Sunday, April 23


I've spent most of the last week in Portugal and Sevilla, a city in Andalucia, the southern province of Spain. Easter in Spain is quite the event, and they give you the whole week off from classes.

Portugal is one of the nicest countries that I've been to. The things that I like most about Spain [i.e. the weather] are also in Portugal, but in addition, the people there are very laid back, and at the same time friendly. It's true that it's poorer than Spain, but as a consequence the cost of living is lower.

From Thursday till Sunday, I was in Lisbon, the capital city. I stayed with Fred and Igor, two Brazilians that I met through the couchsurfing website that I used in eastern Europe. They were amazingly nice hosts, and showed me all of the nicest parts of the city. Plus, we were joined by Silvia, one of Igor's friends from Rio de Janeiro, and her German boyfriend, Mark.

Mark was one of the originators of the rave scene, having done his first gig as a DJ in 1988. He met Silvia when he was working in Rio.

On Friday, Marc Olivier [aka Marco], my ex-roommate from Alicante, came to meet me as he backpacked across Spain. Fred, being the amazingly nice guy that he is, didn't mind in the least if Marco crashed at his place as well.

The nicest thing about Lisbon has got to be the architecture. Most of the buildings are covered in ceramic tiles, similar to what you would expect on bathroom walls in most other western countries. It's very pretty, as each building has a different style of decoration. Sometimes a pattern in blue, other times in green or red. For pictures of the city, check out Fred's website at

I met two other 'couchsurfers' while I was there. Filipa, a very friendly native-Portuguese girl who lives in a village just outside of Lisbon, showed us some of the night life, and introduced us to more Brazilians. Since Brazil is one of the only other countries in the world whose native language is Portuguese [and whose population is about 15 times that of Portugal], most of the immigrants tend to come from there.

Also, we met Irina, who, although Austrian, has lived in Lisbon for a few years. She speaks 6 languages, and understand 5 others. This is amazing to me. It's good to know that it's possible...

On the last night, we went to one of the trendiest nightclubs in town, Lux. It was the first time that I've enjoyed a night club in quite some time. I think I'm a bit claustrophobic, and usually clubs aren't my favorite scene. The difference with this one was that the music was very good, as well as the overall atmosphere. They had a giant screen where they played clips from vintage 1920's cartoons, designed so that the characters moved to the beat of the music. Also, space wasn't a problem, as clubs in Portugal don't really fill up until 5 a.m. I have no idea why people come out so late, or what they're doing until then. I was pretty much asleep on my feet by that point, but all of the locals were just getting warmed up.

I'll be adding a few pictures of the people that I met at, so give it a look if you're curious.

Something that surprised me is how much the Portuguese resent the Spanish. Although the language is quite similar, they refuse to speak it. Yet they're quite happy to speak English, whereas the Spanish hardly speak a word of anything but their own language. It's true that Portugal is at times overshadowed by Spain, and most people expect the culture to be quite similar. I made the same mistake, but in fact, they are very much distinct. The relationship reminded me in many ways of that between the United States and Canada.

After leaving Lisbon, I went south to a town called Lagos. I knew it was going to be a touristic place, but it turned out to much more so than I expected. I only spent one day there, and in all of that time, I heard Portuguese being spoken only a handful of times. Everyone was either British or German. It had that generic tourist trap layout, with the buildings being mostly modern.

After Lagos came Sevilla, a Spanish city close to the border. It's a very beautiful place, but unlike other Spanish towns that I've been to, the efforts to preserve the town's historic feel were much more obvious. For instance, all of the street signs were in a fancy font, which makes it hard to tell the difference between them and the signs of the shops [all street signs in Europe are attached to the walls of the buildings].

Most of the people staying in the hostel were French, as the people in France get at least a week-long holiday for Easter. We visited several gardens, as well as some very impressive cathedrals and on my last night went to a Flamenco dance/concert.

The city really challenges your sense of direction. The map of the city center looks more like a spider's web. The streets tend to be very short, and are hardly ever straight. To make things even more fun, many aren't even labelled. The first time that I went for a walk, it took me half an hour to find my way back, despite having walked less than a kilometer. It's the first time that something like that has happened to me in a very long time.

I've been back in Alicante for a few days now. Most of the people that I knew here have moved on, and almost all of those who are left are Swedish. They're all nice, but being the only person around who doesn't speak Swedish makes things a bit odd. It's impossible to jump into conversations [which are, as you'd expect, in Swedish].

I only have two more weeks left, so it's best to enjoy Spain while I'm here. I'm still making progress in Spanish, and I think that I'll reach my goal of carrying on basic conversations by the time that I leave.

Monday, April 10

Just Lose It

This weekend I went to Granada, in the southern province of Andalucia.

It's very beautiful, both the city and the Province. The area is a sort of 'high desert', very dry, but with shrubs coving most of the hills in green. The city is very well preserved, with the architecture showing many Islamic influences. The area was under Arab control for almost 700 years, up until the late 15th century.

The most memorable part of my time there was seeing the Gypsy caves. As the name implies, it's a collection of caves near the top of a mountain, which are home to Gypsies as well as a few hippies. I'm not sure if I'd want to spend much time there, as it was pretty filthy, but they seemed happy enough. I didn't ask exactly where they go to relieve themselves...

I stayed in a hostel, which was one of the nicest that I've been to in a long time. The roof was made into a terrace, and each night they would cook paella (a Spanish national cuisine) on a barbecue, while guests played some of the instruments that were laying around. Combined with the view of the city, it made for a great atmosphere, laid back and friendly, blended with the Spanish culture.

Most of the people that worked there spoke English, French and Spanish fluently, and when they talked to each other they would switch between all three during the conversation. To put it mildly, it was challenging to follow. It's the best sort of practice, though, as switching back and forth between French and Spanish has been giving me pretty big problems. I've been having a hard time keeping the two languages straight, so it was good practice going back and forth.

Also, I think that I have a new hero. Or at least, someone who left quite an impression on me. One of the girls that worked at the front desk was born in Canada, though her parents are from France. She moved to Spain three years ago with her father [she's one of those perfectly trilingual people], but when he took off for New Zealand a year after that, she decided to stay in Granada and get her own place. Still, she's been taking trips to Asia and South America every few months when she has the chance. The part that got me is that she recently turned 16. Which means that she's been living on her own since she was 14.

She is of course very mature for her age, and talking to her I would have assumed that she was more like 18 or 19. But still, I was proud of myself for making it on my own at 18. I guess some people just grow up faster than others...


[And yes, now it's time for more rants about France. Apologies to those who aren't so interested...]

It seems that the strikers, demonstators, and mobs have won. Chirac, the President, withdrew the national working law that had pissed off so many people. After two weeks of massive demonstrations [involving up to three million people, who blocked most major road, rail and air routes, crippling the country], he finally blinked. It seems that democracy is, well, malade in France.

The reason that the demonstrators seem to be so out of touch is that the jobs they're fighting to protect simply aren't there in the first place. For the people concerned, the only jobs available are for a fixed amount of time, say 6 months. These jobs have no security anyway, and thus the employers get around the rigid laws of regular full time employment. So either way, the unskilled workers lose.

It's also said that employers will just hire people under 26 so as to be able to fire their workers at will. Still, most skilled workers are at least 26 when they enter the labor market, if not a few years older. So the effect shouldn't be that great.

Don't get me wrong, I think the working contract was a stupid idea. Instead of just singling out the youth, it would be more logical to revamp the entire system, giving progressive job security depending on how long you've worked with the company. This would be more along the lines of other western countries where it's not so hard to find a job in the first place. Sometimes it's better to be realistic than idealistic. It's better to have a decent job than no job at all. In countries that protect their workers, but to a less rigid degree, the standard of living is not lower. In some cases, such as the U.K., Scandanavia, and Canada, it's actually a bit higher.

But such a change is now impossible, given that the demonstrators have tasted blood. Such a change would be much, much more unpopular.

All this aside, the biggest question that this raises about the French system is why the people have to take to the streets to get their point across in the first place. If the majority of the population isn't happy with what the government does, come the next election the opposition should offer to undue the changes, and hence get elected. Yet most French presidents stay in office for at least ten years. So either the French aren't voting for what they believe, or the people on the streets are in fact a minority. If it's the second case, the government giving in to them goes against the very principles of a democratic society. It's in fact mob rule. Hopefully the people will learn to express themselves in the ballot box. If the majority still can't get what they want, then it would be time to take to the streets. But this time to demand the total overhaul of the French electoral system.