Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Day Thirty-Four

So it was off to London. We left early in the morning

Looking at my passport stamp from the chunnel, I realized it was exactly four years later, to the day, than my previous chunnel stamp. Creepy.

Lots of terrorist paranoia security as we boarded.

We found fish and chips first. They are so good. Harry Ramsden's is a reputable chipper that I remebered from Scotland, so we ate there.

Then it was time to torment more pigeons in Trafalgar Square, as per our method that we perfected in Barcelona.

If, like me, you are a Mormon, you have heard Gordon B. Hinckley's memories of speaker's corner in Hyde Park. We went to the once-popular location where many an impassioned religious man or discoverer of a new miracle drug have spoken, but it was empty. That didn't stop us. I gave a thirty second speech extolling the virtues of the frisbee, and chastised Britain for not playing frisbee more often. Only Rob was there to hear it. Preaching to the choir.

Wandering back, we found ourselves in full view of the House of Parliament. Here's some info you can use to sound smart: the big tower is not actually called Big Ben. That's the name of the bell inside that you can't actually see.

I really had to, er, visit the loo at this point, so I did something that I normally avoid for philosophical reasons: I used a pay toilet.

This thing is amazing though. It had signs all of over it: "Voted Best Public Toilet In Britain!" And it was. It was clean, private, had fresh flowers, and played some broadway music from a boombox. It was quite serene.

Then we went into some cathedral.

Earlier in the day we had bought tickets to Le Mes (I tried to talk Rob into Death of a Salesman but Rob knows what he wants). We wandered some more, checked out some record shops, then went to the show. It was a great production.

Day Thirty-Three

Sunday and time for church again. Rob tracked down one a few mile north of our hotel. I wish this were more interesting than it was, but imagine not being able to understand anything for three hours. We caved and just sang the hymns in English, figuring the poor locals in this tourist-infiltrated ward were sick of hearing us yanks mutilate their language.
Our pre-purchased chunnel passes would only allow us one more day in Paris, so this was our day to visit Versailles. I warned Rob that it was not as cool as Het Loo (see day eight) and that it was one of the stuffier things in Paris to do, but we went anyway.
At this point, I ask that readers brace themselves. That's right. We saw Ben Stiller touring Versailles. Man, that is a short guy. Seriously, 5'5" or something like that. His tour group was travelling in reverse direction compared to the others, and he was surrounded by three large men.
So if you want to learn something about Versailles, ask someone else. I found it intensely boring and don't remember much. Basically what you need to know is that Louis XIV liked to party.
It was a nice day though. Rob and I got ice cream. And any day with ice cream is usually a good day.

Day Thirty-Two

The Louvre. It's like a mile long and has more masterpieces per square inch than an IHOP stuffed crepe has trans fat. This is where you go if:

-You want to see the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, or the Venus di Milo.
-You need an all-day cardiovascular workout.
-You are a tourist from anywhere.
-You want to take blurry photos of something you can buy a postcard of.
-You want to make up for a lifetime of not being exposed to art, culture, etc. and have only one day to do so.
-You need to get out of the sun for awhile.
-You have only one day to live, and the fate of your soul depends on how many paintings you have seen.
-You have some compulsive desire to stand under a pyramid and an upside-down pyramid, both made of glass.

All of this and more are available at your local Museo d' Louvre. We saw almost everything, if not everything. It was overwhelming, exhausting, enlightening, and a whole bunch of other stuff. The Louvre is worth several visits but make sure you have plenty of food and water before you go in, or you might not make it through.

Then we went and saw the Notre Dame cathedral. Rob talked to a Dutch guy, in Dutch, and oddly enough I found myself able to follow almost their entire conversation. Cool.

At this point I must confess something that I am not proud of. We were hungry, getting low on funds, and very unskilled in the ways of choosing and ordering french food. So we found ourselves in a certain American establishment ordering certain American food items, each sharing the same unmistakeable two letter prefix.

My sister Cate has a theory that it is impossible to order a meal at McDonald's in French, due to names like "Big Mac", "McNuggets", "McChicken" etc. that just don't translate.

We probably did some other stuff today too.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Day Thirty-One

Well we had to get up at like 5:00 am to catch the first bus out of this tiny country. The driver was a butt face. First he barks at us to hurry up and load our bags, then impatiently takes our money for the ticket and speeds off to...the other side of Andorra la Vela to stop the bus while he eats breakfast. I am eating a sandwich when he gets back on the bus, and he points at a sign in Catalan which appears to say I can't eat or drink. I put it away. A few minutes later he lights up a cigarette, then a big stinky cigar, and then another cigarette as he sat within inches of about three "no smoking" signs. I got out my sandwich and finished it. Jerk.

What a beautiful drive it was though. We arrived in L'Hospitalitet at about six thirty and waited in the cold air for the better part of an hour for the train.

Then we waited at the train station for like an hour. The German who had been on the bus with us went off to find a bar, but they were all closed. I played my harmonica with unspectacular but time-killing results.

Another multi-trained journey, during which we ate olives, crakers and cheese, and we were in Paris. Hooray. Much smoother than trying to get to Barcelona and Rome. Foe the first time we had our hostel already booked, which was a nice change. Then off to find some dinner. We had kebabs again, even though the last time we had those Rob got violently ill. This place was clean though.

With the few remaining hours of daylight and feeling like fairly seasoned travelers by now, we walked several miles to the Eiffel Tower. On the way we saw some cool parks and plazas, ornate buildings, and a Buddhist throat singer complete with bare feet and rosary. He wasn't collecting money or anything, just entertaining for free.

The Eiffel can I describe it. It is big. And Metal. That pretty much sums it up. Nice view from there though. And it's got this spotlight that shines from the top that reminded me of Sauron's Dark Tower scanning Mordor for hobbits.

Then, on the way home, we saw (at least) 3,000 people on rollerblades, skates, or skateboards, flowing down the streets like a letahl tsunami of molasses. For some reason.

Day Thirty

Not much today. Just the journey back to civilization. Back at the Hostal del Sol the conciergie offered us our same room again, but I asked her if we could have a room for just two people. We knocked off fifteen euros that way at the cost of sharing a double bed. We were both so exhausted that it didn't really matter. The rest of the day we spent doing laundry, updating this blog, buying Rob a tax-free mp3 player, and planning our multi-modal journey to Paris tomorrow. It was nice to spend a few days in the same city without having to worry about any tourist sites.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Day Twenty-Nine

Danger! Adventure! Excitement! Challenge! Thrill! Buckling of Swashes! All of these things, plus some marmots.

In Andorra and in some other countires as well, there are small cabins built in remote places, accessible only by foot. They have cots, a fireplace, cooking supplies, and firewood, normally. These are called Refugi.

So the tourist info lady told us the way to one of them. We stopped at the store to buy a few things and then started hiking on the GR10 trail, which runs the full length of the pyreness mountains from sea to sea along the spain-france border. The trail started off paved with cobblestones but soon became dirt. When we were unsure which way to go, we followed the red and white stripes.

Things around us got slowly less and less civilized until the trail was fairly steep and rugged. The last signs of civilization we saw were some horses in a high mountain pasture and then a nasty old lean-to made of wood and tarps all nailed together.

By about two o'clock we had gained a fair amount of elevation and gone almost the entire length of this canyon. We saw an Andorran guy coming down and we talked to him for a few minutes. He told us there were marmots ahead and I asked him if he had seen any mountain goats. "Si, he visto uno hoy." He had seen one today. His Spanish had the same bored-sounding nasaly casualness that seemed to be the way to speak here in Andorra, but at least he was easier to understand than the lady at our hostel. He also told us we were only about ten minutes away from our cabin.

Twenty minutes later, actually we arrived. I wish I could describe the peacefulness and beauty of the meadow where our cabin was. It just seemed so remote, especially compared to the feel of the rest of our trip. Europe is so developed that it is difficult to get away from people. Andorra, although they are developing it fairly quickly, is still mostly mountains. So it was such a contrast to the rest of our trip.

After setting things up in the cabin, gathering wood, etc. Rob and I decided to climb one of the several peaks around us.

It was while in the meadow, while hiking up, resting on the peak and seeing the view, and hiking down, that I got that feeling. You know the one where you don't know what it is. It is powerful, and you feel like crying, but also like crying wouldn't begin to express its depth. It hits you like unbearable waves of elation and melancholia at the same time. Andorra was where I finally came to the realization that I shouldn't wonder what this feeling is every time it comes, but rather just relish it and let it wash over me.

Anyway it lasted until about nightfall when we went to bed and the feeling was replaced with me getting really cold. I had to wake up every hour or so and put more wood on our fire an climb back into my single layer fleece sleeping bag. Rob slept like a dead man though. Did I mention he was pretty much completely recovered from his illness by now?

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Day Twenty-Eight

Time to flee the country once again. This time to Andorra. What? Where is that, you ask, furrowing your brow and suddenly feeling a lot less confident in your knowledge of world geography. (Don't feel bad. I didn't know it was a country either.)

Here is everything you would like to know about Andorra. With that out of the way, you are no doubt aware that Andorra is landlocked between France and Spain.

Being not too far from Barcelona, and being its own country and all, you can imagine our dismay upon discovering (a) there are no trains to Andorra and (b) the only way to get there is via a four hour overpriced bus ride.

Since this was obviously yet another deplorable conspiracy by Eurail to hose us on our already-purchased railpasses, Rob and I were not going for it. We came up with our own plot to get to Andorra.

There was a train that went to Latour De Carol, a sleepy little town just over the French border. According to our map, Latour de Carol is a mere half-centimeter away from Andorra. Surely there will be a bus from there that will take us the rest of the way, right? right? hello?

Latour de Carol is tiny. The lady at the train station has no idea how to get to Andorra from there. All she knows is that there is no train and no bus. As I am nodding, I look out the window and see a bus with the unmistakeable words ANDORRABUS.COM printed on the windshield. We go out to the bus and some old man is arguing with the driver. We decide to come back in a couple of minutes, after checking at the tourist information center. It's closed in the middle of the day, of course, and by the time we return the bus is gone.

I could go into painstaking detail but basically we wandered through this ghost town for a couple hours looking for something that was open where we could get some food. It was pointless, as most French country folk take a three hour lunch break in the middle of every week day. These three hours happened to coincide perfectly with our two and a half that we spent in this little town.

There was one very mediocre cafe open at the station. The food wasn't very good, but it must have had brain-enhancing properties. As we were eating, I got a brilliant idea!

I pulled a blank white 8x11 envelope out of the trash and borrowed a marker from the cafe. We wrote ANDORRA LA VELLA S.V.P. on it (svp=please), attatched it to my pack, stuck out our thumbs and set out walking for Andorra la Vela, which was 50km (not half a centimeter) away. After about 40 minutes of walking and sweating, a couple of Frenchmen on military leave (do not insert political commentary here) picked us up and took us into Pas de la Casa, on the edge of Andorra. This little town looked like it was nothing but shops and a couple hotels. It was more like a giant strip mall than a town. The weather was nice and cool but sunny and the air was clear. Pas de la Casa was a little bleak and had no budget hotels, so we took a €5 bus ride to Andorra la Vella.

What a strange place to build a city, much less the capital of a nation. Lonely Planet, which is usually reliable, describes Andorra la Vella as in a valley, but I would call it more of a ravine. I think this is a place where someone's claustraphobia might act up a little.

Tourist info gave us the lowdown on budget hotels and hostels as well as refugi. More on that wonderful invention later.

The lady at Hostal del Sol spoke no English, but we got a very cheap private room there since we were in the off season. Then we set off to find some dinner. Rob was quite keen on trying paella, but nobody was serving it. We found an alright place to eat and managed to order some good food, even though everything in Andorra is printed in just three languages: Catalan, French and Spanish. In fact, we met no Americans the entire time we were in Andorra.

Tomorrow: best day of the trip!

Day Twenty-Seven

Rob has to go see the Sagrada Familia, which I have already seen, and David has to tend to his girlfriend today, so I go on another solo adventure.

There is a street in Barcelona that has several buildings by Gaudi and as a four-day-old Gaudi enthusiast I decide to go see them. They were well worth the visit even though I didn't have time to go inside them. Except one, which was this cool apartment building that looks like it was built by Ewoks sub-contracted under the Anasazi. And in the middle of a city. I went into just the free part, which had a free art exhibit including works from Dali, Picasso, and others. I got to see the original of Picasso's Don Quixote.

I ran out of time quite quickly, and after using this ultra-hip square toilet they had in the gallery's bathroom I was on my way back to the basilica.

Next up, parque de guell again to show Rob around. We ate an eclectic lunch of crackers and such as we sat on Gaudi's ridiculous tiled bench and tormented pigeons.

Realizing how childish this was, we switched to using the pigeons to torment other humans, which is obviously much more sophisticated. I'ts very simple:
1. Lure hordes of pigeons to your vicinity with cracker crumbs, pringles, bread, whatever.
2. Wait for some innocent person to pass within a close proximity of your unknowing accomplices.
3. Toss a tennis ball, wallet, Pringles can, whatever a few feet or even inches into the air and catch it in your hand again. (For some reason pigeons find this terrifying, much more so than stomping or flapping your arms or opening and closing an umbrella like Sean Connery....wait, that was seagulls).
4. Watch in glee as innocent person shields own face in terror of swallowing an entire pigeon and contracting avian flu.

The beautiful thing about this excercise is that nobody, even if they saw you toss your small object into the air, ever makes the connection that you are the one who caused their public humiliation, much less that it was intentional.

Returning briefly to David's house to change our clothes, it's time for the beach! Woohoo! Beach! Yeah! Woo!

The weather is perfect and the beach is not too crowded, but the water is full of medusas, or as you Americans call them, jellyfish. Personally I like the Spanish name better.

Sun was bathed in. Frisbees were thrown. Selves were dipped. Skin was burned.

Medusas are not too difficult to avoid, it turns out. What was difficult to avoid was topless women. They were everywhere. And when we tried to move somewhere else away from them, more came!

My fellow heterosexual males, you might be tempted to call me a weirdo for not thinking that this was the greatest thing ever and the highlight of my trip. Honestly, as great as you might imagine it being, it was just gross. I didn't feel guilty or uncomfortable or anything, it was just kind of unexpectedly gross.

The sun went down and we walked back to David's house and got cleaned up before going out to this restaurant on the beach. I'm sure David would have joined us, but he was still on the phone with his girlfriend.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Day Twenty-Six (TR)

Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!

I ate a small bowl of Spanish cereal that was really good. Imagine Cookie Crisp, except imagine it tasing good instead of gross. That's what I ate.

Church was good. I missed Priesthood meeting because I spent the whole time in the hallway talking to the missionaries and to David and his friends. Sunday school was good and I understood almost everything that was said. The teacher's Spanish had this cool accent that I hadn't heard before. As I walked into Sacrament meeting I realized how many Latinoamericans there were in this ward. Most Church members in Spain are Latinoamericans. For some reason I found it impossible to stay awake during sacrament meeting, so I cannot really tell you much about it.

David's Grandmother and Granfather, though divorced, were back at the house cooking us this great paella. Man it was good. I ate twice as much as anyone else, and Abuelo seemed flattered while I fattered. Man, Rob sure missed out on that.

Speaking of Rob, he calls us a little while later from the Masnou train station after his ferry came in from Citavecchia. Rob comes back to the house and we all watch The Simpsons in Spanish. And let me tell you, the Simpsons are three times as funny in Spanish, even though Homer's voice is really weird.

While Rob slept I played this funky card game with David, Sarita, and Abuelo. It was like hearts or Rook but its four suits were Gold, Swords, Cups, and Clubs. The clubs were not like ours though. They were actual clubs for smashing things. David got really impassioned during the game. He shouted all kinds of words I had never heard before. And watch out for little Sarita. Don't be fooled by that sweet little smile. She is a ruthless card player.

A snack of lentejas and chorizo and its time for bed. Poor Rob. He is totally lost during the conversation at the table. Now he knows how I felt in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Day Twenty Five (TR)

David has the day off. What would I like to do, he asks. I have several ideas:
Picasso Museum
Dali Museum

The Picasso Museum is one hour away, and the Dali Museum is four hours away. Plus I am getting museum overdoses now, so that leaves us with Montserrat. This place is basically a monestary built on the side of a steep mountain. After a little probing of the people who sell tickets for the tram dealy to the top, we found out where the trailhead was to climb the mountain on foot (a much longer, less expensive way to get there). The hike was nice and took us up higher and higher, until we could see a lot of the rugged, undeveloped part of Catalunya. It was surprisingly desolate and looked a lot like Central Utah. There were several Catalunya flags on the way.
Well we got there eventually and it was really cool. There were several buildings besides the monestary, including a museum, and it was unexpectedly crowded with people who rode the tram (we only saw two others on the trail). Inside the ornately decorated basilica was a famous landmark--La Virgen Negra, the Black Virgin. I guess some monk saw a vision of a Black Mary and someone sculpted this in honor of it. There was a big long line of people who wanted to touch the orb she held; we waited in line but felt no compulsion to touch the orb, at least not sufficient to outweigh our concerns for hygeine.
It turns out there was a museum as well, which was kind of cool. A lot of it was boring, but we did get to see a couple Monets, and some Picassos from his "I Am So Famous That I No Longer Care What My Art Looks Like" phase.
Museums, as you might have noticed, are tiring. I think I took a lunch break if not a public nap after every museum visit on this whole trip. This time it was the former, and we ate these cool egg baguettes that David's abuela had made for us. Then down the mountain. On the way back to David's house he took me to this castle that overlooked all of Barcelona where some mad general had a standoff back in the olden days. It just closing when we got there, so we entertained ourselves with the climbable artillery.
I love Barcelona.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Day Twenty-Four (TR)

My checklist for today:

1. Eat churros y chocolate. You might think you know what churros are from your last day at Lagoon, where you paid two dollars for one that had been hanging in its little heat-lamp-illuminated glass box for three weeks, but you are wrong. The ones I eventually found had a similar shape but were only about four inches long, were fresh, and were not coated in granulated sugar. The chocolate (choh-koh-LA-tay) was not much like hot cocoa. It was more like a mug full of chocolate sauce. It was so thick that if you took more than a sip, breathing was difficult afterwards. A+.

2. Get a hold of David. The trouble, you will recall, was my total failure to communicate on the phone in Spanish, even though face to face communication seemed to be no trouble. I had his address as well so I thought maybe I could just show up at his house. Alella, the town or suburb that he lived in, was not on my tourist map of Barcelona and nobody at the train station had any idea where it was, but most of them confirmed to me that it did, in fact exist. I thought maybe the street name and the region had gotten reversed. Instead of Calle Catalunya, Allela, Barcelona, it could be Calle de Alella, Barcelona, Catalunya (Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya). This address did exist, and I went to it, and it wasn't them. Back to the phone. It turned out that the reason David's sister could not understand a word I was saying was not because of my Spanish, but because of my inability to use a public telephone. I guess you have to dial "#" as soon as they pick up to start the meter running. So I did get a hold of him. We agreed to meet at 6:00 at the Masnou train station. Also, he invited me to stay at his house for several nights! Hooray! No more drunks stumbling into my room!

3. Visit Parc d'Guell. After talking with David I returned to the hostel and got my backpacks, then took the subway to Parc d' Guell. This place is ridiculous. This article is good, but of course is nothing like the experience of visisting the park. It looks like a fantasy world. A+

So I meet up with David at 6:00. He takes me to his house and I meet his family, minus his parents who are out of town, plus his Grandma who is staying with them. Daivd has the coolest family. David speaks great English, his sister speaks well too, but his youngest sister and his grandmother speak none. So this is probably where my Spanish grew the most.
Also there was a youth activity that night at David's ward. I went with him and they basically had a short lesson and then talked. Loudly. So loudly that a woman working the geneology library came and shouted at us for about five minutes.
Spain is a cheek-kissing country. Men and women usually kiss each others' cheeks as a greeting and as a farewell. And since David introduced me to everyone, there was a lot of cheek-kissing. Travel certainly broadens the mind.
Poor Sarita. as a result of my visit she is displaced from her bedroom and is given her parents'.