O-90 Was Here!

One of the books I am most likely to recommend to anyone is We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Almost everyone has read either 1984 or Brave New World or both, but We predates them both; Orwell and Huxley have had to defend themselves against how much they took from We. I prefer We mostly because it’s funnier, but they all deal with slightly different things: oppression via censorship, via drugs, or via rationality.

That has almost nothing to do with this post except that my dear friend came to visit me for 10 days, but I am going to call her “O-90” in order to respect her privacy, and O-90 is the name of one of the main characters in We. If you don’t understand something in this post, I’m probably referencing We.

We visited Madrid:

O-90 stands in front of the royal palace in Madrid.

O-90 uses her free will to stand in front of a huge palace meant to rival Versailles.

Madrid is a lot of fun to show to others. It’s a big, bustling city, and we were lucky to be staying at a great location right in the heart of everything. Here’s something interesting O-90 found:

A metal-cast hand grips a metal-cast apple to form a door knocker/doorknob for a door in Spain.

Even a closed door can't prevent Eve from making everyone unhappy.

It’s a door-knob or a door-knocker. There was a matching hand on the other side of the door. I don’t know if these hands have some other significance, because we found a matching set on a door in Córdoba… and in Sevilla!

We also went to Córdoba:

O-90 stands in a circle of light from stained glass in the Alhambra

O-90 stands in the light of the Alhambra.

The first time I was in Córdoba, it was December. All the doors were closed. The Alhambra was big and nice and everything, and the Roman bridge was impressive and still-existing, but I honestly didn’t understand why my friend S-4711 loved Córdoba enough to live there for 3 years.

O-90 catwalks down the old Roman bridge.

O-90 on the catwalk--I mean Roman Bridge.

This time, though, all the doors were open. Córdoba is beautiful! At O-90’s lead, we took a trip into the old Jewish quarter and the charm of Córdoba really started to show itself: compact, winding streets covered in cobblestones and ivy, open doors where craftsmen bent over their hand-made work, and bubbling fountain after bubbling fountain decorating hidden patio after hidden patio.

La sinagoga en Córdoba.

This is one of the only synagogues in all of Spain that survived the Inquisition.

Here’s the door-knocker:

A hand clutches an apple; it is cast out of metal, and it is a door-knob or door-knocker.

This time, she's going for it in Córdoba. I kinda think this is awesome, and I once wanted a tattoo of something similar.

El Escorial:

El Escorial on the left, other monastery buildings on the right, and a line of mountains in the back. O-90 stands in the middle distance presenting it all.

O-90 stands in the middle to give you a sense of how huge this is.

This is one of my favorite castles that I have ever been to. The views from El Escorial are breathtaking. Maybe it was because the sky was blue and the day was warm. Maybe it’s because there was a herd of cows in the garden, and they made me laugh. Maybe it’s because the artwork rivaled the Prado. This was the first palace that I visited and thought, “I understand why someone with a million billion dollars would want to live here.” As secure a fortress as it is, and as much as it was built to represent the very grill on which the martyr San Lorenzo burned, it was comfortable, beautiful, peaceful, and somehow livable. You know, in a “I have a million billion dollars” kind of way.

A view from a window of El Escorial, looking over some manicured gardens and mountains in the distance.

Through a window, one could see a herd of cows grazing in the waning sunlight beneath the autumn trees. This is not that picture.

We actually took so long walking through the basement, we didn’t even get to see the living quarters–nor could we walk up the main staircase beneath a ceiling painted going up into the heavens so realistically that it gave me vertigo. But the tomb in the basement was worth it! My jaw dropped when I walked into the room that held the corpses of kings and queens for over 5 generations. It wasn’t disgusting or claustrophobic; it was one of the richest things I had ever seen, built completely of vaulted marble and wrapped in gold. I’d show a picture, but to take one would have gotten me thrown out of the palace. You’ll have to come yourself to have a look. Let me know when you’re going and I’ll come with you!

For a daytrip from Sevilla, we went to Itálica:

Olga walks into the amphitheater, just like the Romans did 2000 years ago.

O-90 walks into the amphitheater, just like the Romans did 2000 years ago.

A view of from the floor of the ampitheater

This is where the gladiators fought the tigers. I wonder how many people fit in amphitheater?

Itálica is the name of an old Roman city that was the birthplace of three Roman emperors and several Roman senators. It has a large ampitheater, hot and cold baths, the ruins of palaces filled with intricate mosaics, and so much more that I can’t tell you about yet because it’s still covered with 2000 years of dirt — and the sleepy town of modern-day Santiponce.

An old Roman mosaic depicted several Roman gods and goddesses

Can you identify the different gods and goddesses? I have the answer sheet if you give up 🙂

Itálica keeps the original Roman street-plan. You can walk the original main Roman road and see the original Roman curb-sides still in-tact. I laugh a little because of all the things the Romans cared about — rooms filled with art and plush lounge chairs and rich plates and cups and mosaics — I’m impressed by the curb. There’s also a really cool gutter.

And, por supuesto, Sevilla:

A view of mountains and trees from the window of the bus between Madrid and Sevilla.

Typical Spanish countryside between Madrid and Sevilla, or why I fell in love with Spain and came back with my hiking pack.

We stayed in Sevilla for the most time because I had to work. That’s when O-90 visited the palace, the palace gardens, the cathedral, and other things around town. Here are some of the touristic highlights of Sevilla:

Plaza de España beneath a blue sky

This is probably the best picture of Plaza de España in the world, so it's a good thing I took it and uploaded it to the internet.

A view from beneath Las Setas

This structure is called "The Mushrooms." You can walk on top of them for a panoramic view.

A view of some palm trees, the cathedral, and a bit of the wall of the palace.

The cathedral and La Giralda straight ahead, and a turreted tower of the royal palace on the right. Also: palm trees, because it's warm here.

With those out of the way, O-90 and I just had fun. Check out some of the awesome graffiti we saw:

Graffiti of a dog following a man.

Just like real life, except the goat would be a dog, and the two would walk together on the street without a leash.

O-90 stands next to giant graffiti of a man chopping living vegetables to put into a pot.

There was a whole wall full of these living vegetables all lining up, presumably to be chopped up and put into pisto.

My favorite day exploring Sevilla with O-90 was the day we went to Plaza de España and el Parque María Luisa. If I had a euro for every picture we took that day, maybe I could afford to live in El Escorial.

Pretty flowers

One of my favorite things about Sevilla is that it's covered in flowers all year 'round. These flowers are so great, there are more little white flowers inside all the purple flowers.

Museums in the Parque María Luisa, palm trees to the side, a white bird flying through the blue air.

Or maybe my favorite thing about Sevilla is the contrasting orange and blue; the warmth; the blue skies; or the way it's so perpetually, so stubbornly picturesque, even down to the birds.

A fountain full of birds

Speaking of birds, feeding them remains one of my favorite past-times. Or is it chasing them? Both are fun. Am I 80 years old or 4?

In Sevilla, O-90 started having me take pictures of all the food we ate. What I should have taken pictures of was Rayas, our favorite gelato place. It has the most delicious hazelnut gelato, and it’s only 10 minutes from my piso. Qué suerte!

O-90 and I posing next to two dishes at Bodega Santa Cruz

This photo of O-90 and I eating tuna and berenjenas con miel is brought to you by my brand new housemate, who I met that very day upon returning from Madrid.

Two postres: a meringue and a tarta

Delicious postres; we ate at least 5 this one day. It was worth it. Cake is the best in Spain.

O-90 taking the inaugural bite of papas gratinas con cheddar

This is O-90 taking the inaugural bite of papas gratinas con cheddar, one of my favorite tapas in Sevilla at Bar Levies.

A selection of tapas off the top of a barrel at El Rinconcillo

Some locals treated us to El Rinconcillo, the oldest bar in Sevilla, founded in the 1600s. Best espinacas con garbanzos ever.

Another awesome thing O-90 and I did in Sevilla was watch flamenco. How I love flamenco! They’ll tell you flamenco is beautiful. They’ll tell you it has soul. Personally, I thought, “all dance is emotional,” and went in expecting to be entertained. But I’ll tell you now: it moves me. Flamenco is, as they say, legit.

O-90 liked it, too, which might have something to do with why we watched it two nights in a row. We couldn’t stay away!

The end of our second flamenco show, and a dancer in a red dress throws up her arms while the male dancer claps.

The first night, the male dancer was outstanding and stole the show. The second night, the female dancer was una autentica maravilla! I checked the program and can't wait to go back when they're both dancing the same night.

O-90’s stay was just too short. Just as I started getting used to sharing a 9’x9′ space, she left me to fly back over the ocean and return to her job and family and friends. Qué triste! 

I love having company in Sevilla because their unique interests help me branch out of my rut — I’ve only been here one month, and I already have a rut. I probably learned almost as much about Sevilla during O-90’s visit as she did!

Now, even though I know my future visitors have a lot of things to juggle before they can fly across the ocean, I am getting my fix of meeting new people and seeing new things by having intercambios, or language exchanges, with local sevillanos. For example, today I had an intercambio and as a result, I have a new favorite café to drink tea! Another time, my intercambio was next door to an asian food market, so now I can finally get my missing ingredients for spring rolls.

I still feel like a guest in Sevilla, and I think it will take more than 9 months until I even begin to feel like more than a visitor, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. For now, I’m happy to absorb Sevilla by osmosis.

I’ll leave you with one last door-knocker:

A hand clutches an apple: these are door-knobs cast out of metal.

The more I think about it, the more I like it. Except that disembodied body parts are creepy.


Food in Amsterdam

My favorite subject! Let’s get started.

Amsterdam has a bustling Chinese district because once upon a time the Chinese were sailors, and then something-something-something, and the Chinese were left broke and stranded in Amsterdam, but they were like, “This isn’t so bad!” They built some restaurants and temples and the Dutch consider Indonesian food to basically be part of their heritage.

What I love about this is that it means that Amsterdam is a great place to vegetarian.

Check out these canned, gluten-based, artificial meats:

canned vegetarian pork


canned vegetarian duck


There were 5 varieties of canned artificial meats, not to mention the two freezers full of more mock meats in different cuts and preparations, including imitation chicken drumsticks.

At the same store with the meats, I also found one of my favorite things to eat in Paris. It is a Vietnamese snack. I am happy to say that I have also had this snack from the very place that it was made, in Paris at the Port d’Ivry:

A delicious Vietnamese treat from Paris

When Derek and I were in Paris, we bought one of these to share. Then we came back and bought 4 more.

I love the way China Towns smell. Whenever I am in a city, I always visit China Town at least twice. I don’t know why. When I don’t know what to do, I always come back to there. I read the menus and shop the chopsticks and stare for a really long time at all the sauces. I might have spent more time looking at cans of sesame oil on this trip than I spent looking at Vermeer’s masterpiece The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum:

We all have our quirks.

Aside from Chinese food, another popular tourist dish is french fries:

A cone of friets with curry sauce

Called the #1 french fries in Holland, I couldn't exactly disagree.

The fun thing about french fries is not just that they are the perfect size for my preference –both in quantity and quality– there are a gazillion different sauces to choose from. And I love sauces. In Amsterdam, I tried around 8 sauces: frietsauce, mayonnaise, curry, an orange one that was similar to Thousand Island, garlic sauce, barbecue sauce, and spicy red sauce. Curry was my favorite, garlic sauce a close second, and the barbecue sauce was pretty good, too. I may start a french fry shop in Ann Arbor. DIBS!

Then, of course, there are the pancakes. I had pancakes three times at three different places. Having tried, like, all the places to get pancakes in Amsterdam, I can say that the Pancake Bakery is the best. Sara’s Pancake House is not the best. Small Talk makes a delicious batter, but they only have 8 selections and their only good pancake may be the apple flavor (but it’s very good!). In comparison, check out how big the menu is at Sara’s:

A dense list of pancake options from the menu at Sara's Pancake House

And the other page was just as big!

I asked about a savory pancake full of vegetables, but like many tall blonde men I know, the server said, “I don’t eat vegetables.” He recommend banana nutella instead. I said, “OK!” When he set the pancake in front of me, I had to laugh. The plate was the size of  a turkey platter, and the pancake barely fit. Here’s my hand next to the pancake. My hand is the size of my face. This pancake is the size of four faces:

Big banana/nutella pancake is big. Really big. Especially compared to my hand. And my hand is not super small!

It was good, but Pancake Bakery wins because Pancake Bakery fried the bananas into the batter. Mmm!

Another great thing about The Pancake Bakery is that they serve little stroopwaffels with their tea. And their tea comes in a box with a variety of selections. Stroopwaffels are delicious! They are thin, circular wafers with dense, chewy caramel pressed in between. They are so good that I went to Alfred Heins supermarkt to get some.

A pile of bags of stroopwaffels at the grocery store.

Dear Alfred Heins: you may continue reading my mind.

In any case, Amsterdam pancakes are far superior to American pancakes, which are too fluffy and salty. These pancakes are thin and dense, but they are squishier and have a much more satisfying chewy factor than French crepes. I think they are divine.

In addition to pancakes, french fries, stroopwaffels, chinese food, and vietnamese imports, Amsterdam is filled with munchy-like snacks and sweets and pizza and falafel and pastries and chocolate and beer. I can’t imagine why /doublethink.

A display of sandwiches.

Who in Amsterdam would want to eat a toasted baguette stuffed with a brott and smothered in cheese--at all hours of the day and night?

Aside from the vegetarian fare, I always like to take a peek at the variety of other options. (Side note: can someone explain to me what an Argentinian Steakhouse is?) That’s why I stopped outside this meat store; inside was a store-long refrigerator case stuffed with sausages and meat cuts of all kinds. But many countries have butchers. Not every country has a selection of 10 different patés.

A variety of pates at the meat market.

Luckily, I managed to find a selection of vegetarian/vegan patés at the farmer's market. They were delicious, and I bought the curry one!

One day, Mike T. and I ate a wedge of gouda on some dense, fresh wheat bread from the farmer’s market. It was one of the best meals I had in Amsterdam.

An entire store dedicated to rows of shelves of gouda.

It's gouda heaven!

I wish I would have taken more pictures of that market. We ate our bread and cheese at a nearby park. We sat on a park bench and a little boy rode his bike past us and smiled and said, “toot toot!” in the cutest little Dutch accent. He’s in my suitcase right now because I took him home with me. Just kidding. I only thought about it.

And so I abruptly conclude my entry on food in Amsterdam.

My In and Out of Amsterdam

I am sick. I feel gross. To give you an idea of how much I have blown my nose in less than 24 hours, I am a quarter of the way through my second roll of toilet paper. I won’t give you any more details.

This is my souvenir. These germs are Dutch germs. Maybe I got them from my pancakes. Maybe I should have washed my hands more after touching all the souvenirs in the Red Light district. In any case, one can leave Amsterdam, but one can’t be sure that Amsterdam will leave you.

I arrived Thursday night at 6:00pm, right on schedule according to my plane ticket.

Just kidding! I arrived at 3am on Friday morning. The flight from Sevilla to Madrid was delayed by 1 hour — that’s equivalent to 20 pages of Crepúsculo, for all you beginner-level Spanish Twilight readers. No big deal.

We arrived in Madrid with 10 minutes to run 15 minutes away to the connecting flight. One girl, who presumably checked her luggage, zipped ahead and disappeared among the crowd. I never saw her again. About 5 of us chugged in a half speed-walk, half prance, carting our rolling suitcases and calling out, “permiso! permiso!” to clear the way on the moving tracks.

We arrived at the gate, some flushed, some pale, tugging off our scarves and coats, 5 minutes to departure time.

Final boarding was 10 minutes before departure time. We looked at the airplane still sitting, connected to the airport. We looked at each other, a group slowly increasing with damp and panting stragglers. We looked at the cocky, rude, horrible, awful, ugly, and hopefully very sad airline attendant who said, “Please go to the nearest Iberia help desk, which is 10 minutes back the way you came, in order to make preparations for an alternate flight.”

About 20 of us lined up behind 20 others at the Iberia help desk. Here is a picture of the Iberia help desk:

The Iberia help-desk at the Madrid-Barajas airport.

It says, "We're here to help you." ORLY?!

We stood in line for 3 hours. Later, an Iberia attendant would tell one of us, “It would have been better if you had completely exited the airport and then re-entered to get help from the Iberia staff at the main check-in.” The Iberian attendant would also say, “The last flight from Madrid to Amsterdam was filled 1.5 hours ago (1.5 hours after we had all been waiting in line), and even though it leaves in one hour, we just continued to sell those tickets to other people while you were waiting in line for a flight that we messed up. The next flight is tomorrow at 6pm.” That was a paraphrase.

Meanwhile, I made friends in line with a Dutch couple, an American student studying abroad in Sevilla, and an American ex-pat who has been living in Sevilla for 9 years and started a family there.

We decided to fly to Brussels instead, rent a car, and drive to Amsterdam. So we did. Now I can say, somewhat misleadingly, that I have been to Antwerp and Rotterdam. We arrived at Schipol station at 1:05am; 5 minutes after the last “every 10 minutes train,” and 55 minutes before the next “every hour” train. I bought a can of Pringles. I ate them all.

Luckily, my hostel had 24-hour check-in. Ironically, this was also my first night of good sleep I’d had in weeks! With nothing urgent to do in the morning, I stayed in bed until a lazy 9:45am, ate a leisurely breakfast with four courses, and didn’t have to be out of the hostel until 11.

At 11:15 there was  a free 3-hour tour of the city. I love hostel tours! The guides are always enthusiastic, helpful, and full of information; after all, they’re working for tips. I learned all kinds of things about the architecture, the local history, geography, hot spots, food, and tourist traps.

One funny thing I learned: the oldest prostitute in Amsterdam is 82 years old. She has a 2-week waiting list. In other news, the Queen is 82 years old. Coincidence…? Some believe the Queen is responsible for the anonymous sculptural graffiti that dots Amsterdam. The piece I saw on the tour of the Red Light district looks likes this:

A golden sculpture of a boob and a half, one boob gently cupped by a disembodied hand, discreetly lies among the bricks near Westerkerk.

This brilliant sculpture consists of a boob and a half and a disembodied hand. The boobs are so shiny because people rub them for good luck.

One false thing I learned: the Dutch people are so tall because of natural selection; all the short people get washed away in the floods. Look at the beautiful canals:

A cluster of swans and ducks and birds play in the canals between the tall houses of Amsterdam.

15,000 bikes are recovered from these pristine waters every year, and are then recycled. Wait a minute and you'll get the joke.

One interesting thing I learned: the reason one of the towers in the gate in Nieuwmarkt is under construction is because that tower once belonged to the mason’s guild. To gain entrance to the guild, one had to install a new and unique window in the tower. Finally there were so many windows that they damaged the structural integrity of the tower, and so it has to be repaired.

But this post isn’t supposed to be my time in Amsterdam; it’s about the getting in and the getting out.

Getting out was less eventful. There was merely a suspected bomb on the metro, so they made us all get off at the nearest metro stop and walk a mile to the nearest bus stop and then take a bus for 30 minutes to the nearest train station and then take the train to the Centraal station and then…

I had enough to get some french fries and a few other souvenirs; but I could write an entire post about the food in Amsterdam. So I will.

So anyway, then I headed back to the hotel, grabbed my luggage, went to the other train station, and flew uneventfully out of Amsterdam and straight to Sevilla, where a bus was waiting to take me for less than 3€ within 2 blocks of my piso. Perfection.

The next morning, I didn’t realize that Daylight Savings Time had happened in Spain, and I went to work an hour early.

Traveling is funny like that.