A Short Way Back


In the two years I lived in San Francisco, I never drove. But even I knew driving there would be hell.

Sam Ettinger and I were up again before dawn. Hell, we were enjoying breakfast before dawn, at a place called Salducci’s in Lakeport. And nothing could have pleased me more that morning than eating toast while bundled up in winter clothing with a couple of my fellow morning people.

We left Lake County by driving west and then south on the 101, next to the stately tracks of the old Northwestern Pacific Railway. Three counties later, we were hurled off the Golden Gate Bridge and into the City.


“Were we supposed to pay a toll?” I asked. We never figured it out. Anyway, I was busy giving Sam directions in a city he’d never been to. Eventually we got to a remote corner of town and I treated Sam to a tour of SF State. He agreed that the location was miserable. Then I took the wheel, navigating a maze of double-decker freeways toward Mythbusters HQ and, eventually, lunch at Tommy’s Joynt in Cathedral Hill. There are three things I miss about San Francisco, and all of them are restaurants.


Sam crashed at the hotel, in the same room I’d stayed in a year earlier, while I made preparations. My plan for the day was ambitious; to give Sam the full non-touristy San Francisco experience, check out an assortment of bars and restaurants, the whole thing. We were walking around a random stretch of 16th Street when I stopped and pointed out a cafe on the corner of a dead end street.

“What?” asked Sam.

“This is the flower shop,” I replied excitedly. The flower shop was possibly the only real location in Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room.

“You know, James Franco is making a movie out of The Disaster Artist.”

“Good,” said Sam, “He’ll do a good Tommy.”

From there, we messed about on J Church. Dolores Park, the streetcar switchbacks, 22nd street. We retreated Downtown so we could attempt to ride a cable car, and more importantly see the spiral escalator at the Westfield center. From there, we began a long night in the Mission District.

Zeitgeist, a mostly outdoor tavern, was always crowded, but in the rain it was even worse. Resigned to sitting on a wet bench, I laid out the next phase of the day. “Here’s what I’m thinking. After this, we have dinner at El Farolito, and I know I always say ‘stay north of 24th,’ but we’re going to go down to a place called the Knockout.”

DSCN1415On Mission and 24th, El Farolito is generally regarded to have some of the best Mexican food in America, and it couldn’t have been better that night, but the trek to the Knockout filled me with apprehension. The first time I found that particular bar was in 2012. I’ve made a point of visiting San Francisco once a year; but the first time was just weirdly off. I was bored and lonely and had ridden the bus too far, so I got out and went into a random bar. Robocop played on a wall of old TV sets while a Fiery Furnaces song blasted over the speakers, so I liked it quite a lot. The second time I visited, I had hoped to have a drink with an SF State friend named Ambiguously Jewish Ashley, but it didn’t pan out. Add to this the fact that it was south of 24th street (where economics, crime, and even the accent changes for the worse), and that none of my San Francisco friends were available. This time, they were showing Robocop 2. The cycle was complete. Sam was thrilled.

Somewhere between 24th and the Knockout, Sam spied a pie shop where we finished the night. We were headed back to the hotel when I was struck by something. “Let’s go to the French Quarter.”

The French Quarter was a tiny neighbourhood Downtown, one that had been there since the Gold Rush. Allegedly, this place was wedged between huge skyscrapers, an oasis of bright neon and savoury meals in a desert of cold, dark, shuttered steel. I’d never seen it myself. We were too full to eat there, but wanted to go see if it was really there and not just some Wikipedia hoax. And then we found it, shining out in the rainy black of the financial district. Satisfied, we left it there.


The last restaurant I hoped to take Sam to was Red’s Java House. Red’s was the last regular eating spot I found while living in SF, and it gets major points for atmosphere. The restaurant is on a huge, empty pier just south of the Bay Bridge. Most people sit outside, but the walls inside are filled with vintage pin-ups, pictures of old naval ships, and newspaper clippings documenting the City’s violent past. I’m not totally sure I didn’t make it up, and the following morning didn’t prove otherwise because it was closed.

Nevertheless, we had to go home. I knew a falafel place in San Jose, the best falafel place I’d ever eaten at outside Israel. Alas, that was also closed until 10:00 AM. Dejected, we ate donuts at an indpendent movie theater Downtown. I looked around, reminded that I liked San Jose. It does something for me. It’s a nice little city. And at that, we continued our way down the Royal Road, out of Northern Calfiornia, and out of the rain.

“Well,” I said to Sam, “that was the best trip we could have hoped for!”

The Undiscovered County


I looked over at Sam Ettinger. “You’re a smooth smoothie, you know?”

Sam was shocked. “You think we’re doing Fargo? I thought we were doing Sideways!

It was no matter. We’d been planning this trip for months; I’d finally gotten my driver’s license, at the age of 24, just to do this trip. We were going to Lake County.

We wanted to go to Lake County because we knew nothing about it. As far as could be told, nothing historical had ever happened there; no one of note had ever come from there or even lived there. On a map you can see it tucked into the mountains north of San Francisco Bay; coastal, yet landlocked. No railways run through it, no real highways, no rivers. The one thing you can see on the map is a lake, and a rather big one. It’s rare that a body of water that large goes unnoticed by the media or the traveling public.

Neither of us had ever seen so much as a news story about Lake County, and we decided to keep it that way: we wanted to preserve the mystery. Once while listening to This American Life, Ira Glass was doing a story on marijuana management in Mendocino County. Early in the story, he said, “While in neighbouring Lake County–” causing me to immediately shut off the radio.

If there was any time to do this trip, it was this February. In Southern California, the cold, wet winter had forsaken us, causing catastrophic drought and a general lack of merriment. I was in class 40 hours a week, and had just been turned down for a second date with a woman I seriously disliked, which was a relief but still discouraging, while Sam had just finished his master’s degree back east, and planned to visit Europe soon after. I wasn’t sure we’d find anything in Lake County, but at the very least it’d take our minds off everything else.

It happened to rain the night before we left, but it stopped around the time I got to Sam’s house. It was 6:00 AM, and under the cover of darkness, we made our way out of Pasadena. After a regrettable but much-needed breakfast in Valencia, we sped up the Golden State Freeway. I’d made a playlist specially to complement the landscape, but it was so dreary that the effect was altered. “I Can See for Miles” would have been perfect for when we emerged out of the Grapevine had the resulting view of the Central Valley not been obscured by fog.

A pit stop at Kettleman City, lunch at the In-N-Out Burger in Santa Nella. The fog turned into rain. Hard, unrelenting, glorious rain that would stay with us throughout the weekend, and pour over Northern California for days more. This was what winter was supposed to be like. We tore through the hills of the East Bay, then Vallejo, then Napa. The road got thinner and thinner, until it was, essentially, a lane-and-a-half, over a heavily forested, slightly snowy ridge, and into Lake County.

The first word that came to mind was “peaceful.” For miles and miles we saw nothing but old barns, fallow vineyards, and mighty encinos stretching over the slickened road. Soon after, we arrived in Lakeport, the county seat, with a nice selection of independent shops below an old courthouse square. Bill Bryson would be thrilled. I pulled up to the courthouse at 4:30, and as it was a Friday, we had less than an hour if we wanted to know anything about the place. To that end, we walked right into the County Administrator’s office and asked: “Who’s the most interesting person in Lake County?”

The receptionist looked at us for a moment before speaking to her boss, Jill Ruzicka, who proceeded to tell us everything.


Lake County is a basin, surrounded by mountains on all sides, which is why it’s so isolated. It was settled by Europeans when California was still part of Mexico; consequently some families have been living there for six generations. The lake itself is the oldest in North America, having evaded the catastrophic shifts of multiple ice ages. The valley itself is volcanic; all of their electricity is produced by geothermal energy, which is also how their sewage is treated. As of 2014, it’s the greenest county in America.

“And of course,” said Ruzicka, “we’re finally developing a wine industry. The first time wine was developed in the county, Prohibition ended it all. We’re still recovering.”

I couldn’t help but seize on that opening. “Of course,” I said, “the main crop here is…”

She nodded knowingly. “Say it.”


“It’s true.” She went on to say that marijuana is actually a severe pest in the county.

Ruzicka sent us off with a dinner recommendation when Sam discovered that he’d been accepted to get his Ph.D. at Cornell. To that end, we celebrated in style at Park Place, a popular little eatery overlooking the park on the lake. If I’d taken the time to write this in February, I might have been able to say what we ate. Oh, well. Sam claims to have had a pork chop with a red wine reduction and mashed potatoes.

“Lake County is amazing,” I said to Sam. “And nobody knows about it. I wonder whether we should tell anyone.”

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: One Step Beyond

Furl the Gib

I paced through Córdoba station uneasily. There were no high-speed trains where we were going. Only a slow, winding railway taking us through the Cordillera Antequerana to the southernmost part of Spain. Our journey took us off the electric rail system, past military bases and endless forests to arrive 20 minutes late at San Róque, which looked frighteningly like Orange County. From there we took a cab all the way to our hotel in La Línea de Concepción. We were going to Gibraltar.

Gibraltar is one of the Pillars of Hercules, two mountains on either side of the strait separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, and as such, it’s been much fought over. The site of eighteen historical battles, it was finally captured by the British in Queen Anne’s War 309 years ago and it’s been theirs ever since. On the African side of the strait is the Spanish outpost of Ceuta, most famous in the 1970s for a surly border guard who wouldn’t let hippies into Morocco. But that’s a story for someone else to tell.

I wanted to go to Gibraltar because it was on our way, because it was going to be completely different from Spain, and because it afforded me the opportunity to cross an international border by foot, which never happens. The two-mile walk to the border was astonishingly ugly, the road along the beach dusty and unkempt, although the buildings were covered by flocks of giant shearwaters. Between Spain and Gibraltar is a no man’s land a hundred meters across. Naturally, this is where people park. When I passed through the border checkpoint, I excitedly held out my passport, but the guard didn’t even look up. It’s that kind of attitude that’s fostered Euroscepticism is Britain. From the checkpoint we walked across an airstrip, over a drawbridge and through a tunnel, and we were in the heart of Gibraltar.Yo-Ho-Yo-Ho...

For a place that’s so hard to get to, Gibraltar was totally packed, and packed with Britons. Suddenly everybody was paler, fatter, and the women were all wearing makeup. After being in Spain for so long, this was like home. Gibraltar is very proud of its pirate motif; the Gibraltarian pound coin has a skull on it! It’s the skull of a Neanderthal uncovered on the rock, but still! My mom and I had fish and chips– comfortably eating lunch outdoors for the first time in nearly a month. But we had business to attend to on top of the rock.

After procuring a Gibraltarian flag from a souvenir shop, we made the trek to the lift. Nobody shopped here, this is where people lived. The Gibraltarians truly became a people when the area came under threat from the Germans in the Second World War. The caves inside the Rock served as Allied headquarters for the invasion of North Africa, and when the war ended, there was a nation here. Most of the people we saw were from England, but the locals were immediately identifiable by their borderline-unintelligible Rosie Perez-by-way-of-South-London accents.

We weren’t expecting to see many monkeys. I mean, why would they show up for people? But monkeys are not like other wild animals; the moment we got off the lift, there was a monkey and her baby, looking through a poor man’s bag.

Yay Monkeys!

The place was full of monkeys just sitting around, not minding us at all. They were climbing all over the old bunkers, grooming each other, having sex and generally lazing about. After a while, it was time to go, and I had to pull my mom away. She was nearly crying.


The walk back was tortuous; we couldn’t catch a bus to save our lives. By the time we arrived in No Man’s Land, the two miles back to the hotel seemed impossible so we took a cab. My mom was exhausted, but I was composed enough to eat dinner in the hotel. However, I still didn’t have clean clothes, and it looked like I wouldn’t for the remainder of the trip.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Stuck


In addition to being one of the oldest cities in Europe, Córdoba is also the hottest city in Europe. And while it wasn’t warm on New Years’ Day, it wasn’t cold enough to snow; it had rained early in the morning when we made way to La Mezquita, a block from our hotel.

La Mezquita was formerly the Great Mosque of Córdoba, with its striped arches and beautiful garden. We hung around there for a while, waiting to be let in. The inside of the building isn’t as big as it looks in pictures, and it’s still in use as a religious house. When the Castilians arrived, they built a cathedral inside it, so when you see it from the outside, one building appears to have grown out of the other like a parasitic wasp.

Inside the cathedral was quiet. Finally a priest showed up. My mom, who is not accustomed to seeing priests outside of movies, was enthralled. I was less enthralled by the prospect of being stuck there for an hour, so I convinced her to bail for lunch. As the bells rang for noon, we looked through the streets.


After searching for restaurants we found the kind of place where kings and presidents and prime ministers ate when they visited. Casually wondering really how often Tony Blair made it to this particular city, I noticed that one of the past visitors had been the current King of Morocco. He was a distant descendant of the Sultans and Emirs that would have ruled most of Spain and Portugal from this very city. I later discovered that the restaurant didn’t open until 13:30, so we got the hell out and ate somewhere else while planning the remainder of our trip. We were going to keep going south, beyond even Spain. And I still hadn’t done laundry.

Author’s note: Fellow Bosco alum Jake Hawkes is presently backpacking through Galicia. I didn’t go to Galicia, but we still salute him.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Los Judíos

When the AVE arrived in Córdoba, we fell off the train– we’d come in much earlier than thought, and it hadn’t occurred to me that this train wouldn’t linger in the station very long. We ran right out to the taxi area.

“Hotel Albucasis, Calle Buen Pastor once,” I said to the driver, who may have been the same age as me. Thus began the most terrifying cab ride of my life.

Córdoba is old, it had already been around for centuries when the Romans arrived, and people have been living there ever since. Most of the city, still enclosed by a wall, consists of streets six feet wide with tight curves. The entire street we were on was barely wide enough for the taxi with no way of seeing in front of us, and the guy was driving at 40 miles an hour. But we reached our hotel. This was the Judería.

Córdoba has been a city as long as anyone can remember. The Carthaginians named it Kartuba after a general who was killed near by. The Romans came around in the 3rd century BC, where it was home to the father-and-son philosophers Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Younger. When the Visigoths captured Spain, the Byzantines briefly took it back, but eventually the Moors came and took care of business.

Córdoba under Islamic rule was the capital of Al Andalus and one of the largest cities in the world, much bigger than it is even today. We are told in history class that the Moors were a kind and gentle people who were eventually pushed out by the feckless papists. At least that’s what they said at Barnhart Middle School. In reality, Spain was always a mostly Christian country ruled over by a Muslim minority. Due to the country’s remoteness from the Arab world, it was a pretty lax place: the state of Al-Andalus broke up into several states ruled over by Emirs both Christian and Muslim until they were conquered by Islamic fanatics from Mauretania– the AQIM of its day– who antagonized the country’s impoverished Christian trading partners in the north enough to cause the Reconquista, the western front of the Crusades. Which brings us to La Judería.

For two hundred years, Córdoba was part of the Crown of Castile but still enjoyed religious freedom, and La Judería was the Jewish section during that time. It was a prosperous place with big houses, synagogues; it was Spain’s Upper West Side. It was also home to the Jewish philosopher Maimonedes, better known to me, and to fans of The Big Lebowski, as Rambam.

It's the whole concept of aitch!

All of this, of course, was covered up and forgotten when the Spanish Inquisition came, but the Judería was rediscovered by local monks digging around in the 1870s and Spain today is quite proud of their Jewish history. Sam Ettinger told me that Spain was one of the most antisemitic countries in Europe, but I found no evidence of that whatsoever. My mom and I had lunch first, at an amazing Sephardic restaurant tucked away, as I recall, behind some bushes. I had chicken and rice and falafel. It was spectacular.

After that we visited the Jewish museum, really a restored medieval townhouse filled with whatever artifacts people found walled up in their homes or under their kitchen tiles. Because the streets are so narrow, houses in Córdoba are built with gardens on the inside like donut holes, and this one was spectacular. But I looked over at my mom and something had come over her. Something I’d never seen before. Some of my ancestors are from here; they escaped Spain to go to Odessa, which was then part of Turkey. That’s why I looked like these people. We were here.

I spent the afternoon desperately looking for a laundromat. I was out of clean clothes for the first time since Barcelona, but no place was open. I should mention it was New Years’ Eve. In Spain, people don’t come out to celebrate until after midnight, so the streets were dead as we searched for dinner. I settled for a kebab on the high street near the Plaza de las Tendillas, which was lit up with blue LEDs for the upcoming celebrations.


When midnight did come, the bells of La Mezquita rang like hell through the whole city. I was finally over jet-lag, but sadly not enough to go out any later.

Lands of the Setting Sun: The Garden of Earthly Delights

Unknown man at the Royal Palace

I was going to like Madrid no matter what. I fit in, spoke the language, liked the food well enough, and nobody looked at me funny for wearing a tie on vacation. I also liked it more because I arrived ready to hate the place.

Spanish companies– engineers mostly– do a lot of business in Los Angeles, and all of them are based in Madrid. I’d spent my childhood looking at pictures of their headquarters: soulless glass towers on barren modern streets. I later discovered that that is a new area of Madrid north of the old city– a sort of Castillian Courbevoie.

If Barcelona was Chilly, Madrid was well into the next ice age, a fact my mom and I discovered as soon as we went out the front door at Atocha station. A mile high and 200 miles inland, the city is subject to Europe’s hottest summers and Spain’s coldest winters. During our stay, the temperature hovered around -1º C, and it was only December. But who cares? I love the cold.

Madrid was also unimaginably crowded. It’s the size of Chicago, but instead of a grid, the entire city radiates out from the Plaza del Sol, where we got off the subway to find our hotel, which I understood to be on the Plaza Mayor. Struggling through packed sidewalks, we found ourselves in a vast rectangular marketplace, awkwardly placed in the medieval cityscape in 1576, and just as impassable as the city streets.

As it turned out, our hotel was on the Plaza Santa Cruz, a block away. We checked in and immediately I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was half-asleep and terrified of missing our dinner reservation, but got straightened out and we went to Sobrino de Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant and haunt of several historical figures. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, which is not the best of signs, but I got a picture of dessert:


Briefly getting lost in the winding streets, we returned to the hotel and, still suffering from jet-lag, attempted to sleep. It would have been easier if there hadn’t been dozens of drunken men singing in the plaza until 4 AM.

The next day, Mom and I took a stroll around the city, and everything looked oddly familiar. “This looks just like West London,” I said. “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” said my mom, who had never been to London. That isn’t a coincidence: in the mid-19th century, Queen Isabella II had all of Madrid rebuilt in classic Victorian style, with big townhouses and rigidly landscaped parks. Atocha Station was built during this time. Isabella’s reign was very similar to Queen Victoria’s, except that she was overthrown in 1868, replaced by an Italian King, who was replaced by a republic, who was finally replaced by Isabella’s son. It’s worth mentioning that all of this happened in the span of eight years. Spain had four civil wars in the span of a single century.

After visiting the outside of the palace, we took the subway to El Retiro, the massive park on the east side of the city. El Retiro was a welcome relief from the claustrophobia of the rest of the city; it’s a popular place for joggers and dogs, and every few meters there’s a massive monument to some element of Spanish history, a queen or an admiral or the War on Terror. It’s an excellent way to memorialize great national figures; Washington DC could learn a lesson from this place.

From here we had planned to visit the Prado museum, but it wasn’t open yet, so we repaired to the Reina Sofía, a newer museum named ostentatiously after the current Queen, and home to many of the great cubist works, culminating in Picasso’s massive Guernica. In addition to the paintings, the museum was full of articles and books from the early 1900s, detailing the birth of the cubist movement, including Picasso’s early sketches, The Dream and Lie of Franco, which seems to have inspired Guernica. I liked The Dream and Lie better. It was seeing these that made my mom a little weepy, but we were just getting started.

“Are you getting tired?” I asked my mom as we had lunch in a café with a door that kept blowing open.

“We have to see the Prado,” she said.

“I know,” I said, “I just need a little break. After a second coke I was ready to take it on.

All I knew about the Prado was that it had the works of Francisco Goya, but upon entering I discovered that that was but a footnote. My mom was overwhelmed. Fra Angelico? Bosch? Velazquez? All here. I’d seen hundreds of these paintings in my high school art textbook, but my mom had majored in fine art. She later told me, “I’ve been looking at these paintings my entire life and never thought I’d see them in person.” While I struggled to comprehend the massive c.1500 prog rock album cover that was The Garden of Earthly Delights, she stared longingly at the modestly-sized self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer.

“I had a crush on Albrecht Dürer,” my mom said. “I used to carry a wallet-sized version of this painting in my pocket.” My mom’s emotional roller coaster was just beginning.

Later that afternoon, I ran into some Norwegian girls who were also visiting for Christmas break. After a pleasant chat, they took the subway going the other way and I realized I’d forgotten to ask what they were doing that night. It wouldn’t have mattered. I was asleep before dinnertime.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Native Tongues


I was disappointed with Barcelona, but things were already looking up when we got off the L3 at Sants Station. Finding our way from the subway platform to the main station was not easy in a city with few signs and a fierce attachment to an obscure language, but we we weren’t left wanting for long: a little old lady sidled up to us, noticed our suitcases and gave us directions to the platform. I was prepared not to listen to yet another person pointlessly railing in Catalan, but to my astonishment I understood what she was saying– she was speaking Spanish. I thanked her and raced to the main concourse.

AVE is Spain’s high-speed rail system; the line from Barcelona to Madrid is one of their newest, and it is the second-fastest train in the world (the fastest is the LGV-Est in France). One look at a map of AVE makes you wonder how a flat-broke country like Spain can continue to build high-speed rail while America can’t. The United States’ only HSR line is the Acela, which runs from Boston to Washington via New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. However, it runs on shared track and doesn’t go above 200 kilometers per hour (the Barcelona-Madrid line manages 300). Eight high-speed rail systems are in the planning phases across America, but while California is coming close to breaking ground on exclusive track, the rest are based on marginal improvements like concrete ties and grade separation. In 2011, Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida actually shut down projects in their states to spite President Obama.

But I digress. Sants Station is in a hideous building, though my mom was spared the indignity of having to see the outside. Instead we waited. Across from us sat a young, pretty girl with fluffy brown hair, freckles, and a trademark Catalan nose. As far as my mom and I could tell, Catalan women all have short noses. She wore a colourful outfit and pulled out a massive book– a George R.R. Martin book, maybe. Accidentally, I had dropped the bottlecap from my coke between my mom’s seat and mine, and the girl gave me a judgmental look as I struggled to fish it out.

“She gave me a look,” I said to my mom.

“Who cares?” she said. “She’s reading a dictionary.”

Our laughter spun out of control, gathering further looks of disdain.

We arrived in Atocha Station, a place that I’d first heard of under unfortunate circumstances in the eighth grade, when Al Qaeda detonated several bombs on commuter trains here to commemorate 2 1/2 years since 9/11. That day in Spanish class we learned the phrase “¡Al Qaeda no pasajaron!”


In the cold we stumbed to Atocha’s 19th-century concourse, a glorious brick edifice with a glass roof and a massive indoor tropical garden. It was 13:00 as I raced to the nearest café, then to the bathroom, then back to the café. I ordered for both of us in my normal Spanish accent and the waitress didn’t even blink. It was in Madrid that I discovered I have a Castillian accent.

I’ve taken five years of Spanish lessons from teachers variously speaking in Andalusian, Mexican, Chilean and Venezuelan accents, but here in Madrid strangers spoke openly to me as if I were a local. Of course, being thin and wearing a tie helped; Spaniards are possibly the dressiest people in the world.

Even in Spanish I’m a posh spaz, I thought. Compared to Barcelona, this was like being at home. Madrid was going to be fun.

Lands of the Setting Sun: The View from Montjuïc

The Literal View

The Metaphorical View

Author’s Note: This entry was originally intended to be part of the previous one, but it ended up being too long. As these articles have got some attention, I’m curious to know if readers would be okay with longer entries. Let me know in the comments.

Though we had already seen most of Barcelona, it was Montjuïc that took it right out of us.

Before we could do that, I returned in the wee hours to the Boquería. This time I was alone, and on my way up the Rambla I was accosted by three dubious-looking women who reached out to nearly grab me. At first I thought they were pickpockets. Then I notice they alone were wearing makeup and realized they were prostitutes, scampering away as if that weren’t unusual. Barcelona is full of prostitutes.

Montjuïc allegedly means “mountain of the Jews,” though that may be a folk etymology and the name may be corrupted from something else altogether. It is a mountain overlooking the center of Barcelona atop which is built an old fortress and most of the city’s Olympic Park, left over from the 1992 games.

To get there, we had to walk down the Nou de Rambla into a nondescript neighbourhood that resembles nothing so much as Shepherd’s Bush, although in reality we took the Subway. Allegedly the L3 station connected to a funicular railway running up the mountain, though to our great misfortune we went out the wrong way and ended up in a residential area a stone’s throw from the mountain top, but unreachable nonetheless. It was here we saw Spain’s only cat: massive and golden, like a cheetah but bulkier. He sat idly on the tiny balcony as I sat and figured out how to get up the hill.

I don’t know what made Montjuïc so appealing except that we had another day to burn off, but the main attraction is the view. Barcelona’s skyline isn’t very vertical, but you do get some enjoyment from the novelty of seeing every building you’ve visited, even if, like me at the time, you need glasses but don’t have them. We rounded a corner to catch a lift across the harbour. This part of the mountain was marked by a very Louis XIV-esque rose garden; sitting alone there was a woman taking in the sun and I saw her hairy armpits.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem whatsoever with hairy armpits on women, but I’d never seen any before in person, and that more than anything else it was a sign that yes, I was in Europe, and yes, overzealous body grooming had never caught on south of the Alps. Doubting I could express this to my own mother without sounding like a complete pervert, I kept this to myself, feeling very smug, if a bit uneasy as we rode the very tall, very old, very rickety lift off of Montjuïc.

We were deposited then in La Barceloneta. Previously a compact village for fishermen, La Barceloneta has become not unlike a Catalan Venice Beach, full of skaters and weekenders in cafés.

“I’m sorry,” said my Mom. “I can’t walk anymore.” Strangely, neither could I, so we took a bus back to the subway, and after briefly getting lost made our way back to Liceu and the Gaudí Hotel.

As Catalonia is in the throes of a nationalist movement, I impulsively decided to buy my own Estelada, the Catalan independence flag. On the off chance that independence would be ratified in 2014, I thought it would be cool to have evidence that I had visited the country before it existed. In fact, I thought, It would be pretty cool to get the flags of every country we go through. So as my mom rested, unable to stay awake to eat dinner, I returned to the Rambla to find a suitable vendor. It cost €14, a reasonable price for a flag, though I did find some difficulty explaining myself to the vendor. Nearly every vendor on the Rambla is a South Asian immigrant, and some speak neither English nor Spanish. In such situations I find it’s best not to say anything at all.

2012 Catalan Independence Rally