August 16, 2008

Sketches of Spain

Talk about a false cognate: the word "mal" in Macedonian means small, while in Spanish it means bad. So it wasn't terribly surprising when the nice woman behind the counter in Granada raised an eyebrow when I asked for a bad ice cream. This kept happening to us. No longer possessing the acrobatic brain of a child, we apparently are only capable of handling one foreign language at a time. Sure, we both took Spanish for several years in high school and college, but we effectively TNT'd that tunnel shut when we started learning Macedonian. I could almost hear my synapses removing the rubble, searching for daylight, as we examined Spanish menus, deciphered street signs, and asked about bus tickets.

Following the wedding and our visit in Paris [see previous post below], Jillian and I caught an overnight train to Madrid to kick off a week-long tour of Andalusia, the southern region of Spain. As the train rumbled across the French countryside in the waning daylight, we made our way to the dining car and were delighted to find...three-dollar beers! Well, Toto, we certainly weren't in Paris anymore, where beers routinely cost eight bucks. After a surprisingly comfortable sleep as the train crossed through the Pyrenees and descended into the hot lowlands of Spain, we emerged from the train and began our week of tapas, history, and, oh yeah, tons of walking.

Briefly about Andalusia: its incredibly charming and unique character comes from the fact that it was ruled by Moorish Muslims for over five hundred years--in fact, Al-Andus (as it was called) was quite a wealthy and successful center of commerce and culture to the very end, when Ferdinand and Isabel completed the Reconquest and united Spain under a Catholic monarch. Today, Andalusia is largely defined by this incredible mix of Catholicism and Islam, Iberian and Moorish.

The sun was intense and the thermometer was pushing 100 degrees as we climbed the steep grade towards the hills overlooking Granada. It was so much warmer in Spain than it had been in France and, due to an absolute absence of clouds, incredibly bright. We pushed on, though, for our destination was the Alhambra, easily one of Spain's top attractions. Granada was the capital of Al-Andus for many centuries and toward the end of Moorish rule, the Alhambra was built as a centerpiece citadel and palace. Over five hundred years later, it did not disappoint.

The grounds were an exquisite mix of gardens and low-lying buildings of Islamic architecture. At the center was the Nasrid Palace, a wonderfully ornate and detailed structure. The contrast between what we saw here and the plethora of Catholic churches and monuments throughout the region could not have been greater. While the strength of Catholic decor lies in its depiction of people and events--saints, the stations of the cross, Mary, etc.--Islamic design feature no people. In fact, it's forbidden. In its place we found hand-carved murals with elaborate designs and script.

Both pictures: Inside the Alhambra

From atop the Alhambra's fortress wall Granada can be seen in total. In the center of Granada sits a seeming impossibly large cathedral, as if a Catholic spaceship had descended upon the city (close encounters of the Word kind). Staring at this behemoth from the tower of a Moorish citadel only served to reinforce this religious and cultural juxtaposition and reminded us why Andalusia is so interesting.

A short distance from the cathedral is Granada's old Jewish quarter. Due to a relatively high degree of religious toleration during the Moorish period (as opposed to the Inquisition that followed the Reconquest), such neighborhoods are common throughout Andalusia. White-washed walls, confusingly narrow streets of cobblestone, and tiny, tucked away cafes made exploring these areas one of our favorite activities. In Sevilla, the largest city in the region, the Jewish quarter is impeccably kept up and every twist and turn in the streets seems to lead to another undiscovered square or plaza.

Also in Sevilla is a famous bullfighting ring. With all due respect to Ernest Hemingway and the romanticism surrounding this "sport," neither of us had any desire to take in a bullfight. Blindfold the matador, and maybe you'll get me in to see a fair fight. That being said, we had to see the ring. Situated beautifully along the river on Sevilla's main avenue, it really is romantic and dashing, painted in vibrant reds and yellows. Enormous posters advertise upcoming bullfights, the matadors' names announced largely.

Jillian outside the bullring, Plaza de Toros

Also in Sevilla

In addition to Sevilla and Granada, we also visited Cordoba, Toledo, and Madrid. Though technically not in Andalusia, Madrid and Toledo nonetheless pulsated with much of the same flair and history. Toledo, particularly, features a breathtaking old city built during Moorish rule. Along our trip we consumed as many tapas as possible and I think I ate about twenty bowls of gazpacho (by the end of the week, Jillian wouldn't let me order it).

It was a bit strange, but mostly really nice, being back in the west, where buses are clean and air-conditioned, where we were allowed to flush our toilet paper, where the streets weren't cluttered with litter, and where people wait patiently in line. Still, by week's end we were excited to get back to Macedonia (with Jillian's mother...they are touring Macedonia as I write this) and to start planning our school year activities and events.

[As always, many more pictures can be found by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.]

Entrance to Old Toledo

August 15, 2008

Pinch Me

Breaking news: Paris is a fantastic place to get married. You read it here first.

I could've sworn our boarding passes said "Depart Skopje / Arrive Paris," but it turns out they truly read, "Depart Peace Corps / Arrive Lap of Luxury." Perhaps you remember that TV show Quantum Leap in which everyman quantum physicist Sam Beckett would "leap" into the bodies of various people through history and live their lives for a few days. Each episode would begin with him making the leap and then muttering, "Oh boy," as he takes in his new situation.

Well, Jillian and I felt a bit like Sam Beckett as we made our way down Champs-Élysées towards our hotel. We had "leaped" from Macedonia on to la plus belle avenue du monde. And as we set down our oversized backpacks in a hotel room complete with His 'n Hers matching bathrobes, we didn't so much as mutter "oh boy" as we did exclaim, "Holy s--t!"

So it was a pretty magical weekend. The occasion was the wedding of Jillian's sister Alexandra (San Diego transplant living in know those voice menus you get when calling 800-numbers? "To pay your parking ticket using your Mastercard, please say or press 1." Yeah, she makes those) and Markus (Finnish-born puppet-master of financial markets). A small contingent of immediate family and close friends were on hand for three days in one of the finest cities in all the world.

This was my first time and it was Jillian's second time in Paris, so I'll spare you all the pretentious, "Ignoring the mindless herd of tourists, I set out to find the real Paris" b.s. We went to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Truimph, Montmartre, the Louvre, and Musee D'Orsay. Like any great city, Paris exceeded my already high expectations. The architecture--which I had seen echoes of in Quebec and, to a lesser extent, New Orleans--makes every street a photogenic panorama of wrought iron and balconies. On the night of the wedding, after the reception had wound down, Jillian and I joined Aline, a friend of Alex's who had performed the ceremony, on a 3am jaunt over to the Eiffel Tower. Unlit at that hour, it nonetheless cut a rather imposing figure against the cloudy evening sky. The streets surrounding the tower were hushed; the evening's last wine had been poured.

At Sacre Coeur

Sitting in swanky Parisian bars, sipping cafe au lait along a sidewalk, eating fresh crepes in a cobblestone square--I just had to let myself giggle a few times at what an incredible time we were all having. The families were together for an instant classic, one of those "remember when" weekends. On our last day together, we ascended Montmartre to see Sacre Coeur, the beautiful Catholic basilica, and to walk the narrow streets for some shopping (ladies) and enjoying beverages (men).

But let me back up: the wedding was just incredible. Held at a hotel situated nicely between Champs-Élysées and the tower, it was elegant in every sense of the word. From getting ready to the ceremony to the drinks-and-hors d'vores reception to the formal dinner reception, the wedding party and guests just floated along on a cloud of comfort and jubilance. Alex looked downright resplendent in her dress, which included a bonafide train. Jillian took it upon herself to be the unoffical, um, train fixer-upper for all of the couple's official wedding photos. The photographer was beside himself with gratitude.

Dan with the Auckland sisters: Jillian, Alex & Jaime

Markus, meanwhile, looked as though he couldn't have been any less surprised that the wedding and reception--in fact, everything surrounding the event--went perfectly. Just a couple of hours before the ceremony, he and I sat down for a couple of beers (at least I think that's what we were was called Monaco and it was apparently fruit juice-infused beer) as he pulled some last minute levers to arrange for a bridal bouquet and flowers for the mothers. Totally in control. In fact, the evening's most memorable line proved to be perhaps the single best summation of Markus. As we all climbed out of our wedding attire late that night, a well-imbibed Markus responded to a query about flights the next day with, "Baby, I make things happen!"

That he did. And Paris did the rest. Alas, all things must come to an end. Even Sam Beckett finally made the leap home.

[As always, lots more photos can be found by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.]