Tags Posts tagged with "Europe"

Europe

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Olga Berrios/Flickr

Suddenly, sadly, my time in Berlin has come to a close. My relationship of five years has ended, and, most disappointingly, not without the misunderstanding and pain that I’d hoped to avoid. Truthfully, no one is to blame; it was the little earthquakes that brought down the building in the end. I have absolutely no regrets about those five years. I learned how love looks and feels (…like compromise, really). I learned how to listen and observe and accept and understand. I learned how to love myself. And I learned to recognize my own demons, which is the first step in vanquishing them. Words are a weak substitute for the love and gratitude I have for my former partner, an incredible, incredible human being. For now, there is no more to say.

But I can’t talk about leaving Berlin without mentioning a serious and growing problem that I’ve not discussed much here on the blog: racism and xenophobia. Aside from being arguably the most interesting city in Europe at the moment, Berlin is held as a paragon of multiculturalism and acceptance, especially in the mainstream media. As a person of color, I feel that this is simply not true. I’ve been subjected to taunts and stare-downs by six drunken 20-something Germans in Hitler Youth haircuts on the u-bahn. I’ve been approached aggressively and passive-aggressively pushed by young Turkish-Germans on u-bahn platforms. I’ve heard educated women at cocktail parties complain about all the foreigners coming into Berlin and not speaking German (which is rich, considering all major cities have foreigners these days and Berliners tend to not let you get two German words out before switching to English on you). I’ve had friends of color—black American and Afro-German alike—complain of micro- and macro-aggressions as well. In the end, I felt that no matter how good my German, or how many years I lived in the place, I’d never be accepted as part of it. Berlin would never be my home. Honestly, I didn’t feel safe.

Conversely, I have to recognize that many, many, many Berliners (especially young ones) will indeed intervene if they see some kind of xenophobic or racist attack. I don’t mean to make this about the people of Berlin in general, as the city has its share of caring, compassionate people, despite its (well-deserved) reputation for rudeness and snark. I always felt welcome among my former partner’s cadre of friends. But it really only takes one asshole to do some damage, especially at 3am, when there’s no one else on the train.

I had hoped it would all work out. But the universe has spoken quite clearly that this episode is “done and dusted.” There is sadness and disappointment, but also undying affection and thankfulness.

Berlin, meine Berliner, you are missed.

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In April, I had the pleasure of taking my parents to Dublin for the first time. They’re not exactly the youngest kiddies on the block anymore, and my father is the type who’ll say “no” to an untried food, only to snag a bit of it from your plate when you order it. But despite the inevitable misunderstandings and temper flare-ups that happen when parents and their adult children travel together, the laughs and sense of mutual discovery outweigh any half-hour periods of silence or heavy sighs of exasperation. So the elder Whites and their eldest son will be hitting the Continent once again for ten days this June, swinging through a trifecta of capital cities – including one I’ve never been to before – that novices to Europe often erroneously overlook: Berlin, Stockholm, and Helsinki.

NorthernEurope

We’ll start our journey with a brief stopover in Frankfurt, where we’ll be celebrating my Fly Mother’s 76th birthday with some cake at Bitter & Zart, recommended by friend and foodie par excellence, Karin of Yum and More. Then, my parents will get their first experience on a high-speed train as we race toward Berlin on the ICE (ICE, baby), arriving in the German capital late that evening.

Berlin at sunset. Photo courtesy das_sabrinchen via Flickr.
Berlin at sunset. Photo courtesy das_sabrinchen via Flickr.

As I don’t want to bore them or wear them out, we’ll take in maybe three points of interest each day we’re there; on the must-do list: the stately Brandenburg Gate, the immense Pergamon Museum, Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, East German culture at the DDR Museum, and sunset at the Bundestag dome – probably the most striking parliamentary structure built since the Congresso Nacional in Brasília. On the must-eat menu: plenty of wurst, döner, and pho.

Stockholm's historic Gamla Stan. Photo courtesy of Pedro Szekely via Flickr.
Stockholm’s historic Gamla Stan. Photo courtesy of Pedro Szekely via Flickr.

Next, we head north to my favoritest city in Europe – Stockholm! I curse you, capital of Sweden, for being cold and dark for six months of the year; that is your only flaw (well, along with being crazy expensive). The city is gorgeous, hip, and full of worldly, attractive people who are fun and welcoming, and I’m excited about having my parents experience the things I love about the ‘holm.

We’ll be staying right in the middle of the historic center – Gamla Stan – in an old postwar-era ferry anchored in the harbor. As lots of Stockholm’s charms lie in the architecture and atmosphere of the place, we may just do the hop-on/hop-off bus and water taxis to get the lay of the land, stopping for Swedish meatballs (called “meatballs” in Sweden) and shots of Gevalia espresso. Then, we’ll bone up on our Viking lore at the Historiska museum, maybe head out to see the royal residence at Drottningholm Palace, or soak up the general pre-Midsummer energy in one of the city’s cool, green parks. At night, since we’ll all still be jet-lagged anyway, jazz and blues at Stampen might be the perfect way to tire ourselves out and celebrate Father’s Day, especially if my girl Germaine Thomas is at the mic.

Helsinki Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kolosov via Flickr.
Helsinki Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kolosov via Flickr.

Finally, we’re all going to HEL. :-) Helsinki’s not as large as Berlin or Stockholm, so we’ll only be spending two days there. Aside from visiting the big white church that dominates the skyline, we don’t have much on the itinerary yet. Still, this will be my first trip to Finland and I’m excited about being in the home country of one of my favorite architects (Eero Saarinen, who designed Dulles Airport, JFK’s iconic TWA Terminal, and the Gateway Arch), and one of my parents’ favorite composers (Jean Sibelius, whose magnum opus appeared in Die Hard 2…I will always remember watching it on HBO with my folks and my mom turning to my dad and asking, in her Southern accent, “Isn’t that Finlandia?” “Mmhm,” he replied. Classically trained, thank you very much).

So stay tuned for trip developments and (hopefully) some video. I’m trying to bring things into the 21st century, y’all. Lord, I hope they don’t put us out of Europe.

Outside the Colosseum
                                      Yeh, Bad Angle

There’s not very much one can do on a weekend in Rome if one doesn’t have one’s itinerary planned before one steps off the plane. I was one who hadn’t planned my itinerary in advance, so I missed out on a few of the Eternal City’s eternal attractions: the Papal capital of Vatican City, the shabbily romantic warrens of Trastevere, the noble and numerous Spanish Steps (though I may have walked down them). What I did get to experience, however, was the delightfully unsettling buzz of being in a space so dominated – physically – by a history so pervasive in Western culture that I felt at once connected with a place I’d only seen in books and on film. But despite the easy connection, I had much left to discover in the Italian capital.

I discovered that speaking Spanish with an improvised “Italian” accent gets one through most interactions on the street, and people are generally friendly, except for most older men working in service positions, who are all kinds of surly. I discovered that one’s obvious reluctance to dart across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic pegs one squarely as a foreigner, if one’s looks and accent doesn’t give one away beforehand. I discovered that one can keep up with the renowned Roman sense of fashion with a dark gray blazer, jeans, button-down shirts, and black leather loafers – I got a few winks and smiles for the trouble. I discovered that the temperature need not be warm for Romans to gorge themselves (sexily) on gelato. I discovered the three-day Roma Pass, which was the absolute best 30 euros one could ever spend: free entry to two historical sites – including the gigantic Colosseum (Yowza! One really has no idea of its sheer size, name notwithstanding!), where one gets to skip all the other losers waiting in the hours-long line because they didn’t get the Roma Pass –, free and unlimited access to the public transportation system, and a rack of other deals and discounts one probably won’t end up using. I discovered that walking aimlessly through the streets of Rome, one feels suddenly urbane and energized, an exotic sophisticate surveying the latest great city to fall at one’s feet, until one’s feet begin to ache and one realizes that leather loafers were never meant for so much aimless walking.

Alas, my Roman holiday proved too short, though I managed to squeeze in a couple of brief, bright meet-ups with street art maven Jessica Stewart of RomePhotoBlog (at her book signing, no less!) and fly sister-slash-interior designer Arlene Gibbs, formerly of travel blog NYC/Caribbean Ragazza. Still, the City of Seven Hills holds many secrets, and once Rome has whispered in one’s ear, one is obliged to return and discover the others as well.

Take a look at some of the admittedly boring pictures of Roman architecture and other random stuff that I like. If you don’t like, then go to Rome and take your own pictures of the stuff you like!!!!! 😉

Ancient Tile Mural
Rosetta Stone
Coffee and a MapRoman Ruins
Vintage Airline Decals
Really Inside the Colosseum
Shadow and LightTeatro Metropolitano
Vespas Vespas Everywhere

Roman Architecture through the Ages Red Lights
Inside the Colosseum

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Despite $5 bottles of water and grey, rainy weather for most of the weekend, Copenhagen proved a welcoming and interesting little city, with an outsized cultural scene and friendly people. I arrived into the Danish capital early on a Friday morning and zipped quickly through the stylish and efficient airport terminal only to have my spirits dampened by the uninspiring currency exchange rate and the uninspiring gloomy skies (underscored by an uninspiring high temperature in the low 40s). With the excitement of getting to know a new place somewhat tempered by my aversion to the cold and my fear overspending—hell, of spending any money, really—I caught the bus from the airport to my friend’s house, passing alongside the blue-gray expanse of the Oresund and coursing through quaint little Danish neighborhoods with quaint little Danish houses, all with quaint little Danish flags flying on flagpoles in each yard. Danish Flag My friend Naomi is in Denmark with her son working on a Master’s degree and she was one of the first friends I made in Brasília when I moved there a few years ago. I was hyped about seeing her and speaking Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen. And speak Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen we did, with people looking curiously, then smiling at the three of us as we took advantage of the one sunny day that weekend and toured the historic canals by boat, wafted through legal weed smoke in the independent little burg of Christiania, and took in a couple of the offerings at the documentary film festival happening that weekend (specifically, we saw Paul Simon: Under African Skies and Tropicália). There’s something to be said for the way people respond to families with children, as opposed to single (and large) men on the street.

While Naomi and filho were at school, I took to the city alone, marveling at the seemingly large number of brown and black people in town (including several city bus drivers) and hitting up a few quirky coffee shops and eateries in search of what the Danes call hygge, which is roughly translated in English as “coziness.” I had a trio of delicious “smushis” (traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches served in sushi-sized chunks) at The Royal Café, proceeded to choke on the prices for curios at the nearby Royal Copenhagen porcelain store, then warmed up with one of the richest cups of hot chocolate I’ve ever had in life at La Glace, an old school confectionary with enough enticing sweet stuff to warrant an extra hour on the treadmill.

At night, Naomi and I met up with a couple of her school mates at the National Gallery of Denmark and had engaging political debate (Obama vs. Romney, Greece vs. Germany, McDonald’s vs. Burger King) while the DJ spun Scandinavian downtempo and people just sat and watched the light display and drank beer. After chicken curry and shawarmas (at two different places), we ended up at a surprisingly amazing and intimate concert by Alcoholic Faith Mission (had never heard of them); we were being told the happening party we’d stumbled upon was “ladies only” and the concert’s sound guy randomly intervened and invited us upstairs, where the set was already half over. I didn’t get a chance to say it at the time, but cheers, Random Sound Guy!

The weekend ended all too quickly, but I never got around to seeing the Little Mermaid and accidentally left a sweater at Naomi’s house—all the more reason to head back. Copenhagen, you were indeed wonderful. I’ll see you again soon. Save a smushi for me! More photos! Copenhagen Waterfront

The Royal Cafe Smushis
The smushis were good, y’all! (Crabcake, steak, and haddock!)
Golden Eagle, Copenhagen
Get a load of that price tag! This golden eagle is on sale at your local Royal Copenhagen store.

Nordic Sun, Copenhagen Copenhagen Toilet Copenhagen Dusk

Meninos Loucos
“Aiight, no more sugar for you, Li’l Man!”

And special thanks, Henrik at Wonderful Copenhagen, for your humorous and insightful pointers on getting along in “The Kingdom!”

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As mentioned in a previous post extolling the virtues of having a hub in Europe, you can get everywhere for a decent price. My round-trip plane ticket from Berlin to Copenhagen two weeks out? 59 Euro (US$76)! Granted, the flight’s only an hour long, but it’s to a whole different country!

That said, I’m looking forward to celebrating the big 3-5 with one of my best friends from Brazil who’s studying (and freezing her tassels off) in the Danish capital. We’ll geek out at a few museums, take pics of The Little Mermaid, catch a couple of screenings at the documentary film festival, maybe hit the Meatpacking District (tee-hee!) for a li’l two-step or whatnot.

We won’t be going to see J.Lo in concert (sorry, Lo…we can stream reruns of In Living Color online for free!). But hopefully, I will get to meet Black Girl on Mars!

I head up to Denmark from November 2-5, so stay tuned for trip details. I’m excited to see what kind of welcome I get from the good people of “Wonderful Copenhagen.”

Image by Alatryste

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Need to get around Germany but don’t want to cough up a hundred Euros for a one-way plane or train ticket? Get Mitfahrgelegenheit! Meaning “carpool” in German, Mitfahrgelegenheit (roughly pronounced meet-far-guh-LEG-gun-hite) is popular and simple to use, thanks to the website (and Google Translate, considering I have no clue what I’m reading in German 90% of the time). It’s just a matter of searching for a ride between two places at a time that best suits you, comparing options based on the driver’s bio and rating as a reliable user (or not), then meeting at the designated point with cash in-hand and hitting the road. Yes, some measure of blind faith is required, and who knows how likely I’d be to use the system if I were a solo female traveler, but since you usually meet your driver and fellow passengers in a public place, you can address any immediate trepidation by just deciding not to get into the vehicle.

Last week, I mitfahred from Frankfurt to Berlin in a dusty, grey Mercedes minivan with driver and five college students (They looked college age, anyway. We barely spoke beyond initial pleasantries as we were all plugged up to our individual MP3 players). Dude hauled-ass down the autobahn, clocking in at five hours for a normally six-hour drive, with a ten-minute pee/cigarette break. We drove through leafy forests, underneath monstrous industrial windmills, and past Russian-built cargo planes at the Leipzig Airport. We plowed through fog banks and down steep hills and almost sideswiped an 18-wheeler. Halfway to Berlin, the driver stuck his hand back towards us and said in accented English, “Give me my money now, please.” I’m thinking, “Naw, potna. Not until I see a ‘Wilkommen in Berlin’ sign.”

Needless to say, we made it safely, and I’m open to giving Mitfahrgelegenheit another whirl. I just need to memorize the German phrase for “slow the hell down, mannn!” Or am I just getting old?

Berlin is known for being a hotbed of experimentation‬—in art, in music, even in hotel accommodations. In the edgy Neukölln district, intrepid travelers can capture the spirit of the open road at Hüttenpalast. Literally “hut palace,” this innovative little inn is housed inside an old vacuum cleaner factory, with throwback trailers (called caravans) and customized bungalows (called huts) arranged in a large, glass-enclosed “campground.” The small, but aerodynamic trailers harken back to family road trips in postwar Germany, while the bungalows—one shaped like a church altar, another like a house made of wooden blocks—evoke children’s toys. The vast common area features a library of hip coffee table books and art magazines, as well as the shared bathroom facilities (very common in European budget hotels). Traditional hotel rooms are also on offer for those wanting a more conventional experience or a little more wiggle room, but it’s sleeping in a retro-futuristic aluminum trailer that’s half the fun. After all, no one ever says “If the hotel room’s rockin’, don’t come knockin’.”

Inside the larger confines of the factory is a much-lauded garden, a summertime respite of flowers and trees where guests can eat, drink, and make merry. In colder seasons, the action moves inside, but the atmosphere is all about fostering social interaction among visiting guests and the surrounding neighborhood, which is why the hotel facilitates activities and requires Friday night guests to book Saturday night as well and make a weekend out of it. Breakfast is not included in the nightly rate for the hotel rooms, but the café serves up tasty, inexpensive fare. Also, like many places in Berlin, credit cards are not accepted, so be prepared to pay cash for all services.

For a uniquely Berlinesque hotel experience at a reasonable price, check in to the Hüttenpalast, and don’t forget to hang that “…don’t come ‘knockin’” sign up on the trailer door.

Hüttenpalast
Hobrechtstraße 66
12047 Berlin
tel. +49 (0)30-37 30 58 06
www.huettenpalast.de

Rates (July 2012):
caravans/huts – 45€ single/65€ double – croissant + coffee included
hotel rooms – from 65€ single/85€ double

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Between July and December 2012, I’ve got five specific destinations on my to-do list. Being on the list doesn’t mean that I’ll actually make it there by the end of the year, but I’m going to try my darnedest. All of these destinations are new for me and I’m definitely hyped about discovering each one for myself!

Bangkok, Thailand
The Bangkok ticket is already purchased and part of my upcoming Whirlwind Southeast Asia Grand Tour 2012. Though I’ve been to the region before, I’ve never been to Thailand and I’m looking forward to dipping my toes into the exhilarating chaos that is Bangkok. I love Thai food, so there’s a start right there!

Copenhagen, Denmark
The Danish capital has been calling me for a while, and since one of my very good friends from Brasília will be moving there for graduate school, I’ve got no reason to postpone a trip any longer. I have indeed spent a couple of hours changing planes at the cozy-yet-bustling airport and I’m eager to see how the city measures up to my favorite Scandinavian capital, Stockholm.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
I have only heard amazing things about Addis from my friends that have been there, and I’m definitely looking forward to snagging one of the under-500 euro airfares to Ethiopia during the second half of the year. As my Ghana trip recently fell through, this would then be my first sub-Saharan African destination. I’m stoked just thinking about the ridiculous music scene there.

Toronto, Canada
Oh, Canada. Despite knowing mad-cool peeps who hail from within your borders, I’ve never visited you. It is time. I’ll be swinging through “Tron-O” in a few weeks to meet up with a good buddy of mine from my Colombia days who’s since gone corporate and has a couple of rugrats. My girl Oneika the Traveller says the T is off the heezy…only time will tell.

Esmeraldas, Ecuador
As part of a lengthy writing excursion to Ecuador, I’ll be popping over to the Pacific Coast and the verdant region of Esmeraldas (literally, Emeralds). Not only does the place lay claim to black sand beaches and a breathtaking coastline, but Esmeraldas is also the center of the country’s Afro-Ecuadorian community. Yes, it’s where most of the brothers on the Ecuadorian soccer team come from.

Make sure you stay tuned to Fly-Brother.com and get lifted with me.

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Images by: mr. Wood, hoangnt, Irene2005, Hanover Phist, and crocodile gena.

This week, my travel plans unexpectedly took an exciting turn, manifesting itself as a flight connection in Amsterdam. With three days free before heading off to Ghana, I was suddenly faced with the intriguing prospect of spending two days in the Dutch capital. I immediately hopped on CouchSurfing to check for a host, hoping to have some local insight into a city I’d never been to before. I immediately became disheartened when seeing the discussion boards about Amsterdam being one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe with a mere 800,000 people, and every local member of CouchSurfing receiving “10-15 requests each day.” Yowza. The stats were not in my favor.

Why CouchSurfing, you may ask? Well, a last-minute hotel room isn’t always in the budget and I’m just not a hostel kinda guy. Besides, what better way to get to know a place and make friends than crashing with someone from the area, or at least someone who lives in the city? When I can’t find a host who’s a native of the particular country I’m going to, I end up looking for Brazilians living in the area because, nine times out of ten, they’re just affable enough to host a visiting foreigner. That said, I contacted a few Amsterdam-based CSers who said in their profiles that they were willing to accept last-minute requests. After three very polite declines (which is better than what many people get; the Amsterdam CS community acknowledging that with the volume of requests being so high, some people never even get a “sorry, can’t do it” message).

Needless to say, my two-day blitz of Amsterdam never materialized and instead, I went home to see the kinfolk in Florida. But I haven’t given up on the ‘dam just yet. It’ll happen.

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There was no rain in Spain on my recent trip, just dry, cool days with intermittent sunshine and lots of personal warmth. I hung out in Madrid a few weekends ago with a good buddy of mine from Bogotá, Roberto, who was in the Spanish capital studying and performing in a stage play. My only other time in Madrid had been en route to Cape Verde back in 2004—a short, 2-day stopover spent mostly scouring the city for Brazilian parties—so this time, it was all about seeing the sights.

Like most of Europe’s former imperial capitals, Madrid has the palaces, the museums, the landscaped gardens. Unlike other capitals (with the exception of Lisbon), Madrid has a flavor and atmosphere transmitted relatively intact to many of its former colonial holdings in Latin America, while itself being transformed and influenced by the millions of Latin American immigrants who have recolonized the metropolis—after living in or visiting Santo Domingo, Bogotá, Quito, Havana, Cartagena, San Juan, and Mexico City, just to name a scant few, I was on familiar territory amongst Madrid’s cobblestone alleyways, arched colonnades, and Arab-inspired interior courtyards.

After a short and restless hop from the States aboard a United Airlines flight actually operated by Aer Lingus (the national airline of Ireland, clover on the tail and all), I got to Spain* tired, but excited about the weekend in a fun city with fun people and having the opportunity to again speak Spanish in a Spanish-speaking society, something I haven’t done since leaving Colombia in 2009 (and Miami still doesn’t count as a Spanish-speaking society).

A 30-minute subway ride later, I had a sparse Iberian breakfast of coffee and a churrito (fried dough stick) before meeting up with my buddy and his stage mates at the cool little garage theater—Garaje Lumière, it was called—near the historic district of La Latina, where I’d be crashing with one of the actresses in the play. After greetings and introductions, I sat at the main entrance of the theater reading and fighting sleep while my friends rehearsed for that night’s opening performance. I tried to make it through until at least nightfall, but after lunch, I crashed, waking up every few hours to work or read. So much for sight-seeing on that first day.

I didn’t awaken until Saturday afternoon, just in time to meet Roberto and friends for paella, the famous Spanish dish made with rice, seafood and other meats, and special seasonings. Num! Drinks and convo in the Plaza de Santa Ana led to scrumptious paella at Marina Ventura, then to more drinks and convo at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Óscar. Compared to the exorbitant prices of everything in São Paulo, enjoying an urbane lifestyle in Madrid is pretty affordable—and 700-euro-a-month rents for refurbished 19th century apartments with two bedrooms and balconies overlooking Spanish plazas calls for serious chin-stroking consideration.

The sun dipped lazily below the horizon after 8pm as it is wont to do in the upper latitudes in spring and summer, and no sight-seeing was done. We did throw Roberto a surprise birthday party, though, and danced to Ne-Yo (not my choice) while imbibing adult beverages (I had Coke).

Sunday, we finally made the rounds of the historical center of Madrid. We didn’t actually go inside anyplace, but we wandered through the vast and crowded Plaza Mayor—prototype for every town square in the Americas from the Guadalupe River to Tierra del Fuego—, past the world’s oldest restaurant, complete with official Guinness Book recognition, across the courtyard of the royal palace, past the labyrinthine royal gardens (we were too lazy to walk back up the steps we would have had to descend to enter the gardens), and finally into El Corte Inglés, a fancy department store with a very necessary coffee shop where I could re-boost my waning energy with a one-euro-fifty-cent coffee that I paid for by credit card.

That night, I saw the final performance of the play—something about corporate secrets and lady torturers and jumper cables attached to gonads—über-experimental and completely in Spanish, so I got like 60% of what they were saying. Afterwards, we congratulated the cast on an amazing performance despite somewhat underwhelming material and everyone else congratulated themselves with alcohol (I had Coke) for the next five hours. Indeed, it was almost 4am when we left the theater and there were pretty much zero food options at that hour (which, back home, is called ‘fore-day-in-the-morning), so we settled for late-night grilled cheese sandwiches.

Question: In this age of globalization and multi-national corporations, why the hell isn’t there an IHOP in Madrid (or Berlin or São Paulo)? They would make a killing!

We woke up at noon on Monday, just in time for me to dash into the shower, pack up my crap, and hightail it down to El Retiro, where Roberto had a picnic planned for all his artistic peeps in celebration of the play and his birthday. Over homemade paella (Thanks, Roberto’s friend’s mom!) and some damn good cake and we lazed about on the grass, laughing about the jumper-cables-to-the-gonads and being serenaded with flamencos and boleros by several of the picnickers—there were at least four acoustic guitars in attendance at the picnic.

Soon, it was time for goodbyes and promises to email and/or call, then I headed with carry-on in tow towards the subway station with zero cash, thinking that I could pay for a ticket by credit card. Nope; the machine wanted the PIN that I never memorized because I never use the debit function of my card. This also meant that I couldn’t get money out of an ATM. And the Brazilian reais I had on me were no good because, at almost 5pm on a Monday afternoon, no banks in the immediate vicinity were open to exchange my cash. And I had no telephone with which to call Roberto or any of my other newly-minted friends for a two-euro loan. I was left to rely solely on the kindness of strangers, and in this case, that meant the subway security guard and the station attendant, who listened to my tale of touristic stupidity with understanding smiles and had pity on my poor cashless soul (an affected “foreign” Spanish accent and pre-printed boarding pass showing an imminent flight departure time helped, no doubt). They printed up a special subway ticket, swore me to secrecy, and sent me on my way with handshakes. Gracias, dudes!

*Important aside: The only major road bump and one of those things that tend to permanently shade your opinion of a place, or at least of a place’s government: suspiciously-long questioning by the immigration officer. The two other (non-black) Americans ahead of me flitted through with a few words and the quick thud of the passport stamper. My mistake, of course, was speaking in Spanish. I was asked about my arriving flight (normal), how long I had planned to stay (normal), and if my trip was business or pleasure (normal), then asked where exactly I was staying in Madrid (strange), then where my letter of invitation was (what?). Apparently, I was supposed to have either pre-booked accommodations at a hotel, or have a letter of invitation issued to me by the friends with whom I was staying (procured at the local police station, no doubt). I’m sure my face said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about” and he asked if it was my first time in Spain. I said no, the I’d been there in 2004, neglecting to mention that I had no hotel reservations even then, and had booked a nice little cheap hotel upon arrival at one of the tourist kiosks in the airport. I said that I’m aware that policies can and do change frequently, but as a U.S. citizen, I’d never heard of having to provide proof of accommodation for entry into the European Union (in fact, it’s NOT required, asshat). In Latin America, Spain already has a reputation for the “funny attitudes” of their immigration officials, and while the international gatekeepers of the U.S. certainly have a propensity for douchebaggery, let’s have a little perspective for chrissakes. You see that eagle on my passport? Stamp my shit and be done with it.

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