. early in the morning, or too late to make sense. Prepare for 4 AM check-ins.

And, if your flight gets cancelled three days before you’re supposed to leave for a week in Italy and the only other available flight means that you have to leave TOMORROW, book it.

Guess What Nationality I Am Game

Objective: Guess my nationality. (I’m like the Lily’s dad from HIMYM of board game titles)

Rules: Don’t ask, just assume.

Directions: Identify the person as non-Spaniard, guess every nationality that doesn’t make sense and then some. I have been identified as French, German, some kind of Scandinavian, British, and Australian multiple times, but never American. Have you heard my accent?

Sunday Night Dinner Game, Or, Alternatively, The Saturday Night Mercadona Game

Objective: Feed yourself on Sunday.

Rules: Everything is closed on Sunday.

Directions: Depending on your plans for the weekend affects how you play this game. If you stay in your hometown, then choose the Saturday night version. If you’ve spent the weekend away and are only returning on Sunday night, please select the Sunday night version.

SATURDAY NIGHT VERSION: Lounge about your room/apartment/village until the last possible minute. Realize that the grocery closes in 30 minutes. Grab your shopping bag and wallet, make a dash to the Dia/Mercadona/Lidl/Carrefour of your choice. Have absolutely no plan so that, when you arrive at the store, you buy things like spicy mustard and chicken seasoning, but nothing that makes sense like cheese and water and bread. Wait for Sunday, wonder what you’ve done and why you have nothing to eat.

SUNDAY NIGHT VERSION: Return to your home, collapse in your bed and lay there with your computer propped on your boobs watching SNL until hunger prompts you from your nest. Realize that you have nothing edible or easily prepared. Create a masterpiece that would make your drunk, college-self proud. Recent hits include:

-egg, beef, pepper, onion, rice, or, as I later realized, essentially a breakfast taco

-marinera, greek yogurt, and mayonnaise for pasta sauce (created by Laurel Hess)

-toast and ali-oli

Meet the American Game

Objectives: Introduce an American to all of your friends and family

Rules: Must be Spanish.

Directions: If you’re the American, you don’t really do much. Besitos, smile, basic Spanish greetings. Answer the same questions over and over. This is actually usually a really fun, if exhausting game. People are so nice and, usually, considerate enough to speak slow enough for you to follow. Sometimes, they tell the same story over and over, and if they’re 83 year old Spanish grandpas named Pablo and the story is, “En ingles, me llamo Peter,” well, then, it’s just downright adorable.

Street-Crossing Game

Objectives: Cross a street without a crosswalk sign.

Rules: Don’t die?

Directions: Prepare yourself. Bounce on the balls of your feet. Look left, look right, even if it’s a one-way street. Be confident, swagger if possible. Move so slowly that it appears you’re about to be hit by that car that just stepped on the gas to hit you, let it graze your leg, leap the last few inches to the other side, triumphant. It’s a rite of passage and you’re not really Spanish until you recklessly cross a street.

This game is, obviously, played in other countries to varying degrees. Check your local listings for appropriate rules and directions.

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My sidekick for the next week, apparently starting tomorrow.

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On Sunday I had a bus to myself

Day 17 is a photo post, with the prompt “Something I never would’ve seen at home.”

And the question is raised: what haven’t I seen that I never would’ve seen at home? Dublin, Paris, Lagos, Sevilla, Granada, Madrid, and Almeria to start. Cadiz, Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, Reykjavik, and London to follow. Mountains and the Mediterranean and cliffs and monuments and cultures. I’ve seen it in boots and Chacos and sneakers. I’ve carried the same maroon satchel that’s become an almost cartoon-like staple for my traveling wardrobe. I’ve traveled by trains and (too many) buses and planes and the occasional automobile.

It’s impossible to choose just one picture so I chose one taken on the last place that I ever expected to become my second-home: seen over the pages of a notebook, the aisle of an ALSA bus.

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The Empty Seat

Growing up, 203 Nottingham was a nest of chaos. I mean, it’s not that surprising. With five kids, ages ranging over a 12 year span, there was always something: soccer practice, Boy Scouts, PTA meetings, school projects, and then the usual scuffle and bustle of everyday life with seven people living in one house. To get my alone time I used to spend it reading books in closets and playing with Barbies in the sliver of space between my bed and my wall.

Sometimes I feel like I’m making up for a lifetime of alone time. A pueblo of 16,000 in a foreign country is a pretty good place to start.

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New graffiti find. Photo courtesy of Kristen DuFour.

I like traveling alone. It’s easy. When you’re in a state of anxiety because you missed your bus, there’s no one to calm down but yourself (and no one knows how to calm yourself down better than yourself; for me, it is a book and maybe a piece of candy). You can drown the world out with a pair of earbuds and the latest Beyonce, pretending that she is the soundtrack to the movie that is your life.

I spend a lot of time in Spain traveling alone. Not necessarily at the destination but usually on the journey there. I live about 2 hours away from the capital of my province and the hub of all things transportation. Before I can take a weekend trip anywhere, I first have to get to Almeria. Those 2 hours on the bus are my zen time, better than any yoga. I pull out my green notebook and my To Do list of writing (finish this chapter, plot out that storyline, brainstorm for this blog post, jot down some notes about that revelation), plug in a playlist and get to working. Two hours later I have a cramp in my hand and a peace in my soul that I couldn’t get if I was traveling with someone else.

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When you travel alone, there are a lot of artsy pics of cats and landscapes. Photo courtesy of Laurel Hess.

I’ve never loved Granada the way you’re supposed to love a city, like the way I love Madrid. What I do love about Granada are the trips that I’ve taken there: with my parents, with Belen, with friends. I do love that I’ve been here so many times there’s none of the usual pressure to run around and see every sight possible in 48 hours. I do love that I have my favorite places–Cuatro Gatos for carrot cake, Little Morocco for souvenirs, the road along the Darro for art, the Makuto for lodging–that I can single out and revisit.

do love sunsets over the Alhambra, I love taking it easy in a familiar place, I love finding new graffiti and trying on harem pants and giving in to the notion that purchasing said harem pants might be the greatest decision I will ever make in this city. I do love listening to the rain and snuggling up in “salas de chill-out” and triple bunk beds (I actually only love these in theory; middle bunks seem like a good idea but are actually the worst idea ever) and watching We’re the Millers and conversations on Sunday mornings in a room full of bunk beds that makes me feel like we’re a family at a ski lodge.

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Solid purchase. Photo credit Kristen DuFour.

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Too many possibilities to choose just one in the stereotypical, chill-out-room-at-hippie-backpacker-hostel photoshoot #noragrets. Photo courtesy of ME, via Kristen DuFour’s phone.

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If there is an Irish pub, you must go. Photo courtesy of Jenna Cranston.

In Washington D.C. in the main greenhouse of the National Botanical Gardens, there is planted a ravenala madagascariensis, or a traveller’s tree. Said to get it’s name from it’s storage of water and alignment of leaves from east-to-west giving travelers nourishment and bearing, there is an accompanying sign that says “Stand in front of a traveler’s tree and make a wish in good spirit and it will come true.”

And so, standing under the tree of my future, four months before I was getting ready to leave and practically catatonic with peace at being engulfed by so much green, I made my wish.

I wished for someone travel with. At the time, what I’m really thinking is, “Please let me walk out of here and bump into some gorgeous young senator who’s going to make it impossible for me to want to leave but will fund a fabulous 2 month tour of Europe as our honeymoon.” Or, given the shortage of eligible young senators that look like Corey Stoll, maybe more realistically, “Please let the empty seat on my flight back to Texas be inhabited by someone who is intelligent, single, travel-hungry, and gifted with a beard.”

Just three months shy of the anniversary of this wish, I realize that I already got it.

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The Traveller’s Tree

The question has come up recently, “Madelyne, what is the favorite place you’ve been so far?” My knee jerk reaction is to shout, “ICELAND!” but then I remind myself that I haven’t actually been there yet so it doesn’t count (ONLY 4 MORE MONTHS, THOUGH!). And then my second thought isn’t where but with who.

After 13 miles and 24 hours in Cabo de Gata, we were running to catch the bus back to Almeria (shouting “Americans, assemble!” in an attempt to leave no man behind but also an attempt to avoid being that man left behind). Not a crowded bus, we had our choices of seats and so the nine of us dominated the back five rows with our obnoxious English chattering and our overstuffed backpacks.

Listening to these friends I had never imagined making, I realized that this is my favorite place I’ve been so far: the in-between of Leaving and Being There with people that you know.

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Another important thing about traveling with friends: they can call you out on it when you say “I’m going to go take a nap” and then find you fifteen minutes later awake and snacking. Photo courtesy of Laurel Hess, that snitch.

It’s weird to say that we’re friends. We’re somewhere between and a combination of friends and colleagues and family and confidants and passport booty calls and therapists and the American embassy and a gang and not even close to being acquaintances. And when I wished for someone to travel with, I was thinking of someone that I could share my hopes and secrets and faults and weaknesses and strengths and wanderlust with and not a damn one of y’all has a beard.

But still. They are my traveller’s tree, my water and my bearings, and they’ve saved me countless times since I’ve been abroad with tea and travel tips and an American accent.

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Day 6 in the Expat Life

When I first moved to Spain, I hated it. Naturally.

I mean, what is  there to love? The gorgeous Spaniard men? How nice everyone is? The accents? Tapas? Thousands of years of culture? PLUS, I was in Sevilla. I mean, come on! Yuck! Twenty-four hours in and I was ready to go home.

My journal from my first night in my host madre’s piso went like this: “I hate it here. Spain is stupid. This is stupid. I want to go home. No, you don’t. You’re stupid. It’s new, you’d hate yourself if you went home now. You’re staying.”

I didn’t fall in love. Not at first, anyways. As with most good, worthwhile things, it was hard and it took time. And in 3 weeks when it came time to leave the city that I’d come to be fond of and the new friends I’d made in a foreign land, I was wrecked. It wasn’t fair! I hated my placement, I hated that I had to travel alone, I hated Spain all over again.

But I went anyways. Life lesson #583: Always go anyways. Even if it’s a complete and utter disaster, you went. And going even when it’s hard is ten times more of a triumph than going when it’s easy.

I arrived in Vera in the middle of feria. I paid a cab driver 5 euros to drive me, essentially, 100 yards. I had to shoulder my way through the party outside of my hotel with too much luggage and too blonde of hair. I was ready to burst into tears by the time I made it to reception and almost full-meltdown by the time I made it to my room and realized I’d left my adaptor for my MacBook back at my host home in Sevilla.

So I did what any self-respecting traveler would do: I put my Chacos on (or maybe I never took them off?) and I got lost. Nearly an hour later, sweaty and footsore and homesick and hungry, I was trying to lose myself back in the direction of my hotel when it hit me with standstill force: I can do anything.

But seriously. If I can survive 10 months in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and do things like make friends and feed myself and earn money and become a semi-permanent resident and rent an apartment and basically be an adult, then I can do anything. Barriers cease to exist, fears are put into perspective, and I am reborn into a more confident, self-possessed, courageous version of myself. And yes, it is very overwhelming right now and I’m very sad and lonely, it’ll make a damn good story when I cozy up to the hottie with the beard at the end of the bar in the English-speaking country I will one day reside in again and regale him with tales of my cojones.

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One of my favorite side effects of life abroad: simplicity. Tiny Tim here meets Ryanair regulations and accompanied me on two weeks in Dublin AND Paris. For New Year’s. Tiny Tim comes complete with formal dress and semi-formal boots, good for one New Year’s Eve festivity.

 

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So this one time, I was at the airport…

This really isn’t a good story, I promise.

So I do a lot of traveling alone, and I’m good at it. When you travel alone, you’re more efficient and you look a heck of a lot cooler than that 8th grade field trip of 70+ students all singing the latest Katy Perry tune. When you travel in a group, and you’re running late for a flight, you land up looking like the family from the Home Alone movies who somehow KEEP FORGETTING KEVIN AND ALMOST MISSING THEIR FLIGHT. 

The first time I flew into the Madrid airport was for World Youth Day in 2011. After a late departure from Miami, I (and the 30+ other Americans in my group) arrive fresh off my first intercontinental flight (see: 2 hours of sleep) and find that we have twenty minutes to make it across the Madrid airport, through customs and security, for our connecting flight to Valencia.

The Madrid airport is a delight (see: sarcasm). Waiting for us at our arrival gate was our oracle for the journey dressed in Iberia flight attendant gear. She passed us all bright orange priority tags and gave us our instructions (“Keep up.”) before setting off.

The Madrid airport is unreasonably huge. I’ve been there my fair share of times and each time I visit, I expect my imagination to have exaggerated its size, but I find that I’m always wrong. You have to take a train, which really isn’t that rare for an airport, but first you have to consult a map to make sure you’re taking the right train to the right building. The airport has it’s own railway system.

After you get to the right building, you take several escalators up, and then several escalators down, just for the fun of disorienting you. They have plenty of skylights so everything seems so bright but, who knows, maybe you’re really four flights down at the bottom of a well. Who can remember?

Back in 2011, we followed the (not-sexual) escort’s advice: we kept up, we flashed our orange priority tags (they might’ve said something else, like Emergencia or Peligroso), we breezed through both customs and security (a new experience!) and were sprinting down one of those conveyor belt sidewalks that, the moment you step off of, you fall over like astronauts who aren’t used to gravity or in-a-rush travellers who were tricked into thinking their own momentum really was moving them that fast.

I told you it wasn’t a good story.

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Day 3, An Object That Makes Me Feel At Home

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My Cowboys vs Crohn’s sweatshirt in Cabo de São Vicente, Portugal

When I moved to Montana, I worked for a company called the Flying Pig Adventure Company. Located in Gardiner, MT at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the Pigs offer whitewater rafting, lodging, flyfishing, park tours, horseback riding, camping goods, and some of the swellest people you’ll ever meet. When you work for the Pig you become an expert in adventure (as well as a regular at the Two Bit) and encouraging others to embrace the same lifestyle. In front of the camp store stand two huge sea kayaks standing on end. Among the many shpiels I became well-versed in reciting (along with directions to Hells A-Roarin’ Outfitters and explaining the figure 8 of the park highway system), was how the Flying Pig got its name.

The original owner, Geoff Faerber, had the grand idea that he would like to kayak down the Yellowstone to the Mississippi and then down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. A big idea for a larger-than-life man, Geoff was infamously told, “You’ll do that when pigs fly.” Maybe this was exactly how the story went, maybe it went a little differently and involved more expletives and fewer established phrases, but the kayaks and the company represent the idea that there will always be impossibilities. The aim of the company that I worked for was to make those impossibilities into realities. “I’ll ride the bull of a 16-foot inflatable raft through class IV rapids when pigs fly.” Lucky for you, we Pigs come with our own wings.

For me, Montana and the Pig was only the beginning. The Summer of the Pig put me on a path towards new heights, new experiences, new adventures, and an increased familiarity with PBR and Fireball whiskey.

Among the people I met whilst living under the majesty of the big sky, were two cousins and the founders of Cowboy’s vs Crohn’s. Another of my friends (Hannah “Boots” Eck & The People You’ll Meet Along the Mississippi) from that summer went on to get funding to take a raft from the headwaters of the Mississippi all the way down to N’Awlins. Geoff Faerber took two huge sea kayaks and started a company. Montana gives you a taste for living big and chasing impossibilities.

I got the sweatshirt when I donated to the CvC cause. It was my blanket on my intercontinental flight at the start of this adventure. It saw me to the end of the world in Portugal and it’s helped stave off hypothermia and homesickness in a poorly insulated piso.

Not least of all, it’s a damn comfy wear.

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“Not all who wander are lost…”

On my very first day in Huercal, my home for the next nine months, I got lost. I was trying to find the school where I would be teaching so that I could meet the principal. I followed the directions given to me by Google maps using the address sent to me by my new principal and I landed up maybe 20 minutes from where I was supposed to be: Huercal-Overa, the pueblo so tiny that Google Maps doesn’t even bother getting it right. It turns out that the street that I was on, Guillermo Reina, is actually 2 different streets. Let me repeat that: there are 2 different 35 Calle Guillermo Reinas in my town. I happened to stumble upon the one that was someone’s private residence.

So I decamped to the cafe across the street where I bought a croissant coated in sugar for 40 centimos and bummed off their wifi to try and communicate with my future employer. I waited for about an hour and finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, started and finished the short story Eve in Hollywood by Amor Towles, and began another, Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I bought a pizza baguette and gave up on hearing back from my principal (later, I found out that she came into the cafe only ten minutes after I had left. I was sitting underneath her apartment and she received my e-mail and stopped to pick me up on her way from lunch. The shop attendants informed her that, yes, there had been a blonde American waiting for some time but that, unfortunately, Laura had just missed me).

I strolled down the imposter Guillermo Reina and found a British goods shop where, miracle of miracles, they spoke English and sold Dr. Pepper. I kind of lurked by the pastry case just marveling in my good luck and letting the accents wash over me. I bought a bottle of water and a Dr. Pepper to go with my pizza, paid for my purchases, and left again.

Unknowingly, I found my way to the real Calle Guillermo Reina, passed the school that was, by now, baffled about how they lost one American girl in a town that only has 18,000 people (less than half of the total number of students at my alma mater and I still ran into a surprising number of familiar faces within the space of a day), and found a park. Or a zoo. After 4 months, I’m still unclear which it is. Locals just call it the park with the animals but it also involves pens and recently open a bar and I think they might be trying to add a water feature.

I found a park bench in the sun (I’m practically a lizard) and, in the space of a few hours, finished Where’d You Go Bernadette?devoured my pizza and sipped my blissful way through a Dr. Pepper that, after Shiner Bock, is the drink of my people. I still had a lot of problems: I had nowhere to live, I didn’t speak the language, all of the friends I had made over the last 3 weeks had scattered to the far reaches of Andalucia, and I had just finished an amazing novel and had nothing to read next. But, sitting there, lost in a foreign country, I realized that I could see myself living there (which was good because I really didn’t have much of a choice).

Four months later, I go to that park as often as I can. I’ve written odes to that park and the peacocks that sneak up behind me, investigate what I’m writing, then shuffle along, leaving me with an increased heart rate and a sense of blessing for my unconventional editors.

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Is it a zoo? Is it a park? Is it a bar? The answer is yes to all of these things!

I’m not saying that I’m not lost. In fact, most of the time, I am. That probably defeats the purpose of the quote and the prompt but I embrace my lost-ness for the accidental adventure that it is. My favorite thing to do in a new city is set out with a vague idea of where I’m going and then get lost along the way. Some of my best finds, my best stories, my best memories, have come from this method. No good or interesting story started with, “So I had the whole thing planned out and then nothing went wrong.”

Is it still considered being lost if you willing lead yourself astray? Looking back, I don’t think that I was lost. Sure, I had no clue what street, what park, what place I was in, but I think I was where I was supposed to be. When I’m feeling lost, I walk back to the park and sit in the sunshine and drink a Dr. Pepper and remind myself of the time that I knew that it was all going to be okay.

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