The Spanish Experience – Madrid

We left Toledo on the morning of Tuesday August 16th to go to the Spanish capital, Madrid. The drive was about an hour and the bus dropped us off in the Southern part of the city: Calle de Anoeta at Instituto Theodoros Angeles.

We were greeted by enthusiastic Lebanese who, at first, made it seem as if the location actually had beds and separate showers. Needless to say, I was very disappointed when they took us to a gym, already filled up with a huge group of Lebanese from Jounieh, but with enough space for us to put our stuff. The ultimate shock? The place only had one electrical outlet to recharge our cameras and phones. And no extensions were allowed.

We left our bags in the gym and went to take the subway to the city center. For many, including me, it was our first subway ride – ever.

The subway station had a glass cube entrance. Pretty cool. We went down electric stairs and we were lucky enough to find the subway train we were supposed to take immediately on the first level. Villaverde Bajo-Cruce. Remember the name. Subway line 3 to Plaza del Sol, Madrid’s center. The subway was exactly as I had expected it to be, based on the many movies and TV shows I had watched. Not too big and, lucky for us, it wasn’t too crowded as well.

There, we were given about thirty minutes after lunch to go and shop. I personally had no intention to buy anything so I just ventured into shops that looked familiar, the first of which was Springfield. There, I was hit with such low prices that my non-shopping-loving-self fell in love. Four shirts and some cool shoes for 39 euros, I say that’s a bargain. If I were to buy the same stuff in Lebanon, my total would have been multiplied easily by five.

From Sol, we kept walking in Madrid’s center to where the World Youth Day opening Mass was supposed to be held. It was too crowded and also too hot. So before attending Mass, outside, and get sunburnt, we decided to visit a interesting-looking Cathedral nearby. Needless to say, the moment we got out and sat in the shadow cast by the Cathedral, no one of us wanted to move. I literally made the Springfield bag, with my newly purchased clothes in it, a pillow and slept throughout Mass and was woken up by some clumsy German girl who mistook my feet for the ground some two hours later.

Soon after the Mass we were supposed to attend but slept through, we went to have dinner. Our mistake? Not going too far away from Madrid’s center when over one million people visited the same restaurants we wanted to eat at. What did we end up eating? Some horrible kebab, which even hunger barely got down my throat. When? Three hours after Mass was over, at 12:30 AM.

Then, running like maniacs, we caught the last subway back to the region we were supposed to sleep in. We got out of the subway station and started walking. The area wasn’t familiar to me. After all, I have a pretty good photographic memory and, despite barely walking through the region a few hours ago, I had a pretty decent mental image of the region. And this was not it. I tried communicating this to the group but they refused to listen. It wasn’t until we reached a Mosque that the group decided to split into smaller groups in order to find Calle de Anoeta. What did I do? I sought my iPhone’s help. And what a blessing it was. Soon enough, the other groups figured I was on the right track and joined me. This was my iPhone’s way of telling everyone who kept telling me I was too obsessed with it to suck it.

Day two in Madrid was much more fun. Our group split in two: one that went to an amusement park and my group which went to sightsee. I figured I’d rather go to an amusement park in a country known for them and sightsee in Madrid, since I might not get the chance to do so. We went and saw Cathedrals, Museums, had lunch in Madrid’s center, visited Parks, saw the Royal Palace…

Day three, however, was so similar to day 2 that I figured I made the wrong decision the day prior. We became one group again and those who went to the amusement park were taken to see the same landmarks we had seen the day before, with the addition of a few extra places. At one of those extra places, there was a queue line to see a golden edifice in some Church. And naturally, some of the Lebanese started to cut through the line. I was furious but couldn’t say anything. A few minutes later, a Brazilian tells me that: “You, Lebanese, are an impolite people” because my “friends” had apparently cut him in. And he was right. The sad thing is? the same people that cut the line were telling me yesterday how great life was in Spain because of all the rules. If you like rules, why don’t you apply them if they exist, right?

Also, day three was when we had direct contact with the anti-World Youth Day protests taking place in Madrid. While walking to Domino’s Pizza to have dinner, we were met with three people dressed in black, wrapped up in chains, with a black and white picture of the Pope and reciting some weird sentences. On our way back, some people started to throw bricks on World Youth Day participants and on cars.

The day wasn’t all too bad, though. I was hugged by an Italian girl in the streets of Madrid and she gave me her country’s flag and signed it. Luisa, where are you?

The following day, we went to visit our French friends in the northern part of the city. And once again, the northern part of a city is much tidier than the southern part we were staying in. I’m beginning to think it’s a common characteristic that applies everywhere. Our friend’s school was located on a street that made my nerdy self really happy: Calle de Ramon Y Cajal 1. For those who don’t know, Ramon Y Cajal is a very important Nobel-prize winning Neuroscientist. And once again, my iPhone came to the rescue and got us there. That’s a second “suck it” to those who thought I was wasting my time being connected. Soon after meeting our French friends, we took the train for the first time. And it was very similar to the subway, except bigger and more comfortable. Also, you kind of appreciate being able to see the scenery as you travel.

As day four drew to a close, we began preparing to the two most tiring days of our whole trip: the last two days of World Youth Day. Location: the airport of Cuatro Vientos. And if you’re interested enough, tomorrow’s post will be about those two days.

In the meantime, here are some pictures I have left from Madrid. Lost almost all of the pictures that were on my phone:

The awkward moment when this makes perfect sense :D

The Spanish Experience – Toledo

We, Lebanese, pride ourselves that we can speak three languages fluently. Well, you know you’re in Spain when your bus makes a pit stop and the first thing a salesperson there tells you is, in Spanish, that she doesn’t speak neither English, nor French, nor Arabic. Only Spanish.

And that was our welcome notice to Spain. Welcome to the land where you will barely manage to communicate.

Also, if you thought Lebanon’s summer was hot, wait till your every being is stricken with thirty-five degree heat, no humidity and no wind to cool it down. Then you’ll know what hot is. And I know that’s nothing compared to what some people in the Gulf get, but it’s still something. After all, the European weather misconception is: it’s always at least colder than Lebanon.

We stayed in the Southern part of Toledo, in a school in a new neighborhood. The realization that I had five days in Toledo where I had to sleep on the ground, take a shower in the parking lot with cold water using a bathing suit in front of twenty other French people took some time to sink in. Moreover, going into a school with three hundred other French guys and trying to fit in a tiny classroom or gym with them isn’t the most welcoming idea in the world. Therefore, five other Lebanese guys and I took our stuff and basically made outside our bedroom.

Toledo was the first out of two steps in our World Youth Day journey. It was a preparatory forum, one that I had my own experience at. You see, there was a fixed daily schedule of events that went on for our five day stay. So we, Spanish-less Lebanese,  since we didn’t understand 95% of what was going on, simply ditched most of what was going on and went globe-trotting around the city. Most of the Lebanese group stuck together. I, on the other hand, set out to meet people. I didn’t want to remain with a group I could meet whenever I wanted in Lebanon. I wanted to meet people whom I would only get the chance to meet in those few days I had in Toledo.

The second day I was there I bought an Orange phone line. No, do not look at me like that. I didn’t change political affiliations (if anything, Spain fortified them) but that line was so cheap! A 3.5 euro per week subscription to unlimited 3G internet as well as fifty free texts, with very cheap minutes. For my overpriced Lebanese line, it was heaven.

But I digress.

The beauty of Toledo is something that has evaded me while being in Toledo. You see, the constant worry of sleeping and showering and the heat was a constant shadow on my days. Also, the fact that I didn’t get along with a decent portion of the Lebanese group I was with left me searching for company elsewhere.

It was then that I met an awesome group of Egyptians, most of whom were of Lebanese origins. After all, it’s hard not to get excited when an Egyptian tells you they’re Maronite and that their mom is from the North and their dad is from Jezzine. What was the most awesome thing about these Egyptians, apart from the fact that they were a great company? They simply loved Lebanon. Even those of them who didn’t have any drop of Lebanese blood in them.

I still remember when a purely Egyptian Raef told me: “You, Lebanese people, don’t know how lucky you are to be living in Lebanon. You have the prettiest country, nature, cities, girls, cars, etc…”

I had told you before that my Europe trip increased my pride in my country. This is another one of those moments. Raef had visited Lebanon three weeks before his World Youth Day trip and even in Spain, Lebanon still mesmerized him. So to every self-hating Lebanese reading this, just suck it!

The events in Toledo were taking place in a huge tent that could hold up to 5000 people of different nationalities. People from Germany, Romania, Slovakia, Puerto Rico, France, Belgium, Egypt, Iraq and even other groups of Lebanese were there. Part of the events was a country festival where a group from a certain country would get a fifteen minute presentation to tell everyone why their country is special.

Our Lebanese presentation consisted of yours truly explaining the Lebanese flag, name, talking about Lebanese saints and our country in English to over 3000 people in attendance. And the best thing of all? It wasn’t even nerve-wracking! Imagine five minutes later getting the whole hall to dance the Lebanese traditional dance, the Dabke, with you and you get a feeling of how awesome the Lebanese presentation was.

It was so good, in fact, that a guy from Belgium asked to take a picture with me soon after. The following day, a French guy named Martin ditched his group to sit with the “lively Lebanese who are the heart of Toledo.”

But it wasn’t all presentations and prayers. We also got to visit the ancient city of Toledo and see Cathedrals that are so breath-taking they’ve been turned into museums. I actually have a hard time imagining Mass taking place in them. It’s just so distracting to sit in them and focus on a priest praying.

I was also fortunate to meet two people in the school we stayed at in Toledo: Paul, a Russian boy who changed to Catholicism, and Sufian, a Moroccan who converted to Christianity. Sufian came over one night and said he needed to talk. Twenty minutes later, the other Lebanese around asked me to leave since they wanted to sleep. So Sufian and I went to a separate location where people wouldn’t be “bothered” by the discussion. Then Paul joined us. And what had started as my attempt to sleep early turned into me not wanting to sleep, at 3 am.

Remember how I said Spain fortified my political affiliation? Well, politics followed me all the way to Spain. While visiting the old part of Toledo, we stumbled on a Syrian group who was staying in the city as well. They were Syrian Christians from Aleppo, also in Spain to participate in World Youth Day.

One of the Syrian guys asked me where I was from in Lebanon and I answered. He then proceeded to ask me how the situation was in my country, to which I answered: “that question is more valid to Syria, don’t you think?”

He replied. “Oh there’s nothing going on. It’s all media exaggeration.”

I laughed and said: “Yeah, because the guy I saw get beheaded on YouTube is ‘media exaggeration’… anyway, let me tell you one thing: Bashar is going down!”

And then he started shouting and flashing his Bashar Assad pin at me. Moments later, I stumbled on another Syrian with yet another pin. Call me unlucky but it looks like I was in their corner of the Square. This time, however, I had two Lebanese of my group with me. So naturally, the “Syria topic” starts again and this time I blurt out the fact that most Lebanese Christians are actually against the regime in Syria because the regime has done grave things for us. Who replies? Yup, you guessed it… the two girls in my group, who happen to be of a differing political affiliation, shout at me saying: “don’t include me! I’m with the regime, long live Bashar Assad!”

I’m not the most self-restraining of people so I’d like to think some act of divine intervention took place to shut me up over there.

But if there was anything I learned from Toledo it’s that:

1) Spain is very hot!

2) Sane Egyptians, who are not all “YAY! EGYPT! REVOLUTION! OMG”, can be quite fun to be around.

3) French people are great!

4) Sometimes, the best remedy for a stranger in need would be a comforting conversation.

5) Syrian Christians, as well as some Aounists, are cringe-inducing. This realization will only get worse in Madrid.

Here are some pictures from Toledo.