funny English: round 2

A year full of traveling has allowed me to collect enough amusing translations for this blog’s second edition of Funny English.  Having committed my fair share of linguistic faux pas myself (as recently as last month), it is with an understanding chuckle that I share with you these not-so-perfect efforts at writing in the language of Shakespeare from across Europe.

Rome, Italy Choose between sparkling wine, Italian babies, or foreign babies for a refreshing pre-dinner drink.

Rome, Italy
Choose between sparkling wine, Italian babies, or foreign babies for a refreshing pre-dinner drink.

Venice, Italy The pastry is closed!

Venice, Italy
The pastry is closed!

Budapest, Hungary  Perhaps the editing is a bit gratuitous. After all, how many of us tourists speak Hungarian?

Budapest, Hungary
Perhaps the editing is a bit gratuitous. After all, how many of us tourists speak Hungarian?

Athens, Greece Eggs.  Indeed.

Athens, Greece
Eggs. Indeed.

Barcelona, Spain We have an ice.  Just one.  First come first serve.

Barcelona, Spain
We have an ice. Just one. First come first serve.

Lisbon, Portugal One ball.  Flavor of choice.

Lisbon, Portugal
One ball. Flavor of choice.

Toledo, Spain Here comes oxtail!

Toledo, Spain
Here comes oxtail!

Madrid, Spain Time is thicking...thick thock, thick thock....

Madrid, Spain
Time is thicking…thick thock, thick thock….



I can see Africa from my house

Three years ago, the network of The Most Beautiful Villages in Spain was formed, with the mission of identifying and showcasing the rural areas and small towns with the most charm and beauty across the Spanish peninsula.  Selectively accepting only 20% of the towns who apply to join the network, there are currently 24 members.  I am lucky enough that one of my best friends is from one of these gorgeous municipalities — Andalucía’s Vejer de la Frontera.

I recently spent a few days in the beautiful white town, located on a hill just a few miles from the beach.  See below for photos from a perfect “see you later” to one of the people who most shaped my “Spanish experience.”

…oh, and you can see Africa from a path just down the road from her house.

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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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.

Three days on the porch-ugal

Years ago, had you asked me to label Portugal on a map, I would’ve laughed uneasily.  Portugal, to me, was a far-off and exotic land that felt only slightly more real than Stars Hollow, where Rory and Lorelai of Gilmore Girls live. It was most familiar as the nickname (“porch-ugal”) that my dad always gave to the porch where he hung out, smoking his pipe and playing solitaire.  If I entered the house and called his name, asking where he was, he responded without fail: “the porch-ugal.”

Since then, I became aware that Portugal — the country — does, in fact, exist; in school I learned about its importance in world history, and later I visited the town of Lagos on its southern coast while studying in Sevilla.  This past weekend I returned, this time venturing further north up Spain’s neighbor on the Iberian peninsula.  I can now more than appreciate that Portugal is not simply the small room that extends off of the kitchen in my parents’ house in Northborough, MA, USA.

With three days, English teachers’ budgets, and our oh-so-precious youthful spirits of adventure, my friend and I decided we’d spend our puente seeing three different cities (Porto, Lisbon and Sintra), taking six different modes of transportation (plane, subway, bus, cable car, ferry and train), and forgoing sleep one night, never starting and ending a day in the same place.

Day One: Porto

With just under 250,000 inhabitants, Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city, is hilly but walkable.  The ever-changing altitude in addition to the six major bridges crossing the Duoro River allow for infinite breathtaking views of seas of red rooftops.  The city is known, not surprisingly, for its Port, which a tasting at the famous Taylor’s confirmed is not my cup of tea wine.  A less internationally famous gastronomical staple of the city is the francesinha, or “little French girl,” a sandwich that, according to the story, was a returned emigrant from France’s attempt at adapting the croque monsieur to Portuguese tastes.  The result is a sandwich piled with multiple types of pork and beef, covered in cheese and sometimes an egg, doused in a “special” beer- and tomato-based sauce, and served up alongside a generous helping of french fries.  We split one of these.  Finally, we stopped by Lello Bookstore, voted by Lonely Planet as the third best bookstore in the world, before being kicked out for taking photos and not buying anything by an understandably-cranky owner.

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Day Two: Lisbon

After arriving in Lisbon and getting settled at our AirBnB apartment, we sat down to the best meal of the weekend: lunch at the mom-and-pop-style, TripAdvsior-recommended Cantinha de Bem Estar, just a few minutes from where we were staying.  Upon perusing the menu for a few minutes, our waiter noticed us eyeing the spread on our Portuguese neighbors’ table, and pointed at it, telling us “we have this too.  Portuguese black pork. Traditional Portuguese, very good.” We went for it and certainly did not regret our decision, as we enjoyed tender, fall-off-the-bone pork in an amazingly flavorful sauce.  In the afternoon, we rode the historic Cable Car #28 through the hillier-than-Porto city streets to get a taste of the various neighborhoods, and then hopped on a ferry across the river to catch views of the April 25 Bridge at sunset.  (And yes, the hills, cable cars, and rusty-hued suspension bridge make the San Francisco comparisons inevitable).  In the evening, we took a ride up the Santa Justa elevator for views of the city lit up, and for dinner, we enjoyed some excellent live music, wine and small plates at Grapes and Bites.

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Day Three: Lisbon & Sintra

The morning of day three took us to Belém, the waterside district of the city where many of the Portuguese explorers departed on their adventures overseas.  There, we had breakfast at the famous Pastéis de Belém, where we enjoyed Portugal’s national pastry, a small bruléed custard in flaky pastry dough.  Fueled and caffeinated, we ventured through the fog, passing by the Jerónimos Monastery and visiting the Belém Tower, a fortified lighthouse built in the early 1500’s.  Then it was back to the city center to hop on a train to Sintra, a town located about 20 miles northwest of Lisbon, to visit Pena National Palace, home to the Portuguese monarchs in the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of three palaces dotting the steep verdant mountainside.  It was described by various websites as an “ice cream palace” and “Disney World for adults;” upon arrival, it more than lived up to the hype.

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And just like that, the weekend culminated in an almost-sleepless return to Madrid via metro-bus-sprinting-bus-airplane-metro.  We came close to biting off more “porch-ugal” than we could chew in three days, but in the end I think we took in just about the maximum that our travel appetites could handle.

Up next: my last week of work of 2013, and then home for the holidays.  When all is said and done, I will have been in seven cities in seven days (Madrid, Porto, Lisbon, Sintra, Sevilla, New York, Boston) and it will be time to indulge in the R&R of familiarty.

Toledo, in photos

I finally made it to Toledo, one of the most important places to visit in Spain, and only an easy 30-minute train ride from Madrid.  Though I did not purchase either of the Castilian city’s traditional products (marzipan and swords), nor did I pay to enter any of the various impressive monuments it has to offer, I fell in love with Toledo’s beauty on a sunny and crisp autumn day.  And now I’m proud to say I’ve been to five of Spain’s thirteen World Heritage cities!  Here’s a taste of my day in Toledo:

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bucket list

In addition to “chaperoning” last week’s visits to the Alcázar and cathedral, I’ve done quality work lately on my Sevilla bucket list, which is compiled of a mixture of some of my favorite activities and areas from my time here as well as some I never quite made it to during my study abroad stint and subsequent visits.

In the last few days, I have…

…had breakfast at the Mercado de Triana, a food market that is much less tourist-y than Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel and Barcelona’s La Boquería.  Filled mostly with produce, fish and meat, Sevilla’s main market has just one or two places inside that serve prepared food.  I chose Bar La Muralla, where I enjoyed a mollete de jamón y aceite (a round toasted bun with Spanish ham and olive oil) and a café cortado, half reading my book and half listening to the constant chatter around me, as fishmongers and butchers stopped by to catch up and fuel up.

El Mercado de Triana.  Photo courtesy of jiangkeren

El Mercado de Triana. Photo by jiangkeren, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

…strolled through beautiful Triana, with its flower-adorned balconies; El Barrio de Santa Cruz, with its barely-navigable winding streets; La Alameda de Hércules, with its hipster vibe and Saturday morning farmer’s market; Plaza de España, with its intricate tilework representing each and every Spanish province; and Parque de María Luisa, with its infinite nooks and crannies, statues and fountains, benches and ponds.

…taken my first Sevici ride.

Sevici. Photo by Cayetano, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Sevici. Photo by Cayetano, on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

…returned to La Cacharrería to consume life-alteringly-delicious cakes.

Blueberry, cinnamon carrot, and white chocolate cakes at La Cacharrería on Sevilla's charming Calle Regina

Blueberry, cinnamon carrot, and white chocolate cakes at La Cacharrería on Sevilla’s charming Calle Regina

…had both breakfast and dinner with my housemates on our rooftop.

…and, in the crown jewel of recent experiences, I had a drink at the rooftop bar of the swanky Hotel Eme, which provides a close-up breathtaking view of the glowing cathedral.

With one week left in Sevilla, I hope to soak up more sights, sounds and flavors before heading northward to the capital.