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.

Off to France and Spain

I’ve never traveled before. Ever. Unless you count that brief two day trip I took to Damascus last December and the one before to Northern Syria in July.

Well, if you do, let me tell you this: if you don’t go to your destination in an plane, then you haven’t really “traveled.” At least that’s how I understand it to be.

But I digress.

In a few hours, I will be taking my very first airplane ride to Southern France where I will spend four days before heading out to Spain for a thirteen day excursion.

I’m definitely excited. But also quite anxious. It could be that I haven’t packed yet. I just look at the suitcase and decide there’s still time.

My stay in Spain will involve three cities: Toledo, Madrid and Sevilla. No Barcelona for me, sadly. But I guess there’s a time for everything. And with a Schengen on my passport, it’ll be easier to go there some other time.

While in Spain, I will be participating in the international Catholic Youth Day, formally known as JMJ: Journee Mondiale de la Jeunesse, which will be an opportunity for me to meet the pope – although I have low hopes about actually “meeting” him unless you consider spotting someone in a sea of a million people “meeting.”

While I’m definitely not the most religious of people, I think this will serve as an opportunity for me to meet lots of new people. Let me tell you a secret though, my group is going to miss out on most of the religion sessions and we’ll be going touring the cities we’re in. Awesome, right?

France should be great as well. I’m not doing the cliche France trip of going to Paris and staying there for the whole vacation, which I honestly would have loved to do – there’s just something about Paris, right? My French stay will give me an opportunity to practice my dying French skills. Yes, AUB, I blame you.

A woman in my travel group is of Argentinian origins and she was giving us Spanish lessons the other day in order to get around in Spain. Apparently the people who speak something other than Spanish are rare over there. Who would’ve thought? Needless to say, only one sentence got stuck in my head. And no, it’s not good morning or good evening.

“No habla espagnol, habla inglese?” will be my motto for the upcoming two weeks. I’m sure you can deduce what it means quite easily.

As for now, I’ll leave you and hope you come to read the posts that I’ve written and scheduled to be posted. There will be a book reviews, a short story split in seven parts, among other things… And if I get the chance to tell you how my French and Spanish adventures are going, well, why not, I guess.