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Spain, continued

We arrived in Granada on Chrsitmas Eve.  Things were pretty quiet in the city, since Christmas Eve is often more widely celebrated in Spain than Christmas Day.  We did wander around the old Moorish quarter, which is full of steep, windy streets and character galore.

In the evening we went back to our hotel, which was on the edge of the city, near the Alhambra Palace which overlooks Granada from it’s perch on a craggy hill.

It being Christmas Eve and all, there wasn’t much to do out and about, so we settled in with our TV remote and watched some truly amazing pan-European Christmas specials.  First up was a German/Austrian musical special that was somehow affiliated with an animal rights group.  The highlight was when a small fuzzy pony wandered, unattended, through one of the musical numbers.  We think this was intentional, but it was all very hard to understand, and completely hilarious.

After the German musical/animal extravaganza came the simulcast of Midnight Mass (actually starting at 10:30 pm) from the Vatican.  We missed the crazy woman trying to tackle the Pope, but it was still quite a spectacle.

The big tourist attraction in Granada is the Alhambra, the fortress palace that was built by the Moors and later used by the Catholic rulers who conquered Granada in 1492.  It has amazing views, which were a little bit clouded by the rain and the fact that our entry tickets were for 8:30 am on Saturday morning.  It’s still thoroughly dark at 8:30 am these days.  Still, it was an impressive and beautiful place (and the sun came up eventually).

When we got back in the car on Saturday afternoon Emily announced, “I think this is going to be the best drive yet.”  I will admit that I scoffed at her optimism, but two hours later I had to admit that she was right.  If anyone would like information on my Learn to Drive Stick Shift in Seven Hours in Southern Spain course, let me know.  I’m considering patenting the technique.  Treatment for panic attacks not included.

Our last (planned) stop in Spain was Cordoba, which is a really great little city.  The old center is quiet and adorably medieval in layout without feeling dead and archaic.  It also has some of the most interesting history of Muslim/Jewish/Christian interactions in all of Andalusia.

It’s a little hard to make out, but the sign at the end of the road is for Casa de Sefarad, a museum of medieval Jewish culture and history, and the hanging sign in the middle ground marks Casa Andalusi, a similar museum dedicated to the city’s islamic history.  There was much nerdy excitement over this street.

The mosque in Corodba was one of the largest in the world when it was built, in the same class as the Great Mosque in Damascus.  After the Reconquista the Catholic monarchs turned it into a cathedral by building an ornate baroque gothic nave in the middle of the mosque.  Sound strange?  It is.

The informational pamphlet you can pick up at the door is very intent on making it clear to visitors that the building is now a church.  A Church.  Got it?  A church.  Not a mosque.  It was a mosque, but then the king made it into a church, and that’s what it is still to this day.  In fact, even when it was a mosque it was partially decorated by Christian artists from Constantinople, so, really, it was always kind of church-y.   C-H-U-R-C-H.  Phew, I’m glad we were clear about that.

From Cordoba we hopped the train back to Madrid to catch our flight to Paris.

a rainbow, somewhere in southern Spain

Except, not so much.  Thanks to EasyJet and the Madrid airport’s apparent mission of making travelers completely insane, our flight was canceled at the last minute (or, really, about 1 hr. and 45 minutes after the originally-scheduled last minute).  This lead to much confusion, some bonding with a very friendly French family in line in front of us at the ticket counters, and eventually re-booked tickets on the same flight for Tuesday night.  We spent the intervening day in The Largest Hotel In Europe, which could have been in San Antonio or Reykjavik for all we knew.  It was actually on the very un-scenic outskirts of Madrid, but really – could have been Oklahoma.

We did eventually get to Paris, though certain of us were only giving the flight 75% odds of taking off even once we had been seated on the plane and were taxiing away from the terminal.  It’s always good to maintain a realistic dose of skepticism in these situations, especially when discount airlines are involved…

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Helping Out

It’s a gray day in Paris, and the world seems to be going to hell in a hand-cart faster than usual.  The earth shook and now millions of people in Haiti can’t get access to the basic necessities of life, let alone life-saving medical care, and anything resembling normalcy seems a very long way off.  The Senate race in Massachusetts is bewildering and terrifying, and being thousands of miles away, having voted weeks ago, makes me feel like the person way down the beach, shouting that a big wave is coming, but not knowing who is paying attention.  If I was home I would be phone banking and getting out on the streets to get people out to the polls, but from here all I can do is pester my friends and family, who are all faithful Democrats and dutiful voters already.  (Sorry guys!)

The internet has done so much to make people more connected to the world, so I feel like the least I can do is make one more plug, out of millions, of ways to help:

Haiti:

Partners in Health is an organization that has been providing health care to the people of rural Haiti for over 25 years.  They have hospitals around the country which were unaffected by the earthquake, and so are one of the few organizations with functioning facilities and people already on the ground who are familiar with the country.  Their problem now is getting people to the hospitals, and/or getting the doctors and nurses to everyone who needs their help.  If you want to help, go here.

Doctors Without Borders also has staff already in the country, working in Port-au-Prince.  Their three major hospitals were all damaged or destroyed, but they are setting up mobile clinics and hospitals around the city.  On ways to give to them, go here.

There are many other great organizations that are working in Haiti now, including The Red Cross, UNICEF, CARE, and others.  USAID is organizing a lot of the relief efforts, and as part of the government has set up a fund (somewhat ironically headed not just by former President Clinton, but by President Bush too…yeah, that President Bush, of Hurricane Katrina…) to help in Haiti now and later, when they can begin reconstruction.

Martha Coakley:

A political race seems like small potatoes next to a major catastrophe, but the outcome of the MA Senate Race will have incredibly broad consequences, including weather or not health care reform is passed this year.  Martha Coakley is smart, dedicated, and a fighter for things that Democrats and liberals hold dear.  Scott Brown is the opposite of that.

If you have time to make some calls you’ll make me feel a little bit better about not being there – and in the process, you could be the one who gets out those extra five or ten voters in each town that will swing the election.  I’m always more excited by getting personally involved in a race, but the truth of modern American politics is that candidates need money too.  And, no one said you can’t do both.

Thanks for “listening,” and doing all that you’ve, I’m sure, already done.  Now, I’m off to do some always therapeutic browsing at La Grande Epicerie, and then possibly home to make these, which, despite their name (cookies should not be healthy) sound pretty awesome.  Fingers crossed that my weird microwave/oven combo can figure out how to bake them…

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Feliz Navidad

A brief primer on Andalusia: tapas are wonderful, driving up a cobblestoned street on a 45-degree hill in second gear fails every time, the rain in Spain does NOT stay mainly in the plain, and Ronda is jinxed.

Let your Ham Flag fly

I spent Christmas week traveling around southern spain with two friends who came over for winter break.  The plan was to spend three days in Sevilla, one in Ronda (a smaller city near the Pueblos Blancos in the Sierra Nevadas), two in Granada and two in Cordoba, and then fly back from Madrid, to spend several days being touristy in Paris.  I say “the plan was” not because we didn’t manage the first half, but because I started writing this from a giant conference hotel on the outskirts of Madrid (which bills itself as The Largest Hotel in Europe – swanky!), where we were put up last Monday night after Easy Jet canceled our flight to Paris.  After much running around the Madrid airport in the middle of the night, multi-lingual confusion, and bonding with our fellow stranded passengers, we were booked on the same flight for the next evening, and spent the intervening hours in a weird kind of timeless, spaceless limbo of free buffet meals and international TV.  We could have been in San Antonio for all I knew.  But, take two of flying home to Paris worked out eventually, and we were finally able to rejoin the real world.

Anyway, back to the trip…

Andalusia is the far southern region of Spain, which has a really interesting history of Muslim/Christian/Jewish interactions.  Three of the cities we visited have major sites that date from the Moorish rule of Spain, between the 8th and 15th centuries.  Cordoba, especially, was also an important Jewish center in the Middle Ages.  Needless to say, we did a lot of nerdy tourist things.

Sevilla

Legend says that the Catholic Reconquistatadores wanted to build a Cathedral in Seville, the former capital of Al-Andalus under the Muslims, which would be so elaborate that “those who come after us will take us for madmen.”  Mission Accomplished, I say.  In fact, it was so elaborately gilded on the inside that I couldn’t quite manage to take a picture.  I was overwhelmed by the baroque-y-ness.  I may have said something along the lines of “I think a gold vault threw up in here” when we walked in.

The bell tower of the Cathedral is one of the few elements that remains from the mosque that stood on the site previously.  The lower two-thirds of the tower are the original minaret of the mosque.

The Alcazar was the royal residence of both the Muslim and Catholic rulers of the area.  My favorite part was the original Moorish palace, which has amazing wall carvings and arches galore.  I find the kind of over-the-top decoration that the Moors went for much more pleasant than the gilt explosion of the later Spanish Renaissance.

Did I mention that it rained?

Miniature Nativity scenes are very popular in Spain this time of year. Several cities had Belen Markets, which sell all of the necessary figurines and accessories for not just a miniature crèche, but an entire Biblical village scene.

I love the wide range of expressions they gave to the sheep.

Ronda

We spent a total of 16 hours in Ronda, all of which were drenched in driving rain.  The car, which we picked up in Sevilla, was a stick shift, which none of us knew how to drive, really.  I became the defacto driver due to my experience driving tractors.  No joke.  The two operate on generally the same principal, but in reality are pretty radically different.  I’ve never had a tractor stall out on a windy city street that was only a few degrees short of a cliff face, for example.  By the time we dropped the car off in Cordoba three days later I had had three meltdowns and two strangers had been commandeered to start the car and drive it to the top of whatever offending hill was creating the afore mentioned meltdown.  We learned that the Spanish are very friendly people, and extremely good at starting cars on a hill.  I was thoroughly impressed.

Anyway, back to Ronda.  We eventually arrived, a bit white knuckled and in serious need of a drink.  It was raining.  We had to pee.  And the desk attendant at the hotel managed to lock herself – and us – out of the hotel, with no one else inside to let us in.  While she worked out that problem and had a little meltdown of her own, we went to lunch.  By the time we got back her reinforcements had arrived, and it was raining even harder, so we napped away the rest of the (short) afternoon, in order to recover from the morning’s adventures in driving.  In the evening we had some very nice tapas and copious amounts of alcohol (there may have been a theme here…), and chatted with a very friendly family from Oregon sitting at the next table.  Other than that, Ronda was, sadly, a bit of a bust.  We hear it’s a very nice town.

We left on Thursday morning, heading east towards Granada.  After the first round of driving I was less than enthused to get back into the car, but after Emily’s third or fourth “Really, the wind is dying down out there.  It’s not raining so hard.  We’re near the gorge, it’ll be better on the roads.  Really…” I found myself getting back behind the wheel.  For all of about 30 seconds, until I discovered that there was no way on earth I could drive that little blue vehicle up the 50-degree incline to get out of the parking garage.  Whoops.  After being rescued by the garage attendent I pretty quickly managed to stall it out again on one of the ridiculously steep roads in town (why do people who live in places like this insist on driving stick shift? I just don’t understand.)  That time we were rescued by a lovely young woman who parked her van in the middle of the street, got into our car and drove it up the hill for us.  So, what I can say about Ronda is that it’s people are lovely.  They didn’t even laugh too hard when Emily used her remnants of high school spanish to explain the problem: “My friend no car good.  First time <insert hand gestures of steering wheel and gear shifting>.  Bad.  Help?”  It was an impressive and effective performance.

To be continued…

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Snow!

It’s snowing today in Paris.  I took some pictures during my day, so here’s a little slide show of snow in Paris/my daily travels.

8:15 AM, near the Pont des Invalides.  Snow had just started to fall, and was coming down a lot faster than it seems in this picture.  And, yes, it really was that dark out.

Melo is the dog I was hired to walk weekday mornings, along the Seine.  It’s a hard, hard life I lead.

He grew up on the streets of Athens (no joke!), and his feelings about the snow this morning were decidedly mixed.  This is him saying “Really, we’re stopping for a photo shoot?  There’s cold wet stuff falling from the sky!!”

After walking Melo I scurried off to my Phonetics class, which is in Montparnass, but when I was there it was snowing too hard for me to be able to take any good pictures….

Next I was off to my French Grammar class (my basic language class, which meets every day near Place St. Michel and Notre Dame)

A snow-covered Notre Dame

To get home from class I usually walk across the Ile de la Cite to catch the metro at Hotel de Ville

By the time I got there the snow was starting to go unfortunately slushy.  The green trash bags are nicely contrasted, though, don’t you think?

I take the Metro to Place de la Concorde, where I was greeted with this scene.

That gray thing poking up behind the sculpture to the right-had side is all you can see of the Eiffel Tower when it’s this overcast.  To the left is the amusingly-named Wheel of Excellence.

Finally, two blocks from there, and 5 flights of stairs up, is my lovely little apartment.

The view from the kitchen window this afternoon.

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Me and the Metro

I’m admitting it now, I have a love-hate relationship with the Paris Metro.  On the one hand, how could you dislike something with such charming Art Deco station markers?

Full Disclosure: I didn’t take this picture.  Thank you Google Images.

On the other hand, when it routinely drives you to consider faking some sort of medical emergency, or severe mental breakdown, in order to GetAllTheseDamnPeopleAwayFromMe!, you start to have slightly lukewarm feelings about it.

I’m kind of loathe to write this, actually, because I’m a serious fan of public transportation.  I’m not one of those people who complains about the T in Boston (even though, yes, the stations are far apart, it doesn’t serve huge parts of the metro area, and it’s often slow and running behind schedule – it got me from my house to work in 20 minutes, for almost three years, and I only had to get in my car when I wanted to.  Case  closed.).  I think public transportation is one of the greatest things in the world, and if the train and bus systems in the US were better developed we’d be making a huge step towards cutting the carbon emissions from all of our enormous gas-guzzling cars that are ever-more-rapidly killing the environment.  Also, trains are fun.  And the more people have access to transportation systems the more able they are to find jobs, and child care, and medical services.  So, public transportation gets a big A+ in my book.

But, here’s the problem.  Sometimes the Metro is just a little too public.  As in, publicus – open to the people – just too damn many of them.  Organizationally it’s great, and it never fails to get me where I’m going at least 10 minutes earlier than I think it’s going to.  The city is absolutely chicken-poxed with stations.  It seems you’re never more than 6 blocks from one, and changes from line to line are usually quick and easy.  Trains come every 2-5 minutes, and the stations range from simply functional to charming.

But, then, just when I’m starting to think, “Wow, Paris really does subways right”, I hit the Metro Trifecta:

1.     Heat – it’s always, for some unfathomable reason, about 80 degrees on the trains, and with a hundred people in a car I swear it reaches heat stroke-inducing temperatures.  This was worse in September and October, now it’s just kind of stifling with everyone’s winter wear taking up extra space.

2.     Smelliness – it’s true, some of the French just don’t seem to bathe.  And, bizarrely, unlike in other parts of the world, it can be very difficult to spot the offender by sight, making it hard to quietly move away.

3.     Craziness – when they start shouting, you know it’s going to be an interesting trip.

The Trifecta is most common at peak hours, especially in the evening, when you can also  be crammed in closer than I’ve ever been crammed next to other people on a moving object.  Images of the Tokyo subway, with it’s white-gloved pushers, come to mind, although thankfully there are none of those charming individuals here.  If there were I probably would have decked one by now.

There, I’ve admitted it.  I don’t love the Metro.  But, I don’t loathe it either, and it does get me places extremely quickly.  So, I’ll keep riding it, but if you read a story in the papers about some crazy girl who started jumping around and flailing her arms and screaming at the little old woman who had her elbow jammed up against the offender’s stomach for 15 minutes, in a Line 4 car between Chatelet and Etienne Marcel, can someone come bail me out of jail?

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I win!

So, it turns out that writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days kind of eats up your life.  Surprisingly, not as much as I thought it might, but definitely enough that this poor little blog was woefully neglected.  Because honestly, there was one night when I took a break from novel writing to write something else, but that was an anomaly, and most of the time that I wasn’t trying to hit my daily word count deadline I didn’t really want to try to order my thoughts into anything resembling coherency.  (I say that as if this here is coherent.  Maybe I need more than a day to recover.)

But, I managed to meet the challenge, and write the 50,000 words necessary to be declared a NaNoWriMo winner.  The prizes are mostly of the virtual-pat-on-the-back variety (and that nifty banner up there), but there is rumor of a gift certificate for a proof copy of your manuscript, coming in December.  Which means that by then I need to have actually finished the story, because I figured out around November 18 that the story I had planned out was going to take more than 50,000 words to tell.  This is exciting, because it means I actually had an interesting enough story to keep me going for more than 145 pages, but it means there’s still work to do.

For those who don’t know, I decided to write a novel as a kind of a fictional spin-off to my senior thesis at Vassar (historical fiction = pre-outlined plot!).  My thesis was about women in the Byzantine empire who were used to create diplomatic ties to foreign states through marriage alliances.  I had six case-studies of this phenomenon in my thesis, but the one I picked to write the fictionalized version of was the daughter of a Byzantine Emperor in the early 14th century, who was sent off to marry the Khan of the Golden Horde (for reals!), which was a kind of nebulous Mongol kingdom, one of the successors to Genghis Khan’s empire in the 12th/13th century, which covered the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas.  We know very little about her in real history, but what we do know comes from a Muslim travel writer named Ibn Battuta (yes, there are a lot of great names in this story), who was kind of the arabic version of Marco Polo.  He met her and travelled with her when she left the Mongol court to return to Constantinople around 1332.  So, my story goes from her childhood, through her marriage, the trip with Ibn Battuta back to Constantinople, and then will end (I think) with her looking back on it all from later in her life.

So, that’s my excuse for the sad case of blog-neglect I’ve had going for the last couple of weeks.  Thanks for all of the encouragement for my crazy project!  I’ll let you know when it’s really done, and then maybe, eventually, next year sometime, when I’ve fixed all of the historical inaccuracies and done some serious editing, someone will get to read it.

A 13th century Byzantine painting of the Wedding at Cana


(more…)

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Have you heard about the scandal over the new Publisher’s Weekley Top 10 Books List?  No?  You mean you’ve been more distracted by debates over healthcare insurance or the economy or Afghanistan to notice a minor hullabaloo in the fringes of the publishing world?

Well, me too, actually.  (Don’t get me started on insurance.  French or American.  I’m in a bad mental place with insurance models right now.)

But, trustily, the New York Times ArtsBeat blog alerted me to this fact: the Publisher’s Weekly Top 10 List this year had no women authors on it.  Zero.  Now, I can’t say that I’ve read many books that came out in the past year (certainly haven’t gotten to any of the ones on the PW list – and if anyone out there has read “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon,” of course let me know if it’s a must read), I can’t imagine that none of them were as good as the 10 listed here.  And I’m not alone – the Pulizter Prizes for Fiction and History in 2009 went to women.  The NY Times piece mentions that there has been, and may continue to be, a bias amongst publishers against women writers.  The editor of reviews at Publisher’s Weekly (a woman, by the way) said that they were “disturbed” when they discovered that their list – which they had compiled from their own opinions and reviews- was all male.

Depite what this is sounding like, I actually don’t think there should be affirmative action on these kinds of lists.  If you think those are the 10 best books of the year then fine, but what does that say about female writers?  Are they not writing in the hopes of pleasing snooty reviewers at Publisher’s Weekley?  Do more of them write what they think readers want (or what they themselves might like to read), and so head for genre fiction and other kinds of books?  Or is there some kind of deep bias against women’s writing or women writers that still exists from before the time when Jane Austen was considered an anomaly for writing about the kinds of people she saw and lived with everyday?  I think it’s probably some of all of these things, and many more factors that I can’t even think of.  It’s an interesting phenomenon, at the very least.

This is all by way of saying, by the way, that I’ve signed up to write a 50,000 word novel in November.  Yeah.  I know.  It’s through the National Novel Writing Month organization (NaNoWriMo, for those who like annoying acronyms), whose advice is “quantity, not quality.”  Seriously, it’s all about getting people to write, and understand that a first draft is supposed to suck a bit (or, it can even suck a lot), but the goal is to get a first draft of something, even if you erase every trace of its crappiness on December 1.   So, I joined in on the madness, because what else is a girl supposed to do while living in Paris and learning French?  Write a novel, of course.

DSC00498I may be needing a lot of this in the next few weeks…

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