Lands of the Setting Sun: ¡Yeísmo!

Long Way Back

You’ve got to love Ibn Battouta. A Moorish explorer, he made it all the way to the Philippines, served briefly as a minister in the Maldives, and fought in the Battle of Gibraltar, spent the overwhelming majority of his life abroad, and when he wrote it all down, he made sure to let the reader know he wasn’t having any fun. The man abhorred any culture with topless women. On the other hand, he is on the 5dh coin.

Ibn Battouta Airport was on the windward side of the point of Cape Spartel, in howling wind, and accessible only by a dirt road, though that may soon change. Tangier was neglected under the bad king Hassan II, but it’s experiencing a revival under his son Mohammed VI. It’s still a messy place, but it’s also the fastest growing city on the African continent. This king is popular enough to have his picture in every room in the country, and every kiosk at Ibn Battouta.

This isn't the actual photo. I didn't think to take one at the airport.

First thing I did was get my mom some tea. As soon attendant at the cafe poured it, I picked up the paper cup, rapidly scalding my hand, but keeping my composure long enough to return to the counter and get a second cup for insulation. What I liked most about TNG (besides being one of the few remaining airports where you walk onto the tarmac) was the airline employees. All Moroccan, all pretty girls, all wearing djellabas, the traditional hooded robe of the Moors. We’d seen people wearing them around; it was a bit like seeing a Native American in full shaman gear walking down 42nd Street, except that here it was normal. I stopped in a tiny souvenir shop looking for a flag and they had it: giant, thick and woolen, a real flag like those getting shredded by the wind outside. You could have used it as a blanket. I ponyed up my last 40dh and packed it into my suitcase with the others.

Our flight plan resulted in a two-hour layover at Madrid Barajas, which was creepily identical to Heathrow, built in a style consisting mainly of glass and chrome which my mom likened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

“Would you be interested in watching all of Terry Gilliam’s films?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “there’s an insanity risk.”

I grabbed as much food as humanly possible from Medas, mostly ham, and devoured it as quickly as possible before queueing for the connecting flight. “So what are the differences between Castillian and South American Spanish?”

Annoyed by Britons who seem to think anything south of the Potomac is “South America,” I turned around to see a girl of about 15 travelling with her brother. “New World Spanish lacks distinción. There’s no th-sound, though that’s also the case in some parts of Spain.”

“That’s right,” she said approvingly. For the next two hours on the plane, I would catch her staring at me several seats ahead, then pretending she wasn’t, trying not to grin.

But now we were in England, and we had two hours to get to our hotel near Heathrow, catch a bus to the Picadilly Line, thence to the Northern Line, and get off at Camden Town. From there, we made a beeline for Regent’s Park, briefly got lost in some mud, and arrived at the Regent’s Canal. We barely made it, and not only because my mom couldn’t stop laughing at “Cockfosters.” I’d simply forgotten how huge London is.

I’d first heard about this restaurant from David Mitchell’s Back Story. Feng Shang Princess is a fancy Chinese restaurant on a double-decker canal boat, and though Mitchell walked by it all the time, he had never gone in. I was worried it would just be a novelty restaurant but the food was terrific. We were particularly taken by the crispy chicken in mango curry sauce. My mom decided that even though her birthday was in April, this would be my present. A £60 dinner at a restaurant on a boat, from a book, in London.


I never ate the chorizo. It got seized at customs in Los Angeles. You’re not allowed to bring ham in here.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Barcelona to Tangier by Any Means

Flag of the Moops

The wind was blowing like crazy through the end of the Mediterranean, and it wouldn’t stop as long as we were there. As our hotel in La Línea was on the beach, the wind was full of sand and dust. And quite itchy. Clearly our final leg of the trip would be very different.

We took a longish cab to the ferry terminal at Algeciras. Though pronounced “al khethira,” it does in fact originate from Al Jazeera, the infamous news channel being watched on our boat. The language spoken here in the middle ages was Mozarabic, a Latin-derived language with bits of Arabic thrown in. The port of Algeciras was typically empty and threadbare, and the ferry took an extra thirty minutes to properly line up to the pier. I hadn’t ridden a ferry since going to scout camp on Catalina Island and I began to feel seasick for the first time in my life. I stared at the horizon to alleviate the feeling, but it turns out that makes it worse.

When we docked at Tanger-Med, it was raining. We grabbed our bags and rushed out, pulling out our passports but were stopped. We were supposed to get stamped on the ship. So we rushed back, waiting furtively for the customs officer to return before the ship returned to Spain. After a terrifying hour, he returned; a thin, professorial man in a long coat.

“I’m guessing you’ve never done this before,” he said. “It’s always someone.”

Ten minutes later we were relaxing at the snack kiosk. My mom had a mint tea, I had a coke. Clearly food was much cheaper here than in Europe. We were sitting on the African continent.


After a while, we boarded a shuttle to the terminal, changed my remaining 70 Euros for 770 Dirhams. Tanger-Med is shockingly far away from Tangier itself, and the only way to get to there is on an ancient beige Mercedes called a gránd-taxi. Having misread the Rick Steves guide, I was under the impression that gránd-taxis were overpriced and you could do better, but that was only in the city itself. Riding in the cab I got the distinct impression that the driver was taking the long way, but it turns out the fastest way is actually on a winding, terrifying coast road. This would turn into a theme.

We finally arrived at the Hotel Rembrandt, where apparently Tennessee Williams spent a year. It was already getting dark, and I wanted to get a taste of the Tangier before it shut down for sabbath. We walked down a street, to a series of stairways, along a castle wall, past the old Jewish cemetery and into the Medina. At one point I considered going down the Rue Khammal, a tiny little alleyway leading God knows where, but my mom wouldn’t have it. A man in a nearby doorway was giving her a foreboding look, and we went instead down the Rue de la Marine, quite hungry.Don't go in there...

Immediately a petite man in a waiter’s uniform beckoned us into the nearest restaurant. It was a dark, dusky place where it turned out he was the only waiter. This was it, Tangier, the city of spies, the Arab world. In addition to a delicious meatball dish, my mom was having tea in a tiny glass! People were smoking indoors! I had a shawarma and a Coke. Dinner for two? 102dh. $10.

Living the Dream

On the way back we briefly got lost. English is not generally taught as the second language, forcing me to rely on my failed-semester of French. “Ou est le Boulevard Mohammed V?” Eventually we found the hotel.

More than anything I wished we could’ve gone deeper into the country. Casablanca and Marrakech seemed a stone’s throw away, and Tangier was little more than the Moroccan version of Tijuana. I went out later in the night, hoping to find a Moroccan flag, but the shops were all shut. We had another big day coming: Camden Town beckoned.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Getting Ready

Bella Hispania

Bill Bryson has never written about Spain, nor has David Sedaris. Michael Palin and Charley Boorman both went through Spain, but only a little bit around the edges. I was beginning to worry. I had planned this trip meticulously for months, and with only two days to go, I’d run out of ways to prepare.

In England didn’t need any book or travel show; the country was omnipresent in English-language media. And in Israel I’d been in a Birthright group with a guide. My impending journey into Spain seemed somehow lacking.

Months earlier, trapped on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I decided to read the Oxford University Press’ history of Spain. Somehow, they managed to turn the story of this country, the product of endless cultural invasions, wars, and political intrigue, and make it dryer than the winter rash that had developed just in time for the trip. My only option was to talk to my friend Sam Ettinger, who had spent a semester there.

“When you go, are you going to use an American or British accent?”

I ignored his bizarre conceit. “Why don’t I just speak Spanish?”

“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”

“Remember that time I was on the bus in San Francisco, and that old racist lady sat next to me and went on a rant in Spanish about how the Mexican kids in front of us were shaming her ethnicity by acting black?”


Actually, my Spanish was shaky. Despite growing up near towns where Spanish is the first language, taking five years of Spanish classes, and understanding the written language, I faltered embarrassingly when trying to hold a conversation. On the other hand, it seemed to be only Northern Mexican Spanish that gave me trouble; I chatted for hours with some Argentine girls in London who didn’t speak any English, so my luck in Spain was anyone’s guess.

“My point being,” Sam continued, “you don’t want them to think you’re English. They really don’t like the English right now, what with all the vomiting on the beach.”

I was well-acquainted with the English in Spain through television. Spain– Valencia and the Balearics in particular– is full of wintering British who hole up in their own community with no interest in the country around them, and queasy students yakking all over the place, berating the locals for not serving chips. It’s a problem. On the other hand, Spaniards love the Duke of Wellington and Joe Strummer, so I came out of the conversation having learned nothing about what English-speakers face in the country.

I’ve wanted to go to Spain since I was ten years old, and thought it might actually be the inspiration for Hyrule in the Legend of Zelda games– particularly Ocarina of Time, which has lots of Moorish and Islamic influences going on there. And because California was settled by the Spaniards so much later than the rest of Latin America, their influence was much more recent; the people of 18th century Los Angeles probably spoke with Castilian accents, but since the original Spanish-speaking community was effectively eradicated by the influx of Americans, we’ll probably never know.

In either case I planned meticulously. I was taking my mom; despite growing up in a Spanish-speaking region, she never learned the language well enough to speak in a foreign country, and there were some things I knew she would want to see, though I had no idea how much.

Compared to other European countries, Spain is huge; bigger than California, and not long and narrow like that state. Seeing the whole country would be impossible, but I decided on a few locations that were important to me: Barcelona, Madrid, and Córdoba. I also made arrangements to visit Gibraltar and Tangier nearby, and our plans included an overnight stop in London on the way back. All apologies to the Basque Country, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Granada. Next time, I promise.

To be continued…