Deja Vu and Duende

June 22, 2007

Inspired by this post on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree messageboards:

Have you ever arrived in a new place and felt that you’ve been there before?  I’ve been to lots of places that I thought were special, that were magical, that had a certain something that set them apart from the more prosaic cities that surrounded them.  After all, there’s a reason why places like Paris and Venice are such major tourist destinations.

However, I’m talking about something slightly different – a sense of deja vu, a feeling that you’re at completely at home in what should be a strange city, a feeling that you’ve spent time there before. 

I’ve had that feeling – in Seville, the city of gypsies, of flamenco, of so much history that it makes U.S. cities look like mere blips on time’s radar screen.  From the second I stepped off the train, I felt completely at ease.  First of all, I never once got lost in the winding maze of the medieval Old Town, even after enjoying a pitcher of sangria or tinto de verrano.

Secondly, I managed to find all sorts of hidden treasures during my wanderings, like little hole-in-the-wall cafes where guitarists still play traditional Andalucian music (and don’t give a damn about catering to tourists) small weekly markets where farmers still come in from the countryside to sell their delicious tomatoes, olives, oranges, and jamon, and little shops that sell colorful fabrics and outrageous trims meant for flamenco costumes.  Of course, I’m always trying to seek out places off the beaten path, but I was particularly successful in Seville. 

Everything I did wasn’t cultural in the traditional sense, however; I had a hell of a time a Real Betis game with some newly made Sevillano friends.  The Spanish have the Americans beat at one thing – they really know how to celebrate when their team wins (or maybe it’s just been so long since Notre Dame won a really big game I’ve forgotten how it feels)

Granted, none of these things add up to a particularly unique experience on the surface, but it’s difficult to explain the deja vu – it’s the kind of thing that when you feel it, you just know.  Perhaps I’m a little bit crazy, or maybe I lived in Seville in a past life – it would certainly explain my predeliction for oversize earrings, intricate embroideries, and dramatic ensembles fit for a modern day urban gypsy.

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One Year Ago Today…

June 11, 2007

Exactly one year ago today, I moved into my adorable little apartment in Chicago.  For the first time, I would have my own place, free of roommates and their assorted problems and issues (I’ve actually had some very cool roommates, but sometimes a girl just needs her own space).  It’s in a vintage Art Deco building that’s a little under a century old and full of character and charm.  It’s in good condition, however, and full of quirky details and there’s awesome views from my windows and the rooftop.  The decor, however, is more eclectic than vintage inspired.

Here are some pictures – the wall hanging and a lot of the textiles are from India.

The turquoise dresser is only “vintage” thing in the apartment – it was my grandparents’ and is considerably older than I am.

This my cute little kitchen, where I mostly heat up frozen things from Trader Joes and set off the fire alarm but occasionally prepare a decent meal.

 

When I moved to Chicago, I also adopted a gorgeous black cat with emerald eyes.  Her name is Eva and she’s my lucky black cat.  Eva’s many roles include slayer of spiders, consumer of catnip, and giver of hugs and kisses.

Isn’t she a sweetheart?

Edit: I realized that by posting a picture of my cat on the web, I’ve officially crossed some kind of cat-lady line.  If I’m living alone in a big old haunted house with fifty cats when I’m 80, at least I’ll know where it all got started.

You Love the Thunder

June 8, 2007

There’s a serious summer storm brewing in Chicago tonight.  I love thunderstorms, the louder the better.  Something about witnessing the awesome power of nature – and I just like all the commotion, all the action.  Also, it’s seriously amazing to watch lightning hit the rods on the city’s skyscrapers.

The only truly frightening storm I’ve experienced happened while I was on a late evening train to Granada.  It was one of those winding mountainous journeys that aren’t normally unnerving as long as you don’t look down.  Since it was fairly late, night had fallen on the Sierra Nevadas so the views consisted of shadowy peaks and a sky liberally sprinkled with stars. 

Until a sudden lightning storm flared up.  We were literally in the middle of it (I saw lightning strike trees disturbingly close to the tracks), and trapped in the train.  There’s nothing like being in an enclosed space with bolts of electricity flying around you to spike your adrenaline levels (except for maybe paragliding in those same mountains, which I did later). 

My reaction to this situation?  After the initial “holy crap, that was close!” moment, I simply picked up my rather interesting book (Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain) and continued reading.  After all, there was nothing I could do to affect the situation and travel seems to bring out my inner Zen.

Clearly, the train made it safely to Granada, and my fellow travelers and I celebrated not getting hit by lightning with a few pitchers of sangria (although any excuse works when it comes to sangria) at a cafe in one of those charming little plazas that seem to exist in every Spanish town.

The moral of the story?  Lightning and thunder = stunningly gorgeous if you’re not penned in tincan of a traincar.  If you do find yourself in a similar situation, however, maybe you’ll surprise yourself with your response.

Here’s a picture of some of the Nepali children I mentioned in my last post.  These are the actual kids that Dudes Making a Difference helps to educate.  Note their “DMD” t-shirts.  Don’t they look happy?

Perhaps it’s a side effect of writing a piece about the best party hotels in Las Vegas (I’m not a fan of Vegas in general and I think the whole concept of shelling out thousands of dollars in order to drink in the “hottest” clubs is silly anyways) but today I’ve been reading about Kyrgyzstan’s CBTA program and not only does it seem pretty brilliant, it’s made me really want to travel there.

The Community Based Tourism Association in Kyrgyzstan “is an umbrella association uniting 17 diverse destination communities (“CBT groups”) plus a 5-group association of shepherd families offering jailoo (yurt) tourism (“Shepherds’ Life”).  The association’s objective is to improve living conditions in remote mountain regions by developing a sustainable and wholesome ecotourism model that utilizes local natural and recreational resources.”*  The point of the whole enterprise is to fully utilize the country’s limited infrastructure and make tourism a more viable industry.  Kyrgyzstan already has the natural beauty and rich culture necessary to become a major destination for tourist dollars, and the CBTA will help to organize everything and make travel in the former Soviet Republic less daunting.

One part of the legendary Silk Road, this multi-ethnic melting pot of a nation is a place where Buddhists and Muslims co-exist.  A mountainous landscape and a relatively unspoiled environment make for gorgeous scenery and spectacular lakes – and I’m only looking at the pictures. 

Granted, traveling to Kyrgyzstan (or any country at a similar level of development) means giving up most creature comforts.  I have feeling that western-style food and plumbing are scarce, but do you really need to be within ten miles of a Starbucks at all times?  Maybe a week or two in yurt would do everyone some good.

*taken from the official CBT Kyrgyzstan website.

Some of the places I’ve visited have a special spot in my heart, whether its because of their exoticness, their beauty, or the people I met there.  And some places are just magical.  Paris comes to mind, as do Fez and Marrakesh.  Vienna’s up there too, along with Amsterdam (and no, not because of certain legal substances). 

Thanks to some tentative plans to go visit my brother who will be studying in Europe next year, I’ve recently been wondering what it will be like if/when I re-visit some of my favorite cities.  For some reason, I’ve been wondering that if these places will have the same effect on me when I go back (and I’m sure I will eventually).  After all, happy memories cast a rose-colored glow on everything.

I can’t quite imagine the medinas of Morocco or the medieval streets of Seville losing their magic.  Even if my second impression doesn’t have the same luster as the first, all it would take is an hour or two to get back into the rhythm of the city.  These are the kind of places that retain their allure forever, like a classic novel or an intricately woven silk carpet.  Age and experience only makes them more interesting.

Paris is only city that I’ve really re-visited.  My first trip to the city of light was in March, during the spring break of my junior year of college (some girls “go wild”, I go to the D’Orsay), and my next was in June after I’d graduated.  When I first arrived in the city for second time, I honestly wondered why I’d loved the place so much.  Where was the dreamlike, misty city I’d seen a year ago?

It was the humid high season, the height of rush hour, and our tiny, difficult to locate hotel on the Place de la Republique had lost our reservation.  Not a combination that makes for a positive attitude.  I was pissed off at the crowds of tourists and the general air of unpleasantness that seemed to prevail.

But several hours later, the owners had cleared some rooms (well, one actually belonged to some temporary roommates – two adorable Russian Blue cats – but that’s a story for another day), the air had cooled, and we were watching the sun set from a small cafe on the banks of the Seine.  It was then I realized that it was the tiny details and a kind of intangible atmospheric quality that made Paris so special.

Sometimes you have to let a place show itself to you again, remind why you fell in love with it.  And nothing ever stays exactly the same, especially not in the age of globalization and the “flattening world”.  However, the magic of exotic (and not-so-exotic) lands remains if you’re willing to look for it.