Saturday, March 30, 2013

One Horrible Travel Hangover: Istanbul

If you like to look at book-related websites (like I do), chances are you've seen something like this before.  Maybe not the same image, perhaps not the same exact phrasing, but it's a common sentiment that the internet expresses well.

We've all felt this way.  You know, when we're so lost in a book, that when we look up, we're startled to find that the rest of the world isn't having the same emotional experience we are.  Sometimes the book is so powerful it gives you a whole new perspective.  In a way, it changes you, but the world around you hasn't altered one bit.

That's how I feel about my trip to Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque at night.
That moment when you come back from Istanbul, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives…

I've tried to explain my trip to my friends.  To my family.  I tell them what we did, where we went, our best (and worst) stories, but it isn't the same.  Words are a powerful magic, but even words cannot capture the majesty that was this sunset viewed from the Galata bridge.  The profundity of that one moment, the unspoken wonder shared between friends, the blazing emotions that consumed my entire being…

It's impossible.

The photo just doesn't capture the moment.
All week I'd been thinking about what I was going to blog about in relation to Istanbul, but all my ideas fell flat.  They wouldn't do my experience justice.  They wouldn't do the city justice.

My favorite story from the trip is that of Muhammed.  It was our last night, so we decided to end our trip by getting tea and baklava at a relatively fancy pastry shop.  Once we had finished eating, we spread our map over the table in order to review where we had been.  Upon noticing the map, our waiter, Muhammed, came over and offered to give us directions.

We started to talk to him about where he lived in Istanbul, how long he had been there, where he was from…

Syria.  Which, if you don't know, has been in turmoil for a few years.  (Click here to learn more.)

His home was destroyed.  His university was destroyed.

And all his friends are dead.

He's my age.

I tell this story, but nobody can see the expression on his face when he told us he never ever wants to go back to Syria.  When he brought us Turkish Delight, on him, against our protestations.  When he said, "America is nice, yes?  I would like to go there, but…"

The way his voice trailed off at the "but…"

That moment when you meet someone you'll never forget, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives, as though you didn't just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a Syrian waiter.

Left to Right:  Me, Sean, Muhammed, Natalie, Josh.
I seriously hope we meet again someday.
It really is strange that the world keeps going without acknowledging the experience, and even a few days after my return, I'm having a hard time carrying on with my life.  I simply want to sit, and remember, and think, and wonder, and ask if that really happened, and realize that it did.  It happened, and only I will ever fully understand it.

I don't even like to tell people about Istanbul anymore.  At first, I tried my hardest to make them understand.  I gave them a day-by-day play-by-play.  I showed them photos.  I found the call to prayer on YouTube and sent it to them.  But the truth is, it's something that can never be truly shared.

No matter what, nobody will ever have my same emotional experience.  Really, it's the same when reading a book.  Just as you can go to the same place, you can read the same words; but your emotional experience is entirely unique to you, and that's what makes it so darn difficult to connect with people while you're still suffering from a "book hangover," or in my case, a "travel hangover."

Have you ever had a "book hangover" or a "travel hangover," or any other type of emotional experience that left you feeling somewhat alone while the rest of the world carries on with their lives?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Barcelona: Urban Fantasy

This past weekend I once again journeyed away from Sevilla, this time flying to Barcelona, which is located in lovely Catalonia.

Casa Battló at night.
To say the least, it was a busy weekend.  We spent the better part of each day on our feet, hurrying from one architectural marvel to another, and only calling it quits after the sun set.  Yup, absolutely exhausting.  Thankfully, my friends are, well, my friends…And that means that an evening curled up  with good books while feasting on bread, cheese, chocolate and cheap champagne is just as good (probably better) as a night at a discoteca.  So we were nice and rested for the next day's adventure.

Our program guide, Antonio, introduced Barcelona as a city of fantasy and magic.  At first glance, that's a little difficult to see.  After all, Barcelona is a huge metropolitan city, complete with skyscrapers, flashy lights, and an upscale shopping district.

But that's what's special about it.  The fantastical is subtly woven into the modern city, making Barcelona a living example of urban fantasy and maybe even magic realism.

Let's take a stroll, shall we?

Casa Battló on the right.  Notice the scaled roof.
We exit the hostel and there, just a block away and standing on a perfectly normal street, is the Casa Battló, which in my opinion belongs in some sort of twisted Candyland.  The walls are supposed to look like a garden, while the balconies and columns are meant to represent bones. Kind of creepy, right?  The roof is scaled, like the back of a dragon, and the chimney is San Jorge's sword--being plunged into the dragon.

The dragon is the symbol of Barcelona, and it's everywhere (but still subtle enough that you have to look for it).

The roof of La Pedrera.
Then just a few minutes away is La Pedrera, another house by the same architect (Antoni Gaudí, the man behind all of Barcelona's most famous sites).  Again, it's a palace on a normal city block, easy to miss.  It's most interesting feature is its roof, which looks like an alien desert.

La Sagrada Familia
And of course, there's Barcelona's most famous tourist attraction:  the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral designed by Gaudí in the late nineteenth century, and is still under construction today.  It's interesting, for sure, but like most of Gaudi's work, I don't know if I'd call it gorgeous.  (Personal opinion).  To me and my writer's mind it would make an awesome palace for a villain.  I can easily imagine an evil queen standing in the tower, peering at her kingdom with disdain.

Magic and fantasy are everywhere:  in the design of the sidewalk, the fountains that dance to changing colors, the paintings that line Las Rambas.

As I said, Barcelona brings urban fantasy into the real world, so the city got me thinking about writing in the genre, especially because my WIP is, among other things, urban fantasy.

Why does it appeal to us?  What makes it special?

I'm no expert on urban fantasy (my current WIP is my first venture into it), but I might have a little insight.

In general, people like cities.  For hundreds of years we have been migrating to them, usually in search of work, or in order to escape the trials of country living.  We're naturally drawn to them, usually not because of aesthetic appeal, but because of the opportunities they offer.  Yup, cities are goldmines of opportunities, and not only in real life.  Plot and character-wise, they're invaluable.

You aren't going to find a character like this in the countryside:

Not gonna lie, this guy was probably my favorite part of the trip.  He was standing at the highest point of the Parc Güell, playing guitar in front of an elevated cross, while singing "Jesus Christ Superstar."
As for plots, cities tend to provide more opportunities for your characters to do different activities (just like in real life).  They can go to a nightclub; they can be pickpocketed on the metro; they can get lost in the slums; and so forth.

A bar in Barcelona called "Bosc de las Fades,"
which translates to "Forest of the Fairies."
Yup, it's enchanted forest themed.
For this reason, cities are prone to stories.  Real stories.  History happens everywhere, of course, but it's concentrated in the cities.  Where did the French Revolution start?  Paris.  What about the birthplace of American independence?  Philadelphia.  The conquest of Mexico?  Tenochtitlán.

But where does the fantasy part come in?  Well, cities offer opportunities, but once you throw in elements of magic, those opportunities become endless.  Absolutely anything could happen.

Of course, there's more.  Urban fantasy allows us to bring magic into our own lives.  While deep down we realize that we probably won't ever be whisked away to Middle-earth or Narnia, we can go to cities like New York.  Like London.  Like Barcelona, where it's easy to imagine magic happening all around us, though we may not be able to see it.

And no matter how childish it is, we always hold onto that hope that someday the fantastical adventure will be ours.  At least, I do.  In Tangiers I hoped to find a magic lamp.  In Rome I wanted some angels and demons (get it?).  And in Barcelona, I was just itching to fight off a dragon.
Barcelona viewed from the Parc Güell.  I can easily imagine a dragon soaring through that sky.
We like magic, so the idea that it can be threaded into modern society is highly appealing.  Which is why people come to Barcelona.  Let's face it:  you don't come to Barcelona for traditional Spanish culture.  You won't find the narrow winding streets (try Toledo), flamenco (that's Andalusian), bullfighting (it's banned in Catalonia), or even Spanish (the official language of Catalonia is Catalan).  No, people flock to Barcelona for the fantasy, for the magic.

Unfortunately, I didn't find any fairies or dragons (I guess I wasn't looking hard enough.  Or I'm just a silly muggle).  Though I'm in Istanbul this week, so you can be sure that my quest for a magic lamp will be renewed!

Enough of me!  What about you?  Have you ever been to any "magical" cities?  Or if not, which ones would you like to go to?  What are your favorite urban fantasy books?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Dreaded Middle

Believe it or not, my life in Spain is not all fun and games.  Like any extended life experience, there are ups and downs, but this week has been the most trying yet.  I've felt emotionally unstable, both sad and stressed, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I've arrived at the dreaded middle of my Study Abroad experience.

Halfway there, and as my friend put it, the honeymoon period is over.  The veil we referred to as a "new cultural experience" has somewhat lifted from our eyes.

For example:

Two months ago:  "Wow, I guess Spaniards like cold showers.  Woot!  Time for cultural immersion!"

Now:  "Uh uh.  No way.  I ain't immersing myself in anything less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit."

Don't get me wrong.  I love Spain, and I love its culture, but I'm reaching that point of mild homesickness.  What I wouldn't pay for a steak.  For a cup of real American coffee.  For a snuggle session with my kitty.

Yes, the middle stretch is always the most difficult, whether studying abroad, running a 5k, or writing a novel.  It's when the fun starts to wane a bit, when you suddenly realize, "Hey, this is actually hard work."

As for writing, maybe you don't know how to move forward.  Maybe your characters are getting on your nerves.  Or maybe you're just sick and tired of everything; all you want to do is get to the end.  But just as I can't fast forward to the end of my semester (not that I want to), you can't jump to the end of your manuscript.

So how do you push through the dreaded middle?  How do you make it to the end?

Everyone has their own methods, but I have something I like to call a driving scene.  It's one scene toward the end of the story, though not necessarily the climax, that I envision over and over again, so eager am I to write it.  But I don't.  Not until it's time.  Because if I write it to, say, get it out of my system, then it's free.  It's no longer driving me.  But when I keep it bottled up, it pulls me forward, dangling in front of me as a reward for perseverance.

Sometimes I describe it in one sentence or paragraph, as it would stand in a synopsis.  For example, the one for my drawer novel was, "The last grain of sand falls and the hourglass shatters."  That's not even a scene; it's just one image, and to anyone who isn't me, it probably doesn't mean anything.  But I know the details, so for me, it's powerful enough to pull me through however many chapters precede it.  Anyway, I'll take that driving scene sentence and scribble it into my notebook, or paste it above my desk, so it can act as a beacon toward my final goal.

My drawing is about as good as my singing (so not good), but sometimes I'll sketch the scene, too, and put that drawing where it will encourage me to keep going.

I have a driving scene for everything I write, even short works.  In fact, it's such a part of my writing process that I've even come to apply it to my outside life.  For example, I have a driving scene for this whole Study Abroad experience.  It's different than looking forward to something; when I just look forward to something, it's hazy, vague.  No, this is a clear image.  One image, and though I doubt it'll play out exactly as I have it in my head, it's the image I envision whenever I'm feeling down.

It's greeting my family at the airport in Barcelona, after not having seen them in six months.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Arte como arma / Art as a Weapon

Ladies and gents, I give you my new catchphrase:  "arte como arma," or in English, "art as a weapon".  If you're wondering why it's in Spanish, it's because I first read it in Spanish.  No, unfortunately I can't take credit for it :(

I'm enrolled in a course at my university called "Seville and the Community."  Essentially, it's a class about social and political issues in Spain:  homelessness, poverty, poor education, etc.  This week I gave a fifteen-minute oral presentation on "arte como arma," and in the middle of my powerpoint, realized, "Hey, this isn't just for a grade.  I actually have something interesting to say about this."

Before I begin, what exactly do I mean by art?  Well, everything:  painting, sculpture, drawing, carpentry, fashion, music, dance, poetry, prose…

My basic argument:  art is great for recreation, but it can also be used as a weapon against hardship, whether that hardship is poverty, depression, social exclusion, unemployment, etc.  Of course, it isn't going to do away with these issues:
Art is a spiritual expression, an activity that generates joy, entertainment, and knowledge.  A poem, a song, a play, surely cannot change reality or defeat misery, but it can act as a tool through which people can express their experiences, their stories, and aspire to better lives.  This is what's called social art. - La Gaceta [translated from Spanish]
OK, social art.  Basically, it's a way to cope with suffering:  through self expression.  However, I'm not sure if I completely agree with the above quote.  Is it true that art cannot change reality or defeat misery?

I asked this question during my presentation and it generated a little bit of debate.  Most people argued that art itself cannot change reality, but it can inspire people to change reality.

Well, of course.  If people start munching on oil paintings in an attempt to end hunger, then we have a bigger problem than we thought.

I asked for some examples of art that has changed reality.  Unfortunately, we were a little short in this area, so maybe La Gaceta has a point.  But how about Uncle Tom's Cabin, which changed the United States' view on slavery leading up to the Civil War?

Whether art changes reality or not, it's still a way to lessen the pain of hardship:
Art is a solution.  It's a sign of culture, and culture is what gives comfort in the face of the certainty of chaos and the forcefulness of the horrors that have been occurring for a long time.  Culture is an analgesic, not an anesthetic.  Culture is what provides serenity in the face of disaster. - Laura Fleischer, El arte como herramienta de intervención social [translated from Spanish]
So, culture to cope with disaster.  Sounds about right.  We were able to come up with more examples for this, like:

  • The Golden Age of Hollywood - The Golden Age of Hollywood began in the late 1920s, around the same time as the Great Depression.  Though people struggled to put bread on the table, they didn't often begrudge a trip to the movies.   The escapist films of the 1930s offered comfort to a society in crisis.
  • "A Modest Proposal" - Jonathan Swift's satiric essay deals with poverty and famine in Ireland during the early eighteenth century (the potato famine came later).  He uses grotesque humor to point out society's problems, and if there's any one way to cope with hardship, it's humor.  If you're interested, you can read the whole text here.
  • Guernica - Arguably Pablo Picasso's most famous painting, Guernica came as a result of a bombing during the Spanish Civil War.  It was put on display at the 1937 World's Fair, thereby bringing the War international attention.
  • Slave culture - Slaves in the Americas used song and dance, usually with African or Native American influences, to help cope with the hardships of slavery and preserve their own cultural identity.
Guernica, by Pablo Picasso
But it's not just that art provides a coping mechanism; rather, there are tangible results, believe it or not. A twelve-year national study showed that underprivileged students who are involved in the arts generally have a higher success rates:  they achieve more after high school graduation, they do more volunteer work, and they participate in politics.

So why did I choose this topic?  And now, it's not because, as a writer, I strongly believe in the power of words (though that's true, too).

It's because of Polígono Sur, the neighborhood in which I teach English.  Essentially, Polígono Sur is a chabolismo, or as we would call it, a slum.  As one of the poorest areas in Sevilla, it has a reputation for crime, a reputation that's only augmented by its large gypsy population.

This fence in Polígono Sur is very close to my English class.
But damn, does Polígono Sur have art!

I'm talking flamenco.  Not touristy flamenco, either, with the main goal being to entertain.  No, this isn't some sort of spectacle.  It's intensely personal, an expression of human emotions through music and dance; yet at the same time, it's communal.  It brings people together, and as long as the flamenco lasts, those people are one cohesive group.  They celebrate together, struggle together, survive together.

It's how they cope with poverty.  With drug abuse.  With the stigma associated with their community and their culture, especially if they're gypsies.  By pouring their emotions into flamenco.

If you're interested in seeing flamenco in Polígono Sur, you can check out this documentary.  Even if you don't know a lick of Spanish, you'll be able to see what I'm talking about within the first ten minutes:

Now to wrap up, I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering…These are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love…These are what we stay alive for. - Dead Poet's Society
What do you think?  Can art be used as a weapon against hardship?  Can art change reality?  Can you think of any examples in which art has changed reality?  How about when culture has helped cope with disaster?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Facing Fears

I can't say that I've craved adventure all my life.  In fact, I was a pretty skittish kid:  timid and shy, afraid of everything from vampires to mushrooms.  Yup, if there was a mushroom growing in my backyard, I wouldn't go outside.  It was that bad.

I've come a long way since then.

I'm not sure when all that passed, though I guess it wasn't until high school that I started to really thirst for adventure.  For danger.  For a story like the the ones I read about in my books.

That's one of the reasons I'm abroad.  Though I started having adventures the moment I stepped foot in Madrid ("Sorry, miss, but you can't get on this plane"), my first adventure à la Indiana Jones happened last weekend:

Signs to Inspire Fear #1

Ronda:  Acrophobia

One misplaced step, and I'm dead.

That's the thought that rung in my ears last weekend.  Well, not really.  Thinking back, that's probably what I should have thought.  Maybe it skittered through my mind once or twice, but the adrenaline kept pushing it away.

We were in Ronda, a city in the clouds, most famous for the bridge that spans the Tajo Canyon.  It also hosts Spain's oldest bullfighting arena and served as a vacation spot for Ernest Hemingway.  In fact, part of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place in Ronda.  If you've read it, then you know the scene in which the Fascist sympathizers are thrown off a cliff?  Yup, that's Ronda.

You see that path?  Yeah, that's it.

You see, falling off a cliff is a very real possibility in Ronda.  Even more so once you start meandering down the shoddy donkey path that leads to the bottom of the canyon.  Parts of it are wide and well-kept, but others…Well, just don't lose your balance.

If you have any sense of adventure, you can't not go down this path.  Here is where the view is best:  to your right you have the bridge, which spans a magnificent waterfall; to your left, a beautiful countryside that stretches toward breathtaking mountains.  And surprisingly, the view doesn't get any worse as you make your way to the bottom; rather, the canyon walls loom all around you, making the bridge seem even more impressive.

Our view while eating lunch on a ledge.
If you're feeling especially adventurous, you can enter an old cave that supposedly used to serve as a hide-out for bandits.  There are also a few ladders you can climb and old buildings to explore, if you're so inclined.

Gibraltar:  Monkey-phobia

Apparently, Gibraltar is native for great.  Big.  ROCK.  (Name that reference?  The Road to El Dorado.  Yeah, I'm cool.  Get over it.)

But actually, Gibraltar really is a great big rock.  It's just a rock that happens to be an entire British colony.

Signs to inspire fear #2
"You are crossing an active runway.  Dropping Litter can lead
to a fatal accident.  Remember one day it could be you in that
That's right.  Gibraltar is part of the U.K., so for a few hours we left tapas and siestas behind in exchange for tea and biscuits, fish and chips, and bright red telephone booths!

The adventure begins as soon as you cross the border.  To get from passport control to the actual city, you have to walk across an active airfield.  Don't get hit by a plane!

After that, we clambered through an old tunnel, probably once part of a fortress, that dumped us right into the city.  Unfortunately, we didn't have a lot of time, so we took the obligatory tourist photos and then hurried off to the cable car that would take us to the top of the rock.

Oh yes, the cable car.  On a scale of 1 to Sketchy, this cable car seemed pretty darn sketchy.  But we didn't have enough time to walk up, so in we went.

If you're afraid of heights, Gibraltar is not for you.

The cable car dumped us at the top of the rock.  Greeting us with greedy hands were…

Signs to Inspire Fear #3
Monkeys.  Macaques, to be specific.

I've never been a fan of monkeys, but I decided right then and there that I really don't like them.  They're pickpockets and identity thieves, and if you don't give them what they want, they'll rip your face off.

A minute after we stepped off the cable car we witnessed a showdown between a grown man and a monkey over the man's backpack.  The monkey eventually threw in the towel, but then he came after us.

Uh uh.  I don't think so, Monkey.  Try to steal my wallet, and I will pick you up and throw you off the cliff.

There were monkeys everywhere.  Sitting on the walls.  Riding on the tops of cars.  Climbing on people.  As my roommate would say, "I ain't about that life."

But there was no escape.  They were everywhere, which meant I had to face them.

Walking along the path down the mountain was like walking through a haunted house.  You know the ones in which people jump out at you?  Yeah, just like that.  With every step, I had to worry that a monkey would launch itself at me.

Don't be fooled.  These things are evil.  (This is a little one.)
But it's one of those things that I had to do.  Was I afraid?  Sure, but I didn't cower behind my friends, either.  In fact, there were points when I led the way.  That didn't mean I was any less afraid; rather, I knew that I had to do this if I wanted to get back down the rock.

At one point, our friend was attacked.  She pulled out a muffin, and bam!  A giant monkey appeared out of nowhere and threw itself at her.  She tossed the muffin as he climbed up her body; he went after it, and we hurried away, only to mount the Platform of Doom.

Imagine boat dock that juts straight out of the side of a mountain.  Or a giant diving board.  This was the midway station to catch the cable car.  Yes, there were railings, but the platform below was made up rickety wooden planks that rattled as the cable car approached.  I'm not afraid of heights, but my stomach twisted into knots as we waited.
Looking up from the Platform of Doom.

Now for writing.

We want our characters to be brave.  It's one of those traits that's usually required of a protagonist; otherwise, he'd never do anything, and there wouldn't be a story.

However, everyone is afraid of something.  Turns out I'm afraid of monkeys.  Some people fear  heights.  For others, its spiders that give them the heeby-jeebies.

Then there's the basic fear of failure that drives most plots.  In order to build tension, every MC has to have this fear to some extent, even if she won't admit it out loud.  But in my opinion, the best books add a few more fears, which hopefully contribute to the plot:

Just one of the many many reasons Harry Potter is so fantastic is that the main characters are brave Gryffindors, but they also all have personal fears:  Harry's fear of dementors is fantastic because he recognizes that he's afraid and seeks out a way to conquer that fear.  There are a lot of reasons my favorite Harry Potter book is Prizoner of Azkaban, but one of them is the boggart, the creature that shapeshifts into your worst fear and can only be defeated by laughter.  (You don't need me to tell you that J.K. Rowling is absolutely brilliant, but she's spot on when she says that laughter is the best way to combat fear.  Sure, I was terrified of those monkeys, but I kept my fear at bay by imagining the monkey stealing my bag, which contained my passport and credit cards, and then causing mischief all over the world, using my name to do so.)

Honestly I think fear is one of the hardest feelings to write.  At least, for me.  It's one of those emotions that's as easy to overdo as it is to leave out completely, and finding the correct balance sometimes seems impossible.

But I'm a writer, and writers are a little crazy obsessive.  They think about writing all the time.  Which is why I like to put myself in situations that scare me, whether its peering off the side of a cliff or passing through a wild monkey den:  "Hey, I'm absolutely terrified right now.  How does it feel?  I can totally write about this later."

That's as close as I was getting.  This is my face of utter distress.
Have you had any adventures à la Indiana Jones?  What would your boggart turn into?  Do you ever put yourself in unpleasant situations just so you can write about them later?