Thursday, July 31, 2014

Travel like you're 30- I love Barcelona

When meeting new people in a hostel, or really anywhere when traveling in Europe for that matter, there is a sort of ritual that takes place. First, you ask the person whom you're meeting where they are from. After they tell you, you ask them how long they are in the city in which you are having this conversation. Then, if they don't volunteer this information first, you ask them where they have been, followed by inquiries about where they are going next. Most of the time, while you collect this information, you can interject follow up questions like, "Did you like _________?" Or, "What was it like in __________? We are going there on Tuesday." One of the things that I found interesting about these kinds of conversations was that, when it came to discussing cities in Spain, people tended to have a preference for either Madrid or Barcelona. When people comment on somewhere like London or Paris, there is no real comparison. How can you compare them? But, when it comes to Madrid or Barcelona- it seems that you must pick a side. As I wrote in my last blog, I loved my experience in Madrid. The people and the parks were great. But, when it comes down to picking my preference- I am team Barcelona all the way.

Of all of the cities that we visited, Barcelona is probably the one that I want to go back to the most. I loved Barcelona. Not so much for the people- we stayed in our first apartment rented through the website airbnb- which was great- except for the fact that you had to climb seven flights of stairs to get to it. See picture.

So, we didn't really meet anyone new- though Dodo, who owned the apartment we rented, was just lovely. I think I loved Barcelona because of its liveliness and color. The architecture is also really unusual- to say the very least. It's an old city with lots of life bubbling up everywhere you look- a beautiful, bustling harbor, a good beach, rambling streets that are fun to get lost in, ancient ruins, fantastic markets and every type of shopping experience you can imagine. Everywhere you look people seem to be enjoying life. Barcelona seems to be permanently on vacation- or at least that's how it seemed to me. Lots of time to ramble and soak up sun, casually cruise on a bicycle or sit and people watch. I loved every minute of my time in this city.

The day we arrived in Barcelona, I went for a walk that lasted all afternoon. As I walked from our apartment towards the center of the city, I encountered these vibrantly colored birds snacking in a park. 

Cathedral near the city center 

Details of a door near the cathedral.

Lazy Sunday afternoon for this hound dog in his art shop. 

This picture is so Barcelona. Colored mosaic tiles are a big thing there. And the graffiti is a reminder of how old meets new. 

Even though we were close to the harbor, I didn't realize it until the very end of my walk. As I tried to get my bearings, I walked away from the harbor into the heart of the city, up into the hills, and then back down to the harbor. By the time I reached the harbor and snapped this shot, I felt familiar with the layout of the city, and was happy to look back into the center from the harbor's edge, smiling to myself because of all of the fun I'd just had getting more and more lost in the ramble and sprawl that is Barcelona. 

This red funicular makes it possible for people to get from the city to the beach without needing to circle around the harbor. 

Sunday night was the last game of the World Cup. We ate at a place along the harbor, and were lucky enough to get a spot beside some hardcore Germany fans. I downed this entire paella before the game even started, but we enjoyed the whole evening watching and cheering for Alemania (Spanish for Germany) 
The next morning, I saw this jersey hanging proudly in the front of a sporting goods store. Gotze scored Germany's game-winning goal. 
Monday, Chandler, Nicole and I went up to Park Guell, which is a park with famous mosaic structures designed by the renowned Catalan architect Antoni Gaui, who designed most of the really famous buildings in Barcelona. To my disappointment, I realized when I got to the park, that you have to purchase tickets to get in, and that the wait is extremely long. Since we didn't have much time or money to spare, we just walked the outskirts of the park and then headed back down into the city center. But, if I were to visit Barcelona again (which I will), it is definitely on my to-do list. And I'll make sure that I book my tickets online ahead of time. 

This is the very famous, very strange, ever-growing church- La Sagrada Familia. Construction on the church began in the late 1800's and the intricate and abnormal original design was by Antoni Gaudi. The church is an expiatory church, which means that it is built using only money from donations. Over the years, those donations have served to create a unique structure that tells the story of the holy family with its architecture. It is supposed to be stunning inside, but as it was with the Park Guell, tickets must be purchased and the wait is long. As you can see, the church is still under construction. It is supposed to be finished in the late 21st century. 

This is one of my favorite pictures from Barcelona. I loved catching this dog pointing at the pigeon. Pigeons are another Barcelona "thing" the central plaza there is literally covered in pigeons. These bicycles are also sort of iconic. And, another glimpse of the graffiti, which somehow manages to add something visually appealing in Barcelona, where it would take away from the aesthetic in so many other cities. 

The rambling streets that I will hopefully walk again one day.

I was sad to leave Barcelona. If I get to go back, I will schedule more time and save more money so that I can- take a bike tour of the city, go into the Park Guell and La Sagrada Familia, eat more paella ;), go to the beach on the funicular, and wander aimlessly for more hours in a city I instantly loved.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

And teaches them his way.

Gatsby is getting older. He's still a spry old man, playfully pouncing at his ball for hours every day. Yesterday we went for a long walk in the morning and he insisted on two lengthy ball-playing sessions in the sweltering heat of the afternoon. In those moments you wouldn't guess that he's twelve years old.

But sometimes he has some old-dog moments on our dining room floor in the middle of the night. One of the reasons I've never bought a rug to put in there. Our faux hardwood makes for easy clean-up. Last night was one of those nights. I got up this morning to toast my bagel and found a mess that needed cleaning up. Whenever I discover one of these messes, I look at Gatsby. He's staring at me, cowering slightly, a look of sorrow on his face. He shrinks back into a corner, away from me and keeps his distance while I armor myself with paper towels. I'm not angry. It's been a long time since I've been angry with him for something like this. He isn't a puppy anymore, he doesn't need training. He needs patience. Reassurance. I pause from my clean-up, wash my hands, find him hiding in the darkness of the hallway. "It's okay. I understand." I say to him. He strains his neck, grateful, then bends down low, humble. And then he pounces up, tail finally wagging again.

I've been reading Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts this summer. (It gets better and better with each chapter. I highly recommend.) Today I was slowly making it through a chapter about humility, ingesting the words along with my bagel and honey-nut cream cheese. Something in it reminded me of a verse in the Bible, something about humble people being told secrets by God...something like that. My Bible memorization is super rusty, those years of AWANA seemingly wasted on me. I grabbed a disheveled-looking forest green NIV, one of the medium-thick ones, the name Andy Wermel embossed in gold on the front. It rarely does this anymore, but this morning, while the sun's rays began to climb over the fence in my back-yard, the pages fell immediately to the place I was looking. This is real magic, nothing can convince me otherwise, and my eyes water.

"Good and upright is the Lord; 
therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. 
He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way." 
Psalm  25:8-9 

There it is. The part about God teaching humble people, revealing himself to them, teaching them his way. Humility. A word I struggle with. Who wants to be humble? With Facebook albums displaying only our most beautiful photos, and instagrams of our most buzz-worthy moments streaming all day every day, we sweat out our lives in a pressure-cooker society obsessed with significance. Who has any regard for humility? Certainly not me. Don't I post and stream and strive just like everybody else? It's true, in a day- to-day setting, I'm consumed with how to get ahead, how to be regarded well, even if just in my own little circles of influence. Instead of thinking of ways that I can make my neighborhood  a better place for everyone who lives here, I think mostly of my own house and how I can make it look prettier, the cutest house on the street. Instead of investing time in prayer lifting up all of the teachers at Hill Country, I slave away at Word documents, trying to make my class the most organized and challenging. This is all vanity- devotion to myself and my tiny kingdom. There is nothing noble or beautiful about it. And there is no way that God would guide me and teach me his ways with a heart like that.

Christian circles are not a guaranteed relief from this type of thinking. Here, even so-called "humility" becomes a competition. I will never forget sitting in such a circle being told by someone, "We are being humble every day, and you are not." Doesn't identifying yourself as humble completely defeat the purpose of humility? I've been in Christian groups before where I've never been more aware of myself, more self-conscious of my short-comings, more terrified of what I'm not doing enough of, or doing too much of, for that matter. Sometimes there is a striving here for "humility"- for giving much, sacrificing much, refraining from much- food, drink, debt, you name it. Christians don't always suffer from pride in the form of how much they have, but in how little they do- their losses are their prizes, their ability to get by with so very little becomes their crown. But virtue becomes vice when it is the focus of our thought. For this I've always greatly admired God- He isn't unaware of these so-called Christian schemes. He's not fooled. He knows the stench of pride, no matter how cleverly we might try to hide it- even when we hide it from ourselves. Haven't I stood on such a pedestal as this, my spiritual pride stinking all the way to heaven? Again, how could God teach me his ways with me thinking that I know so much about Him, seeing as I have done so many Bible studies and read so many books and served in so many ministries?

The mess is made. Either way you shape it up- pride from a culture that seeks significance in what it has and does, or pride from a religious paradigm that worships its own worship-the stench surrounds me, fills me, because I am the one who has made this mess. And I sit in it, wreaking. What hope have I of heaven? How can I expect to be guided into his ways? How can I have anything worthwhile to give? Humility eludes me. So it's with sadness I read passages like Matthew 18:4 "Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." But how can I humble myself? I'll never be anything in the kingdom of heaven because I keep wanting to be something here. It's a disease I can't seem to find a cure for. A habit too strong to break.

But that's just it, isn't it? Humility is birthed from awareness of the reality that I am sin-diseased and slave to my own habits that steal joy and destroy abundant life. God is so clever, I am the one who fails to see, it's been right there, all along. Before he guides the humble, he does what? He instructs sinners in his way. Sinners. That is me. Mess-maker, cowering in a corner, sorrow-filled, so aware of my inability to clean up what I've created. Does he see me? What does he think? I understand Gatsby's slinking off into the darkness of the hallway, hiding. I am not new at this. I've been trained. I know it's wrong and I do it anyway. Make messes. Messes that I try to hide from. Messes too bad for me to clean up. Hiding seems the only thing to do. I am not one of the holy. I am not good. I should be. I was trained to be. But I have failed. I continue to fail.

He instructs sinners in his way. 
He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. 

Good Fathers bear with their children through repeated failures. True love cleans up messes without anger toward the mess-maker. In the darkness of the hallway, I cupped Gatsby's speckled snout in my hands, gently stroking the sides. He leans into it, grateful for touch, for the reaching-out that means that trouble is passing. My Father's invisible hands flipped the feather pages for me this morning, gilded edges faded by many days and many messes. Skimming over ancient words that tell other parts of his story- to the page in the middle that was for today. I lean into it- grateful for the touch. Real magic while sunlight spills, filling my backyard. It's okay. Trouble is passing. I stretch low, thankful- humble. A mess-maker. Who belongs to a Good Father. Who is able to clean the mess, who is able to clean me. I hate the mess. I do. I wish it weren't there. But I love my Father. All I can do is receive His touch, his gentle guidance that, not despite the mess, but because of the mess, will now guide me in what is right and teach me his way.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Travel like you're 30- The time when Madrid took us

Growing up on Water Oaks Farms, I didn't have a whole lot of opportunities to meet new friends. I had my cousins, who lived within a half mile of me, and I had church and school friends. And, of course, I had Grant and various animals. I didn't really want for company, so I didn't really learn to be "friendly." I had no need for it.

That changed when I went to college and found that I had a great need for community and struggled to find it. But meeting people has never really been something that I love to do. It's something that I've learned that I need to do. When going into a new situation, I've learned to approach meeting new people as a sort of survival mechanism. I imagine that if Bear Grylls ever did a show about social survival, he'd say to "find a friend" with the same speediness that he'd recommend finding water or shelter on his regular TV spot.

I say all this because, even though I'm going to post some pictures from Madrid, this city was all about the people that we met. It's never natural or easy for me to make new friends, and it wasn't in Madrid, but, as is the truth about so many things, what doesn't come easily often brings the most value. I loved Madrid because I loved experiencing it with the people we met there. Madrid was a place where we truly lived for a moment, because living requires community, and that was something that quite literally stumbled into us for a few days in the capital of Spain.

It started the first evening we arrived. Chandler and Nicole had front-row tickets to a One Direction concert (in this regard, they were more traveling like they were thirteen than thirty...;) ), so Robin and I took a walk through the beautiful Parque Buen Retiro. We watched the sunset and I particularly enjoyed taking in all of the vibrant life being lived around me. Paris had its own chilly enchantment, but Madrid was such a contrast- with its hot, dry weather and people dressed in colorful clothing (Parisiennes wear black), walking dogs and jogging and playing soccer in the park. But when we got back to our hostel, that's when the community experience we had in Madrid really started. Robin and I were tucked in our bunks by 10:30- which is late to us on a school night, but is an embarrassingly early hour to be in bed in Madrid. And sure enough, some of our hostel roomies were quick to tell us just this.

Let me insert here just a little caveat about hostel life. Fact 1:  I am too old for it. ;) Fact 2: People in hostels are too laid back to care about Fact 1. I am being a little tongue in cheek about Fact 1, but not much. Some hostels actually do implement a 35 year old age limit. I'd say that mostly what you'll find for company in a hostel somewhere in Western Europe is a mix that is 3 parts twenty-somethings like Chandler and Nicole, out to see the world for the first time, and 1 part "last hurrahs"like me and Robin, people with time flexibility (quite a few of us teachers), a casual sense of adventure, and maybe just a hint of Peter Pan complex. Oh, and I must add, that out of this 4-part mixture, about 75% of the above are Australians. So I know that it might seem strange to some to think that my married, thirty-one year old self spent night after night in mixed-gender dorms for three weeks. But, I always did like Peter Pan- that guy was on to something. And, to be honest, the whole thing was a whole lot tamer and cleaner than I thought it would be. Caveat complete. Back to Madrid.

On our first night at UHostel Madrid, we met two guys from Seattle, more on the Peter Pan side than the see-it-for-the-first-timers, and 19-year-old Naeman Gotz, who has the strangest accent that I've ever heard and more stories than people three times his age. With German parents, a childhood spent in Switzerland, the States, and Australia and months of solo travel already under his belt, Naeman is more like a character in a John Green novel than someone we actually met and spent three days with in Madrid. 

The next character we met the following morning, while taking the free walking tour. Amongst our group of sojourners was a fellow who stood out. While most of the rest of us had a pep in our step- new city, new energy- this guy towered above us at 6' 5"but lumbered in such a way that Robin and I couldn't keep our curiosity to ourselves. We inquired about his how his night had been and he proceeded to tell us, through sleepy eyes and a goofy grin that "Madrid took him." At that moment, we didn't know that we'd become friends with this fellow, too, and would learn all about his family, their farm in Perth, Australia, his girlfriend back home and his three pet kangaroos- Skippy, Felix and Qantas. Here are some photos taken on our first walk through Madrid, while we talked to our new Australian friend and took in the colorful life around us.

This is the famous "Oso and Madrono" (The bear and the berry tree) statue, which symbolizes life in Madrid- mostly because this she-bear is looking for some fermented honey. At least, that's what our tour guide told us, and from what I could tell, it might have been the truth. Party-goers in Spain are hardcore, starting their evenings with tapas around 9PM, heading to the clubs around 2AM and finishing their nights by stumbling home in the light of the following morning.

Madrid has a rich history involving Spanish royalty, so a lot of our tour was about royals and their connections throughout the city's history.  Even current news is filled with updates about their royal family, as their King just abdicated the throne, right after Spain lost in the World Cup. Our guide said that everyone was hungover and utterly confused the next day- by both events, apparently. Here is the royal palace, which is no longer used to house the royal family, but is partially open to the public and also used to house visiting dignitaries.

As mentioned, I loved the colors of Madrid. Even these earth-toned buildings.

These windows were on a simple-looking square that our guide told was once the home of Madrid's richest families. The facades of the homes were nothing particularly impressive, however, because these homes were established during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The exterior of the houses were meant to be very simple, because vanity would be considered a  sin that the Inquisition could punish the family for. Therefore, the homes were kept simple on the outside, but inside the family could display their wealth.

After the tour, Robin and I headed to the train station to buy our tickets for Barcelona. Part of the train station is a beautiful greenhouse.

This is the back of the famous El Prado art museum. I studied Spanish art all through high school and college in Spanish classes. El Prado was a name I heard often. It was amazing to get to finally visit it and see some of the famous Spanish painters I learned about all those years ago. I particularly liked their special exhibit about El Greco and his influence on modern painting- the exhibit included many works by El Greco and works of art influenced by him- those of Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and many others.

A chapel near the Prado. 

An artichoke
Dahlias always make me think of my mom

This tree is called "Los Pantalones" because it looks like a man's pant legs sticking out from the earth. He is buried in the ground with just his legs sticking out- do you see it?

Tall cactus in desertscape.

A madrono tree, like the one in the statue- only this one is banzai sized.

This banzai had been trained with wire to create this twisted trunk.

We spent three nights in Madrid. The first, as I already mentioned, was a night of chatting with new friends while tucked into our bunks. The second, was a night with some more new friends- Naeman and Damon (the tall Aussie from the walking tour, who we affectionately dubbed "Felix" after his pet kangaroo), along with some other Australians from our hostel. We were led by a girl named Sophie to a local tapas bar to have an authentic tapas experience. If you've heard of tapas, then you might find some of these morsels of information about them as tasty as the little bites themselves. On our walking tour we learned the legend behind tapas. It goes like this- once there was a Spanish king who was told by his doctor that he had a disease in his stomach that could only be cured by drinking wine. So the king began to drink his wine all day every day. His nobles, concerned that the king was becoming too drunk to rule, thought that maybe if the king ate something with his wine, then he would not become so drunk and would be able to carry out his kingly duties. But the king was so accustomed to his drink alone, that he at first refused. So the nobles began to cover his goblet with a piece of bread with a slice of meat or cheese. The king would gobble it down in order to get to his wine. Soon enough, if the king was ever brought his wine without his snack on top of it, he would ask, "Donde esta mi tapa?" ("Where is my cover?"- the Spanish verb tapar means "to cover") And, so the tradition of tapas (covers) was born. Basically it's a Spanish royal family version of Pavlov's dog. I also learned on the tour that traditional tapas are not to be listed on a menu and paid for as individual dishes- they are meant to be free and are included when you buy your drink at a tapas bar- one plate per person in your group. This authentic tapas experience is few and far between in the more touristy parts of Madrid, but Sophie knew of a place that offered just such an experience, and, following her lead, off we went to a tapas bar that was absolutely packed- both with locals and hostel-dwellers all in search of "covers" and sangria. Our big group of Australians and Americans huddled, standing, around two small high-top tables and put away croquettes and slices of bread with ham and cheese and drank giant cups of sangria with fresh basil. It was all muy delicioso and all for 6 Euro.

The next night, we wanted to get out and enjoy the Parque Buen Retiro one more time before heading to Barcelona the next morning. So we gathered a large group from the hostel- our Aussie friends, some Argentinians, an Israeli soldier with Spanish roots named Fabian, and a Norwegian teacher who lives in Copenhagen and speaks five languages and we all marched to the park, grocery bags in tow. We stayed there for hours, long after the sun set, talking about travel and life and drop bears. ;)

Our eclectic little Madrid community.

I took a few photos as we made our way back to the hostel from the park.

This one came out blurry, but I kind of like it that way.
Madrid is lit up beautifully at night. 
We fell in love with Madrid because we fell in love with the experience of meeting new people- eating, drinking, talking, and even dancing together. We've kept up with some of our Madrid friends on Facebook. We all moved on to the next place soon enough- some to Portugal, some back to Australia, for us it was Barcelona, for Fabian, eventually, he will go back to the war we keep hearing about on the news. But for a few perfect nights in Spain, we were together and young(ish) together. And so it was- the time when Madrid took us.