On Birthdays, Holidays and Pilgrimages (or The Longest Blog Post Ever)

On Halloween, I got locked out of my apartment and wrote part of this blog from my perch in the slightly deflated, bubblegum pink chairs of Mascarpone, a local ice cream shop. The slightest wisp of chocolate covered donut hovered on the plate in front of me in an attempt to fool the fierce Mascarpone waitresses into thinking I had any claim to my two or so hour habitation of their establishment (atypical behavior for an ice cream shop guest but necessary as they had wifi). As it was All Hallows Eve, kids kept coming in during this time and asking for candy to which these snappy waitresses would scream “We don’t have any,” leading the kids to weakly plead for water (which, though viperous, the women were obliged to give). It made me terribly, terribly nostalgic for the Halloweens of my Midwestern youth where candy and friendly adults were abundant (if not overly so). At my practica earlier that day, I had dreamily drawn haunted houses with the kids and tantalized them with the classic Halloween traditions of America. Halloween is something relatively new in Spain (like, well, democracy) so most people are still getting accustomed to it. My host family personally doesn’t participate because, as my host grandkids told me, “We’re Christian.” Alright then.

 Birthday Card from Andres. Have I said that I love him before this? I love him.

Birthday Card from Andres. Have I said that I love him before this? I love him.

My birthday was a spectacular demonstration of love on the part of everyone I know (abroad or in the good ole US of A). On my birthday eve, some of my friends and I went to the “Feria de Naciones” (which is a thinly veiled festival of racism/exoticism/misrepresentation of other cultures-ism but still fun nonetheless). I had the “Obama ribs” (yeah, I know) and my good friend, Andie, lovingly purchased and shared a caramel apple crepe with me. Most importantly, I spoke with my mom (the first person I talked to on my actual bday in Spain/the US/my life) who wished me a Happy Birthday and reminded me (as she does annually) how I felt much like the indigestion from Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. Now, my mom had also sent me her WORLD (or at least Williams Bay) famous chocolate chip cookies which even after a week in transit still had their signature taste and appeal (by this point--12 am on my actual bday--I had already eaten 3). I gave them out to my friends, and they all raved about them (the true Taste of America we had all been craving). I think only the best mom in the world sends your home to you in baked good form. My sisters and my dad sent me selfies wishing me a happy birthday (they had, each morning for my "Birthday Week," been sending me pictures of the sunrise over their side of the Atlantic). I also celebrated the “Bday Eclipse” (Trademark Kyle H) of my friend Richard’s bday and mine (thanks to the time difference, we had the same bday for a few brilliant hours). My actual bday started early and well with my sweet roommate Camille gifting me dark chocolate, my host parents telling me that I was “their child, too," and messages from the likes of Mickey Hopz, Maytal Mark, Dre, Megan Behnke (cannot begin to describe her email) and Aditi wishing me well (my other half, Caroline M, had sent me love the day before). And then I went to a cute cafe called La Cacherreria with Kyle, the loveliest of boys, who gifted me not only his fabulous presence but also cinnamon tea, cake and a notebook with cats on the cover full of writing prompts. If you haven't realized from reading this blog (and the absurd amount that I talk about him in it), he is very thoughtful and kind. After that, I had class and my good friend Charlie gave me a cute pie and then Mexican food with Maria Sorkin (one of the funniest and most delightful humans I know) as well as my friend Sofie (who kindly gifted me chocolate), Camille, Alana (another beautiful/genuine person), Charlie, Sam Prose (love him) and Suzy (who I have often--and yet not enough--fan-girled over. She gifted me a palmera). Then we went to Starbucks (because it was my birthday so why not be American) and got a caramel machiatto to help me survive Ivan and his Cervantes class. Which I did successfully (with a brief reprieve to say hi to my friends, Jess and Hope) and then I skipped English at the behest of my host family (they wanted to throw me a birthday party). I was allowed to invite one friend so, of course, I invited Kyle. My host family sang to me in English and Spanish while I blew out candles on the tart Carmen had made. Andres gave me a card (see above) which he’d made using google translate (and his gigantic heart) and the host grandkids gave me a very pretty necklace. I felt so so loved, and I couldn’t stop thanking them for making me feel like a part of the family (it was--well, is--difficult to be so far from my own). I then spoke briefly with Emily “light of my life” Fung before eating pizza with the host kids. After that, I opened presents over Skype with my (real)ly wonderful family, who even from overseas continuously show me how loved I am (I mean, they sent me to Spain so how could I not be!?). They gave me comfy pjs for the upcoming chilly Seville nights, a cute cardigan (which I have already worn several times) and the best of cards ("Love you. Bye" with a little doodle in classic Geoff Brown form). My sisters both gave me wonderful gifts, too. Kameron, who took time from her leadership conference (this girl is killin' it in college) to Skype me, gave me a leather-bound (I'm a bit of an addict) copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (one of my most beloved books). Sam made me a video compilation of our lives/this past summer together (she's this wicked good, current/future cinematographer) which made me both bawl and laugh. I also got to speak over Skype with my Grandma and received lovely emails from my Mimi and my Grandpa Don. My family is so very, very thoughtful: the best people I know, hands-down. After getting emotional and filling up to the brim with love and affection from my family, I headed out for the evening with my friends. A note: this is the only time I will mention alcohol consumption in my blog because I don’t want my children to read this in the future and suspect me of being a drunkard or for my future employers to shake their heads at my ~wild~ nights (of which there have been none, employers). Also, I’m 21 now so I have the right. So I drank mojitos which are deliciously sweet and minty (a quick favorite) at two bars: one small and a little loud with wine barrels to sit on, the other modern and American (Plan B was the name) with pop art on the walls and popcorn for 1 euro and giant cups to share (which some people did but others didn’t because #ebola) and awful bathrooms but no one really cared and the warm presence of friends like Megan and Andie and Isabel (who gave me the cutest bday card) and Kyle singing Whitney Houston and Alana and Eden cuddling and the spirit of Suzy and Charlie and Calee and Tim and Mapote (a welcome and wished for surprise). And the night ended not too early nor too late but in hugs and a falling into bed comforted by the reminder that in my blessed life hundreds of beautiful souls for some reason (God only knows) have met up with mine along the way and decided that it’d be worth a second to pause and rest and come to know. For this, I am grateful (and it's also the reason why this blog is so long. I wanted to acknowledge everyone who made my day so special, and I've probably failed at that because there are so very many good people in my life. If I forgot you, know I think of you now and that I'm sorry and grateful).

Madrid was delicous (gluten free cupcakes, normal cupcakes with blue frosting turning my teeth blue, cheesecake, buffets, etc) and autumnal and big and reminded me slightly of Chicago (we stayed at a Best Western) with great finds in the outdoor market (a ten euro, canary yellow Burberry sweater) as well as in the lobby of the hotel (Maggie Mantel, who is a wonderful, calm, hilarious, kind individual who I had the pleasure to come to know last year). The art in the museums (both Reina Sofia and el Prado) was beautiful and expressive and a little over my head (I could appreciate most of it aesthetically). I was really struck emotionally by one painting in particular—that of a drowning dog (The Dog by Goya) which was so sad and lonely (a sky of bleached yellow towering over the small, dirty face of that lost mutt) that I had to buy a postcard of it. The hyper train ride there was also very fun, and the train ride back was even better (Kyle told me the second half of his life story). 

The pilgrimage was a 50 km, 2 day hike of part of El camino de Santiago from Guillena to Castiblanco to Almaden de la Plata. It was hard and revelatory and reaffirming. Not 30 minutes into the journey I had paid for my curiosity by getting a few dozen little needles in my fingers from a prickly pear I had picked from a cactus (Me: “I think you can eat this.” Companions: “Please don’t”) and a stain of olive juice down the front of my shirt from picking some olives off of the trees we passed. The first day was exhausting and fun and quiet (except for the parts on the highway where we got cheered on or warned by drivers and bikers alike. One ostensibly American woman actually stopped to ask if we were lost: “There’s nothing for 15km,” she said. “Exactly,” we wanted to answer). We walked through fields of olives and oranges and little divot filled paths that savored of the stampede scene in the Lion King and passed moaning cows and horses that looked like Shadowfax (I did cry out to one of these longingly on the highway #newyearspast). Castiblanco, the town we stopped at overnight, was quaint and very white and hilly and so small and Spanish that we stuck out of it like the sorest of thumbs (we actually had people take photos of us and a group of young boys mob-laugh at us when one of us accidentally ran into the other). This journey (while we hoped it would be a reprieve from the usual--it was a religious journey, after all) still consisted of various catcalls: like from a man with his two five year old children who pointed at us and counted us like one might count flower petals: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro guapas” (No, sir, we are not thinking, feeling human beings) and an exhausted biker, barely making his way up the hill, taking time to yell between gasping breaths: “Guapas.” That evening, we wandered through the streets and sat and watched the sunset on a hill over the city (everything so soft with the cooling blues of evening and the orange sun escaping so fast-fast-fast away from the Spanish countryside as if reminding us to take our journey slow-slow-slow). We ate at a very local bar (the owner rolled a spare tire into the place while we were eating) with a very grumpy (or dry-humored? we couldn’t tell) waiter and had the best goat cheese with honey ever. We went to bed early (around 9) at the safest, coziest hostel which was really just a family’s house (complete with photo shrine to their kids on their dining room table). The second morning consisted of waking up relatively early, buying bocadillos (sandwiches) from a local store and sending Sofie (who had suffered, without complaint, huge blisters the day before) on her way home. For the first 15km of the second day, we walked over the hilliest highway ever. It was terrible and really beat us down, but we finished it and got to the most beautiful part of our journey—15km of uninterrupted and absolutely departed-from-any-sort-of-civilization nature reserve. The views were incredible as our path winded through the forested mountains, over craggy rocks and various ponds. It wasn’t too hard (we entertained ourselves with music, gossip, life stories) until the very final hill. We had joked the whole time about the “trials” of our pilgrimage (the Perilous Plain of Cow Pies, etc) and whether or not we would have to scale a mountain. Turns out we did. The last part of the trail was sheer vertical cliff. We stopped, gathered what was left of our physical reserves and mental drive and forced ourselves up the face of it. As I charged upward, I felt my Sicilian blood pounding through my veins and thought of the determination and strength of will of both my mother and grandmother and how they would do this without complaining, without looking back and with a mind toward victory. We got to the top! On one side was the the beautiful valley we had just come from so we were able to look back on our entire journey; turning around, on the exact opposite side, was our destination town: Almaden de la plata. I can’t express what joy and gratitude I felt to have made it (we’re talking Dance Marathon levels of exhaustion here). On the final little path leading to Almaden, there was a cross on a little outcropping of rocks that looked over the town. We stopped for a few moments there to take pictures, and I was reminded of how grateful I should be for the ability to be here, for the sheer, inexpressible, incomparable opportunity it has been to see how large the world is and to be able to come to know even just a small fraction of it. We entered the town to the typical spanish greeting of the oinking of a bunch of young piglets and a small coalition of locals who offered us “Buen camino” with smiles of admiration (and humor). A woman filling up her water bottle at the local well told us where to get to the bus station and then we went and got ice cream and sat for a couple of hours (we had made incredibly good time, arriving 2 hours early for the bus back to Seville). The man who sold us our ice cream was wonderful and actually ran back to his house (twice) to get us the kinds we wanted; he was well liked, it seemed, by the whole town as at least ten cars honked at him when they passed his stand. Unfortunately, things turned slightly sour as we were waiting for the bus. A group of 15 12 year-olds ganged up around us and started badgering us. At first, they seemed harmless, only asking us where we were from. Then, however, they began to practice the most vulgar English phrases on us, and after having walked for 2 days straight, I wasn’t having any of it. “Don’t bother us,” I said, in Spanish which just riled them up more. We tried to ignore them but then they began to SPIT sunflower seeds in our faces. This is when I lost it and stood up and yelled at them (slightly obscenely) and asked them where their parents were. This just incensed them more, and I felt absolutely helpless and objectified. It was awful—like we were zoo animals who they were hungrily prodding with sticks. As I was sitting there, trying to ignore the sunflower seeds that were hitting my face and shoes, I couldn’t help thinking of how minorities have been stigmatized over time and how horrible humans can be (and how we learn to be so horrible even at such a young age)! Instead of wanting to know us and talk to us, they pinned us as “the Other” and decided to torture us because of our difference. It was alarming and dehumanizing and awful. Luckily, one of the friends of their parents strolled by, and I called to her. She came over and gave them a talking to and then told them that she would be seeing their parents the next day (the ultimate bomb one can drop). The whole episode made me realize that it’s so important not to generalize or stereotype or make "other" a person simply because you see them as different than yourself. This is something I’ve known intellectually for a long time, but I feel like it’s not something I necessarily follow on a day-to-day basis or have felt until now. I often casually comment on things being “so Spanish” when they are slow or undeveloped or relaxed which seems harmless but isn’t because it’s a way of pinning down a group of people to a certain set of characteristics and making those things define them exclusively. Good to realize, better to realize having had such a shocking experience myself. Eyes open, feet sore, I continue on my way. CJB

Caroline BrownComment