Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Visa - The Final Saga

So who would have thought I would still be in Amsterdam on this trip and still here a week after my original departure date? Certainly not I. The trip was supposed to be Delhi, Amsterdam, Sevilla, Paris and then back to Delhi. And yet, here I am. And it is all to do with my visa.

I finally got the papers I need from India for my work visa last Saturday and Monday Manuel and I dragged ourselves out of bed before the roosters had even started their first rounds of "cock-a-doodle-doo", showered and walked to the train station to catch the train to the airport where we would then change for The Hague. A little more than an hour later we were at the Indian Visa Service, whare Manuel's tourist visa was waiting, all plastered very neatly into his passport. There was a time when we thought he may not get it. Although his passport expires in October this year, everytime it was scanned, it came back as expired. Not that it would have been much of an issue, a quick trip to the Spanish Embassy nearby and we would have had a new passort for Manuel within a few hours. The lady behind the counter, in a rare display of customer service during the visa process actually entered the 8 or so digit code by hand and all was well.

After picking up his visa laden passport, we walked the 5 minutes to the Indian Embassy so I could apply for my work visa, have my interview with a guy at the embassy that makes absolutely no attempt to be friendly or helpful and get my process underway. We were there about 30 minutes before the embassy opened and I filled in all the paperwork, attached my two passport images with no background shadow or hint of a smile, my CV, contract from my new employer and their records of registration in India. The lady behind the counter looked everything over, handed them back to me and told me to wait. That was the last I heard until a couple of hours later when another lady who I have come to despise in the past year of dealing her told me to go home and "come back tomorrow" as it would notbe possible for them to deal with me today due to official reasons. I wasn't the only one shoved off and when someone asked what the official reason was, he was told coldly that it was "OFFICIAL" - Yes, she spoke in caps, drawing the word out long enough it almost sounded like she was spelling it.

Back to Amsterdam with the knowledge that I would have to do it all over the next day. The next day started very much the same - Up early, icy walk to train, arrive at embassy early. The same woman who looked at my papers the day before looked at them again as if she had never seen them or me before. And it is not like they are busy. They have recently outsourced 95% of their services to an agency, so only special exceptions are at the embassy. I was one of about 10 people that had been there the day before. She looked over my paperwork, handed everything back to me and told me to wait. I had the odd feeling I had done all of this only 24 hours earlier. I made a bold move. I asked her if I would indeed be helped as I had been there yesterday, told to wait and then half a day later sent home. She looked at me with that blank look embassy staff love to give and told me to wait.

Three hours later and several levels of Zelda on the DS later, and we still had not moved. Batteries on the iPods were wearing down and my stomach was growling from not having eaten. Someone went up to remind them that we were waiting and suddenly a lightbulb went off. we were all sent out of the consulatory part and told to go upstairs into the main part of the embassy. Up we went, we gave our names and were told to wait. The last time I sat on that sofa, I waited about 2 hours and so had no hopes this time would be any different. But I was wrong. 30 minutes later and my name was called. I walked into a little room where a guy was going through my papers with a fine-ttothed comb. Not the application, but my employment contract. I think he read it better than I had. Then came the question he asked me the last time: "There are 1.3 billion people in India... Why do we need you?" I wanted to just stand up and say "Just look at me. I'm amazing... How could you NOT need me?" But I remembered where I was and decided that camp is best left to more campy situations and so I gave my rehearsed answer. After being caught off gaurd the last time with that question, I was prepared.

He listened, scowled and jotted down notes in green pen. Who uses green pen in any official function these days? Anyway, I was sent back down to the consulate section and told to wait. In yet another surprise, I was called to the window and my details were entered into the system and my visa was printed out. I was aksed to go over to the number dispenser and take a number. I went over to the number dispenser and took a number. It was number 34. I handed it to the woman I despise. She grabbed it and without even looking at it, she wadded it up into a little ball and tossed it into the bin next to her. I didn't know what to say, but in a completely uncharacteristic move, I decided to keep my mouth shut.

I could have forked over anouther 50 Euro and got my visa right then, and I think that is what she was counting on, but I waved goodbye, flashed her my best smile and left for lunch. Two hours later I was back waiting for the sticker to be stuck into my passport so I could be on my way. To my surprise, they have given me one for a full year which means I am done with her for at least another 364 days, and next time I am planning on doing my visa in a different country. That is, if I am still staying in India.

So now I am all set for my flight on February 5. Only a few more days left in Amsterdam and then I am off to Paris for a day or two before catching my Air France flight back to Delhi. Manuel left this morning and should be landing in just around 6 hours from now on Swiss Air. I wish I was on a plane heading back. It is strange being back in a place where my life used to happen except that it doesn't happen here anymore. I am ready to be back in my bed. ready to stand under my shower. ready to combat whatever spiders may be lurking in the bathroom, and best of all, curious to see what wonderful bathroom displays the maid has created using my left behind grooming products.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Planes, Trains and Reservations

We arrived at Orly Airport in Paris about 11:30 or so in the morning and needed to get to Amsterdam due to a slight change in plans. I need to get a work visa arranged before I can go back and the paperwork is a bit delayed. So instead of getting the visas in Spain, we decide to get them here in Holland. We didn't get Manuel's done either as mine will take four days and we may as well minimize the time we spend at the embassy and enjoy ourselves as much as possible. It was all perfectly planned. well as perfectly planned as the best laid plans of mice and men can be. And how astray those plans have gone...

To get from Paris to Amsterdam, all trains go via Brussels. To get from Orly to Brussels, one has a couple of choices. Either taking a bus from Orly to a metro station in Paris, grabbing the metro to Gare du Nord and then the train toward Brussels or perhaps even one train that continues onto Amsterdam. The other option is to take the Air France bus to Charles de Gaulle Airport and then the train to Brussels and change for Amsterdam. Given the amount of luggage we had, we decided that the CDG option was best. The Paris metro can be quite awkward to navigate with luggage. So we get to CDG and go to the ticket counter where we are told that the best way to go was to take the RER (Metro that goes out of the city center and often with fewer stops than the metro itself) to Gare du Nord and then 2 hours later take the train direct to Amsterdam. So having gone the long way around, we still ended up at Gare du Nord waiting for a train. we arrived in a cold and raining Amsterdam at 19:30 and made our way to a friend's house where we would stay for a few days.

It was the next day that I discovered that not only had my papers not been sent, they weren't even ready yet and would be sent early this week, arriving probably a few days later, meaning they will be here this coming Friday. After that I need 4 days to get my visa and then time to get to Paris for my flight. The original flight was booked for 20 January. Yesterday. Why did we book everything via Paris? The reason for that was that we had planned on leaving Spain and spending a few days in Paris before heading to Delhi. Paris was going to be a bit of a break after all that time around Manuel's family and we both have friends there. Amsterdam was not part of the original plan and yet here we are.

Having done a bit of good planning ahead of time, I made sure we could change our Air France flights back, just in case. I do the calculations and discover that Feb 2 is the earliest possible day I can leave Amsterdam. Manuel and I go to the airport to change our flights on Saturday, as that has to be done before the original flight leaves or we are considered as "no show" and the return leg would be cancelled. For some reason we could not find Manuel's ticket printout, but being an e-ticket, that didn't matter. They never ask for them, just show the passport and its all cool. We arrived at the KLM/Air France desk at Schiphol Airport at approximately 9:30am with the plan to change the flights, head into the center and have a late breakfast. Everything was going very well. We were informed that the first possible flight was Feb 5 and the change would cost 50 Euro each. Perfect.

She looked up Manuel's reservation to make sure there was space for both of us on the same flight and after a long silence told us that she could find no reservation for Manuel on that flight. Or any flight from Paris to Delhi for that matter. Suddenly we needed the e-ticket and didn't have it. No problem, we went to the hotel Sheraton and bought 30 minutes internet time to dig it out of my email.

Surprise, there was no email with our e-tickets. They had been printed out and handed to us, but never emailed. Panic was starting to set in. I had a reservation and Manuel did not. I wanted to call the agency in Delhi but there was only about 2 Euro of credits on the phone. Airtel, as they usually do, seem to disconnect my phone whenever I leave the country for longer than 3 days. That is another story, but because of that, we were on a prepaid option only and not enough money to even get the phone on the other end to ring.

For some reason for which I am extremely grateful, whenever Manuel and I seem to be in a situation where we really don't know what to do or it seems almost impossible at best, Ankit appears out of the blue. Suddenly a message pops up on the screen. It is Ankit. He is in Delhi. He speaks Hindi. In a matter of a couple of minutes, he gets us Manuel's e-ticket number from the agency and we were off to the KLM/Air France desk to get it sorted. It was now about noon. We arrive at the desk and take our number. Thanks to being a Flying Blue member, we get bumped to the front-ish part of the line. With looks of relief on our faces we present the agent with the e-ticket number. She looks at it and tells us it is not a KLM or Air France number, and was it possibly a co-share?

A what? Then I remembered that when getting Manuel's ticket the travel agent explained that he would have an Air India ticket but would fly on and Air France machine. Other than that, he had the same ticket and same allowances and restrictions as I did. Perfect.

Perfect that is until last Saturday morning when standing at the ticketing desk with them telling us there was nothing they could do and we could have to change it at the airport in Paris. We quickly realized that we were most likely going to have to take the next train to Paris and sort all of this out before we lost the reservation. I asked, just to satisfy my own curiosity how much it would be to get a new ticket from Paris or Amsterdam to Delhi and was quited a pre-tax price of just 2000 Euro. Panic set in just a bit more and then finally we managed to get a number for Air France in Paris from the agent. Of course, working for the company, she could not possibly call, we had to do that on our own. We did what anyone in our situation would do, we went to the newly opened Starbucks, ordered some Vanilla flavored drinks, charged up the phone and started dialling. First up as Manuel. We were calling France and he speaks the language. Turns out, the number they had given us was not to the airline, but to a travel agent who then gave us a local number in Amsterdam. My turn. I called the number and got the very friendly recording telling me they were closed. Camera back on Manuel. He called the travel agency and got another number in London. Pass the phone back to me. I called and was put on perma-hold until some guy named Phil told me there was nothing he could do and I needed to phone Air India and gave me a number in India. I asked for something a bit more local and finally got a number in the UK. I then phoned Air India. Yes, of course we could change. No problem what-so-ever. Except...

With a co-share agreement, one airline agrees to give another airline a certain number of seats on each flight. So, technically, Manuel fly on an Air France machine, sitting in a seat owned or shared with Air India. There are a finite number of those available on each flight and the next possible option was sometime towards the end of February and even then it was not guaranteed. She offered to place me (I was pretending to be Manuel) on a waiting list but I would have to call back the next day to see if it was confirmed and in the meantime the original reservation would stand. That meant the plane would leave Paris and Manuel would be a no show, with no option to make any further changes for a late date. Also, Manuel and I are ready to be home. we want to sleep in our own bed, wear different underwear and just be at home. As much as I love to travel, I love arriving at my own front door.

We realised that we had to just toss Manuel's return flight and come up with another option. Being an airport, there are tons of travel agencies represented. But not one of them could sell us a ticket or give us any information. They are their for their customers that have booked via the agency and are either picking up their tickets or visa-ready passports or possible have issues with the arrangements from the agency. We were poor schmucks without a reservation. The lowest of the low in their books. The only thing to do was to head into Amsterdam and start knocking on the doors of travel agents. By now it was about 14:00 and Manuel and I were not in a good mood. The only thing that kept up going was the date with Saskia at Bubbles and Wines for some early evening bubbles and wines.

We got into Amsterdam and laid out the whole sad story for the owner of an agency who then gave us the option of Manuel flying on the same day on a different airline arriving 90 minutes after my flight. It seemed perfect, but the price was quite steep. Then he pulled the rabbit out of his hat and managed to get Manuel a ticket for January 30 on Swiss Air for a very good price. Now that his ticket was sorted, it was time to sort mine. Back to the airport we went to sort out my situation. I am on the Feb 5 flight from Paris. If I don't have my papers by the end of this week, then next week I am getting myself a tourist visa. I don't know what else to do, but I just want to be home and I will be arriving 3 weeks later than originally planned. But the good news is that we are both heading back soon albeit on different planes and dates.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sevilla Drag

They say the third time is a charm. Who exactly They are I have no idea. I don't even know what They look like and couldn't even know it if They passed me on the street. But in this case at least, They were right on the money. I had been in Sevilla on two earlier occasions and for the duration of each visit, the Spanish rain which is rumored to stay mainly in the plain was pissing down on us. It was to be my third and final visit to Sevilla, where we would spend a night before catching an early flight to Paris. We took the early bus from Almonte on Monday and sometime after morning tapas and before lunch, we arrived in a warm and cloudless city. We checked into the hotel, where for a mere forty euro, we could upgrade to a suite. I decided that after almost a month in a very small single bed that my feet hung off of every night, I was ready to do some dreamtime travelling. I love that. Nothing like a big bed that allows for endless moving around durning the night. Small beds make me feel confined and constrained, and not in the sexy "I'm all tied up and helpless" kind of way, but in the Jodie Foster locks herself in a panic room kind of way. I have not been in a bed that small since I was a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Everytime I wanted to turn over, I had to wake myself up and carefully turn, adjusting the blankets and more importantly, making sure I didn't end up on the icy floor with a broken hip due to poor maneuvering. At my age, one can never be too careful. So anyway, there I was at the check in desk with the prospect of a big bed and I just could not resist. I caved in and handed over the forty Euro. We ran up to the suite, threw our bags inside and headed out into the day.

We were on a mission. Sevilla is a beautiful city with a wonderful mix of Spanish and Muslim architecture and that all provided the perfect backdrop for our quest. We had only a few hours to find and secure for ourselves a Nintendo DS Lite. We had been looking everywhere and everyone was sold out. Whenever we asked, they looked at us with the sad eyes that told us in a way we could not possible misinterpret, that we were losers for not already having one. The cool people had stocked up before the festival of the Three Kings, young children where already engaging in wireless play trying to save one princess or another and here we were after the fact trying to find just one. After hitting every El Corte Ingles, FNAC and Media Markt, we gave up and decided to visit the cathedral that dominates the city. We visited the tomb of Christopher Columbus and climbed the bell tower. I had an instant urge to play Quasimodo and ring one of the bells. I could actually reach whatever that dangly thing in the bell is called, and was just about to throw it against the side of one of the smaller bells, but Manuel begged me not to. Something about maybe getting into troube and thrown off the tower or into some dungeon somewhere.

On that note, it was time for some lunch and I decided to expand my culinary experience with a small order of Cola de Toro, which translates to "Tail of the Bull". If there is one thing that does not happen when I look at a bull and that is gazing on the tale waving to and fro thinking "what a yummy dish that would make!" But it is quite the rage in Spain and I didn't want to be left out. It was at our favorite lunch place under the watchful yet non moving eyes of Manteador - the bull mounted on the wall above us - that I tasted what just might of been a tale of one of his distant relatives. I looked at it, gulped, broke into a bit of a sweat, took off a small piece, expecting to spit it out into the napkin and popped it in my mouth. I guess that is why They say to never judge a book by the cover. I couldn't gulp it down fast enough. I immediately felt more Andalusian, more butch than ever before, which was a it of a change from just a few nights earlier.

Let's rewind to Friday night. Edu picked Manuel and I up and we heade into a rainy Sevilla for a boys night out at Paseo, the local drag bar. I don't care for drag, never have. I don't see the point. I did go to a few shows in Barcelona, where the drag is so bad it like watching an Idols audition. Lip-syncing to songs for which they don't know a single word and they prance up and down, opening and closing their mouth in that oversized whitney Houston sort of way. But as they don't know the words, the merely look like walking guppies in too much makeup and abd wigs. First up was some tiny thing in last years hairstyle failing miserably at being Beyonce. Even in Spanish it was a huge failure. Next up was a cross between RuPaul and Wesley Snipes. It was all very "Too Wong Foo" and I am sure when Whitney dies, she will turn in her grave. But then came the most amazing one. Rolly polly, in a pink sequined dress that was just sizes too small and a pink wig that looked as though it has been made from unwashed silly string singing some sort of aggressive punk or new wave song. who knows. I was stunned and couldn't move. I searched the previous hours events and didn't remember taking any illegal hallucinogenics and realized this was all actually happening. One thing I just don't understand when it comes to drag and talent show auditions. Where are the friends and family in all of this? It wasn't only my opinion that the plumpy pink person was horrible, but everyone else in the place had looks of pure shock on their faces. Why don't their friends and/or family sit them down, look them in the eye and gently tell them something along the lines of "you suck!" Instead, their loved ones watch them humiliate themselves.

Note to friends: If I ever decide to put on a tacky dress, horrible shoes and bad wig, or try out for any reality shoe, please shoot me or at the very least, have me committed.

But that was not the highlight of the evening. Nope, we would be graced by one of the brighter stars on the Flamenco horizon... Juan Calero. As I mentioned before, I love the show "Se Llame Copla". We all watched it in Spain and of the 10 contestants, there was one we all loved to hate. And as the show was a much different type of competition, contestants were not voted off each week. This was more of a running competition, and so the heart could get fonder and fonder of disliking certain people. And the one we taunted, teaed and laughed at the most, was Juan Calero. He was so completely flambouyant when he tried to sing, and I say tried because he often forgot the words of the songs he was crooning. When the judges start to give their feedback and points, he clutches the invisible strand of pearls around his neck and waves hs face in a very Aunt Pittypat kind of way. We all laugh and poke fun. All of us. Everyone in Spain it seems. Everyone that is except Manuel's mom. She adores him. He's her favorite.

So, there we were at Paseo, trying to recover from having ingested too much bad drag when Mr. Calero himself walked in. Manuel saw him first and soon we were all making jokes. Remember, I don't speak Spanish, but this was one conversation I was fully included in. It didn't require words, just facial expressions and culvulsive shivering of the body. I told Manuel he should be the model son and go get his mom an autograph. He was too shy to do so. That is until our Flamenco star whipped out a stack of postcard sized picturs of himself that he had made (there as no logo or any mention of the show) and started signing and handing out. I almost fell on the floor laughing and soon my stomach was so sore I thought I might have to throw up. It was just too funny. Undaunted Manuel ran up and got his mom a postcard all signed and dedicated to her. It was too much for Edu and I to handle and as it was just after 3:30 am, we decided it was time to head for the disco where we would spend the next couple of hours shaking our groove thing. We were greeted by a Pamela anderson look-alike. Well, what Pammy would look like if she were a Spanish man with too much lip liner in a tight little black number and a blonde wig that needs to be placed in a recycle bin where it can be reborn and experince a more fulfilling life as a condom or garbage bag.

But all too soon we were saying goodbye to Manuel's family, Sevilla and finally Spain. We boarded our flight for Paris in the ignorant assumption that our holidays were winding down and our adventures were coming to an end. Just a few days left and we would be on a flight to Delhi.

That's what we thought...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Facial Expression

It is a bit like being in that dream. You know the one I mean. The naked one. Not the one where you wake up feeling frisky and wishing that things like that would happen to you in real life, but the other one. For me, I am usually in a grocery store wandering up and down the aisles. Somewhere around aisle number five I suddenly realize that I have left the house without a stitch of clothes on my body. It is at that moment that everyone I have ever met in my entire life starts pouring into the aisle, from both sides. They point. They laugh. They point and laugh some more. Try try to cover myself, but suddenly my limbs don´t seem to work. It is at that time that I am suddenly transported to the baggage claim of an airport where for some reason I am still naked, as if the clothes I was supposed to be wearing accidentally, and without my realizing it, got packed in the suitcase. It is at that moment that everyone I ever met in my entire life start flowing into he baggage claim area, all over dressed and pointing and laughing.

But what has turned this disturbing dream into an even more curious affair, are the guest celebrities that seem to make a sudden appearance. Most usually, it is Jennifer Aniston. I kid you not. For some reason, Jennifer always shows up when I am in need of some moral support. She never laughs, never points, she just stands there and smiles and suddenly, for some reason I feel better. One time she even brought the entire cast of "Friends" with her, only they were not the cast of the show, they were my personal friends. We hung out. we talked, laughed, insulted each other and drank coffee. Other celebrities that have popped up for some unknown reason include Paris Hilton and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. In fact, it was just last night that the Beatrix showed up at an island beach party, every hair glued perfectly in place. What all of this means, I have no idea and I spend my days pondering it all. And it is the appearance of Jennifer that seems to happen the most and intrigue me most of all. She never really says anything, she is just there. I wonder if she is stalking me.

The reason I mention these dreams is that since arriving in Spain, I have felt like I am in one of those dreams. Only naked in a different way. Spain, or at least the part of Spain in which I find myself these days seems to be the graveyard for bad hair and facial piercings. Everyone has at least one, if not both. I have neither and feel self conscious and out of place. First, there is the little issue about the hair. which I think can only be referred to as experimental. Most of it looks like a high school science project gone bad, looking for different and creative ways to use hair bleach and blunt scissors. The only thing that keeps it from looking like a kindergarten art project is the complete lack of dried macaroni. Maybe it´s something in the gambas. Perhaps the same chemical that gives flamingos their pink coloring does something to the human brain.

And then there is the hobby of facial decorating that seems to have swept the country. If it is on the face here, you can be rest assured that someone somewhere here has it pierced. Lips, noses, nose bridges, eyebrows, tongues, cheeks, septums... I have even seen crow´s feet pierced. I was at once stunned and amazed and asked myself "why?"

But then, it was not that long ago when I was desperate for a piercing. I thought of getting by eyebrow done but then changed my mind and decided I wanted a tongue piercing. I was obsessed with them. If I met someone that had one, I had to kiss them. Guy, girl, it didn´t matter. It was like a drug and I couldn´t get enough. I was in London and almost at the point of no return. I decided I would get one. It was only when I discovered that tongue piercings often lead to broken and chipped teeth that I decided not to do it. But I was still obsessed with having a piercing I could call my very own. I could not walk past a shop without stopping in, trying to build up the courage to do it, breaking out in a cold sweat and then walking out.

I did finally get a piercing of my very own, a souvenir from Barcelona many years ago. I was out at Dietrich having a drink with a British guy that, it turns out had both of his nipples and his navel pierced. I decided right then and there to get my nipple pierced the next day. I went to the piercing place, tried to build up my courage, broke out in a cold sweat and walked out. I repeated the process several times that day until at least I gave in and had it done by a heavily tattooed guy. I was nervous and thought I would faint. It turns out the anticipation is much more intense than the actual act. Like bungee jumping, the thrill in not in the fall, at least not for me. The thrill is getting over the mental hurdles that keep the hands firmly on the rails. The mind screaming to keep holding on and finally letting go. After that, its all over. Just fall and fall and the cord snaps us safely back up. each time I have jumped, it has always been the process of forcing myself to let go. Willpower over logic, my mother´s voice echoing in my head "I think if your friends jumped off a bridge, you would too" without her knowing just how true those words would become. And so it was with the piercing. I was excited if not a bit disappointed. It was over before it was done.

But here in Spain, it seems that people just have more guts than I do. I have nothing against facial piercings, it just seems there is such a surplus of them here and I have no idea why. Maybe I am getting old, but I think facial accessories are best left to Spice Girls whose first names are "Scary". They call her that for a reason, you know.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Delhi to Europe

After leaving my job in Delhi and flying out of what I thought were icy, subcontinental temperatures, I landed in Paris where it was minus two celcius and I was minus a key essential is such weather... A winter coat. In spite of the arctic-like temperatures I had been surviving in Delhi, I had so far managed to make it through with long sleeved shirts and a layer of cashmere with the occasional denim jacket added for a little extra warmth when the temperature really plummeted. Suddenly I found myself at Charles de Gaulle airport without any protection from the elements. Fortunately for me, I only had to catch the TGV to Brussels, where I had booked a sleeper sofa at Joe´s place, on the very street where Audrey Hepburn was born. It was upon arriving in Brussels that the urgency of my situation really hit. I had to exit the station and wait for a taxi. The wind was blowing icy daggers through my Indian winter attire and I stood shivering and turning an ever-increasing deep shade of blue. My dangly bits were colder than ever and in danger of falling to the ground and smashing themselves upon the forzen terrain. Taking a lead from one of the tragic literary heroines, I searched my pockets for matches I could use to keep warm while peering in the windows at those warm sould clutching cups of steaming lattes and espressos, but alas the pockets were bare. It was just little cold and cashmered me against the elements. Fortunately for me, it was not long before a taxi pulled up and I was soon setting up house in the back seat of the heated Mercedes on my way to the street where she lived.
After arriving at Joe´s and quickly borrowing a n ice winter coat, it was off to the Christmas Market for sausages and Glühwein. It was odd to go from a place without any traces of Christmas and be dropped right into the middle of everything. Santas, angels, nativity scenes and candles everywhere... People bundled up in thick coats, scarves and gloves, noses all red from the cold and Christmas music filling the air. It was surreal to say the least. Normally there is a bit of a build-up to the holidays... The weather turns colder and then first we have Sinterklaas and then out come the trees and lights and made-for-television Christmas movies and shows and plans are made for parties, cocktails and gift giving. This year it was from 0 - 120 in the matter of a medium haul flight on an Air France 747 seated next to the lavatories, thanks to a last minute seat change by the check in agent, thank you very much. If there is one thing I don´t care for when flying, it is flying economy. But when combined with a seat next to an alley of lavatories on an 8 hour flight with people returning to Europe with a Delhi-belly souvenir, the terror simply increases. Yes, I had extra leg room, but I also had a perfect view right into the tiny cabines with the blue water. I was hoping to catch a couple signing up for the mile-high club but no dice. I pushed my earplugs in as far as they would go, pulled down the blindfold down over my eyes and tried to transport myself to a different destination. I would have been successful had it not been for the gust of wind and smelly air that hit my face everytime someone entered and exited the lavatory. And oh my God. Get people 36,000 feet off the ground and they become pigs. I will leave the details to your imagination, but if you have flown that long in economy, you know exactly what I mean.

So there I was, trying to air myself of the last traces of in-flight contamination walking around Brussels trying somewhow to summon the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. For some reason, it just wasn´t happening. All that crap about Christmas being a state of mind need to go the way of the blue water. I was in a Christmas state of mind, I just could not summon the feelings that went with it. Perhaps it was due to the fact that my life as I knew it in Europe, just does not exist anymore. Ulco is in St. Petersburg. Ann is in Sydney. Other friends had either moved on or where too busy with other things to worry about the normal holiday trappings. I was also missing Manuel. It had been weeks since he left Delhi and it would be another week before I flew to Spain. We had never been apart that long and I didn´t really like it at all. So there I was walking around in what used to be my life but not really able to get into it. Like putting on an old favorite pair of jeans to discover they don´t really fit the same anymore and no amount of Santas were going to change anything. I had a great time in Brussels and it was great to see Joe and Graham and have some laughs and coctails at the old familiar haunts like Fontainas. I even c aved in and went to Chez Maman with Joe where we met up with Nik later and I left with the shirt off of Nik´s back. Literally. He came walking in with a red Abercrombie and Fitch shirt with the text that read "Hung with care". I had tried to get that shirt the year before but they were sold out and suddenly here it was. I told Nik how much I loved that t-shirt and so he took it off and handed it to me. My first Christmas gift! Of course he was wearing something underneath. While I would have been more than happy to send him out in the cold in exchange for the shirt, it turns out I did not need to. If I can saw one thing about Nik, it is that he is always prepared no matter what the situation. I wouldn´t at all be surprised if he carries a Swiss Army Cocktail Shaker for those emergency situations when only a well-shaken concotion will do the trick.

All to soon it was off to Amsterdam for a couple of days before needing to head to Paris for my flight to Sevilla. If Brussels was cold, Amsterdam took it to an all new level. lower one at that. Patches of ice on the gound and a thin layer of ice forming on the lesser used canals with the wind whipping a paralytic cold through the city. Thanks to Joe´s coat, I was a bit more prepared for the 5 minute journey on foot between the train station and my flat. I went home, changed clothes and then headed out to see Garad and have a few drinks. I met Garad about 2 years ago and we instantly fell into one of those relationships that is all about insulting and one-upping the other and for some reason this seemed to escalate whenever Marco was around. It woudl start out with a few slings here and there and would basically spiral downhill until there were either somewhat hurt feelings or we would all just get fed up with our inability to communicate on any level of quality. This went on for about a year and then during Christmas a year ago, Garad joined a few of us for Christmas at Nik´s and Garad and I shared a hotel room. Turns out, we actually got on very well. I was at least surprised that we managed to get beyond all the witty and insulting remarks and actually have conversations. I realised then that I actually liked Garad, something I wasn´t too sure about before. He was more someone I got on with because he was part of the group. So there we were, having drinks and discussing Garad´s moving into my flat in Amsterdam which I am hoping he will buy. It´s a cool place, right in the center and now Marco and Nik have just moved about 50 meters away from the place. Of course, it seems much further than that when carrying an Eames chair down the street, but at last, just as I am leaving the place, we become neighbours. I spent the a day packing as much of my place up as possible and unfortunately I had to leave the rest of Garad to take care of. It just wasn´t something I had planned for when arranging my trip here. But it all seems to be sorted now and my belongings are temporarily in storage, waiting for their big move to India. Who knew I had so much stuff? While packing, I agonized over what to do with my collection of Vanity Fair magazines that spans more than 10 years. I have them all. I took my dilemma to Nik who thought as I did. Save the best ones in tact, cut off the covers of the better ones to frame and ditch the rest of them. I left our discussion with my decision made to do just that. It was only when I opened the cabinet and looked at my little babies that I changed my mind. I am just not the kind of parent to toss my little ones into the street, and certainly not in sub zero temerpatures. Why, Giselle was practically naked. She never would have survived in that skimpy outfit.

Adventures in España

I was soon speeding to Paris for my flight to Sevilla. Check-in is supposed to start two hours before the flight, but it was half an hour later before the woman in her "welcome aboard" pumps arrived at the desk. And when I say "welcome aboard" pumps, I mean just that. Those shoes went way beyond the traditional "Fuck Me" pumps. I am sure they carried a group discount, or at least came with their own frequent flier program. Bit pumps aside, I was soon on the plane and heading south to sunny Spain where I landed under grey skies. I was the first one to check in at the airport and for that was rewarded by my suitcase being the very last one onto the baggage belt. Everyone else had left and the last few actually gave me a sad look that said my luggage was probably in a different geographic locale. Suddenly between the last people leaving and panic starting to set in, my bag came sluggishly onto the belt and I was soon in a taxi with Manuel and we were heading off to the hotel in Sevilla.

The first thing we did in Sevilla was grab a beer and a bite to eat. Something that has so far not stopped the entire time I have been in Spain. We walked from restaurant to restaurant passing by the cathedral, the city hall, the Torre de Oro (Tower of Gold), Plaza de España (better known to some as Queen Amadala´s palace in Star Wars Episode 1), and the Plaza de Toro (Bullring).

In spite of Manual finally eating himself sick and me feeding myself into the largest size I have ever been in my life, I have managed to get hooked on a few other activities in Spain. Namely¨the television shows "Se Llama Copla" which is an Idols like show for aspiring Flamenco singers and "Fama ¡A bailar!" an Idols like show for dancers. I have also become completely intrigued with bull fighting. Seriously.

I had always thought bullfighting was one matador "fought" the bull with his red cape. I knew that the bull was ultimately killed, but for the rest, the details I had were shaky. I have since learned through my visit to the Plaza de Toros and also via watchin bullfights on the television that I was very wrong. A bullfight is one in a few stages. First, a matador does his traditional dance with the bull and the cape. That lasts about 5 minutes. After that time, a picadore comes out on horseback who then stabs the bull on the muscle on the back of the neck - this is the first wounds the bull receives. After that, the bandillero has to place a total of 6 bandalerras, which are hooked and decorated sticks into the back of the bull - these further weaken and also excite the bull. Once those staged are completed, the matador enters the ring again with his cape and sword. He has to get the bull in just the right position so he can perform the estocada - thrusting the sword between the bulls shoulder blades and through his heart, killing him instantly. If the matador is good, he can do this in one go. If not, then the sword is removed and the bull is killed by either someone else cutting the back of his neck or the matador delivering another blow at the base of the neck. If the bull fights a good fight, the president of the association will pardon the bull, and he will be released into pasture, never to fight again. Oten the bulls ultimately die of the wounds inflicted during the fight. If they survive, they are used to breed. If a bull kills a matador then the bull and the mother of the bull are put to death. Depending on how good the matador is, he gets a prize at the end of the fight. Either one or both of the bulls ears and perhaps also it´s tail. After death, the bull ends up on tables across spain as food, his head most likely mounted on a wall someplace.

In between talent contests, eating and bullfights, Christmas arrived. Christmas in Spain in a simple affair with no gifts exchanging hands. Gift giving is done on January 6, the day of the Three Kings. I spent Christmas in a bit of a down an sad mood. After spending over a week in Spain, I was tired of being excluded from everything. I know only a few words and sentences in Spanish and here in Almonte, nobody - and I do mean NOBODY - speaks English. That means I am excluded from everything. If we are out with Manuel´s friends, I sit listening to music or watching TV I do not understand. I think that is why the Idols like shows have become faves for me to watch. I can laugh at bad singers and dancers and appreciate a good voice, even if I have no idea what is being said. There are no channels in Enlgish here, no CNN and no BBC. It may come as a bit of a surprise, but I like being the center of attention. Here I am not even on the radar screen. I can´t contribute to single conversation. The bookstores do not sell English books. It is a very lonely and isolating feeling. All of that combined with the holidays and being away from everything familiar, it was all a bit overwhelming. I just wanted to cry, to crawl under the covers and wait for it all to pass. On top of all of that, staying with Manuel´s family also takes a bit of a toll. I am not used to having no personal space of my own, no place to go to to just get away or to regroup. In India I can always camp out at home when things get to be too much. Here I do not have that luxury. I also can´t expect Manuel to keep translating everything to me.

Manuel and I finally decided to take a few days away and off we went to Granada. And what an amazing place that is, smashed against the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, with snowcapped peaks dwarfing the city. We spent the better part of a day at the Alhambra, which is just a spectacular place to see. For more information on Alhambra, click here. I will leave the historical details to the experts and just say that it is one of the most amazing places I have seen. So much so, that I was too busy taking in all the details and beauty around me that I stepped smack into a center of a small but incredibly cold fountain. I was lucky enough that it happened toward the end of the visit and had only to walk a relatively short distance with a numbing foot. Instead of offering me his dry shoes and socks, Manuel just laughed at me.

We arrived back at the hotel and upon exiting the elevator on our floor, we were immediately confronted with screams. And not just any screams, mind you, but the screams of a woman in the middle of what sounded like some pretty damn good sex. Her moans filled the halls and as we walked toward our room, they got louder and louder. Not because she was getting louder, but due to the fact that their room, number 301, was next to ours, 302, and we had to pass by their door. We couldn´t help but pause outside their door and giggle. Immature I know, but believe me, you would have done exactly the same thing. There are sounds you don´t really want to hear, but when you do, you just have to stop and listen. We went to our room where the insulation in our shared wall only managed to slightly muffle her moans. By now we had discerned a clear pattern coming from the woman which was sounding a bit like a sexual Morse Code, 2 medium, one long and five short. It went something like this: Aaaah, aaaah, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah... and then repeat. He was a little less predictable; Oh God... Oh... Oh... Oooooh yeeeaaaaahhhh... and on the chorus went. As if the sound quality wasn´t good enough, Manuel went into the bathroom, grabbed a glass and put it against the wall for an even finer level of detail. After what seemed like an unnatural length of time, we heard one final OOOH MYYYYY GOOOOOOOOOOOD and then it was all over. It made me want to say "Olé!" Manuel confirmed this by stepping away from the wall, setting down the glass and telling me he heard them kiss. Exhausted and relieved, I decided to take a bit of a nap only to be rudely interrupted by Act 2, which was soon followed by Act 3. Manuel and I debated knocking on the door and shaking the guys hand. Viagra or not, we were definately impressed, if not a bit jealous.

On our last night in Granada, it was the festival of the Three Kings. The whole city lines the street for the parade which features bands and floats loaded with people throwing candy in every possible direction while all the people that lined the route worked themselves into a frenzy trying to collect as much as possible. Some people came prepared with boxes, bags, umbrellas held upside down, anything is expand the possible catch territory. Being the uneducated gringo I am, I used only my hands before realising my jacket has a rather good sized pocket in the front center. That quickly became my candy catcher. The parade went on until the last of the Three Kings (the black one) rolled by followed by a Ronald McDonald who was kept company by the dancing fries and soft drink.