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Takeoff

Just like our readers, Tales from the Road is getting ready for a new semester. We have a delightful summer issue with a Hispanic flair that’s ready to send you into another gorgeous Minnesota autumn. For their contribution to this issue, Tales from the Road extends an enormous thank-you to Ashley Bostrom, Charles Lehnen, Anastasia Scott, and Ali Vujovich.

If you are interested in submitting to Tales from the Road, please visit our page on submissions or head directly to our SubMishMash site. If you are interested in studying abroad, see the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center website. Be sure to share your adventures with us!

Until next time, keep journeying. We look forward to hearing your tales from the road.

Men are Foreign

18 de Abril de 2009: Pobla de Lillet 3 7°1²a, Les Corts-Barcelona, España 08028

I awoke to the squealing sirens of motorbikes and ringing church bells across the calle. Mediterranean sun streamed through lace curtains into my cuarto, and I noticed the foliage Beatriz planted in my windowsill last week had already sprouted raspberry-like blossoms. A cool breeze stirred my still-sleepy soul and a mix of dialects formed my thoughts. My language is always muddled in the morning.

I stood and stretched my arms, fingertips grazing the confines of a space that continued exactly four inches beyond my wingspan. I folded my Murphy bed back into the wall and stepped over the pile of glitter and sand surrounding my discarded party dress and high heels.

Turning toward the light and leaning into my escritorio, I looked down upon my neighborhood’s busiest street, La Avenida de Carlos Tercera, which was alive with people enjoying lazy Saturday strolls. Palms towered over the cobblestone center where couples from every stage of life demonstrated varying degrees of affection on park benches, against street lamps, and beside fountain ledges. The air was thick and fragrant from orange trees, cigarette smoke, and fine perfume.

Some young boys playing soccer shrieked curse words at the blue abyss. One yelled, “Juliano, JODER! Soy aqui! Soy aqui!”

Nearby, two handsome guys in their mid-twenties, complete with dreaded rat-tail mullets, unloaded a delivery truck into the ferretería. Their work was slow as every passing beauty garnered their undivided attention. Catcalls and similar choruses of “que guapa” echoed down the sidewalk as did the endless debate of Messi vs. Ronaldo, the two Spanish soccer giants. The older boys laughingly mocked, “Juliano, Joder!”

Women in silk scarves and Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses were running errands; they carried meat and bread and babies in their slender, olive-toned arms. A group of scowling grandfathers played at one of the sidewalk caféterias. Nearby, a little girl tried to share her ice cream with a dog who could very well fit her into his gargantuan mouth. He declined both offers.

Distant green mountains and crystalline sea framed the scene. The buildings were plain, but the streets exuded a sort of quiet opulence. This vision of Barcelona wasn’t the canvas of Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, or Antonio Gaudi. That whimsical gothic glamour city existed ten metro stations east. La Pobla de Lillet was only an ordinary district, and these were just regular inhabitants moving through their Sabado routine.

“¡Que horror!” I heard Beatriz exclaim at her daughter. Intrigued, I wander from my own quarters into the galley kitchen to find the pair gossiping at the miniature kitchen table. Our fourth housemate, an adorable girl from Shanghai who called herself Carolina, was sitting cross-legged in her chair sipping tea and munching on toast.

The trio greeted me passively and as I slipped into my chair, Beatriz poured my morning coffee from the silver Bialetti percolator. Warmly patting my hair good morning, she made an aside comment about the prior night which roughly translated to a sneaky inquiry about my unkempt appearance upon my return at eight o‘clock that morning and a secretly mean joke about the stereotypical “American party girls who puke on the metro.”

I giggled a response about the discoteca and sunrise on la playa with a friend and protested her last comment by mentioning my good manners and grades. To stifle further questioning, I dosed my steaming cup of coffee with a splash of uht milk and turned my attention to poor Helena, now near tears. After an irritated pause at our pleasantries, she fervently continued the latest episode in her passionate love saga with the 19-year-old neighborhood Casanova, Marc Martí Martínez.

Carolina and I focused intently so as not to miss any salacious details. The conflict in question was Marc’s fidelity during the approaching summer, which Helena was to spend with her father in Basque country. The mention of Helena’s father and the topic of fidelity provoked mutterings and slamming pans from her mother.

Helena was concerned the handsome Marc would return to his wild single behavior in her lengthy absence. In cinematic fashion, she dramatically burst into a weeping fit at the thought and laid her pretty, 16-year-old head on the table.

Seeing her daughter’s distress, Beatriz softened and proclaimed to all her girls, “Mijas, no os preocupais- el amor todo lo puede.” Don’t you worry—love will find a way.

We rubbed our dear Helena’s back and her wails slowly began to fade as the rest of us tried to navigate the conversation from the Marc to funny experiences with the romance cultures we were born into and had since encountered.

Carolina gave a riveting tutorial on generational differences and the public opinion of PDA in China. Beatriz showed us a photograph on her cell phone of the latest internet date, which evolved into a discussion on the computer romance phenomenon and the art of text flirting. Having kissed five European nationalities, I qualified myself as a decently reputable commentator on European dating culture and tendered a country specific comparison of the phoning habits of Claus, the latest German installment in a short string of Barcelona romances, against Ghislain, my former French stalker. The latter whom, despite never going on a single date, called four times weekly for a month and a half.

Helena wouldn’t move past her caricature of Spanish-feminine expectation, claiming to have fallen for Marc with a passionate profundity that cold, standoffish cultures like my own could never really understand. I could see Beatriz rolling her eyes as her daughter begged the possibility of immediate and never-ending love. Nala, our yippy perrita, barked incessantly in the background as Carolina tackled Helena’s question in her broken Spanish.

There, sitting in pajamas amidst laundry and kitchen clutter, I wondered when this odd assortment of personalities became my confidants. Helena spent the weekdays at a live-in boarding school near the city center. Carolina and I attended separate Universities. Beatriz was busy with her work. We were, we are, from different worlds.

Never mind that something was inevitably lost in translation between us, we had found a common language in that kitchen. It wasn’t Catalan or Mandarin, English or Castellano, and it was more than girlish chatter, though it was a flighty conversation that particular afternoon. Ours was a dialect of tears and laughter, of knowing eyes and consoling arms, of unconditional patience. Half the time we had no idea what each other was saying, but that didn’t stop us from listening to one another.

I paused to decipher Carolina’s message. She was trying to say something like, “How often do you cry because of Marc? You are so young and Spanish boys are so cute. Date someone else.”

I wondered if they’d get my translation of, “You sing it, sister!”

Instead, both Beatriz and Helena said, “All Spanish men are the same.”

Seconds later, my overbearing little Spanish mother tenderly placed her hand on my cheek and began to shoo us from the kitchen. Beatriz was a masseuse who worked from home, and an important client had just been buzzed up.

As we gave each other the customary goodbye besos, Carolina and I had one of those eye-contact flashes where we both realized that some things are foreign wherever you are.

 

– Anastasia Scott

8 pm

When you arrive to the terminal, the bus is already full

You and your friend each slip the busetera 20 extra bolis to let you on anyway

you ride up front with him

 

Government commissioned art on the highway walls

The charter bus stops to pick up a woman off the side of the road.

 

The busetera stops to buy coffee from a man standing at a speed bump

he buys a cup for you and your friend.

Later stopping for the two buseteras to piss

on the side of the bus.

 

<<Vota pa Chavez 98>> sprayed on a rock

 

A prostitute in a shiny bra and panties, jumping up and down smiling.

An old man stands on his porch, watches the cars go by.

 

A bird flies into the window

probably dies.

 

<<No drogas>>

 

A man lounging on the open flatbed of a semi

while passing you on the highway.

The bus driver tells you a story,

this is where a terrible bus accident happened.

 

He honks at a girl walking alongside the shoulder, <<Qué culo>>

 

11pm

You need to pee as it starts to rain.

 

Passing yet another military checkpoint

avoiding eye contact with the guards.

Not carrying your original passport

and don’t have enough money to spare for a bribe.

 

 

A lightning strike confirms that you are out of the Andes.

Your friend takes out his contacts

drinks some water, crawls to a mattress on the floor to sleep.

It’s 11:45 and you’re running low on paper.

 

Doing 80 kms in a tunnel marked 40.

The stop light counts down in giant, red digital numbers

the busetera blows it with 9 seconds left.

He mumbles something about blowing them when no-one’s around

You get the idea and laugh.

 

It’s now past midnight and you consider sleeping.

 

Stop for a family of 3 holding blankets, waiting in the rain

<<¿Pa Valencia?>>

<<No.>>

 

You offer the busetera some platanitos.

He accepts silently with an outstretched arm,

eyes fitted on the road.

 

It starts to pour.

 

Passing a fruit truck with an open bed literally full of people standing,

you count 15 as you pass, but there were more.

One woman waves.

 

The rain seems to be flying, angling towards the windshield

There’s a woman selling coffee at a speed bump despite the storm.

 

3 motorcycles in a row, 2 guys on each, and a 4th stopped ahead.

The chamo on the second is driving with his feet.

Arms crossed, leaned back.

Sleep is considering you.

 

 

Stop for gas and arepas.

 

There’s a woman outside the bathrooms selling toilet paper.

There’s a team at the gas station from the University, dressed in white and blue tracksuits

you spot the girl from the comedor at school.

Flirt.

Turns out they’re a <<kicking ball>> team

<<es como beisball pero con las piernas>>

 

About to leave the gas station, 2 chamos join the bus

80 a-piece.

They take your seats and you take the unoccupied mattress on the floor.

Mickey Mouse sheets.

 

It’s 1:44 am, might as well sleep

 

 

At 2:47 you’re woken up by the other busetera.

Evidently after an hour it’s his turn to use the mattress.

The 2 seats are still taken so you wake up your friend to share his mattress as a seat,

<<¿Como estás?>>  <<bien.>>

From here you can look out the window.

 

 

 

It’s 5:27 and it has stopped raining

You wake up in the flatlands of Venezuela

and watch the sun rise over the scattered mountains in the distance

the sun fills the infinite sky above.  Jiropo on the radio

 

 

 

You’re surprised you slept for 2 hours in this position

and devise a plan with your friend to sleep at each others’ feet.

The bus has become uncomfortably cold.

It’s getting colder.

 

6:45am, the second pee break for the bus

You recognize the gringo of another bus from the last stop,

the buses must travel in packs.

 

The buseteras switch, the first gets to sleep

but he’d rather talk to you and your friend.

More jiropo, view of the rolling mountains outside the windows.

Some kind of fruit trees, the busetera falls asleep.

 

The busetera said only 3 hours left with cola

so you should sleep.

can’t seem to close your eyes, reject the morning sun

gently waking up the rolling, green mountains outside your window

 

Techno Europop on the radio

Woken up briefly to hear the other busetera ask a woman out the window where the cola’s coming from

Didn’t hear her reply.

 

 

There’s a show about finding your feung-sheu on the radio

It’s almost 10 am, waking up to see there is an immense cola in front and behind

It is the topic of conversation and jokes

 

They’re watching a movie with Spanish subtitles in the cabin

<<sólo necesita el popcorn pa un cine>>

 

The busetera is laying on the mattress on the floor

You offer him some platanitos.

This time he replies

<<gracias papa>>

You have been together for 13 hours now

 

Joke about the complaints around the sound quality of the movie, why should they care–it’s in English.

The busetera says it hasn’t even come out in theaters yet

but he bought it on DVD last night, in the street

 

SUVs and jeeps form a steady new lane in the ditch along the highway.

The semi passing reads <<se aceptan los pasajeros>>

 

It’s 10:30 and the busetera gives you the best piece of gum you have ever tasted

and you talk about marijuana laws

 

You show the busetera the chapter about Spanish swear words in your book.

There’s a massive Polar factory out your window

 

 

 

You pass an accident on your right,

2 sugar trucks have tipped, men standing on mountains of brown unrefined sugar

The reason for the cola.

 

You and your friend talk to the busetera

taxes, capitalism, curse words, socialism, working, imperialism, gasoline, money, corruption of police

but not in so many words.

he pauses to point out a drunk driver and laughs

 

At 11:22 the chamos are leaving, you and your friend take the seats back

They get let off

On the side of the highway

No buildings within sight

 

The busetera offers you some chimó

You accept, your friend doesn’t.

This chimó is particularly strong and instantly you feel like you’re floating, your eyes start watering, your bottom lip burns.  You feel like you are having a heart attack.

It is not a pleasant feeling.

 

Your water bottle is 1/16 full of your thick, brown spit and the feeling passes.

Now you just feel like you drank too much coffee

still can’t write straight

 

You are soaring between the mountains

There’s a hitchhiker

A family walking on the side of the highway

Later a dead dog

 

A cola many miles long going in the other direction

Venders walking down the center of the cola

ice cream, agua, bracelets, platanitos, t-shirts, slices of San Juaquín cakes, flags of fútbol teams on boards, in bags, platters, by hand, on top of their heads

 

A multistory white statue of Jesus

A billboard for Levis

A mountainside blanketed in shanty-houses

30 minutes from the terminal

 

Arte, beautiful graffiti

toucans, jaguars, the Earth and a gas mask, resistencia, Bolívar

The buseteras point out a national park

they tell you where to find prostitutes

 

Qué cola, American 80s music on the radio

<<if we took a holiday, c’mon let’s celebrate>>

 

An ambulance drives with sirens between lanes

So do families on motorcycles.

A slow jam on the radio, a duet between French and Spanish

 

Women in red t-shirts painting the guard rails yellow

 

Entering the city, brown concrete apt. buildings on either side

plastered with billboards, scraping the sky

Samsung, Heinz, Nivea, “Yes” live in concert

 

 

16 hours later, 12:23pm the Caracas terminal

a 60-ish year-old women drinking cough syrup on the bench

a 60-ish year-old man ranting about Chávez

a women playfully snuggling with her son, giggling.

The art, the people, the size, the music

The living, breathing cultural center of a nation

Bienvenido a Caracas.

 

– Charles C. Lehnen

Toledo, Por Favor

Two years ago, I found myself in London, in the middle of February, with absolutely nothing to do. My college gave its students a week off, called “Reading Week,” to catch up on all of the coursework they’d fallen behind on. You’d think it would be like a spring break, but we actually had another month-long break in April with that name attributed to it. Seeing as I had no coursework to do, I decided to journey to Spain.

My two roommates from college were studying in Toledo; a city that I would learn is situated about an hour South of Madrid. I was excited to see them, but not quite as excited to see Spain. It’s not that I don’t love exploring new places, but I never had a huge desire to go to Spain. I don’t speak Spanish (at all) and therefore wouldn’t be practicing any foreign language skills. A month-and-a-half into my six-month study abroad venture, I was extremely homesick and more than anything I wanted to see my two friends.

I was to fly into Madrid and take the train to Toledo. My friends couldn’t come meet me at the airport because their classes were still in session. I talked with them on Skype the night before my flight, and they taught me how to say key words and phrases in Spanish. I wrote them in my journal so I could recall them quickly. I was nervous, but I consoled myself with the fact that most everyone in Europe speaks at least a little English.

I woke up around two in the morning to catch my 6 am flight out of the London Stansted Airport. I put on the clothes I had laid aside for that morning, curled my hair, wrapped a scarf around my neck, and took the journey consisting of taxis, city busses, and charter busses the two hours it takes to get to Stansted. I got to Madrid around 11 am and stepped off the planed into a cloud of cigarette smoke that would distort my perception and mirror the confusion I felt in this foreign country for approximately seven days. I cashed my few pounds into euros, followed my roommates’ meticulous directions to the metro, and miraculously found my way to the train station with my blue suitcase in tow and a confused look on my face—I will admit that I initially took the metro the wrong way and ended up in what I think was a northern suburb of Madrid, where I had to turn back around.

This is when the panic set in.

Even though I found the train station without much of a problem, I could not find the booth to buy a train ticket, let alone the actual trains. I went to one window after another, asking questions in extremely broken Spanish that was probably more of an invention of my own mind rather than anything resembling the language. I went to tourist’s shops, restaurants, and even a post office all to no avail. No one could understand me and no one spoke English. My cheap British phone didn’t work in Spain so I couldn’t call my friends. I felt stranded, lost, confused, and extremely anxious.

As I wandered around the train station holding back tears of embarrassment and anxiety, I stumbled upon a jungle of taxi-cabs waiting to take people with money to areas nearby. I didn’t know how far Toledo was from Madrid, but I had a good idea that it wasn’t close enough to reasonably take a cab. Plus, it’s not like I had any money; I flew into Spain on a RyanAir flight costing less than ten pounds (about 15 American dollars) and I was a college student simply bumming around Europe.

After weighing my options—or lack thereof—I marched out toward a young taxi driver in my short jean skirt. He loaded up my suitcase in the trunk while I climbed in the backseat and got the address of the Hostel Sol in Toledo out of my carry-on bag. In showing him the address instead of telling him, he understood that I didn’t know how to tell him where to go. He looked at me exasperatedly and tried to tell me that Toledo was too far of a drive. I had no other option. He had to take me there. He was probably persuaded more by the desperate look in my eyes and the tear stains streaking my cheeks than by my English words, which he couldn’t understand.

We drove through Madrid and out to the South. The cab driver was a very nice man who took a large portion of his day to get me to my roommates—who I later found out were frantically searching the Toledo train station for me. I felt terrible and so like the typical American: not knowing anything about the country I found myself in. If you dropped me off in the middle of France, I could put my six years of language study to use, but I had no chance of surviving in Spain, alone.

I peered out my window at the grand buildings of Madrid and into the desert-like surroundings outside the city. The cab driver tried to make small talk with me, but with my lack of Spanish skills and his lack of English skills we didn’t get too far. Our interactions were reduced to eye contact through the rear-view mirror and big, friendly, but slightly awkward smiles. He was so nice that when he got lost, he actually turned the meter logging the cost of the trip off and never turned it back on.

After ninety euros and an extremely large tip, he dropped me off at Hostel Sol where I found my roommates running down the street to meet me. They laughed at me for taking a taxi, but were glad I made it to them without too much incidence—something like this isn’t considered too much incidence for an extremely anxious and emotional person like me. As my week long getaway continued on with my roommates and their newfound Spanish friends, we danced and drank until five in the morning and ran around the winding streets of Toledo. While learning all about this typical Spanish lifestyle, I remained in a haze of confusion. The only way the Spaniards and I could communicate was with warm and slightly awkward smiles.

 

– Ali Vujovich

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