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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Montserrat

Photo Jun 09, 4 32 17 PMLater in the week, Benja, Agus and I went to Montserrat, a smaller mountain, to see the town and the abbey that sits atop. Besides the three of us were Monica and Paty, two Spanish girls, and their American friend, Alyssa. Alyssa doesn’t speak a lot of Spanish, so the weekend had to be in English—something I certainly wasn’t about to complain about! But we ended up not talking much on the walk, anyway, because we had to conserve our energy to power our basic motor functions as well as our general will to survive. It really wasn’t that bad of a climb; the problem was that the sun was relentless. Monica, Agus and Benja formed a little super-trio in the front, while the rest of us were consumed with the thought of the others having to carry our lifeless bodies up the mountain, as well as a slight sense of competition to be the first to drop dead so that we wouldn’t have to carry someone else’s lifeless body up the mountain.

But when we got to the top, it was totally worth it! The town was absolutely adorable, and the abbey stunning. There are several legends about Montserrat, dictated to the group in perfect English by Agus. One of them tells of one particular occasion when France and Spain were fighting, and France was approaching through the coastal mountains. The French outnumbered the Spanish entirely. One of the horn-blowers (or whatever they’re called) from the Spanish side climbed the peak of Montserrat and played a war-song (or whatever it is), and its echo bounced around so much in the mountains that the French thought that there wasPhoto Jun 09, 4 34 51 PM in fact an enormous, angry Spanish army awaiting them on the other side, and turned around.

The other legend, which pertains a bit more to the town’s history, is that a local shepherd was tending to his flock when he stumbled across a statuette of the Virgin Mary. When he tried to take it with him, he found that it grew heavier and heavier with distance, ultimately rendering his mission to take it elsewhere impossible. Eventually it was decided that instead of trying to remove it, the statuette would remain in her original spot, and that a monastery would be built around her.

One of our original purposes for the trip was to see a group of boys sing. Apparently they’re famous, and they sing at a very specific time, an event which has become a major attraction for visitors. Unfortunately we missed that (recall: dying on the side of a mountain). But that didn’t taint the experience. The abbey was just incredible: everything was detailed, lined with gold . . . There were little cubbies tucked into the walls on either side that were dedicated to a Photo Jun 09, 3 16 53 PMparticular saint or religious moment. For example, in one you might find a statue of the Virgin (not the statue of the Virgin, mind), and in another, a large canvas painting. What they all had in common were the three rows of pews that allowed visitors to kneel, meditate, and pray in the presence of the scene. It was a gorgeous sight.

I could go on forever about Montserrat, but I think I should end it here. This post is long enough. It is necessary, however, that I give a little shout-out to Benja, who was the rock-star of the trip. At eleven years old, I would have been crying on that mountain. Benja was just bouncing along, totally cool with everything. He led the pack with Agus and Monica, making the remainder of the twenty-somethings feel kind of pathetic. So, go Benja!

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Triple Church Time!

A couple of days after Monjuïc, María Eugenia and Agustín took Benja and me to see some churches in the historic part of town. It Imagewas just so cool. The first one we entered was built either in the Early Middle Ages or before, which to me is just wow. I really don’t have words other than wow. Walking through it, I just couldn’t help but think that it looked like where Hamlet might have lived, never mind the fact Hamlet is Late Middle and a Dane. Also, this was a church, not a castle (ay, there’s the rub!). But what was so amazing about it was how simplistic it was. It wasn’t as mind-blowingly artsy as Sagrada Familia, and it wasn’t the Vatican. It just looked so old, and that’s the stuff that I love. Connecting with past cultures, etc., etc., etc. (before I make this too sappy!).Image

We saw two other churches: la Catedral de Barcelona and la Basílica de Santa María del Mar. Both were stunning, tall, gothic structures with attentive detail paid to every corner, particularly the cathedral. We went to mass in the cathedral, and actually sat just to the right of the founders of the church, who are buried there. Before the mass, we waited in the courtyard outside, where monks would walk around and meditate. Before that, we actually stood in the spot where Isabella and Ferdinand met Christopher Columbus after his return from America! Accompanied by seven Native American slaves . . . .

The basilica was beautiful, as well. It was tall, and had a large, circular gothic window in the back that was pretty cool to see. And as María Eugenia was telling me, it’s built for my saint! Mary! Woohoo!

We went through the Plaza de San Jaime on our way out, where, lo and behold, a massive crowd had gathered to watch none other than a demonstration of a casteller! And this one was terrifying because it went seven levels. There’s a large government building in the plaza which served as the backdrop to this spectacle, and seeing the little heads go higher, higher, and higher, until they were on par with the (very) elevated balcony, was a little too much to bear. That being said, however, I have faith in them! I’ll add a picture here so that you can see.

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So that was our day touring Old Barcelona! I think we’ll be going back there some time, because the Pablo Picasso museum is there, and I would love to see that. I’d also love to tour the castle, where Ferdinand and Isabella were in that story I just mentioned.

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Montjuïc

Well, I’ve been here for almost three weeks, and I’ve done so much stuff—but I haven’t written about any of it. In my defense, it’s rather difficult to write about the last thing I did when I’m out doing the next thing I’m going to write about. I’m starting to feel like this blog may be a bit more than I can chew.

Regardless, I will persevere. After seeing the Gaudí house, Nuria, Benja, María Eugenia and Agustín took me to see the fountains at Montjuïc. Before we left, Nuria explained it to me. There’s an old palace located on a hill known as Montjuïc, the etymology of which, according to a reliable resource (Wikipedia), traces back to mean either “Hill of Jove” from the Latin root or the medieval Catalan eyebrow-raiser “Jew Mountain,” which sounds a bit like a bad attraction at a PC-questionable theme-park. Nuria told me that there are large and beautiful fountains there that, almost every night, are illuminated and choreographed to music. I asked if she meant like the fountains in Las Vegas. She said that no, she did not.

The fountains were beautiful. It was really cool to see what the artist (?) was able to do with the physics of the water; sometimes it would shoot straight up in pillars, sometimes twirl around, sometimes arc, and sometimes it would create a beautiful, almost foggy Imagemist. The colors ranged from red to green to countless others and were their most gorgeous and vivid when illuminating that mist. Nuria and Benja were serenading each other, Agustín bought María Eugenia a dozen roses, and we actually witnessed a proposal, too! It was one of those moments when you look around and realize that there’s so much concentrated, Hallmark-style perfection that it almost doesn’t feel real. As we were leaving, Benja ran up to the couple, handed the bride-to-be a rose, and in his best English said, “Thank you for visiting Barcelona!” She thought it was adorable (because it was!) and bent down and gave him two big kisses on the cheek.

It was a pretty low-key but awesome night. We didn’t have to go far to see a truly spectacular work of art (and though I’ve never been to Vegas, I’m going to assert myself here and say that this was not quite that).

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