A few weeks before leaving for my vacation, my friend Alys, who’d just completed her Peace Corps service, began a long and winding journey through Europe on her way home. Her first stop was Barcelona, from which she reported,
Hello Barcelona. You're beautiful, but please don't make me fall in love with you. I just got out of a long term relationship with another continent and I'm still getting over it. But damn, you're temptingly sexy...”
I chuckled when I read this and then spent the next couple of weeks daydreaming about what lay ahead for me. I mean, let’s admit it; sexy has not been in my vocabulary for a very long time. When I arrived, I was just as smitten as she was. This city’s got it going on! It’s beautiful, clean, artsy, proud, colorful, exuberant, historic, organized, kind, picturesque, smart, tasty, charming….and yes, even sexy. The only discomfort for me was that the Spaniards in this part of the country are so proud of their culture and heritage that they speak their indigenous regional language, Catalan. Having just left a country where I struggle to communicate, I was a little worried that this might send me over the edge. But no, the Catalonians have mastered many languages, including Spanish, English and, for some, even French. Believe it or not, I even ran into a few Wolof speakers on the streets. For the first 24 hours, I was completely tongue-tied and my brain didn’t know what sounds to produce. People would speak to me in English and I’d try to answer them in some combination of French and Spanish. Luckily, by the second day and after a good night's sleep, this problem subsided. I'd planned a few days in Spain before my parents arrived, so I could adjust to the modern world again. My first impressions were that everything was so pristine and that everything worked. For some reason, I’d only left Senegal with the name of my hotel and no address and knowing that I’d booked a room in a tiny privately owned establishment, I was concerned that a taxi may not be able to find it. So, I paid for the airport WiFi to search for the address and then asked a guy at the information desk at the airport if I should call them to get directions. He said “most taxi drivers have GPS devices—no worries.” I just stood there a minute laughing out loud at the wonder and absurdity of it all. When you get in a taxi in Dakar and ask the driver to take you somewhere, the driver will first argue with you about the fee and then finally agree to take you there for some negotiated price. Halfway to your destination he’ll turn around and ask you how to get there and then, inevitably, start yelling at you for not knowing the way. More than likely, he’ll try to charge you more when he stops to ask directions. Sometimes, this whole process gets so infuriating that you just get out of the taxi have to start all over again. So, the news of GPS devices, taxi meters, and “no worries” was like music to my ears. I grinned the whole way to my hotel. The other thing that immediately hit me was how clean the streets were. I mean, you could eat off them they were so clean—I’m not just talking generic American-clean, I’m talking Wisteria Lane clean. They had recycling bins to sort glass, paper, plastic, and even compost on every corner from inside the airport to the smallest little neighborhood street. Needless to say, I was very impressed. The tapas were the next thing to catch my eye—so artfully crafted were these little flavorful tidbits. The first evening, I sat alone and ordered a slew of them, one at a time, while enjoying some lovely Spanish wine. I could have sat there all night. It was just divine.
The next morning, I caught a train to the medieval village of Montblanc, which is situated about 2 hours southwest of Barcelona in the Tarragona region. The patron saint of this village is St. George because, it is here, they claim ,that he slayed the evil dragon and saved a virgin princess. That's quite a claim to fame! Montblanc is also the home of my friends Annaïs and Eric, a Catalonian couple who had stayed with me in Diourbel when they were traveling through Senegal back in January. They run an organic farm called. Xicòria, which means 'chicory' in Catalan, a plant with many culinary and medicinal properties. Together with another couple, Sylvia and Maximo, they manage a cooperative association, employing a group of local association members and WWOOFing volunteersto help them coordinate educational programs, distribute baskets of produce to shareholders, and manage catering jobs using their homegrown products. The group was about 10 people when I arrived and they welcomed me into their communal family without the blink of an eye, sharing both their work and their meals with me. The two nights I was in there, the neighboring village was hosting a street festival, so after we finished work, we piled into a couple of vans and headed over the hills for artisanal beer, music, street food, and festivities. This was how a typical day at Xicòria unfolded:
|Shareholder baskets ready for pickup|
- 7am – Head out the door to begin work on the farm (e.g. picking tomatoes or onions)
- 10am – Communal breakfast set up on tables at the farm: coffee/tea, fresh baked bread, homemade jams, cheese, Iberian ham, tomatoes, and fruit
- 11am – 1pm – More farm work (e.g. cleaning and bundling onions or assembling shareholder baskets)
- 1pm – Communal lunch back at the apartment consisting of something yummy like fresh gazpacho, a hearty vegetarian dish, a fresh salad, and grilled veggies drizzled with delicious local olive oil.
- 2pm – 5pm – Siesta (they really take this seriously in Spain—things shut down completely)
- 5pm – 8pm – More farm work (e.g. handpicking beetles off cabbage plants)
- 8pm – 11pm – Village festival in Valls
Cruising the Mediterranean
|Mom & Dad on the docks in Monaco|
Our 9-day itinerary took us around the western Mediterranean Sea. We stopped in (or at least near enough to visit): Monte Carlo, Florence, Naples, Messina (Sicily), and Marseilles. We also docked a couple hours outside of Rome one day but decided to explore the port city for a couple of hours and then spent the rest of the afternoon having quiet time on the ship. Our stop in Palma de Mallorca was cancelled due to a port-worker strike so we ended up with an extra day in Barcelona, which was just fine with us. Mom, Dad, and I seemed to be in the same mindset about wanting to relax and not run around like crazy people trying to see everything there was to see in a city in just one day.
One of the highlights of the cruise for all of us, but especially me, was the overabundance of food available at all hours of the day and night. I’d made an early decision to mentally separate myself from the developing world so as not to be riddled with guilt the whole trip. Instead, I was appreciative of the many choices presented to me each day. At the morning buffet I could have made-to-order omelets, an assortment of cheeses and cold cuts, freshly made cottage cheese, fruits, and yogurt, bacon and sausage, home-fries, etc. Lunches were often eaten on shore or were another version of ship’s buffet with a Mongolian Wok, salad bar, deli sandwiches, various hot entrees, and frozen yogurt (which, of course I had daily!) What I had previously mocked as “trough food” back in the States, was now a sight for sore eyes. Dinners were a bit more structured and were served in a dining room with a full menu of daily specials. At times, my mother convinced me to join her in ordering multiple appetizers (because we could) and we had dessert after every meal. I likely ingested more food in any given day than I do in an entire week back in Senegal, but at least I was eating well-balanced meals and got my fill of protein and vegetables.
Several days into the cruise, my body started feeling rejuvenated again. I was getting plenty of sleep (in a comfortable bed in an air conditioned room), my diet, although excessive, was healthful, and we were walking a lot at each port of call. I decided to take my now-kind-of-squishy-body that hadn’t seen any real physical exercise in over a year up to the gym and started working out again. I can’t tell you how good it felt to get on a Stair Master and make myself sweat. In Senegal, I sweat all the time because it’s either 110 degrees or if it’s a tad cooler, like it is now, the humidity is through the roof. Sweating because you live under the African sun and sweating because you’re pumping blood through your veins and making your muscles ache are too entirely different things. I was so grateful for just a few days the latter. It gave me hope that someday, my body will get back in shape and I’ll feel good about myself again. I also treated myself to a haircut in Sicily and had my first “good hair day” in over a year.
Back to Barcelona
|At the Olympic Museum in Barcelona|
Home in Senegal
Here are two photo albums from our trip: