Posts in Spain
The Stillness
 

I love the night, after the world has gone to sleep. There is a stillness, a peace, a creative silence that I can't find in any other time of day. When all the minds have gone to rest.... that's when mine comes alive. 

Up on the Teia mountainside, a cooing Summer breeze is the only thing to accompany me tonight. My thoughts come alive. I can almost hear the soft whispers from the sea, carried in the rustle of the trees, dancing along the 15-minute clock church bells ... it's the only reminder that I am not alone. 

I can't remember when I began to crave the silence, but I do recall a time where I filled every empty moment with noise, although I can no longer remember why. Silence, I found, is the music that we often forget. Just as the melodies and rhythms make a song, so, too, do the breaks and hesitations. You cannot have one without the other. Otherwise, the song is lost entirely amidst the chaos. 

I may not be able to write melodies, string a series of magical chords, but I hear them all around me. I hear them tonight in this breeze, in the closing of shutters next door, the distant barking of a dog, and the rustling of palms. A faded Catalan argument in a nearby house, the clinking of pots and pans, and the scratching of pen against paper- all sounds suffocated and lost in the light of day. 

In these moments, I can hear my thoughts clearly. I can feel the words swarming up within me and emblazoned on my skin. Sometimes they do not come until my head has hit the pillow and my weary body craves sleep. Only then do they come baracading through the gates, demanding to be heard. 

Some nights I repeat them over and over as they come, draped in blankets and heavy eyelids, too tired to get up and capture them, willing them to be there when I wake. They never are. Other nights, I groan, giving into their persistence, and tossing the covers aside, I grab my phone, lap top, or journal, scribbling them down like they ceaselessly demand, before crawling back into bed again, angry at their disturbance, but slave to their inspiration. Sometimes, the words come out in a waterfall, like a flowing river after a broken damn. Other times, they float in as mere sentences - beautifully constructed words woven together like musical notes that at the time mean nothing to me at all. 

Most times, I'm not sure I'm the writer at all. Without the pain and agony of desperately trying to a pull a story out of a blank page or painting an image as if carefully unweaving every single thread from a quilt, I can't possibly claim the words as my own. Without this magic and inspriation, writing can be like trying to carve The David out of a block of tar, and every sentence is a painful crack in the chiseling of the rock. But these other moments are much different. In these moments, I am only the vessel, the pen who furiously etches the words that come from some unknown place before they have vanished. Like trying to capture the wind as it blows through your hair, or the rain as it trickles through your fingertips. In these moments, laziness cannot be afforded; sleep cannot be surrendered to. For in the morning, these melodies are always gone, their song passed along to someone else. And no matter how hard I try to recapture and recall their rhythm, it never fits again. 

And so, I sit in the back garden of a modest, Spanish house, in an unrecognizable Spanish town, scribbling words as they drift in on a midnight, July breeze while the town sleeps, after groaning and surrendering to their call, dragging myself from bed just as sleep had settled in.

If it's a single raindrop or a wisp of inspiration that wakes me, in the form of a single line, I know that after capturing it, I will be released and find sleep soon again. But it's these tidal waves and sandstorms that sabotage my following mornings and I know once my pen hits the page, that sleep tonight has already passed me by and tomorrow will be hell. 

 

But the song is nothing without the silence. In fact, it isn't a song at all. 

 
Hitchhiking to France

Well, it was all very uneventful to be honest and not terrifying in the least. The train from Barcelona to Nice is extremely expensive and long and I found a Czech couple who currently resided in Nice but were on a weekend holiday in Barcelona and I asked them for a ride. 

Petr was tall and blue eyed and smiley. He was nice enough, although not very interesting, and we chatted here and there along the way. His girlfriend, Saakar (or something of the sort - surely spelled with dozens of symbols dancing off and about each letter like brail) was not, by any means, friendly; nor was she happy that I was coming along. She did not speak one word to me the entire six hour ride. She did not speak one word to anyone. She never turned around. Never looked at me once. I did manage to get a few quiet giggles out of her (that I thought I could make out from the back of her head below Petr's laughing, but I could be imagining that), throwing around some American digs and banter. But it was brief and over in no time. 

I couldn't help but contemplating this odd relationship amidst the silent hours. They didn't talk, or touch, or laugh, or play. They didn't do anything at all. No singing or story telling on this road trip. There wasn't an ounce of passion or companionship between them as far as I could see. 

Fifteen minutes into the journey, I realize I have to go to the bathroom but I am too afraid to ask, not knowing if this stranger is the furious type when he has to stop for a passenger or the acomodating type. An hour in, Petr stops at the gas station and I go to the bathroom and we share a cup of coffee and his girl friend remains stoic in the passenger seat. Three hours in, I am utterly starving. 

"So, um, do you guys eat?" I ask casually. 

"Yes, we do in fact eat," Petr laughs and stops off at the next exit. 

I'm begining to think that Sakkar is a robot and she doesn't need fuel or emotion to function, but she gets out of the car and eats with us, still without a word. It's all very strange and uncomfortable and I'm becoming increasingly disappointed because I was hoping to get a good story out of the experience and they aren't giving me much to work with. 

We finally get to Nice and Petr agrees to drop me off at my hostel seeing that it is now dark. I remember that he mentioned earlier that they live at the top of the mountain above the city. As we start climbing upwards, wrapping around the dark, steep roadways, I have this momentary (hopefully irrational) fear that they are, indeed, going to take me back to their home, slay me, and eat my remains. But they don't. 

The drop me at the hostel which is rustic and set in a garden half way up the mountain. It is full of obnoxious American and British young girls, a Muslim bent over on the floor saying prayers next to my bed, and three very old, very big women who apparently decided it was now or never to travel. I don't meet anyone here because I don't care to. I'm leaving in the morning and have no energy for hostel banter after the past month of it. I walk down the extremely dark, steep abandoned hill to town for a bank machine because they don't take credit cards, sit in the corner of the bar with a bottle of wine and my lap top open, which I'm not using but hoping will serve to ward off incomers. 

An hour later, a drunk 40-something year old man with a shit hairline walks over and asks if he can sit. I shrug and he talks incessantly while I stare at my computer. He asks me to join him for the hostel's Tango dance lessons before breakfast tomorrow and that's when I look up and say, "absolutely not." He wanders away shortly after, and when the wine is gone so do I. 

15 Things I Learned in Spain
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In no particular order ...

1.) The best thing about discovering Spanish was the literal translations. These people are so cute. To 'get sick' literally meant "I put on me the bad," and "to like something," translated to "it fell on me well." It just happened to fall on me and it did so well. 

2.) If you order in any restaurant that doesn't display the prices on their menu, you will get the "giddy" price, which is slang for "foreigner." A price that they will make up according to how giddy you appear to reap the the cost. Which is never too grievous because everything in Spain is cheap, but they will do it nevertheless. 

3.) America is cool in Spain. French people wouldn't be caught dead in anything that resmembles America, but you see more American flags in Spain almost than you do in America. Spanish girls are covered in them - jean shorts and USA flag t-shirts. They will wear anything that displays an American looking word (and I say American instead of English, because let's be honest, the Queen's English is anything but American.) They show off t-shirts with American words that literally mean nothing; like a green shirt that reads plainly "everything." 

4.) You can get your hair highlighted for 20 euros.

5.) Victoria isn't the only bitch with a secret. In Spain, the same store is called "Women's Secret," because we indeed, do all have them. 

6.) Gypsy has a severe negative connotation here. Do not, for any reason, declare yourself as one. 

7.) If Spanish people find out you used to be a professional American Cheerleader (or any type of cheerleader for that matter), you will watch them fall to pieces and lose their shit before your eyes. 

8.) In my next life, I better be a dude. Send me back as a lady bug and I will be suicidal. Everything about traveling as a man is easier and better. 

9.) The Portuguese are NOT Spanish. In fact, they would be hideously offended being lumped into this category, so let's hope that none of them are reading. Never have I met people so proud to be part of a country. They instantly list to you all the worldly things that they are responsible for that others took credit for - such as Tempora which they made up and Japan stole, and Christopher Columbus who most learn is Spanish but he is absolutely Portuguese. 

10.) In Germany, you have to pay for your radio and regular tv whether you use it or not. Forever trying to make up for their past mistakes, Germany is welcoming of all languages, tourists and cultures and the students study them all during their education. 

11.) People get paid to study in another country in Europe; and they visit each other on a whim. Denmark students have weekend trips in Spain. Germans drive to France for Lunch. And Spaniards take road trips to Portugal. You can travel such short distances and experience an entirely foreign culture and language. Ryan Air has flights cross borders for 20 euros and you can meet a vast array of international students in any European country from all over the world. Everyone speaks more than one language. In Portugal, they speak the most. You flip through menus by first picking out your language. 

12.) You can get a beer for 50 cents and a glass of wine for 80 and most every drink comes with food. Fresh fish or a selection of meats. The people in Spain drink Vermouth as if it's their job. Straight or on the rocks. By itself. 

13.) Hippies are referred to as "para floutas," literally translating to "dog flutes," because they are never without either. Also, the hippies are much different here. No flower power, prints, bright colors, flowing dresses, or head bands. No. Spanish hippies in Galicia dress in dark greens, browns, and blacks like anarchist grunge meets punk goth. Of course, the drugs and the music still bond them all together but it seems a much darker atmosphere. 

14.) Dogs are EVERYWHERE. Just roaming the streets, with no collars and mixing with the people, none of these dogs are spayed or neutered so the male genitalia drag on the floor and the new female mothers have swollen utters that do the same. No one seems to notice or mind - not the dogs or the people. 

15.) Children are also everywhere. Playing, laughing, screaming, climbing, throwing public temper tantrums and none of them seem to belong to anyone. Adults sit at outdoor cafes eating and drinking and paying them no mind. No one intervenes when the three year old gets rocked in the face with the soccer ball and topples over, or the seven year old girl is sitting in the middle of the square screaming in tears. They are just left to work things out amongst themselves. 

Barca Bound

It's official. I am the worst traveller ever. No on speaks English in the Sevilla bus station and I end up booking a 16 hour bus to Barcalona for 100 euros when I could have taken a high speed train for 40 euros more at 5.5 hours. I try to return the ticket but the woman just keeps trying to book me a return ticket back to Sevilla. This was expected since I watched a Russian woman in line ahead of me nearly punch out the glass while throwing a temper tanturm, because they would not give her money back even though she purchased cancellation insurance. It's going to be a long one. 

Two hours before departure, I am informed of a little hippie town, Grenada, which is 4 hours out, where hostels are greenhouses with guitars and now I am dying to go there. I do all I can to switch my ticket (with help of the Spanish speaking Belgian), but it is a loss, so I suck it up and get on the Barca bound bus. Thinking I'll either make it the whole way or, mid losing my mind, hop out at some random town along the way and settle there for a bit. 

There is more space at least during the beginning of the trip and I lay down across four seats as John Legend serenades me to sleep. I wake up only 3 hours later (which is highly disappointing) when the bus stops for a break, which it does every few hours. I down 2 glass of Fino, and chain smoke a few rounds in hopes to cope for the next leg. 

The bus driver hates me, by the way. He's already told me off for smoking at a stop and grabbed my arm while yelling some Spanish things as I got back in the bus. I try to smile at him when we pass at rest stops but he just glares at me fiercely holding my gaze. I'm not sure what I've done to the man but doesn't look like mending it will be a possibility any time soon. 

I would most likely be racking up a two month phone bill on this journey should my data roaming be working but it isn't, so we are safe for now. The sun is setting over the mountainous east coast and everything is green and gorgeous and deserted. 

At the next stop, a massive amount of a man waddles his way past fleets of empty seats to sit in the back two next to me, and my bed for the night portion of the trip is gone. He breathes louder than I speak and the iPhone has gone dead so headphones to block him out are a loss. He exerts so much energy trying to find a comfortable position to lie down and ends up lying down with his head practically in my lap. I spend the next 10 hours in a semi-suicidal state staring out the window and trying to shut down my brain, while floppy over here snores profusely, blowing hot hair against my leg. 

I arrive in Barcelona in a zombie-like state at 8:30 am with no clue what day it is. I can't check in to my place until 1 pm, so I wander around aimlessly scoping out possible places to nap where people won't notice me. Barcelona is massive compared to the other places I have been in Spain - a proper, busy city. I don't think I like it very much; it feels like I could be in any other city in the world. But then again, I'm sure that about 82% of that has to do with the last 16 hours. A huge statue of Christopher Columbus pointing across the sea to the New World stands proudly in the center of a square and I scoff at Spain, remembering my Portuguese friends. There are modern art scultpures everywhere and a 50 foot steel lobster with a drawn on smiley face lurking high above me and with an outstretched claw as if he were welcoming me. After wandering with no direction at all for hours, I get massively lost and can't find the hotel again until 3 pm. 

Finally alone in a room for the first time in a month. And then I sleep for two days. 

Improv Stops in Galicia

So, I decided to give couch surfing a try. Before you say anything, let me endorse your sketchy suspicions with my own and then contradict them by telling you what I found. Contrary to terrifying assumptions, couch surfing is simply an amazing, secret, underground society of travelers helping travelers for the sake of karma, that they might be helped along their journey later down the line. And for experiences, because they simply love to travel and love meeting people who share this passion. It’s a different world in this society … no hotels, not even hostels, just locals; and let me tell you, I never would have seen Galicia the way I got to see it without couch surfing with a born and bred local Galician.

Cambados wasn’t in my plans. In fact, it wasn’t even on my radar, but those, I’ve found, are the absolute best stops in travel. However, as fate would have it, Adrian reached out to me on Couch Surfers and told me he had a room open should I wish to visit a town about 45 minutes from Santiago de Compostela, where I was currently residing. Well, it was now or never, so I decided to get it well over and done with so that the fear would be gone.

After getting off the wrong stop on the bus and wandering around with a non-English speaking, 90 year old, Galician man trying to help, Adrian met me at a local bar. I had told him I was at the bar, Estrella Galicia -only to find out later that that was actually the name of the local beer. Talk about foreigner. Adrian was a punk rock / rasta / musician looking type with unkempt facial hair and a slight mullet. He looked like he possibly sported a rat-tail for the better part of his youth.

Adrian is everything that the gypsy part of my soul longs to be. He hitch hikes through Poland and France, learns English while living with Italians in Ireland, travels around in a van for weeks in search of peaceful beaches, and plans trips to Portugal only to get onto an impulsive plane to Germany as soon as he arrives. But he always comes back to Cambados. He bleeds Galician. He was born and raised here and he will die here. He was my traveling gypsy kindred spirit and I thought about bringing him with me down through Portugal. Unfortunately, Adrian had more of a Romeo and Juliet duo in mind rather than Louis and Clark and thus the duo eventually parted ways.

Cambados is a small fishing village on the west coast of Spain above Portugal, known for Albarino and seafood. Adrian says that people come from all over the world just to have lunch here (and after lunch, I absolutely believe him.) Here being a place that wasn’t known to me for anything and had not been on my list until yesterday. An impromptu stop that I would become increasingly grateful for with each passing hour. One night turned into three and it wasn't even twenty-four hours before I had canceled all of my planned trains and hostels for the next three stops. 

Back at his house, Adrian cooked lunched for us. A plate of mussels fresh from the dock down the street, where he knew the fishermen by name and they often gave him mussels for free because they were harvested in such abundance here that people didn’t know what to do with them. He steamed them in a pot without water because he said the salt water inside the shells was the only flavor you needed. We ate them with our hands. He picked some herbs from his garden, sliced some tomatoes and other vegetables, threw them in a pot with more mussels, rice and Berberchose – tiny clam like creatures and my new favorite word. (Pronounced “barry barry truce”, I later said it constantly, with or without reason, adding it into any sentence that I could or just attaching it onto the end of phrases.) After lunch, we had fruit digestives made in his friend’s grandfather’s basement out of various fruits and grappa. It tasted like cold medicine and jet fuel had a baby, but it didn’t take long for me to grow accustomed to the flavor (and the buzz).

The sun was shining and the wind was dancing off the sea. Adrian took me all over the town, showing me only local things that I never would have discovered on my own. We walked along the sea at low tide, which was more like no tide, leaving vast expanses of green algae covered ocean floors and boats beached along them with their anchors still in the ground. Adrian said the sea changed every 45 minutes. Sometimes the water would be level with the road for a week and then be miles of beach for the next.

I’m like a child, skipping around like a curious 5 year old, asking every question that pops into my head on any given moment. “What’s that?” “Do you eat these?” “How do you say this?” “When do you eat this?” “But what are they?” “What’s this plant called?” “What is growing on this rock?” “What do you call algae?” “Why is there so much green here?” “Does the algae get tangled on you when you swim? I hate that.” “Do you swim?” “When does it get hot here?” “Does it ever snow?” “Do young people vote?” “What exactly does the King do?” Adrian seemed to find this amusing and answered every question patiently with a delighted grin.

We walked to the ruins of a look out tower and climbed up, sitting on the rocks of what used to be a wall with the water splashing up against the stones below, while a man fished beside us. Walking through the town, we pass houses covered in shells (an old Galician architecture meant to protect the buildings from the coast’s weather conditions), and through a beautiful, old cemetery. It was covered in tiger lilies and after telling Adrian they were my favorite flower, he plucked one straight off a grave and put it in my hair. Certain that we were now going to some sort of doomed after life for that, I ran out. We climbed up a hill covered in a pinecone forest, which reminded me of home, up to a look out at the top. With Adrian’s help, I climbed to the top of the boulders and sat up there for awhile, out of breath and awe struck, overlooking the seaside town. The wind danced through my hair peacefully and I wondered how I could have come through Spain never knowing that this little town existed.

Once down on level ground again, we walked to a small winery. Albarino vines covered the Galician landscape like ivy roof tops, standing straight up, taller than me, and arching over one another to form a canopy above our heads. There were grassy floors dusted with flower petals and ponds covered in lily pads. An old man rolled an ancient looking, open barrel six times the size of him into one of the ponds to wash it, sending the lily pads soaring out on the waves. It had to be without a doubt, the most romantic setting that I had ever come across and I wanted to bottle it so that I could take it out for the perfect moment.

Aside from Albarino, there was another wine Cambados was known for … an underground, unproduced, unsold wine – Black wine. It was never labeled and it technically did not exist. Home made and home served, it was only served out of people’s garages. A piece of fennel in somebody’s doorpost meant that they had wine and to come on in. We sat in one such garage, complete with folding tables, and the man of the house grilled up spicy peppers for us in garlic and olive oil- complimentary with your massive mug of black wine. It was for all intensive purposes similar to a very dry, harsh, red wine but it was deep, deep purple – almost black – hence the name. It stained your mouth purple for days and if you got it under your fingernails, your fingertips would be stained for weeks. Local old men played cards at the long plastic fold out table we sat at and it was just another regular afternoon in Galicia.

Later, we met some of Adrian’s friends at an outdoor café in a square full of aggressive youngsters playing football. We drank a café liquor and I was becoming increasingly hazy at this point after all of this intense Galician alcohol. Adrian’s friends were interesting to say the least. There was Goyo, who was by all intensive purposes black inside, obsessed with American rap and NBA. Nebraska looked American but he was Galician through and through. The only English he knew came from video games so he would say things like “Destruction!” or “Carnage!“ I am told he was the town badass that used to have long blonde wavy hair down his back and hold the wildest parties known, but he is clean cut now and sporting a Nebraska sweatshirt which I thought a very odd American state to make it’s way here out of all the rest. And thus, I deemed him Nebraska. Adrian played guitar and sang in his low growl of a voice and we all laughed and sang for hours.

The next day it was raining. It rains everyday in Galicia, but in Galicia, they say that rain is art. If you haven’t seen Santiago in the rain, then you haven’t really seen it. All of the colors change. Personally, I preferred the colors in the sunshine, but I was down for the artistic view.

We go across the sea to the Island, which Adrian pronounces “Iceland,” (the silent s is not a concept yet accepted here.) We ate Pulpo (octopus) in a small corner street bar that up until 30 years ago had been the island doctor’s office. The people here still refer to the place as the “Consulta.” It is the best octopus in Spain (Galica hoards all the best seafood in the world and only exports out the crap) and I am told that the creatures have to be punched and beaten in order to soften them before cooking. You used to see all of the local fishermen smacking the live pulpa against the ground and docks after they came in for the day, but now a week in the fridge achieves the same job. Still, you must scare the octopus right before cooking it to ensure the utmost tenderness. Cooks torture the creature by dipping it in and out of the boiling water several times before submersing it. It all seems very cruel, but the pepporcini and oil covered sea creature is so delicately delicious that I cannot protest.

We eat calamari too (unlike any I have ever had), drink Albarino - unlabeled like all wine in Galicia, it just comes in a naked wine bottle, and watch the Spanish news on TV. The King has decided that he no longer wishes to rule- bored with his current responsibilities, so he has left the throne open and hopefully claimed by his son. The news station flashes to a clip of Obama, whom they call the most powerful man in the world, doing pushups in a suit on a basketball court and sinking lay ups. I am instantly embarrassed to be associated with this nation. It looks like we do absolutely nothing. Not even the President has any worries.

That night 2 American couch surfers, currently teaching English in the south of Spain are joining us and I am so excited to have comrades. Trevor from Wisconsin is outrageous and fluent in Galician. Tall and blonde and skinny, he eats more than the three of us combined and remains rail thin. Fallen, also super thin, is beautiful. She is Trevor’s roommate and originally from Texas. Dark hair and dark skin, she could easily be Spanish herself.

Trevor falls with a wicked flu of some sort or food poising, but it’s impossible to tell from what since he’s eaten everything. Fallen, Adrian and I go to a music festival called “Green Corn” full of dauntless looking individuals. Anarchist hippies with dread locks, and piercings everywhere, all in dark browns and army greens. In Spain, they call hippies “para floutas,” translating to dog flutes because they are always with flutes and dogs, which I find hilariously brilliant. No one neuters their dogs here, so they are everywhere- some with overfull utters that drag on the ground. We dress up in Panda suits – full head to toe, ears and all, panda suits – because I guess that’s a thing here and stay up all night with the music.

Aside from the actual performer’s on stage, back at the tents – all of Adrian’s friends sit cross-legged in circles and lay sprawled out in the grass as they play a various symphony of instruments and sing songs all night long. I fall in love with a Spanish girl’s voice who plays guitar and harmonica and has my dream singing voice. She is by all visual appearances, a homely looking, 14 year old, American girl who has been homeschooled her entire life, but she is nothing like that at all. She can’t speak English but she can sing it, so when she does attempt to speak, she only speaks in beautiful, poetic words.

The sky is splattered with stars everywhere, like the artist standing in front of a blank canvas dipping his brushes into paint and swinging them side to side sending paint flying across the whiteness before him; they keep appearing more rapidly than the moment before. After all the singing and dancing that my little Panda self can take, I finally crawl into the tent around 6am and fall asleep instantly. (Side note: it is not a rough morning until you wake up sweating, face down in a tent on top of rocks as a dirt covered Panda.) Everyone is still drinking, banging on cans and sticks and playing guitar, singing in the rising sun. And since we have about 5 more hours here, there is nothing to do but join in.

 Note: I am NOT a morning person.

Note: I am NOT a morning person.

Adrian and Fallen drop me off drunk at the bus station and help me find my bus. With an address written on my hand, a dead phone and mud-ridden ankles, I attempt to make my way to nowhere in Particular.

Convertibles, Country sides, & Castles with Adam

This hostel was pristine compared to the last. I had begun to think I had the 8 person bed room to myself after being there the entire day, but as luck would have it, my bunk mates came in at midnight and they all spoke English. Two 29 year olds from Denmark- Sophie and Aska, and a Pennsylvania bred American - Adam.

Sophie was beautiful and tall. Very, very tall. (In fact, all three of them towered over me and I spent my entire time with them jumping around like a child to reach their level for attention). She was a medical student in the great socialist Denmark where education was free and money was never a motive,  and had lived in Spain for 3 months a few years ago. Aska (pronounced Oscar without the r) worked in some sort of International Economics studying underdeveloped societies and he was hilarious. The type of person who is instantanly best friends with every single person he meets, whether he speaks their language or not. He was quite fluent in Spanish, but even if he met a distant language, he got by with dance moves, wit and charm that he had seemed to master universally.

And then there was Adam – a Cornel student getting his Masters in Viticulture and working in the Finger Lakes vineyards. (Seriously … the luck??) As soon as I discovered that he was in wine as well (which was approximately 3.5 minutes upon their entering of the room), and had an appointment with a winery the next morning in Rioja, I asked him if he wanted to take me along. He laughed and I looked down at him seriously from the windowsill where I sat cross legged with my lap top, “I am 100% serious,” I said, and so it was decided.

Adam was weird, but harmless and interesting and nice enough. A Viticulturist and an Ornithologist (which is the study of birds he told me after I informed him I didn’t know what that was), who drove a black Mercedes convertible he had borrowed from a buddy in Madrid. He was by all worldly standards, “hot,” tall and tan with crystal blue eyes, but by all definitions a total science geek stuck in an athlete’s body. He was the type of person who immediately offered you all of the facts on a particular comment or observation you might have made. An endless bank of random knowledge, travel and Cornel stuffed brains.

“I’m sorry, but rules are: top down,” He said as we got in the car with his finger on the button to open the roof.

“I’m sorry, but you clearly don’t know me yet. Top obviously down. Snow, rain or hail,” I responded sliding in the other side.

We were off and Adam looked like a child overcome with giddy pleasure as he drove. It was indeed, pretty amazing – the Rioja countryside and back roads with vineyards as far as you could see. Upon certain twists and turns of the road, we would look at each other and burst out laughing because this was just too cool.

“What are those!?” He asked, more to himself than to me, slowing down and pulling off the road into a gravel path in a vineyard. I looked at the vines next to me, wondering if he could tell what type they were just by looking at them. They looked pretty normal to me but I didn't know; maybe this particular patch had stumped him. My hand on the door handle, ready to get out and inspect, Adam reached around and grabbed Binoculars from the middle consol. (Yes, this kid carried binoculars and a heavy duty pair at that, because “you never know when you’re gonna see cool stuff,” he told me). As I was wondering why on earth he needed binoculars, when we could just get out and look at the vines, he positioned them up towards the sky.

“So cool,” He said under his breath. I followed his trajectory to two very ordinary looking, black birds circling above us and then sat rather gape jawed and dumbstruck as he pondered them, reversed, and then carried on down the road as if everyone did that.

“Sooo … you like birds …” I mused.

“Yea. Like I said, I was an Ornithologist,” He responded

Okay then. “A Viticulturist. An Ornothologist. And a Mercedes convertible. I have yet what to make of you, Adam Kane.”

He smiled, which was good, because as I later found, sometimes he laughed at my jokes and other times, my wit blew right past him, completely lost like a passing sound he hadn’t picked up and he remained blank faced like I hadn’t spoken at all. Which was also another absurd impossibility, because Adam Kane had bionic hearing. Seriously, he thought it was normal but it wasn’t. He could detect a swarm of bees or a faint bird cry from a mile away (I can hear him now correcting that fact that it was indeed not even a half mile away, but more like .1 miles). He simply refused to believe I couldn’t hear these sounds as well, and I wouldn’t believe that he did until we followed this mystical hearing to the actual source and I saw it with my own eyes. Once we found it, I would look straight from it up to him, studying him like he did with his birds trying to classify this strange breed. He seemed not to notice that I was watching him as he watched whatever it was that he was particularly engrossed in at the moment.

Overcome with the landscape, the wind in our hair, and the energy of the afternoon, we thought we may have taken a wrong turn so Adam pulled off on a side road to look up directions and call the winery.

“I hear birds …” I teased in a sing song voice as we sat on the side of a silent road by a very neglected horse covered in hay.

“Just common Sparrows,” He replied simply without taking his eyes from his phone.

Bodega Paganos was a beautiful property set in the valley surrounded by the Iberian mountain range. Bright, leafy vines stretched out from the white, rocky earth and surrounded the stone fortress that stood between them – built from the “Mother Rock” that lie way below the earth, which they tunneled out to make their aging caves. It was a 5th century winery with an all-star wine maker named Marcus who had been voted 3rd best in his trade by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Our host, Alberto, was without a doubt the nicest person in the entire world. The tour was meant to be in Spanish (Adam was fluent in Spanish of course. That year and a half he spent living in Peru studying plants or birds or whatever it was he did) and I was ready to smile and nod and suffer through it, just grateful to be there, but Alberto insisted on English for me.

He took us out into the vines and talked about all of their biodynamic processes with Adam. There were a lot of viticulture terms in broken English and Spanish and a lot of smiling and nodding on my part. Paganos’ vineyard cycle was planned entirely around the moon’s and each date out of the year was marked accordingly for the best leaf days, flower days, and tasting days. Because Paganos did not use chemicals or fast acting enhancements, the vines had to be cared for as if they were infants, each day of the year. Paganos produced four small quantity/high quality wines that were each named after their respective vineyards and yielded their own distinct personalities accordingly. They also made a larger production wine, which by Rioja standards of 8 million bottles a year, was fairly small at a mere half million.

Inside the winery, Albertos, showed us the equipment and took us through their version of the wine making process. I was amazed to learn that for the four top quality wines that they produced, each grape cluster was de-stemmed by hand, one by one, grape by grape, to assure the utmost quality and preserve the grape’s integrity. Instead of the common Bladder Press that I was familiar with in America, Bodega Paganos uses a Basket Press to extract the juice. Alberto explains to us the difference with an analogy of a teabag. The Bladder Press, he says, is like pressing your spoon to the teabag against the wall of your mug in the hot water to extract as much flavor as fast as possible. The Basket Press is like dipping your teabag in and out of the hot water by its string, oozing flavor into the water slowly but softly. This he said, was more time consuming but gave the wine a soft elegance that could not be achieved otherwise. They also still crushed some of their grapes by foot in huge barrels that subsequently served as the aging barrels for the first fermentation process. The secondary fermentation (Malolactic) was done in French and American oak barrels and in an entirely natural process that took from December to June to be completed. (The previous vintage was still in the barrel awaiting Malolactic completeion).

Paganos also made a wine that went through Malolactic Fermentation in what i believe is called an obom (an egg shaped barrel that pumped the wine in a certain flow used by the French for their whites; such as Chablis) and was 1 of 2 in the world to use this process for a red wine. Only 800 bottles were produced that sold for 1000 euros each. Albertos tasted three of the top wines with us outside against the vineyard and mountainous backdrop. They were divine (tasting notes at the bottom). He talked about each personality of the wine and told us that in Rioja, even his 2 and 3-year-old nephews study viticulture in school. He left us with a library of reading materials and invited us to a huge dinner and tasting on Wednesday night with the top California wine gurus. Instantly, a litany of curses against myself rang through my head for planning, for the first time in my journey, my next 3 stops, and transportation in between - all prepaid. I contemplated seriously about canceling my train and the next 3 after and just eating the cost in order to attend this dinner. (Later, upon meeting Adrian, I would end up unplanning all of these plans anyway.)

With a page full of places to see and eat from Albertos, Adam and I left to venture out to more of the Rioja countryside. The ride was heavenly, interrupted with spurts of knowledge and awe from Adam, like “Oh! Kestrel.” “Mini falcon. Super cool,” he would explain to me when I asked what the hell a Kestrel was. Or, the occasional screeching of breaks followed by, “Oh look! There’s a Quail.” Now thoroughly amused by my most recent case study, I began to play a game with Adam, pointing out every bird I saw. “What’s that?” “Magpie.” “That one!” “Piper.” But I couldn’t stump him so eventually I stopped playing.

We arrived at a small stone town and looked like two Beverly hills kids driving around in Daddy’s Mercedes Convertible. One old man stopped and stared, following us as we crept over the cobble stones. He said something aloud to those around him, which Adam translated as “Oh my God…” as he watched us. The town was otherwise abandoned and we parked to walk around.

“Do you smoke?” I asked him, pulling out a cigarette.

“No. Not since Peru.” He said.

 “Neither do I,” I answered, lighting the cigarette dangling between my lips. He laughed in an amused yet mocking way, which was exactly the response I had anticipated.

“Only when traveling alone in foreign countries,” I smiled, blowing the smoke out around us.

We ate pinchos at the only café opened in town and Adam made friends with locals and talked to them in Spanish for what felt like forever about castles and vines (I think). We explored a dark and cold empty church and snuck through a locked iron gate down into the basement. Unfortunately, it was just for storage. No catacombs. I tried to carve my name into a stone railing where others had but Adam grabbed my wrist when I pulled out the pocket knife and protested defacing a 600 year old church, so I didn’t. We drove about 5km down the road in search of this castle he wanted to see and stopped to ask a vineyard worker where it was. He told us to cross over the main road and follow the tractor up through the windy dirt paths, so we did. We drove up the narrow dusty trails with vines tickling the tires of the car on either side until we got to the top of a steep hill.

The castle was from the 8th century and completely abandoned. Without a soul in sight or ear shot, we climbed to the top of the hill and went inside. It seemed to be merely an open space covered in overgrown weeds and surrounded by stone but Adam found a place where he could climb the walls to the very top. (Adam was a rock climber. And a surfer. And a collegiate swimmer. Among other things. Obviously.) I made him get down immediately and lift me up first because I was too short to reach the foot holding and refused to allow him this adventure without me. Kicking my shoes to the side and tying my skirt up, I climbed to the top, through holes in the wall and then up again the other side until we got to the top. The view was absolutely breath taking. Mountains faded in the distance around us, enclosing the valley with thousands of miles of vineyards rolling up and over each hill and around every road and every bend. Not a patch went untouched by them. The bright sun glistened off the river below us, whose protection, Adam informed me, was the Castle’s mission back in 700AD; and the wind howled through my hair and whipped my skirt in violent fits around my legs. We were on the top of the world. We screamed as loud as we could and waited as it echoed off the mountains and throughout the entire valley. We sat in a comfortable silence for awhile just taking it all in and I thought I could most likely stay up here for my entire life, just sitting atop these old stone ruins overgrown with weeds and wild flowers, with my bare feet dangling over the edge miles above ground, and the wind caressing my face.

We drove back to Logrono, stopping at random picturesque views or bird sightings and then met back up with Sophie and Aska in town. We spent the night eating pinchos and drinking everything, going from tapas bar to tapas bar down the lively streets. I bought some snails (live ones; pets) off a tiny Asian man selling them as if they were flowers perched there on his tree branch, as he walked through the local outdoor bars. Then, not knowing what to do with them, I bought them all and set them free in a garden. The four of us followed some Logrono locals that had become Aska’s new best friends to a Karaoke bar down the street and sang duet after duet in English while the local Spaniards clapped, smiling ear to ear at every Backstreet Boys, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen song. I contemplated canceling my train again. I’m pretty sure I told everyone that I was going to. But I didn’t. My train left out of Logrono the next morning and I willed fervently for that one perfect day and night in Rioja to be forever preserved amongst the sea of new memories that I was headed straight into. 

 

 

TASTING NOTES: Bodega Paganos

2009 Sierra Cantabria ~ Deep purple hue. Classic Rioja spicy nose that lends into vanilla with time. Smooth, fresh mouth feel. A lot of grip without any bitterness to it and tannic structure without tannic feel. No over drying finish. 

2007 El Puntido ~ More complex notes. Dark red fruit and black currents. You can taste the oak. A nose full of white flowers after it opens up; Albertos says that it smells exactly like the white flowers of the olive tree blossoms in the area. Despite being a 2007, you can still feel how fresh it is. Complex, with a minerality characteristic to it, it is very well balanced with rounded tannins and covers the entire palate. 

2008 La Nieta ~  This wine has less oak and so much fruit - red fruits. It is bolder and powerful but also soft and elegant. It is not rugged at all like some other Spanish wines. 2008 was a great year in la Rioja. It has a finish that seems to last forever and a "high note" that Adam detects in the back of the palate. 

Prison Camp
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It´s dark and cold before sunrise and I´m waiting at the train station for this bus to get me out of France. But it hasn´t come yet and I´m beginning to have this irrational fear that it won´t and I´ll be stuck in this country forever.

My head ached and I was tired as hell. having spent the past two nights in fits of insomnia, as I often do. My bus was departing at 6am and I wasn´t going to get to Spain until 8am and then wouldn´t have a place to stay until 2pm. Waiting at the train station, which was closed except for its doors, I eventually found a Little Wayne looking mother fucker (excuse my French but there is just no other way to describe him so plainly) who spoke English (of course) and told me where the bus would be. But now 6am was approaching and I was beginning to doubt the master rap artist. I walked outside to check and tripped over some luggage with it being so dark, only to realize that it was a man in a sleeping bag spending the night outside the station on his backpack.

Well, as it turns out, Little Wayne is a liar and the bus was not where he said it would be. No surprise there. It was 10 of 6 and I had been instructed to check in 30 minutes prior. Now I was panicking and running down across the street to the bus stop where two busses had just pulled up. Neither were mine so I waited alone in the dark. 6:00, 6:05, 6:10 ... I was officially stuck in France.

A comedy of errors type family strolled around the corner approaching the bus stop in a frenzy. An older couple accompanied by a mad man and 7 rolling suitcases. The woman, she must have been in her 60´s, began speaking to me in rapid fire French questions before she realized I only spoke English. She instructed me to converse wit her son who spoke my language. He did not, by any accounts, speak English. Mumbling incoherent sounds at me and spraying my face with spit, he only shouted his words louder when I told him I did not understand. I just shrugged and took a seat back on the bench. I was too tired for this. I watched them bobble about like fools, shouting and scurrying like finch about each other among the route signs trying to find their bus. The son, leaving his luggage in the middle of the road, stumbled to the building next to me and began urinating … loudly and for an abnormally long time. The parents didn’t seem to find this unusual. So again, I shrugged.

The night leaker came out from behind the building with more speed than he could carry and I watched him topple out over his suitcases, landing on the pavement, and sending his red, white and blue snow cap flying further into the street. I didn’t help him. I didn’t even move. Neither did his parents. It was all very strange and exhausting and the only thing I kept thinking was: Please let my bus come and please let the hostel allow me to check in early so I can sleep.

I had overspent and overindulged in private rooms the past month in France, unable yet to succumb to the dormitory life with strangers, but after inconceivable expenses between that and the car, I decided that June in Spain would be the hostel life. The hostel was in Bilbao and just for 1 night on my way to Logrono. Located directly behind the Guggenheim in town, it had looked cheap but promising. (Although, the website displayed no pictures of the bedrooms themselves, which is in hindsight, an obvious red flag). I arrived at 8:30AM in the rain and knocked on the front door of a glass cage of a building until a woman let me in.

Boxto Gallery Youth Hostel was a hideous place and it reeked of a thousand sweaty backpackers. The boy at the counter running things that day could not have been over 17 years old and he took his time serving an array of old milk and stale bread as breakfast to those who were already awake. Finally, he took me into the room with a sheet and a pillowcase, placed them on the top bed of a triple bunk squeezed in-between dozens of others and pointed to my locker. I was inmate 24B. In the quarantined section of the barracks. The room was open with only a curtain to separate it from the common room and a half a dozen people still lie asleep in their beds with their sheets over their heads, the lights on, and raucous coming from those already awake in the shared space. Ok, Kristen … now you are backpacking. Deep Breath. Just embrace it. I put my luggage down and with sleep as the only goal in my line of sight, climbed up the rickety metal staircase to the top bunk, avoiding the death glares from the sleeping bunkmates and the grunts of the girl whose arm I had stepped on climbing up. I brought my valuable possessions backpack and my purse up with me despite being forbidden to do so, and sunk into a deep sleep despite the lights, noise, and stench.

I get a juvenile flight of butterflies like a middle school girl every time I overhear someone speaking English with an American accent. I had just woken up due to the influx of voices awakening, who were most likely consequence of the miserable hostel maid sweeping up trash and plastic cans while slamming her broom into the metal poles of the bunks and crunching plastic bags under feet. It was two of them- the voices - a girl and a boy and they were definitely American. Lyna, a young Greek goddess and Bob, her best friend’s brother, whose arrival they were awaiting. Chicago bred, they had just traveled from Amsterdam and were meeting Bob’s sister Colleen who had studied the previous semester abroad in Bilbao. I chatted with them for a bit before venturing out to explore the town on my own and knew that upon my return, I would be attaching myself to them for the night like a little sister tag-a-long.

Spain was loud and chaotic. There were music, children and dogs everywhere. (Which painstakingly made me miss my little brother and my dog). The people talked faster than anyone I had ever met and the Spanish I thought would come back to me had failed to do so thus far. But at least, I had more to work with here than I did in France and menus were easier to read. The air wasn’t quite as soft and romantic as dreamy France, but it was charged with an infectious energy that I loved. Accordions and violinists filled the streets (literally, there is one standing over my shoulder playing in my ear as we speak and he won’t go away) and tapas were spread out across every bar in town and up for grabs… beautiful little creations of bright colors, meats, thick sauces, herbs and seafood. And ham… Ham was everywhere, huge thighs dangling from every bar ceiling grazing the bartenders’ heads – hips, hooves and all.

I latched onto the Chicago trio that night and Colleen showed us her town as it had been for the past 3 months. We ate pinchos (tapas) out in the square where every bar was on the honor system. No table service and no credit cards held, you took your tapas, ordered your drinks and went outside, and then came back in amongst the crowds when you were done to tell the bartender what you ate and pay. We stayed up drinking and laughing about the terrible accommodations we were currently subjected to and this crazy, old Camina lady that we had met earlier that day backpacking and walking her way across Spain and staying in a youth hostel. They told me stories of their recent journey through Munich, Brussels, and Amsterdam and I traded stories from my past month in France. Colleen had accidentally walked through security at the Amsterdam airport with two lighters and a bag of weed in her jacket pocket (which they later smoked out of an apple), Lyna had had her 21st birthday in Amsterdam where a room full of strangers sang “Happy Birthday Nina,” to her (a name she kept for the rest of the trip), and they had stayed in a hostel infested with rats. It felt so good to be with Americans for the first time in a month. I climbed up into my third story bunk bed and had a surprisingly good four hours of sleep before waking to catch the bus to Logrono.