Chapter five: Winter travels

It’s been a while since I last updated my blog, mainly because the past month has been jam-packed with various excursions. My trips have involved several near-disasters and multiple embarrassing moments, in more than one nation.Nonetheless, I have had a fab time, and returning to classrooms full of Catalan youths on Monday was a little more difficult than usual.

I am currently writing this post in a state of exhaustion after catching the Metro to Poble Nou (the athlete’s village of the 1996 olympic games)  and running the 10k distance back to my apartment at a fair pace, along the beach and the marina. Today it is a little bit fresh (thirteen degrees) but the sky is clear blue, and there are people in the sea, and on the beach. The views were lovely but I’m absolutely shattered and slightly concerned because I will be running over double the distance in a race this time next month.

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The view I had on Friday whilst reading my book on my afternoon off. Not bad for January, methinks.

Anyway, I shall proceed to inform you of recent events in my life:

Before Christmas I finally left Catalonia and entered real Spain, with a friend I met at the casual running club in my first week here. After spending 4.5 months living in Spanish territory theoretically and geographically speaking, in terms of culture, ideology and landscape I have been living in an entirely different nation altogether.

My trip to Zaragoza (or Saragossa) was an interesting weekend to say the least. It started horrendously: the outskirts of the city are not very easy on the eye: they resemble a post-soviet, dystopian version of Stockport thirty years ago. As we drove past the expansive industrial district I was beginning to regret the three hour bus journey and two nights I’d booked in the hostel before they even began. Things didn’t get better at the main bus and train station: it is possibly one of the most architecturally disgusting and depressing buildings I have ever entered. As Zoe put it, it was like ‘a communist version of Birmingham New Street’, but with higher ceilings, less signs, and the absence of a brummy accent (the only redeeming factor).

On actually entering the city, the overall aesthetic largely improved. However, there was a good twenty/thirty second period where we thought we were about to die. As Zoe and I got off our second bus, we heard gun shots being fired. In the light of recent events across Western Europe, our first thought (rather awfully) was that we were about to die in a terrorist attack, in Zaragoza. After the brief moment of panic, a bloke explained that it is a Spanish tradition to fire gunshots at weddings. Nothing says romance better than shooting bullets in Spain, apparently.

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Zaragoza’s Basillica of our lady of the Pillar. Sorry for the bad quality.

Anyway, we passed the two days and nights mooching around art galleries, eating a lot, and exploring the pretty ‘Tuba’ district of narrow, bar lined streets. Whilst our free hostel breakfast was a huge disappointment (non-branded cornflakes and bread worse than the 89p loaf I used to buy as a student), we accidentally stumbled upon one of the top ten restaurants in Spain- la Republicana- which was great.

There is no doubt that Zaragoza felt hugely different to Barcelona, with it’s colourful architecture, noticeably different culture, and the fact that NOWHERE stocks Estrella . Instead they have Ambar which isn’t half as nice, in my opinion. During the time there, I had a minor language revelation where I realised I understood a large quantity of what people were saying.  This was pretty nice after months of despairing over my incapacity to learn. Whilst I am on the topic of language, I will say that I am starting to accidentally learn Catalan nouns instead of the Spanish version. So even if by June- by some miracle- I can have a good level of Spanish, I will speak in a random fusion of Spanish verbs, pronouns and adjectives with a handful of Catalan thrown in for good measure. Surely, it will be enough to confuse whoever I speak to. Excellent stuff.

Besides my calorific weekend in Zaragoza, in the build-up to Christmas there were lots of Christmas themed events at school. I had to repeat the same spiel on ‘Christmas in England’ twenty-two times, which was a little mind-numbing. Other than that, I went to the staff Christmas party. It was quite noticeably different to the English equivalent. In fact, we were allowed to drink beer in the staff-room in the middle of the day, with lessons afterwards (Spain is different).

I visited the World Press Photo Exhibition at the Cultural Centre of Catalonia. It takes a lot to move me, but the photographs of the plight of refugees, and documentaries following their journey was pretty bloody awful. I have no doubt that our generation will look back on this period in shame. There was also a section of the exhibition looking at life inside North Korea and parts of China, which was pretty interesting, and weird. The one thing which sort of distorted the experience was the fact that the photographs won awards, and it was almost a competition of seeing which photographer could capture the most human suffering in one photo. Nonetheless, it was interesting and I will definitely be returning next year  in the nearest city I can get to, as this exhibition tours the world.

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one of my favourite, more light-hearted photos of the exhibition, taken by Mauricio Lima in Brazil

The holidays were busy, and I bought my American friend, Victoria, home for Christmas, so she could see a small corner of England and get to meet my nutty family. After a near disaster where Victoria nearly didn’t get let out of Spain at the customs desk, we flew to Gatwick, caught a delayed Southern Rail train to Victoria (too classic), and stayed in the TravelJoy Hostel in Chelsea which I would HIGHLY recommend. They give you unlimited free non-alcoholic drinks, hot and cold, and you literally get a buffet breakfast. Probably the one place in the entire city where you don’t get hugely ripped off.

We spent one day walking around all the main sites. I don’t know precisely the distance we covered but I will say that it was bloody, bloody far and by the end I was actually excited to sit on a Megabus. From this experience I can advise anyone not to travel via Victoria coach station on the night of the 23rd of December because it was literal chaos. I’ve been through the place so many times, and it is always busy and stressful, just not to this extent. The worst moment happened when I bought myself a Tuna-Mayo Sainsburys Sarnie (my first in an awfully long time) and the man squashed next to me on a table sneezed directly on it. Directly. And it was a wet sneeze. I binned the sandwich, which was an absolute tragedy, and something I am still coming to terms with to this day.

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Shameless tourist snap in front of Clifton Suspension Bridge, in poor lighting

Besides London, my family and I showed Victoria Bath, Bristol, Westonbirt and the local countryside. Christmas day was wonderful: it was good to see family, eat mince pies (non-existent in Spain), and sleep in the starfish position in my own double bed. Afterwards, on 30th December I made a brief, 36 hour stay in Sheffield. It felt so good to go back, and see some of the people who have quite literally seen me at my very worst, and best. Three years of living together, watching questionable channel 5 documentaries together, eating beans on toast together, going out for countless nights out, and despairing over the state of the world creates a certain kind of bond. I miss all my pals dearly. But they are coming to visit in May, which will be fab.

Months ago, when I was feeling a little bold, I booked a flight from Manchester to Berlin on New Years Day. This is a decision I came to question, particularly on the morning of New Years Day, when I was feeling distinctly sub-par. After eating eggs and toast life improved a little, and taking some Spanish Paracetamol (a lot stronger than the English stuff) meant that I managed to survive the journey.

Berlin was perfect, and I enjoyed it so much that I forgot to take photographs. Whilst I was there, my boyfriend showed me around Kreuzberg, we ate Currywurst and Shawarma (delicious), explored his neighbourhood and visited an exhibition in the The Deutsches Historisches Museum. In the museum exhibition, it was interesting to see that the Germans seem to be dealing with their colonial history in a far better way than us Brits. Whilst they recognise the awful aspects of their national past, we seem to cling on to weird, irrelevant and racist notions of an empire which are absolutely nothing to be proud of (in my humble opinion). I think we could learn a few lessons from them, personally. Anyway… one of my highlights was when we went up the Funkturm and had the whole tower, and view of Berlin at night to ourselves. The lowlight was leaving/ when I broke his brothers prized possession of a spider shell jacket. I literally touched it with the tip of my finger and it fell to the floor and broke into several pieces. This was within about five minutes of meeting him. Mortifying.

After making an idiot of myself, we caught the train to Prague and spent two days there. The route was lovely, as it followed the river Elbe and winded through a beautiful valley. The city itself is stunning. There were moments when I felt like I was in a large-scale, Czech version of Disneyland. The food was hearty and wonderful and the views from Letenské sady and Petrin Park were really magnificent, especially when a layer of snow fell overnight. The only issue was the fact it was minus ten degrees at some points. We overcame this obstacle by applying the interval training approach to our sightseeing strategy: walking for periods and taking pit-stops in bars and cafes every time I lost feeling in my feet. Before I shut up (because I have gone on for quite some time), I will say that I can HIGHLY recommend an Airbnb apartment in Prague’s Old Town. If anyone is going, I can message you the details.

Since returning to Barcelona last Saturday, I’ve taken on a new student for tutoring, got back into teaching-mode and looked at my new home city with a fresh pair of eyes. I am exited to make the most of the next 5.5 months here, and look forward to all the adventures 2017 will undoubtedly bring.

To anyone who gets this far, thank you for reading x

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