east coast uk

Train to Nowhere

Note: I’m trying something new here, to write more travel-focused creative non-fiction, because that’s what I enjoy writing. Let me know if you like it or if you think I should keep this more photography and shorter post based and create a separate platform for my creative writing. I’ve been a lot more inspired recently to write and want to post in order to keep myself accountable. I need to actually finish stories instead of letting them sit around half-written! This one I could elaborate more on, or turn it more towards a fantasy story…couldn’t decide. Hope you enjoy!

Train to Nowhere
by Samantha Anthony

It was the middle of the night and we were standing on a platform in Middle-of-Nowhere, England, being drenched by cold rain instead of snuggling cozily into our beds in London. 

We wondered how we got here, and how we were going to get home. We had had no food or water for hours, and the end of the journey was nowhere in sight. 

Was this how the apocalypse arrived? In the form of a seemingly innocent train ride from Edinburgh to London? It seemed like a plausible explanation. It happened this way in films. One minute the main character is on their way to high school and the next they’re toting a machine gun over their shoulders, off to save the world.

We shivered and complained. It seemed like years ago that we been pushed by a massive crowd onto the train in Edinburgh, the train itself objecting rather strongly to the cramming of too many passengers into its tin belly. We should have listened to its groaning protests; maybe then the ten car vehicle wouldn’t have vomited us onto a train platform in Fuck-Knows-Where-Upon-Tweed a couple of hours later.

 But back in Edinburgh we were still so naive, shuffling onto the train and searching for a table, a search that we soon realized was a little optimistic. It immediately became apparent that it would be impossible to even find a spare seat. The kind folk at East Coast Lines, in their desire to transport everyone from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (and their money) to London, had completely overbooked the train. Attempting to beat a hasty retreat off the train and to the nearest customer service desk, we were backing down the aisle when we tumbled forward onto each other and random surrounding personages: the train was moving. 

With only one choice, we more or less fell our way back to the connecting compartment between the cars, glaring fervently at the seated passengers we passed along the way. Upon arriving at the cozy luggage transport area, we found it to have already been transformed into a human transport area. Current occupants included:: a frazzled looking young couple with a newborn baby, a rocker chick with a huge pink flower in her hair already sleeping on the floor, two silent men sitting by the doors reading, and a bewildered, hugging couple at the far end. 

We soon took up our 65 pound seats located conveniently on the floor next to an out-of-order toilet and commenced a hearty complaint session. As the kilometers sped away, the disturbing noises coming from behind the closed plastic door became undeniable. A few people had already opened the door only to basically run away. If we had any sense in us then, we would have taken those omens to heart and abandoned ship at the next station, but instead we ignorantly stayed on the doomed train, too wrapped up in our anger to read the signs.

 

 


out of order toilet

As the minutes wore on, we began to accept the situation; it would have been more comical if we weren’t so pissed off. But there was nothing else to be done. An overhead announcement came on, and our ears pricked up, expecting an apology of some sort, some kind of compensation offered, tea, biscuits, crumpets?

 “We interrupt your journey to apologize for the lack of seating on this train.” The mechanical, tinny voice above us uttered. 

“Lack of seating?! How about overbooking? You knew how many seats this train had! Bastards!” I yelled at the ceiling, shaking my fist as my fellow passengers exchanged somewhat worried glances, undoubtedly wondering if I was that loose cannon that always appears in these types of situations. They hadn’t yet determined if I the irate but harmless or actually violent type. 

But the announcer wasn’t done infuriating us yet, as he continued, “We further apologize to those traveling in first class as there will be no hot drinks service due to heavy passenger loading.” 

I fumed. “Well isn’t that just tragic!” I retorted at the disembodied voice, grumbling to myself. “Also heavy passenger loading?! Are they serious?!” I exclaimed to those around me, eliciting watery and unsure half-smiles.

 I shook my head to myself and began reading as the others drifted to sleep around me. In the relative quiet, the noises from the bathroom seemed to be getting louder, gurgling and spitting. I eyed it warily, glad that I wasn’t sitting next to it. People came by at regular intervals attempting entrance, and I developed a canned response to their questioning looks, “It’s out of order. Next toilet is two cars over.” I pointed, ignoring their irritated looks, as if it was somehow my fault.

 Boredom soon got the better of me though, and to amuse myself I began to invent ways of elaborately informing my fellow passengers that the bathroom was indisposed. 

“I hear tell that there are bathroom facilities over yonder.” I quipped to the twentieth person that turned to me like I was an authority on train toilets.

“I would like to inform you that this toilet facility is unfortunately not feeling up to working today, but you may be able to encounter a more amiable lavatory at the end of this carriage.” I beamed sarcastically at a bewildered businessman. 

But I was to regret my attitude towards the broken toilet very shortly, when the young mother began changing her baby on her pram. It was not number one. The newborn shot me an entertained look that seemed to say, “Whaddya gonna do about it?”

 I returned to my book.

 Finally we pulled into the first station stop, York, and after a longer than usual boarding time another announcement came on overhead, telling us that we were to be stopped here for an hour while the conductor was transported from the next city, Leeds, in a taxi.

 I unleashed another torrent of angry comments at the disembodied voice. “He’s probably just hung over from the music festival!” I exclaimed. It was true. The Leeds music festival was that weekend.

 I slumped back against my backpack and noted the man across from  me was ironically reading “Turning Confusion into Clarity” by the Dalai Lama…I silently asked the book to shed some clarity on the situation we were all currently stuck in. People packed into the cars, hot and stuffy in the cars, but rainy and cold outside. Boredom. Anger. Frustration.

east coast uk

 

The hours ticked on, and finally an altogether too cheery voice popped on overhead and announced that the member of personnel (aka himself, the sunny bastard) had now arrived and we would be speeding towards London in a jiffy. 

We sped. For about twenty minutes. Whereupon we stopped. Yet again. Without any information. Yet again.

 The train remained stubbornly halted  as the light outside dimmed, and mist settled ominously on the moors. Everything, had turned a subdued gray, a transformation that was mirrored inside the train by our moods as we slowly began to accept our fate.

After what seemed an eternity, crackles above us signaled that information was yet again about to be imparted onto us from the gods above. But alas, instead of the clarity I had wished fervently for earlier, we were doomed to receive a further dose of confusion as the tinny voice apparently had only decided to made a reappearance in order to make rather thinly veiled death threats. “We apologize again for the heavy passenger loading…but if we do happen to lose some passengers at the next stop we may be able to reinstate the hot drinks service.” The voice politely informed us, as if wishing that some passengers would happen to fall off the train was a normal occurrence on English train services, and that it would be preferable than having to deal with the angry mobs in first class that hadn’t been able to have their afternoon tea. 

Also, apparently another normal occurrence on English train services was to drop their passengers at the nearest available station and vomit them off onto the platform without further instructions on where to go. At least I assume this to be true, as that was what happened next.
So here we are, back at the apocalyptic train platform. Masses of confused people wandered about, their luggage trailing behind them in the din as we all searched for the same thing: a member of train personnel, if they existed. Sometimes there would be a sudden rush as people moved to a flickering screen with train timetables, but mass disappointment usually followed as the list simply updated with yet another cancellation. Our fate seemed cemented with the ticking of each minute. We were never going to get to London tonight. 

All of a sudden, a stout, short and extremely harried looking woman appeared out of nowhere and bellowed, “Everyone that wants to get to London tonight –  get on the next arriving train to Peterborough!” 

Mayhem ensued as the train pulled up and hundreds of people clamored into the metal boxes. We stood in the restaurant car corridor, guzzling the complimentary water that had been so graciously offered (hint: stolen) to us in reparation for the inconveniences caused for the duration of the afternoon. 

“We have to stick together! If we all stick together they have to do something with us!” A leader seemed to emerge from our midst, ready to steer the angry mobs to victory if need be. People nodded, but mainly were too exhausted to get worked up about it. Most buried their noses in their books or phones, accepting the reality of the situation.

train to petersborough

I was once again stuck next to the toilet, again out-of-order, although we were on a different train. I could hear the now familiar noises rising from underneath the door. Was I the only one that was getting worried about this? Two different trains, and the station bathroom had sounded strange as well. I pressed my ear against the door. Glog-glog-glog-hsssssss. I edged away from the door. 

As we hurtled along, the sky darkened and the colors outside began to fade. Where we were headed now, I didn’t know. The speed of the train seemed to increase with every passing moment until the trees were just blurred shapes out the window. There was no going back, and no way out now.

 

The End

 

The ABCs of the Camino

I could sit here for hours trying to write something that would capture the essence and rhythm of the Camino, the duality found everyday: the mixture of routine with adventure, conversations on the road both philosophical and nonsensical, equal elation at stunning views and a simple centrifuge, the adrenaline and the exhaustion; even the days themselves seemed split into two: the walking day (7am-2 pm) and the resting day at the destination (2 pm-10 pm).

I could attempt to convey the spectrum of unadulterated feelings I experienced on the camino:  happiness, sadness, loneliness, boredom, excitement,  panic, contentment, fear,  frustration, anger, weariness…

And I could try to explain my gradual awakening and realization that the last thing I wanted to do after it was over was return to my teaching job in Madrid. How the reasons I thought I had for returning fell away until I was left without a single one, and decided not to go back.

But I don’t think I would be able to express these thoughts, nor do I particularly want to – the camino is a personal journey and I want to keep it that way.

Instead I’ll share a product of the camino here. I started writing a lot more on the way, and one day, lying bored in the sun by a tiny albergue, I started a list of words (in 4 languages + some invented words) that captured my experience – so here it is!

787 Santiago sign

 

AAlbergues (pilgrim hostels), Asturias, avocados

B – Blisters, ‘buen camino’, blackberries, bocadillos (aka lunch – baguette with avocado, tomato, roasted red pepper,cheese), boredom, Basque Country

Buen Camino - the goodbye said on the road to with other pilgrims a good journey

Buen Camino – the goodbye said on the road to wish other pilgrims a good journey

C – Café con leche, ‘the cohort (group of people we continually saw), communal meals, CAOTD (cute animal of the day), chuches (gummies in Spanish), caixo (Hello in basque), cows, chocolate, ‘cheating’ (Is biking cheating? Is taking a donkey cheating? Is walking on the highway cheating?), Cantabria

Cute animal of the day - this dog was so human it was amazing.

Cute animal of the day – this dog was so human it was amazing.

Ddonativo, dogs (everywhere, varying from terrifying to adorable)

E – Elevenses, earplugs

F – Forests, flies, figs, fountains

magical forest path

F is for beautiful Forests

G – Geographer (my solo walking music), ‘Gumicukorka’ (gummies in Hungarian), Galicia

HHospiteleros (the people who run the albergues), hysteria, hedgehog!, highway robbery (what happened at most cafés on the camino)

H is for HEDGEHOG!!!

H is for HEDGEHOG!!! Cannot express how excited I was to see one for the first time IN THE WILD

I – Irún (starting point!), inspiring

J – Journaling (every day)

K – Kitchen (Is there one?!)

L – Laughing, laundry, loneliness, language, leszarom (‘I don’t give a shit’ in Hungarian and a necessary mindset to adopt)

M – Mountains, monasteries, magical, medieval

 

Top of the highest Mountain we climbed

Top of the highest Mountain we climbed  – above the clouds

N – Nettles

O – Odorous (see: cows)

Ppueblos (villages), (don’t) pussyfoot around, playas (beaches in Spanish), peregrinos (pilgrims in Spanish), peanuts, primitivo

The magical beach

The most beautiful Playa there ever was

Q – Quechua (the brand of everyone’s hiking gear)

R – Rustling (my biggest camino pet peeve, the rustlers that started sometimes before 5 am), Rat race (for beds)

S – Snorers, sunburn, supermercado, sidra (cider), SOUSes (Slugs Of Unusual Size), scallop shells

Sidra in Oviedo - traditional to Asturias, a little bit is poured at a time and you have to immediately drink it before the bubbles dissapate

Sidra in Oviedo – traditional to Asturias, a little bit is poured at a time and you have to immediately drink it before the bubbles dissipate

T – ‘Twiggling’ (used in a sentence: “Lord of the Rings is boring…all the Ents are just twiggling around.” Clearly I did not utter this sentence.)

U – Ura (water in Basque)

Ura stand outside of Donostia

Ura stand outside of Donostia

V – Vaseline (for feet), Vegetarian (since Zarautz)

W – Wine, washer (is there one?!), whatever

W is for Wine

W is for Wine

X – ?!?!?!? I’m stumped on this one. I admit defeat. Help?

YYo (Ok in Hungarian), Yellow (arrows and shells)

Z – Zenarruza (monastery)

 

Getting led by a monk at the Zenarruza Monastery

Getting led by a monk at the Zenarruza Monastery

Would you do the Camino one day? And camino walkers -any other words to add? 

 

 

Aaand…I’m gonna walk 500 miles (on the Camino de Santiago)

And I’m leaving tomorrow.

Yeah, I keep getting thoughts that I’ve lost my mind.

But doing the Camino de Santiago (The Way to St. James) is something I vowed to do before I left Spain, and the time has finally come to do it!

What is it?

Originally, and still, the Camino de Santiago was/is a Christian pilgrimage. Legend has it that St. James’s remains were taken from Jerusalem to Santiago de Compostela in a boat, where they were then buried. The earliest pilgrimages to the shrine dates to the 9th century, and it had become very popular by the 12th century. In 1993, because of its historical and cultural importance, the Camino was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Today, although many people still do it for religious reasons, many do it for other reasons, such as the personal reflection that comes with walking alone for hours, the landscape, the physical challenge, the disconnection from the world, the camaraderie formed along the way –  all the reasons for which I’m doing it.

Me and a statue of a camino walker in Burgos, a city on the camino francés

Me and a statue of a camino walker in Burgos, a city on the camino francés

I first learned about it in Spanish class in university, and it sounded intriguing, but daunting, not something I saw myself doing. But the more I read about it, the more documentaries I watched, but most importantly, once I came to Spain, the more people I talked to sharpened my interest and held it. My first trip in Spain after arriving here in September was to Logroño, one of the cities on the camino francés, and that trip solidified my desire to do it before leaving Spain.

Everyone has said it was without a doubt one of the best things they had ever done and that it was a life changing experience. The great thing that everyone always talks about is how personalized it is, how it’s a great time to reflect on the solitary road, but at the same time meet lifelong friends. You can start anywhere from the French border and walk 800 km (or further – some cross the Pyrenees!) to 100 kilometres away from Santiago de Compostela (the ending point) in order to get a Compostela, saying that you officially completed the route.

Now, although I say solitary, it’s not a teeny trail where you never see a single soul or pass through civilization. There are a main cities as well as smaller towns along the route and there are other pilgrims along the road to bond with over blisters.

How do you do it? 

The nice thing about the camino is that you don’t have to prepare much, since you don’t have to book accommodation in advance, and you’re not supposed to pack a lot!

Camino 101:
1) Pack as little as possible
2) Get a ‘pilgrim’s passport’ which allows you to stay in special pilgrims’ hostels (called albergues)
3) Get to your starting point the night before you want to start walking
4) START WALKING (there’s a marked trail/road)
5) Keep walking
6) Make friends!
7) Walk some more
8) Arrive at Santiago de Compostela!
9) Attend the mass where they read out your name and nationality

In Jaca, Aragón: A shell marking the camino.

In Jaca, Aragón: A shell marking the camino.

Where is it? 

So this is approximately the walk that I’m going to do, along the Northern coast of Spain, starting in Irun which is a town in Spain, but right on the French border. This route passes through four regions in Spain (Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia). It should take me about 5 weeks. The traditional route, called the Camino Francés (French Way), also starts in France, but a little more to the south (passing through the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, Leon).
I wanted to do the northern route for a few reasons:
1) More varied/prettier (in my opinion) landscape – ocean, forests, green!
2) Fewer people – during the summer months apparently the traditional one gets super crowded
3) LESS HOT – this is a big one
4) I have only been to the northern coast once (to Bilbao) and loved it so I want to see more! It’s so different from what people think of as ‘traditional Spain’ with olive trees, flamenco dancing and arid landscapes. Each northern region is so different…in Basque Country they speak a completely different language, in Asturias they drink cider poured from above the head, and in Galicia they play bagpipes, in line with the strong celtic tradition there. I don’t know much about Cantabria, but I guess I’ll learn!

camino del norte

 

What are you bringing? 

Here’s what I’m taking for 5 weeks:
Towel
Backpack rain cover
Sleeping Bag
Lightweight zip off hiking pants
rain jacket
long-sleeved shirt
2 t-shirts
2 pairs socks/underwear
Cotton skirt/tank top for nights
Shorts
Camera (pretty much everyone has advised me against taking it since it’s heavy but I’m stubborn)
Cell phone
Chargers
Kindle
Notebook + Pen
Toiletries
Ear plugs
Flip Flops
Scallop Shell – symbol of pilgrims on the camino

The scallop shell was originally taken back by the first pilgrims as a souvenir from Santiago, but since then it has acquired more meaning and purpose than a simple souvenir. The grooves can be seen to represent the different paths of the pilgrims who then all end up in once place. Wearing a shell shows that you’re a pilgrim, and larger ones used to (and still can) have practical purposes: as a bowl for water or food. The shell symbol is also used to mark the route.

Burgos. Camino sign 3 windmills

If you want to read more about the Northern Camino, check out the guide that I’ll be taking. Also you can watch the film The Way starring Martin Sheen and his son, about walking the Camino.

 Buen Camino! 

Reverse Culture Shock: Visiting the US after Nine Months Away

Besides seeing all my friends and family for the first time in two-thirds of a year, I was looking forward to seeing the differences that I noticed in my home country. Everyone talks about ‘reverse culture shock’, saying that sometimes it can be even more jarring because home no longer feels like home and things that you once found familiar may now seem strange. I don’t know if it was more jarring, but it was definitely strange to be back, and not just because Enrique Iglesias was now on the radio singing in English (also, um, no, it just sounds weird).

I’m not trying to say that things in Spain are better or worse than in the United States, these are just differences that I’ve noticed. Since I have a tendency to rant once I get started, I want to say that I don’t want anyone to take offense and welcome your responses and thoughts! There are tons of things that bug me about the way things are done in Spain (absence of air conditioning in schools, any sense of tact, and barbeque sauce, to name a few). Sometimes I’m painfully aware that I’m not Spanish so I’ll never truly fit in here. I can’t emphasis how nice it was to be back in the place I’ve lived my whole life, with people who have known me for years (my flight back to Madrid was my first flight to Europe that I wasn’t excited to get on). Still, there are a few differences I noticed (in no particular order):

1. Eating Out

This is a big one, and something that I did notice when I first came to Spain. Here, waiters come to take your order and bring you your food. That’s it. If you want something else, you have to flag them down, including for the bill. You can hang out in a restaurant or bar for hours and it’s quite normal – no one will rush you by giving you the bill before you’re ready. And for Spaniards, that can literally be for hours. Dining out, or just eating in general, is a ritual that cannot be rushed, even when the meal itself is finished. Then there is coffee, and more talking. They even have a phrase for this – hacer sobremesa – basically hanging out at the table chatting after the meal is finished. There’s generally no room for this in restaurants in the United States, because as soon as they take your plates away they bring you the bill, and you’re expected to pay it, pronto, and then scram so they can take the next table (and make more tips).

Since waiters in Spain are paid a normal salary, they don’t need tips, and usually people only leave small change. Isn’t this better for everyone? Then if there aren’t many people in for lunch one day, the waiter/waitress still gets their salary, and not just the sad four dollars an hour that they’re allowed to be paid. Tipping seemed especially ridiculous to me in bars – do I really have to tip the bartender a dollar on my already six-dollar beer just to open the bottle or pour it from the tap? Seriously?

One of my more memorable meals here...in the Alpujarras mountainrange.

One of my more memorable meals here, in the Alpujarras mountain range near the city of Granada.

Different people have different opinions on restaurant service, but personally I prefer the Spanish way, although I have had some experiences where I do get frustrated if I want to leave and there’s no waiter in sight (hint: they’re probably outside smoking). Others argue that they miss waiters asking how the food is, or being friendlier (it’s not that Spanish waiters are unfriendly, they just don’t care about anything else besides your order).

And while we’re on the topic of eating out, let me just add that I found menus kind of hilarious. In Spain, the menus will just say what it is, e.g.: ‘Ham with potatoes and spinach.’ This will apparently not fly in the US, because instead of that basic but informative phrase, an American menu will say “Tender leg of pork drizzled in a butter garlic sauce nestled on a bed of wilted lettuce and potato wedges.”

2. White Eggs

Okay, this may seem like a mundane thing, but I had a shock the first day when I opened the refrigerator and saw a pile of white eggs sitting innocently next to the yogurts. They looked so strange with their red stamped dates, so stark and bright! That’s when I realized that I had only seen brown eggs since October. I wondered if eggs were bleached in the United States, and did a little research. Turns out it’s just a different breed of hen that lays white eggs than brown eggs. White hens lay white eggs, brown hens lay brown eggs – how complex! And apparently they’re nutritionally the same, just a different preference.

Distribution of white vs. brown eggs across the world. Click for more egg info!

Distribution of white vs. brown eggs across the world. Click for more egg info!

But as long as we’re on the topic of eggs – something that surprised me when I first came to Spain and spent a good fifteen minutes roaming the local supermarket looking for eggs and finally found them…on an end shelf next to some tomato sauce! Unrefrigerated! Barbarians! Didn’t they know eggs had to be in the refrigerator?!

Later when I had recovered from the trauma of my first shopping trip, I learned that it’s because in Europe, eggs aren’t washed before being packaged and sold, meaning that their natural protective covering is still intact, and they don’t need to be refrigerated. On the other hand, in the United States, we wash the shit out of our eggs (literally – you can get eggs here with bits of chicken poo and straw on them), and therefore have to refrigerate them. Also salmonella isn’t a thing in Europe because their hens are vaccinated. So you can eat all the chocolate cookie dough if you want…that is if you can find brown sugar and chocolate chips…

So, since we’re continuing on the topic of food, let’s talk about probably my biggest culture shock moment.

3. Supermarkets

My eyes were round as saucers as I followed my mom into the Stop and Shop to buy provisions for my sister’s graduation party (the reason I was back in the US for such a short time).

I was so overwhelmed by all the choices that I was like a bobble head, swinging my head in every direction and staring at the entire aisle of chips or types of ice cream. What got me the most was the entire freezer section for Cool Whip in gigantic containers. Really?! Is that really necessary?

Who knew these innocent looking containers were just the beginning of a disorienting trip to the supermarket? Not my photo, click for a great and hilarious photo documentation and article on  American supermarkets.

Who knew these innocent looking containers were just the beginning of a disorienting trip to the supermarket? Not my photo, click for a great and hilarious photo documentation and article on American supermarkets.

In the words of my mother (one of few but poignant words) as I stood wide-eyed with an overflowing armful of bags of different flavors of Chex Mix, “You are acting quite strange.” To which I responded that I was experiencing sensory overload and needed to leave.

One thing I did not miss though was the hanging pork leg (jamón) section, or it’s offending odor that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

4.Big Box Stores

Driving around American suburbs for the first time in nine months the first thing I noticed was the amount of stores, and huge ones at that, coupled with gigantic asphalt yards in front of them (aka parking lots). Walmart, Target, Toys R Us, Best Buy, etc, etc, etc. I’m not saying that they don’t have shopping malls in Spain or in Europe in general. There is a mall called Xanadú in the south of Madrid where you can learn to ski.

Yep. This is inside.

Yep. This is inside.

One of the biggest and fanciest malls I’ve been in was in Kraków, Poland.

Galeria Krakowska all dressed up for Christmas.

Galeria Krakowska all dressed up for Christmas.

But these are concentrated places, shopping centers where everything is located in one giant building, instead of endless miles of huge, standalone stores and their massive parking lots taking up space. And then once you’ve driven five minutes from one Target, you pass by another one!

5. Lawns

I guess this is also related to sprawling and taking up space, something that people can’t afford to do in Europe because countries are so much more squished together. But thing that struck me was the size of people’s yards and lawns and how spread apart the houses are in the United States. The fact that people take care of their lawns and spend time and money watering, cutting, and grooming them seemed so weird! Why? It seemed to me like such a waste of resources for something that many people don’t even do anything with, just to have as a status symbol or something. Here in Spain things are more concentrated – even in towns people will have only small yards, with attached row houses. Then there are large open spaces in between towns with farms.

Weirdness.

Weirdness.

I know there are many advantages to lawns: it’s a place for kids and pets to play year round and to hang out and barbeque in during the summer. But somehow, the rest of the world seems to be doing just fine with public parks…

6. Shaking Hands vs. Dos Besos

While I was home I didn’t meet many new people since I didn’t even have time to see everyone that I already knew, but the few people I did meet, I had to hold myself back from doing the dos besos or two kisses, one on each cheek, and instead revert to the shaking of hands. I have to say that shaking hands felt super weird and cold now that I hadn’t done it in so long. I already had reflected on this when I first came to Spain, but now I’m sure that I prefer the Spanish method, since its always the same, dependable and expected. Whether you’re meeting a best friend, stranger, or casual acquaintance = dos besos. You don’t need to think about it! For a socially awkward penguin like myself, it’s nice to have one point of awkwardness removed from the equation. For example, you’re leaving a person you just met..what do you do, shake hands again? Give a little wave like you have t-rex arms? Simply walk away? Am I the only person that has these problems?

I didn't even make this meme so I must not be the only one.

I didn’t even make this meme so I must not be the only one.

Now as I look back at this list, I realize that the majority of it has to do with food…hm…is it because the biggest cultural differences are always seen in food or is this what I pay attention to? Any other expats want to weigh in? From Spain or otherwise? Americans offended by my rants? Give me all the opinions! Don’t worry, I’ll soon get around to a good ranty post about all the things that bug me about Spain, it’s not perfect either.

Pointy hats, robes, and oversized candles – it’s not Hogwarts, it’s Semana Santa in Spain

It was a Wednesday afternoon in Córdoba, Andalucía as I pushed my way through crowded streets, the hot sun beating down, and everyone in sight drinking already warm cans of Cruzcampo, spitting sunflower seeds into the growing scattered piles on the cobblestone streets. There is a lazy feeling of anticipation in the air, everyone waiting for the main event to start, though they don’t seem too preoccupied with when it will. In fact, people are milling about in the streets, and only when the first hooded figure passes the arched and intricately carved portal from the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba do the parade watchers scatter to the sides and dim their animated conversations.

 

This was a street.

This was a street.

Still, you might think you are in the midst of a carnival, with the merry that people are making in the late Andalucían sun. Surprisingly though the event is supposedly quite a serious religious ritual that culminates in intensity in this region. Before traveling to the south for Semana Santa (Holy Week), I was warned by many teachers in my school that it was going to be a serious affair with people crying in the streets, breaking out into song: a cultural tradition not to miss. Naturally the anthropologist in me had to see this in person to analyze the ritual significance of everything and soak up an old tradition unlike anything that we have in the United States.

I ended up being surprised, but not in the way I expected. While I did experience more solemn parts of the tradition (such as people crossing themselves and touching the floats as they went by), for the most part, everything I saw in Semana Santa in Andalucía just seemed like a typical example of an old tradition morphed into an excuse to take off from work and drink and spend time with family and friends. Not that there is anything wrong with that – but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, especially in the city of Sevilla, unofficially declared the heartland of Semana Santa in Spain. I did get my fill of the ritual of the processions though, and enjoyed deducing the meaning behind each person’s role.

Taking things super seriously.

Taking things super seriously.

A procession is the walk that a religious brotherhoods (hermanedades) makes from their churches or chapels to the main cathedral in the city. They come from the surrounding areas, and sometimes may take up to fourteen hours to reach the destination! The procession has various parts, which remains the same no matter which congregation is marching. First comes the Guiding Cross (Cruz de Guía):

Following the cross bearers are a large amount of people dressed in a long robe and pointy hood (capirote). Some of them are barefoot, but all of them carry tall candles that are lit at night to guide their way. These people are called nazarenos.

Cordoba

 

Before the procession began, we were waiting by the side of the street people watching and noticed a number of children carrying what looked to be giant balls of spit out gum on a stick. Ew! We soon learned however, that these balls were their way of participating in the procession: when the nazarenos stopped (which was frequent – another thing that puzzled us at first), the children ran up to them and held out the ball-on-a-stick. Turns out it was candle wax! So the kids got to entertain themselves while keeping the hot wax from spilling over onto the hands of the nazarenos (at least I’m imagining it to be a symbiotic relationship, maybe it was just for the kids to give them something to do) .

 

cordoba. kid with candle wax

Cordoba. kids with wax close up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this group comes altar boys and acolytes and finally, the main event, the float made of wood or paso, accompanied by a marching (maybe too active a word, more like shuffling) band playing somber tunes. Most processions I saw had the marching band in the back.

Cordoba. trumpets

The first paso is Jesus, either on the cross or carrying the cross, sometimes with other figures to create a scene – on one, there was even a mini tree!

Cordoba. Float with tree cordoba. jesus on cross 2

 

During the day the float was impressive, and definitely quieted the crowd (the band helped with this too), but during the night, it was imposing and dramatic, lit up with candles, gliding through the night accompanied by musical undertakers.

Sevilla. Christ on cross

 

After the float bearing Jesus and its band came more nazarenos and then another, perhaps even more remarkable float: that of the Virgin Mary. The first time I saw this float I had walked down to the hostel lobby to get some dinner recommendations and I gasped out loud as I saw the hundreds of lit candles stopped just outside the hostel door. Seeing it up front rather than coming down the road and passing by was perhaps the most jarring way to meet this firey paso.  All the candles are white, as are the hundreds of fresh flowers that surround her, as the somber figure rises out of this cloud of white, tragic face and long robe that trails down after her onto the ground. Her dignity and sadness can be felt by even someone who is not religious in the least.

 

Sevilla. Mary with candles Cordoba. Mary

 

Now these tremendous floats do not actually float on their own through the city streets, no matter how much trouble the parade organizers go through to make this appear to be the case. I have to admit that it took me embarrassingly long to figure out how they were actually moving, I guess I just assumed that they moved the same way floats in the United States do – with cars and wheels.

 

NOT IN SPAIN.

 

We had been seeing hoards of burly looking men with burlap sacks looking things on their heads and necks wandering the streets, and at times pushing through the parade crowds, seemingly having somewhere to go, unlike the rest of the watchers. Continued confusion at seeing them in bars and walking around at night until we actually had 2+2 put together literally in front of us as the float was set down, the velvet skirt lifted up, and 90 degree sauna heat rose up from under it as forty men were given drinks of water and some were switched out. That’s when it clicked: they were the float bearers, and not for some little dinky float, but as we discovered later, something that can weigh up to a metric ton.

Costaleros in Sevilla

Costaleros in Sevilla

Just…baffled. Now the sight of them with beers in hand made sense, and I really hope that these dudes drank for free for the entire week, because they deserve it. Maybe even the week before too to get prepared and the week after as a reward. Because there is no way I can imagine resting that heavy wooden float with candles, flowers, figures, and every other imaginable religious regalia on my SHOULDERS without needing quite a stiff drink. Now I understood why there was so many men in the marching band – still participate in the procession, don’t break your back. In fact, in class upon returning, my students told me that this year quite a few Virgins fell as the men either tripped and fell or the coordination was off. Still, one of my students still said he still wanted to do it, and he’s not even religious! Which I guess shows how important the feeling of community spirit is in the processions, rather than the religious factor at this point when the Catholicism of Spain is declining in the younger generations. We were wondering what kind of incentive was given to the procession participants, as a lot of the robed figures seemed to be teenagers, and the acolytes were young children, some of them seeming to be no more than five years old.

Both in and outside the procession, devout women dress all in black with a lace mantle (la mantilla) and a comb to keep it up. To me it seemed that most of the women wearing this were married, hanging on the arm of their well dressed husband, but whether this was a factor due to age or custom, I’m not sure (anyone have any answers?).  But even the women who weren’t wearing the traditional black were formally dressed, throughout the city, Thursday and Friday, and probably into the weekend as well (we left Friday night).

cordoba.mantillas

 

But they weren’t the only ones: men wore suits and young children were dressed like mini adults, with tights, bows, suits, and impeccably done hair (often in matching outfits even if they weren’t twins). After talking to a Spanish teacher who I work with, she explained that people in Sevilla are quite well dressed as a rule, dressing up to go to bullfights, wearing fur coats in the winter even though it doesn’t get cold enough to warrant it, and parading through town on Sunday afternoons so they can judge and be judged. Perhaps this was one of the reasons I didn’t feel like I could connect with Sevilla – formal dress is in no way my thing, and all the fuss seemed way too old fashioned to me. But she’s just one person – if anyone have any opinions on the dressing habits of sevillianos I’d be happy to hear!

Sevilla. Looking at candle

 

Ever experience a cultural or religious festival utterly different from anything you’d seen before?  Any people from/living in Sevilla want to weigh in on my impressions?