Día del Libro 2014

International Book Day, or el Día del Libro, is celebrated on April 23, the date of both Shakespeare and Cervantes’ deaths.  It is an important day in many schools, libraries and museums in many countries, especially Spain.

Last year, in honor of the big day, my students co-wrote an adventure story about intercultural Mr. Potato Head toys with some students from my hometown.

This year, I was involved in two exciting projects:

Some of my 7th graders wrote an alphabet book about Spain, dedicated to students back in my stomping grounds.  In return, we received an ABC book about the US written especially for us.  The books can be seen here and here.

Excerpts from our book on display in the hallway

A group of my 8th grade students performed three short comedic plays in English to the resounding applause of classmates, teachers, parents, and two very special American visitors!  Check out some clips here!


tourist, traveler or voyager?: reflections on a week in Prague and Berlin

Following three days in Prague and four in Berlin, I found myself back home in Madrid, unpacked, freshly showered, a load of laundry completed, and ready to catch up on a week of The Internet — emails, Google Reader, Twitter and beyond.  During this media frenzy, I came across a documentary called “Bye Bye Barcelona,” which chronicles the ways in which rapidly-expanding mass-produced tourism is turning the city into a theme park for tourists rather than a place for people to live.

(If you wish to be spared my reflections on tourism and travel and simply want to check out photos from my trip, scroll to the bottom of the post).

The problem, it says, is that we are creating touristic habits that are “iterative and no longer connected to the essence” of a particular city, which in turn changes “the notion, essence and idiosyncrasies of the city itself.”  Barcelona, they say, has lost all of its charm.  Tourists no longer travel, they add.  They “consume destinations.”

The documentary is fascinating, and can be seen here (English subtitles are available).  Its goal is to explore mass tourism’s impact on locals, an extremely important discussion to be had, though one I will not explicitly pursue in this post.  Instead, my viewing of the documentary on the heels of my recent jaunt through the Czech and German capitals accelerated my existing reflections on my priorities and degree of authenticity achieved when I travel.

Towards the end of the film, Santiago Tejedor, co-director of the Masters program in Travel Journalism at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, outlines the differences between tourists, travelers and voyagers.  A tourist, he explains, books a prefabricated itinerary from a travel agent; a traveler allows for some improvisation and freedom when planning a trip; and a voyager seeks genuine, authentic and unique experiences.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am not a tourist.  I occupied this category once, when I went on an all-inclusive trip to Morocco in 2010; I was hesitant to book the trip in the first place, and my experience, although comforting in a third-world country, only confirmed my doubts about the value of such a cookie cutter trip.  Having never gone down that road again, can I say I am all the way on the other end—a voyager?  I’d like to be.  But can one really be a voyager on her first visit to a place, when she only has three or four days to take it all in?

When planning this trip, I sat down with my travel buddy and asked her where she wanted to go.  We both had a few locations on our travel wish lists that were not feasible this trip for various reasons, so when it got down to choosing a destination, anywhere and everywhere in Europe was on the table.  A whirlwind of searches for affordable flights plus map consultations to see which cities could be combined into one trip led us to the selection of Prague and Berlin.

There are two sides to this coin:

On the one hand, there’s the romanticized idea of spinning a globe with your eyes closed and traveling to wherever your finger lands (just technologically updated with Google Maps rather than an actual spinning sphere).  There’s the freedom and sense of adventure that comes with living in Madrid and having Europe at your fingertips.  There’s the beauty of globalization and low-cost airlines that make it all possible.  And there’s the magic of going to a new place with little background knowledge and subsequently learning, first hand, about parts of the world you barely knew existed.

But then there’s the idea of “consuming destinations” — of spending a few days visiting the most famous sites of a new city which you previously harbored no long-standing desire to see.

Tourist, traveler or voyager?

I’ve developed a reliable MO when planning my travels since living in Spain.  Once I choose the destination, I research the different neighborhoods of the city and then search for an AirBnB apartment in the most bohemian-and-centrally-located area, preferably with a host whose reviews note his or her willingness to share insider tips about things to see and places to eat.  I then conduct a Google search to find the most important sites and monuments, and once I have a list of them with basic information about schedules and prices, I go deeper, searching for expat bloggers and other locals who share more authentic experiences and suggestions for ways to enjoy the city.  And of course, if I’m lucky enough to know someone who lives there, has lived there, or has recently traveled there, I suck them dry of any and all tips they can muster.

Tourist, traveler or voyager?

One of the developments that the locals in “Bye Bye Barcelona” lament is the loss of neighborhood spaces that have become “prostituted” due to mass tourism.  La Rambla, Barcelona’s central pedestrian avenue, is no longer a place to buy a newspaper, have a cup of coffee, and chat with neighbors; instead, it is full of tourists, souvenir shops, chain restaurants and street performers.  La Boquería, Barcelona’s famous food market, is no longer a place to go grocery shopping for your family.  The streets around La Sagrada Familia have become impossible to walk down, even for those who live on them.

I am part of that problem.  Just as I did in Barcelona (and Paris, and Rome, and…), I checked all of the key sites off my list in both Prague and Berlin.  I fought with crowds of tourists to snap a photo of Prague’s astronomical clock, and I waited patiently to get a shot of my favorite segments of the Berlin Wall.

I could feel guilty for contributing to the phenomenon of neutralizing a city and stripping it of its true essence and charm.  But can you really take someone seriously who goes to Rome and doesn’t see the Coliseum?  Can you really blame someone who visits Paris for wanting to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower?  No.  You can’t.  I’d imagine that voyagers, too, would want to have these experiences and for this reason, visiting top sites doesn’t automatically strip you of voyager status.

A voyager, to me, is then one of two things.  It could be someone who visits small, lesser-known cities or rural locations, where experiences are unique by default because mass tourism has yet to reach them.  Or, it could be someone who has the flexibility to spend a significant amount of time in any of these places.  In the latter scenario, the voyager is first a traveler for a few days, seeing the top sites, and subsequently graduates to voyager status as he steers himself off the beaten path, seeking out the authentic musical, gastronomical, artistic, linguistic, or any other variety of experience to truly gain insight into how life functions in a particular part of the world.  Being a voyager takes the research, time, maybe even a little bit of luck, and the right spirit.  You need to know where, what and who to look for, something that is easier said than done.

So…tourist, traveler or voyager?

If one looks at my 1.5 years in Madrid as a trip, then I am comfortable branding myself with the gold-standard label of “voyager.”  But that’s up for debate, since I live here.  Madrid excluded, I think I fall safely in the traveler category.  Perhaps in the future, with more time, more funding, and experience under my belt, I will be able to graduate.

But for now, as a traveler, I steer clear of prefabricated tours, chain restaurants with photos of each dish posted outside, cheesy souvenirs, and large hotels.  Instead I stay with locals via AirBnB, and I soon hope to use one of the new websites that allows visitors (be they travelers or voyagers) to eat a home-cooked meal at a locals’ house or apartment.  I seek out the neighborhoods and streets that are best for wandering aimlessly, and I take any recommendation any local is willing to give me.

Navigating the delineations between tourist, traveler and voyager is delicate, and it’s different for various stakeholders.  What’s best for a city is not always the same as what’s best for its visitors.  What is scaleable is inauthentic, and what is unique loses its singularity as soon as it is expanded.

It seems, then, that we are left with more questions than answers.  What category do you think you fall into? How and why has travel changed over the years? How can we continue to move about the world without destroying local culture and inconveniencing locals?

Anyway, without further ado, photos from my trip:


Called a “theme park” in “Bye Bye Barcelona,” it was described to me prior to my trip by many friends and coworkers as “a fairy tale.”  Perhaps somewhere in between the two, there was certainly charm remaining in its beautiful architecture and quaint Easter Market.

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Initially put off by cold rain, a blistering wind (strong enough to turn inside out an umbrella that survived three years in Chicago!), and general enormity (in area, street width, building size, and height of locals), I came to enjoy Berlin and wish I had more time to explore it.  The city is brimming with history in a way that is extremely unique when compared to other European metropolises I’ve visited (i.e. the Coliseum wouldn’t have looked much different had my parents visited it when they were my age, but the Berlin Wall would have).  Plus, the abundance of street art and funky clothing, home decor, jewelry and bookstores give the city a distinctively “cool” and inspirational vibe.

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my big three

While not The Louvre, The Met or even The Guggenheim, Madrid has three top art museums that are usually high up on most tourists’ Must See List: The Prado, The Reina Sofía, and The Thyssen-Bornemisza.

What most tourists typically don’t get the chance to see are the plethora of additional, less famous museums that make up Madrid’s repertoire, such as The Museum of the Americas, The Sorolla Museum, and The Museum of Decorative Art, just to name a few.

And then there are the not-so-touristy and not-so-traditional options, which include the CaixaForum, El Matadero, and the Conde Duque Cultural Center, all of which I’ve had the chance to visit recently.

El Matadero, meaning The Slaughterhouse, was literally just that, but has since been converted into a contemporary arts center.  The sprawling campus offers various spaces holding film screenings, theater performances, art exhibits, libraries, work spaces, and workshops (almost all of which are free), and even two restaurants.  During my visit, I perused an exhibit about the paper scrolls and writing tablets used in ancient Rome; I toured a unique Japanese garden; and I was inspired by an exhibit called We Traders: Swapping Crisis for City, which featured the work of designers, architects, dreamers, movers and shakers in Berlin, Madrid, Lisbon, Turin and Toulouse who are developing creative uses of existing resources to reinvigorate their local economies and communities.  Examples include an artist’s collaborative, an initiative promoting urban agriculture, and a co-housing community.

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The CaixaForum is a cultural center sponsored by the Caixa Bank and located near the big three museums which houses, among other things, internationally-renowned traveling exhibits.  I visited in the fall to catch an enchanting exhibit about George Méliès, the father of movie special effects, and I returned recently to see “Génesis” by Sebastião Salgado, a collection of works by the Brazilian photographer who traveled to all seven continents to document the landscapes, animals, and tribal people who reside beyond the lens of mainstream media.  Next up on my to-see list is Pixar: 25 Years of Animation.  To boot, The CaixaForum is an architecturally intriguing building, with a modern facade featuring its very own vertical garden.

The vertical garden at The Caixa Forum

The vertical garden at The Caixa Forum

The Conde Duque Cultural Center, located in a formar military barracks, is another multipurpose space with exhibits, performances venues, workshops and work spaces.  A recent visit was highlighted by the Madrid: 1910-1935 photography exhibit of “a city in transformation,” capturing the way in which the Spanish capital sought to follow suit with other large European cities’ modernization efforts during the early 20th century.  The photos displayed in the exhibit focused on the changes that were made in architecture, roadways and public transportation.

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As someone who is admittedly less-than-polished when it comes to classic art, an afternoon at the Prado, faced with a collection thousands of paintings and statues and drawings from centuries ago, can be daunting (though undoubtedly worthwhile).  However, these alternative museums with smaller collections and rotating exhibits, have a little something for everyone, and are more accessible to those of us without an art history background.  Yet another reason why there’s more to Madrid than what meets the eye in the guide book.

El Mercado de Motores

Once a month, the former train station that is now the Museo de Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum) hosts the Mercado de Motores, a weekend-long vintage and artisan market and all around good time.  From old dolls to hand-woven scarves, from quirky furniture to fabric sold by the meter, from bike accessories to high fashion heels, there’s a little something for everyone.

…and that’s just the market.  Then there’s the rest of the ambiance — the way the different stands are positioned between old train cars, eventually spilling out of the station altogether and into the open air; the buzz of creativity, quirk and charm, set by the products and their venders and mirrored by the attendees; the people of all ages, shapes and colors enjoying drinks and bites under the unseasonably warming sun; the laughing children riding a mini train around a small track; and the live music sprinkled throughout the venue, including a piano and saxophone jazz combo at the entrance and a crooning Michael Bublé-type serenading the outdoor diners.

El Mercado de Motores is yet another gem hidden beneath the layers of one’s first or second glance at this city, that makes Madrid such a wonderful place to call home.

springtime whimsicality in El Capricho

Spring has sprung a few weeks early here in Madrid (a welcome change after its delayed arrival last year), and the past week has been all about drinks on sidewalk cafés, taking the long way home, and exploring new corners of the city in short sleeves, under the bright blue sky and shining sun.

Saturday afternoon’s destination was Parque de El Capricho (capricho meaning whim or caprice), a beautiful green space located in the northeastern corner of the city.  The park is only open on the weekends and entrance is free, but only a maximum of 1,000 visitors (without food, drinks, bikes or skateboards) are allowed at any one time, maintaining an air of serenity within its gates.

El Capricho was built in the late 18th century by the Dukes of Osuna as an oasis away from the city center and an escape for the best artists, landscapers and intellectuals of the time.  It contains a charming mix of greenery, sculptures, water elements and buildings, though I imagine its beauty will be even more impressive when springtime is in full swing and all of the flora in bloom.  Although the park is an unknown to many madrileños due to its distance from the city center (approximately 40 minutes by metro), this guiri will certainly be back.

the expat ego boost

Being a foreigner in a foreign land has the potential to be isolating and disorienting, as you run the risk of stripping yourself of the emotional and/or physical resources needed to maintain your identity.

Or, it can give you that ego boost you need, making you feel just that much more interesting, more special, and more confident to take social risks that you may not have taken at home.

Recently, I found myself at a birthday party where I knew only a few of the attendees, not even the birthday girl.  As I began chatting with another guest (who, for what it’s worth, only knew one attendee: more logically, the cumpleañera), not surprisingly, the topic of being in an unfamiliar place and meeting new people cropped up.  My conversation partner, an admittedly-shy Spaniard who has lived all over the peninsula, mentioned that it must be even more difficult for me, since I have to be outgoing, a task that can already be challenging, and on top of it all, I must do it in a foreign language!  The look on her face said it all: oh, the horror!

Surprisingly, I told her, it’s actually the contrary — it actually works to my advantage: I have an automatic conversation starter.  Yes, I’m from the States.  Yeah, it’s pretty cool!  You’ve visited?  What part are you from?  Boston.  How long have you been here?  A year and a half.  What are you doing here?  Working as an English teacher.  How did you learn your Spanish? And on, and on, and on…

During this conversation, I was immediately reminded of an article I read a few months ago in the New York Times by an American expat living in Paris, Pamela Druckerman.  The piece was chock full of reflections that I could relate to, but this recent experience reminded me of these lines in particular:

“The thought of becoming an ordinary American again scares me. We expatriates don’t like to admit it, but being foreign makes us feel special. Just cooking pancakes on Sunday morning is an intercultural event. I imagine being back in the United States and falling in with a drone army of people who think and talk just like me — the same politics, the same references to summer camp and ’70s television…”

The intercultural event: chocolate hazelnut brownies (post taste-test to avoid any potential poison-induced international conflict)

The intercultural event: chocolate hazelnut brownies (post taste-test to avoid any potential poison-induced international conflicts)

And then, as if to seal the deal, a few days later I gained fame within a group of friends after bringing chocolate hazelnut brownies (a riff on my mom’s friend Jane’s famous congo bars) to a gathering.  The brownies were pretty darn delicious if I do say so myself, but the fact that my making of such a simple recipe was just that, “an intercultural event,” was telling.  Perhaps, had the attendees been American, I wouldn’t have made so many friends that night.

Regardless, soon(ish), I will return stateside, and like Druckerman says: “…the fact is, those drones are my people.”  And nothing can replace my people.

serendipity in Barcelona

A map of the city center, painted on the ground near the Arc de Triomphe

A map of the city center, painted on the ground near the Arc de Triomphe

Some of the best trips are carefully planned months in advance, the culmination of extensive research regarding accommodation, transportation, important sites and monuments, cultural quirks, and off-the-beaten-path gastronomy.  They’re organized around tourist high or low seasons, weather patterns, and local festivals that can’t be missed.

Other wonderful trips are planned three days in advance, the culmination of zero research, and organized around little to nothing.  This is a story of one such trip.

I recently returned from a three day jaunt in Barcelona, a city that I previously visited while studying in Sevilla and hadn’t returned to since.  A friend was headed there for a conference and asked me to join at the last minute.  Incapable of saying no to an adventure, I jumped on board.  While less jam-packed than my first visit to Spain’s “most European city,” I used this opportunity to revisit and expand upon some of my favorite aspects of my first Catalán experience: the Mediterranean, Gaudí’s architecture, and the Boquería food market.  My 2010 visit included a walking tour of the city, centered around the incredible works of Antoní Gaudí, but only their exteriors; this time, in addition to revisiting Casa Battló, I paid (an annoyingly high but 100% worth it fee) to enter the Sagrada Familia, a basilica that remains under construction to this day.  My 2010 visit included a brief stroll along a boardwalk near the water; this time, I walked along the port one day and spent another day sitting on a bench in the sand and watching the waves roll in, something that proved quite therapeutic considering that one of the most popular song lyrics written about my current home, Madrid, is “aquí no hay playa” (there’s no beach here).  My 2010 visit included multiple visits to La Boquería for picnic provisions; this time, I went once and may have accomplished the best spread yet: two varieties of fresh baked bread, jamón ibérico, mini bananas, golden kiwis, raspberries, and chocolate covered almonds, all of which were consumed in a patch of grass alongside the Arc de Triomphe.

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The real serendipity came, however, on Sunday evening.  The rain had miraculously stopped, and my friend and I were wandering through the city center.  As we approached a medium sized plaza, we heard the sounds of a live band.  Getting closer, we  saw giant characters (a devil, a cobbler, etc…) mounted on people, spinning in circles to the music (check out a quick iPhone video I shot here).  After soaking it in and clapping along with the crowd for a while, we made our way down a side street, only to realize the giants were following us.  When the parade passed, we walked a little bit more to the cathedral, where we quickly realized we were still in the midst of the celebration.  Before we knew it, children dressed in costumes were running and skipping in our direction to the sound of beating drums, waving sticks to which small fireworks were attached.  Between the flash-bangs of the mini explosions and the smell they produced, our senses were overloaded.

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It turns out all of this was part of the Fiestas de Santa Eulalia, an annual celebration in honor of the patron saint of Barcelona, a brave girl who, according to the legend, refused to give up her Christian beliefs in the face of persecution and torture by the Romans.  The festival commemorates the principles and conviction of this young girl, and is geared toward children, though I saw a lot of scared young faces and imagine mine would have looked similar had I found myself there when I was smaller.  We were lucky to see two of the most important parts of the festival: the gigantes, and the kids dressed as devils running through the streets with firecrackers.  Unfortunately, we missed the Sardana, a traditional Catalán dance.

It is very unlikely that I would have planned a trip to Barcelona around the Fiestas de Santa Eulalia.  In reality, I didn’t even know they existed until I stumbled upon giant people dancing in a square in Barcelona’s old town (for the record, nor did my travel buddy, who is Spanish).  But these, my friends, are the most beautiful discoveries of all.