a wandering woman writes

Thursday, September 28, 2006

La Mezquita, Córdoba


What I've been doing ... while not blogging

What I've been doing while I haven't been writing blog posts:

1. Repeating descifrar. And necesidad. A lot.

I, friends, am firmly committed to developing hopelessly Spanish, full frontal lithp c's and z's. It's going pretty well, actually. Reminds me of my quest to learn Midwestern r's during my first year of college. Body guard (bahdy gahd where I grew up, thank you very much) became bardy guard; card shop (cahd shop....exactly) jumped out as card sharp.

And so, in Spanish, the lithp ith lithping nicely. Not a trace of those Mexican Spanish teachers who led me astray back in Chicago. But every once in a while, should the wandering mind wander -- and it does - I forget s's aren't soft c's in Spanish. Nethethedath. (¿Véis la necesidad de seguir en ello, verdath?)

2. Wandering Spain with a North Dakotan-turned Chicagoan who is plotting the introduction of claritas to Chicago (beer and sweet carbonated water) and who continued eating her morning cereal, contentedly, after I warned her she'd drowned it in horchata instead of milk. She now claims horchata turns any cereal into Frosted Flakes.

3. Did I mention the ferias in Salamanca?

4. Preparing a proposal for a new client in which I nearly doubled the hourly rate I charged my current clients. Gulp. Think it'll hold? All these European taxes, I tell you. A girl's got to eat.

5. Falling madly in love with Córdoba. Stories after a good night's sleep.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Middelheim Statue Park, Antwerp


Jan Morris: Markers

Birth and death are the ultimate bookends, and between them a muddied narrative unfolds. In the course of it there crop up moments, experiences or places which in retrospect, rather like faces in an identification parade, we recognize as markers: the experience of first love, perhaps, a song or a book, the dread moment when we first needed spectacles, the impact of some particular corner of the world.

-- Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere


Virtual wanders and a breath of autumn

Well, that was a long absence.

Let me welcome me back with a couple of delicious virtual journeys.

Go catch up on the New York Times' Why We Travel slide show. Just go. I guarantee you'll come back aching for a journey. Or to read about one of mine. :)

That wandering upstart who travels the North under a name remarkably similar to mine posted a link to this wonderful, inspiring, just-go-brew-a-cup-of-tea (or pour a splash of your favorite red)-and-lose-yourself-here-for-a-while site of Scott Stulberg's photography.

Air's chilly in Salamanca, days are shorter, students are back in full force, fair's over for another year. I'll hope to be here for a few days, before heading to Madrid to pick up the visiting Chicagoan who has been duly warned to bring a sweater.


Monday, September 11, 2006


I'd hope to write a post about September 11 today, because this day has been on my mind all day. Because it marks a milestone for my life, like no other day in my lifetime so far. For both me and my country, there was a before September 11, 2001 and an after. I used to deny that. I've stopped. That "after" now surrounds me, and haunts me, out here with "American" tattooed on me. Out here never quite sure if I want to carry my country's baggage or not.

September 11, 2006 has been a long and hard, if fun, day of work, however, and I'm fresh out of juice.

So for today, I am going to let Tara at Paris Parfait speak for me. She's found the words I am far too tired to find, and set them to beautiful, poignant verse.

Please, especially Americans back home, please go read her post. I couldn't possibly express what September 11 and the US look like, glancing back from out here, better than she has.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

¡Estamos en fiestas!

It's my favorite time of year in Salamanca. Again.

Salamanca's annual fiestas y ferias kicked off Thursday with the procession carrying offers of flowers to the the city's patron, la Virgen de la Vega.

The flowers are now on display at the Puerta de Ramos of the New Cathedral, the streets are economical if throroughly packed outdoor bars (1.50 euros for a wine, beer, mosto (grape juice) or water and a tasty pincho), and we're all lost in concerts, street performances, a Columbus-era market and a full schedule of bullfights.

Thursday's procession snaked over the Roman Bridge, up Calle Tentenecio and through Salamanca's historic center to Plaza Anaya, where the Virgin's flower offerings are now on display.

Somehow I always arrive home to find I've snapped just as many pictures of the charros (these folks in traditional Salmantino dress) from behind, as I have straight on. Exquisite, isn't it?

The jota is a traditional dance in 3/4 time performed with castanets held over the dancer's head. The jota broke out regularly Thursday afternoon. I love to watch the enjoyment on the dancers' faces.

We'll be at it til the 15th. Don't worry if you don't see me here for a few days. I'm just walking the streets, spending my money 1.50 at a time.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Walk in Hay

If I learned one thing in Wales, it was this:
Wales is not England.

I was warned by more than one person that Hay is not a particularly "Welsh" place. I'd need to dive deeper into Wales to truly experience "Welshness".

Still, everyone I spoke to in Hay and surrounding towns, even the Welsh-born potter with whom I spent a few days in East Anglia at the end of my trip, made sure I understood one thing: They were Welsh, not English. Not English just as my Irish ancestors were not English, I was told.

And so as I trekked along several of the walks published by the tourism office, I repeatedly crossed the border. "YOU ARE NOW LEAVING WALES", my walking directions would suddenly shout out in harsh capital letters. "YOU HAVE NOW ENTERED ENGLAND".

A warning? A welcome? A bit of geographical trivia for hikers? I got the quiet sense it was much more. I've come to no conclusions, but you hear this idea of nations within a nation, whatever word you use, in lots of conversations in Spain these days.

My border crossings were quiet bridges over a stream.

My company was mostly ovine, and occasionally bovine.

I arrived in sandals and wished for Wellies. Aside from that self-imposed discomfort (who knew I'd wind up walking in Wales?) walking in the countryside around Hay, and Brecon, a neighboring town, was a damp, full-bloom treat.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Mary Lee Settle, on Spain

"To be alone by choice is one of the great luxuries of the world. I went to Spain alone."

Mary Lee Settle, "Spanish Recognitions"

I was bound to love a book with that opening line, wouldn't you say?

One of the books I picked up in Hay on Wye was a paperback copy of Spanish Recogitions by an American novelist, Mary Lee Settle, author of an acclaimed (so the book jacket tells me) book about her wanderings in Turkey called "Turkish Reflections."

At 82 years old, Mary Lee Settle flew into Madrid, hired a car and started out in "search of Spain." An ambitious project, but she winds up doing what we'd expect a history buff with an interest in Turkish culture to do: following the path of history in her rented car. She traces the Moorish conquest of Spain sweeping north, then the Christian reconquest in the other direction. Along the way she ponders Penninsulan wars I'd never heard of, but now recognize in Salamanca street names. She looks briefly at the Civil War, in Madrid and later in Granada, with the eyes of a woman who remembers it, who had an opinion as it happened in the 30s, and who knew young Americans who came to Spain to fight with the Republican forces.

I left this book with a long list of people I want to know more about, history I want to dive into, and places I want to visit. I will do all of that, in Spanish. Settle doesn't speak Spanish, and, despite having read extensively before visiting, isn't always academically straight-on in her history. The Amazon page includes a post by a reviewer who loved the book, but hopes a new revised edition will straighten up some historic references, questionable translations, etc.

So why does the reviewer who chronicles Settle's every error love the book? Why do I?

Because Mary Lee Settle writes lovely, lyrical prose. And she's my kind of traveller:

I had all day to roam. After all, I was alone, and almost asking to get lost. I was looking forward to discovery, not to being tied to that deadening word, itinerary. How can you know ahead what you are going to see, find, lose, discover any more than who you are going to fall in love with the day after tomorrow?

She finds duende in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. Despite not speaking the language she "meets" my Spanish neighbors, and I recognize them. On the Sunday morning she arrives in Salamanca, an older man leaves his wife with the newpaper and baked goods they just picked up in town, climbs off the Gran Vía into the passenger seat of Settle's car, and guides her to her hotel with hand signals. When the 82 year old stranger doesn't understand his directions in Spanish, he escorts her to her hotel before heading home to his wife and newspaper.

She joins the nightly paseo in the cities and pueblos she visits, and calls the Spanish "the most accomplished strollers in Europe". I'd add they beat any North Americans I've ever met, as well, but she is indeed on to something "Spanish". As she dives into the story of Juana la Loca, or Lorca, or Unamuno, or Teresa of Avila, or Isabel la Católica (yes, Americans, of Columbus fame) she walks through their "places" to get to know them, and she "recognizes" something "Spanish": a character, a history, a way of looking at the world, a set of beliefs and customs. She gets, as she writes in her final paragraph, "a half-caught glimpse of that essence which is Spain".

I closed the booking feeling like I'd met a new friend. Sadly, when I surfed away to locate her, I found instead her obituary in the Guardian and the Washington Post.

I'd hoped to write and thank her for resparking my own passion for wandering Spain, and for giving me a long Spanish reading list and a longer travel wish list.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Poppies, Hay on Wye


Surfing: Novica

An article at the very crowded if intriguing World Changing site led me to Novica, a nifty site giving artists in developing countries a web portal through which they can access all of us.

From the site:

NOVICA unites you with more than 2,000 extraordinary master artists around the world. Read about their lives, explore their fascinating cultures, and select from more than 17,000 handcrafted works of art.

A quick surf to the jewelry page showed me lots of treasures a tad outside of my gifts-to-myself budget right now, but I get the feeling I'll be back at Novica.

The interview with the site's cofounder, who started the business after a career as a UN officer, is a great read.

As are the reports by the site's Wander Woman, (dear God, now there are three of us) who files reports from afar as she travels the world meeting talented artists in farflung places.

Nice work, if you can get it.


Saved by the conditional

I love my apartment.

I tell myself I shouldn't, really. After all I am now a 43 year old woman without property (or silverware) of her own.

But my apartment is extravagantly large for one person in Spain, a delicious luxury now that I work in it. And my apartment comes with an equally extravagant terraza alongside the pool, where a small but aromatic little garden has stubbornly survived my summer travel, thanks to Nomadita.

My extravagant piso is a front row seat for Salamanca's full schedule of fireworks. I leave the bedroom window open at night and fall asleep to the roar of the Tormes (ok, sometimes it's more of a gurgle, but it is lovely - cool and soothing.) More than one Semana Santa procession marches past that window, as will the procession of La Virgen de la Vega when Salamanca kicks off her fiestas on Thursday.

My piso is 2 minutes from the future location of my largest client. And a few hundred metres from the Roman Bridge I fell in love with before I moved to Salamanca.

For a few minutes today, I thought I was going to lose my extravagant piso.

Instead, I think I learned something about negotiating in Spanish.

My landlady Pilar called me last night to cheerfully tell me she'd just read the IPC (Spanish cost of living index) and would adjust today's rent and all of my future payments accordingly.

I just started a business. This would not be the moment to spend more on (extravagant) housing.

I sketched out all the sales arguments I'd use in English. I called a couple of Salmantinas who assured me that no natural law obligated my landlady to annually adjust my rent to the IPC. I exhaled when I remembered my contract never mentions the adjustment. My objective: convince a Salmantina that one garden-growing extranjera who's learned her lesson about throwing parties in rented apartments in Spain is worth more than two Spanish university students. Even at last year's rent.

This morning, I ran through my thoughts in Spanish with Nomadita, who unveiled the secret of negotiating in Spanish. "Always in the conditional", she told me at least 3 times in chat. "Keep the door open."

You might have to have learned a foreign language after 30 to understand how hard it is to persuade in a language other than your mother tongue.

Still, when I followed Pilar's smooth "So, your rent is now X" with a very sincere "La verdad es que....", she put her hand on my arm and said, "We'll just leave it where it is for this year, Erin."

And saved me from losing my beloved piso.

And it hit me: I'd had the same experience with a Spanish client. My contact came at me at the last minute with a much lower price, and conditions I couldn't possibly say yes to, and when I conditionally (gracias, Nomadita) told him I'd have to walk away, he immediately surrendered. He's been a charmer ever since.

In both cases I was completely sincere. I couldn't agree.

So Spaniards, what's the negotiating strategy? Shoot for the moon (scaring the hell out of consensus-seeking Americans), just for the hell of it?

I've invited my landlady to join me for this weekend's fireworks.

And I'm just walking around, contentedly. Looking at my extravagant apartment.

Thanks, Pilar.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Running away to Wales - Hay on Wye

When the course that led me to England mysteriously lost its charm, I thought of an article I'd read in El País. Hay on Wye, the Welsh "town of books", was inhabited by less than 2000 people and more than 30 bookstores, according to El País. My kind of town.

I left Oxford and ran away to Wales.

Hay-on-Wye borders England on its eastern and northern boundaries, and rests at the crossroads of two long distance footpaths - Offa Dyke's path, which runs the length of Wales, tracing the line of a barrier built by King Offa in the 8th century, and the Wye Valley Walk, which meanders its way through the spectacular Wye Valley along the course of the Wye River.
The tiny stone town is surrounded by glorious green countryside.

Hay on Wye earned the "town of books" title when a local man, Richard Booth, returned from college determined to create the largest second-hand and antiquarian book-selling center in the world. He succeeded.

He has since bought the town's crumbling Norman castle and crowned himself both "King of Hay" and "Emperor of the Book Towns of The World". Hay-on-Wye now lives from books, old maps, antiques and tourism, and Richard Booth owns the world's largest second hand book store.

I chatted at Oxford with an aspiring writer who had attended this year's Guardian Hay Festival of Literature, during which local townsfolk open their homes to the visiting speakers and authors. I've added the fest, held over a week in early summer, to my travel wish list.

I went to Hay to walk, and read.

Hay's streets are indeed lined with bookshops: a few bright, modern, well-organized shops scattered amongst tiny pieces of Wandering Woman heaven, those dark, cool bookshops smelling of dust and dampness, where you blissfully fear for both your life and your book budget as you squeeze between overburdened bookcases, fruit crates full of yet-to-be-shelved treasures, and teetering stacks of magazines strewn about the floor. Inevitably the shop comes equipped with an bespectacled owner who can pull any book out of the chaos, instantly.

Even the walled grassy courtyard below the Castle is lined with book shelves. You won't find an attendant, just a a sign instructing you to leave your payment in the metal box, should you decide to take one of the weatherworn treasures home with you.

At an "honesty bookshop" housed in a metal lean-to just above the castle, I listened to a Spanish couple read English story books to their surprisingly rapt sons.

I looked up during a walk though town my first night and chuckled. A young woman was sitting on her window sill about the Murder & Mayhem mystery bookshop, window open, reading. A couple was reading in the brilliantly lit front room of their home, just a few houses down from my hotel. Great marketing or a lifestyle? I never did decide.

Books are everywhere. Two bookshelves grace the entrance to the rest rooms at Oscar's Cafe, where I feasted on cold poached salmon two days in a row. "These books are for sale", the sign tells customers impatient to advance in the rest room line. "Please pay at the desk." A woman recruited me to watch the books she'd chosen at my table, while she returned to her place in line.

Hay gave book-loving, walk-craving me far too much for a blog post. Here are a few scattered images from my 5-day stay:

The rain the Spanish called llovizna: a soft mist that wets you everywhere, but to my mind makes perfect walking weather.

A very wise barman at the Swan at Hay Hotel, who looked over at my pub table for one, out at Wales' unusually clear skies, then back at me before making a brilliant decision. He ordered me to the garden and ordered the waitress to serve my dinner there. And so I enjoyed a delicious dinner and a tasty pint of the local Butty Bach while watching the sun set from an aromatic garden in Wales.

The pastor of Saint Mary's church, whose steely blue eyes, dark curls, and long black cassock looked straight out of The Thornbirds. He gave me a big friendly wave as I wandered his churchyard, snapping pictures of gravestones and stone figures. When he passed me in the street later that evening, he warmly invited me to visit the church and take all the pictures I'd like. A moment later I was "outed" when I pronounced "cemetery ". "The what?" he asked. "Ah, the cemetree. America is it?" He grinned at his friend. "I've heard of it. America. Somewhere abroad, yeh?"

Market day, complete with a portable fish store and a red-faced fruit man barking "Everybody try a peach! EVERYbody try a peach" at the top of his lungs. "Spectacular Peaches! Everybody step up and try a peach!" He was right; they were spectacular.

In a fun coincidence, although I won't be able to get there, Segovia is hosting its first Hay Literature Festival in late September.

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Sunday, September 03, 2006


photo from 20minutos

Can't blog now, I'm doing a jig for the Spanish national basketball team, who just won the World Basketball Championship in Japan.

They beat Greece 70-47 with their star player, Pau Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, sitting on the bench, injured. (And yes, I did get a little teary when I saw the photo of the team running out to the floor before the game wearing "Gau's playing too" T-shirts. These guys just strike me as a team, in the best sense of the word.) According to the Spanish sports newspaper Marca, they had another distraction looming over them, as well: the coach's father died last night. He'd been seriously ill throughout the tournament.

Why does it feel so good to have Spain win the World Championship of an American-born sport?

(The American team lost to Greece in the semifinals, 101-95, in a huge upset, paisanos.)

So what are Spaniards doing to celebrate, you ask? I don't hear much of anything out in the streets of Salamanca, or amongst my neighbors, but I did stumble onto an online poll running over at 20 Minutos.

The question: What are you going to do or what have you done to celebrate Spain's gold in the World Basketball Championship?

As of about 6 this afternoon, "bath in whatever fountain" was winning:

Shout jump & cry 30% 118 votos
A bath in whatever fountain 34% 133 votos
Party the whole day 6% 25 votos
I haven't been able to celebrate 10% 38 votos
Change my "look" 2% 7 votos
Nothing, it doesn't turn me on 18% 70 votos

I don't have a fountain close by, but I did write a blog post.


Córdoba, anyone?

My ex is coming to visit.

My ex-business partner, that is. My first move to Chicago was a company move, to join a long term Chicago employee and a woman the company had just hired in Minneapolis in an unlikely quest to return the Chicago branch to glory. Before too long the long term employee left, and Leslie and I decided to try to accomplish the seemingly impossible alone.

In the end, we beat the former glory and started me up the company ladder, but it cost us. I often introduce Leslie to new friends as the colleague to whom I was "married" for 2 years. We worked 14+ hour days together, then waved to each other from our respective cars as we did the daily commute back to the city. We double dated. We spent long nights in blues clubs. We cranked the tunes after office hours and toasted Fridays with pizza and cold beer from the office fridge while we did the worst part of growing a staffing company, the payroll.

Leslie's chosen Madrid, Salamanca and Córdoba (by Ave fast train) for our 8 day itinerary. Although I remember loving Córdoba, I haven't visited since my first stay in Spain in 2001.

If anybody has a favorite hotel or restaurant to recommend, I am all ears.

I have discovered that it's a good time to visit Córdoba. The city is hosting tours, exhibitions, concerts and (best of all) special Sephardic menus in restaurants as part of a Europe-wide celebration of Jewish (Sephardic) culture. I read that at Red Juderías de España, which has nifty virtual tours of Spain's historic Jewish barrios. Here is the panoramic view of the judería of Córdoba, the most stunning I've visited so far.

Anyway, I start the planning now. All ears for recommendations....

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Planets, post Pluto

Boing Boing published a fun post listing the winners of a contest to invent a new learn-the-planets-in-order mnemonic device, now that poor Pluto has been demoted.

The winner was Josh Mishell with:
My! Very Educated Morons Just Screwed Up Numerous Planetariums.

I also liked this, by Dave Child:
Many Very Earnest Men Just Snubbed Unfortunate Ninth Planet.

I laughed out loud, anyway.

Climbing from Calle Expolio to Patio Chico

I've wanted to catch the two crumbling faces peering out from the old wall at the bottom Patio Chico for as long as I've lived here. Finally got pretty close to capturing this one, keeping watch.

And I'm not sure, but I think he looks a little shocked that the picturesque little street leading to his Plaza is now called Pillage.