Shalom wonderful people!
Yesterday I returned to Israel after ten weeks away. I think I might have (well I know I did) shed a tear when the plane hit the tarmac and the Hasidic Jews onboard began clapping. If there is any verification that Israel feels like home, that was it. Being back in the Holy Land is just plain good. And now that I’ve done a few loads of laundry, broken up a cat fight outside my door (literal catfight), got yelled at by few strangers (oh, Israel) and hugged by another stranger (again, oh, Israel), it’s time to rewind and fill you in on my gallant explorations since leaving Berlin.
Two weeks ago I bid adieu to Germany and hopped on a flight to Spain to meet my friend Mimi (Middle Eastern history and religion major), who is also spending the year at Ben Gurion. We met up Thursday morning at our hostel in Madrid’s Chueca neighborhood— a hip, modern area with lots of good food (major selling point here) and a vibrant cultural personality. Mimi and I hadn’t seen each other since December and were SO happy to be reunited. Our small and tight-knit overseas student program provided me with many wonderful friends last semester, and Mimi undoubtedly tops the list. She’s adventurous and active and patient and prepared and brilliant and ethical and likely the kindest human you will ever stumble upon. She also happens to be the most ideal travel partner. Ever. So obviously she makes the ultimate best friend!
Anyways, back to Madrid. In an attempt to kick Mimi’s jet lag we hit the ground running and filled up our short time in the city with loads of activities. We cruised through the Prado and the Thyssen, which both were amazing but unfortunately had lots of Jesus paintings (if you’re a regular reader you know this is a big no-no in my book). One morning we took a long stroll through Buen Retiro Park, enjoying the sunshine (after being in Berlin, Madrid’s temps were #fuego). Another morning we visited the royal palace and checked a string of cathedrals off the list. One evening we met up with Carlos, a friend of Mom’s who lives in Madrid, and his family for dinner at a “food art” restaurant. The experience was kind of wild and consisted of a dozen small tapas-like-dishes that were artistically designed. We had a blast discussing Israel, Trump, and European politics. So fun!
Mostly, though, Mimi and I just wandered around the city talking, catching up on each other’s lives, logging 10+ miles of walking a day, stopping in tiny cafes for tea and eating yummy treats (gourmet mushrooms, vegan cakes, grilled octopus, salted shrimp). Notable Madrid observations included the fact that people walk really, really slow on streets (Mimi the New Yorker did not like this one bit), the city’s population is far less diverse than in major U.S. cities and Israel, Spaniards definitely have a smoking problem and the city’s cab drivers are reckless as hell. Needless to say, three days in Madrid was enough, and I was ready to hit the road and get out of the concrete jungle. (Can you tell I’m not a city girl?)
The night before leaving Madrid for Granada, Mimi and I checked our hostel’s address for the following day only to find our hostel was actually 13 kilometers outside of Granada in a tiny town. We freaked out for a second. Then, in typical study abroad fashion, we decided it would probably turn out to be a blessing in disguise. We arrived in Quentar (population 1,000) by nightfall the next day after a full day of schlepping. We were greeted at the hostel by the most Hidden-Villa-esque granola man you could imagine and promptly settled into our quaint room.
The heavenly forces must have known I needed a little nature in my life because the hostel’s location had spectacular views of the valley, cherry blossoms, olive trees, and beautiful grey stones. We spent our first day in Quentar. We bought fresh vegetables to cook (a day’s worth of groceries for two people allotted to 3.08 Euros) and enjoyed a seven-mile hike to the town’s reservoir. Late in the day, we came across a goat herder and his black lab taking the flock (pack? herd?) of goats for a stroll. I couldn’t help but smile, look out at the beautiful Napa-like landscape and realize that I would be completely content, come seventy years old, hiking around a foreign country with goats and a black lab all day. Retirement plan, check!
Day two involved a trek into Granada, which turned out to be less of a balagan than we had predicted. In the morning we visited the Jewish Sephardic museum, a tiny four-room home-turned-museum nestled in the old Jewish quarter. We had a nice conversation with the sole museum worker, an older gentleman who was very talkative and enthusiastic about the history of the Jews in Spain. Two things struck me about this conversation. One was that the Spanish language I love and have grown up learning is drastically different from what is spoken in Spain. The gentleman was virtually un-understandable to me (in my humble opinion I enjoy the sound of Latin American Spanish far more). The second was that this man was a devout Catholic. Mimi and I have been talking a lot about the way that Jewish history is represented in Spain. From what we have observed, the majority of the history and storyline is controlled by Catholics rather than Jews, other groups or secular people. The Catholics seem to celebrate Jewish history and culture up until the inquisition, but the buck stops there. In no way did we get any sense there was sorrow or regret from the Catholics we spoke to about the inquisition. If anything, we felt the opposite— Jewish history was dealt with as history, in a clinical, matter of fact, “had to happen” sort of way. While I do not want to make generalizations (as it’s very possible we just talked to a few rotten apples), I will say we found these observations very interesting and quite disturbing.
The rest of our day was spent at the magnificent Alhambra, wandering through gardens, across courtyards, up intricate stairways and along pools of water. The Alhambra was my design dream come true. I was virtually silent for the length of our visit, completely enthralled in the whole ordeal. The sustainable environmental designer and architecture lover in me could barely hold it together. Truly special.
Next, we were off to Seville, where we were scheduled to board a bus for Morocco. We spent a few days in Seville, exploring the Alcazar (impressive, but not the Alhambra), strolling through Parque de Maria Lucia and eating yummy squid ink paella. On Friday we made our way to the meeting point for our bus to Morocco, which was part of a programmed trip recommended to us by a friend of ours. Upon arrival at the meeting point, we realized we had gotten ourselves into something that wasn’t particularly up our ally. We showed up to find a group of a hundred loud, white, obnoxious, questionably-sober American students from Seville study abroad programs congregating in clique-like fashion screaming things to the likes of “OMG can you believe we are going to AFRICA!”, “What language do they speak in AFRICA?” and “Will there be tigers?”. I kid you not. Anyways, we boarded the bus, skeptical, but curious to see Morocco and embark on what was beginning to seem like the ultimate American-observation experience. (FYI everyone, Africa includes a whole lot of other countries besides Morocco.)
I could probably write hundreds more words in a slightly judgmental tone (Wait, me? Opinionated? Never.) regarding the ridiculousness, ignorance and general annoyingness of our fellow companions. But I’ll (try to) stop here and change gears. Morocco, or the little we saw of Morocco, was beautiful. We spent time in Chefchaouen, a city known for its plethora of blue buildings. Mimi and I dipped away from the selfie-taking, profile-picture-seeking group and wandered the quieter, residential streets. Arabic flowed through open windows, the strong essence of spices mixed in the streets, kids kicked the soccer ball around outside and yelled and laughed at tourists. In a strange, though not a particularly surprising way, I felt like I was back the Middle East. My heart fluttered a little.
Other notable activities included a day in a beachside town looking at street art, shopping for metal hamsas in an artisan market, watching a native Moroccan dance performance, sampling olives, drinking sweet mint tea, riding camels and, of course, talking to our fabuuulooous new American friends. Almost everyone on the trip was studying in Spain, meaning that people were pretty surprised (as they always are) when we told them we were studying in Israel. Mimi put it best, “When we tell people that we’re studying in Israel they look at us as if we’re studying in Syria.” Wide eyes. Furrowed brow. Sometimes dropped jaws. “That’s insane” or “that’s interesting…” or “wow, is that safe?” are usually people’s initial responses. The first night, for instance, Mimi and I got seated at dinner with a group of sorority girls from Arizona. When we let it slip we were studying in Israel they asked all the typical questions (and we gave them all the reassuring, educated, clear answers), and then they spent the rest of the dinner silent, staring at us like we were members of Seal Team Six who had just walked in from a commando mission.
By Monday we were back in Spain. We spent a quick day in Toledo doing Jewish-y things and ate the last round of octopus and salty green peppers before heading back to Madrid for our flight home to Israel. By that point, we were, as one could imagine, thoroughly exhausted…
With that in mind, you probably wouldn’t believe me right now if I told you were back in Tel Aviv at the airport about to catch another flight. Alas, here we are. After twenty-four hours at home and a night in our own beds, Mimi and I are departing on another adventure— first Cyprus and then Budapest. We’re excited to tick a few more places off our list, but I won’t lie, we have our sights set on March 12th: our return, for good, to Israel. We can’t wait to settle back into the routine, culture, and land we love.
Updates to come. Big hugs to all. I love you each very much.