Tuesday, April 12, 2016

La Pedriza and La Pedriza 2.0

Teenage Anita is laughing at old Anita because teenage Anita hated exercise, especially walking for hours on uneven paths just for the pleasure of walking. Not the case now. Being enclosed in a city all week, I crave nature (and miss the nature of home - I just can't describe the concept of 'bush walks' to non-kiwis'). Thankfully, very close to Madrid are several parks where it's possible to hike, walk, rock-climb and mountaineer.

For people in Madrid wanting to know how to get there:
Take the light blue line metro to Plaza de Castilla. Get off, walk to platform 26 and take the bus to Manzanares El Real (can't remember the number, sorry). It's an hour on the bus, and you can either get off opposite the supermarket in the second town you go through, or at the roundabout with the statue of the hiking man in the middle. From Sol to the start of the hike, it's about 1.5 hours, depending on how well you time it with the bus (which leaves every 50 minutes).

La Pedriza round one was the day after I got back from La Costa Brava. In typical Anita style, I arrived early at Sol to meet with the others (I actually didn't know who 3 of them were, we have just decided on our uni's Erasmus facebook page that we would all hike on the Monday) because I wanted to go to my second favourite coffee place to get a flat white. Shout out to Coffee and Kicks for providing me with consistently good flat whites here in Madrid. Coffee-loving New Zealanders in Madrid - I'd recommend. I obviously didn't fit the trendy clientele there (actually, it was 10 in the morning on a Monday so it was empty) but the Kanye playing amped me up for the hike. And the barista was wearing a cool cap - could have been a Welly place.

Although heading into town for flat whites is something I do on an embarrassingly common basis, this time I actually had the purpose of meeting with friends and going for a little walk. On the metro, off the metro, on the bus (a long period of wondering when we were supposed to get off, followed by getting off one stop too early), off the bus, to the information centre, to the other information centre because that one was shut, to the start of the path... and we were there.

Luckily for us it wasn't raining as hard as it could be raining. This was a good thing because there wasn't that much shelter, and the dirt path would probably turn to mud. The 30 euro hiking boots that I had bought one month early from Decathlon were finally getting their walk.

La Pedriza in the rain

We were doing reasonably well, there was a path and yellow and white paint to direct us in the right direction. Being a kiwi, I had notoriously overpacked - puffer jacket, raincoat, merino thermal, spare socks, spare top, umbrella (this was an accident, I didn't realise it was still in my bag), plus my camera, water bottle and lunch - while the others had smaller backpacks. Oh well. I used pretty much everything.

We ended up walking to a rock quite early on in the park, on our way to the river and bridge we were supposed to come across. We climbed said rock, and had a picnic lunch there before attempting to re-find the track. We did not re-find the track. Instead we walked for longer until we got sick of walking and decided to turn back. We were a little bit more than lost now, but luckily my trusty maps.me app actually had on it a path we could follow. It led us on a path on the outside of the park, where we were walking next to paddocks and amongst tall pine trees. Definitely not the part of the track we expected to go on, but that's what happens when you're a slightly lost kiwi with no sense of direction.

The weather for La Pedriza round 2 was a 100% improvement. Sunny, with bright blue skies and cute fluffy clouds. It made the park look a lot less bleak and a lot more enticing. Every man and his dog was there (literally - another strange concept for a kiwi, taking dogs to national parks). The track was easy enough to just wear normal shoes on, and you can even drive through part of it.

We actually stopped at the same spot (or a few rocks over) to have a picnic lunch again, then carried on. One of the guys spotted a big rock he wanted to climb up, and led the way there. There wasn't exactly a path, but it also wasn't exactly hard going not being on the path. There were basically a lot of rock formations that we all clambered over, climbed up, and tried not to fall down.

The cool part of the trip was that, being such a clear day, we could see all the way over to Madrid and its landmark four skyscrapers. On the other side of us were snow topped mountains, which I am fairly certain people climb on.

So that was our day on Saturday. Picturesque views, good company, and some daring photos (not published). It was rounded up by an afternoon picnic while we waited for the bus, then amazing pizza and gelato in Lavapies. And just to top off the weekend, Sunday was spent studying for a test I had on Monday.

Hope everyone else had a great weekend!

Monday, April 11, 2016

the raisins

The raisins

Madrid has two types of trains - the metro and the cercanía. Metros are the ones that go around the city with stops pretty much all the time, and cercanías are for longer distances, so stop less frequently between suburbs. I live about 20kms out of the city centre, so the C4 line is my way in and out of the city practically every day. Most times when I take it, I get to sit down for the 20 minute ride (unlike if I were taking the metro). It's comfortable and fast, and everyone minds their own business.

Not last week though.

I was heading home from town in the evening, tired and a bit hungry. So I bought some dried fruit from the 'guilty pleasure' store that I always pass on the way to the platform. There I was, munching away on some crackers and raisins. The old man sitting across from me said (in Spanish) "Do you know that those make you fat?"

Ok, nice of you to tell me that, but I do know that they're not the healthiest snack, but much better than the Milka Oreo bar I could have bought... So I answered "Yes, I know that but it's ok, I know healthy from unhealthy."

He said something else about the raisins and I just kind of sat there, feeling instantly guilty for eating these things. But oh well, if he was going to want to talk, I was going to chat with him and practice speaking Spanish. He asked where I was from, what I was doing here, where I was going etc. I was starting to worry if he had an accomplice in the train or something and I'd be followed home (paranoia, probably enhanced by the sugar in the raisins). So I threw a few questions at him - where was he going, how long had he lived there for, did he have grandchildren? He lived in the same suburb as I did, and had actually lived there for about 30 years. Maybe he had top insider tips for me...

Yet, our conversation was punctuated by long periods of silence; I had paused my music and was just starting out the window, wondering what else we could talk about. Maybe I could make a friend? Near the last stop, a man came into our carriage, declaring he was a father, he didn't have a job, he didn't have any other income, and he was hungry. If we had anything we could give him - a donation of money or food, that would be very helpful.

You all know what's coming next. He started at one end of the carriage, and walked towards where we were sitting. A few people put some coins in his bag. He came past me, so I handed over the rest of the dried fruit. He said thank you. The end.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Don't Touch the Fruit! And other curiosities about Spain

Once I was at the supermarket buying fruit, and a lady was doing the same. She picked up some runner beans with her hands, and put them in a plastic bag to be weighed. The gentleman next to her said 'you need to use gloves' to which she replied 'what I touch, I keep'. I see the logic in that. Why put on plastic gloves, just to pick up fruit and veges that you're either going to wash, peel or cook? But that's something you do here. You get a plastic glove and only touch the produce with it, or risk being told off like the lady did.

I've been here for a few months now, so here are some more cultural curiosities that I've noticed, or partaken in, or looked like a fool of because of them:

They're smaller, not all of the produce sections are refrigerated, sometimes you have to weigh and price fruit before going to the checkout, other times you don't... I never really know. Some things are refrigerated that shouldn't be; other things (like some types of fish) aren't refrigerated at all. It really depends on the place. It's uncommon to buy fresh milk because UHT is so much cheaper (0.60 euros for a litre compared to 1.60) and good old tasty cheese doesn't exist (but many other delicious things do, like jamón and the most amazing hummus I have ever bought).

The work day starts later, around 10am, pauses at about 1pm, then kicks off again at about 4 or 5 at night. But not everyone has a siesta. Or not every day.

Kids stay out
It's not uncommon to see kids out with their parents in bars etc. I think it's a really nice way of socialising children, but sometimes it's so late! Seeing children walk down the street at 11pm or later with their parents is kind of strange

People are always out with their friends
Whenever I leave my apartment, there are always groups of people - young and old - doing things together. Elderly friends or couples, young kids kicking a ball around, groups of middle-aged men and women. Spanish people are very social, and it's great. 

Public transport
... is so cheap! For me, it's 20 euros for unlimited use of the Madrid transport lines - busses, metro and trains. It's been a godsend. Thank you Madrid.

Sometimes you get free tapas; sometimes you have to pay for bread
Restaurants bring out a basket of bread when you eat out. Sometimes it's free, sometimes it's not, and sometimes they bring out free tapas when you order a drink. But I never know when it's free or not and now have learnt to always ask. When it's free, they say so like I should know that. But it's not always free, so I never know. It's complicated.

There are footpaths and there are narrow roads, but hey, let's separate them using not kerbs or paving, but these annoying knee high metal poles that you always accidentally kick or walk into. Bollards: 1, Anita: 0.

Customer service
Isn't really a thing. But sometimes it is. And you never know when. Example: went to Vodafone to set up internet. Guy was super helpful and friendly until he discovered that we didn't have residency cards (not needed on a shorter student visa); he then told us no provider would give us internet. We went next door to Orange, told the salesperson straight away we wanted internet but had no residency cards, and he still said it was fine because I had a passport.

I pay my rent in cash every month... which is pretty normal. But my landlord's bank just doesn't seem normal. For once, you either have to pay it in using a machine, or go between 8am and 10am on a Tuesday or a Thursday between the 10th and 20th of the month to pay in cash. And 2 out of the 3 times, the tellers have let me do it on the 1st of the month because I say I didn't know about the timetable. There's probably a reason for it, but I don't know what it is.

The changing rooms at Zara.
A multi-story department store, with 3 levels dedicated to womenswear. But only three changing rooms. I have never managed to have the patience to wait to use them, once I waited for 30 minutes before giving up. Then went to another Zara store 5 minutes walk away and there were NO lines.

The speed limit
The roads are safer than NZ roads, so 120km/h is actually a safer speed (because everyone would probably drive that anyway). They are multi-laned, and big barriers between the two different sides. So good. Have reached speeds of 150km/h much to my mother's worry.

I'm lucky to have a lovely landlady (who I've never actually met, only communicated with via text). But some landlords are crazy! I've been in apartments where they have security cameras in the entrances and in the lounges. Also have friends with hyper-strict rules about guests (no guests allowed at all, and neighbours get involved if they sense guests are there). 

New Zealand is not Australia
Happens to me every time I say I'm from New Zealand: 'Where are you from?' 'New Zealand' 'Wow, how far away' 'Yes, it's quite far' 'I really want to go to Australia'. Noooo you don't, come to New Zealand! Ah well.

Museo del Jamón
While you're out buying cheese and meat/ham, why not get a plate of chorizo and some beer. Best concept ever.

100 Montaditos
Likewise - the 1 euro menu for Wednesday and Sundays means you get cheap mini sandwiches and beer/wine/tinto de verano, and always end up eating way too much. They even have chocolate bread with oreo sandwiches, a winner in my book. It's everywhere around Spain too - I think it even came to Florida in the US.

Phone contracts
I don't text - I use whatsapp, like everyone else in the population here. It's really uncommon to send an SMS or make a phone call, because plans with data are a lot more common here.

and my favourite

Old men say it to you. Old ladies say it to you. Creepy men say it to you. I now say it to my friends. It just means 'hello beautiful' but I think it's also the standard greeting in my suburb slash all of Spain. One of my neighbours always says it when I walk past her in the stairwell, and I can't help but smile and wonder if I should say it back...

Semana Santa in España

A couple of weeks ago, I met a stranger at the bus station, got in his car and drove six hours to Barcelona. It would have been longer, if we had not been going 150km/h (sorry Mum). This was all thanks to Blabla Car, a car sharing website where you pay a fee to take up a free seat in someone's car. It's like the airbnb of driving somewhere, and a great alternative to spending hours on a bus going the measly pace of 120km/h.

We had a week and a day off university for Easter break/Semana Santa and I was off to a town north of Barcelona to spend with a family from Denmark. My family in NZ has hosted heaps of exchange students through AFS and one of our exchange students' families was staying there for the week and invited me to come along. Helena had lived with my family for a year. After six years of not seeing her, we were finally about to reunite in Spain. Quick plug for AFS: if you've ever thought about hosting an exchange student, going on an exchange, or know someone who would be a great candidate - do it! Living in Chile for a year and subsequently hosting and volunteering with AFS has been one of the best things I have ever done.

I couldn't have asked for a better spring break. I felt so welcomed into her family and we spent hours having interesting discussions, playing pool, sunbathing by the pool, exploring the surroundings on foot, bike and car, and eating delicious food. 

The Mediterranean was stunning. Palm trees, golden sand, beach walks. This was my first time there, and after reading about it for so long and seeing it on films, tv shows and friends' photos, I was finally there myself. It was strangely surreal, like being in a dream. Being Catalonia as well, it was interesting to see how the culture different from the metropolis of Madrid. It's very obvious that the region wants independence. The regional language isn't Spanish, but Catalán. Houses everywhere have the Catalonian flag hanging up - and in Madrid you rarely see the Spanish flag.

One of the highlights of being there was a day trip to Barcelona. First stop was Park Güell. Designed by Gaudi, it's an incredible example of wacky and creative landscape architecture. The hundreds of tourists there seemed to think so too. We were a bit taken aback at the fact that you had to pay now to see some parts of the park - and that paying also involved queueing up for ages to get in to the parts you paid to see, because there were limits on how many people could enter. We decided against paying, and still managed to spend plenty of time there discovering what the park had to offer.
Park Güell
Park Güell
One of my favourite parts from the park was the view of the city - to the right of the photo below you can see La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's cathedral that is in a perpetual state of renovation. Madrid has no hills, and I miss views like this!
View of Barcelona
La Sagrada Familia
Instead of going inside La Sagrada Familia, we drove around it a few times - exactly the same way my younger sister did when she visited Barcelona with Helena and Luise last year. I was leaning out of the car snapping photos, and avoiding waiting with all the tourists stacked outside.

We wandered around the alleys off the main street, La Rambla. We stumbled across many cute shops and interesting sites. A break dancing crew was doing a demonstration in one of the main streets, while a young girl chased after bubbles a street performer was creating.
Bubbles in Barcelona 
Another highlight was adventuring around the coastal towns of Palamós and Platja d'aro. The beaches and towns were ridiculously beautiful and family friendly. We literally saw children jumping out of their windows and running down to the nearby beach to play soccer.
Football on the beach
Like many exchange students, I have been taking advantage of weekends to travel. This time, I was in La Costa Brava for a week - not rushing around to different cities like in the past. Absolutely no regrets; it was the best decision to not travel too much. When you go to all the capital/main cities, you miss out on other incredible destinations a country has to offer. It's possible to get a different taste of the country too, and that was what it was like being in La Costa Brava. Not only that, but I really hadn't travelled much inside Spain - and I could spend months longer here.

A massive thank you to Helena and her incredible family for having me for that week, I absolutely loved it and cannot wait to see you all again!