Is it only April? This year feels like it’s dragged on forever, with all of us trudging through the stark dystopia that real life has become. Still, I’ll take the good times where I can get it, and I am thrilled to report that Silver Fox, a poem I wrote in a happier time, was published in Room Magazine‘s latest: the Hair Issue!
I’ve followed Room online for quite some time now and they always have interesting stories to tell. I tend to keep my poems to myself (no one really knows I write them… and now you do), so it is a nice ray of sunshine to have my first shared piece find a home in one of Canada’s finest, and longest running literary magazines.I’m usually not one to self-promote, but this latest issue has quite a number of wonderfully written pieces and I couldn’t be happier to even be in the same conversation as the women in these pages.
The bookstores are currently closed due to the pandemic, but they take orders online. The Hair Issue is definitely worth your while… and not just because I’m in it! (Okay, shameless plug over 😊)
I've been sitting on this like an increasingly twitchy hen on an egg, and it's finally here! My poem is part of @RoomMagazine's Hair Issue. It's an absolute honor to be in a #litmag chock full of hair-raising goodness. Grab yours now! pic.twitter.com/g7CpJGMrne
I have, apparently, become a Chihuahua with the appetite of a St. Bernard. Or so my family doctor tells me. I’m paraphrasing. Of course that wasn’t a direct quote, no doctor would be so blunt, especially not in today’s extremely sensitive (and litigious) atmosphere, but that was pretty much my takeaway. I had asked him to please, for the love of all that was holy, give me something – gastric bypass, lobotomy – anything, to take away my horrible lack of self control when it comes to food in the pursuit of the ideal BMI. But all he would recommend was just to eat less. That is what he said. “Eat less.” And then he made me step on the scale and, having dispensed with that particular slap in the face, reminded me once again by measuring my height that I stopped growing right before I hit five feet. Dear United American Tiki-Tiki: my mother would like her money back.
Annual physical exams are excruciating. The results are fine when you’re in your twenties, a nubile sylph made of Teflon. Otherwise, to paraphrase Samantha Irby (I am paraphrasing a lot today, aren’t I?) we are all sacks of meat that are slowly beginning to rot. Notice I say slowly; the bloodwork and the cholesterol results, the heart rate and lungs and all that, came back okay. Which is something to be glad about. But, to paraphrase Lady Gaga (here we go again) there could be a hundred good results on a lab report…
There isn’t a lot of wiggle room when you are short. “Small,” says my doctor, an adjective which, in any other circumstance, I would be fine with, but not in this instance because we are now talking about me growing vertically as opposed to horizontally. He went on to remind me that it’s just like overfeeding a pet – you can’t stuff your cat full of lasagna if you don’t want it to be Garfield, yes thank you, Captain Obvious, why did I have to go and pick such an implacable doctor – all I really wanted was some wonder drug or other, but the only drug being prescribed that day was common sense. I have no self control, goddamnit, but really who else do I have to blame? I should’ve just gotten pregnant. At least I could’ve blamed weight gain on the baby and coasted on into my forties overweight but with a lot less self-loathing. Maybe I should take up cigarettes? Hypnosis? A political cause like Gandhi?
Whatever it takes, I acknowledge that my doctor is right about the only way to go about reversing the effect of the past few years. I do not want to enter my forties as a Hindenburg impersonation. I may not be the nubile Teflon sylph I used to be – and likely never will be again – but I took a little heart from noting the weight gain didn’t just happen overnight. In comparison it should be faster to erase it than it took to gain it. Your thoughts and prayers would be much appreciated, and see you in the produce section.
Spain is the countrified equivalent of the Power Rangers.
Like them, Spain is a collection of autonomous regions with their own personalities, strengths, abilities, cultural flavour, symbols, history and, in some cases, official language. The emphasis here is on the word “autonomy,” in that each autonomous region governs itself, having their own parliament and their own set of laws, called Statutes of Autonomy. Put all these autonomous regions together, and you get Spain. The regions are the Power Rangers and the combination of their Zords (Mastodon! Pterodactyl!) make Spain a MegaZord. Yes, my childhood was lovely, thank you.
In non-crazy, non-early ’90s teen-speak, if the European Union is an amalgamation of countries, Spain is its microcosm. It must be very like trying to control a team of wild horses, with each one straining at the bit to go whichever way they want to go. Imagine those unique, multi-faceted autonomous regions uniting to make one great nation and country under God. However convoluted it may sound, these crazy Spaniards make it work.
It’s true that each region has its own distinctive character and taste – even smell. Having spent days exploring the haughty grandeur of Madrid, and the graceful beauty of Granada, arriving in Barcelona was a splash of cold water. It was like stepping into a time machine and being thrown into a completely different era. If Madrid is the Red Ranger (leader, big brother, stoic and strong) and Granada the White Ranger (formerly bad, now good, always and forever the hottest), Barcelona would be the Pink Ranger.
I thought I knew what grand was, having seen the palaces and gardens of Madrid, and the imposing citadel of the Alhambra. Barcelona took the word grand, and shot it into the stratosphere. It’s huge. Its roads are wide and its buildings take up so much space, it makes Madrid seem almost cramped by comparison.
The jewel of the autonomous region of Catalonia, the city moves to the beat of its own drum. Barcelona is deceptively young. It was a Roman city in the Middle Ages, so it isn’t really young at all, it just seems to have drunk from the Fountain of Youth somehow. It’s colourful, and bright, and fast-paced, and weird, and eclectic and you can feel its sheer, unbridled joy and delight in just being different. It seems to be a city that hasn’t forgotten the glories of the past, but is busy making sure it stays relevant and on the cusp.
That modern feel is fitting, because its most famous son was at the forefront of Catalan Modernisme – a cultural revival of what it meant to be Catalan. Antoni Gaudi was the architect of much that would give Barcelona its new international identity. His most famous masterwork, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia is, of all the truly wonderful landmarks of Barcelona, the one whose identity is irrevocably bound up in that of the city. Just as huge, just as grand, just as unbridled as the spirit of Barcelona itself, it’s an architectural marvel. And, like Barcelona, it’s not yet done (they broke ground in 1882!) . Some wonder if it ever will be. Blog Sagrada Familia, its official architecture blog, is a great source of information, and a way better resource than listening to a travel guide drone on and on!
I first saw The Sagrada Familia at night. There was no rhyme or reason to the timing; the bestie and I had met up for an ultimately underwhelming dinner in the Gothic Quarter, walked to the Arc de Triomf, and, not ready for the night to end, realized the church was in the general direction of wherever we were headed (nowhere – sometimes, being aimless is fun), and decided to go and see it for ourselves.
The Sagrada, as envisioned by Gaudi, has three facades: Passion, Nativity, and Glory. Of the three, it’s only Glory that’s still in the beginning stages of construction; the Nativity was the first to be completed, while the Passion was completed in 2018 (it took 64 years). I knew none of this when we first saw it that evening; I expected a convoluted construction site and got slapped in the face with the sheer ambition and scale of Gaudi’s genius instead. I just knew I had to see it in the full light of day.
Day or night, the Sagrada is a marvel. Not everyone is fortunate to be gifted with the ability to bring the fruits of a fertile imagination to life. We spent a good half an hour staring up at the Passion facade, completely flabbergasted. Bowled over. Thrown for a loop. Gobsmacked. Words fail. The attention to detail is ridiculous. It’s stark and forbidding, a message of suffering and pain, as Gaudi intended it to memorialize the suffering of Christ in his last days. It is said that he decided to completed the Nativity facade first because he thought the Passion might render anyone who viewed it averse to continuing construction.
I don’t think I took as much photos as I thought I had. A lot of what I did get to take doesn’t come close to what it actually does look like in real life, which made it a bit frustrating. To be fair, there’s only so much the camera on one’s smartphone can do, and I admittedly am not the best at finding great angles (I am also generally #nofilter because I am lazy), but mostly it was because I was too busy gawking. Sometimes trying to capture a moment ruins it, and it’s best to just stand there and take it in. And that’s not just true for the Sagrada, it’s true for the rest of the city, and for the whole of this last great adventure of the year.
There is more to Barcelona of course, than Gaudi. I had a lot of fun hopping on and off public transportation, feeling like a local. The most affordable way to see a city in the shortest amount of time is to take public transit, and Barcelona has a lot to be proud of when it comes to that. I respect cities with efficient transit (if only because mine can be oh so frustrating sometimes), and it’s very easy to get around in Barcelona. The food was quite good, too. It’s a very metropolitan city, and at first I didn’t feel quite as attached to it as one would like, but that was because I had left my heart in Granada.
Just like the Power Rangers, we all had a favourite, and Granada (the White Ranger) was mine. There was so much of it I didn’t get to see, and so much more to explore. If I ever do manage to go back to Spain, it will be to Granada – and Andalusia – I will return. This time, Le Hubs has said he’ll come along, so that’ll be a wholly different experience!
There was crying in Granada when the sun was going down
Some calling on the Trinity, some calling on Mahoun;
Here passed away the Koran – therein, the cross was borne
And here was heard the Christian bell, and there, the Moorish horn.
Te Deum laudamus! was up the Alcala sung
Down from the Alhambra’s minarets were all the crescents flung
The arms thereon of Aragon, they with Castile’s display;
One king comes in in triumph, one, weeping, goes away.
So goes Catalina, a young infanta of Spain, who is recounting the events of her parent’s triumph to her new husband, an enraptured Arthur, Prince of Wales. They are in a drafty castle in Ludlow in the dead of winter, and Arthur has requested that she tell him a story.
It’s one of many dreamy, arresting passages in The Constant Princess, Philippa Gregory’s fictional re-imagining of the early life of Katherine of Aragon – as Catalina would eventually come to be known – the first and most accomplished of all the six wives of Henry VIII. The fall of Granada is a story worth telling, made all the more dramatic because it’s true. In the last days of the Spanish Reconquista, the Catholic monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon pushed out the last of the ruling Moors in the south of Spain, unifying the entire peninsula and establishing Granada as the seat of their power, taking up residence in the great citadel of the Alhambra. The palaces within the fortress of the Alhambra is where Catalina spent her childhood, and the book became the main inspiration for this trip, so much so that I brought it with me!
Have you ever had a fleeting dream, where you think to yourself that someday, given the chance, you’ll go and do something, or see something, or accomplish something, all the while telling yourself it’s probably never going to happen? The Alhambra was one of those dreams for me. At the time I didn’t quite know how that dream could possibly come true, if it ever even would, and so I tucked it away and out of sight like we do so many of our private aspirations.
Walking up the road on the hill that leads to the citadel (I would’ve bused, but something was going down with Granada’s buses that morning, and I really really couldn’t afford to be late – they only let you visit the Nasrid Palaces within the complex at a particular time), each time I paused for a minute to try and catch my breath – it is a very high hill – I felt like pinching myself, because it almost didn’t feel real. I was finally, finally going to see a place I had only read about, a place that lived in my imagination, filtered through the lens of a Philippa Gregory novel. Was it real? Was it going to be as gorgeous as Catalina had described? Or would I be disappointed? Would it turn out to be less than what my fevered brain had conjured?
It’s forbidding, isn’t it? The Gate of the Pomegranates is a high stone gateway that looms over the original road into the fortress (it now has about two other access points), invoking visions of horses clattering through its arches, medieval knights astride, pennants blowing proudly in the breeze. The sound of water begins almost immediately, two streams flow on either side of the path, and the air is fresh and clean, the sunlight filtered by the leaves of the many trees within the complex, all leading up to the Door of Justice, the original entrance to the Alhambra.
In retrospect, it was a good thing busing didn’t work out, because getting into the Alhambra by the Door of Justice is the fastest way to skip the queue (do not do this if you do not have a pre-purchased ticket with a QR code). The road starts at the foot of the hill, at the Plaza de Santa Ana. A bus would’ve taken me to the new, contemporary entrance, and I would’ve missed the walk through a picturesque, tree-lined pathway.
The pomegranate is the heraldic symbol of Granada, and the origin of its name (Spanish: granita). It symbolizes many things, chief of them prosperity and fertility. When Catalina went to England, she adopted the pomegranate as her symbol too. It’s a fitting symbol for the Alhambra as well. Alhambra means “the red one”, and like the fruit, it is red on the outside and deceivingly plain. Crack a pomegranate open and a wealth of jewel-like seeds is revealed; similarly, enter the Alhambra and a priceless work of art reveals itself to the eye.
Nowhere is this beauty more prevalent than in the Nasrid Palaces, the residential part of the complex, where the Sultans and Sultanas of the Nasrid Dynasty lived.
The palace is absolutely breathtaking, made even more so because all of its interior is made by hand. Carved and shaped by master masons of the era, lines of Arabic inscriptions decorate walls of stucco, interspersed with flowers and botanical motifs. Water plays a large role in the palace. There are fountains and reflecting pools all throughout and the sound of running water is like music in the background. Trees heavy with oranges and pomegranates abound, and I really really wish the photos I took could do justice to it all, because they don’t come close to showing how stunning the palace is at all.
The Moors added to the complex as they went, and the summer palace of the Generalife (pr. He-ne-ra-‘li-fe) was one such addition. It was where they went to escape the heat during the hot summers, and is a pleasure garden that in its own way is as breathtaking as the Nasrid palace. There is the same intricate plasterwork, although not at the same dizzying scale, and reflecting pools and fountains abound. It’s easy to forget your cares in the Generalife, and who could blame you?
When Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler in Spain, left the Alhambra for the last time after surrendering it to Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, he wept. His mother, who was with him at the time, was said to say “You weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.” Imagine his pain (and her rage) at being forced to leave a home designed to be utter paradise on earth.
For myself, I didn’t quite weep when I left it, but I understood the urge to. I did sigh, happy to have enjoyed it for a day (you can easily spend the better part of a day there – I didn’t even include photos of the Alcazaba and the palace of Charles V), and regret at having to leave. Then I began the walk downhill, back to the city centre, pausing every now and then – it is a very steep incline, and if the walk up is hell on your thighs, the walk down is hell on your knees!
“A strawberry tree? Preposterous!” I thought, having never heard of one before. The strawberries I am familiar with grow on vines in cool climates, hugging the mountaintops of Baguio City. So when I learned that Madrid’s coat of arms features a bear rearing up to prise strawberries off a tree, I was intrigued.
Other than the name, it turns out the strawberry tree and the common strawberry as we know it are completely unrelated. Part of the evergreen family, the strawberry tree is found in the Mediterranean and parts of Western Europe and is favoured by bears and other animals for its fragrant and luscious fruit, which look like spiky little lychees. One particularly interesting tidbit is, if left to ripen on the branch, its fruits start to ferment. This can result in some very drunk bears, which is apt because it is entirely possible (and ridiculously easy) for a person to get drunk in Madrid, and not just on alcohol.
Like meticulously aged rum, Madrid is intoxicating. It’s old, a Miss Havisham kind of old, an aging but elegant aunt draped in all her finery, surrounded by art and the mementoes of the past, smelling of cigarettes*, helpless against the slow march of time, yet glorious despite its slow decay.
And it’s grand. Boy, is it grand. It’s a sprawling city filled with ostentatious town plazas, wide avenidas,large rotundas and sprawling parks and gardens; with daunting castles and baroque aristocratic homes that reflect the power and pride of the Habsburg – and, later, the Bourbon – dynasty, and the elevation of Spain in its prime.
It was, of course, virtually impossible for me to cover all of Madrid in two days, which is all the time I had allotted for this most grand of cities. So I did what I could, focusing on the Centro district, which houses the older parts of the city. Although Madrid is now very much a modern city, with infrastructure befitting the nation’s capital and the centre of Spanish commerce, a very impressive number of its historical neighbourhoods and landmarks still remain for us to appreciate.
Can you say you’ve been to Madrid if you haven’t been to the Royal Palace? It’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. With over three thousand rooms, it is the largest functioning royal residence in Europe, and dwarfs Buckingham Palace in size. I didn’t bother booking a visit inside, because I knew it would take at least a day to fully appreciate its grandeur.
I was fortunate to get to the Buen Retiro Gardens just before sundown, which gave it an almost ethereal quality. If you’re short on time, it’s important to know which parts of the park to visit before visiting, because it is quite huge. Not Central Park huge, but still, huge. I went primarily for the Crystal Palace, built for the Philippine Exposition of 1887, and by happy chance stumbled onto the monument to Alfonso XII just as the sun was about to set. Bathed in the shadows of dusk and the last gasp of a setting sun, it was a delight.
If you ever do find yourself in Madrid, do go for the not-so-secret secret nun cookies. Baked by the cloistered sisters of the Monasterio del Corpus Christi, getting your hands on these can be quite an adventure. It involves navigating a few confusing back streets, finding the right door, and knowing what to ask for – a particularly difficult feat since the nuns of this monastery do not interact with the outside world. We lucked out when we followed this one guy who seemed to be creating his own documentary, because he knew how to speak Spanish and helped with the buying process (that’s him in the .gif!). When ordering the cookies, one has to place the money in a sort of blocked out lazy susan that spins, without you seeing the person giving you the order. When it spins back around, your money is gone, replaced by cookies, and then it spins one more time (if needed) to give you your change. It feels deliciously illicit. Tom of Boingboing has a great how-to guide, if you ever want to undertake it yourself.
The hotel I stayed at was just off the Gran Via near the Puerta del Sol, just up the street from the Doña Manolita lottery. The line-up was insane. Insane. It’s the only word I can use to describe it, the photo doesn’t even show half of the line-up, which stretched around the block. I didn’t know why this little lottery place was so hot, people were willing to stand in the rain and cold just to get themselves a ticket, but this piece on The Local explained it all. It’s considered a Spanish tradition to take part in the El Gordo (The Fat One) Lottery come Christmastime, and Doña Manolita’s branch is famous for selling tickets that eventually turn out to be the winning ones!
I told the bestie I was treating this trip as an all-you-can-eat buffet, attempting to absorb as much of Spain as I could in a very limited amount of time. I know, I know. It’s an exercise in futility, because there is so much of it to absorb and there was no way a week would enough to try to hold all of it in. But I tried, anyway. And I don’t regret it. In Madrid, I felt like that bear in their coat of arms. I knew the strawberry tree held an immense amount of riches, and was only able to enjoy a few. But that is how it sometimes is, and I am thankful I got to enjoy it at all.
* not kidding about the cigarettes/cigarillos/cigars – it took me a few days to get used to how prevalent smoking is in Spain (I later found out 1 in 3 people smoke). Madrid made my head spin, and not always in a good way!
I lost a couple of drafts I’d already been working on while I was away on my last big adventure of the year, which sort of sucks. I like writing in the heat of the moment, overwhelmed by all the sounds, tastes and textures, so much so that it’s almost a relief to get it all out, but now I’ll have to start from the beginning, after another numbing work week has already passed me by, to try and remember what my week in Spain was like.
Spain feels like a dream now. A hazy, wonderful dream spent exploring twisting, secretive alleyways, grand palacios and beautiful, manicured jardins dotted with marble statuaries of king and queens come and gone; of carefully watching my sneaker-shod steps on rain-slicked stone mosaics in an ancient summer palace where sultanas once danced and sang, accompanied by the soothing melody of trickling water; of staring up, aghast and bowled over by the imagination of a single, solitary artist, his work an explosion of creativity so immense, at least three generations of builders have passed and still his work is incomplete. A lovely adventure punctuated by dipping spongy, delectable soletillas (ladyfingers) into almost mythical cups of the richest, velvetiest hot chocolate you can imagine; of washing down delectable bites of seafood and chorizo with tinto de verano, which is like sangria, only better; of conversing in broken Spanish and giggling at the antics of very handsome (and very friendly) waiters at a crowded tapas bar, always with their eye on you, attentive to your slightest need, all naughty winks and nods of approval at your obvious enjoyment of what their establishment has to offer. It’s only been a few days, but that’s what it feels like. A dream. Like waking up and wondering if all that really happened.
So here I am, buried in photographs of memories made within the span of a mere seven days, trying to recapture the magic of what it was like to see the great kingdom and former empire of España, taking stock of all the things I loved and the things I couldn’t abide.
So much of Spain remains in the lifeblood of the Philippines, in our language and our food, our interactions and instinctive social cues, our beliefs and our way of community. As a country whose influence has impacted so much of my homeland, even its name, Spain has always been on my list of dream places to visit, if only to see and experience life in a land that colonized, shaped, influenced and yes, to a certain extent, terrorized, my home for centuries. It’s also home to forty-eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, if chasing World Heritage Sites is your thing. It’s second only to China and Italy, tied at fifty-five. As such, it definitely is well worth your while to give it a visit.
I thought I’d be writing as much about my visit to Amsterdam and Antwerp as much as I did with Cuba earlier this year. It turns out I was wrong with a capital W… make that all-caps WRONG because most of my time was spent pounding the pavement and then coming back to the hotel suite in the evening all exhausted and fit for nothing but watching the US Open on Eurosport1. I know, it sounds horrible doesn’t it? Maybe if I’d been younger, I’d have spent more time partying my ass off and swilling jenever into the wee hours of the morning even if I don’t really drink all that much, because who cares about cable when you have the invincible power of youth brimming in your veins?
So now here I am on the flight back, winging my way across the Atlantic. It’s the first chance I’ve had to sit back and really try and remember what the trip was like. I am currently aided by the “Easy Listening” genre offered by the inflight entertainment. Right now, it’s Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer”. Lol. I haven’t heard this song in years. It’s something my mother used to play on her guitar, back when she had one.
I was going to write about my Amsterdam and Antwerp experience, but decided to share the perils of travelling without Imodium instead. Yes. I lived through some people’s worst nightmare. And I didn’t just live it any old place. I lived it on Icelandair Flight 506, from Keflavik to Amsterdam.
I had felt all girl-scout confident and prepared on the way, because I felt I had all the necessaries for an emergency. Including Imodium. Imodium, for the benefit of the ones unfamiliar with the name, is a brand name of generic loperamide and is used to control the symptoms of diarrhea. I had checked it in my luggage, because I wasn’t anticipating anything. But that’s betrayal for you. It just comes out of nowhere. It’s almost always unexpected. I have no idea what I ate. Whatever it was, my traitorous stomach just decided to rebel.
I told myself I could hold it until we landed in Schiphol International. You know how sometimes you think it’s just a small rumble, a bit of a fart, it’ll sort itself out? There we were, seatbelt sign on, everyone strapped in our seats, about half an hour away from actually landing on the tarmac when my stomach decided it had had enough. Faced with the reality of being in a metal tube filled with recycled air and potentially asphyxiating everyone on board, I scrambled up and over Le Hubs, who was trying in vain to get me to stay in my seat, and headed for one of the bathrooms, which was locked, because they lock the doors of the lavatories before landing.
“We’re landing in fifteen minutes!” said the flight attendant who tried to get me to go back to my seat. “This is an emergency,” I hissed. There must’ve been a really feral look in my eye, or maybe the kind of wild desperation that drives people to do unspeakable things, because she didn’t argue any further with me.
Is there anything worse than everyone knowing you’re about to go into the shitter when you know it isn’t going to be a quiet session? Because I would say yes. It is a thousand times worse when said shitter is an airplane lavatory at the front of the plane with an attendant strapped to her seat beside it because the plane is supposed to be going down from a higher altitude to land. Add in you sitting there trying to go as discreetly as possible but knowing it’s pointless because you’ve been holding everything in so long it’s too late to be coy about setting your large intestine free, turbulence shaking you around as you sit there in a cold sweat, wondering if your stomach is done with you and if it’s safe to come out, then someone starts banging on the door saying the plane can’t land if you’re still in there doing god knows what so you hurriedly clean yourself up and emerge trying to look like it’s just another day in Normal Town. And then you go back to your seat to face a husband who is as mortified as you are and avoid eye contact with everyone and everything for the next few minutes as the plane finally touches down and you’re just praying to God no one recognizes you or even remembers you on the baggage carrel.
(Which, to my relief, no one seemed to. At least that’s what I like to think.)
On my first plane ride with a group of other people I worked with on the school yearbook, I remember one girl making sure she took an Imodium before we started off. I asked her what it was for and she said she just wanted to make sure nothing untoward would happen on the way. I thought it was kind of silly to willingly constipate yourself when your stomach was fine, but it turns out she was right in the end. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong. I still don’t think it’s a good idea to take Imodium when there’s nothing wrong with me, but from this day forth, I vow never to be without it at all times.