Monday, April 25, 2011

You cwazy Claire - Antwerp

Lost in translation - I say 'Smile', Arin hears 'Impersonate a Velociraptor'
I am sooooooo glad that school holidays are over and Arin goes back to school tomorrow! Its been a long week, I have still been very tired and weak from being sick, and the energy levels of nearly-five-year-olds are freaky, that munchkin is on the go from the moment he wakes up until the moment his bedroom door finally closes for the night. And even then he probably gets out of bed and plays with his dinosaurs some more anyway. I was really losing the plot on Wednesday, I had a really bad day of "No, I will not brush my teeth/have a shower/get dressed/put my toys away/go to bed" and I was looking after him the whole day, like all 14 of his waking hours, and I lost the plot a little bit. Jan and Koi were out for the evening at some meetings, and after Arin and baby Alice were finally asleep I collapsed onto the couch. Of course Alice wouldn't let me stay on the couch, and I spent half an hour getting her back to sleep only for me to sneeze the most enormous sneeze ever and wake her up again...

Jan and Koi's attempt at getting a sleep in. Did it work? Of course not
So I took Thursday off and went into Antwerp. My days off are my only chance for sleep-ins, so I was a little peeved that it coincided with the builders installing and sanding a new wooden floor on the landing outside my room, but they made up for it by calling me princess and flirting with me, in english, all morning as I was mucking about, and then they even noticed that I was google mapping Antwerp on my computor and three of them, all middle-aged rough men, came and stood behind me and gave me the low-down on Antwerp, telling me where the best streets for shopping were and where I would find the European equivalent of Glassons and Just Jeans, I found them hilarious. I took the bus in, worked it all out by myself (ok with the builders instructions) and found my way around to shop for a little bit, the clothes I brought from NZ were all dresses and stuff I used to wear to the office, not really sandpit/trampoline/drooling baby friendly. But really, I was just too tired to do much, I had intended on exploring a lot more and taking photos of the pretty buildings and stuff, but I just came home and had a nap instead. But again, the glimpse I got of Antwerp was pretty cool.

'Sigh, I guess you can pull my hair, but only coz I'm your big brother'
Arin's current phases seem to be, "No. I don't like you anymore. Stop look me/go away" said with all the furiosity a nearly-five-year-old can manage and accompanying hand gestures and stomping, and "you cwazy Claire/mama/papa" or "cwazy (insert name of household object/toy that he can't get to work or is frustrated with)". Calling people crazy seems to be less of an insult and more an expression he uses when he doesn't understand anything, but the way he says crazy (cway-zee) it really makes me laugh all the time - a reaction that then offends him and gets the "I don't like you anymore, stop look me" command. At least now he's taken to calling me 'cwazy Claire' he's learnt my name - until recently I was just 'cwazy you'. We've also had a couple of really sweet moments, like when he tells me my cooking is 'this good' and spreads his arms as wide as they go and gives me a high five, and when he does a drawing for me or makes me a sand-dinner, complete with a dumptruck 'glass' full of sand 'wine'.

cute even wearing PJs and before her bath
Alice has a new phase of her own too. On Easter weekend we had guests, or rather Jan and Koi had guests and I had a nap. They taught Alice how to blow raspberries, which she finds so funny that she blows them and then laughs at herself. All day long. The saying 'simple things amuse small minds' definitely applies here. Arin then finds it funny that the baby is constantly emitting fart noises, and fires them back at her. The house sounds like its inhabited by a pack of geriatric dogs with bowel problems. Its also makes feeding her solid foods way waaay more fun.

That's Arin's 'I don't like you anymore' face
Easter here has been boring. I don't think that that's a reflection on Belgium itself, it is a Catholic country and I know they do celebrate it, we've had all the public holidays and stuff, but there isn't the crazy aisles of chocolate eggs in the supermarkets like in NZ, and in this particular family we did nothing, it wasn't even mentioned, probably because Koi is Thai and Easter doesn't exist there. Part of me feels sorry for Arin, because Easter is always heaps of fun when you're a kid, but the other part of me is very glad that I didn't have to deal with a sugar-hyped and consequently, tantrum-throwing kid all day.

bath time!
I feel like I've suddenly been transplanted into the life of a housewife. My days are now filled with juggling baby on my hip while folding laundry, trying to make sure dinner doesn't burn and yelling at the nearly-five-year old to stop pulling the curtains down during his T-Rex impersonation and to put his pants back on. My only intellectual stimulation is re-learning all the dinosaur names and whale species, and inventing answers for why putting sand in your mouth isn't a good idea. Not only does my english now have a permanent speaking-to-people-with-english-as-a-second-language thing going on, but whenever I open my mouth babyspeak comes out. Its now instinctive. I haven't spoken to a guy between the age of 5 and 50 in two weeks and I haven't drunk more than just a got-through-the-day-beer. The last time I went this long without an evening of much more substantial drinking was a long time before I came to Europe.

Mostly, this has been quite fun, its like playing at being a grown-up but with the security of knowing that at any moment I can throw in the towel and bugger off back to my nomadic backpacker lifestyle, and that at the end of the day they aren't my kids and they aren't my responsibility. There have been a couple of moments when I've been close to calling it quits, but I think things are improving now, Arin seems to have learnt the sound of my warning voice, and that when I start counting he really better move-it, and he isn't pushing the limits as much. I've also stopped trying to spend all my time playing with him, instead just setting him up to do something alone and then watching him while I do housework, it doesn't wear me out so much. Now that he's going to school I should have a bit more time to think of activities for us to do (if anyone has any good ideas, please leave them as a comment below!) and start planning craft stuff or the ingredients for things we can bake. And at the end of the day, its pretty cool being paid to sit in the sun making daisy chains and have water fights, and it's quite satisfying to finally teach a little person how to use a sieve and write the letter Q, and to watch the baby learn how to stand using only one hand to hold onto something for balance.

Tomorrow I've got another day off, and Im going to hitch a ride into Brussels with Koi, last minute decision of about ten minutes ago, but hopefully I can catch up with someone my own age there! Hopefully someone that will understand my english-as-a-second-language baby-speak!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My last week in Madrid, and my decision to leave Spain

'Se Vende - For Sale' window in Malasana
After such an intense and sleepless week with Hauke and Feli, I fell quite ill over the weekend, and spent the whole time in bed. Come Monday I was feeling a lot better, but I've been left with a nagging cough that just won't go away. Also come Monday was the realisation that I was now broke, jobless and homeless in Spain, and nearly at the deadline I'd set myself for sorting out the visa thing and finding a job with no end to the visa process in sight. Even though I have a bit of paper with a NIE on it, I still can't work; I first need to wait 40 days, get the real NIE, present my job offer at Foreigners Office number four, then complete further steps to be confirmed once I make complete all the others. After a long wait while they determine said steps of course. Highly likely to include demands like qualify for the European Buracracy Championships next autumn and fill in a forest's worth of paperwork while doing a one-handed headstand. I had to get out of Miguel and Ricardo's apartment too, the saying 'Three's a crowd' definitely applies when you're talking about a one-bedroom shoe-box sized pad.

Glorieta de Bilbao, the corner by the aparment in Malasana
So, I decided to skip straight to what was originally my post-Spain plan, and try to find work as an Au Pair. I figured even though I'm not great with kids, can't drive and as I haven't babysat since highschool, have no references, as native english-speaker I would have a pretty good shot of sorting something out, meaning I could start living and working somewhere straight away without having to worry about waiting for the whole visa thing to be sorted out, as Au Pairing is under the tabe, and just keep plodding along with the visa thing so that I have permission to stay in Spain, or even anywhere in the Schengen Area, for the year.

Calle Manuela Malasana
So I signed up with three online Au Pair/Nanny websites (if anyone is interested, the sites are here, here and here. I don't really understand how two of them work at all, but apparently if you remember to at least log in everyday your profile will be one of the top ones families see when you log in. For more help, flick me an email). I find the definition beween Au Pair and Nanny really blurry, but I did find out that Nannies generally get paid more. Initially I was looking at doing this within Spain, and amongst the five or so offers I was recieving daily, there were a couple in Spain, the most promising being a family from Israel who were just moving to Barcelona, looking for someone to do a lot of housework and look after two young girls. I spoke to the woman a couple of times on the phone, but then I got an email and a phone call from a man in Antwerp, and within the next 24hours had made the decision to leave Spain and move to Belgium, with a flight booked for four days later. After spending well over a year planning on working in Spain, the snap decision to leave really made my head spin!

Metro station I used to take in Malasana
In the end though it came down to the fact that I came to perfect my Spanish, something that I wouldn't achieve with an English-speaking family in a area of Spain that speaks Catalan, not Spanish. If I wasn't going to be improving my Spanish, then I should really think more carefully about what family I wanted to live with, work for, and raise the children of, and what location would be better to live in. That decision was easy; the family in Antwerp seemed much more flexible and friendly, much more relaxed and open to working out a way that worked for us both, rather than me just fitting into their mould, and just generally, seemed to see me more as a person rather than as just someone they employ to take care of the kids. They would also give me more holidays, and from Belgium I can travel anywhere else within the country for $10NZD on the train, and easily get to the Ryanair airport, whereas from Barcelona to Madrid costs over $200NZD and while there is a Ryanair airport there, it doesn't have flights to many other countries. So to Antwerp it was then!

Plaza Dos de Mayo
I spent the week jobhunting in the mornings, then picnicing in the spot we found at Parque de Retiro the Friday before, staying there sunbathing with a book for a couple of hours, then jobhunting some more, and sometimes going for a walk to enjoy the hot weather and have some time to think. I spent a couple of evenings in Plaza Dos de Mayo again, it really is a nice place to just sit and think and drink a beer. I really can't ge over how hot it is here! Most days are between 25 and 30degrees, but I think if you're out in direct sunlight its hotter, it's just exhausting. I can't sleep with the window open and its only the beginning of spring, summer must be a nightmare here! I did get a little bit of a tan though, much needed after two consecutive winters. On Thursday I went to Annebella and Jose Angel's house for lunch and to spend the afternoon chatting away over beer, as it would be the last time I would see them for awhile, and on Friday I finally admitted that the 'summer clothing' I had brought from NZ was not even 'spring clothing' in Madrid. I went shopping for a pair of shorts and ended up with an armful of clothing that I thought would both be a lot cooler, and a lot more kid-proof than the stuff I've been wearing.

View from inside the school yard
Friday evening I packed up and moved out, as other friends were coming to stay at the apartment and I was off in a couple of days anyway. I went to Olga's (exchange student in NZ in 08-09) aunt's house, and the two of us had chinese for dinner with her aunt and cousin, and then chatted all night, it felt like a sleepover, very fun. Saturday we headed off to meet up with some of Olga's friends. First, we went to meet a girl who was just finishing some Scouts stuff at a school somewhere. Scouts here in Europe is different from Scouts in NZ in that here its actually really cool to be a Scout and therefore many more people do it. They do cool things like form bicycle aerobatic troups and go on ski trips. The schools here are also quite different, well in appearance anyway. Most of them seem like small prisions, with huge walls toped with curles of barbed wire. Olga reckons the Ministry of Education actually copied prision building plans as a cost saving measure, she's probably not far off. The city ones are in taller buildings, often with three or more stories of classrooms, and just a small concrete yard out the front.

Picture of a Tapa from Google Images
 We went with the scouts to a bar where they sell a beer with a free tapa for abot $5NZD, with a huge list od options like a small hamburger or chicken wings. You get one with every drink, so if you drink enough, you get a sweet free dinner. Probably a good time to explain the history of Tapas actually, ages ago when men would ride horses to bars out in the countryside, the publicans would worry about them being too drunk to get home, so they started placing something on top of glasses for the people to eat with their drink, like a pieec of bread with something topping it. Tapa means lid in spanish, so as these bits of food looked like a lid on the glasses, voila, Tapas. Pretty good tradition really, I like that you always get something to eat with you drinks, even if just a basket of chips. Might be why Spaniards can drink so much without rolling around in the gutter like kiwis do.

Ardanda del Rey - not that the whole town looked like this!
Afterwards, we headed to the house of another friend, in the wopps, a small town called Arganda del Rey on the outskirts of Madrid. There were five of us there, with only Olga and I being over 18, but it being a small town we managed to wheedle our way into the local club. It was kind of strange to be in a club, with girls wearing high heels, in this Rangiora-sized town, and as the drinks all cost about $20NZD, no one at all was at the bar, everyone was just standing around in groups talking. Until Olga and I let four under-age kids loose in there. Suddenly there was a whole lot of crazy dancing going on the in middle, even a congo-line of three to the toilet, and we were the centre of attention. Olga and I tried to dance in a much more restrained manner on the sidelines, and we headed back to crash at the friend's house around 5am.

shot of the Gym at the school
We headed back to Madrid the following day feeling quite tired, and arrived back at Olga's aunt's apartment for lunch. She cooked a typical Spanish rice dish for me to try, and Olga's family and german intern Ben came over. It was nice to sit and talk, and to watch some of them get beaten by the 8yr old at the dance games on Wii, but I was really shattered and took a nap in the afternoon while they went off to see a new baby somewhere. I tied up and packed up again, and spent the night chatting to Olga's aunt. I really like her, and I really appreciate the way she's let me stay and has offered for me to come and stay whenever I like, in fact she is storing some stuff for me until I head back in May for part-whatever-we're-up-to-now of the Visa Saga. So Monday I was off to Madrid airport for the eighth time, this time calling it quits on a country I never really got, and off for a new adventure!

More photos are here.

Back to Madrid again - my birthday, the sun, and a bunch of Germans

Th street sign for Miguel's apartment
I arrived back to Miguel and Ricardo's apartment on Wednesday night absolutely shattered, but glad to be somewhere that felt somewhat like home. Thursday and Friday passed like a blur filled with sleeping, unpacking, and getting settled back into the city again. I had been told that the next step in the visa saga was to book an appointment back at what I call Foreigners Office number three, so I rang on Thursday morning, only to be told that the first available appointment was in the middle of June. JUNE. As in, three months away from today and six months into my year-long working visa June. I couldn't believe it, so I rang the government contact person that the NZ Embassy here had put me onto. A couple of emails and phone calls with her office later, I was told to not worry about an appointment, just go and ask for Mr So and So. On Friday night a couple of their friends came to stay for the weekend, so after a quick dinner at the local chinese place we went to Ricardo's brother's apartment for drinks with him, his flatmate, and some other friends. Eventually the SingStar came out and I had flashbacks to the time I rediscovered joy that is spanish speakers singing along to the Spicegirls. Our Czech friend Jiri announced it was time for him to leave, and I was a tad tempted to head out the door with him, but instead I decided to stick around for a couple more hours and simply inflict my poor singing on everyone else in return.

Gran Via, the main avenue in Madrid packed for Noche de los Teatros
  Saturday was the Noche de los Teatros, or Night of the Theatre, a huge celebration where every performance group under the sun either takes to the street, or for the top-level theatre companies, puts on a performance at a discounted rate. We wandered around the streets for a bit, mostly shopping and sussing out the crowds, it seemed like everyone in Spain was in Madrid for the day, and then Miguel and I got tired and sat down for a beer at a bar terrace. After another drink with everyone else we went to check out the Goethe Institut (German Culture/Language Institute) gig, readings of poetry. We scored some sweet free posters from them, kinda cool because I have posters from the Goethe Institut in Wellington too. The building here in Madrid is amazing, they have their own logo-shaped water feature out the front.

Goethe Institut water feature
Sunday and Monday were pretty straightforward, I spent the days running errands and cleaning up the house and on Monday morning I went to Foreigners Office number three. I was a bit suspicious about this 'Just ask for Mr So and So' business, as normally they have security guards and appointment reference numbers and machines that spit out a number for you to wait for even though you had an appointment, but I walked in, asked for Mr So and So, and ten minutes later he'd gotten some forms for me, told me to fill them out and sat me down in front the lady that I made a big scene bursting into tears in front of last time to try and get some actual help. When the lady next to her leaned over and said "ah, you were here before right, you're the one that cried", I thought crap, they remember me, but the first lady was quite nice and ten minutes later I walked out of there with the golden ticket in my hand, a paper temporary ID card with an NIE! An early birthday present. Then it was off to the airport to get my other early birthday present because....

Hauke, me and Miguel
.....Hauke came to visit! Him and his friend Feli came for four nights, to be there for my birthday and have a bit of a holiday after their exams. It was the first time that my two best friends, Hauke and Miguel, had ever met, so it was a huge occasion. I had to laugh because no sooner had they arrived than we had to admit to them our original plan for dinner fell through, and as Miguel can't cook for shit and I was too busy running around in excited little circles, Hauke and Feli ended up in the kitchen cooking for Miguel and I.

Me in front of the blossoms
Five people in a shoebox-sixed one-bedroom apartment is not a good fit, so we woke up on Tuesday, my birthday, after not too much sleep at all, had breakfast, and made a picnic lunch to take with us. We took the metro towards Casa de Campo and got out just before, to walk along the River Manzanares (it really isn't that impressive) a bit and check out a bunch of cherry blossom trees before we headed into Casa de Campo itself. Everyone in Madrid was raving about how cool these trees were and I couldn't understand the fuss, I guess when you grow up in a place like Canterbury cherry blossom trees aren't too special, but they were pretty cool and Hauke got some good photos of us in front of them with his flatmate's portrait lens.

Feli and Hauke at Casa de Campo
Casa de Campo is a huge park in the middle of Madrid that used to be the private hunting reserve of the royal family. And I mean huge, it's 1700 hectares. To put it in perspective, Hagley Park in Christchurch is 165 hectares. In it is the zoo, an amusement park, a lake for watersports and heaps of resturants, and probably some other stuff that I don't know about because its just too big. We walked to the lake and had our picnic lunch and a nap in the sun there, watching a bunch of kayakers in the lake, obviously putting their work siesta time to good use, and some freaky green parrots building an epic nest up in a tree. Coming from Germany, Hauke and Feli couldn't get over how hot and sunny it was, up around 25 degrees at only the very beginning of Spring.

the Teleferico over Madrid

We took the Teleferico back into the city, something I'd wanted to do since I first got to Madrid. Its the most horizontal gondala in the world, it goes for 2.5km but never higher than 40m above the ground. The view was quite cool, you could see all across the city to the snow-capped mountains. We stopped back at the Templo de Debod on the way past, and then continued walking up through the city to get to home. Seeing their awe at Madrid really made me smile.

Me and my cake
That night a whole bunch of people came around to the house for my birthday, Annabella and Jose Angel, Jiri, Alejando, Olga (who Hauke knew in NZ) and german intern Ben, two Spanish guys who I've met several times but whose names I can never remember...the tiny apartment was packed, and although I had been really stressing that Hauke and Feli couldn't speak Spanish, everyone there was really friendly and either spoke english or german with them. I was also stressed because so many people didn't know each other, but everyone made an effort and it was so great to see friends together considering I'd only been in the city for three weeks in January. I had prepared a whole lot of different tapas and apart from a minor broken-glass-landing-in-the-food incident, everything went really well. I had set myself a mission beforehand, to make a speculoos flavoured cheesecake as my birthday cake (kinda sad making your own cake, but as Miguel pointed out, probably better than him trying to make me one) but as speculoos doesn't exist in the english-speaking world, finding a recipe online proved impossible, so I kind of mixed together a couple of recipes for different things, added the speculoos myself and hoped for the best. Miguel wanted to decorate it, so I left that up to him, and both him and Hauke lit the candles and handed it to me, and I got Happy Birthday sung to me in three and a half different languages!

Olga, Hauke, me and Feli on my birthday
 After everyone had left Hauke, Feli and I headed out to check out Madrid's Tuesday nightlife. Hauke mixed a bottle of coke and whisky together (everytime I see him drinking from the bottle like that it reminds me of the night I caught him on video taking swigs from one, insulting me and then starting the 'Sorry...mate' craze) and we walked slowly along into town. Anyone who has been to Madrid will know that the streets around the centre are full of people all night, even on weird week nights, and we met a couple kicking a ball around that got quite friendly and chatted away. They invited us to drink with them somewhere, but we figured they were actually pretty boring and gave them the slip. We actually went to meet up with another German who was in town, a girl called Steffi who we'd known as a backpacker working in Wellington. It was quite cool to see her again two years later, and to hang out with some other foreigners she knew there in an Irish bar playing club music somewhere. Just one of those nights when nothing extraordinary happens, but its an awesome night. We walked home and stopped for pizza at the 24hour pizza place on the way, that place is amazing because it turns out most of Europe does not buy into the 'fast food open late for drunken revellers' like Wellington does and you cant buy late night food in many major cities, and we wound up back home at 5.30am, not bad for a Tuesday.

I can honestly say that I had the best birthday since I finished primary school, it was just an awesome day, to have Hauke (and Feli!) here in Madrid, to spend a great day out in the sun with them, and to then have a cool celebration with friends from different walks of life, just perfect.

Hauke and I in front of AFS Spain's office
Waking up a couple of hours later on Wednesday morning was less than perfect, but the night before Hauke and german intern Ben had hitched a plan for us to go out to the AFS Madrid office to have a look around, catch up with one of their workers, another Olga, who we knew from her visit to AFS NZ a couple of years ago, and to have lunch. There is something cool about me and Hauke meeting because of AFS in NZ, becoming so close, and then meeting again in Spain to years later and going to the AFS office there. We headed out there and killed some time lying in the sun on top of the dirty metro stop building, which is a good indication of the shape we were in that day, before Ben met us and led us back to the office. Its a tad different from the current AFS NZ office, in that its a lot less professional looking, a lot smaller and cramped, and a lot less tidy and organised, but the staff were really friendly and Ben showed us around. Hauke and Olga chatted away, and then I talked to her a bit about volunteering (she was very enthusiatic about it but never got back to me, but I had been warned that AFS Madrid is a bit of a nightmare) and then we met the other Olga, Olga who went on exchange to NZ, and went for lunch at a local Japanese resturant.

Feli, Miguel and I walking home after dinner in Plaza dos de Mayo
After Ben went back to work Olga came into the city with us, and we went to the Catedral de la Almudena but it was closed, so we just wandered around for ages, looking through the suburb of Latina, Plaza Mayor and back through the centre of the city to the apartment, where we crashed out for a nap. After Miguel came home we went out for dinner, sitting outside at a local bar in the Plaza de Dos de Mayo. We split a couple of typical dishes, mostly quite good but I wasn't a huge fan of the Morcilla, or blood sausage, even if Miguel didn't tell me what it was until after I ate it, it just had a weird taste and texture.

Hauke and I up Catedral de la Almudena
Thursday we were feeling much better, and we headed back to the Catedral to the Almudena, the huge cathedral next to the palace that I visited last time in Madrid. This time, I found out you actually are allowed to take photos of the view, so we got some much better shots that the ones I had surrupticiously taken on my last visit. We visited the Mercardo de San Miguel, the oldest covered market in Madrid that still has this beautiful cast iron building from a hundred years ago, now a tourist destination filled with fancy stuff. We grabbed some bits, mostly bread and cheese and sat down in Plaza Mayor again to eat in the sun, and wandered around shopping before heading back to the Plaza de Dos de Mayo.

Hauke and Feli sitting in Plaza Dos de Mayo
This plaza is a couple of blocks away from the apartment, and named after a Spanish uprising against French occupation on the 2nd of May, 1808. The plaza is now the centre of Malasana, with bars and pubs and little stalls selling second hand stuff around the outside and playgrounds for kids. The only time I've seen it empty is first thing in the morning, otherwise its filled with old men sitting around, kids playing, people letting their dogs run around, and later on in the night, hundreds of people drinking. Chinese people walk around with trolleys full of beer for sale, its like an outdoor bar that comes to you, very convinient. We sat there drinking some beer and watching the dogs, Madrid must be full of tiny little apartment-sezed dogs that all come to play together in this Plaza because theres heaps, all running after the same ball or playing the dog version of tag.

Me, Hauke and Feli in Plaza Mayor
Annabella and Jose Angel were coming again for dinner and drinks, so Hauke and Feli cooked some nachos and with Miguel and we just sat around drinking and chatting until the early hours, when everyone went to bed and Hauke and I went off clubbing again. We sat for a hour or so in the Plaza again, drinking some more beer and just talking. I had never actually gone clubbing in Madrid before, so we pulled out a handy guidebook and I let Hauke chose a club to go to. Unfortunately the Brazilian place he picked was a huge fail, so then it was my turn with the guidebook and we went to Teatro Joy Esclava, a club inside an old 1800s theatre. We had to pay 15euro (30NZD) to get in, with a free drink, and then drinks after that were 11euro (22NZD) so while it isn't cheap, its pretty much on par with the rest of Europe, and we took our revenge by stealing two glasses to replace ones that got broken that week at home. Another stop on the way home for pizza, and another 5.30am bedtime.

Me, Hauke and Feli at Retiro park
 On Friday we made another picnic lunch and took it to Parque de Buen Retiro, the park I fell in love with in January. We picked a spot, and again spent the day lying around in the sun, eating, drinking, talking and sleeping. I was a bit stressed before the two of them came about being a tour guide in a city I'd only known for three weeks, but I guess after the weather in Germany four days of lying in the sun was perfect! Then it was back to the apartment to grab our stuff before heading back to the airport.

Parque de Buen Retiro
One of the things that excited me most about Hauke coming to stay was the fact that after spending three weeks entirely relying on him to show me the way and how to do things and to speak Germany back in Austria and Germany, now it would be me knowing my way around and how to speak the language in Spain! But, after four days he had picked up quite a bit of Spanish, enough to buy his own icecream anyway, and I had to laugh when we were on the metro to the airport and I pointed out that I'd managed four days without getting us lost - two minutes later I was sitting calmly there, watching people leave at a stop when Feli asked me in alarm, but shouldn't we be getting out here, everyone else with suitcases is! Fail Claire, Fail. It's funny how empty the tiny apartment feels without the two of them here, you can actually walk around and there isn't someone sleeping n the kitchen floor when you get up, but it was great to have them here, just a really cool week.

More photos are here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Toulouse, France - end of the line

Toulouse is the fourth-largest city in France, in the south-west above the border to Spain and halfway between the two coasts. It's also where Emile studies architecture, a guy who lived in the Wairarapa on AFS from 2008-2009.

Just a note here, if I've convinced anyone that getting involved in AFS is a good idea, either by volunteering so you get to meet these awesome people from all over the world or hosting one yourself (I swear they don't party as much when they are younger and living in NZ!) then give AFS a call on 0800 600 300. Pretty cool organisation, not only did I get a life-changing experience as a teenager, and then several years of learning new skills as a volunteer, but I also just got three months free accomodation out of it!

Emile and I
 I arrived on Sunday afternoon and met Emile at the train station, and he graciously took the much-hated backpack from me. We met a couple of his friends, I made the social faux pas of trying to give three kisses on the cheek rather than two, and then we went for coffee. I'm used to the obligatory kiss on the cheek thing from Costa Rica, but that was only ever one. Since I got here its been hard to keep up, in Germany it was one (actually I don't know if it really is just one or that was just me being a weird foreigner) and then I got to Spain and had to switch to two, which requires some tough distance-judging while two people are both moving opposite directions if you don't want to miss and kiss the air, or get them on the nose, both of which I did many times. Belgium and the first half of France it was two, and then it got confusing with three in Switzerland, two in Marseille, then back to three in Avignon, so who can blame me for trying to plant three on this poor guy in Toulouse? Luckily, he is Emile's flatmate and speaks perfect english from growing up overseas, so I could apologise!

We went for coffee at a cool cafe that actually looked like it could have been a cafe back in Wellington, all modern rather than typical-french. I revelled in my speculoos addiction by buying a speculoos-flavoured hot chocolate (it didn't actually taste like speculoos) and a speculoos and banana muffin (it did taste like speculoos). The thought of going back to speculoos-less Spain is horrible! We then walked a little way, so I could see the River Garonne that the city is built on (have I ever mentioned that I like the way almost all European cities are built on a river?) and the view of the buildings lining the sides, Toulouse is called the Ville Rose, or pink city, for the colour of all the buildings, but honestly it looks more like a kind of browny-orange to me. Still pretty though, and very different from Avignon and Marseille. We headed back to Emile and Joe's apartment, in kind of the Newtown of Toulouse if you're from Wellington where I was introduced to Seraphine, the depressed turtle that had come for a vacation at Emile's house to see if it improved her mood. She has since developed her own facebook page, so I guess she has. Emile made a great chilli con carne for dinner, I loved that he made it out of the Jamie Oliver Ministry of Food cookbook, but the French version. Little things like seeing a familiar cookbook entirely in French amuse me.

Pont Neuf, or 'New Bridge'
Emile had class for the next day, so I slept in until he came home for lunch, and then went off to explore. I walked around the Basilica of Saint Sernin, the biggest romanesque church in Europe and the main city square, and then wandered up and down the narrow streets in the middle filled with all of the shops, trying to buy myself a new handbag and all of those last minute gifts and souvineers that I needed. They had some amazing places and I could have brought myself some really beautiful things, but I kept reminding myself of how much I hate carrying my possessions on my back and of how I no longer have my own house in NZ anymore anyway. Eventually all the shopping wore me out and I stopped at one of those little french bars with the tables on the sidewalks and had a beer while reading my latest book, I picked up one back in Avignon just because the title, A year in the Merde (shit, for those who don't speak french) appealed to me, its about a guy who moves to France for work and his awesome rants about all of the not-bad-just-different-but-secretly-we-know-its-bad things he encounters there. Struck a chord with me, and the first one was quite funny, although the following three got progressively more stupid. Finally, I went to get a better view of the Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, a funny name considering it was built in the 16th century. It's a nice bridge, but after the one in Avignon, I don't really get why its famous too.

Emile, Joe, and thirteen drinks
We quickly ate that evening and then went out for the evening, to a venue called The Chapel that they boys had been recommended but hadn't gone to before. Took us ages to find it, we kept asking for directions and getting told to go the opposite way, but eventually we got there and found out it was an actual church or chapel or something, I don't really know the difference. Its now a venue for an alternative crowd that serve dirt cheap meals and drinks until 10pm while bands play, this night a couple of guys with a guitar and drum set. They were quite good, and it was just one of those chilled out gigs where everyone sits around tables chatting. We then went to another bar which was not so chilled out, on Monday nights (yes, Mondays) they sell 13 drinks for 13 euros ($2NZ per drink), both beer and spirits provide you take them all at once and give them their tray back right away (ie drink ridiculously fast). Again, I had to question NZ's reputation for bad drinking culture, I can't imagine anywhere in NZ running the same promotion and getting away with it.

Toulouse - see what I mean, not really pink!
 The place was packed, we watched a couple of fights erupt, one over an allegedly spilled drink (who can blame the guy, trying to hold 13 drinks in two arms is tough!), and eventually ended up sharing a table with the same guy who started that fight. He turned out to be quite friendly, as did the guy beside me who had learnt some english in Australia, but I took advantage of his english skills and drunkeness to make fun of him without him realising for our amusement, at least until I ended up in a similar state myself. The boys also amused themselves adding to the grafitti decorating the table and seeing how many penis doodles they could reach with just one had. Boys.Finally, we finished all of our drinks and headed out to pee in the alleyway and find another bar, but we didn't stay too long and returned home via my favourite method of post-drinking-crap-the-metro-is-closed transportation, the public bicycle hire system!

Emile with his egg-on-mince in the little plaza resturant
 I was not really on top of the world the following morning and again, slept in until Emile finished half of his classes and came back to wag the rest of them, and we used our reciepts from the night before to use the bicycles again, this time back into town for lunch. Turns out I am much better on a bike when I am sober, I was beginning to worry that the old adage 'It's like riding a bike' didn't apply to me and I could in fact forget such things. I had wanted go to a proper french resturant, one where you sit at tables in the little plaza, since I've been here and so as it was my last day in France, we went. Emile did a good job of translating the menu and we both had I guess a french version of steak and egg, but here they put a fried egg on top of what I would call a hamburger pattie, like a round of minced beef. I asked him about that, because I think it would be quite strange to have that without bread, but apparently its quite typical here. Was good anyway, and I even proved how far I have come in Europe buy drinking a whole glass of red wine with my meal, I surprized Hauke back in Austria when I arrived by not being able to handle more than a sip or two of it. See, I did put off postgraduate study to learn important things over here! I also got a lemon cheesecake with speculoos cookie base for dessert, yum.

random street in Toulouse
 We then wandered around the shops for awhile and I helped Emile pick new glasses before we went home to make it in time to the post office. In France they have different sized boxes that you pay one price for and can fill up to a certain amount, so I had my $80 box to post back to NZ (meaning my bag might actually be light enough to get on the plane to Madrid) and some other bits and pieces. I got really annoyed though that they didn't have a box the right size to post something within Europe, apparently not just that this store was out, but full stop. Seems like another inefficient system, you can have a medium-sixed box if you want to post internationally, but not if you want to post within Europe, and no, you cannot just pay more for the medium-sixed international box and post it within Europe, and no they don't have any other packaging options at all, and no I wasn't happy to buy a extra-large-sized Europe box and have my tiny thing inside it get bounced around, so screw you French post system, I will just post it from Spain. We did get revenge however by still being in the shop as they were closing and then trying to buy stamps by inserting our 1eurocent coins in the vending machine, not realising that it would take a maximum of 20 individual coins before it spat them all out again, meaning one poor guy had to stand around and wait for us for another 5 minutes while we tried to get enough stamps.

Finally, we finished off the evening with communal attempts (ie Joe and I were meant to do it while Emile studied, but we couldn't agree on stuff and had to keep interrupting Emile to ask) at cooking Pot-Au-Feu, a traditional french soup. Was quite good. Poor Emile had a huge assignment due Wednesday, so he was up most of the night working, and then he insisted he'd come to the train station with me so we were up early the next morning. When I planned this trip I thought that Toulouse would be the ideal last stop before I hoped over the border back into Spain. Wrong. Turns out the Spanish train system is even more ridiculous than the French one, they use different tracks to all the other countries, so while the rest of Europe is really well intergrated, Spain isn't. You can train to the border, and then try and get another train from the border, but the timing was a joke, I was going to have to spend a night in the middle of no where on the border, and trains within Spain are three times more expensive than in other countries, so in the end I trained back to Paris and flew into Madrid on Easyjet, at $100NZD it was the most expensive flight I've taken within Europe, but it was much cheaper than trains would have been! After flying with Ryanair so much, Easyjet felt really luxurious, and landing at Madrid airport felt like coming home, although after taking four metros, three trains and a plane to get to the apartment, I was shattered!

So therein endith the big tour, or at least the intial tour I had planned. As I said in my last post, glad to stop moving around so much and doing the repetitive tourist-site thing, but sad at the same time that it has all come to an end. The plan is now to get my visa sorted, finally, and then find a job and place of my own here in Madrid, but its kind of freaky to have nothing at all definite on the horizon, not even plans for the weekend, after three months of knowing where I would be every day of the week. But I guess one of the things I have learnt over here is how easy travel is, so I guess Europe's my oyster!

Photos from Toulouse are here.

Avignon - a bridge, a palace, and an english-speaking-but-unfriendly train service man

View back towards Avignon from the bridge
Avignon is about a hundred km out of Marseille to the north-west, and home to Boris, surprize surprize an AFS Wellington 2009-2010 student. The shortest train trip, but also in some regards the most difficult!

In France, you can buy cheaper tickets online in advance, which I did, but only if you use the French website, the minute I put it into english it took me to another page and things were in pounds and twice the price. Typical French arrogance, lets make anyone dumb enough not to speak French pay more! So I thought I just be clever and buy my tickets from the french site, and proceeded to do so without any problems, so I thought. I get here and France has the weirdest system in place that I've come across. You can't simply print out the ticket that you booked online, like you can in other countries, you need to go to machines in the station and insert the credit card that you used to book it, and it prints out a proper ticket for you.

 Boris and I. Bad photo, I know!
Luckily the first time I tried to do this I wasn't in a hurry, because turns out these machines can't handle foreign credit cards, so everytime I go to take a train in France I first need to line up, carrying my painfully ridiculous amount of luggage and either try to mime what I want to a non-english-speaking-and-unfriendly service person, or in the cases where they actually have a specific english-speaking-but-stillunfriendly service person, wait behind an even longer line of often similarly luggage-laden foreigners in the same position as me. I would prefer the shorter line and take my chances with a non-english speaker, but there is also a mean security man there directing traffic. And these aren't lines like the polite, short lines we have in New Zealand, these are European lines, which always, always, no matter where you are, the supermarket, the post office, the skifield, are at least three times longer and full of people who don't understand the concepts of single-file and waiting-patiently-for-your-turn.

Random small plaza in Avignon
Ok, enough ranting about the lines at the railway station. You get the idea, it adds an unpleasant half hour onto all of my journeys. Normally, I need to give my reference number and then they ask for my credit card to verify my identity about half the time, before printing me out my ticket, which you then need to take and validify yourself in a different machine before you get on the train. Again, something you don't need to do anywhere else. Apparently its so that the controller who comes around to stamp your ticket knows you didn't already use it. Which makes me wonder why he still stamps the ticket.....Oh France. But three months earlier when I had brought my ticket from Marseille to Avignon, I was waiting for my new credit card to arrive and had used mum's instead. Something I would not have done could I read the fine print in French on the website. Not to worry, I thought, half the time they never ask for the card anyway and if they do I will say I lost it, as must surely happen quite frequently, and offer my passport instead, who can refute a passport as proof of identity? Well, as it turns out, the French can!!!

main plaza in Avignon
Yes, this particular english-speaking-but-unfriendly train service man refused to let me use the ticket I had brought online three months earlier because I had "lost" my credit card and couldn't use it to prove who I was. For security reasons. Why the hell doesn't my passport prove who I am? Isn't that the safest proof of ID around? Isn't that what every other country in Europe uses as proof of ID for train tickets? Grrrr France. So I then had to buy a new ticket, fill in a similar number of forms to what you would need to buy a house in NZ, and wait for them to process the forms, send them to the accounts department, and then refund me...7 euros. Little lesson on efficiency France, wasting the time of the english-speaking-but-unfriendly train service man, all the office people out the back, the staff at my bank, and me, all over 7 euros = inefficient. Accepting a passport as proof of ID to get the angry NZer out of your face and on her train = efficient.

OK so it is kinda my fault, I brought a ticket with a credit card I didn't have on my person, but seriously. And I don't appreciate english-speaking-but-unfriendly train service man telling me the computor system makes it impossible to print the ticket without the card because I have seen it happen so many other times.

View from the Palais over the old centre of Avignon
So I get to Avignon, knowing that Boris was going to be about 20min late to meet me, and just sit on my bag in front of the train station reading and amusing myself watching the drug peddlers, members of the 'moroccan deaf mute association' (similar to the turkish deaf mute association found further north and in Germany, in that in between waving a plea for money in your face they will have group huddles to verbally plan their tactics) and african black-market vendors do their thing in between disappearing when the police patrol came past every twenty minutes. True to form, Boris showed up an hour later and we caught the bus back to his place, outside of Avignon proper, and the first single-story house I've been in during the last three months! The south of France is quite different to the rest of Europe, its much more mediterranean, the houses are flater and golden, with those cool curved terracotta roof tiles. Roof tiles are actually quite important here, you notice throughout Europe that different countries and regions have different varities (flat, curved, big, small, different colours), and apparently some places, or everywhere I dont know,  have laws about what kinds of tiles you can use to maintain the traditional look of the region.

Boris (right) and two of his friends on St Pats day
My laziness seemed to come with me from Marseille, for some reason I was absolutely shattered and after chatting to Boris for a bit, just went for a wee nap, that turned into a really big nap because he couldn't wake me to go out wth him! Eventually I woke, had dinner with his parents while he came back home, and then went for a walk with him just around the neighbourhood a bit to see the view. Thursday he had school, and I did more of the same lazing around the house, sleeping and catching up on emails and blog etc, and playing with Boris's cat, who is freakishly small and really seems like she's on a permanent acid trip, she is nuts, gets freaked out by everything and runs around the house jumping on stuff escaping invisible monsters. We went out that night as it was St Patrick's day, to a bar called Wall Street where all the students go for cheap drinks. Have to hand it to them, the drinks were cheap and they put a lot of effort into irish decorations, but they had a huge map of the world painted on the wall, minus New Zealand! Travesty! I found it quite funny, this party in the name of St Pats in a French bar, full of french people. At least in NZ we can claim a bit of Irish ancestry to justify the party! Boris's friends really speak no english, so I just amused myself with the cheap drinks until we went home quite late, I have no idea how he managed to get up the next morning for school! I definitely was not up that early in the morning, and again spent the day sleeping, emailing, blogging and swearing I would get out of the house the next day.

Little plaza in Avignon
 The weekend was supposed to be pretty quiet party-wise as everyone had exams the following week, but we went with some of Boris's friends to what he described as a tragic old man pub that they went to for cheap beer when they had nothing better to do. It pretty much lived up to the description, except it was quite packed and full of what seemed like a club of spanish bulfighting supporters, complete with videos projected onto the wall and red bandanas around everyones neck. It was quite strange, none of us really new what was going on, so we just sat outside drinking our cheap beers. The weather had changed dramatically by the time I got down to this part of France, it was warm and sunny during the days, but still quite cold at nights.

Wall around the town centre
The next day Boris went to the library to study (yes, for those of you who know Boris, he surprized me too!) and I went sightseeing! I had never heard anything about Avignon before, I doubt it is very famous outside of Europe, and someone in Marseille said "why the hell are you going to Avignon, there is nothing there except an old bridge, and its not even a whole old bridge, just half an old bridge!" It is actually quite a nice city, the old section is still ringed by the old walls and ramparts, so we parked outside the walls and walked through one of the old arched doors in the wall. In the city, the streets are narrow and windy, and around every couple of corners you find a little plaza filled with tables spilling out from the resturants and bars, and normally a fountain or statue or something. To me, the walls and everything make it seem so medieval, but I love the way to everyone who lives there its just so normal, having to park the car ages away because the walls are in the way.

Pont Saint-Benezet/Pont d'Avignon
 The famous bridge, called Pont Saint-Benezet, or Pont d'Avignon was built in the 1100s, allegedly after a local shepard boy claimed angels commanded him to build it. He got taken seriously after he lifted a massive block of stone and laid it at the riverbank, and then all the wealthy guys in the area stepped in and built the thing, 900m long, across the Rhone river. They built a chapel part way along the bridge, and the shepard became Saint-Benezet and was buried there later. It was put out of use in 1668 after a massive flood and now only four arches remain, so its kind of like a pier you can walk out on. Avignon is really windy, and being out on the bridge was crazy, the wind was so bad it was pulling everything out of my hands.

Palais des Papes
Avignon also has the Palais des Papes, or Palace of the Popes, something I never knew existed! In 1309 Rome was in turmoil so Pope Clement V moved everything to Avignon, and over the next decades the buildings were expanded and remodelled so that now the Palais des Papes is a huge medieval palace complete with all the halls and turrets and ramparts like the castles in computer games when I was a kid. Very cool. The Popes went back in 1377, but then the antipopes took over (something else I didn't know about, see I am learning a lot on this trip!), different guys who opposed the real pope and got enough support for their own claim for being pope, and the real pope only got the Palais back in 1433.

view inside Palais des Papes
In between visiting these I managed to order myself a meal at a chinese resturant, in french, and wander around the shops quite a bit, before I met Boris and we had coffee with a couple of his friends. We went out later that night, just the two of us for a couple of beers in a fancy bar and it was good just to sit around and chat. I really liked Avignon, for all I was really lazy and didn't get out too much. The whole travelling thing really just wore me down though, constantly moving around, packing and unpacking, catching trains, constantly trying new things, looking at museums and old churchs over and over and over. I've found myself longing for simple things, like a bedside table with my own things on it and knowing where in town to get my shoes fixed and just being able to go home when I get tired at a party, not when the friend who I am staying with gets tired. Not that travelling around hasn't been awesome, but I think I'm at the limit of what I can take before I need to settle down for a bit before taking off again. But the other part of me is sad that I have only one more stop to make before I head back to Madrid.

I should mention that when I arrived at Avignon train station to get my train ticket to Toulouse, the non-english-speaking-but-unfriendly train service man took my reference number and printed out my ticket without asking for my credit card. Those bastard train service men!

More photos of Avignon are here.