San Fermin!

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Picture not mine; click to be redirected to the site I took it from.

The following weekend, Uge, Agus and I packed up the van with Sergio and Marc (whom I should have mentioned by now because they went to Lourdes with us and have been generally present for all of my time here), a really nice girl named Bea, and two guys I had never met before but who ended up being awesome: Alberto and Juan. Because we were headed to Pamplona to participate in the most highly-stereotyped Spanish culture activity there is: San Fermin! More commonly known as . . . running with the bulls!

Like the one above, every picture in this entry is taken from the Internet, because the weekend proved to be one in which taking your phone anywhere was as good as asking someone to steal it or dropping it in the toilet of a dirty restaurant bathroom. Pamplona was a giant party.

Bea very sweetly invited Uge and myself to stay with her in her friends’ apartment in Pamplona, while the boys stayed in another one. Unfortunately, I had come down with a cold after my trip to Madrid, and was not feeling great. When we got there at about eleven thirty, I thought: “Excellent! It’s not even midnight yet. I’ll get to bed now, sleep in in the morning, and then we’ll head down to see the bulls in the afternoon.” Implicit in that thought are several assumptions about the plan in which I proved to be mistaken:

  1. The bulls run in the afternoon.
  2. You can see the bulls.
  3. We are sleeping now.
  4. We are sleeping in in the morning.
  5. We are sleeping.

I half-fell out of the car with exhaustion, which drew a reaction out of Sergio that brought reality crashing down: he laughed and said, “You’re already tired . . . and the party hasn’t even started!”

What.

So there were some things I hadn’t been totally clear on when the plan was forming. But it ended up being okay. I did choose to stay in the first night, though, and clean those poor girls who had graciously extended their home to us completely out of medicine. Uge came home at six in the morning to wake me up so that we could go see the bulls. I brought my phone so that I could take a video. When we got there, we were met with these huge fences lining the street that must have been eight feet tall. The people who had all-nighted it had already taken their places straddling the fence, and a large crowd had gathered beneath them to watch through the gaps between the railings. Neat as it was, it did mean that Uge and I couldn’t see anything. Between someone’s leg dangling from above, two bodies, and a head that bobs in and out of frame, I managed to capture one or two bull legs on camera. I think I also may have gotten a horn in there.

Picture not mine; click to be redirected to the site I took it from.

Picture not mine; click to be redirected to the site I took it from.

The next night-day, Uge, Bea and her two friends and I hung out a little bit in Pamplona. But since they didn’t wake up until four, we really didn’t do much but eat and prepare for the coming night-day’s festivities. The tradition of San Fermin is to wear all white with a splash of red, and you’ll appreciate how morbidly poetic the word “splash” is when you understand why: it symbolizes the blood from the killing of the bulls. Don’t worry; they don’t kill the bulls anymore, but it didn’t detract from the irony of wearing our little red scarves to Mass. After Mass, we went sans Bea (who was with her friends) to get döner kebap, which is one of my top two favorite new foods that I’ve discovered upon coming to Spain. Now, you don’t have to tell me it’s not “Spanish food,” but the experience essentially mirrors that which I would expect a Spaniard to have if he or she came to the US and tried Chipotle: life-changing. So even though I was a bit sniffly, I perked up right quick at the thought of eating what essentially is Chipotle, only Turkish. Kebap is incredible.

After kebap, Uge and I went to watch the fireworks show, which was beautiful. Then we went to meet up with her friend Inés who is an absolutely lovely person and who I’ve gotten to know throughout my time in Spain. We met her at a concert being held in a plaza with a famous Spanish artist, Huecco. I love to dance, and if I’m at a venue playing music in real life, I will dance to just about anything; but I really loved this guy. His style is best described as something “based on rock but mixing in Latin music and rumba, creating unique new styles such as rumbatón and rumbia” (and that ought to be considered the best possible description, because it came from the Huecco website). So while it’s largely an ode to Spanish culture through sound, it’s also got the rock element that, when combined with the horns section sprinkled throughout some songs, almost resembles the ridiculously danceable and oh-so-energizing genre, Ska. It’s so upbeat and funky that it’s impossible to dance to unless you’re content looking like an absolute moron. One friend of Inés’s asked me, “Do all Americans dance like that?”

Picture not mine; click to be redirected to the site I took it from.

Picture not mine; click to be redirected to the site I took it from.

After the Huecco concert, we stuck with Inés and her friends as we searched for our group. We found ourselves amidst a huge crowd in the streets of Old Pamplona that had gathered around what we knew to be a drum based on the sound, but couldn’t see thanks to all the red-and-white-clad bodies. Then by some strange instance of divine intervention, I looked over and saw none other than Alberto (who is quite tall) standing not far from me in the crowd. Uge and I joined back up with them and then almost lost them again when the crowd got so congested that it physically regurgitated itself, pushing people into strangers and out of the middle of the road. It would have been funny if it weren’t so scary and if trampling weren’t a legitimate cause of death. Fortunately, Alberto is as tall as he is, and we were not lost for long.

We went to a discoteca and danced for a bit, which was a total blast, but which is nearly impossible to elaborate on. So, yeah . . . we went to a discoteca, and it was a total blast!

Picture not mine; click to be redirected to the site I took it from.

Picture not mine; click to be redirected to the site I took it from.

Finally, we went to see the bulls. Only this time, we were prepared in advance. We waited in line at 6:00 AM to purchase entry into la Plaza de Toros, so while we wouldn’t get to see them running in real life, we would watch on a giant screen and get to see the really fun part: the bulls in the ring! I mentioned that they don’t kill them, and at this event, they don’t do the matador show where they stick enormous pins in the bulls, either. However, they showed us a couple of videos of the previous night-day’s bull-pinning activities, and it really made me uncomfortable. I was glad we weren’t going to see that part, but it didn’t escape me that participating in an event where bulls are goaded into running through a city of screaming people into a plaza of jackasses who run up and hit them to impress their friends was just as bad. That being said, it was always exciting when one of the bulls turned on some hipster with orange, lenses-popped-out Raybans and a cigarette – it sort of made you go like, “Okay, Nature! Do your thing!” It was also really funny when they brought out the baby bulls with their horns taped up, because it gave the aforementioned jackasses a lot more courage, which invited them to do a lot more stupid stuff. And those baby bulls messed them up! One that was filled with a particularly acute rage actually lifted guys into the air on several occasions, and in others, used his horns to trap people on the ground and proceeded to beat them with his hooves. It wasn’t fatal to anybody; he was just a calf with a Napoleon complex that he was actually able to entertain for the first time in his little life.

Pamplona was totally worth it, even though at the beginning I thought I had made a huge mistake by coming to such a high-intensity event with a cold. In the end, I persevered, though not without infecting half the group and likely instigating a widespread epidemic in Europe (I promised myself I wouldn’t make any tongue-in-cheek history jokes, but by saying I wouldn’t, I have just done exactly that).

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Madrid

Of course, we can’t forget that Dad came to Spain for an actual reason besides the Argelich Barcelona Tours Inc. getaway experience (and no, that is not a real company. But it probably should be). That’s where Madrid comes in.

On Monday we packed up and headed to the airport to fly to Madrid for a meeting on Tuesday. We spent Monday night lazily, and went to a really cool restaurant in la Plaza Mayor, selected by Agustín, to eat tapas. What was cool IMG_1273about Madrid was the inescapable historicalness (yes, that’s a real word) mixed with the undeniable cityness (that one’s not); as we sat in la Plaza Mayor, admiring the centuries-old buildings that surrounded us, our peaceful evening was unbrokenly molested by a man dressed as a baby making a constant racket with a kazoo, collecting money for whatever talent that qualifies as. There was also a human tree and an overweight Spiderman who is apparently on Facebook. Outside of la Plaza Mayor, it’s similar; gorgeous historic buildings, fountains and statues pepper streets stocked full with taxis. It’s kind of a cool juxtaposition of cultures and times.

On Tuesday, Dad, Agustín and I went to a meeting, the details of which I won’t bore you with because this is my fun-in-Spain blog, not my day-in-the-life-of-a-telecommunications-consulting-firm-secretary blog (I hope I haven’t severely disappointed anyone with this news). After the meeting, Agustín took Dad and me to an excellent steak restaurant. It was a cook-it-yourself hot plates restaurant: raw steak and a seriously hot plate were provided, and we cooked the steak on the plate itself until it was to our liking. It was delicious.

Afterwards, Dad and I went to the palace. It was really cool! As with most palaces, there was fine furniture, cool rooms, lists of people who died in each room that make you feel a little weird for a second, and an assortment ofIMG_1282 carpets, china and paintings that are always bound to impress. One thing that caught Dad’s and my attention was the serious affinity that the Spanish monarchs had for clocks; a clock was the centerpiece of choice on every surface, and in one room there was a piece in which a giant clock actually was the surface. Dad made an interesting observation when he whispered to me, “You know, someone had to go around and wind all of these!”

We took a little respite in a nearby café and planned our next move, which included both dinner and buying gifts for Mom and Lizzie. We didn’t walk more than two blocks before I noticed the word “chocolatería” and wondered aloud, “A chocolate business? What can they possibly sell there that actually provides enough money to make a living?” Dad said “Alright, we’re going.” That was the day I learnedIMG_1288 about drinkable chocolate. To the right is a nice picture of Dad looking very cultured in la chocolatería that should give you an understanding of what this chocolate looks like, served. The shop was adorable, the staff incredibly friendly, and the chocolate, well . . . marvelous. It was such a great experience that I actually took the staff up on their invitation to like them on Facebook. I’ll do them a solid and provide that link, too.

Next, we ambled through the historic downtown section of Madrid, looking for a place to eat. We bought some gifts for Mom and Lizzie, and I showed Dad El Corte Inglés, the impressive Spanish version of Macy’s which is always nearby no matter where you are and is always ridiculously large: the one in la Plaza de Catalunya is eleven floors, and this one was divided into perhaps five different buildings. I actually lost Dad for a little bit.

Dad flew out of Madrid the next day, so we said our goodbyes in the morning and then I killed time in the city until Agustín was finished up with a couple more meetings. I went to El Prado, the large and impressive national art gallery. It was just the perfect way to spend a day alone, walking around, looking at art, thinking about history, and not really talking to anybody. To the left is a photo taken in El Prado of an artist copying a famous work (note that this was taken before I knew about the no-photos rule, so I didn’t knowingly break any rules). When I had picked up my map at the beginning, I had gotten out a pen and circled all of the artists IMG_1292whose works I wanted to see: Velazquez, El Greco, Rembrandt, Durer, Titian, Rubens, etc., etc., etc. I spent two hours walking around, stopping for a long time to look, read, and meditate. It was nice, but after those two hours, I was ready to go. Then I opened my map and realized that there was a whole second floor to the museum boasting Byzantine art, High Renaissance art, Goya’s work, and a freaking ancient vestibule covered in paintings from floor to ceiling that was imported from a chapel in Rome. It was weird because I was both excited but also a little mad. There was no way I was leaving without seeing it all, and I felt that the museum knew that and had tricked me into staying. It was actually very irresponsible of me to stay so long, because I was light-headed with hunger yet refused to buy more than a soda and a piece of bread at the offensively expensive museum café. Here’s another illegally but not consciously-illegally-taken photo of a portrait that I had to share, just so I could add this caption:

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“Password?”

If you get it, high-five to you and also caput draconis.

In the end, I spent four hours in El Prado. And while I jokingly complain, it was a wonderful and totally relaxing afternoon. I met back up with Agustín after leaving El Prado and we boarded a bullet train to Barcelona. The trip was two hours long, the seat comfortable enough, and the view spectacular. I really got to see Spain, and it was a beautiful sight.

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Welcome, Dad!

IMG_1247When people ask Uge and me at a party how we know each other — the underlying question being, what relationship did I have with this family that resulted in my living with them for two months — we usually look at each other quizzically and then laugh. Because the reality is that Uge and I had no idea who the other was until my father and Agustín corresponded with one another via email. Dad and Agustín knew each other through business, and when I expressed interest in traveling, Dad offered to contact Agustín to see if I could maybe land an internship in his company. Agustín very kindly granted me the internship and very, very kindly offered to let me live with the family, which honestly came as an enormous relief as at that point we had been discussing the feasibility of me living in a hostel for two months and surviving on cereal.

But there was a little something in it for Dad, too: namely, he had an excuse to take a vacation. He had always been interested in doing business with Spanish airports. Now that he had a daughter in Spain conveniently working for a fellow telecommunications consultant, Dad had a strong enough argument to ditch the less-complicated video conference and hop on a plane — something that I imagine is a near form of blasphemy for telecommunications experts.

The Argelichs are truly wonderful, because they insisted that Dad stay here instead of book a hotel. To say thank you as both a father and a businessman, Dad brought over one of the marketing goodies that his company has been distributing in the US: chocolate. The wrappers have the name of his company, Inspired Data Solutions, and announce his partnership with Agustín’s company, Argelich Networks. The businessman side of the gift was obviously the blatant advertisement of both his and Agustín’s companies. The father aspect was the fact that he brought over a butt-load so that the whole family could munch for a week.

And it was a really fun week! We retraced some steps and went to places I had already visited, which was nice, because I didn’t feel pressured to document the experience in photos. We went to the same restaurant I went to on my first dayIMG_1244 here, where I first tried paella: Salamanca. It’s actually amazing. This was Dad’s first time trying paella, and he loved it! We took some pictures of the group (with the guest of honor, of course . . . the paella). The next day, we went to Montjuïc again to see the fountains, and afterwards to get drinks atop Tibidabo. Dad loved it, and it was nice for me to go back and see these places. We also paid a second visit to Montserrat, only this time, we took the train up the mountain instead of hiking. We didn’t get to see the singers, which was a shame. But we had a wonderful time, went to a lovely restaurant, and actually got to kiss the statue of the Virgin!

We also went to see the Olympic Park from the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, an event in which Agustín played a major role by overseeing the telecommunications of the Paralympic Games. It was so cool because IMG_1259the stadium, used now for concerts and the like, is essentially what I imagine Mount Olympus would look like. It’s a giant sports stadium built of a light-colored stone with a wide set of steps leading down to an attractive, column-lined park. There’s no arguing with the fact that it’s a modern adaptation of the ancient Greek venues for such athletic games, so it’s not so much the architecture that makes it look like it’s straight out of Disney’s Hercules as it is the fact that it’s built square on top of a mountain. It overlooks everything. That same day we went to visit Old Barcelona for a bit, and we returned to la Basilica de Santa María del mar. Lo and behold, what did we stumble across but a wedding taking place! The basilica was open to the public, so we actually stood in the doorway and watched the bride alight from her vehicle and take her first steps down the aisle. I think that was Barcelona’s way of making up for the fact that we didn’t see a second proposal at Montjuïc.

And at the end of the week, the Argelichs graciously opened their home in Bigues to my father, inviting him to spend an afternoon there, meet some more of the family, and enjoy dinner outside in the garden. It was great because itIMG_1268 was a nice, non-touristy way for him to enjoy the Spanish culture and a way to get to see the family in its element. The Argelichs, as always, pulled out all the stops for Dad, making the week as accommodating and entertaining as it could possibly have been. For a week they gave him a place to sleep, fed him, and took him around to the best spots in Barcelona — essentially providing for my dad the same package that I’ve had my entire time here. I’ve been very lucky, to say the least!

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Tossa de Mar

A week or so later, María Eugenia and Agustín treated the family to a relaxing weekend at Tossa de Mar, a positively incredible beach on the Costa Brava. One of the things that struck me about this beach is that it fulfilled every expectation I had been IMG_1192taught to have about the Mediterranean Sea: perfect weather, palm trees, phenomenal seafood, hidden alcoves with few people, and crystal clear water of the most vivid blue. Things I had not been expecting include: a massive beach DJ extravaganza that we happened upon by chance, large grains of sand that were more like pebbles (that didn’t cling to your feet after going in the water!), and, of course, the enormous medieval fortress next to the beach.

That’s right.

It was a perfect scene. There was this castle-like thing to the right, little white boats bobbed on the surface of the water, and we sat in the sun, enjoying the heat accompanied by the relief of a steady breeze. Nuria, María Eugenia and I mainly stayed on the beach, while Uge, Nacho, Mateo and Agustín drifted between the beach and the water. Benja, on the other hand, walked towards the water the second we got there and I didn’t lay eyes on him again until it was time to go. I think he did a lap.

Later we went for paella, which is one of my love affairs here in Spain. As usual, I had trouble figuring out what to eat and what not to eat (the first time I had paella, I looked the dead lobster right in the eyes and thought, “Welp, I guess this is what they do here . . . .” My mouth was open and my fork raised when Nuria thankfully stopped me). So, Nuria had to take my plate and dissect my food for me. I would have been embarrassed, but since she’s studying medicine I like to think she was just practicing.DSC_0027

We went to the beach for a little bit again, and after that, we went to mass. Mass was in Catalan, so I can confess to not understanding a word with a clear conscience. After mass came the moment we’d all been waiting for: we headed to the fortress, despite being dressed in our church clothes. It was one of the coolest things, climbing this large stone wall at sunset. It was built in the 12th century to ward off pirates, which is fitting, because standing on top of it was what I imagine it must have been like to be on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. Nacho had brought the nice family DSC_0101camera, so we took a load of photos. We ambled through the 16th century streets and looked for a place to eat.

After dinner, we went to the beach to participate in the festivities. Benja, Nacho, Mateo, Uge, Nuria and I danced to a three-way music mash-up of Spanish, English, and the DJ’s artistic liberties. At one point, Benja and Uge were twirling in a circle together. Benja must have forgotten that he was holding his ice cream cone, because when centrifugal force got the best of it, he was a little less than thrilled. We all thought it was hilarious though.DSC_0115

The next day, we woke up and headed to a different part of the beach: one of those hidden alcoves that few people know about. It was so, so cool. We rented a kayak and just had a blast. To the right is a picture of Uge and me kayaking. I thought we did a great job, but if the accounts of the onlookers on the beach are to be believed, this photo was taken at one of the rare times when Uge and I were synchronized in our rowing. One thing that was really amazing about the kayak experience was that it let us observe the water at a distance further out from shore. From maybe thirty feet from the beach, you could see the bottom. So cool and so, so different from the Atlantic. This was a really unique spot and a totally awesome weekend, and I’m really grateful to have been included in the family outing!

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San Juan

San Juan is a special celebration in many parts of Spain, and mercifully, for people like myself, one of the many excuses to not work (there is practically a fiesta every other week here, which is awesome). This fiesta is a celebration of the summer solstice and the shortest night of the year. People go hang out at the beach, go to parties, and do a bunch of other fun things to celebrate, most notably: throw petardos.

“Petardos” are little firecrackers that make a bunch of noise and have almost no aesthetic value whatsoever. You throw them on the ground to make a racket, but they don’t shoot up in the sky or emit any sort of light or anything. The first experience I had with a petardo was on my run. I was just bopping along to my music when all of a sudden something exploded in relatively close proximity. I’m sure you can imagine that aside from scream a little, I practically executed the stop-drop-and-roll tactic.

Aside from petardos, people also have actual fireworks; although they’re rarely organized into legitimate “shows.” Typically, people just buy the fireworks and petardos, meet up with their friends, drink a little, and then go nuts. When you walk down the street, it’s almost like a symphony of explosions—a description that I’m confident those reading this blog back home will find somewhat . . . troubling. But not to worry; only a very, very few people wind up in the hospital! :) Regardless, I stay away from them.

For this San Juan, Agustín and María Eugenia treated Uge, Paty, a really nice girl named Monica (different Monica) and myself to drinks atop Mount Tibidabo in the very classy Hotel Florida. It’s situated on a cliff just below the peak of the mountain, where a beautiful, illuminated church sits atop. The porch of the hotel bar overlooks the entire city of Barcelona. You can seriously see everything: the farthest outskirts, the Mediterranean Sea, and everything between them. We were very, very high up. So with all of the fireworks and petardos going off all over the city, with no synchronization whatsoever, it was like watching little bubbles of light rise up the way bubbles rise to the surface in a glass of champagne. The sounds weren’t at all loud from where we were sitting; it was closer to the sound of someone having a field day with a meter of bubble-wrap at a distance of about ten feet. Unfortunately, I couldn’t walk away with any good pictures. My phone has been a good enough companion thus far, but asking it to see tiny specks of light in a vast black backdrop was a little too much for it to handle. So, I just sat back, watched, and enjoyed the ambiance!

The parents sat together at a separate table, so we girls just talked. It was really relaxing, really special, and I felt it was really demonstrative of the atmosphere of San Juan. I had only one night to see San Juan, so María Eugenia and Agustín made sure I got to see quite literally everything! (But could I see why kids love Cinnamon Toast Crunch . . . ? Sorry, it’s a reflex.)

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Perspective and a Pool: Bigues

It’s time I opened up to you all about the communication gaps to which I’ve repeatedly fallen victim here. To clarify: I realize that I’m susceptible to lots of conversational confusion, but in this case, I don’t entirely blame my working Spanish ability. Nor do I blame the Argelichs. Rather, I think the Spanish and the Americans simply have differing concepts of “big” and “small.” Allow me to give an example. One of my first nights here, Uge told me we were going to “a concert and a little party after.” The concert ended up being a very small event among friends in a cozy Irish pub, and we left after about half an hour. The party, on the other hand, was a birthday party, and a very formal one at that. I had put on my nice long skirt and a cute top, and Uge asked if I had something “a little nicer.” The girls were dressed in heels and fancy dresses, there was a glorious multi-story cake, and white wine was served in crystal glasses with freshly cut strawberries. We also were there until four in the morning. When I heard “a concert and a little party after,” I had expected the first to be the main attraction and the second to be kind of an add-on . . . not the reverse.

Another example. Once, Agus told me that we were going to go visit “a church on top of a hill.” That church ended up being a cathedral. That hill ended up being Montserrat.

See, we don’t have a breathtaking Gothic cathedral around every corner. But here, it’s the norm. I think the Spanish are kind of accustomed to being surrounded by ancient and beautiful architecture—and also taking whatever Captain America is taking. But this contrast of expectation and reality was never so stark as it was last week, when we went to “the pool.”

I was asked if I would like to go to the pool. Having already been to the beach, I thought, “Okay, sure, the pool could be cool.” But I wasn’t exactly counting down the days. Two days before our seemingly trivial outing, Nacho, Benja and Agus left for the day with the purpose of cleaning said pool. I thought, “How odd. I’ve never heard of a pool making its members responsible for upkeep.” I soon learned that the pool actually belongs to the family, and I thought, “Hmm. Smart investment! Everyone can pitch in and have a safe, clean environment for the kids to hang out!” Certainly closer, but still not quite on the mark.

When we got there, I was blown away. There was a pool, alright . . . on the large country estate with a huge, centuries-old manor and acres of farmland, situated across from the private tennis court and behind the little family chapel. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I actually walked around the entire place with my mouth open. You walk in and there’s this beautiful grand foyer, with a billiards room to the right and an office to the left. The dining room has an enormous fireplace with rich green ceramic tiles lining the mantel, and the kitchen is what Martha Stewart asked for every year when she visited the mall-Santa as a child. There are three stories, and the balcony in the master bedroom looks out over the tennis court. ButIMG_1178 while it sounds like Mr. Body’s mansion, it’s not ostentatious or posh. It’s antiquated, and rich with history. It’s an old fixer-upper that the family has owned since Agustín’s grandfather purchased it, and every year, they lock it up for the winter. When summer rolls around, the family gets to work cleaning, dusting, and preparing to use it again. The process lasts the whole summer, and when they finally finish (if they finish!), it’s time to lock it up again for the year to come. I helped with the cleaning a little bit, assisting Lourdes and María with the little outdoor playhouse (the onlyIMG_1165 thing I ever wanted as a child). I also introduced to what must have been a dozen cousins the game Word on the Street, which was joyfully brought to my life by my friends Mark and Lauren. It’s a great word and spelling game that involves quick thinking, ingenuity, and hardly any luck. I got it for the English classes that I’ve been holding for some of the younger cousins, and oh my goodness did we have a blast! It was like a mob of shouting children. One would hardly guess that we were actually learning English!

Bigues is really special to the family. Being with them was cool for me, because I got to see them in their element. They’re a huge group—there must have been twenty some-odd cousins there, and we were missing practically half! But they’re a really tight-knit one, and I think they are just so lucky to IMG_1171have this spectacular place to share the summer. I’m excited to keep going back to Bigues. And even though I’ve been there three times now, I still have yet to go in the pool!

Note: I would like to apologize to the reader for not including a picture of the pool. I realize that due to the misleading emphasis in the title that you were expecting a pool, but now that you’ve read about Bigues, you don’t really care much, am I right? This is precisely what it feels like to be me. But hey, I’ll throw in a picture of the family chapel to make it up to you!

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Lourdes

Warning: Prepare for a long post with lots of links to read! Do not attempt unless you have ample free time or a very, very boring job.

The next weekend was an exciting one, because we went to France! Alyssa really wanted to visit Lourdes, a small town in the south of France with a basilica and, of course, a legend. So interesting of a legend, in fact, that the last two times I’ve sat down to write this entry I’ve accidentally gotten lost googling stories about the legend and consequently forgotten about my blog entirely. If you have Imageany time at all, read this account. It’s truly incredible. If you’re in a hurry, however, all you really need to know is that in 1858, a fourteen-year-old girl named Bernadette witnessed a vision of the Virgin in a grotto in Lourdes. She was sick with tuberculosis and had been for all of her life, but whenever the Virgin spoke to her, all of her symptoms vanished and her face took on a healthy glow for the duration of her meditations. Now, a basilica and shrine have been built on the site of the apparition, and the water that trickles down the walls of the cave is considered holy and to have remarkable healing powers. There is actually an extensive list of recorded medical miracles that have occurred from visits to Lourdes, all of which have been subjected to a very complex, multi-year miracle-confirmation process that you can read about here.

We went in a fairly large group of perhaps fifteen, among whom were Agus, Uge, Alyssa, Monica, Paty, and myself. I already knew everybody going (or had at least met them before . . . I have the embarrassing habit of forgetting people’s names if they haven’t already reminded me four times), and we were planning on staying the night in Monica’s family’s cabin in the mountains. As I would later confess to Uge, Paty and Alyssa, I had been just the tiniest bit uncertain about the trip for a number of reasons:

  1. I am in a different country.

  2. My familiarity with the language of said country is in a working state, and still prone to the occasional communication roadblock (the confusion of “monk” and “monkey” comes to mind).

  3. We were actually leaving that country to go to another country, the language of which I speak approximately 0%.

  4. We were fifteen twenty-somethings staying in a house with no parents. Now I know that makes me sound boring, but I think it’s fair to be a little wary of the tendencies of twenty-somethings, particularly with trepidation numbers one through three taken into account.

  5. Agustín and María Eugenia had me convinced that with Agus driving, I was certainly going to die.

But I was so pleasantly surprised to find that this group was a really intimate, wholesome group of friends that really just wanted to visit a church—and that the drive wasn’t nearly as perilous as I had anticipated. We had a great time, and I really got to know some of the people better. We played games in the car, and we sang songs from the Sound of Music (Monica has an eerie memory of the words . . . we’d be singing and she’d interrupt the song to pay homage to the intermittent dialogue that appears in the film but not on the audio track). When we got to the house, we ate the quiche that Uge had made and we just sat around, talked, and sang more songs, accompanied this time by the unmatched guitar-playing abilities of Pau. Uge, Paty, Alyssa, and a really nice girl named Blanca and I shared a room, and we didn’t end up going to bed until about 4:00 because Uge was telling us a story she had made up. She made it up off the top of her head and told it in English, and she hasn’t taken an English class in four years!

The next day, we visited the basilica. It is phenomenal. From afar, it kind of looks like Magic Kingdom, but up close, it begins to take on the decorative yet sober qualities of a Catholic cathedral. There are two parts: the bottom part, the basilica, which is dedicated to Mary, and an entirely separate church that sits directly on top, which is dedicated to her mother, Anne. We started by visiting the Imagebasilica. The enormous dome ceiling is covered in a mosaic of Mary, her two huge eyes watching you wherever you go. It’s so impressive that at first it was almost off-putting, but as I walked around, I realized that I found it rather comforting. There are more mosaics around the chapel, all of them done with the finest detail, and together they map out the conception, life, and ascension of Jesus from the perspective of Mary. I really don’t have a better word than beautiful, and I use it to describe more than the art of the mosaics. It was just a nice opportunity to walk around and be silent and meditate, and furthermore, it was the first time I had ever actually thought about what it would have been like to be Mary in the story that I’ve been told countless times. It was a very tranquil and reflective beginning to the day.

After seeing the basilica, we went to the shrine in the grotto, which is pictured below where it sits beneath the basilica. There’s an altar in the middle, and visitors file into a line that snakes behind the altar along the walls of the cave. There’s a small stream at the foot of the rock, which itself is covered in a thin, permanent layer of running water. This is the water that the Virgin ordered Bernadette to drink. We were in complete silence as we passed through the grotto, and every member of the line ran his or her fingers across Imagethe rock, wetting their hands with the holy water. It was as it was in the basilica: silent, somber, and thought-provoking.

We had a picnic after in a nearby field, with the mountains framing our eating space in every direction. It was a beautiful day and just a nice, relaxing time. After lunch, we watched a Eucharistic procession that took place in a pagoda near the lodgings. Since Lourdes is famous for its healing powers, a lot of ill people make a pilgrimage there. The facility provides accommodations for them in what is technically a hotel, but is equipped with medical technology and other amenities to make the sick as comfortable as possible. This procession was a way of administering communion to those who couldn’t make it to the church or basilica, and it was held in several languages. After the communion, the general public was invited to join the procession and walk as a group with the monks. We joined in, breaking off about halfway to attend mass at the church on top, that of St. Anne.

This is certainly the longest post I’ve ever written, and hopefully the longest I will ever write. It’s very difficult for me to refrain from elaborating, sometimes, because I have an endless pool of things to say (which isn’t always a good quality). But this trip was just so incredible and important, in my mind, that it really deserved more than the usual amount of description. I made some amazing friends from this trip, in just the space of one day, and I felt truly moved by being in the proximity of so many people who believed with such conviction in the spiritual power of Lourdes. I hope to one day go back, because it really was something.

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