BASQUE-ING IN SPAIN

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12/23/09 to 12/26/09

Hola a Todos,

On Wednesday, December 23, the day after our Christmas celebration at school, I traveled on an Alsa bus to San Sebastian, Spain, where Javier lives. (Madrid is the center of Spain, and San Sebastian is about 5 hours north by car, near the border of France.) At about 7:45 a.m., I rode the Metro to Avenida de America, a huge train station and bus stop. Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast, I decided to eat at the enormous train station and found a restaurant offering the bocadillo, a sandwich consisting of a long bun with perhaps, cheese or cheese and Serrano ham. I bought one for breakfast and one for my bus-trip lunch. There was a packed bar filled with smokers, so after I ordered an orange juice, coffee, and 2 bocadillos, I immediately drank the orange juice and carried the rest of the items (no trays to be found), plus my luggage, to a table outside of the glass-enclosed, smoke-filled bar.

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Enjoying my bocadillo and coffee, I sat there watching a tableful of 15 women in their mid-50s, chattering, laughing, and yelling across the table to each other, as if this were their husband-free day to let loose and whoop it up with the girls.

As I had my confirmation number and my passport, having been told over the phone that these were all I needed for this bus trip, I went where the train turnstyle-stander-by guy had directed me. A few of the buses said “San Sebastian,” but to make sure, I asked the train information window woman, who could barely be bothered to look at me but somehow managed to scrape up enough energy to point downstairs. I hurried downstairs, ran over to the ticket office, got my ticket, and asked the ticket seller for the floor and gate number. I arrived at a different place, these buses also saying “San Sebastian.” At 8:50, the bus driver checked our ticket and passport/ID, and we were off exactly at 9:00 a.m., my seat, which I had selected over the phone, being at the very front.

I had barely gotten on the bus, when my “seat partner” was directing me to put my little bag overhead. I don’t know why she was so concerned, as she would in no way be bogged down either by my physical or emotional baggage. I put my small bag behind my feet and held the other bag in my lap, in no way edging over to her seat. She gave me some more advice in Spanish, but I said nothing to her, as I hadn’t asked for her advice. My bag held my laptop, and having already been robbed in Spain, I wasn’t about to take any chances storing my bag somewhere other than in my protective hands.

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Happy that I had once again reached my destination, the comfortable bus seat, and that the bus was filled with nontalkers, except for my little seat partner, I breathed a sigh of relief. The previous week had been filled with activities: the Christmas dinner, shopping for our Invisible Friend, preparing for the Christmas program, packing, making cookies for school and Javier, finalizing details for the three trips Margaret and I were to take. I was tired and wanted to be left alone, but my seat partner would have none of it. I could have actually spent my time talking to her in Spanish and maybe might even have learned something, but sometimes I just need to sit, be quiet, and not learn about my environment or the language, not walk the dog, not tend to students, not try to figure out what the teachers are discussing at lunch, not try to find an address, not try to get along with a roommate, not try to communicate with someone who doesn’t initially understand me, and [now] not try to talk to someone on public transportation. I didn’t feel like accommodating anybody at that moment, so after spending the first half hour looking at me or attempting to talk to me or glancing at my English language crossword puzzle book, my seat partner gave up and went to sleep. Peace. I would’ve talked to her if she hadn’t been annoying, but sometimes it doesn’t matter what language a person speaks: you know they’re annoying. Although I am disgusted by some aspects of American culture (mostly guns and violence) and might not be the most patriotic American on earth, I do love my country and I love the English language basically because it is my language and the language of our handsome, intelligent President. And I’m very happy that I understand the lyrics of famous songs and movies. So, sometimes I just need to be me, an American whose mother tongue is English, who gets jokes in English, who understands what Americans mean by how they say certain words or how they react, who can understand the finer aspects of my fellow Americans’ personalities. However, I can assure you that this smugness doesn’t come in handy when I actually have to communicate in Spanish.

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A movie came on front and center, Dan in Real Life. I wasn’t interested in trying to understand a movie without visual aids and with creepy, dubbed-over Spanish voices, but watching Steve Carell in action was amusing, as he is pretty darned cute and funny, and I could make out what was going on by watching characters’ expressions and actions.

I was spending a little time trying to figure out if the two girls across the aisle from me were lesbians: They were pretty and dressed like girls, but judging from their body language, although they weren’t doing anything overt, seemed together. I always like to think I can figure these things out, but for a variety of reasons, my conclusions are occasionally inaccurate, especially
lately, as people dress any which way now. I worked at ad agencies for 9 years, and I was wrong about a few of my coworkers: I had definitely thought certain guys were gay and then later had to conclude they weren’t, my conclusion affirmed by others. I didn’t care one way or the other: I just needed to know. There was a girl I used to work with who was about 15 years younger than I, and as she would bring me editing work to do every day, and I would ask her, “What did you and your young life do this weekend?” to which she usually responded that she had gone out drinking with some of our coworkers. After I was laid off, I was with an ex-coworker who told me that she was gay. Then toward the end of my time at that company, I remember her mentioning at the mockup table she would be attending the Gay Pride Parade that weekend. I still hadn’t put two and two together because lots of people go to that, as if it’s a spectacle. I guess I don’t find it as interesting as everybody else does. What I do find interesting is my sometimes inability to guess accurately anymore. Again, I resort to the advice of my father, who, as a musician, had spent some time around gay men in his profession: “They show you as much as they want you to know.” I never believed this for a long time, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how accurate and wise that information was.
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In the meantime, I was enjoying the scenery, and midway through the trip, our bus pulled into a rest stop, where I bought cafe con leche and ate the rest of my bocadillo. The rest stop was big and clean, and equipped with expensive gifts, souvenirs, alcohol, and a cafeteria. After 30 minutes, we boarded the bus again and were off.

Another movie was shown, this one starring “The Rock,” an ex-WWE [I think] guy who actually looks like a nice, half-intelligent,
humorous guy in real life, but the movie itself 1779315_10206422234455879_886725537271669441_nlooked stupid, so I worked on my crossword puzzles. (A former coworker had given me two crossword-puzzle books at my going-away party last September, and I have definitely used them.) Soon it was snowing, and we were driving much more slowly, my seat partner now awake and discussing every turn with the bus driver, who was sometimes on the phone discussing the weather and what he should do. From what I could tell, the woman wasn’t annoying him: she was just rambling on about the weather with him and then, when we reached San Sebastian, thanked him for helping us arrive safely to our destination under somewhat treacherous conditions. I, too, thanked the bus driver, and I almost thanked my seat partner for exiting the bus.

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Javier was standing on the sidewalk right in front of where the bus was pulling in. Like its airport, San Sebastian has a very small bus stop, where you would be hard-pressed to miss someone. He and I returned to his apartment, set my stuff down, and went grocery shopping.

On Christmas Day, we went to his mother’s house for dinner, and then she, Javier’s brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew came over to open presents on Christmas Day. I had brought Stroopwaffels (waffle-shaped, syrup-enclosed, Dutch cookies) and Hershey’s kiss cookies for everybody to enjoy. The next day, around 1:30 p.m., Javier and I drove downtown to meet his friend at a bar for pinxtos. Then we ate at a nearby restaurant, and the others took me to the train station. These buses and trains don’t dilly-dally: they leave pretty much on time, and I was off at 4 p.m. sharp.

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Margaret was to arrive Sunday, December 27, around noon, so around 11 a.m., I took the Metro to Madrid’s Barajas airport to meet her. We returned via Metro and took her stuff to my condo and then walked around Madrid Plaza Mayor, a few blocks from my condo, noting the people wearing wigs and the many Christmas kiosks set up there. (I asked a couple of teachers at school why Madrilenos wear wigs around Christmas, and they said that they just like to dress up.) We had a delicious cafe con leche in Plaza Mayor and a wonderful late-afternoon fish dinner in a nearby restaurant.

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My roommate was still at home, as her trip to Argentina had been changed, so she was planning to leave Madrid on New Year’s Eve, the day Margaret and I were to leave for Tangier, Morocco. Margaret went to bed early, not only because she had jet lag but also because our train was to leave by 8 a.m. from Madrid’s Chamartin station. Margaret slept in my bedroom, I slept on the couch in the living room, and Maite slept in her room. As usual, I had set 2 alarms.

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I had been instructed that if we left at a certain time the next morning for Chamartin, we would have plenty of time to arrive, but those instructions were off, and I should’ve listened to my own instructions. I had made the grave mistake of having printed out only my paid itinerary instead of the tickets. I had had so many things to think about and had thought, anyway, that the woman I had talked to on the phone said I needed only my passport and paid itinerary. I had tried to print the tickets out at school, but the printer wasn’t working and then I guess I had forgotten. At Chamartin, I was running ahead of Margaret, asking where the train for San Sebastian was. Directed to a platform, we took the escalator down. I showed my printout and passport to Security, but we were supposed to have the actual tickets, which of course makes sense. I had talked with many people and done so much research for all three trips Margaret and I were to take that I must’ve gotten this part wrong. Unusual for me, as if you know me, you know I’m pretty good about checking on things to make sure, but I guess I needed more panic and stress in my life, and this was my morning to embrace it.

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Margaret and I put our luggage through the screener, which I’ve never done for a train ride, the train woman still directing me to venture back upstairs to get a ticket, but there was no time. She finally acquiesced and I asked her “Which car?” in Spanish. I didn’t understand anything anybody said to me at this point, even if they had spoken to me in English: I was too stressed from having things go wrong after having worked so hard to organize three trips for Margaret and me. I did understand the number of the car, though. Once on the train, I suggested to Margaret that we sit anywhere until Senor Ticket Taker forced us to sit elsewhere.

Mr. Ticket Taker indeed came by and asked that we retrieve our luggage — Margaret’s being overhead, mine being in my greedy hands — and walk several cars to who knows where. I had paid for the ticket. I couldn’t help but ask him in my mind: “What more do you want from me? I’ve paid for the tickets. Go hassle someone else who is actually draining the system. Do I look like I’m trying to cheat the Spanish train system? Do I look like a criminal?”

I wasn’t sure where we were going, but we kept walking through more train cars. Finally, we reached his destination: a Spanish girl who spoke English quite well. She was just a regular passenger he was somehow acquainted with. Margaret and I sat down across the aisle from her, the primary reason his taking us there was that we needed to know that the train would split midway to San Sebastian, the front car heading toward Bilbao, the back car heading toward San Sebastian. As San Sebastian was also her destination, we were to get off the train with her and run to the back train cars. She would help direct us there, as the train guy knew she was going there. How would I have ever known to do that? They don’t tell you any of that over the phone. We thanked Mr. Ticket Taker profusely, and throughout the trip, he brought a few more foreigners over to her, and we couldn’t help but laugh. I told her she needed to be a tour guide.

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When Margaret and I arrived at SS’s train station, we walked across the street to catch a bus. Javier couldn’t pick us up because he was busy, so he had told me which bus to catch to go to his condo. The bus came immediately, so this part of the trip was a breeze. He had texted me that his condo would be 10 stops away. This piece of information was crucial, because even though I’ve been to San Sebastian eight times, I’m familiar only with the downtown area, but the bus didn’t go through downtown to Javier’s condo: instead, it meandered up curvy hills away from downtown. And I wasn’t used to approaching his condo from the opposite direction, but I counted the stops, and we got off exactly where we were supposed to. If I had been by myself, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but now I had company and luggage.

Equipped with Javier’s key, we headed straight for the condo. There were 2 couches in Javier’s living room, plus he had bought a blow-up bed! I took one couch, Margaret the other, and while she slept, I grocery shopped. After I stored the groceries, Margaret was still sleeping, so I treated myself to a manicure/pedicure at a nearby shop, making an appointment for a massage the next morning. For the pedicure, I sat uncomfortably in a chair, both women working on my feet, but they don’t the work they do in the States: I was getting a superficial pedicure. How would I ever explain this to my in-great-need-of-a-real-pedicure feet? There was none of the foot scraping, nail buffing, feet soaking in jet-spraying hot water, lounging in a warm, vibrating seat equipped with a remote control. However, I made the most of the situation by practicing my Spanish with them. One woman asked me: “Are you [pause] comoda?” I laughed at her trying to accommodate me by speaking my language. She laughed, too. I wasn’t really comfortable, but inching myself around in the chair, I grew a little more comfortable and told her I was. I didn’t think they could make me more comfortable anyway.

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The manicure was so-so, so I was wondering how good the following day’s massage would be. However, I had enjoyed their company and returned to Javier’s. He, Margaret, and I drank some Crianza and watched CNN in English. I fixed stir-fry, and we ate that and the vanilla-ice-cream-topped cherry pie I had baked that morning. We decided that CNN’s dramatic anchor Richard Quest really needs to have his own show.

The next day, while the others were sleeping, I enjoyed perhaps my best massage ever at the same place. When I returned, I fixed eggs, toast, and fruit, while Javier prepared us coffee. We drove us to St. Jean de Luz in the south of France, only about 45 minutes away. We walked around, stopped in a dark restaurant for cafe con leche, and watched the rain. Later, we bought a slice of Basque cake and ate that while we walked around in the rain. We also went to Guadalupe and Fuentarribia, where Javier took us to a restaurant to enjoy wine and pintxos. Then we returned to SS.

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The next morning, Javier drove us to Zarautz, Guetaria, and Zumaia. I had seen these places my first year in San Sebastian but had forgotten how wonderfully scenic they are: winding roads, the Cantabric Sea, the mountains. We returned to Javier’s condo, and I fixed lunch: Crianza; spaghetti; spaghetti sauce with garlic, mushrooms, and olives; bread and olive oil; salad; fruit salad; and tiramisu. (I believe in eating all the food groups.) Then Margaret and I packed, and Javier drove us to the train station, this time I had tickets in hand.

A very short but wonderful trip to the Basque Country, thanks to Javier and his incredible generosity. Javier, I’ll be back!

Internationally yours,

Hallie, Your International Girl
http://www.BeltStyles.com, halliebelt@beltstyles.com, 312.285.8429

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